Deja Demon - J. Kenner

Deja Demon

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The Days and Nights of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom (Book 4)

Kate Conner is an expert at multi-tasking. Wife, mom, demon-hunter. She can stuff hundreds of Easter eggs for the neighborhood fair and still have enough energy to pummel a demon back into the ether.

But Kate’s life has gotten more complicated…

Her first husband has returned from the dead in the body of her daughter’s chemistry teacher. Different body, same hot desire for Kate. Her daughter now obsesses about becoming a demon-hunter the way she used to obsess about boys.

And her current husband is suddenly very suspicious of his wife’s extra-domestic activities. What is she doing and who is she doing it with?

And the threat has gotten bigger…

A powerful high demon has returned to San Diablo, seeking not only the key to invincibility, but revenge upon Kate—and Kate’s family. And just in case that wasn’t trouble enough, there’s a new kind of evil in suburbia. The walking dead kind.

And they don’t mind making house calls…

Deja Demon is Story # 4 in the

About this Story

Publication Date 08/09/2013 Story Type Book Primary Characters Kate Connor Series Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom Place in Series Story #4 Genre Paranormal Women's Fiction Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“Dammit, Kate. I thought you trusted me.”

“Now really isn’t the time for this discussion,” I said, taking in all of the dark corners of the alley. For the last half hour, I’d had the uneasy feeling that we were being watched. But since we’d neither been attacked nor stumbled across an observer tucked into the shadows, my unease was beginning to feel a bit like paranoia.

I didn’t like being paranoid. It made me crankier than my toddler when he missed a nap.

“Kate,” Eric pressed, tapping the end of his cane impatiently on the asphalt.

I nailed him with my best glare of frustration. The one I’d been honing for close to fifteen years on our daughter, Allie. “Not now,” I said. “Work, remember? Demons, boogeymen, creatures from hell?”

Eric raised his eyebrows, but I just smiled, secure in the knowledge that I was going to win this battle. Yes, I was avoiding the conversation. But I’d meant what I said. Now really wasn’t the time.

“The alley’s empty, Kate,” Eric said, reasonably. “We haven’t seen or heard anyone. Intuition’s a great thing, but it’s not going to jump out and attack us in the dark.”

“You used to trust my intuition,” I said.

“I still do. But you told me yourself you’ve encountered only a handful of demons in weeks. Call me crazy, but I think you’re avoiding the subject.”

“Hell yes, I’m avoiding it. Like I said, now isn’t the time.”

“Then when is the time, Kate?” he asked, his voice sharp, his temper peeking out around the edges. “We’re here now. And it’s not as if you’re going to invite me into your kitchen to discuss this over a cup of coffee with you, Stuart, and the kids. So you tell me—when should we talk?”

“Don’t be flip,” I said, because Eric really wasn’t playing fair. No. David wasn’t playing fair. I couldn’t let myself fall into the habit of calling him Eric. Not when only a few select people knew the truth.

The truth. Now there’s a funny concept. Once upon a time, I thought truth was an easy thing. The sky is blue—true. The moon is made of green cheese—false. Evil walks among us—true. Dead husbands don’t return to their wives and children in the bodies of other men. That one—surprise, surprise—turned out to be false. In my world, anyway.

At the moment, in fact, I was in a dark alley behind a popular San Diablo nightclub, arguing (or avoiding arguing) with my formerly dead husband who’d taken up residence in the body of a high school chemistry teacher named David Long. It probably goes without saying, but lately my life had gotten rather complicated.

My name is Kate Connor, and I’m a Level Five Demon Hunter with Forza Scura, having recently been promoted up a notch as the result of a horrific battle a few months prior from which I’d come out mostly unscathed. To be honest, the promotion came with no little bit of guilt, especially considering I’d done some things after that battle that weren’t exactly worthy of the Vatican Seal of Approval. Like, for example, raising my first husband from the dead.

Deja Demon

And then—for added measure—keeping that teensy little fact out of my postbattle debriefing.

Trust me when I say that resurrection is not a skill normally within a Hunter’s repertoire. But I’d had the ability, and God help me, I used it. How could I not, with my daughter looking down at the father with whom she’d just been reunited? And, yes, with me desperate to save the man I’d once loved with all my heart and soul.

The only thing is, by using magic for such a damnably selfish purpose, I couldn’t help but wonder if I hadn’t tainted both our souls in the process. Not to mention complicated the hell out of my life.

“I’m sorry,” David said. “I didn’t mean to make light of everything you’ve been through. But this isn’t only about you, Kate. Do you think it’s been easy for me?”

I knew that it hadn’t. “Sometimes. Maybe. I don’t know.” I tilted my head up and looked him in the eyes. “I think you’re the one who got to go away for more than two months. Who got to sit and think and process everything that happened while I had to keep going on with life and dealing with a daughter who had her father back for about seven seconds, only to lose him again.”

“Which is exactly why what I’m asking isn’t unreasonable. A weekend, Katie. I’m only asking to spend a weekend with my daughter.” His eyes met mine, and I saw the plea in them. “Is that so hard to understand?”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. But it’s complicated. And, dammit, Eric, you blindsided me. This night was supposed to be about hunting. Not custody arrangements.” I winced, struck by the tone and meaning of my words. I never would have divorced Eric. Never. And yet for all practical purposes, it was as if we were divorced parents, our marriage having been abruptly terminated, but the issue of our daughter still hanging there between us.

“I can’t risk hurting Stuart,” I said, probably more coldly than I’d intended because my voice was flavored by guilt.

He looked at me for one long second, a muscle in his cheek twitching. The mannerism surprised me and I looked away, confused. Eric had never had such an obvious tell. Which meant the gesture was pure David, and the fact that Eric and David were both the same and different struck me with such unexpected force that I stumbled on the sidewalk.

“How would I explain it to him, anyway?” I asked reasonably. “What possible excuse does a high school freshman have for spending the weekend with the chemistry teacher?”

“Maybe you should try the truth,” David said. If he’d snapped the suggestion at me with a hint of sarcasm, I think I could have handled it. As it was, he spoke gently, as if he understood the power behind that word. Truth.

“I’m not telling Stuart about you,” I said, with more force and determination than I actually felt. “I’m not telling him about any of this. Forza. My past. That I’ve come out of retirement. None of it. This isn’t his life—it’s not the life I have with him—and I don’t want it to be.”

Deja Demon

Stuart hadn’t married a woman who could eradicate a demon with the heel of a black leather pump or fling a steak knife at a hellhound and hit it dead center on the forehead. Instead, he’d married a woman who couldn’t figure out how to force her self-cleaning oven to get with the program.

I’d kept the demon-chasing part of my life secret because it was a secret. No one outside Forza was supposed to know. And even after I’d come out of retirement to take care of the rapidly growing demon population in San Diablo, I still hadn’t come clean with Stuart. Not because of the prohibition against revealing my identity, but because I didn’t want my husband looking at me and seeing a girl other than the one he married.

Worse, I didn’t want him to look and not like what he saw.

And though I might wish for my marriage to be a sanctuary wherein I never had to face my fears, more and more I realized that truth—that nasty demon—was barreling down on me. Soon, I knew, I would have to tell. Because as much as telling might drive us apart, maintaining secrets would eventually do that very same thing.

Knowing that fundamental fact was one thing. Having it forced upon me by the other man in my life was something entirely different.

“If he loves you,” David said gently, “none of this will matter.”

“This,” I repeated. “There’s that word again. You think it won’t matter to him that I hunt demons? That I sneak out of the house at two a.m. and patrol the alleys and beaches armed with a blade and a bottle of holy water? Is that the this you’re talking about, David?”

I took a step closer to him, my emotions a confused mix of anger, longing, and loss. “Or is there something else? Another this. You and me,” I said, my voice catching in my throat. “You and Allie.” I tilted my chin up and looked him straight in the eye. I saw my own pain reflected right back at me, and my voice faltered. “Those are complications Stuart surely didn’t anticipate when he vowed before God to love me for better or for worse.”

David winced, and I knew I’d struck a nerve. Eric had made the same vow, of course, but his was made null by the death of his body. That his soul had returned was, for me, both treasure and torment.

“But he did make the vow,” David finally said, toying with his cane instead of looking at me directly. “If you love him, you have to have faith in him.”

I pressed my fingers against the bridge of my nose, the gesture hiding the fact that I couldn’t look at David. Not when all I would see was Eric.

“You told me you loved him,” he pressed, this time meeting my eyes fully.

“I meant it,” I said. And I had. I did. So help me, I loved my husband desperately.

The only trouble was, there were two men I loved. And two lives I couldn’t reconcile.

Deja Demon

I turned away and started walking toward the street and my car. I needed to clear my head, and if that meant taking the wimpy way out, then so be it.

I’d come here tonight not for the chance to spend some quality time with my recently returned-to-life dead husband, but because I anticipated the arrival of a newly formed demon. I’d assumed that David’s motives were the same.

Not that I was naive enough to think that the evening would pass entirely free of any discussion of our past relationship, but I truly wasn’t expecting to be defending my decision not to tell Stuart. Or weighing the pros and cons of letting Allie do an overnighter with her previously dead father.

I stalked toward the main road, the sound of my own footsteps accompanied by the dull bass thrum from one of the nearby clubs. Then another set of footfalls sounded behind mine. I tensed, my training taking over even though I knew with near-absolute certainty that it was David behind me.

As I slowed, the pad-thump of his footsteps quickened. I took a deep breath to steel myself, then turned to face him. He paused, one hand clutching his cane, and although the faces were nothing alike, at that moment, it was Eric that I was seeing. Forget the face, forget the limp. The eyes belonged to Eric, and the apology I saw within melted my heart.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and I thawed a little more.

“This isn’t easy. We’re both going to have to take it slow, you know? Be patient. And flexible.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Since when have you ever been patient?”

“Fair enough,” I said wryly. The man really did know me too well. “The point is that we both have to make an effort.”

“I know,” he said, dropping all hint of teasing. “I would say that this isn’t the way I wanted our lives to go, but I don’t really think that needs to be said.”

“No,” I agreed. “With that, you have my full agreement. With a plan for visitation, though . . . ” I trailed off with a shrug.

“This conversation isn’t over.”

“Only postponed. I know.” I looked up at him, saw the doubt in his eyes. “Eric,” I said softly. “I understand. So help me, I do. But like it or not, I’m the parent now. It’s my decision to make, and I need to be certain I make the right one.”

“You will,” he said. “You always do.”

His words, however innocent, reminded me of the intimacy we’d once shared. Once upon a time, Eric Crowe had known me better than anyone, and his faith in me had been as unshakeable as mine in him.

I brushed the comment away, feeling unreasonably twitchy. “I don’t think Watson’s going to show here tonight,” I said, firmly shifting the subject away from my personal demons and onto the hell-bound variety. “If he’s out there, he’s staying hidden.”

Deja Demon

“Still feeling like you’re in the crosshairs?”

I considered the question. “No. I think we’re all alone out here. If Watson was watching from the shadows, I think he’s gone.”

“You may be right,” David said. “Want to do another pass just in case? Try another location?”

I hesitated, trying to decide on our best option. The morning paper had reported the near-death of Sammy Watson, one of the nightclub’s bartenders. Sammy, it seemed, had been mugged in this very location. He was found unconscious and bleeding by a young couple who had wandered into the alley, apparently thinking that the stench of old french fries and rotting buffalo wings would add to the romantic allure of their evening. Instead of finding romance, they found a near-dead Sammy.

The article indicated that he’d been admitted to the hospital in critical condition. A nurse went on record that the staff had anticipated he’d be dead by morning, and they considered it their job to simply make him as comfortable as possible. Imagine their surprise when by morning Sammy appeared to be in perfect health, ready to whip out a few daiquiris and margaritas.

Because he was healthy enough to mix drinks, Sammy was released from the hospital, and the paper reported the tears of joy shed by his mother and girlfriend.

I felt a twinge of solidarity with those women. They’d thought they’d lost Sammy once, but he’d miraculously come back to them. Now, though, they were going to lose him again. I knew, because I was the one who was going to kill him.

Not him, actually. Sammy was already dead and gone. His body, however, was still fully functional, inhabited as it was by a demon. And since demons often returned to the place of their rising, tonight’s alley patrol had seemed like a good plan at the time.

Now, at two-thirty in the morning, I was ready to hand Sammy his Get Out of Jail Free card.

“Maybe this one’s got brains,” David suggested. “Best way for him to stay in one piece is to avoid the local Hunter. At least until he’s up to full strength.”

“Hunters,” I corrected.

David shook his head. “I’m not back on Forza’s payroll.”

“But—”

He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Not now. It’s late, and we’re both tired. And if we’re giving up on Sammy, I think we should pack it in and get some sleep.”

A queasy sense of guilt and fear snaked through me. “It’s not—you didn’t tell them about the Lazarus Bones, did you?”

He shook his head. “I made you a promise, Katie. Nothing would make me break that.”

I nodded, mollified but still curious. “Then what—”

“Kate,” he said firmly. “We’ll talk about it later.”

I didn’t argue, mostly because it wouldn’t have done any good. Eric, I’d recently learned, had many secrets. And though once upon a time I never would have believed it, now I knew that of all the people in his life, I was the one from whom he’d hidden the most.

Deja Demon

David’s continued status as a rogue Demon Hunter plagued me so much on the way home that I was forced—yes, forced—to drive through the twenty-four-hour McDonald’s and down a large order of fries and a Diet Coke simply so that I’d have sufficient caloric energy to mentally process it all.

At least that’s what I told myself as I slurped my soda and maneuvered my way down the deserted streets, stopping dutifully at all the flashing traffic signals even though there wasn’t another car around for a hundred miles.

Part of the reason David had left for Italy a mere two days after the whole rising-from-the-dead thing was that he believed he owed Forza a debriefing. Essentially, David needed to lay out for Forza the full explanation of how Eric’s soul had ended up in David’s body, at least to the extent he could remember what happened. These things don’t happen lightly, and we both knew that the Forza researchers were going to be all over it.

The other part of our adventure—the part where I used the dust from the Lazarus Bones to raise David from the dead—would also be of keen interest to Forza. I’d crossed a line when I’d made the split-second decision to resurrect David, utilizing the kind of magic I’d had no business playing with.

I’d do it again, though. I’m certain I would. But at the same time, I’d put my soul at risk that brisk January evening. Worse, I’d gambled with Eric’s soul, too. Call me chicken, but I didn’t want to hear the disappointment in Father Corletti’s voice if I owned up to that.

Thinking of Father, I smiled and popped another french fry into my mouth. As the priest who headed up Forza, Father Corletti was like a parent to me. I’d been found as a child wandering the streets of Rome and had no solid memories of my own mother and father. It was Father Corletti who’d held my hand and read me bedtime stories. On my fourteenth birthday, he’d given me my very first stiletto (the knife, not the shoe). On my sixteenth, he’d given me a silver crucifix.

And it was Father Corletti who’d said yes when Eric asked for my hand in marriage.

David, of course, understood all that without my having to explain, and it was he who’d suggested we keep the back-from-the-dead aspect of our most recent demonic battle secret. At the suggestion, I’d experienced a quick twinge of guilt. Lately, though, I’d become an expert at keeping secrets and suppressing guilt. If David was willing to keep silent, then so was I.

After all, even without the resurrection aspect, David’s story was amazing. The kind of tale that the Forza researchers would transcribe by hand, then lock away in the restricted area of the Vatican library. In other words, Important Theological Stuff. So important, in fact, that I hadn’t blanched when David told me about his planned departure, even though I knew Allie would be crushed to learn her newfound father was about to fly thousands of miles away.

Deja Demon

As for me, I’ll confess to being secretly glad that he was going away for a week or two. I didn’t want him gone forever, not when I’d just gotten him back. But I couldn’t help but crave a little space to process everything that had happened—from the demonic threat we’d managed to thwart, to the powerful magic I’d called on in order to keep Eric in this world with me for at least a little longer.

And to be honest, once she got over her initial disappointment, I think Allie was secretly glad her father was going away, too. As wonderful as Eric’s return might be in theory, in reality, the situation required some major mental processing. It wasn’t the kind of situation she could analyze for hours on end with her girlfriends. She couldn’t go to the library and read a book on a similar subject. She couldn’t do anything, really, except wait and process. In a way, David’s departure was almost like a gift, and part of me couldn’t help but wonder if he realized that, and if that knowledge didn’t spur his decision.

I never expected him to stay gone as long as he did, though. What I’d anticipated to be a one- or two-week jaunt turned into almost three months, requiring David to take unpaid leave from his job at the high school, claiming he had to go to Europe to tend to an ill relative. And from the conversations during his scattered telephone calls to me and Allie, I got the impression that he fully intended to step back into his Demon Hunter role, possibly even abandoning his high school job all together.

So why was he still rogue? And why was he back to work at Coronado High?

My first guess came to me on the heels of guilt and fear—he’d confessed about the Lazarus Bones, and Forza had deemed his soul tainted and then soundly refused to allow him Hunter status. I shoved that proposition aside. If being resurrected by the Bones had tainted his soul, then wielding them had surely seared mine, too. And I really didn’t want to go there.

It wasn’t merely blind denial that drove my hypothesis, though. It was trust. David made a promise. He told me that he’d honored that promise. And I wasn’t inclined to doubt his words.

Which left open the question of why he hadn’t been reinstated as a Hunter. I couldn’t think of a single explanation, and I was still tossing possibilities around in my head as I pulled into our driveway.

I left the van in the driveway where I’d taken to parking it lately. Forza hadn’t officially notified me that hell had frozen over, but I knew it anyway because Stuart had finally gotten around to fixing our creaky, slow, pathetic garage door (or, rather, he’d gotten around to hiring someone to do that very thing). But even though the glorious day had finally arrived, and the formerly painfully squeaky door now rose and fell with only the slightest whisper of noise, I still couldn’t park the van in the garage. Why? Because I’d been so sure that my husband would procrastinate until after the election that I’d filled my half of the garage with various odds and ends I was collecting for a garage sale.

Deja Demon

So much for having faith in my husband.

I took a quick sip of soda, shoved the last five fries into my mouth, then climbed out of the van. Then I scooted quickly to the far side of the house, bypassing the front door. The landing in front of the master bedroom has a dead-on view of the entrance hall, and the last thing I wanted was for Stuart to stumble out of bed and see me waltzing back into the house.

The night was dark, the sliver of moon hidden mostly by a blanket of clouds, and I clung to the thick shadows, hoping that no insomniac neighbors wondered what I was doing at this hour of the night.

Not that I was particularly worried about insomniac neighbors. Our neighborhood is about as suburban as they come, and with the exception of parties by a few of the teenagers, it’s pretty much shut down after midnight.

Our yard is encircled by a wooden privacy fence with one gate on the side where we keep our trash cans and recycle bins. We used to keep it locked, but lately I didn’t bother. I often needed to get inside in a hurry, and I’d discovered soon enough that if the demons wanted in, one little padlock wasn’t going to keep them out.

Some might call that attitude pessimistic. I called it practical.

Out of habit, I did a quick sweep of the backyard, illuminating dark corners with the beam of my flashlight. I hadn’t expected to find anything out of sorts, and reality matched my expectations. With any luck, Sammy Watson had decided to take a bus out of town, in which case he’d become someone else’s problem and I could send him a gold-engraved note thanking him for freeing up a few hours of spare time on my behalf.

I slipped the flashlight back into my pocket as I moved from the gravel path onto our back porch. I found my house key in the back pocket of my jeans, and I pulled it out as I reached the door. French style, the door was made up of individual frames of glass, each of which displayed my reflection despite being smeared with the greasy fingerprints of my little boy. A forty-watt yellow bulb lit the back porch, preventing me from seeing inside, but reflecting back an image of the yard—and something gray and fast.

Without thinking, my knife was in my hand, and I sprang off the porch and onto the gravel, craving the darkness to keep me covered. I let my eyes adjust without turning on the flashlight, and carefully examined the yard.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but that hardly comforted me. Something had moved. And in my line of work, when something is something you can’t easily see, that usually means that something is bad.

Though I’d already peered into the dark corners of the yard, I decided to go through the exercise again, this time getting more up close and personal with the shadows and crannies that seemed so familiar during the day and undeniably creepy at night. You might think that after years of fighting demons, I wouldn’t be creeped out by the dark. You’d be wrong. I’ve probably got the willies worse than any five-year-old determined to keep the closet light on and not let fingers or toes dangle over the bed. Because unlike that five-year-old, who’s seen only dust bunnies and stuffed animals, I’ve seen what’s really hiding in the dark. And trust me when I say that it’s not pretty.

Deja Demon

Our yard is divided more or less into two parts, delineated by grass and gravel. The grass part is on the left, accentuated by a few fruit trees, some potted plants, and enough toys to supply half the children in a small developing country. The gravel is on the right, and on top of it we’ve got a plastic playscape for Timmy (that he’s quickly outgrowing) and enough toys to supply the other half.

I checked the gravel side first, peering around the playscape, then under the storage shed that sits near the back of the graveled area. I found nothing of interest under there, just the cinder blocks that held the flooring up, a few rubber balls, and a Pyrex casserole that had been missing for more than a month.

All quiet, so I circumnavigated the shed, my feet crunching on the extra area of gravel we’d laid so that we’d have a shady place for Timmy’s purple dinosaur sandbox. Lately, Dino was empty—my son was more interested in tossing the sand around the yard than actually playing in it—but the lid was on. And though I didn’t really expect a minuscule demon to be hiding in there, I popped the lid off with my foot, muscles tense and knife ready for action.

I terrorized a few pill bugs, a Go, Diego, Go! action figure, and a truly disgusting ancient racquetball, but otherwise all was well.

The area behind the shed is a haven for all our unsightly neglected stuff: bags of potting soil, loosely covered mounds of dirt and landscaping rocks, a rusty red wagon, and all the miscellaneous gardening tools that I intend to use but never quite get around to organizing. I inspected all of that detritus, found nothing, and moved on to the fence to check the narrow space into which we shoved rakes, shovels, and battered lawn chairs.

Once again, no demons.

I was beginning to think I’d been seeing things, and was tempted to pack it in. It had been a busy day, after all. I’d driven carpool, spent two hours doing laundry, wasted another two at the car dealership getting a tune-up and new tires, whiled away half an hour at Wal-Mart returning a bag of nighttime Pull-Ups I’d accidentally bought in the wrong size, and breezed through forty-five minutes chasing my toddler in the park. After all of that, I was bone-dead tired.

At the same time, I had a feeling I wasn’t wallowing in paranoia. I’d felt eyes on me since the alley with David. And if I’d learned one thing in all my years, it was that Hunters are very rarely paranoid. Usually, there’s a reason those little hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

With that axiom firmly in mind, I shone the light toward the few trees that dotted the other half of our lawn, checking first the ground and then tilting my head back to peer at the branches. Zilch.

Frowning, I stepped farther away from the shed and aimed my light at the roof, standing on my tiptoes as I tried to get a better look. Nada.

Deja Demon

“Come out, come out, where ever you are,” I called in a low whisper, more out of frustration than an expectation that any creature of the night would answer my call, and when I heard an answering clack in front of me, I almost jumped in surprise.

I arced my light down, illuminating the rickety potting bench behind the shed. I’d looked there already and seen nothing. Now the clay pots shifted, ever so slightly.

I took a firmer hold on my knife and stepped forward, silently at first as the grass crunched under my feet, then louder as I reached the gravel. I was close now, but still didn’t see anything. Certainly not Sammy Watson.

With my heart pounding in my chest, I crossed the final five feet to the bench. As I did, one of the pots tumbled off and a gray blob leaped right at me. I thrust my stiletto forward, realized what I was seeing, and stopped myself an instant before mortally wounding Kabit, our big, gray, and apparently stupid, cat.

The cat, oblivious to having come within a hair’s breadth of losing one of his nine lives, landed softly near my feet and began to twine through my legs, purring loudly.

I sagged with frustration and relief, then reached down and scooped him up. “Hey, dummy. I told you not to go out.” The idiot cat had rocketed past me hours earlier as I’d sneaked outside to go meet David. A pampered fat cat, Kabit’s delicate feline sensibilities weren’t geared for sleeping under the stars.

“You could have been turned into a Kabit-kabob,” I said. To which the little beast responded with a strangled hiss, his ears laid flat to show his utter contempt for such a suggestion. Or, more accurately, his total fear of the monster behind me.

Kabit’s back claws ripped into my arms as he pushed off me even as I turned to face my attacker. Too late, though. Sammy Watson caught me mid-turn. A swift, hard blow to my arm released both the cat and my knife, and at the same time a steel blade pressed firmly against my throat, its presence quite sufficient to keep my feet planted firmly in place. “You die now, Hunter,” Watson whispered as he grabbed my hair and yanked back, further exposing my throat to his blade. “Never will you wield the Sword of Caelum against my master!”

I didn’t have time to think about my options; I could only react. I brought my left fist straight up between my own body and the demon, then slammed it down against the demon’s knife arm just as his muscles tensed to slice my neck. The move was risky, but considering my predicament, I didn’t much see a downside. Thankfully, the maneuver paid off—at least for the moment. The knife-edge dragged along my skin, but didn’t cut deep. I’d survive. Assuming, that is, that I could get myself untangled.

Easier said than done, though. The instant I’d slammed my fist against the demon, he’d released my hair, shifting his hold to around my waist and pulling me tight against him. Now he squeezed tighter. I gasped for breath, at the same time bringing my chin down to protect my vulnerable neck.

Deja Demon

Apparently the demon wasn’t dead set on seeing my blood spill from my veins. Any old death would be all right with him, and he caught my head in the crook of his arm. Having used that same maneuver, I knew what he was planning, and I didn’t much like it. Get my head in a tight hold, twist, and voila—one dead Demon Hunter.

Once again, a less-than-ideal outcome for me, and I was already fighting against it. I’d kicked out and around, slamming the heel of my shoe against his tender shinbone, then hooking my leg around his and tugging. The demon stumbled backwards and we both fell to the ground.

I gasped, the wind knocked out of me, and in that moment, Watson scrambled to right himself. He settled on top of me, his knife still clutched in his hand and my arms pinned uselessly to my sides, held tight by the demon’s legs.

“Playtime is over, Hunter.”

I strained against his hold on me, but it wasn’t any use. My kicks met no resistance, and my arms were held fast. My blood pounded in my ears as his knife arced through the air. I was helpless, prayer my last and only defense.

The blade glinted in the moonlight as the point approached my breastbone. I sucked in air, instinctively pressing my back into the ground, trying to gain precious millimeters before the blade plunged into my heart.

I didn’t want to die. But right then, I feared I wasn’t going to be given much choice in the matter.

Time altered, the world moving at a painfully slow pace. The blade made contact with my shirt and continued down, the pain from the impact radiating out like a red stain. My life didn’t flash before me, but my children’s lives did. Hot tears flooded my eyes, and I cursed God for taking away my life. For letting evil get a foothold.

My scream was joined by a deep, guttural howl, and I realized two things at once: the pressure on my body had decreased, and something large and gray was attached to the demon’s head.

Kabit.

I took advantage of the demon’s distraction and burst upright, tugging my hand free and landing a solid punch under the beast’s chin at the same time that I pulled my knees to my chest and then kicked up into his gut. His mouth snapped shut, cutting off the howl, and he fell backwards.

My brilliantly clever cat let out an earsplitting yeeeoooowwwwl and bounded away, digging his claws into the soft flesh of the demon’s face and earning himself a month of tuna in the process.

The fact that Kabit was lazy, fat, and old—most definitely not an attack cat—didn’t trouble me much. I take my miracles as they come, and this one had come in the nick of time.

As the demon swiped at his face, I leaped to my feet, looking around wildly for my knife or anything I could use as a weapon. I found one of Timmy’s plastic shovels and lunged for it, breaking off the end so that when I stood upright, I was wielding a red plastic handle with a nasty sharp end. The kind of thing a child could put an eye out with. Or, for that matter, a Demon Hunter.

Deja Demon

I considered throwing it, but ruled that out. I might be confident about the aerodynamic qualities of my own familiar knife. A plastic toy, not so much. The only way I could ensure a clean kill was to nail the bastard through the eye, up close and personal.

Not being a fool, the demon had turned and was now racing toward our back gate, weaving to avoid the plastic Tonka trucks and toddler garden tools that littered our yard. Not being hindered by such obstacles—I’m a pro at navigating around piles of LEGOs and miscellaneous Thomas the Tank pieces while carrying a hot roast and ordering children to wash up for dinner—I easily caught up to the beast.

I tackled him, knocking him off balance as he stumbled over the dinosaur sandbox that I’d left open. He landed with a thud, and I was right there on top of him in an instant, the plastic pressed against his eye. The slightest bit of upward movement, and this would be all over.

“Who sent you?” Sammy Watson was newly made; if he was going out of his way to attack me, it was on the orders of a demon higher up the food chain. “And what is the Sword of Heaven?” I demanded, having called upon my limited Latin resources to translate the blade’s name.

“He comes again to face you,” Watson replied, his voice almost singsong. “His wrath will multiply.”

“Who?” I pressed. “Who is coming?”

The demon sneered. “He who seeks revenge. Who was thrust into cardinal fire. He will find his vengeance. And when vengeance combines with revenge, you and yours will die and hell on earth shall reign.”

As that sounded like a less-than-ideal outcome, I pressed for more specifics.

His mouth split into a charming smile, complete with perfect teeth and twinkling eyes. Honestly, he must have made a killing as a bartender. “Secret,” he said. “Can’t share a secret.”

“I’ve made demons tougher than you give up a few secrets,” I said. “That’s the beautiful thing about you bastards invading a human body. You get to experience all those lovely side benefits. Like excruciating pain.”

“Do you wish for me to scream, Hunter?” he said, his words bold even though his eyes suggested that he was less than thrilled about my plan to torture the truth out of him. “Perhaps you desire your family to witness my demise.”

“Perhaps I desire you to shut up until I’m ready for you to talk,” I countered. I took my left hand off his throat barely long enough to snatch the ball out of the dinosaur and shove it into his mouth. My plan was to bind his hands and feet, then drag him behind the storage shed so that we were out of view of the bedroom window and the back patio. Once hidden, there were all sorts of ways I could make the demon talk, most involving a blade and holy water. And I did intend to get him talking. Clearly new trouble was brewing in San Diablo—and I needed all the information I could extract.

Deja Demon

Carefully, I eased my weight off him, keeping my makeshift dagger at his eye. With my free hand, I grabbed one of his wrists and pulled it toward his back.

“Stand,” I ordered, even as I eased to one side so that I could grab the knife that had fallen near him. I slid the eight-inch blade into the waistband of my jeans, then pushed him upright and edged behind him as he gained height. “Other hand,” I said, “or this is over before it begins.”

I held my breath, not knowing what he would do. If his orders were to kill me, he’d comply, waiting for the opportunity to try again. Otherwise, he might very well ignore my demands, knowing full well I’d shove my spike through his eye, releasing him back to the ether.

He eased his other hand around to his back, and I exhaled in victory. My original assessment was right—this was an assassination attempt, and he was going to cling to this form until I killed him, or until he killed me first.

“Walk,” I said. I was close behind him, my left hand pressing against his crossed wrists, just below his shoulder blades. Since my right hand still held the stake against his eye, our progress was slow. But he moved, and I was willing to take this one step at a time.

After four small steps, he stopped. “Move,” I insisted, but he just shook his head. “Now. Or I put a hole in that eye the size of California.”

I heard a muffled word as the demon tried to respond from behind the ball I’d shoved in his mouth. “Dammit,” I muttered. Whatever secrets this demon had would go unspoken until I removed the gag. But at the moment, freeing his mouth meant letting go of his arms or moving the spike away from his eye. Neither a desirable option.

So I punted. “Shut up and move,” I insisted. “Once you’re tied up all nice and cozy, you can talk all you want.”

I shoved his wrists upward and felt the demon cringe in response to the pain that had to be shooting up his arms. Still, though, he didn’t move other than to kick out, sending a spray of gravel shooting forward in the same direction from which I heard a familiar squeal of alarm.

Instinctively, I looked that way, then stiffened, terrorized by what I saw in the dim light of the moon—Allie, struggling against a demon who held her from behind, pinning her arms down at her sides. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, as the cold hand of fear caught me around the heart and squeezed.

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