I’ve had more than my share of those dreams where I show up somewhere naked. My high school reunion, my cousin’s wedding reception, double coupon day at the Piggly Wiggly – my goodies are on display. And in every dream, I’ve dealt with it by pretending I wasn’t the only leafless tree in the forest. I’m not sure if it ever fooled anyone, but it got me through.
It’s when I’m awake that the real trouble starts. I’m a demon slayer – as of two weeks ago.
Lord help us all.
For me, being a demon slayer is kind of like showing up naked everywhere I go. I have to let it all hang out and do my best with what I’ve got. Because if I fail, I could get somebody killed…or worse. Believe me, I think of that every day.
The Hairy Hog biker bar stood on an acre and a half of scrub brush, right off Highway 40. The beer was cold, the pool table fixed and the juke box jinxed to play two-for-one Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not that we’d been able to enjoy it for long.
We were blowing through Defiance, New Mexico, with my grandma’s gang of witches on a somewhat sensitive, definitely secretive rescue. Good thing the biker code didn’t leave room for our hosts at the Hairy Hog to be asking a lot of awkward questions.
We’d stopped long enough to buy a few rounds downstairs before bunking in the attic. Well, some of us. I crept back into the bar with the sunrise and saw that the rest of the “Freebird” crowd had opted simply to pass out in their wooden bar chairs and on the stained concrete floor. From the look of it, not to mention the smell, they’d spilled as much booze as they drank.
I fiddled with one of my silver stud earrings like I did every time I was nervous. Just my luck the sleeping beauties weren’t going anywhere.
Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the mule. I hadn’t wanted to do this in front of people, unconscious or not.
“Pardon,” I mumbled as I braced one hand on a rust-flecked cigarette machine and eased a black boot up and over the very hairy man who seemed to be using the selection knobs for a pillow. His mouth slacked open and a snore rumbled in his throat. Of course he wouldn’t have noticed if I’d tap danced across his what-nots, but I was raised as a good Southern girl and, well, old habits die hard.
I blew out a breath and smoothed my purple suede skirt. Things would work out. They had to. I didn’t even want to think of what could happen otherwise.
Instinct had pulled me out of bed at dawn. I’d dressed quickly and strapped on my weapons. My new demon slayer mojo gave me an insane attraction to trouble. Right now, it was leading me to the long, dark hallway that ended at the kitchen of the Hairy Hog. I cleared my throat against the stale cigarette smoke crowding the narrow space, as if the worst wasn’t right around the corner.
My heels struck the floor like gunshots, but there was nothing I could do. Chances were, whatever was in the kitchen knew I was coming.
Focus. I touched one hand to the rough, wood planks that lined the hallway. The other, I rested on the round, flat switch stars at my belt. They were the demon slayer weapon of choice, and let’s just say I didn’t go anywhere these days without them.
My heart pounded. I focused my breathing, prepared for the attack. I could see the danger like a dot of light in my mind.
A grinding, screaming machine kicked on. Demonic robots? I ran the last three yards, kicked my way past a plastic trash can and threw the kitchen door open.
“Eeeeeya!” I hollered, ready to strike.
Grandma lurched away from the sink, clutching a handful of her Hairdoo by Harley T-shirt. “Crimeny!” She hollered in a rusty Southern twang born from years of Metallica concerts and Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. “You want me to reach seventy-nine?”
“Stay where you are.” Grandma wasn’t the type to let herself get ambushed. But there was something very, very wrong in here.
I scanned the small industrial kitchen. An exhaust fan rattled over the stove. Dented pots hung from nails tacked into the wall and an ancient refrigerator huddled in the corner. Crumbs littered the counter, along with empty pretzel bags and a half-collapsed beer can pyramid. The place reeked of overcooked grease and sour mayonnaise. At least I didn’t detect the sulfuric stench of demons. “Cut the disposal,” I said.
“Oh for the love of Pete.” Grandma shoved her long gray hair out of her eyes and flipped a switch. The metal monstrosity grumbled to a stop.
“Keep back,” I ordered. A large pot rumbled on the stove. Perhaps full of imps or other minions of the devil? I stalked the stainless steel vessel of evil.
Grandma threw a skinny yet surprisingly strong arm in front of me. “Don’t open that. Those poached eggs have at least another minute left.”
“Well geez, Grandma.” How could she be worrying about eggs at a time like this? I surveyed the kitchen again. I had to be missing something. The chill along my spine, the fear at the back of my throat, my basic demon slayer instincts had never lied to me before.
“Did you know your left eye is starting to twitch?” Grandma asked. “You need to chill out. You’re tighter than a bull’s ass at fly time.”
Sure. Relax. If I’d done that last week, Grandma would still be in the second layer of hell. I was the slayer of the group – the only one who could kill demons. I was also insanely attracted to anything that could chop off my head, steal my soul or wipe out North America. And right now, no one seemed to care but me.
I blew out a breath.
Problem was, I was still fine-tuning my supernatural compass. That meant my apocalyptic danger radar also tended to zone in on poisonous snakes, rabid bats and telemarketers.
And now a dirty kitchen, a pot of poached eggs and – Grandma.
A wave of suspicion swept over me. “What are you up to in here?” Knowing Grandma, it didn’t stop at breakfast. She believed in a loosey-goosey fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants magic. For the longest time, she hadn’t had much of a choice. Her coven spent the last thirty years on the run from a fifth-level demon. They’d gone from borderline hippie to, well, biker.
I’d recently killed the demon who’d chased them all over kingdom come. Still, I supposed old habits died hard. If Grandma thought that meant I’d let her get away with this, she’d been breathing diesel fumes for too long.
Grandma blustered like I was the one driving her crazy.
I ignored her and slid past a can of cooking grease. “What were you grinding in the sink?”
“None of your beeswax,” she said, cutting me off with a flick of the disposal on-button. The machine screeched to life.
I kicked my way past a trash can. Grandma blocked me with her butt. Too bad for her stubbornness ran in the family. I thrust a leg past her. She maneuvered her apple-shaped body between me and whatever she had going in the sink.
Her hair tangled over her shoulders and hid her face. “Lizzie, I hate to say it, but scram,” she bellowed above the grinding as she shoved an ominous wad of something down the disposal.
“Grandma,” I warned.
“I’m fixing your problem.” She grabbed another wad of yellow from her back pocket and jammed it down the drain. “Thirty seconds and the clanging in your head will be gone.”
Why did I get the feeling that was more bad than good? I flicked off the machine. “They have four trash cans in here,” I said. All overflowing with beer bottles from the night before. “Why is it so important to mash a wad of – oh help me Rhonda.”
The gold seal of the Department of Intra-Magical Matters (DIM) clung to the top of the soggy, chewed-up mess of paper. I’d only been a demon slayer for two weeks, but I knew you didn’t want to tangle with those guys.
I inhaled sharply. “Are those tickets?”
Grandma puffed her hair out of her face and the phoenix tattoo on her arm sagged like the jowls of a bulldog. “Told ya you shouldn’t have looked,” she said “No why don’t you mosey along and let me get rid of these for you?”
I about choked. “Those are mine?” I scrambled past her to dig the mangled mess out of the sink. I nicked my fingers on the blades of the disposal, knocked my wrist against the drain. My stomach knotted. “Impossible!” These couldn’t be mine. I’d never even had a speeding ticket before. I’d never had a library late fee. I always showed up at least thirty minutes early for my teaching job at Happy Hands Preschool. I did everything right.
Until I became a demon slayer.
Hands shaking, I pried apart the sopping wet charges: Unlicensed Exorcism, two counts of Unsanctioned Demonic Warfare, at least eleven counts of Unauthorized and Overt Magical Destruction.
God bless America.
“Now don’t you wish I’d shredded ’em?” Grandma said, flicking part of a ticket from the sleeve her T-shirt. She coiled a thumb through the silver studded belt at her waist. “You wouldn’t have passed the licensing exam anyway.”
“Licensing exam?” I was supposed to have a license? Two weeks ago, I hadn’t even known my family was magical, much less come face to face with demons, werewolves and that particularly nasty creature who lived in the back of my demon slayer utility belt. “How am I supposed to pass a licensing exam? You haven’t taught me anything.”
Most slayers trained their whole lives. I got zip.
“Hey.” Grandma brought a finger up. Her silver raccoon ring glinted with the rising dawn. “I’m a big believer in on-the-job training.”
“Fan-frickin’-tastic,” I said, panic rising, water from the tickets dripping off my elbows. “I’m glad that works for you. But let me ask you one very, very important thing – how is that going to help me?”
Grandma’s eyes darted toward the doorway and I followed her gaze just in time to see Dimitri, my strong-as-sin boyfriend, lean up against the doorframe, his large hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee. He raised a brow. “Is there a problem in here?” He ran a rough hand through his tousled hair and my body warmed as I remembered exactly how it had gotten that way.
Dimitri couldn’t help – not with this. He’d already taught me what he could. Grandma was supposed to be my true mentor, the family member I needed to fulfill my heritage, grow stronger, avoid demon-slaying violations.
She gave Dimitri the stink eye. The man was six feet of raw Mediterranean heat and power. He also happened to be a shape-shifting griffin and – don’t ask me why – but witches loved griffins. Well, every witch except Grandma. She popped open her claw-shaped pinkie ring.
“We don’t have time for this,” I told her as a skunklike scent filled the air.
Naturally, she didn’t listen. Grandma dashed a fine yellow powder at Dimitri. “Superio casuico retratum!”
Dimitri had the nerve to be amused. He crossed his arms over his chest and challenge shone in his eyes. “Even if it shrank, it’d still be quite formidable.”
I didn’t want to know. “Can we get back on topic here?” I asked.
“Aw, for the love of…” Grandma rushed over to the stove and yanked the lid off the pot. Steam billowed out as she poked at the eggs with a fork. “Dammit. They’re overcooked.”
“We don’t have time for breakfast anyway,” Dimitri said. “I’ve got the witches lining up. Except for about ten stubborn souls, everyone’s relatively cognizant. We need to get moving. Lizzie, your dog wants to ride with Crazy Frieda.” He must have seen my spirit deflate, because he winked and added, “She’s been slipping him beef jerky.”
It did make me feel a bit better. Pirate tended to think with his stomach.
My fingers went to the emerald pendant Dimitri had given me. “Why didn’t you tell me about the Demon Slayer Licensing Exam?”
“Exam?” He seemed genuinely puzzled. Well of course he didn’t know. How could he?
How could I?
Dimitri eliminated the space between us and folded me into his arms. I closed my eyes, letting his warmth wash over me.
“We’ll worry about it later,” he said, kissing me on the top of the head. “You can’t plan everything.”
No, but I could sure try.
He gave me a squeeze. “I’m going to unlodge the Defiance road captain from under the pool table so I can thank him for his hospitality. You two, be out in ten.”
“Fine,” I snapped, suddenly cold and royally annoyed that he had everything under control. As always.
Meanwhile, the all-powerful demon slayer didn’t know what she was doing. “How am I supposed to pass this test?”
Grandma brushed past me, dumping the ruined eggs onto a platter, presumably for the bikers who were too hung over to know better.
“You won’t pass the test,” Grandma said, sliding the platter into the fridge. “Forget about it. We’ll head to Vegas. You’ll be in and out before they even know you’re there.”
“I think they know I’m here already.” I clutched the sorry-looking tickets until even more water dripped out. “What am I going to do?”
Grandma eyed the garbage disposal.
“Except that,” I said.
I didn’t have money for a bunch of fines, even if the instructions to pay hadn’t been recently pulverized. My eye caught a particularly troublesome line: all unlicensed demon slaying activity must cease, or, I gulped, “They’re going to shoot me on sight?”
Grandma pried a pair of silver-framed reading glasses from the back pocket of her skinny jeans. Rhinestone clusters in the corners twinkled as she peered at the death threat. “Oh, yeah. I forgot about that part. Maybe you do need to get your license.”