Demon Ex Machina - J. Kenner

Demon Ex Machina

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Tales of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom (Book 5)

Demon-Hunter Kate Connor is having a very bad month. Her resurrected first husband houses the soul of a demon. Her current husband is being overly attentive to the point of smothering. Her toddler son has entered a tantrum phase. And her teenage daughter is still determined to be the next, best demon slayer. Worse, she’s determined to get her learner’s permit the day she turns fifteen.

That’s a lot for one woman to juggle, even a Demon-Hunter. Add saving the world to the mix, and things are about to get complicated…

Demon Ex Machina is Story # 5 in the

About this Story

Publication Date 09/24/2013 Story Type Book Primary Characters Kate Connor Series Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom Place in Series Story #5 Genre Paranormal Women's Fiction Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“Stuart!” I shouted from my post beside the old Dakota tomb, as the black-clad figure sprinted toward my husband.

Stuart had been crouched near the ground, his forehead creased with concentration as he poked at loose dirt atop an ancient grave site. Now he lurched to his feet, turning as he reached for the dagger he wore sheathed at his hip. The kind of move you saw in martial arts films, where the hero thrusts out a leg and cuts down his opponent with one sweep, then springs on top of the bad guy and presses the tip of his blade to his neck.

My husband, unfortunately, is not an action movie star.

Neither is he a trained Demon Hunter.

And instead of catching his attacker on the approach, thrusting out and defending himself with his blade, my husband toppled backward onto his ass. A string of sailor-quality curses escaped his lips as he rolled sideways trying to avoid the wraith who now leaped through the air, landing with a thud on Stuart’s torso, knees on either side of my husband’s chest, and both hands tight around his neck.

“Kate!” Stuart yelled as I dashed forward. “This is not what we talked about!” He twisted under his attacker, his predicament illuminated by the single lamppost in this section of the cemetery. “Off!”

Blue eyes under a black ski mask turned to me, and I nodded. The figure rose, peeled off the mask, and flashed a grin so wide and self-satisfied that I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I don’t have any more control over the demons than I do over my daughter, Stuart,” I said. “You’re the one who wanted to train.”

“Did I hurt you?” Allie asked, offering a black-clad arm and hand to her stepfather.

He took her hand and hauled himself to his feet. “If by hurt you mean that I got my ass kicked by a fifteen-year-old kid, then, yeah, I guess you hurt me.”

“Sorry.” Her lips twitched. “But I’m not fifteen until next week.” She turned deliberately to me. “And I want a video iPod and my own dagger.” She turned, indicating the ivory hilt of the blade sheathed at the small of her back. “Not another one of your old ones. Mine. Unless you’d rather get me a crossbow?” she added, hopefully.

“I’ll get right on that.” I turned my attention back to Stuart. “Don’t blame Allie,” I said. “I told her no-holds-barred.”

“I could have stabbed her!”

“Your dagger’s rubber.”

“Something else we need to discuss,” he said, irritably. “Allie’s packing some serious steel.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and cocked my head, my expression one I used on the kids at least daily. A little fact that, considering the way he was eyeing me, wasn’t lost on Stuart. “She’s logged over a hundred training hours with that thing,” I said, compelled to soften the blow to his ego.

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“I know,” he said. “I do. But I’m in a cemetery in the middle of the night in a town that apparently breeds demons. I’d like to go out armed with something that packs a little more punch than one of Timmy’s toys.”

The dagger did, in fact, belong to our toddler. A souvenir from a recent trip to Sea World. Either that or Peter Pan paraphernalia from the Disney Store. Honestly, it’s hard to keep track.

“We’re training, sweetheart,” I said. “Like you said. Non-lethal is a good thing.”

He grimaced, undoubtedly embarrassed by the fact that he’d been taken down by a girl who, on some level, probably considered this whole gig fair payback for various groundings and television bans over the years. Even so, his inner politician shined through, and he flashed Allie a genuine smile, the kind that made his eyes twinkle with pride. “At any rate, it was a nice move, kid. Your mom teach you that?”

“Cutter,” she said, referring to our martial arts instructor. “But Mom’s definitely got the moves,” she added loyally.

Stuart glanced my way, his eyes soft. “Yeah,” he said. “She does at that.” He held out a hand, then tugged me close, and I sank against him, this moment of spontaneous affection reminding me that Stuart still loved me despite the secrets I’d kept from him. Despite the fact that he’d never really known the woman he’d married.

My name is Kate Connor, and I’m a Level Five Demon Hunter with Forza Scura, a secret arm of the Vatican that, at least in my hometown of San Diablo, California, isn’t quite as secret as it’s supposed to be. It’s a whole, big, complicated thing, but ultimately it boils down to my recent return to active duty after a fifteen-year retirement.

Not that I’d been looking to return to the workforce. I’d been perfectly happy living a quiet suburban life with my not-so-quiet teenager and my even less quiet toddler. But when a demon explodes through your kitchen window intent on killing you, it kind of changes a girl’s perspective, you know?

So, yeah, I’d got back on the job, in secret at first, though my best friend and my daughter learned the truth soon enough.

With Stuart, though, I’d clung to anonymity long after it was prudent to do so. The secrets had started to strain our marriage, and when Stuart finally learned the truth, he’d reacted with anger and fear. My heart still pinched when I recalled how he’d taken our son, Timmy, and moved out of our house, claiming that remaining with me was far too dangerous for a toddler.

I’d been heartbroken and furious. But once I’d calmed down and been able to think clearly, I had to admit that Stuart’s fears weren’t irrational. No matter how you sliced it, my secret profession boasted a high mortality rate. And trust me when I say that demons aren’t squeamish about using civilians to achieve their own ends.

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Then Stuart had come back, wanting to strengthen our marriage. Wanting to make things work. I’d cried tears of relief even as I’d silently smothered the guilt brought on by my joy. Because no matter how I tried to spin the situation in my head, there was no escaping the fact that Stuart had brought my baby back into evil’s crosshairs.

I’d fight it.

I’d do everything in my power to prevent it.

And I’d hunt down like a dog any person or creature who threatened my kid.

But none of that changed the basic paradigm that the world was a dangerous place. Mine, more than most. And every day I did my job—every time I eradicated another smidgeon of evil from the world—I was ramping up the forces of darkness against myself and my family.

They were keeping score, the bad guys.

And one day, I knew they’d come to settle.

I shivered, and Stuart’s arm tightened around me, bringing me back to myself and making me focus on the issue at hand. In the demon-hunting business, distraction could get you killed. And though we might only be training, it was a lesson I’d be wise to take to heart.

“So what did you do wrong?” I asked, moving away from him as I slid into my instructor persona.

“Other than wandering around a pitch-black graveyard, you mean? I shifted my focus. The ground caught my attention. I started thinking back, remembering the zombies. And I let down my guard.”

“Good analysis,” I said, duly impressed. When Stuart had first insisted that he wanted to train, I’d said no. My husband’s no wimp, but at forty-two, and with a gym regimen that consisted of sporadic racquetball games with his buddies from the office, I wasn’t certain he was the best candidate.

More than that, notwithstanding the rather huge secret I’d kept from him, our marriage had always been one of equals. And I didn’t relish the idea of being suddenly in that power position, correcting his technique with weapons, or forcing him to run another mile.

He’d insisted, though, and when he’d pointed out that Timmy was safer with two parents who knew how to kick butt, I’d had no choice but to cave. And the truth was, he was doing great. He asked the right questions and had enough innate skill that the fight techniques and weapons training came easily to him. Not that I was going to send him out to defend the house against a horde of demonic attackers, but he hadn’t injured himself with a knife or crossbow. And I considered that a damn good sign.

In the end, my fear about the shifting balance of power in our marriage turned out to be unfounded. Sure, there were awkward moments, but now that the bubble around my secret life had burst, I was enjoying the new experience of not having to squeeze my husband in around the edges of my reality.

And, yes, getting all hot and sweaty training together does have certain side benefits. And under the right circumstances, even learning to throw a dagger can be a damn sensual experience.

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I knew that better than anyone, didn’t I?

I shivered, thoughts of my first husband, Eric, intruding where they really didn’t belong. Not now. Not with Stuart right there, the wounds on our relationship still raw and tender.

“They won’t be back, will they?” Stuart’s question caught me off guard and I cocked my head, confused. “Zombies,” he clarified. “You talked to Father Corletti, right? Worked out a way to keep the beasts out of here?”

“I did,” Allie said, the pride in her voice unmistakable.

We’d recently had a bit of a zombie infestation in San Diablo, and since I was keen on eradicating the smelly little beasts for good, I’d promised Allie a birthday party at her choice of venue if she could come up with a solution in less than a week.

It had taken her three days. And I hadn’t been sure if I should burst with pride at my daughter’s resourcefulness and brilliance, or cower in terror from the possibility that she’d want to hold her party at home. We’d be forced to sell the house simply because of the destruction wrought by two or three dozen partying teenagers. Either that or bring in a hazmat team for a week’s worth of cleanup.

As it turned out, she’d selected the old Palace Theater, a classy choice with a rental price that included a cleanup crew. Bonus all the way around.

“We did salt and holy water and then we scattered a powder made from the bones of saints,” Allie was saying, her comments directed more to Stuart than to me.

“Powder?”

She shrugged. “I guess they have barrels full of the stuff in the Vatican.”

“Probably an overstatement,” I inserted.

“Dunno,” she admitted to me, then turned back to Stuart. “But Father Corletti overnighted us a couple of pounds, and Daddy and I used your fertilizer spreader to—What?” She leaned in, peering at his face, which did look a little queasy. “It’s just ground-up bones. It’s not like they pulverized living—”

He held up his hand, and she had the grace to stop. “You’re telling me that you and your father came out here to the cemetery with my lawn tools and spread salt and saint bones?”

Allie glanced at me, her brow furrowed in confusion. I stared back at her, equally confused. And Stuart looked between the two of us, then sighed. “I’m seriously considering scheduling time every day,” he said. “A few moments, all by myself, where I do nothing but sit and ponder the ramifications of what you do and what goes on around here.”

I tensed, listening for warning bells in his voice. Signs he was scared or fed up or otherwise ready to bolt on me again. But all I heard was quiet resignation. And, surprisingly, a hint of respect, too.

He met my eyes. “She took a fertilizer spreader,” he said, as if I hadn’t already picked up on that little fact. “And because of that, no zombie is rising out of this cemetery.”

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“Is that good or bad?” Allie asked, voicing my exact question.

“It’s a hell of a lot more than I’ve managed with the thing. I can’t even get the dandelions to stop sprouting. So no vampires rising either, right?”

“Right,” I said. “But I already told you I haven’t seen any vampires in San Diablo.”

“Better safe than sorry,” he said stiffly, and I again regretted the way I’d boasted one night, telling him about the time I’d fried a few vamps with a Bic lighter and a travel-sized can of Aqua Net. “Come on, guys,” I said. “Timmy’s going to a birthday party at ten tomorrow, and I’d like to get at least a few hours’ sleep before I spend two hours with fifteen screaming kiddos.”

“One more go,” Stuart said, and I nodded in agreement.

“I want you focused,” I said to him as Allie pulled the black hood back over her face. Serious eyes peered out from a sea of black, and I turned my attention to my daughter. “You’re in the shadows. Use your discretion when to attack, but don’t pounce again. I don’t think Stuart’s ribs can take it.”

“Probably not manly of me to admit, but your mother’s right. I’d consider it a personal favor if you didn’t break any bones tonight.”

“No prob, Stuart,” she said, then melted into the dark.

“You’re on your own,” I said, then took a step toward the shadows. The sharp clang of metal against rock stopped me, and I froze, trying to discern the direction from which the sound had come. “Allie?” I whispered, then jumped as she materialized a few feet in front of me.

“Not me,” she said, her voice so low I could barely hear it.

I gestured for her to come closer even as I approached Stuart, my muscles tense, my senses hyper-alert.

What is it? Stuart mouthed. I shook my head and held up my hand, palm flat, hoping to silently indicate that not only did I not know, but he needed to stay put while I figured it out.

I signaled again to Allie, and she correctly interpreted my hand flapping as orders to get closer to Stuart. I wasn’t sure how keen Stuart would be on the concept of a fourteen-year-old girl helping to protect him, but right then I wasn’t inclined to tread daintily on his masculine ego. To Allie’s credit, she got right next to him and took his hand, as if to suggest that he was the one protecting her.

As for me, I moved slowly and silently out of the circle of light. I considered moving them to the dark as well, but decided against it. I’d rather be able to see them and know they were safe. In the shadows, anything could happen. A fact of which I was only too aware as I moved through the dark. The night seemed to close in on me, and I shivered, unable to shake the feeling that something was out there. Something other than us. Something watching.

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Something waiting.

But waiting for what, I didn’t know.

A thick layer of clouds hid a crescent moon, reducing the ambient light to next to nothing. I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and if a demon were crouched in waiting, it was quite likely he’d see me before I’d see him.

And that realization was my cue to get my family the hell out of there.

I stepped around a tall monument, planning to call to Stuart and Allie. I never got the words out, though, because of the sharp crack of a twig somewhere from the dark in front of Stuart.

I saw him tense and reach out, his hand going for the knife at Allie’s back even as the figure appeared in front of him, just outside the circumference of light.

Stuart snatched the knife, then hauled back, taking aim even as I raced forward, a sharp cry of “No!” bursting from my lungs as I recognized the apparition for what it really was.

But it was too late. And all I could do was stand there as the lethal blade flew straight for Eddie’s heart.

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