Secrets of the Demon
The heavy music pounded through me, making my teeth vibrate and the muscles in my back tense in reaction. I leaned against the wall, as much as to have a good vantage to watch the seething mass of people in front of the stage as to ground myself from the incessant beat. Cigarette smoke burned the back of my throat and the stench of stale beer and sweat coiled around me in a noxious miasma. Every now and then I'd get a whiff of something putrid, letting me know me that I'd picked a spot too close to the bathrooms. I was in a good position to see the majority of the bar, but the raised alcove I'd claimed for my use suffered from a distinct lack of air flow--which probably explained why it was empty.
A few feet below me the dance floor was getting some vigorous use--its denizens clad in fishnets and corsets, PVC and leather, ball gowns and "Little Bo-Peep" outfits, and every possible combination thereof. Past the dance floor and through a broad brick archway I could see that the long bar was packed three deep. I was in serious need of some ice water, but I wasn't quite desperate enough to brave the crush at the bar.
*You do not enjoy this activity.*
I jerked in surprise at the feel of the demon's voice in my head. I'd summoned tenth-level demons before, but this particular zhurn was the only demon who had ever chosen to speak with me mind to mind. *This is not my preferred leisure activity,* I replied, tensing with the effort of communicating with the demon in this fashion. *I don't really care for crowds.* It wasn't as simple as merely thinking a sentence, which is what I'd always imagined it to be. Instead it felt as if I had to push the thought along the mental bindings that held the demon in this sphere. It was creepy and unsettling, and I couldn't help but be relieved that the zhurn were the only demons who ever chose to communicate this way.
I waited for a response from the demon, but my answer had apparently been sufficient Maybe it's bored? Unfortunately, there really wasn't much for it to do. I'd only summoned Skalz as a contingency backup, even though I thought it very unlikely that we would need one. It had also been a while since I'd summoned a zhurn and this had been a convenient enough excuse.
"You're supposed to look like you're having fun," FBI Special Agent Ryan Kristoff said from beside me. It probably should have been a whisper, or at least sotto voce, but the music was so loud it ended up being more of a shout.
"Not true," I said/shouted back. "It's a goth bar. I'm supposed to look miserable!"
His eyes crinkled with humor. "It's good to see that you're embracing your undercover persona so thoroughly." I gave him a rude snort which only made him laugh. "So you don't like being on the 'financial crimes' task force?"
I had to smile at that. I was a homicide detective for the Beaulac, Louisiana, PD, and a few months ago I'd been the lead detective on the Symbol Man serial killer case. I'd met FBI Special Agents Ryan Kristoff and Zachary Garner during the investigation and had been surprised to discover that both agents were quite accepting of the existence of the supernatural and arcane. Later I'd been asked to join a multi-jurisdictional task force that dealt with white collar crimes and financial malfeasance--which had confused me until I'd discovered that this particular "financial crimes" task force also dealt with anything that had a supernatural or paranormal element.
"Okay, I'll admit that this is a thousand times better than slogging my way through financial statements." I knew what I was talking about, too. I'd paid my dues in white collar investigations before finally getting promoted to homicide. "But I still think the only reason we're here is because Zack wanted to meet Lida Moran."
Amusement flashed in Ryan's eyes. "Well, she has been receiving death threats, which makes it a Homeland Security issue, which technically we're a part of."
Ryan ignored my rude snort and continued. "And she's from Beaulac, so it makes sense for you to be in on the investigation, right?"
"And, since she's performing in New Orleans your little multijurisdictional task force fit the bill oh so perfectly," I said. Two days ago the manager for Ether Madhouse had notified the FBI that strange threats had been left on the fan forum of the band's website--messages stating that a "demon would consume Lida on stage" during one of her concerts. The IP address of the threats had been traced to a coffee shop in Beaulac with an open wireless connection, which meant that it could have been anyone. Hence the decision to go undercover at the concert.
I slid a glance to where Zack was "staking out" the area in front of the stage. To the average observer it probably looked like he was dancing with great enthusiasm. For that matter it looked like that to me as well. His tanned face, sun-bleached hair, and athletic build contrasted sharply with the pale faces around him, but he was so clearly enjoying the music that no one in their right mind would ever suspect him of being undercover. I couldn't help but smile. I never would have guessed in a million zillion years that the FBI agent who I'd mentally dubbed "Surfer Boy" had a thing for goth metal bands with female lead singers.
"Cognitive dissonance," I said with a shake of my head.
"And the threats did mention demons consuming her soul . . ."
I raised an eyebrow and Ryan raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. It's true! My partner has a fanboy crush and was looking for any excuse to get close to Lida Moran." Then he laughed. "I still think you should have worn the outfit that Zack found for you."
I leveled a glare at him. "There is no way that I will ever wear a corset on duty."
Ryan summoned an innocent look. "But think of how well you would have blended in!"
"And think of how well I could manage in a foot pursuit wearing a leather miniskirt and red Mary Janes with five inch heels!" I shot back. Zack had enthusiastically produced the aforementioned "undercover" garb, and my reaction had been less than gracious. I'd very reluctantly allowed Zack to lace me into the corset, simply because I was curious to see if it could actually give me something resembling a figure. I tended to think of myself as shapeless--waist and hips damn near the same size, with the boobs barely edging them out. I wasn't fat by a long stretch, but I had zilcho muscle tone, and I wasn't going to be wearing midriff-revealing tops anytime soon. But the corset had given me a shitload more figure than I was prepared for. I'd taken one look at my corseted self in the mirror and then yanked it off, informing Zack that I couldn't possibly wear it since I couldn't breathe in the damn thing. But the truth was that I'd been stupidly and prudishly mortified at the thought of going out in public with my boobs shoved up and out like that--even though I was secretly tickled to see how I looked with actual boobs and a defined waist.
I'd tried the shoes next. They were utterly lovely, but even though I'd enjoyed the sensation of being five foot ten, I was completely incapable of taking more than three steps in them without wobbling. And I'd flatly refused to try on the miniskirt, since there was no way in all of creation I was going to let the general public see my pale and out-of-shape legs.
Zack had finally exchanged everything for an outfit that I was far more willing to wear in public--a pretty nifty quasi-Victorian ensemble with ruffled blouse, fitted pants, and brocade jacket, along with a pair of gorgeous ass-kicking jack boots. My deeply buried inner goth had fallen madly in love with the boots, and was now trying to figure out some way to justify keeping them. For the rest of my "look," I'd layered on the eyeliner and attempted to tease my hair out into something somewhat wild, but my hair had stubbornly refused to stay teased or wild and had quickly fallen back into its usual boring straightness. I'd finally streaked red and pink through it, while praying that it really was as temporary a dye as the package claimed. I wasn't a huge fan of my natural hair color--I usually referred to it as "rat's ass brown"--but I'd yet to work up the nerve to permanently color or highlight it, and pink streaks were certainly not the direction I'd ever want to go with it. I'd been briefly tempted to buy some colored contact lenses--blue or green . . . anything but the current dull dark gray--but finally decided that would be going a bit overboard.
For his part, Ryan was decked out in a black T-shirt with buckles along the shoulders and black industrial pants with more buckles and rivets down the sides. The shirt was tight enough that I could see the ripple of his abs through it, and I had to admit--privately--that he looked awfully damn good in black. Every other woman apparently thought so too, judging by the gazes cast his way.
"It's too bad you can't pull off the goth look," I said with a shake of my head.
He looked down at what he was wearing and frowned. "What's wrong with this outfit?"
"Nothing's wrong," I said. "But no matter how hard you try to dress the part, you still carry yourself like a federal agent."
His mouth twitched in a smile and he slouched against the wall. "Better?"
I shook my head. "Now you look like a fed trying to look casual. I still think you could have shaved your head into a mohawk, like I'd suggested."
He gave a mock-shudder. "I'll take a lot of risks in this line of work, but that's one thing I don't plan to do."
"Chicken shit," I teased.
"My current style's not good enough for you?"
My gaze flicked up to his hair. His natural color was brown with hints of red-gold highlights, and he kept his hair short enough to comply with FBI regs but long enough that the barest hint of curl showed. I'd never admitted it out loud--and probably never would since we seemed to be locked in a sometimes awkward "just friends" mode--but there were times when I really wanted to run my fingers through his hair.
Now was not one of those times. He'd used a frightening amount of hair product in what looked like an attempt to make it spiky. Unfortunately his hair was too short for him to achieve the desired look. Or rather, I hoped that what he'd achieved was not the desired look. And then there was the color.
"Ryan," I said grimly. "Your head looks like a hairbrush that's been soaked in grape juice. What did you dye it with? Kool-Aid?"
"Now that was just plain mean," he said with a sad shake of his head.
I scanned the crowd, feeling a strange relief that tonight--so far--was turning out to have less than the usual amount of awkward tension between us. Ever since I'd saved Ryan's life by swearing myself to the demonic lord Rhyzkahl as his summoner, any feelings Ryan might have had for me were locked down pretty tight--not that I had any certainty that there ever were. And, unfortunately, I couldn't blame him. The demons seemed to hold some sort of odd antipathy toward Ryan, calling him a kiraknikahl, or oathbreaker, though I had no idea why. And even though Rhyzkahl didn't own me, or anything like that, and the only service I'd sworn to perform was to summon him, nonetheless I was still bound to the demonic lord, and I could understand if Ryan wanted to keep me at arm's length.
I hated it, but I understood it.
My gaze was drawn to a black-clad figure smoking a cigarette against the wall near the bar. He wasn't dancing or even twitching to the music, and when my eyes rested on him he turned his head to give me a lazy smile, as if he could feel me looking at him. For all I knew he could. This was the fourth member of our little team tonight. Marco Knight was a detective with the New Orleans police department, and since we were in the city, we needed someone with local jurisdiction in case anything happened. He'd apparently worked with the team before, when they'd worked cases in the city. Ryan hadn't told me much about him, except to say that "he got it." And I hadn't picked up much more when I'd met him, though after he shook my hand in greeting I had the odd feeling that he knew a lot more about me. One eyebrow lifted and then a sardonic smile crossed his face as he murmured, "Complicated," before releasing my hand.
Complicated? Yeah, that pretty much described my life.
I looked away, annoyed at myself for being . . . unsettled? Intimidated? I couldn't really explain why, but I wasn't comfortable keeping my attention on him. Or vice versa.
I returned my attention to the stage. Lida Moran was the lead singer for Ether Madhouse as well as one hell of a guitar player. Her fingers flew over the strings as she threw herself around the stage with gusto, belting out something that might have been lyrics. I really couldn't tell, but the crowd didn't seem to care whether they understood what the words to the song were. She was good, though. I had to give her that. Nineteen years old, five foot ten, and with the kind of body that most of the guys I knew would dub "smokin' hot," she had a powerhouse voice that wowed everyone who heard her, whether they liked her style of music or not. The other three members of the band had some decent musical chops as well, though I wasn't much of a judge of that sort of thing. But I could tell that they didn't suck.
"Isn't she a little young for Zack?" I asked, casting a dubious glance at the singer. The purple streaks in her long, jet-black hair seemed to glow under the lights, and I could see the flash of metal from the numerous piercings in her ears, nose, and eyebrows. "How old is Zack anyway?"
Ryan's brow creased. "I have no idea. I guess late twenties or so? But don't worry. He's a fanboy, but that's as far as he'd ever take it."
I caught a snatch of lyric through the driving beat. And the watchers on patrol / hunt the creatures in the night / until the demon eats your soul / and you have to leave the fight.
"So, you're the big bad demon summoner," Ryan said. "Do you listen to this sort of music?"
I shook my head. "Not in the slightest! Give me some Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood any day."
"Country music and demon summoning," he said with a wince. "Now that's cognitive dissonance."
The driving beat ended and the lights dimmed. Lida set her guitar aside and the band shifted to a slower, almost sultry number. I let my breath out in relief at the cessation of the pounding. "Last set," I said with a nod toward the stage. "That's what the threat said, right?"
Ryan gave a nod, expression completely serious now. "See anything?" he asked. It was a twofold question. He was asking me if I saw anyone or anything suspicious, but he also wanted to know if I felt anything out of whack. Anything to do with the arcane.
I shifted into othersight, then shook my head. "Nah, just the usual background buzz you'd expect . . ." I paused, feeling the brush of something. I scanned the crowd again, eyes narrowing. What the hell? "Hang on, I think there's--"
My words choked off as a strange resonance slammed into me. I felt a sharp stab of pain at the base of my skull, and then the lights went out.
"Kara!" I felt hands gripping my upper arms and I blinked to clear my vision. Then the emergency lights flickered on and I abruptly realized that the lights really had gone out. I had no idea if I'd actually lost consciousness, but if so it couldn't have been for more than a couple of seconds.
"The stage," I managed to gasp out through the dull pain that still throbbed in the back of my head. "Something's after Lida."
Ryan didn't seem to want to let go of me and I batted at his hands. "I'm fine! Go!"
He released me, then turned and jumped off the platform and into the milling crowd below. Shrieks and protests rose in his wake as he ruthlessly shoved people out of his way, but my attention was on the stage and Lida. She still held her microphone, a faintly bewildered smile on her face as if she was expecting the stage lights to pop back on any second now. I started to clamber after him, then stopped as another wave of the odd resonance washed over me. I shifted quickly into othersight, gritting my teeth as the strange feel of the resonance seemed to multiply with the increased perception. But it was worth it. The creature that leaped onto the back of the stage practically glowed in othersight. Okay, so I was wrong about the arcane involvement! "Zack! Get to Lida!" I shouted, pointing at the whatever-the-hell-it-was.
Zack snapped his head up to me, then quickly looked in the direction I was frantically gesturing. I shifted back out of othersight before another wave of resonance could flatten me, then watched in amazement as Zack made an incredible bounding leap onto the stage. In normal sight the creature looked like a vaguely man-shaped dark blob, and for a brief instant I was certain that Zack would be able to get to Lida before the thing did.
But the creature was shockingly fast, and before Zack could even take one step toward the singer, the thing grabbed her and jumped back down off the stage. Lida screamed as it took off toward the back door, scattering people in its wake like bowling pins. Zack made another leaping bound and hit the floor at a dead run, but the thing was already through the door and into the alley. I caught a glimpse of Knight moving swiftly and smoothly, but in the opposite direction--toward the front.
"Kara, what the hell is it?" Ryan yelled as he barreled through the crowd toward the back door.
"I have no idea!" I yelled back over the rising din.
Ryan burst through the back door, then took off down the alley after Zack. For about a tenth of a second I debated fighting my way through the crowd before quickly discarding the idea of running after them. Knight had the right idea. There was no way I'd be able to catch up to the agents. But then again, I wasn't expected to do a lot of running anyway.
There weren't many people between me and the front door, and I made it around the building and to the alley in less time than it would have taken me to get through the crush of bodies on the dance floor. The odor of stale beer and fresh urine assailed me as I entered the alley, and even though it had rained the day before, I had enough self-preservation going on to be wary about stepping in any puddles. There was no sign of Knight, but I didn't have time to worry about what he was or wasn't doing. "Skalz!" I shouted, also sending a mental urging along the bindings that held the demon in my control. I felt an answering surge, easily sensing the demon's excitement and barely restrained impatience. I'd told it to wait and hide on top of the building, not knowing if I would need to call on it. But the zhurn was bored and eager to join the chase. It needed no further encouragement.
I looked up as an oily shifting darkness seemed to pour over the edge of the roof, then heard a snick as its wings snapped open and it sailed down. But instead of chasing after Ryan and Zack like I'd expected, it swooped straight down at me. Before I could even blink in surprise it grabbed me by the upper arms and shot straight back up into the air.
I yelped in shock and my heart slammed in my chest as the demon skimmed the tops of the buildings--or rather my feet skimmed the tops. "A little higher, please?" I managed to gasp out, an unpleasant vision of my body ending up wrapped around an antenna that the demon hadn't seen filling my head.
The zhurn answered me with a growl that sounded like a stoking furnace, but it veered abruptly higher, causing me to clutch desperately at the claws holding me. I was more than a little surprised that the demon hadn't broken my skin with those wicked claws. Wasn't hurting me at all, in fact, other than scaring the absolute crap out of me. Yeah, I probably should have specified that I wanted the damn thing to chase whatever had taken the girl, I snarled at myself. But I had to admit that this was probably a better way to handle things. At least I'd be there at the end to control the demon.
Ryan and Zack were about a hundred feet behind the thing. They were running all out, but the creature was just as fast and staying ahead of them. I still couldn't figure out what the hell it was. It looked big and lumbering--except that it sure as hell wasn't lumbering. As I watched from my superb vantage it crossed Decatur Street in two loping strides, then it raced past the French Market and toward the Moonwalk and the Mississippi River. What the hell? Is it going to throw her in the river? Dread shot through me. The Mississippi was over a mile across and full of vicious currents, and going into the river, even near the bank, could be deadly. At night it would be damn near impossible to find her if she went in. Ryan and Zack were beginning to close the distance, but I couldn't see any way that the agents would be able to stop the creature before it reached the river. Skalz suddenly went into a steep dive, and I yelped and clutched tighter. We skimmed up over the levee and across the railroad tracks, then, in complete defiance of the laws of physics, the zhurn stopped dead about ten feet from the creature. I staggered briefly as the demon set me on my feet, and then I pulled my gun from the holster in the small of my back. I still couldn't tell what the thing was. Its face looked crude and half-formed--small depressions where eyes would be and a lump for a nose--like a sculpture that hadn't been finished. "Let her go!" I commanded as I took careful aim at its head, not even sure if it would understand what I was saying. I wasn't even sure if it was something that was living at all. It glowed oddly in othersight, but it didn't seem to have any aura, or feel about it of something that lived. I didn't have a chance to wonder about it for long. The thing opened its mouth and gave a weird and soundless roar that vibrated through me, then it hoisted Lida high as if to throw her into the river. I gave a shout and started forward, but before I could take more than half a step a black oily blur struck the creature in the middle, sending both it and Lida into the water. Half a heartbeat later she and the creature disappeared beneath the roiling current. ***
Secrets of the Demon, DAW
Available at booksellers everywhere, January 4, 2011
Ryan and Zack were about a hundred feet behind the thing. They were running all out, but the creature was just as fast and staying ahead of them. I still couldn't figure out what the hell it was. It looked big and lumbering--except that it sure as hell wasn't lumbering. As I watched from my superb vantage it crossed Decatur Street in two loping strides, then it raced past the French Market and toward the Moonwalk and the Mississippi River.
What the hell? Is it going to throw her in the river? Dread shot through me. The Mississippi was over a mile across and full of vicious currents, and going into the river, even near the bank, could be deadly. At night it would be damn near impossible to find her if she went in.
Ryan and Zack were beginning to close the distance, but I couldn't see any way that the agents would be able to stop the creature before it reached the river.
Skalz suddenly went into a steep dive, and I yelped and clutched tighter. We skimmed up over the levee and across the railroad tracks, then, in complete defiance of the laws of physics, the zhurn stopped dead about ten feet from the creature. I staggered briefly as the demon set me on my feet, and then I pulled my gun from the holster in the small of my back. I still couldn't tell what the thing was. Its face looked crude and half-formed--small depressions where eyes would be and a lump for a nose--like a sculpture that hadn't been finished.
"Let her go!" I commanded as I took careful aim at its head, not even sure if it would understand what I was saying. I wasn't even sure if it was something that was living at all. It glowed oddly in othersight, but it didn't seem to have any aura, or feel about it of something that lived.
I didn't have a chance to wonder about it for long. The thing opened its mouth and gave a weird and soundless roar that vibrated through me, then it hoisted Lida high as if to throw her into the river. I gave a shout and started forward, but before I could take more than half a step a black oily blur struck the creature in the middle, sending both it and Lida into the water. Half a heartbeat later she and the creature disappeared beneath the roiling current.
Secrets of the Demon, DAW