May 31 2011 10:30am
Please enjoy this reprint of Jenna Black’s story “Nine-Tenths of the Law” from Chicks Kick Butt, an anthology of short stories out June 7th from Tor Books.
NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW
Nothing good ever comes from private citizens visiting my office. Which was why I looked up from my pile of paper-work and scowled when a middle-aged couple stepped through my office door without knocking.
I guessed the man’s age at about fifty, though it was a well-preserved fifty. His neatly trimmed hair was a dark blond that camouflaged a hint of gray, and he had rounded apple cheeks that would always give him an aura of boyishness. The woman was considerably younger—late thirties, early forties—and beautiful enough to qualify for trophy-wife status. Both were impeccably dressed, and obviously tense.
“Are you Morgan Kingsley?” the woman asked tentatively, looking me up and down with a little frown tugging at the corners of her mouth. All right, I don’t dress like a corporate clone; so sue me. It was hot as hell out today, so I’d gone for a clingy camisole top and low-rise capris. Just as well Ms. Stick-up-her-ass couldn’t see the drugstore flip-flops that graced my feet.
“Yes,” I said, smiling tightly. “That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“May we sit down?” the woman asked.
My knee-jerk reaction was to tell them to call for an appointment and then ignore the phone calls. I don’t much like being sneered at.
You need the money, Lugh chided gently in my mind.
You’ve got to love the irony of an exorcist possessed by the king of the demons, don’t you? Once upon a time, ours had been a silent partnership, Lugh residing deep within the recesses of my mind, able to communicate with me only when I let my mental barriers down in sleep. Now, he was my constant companion. And, apparently, my business manager.
He was right, though. Ever since he’d possessed me, my life hadn’t been my own, and the day job had been on the back burner. In a separate house. Ten miles outside the city.
Long story short, it would be beyond stupid for me to send potential clients away, whether I liked them or not.
“Please, have a seat,” I invited with a wave of my hand.
They sat in the chairs in front of my desk. The man was fidgety, and seemed disinclined to make eye contact. I suspected that wasn’t a good sign.
“What can I do for you?” I asked again.
“I’m Patsy Sherwood, and this is my husband, Scott,” the woman said. Her husband nodded a greeting, but still didn’t make eye contact. “We have reason to believe our daughter is possessed.”
“Against her will you mean?” I asked, just to clarify things. If their daughter was a legal, registered demon host, then there was nothing I could do to help them.
The woman’s eyes flashed dangerously, and her hands clenched in her lap. “She would never accept the Spawn of Satan into her body,” she said with a curl of her lip.
O-kay. Not a big fan of demons. Having been a champion demon- hater myself once upon a time, I knew where she was coming from.
I was constructing a tactful reply—tact not being one of my strong suits—but Patsy continued before I came up with one.
“She’s only eighteen.”
“Ah,” I said. The legal age of consent for demonic possession is twenty-one. If the girl really was possessed, then her demon was an illegal, and I could lawfully cast it out. “What makes you think she’s possessed?” Usually, it’s hard to tell that a person is possessed if the demon doesn’t want you to know. When a demon takes a human host, it has access to all the host’s thoughts and memories, and can mimic its host’s behavior to a tee. The legal ones don’t bother, since it’s a matter of public record that they’re in residence. The illegal ones, however, have every reason to hide, especially in Pennsylvania, which is one of the ten states that executes illegal demons that can’t be cast out.
Patsy frowned deeply. “Melanie’s been acting strangely for a long time now.”
“Almost a year,” her husband put in.
Patsy shot him an annoyed look, and a hint of red colored his cheeks. Apparently, this was Patsy’s show, and she didn’t appreciate the interruption.
“She’s been sullen and rude,” Patsy continued. “She started swearing—she’s never sworn before in her life! And the way she dresses . . .” Patsy shuddered.
“She’s going through a goth phase,” Scott said, earning himself another glare.
“It is not a phase,” she snapped. “It’s a demon!”
“Sounds like a typical teenager to me,” I commented. I think I managed to keep a straight face.
Patsy shook her head vehemently. “It’s more than that. She has refused to join us in m—” Patsy forced a cough. “—church.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Church? What were you about to say before you changed it to church?”
She waved the question off. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you believe me, either. I want to hire you to examine her aura. Surely you’re willing to do that even if you think I’m imagining things.”
I sat back in my chair and thought about it. Based on her reference to demons as the Spawn of Satan, I suspected her dislike of demons ran to the fanatical. Had the word she’d stopped herself from saying been “meeting”? As in a God’s Wrath meeting? My gut instinct was yes, and that was a serious cause for concern.
If the girl was possessed, then I had no problem with casting the demon out and sending its ass back to the Demon Realm where it belonged. But if Patsy was a member of God’s Wrath, she would be unlikely to accept exorcism as a solution. According to the wackos in God’s Wrath, those who host demons must be “purified” by fire. As far as they’re concerned, demons cannot possess the pure of heart. Therefore, if you’re possessed, you’re corrupt enough to justify being burned alive.
Was Patsy the kind of God’s Wrath wingnut who would burn her own daughter? I had no way of knowing, but just the suspicion made me want to refuse.
She’ll just find someone else to do it, Lugh reminded me. And that other someone might not care what happens to the girl if she’s possessed.
Once again, Lugh was right. I was far from the only exorcist who had ever hated demons. Generally, you didn’t get into this profession if you thought they were here for the good of mankind. I balked at the idea that any of the exorcists I knew would look the other way while God’s Wrath burned a young girl to death. But there were plenty of exorcists I didn’t know.
“All right,” I said, trying not to sound as reluctant as I felt. “How do you want to do this?”
As a general rule, I deal with the police, casting out rogue and illegal demons that have already been judged guilty and sentenced. Those ceremonies are conducted in the demon containment area beneath the courthouse, with the demons thoroughly restrained and fitted with stun belts. Those who try to resist are given a good jolt of electricity, which fucks up a demon’s ability to control its host’s body. If Melanie really was possessed by an illegal demon, I couldn’t see her holding still long enough for me to examine her aura.
Patsy reached into her fussy little purse and pulled out a business card. The address printed on the card was crossed out, and another one was handwritten off to the side.
“Come to the house tonight at ten,” Patsy said, putting the card on the top of my desk and sliding it toward me with one finger.
That sounded suspiciously like an order. I don’t take orders well. “Sorry, but I only operate during normal business hours.”
She gave me a schoolteacher glare. “Naturally, you will receive a bonus to make up for the . . . inconvenience. Would double your usual fee do?”
“Depends. How do you plan to convince your daughter to hold still for the exam if she’s possessed?”
“Leave that to me. She’ll hold still for it.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. But, as Lugh had said, if I didn’t do this, someone else would. And double my fee was undeniably tempting.
Feeling sure I was making a big mistake, I agreed to the deal.
The Sherwoods lived out on the Main Line, which was the border between Philadelphia proper and its suburbs. I’d known the Sher- woods were well-to-do based on their clothes, so their enormous house—big enough to hold my apartment three times—came as no surprise. I parked by the curb, thinking they might not want my junker cluttering up their driveway.
Patsy met me at the front door before I had a chance to ring the bell. Being my usual contrary self, I hadn’t bothered to change into anything more formal, and I could see it bugged her. But hell, it was still hot and muggy, and the air conditioner in my car hadn’t worked since the previous century, so she was just going to have to deal with my outfit.
For a moment, I was sure she was going to shut the door in my face, but she somehow resisted the urge.
“Come in,” she said, her tone of voice telling me I was about as welcome as a door-to-door salesman.
The house was refrigerator cold, and goose bumps peppered my sweaty skin the moment I stepped inside. I’d hate to see their electric bill. The decor was almost as cold as the air, everything blue or beige or white.
In the living room, the furniture had all been pushed to the walls, and a large circle of white pillar candles had been laid out. A white blanket emblazoned with a stark black cross had been neatly folded in the center. Scott Sherwood sat on one of the chairs against the wall, his elbows resting on his knees, an empty highball glass in his hands. He looked up and gave me a brief nod, then left the room—in search of more booze, if I read his expression correctly.
“We’re operating under the assumption that you will perform an exorcism once you’re satisfied that Melanie is possessed,” Patsy explained.
The words should have soothed me. After all, if they planned on having the demon exorcised, that meant they weren’t going to burn the poor girl at the stake. Right? But my feeling of unease persisted. I would be glad when this was all over and I could get the hell away from Patsy and company.
I nodded. “And where is Melanie?”
“Follow me,” she said, and then led the way upstairs.
The stairs were not carpeted, and the house was eerily silent. The clack, clack, clack of Patsy’s heels echoed as she climbed, as did the thwack of my flip-flops. I paused briefly to look at a stiff, formal family photo on the wall. Scott and Patsy stood behind two pretty blond girls. The younger girl, who looked about twelve, smiled brightly at the camera, but the older one—Melanie, I presumed—looked bored and resentful.
When we reached the top of the stairs, Patsy reached under her jacket and pulled out a Taser.
I came to a screeching halt, wondering if I would be better off charging forward and tackling Patsy to the floor, or leaping off the side of the staircase in hopes of avoiding her first shot. But she didn’t turn the Taser on me, instead arming it, and then holding it down by her side.
“I put enough chloral hydrate in her cocoa to knock out a horse,” Patsy said, apparently not having noticed my double take, “but just to be on the safe side.” She held up the Taser.
I gaped at her. “You drugged her?”
Patsy looked surprised. “Of course. How else would I get her to submit to the examination?”
I took the remaining stairs two at a time. If Patsy’d given the girl enough chloral hydrate to affect a demon, then it was probably enough to kill her if she wasn’t possessed.
Patsy followed more slowly. She didn’t look at all worried that she might have just killed her own daughter. “The demon won’t allow its host to be harmed,” she assured me.
I wanted to grab Patsy by the shoulders and give her a good shake. “Where is she?” I demanded.
Patsy gestured to one of the closed doors down the hall, and I sprinted for it. I had visions of bursting through the door and seeing a dead or dying teenager. But when I shoved the door open, I saw nothing but an empty twin bed, looking forlorn in a barren room.
The white walls were stained yellow in places, and little patches of paint had been peeled off here and there. The stains and patches tended to form rectangular patterns, and I had a hunch the walls had once held posters that Mommy Dearest had not approved of. The bed was rumpled as if slept in, and in its center sat a sheet of yellow legal paper.
I stepped into the room and heard Patsy follow behind me. She gasped when she saw the bed.
I picked up the paper, read the note, and handed it to Patsy.
FYI, the note read. Whatever you put in my cocoa tasted like shit.
Patsy crumpled the note and hurled it at the wall with a furious snarl. Belatedly, I noticed that the open drawers of the bureau were empty. I pushed open what I correctly guessed was a closet door. The hangers were empty, except for a suit, a conservative navy blue skirt, and a couple of prissy white blouses. On the floor were two pairs of sensible pumps, one black, one blue. I suspected this was what Patsy considered acceptable attire for a teenage girl.
Behind me, Patsy kicked the bureau, her face an unappealing shade of red, the Taser clutched in a white-knuckled fist. Call me crazy, but I got the feeling she was a little annoyed her daughter had chosen to fly the coop instead of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. I suspected anything I said would just piss her off more, so I kept my mouth shut, half expecting smoke to come out of her ears.
Little by little, she regained control of herself. I had to wonder what she did with all that rage when she wasn’t in the company of strangers. Maybe Melanie had more than one reason to run away from home.
“It appears your services won’t be needed after all,” she said eventually. “Naturally, I’ll pay you for your time.”
At least the trip wouldn’t turn out to be a total waste, I consoled myself. “If Melanie comes home and you’d like to reschedule, give me a call,” I told her, my feet already itching to be out the door. I handed her my card, and she took it by reflex.
“Of course,” she replied in a flat tone that told me I wouldn’t be hearing from her again.
That might have been the last of my involvement with the Sherwoods, if I hadn’t received a disturbing phone call the following day.
I went into my office and was balancing my books—fun, fun, fun—when my phone rang. I checked the caller ID, and saw the name Elizabeth Sherwood. I stared at the name for a moment be- fore I picked up the phone and uttered a cautious greeting.
“Um, hi,” said a girl’s voice from the other end of the line. I had never asked Patsy about her other daughter, but I guessed this was the smiling child from the family portrait. “Are you an exorcist?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, trying to keep myself from speculating about why she was calling. My Spidey-senses were telling me I was about to get dragged into something I’d be better off staying out of. “Can I help you?” I tried to keep my voice gentle.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. My name’s Beth Sherwood, and I think my parents hired you to examine my sister’s aura last night. Is that right?”
Her voice was kind of quavery, like she was on the verge of tears. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have answered a question like that, figuring it would be some kind of violation of client confidentiality. But too many aspects of this case had given me the willies, and I couldn’t in good conscience put the girl off.
“Yeah, that’s right. I was supposed to examine Melanie’s aura last night, but she was gone by the time I got there. Has she come home?”
“No,” Beth said. Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. “I think my mom is hiring a private investigator to look for her.”
There was an awkward silence on the other end of the line. I got a feeling Beth wasn’t used to reaching out for help.
“Is there something I can do for you?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound impatient. I’ve never been the nurturing sort, and I have a tendency to be abrasive, even when I don’t mean to be.
Beth took a deep breath, then let it out with a whoosh. “I think Melanie’s in danger,” she said, her voice even softer now. “My mom is convinced she’s possessed, and she . . . doesn’t like demons much.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. Is your mom a member of God’s Wrath?”
She seemed taken aback by my question, but she rallied quickly. “There’s no law against that.”
I smiled, glad she couldn’t see me. The kid might not like her mother’s fanatical leanings, but she was quick to leap to her defense. “Of course there isn’t,” I replied. “But you said Melanie might be in danger.”
Beth hesitated for a long time, then decided to level with me. “Mom hired you as kind of a concession to my dad. He’s God’s Wrath, too, but he’s not as into it as my mom is. I think if she finds Melanie, she’s going to get one of her cronies to do the exam, and I . . .” She cleared her throat. “I don’t trust the guy.”
I thought about this for a moment, rolling the implications around in my head. “So what you’re telling me is you think this guy is going to declare her possessed whether she is or not?” There was no answer from the other end of the line, but I took that silence as a yes. “And you think they’re going to burn her?”
Beth let out a choked sob, and I felt like a heel. My bedside manner could use some serious work. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have been so . . . blunt.”
She sniffled. “No, it’s okay. I’m worried about what will happen if they find Melanie.”
“Do you think she’s possessed?” I asked. If Melanie really was possessed, then she’d be harder to find. A sheltered teenager might not have the means or the smarts to remain hidden, but a demon . . .
“She’s not possessed!” Beth said sharply, then sighed. “Mom would just rather blame a demon for everything than admit Mela-nie’s got . . . a problem.”
“You mean a drug problem?” I prodded gently.
“Yeah. She started going out with this guy last year.” I could hear the distaste in Beth’s voice. “I don’t know where she met him. He’s too old to be in school. Anyway, that’s when she started to change.”
I remembered Scott Sherwood mentioning that Melanie had been acting strange for about a year. I also remembered how Patsy had shot him down when he mentioned it. My guess was she hadn’t appreciated the reminder that her daughter’s “possession” had coincided with her new relationship with a human man.
“The madder Mom got about stuff, the more Melanie changed. She was doing it just to make Mom mad, but Mom saw everything she did as proof that she was possessed. But it’s not a demon that’s making her act like that! It’s her sleazebag boyfriend!”
I sat back in my chair and wondered what I was supposed to do with this information. Technically, it was none of my business.
Yeah, and that was going to make me feel much better when Melanie Sherwood’s “purification” by fire made the evening news. I wasn’t sure what I could do to help. But at least I could try.
“Do you have any idea who Melanie might have gone to for help?”
“The only one I can think of is Rick the Prick.” She coughed. “Um, I mean her boyfriend.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Shall I look him up in the phone book under ‘the Prick,’ or do you have a last name for him?”
Beth gave a little snort of laughter, quickly cut off. “You have to swear on your life you won’t tell my parents. I told them I didn’t know his name, because I don’t want them to find Mel.”
“I swear on my life I won’t tell them,” I promised.
Beth took a deep breath—for courage, I supposed. “He says his last name is Bull, but that could be, you know, bull.”
“It’s a start, at least,” I said. “I have a friend who’s a PI. We’ll see if we can locate Melanie.” Before Patsy and friends did.
“And can you help her? If you find her, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” I told her with complete honesty. “But I promise I’ll do everything I can.”
Barbara Paget was the kind of woman I usually disliked on sight. Petite, blond, curvy, and stunningly pretty, she looked like an adult version of the cliché vapid cheerleader from every teen flick I’d ever seen. I’d started calling her Barbie when we’d first met, and I’d been unable to break myself of the habit even now that I saw through the pretty packaging to the sharp, driven woman beneath. (Not that I’d tried very hard.)
She was a private investigator, and she’d been drafted to be a member of Lugh’s royal council when her investigations had led her to uncover forbidden knowledge. She’d turned out to be quite the valuable asset—and a decent human being, to boot. I was counting on her good nature to convince her to help me find Melanie Sherwood.
Barbie did not disappoint. After I told her about my meetings with the Sherwoods and Beth’s phone call, she volunteered to do a little digging—I didn’t even have to ask. Within twenty-four hours, she had unearthed an address for Richard Bull, aka Rick the Prick, and had put together a dossier that proved Beth was an excellent judge of character. I read through that dossier when Barbie brought it over to my apartment early Friday evening.
Richard Bull had been arrested five times since he’d turned eighteen—which was six years ago. The charges were all drug-related, but apparently nothing that would keep him off the streets for any extended period of time. The mug shots showed a scrawny, hollow-cheeked thug with greasy hair, bad skin, and soulless eyes. I couldn’t imagine what Melanie saw in him.
“Do you think Melanie is staying with him?” I asked Barbie doubtfully as I looked at the address. Bull’s apartment was in one of the city’s less attractive neighborhoods. “I have the feeling a white goth girl would stick out like a sore thumb around there.”
Barbie nodded. “I’m sure she would if she showed her face, which she’s probably not doing if she thinks her family’s going to burn her if they find her.”
I grimaced. Too true. “Of course, we’re not going to blend into the crowd, either.”
Barbie shrugged. “I’ve gone into worse neighborhoods and lived to tell about it. And our friend the Boy Scout is our best shot at locat- ing Melanie.”
I had to concede the point, which explains how Barbie and I found ourselves standing in the dingy hallway of a seriously nasty apartment building, knocking on Rick the Prick’s door while the floor beneath our feet rattled from the rap music blasting from the next-door apartment. The hall had the vomit-and-piss stink of a subway station, and I wondered how a girl brought up on the Main Line could stand the place.
Repeated knocking was getting us no results, and the longer we loitered in the hallway, the more apt we were to draw unwanted attention. We’d been stared at and propositioned a number of times as we’d made our way into the building and up the stairs, but so far that was it. I wanted to keep it that way.
I reached out and gave the doorknob a good rattle, testing the strength of the lock. It felt pretty flimsy—I could probably bust it even without having to let Lugh take over my body and use his superior demon strength, something I would allow him to do only under the most dire circumstances. I was never going to get used to the utter lack of control that went with having a demon driving my body, or the sickness I often experienced when he once more receded into the background.
Barbie must have seen the direction of my thoughts. She put a restraining hand on my arm, then reached into the pocket of her black cargos—part of what I liked to call her “Stealth Barbie” outfit—and pulled out a set of lock picks. Some of her methods as a private investigator were somewhat less than ethical, but I wasn’t about to complain.
Barbie knocked on the door once more. “Come on, Rick,” she said loudly. “I’m not in the mood to pick this lock, but I will if I have to. It’ll be a piece of cake.”
When there was still no answer, Barbie shrugged and inserted her tools into the lock. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of us bursting in on the guy—the chances were good he’d be armed, and he might shoot first and ask questions later if he felt threatened. I was about to mention the possibility to Barbie, but was interrupted by a voice from behind the door.
“Who the fuck are you, and what do you want?”
Rick the Prick, I presumed.
Barbie and I had agreed in advance that she would do the bulk of the talking, seeing as she had the tact and patience I so obviously lacked. So I bit my tongue and let her answer.
Barbie removed her tools from the door and smiled up at the peep- hole. Her looks and that smile were enough to stop traffic, and I bet Rick was thinking impure thoughts about her the moment he got a good look at her. Myself, I stood a little off to the side, where he couldn’t see me. I have a tendency to intimidate people—a tendency I’d honed and perfected over years of being the queen of attitude—so it was best to have Rick’s attention focused on the harmless-looking Barbie instead. Never mind that she wasn’t nearly as harmless as she looked.
“We’re looking for Melanie Sherwood,” Barbie said, still smiling. “We thought you might have some idea where she is.”
“Don’t know her. Get the fuck out of here.”
Barbie was unperturbed by his response. “Of course you know her, Rick. You’ve been dating her for about a year. My friend and I really have to talk to her. It’s very important. Like, life-or-death important.”
“You think tossing off an f-bomb every sentence makes you into a tough guy?” I asked, unable to resist. Barbie gave me a reproachful look, and I tried to look innocent.
“I guess I’ll have to pick the lock after all,” Barbie said with an exaggerated sigh.
“I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’, bitch,” he growled. “Don’t matter if you’re inside or out.”
In went the lock picks again.
“You come through this door, I’m gonna bust you up!” he warned, but there was a hint of fear in his voice.
“You can try,” I told him as I reached into my purse and withdrew my Taser, arming it. Usually, I’d only use it on demons, but I’d be happy to make an exception for Rick.
A woman’s voice, too soft to make out beneath the echoes of rap music, spoke from the other side of the door. Rick snarled something indistinct at her, but moments later, the door swung open, Barbie’s picks still stuck in the lock.
Whatever goth phase Melanie Sherwood had been going through, it seemed to be in the process of passing. Her hair was dyed black with purple streaks, and if you looked closely, you could see the holes around her eyebrows, nose, and lower lip where various jewelry had once pierced her face. But she was dressed in a perfectly ordinary pair of blue jeans and a faded baby blue T-shirt, which was a serious violation of goth uniform.
Rick the Prick hovered behind her, his face set in a sneer that I suspect was supposed to be menacing. I was more threatened by the persistent twitch in the corner of his eye and by the size of his pupils.
Melanie looked grim and maybe even frightened as she opened the door wider and invited us in. I wasn’t sure accepting the invitation was wise, but Barbie waltzed right in as if she didn’t have a care in the world. I followed more slowly behind her.
I’d been too busy indulging my paranoia to remember that I was still holding the Taser down by my side—until I stepped through the doorway and heard Melanie’s gasp. Not the best way to set the tone for a friendly interview, I must admit. I started to put the Taser away, but I guess Rick the Prick didn’t like seeing the weapon move.
“Rick, don’t!” Melanie cried, too late to stop his fist from slam- ming into my jaw.
Even though I saw the punch coming, I didn’t move fast enough to avoid it. Pain exploded through my brain, my head snapped back hard enough to cause whiplash, and I went down hard. There was some scuffling and some shouting around me, but I hurt too much to pay attention to it. I sure hoped Rick hadn’t just broken my jaw.
He didn’t, Lugh’s voice said soothingly as I put my hand to my aching face. You’ll have a nasty bruise, but I can fix it next time you go to sleep.
My own internal medic, that was Lugh. He couldn’t use his supernatural healing powers unless he took control of my body. Luckily, he could take over control easily while I slept, and I didn’t suffer the nauseating side effects that way.
I blinked to clear my vision and saw that my situation had not improved. Rick loomed over me, pointing a gun straight at my head. A few feet to the side, Barbie had her own gun out, pointed at Rick. He was wide-eyed and panting, his hands shaking ever so slightly—I wondered if he’d ever actually pointed that gun at anyone before. Too bad he was so close he couldn’t miss if he tried. Lugh could fix a lot of injuries that might kill a normal human, but he couldn’t fix a bullet to the brain.
“Put the gun down,” Barbie ordered, her voice cool and full of authority, her aim completely steady. I knew it was a front—despite what you see on TV, PIs don’t as a general rule go around getting into gun battles with the bad guys—but it was a good front.
I lay as still as possible, not wanting to make even the tiniest motion for fear it would startle Rick into shooting me. Hell, if I could have kept from breathing entirely, I would have.
“Everyone just stay calm,” Melanie said, and her voice was even cooler than Barbie’s.
I blinked and focused on her. She was standing just a couple steps to Rick’s left, her hands up as if to prove she was unarmed. There was no fear in her eyes, and her breathing was slow and steady as she eased a little closer to Rick.
“Put the gun down, Richard,” she said in that same calming tone.
“They’re working for your fucking parents!” he said, hands now shaking even more.
Melanie took another step closer. “Even if they are, shooting them isn’t going to help anything.”
I was frozen in place by Rick’s gun, my head throbbing in pain, but I had enough functioning brain cells to come to the obvious conclusion that Melanie Sherwood wasn’t alone in that body after all. There was no way a teenage girl—especially one with her upbringing—would stay this calm under fire. I guessed I should be happy she wasn’t encouraging Rick to shoot me. Illegal demons aren’t known for their great humanitarianism.
Melanie’s hand came to rest on Rick’s arm, and he flinched. Luckily, the gun didn’t go off. At her urging, he lowered the gun slowly, still looking way too twitchy for my taste.
“Now put it away,” she said, and with a shuddering sigh, he tucked it into the back of his pants and took a step backward.
Barbie had not relaxed her stance, and her gun still pointed steadily at Rick’s chest even as he backed away. “I suggest you tell your boyfriend to leave the room,” she said, and Rick’s gaze flicked from the gun to Melanie. Her chin dipped in a slight nod, and with a last withering glare at me, he turned around and stomped out of the room, heading down a hallway and out of sight. Moments later, a door slammed.
Barbie let out a slow breath and lowered her gun, flicking on the safety. I noticed, however, that she didn’t put it away. And that she was eyeing Melanie with a fair amount of suspicion. She must have come to the same conclusion that I had.
Melanie reached a hand out to me, and I saw no reason not to take it and allow her to help me up. My head spun for a moment when I got to my feet, but the feeling quickly passed. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for the pain. Keeping a wary eye on Melanie, I picked up the Taser I’d dropped when Rick hit me.
“Let me get you some ice for that,” Melanie said as she shut the door to the apartment and locked it.
“Never mind,” I told her. “I’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t being stoic—it was just that I didn’t want to have both my hands full, and there was no way I was putting away the Taser. Melanie blinked at me, then nodded and gestured to a ratty mustard yellow couch with sagging cushions and frayed arms.
“Please, have a seat.”
Barbie and I shared a look. I shrugged, and we both sat down on the couch without ever taking our eyes off Melanie. She made no hostile moves. I was pretty sure if she’d meant us harm, she’d have attacked already. But not sure enough to put away the Taser.
Melanie sat in an easy chair and clasped her hands in her lap. She gave Barbie a quick once-over, then turned her full attention to me.
“You’re Morgan Kingsley,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Have we met?” I knew I’d never met Melanie Sherwood before, but I had no idea which demon currently resided in her body.
She shook her head. “No. But your reputation precedes you.” Her lips curved in a wry smile. “Only the best will do for my parents.”
I decided to lay my cards on the table immediately. “You mean your host’s parents, don’t you?”
Melanie pressed her lips together into a thin line, then sighed, her shoulders sagging slightly. “Yes, my host’s parents. I suppose there’s no point in denying it.”
I was pretty damn surprised at that attitude. It seemed like the threat of execution would be a pretty good reason to deny it. “Melanie’s too young to host a demon legally,” I said, a master of stating the obvious.
The demon nodded. “Yes. But it is unlikely she would have survived long enough to become a legal host, even supposing the Spirit Society would accept her as a candidate.”
“What do you mean?”
She glanced at the hallway down which Rick had disappeared. “Richard, as you may have gathered, is a drug addict. When he and my host started dating, she picked up his habit. At first, it was just a way to rebel against her parents, but it turned into way more than that. What she didn’t know was that Richard was infected with HIV.”
Melanie shook her head. “He didn’t know.” Again she glanced at the hallway. “He’d never been tested. But as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, my host was also infected.”
“HIV isn’t an automatic death sentence these days,” Barbie said, echoing my thoughts.
“No, but her parents would have kicked her out the moment they found out, and she had no means of supporting herself. Not to mention the drug habit, which was only getting worse. The combination of circumstances would have turned it into a death sentence.”
I eyed Melanie skeptically. “So what you’re trying to tell me is that you illegally possessed her, but I should look the other way because you’re an angel of mercy, saving her life?”
“Something like that. She is far better off with me in residence than she was before. And while the transfer might not have been technically legal, both she and my original host were willing participants.”
“Your original host?”
Melanie nodded. “My original host was legal and registered.” Her face twisted into a grimace. “And our relationship was the opposite of love at first sight.”
I’d known other demon/host relationships of that ilk. The hosts did not fare well under those circumstances. Demons just had too much power and were bound to come out on top in any conflict.
“If I’d had to reside in that host for my entire stay on the Mortal Plain . . . It would have been hell for both of us. So we agreed that we would try to find someone else to host me. Meanwhile, Melanie had decided that her only chance of survival was to find a demon who could manage her disease.” She smiled slightly. “She doesn’t like to admit it, even to herself, but part of the reason this solution appealed to her was that her parents would disapprove so badly. Another teenage rebellion.”
I almost smiled back. I’d gone the opposite direction myself. My parents were devout Spirit Society members, who’d always hoped I’d volunteer to host one of their “Higher Powers,” as they called demons, when I came of age. Instead, I became an exorcist.
The smile faded before it took root. “This story sounds great,” I said, “but you’ve broken a lot of laws.” Possessing an unregistered host was a capital crime, as was changing hosts. The only legal way for a demon to possess a host was through a sanctioned summoning. “Not to mention that it could be total bullshit.”
I watched Melanie’s face closely, searching for a reaction that would give me a hint as to whether she was telling me the truth. I didn’t get one.
“I understand your skepticism,” Melanie said, “and I don’t blame you. But consider that I had many options when you presented yourself at this doorway. If I were the kind of immoral creature you suspect me of being, my choice would not have been to sit down and talk to you. I could have killed you both like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “The problem is there’s no way for me to prove that I’m telling you the truth. I can produce the results of Melanie’s HIV test, but that would only tell you that she’s ill, not that she’s hosting me of her own free will.”
“No,” Barbie said, “we’d have to hear it directly from Melanie her- self to be sure it’s the truth.”
The demon frowned at her. “But you know that’s not possible.”
“Actually,” I said, catching on to Barbie’s train of thought, “it is. All you’d have to do is temporarily move out of Melanie and into Rick. Just long enough for us to have a word with her.”
The demon froze, the look on her face one of mingled wariness and confusion. “But Richard might not survive the process.”
“You’ll just have to make sure he does,” I countered. We then engaged in a short staring contest. Usually, a host is left catatonic when a demon moves out—hence the law against demons changing hosts—but one of the secrets I’d learned since becoming possessed myself was that the catatonia is caused by abuse. If the demon wanted Rick to stay intact, he’d be fine.
She lost the staring contest, her gaze dipping quickly down to the floor as she chewed her lip in thought. Then she seemed to come to a conclusion, for she met my eyes once more.
“Richard might not be willing to take the risk,” she said. “He is not exactly an altruist. Would you have me take him against his will?”
That question made me squirm. I made my living exorcising demons who took unwilling human hosts. How could I in good conscience allow such a thing to happen right before my eyes? True, the demon was unlikely to go through with the transfer if it wasn’t telling the truth, and if it was telling the truth, it was unlikely to harm Rick in the brief time it possessed him. But still . . .
“If you feel you must exorcise me, then you’ll have a fight on your hands,” she said. “I would do my best not to harm you, but I can’t make promises. I have, however, made promises to Melanie, and I will not abandon her.”
I gritted my teeth against a sharp reply. The threat was uttered with no heat, and the demon’s body language was relaxed and not even remotely hostile. Slowly, Melanie pushed to her feet. Barbie and I both stood up considerably faster, though still Melanie made no hostile move.
“Let’s settle this without violence, shall we?” Melanie suggested. “Come with me.”
She headed toward the hallway down which Rick had disap- peared. Barbie looked at me for a decision. I momentarily longed for the good old days, when no one looked to me to make difficult deci- sions.
Do you think she’s telling the truth? I asked Lugh.
She’s not human, Lugh reminded me. If she were human, I’d say there’s a good chance she’s telling the truth. But demons are better at lying than humans are, so I can’t be sure.
And wasn’t that a comforting thought! Unfortunately, it put the burden of decision-making firmly back on my shoulders.
Melanie had disappeared from view—which if she was a bad guy was not a good thing. I headed down the hallway after her, Barbie just behind me. Melanie stood in a doorway two doors down, her mouth set in a frown, her arms crossed over her chest as she stared into the room. With a shake of her head, she stepped inside. Barbie and I followed.
It was a squalid, nasty little room, with grimy walls and cloudy windows. Rick lay sprawled across a sagging twin bed, its stained sheets shoved off onto the floor. An empty syringe lay on the mattress beside one hand, and a rubber tourniquet was still banded around his left arm. His eyes were closed, and I’d have thought he was dead if it weren’t for the slight rise and fall of his chest.
Melanie stood at the bedside and looked down at him. “He will destroy himself even faster than my host would have,” she said. “He was already high as a kite before you came. I suspect he’ll need medical attention.” She turned to look at me, her eyes flicking briefly to the Taser and away. “If you let me move into him while you talk to Melanie, I can repair whatever damage he’s just done to himself.”
“Can you cure the HIV?” Barbie asked.
Melanie shook her head. “I can stop it from causing any harm while I’m in residence, but I can’t outright cure it. Shall I transfer?”
I didn’t have to let her, not now that I had the Taser. I could just shoot her full of electricity and send her back to the Demon Realm. But despite my notable lack of faith in both mankind and demon-kind, I found myself wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I was going soft. . . . Or maybe I just didn’t like Rick and wasn’t as worried about protecting him as I should have been.
Melanie sat on the bed beside Rick. She untied the tourniquet, then picked up the empty syringe and tossed it onto the bedside table. The look in her eyes said she genuinely cared about him, but maybe she was just a good actress. She reached out and brushed an errant lock of hair off his forehead.
Melanie’s body language changed subtly, her shoulders slumping as her hand fell away from Rick’s face. His eyes opened, and I knew immediately that the demon was now in the driver’s seat. His pupils were no longer dilated, and the expression on his face was too . . . serene to belong to the angry, drug-crazed asshole who’d hit me.
Melanie looked up at me, her eyes a little too wide as she chewed her lip. “How did you find me?” she asked.
Something had clearly frightened her. My first thought was that the demon had threatened her before it moved out, but she was pressing close to Rick, as if seeking his protection.
“Was the demon telling the truth?” I asked. “Are you a willing host.”
“Yes. Tell me how you found me!” She was breathing hard, her hands clenched into fists in her lap.
Rick sat up and put a soothing hand on her back. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, though of course it was the demon talking, not Rick the Prick. “Whatever happens, I’ll protect you.”
I felt like I’d somehow missed a part of this conversation. “What’s the matter, Melanie?” I asked. “What are you afraid of?”
Instead of answering me, she turned and practically flung herself into Rick’s arms. He held her tightly, tucking her head under his chin and looking at me over her head.
“The only person who knew Rick’s full name was her sister,” he explained. “She thinks you found her because Beth betrayed her. And that you’re going to hand her over to her parents.”
“No way in hell I’d do that,” I assured him. The little hairs on the back of my neck were prickling.
Maybe it was naive of me, but I was dead certain Beth had told me the truth, and that she was very, very worried about Melanie’s safety. Worried enough that there was no way she’d have given Rick’s name to her parents, not when that would have helped them track Melanie down. Worried enough to reach out to a stranger and ask for my help—and risk telling me Rick’s name.
I turned to Barbie as apprehension settled in the pit of my stomach. “You didn’t happen to check to see if we were being followed when we came here, did you?” I asked.
Barbie muttered a curse under her breath. “No. It never occurred to me.”
Damn it! It had never occurred to me, either. How had Beth known I was the exorcist her parents had hired? Maybe because they had “carelessly” left my card lying around for her to find? And if they knew Beth wouldn’t give them Rick’s name, what better way to find it than to trick her into telling someone else? Someone else who would conveniently lead them right to their wayward daughter.
Melanie cowered in the demon’s arms, and he rocked her like a baby. I met his steady gaze.
“They wouldn’t really . . . ?” I started, then found myself unable to finish the question. I’d had a pretty sucky relationship with my parents, and they’d never protected me in the way parents should protect a child. But even they would have balked at killing me, much less torturing me to death with fire. I knew there were people out there who were capable of that kind of cruelty, but my very soul rebelled at the idea.
“Her mother has ambitions within God’s Wrath,” the demon said. “What better way to prove her loyalty and commitment to the cause than to sacrifice her own daughter? Besides, I think she truly believes she’d be saving Melanie’s soul.”
There was a loud knock on the front door, and we all froze. Melanie let out a bleat of terror, and I couldn’t blame her. Sure, it could be just a neighbor asking to borrow a cup of sugar—does anyone really do that?—but I wasn’t counting on it. I checked the charge on my Taser, and Barbie drew her gun, flicking off the safety.
Rick shook his head. “They’ve done this before, and they know how many people are in this apartment. There will be too many of them for us to take. And no one in this building will stick their neck out for us.”
Of course, Rick didn’t know that he wasn’t the only demon in the room. I had a feeling Lugh would even the odds.
Not against a mob armed with Tasers, he reminded me.
The knock sounded again, more firmly. A male voice shouted something authoritative-sounding, though I couldn’t make out the words.
“Call the police,” Rick said. His voice was still calm, but his eyes were wide and frightened-looking, and he was holding Melanie so tight he was practically crushing her. “Tell them what’s happening, and tell them if they don’t get here in time, they’ll find us at Melanie’s house. God’s Wrath has what they call a ‘facility’ in the basement.”
There was a loud crash from the front of the apartment. I had a sinking feeling that was the sound of the front door being broken down. “Hold them off as long as you can!” I ordered Barbie as I whipped out my cell phone and hit speed dial.
If I had to go through 911, I’d never get through an explanation before it was too late. However, Adam White, the director of Special Forces—the branch of the Philly PD responsible for demon-related crimes—was a member of Lugh’s council, and I could enlist his aid with a minimum of bullshit.
Barbie, standing in the bedroom doorway, fired off a warning shot down the hall, and Melanie screamed.
“Don’t come any closer,” Barbie yelled to someone out in the hallway. “The police are on their way!”
Yeah, well, sort of.
I figured that from her defended position, Barbie might be able to hold the bad guys off for a couple of minutes. What I hadn’t counted on was the canisters of tear gas said bad guys lobbed our way. It wouldn’t have a whole lot of effect on demons, but it would take Barbie and Melanie out of play in no time.
I didn’t hesitate to let Lugh take control—I wouldn’t be able to tell Adam diddly-squat if I was coughing up a lung, as Barbie was starting to do. She fired off one more shot blindly, then was overcome by the gas.
It seemed like a century before Adam answered the phone. He started in on some sarcastic greeting—I never called him with anything resembling good news—but Lugh cut him off.
“Get to 125 Oak Grove Court, fast,” he gasped, the tear gas making his breath come short even if it didn’t incapacitate him. “Basement. God’s Wrath is taking us—”
A masked figure suddenly appeared out of the cloud of gas. Lugh tried to dive out of the way, but twin Taser probes latched onto his chest and stomach, and fifty thousand volts of electricity short-circuited his control of my body. The phone fell from his limp fingers as he collapsed to the floor.
Put me back in control, I ordered him, though I dreaded what would happen when he did. With him in control, I didn’t feel any of the pain or misery that the gas and electricity were causing my body. However, humans and demons respond differently to Tasers, and the last thing I wanted was for God’s Wrath to figure out they had more than one demon they could throw on the bonfire.
Lugh faded into the background of my mind, and I lost myself to misery.
I must have passed out somewhere along the way, because the next thing I knew, I was in a moving vehicle. My hands were tied brutally tight behind my back, and I was practically suffocating under a heavy hood that blocked my vision. A cloth gag sucked all the moisture from my mouth and bit into the bruise on my jaw. My chest ached from coughing, and my eyes burned so badly I doubt I could have seen anything even without the hood.
It was not looking good for the home team. God’s Wrath never hesitated to take responsibility for the demons they killed, but they were never willing to give up the individual members who’d participated in the murders, making it almost impossible for anyone to be prosecuted. Unfortunately, since Barbie and I would know damn well who to point the finger at if Melanie turned up dead, I suspected we were about to become collateral damage.
I really hoped Adam had enough information to work with and was even now speeding to the Sherwood house to enact a rescue. Too bad Lugh hadn’t been able to communicate that we were up against an armed, organized mob. If Adam came alone, he could end up roasting right beside Rick or Melanie.
The ride to the suburbs took forever, but at the same time didn’t take long enough. The vehicle in which I was being transported came to a stop, and the sound of doors sliding open told me I was in a van. Rough hands grabbed me under my arms, and when I tried to struggle, I was rewarded by a blow to the head that took all the fight out of me.
I was only semiconscious as I was dragged out of the van and then slung over someone’s shoulder. My captors didn’t speak, but I could hear some more scuffling, then the muffled sound of sobbing. My heart squeezed in sympathy for Melanie, even though my own situation wasn’t looking much brighter.
I heard a series of locks being opened, and then my captor began to descend, his feet pounding down a set of wooden stairs. I suppressed a whimper as I caught the reek of old smoke.
I was unceremoniously dumped onto the cement floor with a teeth-rattling thump. The hood was pulled from my head, and I opened my still-stinging eyes to a sight every bit as horrifying as I’d imagined.
I was in a barren, unfinished basement, lit only by a series of thick pillar candles that lined three of the four walls. An enormous blackened fireplace was set into the fourth wall. My guess was it was supposed to look like one of those medieval castle fireplaces, where you could roast a whole deer on a spit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a deer they were planning to roast tonight. A thick iron pole rose from a bed of concrete at the back of the fireplace, wood and kindling piled at its base.
I struggled to sit up—not easy when you’re bound hand and foot. No one helped me, but no one tried to stop me, either. Glancing around, I saw Rick, Melanie, and Barbie, all similarly bound and gagged. We were surrounded by figures in black hoods and robes, at least ten of them crammed into the small basement. Several of them held Tasers pointed at us, and one of them had a gun. Not good odds.
Melanie was sobbing so hard she was having trouble breathing around the gag. Barbie was pale and wide-eyed with fear. But Rick’s eyes were alive with calculation as he took stock of the situation. The demon had clearly not transferred back into Melanie during the attack, and I wondered if we could take advantage of the fact. God’s Wrath were expecting Melanie to be possessed, but they weren’t necessarily expecting it of Rick.
One of the Taser-wielding loonies stepped forward. Before I had a clue what was about to happen, he’d shot Melanie full of electricity. She screamed from behind the gag, her body collapsing to the floor, where she lay twitching spastically.
“She is free of the Spawn of Satan,” the loony intoned.
Well, that was certainly one way to determine if someone was possessed. If Melanie’s demon had still been in residence, she would not have been twitching. One of the other hooded figures suddenly rushed forward and grabbed Melanie, wrapping her into an embrace.
“Oh thank God!” Scott Sherwood’s voice said from beneath the hood.
“What about that one?” another hooded figure asked, and this time I recognized Patsy’s voice as she pointed at Rick. She sounded strangely hopeful. I supposed she was really eager to have someone to burn in that fireplace.
A lot of things happened at once then.
The demon burst free of its bonds and charged the man who was about to Taser him. The Taser went off, but its probes sailed harmlessly over Rick’s head as he rode the homicidal nutcase to the floor.
I realized the shit was about to hit the fan, and that if we had any hope of all of us surviving until Adam could arrive with the cavalry, we couldn’t afford to have any demons go down for the count. Which meant that, despite the unpleasant side effects that were sure to fol- low, I had to let Lugh take control again.
It was a calculated risk. If Rick and Lugh lost this fight—which seemed likely, considering we were badly outnumbered and the bad guys had Tasers—I was announcing to everyone involved that I was possessed, which would make me a candidate to join Rick at the stake. But though I’d once thought of myself as selfish and cowardly, I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing while man and demon were barbecued.
Lugh’s demon strength was easily enough to let him tear loose from the ropes on my wrists and ankles. My flesh got torn up pretty good in the process, too, but Lugh cut me off from the pain. I was now nothing more than an observer in my own body, seeing and hearing the action without actually feeling anything, at least not physically.
Rick’s attack came as a surprise to the God’s Wrath mob; Lugh’s came as a total shock. I mean really, who’s going to expect an exorcist to be possessed, of all people?
Lugh plowed into one of the Taser-wielding guys, his momentum carrying them both into yet another one. All three of us went down, with Lugh on top. The man on the bottom cracked the back of his head against the cement floor and didn’t move. I told myself I hoped he wasn’t dead, but I had to admit there was a spiteful side of me that didn’t much care.
Lugh wrested the Taser from the hand of the man he’d knocked down, crushing the barrel with one strong hand. Without a Taser, the guy wasn’t a threat anymore, so Lugh leapt to his feet.
Rick had taken down two of the hooded figures, but by the time Lugh was fully vertical, Scott Sherwood had shoved his still bound and gagged daughter behind him and lunged forward, jabbing his Taser into Rick’s back. The demon collapsed. Between them, Lugh and Rick had incapacitated four of the fanatics, but once Rick went down, the remaining six were able to focus all their attention on Lugh.
Six against one is never good odds, even when you’re a demon. But Lugh is a very clever demon. Plus, he knew he didn’t have to defeat them—just delay them.
Several of our attackers had already fired their Tasers and missed, which meant they had to either stop and reload, or try to use the Tasers at close range as stun guns. No one seemed real eager to get close. Imagine that!
Lugh grabbed at the closest figure, his hand closing around an upper arm. The hood fell down, revealing Patsy Sherwood’s face. Her teeth were bared in a snarl, her eyes narrowed with hatred, her cheeks flushed an angry red. She swung her Taser at Lugh, but Lugh hit her arm so hard it knocked the Taser from her grip and sent it skittering into the fireplace. He then pulled her up against him, using her body as a shield against the others.
I was almost beginning to feel optimistic about our chances. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near as petite as Barbie, and Patsy Sherwood’s body was an inadequate shield for a woman of my height.
The fanatics who were still standing spread out, making it hard for Lugh to keep an eye on all of them at once. Two of them fired their Tasers at the same moment. Lugh used Patsy to intercept the probes from one Taser, but that left his back open. Patsy screamed, but neither Lugh nor I had time to feel even a flicker of satisfaction before the probes from the other Taser took us out of the action.
My optimism turned to bone-chilling fear as Lugh fell. I’d come damn close to being burned at the stake once before, and the situation was looking just as grim now. One of the wackos grabbed Rick’s limp body under the arms and started dragging him toward the fireplace. Another bent to grab me.
Everyone—including me—was so focused on the upcoming bonfire that we didn’t notice the arrival of the cops until Adam bellowed for everyone to freeze.
Turned out the Sherwoods had been on a police watch list as possible God’s Wrath “enforcers,” so when Adam had heard the address, he’d immediately had a good idea what might be happening. He’d managed to call in enough heavily armed cops to convince the entire gang to surrender without a fight. Scott Sherwood was too shell-shocked to talk as he was led away in handcuffs, but Patsy was practically foaming at the mouth, shouting disjointed passages of scripture while hurling accusations at me and Rick.
Melanie managed to shuffle her way over to Rick’s inert body and brush her bound hands against his cheek before the cops dragged her away from what Patsy claimed was a dangerous demon. I knew that the demon had taken advantage of that brief contact to move back into Melanie. It wasn’t a perfect solution, because the cops would be sure to examine us all for demonic possession before any of us was allowed to go home, and Melanie’s demon still wasn’t legal. But I was pretty sure I could convince Adam to give her a chance to “escape” before an exorcist got a chance to examine her aura.
As the rest of the cops ushered Barbie, Melanie, and Rick up the stairs, treating them with all the caution they were trained to use against potentially dangerous demons, Adam came to kneel beside me. He’s capable of a world-class glower, and he was giving it to me full force at the moment. Funny how he always gets so testy when he thinks I’m endangering the life of his king.
The Taser shot was beginning to wear off, and Lugh was still in control. I felt him force my lips into an imitation of a smile.
“Don’t be angry with Morgan over this,” he slurred. “It’s not her fault.”
Adam narrowed his eyes, his glare becoming even more furious, which was an impressive feat. “How about you?” he growled. “Can I be angry with you? What the fuck did you think you were doing?”
And Lugh—brave, powerful king of the demons that he was—passed control back to me rather than answer.
Copyright © 2011 Jenna Black