God Touched by John Conroe

God Touched

The first of the Demon Accords series.

Heaven and Hell are locked in an arms race and Heaven just leveled up.

Meet Chris Gordon, NYPD rookie, master exorcist. Born with the power to banish any demon to Hell, Chris is Heaven’s one-man army against the damned. Policing the streets by day, and Hell’s horrors by night, he’s pretty sure he’s seen it all.

When he meets Tatiana Demidova, a Russian heiress on a red liquid diet, he learns that the mysteries of life have only just begun. Facing were weasels, vampires, secret law enforcement units and the spirit of a giant short-faced bear, Gordon’s fighting for his life just when’s he’s learned life’s worth fighting for. But as his enemies will soon find out, the blood of a hero is sometimes a weapon unto itself.

God Touched may appeal to fans of Butcher, Briggs, Hearne and Andrews, or anyone who hates sparkling vampires.

Praise for God Touched

Loved it! Loved every single book in this series, and while I know an author gets tired of the same characters after awhile, I hope this author will continue on and on with them. Super kudos, Mr. Conroe, from the creative plots and engaging cast of characters right on to the occasional pop culture references that keep those characters fresh; you have become one of my ‘go to’ authors.

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Chapter 1

I had to admit it, these vampires really knew how to run a club. It had to be the most bizarre place in the Big Apple, and that’s saying something.  I wouldn’t have chosen a vampire/Goth club myself, but Henderson’s ravings about Plasma had won over Pella, and so I went along. Now, I had to confess to some curiosity, myself.

Of course the vampires weren’t real, but the owners had done a great job capitalizing on the current nationwide love affair with all things vampire—movies, books, and dance clubs.  The Brooklyn building had once housed a newspaper, and the center of the building, where the printing presses had operated, was open all the way to the ceiling, three stories above.  The club’s entrance brought you in on the second floor, and a labyrinth of stairs provided passage to the top floor or down to the bottom where the dance floor and band stage were.

I sipped my Corona and took in the atmosphere.  The walls were black, and most of the lighting came from red neon that bathed everything in a bloody glow.  Dark nooks and corners abounded, occupied with a strange mixture of serious Goth and trendy night clubbers.  The staff was uniformly pale and etheric looking, an effect that puzzled me to no end.  Our vampire waitress had visited our table four or five times, and I hadn’t been able to detect a trace of white makeup on her face.  Likewise, the club appeared to only hire professional dancers as staff, since they all moved entirely too gracefully to be regular clods like the three of us.

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“Hey Chris, dude, here’s to six months on the Force and the end of probation!” Pella exclaimed for the dozenth time, his slurring getting more pronounced with each toast.  I clinked my bottle to his glass, having to first steady his hand. Pella and I had just finished probation with the NYPD and were now eligible for full benefits.

Our host for the evening, veteran officer Scott Henderson, single and ever the playa, was charming a pair of young ladies at the bar. He had waved me over several times, but that wasn’t gonna happen.  Bad enough that I was out with my brothers in blue, there was no way I’d involve a girl in the minefield of my life.

Pella had jumped into the celebration with both feet, pounding Bacardi and Coke like water.  I, on the other hand, was having a tough time relaxing, only just getting to the bottom of my second beer.  Something had me on edge, maybe just the strange nature of the club.  Any club would be strange to me, having grown up at the top of New York State, right on the border of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park.  Not much opportunity for clubbing up there, although I had been exposed to a little nightlife during my college years in Albany.  But nothing in my college career had prepared me for a nightclub where accountants and lawyers, bond traders and stockbrokers flocked for the thrill of pretending to be in the company of vampires.

Plasma’s resident vampire staff carried the whole thing off with surprising realism.  Our pretty little five-foot-nothing waitress acted the part, with sly smirks and hungry glances at our throats. Spiky black hair and excellent green contact lenses gave her the full effect.  For some reason, even knowing everything was fake, it raised the hair on the back of my neck—obviously the effect that kept bringing hordes of people through the door.  The lines outside were two blocks long and we would probably still be out there if the head bouncer hadn’t recognized Henderson as a regular and a cop.  Now, that guy had set the tone right from the beginning.  Well over six feet tall and built like a professional wrestler, he had been dressed in leather pants and python-skin vest.  His bald head gleamed in the sodium light, and a large gold earring hung from his right lobe.  Eerie yellow contact lenses had added to his formidable appearance.  But despite the theatrical nature of his costume, his movements and carriage screamed serious fighter.  Having spent most of my twenty-two-plus years in mixed martial arts, I am a pretty good judge.  Friendly enough when he greeted Henderson, he had given Pella a glance and then spent an uncomfortable amount of time evaluating me, before letting us through without waiting in line.  Henderson had called him Vadim, which sounded Russian. Rumor had it that the club’s owners were originally from Moscow, with possible connections to the Russian mob.

“Falling behind your friends a bit there, ay North boy?”  a silky voice purred in my ear.  Somehow I kept from jumping, but my heart lurched in my chest. Turning my head, I found our spooky waitress with her mouth inches from my neck.   She had introduced herself as Lydia when we first claimed the table overlooking the dance floor.  Now, her bright green eyes glittered in the low light.  Where do you buy contacts like that? I wondered as goosebumps covered my arms.

“How do you know I’m from the North and not Canada?” I asked, almost shouting to be heard over the band.

She shrugged, “Your accent. Kinda like a Canadian, but still not exactly like it. Ay, ya hoser.”  Her smile was sly.  “So you look like you could use a shot to catch up with your pals.”

“No, one of us needs to keep his wits about him in this wicked nest of vampires,” I shot back, half joking.  I was beginning to have serious questions about this place.

“Oh, you’ll be safe enough, Officer. We don’t eat our civil servants.”

She smiled, spun in place, her tray of empties not even clinking, and swished gracefully away, glancing over her left shoulder once to catch me watching her walk.  Entering a pool of darkness, her eyes glowing, she swerved to miss a drunken ass grab from a patron on her right, her eyes still locked on me.  Okay, she was officially weirding me out.  This place had a serious commitment to creepy.  I’m fairly comfortable with creepy.  You could say that it’s pretty much been my life, but this was outside my realm of experience.  Gramps always said the other supernatural creatures (vampires, witches, and werewolves) were real. I always thought he was kidding me.  Hard to tell with him sometimes.   The existence of other supernatural beings was not a big stretch from what I normally dealt with.  But vampires wouldn’t advertise as a vampire club if they were real, would they?  Actually, Plasma didn’t bill itself as vampire-owned at all, but every ad featured shots of the ethereally beautiful, preternaturally pale staff.  The vampire part was mostly spread by word of mouth.  Clever!

The vision hit me as I put my head back to take a long pull on my beer.  Thankfully, my visions never hit while I am driving, because I can’t see a thing until the vision passes.  This one hit really hard, about three seconds of movie-image violence involving a girl, a corridor, and, of course, one of the demon-ridden.  My eyesight returned as I choked on my mouthful of Mexican beer.  Coughing the rest of it out, I immediately scanned the room for the source of my blackout.

We were on the second floor, so I moved to the railing.  Pella had joined Scott and the two girls he was hitting on.  My new view covered most of the dance floor, stage, and main bar. At about that time, the band finished their song and the lights dimmed, shrouding the stage in blackness. Fantastic!  I need every feeble sense I have to find the monsters I hunt.

Some of the more serious Goth types started to chant a name, but it was too indistinct to make out.  I stopped my scan, getting caught up in the club’s theatrics. More of the crowd by the dance floor started to pick up the shout, repeating something that sounded like tat.  Still in darkness, the band began a new song, one with a really heavy beat.  The regulars went wild, and now every floor’s railing was crowded with screaming people as the female lead added her voice to the burgeoning song. A punky girl and her acne-ridden boyfriend shoved up against me, trying to see the dance floor. As if by common agreement, the center of the dance floor cleared, leaving two indistinct figures standing motionless in the dark.  The song suddenly paused, music and vocals both stopping dead for three heartbeats, and then suddenly exploding in full sound.  A pool of light blasted into being, illuminating the lead singer but centered on two female dancers in the middle of the dance floor.

It was like nothing I had ever seen or heard of before.  More than anything else in the entire club, these two women pushed me over the edge of belief.  It didn’t seem possible that any human could move the way these two did.  One was blonde, wrapped in a curve-hugging red dress, cut low in the front and high on the side. Her bright eyes scanned the crowd as she spun and wove around her companion.  The other was raven haired, wearing white, spinning with her head down, lost in her own dance.  She finally lifted her head, and electric blue eyes knocked the breath out of my chest.  The blonde was gorgeous, but the brunette had to be the most beautiful woman in existence. She was also the girl in my vision.  I can’t begin to describe their dancing, not in any way that would portray it accurately.  It was alluring, primal, sensual, and utterly captivating. Fluid, athletic, and well beyond the grasp of any ballerina on earth.

I was reluctant to tear my eyes away, but now that I had found the victim, the Hellbourne couldn’t be far away.  Pretty much the entire club had stopped to watch the show, crowding the rails three people deep all the way around.  Closing my eyes for a moment, I opened my mind, just a little, feeling for the vile, oily essence of the Hellbourne.  After a moment, I got it—below—near the dance floor.  Opening my eyes, I scanned the main bar, skimming over the people crowded there, then back a second time.

One man caught my eye on the second pass, mainly because he was exceptionally unexceptional.  Bland.  Average height, dirty blond hair, slim build, and plain, ordinary face.  He stood out to my Sight because he was so unnoticeable. That and the greasy blackness of his aura.

The people around him paid no attention to the thing in their midst. Most stood with their backs to the most dangerous creature I knew.

Shoving my way through the crowd by the rail, I moved to the stairs.  Movement near me caught my eye.  Sometimes Hellbourne travel in pairs, and it wouldn’t do to get blindsided.  It was just the waitress, watching me with a puzzled look on her face.  I snapped my attention back to the bland man, panicking when I didn’t get a visual on him immediately.  But he was still there, watching the show from the bar.  A support post gave me a place to lean, pretending to watch the awesome display on the dance floor while I kept my attention squarely on him.  Much harder to do than it sounds, because I felt a real compulsion to watch the brunette dance, but looking away could be disastrous.  A Hellbourne in Albany had almost gutted me once when I let my attention drift in a bar.  That scar was still on my stomach, a reminder to pay attention.

The dance ended almost as suddenly as it had begun, and the bland man moved from the bar in a fast, jerky manner that was inhuman and went unnoticed by the people around him.  Hellbourne have a powerful ability to cloak themselves, forcing people to forget them on sight.  Except me… I always see them.  Part of the tool kit of talents that for some Godforsaken reason, I was born with.  Yeah, me.

The demon moved toward the back of the stage area and ahead of it, I spotted the beautiful brunette leaving through a metal door.  The Hellbourne followed her, walking right past several large bouncer types. I hurried to catch up, knowing that the demon’s bubble of forgetfulness could cloak me, too.  The bland man opened the door and followed the dancer.  I slid through just a whisper behind him.  The door opened into a long, institutional corridor, stacked on the sides with cartons and crates of supplies, the lighting white florescent. The air was musty and cool.  Footsteps pattered ahead of me, and I ran to catch up.  A sharp left brought me to another metal door, this one just closing.  Instinct made me rush through… right into my vision.

A split-second glance laid it all out.  The girl was backed up to the cinderblock wall, pinned in place by a silver bolt through each shoulder.  A strange two-barreled gun was clattering to the floor as the Hellbourne drew a long, silver blade from the back of his plain tan jacket.  I was unarmed, but my vision had given me an advanced sight of the fighting area. My right hand fell on an empty crate that I knew would be there. I swung it at the man-shape as it spun to face me.  I missed the torso but hit my target—the demon’s knife hand—knocking the blade flying.

Hellbourne have blinding-fast reactions. The demon snapped a wicked roundhouse kick at my head without any pause.  Despite the slim build of the body that housed it, it was stronger than I.  That kick would break my neck if it landed, but again, foresight gave my reactions a boost, allowing me to block the kick in time.  Its force knocked me into the wall and before I could recover, the demon had turned and run down the hallway, slamming through a crash-bar-equipped door.  It was gone—but the girl needed my attention.

She was thrashing like a feral cat caught in a trap, her fast, jerky spasms ripping huge wounds in her chest and shoulders. Her reaction wasn’t remotely normal, at least human normal.

“Whoa, easy, easy. You have to stop so I can get these out.” I tried to calm her, at least so I could pull the bolts.  She was injuring herself so much trying to get free that she would bleed out long before help got there.

Her motions slowed a bit; those blue eyes locked on mine.  I moved closer, grabbing the bolt in her left shoulder with my right hand, yanking it hard and fast. As it came out, I grabbed the other bolt with my left hand. That one was deeper in the wall, and it took a few tugs to get it free.  She had been hissing in pain, but as the bolt slid from her chest, she stopped, frozen in place.  I was thinking that she would die in the next few seconds. The blood was gushing down her front in crimson waves, staining her white dress red.  I reached out to steady her, but she just suddenly moved. She sort of blurred, then I felt a sledgehammer hit my left arm. She was biting my wrist, a sharp pain lancing up my arm.  The force was stunning, like getting an arm caught in an industrial machine. I tried to pull away, but she didn’t budge.  Not even an inch.  She couldn’t weigh over one-twenty, but I couldn’t move her.

It took a second to realize that she was sucking my wrist.  I could feel blood spurting into her mouth in great gushes.   Her heart, which I could see through the hole still in her chest, didn’t seem to be beating.  The rest of her wounds were healing so fast that most were gone in seconds.

I was getting dizzy, but the big wound over her heart wasn’t healing and when I peered close, a bit of silver gleamed. A tiny part of my brain offered up a tally of current events.  I was in a night club that was supposed to be run by vampires, a demon had tried to kill the most beautiful girl on the planet, and said girl was now draining my body of blood, through my wrist, killing me with her mouth.  And she had a big hole in her chest.

I don’t know why I did it.  By all rights, I should have just jammed that silver bolt right through her still heart as hard as I could.  It’s possible that part of me considered the fact that the Hellbourne wanted her dead.  Doing anything that screwed up their plans was generally a good idea.  It could have been that she was trying so hard to live. I’ve always admired survivors.

It may have been that I’d never had a hot girl suck on my arm—or any other body part for that matter—before, and I just wasn’t gonna ruin the experience. It would be a hell of a way to die, I decided.  I could hear the boys at the Precinct talking about it. “Hey, did ya hear about Gordon?  Sucked to death by a super hottie!”

“Really?  And here I always thought he was gay!”

Dropping the bolt, I reached my thumb and forefinger into her wound.  The blood made it almost impossible to grip the chunk of silver that was left in there, and I was getting dizzier by the second, but I got it.  My index finger actually touched her still heart, and a shock jumped between us. Her heart beat once, hard.  Her eyes, which had been shut, snapped open and met my own as I pulled the piece of metal from her body. It pinged on the floor when my jittery fingers dropped it. The wound began to close instantly. Then my vision started to swim, swirling around two blue pools of light.

But the shock had snapped her frenzy, and she raised her head from my arm, watching me. When I started to fall, her arm slipped around my waist, holding me up without effort.  It felt like rubber-covered steel.   She looked at me for a moment, her head tilted to the right, like she was listening to something. She then leaned toward my wrist and licked it.  She lapped it daintily, like a cat with a saucer of milk, cleaning the blood from it, revealing two pink dots, healing shut as I watched.  Over the coppery stink of blood, I could smell her scent, jasmine and lilac.

I leaned woozily against a stack of crates behind me while she continued to watch me.  After a moment, she wiped some her own blood from her front with a finger. Before I could react, she stuck the gore-covered digit in my mouth, depositing the load of cool blood on my tongue, then pulled her finger free. She clapped her other hand over my lips, stopping me from spitting it out.

“Sssswallow!” she ordered.  Dizzy, cold, and confused, I did as she commanded, gulping to clear my mouth and throat, even as the thought of AIDS and other diseases crossed my mind. Laying her finger across her lips in the universal sign for silence, she turned her head to look at the metal door to the Club.  For a second, nothing happened, and then the door slammed free from its hinges, rocketed across the hallway, and crunched into the wall.

The corridor was suddenly filled with a large number of very serious vampires.

Vampires.  That’s what they were. It was all that they could be. Part of my brain had already added up the individual parts of the equation and arrived at that conclusion  And the beautiful young girl in front of me was most certainly one as well. Gramps was right. Damn! He was so going to say he told me so… if I lived.

My sight centered on the big bouncer leading the pack, Vadim.  His right arm was cocked back in a punching position, his hand stiff and flat in a spear hand.  Dizzy and confused, I idly noted that his fingernails glittered like they were razor sharp.  I’ll bet he can jam his hand right through me.

He started forward, but a sharp “Nyet!” sounded from the girl in the crimson-stained dress, and everyone froze.  They were all watching her with varying degrees of astonishment.  The blonde girl in red pushed through along with the waitress, Lydia.  Then the whole group parted down the middle and a brown-haired female walked through, taking charge with her presence.  She spoke in what sounded like Russian to Vadim and the blonde, but it was my black-haired friend who answered in the same language, speaking haltingly at first, then faster.  Now it was the newcomer’s turn to look shocked, but as the dark-haired dancer spoke, some of the males blurred down the hall to the door.  The blonde moved up to look at me, stopping a few feet away.  I just sat back on the crates, shivering, trying to stay upright.  “He’s lost a lot of blood.  He needs fluids,  like now!” the blonde said.

My vampire stopped her narrative in mid-sentence and spoke again, speech still not smooth.

“Lydiiia?”

“I’m on it,” Lydia replied, zipping out of the corridor.

“Who are you?” questioned the leader, staring holes in me with blue eyes that were much lighter than the dancer’s.

“Chris… Chris Gordon.” I answered once I was able to remember my name.

“He’s a cop,” Lydia supplied as she reappeared, handing me an open bottle of Gatorade.  It was the red kind, which struck me as funny.  Oops, did I just chuckle out loud?

“He’s here with some cop friends.  I watched him follow some guy who was following Tanya.”

I sipped my Gatorade, thinking about what to tell them while the blonde watched me. The irony wasn’t lost on me.  Demons and vampires…what next?  Zombies?  How much should I tell them, what would they believe? They probably thought I had attacked the girl. What if vampires don’t believe in ghosts and demons? I had a sudden image of me arguing with bloodsuckers over proof of the demonic while they fanged me to death.   The demons could obviously cloud vampire senses as easily as human senses. Tired, I was so tired.  Maybe getting bled out would be a good thing.  I wouldn’t have to fight anymore, and it wouldn’t be like I was giving up the demon hunting business. The blonde’s eyes widened as I was thinking this, and it was suddenly her turn to start speaking in Russian.  That was getting really annoying. I’ve always hated when people speak other languages around me.  A French-Canadian father and son vet team back home used to do it to me all the time.   Assholes.

“Well, you people don’t need me for your private conversations, so I’ll just be going.”

I stood up, wobbled a bit, and then started for the door.  One of the males moved to block me, snarling. “You go nowhere, human blood bag,” he growled.

His fangs were two inches long; his eyes were black from rim to rim. He scared me.  I don’t do well with being scared.   I started my career in being scared pretty early in life, and now it just pisses me off.  The memory popped up unbidden.

I was jammed in the hiding space that Marcus had built in the back of his closet.  He had shoved me into that space when the stranger had attacked Mom and Dad downstairs.  “Don’t you move, Christian!  You stay here till it’s clear!  No matter what!”  He shook me to make his point, the same way he had shaken me when he caught me in his room, leafing through his comics.  With one last look, my twelve-year-old big brother picked up his baseball bat from the closet corner, shoved the panel shut, and rushed from the room. Huddled on the floor, my hands over my ears to block the awful sounds, I tried not to breathe, not make a sound. Too scared to move.

The silver spike from the dancer’s shoulder was on the ground by my feet.  I scooped it up, wiped her blood off on my sleeve and took stock.  Dizzy, check.  Vision blurry, check.  Hands shaky, check. Perfect for taking on a vampire. Good night to die.  Be with ya soon, Mom and Dad.  I’ve had about enough of this ride. Time to get off.  Of course, the conversation would be different at the Precinct house.

“Hey, did ya hear about Gordon?  Sucked to death by a creepy Russian dude!”

“Well, I always knew he was gay!”

Screw it.

“Fuck off, Fang! Why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you where I keep the good silver.”  My balance shifted half an inch forward and just like that, the black-haired vampire was in front of me, facing the male.  A low growl was coming from somewhere. I couldn’t quite place it.  The male’s snarl disappeared, replaced by a look of fear, his attention centered on the small girl.

“Enough!  Arkady, get the clean-up gear and get rid of this blood.  Tanya, calm down. No one will hurt him.”

The female leader never raised her voice, but her orders lasered through the tension.  The male vanished and Tanya turned to me, the growl cutting off as she examined me curiously.  The others looked at me like I was certifiable, not an unreasonable conclusion based on my behavior.  The blonde was watching me differently, her eyes wide.  Like I had spoken my thoughts out loud.  I hadn’t, had I?

“My apologies, Officer Gordon,” the leader said. “ Arkady is a trifle overzealous.  But where are my manners?  I am Galina Demidova; you have met my daughter Tatiana.  This is Nika,” she said, pointing to the blonde in red.  “You have already met Lydia.  This is Vadim, our head of security.”

It took a second for the names to register.  Galina Demidova, reputed to own more NYC real estate than Trump, but much more secretive.  Never any pictures, lots of donations to charities, hospitals, and even one to the Police and Firefighter’s Benevolent Association.

And she was a vampire.  Then her other words hit me.  Daughter?  I looked at Tatiana or Tanya or whatever her name was and then her mother.  The resemblance was unmistakable.   Vampires have daughters?

Nika smirked at me, and another thought occurred to me. Can vampires read minds?  She smirked again.  “Some can,” she said.  Great!  Can’t keep secrets, can hardly stand up, surrounded by predators.  I glanced Heavenward, wondering for the ten thousandth time what I had ever done in this life or the previous one to deserve this.

“So, is your daughter Tatiana or Tanya? I’m confused… more confused.”

“Tatiana is her formal name, Tanya is her short name.  Like Jennifer and Jen,” Galina answered.  “Officer Gordon, would you be so kind as to tell us what happened here?”

What the Hell, why not.  Maybe it would move things along and we could get to the part where I shuffled off this mortal coil.  I gave them my narrative of the past ten minutes, although I didn’t mention the part where Tanya stuck her blood-covered finger in my mouth. For some reason, I got the impression she wouldn’t want me to.  While I talked, I used my shaky right hand to pull my ever-present pencil from my back pocket.  It’s always one of those little pencils like you get for scorekeeping at miniature golf.  A clipboard hanging nearby gave me both paper and a writing platform. Flipping to the clean back of one piece of paper, I started to draw, not bothering to look at my work.

It’s not necessary for me to look, mainly because I don’t believe that it’s me doing the drawing when this happens.  The pictures just come on their own, kind of like physic writing, I suppose.  Each time I have a vision, a drawing follows, a snapshot from the vision.  I finished my story but was still drawing.  The vampires were watching me, openly puzzled, and when the drawing was done, I handed it to Tatiana. Even though she had half-killed me, I liked her best.  Maybe they’d let her do the killing.  The image was still in my head, as it always would be. It would be graphically cartoonish, with the Hellbourne’s eyes overly large and Tatiana’s figure exaggerated.  I could recall and draw the first vision I ever had.  The drawing would be artistically perfect.  Myself, I can barely draw a stick figure.  Galina and the others moved over to look at the picture in Tatiana’s hands.

“That’s your guy… er… demon.  Demon ridden, if you want to get technical.  I call them Hellbourne.  The body is just a shell.”  I was babbling.

“How do you know all this?  How can you know all this?” Lydia asked, and then glanced apologetically at Galina, who gave her an exasperated look.

Good question. A real good question.  I pondered how to answer, worried about giving away too much.  Then it occurred to my foggy brain that it was a moot point, what with the mind reader, Nika, nearby.

“The clergy say that I’m God Touched. Personally, I think He bitch slapped me. We have agreed to disagree on that point.”

“Clergy?” Galina questioned, one eyebrow arched.

“Yeah, well, the various churches come to me for their tougher exorcisms.  The prayers and holy water routine doesn’t always work,” I answered.

“And you do?” she asked. At her side, Tatiana was just staring at me, eerily motionless.

“I don’t use their techniques. I’m more of a hands-on kinda guy.”  I shrugged.  “The entities that make up most possessions are pretty easy to yank out and send back to Hell. Plus I’m nondenominational.”

They all looked at me like I was crazy.  Great, a room full of vampires questioning my sanity.  After a moment, I continued, “You all seem to be having a lot more trouble believing me than I’m having believing all this.”  I waved my hand at all of them and at Tatiana’s blood-covered form.  Her catlike stare was starting to bother me.  I was feeling distinctly mousy.

Galina took in my comment, then abruptly changed direction.

“I’m afraid we need to ask you for your clothes, as we must burn all of Tatiana’s blood that has been spilled.  Nika, please get Tatiana cleaned up.  Lydia, would you find Officer Gordon some new clothes?”   New clothes?  Why did I need clothes at all if they were gonna kill me?

The blonde vampire grabbed Tatiana’s hand, leading her up the hall to another door marked Dressing Room.  Lydia looked me up and down, ostensibly measuring me for clothes or maybe a coffin, a sardonic grin on her face.  The hulking Vadim stepped over to me, holding out a plastic bag for my clothes.  I sighed, beginning to empty my pockets.  That done, I stripped off my ruined shirt and pants, trying not to fall over, shivering in just my boxer briefs.

“That’s what it wanted, you know.  Her blood.”  I nodded at a plastic water bottle lying on the concrete where the Hellbourne had dropped it. Galina and Vadim both started at my words, then exchanged a wordless glance.  Lydia danced back into the room, mere minutes after leaving, a stack of clothes in hand.  “Damn, Northern!  Do you live at the gym or what?” she asked, not unfriendly.

I’m only average looking, but my body is not so average. Can’t help it. My grandfather had received custody of me after the death of my family.  I lived most of my life on his four-hundred-acre farm.  First hard farm work, then after my talents appeared, heavy-duty workouts and martial arts training had left their mark on my physique.  I was probably twelve the last time I had more than ten percent body fat.  Baggy clothes help me to hide my build, as I don’t like to draw attention.

I struggled into the black leather pants that she provided, much to her amusement, and was just buttoning the waistband when Tatiana reappeared from the dressing room. Holy shit!  She must have taken the world’s fastest shower, as her long black hair lay in a damp, twisted rope down her back.  She was wearing a blue cutoff tee with the word PINK across the chest.  White designer sweats and flip-flops completed the outfit.  She looked like a dressed-down rich girl, which, actually, she was.  I knew I was staring, but couldn’t seem to stop.  The others took in my expression and then turned to look at her.   Tatiana ignored all of them, her shocking blue eyes locked onto mine.

I had a hard time deciding where to look first.  Her exposed stomach was ripped, her arms well-muscled, as were her legs where her sweats clung to them.  She was apparently braless and cold, if in fact vampires could get cold or excited.  But ultimately, I came back to her piercing eyes. They were curious and measuring.  Her gliding walk was graceful even by comparison to the other vampires, and she was right in front of me before I could quite gather my thoughts. The smell of lilac and jasmine flowed over me. Her eyes were now locked on my bare chest and after a second, I realized the talisman that hung ‘round my neck captivated her.

It was an interesting piece.  The arrowhead, made from flint, was probably early Mohawk.  I had found it my first week at my gramp’s farm.  The rawhide thong had come from a buck harvested from the farm.   The broken eagle feather behind it had its own story.  The Mohawk reservation of Akwesasne lies on the U.S./Canada border and comes equipped with a casino.  My gramps has almost no vices, but he does like to play the blackjack tables from time to time.  On one of his forays to the casino, we encountered a tribal elder of Gramps’ acquaintance.  It was he who identified the arrowhead as Mohawk and, after examining both it and me, had reached into a small leather bag that had hung around his own neck and pulled out the rounded tip of the broken eagle feather.  Smelling of pipe tobacco and leather, he had explained that he had found the partial feather and recognized that it was looking for a proper home.  While he spoke, he fastened the feather behind the arrowhead, making it both a background for the flint point and a cushion for my eight-year-old chest.  That necklace had been with me for every demon hunt and banishment that I had ever been on.  It had absorbed some of my power each time.

Tatiana reached for it tentatively and as she did, an idea occurred to me.  Again, I don’t know why it mattered, but for some reason, I still felt like I needed to protect her from the Hellbourne. In between struggling in and out of various clothes, my dizzy brain had been worrying at the problem of leaving Tatiana unguarded. I was either dead soon, or, if the clothes were a sign that I might see the morning, then I needed to go home, soon, blood loss making me completely ineffective for fighting the Hellbourne.  The vampires seemed to be useless at noticing the demon that wanted her blood.  The necklace was the answer.  While she was holding it, I took the leather thong from around my neck and slowly slipped it over her head, her big blues widening as I did it.   Arkady chose that moment to come back down the corridor, three SCUBA-sized tanks strapped together and held effortlessly in one hand, the other hand holding a sprayer wand. “Aww, is cute that we are giving friendship gifts now,” he said sarcastically.

I didn’t look up as I responded, “Well, seeing as the Hellbourne walked within two feet of your blind ass on his way to kill Tatiana, maybe you don’t have a friggin’ clue what you’re talking about?”

“You call me Tanya.  Not Tatiana,” the black haired girl said, a bit forcefully.

“Oh, er, sorry. No offense,” I said quickly. I’m so not good with girls.

Lydia spoke up. “She wants you to call her by the name her friends and family use, not her formal name.”

Her meaning was clear:  Tanya wanted me to speak to her as a friend. Not dinner.  Things might be looking up.

I backed up and examined her with my Sight, which made me even dizzier. She now stood in a sphere of purple-hued light, her own soul and aura blazing brilliant white.  Humans tend to shade toward blue, and I’m told my own aura is violet in the same shade as my odd eye color.  It looked pretty strong, but it occurred to me that I could strengthen it.

“Explain please,” Galina requested,  just shy of a command.

“Well, when I banish demons, I give off a lot of… power.  Objects made of stone tend to absorb some of that power and sort of store it, like a battery.  I usually carry a piece of carved soapstone with me when I exorcise a house or apartment, Indian fetishes. I leave it behind as a protection.  If any other demons come around, they will shy away from the stone.  They’ve helped a few people who, for one reason or another, tend to draw demonkind.”

“Is that arrowhead such a fetish?” she questioned.

“Better.  I’ve had it since I was a kid, and it’s absorbed some power every time I have kicked Hellbourne ass.  Which would be something like, oh about.. thirty-seven times or so. Not counting exorcisms,” I answered, still studying the violet sphere.  Yes, I could definitely up its amperage.

“Why?” Tanya asked.  I didn’t understand.

“Er, what?”

“Why do you give it to me?”  Her eyes were still wide and, oddly, there was something very vulnerable in them.  Vulnerable vampire?  I tried to shake it off, but her eyes mesmerized me.

“Well, the demon that wants your blood will be back.  If it is during the day tomorrow, I’ll probably be able to nail his ass. But this should protect you if I’m not here.  It will make you invisible to him and it will repel him, as well.  But I want to boost it if I can.  I’ll feel better if it is ramped up a bit more.”

I hesitated.  Galina looked at me expectantly and said, “So do it!”  Okay, that was definitely a command.

Ah shucks.  Stop.  Your profuse thanks are embarrassing me.  It seems the rich all feel the same sense of entitlement, be they vampire or human.  Fucking rich people!

Nika snorted as I thought this and covered her mouth to hide a grin.

“Well, I’m gonna spill a drop of my own blood and I’m just wondering…”

“Go ahead. We can probably control ourselves,” Galina said sardonically.

I nodded and grabbed my folding knife from the pile of pocket junk and flicked the blade open.   After pooling my aura in my right hand, I pricked my trigger finger. I push power out of my right hand and draw power in with my left.  The reason for this isn’t clear, but that’s just how it works.  I squeezed a fat drop of blood onto the tip and then dabbed it onto the back of the arrowhead. “Ah, that needs to be against your skin, um, like under your shirt,” I explained with all the composure of a three year old. Tanya tucked it into her shirt, between her breasts, her eyes watching me the whole time. The view momentarily snuffed out my feeble thoughts.  I wiped my finger on my pants and tried to ignore the way they all stared.  I rechecked the necklace. The purple sphere was now twice as big as before and much denser in color.  I don’t see auras like Reiki masters do.  No different layers, just solid hues, sometimes with streaks of other colors.

“I don’t know what you people do during the daytime, whether you go to sleep or lie in coffins or whatever, but you two,” I pointed at Nika and Lydia,  “might want to hang close to her.  It can probably protect all three of you.  You can leave Arkady out by the door as bait,” I suggested, putting my knife in my pants pocket.  A hiss sounded from the big male vamp, spraying the blood-covered wall and floor with some chemical cleaner. With nothing else to do, I wrestled myself into the white Plasma long-sleeve tee shirt that Lydia had provided.  It was a tight fit, but I immediately felt a little warmer.

“Officer Gordon, you are remarkably blasé about this situation.  Most of your kind are scared witless by our presence, if in fact they live through the introduction.  How is it that you aren’t?” Galina asked.

I snorted. “ You mean the vampire part? Most humans haven’t been hunting Hellbourne since they were twelve, either.  Actually, I don’t think any other humans do what I do. Compared to demons, you all aren’t that scary.  Plus I’m too damn tired at this point to give a crap.”

They all went spooky still and blank faced.  Ooops, wrong thing to say.  I held my hands out in a placating gesture.

“Oh, you’re scary enough, all right.  Top predators and all.  I’m sure that Lydia there could twist my head off before I got done blinking, but really, what’s the worst you can do?  Kill me?  Torture me, then kill me?  Big whup!    Hellbourne can trap or foul my soul, haul me to Hell. ”

Their faces reflected disbelief.  Nika spoke first.

“You really aren’t afraid of dying, are you?”

It was more of a statement.

“You tell me mighty, Kreskin,” I replied. “Hell, I’ve outlived my death by about fifteen years.  Actually, I was on borrowed time from the moment of birth, twenty-three years ago.  Well, twenty-three in seven more days.  If I get there.”

Vadim did the math first.  “Halloween?  You were born on Halloween?”

“Yeah. Spooky, isn’t it?”

They all looked at each other, except Tanya, who was giving me the cat stare again.

“Do you know the time of your birth?” Galina asked.  What the hell did that have to do with anything?

They were all interested, kinda of like wolves circled up for the kill.

“Well, I’m told it was midnight. But I don’t really remember, being pretty young and all,” I answered.  They were all silent, processing that piece of info, or maybe deciding if my wiseass mouth was pissing them off.

Arkady spoke suddenly from across the room.  “Killing is not the worst.  We could Turn you.”

“How is that worse?  Let’s see, if the legends are true, I would be stronger, faster, tougher, and live a lot longer.  The downside would be what, exactly?  Liquid diet?”

“Soul is lost when Turned,” he answered.

I stared at them, dumbfounded.  “My soul… lost?  Why would my soul be lost?  Yours aren’t!”

Silence.  No one made a sound for at least fifteen seconds.  It was the mind reader who spoke first.

“He believes we all still have souls,” she said.

“Yeah, because you do.  I can see them.”  I started putting the rest of my stuff away.

“You can see souls?”  Tanya asked.

“Yes.  Yours all look white to me.  Humans usually are some shade of blue.”

“Let me get this right: you think you can see souls, and you think you can see ours?” Galina asked.

“Yup.   I see all kinds of shit, some of which you apparently don’t.  How else can I see Hellbourne?  They can only occupy and use bodies that are soul-free. Meat shells.”

“What does the white mean?” Lydia interjected.

“I don’t know. Probably that you are a different species or something.  You’re each slightly different. Tanya’s is wicked bright.”

I swigged down the last of my Gatorade.

Tanya looked troubled.  “White means evil!”

“What?  Since when did white mean evil?  Why would you think that?  Black means evil.  Oily, greasy, stomach-turning black.  I don’t think you’re necessarily evil, any more than wolves, bears, or tigers are evil.  I’m not gonna lie, though.  You’re all pretty damn eerie though.”

Her expression was suddenly angry.

“You lie!  You are a liar! You know we are evil!” she said.

To say I was taken aback was an understatement.  Up until this moment, I had assumed some sort of bond or connection to her. Which, when you think about it, was really stupid. Mind-numbing stupid. The whole save, defend, heal thing.  The rest of them, I had no illusions about.  But I had fooled myself into thinking that somehow we were friends.  Idiot!  Suddenly, I was just as angry; at her, at myself, at all the stupid vampires in the room. My life sucked on a regular basis; now I was a liar?  Fuck that!

“Righhht.”  I set the empty bottle down. “Well, thanks for the clothes and Gatorade and shit.  Unless you’re gonna eat me, I’m leaving.”  I shouldered past Vadim and staggered through the ruined door, none of them moving to stop me.  The club was jumping as I entered the main floor, the deep bass of the music pushing on my ribs.  I had to grab the doorframe to steady myself for a moment.  I looked for Pella and Henderson, but when I got to our table, it was occupied by some black-garbed, chain-strewn Goths.  My coat was still on the back of one of the chairs and I grabbed it with a quick, “Excuse me. Just getting my coat.”

One said, “Dude, no prob.”

They all looked at me oddly, and one of the girls asked, “Do you work here?”

I could hear the disbelief in her voice and I realized that I was wearing the same tee shirt that the staff wore: big, blood-red Plasma spelled out diagonally across the torso.  I was dressed the part, but my tan skin and lack of grace didn’t fit.

“Oh hell no!  Just wearing the colors.”

I turned away before she could answer and put on the jacket to avoid any more questions.  “Your friends left with the girls they were hitting on.”  Lydia was suddenly standing by the stairs.

“Lucky them. Did they pay the tab?”  I asked. She shook her head.

“Bastards!  How much?”

She shrugged it off, but I persisted.  “How much?”

“One ten, but it’s on the house.”

Screw that!  I wasn’t going to owe them anything. I handed her three fifties from my money clip and left.

Chapter 2

I fumed the whole cab ride home.  It was a little past eleven-thirty when I climbed the stairs to my second-floor apartment, still berating myself for thinking this time might have been different.  Fifteen years of keeping myself distant from anyone but Gramps, and I get all giddy over the first gorgeous female vampire I happen to save.  Moron.  Asshole.

When I got inside, I only paused long enough to drop three raw eggs into a glass of orange juice and swig it down, Rocky style.  I needed the iron and protein, but I had no energy left to cook.  Couldn’t be any worse than a mouth full of vampire blood.  After that , I crashed into bed, not even bothering to undress.

Something was making a banging sound.  Banging by the door.  Banging on the door.  I staggered over and peered through the peephole.  My two neighbors from across the hall, Paige and Kathy, were standing there.  “Ah, hi, Chris,” Paige greeted me when I got the locks undone and the door open.  I knew them enough to say hi in the hallway, but that was it.

“Hi. What’s up?”   I didn’t know them very well, but they had been very nice whenever I bumped into them.  They didn’t speak for a moment, both taking in my attire, which I realized was the Plasma shirt and leather pants I had fallen asleep in.

“Do you work at Plasma?” asked Kathy, who was the taller of the two brunettes by about two inches.  That made her about five nine, or an inch shorter than me.

“No, these are borrowed.  They ruined my clothes last night and they gave me these to get home in,” I explained.

“Too bad! You oughta keep ‘em,” she said, her roommate nodding in agreement.

“No, I can’t stand the place.  I’ll be sending them back,” I stated.

“You didn’t like it?  I heard it is the best club in the city.  Maybe we could all go sometime,”  Paige gushed.  She was really cute, with short brown hair and brown eyes.  She possessed a slim runner’s build that looked great in the jeans and tees she seemed to favor.  Kathy was rail thin and pleasant looking, in a mousy kind of way, with curly brown hair and hazel eyes. They smelled like peaches and kiwi.  Must be their shampoo. I shuddered to think of these two alone in the vampire den.

“I don’t think it’s a real safe place.  But what’s up?” I brought the conversation back on point.

“Oh, we’re heading over to Chico’s for breakfast and thought you might like to come along?” Paige supplied.

My initial reflex was to decline, but now that I was up, my stomach was demanding immediate attention.  In fact, it growled right on cue.

We all laughed and after noting that it was only eight a.m., I said, “Okay, let me change real quick.”

“Oh, you should leave the Plasma shirt on…” Paige said, but I had it off before she could complete the sentence.  “Or not.”

“I’ll just be a sec,” I said, backing from the doorway with my shirt off.  I headed to the dresser as the two followed me in.

“If you went like that, Chico might give us breakfast,” Paige commented.  Chico was known to prefer shirtless men to a shirtless women.

I grabbed some jeans and a tee shirt and my North Face Jacket, ducking into the bathroom to change and brush my teeth.  I threw on my favorite hat, a Springfield Armory black ball cap emblazoned with the words Fear No Evil. Of course, it means something different to me than to most people.

When I came out, the girls were looking curiously around my tiny studio pad.  It’s small, but bright, with a high ceiling, hardwood floors, and a clawfoot tub in the bathroom.  That tub had soaked many a bruised and sore muscle during my short residence. Two big windows look out to the Northeast, and I get a great view if I step out on the fire escape. My place is uncluttered, as I have a minimalist approach to possessions.  Just one leather chair, a futon that doubles as my bed, flatscreen, compact stereo, dresser, small bookshelf, and several lamps.  A small table just outside the tiny galley kitchen doubles as a desk, and I had two chairs that went with it. One of my walls was hung with a Native American rug, in deep reds, with the silhouette of a standing bear.  Another bear, this one a large soapstone fetish from New Mexico, stood guard over the apartment from the bookshelf.  I have no Native American heritage, but I had decided as a child that my spirit guide animal would be a bear.  We were both loners and fighters, at least that’s how I looked at it.  I don’t know how the Great Bear felt about it, as I never gave him the option to say no.

The girls looked up as I came out, their curious expressions changing quickly to smiles, and we headed out.

If you had told me that an Adirondack north-country kid could be reasonably happy in the Big Apple, I would have laughed in your face.  But my neighborhood of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn is really pretty nice.  It’s mostly single-family homes, with a five- or six-story apartment building sprinkled here and there.  Lots of small trees line the street and there are tons of restaurants, bars, gyms, and small shops.  Brooklyn is the most populated borough in New York City, with a population of right around two-and-a-half million people.  Our building, on the corner of Bay Ridge Boulevard and Eighty Third Street, is a prewar elevator building, and the owners keep it up to date and very clean.  Still, I miss my forests.

Chico’s is a small corner restaurant run by a flamboyant bundle of energy who looks Hispanic but sounds Italian.  The owner was behind the counter, wearing a hot pink tee with his own name across the front, and he greeted the girls by name and me with a nod.  Chico’s is a seat-yourself kind of place, so we found a booth and settled in. Rich coffee and bacon smells were driving me crazy.  I made sure that I got the seat that faced the door, not leaving enough room for either of them to slide next to me.  The waitress swung by and brought us coffee.  During the walk over, we had all decided on omelets, so we ordered immediately.  I ordered two three-egg spinach and cheddar omelets, toast with peanut butter, and a large orange juice.

“Hungry much?” Kathy teased, her eyes mock wide at my order.

“Starving!”

“Sounds like you’re craving iron, too.  Spinach?  Six eggs?  You do look a little pale today. You’re not anemic, are you?” Kathy asked.  I remembered that she was a nutritionist at Sisters of Mercy Hospital.  Paige worked for a television production company.

“Er… not that I know of. But I haven’t been eating right, with the job and all.  Too many donuts.”

They laughed, and the topic changed to plans for the day.  “We thought we’d go to Owl’s Head Park today.  Wanna come… along?” Paige asked.

This was the part I hated.  The rebuff.   When I took up Hellbourne hunting, I pretty much gave up on friends, and particularly girlfriends.

I had had exactly one date in my life.  The end of eighth grade, I finally got up enough courage to ask Mary Chauffey to go out.  Shy, smart, and pretty, Mary was universally liked, but for one reason or another hadn’t dated many of the class boys.  I had crushed on her all year, and when I asked her to pizza and the movies, she had said yes.  The date had been great.  She had the same sense of humor that I did, but we were both too shy in school to display it.  On top of that, she was very intelligent, conversant in a lot of the science subjects that I liked.  I learned later that she had studied those topics just because I liked them.  The real problem came three days later, when I was banishing a minor house demon in Ogdensburg.  Just before I tore the vile thing from its roots and threw it to Kirby, the Collector,  it whispered her name to me.  Then it was gone, plucked from the air by Kirby’s shadowy claws, hauled back to Hell.  I sat in the dark house for thirty minutes, horror struck.  It knew her name.  The implications were immediate and horrific.

I went to school the next day and broke up with her.  It was truly awful.  She had really liked me, and I trashed it.  But the alternative was unthinkable.   Her older brother and his friend jumped me several days later.  The fight lasted twenty minutes and the cops, called by a housewife who was witness to the whole thing, broke it up.  We were all pretty beat up, but the brother had a cracked rib, his friend lost a few teeth.  My face and body were black and blue for a month.  Because the witness had seen them jump me, I didn’t go to jail, but if I had been on the social fringe before, I was a true outcast from then on.

So I had to turn Paige and Kathy down easy.

“Aw, I’ve something I have to do today.  It’s gonna take me most of the day.”  I wasn’t lying. I would be lucky if my project didn’t go into nighttime.

“Really, all day?  Isn’t this your first day off in, like, forever?” Kathy asked.  Paige didn’t say anything, but I saw a flicker of disappointment cross her face.

“Yeah, I know. But it’s a commitment I can’t break.  Believe me, I would rather not do it.”

“You know, Chris, you work way too much.  You’re like, never home.”  Kathy was still carrying the conversation, but her tone was crisp.

The waitress brought our food, and I tucked in.   The girls started a two-way conversation that excluded me, punishment for not accepting their invite.  I understood.  I was being a jerk, and they knew it.  Hell, I had been rebuffed myself, just last night.

We finished breakfast and I excused myself, receiving a cold goodbye from each of them.  Better that way.

Back at the apartment, I got set for the day.  Changing into running clothes and equipping my runner’s chest pack, I paused to consider the events of the previous night.

Vampires were real.  Not that big of a shocker to someone in my line of work.  But there were a thousand mysteries around Plasma’s resident coven.

First, Tatiana was obviously Galina’s daughter, but how did that happen?  Was Galina turned after Tatiana was born?  Did she turn Tatiana?

The other vampires treated Tatiana very deferentially.  At the same time, the hulking Arkady had been genuinely afraid of the tiny girl vampire when she had protected me.  Which was also a puzzle: why had she interceded?  But the number one question had to be the mystery of the Hellbourne’s interest in Tatiana. Galina and Vadim hadn’t contradicted my theory that it had wanted the young vampire’s blood.  Why would it want her blood?  Why did Galina have our clothes burned to destroy her blood?  It all revolved around the quiet, raven-haired vampire.  Truth be told, she hadn’t been far from my thoughts since I woke up.

I shrugged into the Civilian Labs chest pack, which was packed with my badge, wallet, cash, cell phone, and issue Glock 9mm and one spare magazine of ammo.  Hellbourne are tough, but a hollow point bullet in the brain will ruin their day. Tying up my Asics, I headed out at a jog.

My plan was to patrol the area around Plasma for the day, evening, and night if necessary.  The Hellbourne would be back; all I could hope was that it happened within the next twenty-four hours.  I was a little concerned about my ability to fight.  By best estimation, based on the dizziness, cold shakes, and lack of mental focus last night, Tatiana had drained me of something like fifteen percent of my blood supply.  Oddly, I wasn’t appalled by that. She had needed it to survive. I should have been terrified by it. Despite her sudden anger at me the previous night, I hoped she was all right. Her beautiful face hung in my mind’s eye, her expression vulnerable and innocent. Idiot! I shook my head to clear and focus.  My arm was completely healed, and I felt good—really good, in fact.  My vision, hearing, and sense of smell all seemed extra crisp.   And as I started to jog, my legs felt great and my breathing was steady and even.  It made me wonder about the small amount of blood she had made me ingest.

Plasma was on Third Ave., about ten blocks north of my apartment.  The smells from all the restaurants immediately drove me crazy.  It was like I could almost pick out the individual spices and foodstuffs.  The single best part of living in the City has to be the incredible array of food.  Turkish, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Scandianvian, Hungarian, Russian, Italian, German, French, Jewish, Middle Eastern, you name it and I’ll lead you to the restaurants that serve it.  If gambling was Gramps’ vice, food was mine.  Gotta have something to fill in for all the sex I wasn’t ever going to have.  And with my workout schedule, I burned it off as fast as I ate it.  Although it did strike me as odd that I was already hungry forty minutes after that huge breakfast I had scarfed down.

Finally, I stopped and grabbed a shawarma sandwich from a Middle Eastern place.  Hot, spicy beef and lamb strips in pita with tahini. Yum. I ate it in five bites while running, the spices bursting on my tongue.

Plasma occupied an unassuming two-story brick building with almost no exterior features of interest.  Before I got near it, I swung down a side street and ran a circuit behind it on Fourth Avenue.  I couldn’t see the back of the building, so I stopped running and walked down an alley between a news store and kosher deli.  As I walked, the thought struck me that the vampires probably didn’t live in the club.  The Demidovas were sure to have a big, expensive residence someplace, but I didn’t have a clue where.  Suddenly panicky, I visualized the Hellbourne breaking into some huge brownstone and slaughtering Tatiana as she slept.

Idiot. I hadn’t even thought it through.  Now what the hell was I gonna do?  Oddly, I flashed to a memory of Gramps teaching me about survival.  We were with the Search and Rescue group that he helped regularly, and he was instructing me in how not to panic.  “What do you do if you’re lost, Chris?”  he had asked.  One of the other guys, a local sheriff’s deputy, had chimed in, “Drop your pants and start to jerk off!  Someone’s bound to see you!”  When the laughter had died down, Gramps had pushed me for an answer.

“Stop and take stock?  Then prioritize?”  I said.

“Very good, Chris.  Always prioritize.   Think your way out. Use your big brain.  Not your little brain, like Steve over there.” He said, pointing to the deputy.

So I thought about the Demidovas and who might know where their house was.  Michel St. James was a freelance society reporter whose articles appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and half a dozen other publications.  He sometimes hosted a cable station show of similar ilk, and that was how he knew Paige.  I met him one night when Kathy and Paige threw a party.  A couple of acquaintances had crashed the party and were giving Michel a hard time.  Abrasive and condescending, he had an irritating effect on people.  Coming back from a house cleansing, I interrupted the unpleasant scene and threw them out.  It would be worth a phone call.  411 had his number, and he picked up on the third ring.  “Hallo, theeeese is Michel.”  His accent was very affected.

“Michel, this is Chris Gordon, Paige and Kathy’s neighbor.”

“Yes, I remember,” he drawled nonchalantly, but I could hear curiosity in his voice.

“I’m trying to get to Galina Demidova’s place, and I wondered if you knew the address.”

“Why would you be going to Galina’s place?”  His voice was a subtle mix of condescension, disbelief, and wariness.

“Look, I am supposed to do some security work there and none of the other guys that are working are picking up their phones,” I lied.  Michel knew I was a cop, and it would make perfect sense for me to be acting as security. Certainly there could not possibly be any other reason.  It was also a not-too-subtle reminder of my help with his own security.

“Weell, of course I’ve been to her place.  Brooklyn Heights, Willow Street, if I recall.  Let me look it up.”

I hailed a cab while he rustled up the street number.  No way was I gonna run all the way there.  Not enough time.   I told the driver Willow Street in the Heights and then Michel’s fake French accent came back on the cell.

“Ett is 119 Willow, Christian.”  I thanked him roughly and hung up, repeating the number to the driver, whose name was Ismahel, according to his cabbie card.

The Demidova residence was a five-story brownstone in the glitzy, nose-in-the-air neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.  There was also a basement below street level. It probably went for four to six million and must have had over seven thousand square feet of space.  I had the taxi drive past it and then got out on the opposite side of the street, eyeballing the place for detail.  The front would be well guarded, as would the back.

A vision hit just then.  A deck, a French door, and a bland reflection in the glass of the door.  I broke into a jog and ran around the block. Of course, the house was located right in the middle of the block, giving me the longest possible run to get behind it.  Immediately, I spotted the deck, on top of a bump-out from the first and second floors.  The deck was likely accessed from the third floor, but I could see how easy it would be for a demon-ridden meat shell to climb the exterior after first getting into the first level’s walled garden space.  Discreet security cameras were visible to my trained eye, but the human security guards would not likely notice the Hellbourne.  Not wanting to get shot, I pulled my badge from my chest pack and dangled it around my neck.  Then I studied the garden wall.

About eight feet high and clear of any climbable objects.  Piece of cake for the eerily-quick demonkind, but a pretty good obstacle for me.  Backing up, I visualized a big Rottweiler chasing me for inspiration, then ran hard at the wall, bounding off my right foot.  The fingers of both hands caught the top, fingers scrabbling on the crumbly brick of the old wall.  Just like that, I was up, feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Then two things happened simultaneously.

The whirring of a security camera spinning caught my ears, and the oily, dark presence of Hellbourne pressed on my aura like a bowling ball on a trampoline.  It was here, close and moving.  I jumped to the stained concrete surface of the garden, knocking over a potted cedar tree as I landed.  The outer walls were lined with fruit trees and bushy conifers.  An ornate yellow-metal trellis was centered over a pair of sitting benches, the top curved like the golden arches of McDonalds.  Ahead of me, I could see the brick wall of the bump out that held the deck as its roof.  The back door opened and two burly men in dark suits came out, their steady stares glued to me like frat boys watching a beer truck.  “Sir, stop right there. This is private property,” said the first, a wall of crew-cut beef with pale blue eyes rolling toward me in a great impersonation of an Abrams main battle tank.  The second, even bigger, black with black eyes, hove into sight behind him like a naval vessel.  Where did they grow these guys?  I ignored his comments, as a rustle-smack sound announced the bland man-thing landing ten feet from me and moving toward the bump-out wall.  I raced to intercept it, the security guys completely ignoring it.  The Abrams tank guy held up a salad-plate-sized hand , but I swerved around him like he was in slow motion and grabbed the ankle of the Hellbourne as it climbed the wall.  It climbed with my full weight hanging from it for a moment, then fell back to the garden, its grip slipping.  The two security hulks had stopped to process the unexpected sight of the demon.  Once my hand touched it, its cloak was shot and it had become visible to them.  I couldn’t be bothered.  I was busy getting a modified arm bar on it to hold it just long enough to rip it loose.  Jujitsu and wrestling are heavy components of my own style of unarmed combat, as much of my time is spent getting my prey into position to rip them from their shells.   Its left hand was under my right armpit, my right hand pressing the center of its back, my left on its chest. Time is short in these encounters, as Hellbourne are not put off by things like broken elbow joints or choke holds.  A lifetime of practice made it easy to force my will and aura through the demon’s body from my right hand and pulling the foul thing free of the meat shell with my left.  Noxious sulfer stink burned my eyes, nose, and mouth like a hunting camp full of overweight beer drinkers after a night of cheap beer and pickled eggs.  The demon made an audible wet, ripping sound as it pulled free from the body, and I was left holding a roiling blob of greasy blackness in my left hand.  Quick as thought, I flung the noisome thing straight up while calling >Kirby< in my mind.  The dark shadow-hawk form of the Collector popped into being above us, gripping the black form of the Hellbourne in both smoky talons.  Two flaps of car-hood-sized wings, and it popped back out of our plane of existence, hauling the demon to who-knew-where.  I lay there panting like I had run a marathon, tangled in the limbs of the suddenly dead body.

Copyright John Conroe