If you haven’t grabbed copies of the first five book in my Demon Hunting Soccer Mom series for just 99 cents, now’s your chance! This sale is only lasting a week!
And here, for Soccer Mom Sunday, is the entire first chapter of CALIFORNIA DEMON!
My name is Kate Connor, and I’m a Demon Hunter.
It feels a little odd saying that. For the last fifteen-plus years, I’ve been a retired Demon Hunter, my hunting responsibilities traded for the equally dangerous, if not as dramatically compelling, duties of a stay-at-home mom to my teenager and toddler. And no, I’m not exaggerating the danger factor of mommy-dom. Infiltrating a nest of vampires at dusk might be a tad on the treacherous side, but it’s nothing compared to telling a fourteen-year-old that she’s not allowed to wear eyeshadow. Trust me. I know of what I speak.
I’d been drawn back into active duty after a demon attacked me in my kitchen, setting off a whole chain of events that (as you can probably guess) pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil in one final, cataclysmic battle. Sounds like a movie ad doesn’t it? But it’s true. And after the battle was over, I had to admit that I missed being involved in something big. Something important.
Not that cheerleader tryouts and potty training aren’t important. But, well, you know what I mean.
At any rate, I agreed to pick up where I left off, and suddenly I found myself with not one, but two full-time jobs: Level Four Demon Hunter and Stay-at-Home Mom.
And I’m here to tell you that those two jobs don’t exactly go together like oh, say, peanut butter and jelly. Why? Because the demon-hunting thing is a great big secret. I work for a supersecret arm of the Vatican known as Forza Scura, and one of the first rules is utter secrecy. Nobody knows. (Well, nobody except my best friend Laura, but every rule deserves an exception, don’t you think?)
Unlike most working moms, I’m cut zero slack by society. If Carla Corporate serves frozen dinners three nights in a row, no one bats an eye. After all, Mommy’s got a big presentation coming up.
But me? I’m expected to at least make an effort at cooking. (And I do try, really I do, but I think I lack the haute-cuisine gene. Or even the short-order gene, for that matter.) I don’t even get to enjoy any of the perks that might otherwise go along with my demon-hunting career. Like, “Sorry, Officer, I didn’t realize I was speeding. But sometimes we Demon Hunters are in a hurry. Safety of mankind. Fate of the world. Good prevailing over the forces of darkness. You understand.”
Nope. Doesn’t work that way. And in order to make my two lives jibe, I end up telling a lot of little white lies. And sometimes, they backfire on me.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why I was spending a Friday morning in December precariously balanced on an ancient wooden ladder in the media room at Coastal Mists Nursing Home, a few feet of silver garland draped over my shoulders, a staple gun holstered in my back pocket, and my two-year-old playing snooker with the Christmas tree ornaments on the rug below me.
A few months ago, this place was crawling with demons. (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but there were at least a half dozen walking around in their geriatric disguises, acting like they owned the place.) Since such a situation was beyond unacceptable, I’d gone in to clean the place up. Not unlike Marshal Dillon, really. Except I didn’t have a cool white hat or little silver star.
What I did have was a lovely arsenal of lies (along with the more practical tools like holy water, wooden stakes, and a kick-ass stiletto knife). And I have to say that I did a hell of a job. After only a few short months, Coastal Mists was demon-free. For that matter, many of the administrators and doctors had vanished into the night. Not demons, but human facilitators who’d been seduced by the promise of power, wealth, whatever. A too-common tale, and one that had transformed a run-of-the-mill nursing home into a demon factory.
I, however, had shut that down.
Now the place that had once been a depressing breeding ground for the undead was a pretty cheerful establishment, complete with HBO, Cinemax, and a state-of-the-art plasma television with a sound system that made my husband drool.
But did I get to cross Coastal Mists off my to-do list? Free up a little time for grocery shopping, carpooling, and other miscellaneous family chores? No, I did not. Because in order to infiltrate Coastal Mists in the first place, I’d had to concoct a cover story. And mine was volunteering.
The demons might have been eradicated, but the responsibilities weren’t. So in addition to cooking meals for my family, I was now delivering meals to the bedridden. In addition to reading Dr. Seuss to my toddler, I was now reading Zane Grey to men who probably remembered the Wild West. In addition to potty training my kid, I was now … well, you get the idea.
Also—and this was a big “also”—as much of a time drain as my Coastal Mists activities were, the truth was that I needed to keep a presence there. The nursing home had a high mortality rate (that’s just the nature of nursing homes), which made it the perfect breeding spot for any demonic leader looking to get a toehold in San Diablo.
It had happened once. I didn’t intend to let it happen again.
On that particular day, my best friend Laura and I were helping decorate the place for Christmas. We’d brought Timmy with us for three reasons, the first being totally selfish: mommy guilt. Although I’d enrolled Timmy in day care—and although he actually seemed to enjoy it—my guilt level was high enough that I only took him in when absolutely necessary. Like when the Legions of Hell descend on the neighborhood. Or when I need to buy new clothes. Trust me. I’d rather slay fifteen demons with a toddler at my side than take the munchkin shopping for the perfect outfit to wear to one of my husband’s politically motivated, deathly dull cocktail parties.
My second reason originated from a more altruistic place: The folks at the nursing home absolutely adored the little bugger. Makes sense. They didn’t get that many visitors, and even fewer from the preschool crowd. Besides, as toddlers go, mine is practically perfect. Not that I’m biased or anything.
Finally, I’d brought Timmy along because today was Family Day at my daughter Allie’s school. As soon as Laura and I were finished with the decorating, we were going to pack up Timmy, swing by the bakery to pick up the PTA-mandated two dozen cupcakes, and head over to Coronado High School where we would do our best not to embarrass our freshman daughters by mentioning boys, grades, teachers, boys, television, politics, boys, movies, food, or any other potentially disastrous subject.
Laura concentrated on trimming the tree while I stapled garland to the archway, trying my best to drape it artistically but failing miserably. Martha Stewart, I’m not. Below me, my little boy entertained the elderly by abusing the Christmas ornaments, rummaging in my purse, singing “Jingle Bells,” and demonstrating his well-developed skill at blowing raspberries.
I carefully lined up a twist of garland, pulled the trigger on the staple gun, gave the garland a satisfied tug, then checked my watch. Not quite eleven.
“Why don’t you go on, honey? I can take care of hanging the rest of that.”
The suggestion came from Delia Murdock, who’d just celebrated her ninety-first birthday. She was standing at the base of my ladder, one hand on the frame, ostensibly holding it steady. As a general rule, the woman spent her life listing slightly to the left, and there was no way I was letting her climb a ladder.
“We’re not in any hurry,” I lied. “Are we, Laura?”
Laura stared at me as if I was insane because, of course, I was. We were due in the school’s gymnasium—cupcakes in hand—in exactly one hour and fifteen minutes.
“Five minutes,” I said as I descended the ladder, then dragged it to the next archway. “The girls will understand if we’re a teensy bit late.” Another lie. Allie had reminded me of this command performance at least three times a day for the last two weeks. She’d left reminder notes on my bathroom mirror, on the coffeepot, and on my steering wheel.
Apparently Family Day is a big enough deal at the high school to overcome the typical teenage mortification that comes from having a parent nearby. And I knew that if I arrived late, there would be hell to pay. I deal with hell every day. And believe me, the fire-and-brimstone variety is a lot more palatable than what my fourteen-year-old is capable of dishing out.
Laura looked dubious, but didn’t argue, so while Bing Crosby crooned on about White Christmases, I ker-chunked the stapler in time with the music, speeding up considerably when Bing faded away and “Jingle Bell Rock” blasted out from the media-room speakers. Behind me, I could hear Timmy counting (“one, two, free, four, six …”) as Mr. Montgomery burst out with “atta boy,” and “smart as a whip, that kid.” My heart did a little twisting number. I have great kids, and today my mommy pride was working overtime.
The tightness in my heart increased, as it so often did when I thought of the kids, especially Allie. Tim has his daddy, but Allie and I lost Eric, my first husband, to a brutal mugging five years ago. And although I’m happily remarried and wouldn’t trade Stuart for the world, not a day goes by that I don’t feel the loss, like someone had taken a cookie cutter and stolen an Eric-shaped piece of my soul.
The shrill ring of my cell phone jarred me out of my melancholy. I steadied myself on the ladder with one hand, then pulled my phone out of my pocket with the other. Stuart. I frowned, fearing I knew what he was calling about.
“Don’t tell me you’re not coming.”
“Are you kidding? Of course I’m coming. Allie’s been bugging us about this for weeks.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit guilty for doubting him. I had cause though. My husband was about to formally announce his candidacy for county attorney, and his days (and nights) had been filled with all manner of schmoozing, politicking, and fund-raising. The kids and I had gotten the short end of the scheduling stick on more than one occasion.
Being a wonderfully supportive wife, I tried not to let it bother me. Some of the time, I even succeeded.
“So,” I said, trying again. “What’s up?”
“Just reporting in,” he said. “And I wanted to see if you needed me to get anything for you. The cupcakes? Eddie? Ibuprofen for a migraine?”
Is he an incredible man or what? I mean, how many husbands actually commit their wife’s PTA obligations to memory? Or volunteer to pick up their daughter’s pseudo-great-grandfather despite the fact that—truth be told—the two men really don’t get along that well? I figure not many, and I’m lucky that one of the few belongs to me.
“Eddie’s taking a cab,” I said, figuring both Eddie and Stuart would thank me for that one. Eddie’s a retired Demon Hunter who’d recently taken up permanent residence in my life and temporary residence in my guest room. Due to a misunderstanding that I never bothered to clear up, my family believes that Eddie is Eric’s grandfather. Just one of those little Forza-related obfuscations that makes my life so interesting.
The cupcake question required a bit more consideration, but in the end I declined that offer as well. I love my husband, but I don’t trust his taste in pastries. I may not be able to cook worth a damn, but I can shop with the best of them. As for the painkillers, I’ve learned to carry my own supply.
“You’re sure?” he asked, when I told him he was off the hook.
“Totally. All you have to do is show up and you’ll be golden.”
“No problem there,” he said. “Clark’s got a potential contributor waiting to meet me in his office, but that’s the only thing on my plate. After that, I’m heading to the school.”
Clark Curtis is my husband’s boss. He’s also the lame-duck county attorney who favors my husband to step into his shoes. When I’d met Stuart, he’d been slaving away as an underpaid government attorney in the real-estate division with no political aspirations whatsoever.
Clark, however, had seen some potential, and had plucked my husband from relative obscurity and thrust him into the political limelight. Great for Stuart, not so great for me. Selfish, maybe, but I’m not crazy about the trappings of political wife-dom. And I’m really not crazy about the sporadic hours that my newly politicized husband has been keeping.
All of which meant that the mention of Clark didn’t exactly send ripples of warm, fuzzy confidence racing through my body. The opposite, in fact, and I kept my grip tight on the ladder as I closed my eyes and breathed deep, weighing what to say. Now wasn’t the time for a spousal tiff, but at the same time, a tiff would be small potatoes compared to Allie’s silent, sulky disappointment if Stuart didn’t show. Finally, I settled on diplomacy. “Just don’t lose track of time.”
“I won’t,” he said. “I know my priorities.”
“Okay,” I said, but not entirely comforted. I started to say more, but my attention was grabbed by a rousing chorus of “Na-KED baby! Na-KED baby! Naked baby! Naked baby! Na-ke-ed ba-A-A-A-BEEEEEEE,” screeched more or less to the tune of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” For this, I have no one to blame but myself, and I twisted around on the ladder with a sense of dread coupled with amusement. Sure enough, my kidlet had managed to strip off his shirt, his pants, and his Pull-Ups.
I said a quick good-bye to my husband. He’d either make it or he wouldn’t; and if he didn’t, then he’d be getting the cold shoulder from both of the females in his life. In the meantime, I needed to focus on the younger male in my life.
He was marching in a circle, not a care in the world, his little legs pumping in time with the song that was blaring out of his mouth. Mr. Montgomery and the others were laughing so hard that I was tempted to call the nurse; I really didn’t want my son to be the catalyst for a spate of coronaries.
I watched for longer than I probably should have—What can I say? He was cute—then put on my stern face and said, “Timmy!”
He clamped his mouth shut, but his eyes were wide and innocent. “I sing, Momma!”
“You certainly do,” I said. I glanced over at Laura for support, but her entire face was flushed with laughter, and the little Santa ornament that dangled between her fingers trembled with evil glee.
So much for a little help from my friends.
I focused on keeping a firm expression. “The singing is fine, sweetie. But we wear clothes when we’re in public.”
“Not public. Inside!”
I swear, the kid was going to grow up to be a lawyer. Like father, like son.
“Yes,” I said, infinitely patient. “We are inside. But we wear clothes inside, too, don’t we? At home and at school and at mass.”
“And the mall,” he said.
“Exactly,” I said, completely proud. “And right now, you’re inside and have to put your clothes back on.”
My little boy wasn’t listening though, too fascinated with his own nakedness. I sighed and moved farther down the ladder, leaving the last bit of garland hanging like a sad tail from the middle of the arch. Apparently, I’d been wrong about the demons having left Coastal Mists. My own little devil was prancing away right there in the media room.
Before I reached the floor, Laura held up a hand, stopping me. “I’ll get Timmy dressed. You hurry.” She tapped her watch. “Cupcakes, remember?”
Timmy, meanwhile, was racing around the area rug, launching himself at the residents, who were laughing and egging him on. I had a sneaking suspicion a few had given him some chocolate. They might as well have passed him crystal meth; the effect couldn’t have been any more pronounced.
Laura saw where I was looking, and cut me off before I could protest. “He’s not even three, Kate. I can handle it. I have one of my own, remember?”
Except hers was now fourteen and dressed herself. Even so, I nodded. I knew better than to argue with Laura; she’s the woman who’d successfully returned outfits to Nordstrom despite the huge 75-percent Off, No-Return, Clearance-Final-Sale signs plastered all over the store.
I watched, impressed, as she gathered up Timmy’s clothes, then gathered up Timmy. He started to struggle, but then she flipped him over, holding tight around his waist, as his head bobbed somewhere around her knees. His protests morphed into squeals of delight, and she marched past me toward the ladies’ room, shooting me a look of smug triumph as she went.
I turned back to the task at hand, hurrying since we still had to pick up the cupcakes on the way to school, and knowing the extreme wrath that awaited me if we showed up late.
From my ladder-top vantage point, I could see through the wide windows to the cliffs in the distance. I could even see part of the ocean, billowing and churning, the sun’s rays sending miniature rainbows flying each time the froth burst against the beach.
I love California. The weather. The beach. Pretty much everything. But as I stapled garland to the thickly painted wood, I realized that I was craving the white Christmas that Bing so convincingly crooned about. I made a mental note to buy hot chocolate, whipping cream, and some fluffy red-and-green throws. We might not be getting a blizzard this year, but at least I could crank up the air conditioner and wheedle Stuart into lighting a fire in our rarely to never used fireplace.
I was trying to justify a crackling fire despite the seventy degree weather, when I noticed that some of the residents who’d been in the media room were heading down the hallway toward the glass doors, where a uniformed man stood with a cardboard sign, a red gimme cap slung low on his head. I couldn’t read the sign or hear what he was saying, but since the residents were queuing up, I assumed they were heading out.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“Hmm? Who, dear?” Delia answered.
I pointed down the hall, almost losing my balance in the process.
“Ah, hmm. I think they’re going on that school field trip.”
“Which school? The high school?”
“Oh, yes, the high school.” Delia frowned. “I never did finish high school. Daddy didn’t think an education was fitting for a woman.”
While I was pondering that little bit of insight into Delia, Jenny rounded the corner, clipboard in hand and a crease on her brow. Jenny’s a candy striper, a little ditzy, and almost as tuned-in to the Coastal Mists gossip as Delia.
“Mrs. Connor!” she said, looking up at me waving wildly. “Wow. You’re doing a great job.”
I inspected my work, and decided that Jenny’s standards were way too low.
I was just about to ask Jenny if the bus really was going to the high school when Nurse Ratched stomped up, took Jenny by the elbow, and pulled her aside. I aimed a comforting smile in Jenny’s direction. I’d been on the receiving end of Nurse Ratched’s displeasure, and it really wasn’t pretty. (In fairness, I should add that Nurse Ratched is really Nurse Baker, and as far as I can tell, she’s not the demon-aiding sycophant I originally presumed. But I still don’t like her.)
Nurse Ratched has one of those gravelly voices that’s almost impossible to ignore. I liked Jenny, though, and it didn’t seem polite to bear witness to her dressing-down. So I tried to keep my mind on other things, doing everything short of sticking my fingers in my ears and humming.
Didn’t work. No matter how good my intentions, I couldn’t help but hear a few snippets. A good thing, too, considering the subject of their conversation. Good in that it clued me in to the possible presence of demons. Bad for the exact same reason.
The conversation I overheard went like this:
“Jenny, I’m tired of having this same discussion with you. You have got to concentrate. I can’t have you mixing up the patients.”
“No buts. There is absolutely no way Dermott Sinclair got on that bus. Which means your field trip list is wrong, and we have one resident unaccounted for!”
“No, we don’t! It was Mr. Sinclair. He even told me to leave him alone!” Jenny’s chin quivered and her skin had turned all blotchy, but so far the tears weren’t rolling.
Nurse Ratched sighed and put her arm around the girl. “Jenny, think. The man had a heart attack. He’s been in a coma for three months. He’s been conscious for less than two days. So how could he possibly have the strength to have gotten up and walked onto that bus?”
That one seemed to stump Jenny, and I had to bite back the urge to raise my hand and shove it high into the sky.
That’s me, the prize pupil. But what could I say? I knew the answer, or, at least, I knew an answer. And it wasn’t pretty.
Dermott Sinclair was a demon—and he’d just climbed aboard a bus aimed straight toward my daughter’s high school.
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