I’m currently working on the first draft of Daemon Blood, the third volume of the Daemon World series. The first chapter, “Born Victim” appears below.
The first novel in the series, Talion, recounts how the serial killer Rad Sanders stalks and kidnaps fifteen-year-olds Lu Jakes and Lisa Duncan. Lu must turn to the daemon Talion for help. But he has a price. Ten years later, in Daemon Seer, he comes to collect payment. Lu must undergo a harrowing ceremony and bear a child who will eventually replace her as his servant. Helpless against the daemon’s power and determined to save Lisa from a new sadist’s grip, Lu surrenders to Talion. She submits to the ceremony and with his help rescues Lisa. Daemon Blood picks up their story five years later.
Panic wells in Lisa as the drugstore’s automatic door slides opens and cold air balloons against her face. She’s afraid of stepping through doors. Post-traumatic stress, says her therapist, Sandi, as if naming a thing steals its power. Sandi could be right. Clutching her plastic bag full of antidepressants and tampons like a talisman and mouthing the phrase like a prayer, Lisa walks outside.
A semi rumbles past on the two-lane highway beyond the drugstore’s narrow parking lot. Its diesel fumes trigger the usual nausea. The clouds disgorge the sun. She imagines getting in her beat-up Honda Civic, driving until it runs out of gas, and then walking until her legs buckle. Wherever she ends up will be fine with her.
“Hey, Lisa!” A gaunt man pops out of his SUV and trots across the parking lot. He has on worn jeans and a glossy parka.
She watches him cover the stretch of asphalt—twenty-five yards, maybe—registering his grayish skin and fevered eyes. He’s no one she knows or wants to know. She dashes toward her Civic parked halfway between her and the man’s SUV, about fifteen yards away. She scoops the key pad from her bag and presses the button to unlock the car door. The Civic beeps. She reaches for the door handle.
Seizing her shoulder, he turns her around to face him. He presses her against the car, his groin against hers and pokes her in the ribs with something hard. She glances down. A pistol with a short barrel, almost toylike. Panic drowns everything but her thumping heart. “Sorry, Lisa.” His hoarse whisper pours into her like rancid oil. “I know what you’ve been through and I hate—really hate—doing this. But we need to talk.”
She wrenches her gaze from the gun to his face and opens her mouth to scream, but his eyes silence her. Colorless irises encircle the deep wells of the pupils, At their bottoms, twin red flames burn like distant candles. No, it’s only the sun. Yet those tiny fires burn away her scream.
“Willard Steeples.” He grins, displaying a mouthful of capped teeth edged with black along parts of the gum line. “Author of Professor of Death.”
Fucking parasite, feeding on people’s suffering. On her suffering. When she was fifteen a psychopath tortured her, disfigured her, and Willard Steeples made her part of a freak show.
“You’re angry,” he says. “I get that. But people want the truth. They cry out for it. I perform a vital service. And at this point I’m desperate. My publisher’s gonna cut me loose if I don’t deliver the book by the end of the month. She said it’s my last chance. You know what I’m saying? My last. Chance.”
She finally manages to speak. “What do you want?”
“Your story. And Lu’s.”
Of course. She’ll never escape Lu.
Even years after the surgeries, her face aches in the cold wind. A frozen mask of pain, always worse when she’s afraid. He can have the story—some of it anyway—but the dread lurking in her gut senses that he wants more. A lot more. “Okay, I’ll talk to you. There’s a coffee house on the Square.”
“No. Not after—” He glances apologetically at the pistol. “I couldn’t take the chance of you saying no.”
Another semi crawls past, picking up speed after the stop light. If the driver looks their way, he won’t see any gun, only a man and woman standing beside a car, close enough to be lovers. Despair chokes her. “My mother—expects me home.”
“I’ll have you back in an hour.” He grabs Lisa by the elbow, jabs the gun in her back, and hustles her to his SUV, a gray Ford Edge. Scream, she thinks as he yanks open the passenger door. Last chance. But no one is close enough to hear or to stop him if he shoots her and drives away. He shoves her onto the seat. The label of a car rental company decorates the GPS unit on the dash. It reassures her a tiny bit. Someone at the rental office can identify him, assuming he gives a shit about getting caught after he rapes and kills her.
She takes note of her shaking hands. The previous times she was kidnapped, she fought hard. This time she wonders if her life is worth the trouble. Steeples hustles around to the driver’s side and slides behind the wheel.
As he peels out of the parking lot, Lisa glimpses a ponderous figure near the pharmacy entrance. Mrs. Arlow, overweight and asthmatic, squints at the departing Ford. She lives down the street from Lisa’s parents. Maybe she sees Lisa driving off with a strange man. Maybe she’ll call Lisa’s mom. She might remember the color of the SUV, but not the make or license number—not enough detail so the cops can find Steeples.
He drives west, steering with his left hand and holding the gun on Lisa with his right. They pass the Seville Veterinary Clinic, Charlie’s Soft Serve Ice Cream, Morris Chiropractic, the Chevy dealership with its lineup of gleaming pickups beneath colorful plastic pennants, the First Christian Church with its sign asking, Will your eternal home be smoking or not smoking? It’s late November and Christmas wreaths decorate the telephone poles along the highway. Cardboard signs nailed to the poles honor local the military service of local young people. Lisa recognizes a few names from junior high. She missed high school because of the surgeries. She earned her GED back in the days when she dreamed of studying at the Art Institute in Chicago.
“Where are we going?”
Steeples’ eyes flick toward her then back to the highway. “There’s a few cabins on the lake. Nobody uses them this time of year.”
“You’re from around here?”
“Nope. I just do my research.”
A mile or so after they leave Seville behind, Steeples turns onto a county road that cuts a straight line through fields stubbled with the remains of corn stalks. The tires bump over rough spots in the pavement, but the SUV’s suspension softens the ride. At least she’s riding to her death in relative comfort.
Whatever Steeples says about wanting her story, the darkness in his eyes scares her. Most journalists don’t arrange their interviews at gunpoint. The whole thing radiates the familiar weirdness that comes with Lu and the daemons that control her. Lisa is wired into that weirdness because the daemons saved her life, but she wants nothing more to do with it. For the last two years she has ignored Lu’s telepathic calls. They were faint anyway, with Lu a thousand miles away in Utah, and several months ago they stopped completely. Lu must have given up trying to reach her, which was how she wanted it. Until now.
Lu! I need help!
No answer from Lu. The connection between them has withered, thanks to Lisa.
Steeples turns onto a narrower road and the flat fields give way to rolling meadows and stands of leafless trees, their branches clawing at the iron-gray sky, bird nests bulging from them like tumors. The SUV rolls across a rusted bridge that looks a hundred years old.
Lu! I’m with Steeples, he kidnapped me.
“You do keep getting kidnapped. This is—what?—the third time.” Steeples flashes a wolfish grin, showing off those capped teeth. “Only this time Lu isn’t around to save you.”
She tells herself it’s coincidence, him tuning in on her thoughts that way. “What is it you really want?”
“I told you. Your story. Your whole story. And you’ll give it to me before we’re done.”
The road widens into a clearing and ends at a metal gate with a sign: CLOSED UNTIL SPRING. Steeples stops the SUV. “We walk from here.” He scrambles out, circles the hood, and opens the passenger door. He keeps the gun aimed at Lisa as she gets out. “Give me your phone.”
“I didn’t bring it.”
“Of course not.” He uses his left hand to pat down her pockets and then plucks the canvas purse from her shoulder. Tucking the strap under his chin, he unzips the purse and dumps the contents on the ground.
Lisa squats and picks up her wallet, a ballpoint pen, and the nylon bag where she keeps her medicine. She leaves an almost empty pack of Kleenex, a couple of sales receipts, a shopping list, and a cough drop covered with fuzz. Steeple returns the purse. She drops her stuff into it and stands. “Like I said, no phone. Now you can shoot me or whatever and nobody will find me.”
Willard Steeples giggles. “Leave your shit in the car. I’m not going to kill you, scout’s honor.”
She imagines him as a scrawny Boy Scout that the others picked on. She doubts he has any honor.
“Go around the gate post,” he says.
She squeezes between the post and the thorny branches of a bush. Steeples follows her. She wants the thorns to catch on his jacket, but he carefully avoids them. Then Lake Seville spreads in front of them, lapping the pebbly shoreline and reflecting the gloomy winter sky. The wind blows harder and colder over the open water. Already shivering, Lisa zips her jacket. She’s dressed for a quick run to the drugstore, not a trek along the lakeshore in December. Ahead of them a green prefab cabin sits on a slope overlooking a boat ramp.
“Is that where we’re going?”
He shoos her forward. “Stay in front of me.”
As they walk along the shoreline, she concentrates on reaching out, bridging the thousand miles between her and Lu with a strong and simple message. Help me help me help me. She half-heartedly considers running for the trees. Who can tell, he might be a crappy shot. But she keeps plodding toward the cabin.
Every nerve in her body screams for Vicodin. She stopped using almost three years ago, and with the exception of one slip, stayed clean. Most of the time she feels okay. But with the gun nudging her spine, time falls away and she’s raw again.
“I have codeine,” Steeples says. “You can have some when we get to the cabin.”
Again he’s tuned into her thoughts. From behind her, he can’t see whatever pain her face might be betraying, but he somehow knows. She reaches out to him with her thoughts. What’s the deal? Can you read my mind? Nothing comes back to her, but she senses the same empty tunnel where the connection between her and Lu happened.
Beyond the lake, the distant treeline clings like gray lint to the water’s edge. No sign of human life. “What are you on?” she says. “Not just codeine.”
“What do you think I’m on?”
“You’re too upscale to be a tweaker. You probably snort coke.”
“Would you like some?”
“No. And I don’t want your fucking pills either.”
He chuckles. “You may change your mind.”
Steeples intends to hurt her. She recognizes the screaming in her nerves as anticipation. Her body knows what’s coming.
They climb a dirt path to the cabin. The window next to the door is broken, the glass removed from its frame. Steeples has scouted the location and already broken in. He opens the unlocked door. “After you, Sugar Pie.”
She enters the dim and musty space. Freezing wind from the lake howls through the broken window. The cabin has an open floor plan except for a bathroom tucked in the rear corner next to a tiny kitchen. In front, a bed sags beneath a ratty quilt, and a sofa and two chairs huddle around a fireplace. Steeples prods her toward the sofa with the gun barrel.
“I’m cold,” she says. “Can I get that quilt?”
“Have a seat and I’ll bring it to you.” The odor of mold wafts from the sofa cushion when she sits. Steeples reaches behind him and wedges the gun into the waistband of his jeans. He fetches the quilt and covers her from the neck down, tucking the edges beneath her body, pinning her arms. “There. Nice and toasty.” The dampness of the quilt leaches warmth from her. She pulls it loose.
He plops into a wooden rocking chair and scoops a tiny recording device from his pocket. The chair creaks as he pitches forward and sets the recorder on a low table between them. “Okay, let’s start with Grifford Riley. Tell me about him.”
Lisa will never forget the psychopathic cop who raped and stalked and almost killed her, but she keeps her face blank.
“You know, I really wanted an ‘after’ picture of you for Professor of Death,” Steeples says. “Your bitch mother wouldn’t give me one. Maybe we can put one in my upcoming book. I’ll revisit your ordeal at the hands of Rad Sanders. People love that shit. But I’ll mainly focus on Riley. I mean the parallels are dramatic. Twice you’re kidnapped and horribly assaulted. Twice you’re rescued by Lu, this mousy little girl in glasses. We’re talking best-seller, guaranteed.”
After Rad finished with Lisa, her face resembled raw meat, and Steeples wanted to display her ugliness to the world. The piece of shit would do anything to make money. “What’s the title gonna be?”
“I was thinking Born Victim: The Unfortunate Life of Lisa Duncan. But my editor isn’t crazy about it.”
Lisa grimaces. “Me neither.”
“Back to Riley. He’s gonna be the focus of the book, and I need the whole truth, the untold story. He followed you to Park City and grabbed you, then drove to a motel outside Laramie. That’s where things get mysterious. Lu rescued you. How’d she manage that?”
“He went for cigarettes.”
“Bullshit. Only one place near the motel was open. A gas station. The clerk doesn’t remember Riley, but he remembers Lu buying snacks and bottled water.”
“That was later, after she got me out.”
“It doesn’t make sense, her stopping a couple miles from the motel when she knew Riley would be coming after you.”
“She won’t talk to me.” He shoots her a reproachful look, as if Lu’s silence is her fault.
She wonders how Steeples would react to the truth. Lu ambushed Riley while he was raping Lisa, shoved him into the narrow space between bed and wall, and stabbed him over and over and over with a sharp piece of metal. The hulking police detective broke Lu’s arm, but she blinded him and pulverized his testicles. Lisa’s breath snags as she remembers the viciousness of the attack. Lu said she’d been possessed by a daemon named Black Claw, but still.
“Let’s talk about the Ferrari. The two of you left it in the parking lot of the Blue Bell Hotel in Park City. Supposedly. So how come no one saw it there and the cops never found it? It’s not the kind of car you overlook.” The points of flame in Steeples’ eyes sharpen as if he hears her nerves shrieking. “Sure you don’t want a Vicodin?”
She has no name for the wrongness in him, a hunger that brushes past her on its hunt for the food it really wants. “I can’t tell you anything. Please. Take me back into town.”
All at once he leers. “What’s she up to?”
“Lu? I don’t know, we don’t talk.”
“You’re telling me they broke the connection?”
“What?” Her heartbeat speeds, pumping up her panic, and her head feel large and insubstantial, a membrane about to disintegrate.
No way can he know about the telepathic link between her and Lu, but he stares at Lisa as though deciphering her secrets. “The bitch let them cut you loose.” He breaks into a stuttering laugh—heh-heh-heh-heh-heh—a crowing voice that no longer belongs to him. Lu is the one who sees the daemons, not her, but she’s pretty sure a daemon has possessed Willard Steeples. “They’ve got the prick on the run.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re dead,” the daemon says in a weird singsong. It stands and reaches for the gun.
Her heart trips ahead of the frozen moment. She springs from the couch and darts sideways, holding up the moldy quilt like a shield. The gunshot blasts through the cloth and thunks somewhere behind her. The world goes silent. She drops the quilt and runs blindly. The second shot whizzes past her head and splinters a window frame. She lunges toward the door, expecting the next bullet to hit her in the back.
The door flies open. A middle-aged woman in maroon yoga pants and an orange hunting jacket lifts the barrel of a shotgun. Lisa’s momentum propels her through the door. She manages to duck between the woman’s wide body and the door frame and stumble a couple of steps before falling. Her right arm and shoulder hit the frozen dirt with a jolt that snaps her teeth together. Behind her the daemon occupying Steeples’ body pops off a shot before the shotgun fires. The blasts are muffled. They could be miles away. She tastes the blood of her bitten tongue as she crawls farther down the path from the cabin.
Heavy footsteps catch up to her. The woman stands over her, offering a gloved hand. Lisa pushes herself onto her knees, grasps the hand, and lets herself be pulled to her feet. The woman’s face, puffy and creased and reddened by the cold, is vaguely familiar. Lisa has seen her in the supermarket or the thrift store on the Square. Her eyes gleam like black ice, inhuman. Another daemon has taken her over. “Why did you go with the journalist? Even the Flame is not reckless enough to kill you in a public place.” Though half deaf from the gunshots, she hears the woman’s voice clearly. It comes from inside her head.
“Who’s the Flame?”
The second daemon heads toward the cabin, its stride too long for the woman’s stubby legs. It wears her body like ill-fitting clothes. Lisa hurries to catch up. “What’s happening? Is Lu in trouble?”
“The seer makes her own trouble.”
Lisa follows the daemon into the cabin. Steeples’ body sprawls behind the overturned rocking chair, his face and chest like raw chuck. The stink hits her and sourness floods her mouth.
“Do not vomit.” The daemon stoops and picks up the shotgun from the floor. “Tell me what you touched.”
“Just that quilt.”
Steeples’ recorder sits on the table, untouched by the shotgun blast, its green light blinking. Lisa grabs it and pushes the off button. “We better take this too. It’s still recording.”
The daemon gives her a razor-thin smile. “You are not altogether useless.”
“Thanks. I guess.” Lisa fumbles with the device until she finds the memory card, which she removes and slips into her pocket.
“What are you stealing.”
“I’m not stealing anything. I’m gonna send this to Lu so maybe she can figure out what’s happening.”
The daemon scowls. “Give it to me.”
“I don’t think so.” She lifts her chin and steels herself. This daemon won’t harm her after going to the trouble of rescuing her.
One second she’s standing, the next she’s sprawled on the floor with heavy thighs straddling her chest and the shotgun’s stick pressed hard against her throat. “Never defy me.” The daemon eases the pressure on the gun enough so she can breathe.
Lisa lets go and floats away from herself, a state of helplessness she knows well from being at the mercy of two sadists, Rad Sanders and Grifford Riley. Both men are dead, but the daemons never die and they’ll keep tormenting her as long as she’s connected to Lu. She slides the memory card from her pocket and hands it to the woman. “Why did you save me?”
“My master commanded it. I would have rather the Flame destroyed you.”
The daemon who owns Lu is called Talion. He must want something from Lisa. He wouldn’t send this servant to rescue her out of the goodness of his nonexistent heart. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“I have no name. Take the quilt and the machine. Throw them into the lake.”
Lisa climbs to her feet and picks up the things. Careful not to look at Steeples’ body, she trudges from the cabin and down the dirt path, dragging the shredded quilt. She goes partway down the boat ramp and halts. The lake is too shallow here, the muddy bottom visible under a few feet of water. The cops will spot the recorder and the quilt will probably wash ashore.
“It makes no difference.” The daemon stands on the path, hands on hips and elbows spread wide. “The water will destroy any trace of you.”
Lisa doubts it. The cops could find a hair or fingerprint in the cabin or the rental car. “Why don’t you just burn down the cabin?”
“No. A fire draws too much attention. Do as I say.”
Lisa tosses the evidence in the water and returns to the path. “Now what?”
“I will drive you to your car.”
They hike along the lake, backtracking to the road where Steeples left his rented SUV. Water laps at the shore and their shoes crunch against the pebbles. Icy wind whistles in Lisa’s ears and makes them ache. At least her hearing has come back. She wonders if Lu heard her telepathic call for help and asked Talion to send this daemon, or if he was watching from the start. The daemon knew where and how Steeples grabbed her. “Why is this happening?”
“The reasons do not concern you.” The daemon’s harsh speech is strange coming from the rural Midwestern woman cradling a shotgun, a nice lady who probably goes to church on Sunday and spoils her grandchildren with cookies.
“What’s gonna happen to the lady you’re possessing? Will she remember any of this?”
The daemon fixes its lifeless eyes on Lisa. “You are a parasite. Except for the seer’s pleas on your behalf, you would have been destroyed.”
She feels herself contract like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Only she has no shell. She’s at the mercy of this monster. She wipes her nose with her sleeve and trembles in the icy wind and trudges along the lakeshore behind the possessed woman.
The daemon opens the door of a battered blue Toyota pickup parked beside the Ford Edge.
“My purse,” Lisa says. “It’s in Steeple’s car. The cops will find it.”
“Get in the truck.” The daemon batters the SUV’s window with the shotgun stock until it punches through the safety glass. It reaches through the hole to unlock the door, then retrieves the purse and hands it to Lisa.
According to the clock on the dash, Lisa has been gone four hours. Way too long for a run to the pharmacy. She needs an excuse—a flat tire, an old friend who asked her for coffee, a spur-of-the-moment drive along country roads. The drive, she decides. Mom will yell at her for making them worry, but the other bogus excuses could be easily checked.
As soon as they enter Seville, she crouches out of sight. The woman pulls into the pharmacy parking lot and stops. Lisa digs her keys from her purse and then runs from the pickup to her car. By the time she slides behind the wheel, the daemon is pulling onto the highway, headed back toward the lake. The possessed woman probably lives somewhere out that way. Lisa hopes she’ll be all right.
She clutches the wheel for several minutes, drawing slow, deliberate breaths the way the biofeedback guy in rehab taught her. The odor of mold clings to her like guilt.