Authors: Marie Castle
She nodded and stepped through with him, moving with the blink of an eye to the demon’s home on the other side of this world.
Strangely, she believed him. For a man who could kill fifteen men without thought, he was a surprisingly honest demon. If she could find a way to let her family know she was safe, the next two months might not be the torture she had expected.
Of course, she could be wrong. Sometimes expectations or the lack thereof simply
to be broken.
“A good disguise must incorporate sound, touch, smell…all the senses. You must not simply hide behind the mask. You must be the mask.”
—Illusions: A Magic User’s Guide, Volume Two
Gandsai, Mississippi—Day Nine
“Shoo! Shoo!” I jabbed the broom at the pony-sized hellhound lounging on my back lawn. The bristled end stopped feet shy of contact, halted by the swirling blue and green warded energy wall separating us. My late great-grandmother Grams had used the same broom more than once when chasing our evil hell-spawn of a cat, Hex, who had a knack for creating trouble where trouble wasn’t wanted. The broom was as effective on the hound as it was on the cat, which was not at all.
The demonic doggie—a female I assumed from her larger size and darker coloring—blinked black eyes at me then resumed gnawing on a deer haunch.
We had houseguests this morning. As soon as they finished breakfast, some would leave the safety of the wards and head home. No doubt my grandmother, Nana, would consider it unmannerly to let our guests be eaten by a hellhound. That sort of thing just wasn’t done. If I couldn’t get the hound to move on I was in for a lecture.
“Scat, cat!” I waved the broom over my head.
The hound gave me an offended look before rolling her eyes at the broom. She was more intelligent than the hounds I had met previously. Of course, those had been trying to rip out my throat so I hadn’t been inclined to offer an IQ test before dispatching them.
“You don’t like being called a cat. So noted.” I pulled hellfire from within myself, lit the broom ablaze, and used it to gesture toward the woods. “Now scram before I send you back to hell the hard way!”
The hound bared wickedly sharp teeth bloody with her breakfast.
Safe to say that was a no.
I returned the gesture, showing her my meanest smile. “You have something right about here.” I pointed to my upper right molar. “They call it floss, honey. Invest in some. And it’s been a rough week. You’ll have to do better.”
The hound flicked a tongue across her teeth, hunched a shoulder as if to say
and returned to her food.
“Don’t be fooled by my sweet disposition and southern drawl.” I shook the fiery broom. “I could fry your ass if I wanted to!”
The hound turned her back on me and waved her tail in a clear
“Ugh,” I doused my flames, “you obviously have no idea how stinky a fricasseed hellhound carcass is.” I waved the broom for emphasis before lowering it.
The crunch of bone was her only response.
My nose twitched. Smelling smoke, I looked to see the broom’s bristles were singed. That was the third this year.
Nana would be ticked.
Even more so if I killed a hellhound on the lawn and didn’t clean up. Little miss sassy paws was getting a reprieve…so long as I could ensure she didn’t snack on our company once she finished the deer.
I had the sinking suspicion no matter how things went I would still get a lecture. Damn it all to hell and back, I hated Mondays.
I blew a lock of raven-black hair from my eyes. It curled in the high humidity and fell back against the side of my face. I couldn’t believe I was arguing with a hellhound on the back lawn while in the house my family was serving breakfast to a passel of weretigers. More importantly, I couldn’t believe this hell-mutt was even here. We had recently killed two hellhounds nearby on the front lawn after they had attacked us. That was when I had learned roasting demonic creatures created a nasty mess. You would think the remaining stench would deter further visits.
“Maybe I’m losing my touch.” It could be I wasn’t intimidating this morning, what with my bare feet, cutoff jeans shorts, and shower-damp hair. I was already a petite woman, topping out at five feet five with my boots on. People never took me seriously…until a knife pressed to their ribs threatened to drive home the point. Or maybe the hound knew I couldn’t come for it without lowering the ward door and exposing myself. Even so, the beast should have been a little scared. According to my mother’s twin sister, Helena, I was half-witch, half-demon, and more trouble than the cat…which was saying something.
Unfortunately, recent events had proved my aunt right. I
trouble. Or at least had mad skills when it came to landing my ass in it.
It had all started a week ago yesterday when I’d skipped Sunday brunch with my ex-mother-in-law to retrieve Bob Rainey. Rainey, the stupid but human accountant for New Orleans’ Vampire Mafia, had run off with millions of his boss’s dollars. The Kin had hired my family’s PI agency, The Darkmirror, to bring him back.
Or that was the story I’d been handed.
I had tracked Rainey to a warehouse in Gulfport about an hour and a half from my home in Gandsai, Mississippi. There I found him handing a briefcase to a cloaked man he called Nicodemus. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rainey had become a walking corpse possessed by the dark spirit Sarkoph. Nicodemus vanished while Sarkoph used Rainey’s body to attack me with black magic. When the fight ended, I was injured, Sarkoph had been banished to who knows where, Rainey’s corpse was half-incinerated, and the money was gone.
The Vamps hadn’t been pleased.
They’d grudgingly paid me for the job and offered a bonus to find the money, so I put out feelers for Nicodemus, whose name and a gold medallion left on Rainey’s corpse were my only clues. That was followed by a call from Luke, the unfortunate werewolf who had briefly been my husband, with a cryptic message from Jupiter Jones, a New Orleans trumpet player and the darkest-skinned man I had ever met. Jup said trouble was headed my way. As usual he was right. My asking around about Nicodemus had led the Supernatural Council’s local sheriff to me. Sheriff Fera was also looking for Nicky-boy, only for much darker reasons.
I don’t like or trust The Council, especially after my mother disappeared three years ago on what I believed was a Council mission. But my family had the power to open and close the hell-gates at will. With that power came the responsibility of policing the darkmirrors—what we call the black stone gates that cross the void between worlds. We are guardians. When Fera said Nicodemus was looking to open a darkmirror and bring his demon master’s army through, I had no choice but to accept the help of her contact, former Council operative Detective Jacqueline Slone. With smoky gray eyes, auburn hair, and a dimple that popped out when she grinned, Jacq turned out to be as alluring as she was mysterious. From the very moment we met, we had been drawn to each other. There was something frighteningly powerful growing between us, but neither of us seemed to have the good sense to run from it. I wasn’t sure where this relationship with Jacq was going…where it
go. We have what you might call a major incompatibility. I was mortal, she immortal. But I knew I was falling in love with her.
Which brings us to last night when we finally found Nicodemus and his minions. When the showdown ended, I walked away with bruises and a concussion. Jacq had a cut on her thigh. We were both alive and healing supernaturally fast. Not everyone had been so lucky.
I gripped the broom handle as my demon-half stirred within me, drawn out by my anger and sadness. One of the casualties had been our neighbor and family friend, Professor Arno Wellsy. We believed he and the other men in his group had been possessed by Nicodemus and his brothers during a Virginian coal mine cave-in, though no one understood what they were doing there. Wellsy was a history professor, the other two a guide and a financier. A fourth member of their group, a woman illusionist, had been lost and was presumed dead. Part of me wanted to grieve for Wellsy’s loss, but I locked that part away even as I pushed my demon-half down. There would be time to mourn once I’d discovered how Wellsy had come to be involved in this. Until then, there was work to do and guests to see on their way. Plus Jacq and I had our first official date tonight. The chivalrous woman wanted to “court” me and I was of a mind to let her. The timing wasn’t the best with us both injured and the case only partially wrapped, but I’d had enough of death. I wanted to live and that meant time alone with the woman who warmed my heart and made me feel alive. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin looking into Wellsy’s death.
I turned my attention back to the hound now savoring the last stubby bones. Maybe my witchy
was busted. I should have been alarmed by the hound’s presence but wasn’t. I still had the feeling something big was on the horizon, a storm not finished with Nicodemus, but my gut said this hound wasn’t part of it, which didn’t make sense. Why else would a hellhound be here? Hellhounds were rare, usually staying in, well, Hell. Or rather they lived in the Otherworld, but Hell was easier to say. At least they had been rare until a few days ago when two of them attacked. Larger than the largest Great Dane with a pit bull’s locking jaws and the magical ability to track their prey through any plane of existence, hellhounds would never be mistaken for anything from Earth. Did I mention their eyes sometimes glow an eerie, cliché red? Well, they did.
But this hound was different. She hadn’t joined the two when they had rushed us. Instead she’d peed on my truck tire then stolen my floppy-eared bunny slipper only to return it later. Annoying yes, but not exactly aggressive.
And she was familiar for a more recent reason…
I stepped closer to the wards, examining the bites and scratches marring the hound’s flanks. A memory formed in my mind.
I was driving to confront Nicodemus. Two of his raptor creatures tried to stop me but something rushed out of the night and caught them. I thought it was a Were in animal form, even as I knew that couldn’t be. The Weres were moving in from the opposite direction.
It had been this hound. The cuts and scratches matched those the Weres had gotten while fighting the raptors.
“Why would you help me?” I asked softly.
The hound picked up the deer bones with her mouth, turned, and paced toward the wards. She dropped the bones near a blue ley line arch and backed away. Steam blew from her nostrils before disappearing in the sultry summer air.
“Seriously,” I snorted, making a face, “if you’re going to give a girl a gift, stick with chocolates or diamonds. Slobbery bones went out of style with cavemen!”
My laughter died in my throat as my light blue eyes met the hound’s black ones. For an instant, our minds meshed. She blinked and we separated. But that moment of connection had been enough to transmit a message. I let out a long breath, confused.
“The bones aren’t the gift.
are the gift.”
The hound’s head dipped in acknowledgment.
“Who…why…?” I stopped as Nana yelled out the open kitchen door.
“Cate, the wards are fine. I checked them this morning. Come say goodbye to our guests.” She paused. “And you better not have burned my broom again!” The bushes separating us kept me from seeing Nana but I knew her faded-green gaze would be turned inward as it was when she saw a vision of the past or future.
“I hate it when she does that.” I muttered, turning back to the hound. The lawn was empty but for a small pile of half-eaten bones.
Assured the hellhound was gone, I lowered the ward door and levitated the bones into the woods. As I walked back to the house, I broke burned bristles from the broom and wondered who would send me a hellhound. A sarcastic stubborn hound no less. I didn’t have a clue, but I could guarantee I would find out soon. Such a gift deserved a
thank you. Nana would certainly agree.
It was the mannerly thing to do.
“Welcome to the dating game. For contestant number one, we have George. He likes howling at the moon, long runs, and super-sized water bowls. George, welcome.”
New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA)—Night Nine
All heads turned to watch the white limo slowly roll down Bourbon Street. All heads but mine. Considering the barricades had been raised hours ago, converting the street and surrounding avenues into touristy walkways, it was an unusual sight to see. But it was probably the small squadron of muscle-bound, gun-toting suits accompanying the vehicle that drew the eye. If they hadn’t been of the vampire variety, they could have been mistaken for Secret Service.
Despite all the hoopla my eyes were elsewhere. Watching Jacq return from changing into the new jeans I’d bought her. She gave me a smile, and my heart fluttered. I noted the way the light denim and white shirt fit her tall muscular frame. My mind wandered to another time and place, one where that body had been substantially less dressed.
I washed her back, tracing every line and feather of the flaming phoenix tattoo there before moving the loofa lower…
Suddenly, more than my heart was beating double-time. A gruff laugh brought me back to my senses. Embarrassed, I felt my cheeks flush.
“Baby girl, that there’s your trouble,” Jupiter rumbled.
I’d been telling him that the trouble he asked my ex-husband Luke to warn me about had been dealt with. He’d simply shaken his head. I started to ask why but was distracted by the return of the first person I ever wanted to play dress-up with. Fortunately, my brain cells focused long enough to realize Jup had not been referring to Nicodemus and his group. Which begged the question: What was more trouble than a group of dark sorcerers running around killing, kidnapping, and trying to unleash a demon army to take over the world? Whatever it was, Jup was pointing right at it.