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Travels of a Demon Hunting Soccer Mom (Book 6)
When orphan Kate goes to Rome with her family, she’s hoping for a little R&R. The chance to bond with her husband, spend quality time with her kids, and visit her pseudo-family at Forza Scura.
In other words, this suburban mom is doing the tourist thing, and intending to do it up right. But while Kate may want to take cheesy pictures and buy overpriced souvenirs, the demon population has other plans. And soon Kate and over-eager daughter Allie are thrust into the middle of a demonic feud.
Now Kate’s going to have to call on both her hunting skills and her mothering skills– because if she fails, Kate and family might just find themselves sightseeing in hell.
Pax Demonica is Story # 6 in the Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series.
Pax Demonica - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 05/13/2014 Story Type Book Primary Characters Kate Connor Series Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom Place in Series Story #6 Genre Paranormal Women's Fiction Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance
There were bodies everywhere. Pushing. Shoving. Writhing.
Some malevolent. Others merely . . . existing.
It was hell. Absolute, pure, undiluted hell.
I should know. My name is Kate Connor, and I’m a Level Five Demon Hunter with Forza Scura, a secret arm of the Vatican tasked with taking out demons and other nasties. Which means that I’m pretty well-versed in the realities of hell.
And trust me when I say that the Fiumicino Airport in Rome definitely qualifies as one of Dante’s seven circles. Especially when you happen to be navigating that hell with a cranky toddler. Although to be fair, said toddler wasn’t much crankier than my husband, Stuart, who hates to fly and barely slept a wink on the plane. Not that I slept much either. Frankly, I was a little cranky, too.
“Hungry,” Timmy said, plunking himself down on the floor and doing a good impression of a boulder. “Momma, Momma, I hungry.”
I had his hand in a vise grip, so when he stopped, I stopped as well, the result being that the two of us created a human dam in the flow of travelers. A chorus of curses surrounded us. English, Italian, French, and at least a dozen other languages I didn’t recognize. Rome is nothing if not cosmopolitan.
Behind me, Stuart stopped short, and I felt his fingers close on my shoulder as he steadied himself. “Timothy Allen Connor, do you want to get squashed? Kate, do something.”
I grimaced. “Thanks for the tip. Until you said something, my plan was to do nothing at all.” Okay, maybe I was more than just a little cranky.
“Don’t like squash,” Timmy said as I scooped him up and settled him on my hip. “Happy Meal. Want a Happy Meal.” His little hand shot out as straight as a compass arrow, and with as much precision too. It pointed right at a McDonald’s sitting there pretty as you please in the middle of the concourse. Does the kid have radar or what?
“Oh, gross.” Allie, my fifteen-year-old daughter, was a few feet ahead of me and off to the side. I eased that direction as quickly as I could, eager to get away from the crowd that threatened to run me down.
A dark-haired twenty-something male model type eyed me up and down as he pushed past Stuart, his expression smug, as if he knew that the secret to stress-free travel was to wing it alone, and was mocking my foolishness. I recognized his Pepperdine T-shirt and denim jacket from the plane. He’d been sitting three rows up from us and across the aisle, and he’d turned back once too often to look in my daughter’s direction. My high school–age daughter’s direction.
Allie had pretended not to notice, but she’d checked her hair and lip gloss at least a dozen times during the flight, and when she wasn’t staring at an electronic device, she was gazing vaguely in that guy’s direction. Call me capricious, but Mr. Pepperdine wasn’t on my list of favorite people. Reflexively, I sniffed the air, frowning slightly as I caught a lingering, putrid scent. A demon? The thought that I might be justified in shoving a stick through Mr. Pepperdine’s eye cheered me, but the glee passed as quickly as it had come. That wasn’t a demon stench I was smelling. Just the aroma of dozens of international travelers in desperate need of a shower.
I glanced at Allie to see if she was primping again, but thankfully she hadn’t noticed Mr. Pepperdine. Instead, she was leaning against one of the plastic chairs that lined the gate area. Her brand new iPhone was out, her thumbs were flying, and her brow was furrowed in concentration. And why not? She’d just spent over fifteen hours cut off from the world. No phone. No Internet. Nothing but her iPod, her laptop, six magazines, two books, and a half dozen flirtatious glances at a stranger. No wonder she had to immediately text her best friend.
I snapped my fingers in front of her nose and she jumped. “Come on. Time to move. If you don’t want french fries you can get a packet of sliced apples.” That’s the nice thing about fast food. No matter where you are in the world, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Not great if you’re trying to soak up the local atmosphere, but awesome if you’re traveling with kids. And to be honest, I wasn’t all that keen on soaking up the airport schtick anyway.
Allie’s nose crinkled. “Who knows how long those apples have been in that package? And they’re still not brown? That’s just not normal.”
“Fine. Then have some of your trail mix.” Allie changed dietary requirements as often as most people change underwear. At the moment, she was all about whole, unprocessed foods. Since that wasn’t something I could argue against, I didn’t. But I silently mourned the fate of my grocery budget.
I waved my arm, ushering her toward the golden arches. “Come on. Presumably their water is fresh enough for you. And say goodbye,” I added, shooting a stern glance toward the phone. “Your texts are going to cost us a fortune.”
She grimaced but quickly tapped out a few letters, then shoved her phone in the back pocket of her jeans. I cleared my throat, and she immediately shifted it to her front pocket. We’d had the talk on the plane. No, not that talk; that talk was old news. This was the one about Rome and pickpockets and gorgeous dark-haired guys with chocolate eyes just intense enough to make you swoon . . . right before they snatched your purse.
She’d glanced toward Mr. Pepperdine when I’d said that, and I probably should have felt a twinge of guilt. For all I knew, the guy was entirely innocent. Except I didn’t believe it. I learned long ago that no one is entirely innocent. And no, that’s not a lesson that came from fighting demons. That one comes with parenthood.
“Kate, let’s get going.” Stuart adjusted his grip on the rolling bags. I shifted thirty-eight pounds of squirming boy on my hip and silently assured myself that the universe would self-correct later.
“I’m on it, Cowboy.”
“Whatever,” Allie groused. “Guess the baby wins again.” She hoisted her backpack up onto her shoulder and slouched toward the restaurant. I followed, perfectly content with the thought of a Big Mac. I’d eat local later. Right then, I just wanted food and no tantrums. This was supposed to be a vacation, after all. For the most part, anyway. And the less stress, the better.
Stuart, however, was underwhelmed by the prospect of our first taste of Rome. “Seriously, Kate? Look at that line. We’ve got Goldfish and applesauce in the bag, and he just finished three chocolate chip cookies. The kid will survive until we get to the B&B.”
“That’s at least an hour away,” I said. “Maybe longer.” We still had to get our luggage, catch a taxi, and then make the forty-kilometer drive. Father Corletti had offered to send a car from the Vatican for us, but I’d declined. I hadn’t been back to Forza’s headquarters in over fifteen years; I didn’t want their first impression after so long to be of blatant crankiness. Mine or my family’s.
Stuart didn’t look convinced.
I reached for him and twined my fingers with his. “Family time, remember? Taking it easy, exploring Italy, going with the flow.” Okay, so that wasn’t everything I had planned, but considering Stuart was still a little uncomfortable with the whole my-wife-is-a-demon-hunter thing, I figured it was probably best not to work Forza or training sessions into the schedule until he’d had at least one good Italian meal. With wine.
Stuart lifted a brow. “Fair enough. But when you said we’d go with the flow, I didn’t realize that meant fast food.”
“Point taken.” Of course, when I said it I also hadn’t been sure what I wanted. My original itinerary had included only me and Allie. The last few months had been rough, from both a demon-hunting and a marital perspective, and we were flying back to Rome to visit the town I still thought of as home. I craved the familiarity of my past, and if my parents had been alive, I’m sure I would have been running to them. Instead, I headed to the only family I’d had growing up—Forza Scura—and the one person I thought of as a parent, Father Corletti, who’d taken me in when I was orphaned at four.
When I was younger I knew that I could die fighting demons. I’d thought I understood what fear was, but I was wrong. Fear is knowing that your children can be ripped away from you. That the man you love could die or leave you. That your family may well be the first casualty of your war against the forces of evil. I know that fear now. I’ve touched it. Tasted it. And it’s cold and bitter.
But miracles happen every day, cutting a swath through the fear and letting hope grow. Trust me, I know. That whole water-to-wine thing has nothing on Stuart showing up on the doorstep with passports and suitcases and the determination that we were all going to Italy together. That no matter how hard it might have been for him to adjust to my not-quite-as-secret-as-it-used-to-be job fighting demons, he wanted to make it work, and we were moving into the future together. As a family.
His return had twisted up my heart, but it didn’t completely soothe my anger. He’d left me—more than that, he’d taken our son. And he’d done that after he knew my secret. After he’d told me that he understood, that he could handle it. After he’d walked away once and returned to supposedly start fresh and new.
I’d told myself that I had to be understanding. That learning your wife is a Demon Hunter is Big News, so how could I fault Stuart for stumbling a bit as we battled the storm?
Yes, he’d come back, and as far as I could tell, he was serious about making our marriage work. About making it stronger. But that didn’t soothe the anger that bubbled beneath the surface. And it didn’t erase my fear that when it got tough again, Stuart would be gone.
I needed time. I needed trust.
Hopefully, this trip would be both a balm and a cure. Or at least a step in the right direction.
I dredged up a smile and gave Stuart’s hand another squeeze. “If you want to get going that badly, I won’t argue. But you can be the one to distract him as we walk past. And then explain to him why he’s not chowing down on a—”
“Don’t say it. You’ll just rile him up again.”
I laughed. “Oh, come on,” I wheedled. “Did he or did he not manage to go an entire plane ride without throwing a tantrum? The kid was an angel. He deserves a treat.”
“Half an angel,” I amended as I eased us toward Allie and into the McDonald’s line. “And the couple behind us thought he was cute.” A fact for which I was supremely grateful. I’m not sure I would have been so gracious if a small child had twice tossed a bedraggled blue bear into my lap. Boo Bear’s been in our family since Timmy was five months old, and I—
“Kate?” From the concern in Stuart’s voice, the panic must have been all over my face. “It’s not—I mean, there aren’t—demons?”
Allie whipped around, yanking her earbuds out as she turned, ready to spring into action. “Demons? Where?” Allie’s nothing if not eager. In fact, one of the purposes of the trip was to let her get in some legitimate Forza training, a reality that both scares me to death and makes me pretty dang proud.
“That’s impossible,” Stuart said, and I’m pretty sure I heard terror in his voice.
“Boo Bear?” Timmy must have picked up on our panic. His head swiveled as he searched for his buddy, his face turning redder with each passing moment.
“Hey, baby,” I soothed, rubbing his legs.
“Boo Bear!” The name was more like a squall, and his little body trembled. Around us, all the other tourists jonesing for a Mickey D fix started to stare. I slid out of line and edged up against the concourse wall, out of the way of the traveling hordes.
Timmy’s wail ratcheted up, as if he was increasing the volume to better fill the space. Helpless, I bounced him and patted his back, saying meaningless soothing words about how we’d find him, and not to worry, and all sorts of other lies. I sounded rational and calm. Inside I was panicking. Two weeks in Italy without the stuffed little bear would not be good.
“Maybe those people took it,” Allie said. “The ones the munchkin kept tossing Boo Bear at.”
“No way. They were totally understanding.”
Allie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so they said. What were they supposed to do on the plane? Taking the stupid bear is the best way to get revenge.”
“When did you become so cynical?” I refused to believe she could be right. “Check the diaper bag,” I added, dropping my shoulder so that the bag slid to the floor. Allie crouched down and opened it, then immediately shook her head.
“Maybe you put it in one of the carry-ons,” Stuart suggested.
“Why would I have done that? For that matter, you were sitting right beside me. You know I didn’t.”
“You were exhausted, Kate. Maybe you got fed up and decided that taking the bear away was the best way to make Timmy stop throwing it.”
“That actually would have been a great plan,” I agreed. “But I didn’t do it.”
I stared him down. He managed not to crumble under the force of my gaze for about thirty seconds longer than the kids usually lasted. Then he caved.
“I’m just saying that you were tired. Maybe when I got up to go to the bathroom, you put the bear away.”
“Or maybe you did,” I countered as Timmy’s wails shot up another ten decibels.
“Maybe it’s still on the plane,” Allie said.
The kid had a point. “I’ll go,” Stuart said, and was gone before I could respond. I’m not sure if he was trying to be helpful or just escaping the chaos.
“Well, I’m going to at least check the carry-ons,” Allie said as I wondered if we could find a replacement bear on eBay and, if so, how much international shipping would cost.
“Nothing,” Allie said a moment later. “But it’s got to be around here somewhere. I mean, how can a—”
“Excuse me?” The voice was polite, respectful, and when I looked up and saw Mr. Pepperdine standing beside us holding a bedraggled blue bear, I swallowed the bitter taste of guilt. Apparently not every male who looked at my daughter leaned toward the demonic. “I found this just past the gate. I was on my way to Lost and Found when I overheard you, and—”
“Boo Bear!” Timmy reached for the bear, then hugged his friend close.
“Right,” Allie said, springing to her feet and smoothing her hair. “Thanks. We were afraid the little bugger was going to need therapy. He’s nuts for the bear.”
Mr. P’s smile was wide, showing perfect teeth. “My pleasure.” His gaze lingered on my daughter for a moment longer than my mom instincts approved of, and despite the fact that he’d stepped in as our savior, I cleared my throat. He turned his attention to me. “You should be careful,” he said. “Losing something as precious as that . . . well, it could be dangerous.”
Something in the way he said it made my insides twist. I took a step toward him, instinctively edging between him and my kids. “What do you mean?”
But he was no longer looking at me. Instead, he was focused on something over my shoulder. I shifted to glance back, but saw nothing interesting. Just a mishmash of travelers and one lanky maintenance man in tan coveralls with an airport ID badge striding past us. When I turned back, Mr. Pepperdine was stepping away from us.
“Enjoy your trip,” he said. “And take care.”
And then he disappeared into the crowd, his words lingering along with the faint aroma of rotting flesh.
A tight fist seemed to squeeze my heart, and I shot a glance at Allie to see if she’d smelled it too. But she was simply staring after our potentially demonic savior, her eyes full of gooey teenage fantasies.
“Watch your brother,” I said.
“Huh?” Her dreamy eyes turned toward me, but I was already hurrying away.
Behind me, I heard Stuart call my name, and I yelled back over my shoulder. “Bathroom! Be right back!” I hoped I would. I hoped I was imagining things. I had to be, right? Because why would a demon talk to me of all people? And why the hell would a demon bother to return a lost lovey?
As it turned out, I wasn’t lying about the bathroom. A few yards ahead, I saw my quarry shift left and aim himself toward the men’s room. I followed—or I tried to. Another plane had landed, and I was suddenly caught in the flow of emerging passengers, their moving bodies and shifting luggage blocking my view.
By the time I’d pushed my way through the mob, Mr. P was nowhere in sight. But I’d seen where he was heading, and I hurried toward the men’s room, determined to rush right in, propriety be damned. Unfortunately, I was stopped short just inches from the entrance by the barrel chest of another maintenance man emerging from the facility. He had a mop in one hand and a candy bar in the other. He bit off a chunk of chocolate and mumbled at me in Italian so garbled I could barely make out vowel sounds.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t understand you.”
“Women,” he said in English, and he accentuated the word with an outstretched hand pointing to the ladies’ room next door.
“No, see, my, um, friend. He’s in there. I think he’s sick. I need to check on him.” I shifted to go around him. He shifted to block my path.
“No enter.” He took another bite. “Closed.” The candy added an unpleasant smacking sound to his words. “For cleaning.”
“It’s really important. He might need help.”
“I saw him go in.”
“Kate?” I turned to find Stuart behind me. “What’s going on?”
“I—” I had no idea what to say. Lie and keep the vacation rolling smoothly along? Tell the truth and admit that I may, possibly, perhaps have seen a demon? A nice, helpful demon who returned missing bears? I ran my fingers through my hair, suddenly flustered. “I thought I saw someone I knew,” I said lamely.
“Empty,” the maintenance man repeated, then shoved the last of the candy into his mouth. “I do floors.” He mimed mopping the floors, looking between me and Stuart. “Is nobody.”
“Kate?” There was concern in Stuart’s eyes. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” I said as I shook my head. But that was a lie. There was no sign indicating that the restroom was closed. The mop head was bone dry. And there wasn’t a bucket in sight. I forced a bright smile. “No,” I repeated, hoping that my suspicions were wrong. “I thought I saw an old friend, but I must have imagined it.” I hooked my arm through his. “Come on,” I said. “I think it’s time to get this vacation started.”
He grinned in reply, and as we headed back to the kids, I forced myself not to look toward the men’s room. Maybe I’d been wrong and Mr. Pepperdine hadn’t gone in there. For that matter, maybe he wasn’t a demon at all. Lots of people had bad breath, especially after hours on a plane. Maybe he just really needed some Listerine.
And maybe I excel at self-delusion.
“Our bags are probably the only ones on the carousel by now,” Stuart said, and I realized he was right. Our first adventure in Rome had taken up quite a bit of time.
He threaded his fingers through mine, lifted my hand to his lips, and kissed it. “Have I mentioned how much I love you?”
“Many times,” I said, “but feel free to say it again.”
“I love you,” he repeated. “And this is going to be a great trip. Our first big family vacation,” he added, and I realized that he was right. We’d gone to Disneyland when Timmy turned two, but since we live only a few hours north of Anaheim, that wasn’t exactly the vacation of a lifetime.
I shook off the lingering sense of foreboding, pausing long enough to kiss my husband. Right then, right there, my first priority was my family. Stuart was right; this trip was going to be amazing.
Happy Meal forgotten, Timmy didn’t protest as we headed down the concourse, following the signs to baggage claim. As Stuart had predicted, our bags were the only ones left. We presented our claim tickets, snagged our luggage (which, thankfully, included Timmy’s Rolls Royce of a stroller), and schlepped our way toward customs.
“Buona sera,” I said to the custom’s officer, dredging up my little-used Italian.
“Name,” he replied in perfect English.
“Momma! Momma!” Inside the stroller, Timmy held his arms up for me. “I love you, Momma!”
My heart came close to melting. The officer looked unimpressed. “Occupation? Reason for visit?”
“Demon Hunter.” Okay, I didn’t say that. But I have to confess I was tempted. Instead, I reached down and scooped Timmy back up into my arms. “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” I told the official as I caught Stuart’s eye and smiled. “And we’re here for the best vacation ever.”