Dead divorcees. Demonic possession. Elise Kavanagh stabbing things and…baking cookies? It’s just another bloody Valentine’s Day in the life of a demon hunter and her witchy partner.
This is a short story about the length of two chapters in my other books (9000 words), which takes place before the events of Death’s Hand. It’s a gift to my existing readers, who believe deep in their hearts that James’s butt needs to be slapped once in a while. I agree completely, readers. I agree.
If you prefer to read this story on your Kindle, it’s also for sale on Amazon for 99c. :) Happy reading!
Las Vegas, Nevada – February 2003
The house represented everything wonderful about the American Dream: a split-level deal with yellow paneling, a stretch of pristine grass bordered by plump red flowers, and white picket fencing. The two-car garage was open, and a minivan was parked in the driveway with a bucket of soapy water by the trunk. A garden hose dribbled white froth into the gutter.
All of it was so very ordinary. There was no way to tell that the house was damned from the outside.
The gate squealed as Rich Harris stepped through and let it swing shut behind him. The man of the house emerged with a newspaper tucked under one arm and reading glasses on the end of his nose. He was likewise the ideal American husband—black hair sweeping over his forehead, pale blue eyes, friendly smile, button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows.
Rich Harris set down his patched leather suitcase so that he could shake the man’s hand. He had a good grip and callused palms. Rich trusted a guy with strong hands.
“James Faulkner?” Rich Harris asked, tucking his car keys in his pocket. He had parked his seventies sedan in front of a house down the street so that it wouldn’t make a bad impression.
James tipped his head in greeting. “You must be the exorcist. Richard, is it?”
“Rich, please. At your service.” He gave a small bow, only half-ironically. “Priest with the Church of Radiance and soldier of God. I hear you have a dire issue, Mr. Faulkner.”
The corner of James’s mouth twitched. “Oh yes. Dire indeed. Would you like to come inside?”
“In a minute.” Rich couldn’t rush the job. From the moment he arrived to the moment he left, cash in hand, he had to establish a mood, put the client in the right mindset. Make them associate feelings of safety with his presence.
He mounted the stairs to the patio with one hand extended and his eyes half-closed. He “felt” through the air, traced his hand over the doorframe, and ran his fingers down an invisible wall.
The husband stood back with a hand over his mouth, but Rich could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. Sure, buddy. Laugh now, but I’m just warming up.
“Do you mind…?” Rich gestured at the patio set.
“Please, be my guest,” James said.
Rich set his suitcase on the table and opened it. Everything inside was aged to the same degree as the outside of the case—he had a few papers with burned edges tucked into the pockets, a heavy brass crucifix, a wooden stake, some holy water in a glass vial. He used to have bullets that looked silver, too, but his assistant had stolen them when she quit.
With another glance at James, who was still trying to hide a smile, he decided to extract the electromagnetic frequency detector. This was a man who would be impressed by data and beeping electronics, not by hoodoo.
“This is an EMF detector,” Rich explained, showing the handheld device to James. One part was a heavy box with a jittering dial on the top, and the other appendage was a wand, which he started to wave over the door.
“And what’s it for, exactly?” James asked.
“It detects unusual electromagnetic frequencies,” Rich said, passing the wand over the windows. The curtains had a tiny flower pattern sewn into them. Very Better Homes and Gardens. “The sort of electromagnetic frequencies left behind by powerful spirits.”
“Ah,” James said.
Time to get more impressive.
Rich stopped in front of the window and opened his eyes wide. “Has the trouble been originating from the second story? The room just above this?”
“Yes,” James said with a small cough. “The master bedroom, in fact. Goodness, how could you have possibly known?”
“Science, sir,” Rich said, waving the EMF detector at him. He quickly packed it up before James could get too close of a look. “Is the wife home? I’ll need to interview both of you.”
“Yes, of course.”
James held the door open, and Rich entered the foyer. Central air conditioning, tile floors, carefully-arranged desert flora, a few native arrowheads mounted on the wall. All hallmarks of a wealthy family.
Rich held his hand out again, feeling through the empty air in the foyer. Stepping forward, he peeked through the living room—fireplace with glass stones, steer skull over the mantle, leather couches—and then the guest bathroom.
There were no family photos anywhere. Marital strife? Just as he expected.
“Honey,” James called.
A woman stepped through the other doorway. The swinging doors gusted the warm, chocolatey smell of baking cookies into the foyer.
Rich tipped back his fedora to appraise Mrs. Faulkner. She wore a baggy pink t-shirt with a glittery heart on the chest, and it was long enough to conceal all but the bottommost hem of her denim shorts. It made her legs look very long and very bare. Her pillowy blue oven mitts had flowers on the thumbs.
It took him a moment to get from the curve of her thighs up to her face, and he realized with a jolt that she had seen him staring. And he also realized, much too late, that she was not the kind of woman that men should stare at. Her right eyebrow was split by a scar, the bridge of her nose was bent as though it had healed badly after a break, and her frizzy curls were barely contained in a thick ponytail hanging over one shoulder. Her narrowed eyes looked unsettlingly like those of an angry hawk.
“This is my wife, Elise,” James said, and her gaze flicked to him instead, much to Rich’s relief. Her brow furrowed. Rich was sensitive to these tiny gestures; being able to read his customers’ moods was integral to separating them from their money. And Elise Faulkner was not a happy lady.
“Pleasure to meet you, Elise,” Rich said, extending a hand to shake. “I’m the exorcist.”
The wife’s responding smile was very thin. She remained silent until James nudged her.
“Pleasure to meet you.” She offered an oven mitt to him. He hesitated, and then shook it delicately.
Brushing his fingers over the material sent a shock through his arm. Pain cramped in his heart, and Rich grimaced and gripped his chest.
Elise was still staring at him.
“Are you all right?” she asked, a little too intently.
He gave a small laugh. “Must be the heat,” he said, taking off his fedora and swiping a sleeve over his forehead. “It’s almost eighty today.”
The couple exchanged significant looks. “Have a seat,” James said, sweeping a hand toward the living room.
Rich settled into one of the couches. The leather sighed around him. The cool material was a relief on his burning skin, and he fanned himself with the fedora as he gasped for air. Even with the pain, he wouldn’t let himself be distracted from his goal, and he watched Mr. and Mrs. Faulkner closely as they entered.
They were both extremely athletic, healthy people. Probably yuppies imported from SoCal for government employment. Or maybe performers—they were graceful and approached him almost like they were preparing to dance.
If there was trouble in the marital bed, it didn’t show when they sat on the opposite couch. Their knees and shoulders touched, and they were angled toward each other, showing a clear attraction. That was weird. All of his clients had been having marriage issues. There must have been something he wasn’t seeing.
Rich definitely didn’t like the way the wife was looking at him. It wasn’t normal for a girl to stare like that.
He blew out a breath, mopped his forehead down again, and opened the notebook. It was already getting easier to breathe. Must have been a blip.
“What was the first indication of a problem?” he asked, clicking the pen.
James clasped his hands together. “Well, probably the pictures falling off of the walls. When was that, darling?”
Elise gave him a cold look.
“Christmas,” she said, voice flat. “Darling.”
He gave a small laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. “Right. That started around Christmas. We tried to hang the photos again, but they fell two more times that week. We gave up after a couple of frames broke.”
Rich made a note.
“And when did you start to think it might be something supernatural?”
“The voices,” James said. Voices? That was a new one. Rich wrote it in the margin. “We hear them every night, usually around two, after an hour of heavy footsteps. We can never find the origin. We’ve even called the police once or twice, and they never find anything, either. It’s deeply unsettling, isn’t it, honey?”
“What do the voices say?” Rich asked.
“They tell me to kill,” the wife said. Considering that she was still wearing the oven mitts, she managed to make that sound extremely menacing.
It couldn’t have been warmer than seventy degrees in the house, but Rich felt like he was going to sweat through his coat. He shrugged it off. “What else have you observed?”
“One of our mirrors shattered,” James said. “The one in the upstairs bathroom.”
“I’d like to look at it.”
The couple led him to the stairs, and Rich kept scanning the walls as they ascended. No photos on the second floor, either, but there were a lot of tiny holes in the drywall.
“And when did you two start having problems?” Rich asked, waving the pen between them.
James and Elise were two steps above him on the stairs, but at the question, the man stopped. “Pardon?” he asked as Elise continued to ascend.
Rich gave him a pitying smile. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I’ve seen this kind of activity in a dozen homes now. Breaking mirrors, falling pictures, footsteps. All of it began with marital strife.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” James said, joining his wife on the landing.
“Yeah,” Elise said. “Never been better. Honey.”
She slapped him on the butt.
James’s head whipped around, and he fixed a hard stare on her. The very first hint of a smirk showed at the corner of Elise’s lips.
There was something wrong here, but Rich just couldn’t figure out what. Were they afraid to admit they might be on the brink of divorce to a stranger? Maybe they just hadn’t admitted it to themselves yet.
The instant his foot touched the top of the stairs, pain spiked through his chest again, and he forgot everything else.
This time, the pain was blinding. Stars flashed in the corners of his vision, and he had to hang onto the banister to keep from slipping down the stairs. He was distantly aware of someone touching his shoulder, James and Elise speaking above him, cold ceramic underneath his hand. But all he could feel was the fist in his heart.
A deep voice rolled through him.
He blinked, and his vision cleared. The ringing in his skull faded.
Elise was staring at him again. It was her hand on his shoulder, oven mitt and all, and her hazel eyes pierced him like shards of glass. “You all right?” she asked.
Pushing her arm off, he stood. “Altitude,” Rich said, even though he knew that wasn’t any kind of explanation. Something rattled in his chest when he breathed. His heartbeat fluttered. “I’m sorry, but did one of you say something a second ago? Something about…” He trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence.
“No, sorry,” James said. “Maybe your investigation should wait. You seem under the weather.”
And lose next week’s rent? Not a chance.
“Let’s just look at the mirror so I can begin deducing what vengeful spirit is plaguing your life,” Rich said. He couldn’t seem to work up the usual amount of pomp for that declaration, but he didn’t care anymore. He needed to get his money from these people and get out before the wife stabbed him or something.
Elise slipped into what must have been the master bedroom, leaving James to show Rich the bathroom. The mirror wasn’t just shattered—it had been pulverized. Fragments covered the counter, filled the sink, sparkled on the leaves of their decorative cactus.
“Step carefully,” James said, holding the door open. “We’ve left everything the way that we found it.”
Rich wasn’t sure where to set down his case when everything was such a mess. He settled for putting it on the corner of the tub. “And this happened last night?” he asked, leaning forward to peer at one of the few pieces remaining in the wall.
“Three in the morning, approximately.”
His reflection looked to be warped in the mirror fragment. How was that possible? It almost looked like there was something bulging on the other side.
He leaned forward until his eye filled the triangle of glass.
A red light flashed in his pupil.
Rich gasped and stepped back, almost tripping on the bath mat. Only James’s hand kept him from falling into the tub.
“Careful, there,” he said.
Rich opened the top button of his shirt and fanned himself. “I’ll test for unusual EMF readings in here. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. Think you could turn up the air conditioner? I’m sweltering.”
James patted him on the shoulder. “Of course.”
He stepped away, and Rich waited until he heard the man’s footsteps retreat down the stairs before slipping into the hall again. He wanted to be as far from that mirror as possible.
There were a lot of haunting symptoms Rich could handle. Falling pictures? Big deal. Footsteps? Yawn. But voices, shattering mirrors, everything about the Faulkner woman—that was all outside Rich’s realm of experience. He didn’t even know how to begin.
He tried to loosen his collar, only to realize that he had already unbuttoned it.
Where were the photos? Rich couldn’t get that out of his head.
He pushed open a door and peered into what looked like a guest bedroom. Queen bed, dresser, silk flowers. It looked more like a hotel than anywhere someone actually lived—there wasn’t a single personal item in sight.
Rich pushed the closet open, and boxes nearly tumbled onto his head. So that was where they had shoved everything. He pushed it back with his shoulder and shut the door again.
The air conditioning clicked, and cool air swirled from the vent. Not cool enough.
“Colder,” he rasped, running a hand over the vent. It didn’t relieve his fevered skin at all.
He staggered into the hall again and checked the other room. It was an office. The gold wallpaper had pale squares where photos should have been. Bare circles on dusty shelves marked where knickknacks used to stand.
The Faulkners hadn’t mentioned any problems aside from the photos. So why hide all of their personal effects?
He shut the door and stood in the darkened hall with the heels of his palms pressed to his temples. Someone was moving downstairs, and it sounded like thunder rolling through the house.
Rich didn’t need to pretend he felt something anymore. Energy vibrated over him.
Kill them, the voice whispered. He knew that voice. It was as familiar as his own.
A single item of furniture sharpened to crystalline clarity in his vision: an antique bureau standing against the wall opposite the stairs. One of the drawers was ajar.
Rich pulled the drawer open. All of the photos that had been removed from the walls were facedown among the napkins and spare cutlery.
He turned one of the frames over. It depicted an older couple, tanned and healthy and smiling. Grandparents?
He turned over another picture, and another. Most of the photos were of the same couple—just ordinary studio portraits of two old people hugging each other. They also had a few photos of a teenage girl, kind of a lardass with a pig nose, and that girl with what looked like a boyfriend.
Not a single photo of the so-called Mr. and Mrs. Faulkner.
His knuckles were white as he gripped the side of the bureau, fighting to remain on his feet.
It didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for people to try to fool him like that. He was just a two-bit magician, a guy whose show in front of the Mermaids had been terminated by city police, someone who wanted to wiggle his way into the good graces of rich couples having trouble.
It’s a trap, the voice hissed, and Rich knew it to be true, even if he didn’t understand why.
The door to the master bedroom at the end of the hall was ajar.
That was where Elise Faulkner had disappeared.
Kill her first.
Rich could imagine closing his hands around the woman’s throat and squeezing as clearly as though it were a memory. The bulging eyes, the frothing saliva. He could imagine the way her body would thrash underneath him.
He pushed the door open and stepped inside as though in a dream.
The door slammed shut behind him.
He whirled and banged his fist into the door, but it didn’t yield to his touch. The handle wouldn’t even jiggle.
Rich flattened his back to the wall and stared around the bedroom. Except it wasn’t a bedroom at all—there was no bed, no dresser, no clothes piled on the floor. The windows were blacked out by heavy drapes. A huge circle had been drawn on the ceramic floor in chalk, and candles burned at each of the four cardinal corners. They were the only light in the entire room.
Elise stood in the center of the circle beside a chair. The oven mitts were gone, baring the kind of black gloves a biker might wear. As he watched, she stripped the pink shirt off over her head. Underneath, she wore a white tank top so tight it might have been painted on, revealing every line of her muscular abs. And her biceps made it look like she could snap him in half with a pinkie.
Without the baggy clothes or oven mitts, she looked less like a cute young housewife and more like something that had crawled out of Hell.
Elise reached back, drew a sword from a spine sheath, and then spun the chair around to face him. “Sit down,” she said, and her tone left no room for argument.
“What’s going on?” He was proud of the fact that his voice only trembled a little bit, even though he felt like he might faint.
“Sit down,” she said, biting out each word.
He was prepared to obey her—shit, with a sword like that, she could tell him to jump off a bridge and he would obey—but his body didn’t budge an inch. His leg warmed and something trickled down his ankle. Rich looked down. His slacks were wet.
“I think I just—”
Elise kicked the chair forward an inch. “You’ll sit down, and you’ll do it fast if you know what’s good for you.” But still, his feet didn’t move. Impatience drew her eyebrows low over her eyes. “You’ll die if I don’t take care of you now. Both of you. So let him sit down.”
Every inch of Rich trembled. “Who are you—I don’t know—I mean, I can’t—”
“Shut up, Rich. I’m not talking to you anymore,” Elise said. She unclasped the chains at her waist and wound them around her wrist, like brass knuckles made of crucifixes and pentacles. “In the name of God, I’m ordering you to sit the fuck down.”
A growl rose from deep within his chest. It was an inhuman sound, like the roaring of a furnace, and it burned in his throat. Sulfur stung his nose. His eyes watered.
Another flash of blinding pain. Rich pressed his fists to his chest as his ribs groaned. Pressure from the inside made them bow outward, straining against his ligaments, and the tension in his sternum was too much.
And then he spoke.
“Fuck you, exorcist.”
It wasn’t his voice. He hadn’t even meant to say anything.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Elise said, passing the sword to the fist that was wrapped with chains. The blade was short, only about two feet, but the curved side looked terrifyingly sharp.
Rich wrapped his arms around himself, and he shook with the effort it took for him to hold his ribs together.
“It hurts,” he gasped in a normal, human voice.
“Yeah, possession’s not meant to feel like tender bunny kisses,” she said, clapping a hand on the back of his collar and jerking him away from the wall. Elise tossed him into the circle.
The room whirled around him, and his face smacked into the tile.
His flesh enflamed instantly. Something popped. A ragged scream tore from him, shaking his skull, and it wasn’t the scream of a single man—it was the scream of a thousand damned souls writhing in fire.
Rich caught a glimpse of flame licking in front of his face.
Then he didn’t see anything at all.
One week earlier.
Elise realized she had walked through the pool of blood, and she grimaced. “You owe me a new pair of shoes,” she said, stepping over the arm flopped in front of the TV stand. It was lacerated with a deep gouge from elbow to wrist and perpendicular slices that looked more like tooth marks in the middle.
Lucas McIntyre smiled weakly. “Shoes, huh? How about an IOU on that?”
She bit back a sharp reply. Elise and James were already doing him a favor by stepping in on his investigation in Vegas, so it only seemed fair that he’d be responsible for damages she incurred while on the job. But it wasn’t worth arguing over. Not only did the McIntyres have zero money, but after the Grand Canyon, she was going to owe the guy favors until she died.
When she looked down to see her Doc Martens stained with blood and ichor, it was easy to forget that she was so deep in his debt that she couldn’t see sunlight anymore.
“Don’t worry about it,” Elise said.
James circled the room, studying the murder scene with that look he always got at the sight of dead humans. It was a mix of academic interest and detached horror. Human bodies still bothered him, even after all this time.
Elise nudged the woman’s head over with the toe of her bloodied boot. Looked like she was forty, maybe forty-five years old, with pearl bobs in her ears. There were no bruises at her throat—she had died too soon after the trauma for those to properly develop. But there were burns down her skin, dipping behind her hair, underneath her shirt.
The man, conversely, had been stabbed with a kitchen knife at least six or seven times. His chest and stomach were hamburger meat. One of his hands was still closed over the handle.
“Hell of a domestic disturbance,” Elise said, patting down the woman’s pockets. They were empty. “Why did you call me here for this, exactly?”
McIntyre shrugged. “Does it matter? You were in the neighborhood anyway.”
“San Francisco is the neighborhood?”
“Close enough,” he said. He flipped his knife open and scraped at the crusty material on the woman’s neck. “This isn’t skin. This is sulfur.”
“That’s not normal for domestic violence,” she said as she searched the husband’s clothes. She came up with a business card. Rich Harris, Priest of the Church of Light. There was a website and a phone number. Interesting.
“But sulfur residue is typical of demonic possession,” James said.
“So you called me here to do an exorcism,” Elise said, tucking the card into her own pocket.
McIntyre grinned. “You’re the best I know.”
“I’m the only one you know.”
“Either way, I need you for this. It’s over my head. The demon’s got a funny pattern—it’s wandering all over Vegas and Boulder, and I have no clue how.”
“Incorporeal demons don’t wander,” Elise said.
James put on his reading glasses and gently moved the woman’s chin so he could see the burn marks at her collar. “They don’t wander without vessels.”
Which meant that there had to be a human culprit. Someone like a priest with the Church of Light.
“We need security footage,” Elise said.
She washed her hands in the sink, dried them using the dead couples’ towels, and left with McIntyre to find the security office.
It was nighttime, and nobody was monitoring the cameras that watched the community’s gates. They broke in and stole video files off of the server, which showed the victims in question meeting with someone earlier in the day.
“So he’s got to be our perp,” McIntyre said. “What do you think? Nightmare?”
Elise squinted at his laptop screen. She was seated on a battered couch in his trailer going over hours of boring footage while James flirted with McIntyre’s girlfriend, Leticia. Her giggles drifted from the kitchen. He just couldn’t help himself.
Forcing herself to focus on the screen, Elise played it back one more time. The probable attacker didn’t look like a demon of any persuasion to her. More like some random asshole who fancied himself an exorcist. “How did you find those bodies, exactly?” she asked, rolling Rich Harris’s card between her fingers. She had already looked up his website, but he didn’t have a photo to help her identify him.
“Surge of power,” McIntyre said. “I’m surprised you didn’t feel it. Lots of noise. Whatever’s happening, this thing is getting powerful.”
Elise drummed her fingers on her chin as the video looped back and played again. The man was wearing a fedora and some kind of trench coat—overkill in Las Vegas winter. He looked like an old-school detective. Or someone who wanted to look like that, anyway.
“And you said that there have been other bodies,” Elise said. A purring cat wrapped itself around her ankles, and she reached down to stroke its back.
“Got the articles here.” McIntyre grabbed a box that had been sitting next to the couch. The outside advertised a “family pack” of potato chips, but the inside was all newspaper clippings and printouts. “Counting the folks tonight, that’s twelve dead.”
“Six couples,” Elise said.
“Twelve bodies, six couples. Does that matter?” He tried to hand the box to her. She pushed it away.
“I don’t need to see that. I know what we’re after.” Elise sighed. “We’re going to need to borrow someone’s house. A nice house.”
“Tish’s parents have a place in the suburbs, but I don’t understand why…?”
“Because I’m going to do an exorcism there,” she said.
And that was how Elise ended up playing housewife, of all the goddamn things she could be doing on her visit to Vegas.
Rich Harris crumbled in front of her, breathing fire and stinking of piss, and the only thing Elise could think was, I could be in San Francisco right now.
Only a few seconds until the prick woke up again. She hauled his limp body into the chair, pulled a face at the wet spot on his pants, and tied his wrists and ankles down.
James slipped through the door and locked it behind him. “I see our trap worked,” he said, pulling the notebook out of his back pocket and flipping to a page in the back.
“It wasn’t exactly a challenge. He really had no clue what’s been wrong with him,” Elise said, cinching the rope tight around his right ankle. God, it was wet there, too. Utterly foul. “You should have seen him when he opened the door.”
He ripped a page out of the notebook and stepped over the line. “I can’t imagine an exorcist as reputable as the great Rich Harris would be surprised to see the accoutrements of the occult. I’m shocked, just shocked.”
James flicked the paper into the air. His lips moved with a silent syllable. The candles flamed higher, stretching in long fingers toward the ceiling, and the radiant heat warmed Elise’s skin.
Closing the circle of power must have caused some jolt of energy that Elise couldn’t feel, because Rich’s eyes shot open. The whites were bloodshot. Veins corded his face and neck. The sweat beading on his skin swirled with black fog.
“Hey there, sleeping beauty,” Elise said. She nudged him in the chest with the point of her falchion. Not hard enough to pierce skin. Just enough to make him pay attention.
His eyes dropped to the blade. It was carved with religious symbols. Most of them wouldn’t mean anything to the average demon, but there was enough variety that at least one was guaranteed to bother any creature ending up at the point of her blade. His eyes widened and face paled, so obviously something worked.
“You got six couples and failed on the seventh,” Elise said, swinging her sword like a cane as she rounded his chair. “Sloppy work. You should have done them all at once if you wanted to avoid getting caught. What are you building energy for? You’re not big enough to manage an ascension, but it’s got to be pretty good, if you need seven pairs of hearts.”
“I will copulate with you and tear through your organs with my phallus,” he said.
James took a step forward, but Elise stopped him with a hard look. She leaned on the chair and got close to Rich’s ear.
“I think you’re trying to work up the energy to breed,” she said in a low voice.
He jerked and tried to bite her. His teeth snapped harmlessly at the air.
“Piggyback?” James asked, moving to Elise’s side.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
James frowned. “What? Why?” Because this demon feeds on broken hearts. She bit the inside of her cheek and just shook her head. “Well, do you have some idea what this thing is?”
Oh, Elise had ideas, all right. She’d had ideas about which demon it had to be when she first heard that he was targeting divorcing couples.
She cast a sideways glance at Rich and sighed.
Of all the things she didn’t want to have to talk about with her aspis…
“I know exactly what it is,” she finally said. She reached under the chair to press the button on her tape recorder. The gears started moving with a gentle hiss. “This is Elise Kavanagh. It’s February fourteenth, two thousand and three, and I’m exorcising Rich Harris.”
The demon hissed, spitting saliva that looked and smelled like magma.
“Elise?” James asked in a low voice, quiet enough that the recorder wouldn’t pick it up.
She started looping the chains around Rich’s neck, and he thrashed, throwing his head from side to side. “Courevore,” she said, addressing the demon directly. “You’re breaking about a thousand laws by walking this Earth.”
Rich Harris’s lips widened in a painful grin. A black tongue snaked between his teeth. “I go where I please.”
James mouthed the name silently. Courevore. Recognition illuminated his features.
“Sure, you can go wherever you want,” Elise said. “As long as you don’t mind volunteering yourself for a death sentence. I saw a bounty for your life not even a month ago. You’ve moved fast.”
“Release me, or this man dies.”
Did he mean Rich Harris, or James? Elise couldn’t take that risk.
She took James aside. “Why don’t you give me some space?” she whispered.
“But you need the help.”
“Having you around can only make me vulnerable to this thing,” Elise said.
“He can’t have any effect on us,” James said, but he didn’t sound very convincing. He raked a hand through his hair and blew a breath out. He wouldn’t look at Elise. “It’s not like we’re…”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “You better wait outside.”
“I don’t think…”
Elise put a hand on his arm. “Please,” she said.
James’s shoulders slumped. “All right.” Another sigh, and then he added, “I’m sorry.”
He made a hand gesture like parting a curtain and stepped out of the circle of power.
As soon as he was gone, Elise faced Rich again. Now the tips of his hair were smoking. She wasn’t exactly hung up on saving this guy—nobody would be heartbroken over a lost grifter scamming money from broken hearts. But James was watching. She couldn’t just kill Rich and save herself the effort, either.
“I’ll give you one chance to be honest with me and return safely to Hell. Where are your offspring?” Elise asked, drawing her other sword.
“You will never find them. Not if you lived a thousand lifetimes.”
Elise had been wearing a pink shirt and oven mitts all day. She had no patience for this bullshit.
“Courevore, devourer of broken hearts, lover of the shattered spirit, lord of the seventh dominion,” she said, “I hereby sentence you to death.”
“Under whose authority?”
“Mine.” She aimed her sword at his breast again. “I exorcise you, impious demon. In vain do you boast of this deed. I command you to restore this man as proof you no longer have any rule over his soul.”
Rich threw his head back and cackled. His arm muscles bulged as he fought against the bindings.
Elise hooked the tip of her falchion in the charms. “I abjure you, stripping you of the arms with which you fight. I revoke the powers by which this man became bound to your service.”
His laughter turned to a shriek. His ribs rippled underneath his shirt like limbs twisting underneath a bed sheet.
Even as he screamed, a guttural voice rolled through the room. “He doesn’t love you,” Courevore said. “He will never love you.”
Elise’s sword wavered. She tightened her grip on the hilt.
“This creature is restored, rejecting your influence, and granted divine mercy for defense against your assaults. Now get the fuck out.”
His ribs rippled again, and Elise heard a crack. Blood spread over his chest.
She dropped one of the swords and ripped his shirt open. His sternum had snapped. Jagged shards of bone ripped through the skin.
A red eye stared from the place his heart should have been.
“Huh,” she said.
It rolled around to focus the gaping maw of its pupil on her face, and it looked through her. “He rejected you because you’re broken,” the demon said, and this time, it spoke directly into her skull. Her eardrums throbbed. “The women I killed have all failed as wives, but you’ll never even be good enough to marry, much less fuck. Malformed hermaphrodite with a wasted soul.”
The other sword slipped from her fingers, and Elise tried to cover her ears, but it wasn’t good enough. The voice came from within.
James shouted, and it sounded like he was a thousand miles away. “Elise!”
“Useless, ugly, broken,” Courevore said.
She wanted to slap the smugness off Rich’s twisted face.
“Crux sacra sit mihi lux,” Elise said. The words were unsteady. There was no power behind them. “Non draco sit—”
A rope snapped. Rich’s hand shot out and clenched on her throat.
A gurgle escaped her lips.
“He only pretends to like you,” Courevore hissed into her mind.
It was hard to speak without any air. Her head swam.
“You are so full of shit,” she grunted, and then she punched her hand through his chest and grabbed the eyeball.
It pulsed in her hand, hot and slippery and flailing wildly against her fingers, like a bird trapped in a net. His fingers tightened on her throat, and she responded by tightening her grip, too. “Let me go or I’ll kill you,” Courevore said.
She couldn’t speak anymore, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t give him a last, well-deserved “fuck you.”
Flexing her biceps, she ripped at the muscle, trying to wrench it free of his chest cavity. Bone scraped against her wrist. Fingernails dug into her throat.
And then James was between them, and he forced the hand off of Elise, pushed her away. She fell onto her ass. Her lungs ached with the sudden rush of oxygen.
“She’ll hate you once she finds out,” Courevore said, focusing the eyeball on James. “Your heart is blacker than hers.”
James whispered something into Rich’s ear—something too quiet for Elise to hear. But the eye within his chest rolled with shock, his lungs wheezed in a gasp, and James stepped away apparently unperturbed by the demon.
He helped Elise stand and gave her one of the falchions.
“Let’s finish this,” he said, voice hard.
Elise couldn’t agree more.
“Crux sacra sit mihi dux,” she said, stronger this time. “Non draco sit mihi lux. Vade retro, Satana. Nunquam suade mihi vana.”
Rich screamed again, tearing at his own face with the free hand.
Elise gathered her strength for a final push. She placed the flat of the blade against the exposed eyeball.
“Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas!”
His cries reached a pitch. His ribs rippled, danced, shivered.
And then his chest exploded.
Blood showered over the room, and Elise couldn’t duck fast enough to avoid the geyser. It was hot and sulfurous and it sprayed down her side.
James’s reaction time had been much better. He peered at her from behind the chair as a steady stream of blood drip-dripped from the seat to the floor. “Well,” he said. “That was a first.”
Elise wiped a chunk of slippery flesh out of her hair. “And hopefully a last.”
Rich Harris, priest of the Church of Light and soldier of God, had been split in half by the exploding demon. His pelvis was an open mess of intestine. Organs dangled from underneath the remnants of his breastbone. The rest was gone—including a couple segments of his spine.
Elise muttered a thousand curses under her breath as she tried to wipe the blood off of her face and hands, but there was just too much of it. Her skin was slick.
“Okay,” she said, squeegeeing blood out of her tank top. “McIntyre really owes me new clothes now.”
James laughed as he stood. Of course he could laugh. He only had blood on his right shoe. He plucked something off of her shoulder and flung it aside. “Are you all right? Any problems breathing?”
“I’m fine,” she said, and it was mostly true. Even though Courevore was dead, she could still hear his voice echoing through her skull.
He will never love you.
She didn’t look at James as she peeled off her shoes and socks.
“I think I saw clothes in Leticia’s size in the other bedroom,” James said. “Maybe a shower’s in order.”
Elise was grateful not to have to discuss the destroyed body, or anything the demon had said. She ducked out of the room, leaving her shoes behind, and tried not to drip blood on her way to the shower.
Five minutes and a lot of hot water later, she was dressed again in shorts and a tube top that belonged to McIntyre’s girlfriend. James was waiting for her on the top of the stairs. She sat beside him to comb out her hair.
He was flipping through his notebook again, but he closed it to give her his full attention.
“Breeding,” he said.
Elise’s comb stilled. “What?”
“You said that you thought Courevore was trying to breed.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Courevore is one-of-a-kind. He could only breed by impregnating a human woman—which obviously doesn’t work in cases of incorporeal possession—or by some other asexual method. Like eggs, maybe.”
“Eggs,” James echoed.
“Well, I hope not, but I think that’s how his type usually make minions. If that’s the case, they could be anywhere.”
Elise continued to drag the comb through her hair, thinking back on everything that McIntyre had told her about the case.
Rich Harris lived in a pay-by-the-week motel—hardly somewhere safe and secure to keep one’s offspring. The former victims’ houses had all been swept by the cops and completely cleaned out. Where could that kind of guy keep a demon’s eggs? A storage unit, maybe?
James interrupted her thoughts by leaning forward and sniffing the air. “What is that?”
She lifted her arms and smelled herself. “Is there still blood on me?”
“No, it’s more like…burning chocolate?”
Elise almost dropped the comb. “Shit!”
She leaped to her feet and shot downstairs.
One could never tell what might go wrong in the aftermath of an exorcism. Powerful demons had a way of leaving nasty tricks behind—booby traps, extra minions, things that could explode. When James smelled the smoke, he was certain that Courevore must have set the house on fire on his way out. What he found was a lot more shocking.
A black haze filled the kitchen. James rushed to open the back door and turn on the ceiling fan. Elise ripped a towel off the rack and pulled the oven open, and smoke spewed into the room. It was acrid and bitter, almost as bad as the sulfur pouring from a demon’s mouth, and tears sprung to James’s eyes.
“The hell is that?” he asked, flapping his hands in front of his face to clear a precious few inches of air.
Elise’s lack of response was even more worrying than the smoke itself.
She reached inside the oven and tossed a cookie sheet on the counter. Pieces of charcoal slid over the aluminum—pieces of charcoal that smelled suspiciously like Nutella. “Shit,” she said. “I ruined them.”
They were cookies.
His mind flashed back to Elise emerging from the kitchen with oven mitts. He had assumed that she was just trying to hide her gloves, which were a necessary but unsettling feature of her wardrobe. But she hadn’t been trying to hide anything. She had been baking.
“You baked cookies. You actually baked cookies,” James said.
She shifted uncomfortably on her feet and glared in silent fury at the cookie sheet.
“The Packards left the ingredients out and the cookbook was open on the counter. I thought…I don’t know. I’ve never tried to bake before.”
Elise didn’t hesitate to punch her hand into a man’s chest to pulverize a demon eyeball, but a batch of burned cookies could bring her to her knees. Kind of cute, really—not that James would ever tell her that.
He tried to smother his laugh. She wasn’t fooled.
“You don’t have to pick on me,” she said.
Oh, and now she was pouting. That just made it harder not to laugh. He finally gave up the ghost and slung an arm around her shoulders as he chuckled. It didn’t brighten her mood at all. “I would never dream of picking on you. Look, they’re not that bad. I can just break off the burned portion.” Which was the entire cookie. But he had to make up for laughing at her somehow.
“Wait,” she protested, holding out an arm, but James was tall and her efforts to fend him off were halfhearted at best. He snagged a cookie off the sheet and bounced it between his hands while it cooled. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Of course I don’t,” James said.
The center of the cookie wasn’t quite as destroyed as the edges, so he crumbled off the blackest parts and popped it into his mouth.
He tried not to make a face. He really did. But Elise knew him too well, and whatever minute change in expression sneaked through was too much. Disappointment crashed over her features.
“I told you they were bad,” she said, stomping the trash can lever to lift the lid. She tossed the entire sheet in. As soon as her back was turned, James spit the cookie into the sink and wiped off his tongue.
She turned back, and he composed himself again.
“It’s really not that bad,” James said, fishing the cookie sheet out of the trash. The Packards were going to be distressed enough to see what had happened to their bedroom. They didn’t need to lose kitchenware to Elise’s bad mood, too.
“Screw it,” Elise said. “I don’t even like cookies.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone likes cookies.” James’s lips spread in a devilish smile. “There are more ingredients, you know. We could try again.”
“Try to…what, bake another batch? Seriously? The Packards are going to want their house back eventually.”
“They’re in a hotel for the night, and Lucas will have to clean up the bedroom before they can return anyway,” he said. “Come on, let me teach you. Your cookies spread out too much and were a bit, uh, salty. Those are both easy fixes.”
Elise rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t keep from smiling. There wasn’t much James wouldn’t do to make her smile like that.
“Fine,” she said.
By the time they stuck the third batch of cookies in the oven, the jar of Nutella had been licked clean, the sun was falling toward the horizon, and the issue of Courevore’s offspring still hadn’t been resolved.
“He would have to be keeping his eggs nearby,” Elise said, sitting on the counter by the sink while James leaned at her side. “It takes a lot for his ilk to breed. Good thing it’s easier for humans.” Elise toyed with one of the cookies from the second batch. They hadn’t spread as much as the ones she had burned, but she had no appetite for them.
Malformed hermaphrodite, Courevore had said.
“Most humans,” she added, tossing the cookie back onto the pan.
She could feel James watching her, but she didn’t want to see his pity. She pushed the cookies around the pan with a spatula like it was the most interesting thing in the world. “You can’t take anything he said to heart,” James said. “Everything that comes from a demon’s mouth is a lie.”
She stabbed a cookie with the end of the spatula. “What did you say to him?”
“You whispered something to Courevore when he tried to talk to you. It looked like it surprised him. What was it?”
“Oh, I can’t even remember now. Just an idle threat,” James said.
“Must have been pretty good to mess with his head.”
An engine rumbled up the street, then stopped by the window. She pushed one of the flowered curtains aside and peered outside. The noise had been McIntyre’s pickup arriving—not the cops—but his car wasn’t the only one on the street. Rich’s beater was parked at the opposite sidewalk. There was a ticket flapping underneath his windshield wiper.
“I might have an idea about Courevore’s offspring,” Elise said.
The front door opened, and McIntyre and his girlfriend walked in carrying duffel bags. Leticia wore rubber gloves that covered her to the elbow. It was hardly the first time they had cleaned up such a scene, and they came well-prepared.
“How did everything go?” McIntyre asked.
“Perfect,” Elise said, popping the last of a cookie in her mouth. James was right. Even she liked Nutella cookies. “The Packards are going to need new flooring in the master bedroom.”
“And groceries,” James added helpfully.
Leticia laughed and headed upstairs.
“This is going to take a while,” McIntyre said. He tossed his keys to Elise. “Why don’t you guys go get some grub?”
“An excellent idea, but I think I’m full on cookie dough now,” James said.
Elise hopped off the counter anyway. “No, dinner’s a good idea. There’s still one more batch in the oven, and they’ll be done in five minutes. Don’t forget to grab them when the buzzer goes off, McIntyre.”
He threw an ironic salute at her.
But when James and Elise stepped outside, she didn’t head for McIntyre’s truck. She went to Rich Harris’s car instead.
The pavement was hot under her bare feet as she crossed the street, even though the light of day was fading rapidly. The driver’s side window was open a crack. Elise wiggled her arm inside. It was hard fitting her bicep in deep enough to reach the lock, but she managed to flick it with her middle finger.
She opened the door, and the smell of sulfur seeped out—along with the distinct odor of blood.
Elise pulled the lever for the trunk. James waited until she was at his side, swords at the ready, before swinging the trunk open the rest of the way.
The smell that had been faint in the passenger compartment slapped her in the face, so bad that she nearly gagged. Elise stepped back with a hand over her mouth.
“He nested in his trunk,” James said, voice weak with disgust. “He nested. In his trunk.”
There were seven eggs nestled among the blankets. They were each the size of Elise’s fists pressed together, and the first six of them were drenched in blood; the one on the far left was even beginning to crack, like it was trying to hatch. They shivered with internal motion.
Elise was about as touched by the sight of the eggs as she was by the sight of human infants, which was to say, not at all. “Baby hellspawn,” she said. “How sweet.”
“Good thing you killed him before he, er, fertilized that last one,” James said.
“Yeah,” she said. “I bet Rich Harris had fun shitting these out.”
Elise smashed her sword into the first egg. Blood and ichor spilled over the trunk. James didn’t watch as she destroyed each of them in turn, hitting them again and again until they were thoroughly pulverized.
So much for Courevore’s baby army.
She slammed the trunk shut. “Have fun with that one, McIntyre,” she muttered, wiping her hands off on the butt of her skirt. She had been splashed with ichor, and it left behind tiny burn marks on her skin.
“You know what today is?” James asked as Elise walked back to the McIntyre’s truck with him.
“Saturday,” she said.
“The fourteenth. Valentine’s Day. Seems appropriate for a demon that feeds on broken hearts to make his last move today, doesn’t it?”
“Sure,” Elise said. “And demonic infanticide is an equally good way to spend a romantic holiday.”
James laughed. “Do you want dinner? Let’s get dinner.”
He opened the passenger door on McIntyre’s truck for her, and Elise gave him a rare smile before slipping inside.
They drove into the sunset, leaving the bodies, eggs, and burned cookies behind them.