Stealth Guardian Manus is charged with stopping the daughter of a murdered emissarius from investigating her mother’s death in order to prevent her from discovering that demons and Stealth Guardians exist. But Kim needs answers, answers that will put her on a collision course with the demons she’s ill equipped to fight.
Closing her eyes, Kim turned her face into the spray of the shower and allowed the warm water to rinse away the soap. The water pressure wasn’t quite as strong as she was used to from her own condo. After all, her childhood home, which Kim’s mother now occupied alone, was an old house with aging pipes, creaking stairs, and oodles of character. Her own place in a turn-of-the-century warehouse-turned-condo-building was currently undergoing some minor renovations after her upstairs neighbor’s negligence had caused water damage to several floors in the building.
Kim had opted for staying with her mother while the work to her condo was being done rather than staying with her fiancé, Todd. He’d been taken aback by her decision to stay with her mother. Her excuse that the commute from his suburban home to the internet news blog she worked for as an investigative journalist was too long hadn’t quite convinced him.
“You work remotely half the time anyway,” Todd had said.
He had a point. A good one.
Still, she hadn’t let him talk her into staying with him and instead taken up residence in her childhood bedroom. Maybe it was a sign that their relationship had moved into a direction she wasn’t ready for. Though they were engaged, no date for the wedding had been set. The fact that she was fine with that didn’t exactly make her a model fiancée. She should be browsing bridal magazines and planning her dream wedding, but she couldn’t get into the mood for it.
To Kim’s surprise, her mother had brought up the matter only a few nights earlier over a late glass of wine.
“Maybe Todd isn’t the right guy for you.”
“Mom? Are you drunk? You adore Todd.”
“Of course, I do, but do you?” her mother had retorted so quickly that Kim had been stunned into silence.
She’d been unable to give an answer to that question. And even now, several days later, the question remained unanswered. Not that her mother had pressed her for a response. Maybe the question had been simply meant as a thought-provoking exercise, part of a game her mother had played with her when Kim had been a teenager. A game that had fueled her inquisitive nature and taught her never to accept anything at face value.
Kim sighed and turned off the water. She pushed the curtain back and reached for the towel when she heard a loud thud from downstairs. Had her mother come home?
Instinctively she ripped the towel from the rack and pressed it to her front.
She didn’t expect an answer. If her mother was downstairs, she wouldn’t be able to hear her calling out from the upstairs bathroom. Not with the door closed. Kim shook her head. She was used to her condo, where everything was open plan, and the partitions in the loft-like space weren’t soundproof.
Another thud followed by shattering porcelain or glass sent her heartbeat racing. She tossed the towel on the hamper, snatched her bathrobe from the hook on the door, and slipped it on quickly, already opening the door.
“Mom, what’s going on?” she called out toward the stairs, hurrying toward them.
Grunting sounds drifted upstairs, then a high-pitched yelp.
Panic flooded her now. Was her mother having a seizure of some sort?
“Mom, hold on, I’m coming.”
Kim flew down the stairs, having to hold on to the railing so she wouldn’t slip with her wet bare feet. She missed the last step, slipping on the landing, and would have slammed into the front door had she not been gripping the old mahogany rail.
A whooshing sound made her snap her head to the right, where an open arch led into the living room. Kim froze. The area of the living room she could see from her vantage point was in disarray. Broken porcelain was strewn over the carpet, a lamp lay on the ground, the coffee table was turned over. But while she noticed those things, her focus was drawn to something else.
At the spot where the coffee table had stood, a mass of smoke was swirling in a circle. But there was no fire. No heat. No smell. Just smoke or black fog swirling around as if it were a tornado or a black hole. Only it wasn’t a vertical tornado but a horizontal one. And in the middle of it she noticed a leg disappearing, as if a person had stepped into the fog hole.
Kim gasped and shivered at the same time, suddenly feeling the cold from the odd phenomenon. She took a step toward it, and the swirling mass shrank. Another step, and it shrank even more as if it was being sucked into nothingness. A second later it was gone completely, leaving no traces of its existence behind, except that it now revealed what it had hidden.
She lay several feet behind the spot where the mysterious tornado-like mass had manifested.
Kim barreled toward her and crouched down. “Mom! Mom!”
There was no response.
“No! No, please no!”
She looked into her mother’s pale face, felt her skin, searched for her pulse.
Kim’s heart beat into her throat. But it was the only heart in the room that was beating. Because her mother’s had stopped.
She gripped her mother’s shoulders, shook her. Her head rolled to the side, her long hair falling to the floor, away from her neck. That’s when Kim saw why her mother’s heart wasn’t beating anymore, why her lungs weren’t drawing another breath. Strangulation marks.
Something wet dripped onto her mother’s cheek. A tear. Kim’s tear. Another followed until rivulets streamed down Kim’s face, running along each side of her nose, touching her lips until she tasted the salt on her tongue. Numbness engulfed her. Or was it desperation? Grief? Pain? Rage? Whatever it was, it reverberated inside her, asking the same question again and again: Who or what had killed her mother? Who or what had snuffed out her life in such a violent way?
~ ~ ~
Zoltan punched Frederic, his underling, in the face. “You did what?”
“She wasn’t talking.” The coward lowered his eyes, too scared to face his master. And so he should be. Because what he’d done demanded punishment. Severe punishment.
They were alone in Zoltan’s private study in the Underworld, the vast system of caves and tunnels the Demons of Fear called their home and expanded daily. The smell of sulfur was strong in the tunnels, but the caves Zoltan had chosen for himself smelled less pungent. For some reason, he’d always hated the smell of the Underworld even though he was a demon through and through. And not only that, he was the strongest, the fiercest, the most brutal and ruthless among them. Because that’s what it took to be their leader, to be the Great One, the ruler of the Underworld. Because only ruthless men got to rule the world. Everybody else would collapse under the weight of it.
“Of course, she wasn’t talking.” Zoltan grabbed his subject by the throat and started squeezing his windpipe. “Would you be talking if you were being strangled?”
The idiot fought against Zoltan’s hold, a futile measure if there ever was one. His defiance alone would cost him dearly.
Zoltan loosened his grip and let go of his demon subject. Frederic coughed instantly and sucked air into his lungs. He appeared relieved.
“Did you search her place for it?” Zoltan asked gruffly, already guessing the answer. After all, the man had returned from his excursion up top empty-handed.
“I did. Turned the house upside down. It wasn’t there.”
There was a flicker in the demon’s eyes, one Zoltan didn’t miss. He rarely missed anything, particularly not a bold-faced lie. All his demons lied. Whether it was inbred or out of fear of him, he didn’t particularly care. No matter the reason, a lie was a lie and a breach of loyalty. And he demanded absolute loyalty from his subjects and didn’t care how he got it. And how he kept it. If it meant killing one of his underlings in order to impress the importance of obedience on his subjects, so be it. Because no Great One could rule the Underworld without blindly obedient subjects who didn’t ask questions.
“It wasn’t there, you say,” Zoltan repeated now, keeping his voice even. “Did you search her office?”
“Her home office? Yes, of course.”
“I mean her office at the museum, you idiot,” Zoltan ground out from between clenched teeth. A liar and an idiot. The demon’s chances of surviving this interview diminished with every stupid word coming out of his mouth.
“Nobody said, I mean, I wasn’t told…”
No initiative either. No redeeming qualities whatsoever.
“I see. Tell me again which rooms you searched in the woman’s home before she surprised you.”
“Uh, I got in through the kitchen. The door was locked, but I could see inside, so I used a vortex.”
“A vortex, you idiot? If you could see inside, it means the door was glass. You could have smashed it rather than take such a risk.” If a human saw the vortex, questions would be raised. And the Stealth Guardians would be on their ass again. “Stupid!” Zoltan pounded his hand against the mantle of his fireplace.
“But, but I thought… I didn’t want them to hear me. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Zoltan let out a growl. Then he suddenly snapped his head toward Frederic. “Them?”
The demon’s head whipped back, and his eyes widened. “Uh…”
Zoltan grabbed him by the collar. “She wasn’t alone? You left a witness alive?”
“Yes, no. Uh…”
“Which is it?” Zoltan bared his teeth. “Who was with her?”
“Her daughter. But she didn’t see me. I’m sure of that.”
“How can you be sure?”
“She was taking a shower upstairs when I entered. I never went upstairs. And I was gone before she came downstairs. I swear.”
Zoltan shook his head. He’d just caught the idiot lying. “You said you turned the house upside down and searched everywhere.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So, you insist on continuing to lie to me.” Zoltan slammed his underling against the wall. “You just said you never went upstairs. So, you never searched the entire house.”
Frederic swallowed visibly. “I can go back,” he offered hastily. “The daughter won’t be a problem. I can kill her, if you want.”
Zoltan lifted his hand to stop him. “I’ll send somebody.” Somebody more capable than this imbecile. “The daughter will do the search for us. We’ll just need to watch her.”
“Huh?” Frederic asked, clueless.
“She’ll be handling her mother’s estate and go through all her possessions. We’ll just need to be patient.” And not do anything else stupid that could draw the Stealth Guardians’ attention onto them.
Zoltan stared at his subject. “Yes indeed.” And he’d just had an even better one. He put his hand on the mantle and pressed an indentation. Soundlessly, a flat stone in the oversized fireplace slid back and revealed what was beneath it: a lava pit.
The smell of sulfur alerted his underling to it, and he turned his head toward it. Too late. Zoltan already had him by the throat and tossed him toward the opening. Frederic fought against him, trying to grip the stone surrounding the fireplace, but his hands didn’t find purchase.
“Next time, don’t lie to me.”
With a kick in the stomach, Zoltan sent his subject backward.
Screams of pain filled the study, but not for long. Within seconds, the demon’s body was burning up and sinking deeper.
Zoltan pressed the indentation in the mantle again and watched the slab of stone slide back in place.
For today, his work was done. Tomorrow, he would send his best demons out to watch the dead woman’s daughter. This time, the Stealth Guardians wouldn’t get their hands on what Zoltan coveted: a treasure trove of secrets that could spell the end of the guardians’ reign.