I never would’ve come on this job if I’d known it involved a demon. But last night during the briefing, Sid acted like it didn’t even involve anything paranormal.
“Probably just a human thing,” he said. “We can wave a little smoke, give the client a prayer or two, maybe one of Holly’s happy cookies, and the nice lady will be feeling better in no time.”
Not exactly. Standing here looking at the client’s massive living room that’s piled to the ceiling with stuff, I can tell this won’t be as easy as appeasing a grumpy five-year-old.
“You should’ve brought Connor,” I mumble to Sid as I survey the mess around us. The thing is here somewhere. I can smell its rotten-egg ass even over the stale air and must coming from the clutter. Mountains of junk rim the walls and cover almost every inch of what looks like a very expensive marble floor. “I can’t believe you dragged me here.” It’s my first time on a job site since everything went to hell four weeks ago—literally.
If Sid heard my complaint about being here on the job, he isn’t acting like it. He’s just smiling his salesman smile and listening intently to the large woman in the silk muumuu on the leather couch as she tells him how her cat tried to eat her last week. She looks young, midthirties. Too young to be wearing a muumuu and living in this filthy place. A bit of bandage peeks out from under her flowery sleeve. There’s an angry-looking scratch on her neck, too. She ended up in the ER with twelve stitches from the attack.
“Fluffy keeps leaving dead mice lying around, dead rats, even floppy gophers,” she says, her face wrinkling with disgust. “Dead all-sorts-a-stuff everywhere. It’s starting to stink no matter which room I sit in, and I can’t take it anymore. I can’t seem to escape it. And then this happened.” She motions to the scratches on her neck.
I smell the death, but the odor is layered with the putrid stink from rotten food, moldy boxes stacked end to end, and piles of clothes mixed with God-knows-what. Not to mention the sulfur wafting around from whatever demon is hiding in this place. How can this woman tell one gross thing from another?
Sid crunches his way over some debris to sit beside the client on the five inches of couch space still available.
“You rest easy,” he says as he pats her broad shoulder. “My boy, Aidan here, will take care of anything that’s gone wrong.” He motions toward where I’m standing by a stack of magazines and DVDs, and the woman looks at me for the first time since Sid and I walked through the door.
Her eyes grow a little when she studies my face, my hair, her gaze taking in the markings on my hand and arm for a few seconds longer than normal.
I really should be used to the staring by now. Ever since my “change,” or whatever we’re calling it, strangers seem to think I’m either something to marvel at . . . or something to fear. It makes me wonder what they’re sensing. Just one of the reasons I like staying at the house and leaving the jobs to the others.
She gives me a half smile, half grimace, her lips tightening over her teeth, then she turns back to Sid. “I’m not sure what else I can do. I’ll pay you whatever you want, just please, fix Fluffy. He’s all I have left now.” Her voice shakes a little and she points to something near her foot that looks like a plastic box. No, a cat carrier. I hadn’t noticed it among the piles of clutter.
Something moves inside the carrier. A shadow. The cat? A hiss emerges, like an answer, and the smell of sulfur billows out even thicker.
A shiver runs through me.
Sid leans on his cane and stands up from his spot beside the woman as he runs a hand over his bald head. Then he hesitates, like he smells it, too. He steps back, studying the carrier, then looks sideways at me, a question on his face.
Could the cat be possessed?
Or maybe the cat isn’t a cat.
“So, Ms. Bentley.” Sid clears his throat. “How long have you had, um, the, um . . . Fluffy?” He tries to move back toward me, but stumbles over a box marked As Seen on TV, before steadying himself on a nearby coatrack—his arm tangles in the strap of one of the very large bras hanging from the hook. He doesn’t seem to notice, though; his eyes still haven’t left the small cat carrier at the client’s feet.
“He was a neighborhood stray,” she says, sounding deflated. “I took him in a month ago, shortly after . . . after my mother died. She hated cats, so I was never able to have one. And Fluffy was such a sweet thing.” Her eyes glisten with growing sadness.
She puckers her lips like she’s holding something in. Finally, she says, “Until a few days ago, he was all cuddles and smooches.”
Well, now Fluffy is all talons and teeth.
“Very sorry.” Sid finishes making his way over to me and pats me on the shoulder, very fatherly-like. “Aidan will need to look at the, uh, the . . . your Fluffy.”
I turn to him. “Will I?”
He nods. “The show must go on, my boy.”
Really? Must it?
Didn’t Shakespeare say we’re all actors on the stage of life, or something? Well, Sid takes that notion very seriously. The twenty-four-year-old time-traveling magician from the Babylonian court is always playing some part or another to fit the game.
He nudges me again and whispers sideways, “I know you’ve been wanting to jump back in, so here you go. Just see what you can accomplish. It’s in a cage and all that.” He waves his arm as if he’s just explained how to go about this.
I glare at him and shake my head. “You’re an ass.”
He lets out a fake laugh and gives the client a look like, Aren’t teenagers impossible? “It’s a preliminary test, Aidan. So we know what we’re dealing with.”
I sigh. As much as I don’t want anything to do with this job, I need to start figuring out my power. It feels like it’s growing, every day, bigger and louder, like a ringing in my ears. It’s pushing now, this weird urgency, making me itch to . . . well, kill. It’s terrifying.
I need to get these new urges under control. And if I want to kill a demon again so badly, why not give it a whirl?
I’m wearing my amulet, so if a corporeal demon is in that carrier instead of a cat, then it won’t see me. However, if the demon is possessing the cat, using the cat’s eyes to see, then I’m about to be discovered.
I take a deep breath and step closer to get a look. Following the boss’s orders.
Ms. Bentley leans toward her innocent Fluffy.
I crouch down to get a clearer view, avoiding the trash at my feet.
The cat hisses and its plastic carrier jerks and clangs. But the thing’s not looking at me, it’s more like it’s sensing danger, its hackles rising. And then I see tiny horns beside the ears, and thorn-like protrusions on its back through grey-striped fur. Its eyes dart around the room—eyes like light reflecting off a pool of oil. Its teeth are shiny silver.
Not an actual cat. An actual corporeal demon. Check.
This lady is lucky all the thing did was set her up with a few stitches. It could’ve scratched off her face entirely.
Prickles work over my skin as I stare at the thing. Corporeal demons are somehow less disgusting than the ones I see on the other side of the Veil. The ones that manage to get called up by witches and cross over to the physical plane are always trying to masquerade as something they’re not, and sometimes they suck at it—like Fluffy here, a cat with horns. Yes, they’re still creepy, just not as creepy as when they’re full monty in their spiritual form.
Looking at it makes the strange new urges in my gut stir, reminding me that I’m a killer now. Officially.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say, quickly standing, itching to run, but not wanting to scare the woman any worse.
I stumble back to Sid’s side and say under my breath, “We’re done here.”
“What sort of help will you be if you leave?” Ms. Bentley rests a hand on the carrier, as if comforting the demon inside. “We need help.”
A corporeal demon as a pet. That’s definitely new. I wonder how she hasn’t noticed Fluffy’s oddities. I mean, horns? Come on.
Maybe the fumes from the rotting crap in the house have messed with her head.
Sid clears his throat and waves an arm as if trying to keep her calm with hand gestures. “It’s all right, Ms. Bentley. It’s merely that your cat may be possessed and in need of an exorcism.”
I turn and gape at him, wondering why he’d spit that out right now.
She gasps and clutches her muumuu to her chest with a meaty fist.
I nudge Sid. “But my boss and I should maybe discuss it and get back to you.” Sid’s reading this all wrong. Not surprising, since the guy is slowly losing his senses from staying too long in this time. But I’m not a fan of him blurting out made-up shit to the clients before we’ve agreed on what shit can be said out loud.
“I’m paying you to fix this now!” she says. “I can’t leave poor Fluffy in a cage forever.”
“We’ll call you,” I say, shoving Sid toward the door before he can say anything else stupid.
Sid trips over a karaoke machine and nearly dives into the wall headfirst. But somehow he looks graceful about it, with his thin limbs and delicate fingers reaching out like a dancer’s. “Don’t let it out of the cage. We’ll call you tonight,” he says, righting himself effortlessly with his cane. “And we’ll try to get help here in the morning. Just, please, keep it locked up until then.”
She stands, watching us maneuver our way out of the living room. “One more day!” she hollers with a catch in her voice before the door closes behind us, leaving us on the porch.
I need a shower.
* * *
Once we’re a few yards from the house, I turn on Sid. “You knew there’d be a demon on this job, didn’t you?”
“I was unsure.” He shrugs. “But I did have my suspicions,” as if he’s actually remorseful about snowing me.
I shake my head, pissed.
“You need to begin working again, Aidan. It’s important.”
“You keep saying that, but you have no idea what’s going on.”
“True,” he concedes. “But neither do you. Wouldn’t you like to discover the truth of who and what you’re becoming?”
I’m not sure. Can this new version of me help me save Ava? Can it save the people I care about now?
I know the answer to the second question. This part I’m meant to play may not help me with Ava, but it can likely help me save other people. And it’d be selfish to think I have a right to keep something like that to myself. Even if it does scare the shit out of me.
“Listen,” I say. “I get it. I needed to come into the world again. I need to figure all this stuff out, everything that I can do.”
His eyes light up a little, thinking he’s won, but he has the decency not to smile in satisfaction.
“But,” I add, pointing my finger in his face. “If I’m going to help on jobs again, don’t spout off like a dipshit before asking me what I see.”
He nods, and pats his legs and arms like he’s brushing off dirt as we walk to the car. “Yes, yes, but what the client believes is irrelevant. And it’s obvious that the cat is possessed. A fool can see that.”
Obviously not, since the cat isn’t possessed. I sigh and walk to the driver’s side. Sid’s as blind as a bat.
“So,” he continues, plucking hair from his shirt with a frown, “we’ll give the client one more night to live in her situation, then we’ll call her in the morning, letting her know, regrettably, it may cost a little more because of the complex ritual we’ll have to perform.” He winks at me and stands at the passenger side of the Camaro, waiting for me to unlock the doors.
“Seriously. You should be in prison. It’s not a possessed cat, Sid.”
He pauses. “What?”
“It’s a demon, not a cat.”
He glances back at the house. “Not a cat?”
“It had horns. It’s not a cat.”
I open the driver’s side door but hesitate before getting in. What if the demon decides to kill the woman before we can get back? The thing seemed to feel my presence, sensed I was a threat. It could be spooked now.
“We’ll have to kill it,” I say. “But I’m fairly sure the client won’t be thrilled that we’re eviscerating her kitty. We need to figure out a way to get rid of it without her knowing.” Getting sued for killing a woman’s cat is nothing compared to leaving something like this undone, knowingly abandoning a person in a deadly situation, but it would be great if we could avoid both.
Sid pauses for a second before responding, maybe deciding whether the money is worth it or not. “When we come back tomorrow, we’ll convince her that the cat is dangerous. Maybe explain that it’s a monster?”
“Or I could come back later tonight and finish this when the client’s asleep,” I say. “Kara and Connor can help me break in. The client will never know what happened.”
Sid shakes his head. “What if you get caught? No. We can’t take that chance. We should just leave it.” He frowns at the house, his mind ticking away, obviously not sure about his decision. Then his eyes widen. “Actually we could fix this right now.” He comes around to the driver’s side of the Camaro. “Do you have a dagger?”
I nod. It’s tucked into the waist of my jeans. I always have one with me. Iron or silver. Sid’s bought me several of them in different sizes. The one I have right now is the smallest: a five-inch iron blade.
“Get it ready,” he says. “I’ll tell Ms. Bentley that you have to take the cat out to the yard, near the trees, to do the spell, then I’ll wait with her in the house while you . . . dispose of it. You can say it ran off.”
He heads for the door before I can mention that I think the plan is lame.
“Just make sure it scratches you up a bit,” he whispers over his shoulder, “then we can threaten a countersuit if she starts talking about calling her lawyer because we lost her Fluffy.”
“Great,” I say as I follow. “I’ll be sure to let the thing chew on me before cutting off its head.” Sid knocks on the door, and I add, “You have a takeout menu stuck to your pants.”
He turns in a circle, looking for the Chester’s Chicken propaganda that’s trying to hitch a ride on his pinstripe suit. He plucks it off and tosses it aside, then rights himself just as the client opens the door. I stand back as he explains—lies—about our plan, saying we’ll cleanse the cat of the demon inside its furry body, and that it’ll be painless and quick. The client’s excitement is a glow around her as she waves us back in.
“Why don’t you make me some tea?” Sid asks her as I maneuver my way to the cat carrier. “We’ll let Aidan do what needs to be done.” He nods for me to continue as he leads the client down a pathway through the junk mountains and into the kitchen, out of sight.
I hate being this close to a demon. The creature’s energy is a damp chill against my skin. My new instinct screams to tear into the carrier and rip the thing to shreds, but I swallow the urgency and breathe. It’s only a small demon, maybe twenty pounds, but its strength is more jungle than it is house cat. At least it’s contained in something that I can carry.
Four weeks have passed since I killed my first demon. Sometimes I wonder if that night in the cave was actually real—did I seriously annihilate the wolflike monster that tore up my mother? The idea sends a wave of energy through me, my skin prickling with remembered adrenaline. I wish I could’ve done the same to the Heart-Keeper, but that thing is locked down in Sheol now, thanks to my mother’s final sacrifice.
As if the demon in the room can sense what I want to do to it, it slams its body against the side of its cage with a bang, sending a crack across the plastic surface.
It’s now or never. I grab the carrier handle and haul ass to the front door as the thing inside bucks and spits and hisses, its smell nearly unbearable now.
“Poor Fluffy,” Muumuu-Lady moans from the kitchen.
I make it outside and down the walkway a bit before a claw breaks through the crate’s side, snagging my forearm, leaving two long welts behind.
My sue-worthy scratches.
Fire shoots up my arm from the strike, making me drop the carrier.
The box hops with the furious movement of the demon inside and several more cracks form as the plastic bangs against the brick path in a frantic rhythm. The cracks become holes. The holes grow.
And the carrier bursts open like a hatched egg.
I pull my amulet over my head and toss it onto the walkway before I slide my dagger from the waist of my jeans; I want the thing to come at me, I can’t deny it. I have no fear—or if I do, it’s lost in the storm brewing inside me. My stomach swirls with a hundred sensations: anticipation, anxiety, readiness. Need. So much need. Because I must kill this thing. My brain screams with it. I knew a small taste of this four weeks ago in the cave, but this is so much stronger. The creature’s smell, its dark energy . . . It’s a warm meal calling out to me and I’m starving. It reminds me that I have power now. That I’m not as helpless as I always feel.
It also reminds me that I’m a murderer.
The first thing that emerges from the broken pieces of the carrier is a silver-furred paw, then overlong whiskers.
“The light of Elohim surrounds me,” I whisper as I move closer.
The surfacing ears fold back at my words.
“The love of Elohim enfolds me,” I say a little louder.
A hiss comes from the shadow of the cage and the reek of sulfur billows out.
“Wherever I am Elohim is.” I stand over the wreckage now, only a foot away. The force in me is nearly buckling my knees. “Get your furry ass out here, coward,” I say through clenched teeth.
As if my words alone have power, the creature is yanked from the remnants of the carrier with a loud screech of claw scraping over plastic. The demon squints at the sunlight: cat features too pointy, eyes too large, and the thin overlong tail—too much like a rat’s.
My hand clutching the dagger sparks, catching fire. The flames fill my left palm and begin to burn a trail along the marked pattern on my wrist. Then the fire moves up, following the dark lines on my arm to settle in my chest where the design ends. Where the seal on my power is. And I have no choice now but to kill. The need propels me and I lunge. Fast. Faster than I ever moved before my rebirth, and before the thought can even settle I have a hold of its neck.
I yank it off the ground, its body contorting unnaturally, its back bending awkwardly as it latches its rear claws into my arm.
I barely feel the claws sink in, thanks to the tornado of this force inside me.
Words emerge from my lips, not in English, but in a demon tongue, “Shed this visage.” It needs to be in its true form to be killed. It can’t be hidden in glamour; the lie protects it. Eric’s journal goes on and on for two-dozen pages about these rules that I never knew. Never knew because it was always impossible to actually kill a demon. Or at least it was until I was awakened.
It screeches again in protest, “You are not my god, you cannot command me.” Its throat vibrates against my clutching fingers, but its words mean nothing in the face of my power. Its fur melts away like heavy smoke, its black eyes grow even larger, teeth elongate. Its mouth turns almost humanlike. The thorns on its spine sink back into its thin pink flesh, and the torso grows, ribs ballooning out as if filling with air.
As it transforms, the beast screams, “You are not my lord. You are King of Never, Prince of Mistake, and Liege of Time’s Folly.” Rage twists its already twisted features. “You shall bring Death among us, you shall bring her forth.” And then its screech morphs into a cackle, grating at the inside of my skull. It digs its claws deeper and strains to reach me with its teeth, even as my fist tightens around its neck. “Death follows after you. She is your downfall—”
I shove the blade up into its ribcage, just under the sternum, stopping the torrent of lies.
The demon goes silent. Its expression of rage freezes and then shifts into shock. Its large, oily eyes fill with the reflection of the strange flames dancing over my marked arm. And then the fire pushes along the dagger handle and enters the beast.
Gold sparks surge from its mouth and eyes as its black blood spills out and fills my hand, coating my skin in its chill. And what once was flesh becomes coal, then dust, falling to the grass. Ash from a burnt-out shell.
My power stills and I stare down at my bleeding arm, at the ashes on my shoe, at the demon blood now turned to clay on my hand from the heat. I want to feel some form of remorse, but all I feel is elation. Satisfaction. And even though it's a demon I just killed, this death on my hands mingles with Lester’s death, the memory of the demon’s wide eyes becoming a soft brown as I plunged the blade into his very human neck, the black demon blood becoming red and sticky on my fingers, the smell of darkness becoming the smell of loss, so much loss. I shouldn’t feel exhilaration, I shouldn’t feel bliss. It’s wrong. All wrong.
My knees buckle and I collapse onto the lawn. I heave air into my lungs, gasping, trying to gather my wits. And then I throw up on the grass. I stay like that for several minutes, on all fours, before I finally sit back and realize that steam is rising from my skin. I glance at the front door of the house, wondering how the demon’s screams weren’t loud enough to bring out Ms. Bentley, let alone the entire neighborhood.
I focus on my punctured arm again. It’s coated in sticky smears of blood, but the bleeding appears to have stopped. And the wounds . . . there aren’t any. All that remains are six small mounds of scar tissue, shaped like twisted stars.
The wounds have healed. Already.
My new body is obviously more . . . resilient. Wow. I knew it was stronger, and oddly in tune with nature—like the whole breathing underwater thing—and faster when it needs to be. I can even take a jog now without gasping like an eighty-year-old chain-smoker.
After considering my options, I stand on shaky legs, grab my amulet off the brick path, and make my way to the end of the driveway and down the quiet street. I pull my cell from my pocket and tap Sid’s name to call him.
“Yes, this is LA Paranormal Investigative Agency,” he answers in a formal tone. “No problem is too weird.”
“Really, Sid, you still haven’t programmed my number into your phone?”
“Oh, hello,” he says, sounding chipper. He muffles the speaker, but I can hear him say to Ms. Bentley, “I need to take this. Please excuse me for just one second.” After a few beats more he says, “Okay, I’m outside. What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m not sure the sight of me right now would be good for the lady. Just tell her that Fluffy got away and I’m chasing after it, or something. Then pick me up at the corner.”
“Is it gone?”
I stare down at the demon’s blood crusted on my dagger hand. “It’s dead.”
And then the line clicks. The bastard hung up on me.