Six hours ago, men in dark suits and sunglasses came looking for me.
Four hours ago, they offered me training to hunt the things that killed my family: demons.
Two hours ago, I joined their secret organization—the CGE.
Now… All I have to do is survive demon-hunter school.
The classes won’t kill me, but the finals might.
#17 on Amazon’s Teen Literature & Fiction Bestseller List – March 2013
Genre: YA, Urban Fantasy
Length: Novel (91,000 words/310 pages)
eBook Price: $3.99
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Vlog of blogger Kat (The Queen of Tarts) reading an excerpt
“There are people here to see you, Jade.”
I turned my head toward the door. Mrs. Gill stood at the doorway to my shared-room wearing her customary disappointed look—the pucker purse, which was why I silently referred to her as Fishface.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said automatically, speaking more out of habit than guilt. I wasn’t guilty of anything this time. Staying out of trouble in a house with eight other people who all hated your guts wasn’t an easy feat, but I’d been managing. Mostly.
Fishface rolled her eyes and planted her hands on her hips in one of her favorite stances. “Oh, don’t try that look of innocence on me. I’ve been around you long enough to know you can’t pull it off. Now hurry up. They’re in my living room. Waiting,” she snapped. She twisted around to leave. I started to make a face but stopped when she glanced over her shoulder and shot me a dirty look. “And keep your mouth shut.” Her tone was a low whisper now. “Don’t think for a second I won’t find out if you say anything.”
I gave a mental eye-roll. Her warning was clear: if you tell them the truth, that I’m an evil witch that shouldn’t be trusted with a demonic dog, I’ll find out—again—and make your life even more of a living hell.
I smiled at her, but there was nothing sincere about it and we both knew it. “Your secrets are safe with me, Mrs. Gill.” And just because I knew it’d have her seething, I added a wink.
She spared me one last glare, plastered her I’m-a-good-role-model smile on her face, then stormed away.
I let out a long sigh and dropped back, making the bed squeak. Sitting up again, I ran my fingers through my hair. The last time someone came to see me, I’d ended up getting a lecture about running away and what a wonderful opportunity I was wasting when someone as kind and generous as Mrs. Gill took me in. Read: no one else wants you, and she’s the only one crazy enough to put up with you.
The one time I pointed out that Mrs. Gill was paid to take me—and other girls—in, I was reminded it was better than being in a juvenile detention center. I wasn’t so sure.
Can’t avoid this forever and can’t jump out the window. They’d all been boarded up since I got to Mrs. Gill’s (aka The Pond), probably to deter the others from sneaking out and running away. It didn’t work. With or without the bars, we’d all snuck out more times than we could count. Though for some reason, I seemed to be the only who got caught or got in trouble for it.
I stood up and headed toward the living room. My stomach twisted and turned, and I tried ignoring the feeling that I had a black cloud hanging over my head with a bolt of lightning just waiting to strike me down.
Mrs. Gill and two of the other girls (aka the Tadpoles) were sitting on the couch. They both wore the same fake pod-people smiles as Fishface. At the front door, two men in dark suits and dark sunglasses stood like statues. Both of their mouths were set in thin, unhappy lines.
By their matching suits, shoes, and broody expressions, I guessed they were cops. It wasn’t my first encounter with them, and I doubted it’d be the last, but I couldn’t figure out why they wanted me this time. I hadn’t done anything to warrant a visit, unless thinking bad things counted.
And if that’s the case, then I’m guilty as charged.
Maybe Mrs. Gill called in some fake report. She hated me, I hated her, and I wouldn’t put it past her to try something like that to get rid of me.
The men nodded when they spotted me. I gave a nonchalant shrug, then quickly wiped my sweaty hands down my pants. “Yeah?”
The taller of the two men stared at me and lowered his sunglasses, revealing eyes the color of Mrs. Gill’s favorite drink: rum and coke. His hair was brown and shaggy, not quite meeting the suit-and-tie look. He was kinda cute for a cop. “I’m Mr. Holt,” he said, then indicated to his partner. “This is Mr. Walden.”
Mr. Walden had slicked back black hair. He never removed his sunglasses, so I didn’t know what color eyes he had. Of the two, he seemed most comfortable in a suit.
Mr. Holt spared Mrs. Gill a look, and then said, “We’d like a word with you. In private.”
Fishface leaned forward in her seat with an argument ready. She turned her focus to me and smiled thinly. I knew exactly what the woman was thinking, what she was screaming in her head: Don’t go outside with them!
Poor Mrs. Gill. It was hard to spy on a conversation (or direct it) if she wasn’t part of it.
I sent her a smile of my own and then nodded to the men. I didn’t necessarily want to have a word with them—private or otherwise—but since it would drive Mrs. Gill up a wall, it seemed like the better option.
My hands started to sweat more and it had nothing to do with the Florida heat. I rubbed the back of my neck as I followed them out. The shorter of the two—Mr. Walden—held the door open for me.
As I headed outside, I glanced over my shoulder and found the Tadpoles smirking. They were probably thinking (or hoping) I’d be handcuffed and hauled away. Mrs. Gill had her arms crossed over her chest, sending me a continuous death glare. The second the door closed, they’d all have their noses plastered to whatever surface they could find to eavesdrop.
I started down the porch stairs and everything seemed to move in slow motion. Except my heart—it seemed to have gone into overdrive. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, instead of stopping like I’d really planned to, I did what any normal sixteen-year-old trouble-maker did when they had cops on their heels: hooked a sharp left and ran.
“We’ve got a runner!” I heard one of the men yell an instant before I heard footsteps pounding behind me. Surprisingly, the guy didn’t sound angry or annoyed—he sounded amused.
Still, I pumped my legs faster. Rocks and dirt kicked up in my trail as I skidded on the ground. Stupid, stupid, Jade! Why the hell was I running? I hadn’t done anything, but now when they caught me they’d never believe me. And they would catch me, because that was just how my luck would go. The group home was in the middle of No-Freaking-Where with nothing but woods and mosquito infested water surrounding it.
It definitely wasn’t a matter of if they’d catch me but when.
All they’d have to do is wait for me, because sooner or later, I’d have to go back to the house. Everything I owned was there, and I didn’t exactly have a line of friends that’d offer me a place to stay.
Glancing behind me, I only spotted one of the men—Mr. Holt—on my trail. The other one had disappeared.
I pushed myself faster. At the end of the driveway, I headed south toward the main road. I should’ve just stopped, but I couldn’t. I’d already come this far. And, okay, it might’ve been naïve to think, but my luck could change, couldn’t it? Maybe I could hitch a ride to Someplace-Not-Here, which had to be infinitely better than The Pond with Fishface and the Tadpoles. Probably wasn’t the greatest idea I’d ever had, but it wasn’t my first bad one.
The main road came into view seconds later. I started to smile then felt something wrap around my waist. Before I knew what was happening, I was airborne. I landed on my stomach a few feet away with my nose all but buried in the grass.
I tried to jump to my feet, but a hand pressed into my back and kept me down. Turning my head to the side, I took a breath of air instead of dirt. “Let me go! I didn’t do anything!”
Mr. Holt raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Then why’d you run?”
See, you idiot! Now they don’t believe you.
“You’re cops. You make me twitchy.” I shrugged—at least as much as I could facedown on the ground with someone holding me in place. “It’s a condition, just ask my therapist.”
It was…mostly the truth. I didn’t like cops. Or doctors. And I especially hated dentists. My therapist said I had ‘issues with authority’, though he couldn’t figure out why dentists made the list. (They got paid to pull your teeth out and/or drill into them. If you asked me, it was just a form of legalized torture.)
The pressure on my back eased slightly. “We’re not cops, Jade.”
I scoffed. “Then why did you chase me?”
“Probably for the same reason you ran. Habit,” he said. His brown eyes twinkled. “We just want to talk with you, that’s all.”
“Well,” I said, angling my head up to get a better look at him, “I’m kind of grounded at the moment. Try again later.”
He chuckled. “Come on. Up you go.”
Rolling to my side, I sat up. He held out his hands for me, but I only eyed him. He made a face, then motioned for me to take his hands. I did, but I kept my gaze locked on his face. His fingers wrapped around my wrists and he pulled me to my feet like I weighed nothing. I almost went soaring again and struggled to stay on my feet.
“Thanks,” I said, taking in a deep breath. As I exhaled, I spun around and kicked out.
Mr. Holt pivoted out of the way a split second before my foot would’ve connected with his groin and I ended up hitting his thigh instead. He managed to grab one of my arms, but I pulled free and took off running again. I frowned as his laughter followed me.
Twenty feet from the main road, I saw a car and started waving my arms. A black sedan slid to a smooth stop in front of me and I yanked the door open. My gaze went to the driver, then to the man in the backseat. I hung my head, shook it slowly. “Shit,” I muttered under my breath.
The driver was the second man from the house, the one who’d disappeared. I had no idea who the other one was. They both wore similar, weird smiles, like they knew the punch line to a joke someone forgot to tell me.
The man in the backseat looked up at me. “Hello, Miss Hall,” he said, his hands resting on his lap.
I turned around and ran nose-first into a hard chest. “Good try,” Mr. Holt said, winking at me. “‘A’ for effort.”
“‘A’ for abysmal failure,” I muttered.
He reached around me and opened the back door. His hand went to the small of my back. “Let’s go.”
I stared at the car and planted my feet. “I am not getting in there. You said you weren’t cops, and you’re definitely not social workers, because they don’t make it a habit of chasing people down, which means I don’t have to go with you. I don’t know who you are or what you want, but you’re probably perverts or something. Either way, I’m not saying anything and I am not getting into—okay, in we go,” I said as I was nudged—almost gently—into the backseat.
Mr. Holt shut the door and then got into the passenger’s seat in front. When the driver pulled back onto the road, I looked at the man beside me, crossed my arms over my chest, and glared. He had brown hair with spots of gray, and he seemed like the oldest of the three, with a kind of quiet authority. He was probably the boss or leader.
“Now what?” I asked him.
Bossman turned his body toward me slightly and studied me for a moment with a smile on his face. “Aren’t you at all concerned?”
I wasn’t really. Not yet. Bordering on pissed, but not scared yet. They didn’t seem threatening, at least not in the we’re-gonna-kill-you-and-dump-your-body-in-a-swamp kind of way. After spending the last year in a house surrounded by people who pretended to be something they weren’t, I trusted my instincts. And despite what Mr. Holt said, they had to be cops. Fishface or one of the Tadpoles had probably called in some trumped up complaint about me, hoping to get me kicked out of the house or thrown in juvie. Either scenario would’ve gotten me away from Mrs. Gill, so it would’ve been a win/win in their book.
Mine too, now that I thought about it.
“What do you want?” I asked instead of answering his question.
“I have a proposition for you.”
And they were back to being perverts. Great instincts, Jade.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. My body isn’t for sale.” My hand inched toward the door handle. “You can drop me off here.” When the car didn’t slow, I grabbed the handle and yanked on it. It didn’t budge. Something cold crept its way up my stomach, to my throat. I took a deep breath. Don’t panic. You’ll get stupid if you panic. I pushed the nausea and panic down, and in a voice that was calmer than I thought I could manage, said, “Stop the car.”
The two men in the front seat laughed. It wasn’t very scary, but it was annoying.
Bossman shook his head. “We don’t want your body, Miss Hall.” His eyes, a dark brown, seemed to lighten, and the sides of his mouth curved upward. He didn’t look like he was lying. “At least,” he continued, “not in the way you’re thinking.”
I kept my hand near the door. Worse case scenario, I’d just punch out the window and jump.
My eyes narrowed. “Then what do you want?”
“We want you to come work for us, for lack of an easier explanation.”
The snort escaped before I could stop it. “I’m a sixteen-year-old living in a group home because no one wanted me. I’ve got ‘authority issues’—” I used air quotes. “—a bad temper, and an awesome attitude that no one else seems to think is all that awesome.” Turning in my seat, I crossed my arms again and raised an eyebrow. “What possible work could you have for me that wouldn’t require me going to jail for beating the—”
“It’s nothing illegal, Miss Hall,” he said quickly. All three of them laughed again and I felt like I was missing something. “In fact, after looking over your file, I think you’ll find our offer to your liking.”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll love it.” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. Yeah, three guys offering something to my ‘liking’. What’s next? Flying pigs? The apocalypse? Or, hey, maybe, Congratulations, you’ve just won a million— “Wait.” I paused, then blinked at him. “What file?”
“We know what happened to your family.”
The air in my lungs evaporated, like I’d been sucker punched. I clenched my jaw. “You don’t know crap about my family,” I said through gritted teeth as my hands curled into painfully tight fists and my nails dug into my palms.
“I know your father, Robert, died in a car accident when you were four. I know your mother, Fiona, and older brother, Brian, died in your home two years ago this October, when you were fourteen. I know more about you and your family than you might think. It’s quite possible I know more than you, Miss Hall.”
“I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care, but my family is my business, not yours.” No one got to talk about them except me.
He shook his head. “I never introduced myself, did I? I apologize.” He indicated the driver first, then the passenger. “You’ve met David Walden and Peter Holt. I’m Director Greene. I run a facility called the CGE. It’s an organization that—”
“I don’t care,” I snapped. “Just let me out of the car.”
Leaning forward, Director Greene pulled a file from a leather briefcase at his feet. He flipped a few pages in before tossing it on my lap. His eyes, cool and unblinking, stayed locked with mine. “Your mother and older brother were both murdered in your home, two years ago this coming October. You were apparently in your room asleep when the attack occurred, though upon hearing screaming, you woke up and went to investigate. You were hurt, but somehow managed to get to a phone to call for help. The police report states that you claimed—”
“Shut up!” Fire boiled in my stomach until it moved throughout my body. My eyes heated. I didn’t need the reminder of that night. I didn’t need some guy—a freaking stranger—to tell me what happened. I remembered everything. “Just shut up! You have no right to talk about my family. You don’t know anything about them or me—”
“You claimed a monster killed them,” he said, continuing on as though I hadn’t spoken. “When you spoke with a psychologist afterward, he believed you were traumatized and saw your attacker as a monster because you viewed your family’s death as inhuman.” He paused. “The cops never found him, did they? Their killer? They never brought you in for a lineup, never followed up with you.” He shook his head slightly and his expression softened. Something that might’ve been sympathy shone in his eyes. “They never even let you speak with a police sketch artist, did they? Not because you didn’t see your attacker, but because they didn’t believe you. Because you didn’t describe a man in the report. You told them exactly what you saw. A demon.”
I turned my head away and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands to keep them dry, refusing to cry in front of strangers.
In front of strangers who knew too much.
The cops—and the shrink they’d made me see—had both tried convincing me that demons didn’t exist. But I knew what I saw. I knew what killed my family, even if I hadn’t found any concrete proof yet.
And I didn’t know what Mrs. Gill was up to, but she had a part in this. She had set this up somehow.
I stared out the window. “My family is gone.” I bit the words out, forcing them through a lump in my throat. I turned back toward him. “Monsters and demons aren’t real. They’re CG effects in movies or TV shows, or people dressed up in costumes with too much makeup on, walking around on Halloween to scare kids—”
“You don’t believe that and I think we both know it. I’ve talked with the woman who runs the group home—Mrs. Gill. She told me about your dreams, Miss Hall. She told me about the nightmares you still have to this day, even last night.”
Pain radiated up my jaw from clenching my teeth so hard and my fingers were cold. I glanced down, found them white. “You’ve never had a bad dream before, Director Greene,” I said with a note of contempt.
He gave a small nod. “Certainly.”
“Then what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal, as you call it, is I doubt everyone dreams of monsters. I doubt they all wake up in the middle of night and refuse to go back to sleep. They don’t spend their time researching demons. They don’t have knives confiscated.” He waited a beat, then added, “And I highly doubt they risk being thrown into juvenile detention by sneaking out to find them.”
“So I like browsing the web, big whoop.” I shrugged it off. “I live in a house with eight other people who pretty much hate my guts and resent the fact I breathe the same air as them. I can’t say the feeling isn’t mutual.”
I thought of Lucy, one of my three roommates. She’d spent the last year making my life miserable, snitching on me about anything and everything. Real things, fake things—it didn’t matter as long as it got me into trouble. And she, or one of the other girls, had to have told Mrs. Gill about the dreams, because she wouldn’t have found out otherwise. She wouldn’t have cared.
“It’s a group home. We’re not exactly the best crowd to begin with, you know? And I can bet you at least half of them—if not all—have a knife or two hiding somewhere.”
Because I knew I wasn’t the only one.
But I’d wised up and stopped hiding them in the room if I wasn’t in it. After a particularly nasty nightmare one night, I’d woken up with a knife clutched in my hand and blood streaming through my fingers. No one had seen me, but it’d been a close call. Having weapons of any kind was strictly against the rules, and getting caught with another one would have gotten me in a world of trouble.
He raised an eyebrow in silent query. “And?”
“The last thing? Sneaking out to look for demons?”
I laughed but the sound was strained, even to my ears. “It’s a group home,” I repeated slowly. “You try living in that place for a year. I bet you’d try to leave, too. Heck, give it a week and you’d be ready to run away.”
“I imagine I would. But aren’t the issues I raised the same reasons you’re in Mrs. Gill’s care to begin with? The foster families they tried placing you with were incapable of dealing with the fights, the demon hunts, the weapons.”
He shook his head. “Don’t insult us both by lying. You know what monsters are out there, Miss Hall. You’ve seen them. You’ve seen what they can do, and you’ve tried finding them.”
“They’re not real. The thing—guy,” I corrected quickly, seeing his smug look, “was on drugs or wearing a mask. Just let me out. I want to go back!”
“You haven’t heard my offer.”
“I don’t need to hear it. I decline. I refuse. There’s absolutely nothing you can offer me that I’d—”
“What about the opportunity to catch the thing that took your family from you?” He met my stare and held it.
I’d been half a second away from executing Plan A and punching the window out. His words stopped me cold and had my hand dropping from the handle. “I don’t know what killed them. I don’t remember. I was in shock.”
“Stop lying to yourself. To me.” For the first time, his words were clipped and his tone harsh.
“There are no such things as demons. They’re just—”
“CG effects, yes, I know. That’s what you said before. I can help you find them, Jade.”
“I’ll tell you what I told Mrs. Gill and everyone else. I. Don’t. Believe. In. Demons.” I laughed again. “Did Mrs. Gill put you up to this? Is this her new way of trying to get rid of me? She can’t have me arrested, so she’s going to try to have me locked away in a padded room because she doesn’t like me?”
He sighed. “Mrs. Gill didn’t arrange this meeting, Miss Hall. I did. If I prove I’m not working with her, that I’m not trying to set you up, will you at least listen to my offer?”
“Two hours. Give me two hours to prove it. If we’re right, you listen to my offer.”
“And when you’re wrong?”
“If we’re wrong, then you go back to the group home.”
“Wow! What a great consolation prize.” I slapped my hands to my cheeks. “I get to go back to the place I should be at now. Golly, thanks!”
Smiling, and fighting back a laugh, he shook his head and reached into his briefcase again. My hand went to the door immediately. He noticed the move and slowly pulled his hand back, clutching a white envelope between two fingers. He threw it beside me. When I made no move to touch it, he said, “Open it.”
I spared him a fleeting look, then stared down at the envelope. It was thick. Holding it away from me like it might explode, I carefully unfolded the top and peeked inside. My eyes went wide, my mouth slack. It was full of bills. I shuffled through it, found twenties and fifties—even hundred dollar bills. More money than I’d seen at one time ever. After another minute of ogling, I looked up. “You’re going to give me…however much this is…just to waste an hour of my time?”
“It will be a bit longer than an hour, but yes. In essence, I’m paying for your time. Nothing more, Miss Hall,” he added hastily, this time with a hint of annoyance. “And I don’t believe it will be a waste of time, but if you’re correct, then you’ll be compensated for it.”
It was a lot of money. I already had a small stash going for when I turned eighteen and could leave The Pond. This would make leaving so much easier. Heck, maybe I could even leave sooner…
I stuffed the envelope under my right leg, the one closest to the door, and narrowed my eyes at him. “How do I know you won’t just take it back?”
“You have my word, Miss Hall.”
“Yeah, that’s great. The word of a stranger.”
Greene leaned forward, tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Mr. Walden? Please pull over.”
My stomach lurched as the car rolled to a stop on the side of the road. I kept my hand near the handle.
“Have we harmed you or in any way threatened you?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said slowly. I didn’t add ‘yet’ though it was implied.
“You’ve been with us for well over twenty minutes now. If harming you had been our intent, I wouldn’t have needed the pretense, would I have? This would be a very time consuming charade. If you’d like to keep the money, you know my condition. If you’d like to be returned to Mrs. Gill, then you’ll be driven back. It’s your decision.”
He had a point, didn’t he? They didn’t need to offer me money for my time when I was already in the car with them. If my instincts about them were that far off and they were serial killers or something, then they would kill me regardless, and playing along could buy me some time.
I thought about it for a few minutes in silence. Finally, I shrugged and angled my body away from him so I was leaning against the door. “Okay. It’s your money.”
He gave a small nod, then signaled to the driver before looking at me again. “It will take us about an hour to reach our destination, so you may as well relax, Miss Hall.”
I didn’t respond. There was no point in telling him I wouldn’t relax. This could still be a trap or some big, elaborate scheme, but I really didn’t think so.
Because everything he’d said was true, down to me sneaking out to look for demons.
Copyright © 2012 Lanie Jordan