Personal Demon – Kelley Armstrong

There was a time in my life when the prospect of watching a man die would have filled me with horror. Now, as I shivered beside the cenotaph, knowing death was coming, what I felt was very different. Only knowing it was too late to stop what was about to happen kept me from screaming a warning as I clutched the cold marble. “Did you bring the money?” the first man asked, his voice tight with an anxiety that strummed through the air. He wore dress slacks an inch too long, hems pooling around scuffed department store loafers. His old leather jacket was done up against the bitter March night, but misbuttoned. I could picture his fingers trembling as he’d hurried out to this midnight meeting. The other man was a decade older, his jogging suit hood pulled tight around his red-cheeked face. Beside him, a Chow panted, the chuf -chuf filling the silence, black tongue lolling as the dog strained the confines of its short leash. “Did you bring the money?” the younger man asked again as he glanced around the park, his anxiety sharp against the cold rage blowing off the other man. “Did you really think I’d pay?” The older man lunged. A blast of fear, so intense my eyelids quivered. Then a gasp, rich with shock and pain. Chaos rolled over me and moonlight sparked red against the knife blade. The stink of voided bowels filled the air as the younger man staggered back into a spindly maple.

He tottered for a moment, propped against it, then slumped at its base. The killer pulled his dog closer. The Chow danced, its chaos fluttering past me, confusion warring with hunger. The man shoved its head to the wound, steaming blood pumping. The dog took a tentative lick, then— The vision broke and I reeled, grabbing the cenotaph. A moment’s pause, eyes squeezed shut. Then I straightened and blinked against the bright morning sun. At the foot of the cenotaph, a shrine had started, with plucked daffodils and scraps of paper scrawled with “We’ll Miss You, Brian” and “Rest in Peace, Ryan.” Anyone who knew Bryan Mills well enough to spell his name was still at home, in shock. The people hugging and sobbing around the shrine were only hoping to catch the eye of a roving TV camera, say a few words about what a great guy “Ryan” had been.

As I circled the crime scene tape, I passed the fake mourners, and their sobbing rose…until they noticed I wasn’t carrying a camera, and fell back to sipping steaming coffees and huddling against the icy morning. They might not have made me for a reporter, but the closest cop guarding the scene did, his glower telling me not to bother asking for a statement. I’m sure “Hey, I know what happened to your dead guy” would have been a guaranteed conversation opener. But then what would I say? “How do I know? Um, I had a vision. Psychic? No. I can only see the past—a talent I inherited from my father. More of a curse, really, though I’m sure he thinks otherwise. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Lucifer? No, not Satan—that’s a whole different guy. I’m what they call a half-demon, a human fathered by a demon. Most of us get a special power, like fire, telekinesis or teleportation, without a demon’s need for chaos.

But that chaos hunger is all I get, plus a few special powers to help me find it. Like visions of past trauma, which is why I know how your victim died. And I can read chaotic thoughts, like the one going through your head right now, Officer. You’re wondering whether you should quietly call for the ambulance or pin me to the ground first, in case my psychotic break turns violent.” So I stuck to my job: reporting the news, not becoming it. I found a likely target—the youngest officer, buttons gleaming, gaze following the news cameras, shoulders straightening each time one promised to swing his way, then slumping when it moved elsewhere. As I approached, his gaze traveled over me and his chin lifted to showcase a square jaw. A smile tweaked his lips. When I took out my notebook, the smile ignited, and he stepped forward to intercept me, lest I change my mind. “Hello, there,” he said.

“I haven’t seen you before. New at the Gazette?” I shook my head. “I’m national.” His eyes glittered, envisioning his name in Time or USA Today. I always felt a little bad about that. True News was a national publication, though…a national supermarket tabloid. “Hope Adams,” I said, thrusting out my hand. “Adams?” “That’s right.” A flush bloomed on his cheeks. “Sorry, I, uh, wasn’t sure I heard that right.

” Apparently, I didn’t look like this officer’s idea of a “Hope Adams.” My mother had been a student from India when she met my dad at college. Will Adams, though, was not my biological father, and half-demons inherit their appearance from their maternal DNA. As I chatted him up, a man lurched from behind the cenotaph. He peered around, his eyes wild behind green-lensed glasses. Spying us, he strode over, one black-nailed finger jabbing. “You took him, didn’t you?” The officer’s hand slid to his belt. “Sir, you need to step back—” “Or what?” The man stopped inches from the officer, swaying. “You’ll shoot me? Like you shot him? Take me away too? Study me? Dissect me? Then deny everything?” “If you mean the victim—” “I meant the werewolf.” The officer cleared his throat.

“There, uh, was no werewolf, sir. The victim was—” “Eaten!” The man leaned forward, spittle flying. “Torn apart and eaten! Tracks everywhere. You can’t cover it up this time.” “A werewolf?” said a woman, sidling over as she passed. “I heard that too.” The officer slid a small “can you believe this?” smile my way. I struggled to return it. I could believe that people thought this was a werewolf; that’s why True News had sent their “weird tales girl” to cover the story. As for werewolves themselves, I certainly believed in them—though even before the vision I’d known this wasn’t one of their kills.

“Sorry about that,” the officer said when he’d finally moved the conspiracy theorist on. “Werewolves? Dare I even ask where that rumor came from?” “The kids who found the body got all freaked out, seeing dog tracks around it, and they started posting online about werewolves. I have no idea how the dog got involved.” I was already mentally writing my story. “When asked about the werewolf rumors, an of icer on the site admitted he couldn’t explain the combined signs of canine and human.” That’s the trick of writing for a tabloid. You take the facts and massage them, hinting, implying, suggesting…As long as no one is humiliated unfairly, and no sources are named, I don’t have a problem giving readers the entertainment they want. Karl would have found it entertaining too. If I’d been assigned this story a couple of months ago, I’d have been waiting for his next call, so I could say, “Hey, I got a werewolf story. Can I get a statement?” He’d make some sardonic comment, and I’d curl up, settling in for a long talk, telling myself it was just friendship, that I’d never be fool enough to fall for Karl Marsten.

Kidding myself, of course. The moment I let him cross that line past friendship, I got burned…and it was just as bad as I’d always feared. I pushed memories of Karl aside and concentrated on the story. The officer had just let slip a lead on the kids who’d found the body—two girls who worked at the 7-Eleven on the corner—when clouds suddenly darkened the day to twilight. Thunder boomed, and I dropped my pen. As the officer bent to grab it, I snuck a glance around. No one was looking at the sky or running for cover. They were all carrying on as they had been. The officer kept talking, but I could barely hear him through the thunderclaps. I gritted my teeth and waited for the vision to end.

A storm moving in? Possible, if it promised enough destruction to qualify as chaotic. But I suspected the source was a Tempestras—a “storm” half-demon. One offshoot of my “gift” was the ability to sense other supernaturals through their chaotic powers. I cast another surreptitious glance around. My gaze settled instead on the one person I hadn’t noticed before. A dark-haired man, at least six foot three, with a linebacker’s body ill-concealed by a custom-tailored suit. He seemed to be looking my way, but with his dark sunglasses it was impossible to tell. Then he lowered them, pale blue eyes meeting mine, chin dipping in greeting. He walked over. “Ms.

Adams? A word please?” HOPE: GODFATHER I checked for chaos vibes and felt nothing. Still, any time a hulking half-demon stranger sought me out hundreds of miles from my home, I had reason to be alarmed. “Let’s head over there.” He nodded to a quiet corner under an elm. When we stopped, he shivered and looked up into the dense branches. “Not the warmest spot,” he said. “I guess that’s why it’s the one empty corner in the park. No sunshine.” “But you could fix that.” I braced myself for a denial.

Instead I got a grin that thawed his ice-blue eyes. “Now that’s a handy talent. I could use that in my line of work.” “And that would be?” “Troy Morgan,” he said, as if in answer. “My boss would like to talk to you.” The name clicked—Benicio Cortez’s personal bodyguard. I followed Troy’s gaze to a vehicle idling fifty feet away. A white SUV with Cadillac emblems on the wheels. Beside it stood a dark-haired man who could pass for Troy’s twin. If both of Benicio Cortez’s bodyguards were here, there was no doubt who sat behind those tinted windows.

My hastily eaten breakfast sank into the pit of my stomach. “If it’s about this—” I waved at the crime scene, “—you can tell Mr. Cortez it wasn’t a werewolf, so…” I trailed off, seeing his expression. “It isn’t about the werewolf rumor, is it?” Troy shook his head. Why else would Benicio Cortez fly from Miami to speak to a half-demon nobody? Because I owed him. The bagel turned to lead. “Okay,” I said, lifting my notebook. “I’m in the middle of a story right now, but I could meet him in an hour, say…” I scanned the street for a coffee shop. “He needs to talk to you now.” Troy’s voice was soft, gentle even, but a steel edge in his tone told me I didn’t have a choice.

Benicio Cortez wanted to talk to me, and it was Troy’s job to make that happen. I glanced at the crime scene. “Can I just get a few more minutes? If I can talk to one more witness, I’ll have enough for a story—” “Mr. Cortez will look after that.” He touched my elbow, gaze settling on mine, sympathetic but firm. When I still resisted, he leaned down, voice lowering. “He’d like to speak to you in the car, but if you’d be more comfortable in a public place, I can arrange it.” I shook my head, shoved my notebook into my pocket and motioned for him to lead the way. AS I MOVED toward the curb, a passing car hit a patch of melting snow, throwing up a sheet of slush. I scampered back, but it caught my legs, dappling my skirt and nylons, the icy pellets sliding down and coming to rest in my shoes.

So much for looking presentable. I rubbed my arms and told myself the goose bumps were from the ice, not trepidation over meeting Benicio Cortez. I’m a society girl—meeting a CEO shouldn’t be any cause for nerves. But Cortez Corporation was no ordinary Fortune 500 company. A Cabal looked like a regular multinational corporation, but it was owned and staffed by supernaturals, and the unique abilities of its employees gave it a massive advantage over its competitors. It used that edge for everything from the legitimate (sorcerer spells to protect their vaults) to the unethical (astral-projecting shamans conducting corporate espionage) to the despicable (a teleporting half-demon assassin murdering a business rival). I’d spent two years working for the Cortez Cabal. Unintentionally. Hired by Tristan Robard, who I thought was a representative of the interracial council, I’d been placed with True News to keep an eye on supernatural stories, suppressing or downplaying the real ones and alerting the council to potential trouble. My job soon expanded to helping them locate rogue supernaturals.

It had been the perfect way to guiltlessly indulge my hunger for chaos. The phrase “too good to be true” comes to mind, but I’d been in such a dark place—depressed, angry, confused. When you’re that far down and someone offers you a hand back up, you grab it and you don’t ask questions. Then came my toughest assignment. Capturing a werewolf jewel thief during a museum gala. I’d been so pleased with myself…until that werewolf—Karl Marsten—ripped the rose-colored glasses from my eyes and proved that I was really working for the Cortez Cabal. When we escaped that mess, cleaning services came from an unexpected quarter: Benicio. My employment had been a secret operation of Tristan’s, and his attack on Karl a personal matter, so in apology, Benicio had disposed of the bodies and provided medical assistance for Karl. In return, we owed him. Until now, I’d never worried about that because I had a codebtor.

Karl was a professional thief—capable of guiding me through whatever underworld task Benicio set us. But now Benicio had come to collect, and Karl wasn’t around to do anything about it. MY SKIRT GAVE an obscene squeak as I slid onto the SUV’s leather seat. If the man within noticed, he gave no sign, just put out a hand to help me. As the door closed, the roar of morning traffic vanished, replaced by the murmur of calypso jazz, so soft I had to strain to recognize it. Gone too were the exhaust fumes, making way for the stench of stale smoke. “Cigar,” the man said, catching my nose wrinkling. “Cuban, though the expense doesn’t make the smell any better. I requested a nonsmoking vehicle, but with high-end rentals, people think if they pay enough, they can do as they please.” Benicio Cortez.

He bore little resemblance to the one Cortez I knew—his youngest son, Lucas. Benicio was at least sixty, probably no more than five eight, broad-faced and stocky. Only his eyes reminded me of his son—nice eyes, big and dark. The kind of guy you’d let hold your purse or take your son into the bathroom. Bet that came in handy when he was telling you he understood why you didn’t want to sell your three-generation family business…while text-messaging a fire half-demon to torch the place before you got back from lunch. “Do you mind if we drive?” he said. “If we sit here much longer, I’ll be arguing my way out of a sizable ticket.” I was sure Benicio Cortez had more than enough cash in his wallet to pay for any ticket. I could say no supernatural likes drawing undue attention to himself, but I suspected he was testing my nerve… and maybe my naiveté, seeing whether I’d let him take me on a ride to parts unknown. I said, “If you turn left at the lights, you’ll hit construction, so you can make a very slow trip around the block.

” “Perfect. Thank you.” A press of the button and the divider buzzed down. As he conveyed my directions to the driver, the passenger door opened and Troy climbed in, leaving the other guard behind, as if protecting his boss’s idling spot. Benicio raised the divider, then reached between our seats and pulled out a thermos. “Another downside to rentals,” he said. “No in-car beverage service. I’m spoiled, I’m afraid. I had this brewed on the jet, and I assure you, it’s excellent, though the container might be somewhat offputting.” A rueful smile as he lifted the battered army-green thermos.

“Ugly, but it does the job better than anything I’ve found.” The vacuum seal popped, filling the cabin with rich steam. “I apologize for interrupting your work.” He handed me a white china mug. “It wasn’t a council concern, was it? My daughter-in-law would not be pleased.” Lucas’s wife was Paige Winterbourne, witch delegate to the council. “It’s not council work,” I said. “But they’ll expect a report from me—and my editor is expecting a story— so I need to get back before my sources wander off.” He filled my mug, then topped off his. “I still feel responsible for the trouble you and Karl experienced with Tristan,” he said finally.

“I should have been aware of his activities. In recompense, I wanted to offer you and Karl a job— temporary, of course—and one particularly suited to your talents. You’d be paid, naturally, and I believe it would help you gain valuable skills for your work with the council. I hoped to talk to Karl first, but I have no way of getting in touch with him.” His gaze settled on me. “I don’t have his number,” I lied, then added a truth. “Anyway, he’s in Europe. Indefinitely.” “Indefinitely?” “That’s what he said.” “How unfortunate.

” He took a long sip of his coffee. “Have you had any experience investigating street gangs, Hope?” I shook my head. “Still you understand the concept—youths banding together at a time when they feel the need to belong, when they’re eager to explore their power. As a young supernatural, you probably have some sense of what that’s like yourself.” I didn’t reply, waiting for him to get to the point. “We raise our children to hide their powers and fit into human society, and that doesn’t always sit well with them. Some form criminal gangs—mostly male, late teens to midtwenties, when they’re coming into their full powers. They’re better organized than human gangs—more focused and less casually violent, though not above using violence to achieve their goals.” Sounded like a youth version of a Cabal. “These gangs tend to be most prevalent in Cabal cities, because there’s a high concentration of supernaturals there and because they know we’ll cover their indiscretions to protect ourselves.

We could disband them, but we’ve decided it’s wiser to let them have their fun, safely. They get the rebellion out of their system, and when they come looking for a job…” “The Cabals are close by.” He nodded. “The problem is that every now and then, their tolerance for us wears thin. One of those gangs—a particularly well-organized one in Miami—has been the source of some rumblings. I need to find out what they’re up to.” “So you want a ringer. A young supernatural with undercover experience who isn’t well-known in the community. That’s where I come in.” Even as I spoke, my pulse quickened, thinking of how it could be done, how much I’d learn, how much fun I’d have.

The last thought threw on the brakes. I was imagining what it would be like to lap up all that criminal chaos guilt-free because, hey, I was only fulfilling a debt, maybe even helping avoid a violent confrontation between this gang and the Cabal. For guilt-free chaos, I had to stick to my council work. With them I always knew I was working on the right side. “I’ve never done deep undercover,” I said. “I probably couldn’t even play gang material. My background— ” “I know your background, Hope, and we’d work with that. You’d play a version of yourself. With Karl’s help, you could pull this off easily.” “I’m still not seeing how Karl fits in.

He certainly can’t pass for college age.” “No, but he can protect you.” “I can read chaotic thoughts. I might not have werewolf strength, but if someone’s about to pull a gun on me, I’ll know it.” “You may need to break into an office or apartment…” “Karl’s taught me the basics.” Benicio eased back into his seat. “Perhaps you wouldn’t need him, then. That would certainly be better. I’d rather not delay, tracking him down and jetting him back.” “No, I—I didn’t mean I’d do it.

” Benicio arched his brows as if to say “What did you mean then?” Even as denials sprang to my lips, the demon in my blood whispered “Why not? You owe him. Get it over with.” I set my mug in the holder. “No. I’m sorry. I’m flattered that you’d consider me for this, but I’m sure you need it done right away and I have a training session next week—”

.

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