Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Twas the night before Solstice and all through the town,
Not a witchling was stirring, not one could be found;
No stockings were hung by a chimney with care
Naughty little witches knew St. Nicholas wouldn’t be there;
The children were hunkered down, hiding underneath of their beds,
While visions of Krampus replayed in their heads;
They set protection circles and whispered banishing spells,
Out of fear the holiday would soon become hell;
The priestess and her coven fell into blood magic’s dark trap,
And now all the children must take the long dirt nap.
Not a witchling was stirring, not one could be found;
No stockings were hung by a chimney with care
Naughty little witches knew St. Nicholas wouldn’t be there;
The children were hunkered down, hiding underneath of their beds,
While visions of Krampus replayed in their heads;
They set protection circles and whispered banishing spells,
Out of fear the holiday would soon become hell;
The priestess and her coven fell into blood magic’s dark trap,
And now all the children must take the long dirt nap.
Salem’s Preternatural Task Force became the new headquarters of the Wild Hunt when Mason took over the responsibilities I’d shirked after the Seelie Queen murdered my father. Drowning in grief and unwilling to give up my attempts to change the outcome of that tragic night, I continued to push my ability to alter the fabric of time, while Mason worked tirelessly doing my job and his. I didn’t deserve him. Something he denied every time I told him so.
He came home from the station or a hunt more than once, so exhausted he could barely stand but never complained. Feeling more than a little guilty for being such a mental and physical strain on him, I moved my office into his to pick up the slack at SPTF. I wasn’t ready to face the Hunt, not yet. Not when I was the reason Arawn was dead, and they were leaderless, but I could help with an ever-growing caseload in Salem. So I put a small desk in the corner of Mason’s office, conveniently located next to the coffee pot and worked cases for him as a consultant in between Council business. It proved to be a wise decision.
Calls started coming into the station around five in the morning. SPTF had their hands full with missing children. Yes, plural. Someone came to Salem and was snatching its children from their beds, with their parents unsuspecting and sound asleep under the same roof. Each scene as clean as the next, no fingerprints, hairs or fibers left behind. Without any leads or suspects, we were left searching for patterns. One glaring similarity surfaced immediately.
I’d spent the better part of a year in my role as the Regulator for the Council trying to eradicate blood covens from Salem. Winning a game of whack-a-mole the next time the carnival was in town would be easier. Like slicing a worm in half, rather than eliminate a coven when we took out the leader, we ended up with two. The witches splintered off, new leaders rising through the ranks to form new factions of dark magic. It looked like the black arts practitioners finally reaped what they sewed.
Or we were being duped, taken for fools in an elaborate performance to misdirect us from the real reason the children were missing. They’d sacrificed them. Shivers raced along my spine at the thought of any parent harming a child, and I sent a silent prayer to every deity listening that that wasn’t the case.
No one was racing the clock to save a child, but rather to catch a predator. The consensus among the detectives seemed to be the children were dead, by magical means or just plain old murder, it didn’t matter to them. They were convinced a cold blooded killer lurked in the shadows of Salem’s streets.
I wasn’t so sure and refused to write those children off until there were bodies to prove otherwise.
Wielding nothing more than a dry erase marker, I transformed the whiteboard in the conference room into a visualization of all the ideas related to the case fighting for room inside my head. Every connection no matter how thin was laid out an elaborate spider web graph. True to form and unwilling to take orders from me, Masarelli questioned every move, every suggestion I made. For the first time, I wished I’d gone to Other World to handle Wild Hunt business instead of Mason. I thought we’d moved past the resentment and jealousy in SPTF. Apparently I was wrong.
Rather than rail against the opposition, he managed to whip up while I’d been busy doing real police work, I decided to turn the official investigation over to him and do a little detecting on my own. After making copies of the files and tapes from the parent interviews, I discretely shoved them into my laptop carrying case and headed straight home. Straight home after the detour to the Daily Grind for a large black coffee with a dash of cinnamon and a croissant, that is.
Conversations, which reached levels bordering on noise pollution, turned to whispers as soon as I walked in. My lifetime ban from the Grind, after taking down the high priestess of Amalie’s coven was only recently lifted. Given the tension and anger in the air, I wondered if I wasn’t mistaken. Perhaps it hadn’t been lifted after all. Amalie stood behind the counter in her usual spot with an apologetic look on her face. Assuming the worst, that I was back to schlepping it half way across town to Brewed Awakening for the second best cup of coffee, I turned to leave.
“You’re usual, Maurin?” Amalie’s voice stopped me in my tracks. Apparently my money still was still good at the Grind.
Despite her position as a liaison for the Council, she still worked at her uncle’s coffee house. Council jobs didn’t pay near what they should. We needed to unionize or something.
“Yeah, that’d be great.” I tried to ignore the uncomfortable silence and stares as I made my way over to the counter to pay for my order.
My discomfort and confusion must have been written all over my face because she leaned across the counter, further than necessary to hand me my change.
“They just want to know what’s going on. So far it’s just blood covens but what if it spreads? It wouldn’t be the first time someone came to Salem to target the covens. I don’t need to remind you about the Inquisitors.” Despite Amalie’s best efforts to keep her voice below a whisper, her words carried across the coffee shop. “SPTF isn’t talking about the case. Not even to me and I’m the liaison. They’re coming to me for answers, and I don’t have any.”
“Unfortunately, neither do I.” There was no point whispering. I wanted everyone to hear what I had to say. “Not yet. But I will. Soon.”
That seemed to satisfy the crowd. For the time being. Missing children, regardless of who their parents were, put people on edge. In a town where every doorway was warded, most of its inhabitants slept soundly. That wasn’t the case anymore. People kept the lights on, parents took turns keeping watch over their children at night. One more missing child and the station would be facing an angry mob. An angry mob that packed one hell of a magical punch. As Regulator, I’d be called upon to deal with whoever was snatching Salem’s children. But the Council had its agenda. Without a witch holding a seat, the kids were unlikely to be a priority. Knowing them, they viewed the disappearances in a positive light, a necessary cull of the bad blood we were trying to wipe out. The council frowned upon unsanctioned activity, but I’d gone rogue before. I didn’t have a problem doing it again.
With coffee in hand, I left Daily Grind more determined than ever to find who or what was behind the kidnappings.
Conry waited for me in his usual spot on the couch and was none too pleased when I spread out a stack of files on the kitchen table instead of grabbing the leash for our afternoon walk. Muttering promises to take a trip into the between as soon as I finished, I scoured the reports for clues I’d overlooked. Nothing jumped out at me.
The kids ranged in age from ten to thirteen. Old enough to begin rudimentary magical training. At the very least they would have learned protection charms. None of their rooms showed signs of a struggle, and none of the parents reported hearing screams or sounds of distress during the night. It appeared as if the children just disappeared. Which was impossible. Someone took them. The answer was right in front of me; I just couldn’t see it.
The words blurred and my eyes burned from staring at the pages. Nothing new surfaced in the detailed paperwork. Mason’s standards were high, and his team continued to live up to them despite his absence. Including Massarelli. They’d left no stone unturned in their investigation. With no clues and no fresh leads, I decided to take Conry out for a walk. He needed the exercise, and I needed to scope out the blood coven’s neighborhood. Bringing along some backup wouldn’t hurt either. Having conducted more than my fair share of raids in the six city blocks that housed the most concentrated population of dark witches in New England, I was pretty much public enemy number one.
Our conversations were always one sided, but Conry understood more than the basic dog commands. After bringing him up to speed on my impromptu stake out, he sat by the door, tail wagging, and waited for me to get my coat. My trusty sidekick was always ready for action, and this proved no exception. With a heavy sigh, I grabbed the keys for my old Volkswagon instead of the Camaro. Outfitted for anything and everything we faced on our runs the SS was normally my first choice, but I was going for stealth. And a supped up muscle car stuck out like a sore thumb in the Point. The Rabriolet did not.
A self-inflicted curfew kept the traffic light and the drive over to the Point short. Parents rushed home from work earlier to meet the school buses. No one wanted their kid outside; worried the predator might catch a glimpse and see something worth taking. The Point neighborhood was in transition. Unfortunately for its long-time residents, it was moving in the wrong direction. Already home to a higher crime rate than other areas in Salem, the blood covens took advantage of the more affordable rental properties and moved en masse. Since then, property values plummeted, and crime skyrocketed. Illegal potions and human familiars trafficking were the number one and two offenses. With one crime feeding the other it made it difficult to stop.
After circling the block a couple of times looking for a parking space, I made one of my own by squeezing my little VW between an old brown and white conversion van with an ‘if the van’s a rockin’ don’t come a knockin’ bumper sticker and a rust and primer colored Dodge pickup. Having been the victim of petty theft once again, my half-breed VW Rabbit-cabriolet fit right in with its missing grill emblem and gas cap. Conry and I exited the vehicle and started our walk as nonchalantly as possible. We weren’t the only ones hoping to catch a glimpse of the serial kidnapper.
Massarelli and his boys were there too.
I missed the unmarked cars when I was trying to park but having seen the first one; the other three were easy to spot. Under other circumstances, the detectives from SPTF would have been the victims of some uncomfortable but not permanently harmful hexing to run them out of the black magic quadrant. For the first time, the blood coven was afraid of something and that had them overlooking the presence of the police.
“What are you doing here Kincaide?” Massarelli stepped out from behind an old oak tree in a yard two houses down from my car.
“Just out for a walk with Conry.” My ethereal dog fell into to step beside me, pretending to be like any other docile k-9.
We weren’t fooling anyone. Massarelli knew what Conry was capable of.
“You always bring your dog for walks in the Point?”
“When I’m looking for black magic users, yeah.” Giving up the ruse, I joined Massarelli at his tree.
“We don’t need you to hold our hands while your boyfriend’s away. We’ve got this under control.”
“This situation is far from under control. Kids are being stolen from their houses and goddess only knows what happens after that. Let me help. In an unofficial capacity. I don’t need or want any credit for the collar. I just want to catch this thing.”
Massarelli started to question my use of the word thing but was interrupted by one of his guys on the radio. Two of the men on his team caught a glimpse of something moving behind the house on the corner. Tall, dark and muscular. They could have been describing a hero from a romance novel. Until they mentioned the horns. Heroes typically didn’t have horns, monsters did.
Before the bumbling detective could argue, I unhooked Conry’s lead. A Cwn Anfwnn on the hunt is a wondrous thing to behold. Going to ground with one of the ethereal dogs on your tail was impossible. Ignoring Massarelli’s warning to back off, I raced after Conry; fueled by adrenaline and the thrill of the chase.
An ear piercing shrill tore through the night, temporarily breaking my stride as chills ran up my spine. The creature had another child. Afraid it decided to kill the little boy or girl upon being discovered, I forced myself to move faster. Massarelli ran with a speed I hadn’t thought possible for the doughy detective. Despite his grumblings, he didn’t want to see another child taken either. Even if it was a Witchling and a dark on at that.
We rounded the corner, cutting through the backyard. A little boy, still in the plaid flannel pajamas he’d worn to bed, lay in the middle of the yard. Too scared to move, he curled in the fetal position and muttered a protection spell mixed in between cries for his mother. Massarelli grabbed his radio, instructed one officer to get the parents, then called for an ambulance to take the kid to North Shore Medical Center, along with our position and the current heading of whatever it was we pursued. He followed up with instructions to keep their sirens and lights off.
Conry had stopped in front of a boxwood hedge surrounding the adjoining yard. My ethereal dog bayed to the yellow moon to signal the end of his hunt but was still poised to run if the beast gave chase again. Branches scratched against each other; oak leaves rustling in the bitter December wind, but nothing came out of the bushes. I tapped Massarelli on the arm and slowed my pace, joining Conry at the edge of the yard.
“Step out of the bushes. Slowly.” Gun drawn, Massarelli moved in beside me.
The beast ignored the detectives command, remaining relatively camouflaged inside the hedge. Except for his eyes. The black orbs with red centers glinted in the moonlight and remained fixed in one direction. At me. He was going to make a play, and I braced myself for what was about to come.
“Come out of the shrubs or I will fire this gun until the clip is empty or you’re dead. The choice is yours.” Massarelli drew the slide back on his stainless steel Colt 1911, chambering the first round. The clip would empty as fast as he could pull the semi-automatic’s trigger.
“You don’t even know if bullets will kill it.” Given the look in its eyes, I wasn’t sure filling that thing full of holes was the best idea.
“We don’t know that they won’t.” Massarelli hesitated for a moment when he saw the red and black eyes peering out of the green leaves but quickly recovered, falling into his firing stance.
Even though I knew better, it was hard to argue with that logic. We didn’t know anything about it. What it was, where it came from or why it wanted so many little kids. Or worse yet, what the hell it did with the kids after it took them. Filling it full of bullets might nit be such a bad thing after all.
“Just don’t kill it. We need to know where it’s hidden the others.”
“I never took you for such an optimist Kincaide. Those kids aren’t alive. This thing fucking ate them.”
“Until we have conclusive evidence to prove otherwise we’re proceeding like they’re alive. Don’t kill it.”
As Regulator, I officially outranked him, something I hadn’t pressed until now because I wanted the same thing he did. To catch the son of a bitch but if he killed or only lead to those missing kids, I’d haul him in front of the Council and his superiors. Something I tried to avoid at all costs since one of his superiors was my fiancé. Mason didn’t need any more grief. He had his hands full with me and the Hunt as it was.
Massarelli heard the authority in my voice, picking up what I was saying without actually saying it. He nodded his agreement and fired one shot, low into the bushes.
“That was a warning asshole. Come out of there. Now!” Massarelli aimed again.
Unstrapping my dagger from its sheath on my thigh, and not a moment too late, I readied myself for the charge. The beast rocketed out of the hedge and was barreling straight for me. Conry went after it, biting into its thick, black furry side but it didn’t so much as slow down. It dropped its head in the charge, long sharp horns leveled at my chest. Never a fan of being gored, I turned sideways, taking the full impact of its massive skull on my side. Two ribs cracked on impact.
True to his word, Massarelli emptied one magazine and hammered another into position. My dagger found its way into the creature’s shoulder blade on the way down. Unfazed by the bullets or the blade, it left me on the ground, gasping for breath and bleeding from where its horns grazed my stomach and back. Both the ribs and the abrasion were superficial wounds; I’d healed worse but in the time it took to pick myself up, Massarelli had been tossed around like a rag doll.
Conry attacked but was no match for it alone. The beast swung him off with ease, his white body bouncing off the ground. I pulled a thin veil of the between around us, temporarily hiding us from the beast’s eyes and tried to regroup. It was strong, fast and unaffected by bullets or silver. What the hell was this thing? Momentarily confused by our disappearance, it bellowed and snorted air like a bull; dragging its hoofed foot through the grass ready to charge. Holding on to the between, I kept us hidden from the creatures sight until it backed away and took off.
“You let it get away?” Massarelli groaned, trying to pick himself up off the ground.
“You think you can stop it? Be my guest.” Dropping the veil, I waved in the direction the monster had gone. “I want to take it down as much as you do but getting killed isn’t going to help those kids. Your gun is useless and so is silver. Maybe if we had more, we could slow it down at least but…” I trailed off for a moment, trying to think of something we could do to trap it or wound it badly enough to cage it. “We don’t even know if this thing can communicate, maybe something is controlling it.”
‘Why didn’t you use that sword of yours?” Massarelli managed to get to his knees, still out of breath and holding his side. It looked like I wasn’t the only one with a couple of broken ribs.
“Are you even listening to me? I told you we can’t kill it. We need it alive to find the other missing children.”
A couple of his men joined us in the backyard. One photographed the damage for the file and complaint the homeowner planned to file for restitution while the other helped Massarelli to his feet. Conry sat at the edge of the yard waiting for me to give the command to chase the beast down. As much as I wanted to run after that thing, I needed some information first. I couldn’t lead the guys from SPTF into their deaths without giving them a choice and all the intel I could gather so they could make it. Besides, something nagged at my brain, something familiar about the creature and if it turned out to be what I suspected, we had much bigger problems than a few missing kids.
“Massarelli needs to go to the hospital, get his ribs looked at. I’m going to see if I can find anything on this horned monster running around. Conry has its scent. Those of us willing and able will meet back here in…” I checked my watch. “Two hours.”
Massarelli started to argue, to give his men different instructions and accuse me of interfering with a police investigation and intentionally jeopardizing the lives of those kids. Refusing to take the bait, and get into an argument with him, I responded by informing the two EMTs I passed on my way out that he was having a mental break, talking all kinds of nonsense about horned beasts and should be sedated before he hurts himself or someone else. Whistling for Conry, I walked around to the front of the house, smiling as I heard Massarelli arguing about the shot the paramedics were trying to give him.
Wincing as I got behind the wheel of my car, I adjusted the seat; lowering it back to take pressure off my ribs while the bone knitted back together. Pulling my cell out my back pocket, I marveled at the fact I’d only cracked the screen during the fight. Sixty dollars for a ballistic case seemed like a lot at the time, but I was certainly glad I shelled out the extra money given the fact the phone worked. Next time I’d just leave it in the glove box.
Not wasting any more time, I started messaging Amalie, filling her in on what happened so she could update the Council and get me an official order to take over the case from SPTF and hopefully give me some information on what we were dealing with.
Googling images based on a description of what I’d seen while I waited for Amalie to respond, pretty much confirmed my suspicions. I sent another message before she could answer the others.
Why would the Horned God be taken blood coven kids from Salem? Better yet, why is he in Salem at all?
The Horned God was the opposite of the Goddess, the sun to her moon. The Wiccan Lord of life and death, he alternates ruling over fertility with the Goddess and controls the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The Horned God? Here? That’s impossible; it doesn’t make sense.
Amalie, I know what I saw. I still have the gore marks on my side to prove it.
The little dots in the window signifying someone’s response was on the way appeared and disappeared a few times before her answer finally came.
My uncle doesn’t think it’s the Horned God.
I expected a much longer and more detailed reply given the number of times she restarted her message. She had a terrible habit of assuming I knew what she was talking about.
Given the time of year and the fact that only children have were taken, he thinks it’s Krampus.
What in the hell is a Krampus?
A creature with horns that sort of looks like the Wiccan God. But it’s not a god; it’s closer to a demon.
A demon is better than a god, I guess. Not that I hadn’t had experience fighting both before.
Where are you?
In the Point. Straining to see the house number on the mailbox, I sent her the street address.
On my way. Call Mason. We’ll need the Hunt.
Can’t. The Hunt is on a run already. The weeks from Samhain to the Twelfth Night were the busiest time of the year for the Hunt, having come into their full power during the dark half of the year.
Then call Cash. We need a hunting party. Conry can’t take it out a Krampus by himself. If we can track it and trap it, I think I can bind it and send it back to the underworld.
Wikipedia said something about binding. And scourging? Something to do with coven initiation rites?
Yeah, I think the blood coven did something to incur the wrath of the demon. It’s too much to text. Let me get ready. I’ll be there ASAP.
I put in a call to Cash, leaving a message when he didn’t answer his cell. With the first Christmas moon in almost forty years looming, the pack was probably celebrating with hunts on Winter Island leading up to the rare full moon. As expected, the call went straight to his cell, so I left him a message detailing the situation and asked him to meet us in the Point. I wanted to talk to the parents of the boy we saved. If Cash didn’t call by then, Amalie and I were on our own.
The temperature dropped a couple more degrees, so I cranked the heat while I waited for Amalie before going to talk to the dark magic family. Best to have another practitioner with me, someone who can counter spells in case the parents aren’t as grateful as I hoped. I’m not immune to magic, and I’d rather not roll the dice and assume the mother and father will greet me with thanks and praise as opposed to the hex I’d get any other day. There was a lot of bad blood, no pun intended between me and this coven.
Warming my hands in front of the vents, I thought about the questions I wanted to ask the family. What magic were they working that involved the Krampus? Why did they raise the demon in the first place? Was a sacrifice required? What did they do that pissed the horned demon off so much it was stealing their children? On second thought, it was probably best if Amalie asked the questions. I couldn’t form a single one that didn’t sound like an accusation. I had far too many bad experiences in the Point not to be judgmental. Besides, they’d probably respond better to a witch.
A dense blanket of fog unfurled over the street, engulfing the homes in front of me. Sparing a glance in the review I noticed the street remained clear behind me. Conry perked up, aware the energy shifted around us. He senses something or someone was coming like I did. A shadowy figure emerged from the mist, walking toward us. Despite being unable to determine if it was friend or foe, Conry and I got out of the car to meet them head on. Thankfully, a familiar shape took form.
“You’ve developed quite a flair for the dramatic.” The heavy haze dissipated as Amalie reached the car. “I blame Ballard. You’ve been spending an awful lot of time with the Fae King.”
Amalie responded with a mischievous smile and a shrug. After all the days and nights she’d been with Ballard, she’d yet to kiss and tell. But I knew there was something between them. Something more than either was ready to admit to themselves or their people. Amalie had moved up in power, the coven grooming her to take the position for high priestess. Entangling herself with the Unseelie king wouldn’t be viewed in a positive light. Not while the coven was in transition. The courts were in transition themselves, and while I doubted very much Ballard gave a rat’s ass what anyone thought, he wouldn’t risk unsettling the delicate balance. So their affair remained a secret. Based solely on the illusion of training in wild magic to expand the power base of her coven and in the process weakening the hold of blood magic. I was all for the training. The jury was still out on the relationship. Ballard tired easily of his toys, and I worried Amalie would be cast aside like all the rest.
“He said he’d be happy to send his trackers to help in the search.” Amalie dusted off her wool coat, the last of her fog clinging to the hem.
“Did he? As grateful as I am for the offer, let’s hold off on unleashing the Slaugh. A child snatching horned beast is enough to deal with. There’s no need to add a fae undead hunting party into the mix.”
“I told him you wouldn’t accept it, but he insisted I pass along the offer.” Amalie went over to Conry, greeting him with a pat on the head and scratch behind the ears. “He’s fascinated with you.” She hated admitting that as much as I hated hearing it.
“He’s fascinated with who and what I remind him off. I’m like a flesh memory to him, nothing more.” It wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped it would be but I didn’t know what else to say. ‘Ok, let’s steer the conversation away from your boyfriend for a minute and get back to the kidnappings.”
“He’s not my… I was just telling you…” Exasperated, Amalie took a deep breath before continuing. “I was getting to that. I don’t see Cash anywhere, and if it is what I think it is, we’re going to need some help, Maurin.”
“And you think it’s a Krampus.”
“Well, it’s certainly not the Horned God. He doesn’t run around snatching children from their beds. That’s a Krampus’s job.” She pulled out her phone, and Google imaged the demon. Oddly enough, several images came up. “Is this what you saw?”
“It was larger, more muscular and its beard was different. A little longer, fuller. But yeah, that’s what I saw.” I found it interesting that not one of the images was an actual photo. Every picture was a scientific sketch from a witch’s encyclopedia or a disturbing greeting card. Because nothing says happy holidays like a card with a demon stuffing a child into a basket. “Does it seem weird to you that there are no photos of this thing?”
“Not really. A Krampus comes in the night and takes the child. In and out like a ghost. You don’t know he’s there until it’s too late. Some don’t know until after he’s gone and they find empty beds and cloven hoof prints.”
“So what’s different this time? I saw him, Massarelli saw him. Hell, three other SPTF detectives saw him.’
“Honestly? I have no idea. This is unprecedented. I can’t find a record or even an old legend of a Krampus stealing this many kids. It’s supposed to just take the bad kids. Good kids get presents; bad kids get Krampus. All these kids can’t be bad.”
“Well, it is a blood coven.”
“Maurin!” Amalie feigned disgust. She knew my sense of humor better than anyone. And my past with the blood covens.
“Too soon?” I held my hands up in mock defeat. “I know, I know, bad joke. No kid deserves this. The son shouldn’t be punished for the sins of the father.”
“Are they all boys?”
“I’m not sure. It was just a saying I heard somewhere. The last one taken was a boy and the one tonight was a boy as well. Would it matter?” Something told me I wouldn’t like the direction she was headed.
“Maybe. If it wasn’t the whole coven, if it was just one witch working the spell…first born sons would bring more powerful results. Maybe the Krampus was summoned with the promise of more.” Amalie pulled out her phone again and began searching files.
“Is that your book of shadows? On your phone?”
“Yeah, it’s so much easier this way. I don’t have to lug around that old tome. Do you have any idea how heavy that thing is?” She didn’t even bother looking up from her screen.
“What if someone stole your phone?”
Amalie waved the idea off. “Then everything is erased.” At my puzzled expression, she elaborated. “It’s magic Maurin, don’t ruin the mystique with logic. But seriously, it’s fingerprint recognition. If someone other than me tries to access the folders, they’re automatically deleted.”
“What if someone cut off your finger?” She muttered something about that being disgusting, but I knew first-hand people what people were capable of. “I’m just saying. It could happen.”
“I’ll delete the files tomorrow.” Amalie knew what I’d been through, the pain I’d suffered at the hands of vampires, witches and especially the fae- both mentally and physically. As horrific as it sounded, she knew I was right.
Looking at my phone, I checked for messages from Cash. Nothing. If he was on the hunt, I doubted we’d hear from him before Conry lost the scent and the trail went cold. It wasn’t like he had somewhere to carry his cell once he’d shifted.
“Let’s give Cash a few more minutes. He’s on Winter Island, and reception is spotty at best. Besides, I want to talk to the parents of the little boy we saved tonight. They might be grateful enough to tell us something useful. If we don’t hear from Cash when we’re done, we go on our own. Conry won’t be able to track that scent forever, and I don’t want to lose our only chance of catching the Krampus before it takes another kid.”
Amalie nodded her head in agreement. Not that she supported the idea of us going out alone; she was the one who suggested a hunting party in the first place. But if we were the only ones available she had my back.
“Maybe I should do the talking.” She looked to the house two down from where we stood; police cars still positioned out in front of it like their proximity would make a difference and then back at me.
Her sentiments echoed my thoughts from earlier. A witch, even an earth witch like Amalie, would be better received than the Regulator. Even if I was there to help. There was too much water under that bridge for me to make any headway. With all her experience as liaison and the number of runs she’d joined me on, I didn’t doubt she knew which questions to ask. If there was information to be had, Amalie was just as qualified as I was to get it.
We stood on the front porch, after ringing the bell twice. No one answered. Amalie raised a hand to knock when someone finally opened the door.
“Can I help you?” The man peering out from behind the solid oak door had one of those hipster style haircuts, with gray streaking through the dark brown at his temples. Middle aged, probably in his late forties, he was older than I expected given the age of his son. Assuming he was, in fact, the father.
‘Mr. Garner? William Garner? We’d like to ask you a few questions. About the attempted abduction. About your son in general, what may have made him stand out, what might have made him a target.” Amalie kept her voice soft, non-threatening.
“I’ve already spoken with the other detectives. Besides, I won’t say a word in front of her. That monster should be chasing her down instead of our children. She’s got more blood on her hands than any practitioner in the Point.”
The man might as well have spat in my face. But he wasn’t entirely wrong. I had blood on my hands. Blood that wouldn’t wash off. So I waited outside with Conry while Amalie talked to the family.
Several long, boring minutes ticked by while one earth witch conversed with a family of dark practitioners. With nothing else to do, I scoped out the grounds for any evidence or clues left behind. Someone conjured this thing. They’d slip up sooner or later. I just hoped it was before another kid went missing.
Conry darted from my side with his nose to the ground. He picked up a trail, following it to a shed in the backyard. My suspicions weren’t raised; the demon had been here only a couple of hours ago.
Until I looked in the shed.
An altar wasn’t entirely unusual. Some witches preferred not to practice the arts in their homes, especially those dealing with dark magic. The candles and markings inside the shed were also common for a spelling room. It was the pictures on the back wall that caught my eye and got my blood boiling. I’d seen them before. In the SPTF files. A mix of black and white and color, candid and professionally shot, photos of all the missing kids collaged on the wall.
Well played you son of a bitch.
William Garner knew who I was and counted on someone else being there to do the questioning. And he was right. If he kept me away from little William junior, I couldn’t ask him any questions that might implicate his father. I couldn’t hold his hand and slip inside his mind, rifle through memories of daddy doing things in the shed that he shouldn’t be doing. Like raising a child-snatching demon. What he hadn’t counted on was Conry. He hadn’t done his homework. Garner didn’t understand what my guardian was or how he hunted. It would prove to be a costly mistake.
The secret was out. I knew that the clean cut, docile looking, William Garner was a monster hiding behind a hipster façade. The only question was why. Why raise the Krampus? Why take all those children? If he’d been working a spell, one that called for such a horrific sacrifice, for a fount of fresh blood…. His power would be immeasurable. Even someone with Amalie’s gifts couldn’t stop him.
Amalie. She was in the house with him, didn’t know what I’d uncovered in the back yard. But if he said or did something that tipped her off…
It was time to get the Retaliator. Pulling back a thin layer of the gray, I slipped into the between and jumped back to my apartment. Grabbing the sword and scabbard from its hook on the bedroom wall, I spared a quick glance at the picture of Mason my nightstand and whispered a little prayer we’d both make it home safe from our missions.
Rather than pop back out in the yard and storm through the front door, I opted for reappearing right behind Mr. Garner. He sat in an armchair with his back to the kitchen. Amalie did her best to remain composed as I moved into position. Mrs. Garner’s widened eyes and quick inhalation of breath, unfortunately, gave me away. He sat forward, ready to lunge from the chair and face me. To hit me with some curse or hex no doubt. But this wasn’t my first case, and I was faster. My sword found its home, just beneath the Adam ’s apple. With the right amount of pressure, enough to let Garner know I would slice his throat in front of his pretty little wife and ruin his living room carpet, I convinced him to take his seat.
One wrong move, by either of us, just the smallest nick of the Retaliator’s razor sharp blade and William Garner would suffer a wound he’d never recover from. No healing salves, potions or charms could save him. With steady hands, I kept the sword pressed against his neck and leaned in, my mouth right next to his ear.
“You know what this is Mr. Garner?”
“Yes.” The blood witch kept his cool, his voice soft and even with no hint of fear. But the small trickle of sweat down his temple gave him away.
“Then you must also know I only have to break the skin, just enough to draw blood, to make your wife a widow.”
We hadn’t worked together since Lawrence, but Amalie knew the drill; binding Mrs. Garner’s magic before she did anything stupid like defend her husband. She threw the same spell at William Garner, ensuring he couldn’t work any curses either. My attention focused on Garner; Conry stayed at my back watching the rear exit.
“Where are the children? Where did the demon take them?”
Please don’t say they’re dead. Please don’t say they’re dead. I’ve worked some disturbing cases, hunted some of the worst mankind had to offer but if Garner or the Krampus he unleashed in the Point hurt those kids… It was the Solstice. They should have been stringing up holly and ivy, hanging mistletoe and white lights. Instead, they were ripped from their homes, from what little innocence remained in the Point, taken by two monsters.
Despite his wife’s tears and pleading, Garner refused to give up the Krampus or the kids’ location. I decided it was time for a different approach.
“Mrs. Garner, Mrs. Garner look at me. You understand what’s happening here don’t you? That your husband is the one behind all those missing kids. He opened the door for the demon to come and take your son.”
Tears streamed down her face as the realization that her husband was an evil son of a bitch and working magic darker than any of the blood covens thus far, settled in. Ready to separate herself from him, from their life together, she started to talk. Incoherent ramblings at first, mixed with sobs, making it difficult to understand what she was trying to tell us.
Before we were able to get any useful information out of her, her lips were sealed. Sealed, like someone had super glued them together. Something that shouldn’t have been possible. Amalie bound both the Garners. Which meant only one thing. Whatever spells he’d begun working on had already increased his power. That didn’t bode well for the children. Not all of the families in the Point would have a happy Solstice.
I had to give Mrs. Garner credit; she tried to tell us what she knew. Blood trickled down her chin as she fought the curse her husband threw on her. To no avail. She motioned to some of her son’s art supplies on the table, desperate to tell us whatever she could. Amalie’s hand froze over the piece of yellow construction paper at the sound of crunching bone. He hadn’t just broken his wife’s hands he’d destroyed them, crumpling them in on themselves. It’d be a long time before she’d work a spell again. There were no muffled screams, no fits to give away the excruciating pain we all knew she must have felt. But if looks could kill, the one she gave her husband would have slain everyone within a ten-mile radius.
Random baubles and gimcracks from the mantle hurled toward me. At first, I assumed Garner was behind the onslaught of nick-nacks but given what he’d done to his wife if he wanted to risk attacking me and getting cut by the Retaliator he would have come up with something far worse than beaming me in the head with a snow globe.
Young William Garner sat on the stairs. Without making so much as a peep, he airlifted another glass figurine from above the fireplace and hurled it toward me. Before I could contemplate why the young man would try to save someone who’d given him to a demon, a candlestick hurtled toward me. How much crap did the woman have on her mantle? There were too many items headed my way to block them all. The candlestick holder struck the blade of the Retaliator with enough force to push the razor sharp steel into Mr. Garner’s skin. A small rivulet of blood ran down his neck, sealing his fate. William junior wasn’t trying to save his father; he was trying to kill him. The little boy focused on the tiny cut until it grew wide enough for a steady stream of blood to flow, hastening his father’s death.
Garner senior slumped forward, halfway to the underworld already. Stepping back from his withering body, I looked across the room to his wife. Her eyes held a multitude of unspoken pleas to spare her son. She would have begged for her little boy’s life if her husband hadn’t taken away her ability to speak. It didn’t matter. A mother’s love transcends all things. Her eyes said everything she couldn’t.
Maybe the upcoming Solstice was making me soft. Or perhaps it was because I imagined a similar look on my mother’s face the night she took me from Arawn and brought me to Bolton Hill in the hopes of sparing my life during one of the many fae wars. At least my father loved me. The same couldn’t be said for Mr. Garner.
Whatever the reason, I chose to overlook a few details when I called into Massarelli. The official story, the one I gave to SPTF and Amalie corroborated, was that rather than face jail time and the wrath of the witches whose children he stole, Mr. Garner chose to kill himself by cutting himself with my sword. Death by cop. Or as close as we got to it out here in the Point.
A special unit of magic based EMTs was on the way to treat Mrs. Garner. Even after reversing the binding spell, neither Amalie nor Mrs. Garner could undo the curse her husband inflicted upon her. Curled in her lap with his head on her shoulder, young William cooed comforting words in his mother’s ear.
Amalie and I paused to take in the touching scene, the mother, and child embracing on the eve of the Solstice. At that moment, all things seemed possible; that they’d get the fresh start they deserved, that Mrs. Garner would be able to undo the things her husband had done and lead herself and her son down a different path. Only an Oracle could know if such things would truly unfold but on a night of rebirth, I chose to believe in the magic of hope and the power of love.
The festivities were coming to an end for the Garners, but they were only beginning for Amalie, Conry and I. The Krampus was still on the loose, for a few more hours. At least until the end of the Solstice. And if we didn’t find him before then, any shot we had of rescuing those kids was over.
Once the crime scene unit finished photographing the shed and bagging evidence confirming Garner’s plot to bring the blood covens under his thumb by enslaving their children, Amalie prepared to burn the outbuilding as per SPTF protocol.
“Stop.” Everyone ignored the small voice barking commands from the back door, assuming the little boy was too hurt and confused to understand what was happening. But William junior was a boy beyond his years. “My father’s dead. If you burn the shed, you’ll take whatever’s left of the magic that binds the Krampus. He’ll be free to roam this side of the underworld.”
“Look around kid, it ain’t here. The monster’s already running loose.” One of Massarelli’s team members shouted from the back of the crowd that had come to watch the blaze.
Amalie extinguished her flames as the child walked out to the shed and opened the door. He motioned for us to follow him as he stepped inside. Without giving it a second thought, we entered the small shed, with barely enough room for the three of us. Seeing the collage close up made me cringe but I forced myself to look at their pictures, to memorize their faces and swore an oath to bring every single child home.
William knelt down, just outside a circle his father had carved into the floor, and pried up one of the boards. A faint orange glow seeped out of the rectangular opening. Amalie and I removed enough boards to take the tunnel beneath the shed. Making my way down the rough-hewn steps, I wondered which came first, the passageway or William Garner. Had he stumbled upon the demon or sought him out? The answer was irrelevant, I supposed, but the question nagged at me none the less.
We sent young William back into the house to look after his mom and continued our descent. The light we’d seen was further away than I’d guessed. Forced to walk single file down the narrow passage, I led the charge with Amalie in the middle and Conry bringing up the year. The closer we got to the demon’s chamber the hotter the temperature. I took off my coat, using the sleeve to wipe the sweat from my brow before tying it around my waist. My holster had begun to slide, rubbing raw spots on my slick skin. Repositioning the scabbard and sword, I pressed forward. For a New England girl, the heat was fucking unbearable. The fetid air wafting toward us wasn’t so great either.
The tunnel widened, opening up into a large cavern. Small torches were fastened to the stalagmites and stalactites throughout the cave, accounting for the glow we’d followed. With no sign of the children or the demon, we had no choice but to explore the cave system beneath Garner’s yard.
The expanse of the cave system was greater than I’d anticipated. There was no way we’d be able to search it all on our own before the solstice ended and the demon took off with the children. Forever. We fumbled through smaller darker tunnels that branched off the main room and back again, finding nothing. Not a single piece of evidence the demon or the children had been there. What if he’d moved them? What if we’d been led astray and little William Garner wasn’t the savior I’d thought but rather an apprentice who’d grown tired of his overbearing father? A break came before I could question the young boy’s motives any further.
Conry shot out from behind me like a bullet from a gun, having picked up the demon’s scent again. Amalie and I raced to catch up with him, the rocks and uneven dirt floor making it difficult. When we finally caught up, he’d positioned himself in front of the opening to a smaller cavern. Stepping sideways to allow the two of us enough room to squeeze past him, Conry continued to stand sentinel at the door.
The smell of feces and vomit, strong enough to trigger my gag reflex, burned the sinuses. Inside the damp, dark room were all the missing children. Very dehydrated and emaciated looking children. Most were in far worse shape than I’d imagined with the first taken only days earlier. Time in the demon’s care had taken its toll on the kids. After a quick head count, all of the children were accounted for, but not all of them survived. I didn’t envy Massarelli for the conversations he’d be having in the morning. No parent should have to bury their child. When the solstice ended, local priestesses would prepare for two very different ceremonies as the Point buried two of its young. We needed to get these kids out of here before the demon returned.
“Amalie, take the kids out of here.”
“Are you insane? I’m not leaving you down here. We go out together.” She continued to fuss over the children, manifesting water from the condensation on the rock walls and giving it to them to drink.
“If we’re here, the Krampus isn’t far behind. He knows we’re after him. He won’t leave his hoard unattended for very long. He’ll be back to finish whatever it is Garner started.”
Soft whimpers and cries began as my words settled in with the children. Some of the older ones tried to comfort the others.
“Maurin.” Amalie chastised me for speaking that way in front of the injured and already terrified witchlings.
“Amalie teleport these kids out now.” My voice brooked no arguments. Which was good because the breath, hot against my neck, could only be coming from one thing.
Amalie wove the spell faster than I’d seen her work any magic before, taking all of the children with her as she winked out of sight, leaving Conry and me alone with the Krampus. My guardian lunged before I unsheathed my sword, tearing into the demon’s thick hide. Blood barely visible in the short coarse hair, fell to the floor in tiny droplets as Conry’s teeth found purchase.
Sword in hand I stepped forward, ready to deliver the death blow and put an end to the reign of terror unleashed on the Point by one demon and the black arts practitioner who raised him.
“I wouldn’t advise doing that. Killing the Krampus, I mean.”
Distracted by my unexpected companion, my swing went wild. Missing my mark by at least a foot, the blade careened off the stone wall with a small shower of sparks.
“Ballard. You’ve developed a really bad habit of showing up places uninvited.” It wasn’t much of a greeting for a fae king, but it was all I could manage at that moment, what with a demon ready to gore me with his horns at any second.
“Come now Maurin, is that any way to greet a friend?”
“We are friends, aren’t we Ballard?” I’d grown accustomed to his gravesite appearances when I went to visit my father, but his arrival in the cavern had me questioning his motives.
“Would I be here otherwise? I offered my assistance to our little witch, but as expected you refused.” The Unseelie king’s words were heavy with the disappointment of not being able to unleash the slaugh.
Conry kept the Krampus occupied, continuing to attack its legs and side. Ballard had yet to illuminate me as to why he’d appeared in the cave. If I were lucky, my ethereal dog would distract the demon long enough for me to find out.
“You mentioned something about not killing it? Now would be a good time to elaborate.” Recovering my stance, I readied myself to take another strike.
“It’s not well received to exterminate creatures in your domain without holding court first.” Ballard busied himself by picking at his fingernails.
“He killed two witchlings, Ballard. That is grounds for extermination in any court in any land.”
“He didn’t kill the children. The witch was responsible for that. Didn’t you notice the withered husk like appearance? He lacked the conviction necessary to complete his task, overthrowing the covens. Rather than make the sacrifice he chose to siphon power from the witchlings instead. Unfortunately, not all of them survived.”
My domain? That little tidbit stopped me in my tracks.
“I can’t go back up there and tell them I let the Krampus escape. He stole their children, innocent children, which is against the rules. And what domain are you talking about?” I feared I already knew the answer. And it had everything to do with the responsibilities I’d been dumping off on Mason.
“The future of Otherworld falls to you. You can, of course, bequeath it to me if you wish. I may have mentioned my interest in absorbing your domain once or twice. But that’s a conversation for another day, and we have more pressing matters to discuss.”
“Such as?” I jerked my head in the direction of the dog and demon wrestling not six feet from us.
“He is yours to command. In some cultures, the Krampus is seen as a part of the Hunt. Therefore, he remains in the charge of whoever leads the Hunt.” Ballard not so discretely pointed a finger in my direction.
“So he’s mine? Like Conry?” Domesticating another otherworldly creature hadn’t been on my to do list.
“Not exactly. If I may?” Ballard uttered an old elvish command, bringing both the Krampus and Conry to heel.
Hmm, this whole domain thing might not be so bad after all.
“Talk to your fiancé. He’s been made aware of the situation. You have a decision to make. Begin your training or forfeit the Hunt and Otherworld.”
After completing a ritual I’d never seen before, Ballard opened a small portal and escorted the Krampus home. To Otherworld. Which coincidentally was my home.
There goes the neighborhood.
I walked out of the tunnel system with Conry in tow, contemplating the butterfly effect of my actions. Had I been more responsible and taken care of the responsibilities befallen to me would Garner have been able to raise the Krampus? I didn’t know the answer to that question. But I should.
Compared to the dim light in the caverns, the led street lights seemed bright. Squinting to ease the watering that had begun as soon as I stepped out of the yard and onto the street packed with police cars, I raised an arm to block the light even further. Amalie rushed over to meet me, relieved to see that Conry and I had made it out of the tunnels unscathed.
After giving everyone the condensed version- the Krampus was gone- officers piled into the cars and returned to the station. Solstice lights on the Garner’s street and surrounding blocks in the Point had been dimmed to honor the two children who didn’t make it out of the tunnels alive.
Monday, February 29, 2016
So excited to share an excerpt with all of you from my upcoming release Payable On Death! I love this new world and the characters and really hope all of you do too! <3
"You're too young to be so troubled. You haven't even seen a quarter century. You're just a babe." The man flicked his cigarette in to the dark, a shower of little orange sparks erupting when it hit the pavement.
"I'm not your babe. Leave me alone." I pushed off the railing on the pedestrian bridge crossing over I-95 and walked away.
"Ah, poor choice of words. I was simply commenting on your age. You're no one's babe, Jacqui. How could you be? You're too afraid to let people get close, lest they see the bruises." He ran a hand along his hair, ensuring each piece in the slicked-back style remained in place.
"Who are you? How do you know my name?" I'd never seen him before in my life. Someone that perfect left an impression. If we'd met before, I would've remembered.
"I can make things better for you. Take away your pain, ease your suffering. You hardly sleep, listening at your bedroom door for any sign of trouble. I can help with that." He was confident. He had to be, walking around Baltimore at night dressed in a three-piece suit, diamond cufflinks gleaming even with only the dim blue light from the police CCTV cameras to highlight them.
"I don't know what you think you know about me or what you've heard but I don't do drugs. So you can go peddle that shit somewhere else. I'm not buying." Despite having more reasons than I could count, I'd managed to avoid getting hooked on heroin - an impressive feat given the amount flooding the city.
"Mmm. I almost wish you were. It makes things so much easier when drugs are involved. Let me ask you a question. Do I look like some street thug drug peddler to you?"
I took in the meticulous tailoring, the expensive shoes. "You're definitely not from around here." I gestured to the boarded up row homes across the street.
Weeds overran the small front yards, brushing the bottoms of the windowsills. Plywood replaced glass in almost every window. Trash littered the street, the city cans overflowing onto the sidewalk to the delight of the ever growing rat population. Sirens echoed in the distance, the dealers on the corner unfazed.
Welcome to Harm City.
Still, it was safer on the street than at home most nights.
"Home for me is a lot farther south of the Mason-Dixon line than Maryland, dear child. What are you doing up here? Shouldn't you be home? With your mother?"
"You don't know me, you don't know my mom. Get the fuck out of here before I call the cops." I held up my phone and pointed at the BPD security camera.
He clucked his tongue, wagging a finger at me. "Such a foul mouth for such a pretty face. I know a lot about your mom. The lie she told about going to a basket bingo with her friend Janice. Mom never made it out of the house by the way. She's very pretty, your mother, I see where you get your looks. Maybe if she hadn't fussed with her hair and makeup so much or if she'd chosen a different blouse..."
I'd heard those excuses from my mother so many times. If she hadn't done this or that, he wouldn't have beat her. Breathing seemed to be what set him off where I was concerned. I avoided going home as often as possible. For my mother's sake as much as mine. He seemed better when I wasn't around.
"It looks bad this time. The neighbors are out for the night. No one to call for help. And he's upset, very upset."
"The neighbors are out? If by ‘out’ you mean abandoned and boarded up, then yeah, they're out. He's always upset. I've begged her to leave, so many times. She won't. She said if she ever did, he'd kill her. Trust me, if I go back now, it will only make things worse.."
"It's different this time, Jacqui girl." The same thing my mother said every time my stepfather came home with flowers and a box of wine to apologize. "He came home early, found the suitcase she packed to take with her to the shelter by the door. She's hurt. All alone in that house. With him."
I started to run, only making it a couple of steps before he grabbed me.
"You'll never make it in time. I can help you, Jacqui girl. I can put an end to all this. Don't you want to help her? Don't you want to save your mother? Save yourself? This isn't the life you deserve. No one should live like this. Forgotten by everyone, left to the drunken rages and violent fits of that monster you live with. Why is this happening? Why did He forget about you? He's supposed to love you. Doesn't He care what happens to you?" He pointed toward the sky.
"What's in it for you? Why do you care what happens to us? If you know all that, you know I don't have any money and neither does my mom." I should have screamed for help.
His breath whispered across my ear. "Money isn't the only form of payment.”
For a moment, I considered it, considered giving over my body in exchange for him following me home and killing my stepfather. In all the years of darkness and misery, I’d managed to stay straight, stay on the path. Faced with the brutal murder of my mother, was I willing to throw it all away?
"I know a place we can go, but not until you hold up your end of the bargain." My stomach heaved when I thought about what I'd agreed to do.
"Oh, you sweet, simple girl. You are so delicious. The soft unmarked skin of youth pulled tight over toned muscle." He licked his lips. "Yes, I am quite sure I would enjoy every moment. However, I don’t recall stating the terms."
"Do we have a deal or not? You said I was out of time." Panic gripped my heart. Was she dead already?
"You're right, Jacqui girl, I did Have you put it together yet? Who I am? He didn't answer you. He never helped you. But I can."
Everything clicked. I should have ran. I should have said no. There were a million things I should have done.
"Can you save her? Can you put an end to this?"
The Devil smiled. "I believe we can come to an agreement."
My mother sat across from me, her hands hidden beneath the stainless steel table. The room was empty apart from the two of us. Neither of us spoke. She looked away every time I made eye contact. She'd lost weight since my last visit, dark circles and sallow cheeks. She wasn't taking care of herself. I worried every day she'd waste away to nothing, vanish.
Maybe that was the point.
I always hoped it would be different, her blonde hair would once again be full and lush, the smile in her eyes reserved solely for me would be back. Nothing changed. Except for the distance between us.
That seemed to be the only thing she nourished.
"Visiting hours are almost up. Five minutes." The guard looked over at us, giving me a weak smile. He felt sorry for me. I didn't want or need his pity. He saw a devoted daughter visiting her mother every Sunday, whether the woman wanted to see her or not. What he failed to see was a daughter who'd dammed her soul to Hell and her mother to ten years in one fell swoop.
"I'll see you next week, Mom." Without looking at her, I pushed my chair back from the table and prepared to leave.
"I really wish you wouldn't."
It was the first time she’d spoken during the entire visit—in several visits, actually. Her last words to me, prior to this, had been that she knew what I'd done. She blamed herself. Apparently, we'd moved past that and the blame now lay squarely where it belonged.
Stunned, I simply waved goodbye and walked away. With a heavy heart, I went through each security gate wondering if the following Sunday my name would be struck from the list of approved visitors.
In keeping with tradition, I caught the bus back to Fells Point. I got off at the Broadway stop and walked until the unmistakable awning of The Blue Moon Cafe came into view. A stack of Sarah's famous Captain Crunch French toast and a cup of coffee brightened even the shittiest of days. Tucked in the back of the restaurant at my favorite table next to the old fireplace, I sidled up to a platter of carbs and drowned my sorrows in maple syrup.
Two bites in, I knew the sugary sweet breakfast wouldn't be able to beat back the bitterness I felt. She didn't want to see me anymore? I pushed the plate away and took a swig of coffee. I tried to ignore the voices in my head. I'd had this argument with myself too many times. I'd made a mistake. A huge, epic, life-altering mistake. I was still her daughter. Why didn't she understand? Why couldn't she forgive me?
I should have known better than to believe anything he said, but I wanted a way out, an end to the pain and misery my mother experienced every day. He’d delivered—just not in the way I'd imagined. I thought my mother and I would be free to live our lives in peace. Neither of us got peace and only one of us was free. At least from prison.
I wore a different type of shackle.
And the Devil held the key.
My cup of coffee turned cold as I contemplated the fateful night I'd made a horrible decision that changed both my and my mother’s lives for the worse. He'd seemed pleased with his work and, despite my arguments to the contrary, assured me he'd kept his end of the bargain. The monster masquerading around as my mother's husband was gone.
The Devil never promised me a happily ever after.
I still heard his voice, saw the satisfied smirk and glint in his coal black eyes. "The devil is in the details my dear. You really should be more specific when bargaining something such as your soul."
The flashing lights from the police cars and ambulances lining the street in front of our row home had cast eerie shadows on his face. We’d stood side by side watching my mother being dragged out of the house in handcuffs, screaming that she didn't remember what happened.
I wondered if the Devil had a hand in her sentencing. The public defender had been confident my mother would receive a light sentence given the mitigating circumstances but the hammer of justice fell hard and she received every day of the maximum sentence. I never missed visiting hours and had tried more than once to tell her what happened, stopping every time I got to the part where I'd sold my soul. I couldn't bring myself to do that to her. I'd caused her enough pain as it was.
Three years in, she found peace and salvation and the answers to what happened. The pastor who came to worship with the prisoners took an interest in her case and, after several meetings with my mother, saw all the telltale signs of the Devil's hand in her life. In her daughter's life. She'd begged me to go to Saint Leo's and confess my sins. I'd been christened there. It was my first and last exposure to the church growing up.
Riddled with guilt, I'd tried to do as she asked but the doors of the church wouldn't open to someone like me. My soul belonged to someone other than God. She stopped speaking to me when I told her I couldn't get into the church. And now it seemed she wanted nothing more to do with me. I was damned and she didn't believe I could be saved.
I refused to believe she was right. The Devil hadn't come for me yet. That had to mean something.
I swallowed the last of the ice cold black coffee and dropped a twenty on the table. I'd been coming here every Sunday after visiting my mother for the last five years, none of the regular staff worried I'd short the check. With a nod to my waitress on my way through to the door, I headed home.
Somewhere between the entrance to the Blue Moon and the corner I picked up a straggler.
"I can smell the brimstone on you from here. Why do you fight it? You belong to him."
"Fuck off, Lazarus." Damn demon followed me everywhere, lurking in the shadows.
Lazarus closed the distance between us, his forked tongue slipping between his lips. "It's only a matter of time before he calls in his marker."
"Oh yeah? Well, what's he waiting for, anyway? It's been five years." I knew better than to antagonize him, I just couldn't help myself.
"Yo, Jax, wassup? Who you talking to?"
I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding, my shoulders slumping. "Nobody, Tommy. Nobody."
"Nobody, huh?" Tommy knew it was a lie, but he didn't call me on it. "Okay, Jax, okay. Hey, I'm going to Atomic today, wanna come with?"
"Perusing the aisles of a comic store sounds amazing, Tommy, but I have to be at the shelter in a couple hours. It's my turn to cook. I want to hit the gym before I go."
"You're cooking? How is that helping the homeless?" The fifteen-year-old looked down at me, his bright blue eyes sparkling beneath his lashes. He hadn't finished growing and already towered over my five-foot-five frame. Despite being a ball buster, he was a good kid and the closest thing I had to a friend.
How sad was that?
"Ha. Ha. You're a real comedian. Come on, I'll walk you to the bus stop." I knew he'd refuse the escort. He always did.
"You wanna hold my hand while I cross the street, too?"
"Maybe I just wanted to spend a little more time with you. You ever think of that?" I smacked the brim of his baseball cap, forcing it further down and covering half his face.
Tommy pulled the hat off, his blond hair spilling out for a moment before he smoothed it all back and tucked it inside the cap. It was a miracle he hadn't fallen prey to the streets. He spun his skateboard on its tail. As much trouble as that damn thing had gotten him into with the cops, it kept him out of even more.
"You're so full of it. I'll catch up with you later." Tommy waved me off.
"Swing by the shelter later. Keep me company in the kitchen." I stepped off the curb, headed toward the soup kitchen I'd been volunteering at for the last four months.
As part of my self-inflicted penance, I volunteered at shelters, donated a third of my paycheck every week to different charities, helped little old ladies cross the street and kept my eye on Tommy. A voice in the back of my mind reminded me I'd never buy my way into Heaven.
No matter how many good deeds I did.
I tried to shake off the dark thoughts creeping into my mind, to stop the anger and self-hatred from worming its way in. Save it for the bag. Leave it all in the gym.
I looked over my shoulder and shouted back to Tommy. "Hey, if you see John Waters picking up his mail again, could you please get me an autograph this time?"
"Jax! Look out!"
A cab whizzed by, inches from hitting me head on. The side mirror clipped my hip as it passed, horn blaring. Some of the people inside the cafe came out to make sure I was okay. I brushed it off before anyone made a fuss.
"I'm fine. I'm fine. Go back inside. Finish your breakfast." I waved to Sarah, the owner of Blue Moon, trying to reassure her that I wasn't hurt. Unconvinced, she ushered her patrons back inside.
"Damn, Jax. You are one lucky...."
"Watch your mouth, Tommy."
"I didn't even say nothing." He looked at me sideways. "You sure you’re all right?"
"I'm fine. If your mom's working late tonight, swing by the shelter. I'll fix you a plate."
"One near death experience a day is my limit."
I couldn't help laughing. "Get the hell out of here. I'll see you later."
I headed toward the gym rubbing my hip, contemplating what Tommy said. People like me didn't have good luck. So what was with all the near misses? It wasn't the first time I'd come close to cashing out and paying my debt to the Devil. If I didn't know better, I'd think someone upstairs was looking out for me.