Megan slammed on the brakes, sending Rocturnus's little green body flying into the windshield. She barely paid attention. Demons were tough. He'd be fine.
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 see 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 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."
"It is a bright side, Megan, it's what we do, what we need to do to survive. If things start to slip -- "
"I know!" 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 f 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 broken, 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.
"See?" she continued, aware her voice was getting higher with nerves. "Just a mistake, Officers, nobody's dead here, I got the wrong address. Can't we -- "
Jim shook his head. "We still have to contact the owners of the house, see if they want to press charges. We're going to need to take you in, Dr. Chase." He turned to the cop who'd recognized Megan. "Get her coat for her?"
"Please, Officer, it was a mistake. I didn't even break in, the back door was unlocked. Can't I just go...?"
The looks on their faces were her answer. Megan sighed. "Okay. But I want to call my lawyer."
She was completing her umpteenth lap of the small holding room when a policewoman finally came and opened the door. "Megan Chase!" She scanned the room and spotted her. "Come on, you're free to go."
Trying not to smile at the others who weren't as lucky, Megan brushed past the officer and out the door. Every fiber in her body screamed to be outside. Only two hours had passed, but it felt like a lifetime. Worrying about going to prison, worrying about her career, worrying about her demons, and, as time stretched, worrying about why Greyson Dante hadn't shown up yet.
The worry deepened when she got to the small check-in area and saw the man standing there, holding a briefcase and smiling: Hunter Kyle. Definitely an attorney, but definitely not the one she'd called. They'd met a few months ago at a charity party and she'd seen him once or twice since, but...why was he here?
The officer behind the desk grabbed the manila envelope containing her possessions and handed it to her. "Check to make sure everything's there, please, and sign here."
She did. "What's happening? I mean, did I have to post bond, or...?"
"The owners of the house declined to press charges." He gave her a tight smile, an unfriendly one. "Lucky you."
"Yeah...thanks." Did it just bother cops when anyone got to go, or what? For a moment she contemplated reading him, but it didn't matter. Who cared what he thought? She was free. She had to suppress the urge to skip through the bulletproof glass doors separating the booking area from the rest of the building. Innocent psychologists didn't skip.
"Are you okay, Megan?" Hunter asked, taking her arm solicitously. "I got everything started as soon as I could, but it took some time for the homeowners to agree to drop the charges."
"I'm okay, thanks." They burst through the double doors into icy darkness, broken only by dim streetlights. The temperatures had hovered around freezing for weeks before finally sinking lower two days before. Her entire face felt chapped, stretched by the fierce wind. "Where's my car?"
"I had one of the boys drive it to my place." Greyson Dante emerged from the shadows outside the circles of light, like a villain in a James Bond movie. Megan hadn't seen him in four days. It was a little embarrassing, how her heart leaped at the sight of him, his dark hair shining, his strong-boned face twisted in a little half smile as if he knew the effect his appearance had on her.
Which he probably did.
He extended his hand to Hunter. "Thanks, Hunt. I owe you one."
Hunter smiled. Megan didn't think he had any idea what exactly he was being promised; Hunter wasn't a demon and so wasn't familiar with the complex system of favors and promises they used. Greyson was powerful, even more now than he had been when she'd first met him. To be owed a favor by him...a lot of demons would have killed for that opportunity. Maybe some of them did.
Then again, maybe Greyson said it because he knew Hunter wouldn't realize. Greyson never said or did anything without having more than one reason for it.
Her suspicion was confirmed when Hunter merely replied, "No trouble at all, I'm happy to help."
Megan stood in the cold and bit her lip while the two men chatted for a minute, until Greyson slipped his arm around her waist and made their good-byes.
His black Jaguar wasn't far away and she was grateful when they reached it. Her toes were numb.
Not so numb Greyson couldn't still make them tingle. His lips, like the rest of his body, were blissfully warm, and the kiss he gave her sent shivers of flame up her spine -- just like the real flames he could create from thin air any time he wished.
"You okay?" His thumb caressed her cheek while tiny sparks of red showed in his eyes.
She nodded. "A little freaked."
"By being in jail, or by what happened to your demon in that house?"
"I..." Shit. She hadn't told him what had happened, only that she'd been arrested by mistake. She hadn't told him about the other demons either. "Both."
He nodded and put her in the car, then got in on his side and started the engine. "When were you going to tell me?"
"I wasn't. How did you -- "
"Come on, Meg. Where do you think I've been?"
"What do you mean?"
The parking lot disappeared behind them as he sped down the street, past deserted office buildings with the white wires of Christmas lights draped across the windows. It was not yet eight o'clock, but nobody was in this section of downtown. Even the homeless had deserted the streets and found shelter from the cold.
"I went to convince those people not to press charges. It looked like a fucking abattoir in there."
"I tried to clean up."
"How thoughtful. Why haven't you told me what's going on? I hear this is the third one."
"Why are you so mad at me? You said yourself, how I run my Meegra is my business."
"Yes, how you run it. But when your demons start getting killed and demons in other Meegras start getting killed, it's not just up to you anymore."
"But I -- what do you mean, other demons?"
"I mean, you've lost three. I lost one two days ago. House Concumbia have lost four, House Caedes Fuiltean two, everybody's had at least one loss. I only found out about it today."
"None of the others told you, then, so why -- "
"I'm not sleeping with any of the others, either. I would have -- Shit!"
Something thudded at the trunk end, like a large rock kicked up from the pavement. Greyson swerved so hard Megan fell against him despite her seat belt. Cold air flooded the car as he downshifted violently and sped up, jerking the wheel to the right and roaring down a narrow side road.
"What's -- "
"Get down, damn it, that was a gunshot!"
Copyright © 2009 by Stacey Fackler