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Authors: Lori Handeland

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Dances With Demons - A Phoenix Chronicle Novella (3 page)

BOOK: Dances With Demons - A Phoenix Chronicle Novella
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Chapter 3

“I’m not going to Ireland without you,” I said.

“There was only one seat left on the flight. I’ll be along directly.”

I wasn’t certain why I was going to Ireland at all, except Quinn had been right. I’d always wanted to, and right now I didn’t have anything else to do. If I stayed in Milwaukee, with no work, no Liz, no kids... It wouldn’t be pretty.

During the hour-plus drive from Milwaukee to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Quinn had explained that his family kept a cottage in the countryside not far from Dublin. I could fly in; he’d have a friend pick me up and take me there.

“I doubt your family will welcome strange company.”

“You aren’t that strange.”

“Ha,” I deadpanned. Showed what he knew. My best friend was a demon fighter. There’d been a demon in my bar. And it wasn’t the first time. I couldn’t bring that down on Quinn’s family. I hadn’t wanted to bring it down on him.

 “You needn’t worry, lass.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “My family is dead. There’ll be no one there but you.”

“And you, right?”

For as many times in the past nine years since I’d had my first child that I’d wished for a week, a day, an hour, hell a minute alone, the idea of it now scared me. And that it did... scared me even more.

“Aye,” he murmured.

He was determined to get me to Ireland. I’d argued that I didn’t have the money for the flight. He said he’d used his frequent flyer miles. How he’d gathered them, I had no idea. During the time he’d been with me he’d never taken more than a day off a week, and then only because I made him. There was also the issue of my paying him cash, which had made me wonder if he was in some kind of trouble. But if it were terrible trouble, he wouldn’t have frequent flyer miles, now would he? The instant he tried to get on a plane, TSA would have been all over him.

On the one hand, I didn’t want to go without him. On the other hand, why was he going at all? He was my employee. I’d never seen him as anything but.

Until today when he’d saved my life.

Was gratitude behind my sudden desire to take his hand and not let go? Perhaps nerves or fear or even loneliness. My kids were away; my business was dust. Liz had not picked up when I called, nor returned my message. Considering her occupation, she could be dead and might never pick up or call back again.

I shuddered. What would I do without her? Same thing as the rest of the world.

Die.

“Are you afraid of flying, love?”

Quinn’s accent was getting more Irish by the minute. And that wasn’t the only thing that seemed different about him. Since Murphy’s had gone boom, he hadn’t tripped once. Which was just strange. Klutzy teens would grow into their too large feet and overly long limbs. But grown men, and women, did not become graceful overnight. How had he?

“Megan?”

“Hmm?”

He brushed back a curl and his fingertips traced my brow, causing the shudder to return, but for a far different reason. Certainly I’d noticed how beautiful he was the instant he’d stumbled into Murphy’s. While I might be overworked and undersexed, I wasn’t blind or stupid. However, a man such as Quinn would never be interested in a short, dumpy, redheaded mother of three. He wasn’t blind or stupid either.

Nevertheless, the slide of his fingers, softer than they should be for a working man, the nearness of his long, lithe body, the scent of a man—tangy, a bit wild—made me remember that I hadn’t had sex since Max died. I hadn’t missed it either. Or had I?

I lifted my gaze, saw concern in his, and stepped back. I’d been swaying toward him, face lifted, eyes drifting closed as if waiting for our very first kiss. I wondered momentarily if I’d hit my head when Murphy’s exploded. It would explain a few things.

Like the disappearing/reappearing panther statue that didn’t even belong to me. Or my bizarre impression that Quinn had grown graceful. The equally bizarre sensation that he had touched me as a man touched a woman. Not only was he my employee, but he had to be at least five years my junior. He was being kind and perhaps a bit mercenary—if I lost my mind, or worse, there’d be no rebuilding of Murphy’s and there went his job.

“Are you afraid to fly?” he repeated.

“I don’t know.” I moved back even more. “I’ve never flown.”

His fingers hovered in the air in front of my face for a moment before he let his hand fall away. “Never?”

“Everything I’ve ever wanted was here.” I frowned. “There?” I wasn’t home anymore. Right now I felt like I might never be home again. Home was Murphy’s, and it was gone.

Quinn let out a breath, shoved his hands into his pockets and lifted his gaze to the starry sky. “I understand.”

Then he handed me my overnight bag, my boarding pass, my passport and walked away.

Too bad I didn’t.

* * *

Quinn met Ronan Doyle at the cargo shipping bay.

The federation had agents in place all over the world. Though they had lost many of their number in the recent purge, they had not lost Ronan. Quinn, who had known the fellow since his earliest days in Ireland, thought that perhaps it was because Ronan was too damned quarrelsome to die. Or maybe it was just that he was very hard to kill.

As time went on, the Nephilim had mated with humans, producing breeds. Breeds had mated with other humans and with each other. The added influx of humanity with each successive generation diluted the demon enough so that breeds could make a choice about which side they fought for. Many of them were DKs, like Ronan.

He was the product of two breeds, which meant that while he might have more human blood than most, he also had more inherited abilities. His mother had been a selkie—a seal shifter—and had bestowed his given name, Ronan meaning
little seal
in the Gaelic. However, there was very little that was little about Ronan—perhaps because his father had been a troll of Viking descent. Though his last name, Doyle, was common enough in the Emerald Isle, it had originally been
Ó Dubhghaill
, or son of the evil, dark foreigner.

Ronan stood six-four in his bare feet, six-six in his heavy heeled motorcycle boots. He liked to dress in black because the grease blended in.

He had been orphaned young, taken in by a gremlin and taught the trade. To most, a gremlin was a being that fouled up motors. In truth, they could only do so because they understood them.

Ronan had also learned ill humor from his gremlin foster father. The original title of gremlin being
gruaimín
, or ill-humored little fellow.

Despite Ronan’s fearsome appearance and snarly nature, or perhaps because of it, Quinn trusted him as he did few others. Ronan had no time for nonsense. He did the job and went away. Which was why Quinn had called the man last eve.

“Everything set?” Quinn asked.

Ronan merely quirked a thick, inky brow—everything about Ronan was dark except his eerily light hazel eyes—kicked the sturdy box on the ground with one booted foot, then lifted the packing tape gun dwarfed by his huge hand. On a normal man that hand would have been rough and scarred by the years he’d worked on engines of every type—cars, cycles, planes—not a one could hide their mysteries from Ronan Doyle. However, his hand was smooth and soft as a child’s. Like Quinn, Ronan could heal most of his own wounds.

“The box will be collected in Dublin and delivered to the cottage as ordered.” Ronan had once possessed an accent as Irish as the one that sometimes slipped into Quinn’s voice, but he’d always been better able to keep it out, perhaps because his father had spoken Norse.

“Who will be collecting it?”

“Ben.” Quinn winced, and Ronan’s lips curved in the depths of his forever-black beard. Beneath it, Ronan was as handsome as the prince he’d once been. He was also forever young. Same as Quinn. “Who else could be trusted with such?”

Quinn lowered his head. He trusted Ronan’s foster father nearly as much as he trusted Ronan. He just didn’t like him. He had met many people in his life. He’d met an equal number of demons. Not one of them was as ill-humored as that gremlin.

“It’s whispered that the leader of the light revealed the truth of our world to her dearest friend,” Ronan continued.

“Whispered where?” Quinn cast Ronan a frown. “By whom?”

The whispers were true, but it would not do for everyone to know it. Most members of the federation were ancient and that was not how things were done. Secrets were secrets for a reason.

“Megan Murphy saw what she should not have, yet she was not sanctioned.”

Sanctioned meant brainwashed, banished, or worse. A trickle of unease made Quinn shift his suddenly tense shoulders.

“It wasn’t her fault,” he said.

“Fault has nothing to do with it.”

“I am her guardian.” Quinn drew himself up. The tip of his head only reached Ronan’s shoulder. “I have sworn nothing will hurt her while I am near.”

 

Chapter 4

I swore I’d just finished supper and closed my eyes when the lights inside the plane went on and the flight attendant announced breakfast.

“We will land in Dublin in an hour where the local time will be just after noon.”

Quinn had not only had enough mileage for my ticket but also an upgrade to business class. I’d enjoyed the extra leg room, despite my lack of leg. I’d taken a short walk through the plane before the movie had begun, and those in coach were packed like fish in a barrel. Not that I’d ever seen any fish in a barrel, but I could imagine. Better now than ever before.

When I’d returned to my seat, I’d enjoyed several glasses of complimentary red wine, which might explain why supper and breakfast had seemed so close together. I’d snoozed my way across the Atlantic.

As I exited the plane the promised hour later, with no bag but the one on my shoulder, I reached the exit well ahead of the crowd. Only when I stepped into the hazy sunlight did I remember that I had no idea where I was going. A friend of Quinn’s was supposed to meet me. I had no idea who that was, and it occurred to me now to wonder how this friend would recognize me.

Tiny redhead with blue eyes? I glanced around. There were about a million of us.

“Hell,” I muttered. What if no one picked me up? I had no contact information—not a name or phone number—no money except American—and not much of it—and my only credit card was maxed out.

I returned to the airport terminal. Comfy chairs surrounded a coffee shop, bordered by a bar with less comfy chairs. I’d just camp out in one or both until Quinn came. Hopefully, that would be before I was required to purchase anything. Maybe there was a place to exchange dollars for whatever they used here.

“Mrs. Murphy?” I turned, along with half a dozen other women. Murphys in Ireland were apparently as plentiful as redheads. “
Megan
Murphy.”

The others lost interest. Which was unfortunate, because one of them might have given me a hint as to the location of whoever was calling my name. I couldn’t see him.

“Is there a Megan Murphy here?”

“Yes!” I lifted my hand as if in a classroom.

The crowd now bunched at the exit shifted. Shoving ensued, followed by a few Gaelic curses. I recognized them from the times Quinn had dropped things. Then a little man popped free. He resembled one of those troll dolls that had freaked me out as a child. Squishy face, large shiny dark eyes and red-blonde hair that stood straight up. At least it wasn’t a migraine inducing shade of neon. Did he have a jewel in his belly button? One glance at his expression convinced me not to ask.

He strode over to stand directly in front of me, although strode wasn’t the right word. Strode was for long-legged, large fellows. The top of this man’s head barely reached my collarbone, which meant his stride was more of a mince, though I wasn’t going to mention that either.

He carried a box under his arm. From the way his biceps—revealed by the torn off arms of a very dirty T-shirt—bulged, the thing was heavy. Why hadn’t he left it in the car?

“I’ve been callin’ ye for nigh onto a minute,” he snapped.

“I... uh... sorry.”

“Come along. I don’t have all day to be dallyin’.”

He headed for the crowd he’d just popped out of. When he reached them and elbowed through without a word of pardon, I hung back, unwilling to follow in the wake of his rudeness.

“Keep up or be left behind,” he shouted.

I kept up, though I murmured excuses and apologies all the way.

A Fiat, that was nearly as tiny as he was, idled at the curb. That would not be allowed in America. No unattended vehicles at airports. Did they have that rule here? No other car idled at the curb, but the security officer stood several doors down and didn’t appear to care. In truth, he didn’t appear to see us, which was strange, but lately, what wasn’t?

I stepped toward the passenger door, only to be shouldered aside as my companion went there himself. When he opened the door, I saw why. The steering wheel was on that side of the car.

“Right,” I muttered. “You drive on the wrong side of the road.”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the fellow’s scowl deepened. “Leave it to an American to decide which side is the right side.”

He had a point. I scooted around the rear of the car and got in. The man struggled to set the heavy box behind us. I reached out a hand, and he jerked it away, before rising onto his knees and placing the heavily taped container on the backseat. He was starting to get on my nerves.

“I was just trying to help.”

“’Tis my responsibility.” He faced front and quickly merged into traffic.

“Seems heavy to be dragging around.”

He lifted one shoulder. “It’s too precious to be out of my sight.”

“What—?” I began, and he interrupted.

“I’m Ben.”

“Short for Benjamin?”

“No,” he said shortly. “Just Ben.”

“No last name?”

“Screwed.”

I blinked. “Your name is Ben Screwed?”

“With a ‘K.’” He made an annoyed sound at my continued confusion. “S-k-r-e-w-d. Skrewd.” He gave the word a bit of an Irish lilt. I still had to cough to keep from laughing.

“Just Ben it is,” I managed. “Have you known Quinn long?”

“All of my life.”

An odd statement. Ben appeared old enough to be Quinn’s grandfather. He’d probably meant to say “all of
his
life.” Considering his perpetual scowl, I decided not to correct him. I might be slow, but I could be taught.

Silence settled over us, broken only by the chug of the engine. I felt compelled to fill it. Maybe I couldn’t be taught after all.

“Do you know what Fiat stands for?”

Ben slid his dark, button eyes in my direction before returning them to the road.

“Fix it again tomorrow,” I said brightly.

Nothing.

“My... uh... husband had one when we first met.”

Max had hated that car—a lemon from the day he’d bought it.

“I can fix anything with an engine,” Ben said.

Which would explain the grease on his shirt.

We’d left the city and headed into the rolling countryside, which was a lot less green than I’d imagined. Weren’t the hills of Ireland supposed to be so green they made your eyeballs hurt?

“How far to Quinn’s place?” I asked.

“He told ye it was his place?”

“Isn’t it?”

The old man shrugged. “Not more than forty kilometers or so.”

A partial answer. I wasn’t surprised. Ben seemed to dole out words as if they were precious gold. I had a sudden image of him in a leprechaun suit with a pot of the stuff. I coughed to cover my inappropriate giggle. It would only get me into trouble.

As would my admission that I had no idea how far forty kilometers might be. To say so would mark me again as a typical American, with little to no knowledge of or interest in the metric system.

The road became less of a straight highway, more a winding trail, the farther away from Dublin we went. In the distance, the sea swelled with whitecaps.

I enjoyed the scenery and kept my mouth shut until we crested a hill and headed into the village that filled the dale. The cloud cover was so low the place appeared shrouded in mist.

“Like Brigadoon,” I murmured.

“That’s Scotland.”

“Glocca Morra?”

“There ye go. Though that was imaginary too.”

I was surprised a cranky old coot like Ben knew anything about the musicals of the 40s and 50s. Though he’d no doubt been around then. I just liked them.

I was about to ask the name of the not-Brigadoon-nor-Glocca Morra village, when a sign flashed past naming it
Doras Dearg
. As every sign I’d seen thus far was printed in both English and Gaelic, I was able to read the translation:
Red Door
.

“Weird name,” I said an instant before we reached the town proper, where every door was red. “Or not.”

Ben continued through the village in the direction of the white-capped sea. The road curved so much, and the hills and the dales were so numerous, that it appeared for an instant as if we’d drive right off the edge of the earth and into that sea. Then a cottage seemed to rise out of the earth, and the road ended at its own bright red door.

“Was the town named after the doors, or were the doors painted red after the naming of the town?”

Ben cast me a quick glance. “A better question might be be; Why are the doors red?”

“Why?”

He sighed and got out of the car as if I’d asked him a hundred annoying questions, instead of only the one he’d proposed. “Red doors are found all over Ireland.”

Ben snatched my bag and headed for that door. I scrambled up the cobblestone walk in his wake. “Why?”

If he was going to treat me like a three year old, I might as well act like one.

“To ward off evil spirits.”

I laughed. Ben did not.

“Why?” I said again.

He opened the red door—wasn’t locked, did the color red also keep out thieves?—then cast me a sour glance over his shoulder. “Blood of the lamb.”

“I... what?”

“Have ye read yer Bible lately?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “Blood of the lamb on the doorposts protected the Hebrews from the plague of the firstborn.”

I knew that. What I didn’t know was what it had to do with this.

“This is an ancient land,” Ben continued. “With ancient legends and beliefs.”

“Like the Hebrews,” I agreed, and his sour gaze turned shrewd.

“Yer smarter than ye appear.”

“Thanks?”

The sour returned.

“It’s a symbolic connection then?” I continued, unable to keep my curiosity to myself. “Red paint instead of blood, evil spirits instead of the hand of God?” I’d heard of looser connections.

“Whatever ye say.” Ben stepped inside.

The stone cottage had two rooms—one a combination living and kitchen area, the second a bedroom. That there was no third meant the bath... wasn’t. Hell. How old was this place?

 Handmade, glossy wood furniture gave the place a rustic air that was complimented by the rough-hewn cabinets and floor. The ceiling had appeared thatch from the outside, but inside it presented solid sturdy beams and tight planking that would keep the rain and wind out.

“No one really believes a red door turns away evil spirits, do they?”

“If not, then why have one?”

“You believe there are evil spirits?”

Ben’s gaze met mine. “Don’t you?”

I did. I’d seen them, but I was one of the few. And the one I’d seen... well, I doubted she’d be deterred by a red door.

Ben made a sound deep in his throat—both amusement and disgust—how did he do that? “The Irish are a superstitious lot. And the red doors are a bit pretty, aren’t they?”

I nodded, my gaze on his face. Something in his dark eyes bothered me. “Why was the town named Red Door?”

That smacked more of a need for protection than a bit of pretty superstition.

Ben hesitated, then lifted one shoulder as if saying:
She’ll find out anyway.

“There’s a local legend.” He glanced out the back window, at a garden as overgrown as my own.

“Of evil spirits?”


Cat dubh
,” he murmured, sounding as if he were in a trance.

“Black cat?” I didn’t know much Gaelic, but I did know the word for black. “A black kitty cat caused the entire town to paint their doors red, then name the place that for good measure when they could have just—” I paused not wanting to voice what they could have done. “The Irish can’t be that superstitious.”

Ben spun, fingers clenched. “’Twas not a pussy cat but a long, lean killing machine.”

I resisted the urge to laugh again. He wasn’t kidding.

I spread my hands to indicate the size of a tom cat, lifted my eyebrows. Ben shook his head and opened his arms wide, then emitted a snarl so vicious, the hair on my neck fluttered.

“That sounds like a—” I searched my mind for the right animal. Big, black, vicious cat equaled—

“Panther,” Ben said.

A sudden image of the statue in my garden flickered. That couldn’t be a coincidence, but what did it mean? And how should I ask? No idea, so I headed in a different direction.

“Are black panthers native to Ireland?” I thought not. They seemed more of a jungle creature.

Ben tossed my bag onto the kitchen table. “Of course not.”

“Then how—”

“How does any creature walk the earth where it doesn’t belong? They are abandoned, bereft.” He sounded as abandoned and bereft as those he described.

“Why would an abandoned animal be the cause of a hundred and one red doors?”

“The
cat dubh
stalked these hills in a time when there were no phones, no television. The beastie would have been beyond our ken and therefore a cause for legend and superstition.”

“What was the legend?”

“I don’t follow.”

“The red doors were used to keep out evil spirits. The black panther wasn’t a spirit but form, an animal abandoned and bereft but not evil.”

Ben spread his hands. Was he being dim on purpose?

“What did the big bad kitty cat do to gain him evil spirit status?”

“He did what all evil spirits do. He killed people.” Ben left, slamming the door behind him.

He seemed awful mad about something that happened long ago. A time without phones or televisions? Had Ben even been alive? Who knew when they’d gotten electricity out here, though I thought it had to have been since Ben appeared. Perhaps one of his ancestors had been slaughtered. Still...

I opened the door. “That’s what wild animals do.”

Ben stood next to the Fiat. He didn’t appear to hear me. The wind whipped off the sea at nearly gale force. I hurried after him, not sure why. What difference did it make if a long dead panther had been maligned for behaving like any panther would?

I reached the car. He continued to stare.

“Ben?” I followed his gaze.

The box he’d set on the back seat appeared as if it had been torn apart from the inside.

By claws.

BOOK: Dances With Demons - A Phoenix Chronicle Novella
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