Authors: Stacia Kane
“Aren’t you worried?”
“Someone tried to kill us, Greyson.” Megan grabbed one of Greyson’s T-shirts from his drawer and yanked it over her head. Exhaustion started sinking into her bones, and the bed had never looked more inviting—almost never, anyway. But though the memory of the car chase was fading, thinking about it didn’t do her nerves any good.
“They weren’t trying to kill us, darling. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“They did a pretty good imitation.”
“No.” Greyson poured himself another drink, and a shadow crossed his face. “That was just a warning.”
“How do you know?”
“Because they were witches. If they’d wanted us dead, we’d
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Stacey Fackler
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To my parents, and to my brother,
who are nothing at all like Megan’s family
That being said, I’m going to do the best I can. This book would not exist without my husband and his generous willingness to do his own laundry and go to bed alone so I can stay up late working. It couldn’t have been written without the patience of my two little girls, who don’t mind letting Mommy finish her paragraph before getting them juice or cookies or whatever else it is they want. I have to thank my best friend Cori Knell, who proves what a great friend she is by spending hours on the phone with me discussing what she read; and my other best friend Anna J. Evans who spends hours emailing me about what she’s read. Then there’s the whole Team Seattle crew, especially Caitlin Kittredge and Mark Henry, for always being there to boost me up when I’m down, and Jackie Kessler, my fellow Satellite Seattle-r. The League of Reluctant Adults, of course, who make everything more fun. Thanks also to Carole Nelson Douglas—you know why—and Maria Lima, Jill Myles, Karen Mahoney, Sherrill Quinn, Christine D’Abo, Kelly Maher, Sierra Dafoe, Red Garnier, Fae Sutherland, Kirsten Saell, Seeley DeBorn, Jane Smith, Bernard DeLeo, Justin Coker, Michele Lee, Bernita Harris, Miss Snark and the Snarklings, Evil Editor and the Minions, the ladies at Bitten by Books, the ladies at Urban Fantasy Land, and all of my blog readers; I will never stop being amazed and grateful that you take the time to visit me and comment.
Special thanks of course to my agent Chris Lotts, my editor Paula Guran, and Jennifer Heddle (and all the folks at Pocket); and to Todd Thomas, Esq., for reading the scenes involving legal matters, fixing my wording, and advising me that while the scenario may be a bit unusual, it’s not impossible. Any errors made with anything legal in this book are mine and not his.
Better than the demon inside the nondescript tract home in front of her, if she hadn’t made it in time. She didn’t need her psychic abilities to know that.
She grabbed Roc by one scrawny arm and yanked him off the dashboard, her gaze focused on the house. To her panicked brain it seemed to loom in front of her, tinged with the awful blankness of death. Her shoes slid in the hard-packed snow covering the lawn as she ran as fast as she could up to the front door, still dangling Roc from her hand. Nobody could see him but her anyway.
“Hello? Hello?” The old paint on the front door flaked off under her pounding fists. She barely heard her own voice over the blood rushing through her veins, the screeching wails of her inner voice. “Please, open up!”
She lowered her shields as far as they would go—so far she picked up faint images from the houses on either side—but still received nothing from the house before her. No sounds, no pictures of a napping resident dragging him-or herself out of bed, or of someone singing in the shower. Nothing at all.
“Oh, God…” Megan stepped back from the door and looked at the wide windows next to it, white and empty. The folds of the drapes were like a TV test pattern: no signal.
Nothing moved on the pale winter street except Megan, her shouts echoing through the crisp air as she tried the door one last time. She had a tire iron in the trunk…but no. Shattering the big front windows would alarm the neighbors.
Still carrying Rocturnus, she rushed off the porch, only to slip and fall flat on her face. Pain blossomed in her mouth as her teeth sank into her tongue. For a moment her vision blurred; her eyes stung with tears and icy wind.
This isn’t the time to start crying!
She hauled herself to her feet and started moving again, careening around the side of the house to the back, where a snow-dusted red swing set added the only spot of forlorn color to the winter-dead yard.
The back door refused to yield to Megan’s kicks and shoves. The windows in the back were smaller than those in the front; even if she managed to break one discreetly, she couldn’t fit through it.
Rocturnus would, though…
She looked down to find him glaring at her.
“I’m fine, by the way, thanks for asking,” he said, squirming from her grasp. “Let go of me, I’ll get the door open for you.”
“How—oh, right.” At least the blush warmed her face a little, although she already felt like her nose had fallen off. She resisted the urge to check. Too undignified, even when no one was looking.
Rocturnus disappeared. A second later the door clicked. Megan turned the knob and officially committed a crime: entering a stranger’s home without permission.
Her skin prickled. Something in here did not feel right at all. A musty, unpleasant smell like moldy leftovers hung in the air. She reached for the little tube of pepper spray attached to her key ring, but she’d left the keys in the ignition.
Megan sighted a wooden block holding a number of knives on the kitchen counter. She grabbed what appeared to be the largest. Nobody was in the house, she knew that. But it somehow made her feel safer, stronger, to have some kind of weapon. She held the big butcher knife in front of her as she trod carefully through the kitchen and into the beige living room beyond, her gaze cast down, trying to delay the moment when she’d actually see the damage.
She looked up. Worse than she’d imagined.
On the floor at her feet a long green finger rested in a pool of crimson blood, the lurid colors an obscene mockery of the cheerful Christmas decorations on the walls and tables. A foot protruded from under the couch, while a messy pile of green flesh and red…she didn’t want to look at the rest of it, didn’t want to
the rest of it, but her eyes refused to close. Blood splattered the walls and furniture and even the darkened Christmas tree by the front window. Here and there more…pieces: clinging to a picture frame, flung under the tree, hanging off a pine branch like a homemade ornament crafted by Ed Gein.
“I’m too late,” she said. Her voice disappeared in the accusing silence. “Again.”
“It’s not your fault. You came as fast as you could.”
Megan nodded, but knowing she’d done her best didn’t help. Thinking of how she’d abandoned a client in the middle of a therapy session in her desperation, and how her partners would feel when they found out…that definitely did not help. And help the pain in her tongue and elbows from her fall put a nice miserable cap on the whole depressing mental ensemble.
“Even if you hadn’t been working, you probably wouldn’t have made it. I guess he”—Rocturnus indicated the remains—“didn’t have much warning either.”
“Just like the others.”
The demon nodded.
Tinsel glittered in the faint air flow from the central heating, like tiny swords waving in the air. To any other human the room would have looked perfectly clean and friendly, a family home anticipating Santa’s visit in eleven days’ time. Human eyes wouldn’t see the carnage, human bodies wouldn’t feel the demon blood seeping into their clothing as they sat on the couch or squelching between their toes as they stepped in it. Human noses wouldn’t smell that horrible odor in the air.
Megan wished she didn’t have to see or smell it either. But three months before she’d become leader of the local Yezer Ha-Ra—the personal demons, tempters and misleaders of mankind—and it was her responsibility to take care of them as best she could.
Three times in as many weeks, one of her demons had exploded like this. No warning, no explanation. Just…gone, reduced to bits of squishy flesh, and she had no idea how or why.
“Maybe he was trying to call more of you and he did it wrong?” she asked, just as if she and Rocturnus hadn’t gone over every possibility in every discussion they’d had already.
“I don’t think so. I think…well, you know what I think.”
Megan shivered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
She walked into the kitchen to find some cleaning supplies. The demon’s body, such as it was, would be sent back to the demons’ home on the astral plane. But the blood, and the mess…
She couldn’t just leave it, even if the occupants of this house would never know it was there. The thought of them unwrapping gifts under that abomination of a tree made her stomach churn.
“You’re going to have to make a decision, Megan,” Rocturnus said. “You know I don’t think this is your fault, but—”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” The butcher knife clattered to the counter—she didn’t trust herself to put it back neatly into its slot. A minute or two of hunting through the cabinets produced garbage bags; they rustled in her shaking hands.
“It’s a simple ceremony.”
“And it turns me into some sort of human-demon hybrid, Roc. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want any of this!”
She clutched the bags to her chest, turning her back on the grisly scene and the small demon watching her. She didn’t want to see his beady eyes go black as he tasted her pain.
Every human had a personal demon. Since before humanity became capable of complex speech and higher thought the demons had existed, tempting people into the kind of petty meanness that made life such a joy, then feeding from the misery they caused.
Every human except Megan. She’d managed to kill hers at the age of sixteen, to bind it somehow to the Accuser, a minor Legion of Hell who’d nonetheless almost killed her twice. Now he was gone—but a piece of him still lived inside Megan, a ghastly souvenir of the time he’d possessed her.
It was that piece of demon inside her that connected her to the Yezer Ha-Ra. It was that piece of demon inside her that forced her to be here today.
But her humanity still defined her, and her emotional pain—like any human’s suffering—still nourished Rocturnus; Rocturnus, who’d become her unofficial personal demon. He didn’t mislead her or tempt her to sin, but he couldn’t stop being what he was either, and what he was treated her negative emotions as food.
“At least he managed to warn us,” Rocturnus said. “So his human already has a new demon.”
“Of course.” Megan wiped her eyes and turned around. “I knew there had to be a bright side.”
a bright side, Megan, it’s what we do, what we
to do to survive. If things start to slip—”
She threw a bag at him. “Help me clean this up.”
Not wanting to get her coat dirty, she removed it and set it on the kitchen’s little breakfast bar, then grabbed a roll of paper towels. Whichever demons had been assigned to the house’s occupants would keep them out as long as possible and would let Megan and Roc know when they were on their way back. She had some time. She hoped it would be enough.
“We need to do this fast, too,” she said. “Can you…can you take care of the big pieces?” Her stomach gave a warning lurch.
Rocturnus started moving, his little hands waving in the corners of her vision as he transported chunks of the dead demon back to the Yezer’s house. Megan sopped up blood, wrinkling her nose against the smell, shoving the used paper towels into the garbage bag as fast as she could. If she pretended it was just Kool-Aid or something, maybe a red-wine spill…
But Kool-Aid or red wine didn’t coagulate like that, didn’t smell like that. She gritted her teeth and kept working.
Three dead in three weeks. Rocturnus said in the old days Yezer Ha-Ra were killed by explosion as punishment, and from what Megan had seen of demon punishment she had no trouble believing it. But she wasn’t punishing them, and she was supposed to be in charge, so who—or what—was doing this?
Who had so much power over demons who were supposed to be hers? How much power did she actually have over them herself?
She managed to take care of the worst of the largest blood pool, but there were more. The smaller splotches she’d worry about if they had time, just like the stains. For now, she half-crawled a few feet to her right and started on another puddle.
The front door burst open. Five large bodies invaded the room, guns drawn. Five uniformed police officers.
“Get down! Get down!”
Megan obeyed, dropping the garbage bag in front of the couch. A splotch of blood she hadn’t cleaned yet seeped through her trouser leg, but she ignored it. Guns were pointed at her, big, real guns, and a strong hand gripped the back of her neck and forced her all the way down.
“Please,” she said. “There must be some misunderstanding.” Her mind raced. What kind of cover story might explain why she’d entered a stranger’s home and started cleaning?
She didn’t even know whose house it was.
Rough hands held hers in the small of her back while cold metal snapped around her wrists. She was being arrested, she was really honestly being arrested and her entire career flashed before her eyes as those hands started patting her down. She was a psychological counselor, she was supposed to be sane and normal and well adjusted, not some sort of tidiness bandit.
“She’s not armed,” one of the cops said. Megan tried to look up at him but all she could see were feet. Armed?
“Get her up.”
Aided by two men, one on each of her arms, she struggled to a stand. Was it normal for five policemen to come to a simple breaking and entering? That’s all this was, right? A response to some sort of silent alarm maybe? Or perhaps one of the neighbors had seen her enter the house and had called?
She hadn’t even
really. Rocturnus had opened the door. She’d just entered.
“Officers, please. This is all a big—”
They ignored her. One of them opened the garbage bag and pulled out a handful of wet towels. “What is this?” he said. “You’re stealing balled-up paper towels?”
“I’m not stealing anything. I just—”
“You just tore up these people’s yard, abandoned your car in the middle of it, broke into their house, and started throwing away paper towels,” the cop said. “Was it padding for the things you planned to steal?”
“What? No, I wasn’t—”
“Hey, you’re Dr. Demon Slayer…Megan Chase,” another officer said. “I recognize you from the papers.”
“The radio lady?”
“Yeah. She caught that guy, you know, the Satanist guy from the hospital.”
The eyes regarding her now were slightly friendlier, but only slightly. “So what are you doing in here?”
“I…I must have the wrong house, I was coming in to surprise a friend—”
“We got a call that there was a body here.”
Megan blinked. “What?”
Two officers came down the hallway now, their guns holstered. Relief flooded her body. “There’s nothing here, Jim,” said one of them. “It’s clean.”
“So why did you break in?” The first policeman—Jim?—held up the bag. “And what’s all this?”
“I thought this was my friends’ house,” Megan repeated. “I was cleaning as a favor. Something to pass the time while I waited for them.”
For the first time in months she actually wished she hadn’t asked all the personal demons to hide themselves as a matter of course. It might be nice to see some smiling faces, even if those faces did have too many teeth. But not so much as a spot of color showed in the air above the policemen’s shoulders.