Carpe Demon: Chapter One

Please enjoy this first chapter excerpt from Carpe Demon!

One

My name is Kate Connor and I used to be a Demon Hunter.

I’ve often thought that would be a great pickup line at parties, but with a teenager, a toddler, and a husband, I’m hardly burning up the party circuit. And, of course, the whole demon-hunting thing is one great big gargantuan secret. No one knows. Not my kids, not my husband, and certainly not folks at these imaginary parties where I’m regaling sumptuous hunks with tales from my demon-slaying, vampire-hunting, zombie-killing days.

Back in the day, I was pretty cool. Now I’m a glorified chauffeur for drill-team practice and Gymboree playdates. Less sex appeal, maybe, but I gotta admit I love it. I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. And after fourteen years of doing the mommy thing, my demon-hunting skills aren’t exactly sharp.

All of which explains why I didn’t immediately locate and terminate the demon wandering the pet-food aisle of the San Diablo Wal-Mart. Instead, when I caught a whiff of that telltale stench, I naturally assumed it emanated exclusively from the bottom of a particularly cranky two-year-old. My two-year-old, to be exact.

“Mom! He did it again. What are you feeding him?” That from Alison, my particularly cranky fourteen-year-old. She, at least, didn’t stink.

“Entrails and goat turds,” I said absently. I sniffed the air again. Surely that was only Timmy I was smelling. . . .

“Mo-om.” She managed to make the word two syllables. “You don’t have to be gross.”

“Sorry.” I concentrated on my kids, pushing my suspicions firmly out of my mind. I was being silly. San Diablo had been demon-free for years. That’s why I lived here, after all.

Besides, the comings and goings of demons weren’t my problem anymore. Nowadays my problems leaned more toward the domestic rather than the demonic. Grocery shopping, budgeting, carpooling, mending, cleaning, cooking, parenting, and a thousand other “-ings.” All the basic stuff that completely holds a family together and is taken entirely for granted by every person on the planet who doesn’t happen to be a wife and stay-at-home mom. (And two points to you if you caught that little bit of vitriol. I’ll admit to having a few issues about the whole topic, but, dammit, I work hard. And believe me, I’m no stranger to hard work. It was never easy, say, cleaning out an entire nest of evil, bloodthirsty preternatural creatures with only a few wooden stakes, some holy water, and a can of Diet Coke. But I always managed. And it was a hell of a lot easier than getting a teenager, a husband, and a toddler up and moving in the morning. Now,that’sa challenge.)

While Timmy fussed and whined, I swung the shopping cart around, aiming for the back of the store and a diaper-changing station. It would have been a refined, fluid motion if Timmy hadn’t taken the opportunity to reach out with those chubby little hands. His fingers collided with a stack of Fancy Feast cans and everything started wobbling.

I let out one of those startled little “oh!” sounds, totally pointless and entirely ineffectual. There was a time when my reflexes were so sharp, so perfectly attuned, that I probably could have caught every one of those cans before they hit the ground. But that Katie wasn’t with me in Wal-Mart, and I watched, helpless, as the cans clattered to the ground.

Another fine mess . . .

Alison had jumped back as the cans fell, and she looked with dismay at the pile. As for the culprit, he was suddenly in a fabulous mood, clapping wildly and screaming “Big noise! Big noise!” while eyeing the remaining stacks greedily. I inched the cart farther away from the shelves.

“Allie, do you mind? I need to go change him.”

She gave me one of those put-upon looks that are genetically coded to appear as soon as a girl hits her teens.

“Take your pick,” I said, using my most reasonable mother voice. “Clean up the cat food, or clean up your brother.”

“I’ll pick up the cans,” she said, in a tone that perfectly matched her expression.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself that she was fourteen. Raging hormones. Those difficult adolescent years. More difficult, I imagined, for me than for her. “Why don’t I meet you in the music aisle. Pick out a new CD and we’ll add it to the pile.”

Her face lit up. “Really?”

“Sure. Why not?” Yes, yes, don’t even say it. I know “why not.” Setting a bad precedent, not defining limits, blah, blah, blah. Throw all that psycho mumbo jumbo at me whenyou’rewandering Wal-Mart with two kids and a list of errands as long as your arm. If I can buy a day’s worth of cooperation for $14.99, then that’s a deal I’m jumping all over. I’ll worry about the consequences in therapy, thank you very much.

I caught another whiff of nastiness right before we hit the restrooms. Out of habit, I looked around. A feeble old man squinted at me from over the Wal-Mart Sunday insert, but other than him, there was nobody around but me and Timmy.

“P.U.,” Timmy said, then flashed a toothy grin.

I smiled as I parked the shopping cart outside of the ladies’ room. “P.U.” was his newest favorite word, followed in close second by “Oh, man!” The “Oh, man!” I can blame on Nickelodeon and Dora the Explorer.For the other, I lay exclusive blame on my husband, who has never been keen on changing dirty diapers and has managed, I’m convinced, over the short term of Timmy’s life, to give the kid a complete and utter complex about bowel movements.

“You’re P.U.,” I said, hoisting him onto the little drop-down changing table. “But not for long. We’ll clean you up, powder that bottom, and slap on a new diaper. You’re gonna come out smelling like a rose, kid.”

“Like a rose!” he mimicked, reaching for my earrings while I held him down and stripped him.

After a million wipes and one fresh diaper, Timmy was back in the shopping cart. We fetched Allie away from a display of newly released CDs, and she came more or less willingly, a Natalie Imbruglia CD clutched in her hand.

Ten minutes and eighty-seven dollars later I was strapping Timmy into his car seat while Allie loaded our bags into the minivan. As I was maneuvering through the parking lot, I caught one more glimpse of the old man I’d seen earlier. He was standing at the front of the store, between the Coke machines and the plastic kiddie pools, just staring out toward me. I pulled over. My plan was to pop out, say a word or two to him, take a good long whiff of his breath, and then be on my way.

I had my door half open when music started blasting from all six of the Odyssey’s speakers at something close to one hundred decibels. I jumped, whipping around to face Allie, who was already fumbling for the volume control and muttering, “Sorry, sorry.”

I pushed the power button, which ended the Natalie Imbruglia surround-sound serenade, but did nothing about Timmy, who was now bawling his eyes out, probably from the pain associated with burst eardrums. I shot Allie a stern look, unfastened my seat belt, and climbed into the backseat, all the while trying to make happy sounds that would calm my kid.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Allie said. To her credit she sounded sincere. “I didn’t know the volume was up that high.” She maneuvered into the backseat on the other side of Timmy and started playing peekaboo with Boo Bear, a bedraggled blue bear that’s been Timmy’s constant companion since he was five months old. At first Timmy ignored her, but after a while he joined in, and I felt a little surge of pride for my daughter.

“Good for you,” I said.

She shrugged and kissed her brother’s forehead.

I remembered the old man and reached for the door, but as I looked out at the sidewalk, I saw that he was gone.

“What’s wrong?” Allie asked.

I hadn’t realized I was frowning, so I forced a smile and concentrated on erasing the worry lines from my forehead. “Nothing,” I said. And then, since that was the truth, I repeated myself, “Nothing at all.”

***

For the next three hours we bounced from store to store as I went down my list for the day: bulk goods at Wal-Mart—check; shoes for Timmy at Payless—check; Happy Meal for Timmy to ward off crankiness—check; new shoes for Allie from DSW—check; new ties for Stuart from T.J. Maxx—check. By the time we hit the grocery store, the Happy Meal had worn off, both Timmy and Allie were cranky, and I wasn’t far behind. Mostly, though, I was distracted.

That old man was still on my mind, and I was irritated with myself for not letting the whole thing drop. But something about him bugged me. As I pushed the shopping cart down the dairy aisle, I told myself I was being paranoid. For one thing, demons tend not to infect the old or feeble. (Makes sense when you think about it; if you’re going to suddenly become corporeal, you might as well shoot for young, strong, and virile.) For another, I’m pretty sure there’d been no demon stench, just a particularly pungent toddler diaper. Of course, that didn’t necessarily rule out demon proximity. All the demons I’d ever run across tended to pop breath mints like candy, and one even owned the majority share of stock in a mouthwash manufacturer. Even so, common sense told me there was no demon.

Mostly, though, I needed to drop the subject simply because it wasn’t my problem anymore. I may have been a Level Four Demon Hunter once upon a time, but that time was fifteen years ago. I was retired now. Out of the loop. Even more, I was out of practice.

I turned down the cookie-and-chips aisle, careful not to let Timmy see as I tossed two boxes of Teddy Grahams into the cart. In the next aisle, Allie lingered in front of the breakfast cereal, and I could practically see her mind debating between the überhealthy Kashi and her favorite Lucky Charms. I tried to focus on my grocery list (were we really out of All-Bran?), but my brain kept coming back to the old man.

Surely I was just being paranoid. I mean, why would a demon willingly come to San Diablo, anyway? The California coastal town was built on a hillside, its crisscross of streets leading up to St. Mary’s, the cathedral that perched at the top of the cliffs, a focal point for the entire town. In addition to being stunningly beautiful, the cathedral was famous for its holy relics, and it drew both tourists and pilgrims. The devout came to San Diablo for the same reason the demons stayed away—the cathedral e up was holy ground. Evil simply wasn’t welcome there.

That was also the primary reason Eric and I had retired in San Diablo. Ocean views, the fabulous California weather, and absolutely no demons or other nasties to ruin our good time. San Diablo was a great place to have kids, friends, and the normal life he and I had both craved. Even now, I thank God that we had ten good years together.

“Mom?” Allie squeezed my free hand, and I realized I’d wandered to the next aisle, and was now holding a freezer door open, staring blankly at a collection of frozen pizzas. “You okay?” From the way her nose crinkled, I knew she suspected I was thinking about her dad.

“Fine,” I lied, blinking furiously. “I was trying to decide between pepperoni or sausage for dinner tonight, and then I got sidetracked thinking about making my own pizza dough.”

“The last time you tried that, you got dough stuck on the light fixture and Stuart had to climb up and dig it out.”

“Thanks for reminding me.” But it had worked; we’d both moved past our melancholy. Eric had died just after Allie’s ninth birthday, and although she and Stuart got along famously, I knew she missed her dad as much as I did. We talked about it on occasion, sometimes remembering the funny times, and sometimes, like when we visited the cemetery, the memories were filled with tears. But now wasn’t the time for either, and we both knew it.

I squeezed her hand back. My girl was growing up. Already she was looking out for me, and it was sweet and heartbreaking all at the same time. “What do you think?” I asked. “Pepperoni?”

“Stuart likes sausage better,” she said.

“We’ll get both,” I said, knowing Allie’s distaste for sausage pizza. “Want to rent a movie on the way home? We’ll have to look fast so the food doesn’t spoil, but surely there’s something we’ve been wanting to see.”

Her eyes lit up. “We could do a Harry Potter marathon.”

I stifled a grimace. “Why not? It’s been at least a month since our last HP marathon.”

She rolled her eyes, then retrieved Timmy’s sippy cup and adjusted Boo Bear. I knew I was stuck.

My cell phone rang. I checked the caller ID, then leaned against the grocery cart as I answered. “Hey, hon.”

“I’m having the day from hell,” Stuart said, which was a poor choice of words considering that got me thinking about demons all over again. “And I’m afraid I’m going to ruin your day, too.”

“I can hardly wait.”

“Any chance you were planning something fabulous for dinner? Enough to serve eight, with cocktails before and some fancy dessert after?”

“Frozen pizza and Harry Potter,” I said, certain I knew where this was going to end up.

“Ah,” Stuart said. In the background I could hear the eraser end of his pencil tapping against his desktop. Beside me, Allie pretended to bang her head against the glass freezer door. “Well, that would serve eight,” he said. “But it may not have quite the cachet I was hoping for.”

“It’s important?”

“Clark thinks it is.” Clark Curtis was San Diablo’s lame duck county attorney, and he favored my husband to step into his shoes. Right now, Stuart had a low political profile, working for peanuts as an assistant county attorney in the real estate division. Stuart was months away from formally announcing, but if he wanted to have any hope of winning the election, he needed to start playing the political game, shaking hands, currying favors, and begging campaign contributions. Although a little nervous, he was excited about the campaign, and flattered by Clark’s support. As for me, the thought of being a politician’s wife was more than a little unnerving.

“A house full of attorneys,” I said, trying to think what the heck I could feed them. Or, better yet, if there was any way to get out of this.

Allie sank down to the floor, her back against the freezer, her forehead on her knees.

“And judges.”

“Oh, great.” This was the part about domesticity that I didn’t enjoy. Entertaining just isn’t my thing. I hated it, actually. Always had, always would. But my husband, the aspiring politician, loved me anyway. Imagine that.

“I tell you what. I’ll have Joan call some caterers. You don’t have to do anything except be home by six to meet them. Folks are coming at seven, and I’ll be sure to be there by six-thirty to give you a hand.”

Now, see? That’s why I love him. But I couldn’t accept. Guilt welled in my stomach just from the mere suggestion. This was the man I loved, after all. And I couldn’t be bothered to pull together a small dinner party? What kind of a heartless wench was I?

“How about rigatoni?” I asked, wondering which was worse, heartless wench or guilty sucker. “And a spinach salad? And I can pick up some appetizers and the stuff for my apple tart.” That pretty much exhausted my guest-worthy repertoire, and Stuart knew it.

“Sounds perfect,” he said. “But are you sure? It’s already four.”

“I’m sure,” I said, not sure at all, but it was his career, not mine, that was riding on my culinary talents.

“You’re the best,” he said. “Let me talk to Allie.”

I passed the phone to my daughter, who was doing a good impression of someone so chronically depressed she was in need of hospitalization. She lifted a weary hand, took the phone, and pressed it to her ear. “Yeah?”

While they talked, I focused my attention on Timmy, who was being remarkably good. “Nose!” he said when I pointed to my nose. “Ear!” I pointed to my other ear. “More ear!” The kid was literal, that was for sure. I leaned in close and gave him big wet sloppy kisses on his neck while he giggled and kicked.

With my head cocked to the side like that, I caught a glimpse of Allie, who no longer looked morose. If anything, she looked supremely pleased with herself. I wondered what she and Stuart were scheming, and suspected it was going to involve me carpooling a load of teenage girls to the mall.

“What?” I asked as Allie hung up.

“Stuart said it was okay with him if I spent the night at Mindy’s. Can I? Please?”

I ran my fingers through my hair and tried not to fantasize about killing my husband. The reasonable side of me screamed that he was only trying to help. The annoyed side of me retorted that he’d just sent my help packing, and I now had to clean the house, cook dinner, and keep Timmy entertained all on my own.

“Pleeeeeeze?”

“Fine. Sure. Great idea.” I started pushing the cart toward the dairy aisle while Timmy babbled something entirely unintelligible. “You can get your stuff and head to Mindy’s as soon as we get home.”

She did a little hop-skip number, then threw her arms around my neck. “Thanks, Mom! You’re the best.”

“Mmmm. Remember this the next time you’re grounded.”

She pointed at her chest, her face ultra-innocent. “Me? In trouble? I think you have me confused with some other daughter.”

I tried to scowl, but didn’t quite manage it, and she knew she’d won me over. Well, what the heck. I was a woman of the new millennium. I’d staked vampires, defeated demons, and incapacitated incubi. How hard could a last-minute dinner party be?

Mindy Dupont livesat our exact address, only one street over. Once the girls became inseparable, Laura Dupont and I followed suit, and now she’s more like a sister than a neighbor. I knew she wouldn’t care if Allie stayed over, so I didn’t bother calling ahead. I just bought a chocolate cake for bribery/thank-you purposes, then added it to Allie’s pile as she set off across our connecting backyards to Laura’s patio. (They’re not technically connected. A paved city easement runs between us, and it’s fenced off on both sides. Last year Stuart convinced the city that they should install gates on either side, so as to facilitate any city workers who might need to get back there. I’ve never once seen a utility man wandering behind my house, but those gates have sure made life easier for me, Laura, and the girls. Have I mentioned I adore my husband?)

A little less than ten minutes later I had Timmy settled in front of a Wigglesvideo, and I was pushing a dust mop over our hardwood floors, trying to get all the nooks and crannies a judge might notice, and ignoring all the other spots. I was pretty certain there was a dust bunny convention under the sofa, but until the conventioneers started wandering out into the rest of the house, I wasn’t going to worry about it.

The phone rang, and I lunged for it.

“Allie says you’re doing the dinner party thing. Need help?”

As much as I loved her, Laura was an even more harried hostess than I was. “I’ve got it all under control. My clothes are laid out, the sauce is simmering, the appetizers are on cookie sheets ready to go in the oven, and I even managed to find eight wineglasses.” I took a deep breath. “And they match.”

“Well, aren’t you just a little Martha Stewart? In the pre-scandal, domestic-goddess days, of course. And the munchkin?”

“In his jammies in front of the television.”

“All finished with bathtime?”

“No bath. Extra videos.”

She released a long-suffering sigh. “Finally, a flaw. Now I don’t have to hate you after all.”

I laughed. “Hate me all you want for managing to pull this together. It’s a feat worthy of your hatred.” I didn’t point out that I hadn’t actually pulled it off yet. I wasn’t counting this evening as a success until the guests went home happy, patting their tummies and promising Stuart all sorts of political favors. “Just don’t hate me for dumping Allie on you. You sure it’s okay?”

“Oh, yeah. They’re locked in Mindy’s room trying out all my Clinique samples. If they get bored, we’ll go get ice cream. But I don’t see boredom in their future. I’ve got two years’ worth of samples in that box. I figure that works out to at least four hours of free time. I’m going to make some popcorn, pop in one of my old Cary Grant videos, and wait up for Paul.”

“Oh, sure, rub it in,” I said.

She laughed. “You’ve got your own Cary Grant.”

“And he’ll be home soon. I’d better run.”

She clicked off after making me promise to call if I needed anything. But for once, I actually had it under control. Amazing. I tucked the dust mop in the utility closet, then headed back to take a final look at the living room. Comfortable and presentable. Some might even say it had a casual elegance. The dancing dinosaur on the television screen really didn’t add to the ambience, but I’d close up the entertainment center as soon as Timmy went to bed.

In the meantime, I needed to go finish the food. I gave Timmy a kiss on the cheek, got no reaction, and realized he’d been completely mesmerized by four gyrating Australian men. If he were fifteen, I’d worry. At twenty-five months, I figured we were okay.

I was running through my mental checklist as I headed back into the kitchen. A flash of movement outside the kitchen window caught my attention, and I realized I’d forgotten to feed Kabit, our cat.

I considered waiting until after the party, decided that wasn’t fair, then crossed to the breakfast area where we keep the cat food bowl on a little mat next to the table. I’d just bent to pick up the water dish when the sound of shattering glass filled the room.

I was upright almost instantly, but that wasn’t good enough. The old man from Wal-Mart bounded through the wrecked window, surprisingly agile for an octogenarian, and launched himself at me. We tumbled to the ground, rolling across the floor and into the actual kitchen, until we finally came to a stop by the stove. He was on top of me, his bony hands pinning down my wrists, and his face over mine. His breath reeked of rancid meat and cooked cauliflower, and I made a vow to never, everignore my instincts again.

“Time to die, Hunter,” he said, his voice low and breathy and not the least bit old-sounding.

A little riffle of panic shot through my chest. He shouldn’t know I used to be a Hunter. I was retired. New last name. New hometown. This was bad. And his words concerned me a heck of a lot more than the kill-fever I saw in his eyes.

I didn’t have time to worry about it, though, because the guy was shifting his hands from my wrists to my neck, and I had absolutely no intention of getting caught in a death grip.

As he shifted his weight, I pulled to the side, managing to free up my leg. I brought it up, catching his groin with my knee. He howled, but didn’t let go. That’s the trouble with demons; kneeing them in the balls just doesn’t have the effect it should. Which meant I was still under him, smelling his foul breath, and frustrated as hell because I didn’t need this shit. I had a dinner to fix.

From the living room, I heard Timmy yelling, “Momma! Momma! Big noise! Big noise!” and I knew he was abandoning the video to come find out where the big noise came from.

I couldn’t remember if I’d closed the baby gate, and there was no way my two-year-old was going to see his mom fighting a demon. I might be out of practice, but right then, I was motivated. “I’ll be right there!” I yelled, then pulled on every resource in my body and flipped over, managing to hop on Pops. I scraped at his face, aiming for his eyes, but only scratched his skin.

He let out a wail that sounded as if it came straight from the depths of hell, and lurched toward me. I sprang back and up, surprised and at the same time thrilled that I was in better shape than I realized. I made a mental note to go to the gym more often even as I kicked out and caught him in the chin. My thigh screamed in pain, and I knew I’d pay for this in the morning.

Another screech from the demon, this time harmonized by Timmy’s cries and the rattle of the baby gate that was, thank God, locked. Pops rushed me, and I howled as he slammed me back against the granite countertops. One hand was tight around my throat, and I struggled to breathe, lashing out to absolutely no effect.

The demon laughed, his eyes filled with so much pleasure that it pissed me off even more. “Useless bitch,” he said, his foul breath on my face. “You may as well die, Hunter. You surely will when my master’s army rises to claim victory in his name.”

Thatdidn’t sound good, but I couldn’t think about it right then. The lack of oxygen was getting to me. I was confused, my head swimming, everything starting to fade to a blackish purple. But then Timmy’s howls dissolved into whimpers. A renewed burst of anger and fear gave me strength. My hand groped along the counter until I found a wineglass. My fingers closed around it, and I slammed it down, managing to break off the base.

The room was starting to swim, and I needed to breathe desperately. I had one chance, and one chance only. With all the strength I could muster I slammed the stem of the wineglass toward his face, then sagged in relief when I felt it hit home, slipping through the soft tissue of his eyeball with very little resistance.

I heard a whoosh and saw the familiar shimmer as the demon was sucked out of the old man, and then the body collapsed to my floor. I sagged against my counter, drawing gallons of air into my lungs. As soon as I felt steady again, I focused on the corpse on my newly cleaned floor and sighed. Unlike in the movies, demons don’t dissolve in a puff of smoke or ash, and right as I was staring down at the body, wondering how the heck I was going to get rid of it before the party, I heard the familiar squeak of the patio door, and then Allie’s frantic voice in the living room. “Mom! Mom!”

Timmy’s yelps joined my daughter’s, and I closed my eyes and prayed for strength.

“Don’t come in here, sweetie. I broke some glass and it’s all over the floor.” As I talked, I hoisted my dead foe by the underarms and dragged him to the pantry. I slid him inside and slammed the door.

“What?” Allie said, appearing around the corner with Timmy in her arms.

I counted to five and decided this wasn’t the time to lecture my daughter about listening or following directions. “I said don’t come in here.” I moved quickly toward her, blocking her path. “There’s glass all over the place.”

“Jeez, Mom.” Her eyes were wide as she took in the mess that was now my kitchen. “Guess you can’t give me any more grief about my room, huh?”

I rolled my eyes.

She glanced at the big picture window behind our breakfast table. The one that no longer had glass. “What happened?”

“Softball,” I said. “Just crashed right through.”

“Wow. I guess Brian finally hit a homer, huh?”

“Looks that way.” Nine-year-old Brian lived next door and played softball in his backyard constantly. I felt a little guilty blaming the mess on him, but I’d deal with that later.

“I’ll get the broom.”

She plunked Timmy onto his booster seat, then headed for the pantry. I caught her arm. “I’ll take care of it, sweetie.”

“But you’ve got the party!”

“Exactly. And that’s why I need to be able to focus.” That really made no sense, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Listen, just put Timmy to bed for me, then head on back to Mindy’s. Really. I’ll be fine.”

She looked unsure. “You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. It’s all under control. Why’d you come back, anyway?”

“I forgot my new CD.”

I should have guessed. I picked Timmy back up (who, thankfully, was quiet now and watching the whole scene with interest). “Put the munchkin down and you’ll be doing me a huge favor.”

She frowned, but didn’t argue as she took Timmy from me.

“Night, sweetie,” I said, then gave both her and Timmy a kiss.

She still looked dubious, but she readjusted her grip on Timmy and headed toward the stairs. I let out a little sigh of relief and glanced at the clock. I had exactly forty-three minutes to clean up the mess in my kitchen, dispose of a dead demon, and pull together a dinner party. After that, I could turn my attention to figuring out what a demon was doing in San Diablo. And, more important, why he had attacked me.

But first, the rigatoni.

Did I have my priorities straight, or what?

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