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A Shot in the Dark

A Jesse James Dawson Novel

K. A. Stewart - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780451464101 | 320 pages | 05 Jul 2011 | Roc | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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Jesse James Dawson's vacation is interrupted by a pack of hell-spawned creatures. To save friends, family and himself, Jesse will have to put his trust in his most dangerous enemy-his personal demon.

Chapter 1

Two years ago

"Fire in the hole!" I grabbed the kid by the front of his shirt and dragged him into the water, falling on top of him to protect him further. Problem being, there was room for one man at the bottom of the pool, but not two. Half submerged as I was, the explosion was enough to deafen me, the sound wave skipping across the top of the water to smack me upside my very thick skull.

As I felt things pelting down on me, splattering my shoulders and the one arm I couldn't get under the water, I was forced to admit that this had not been one of my better ideas. I pressed my forehead against the kid's, trapping him under the water, and held my breath until spots danced before my eyes. Pondering just how I'd gotten to this point, I was pretty sure that somehow, it was the poodle's fault.

Now, I hate poodles. They're not even real dogs. They're more like rats in sheep's clothing. The constant "yip yip yip" should be blared over loudspeakers to end police standoffs. And no cute fluffy animal should be pink. It's just wrong on so many levels.

So I hope you can understand the amazing amount of restraint I exercised, not half an hour earlier, as someone's pink, yappy, woolly rat barked and snapped around my ankles. One quick stomp with my heavy boot and it'd be all over for the glorified rodent. I had a feeling my client, the dog's owner, would object to me murdering her darling Mitzi or Bitsy or whatever the hell its name was. She seemed the objecting type.

"Now you're certain you can do this? You come highly recommended, but…" It was the umpteen thousandth time she'd asked the very same question.

"Ma'am, I can't promise anything. Yes, I think I can do this. But there is always an element of uncertainty. Anything could happen." I was tired of pointing out to her that the contract was already set, so she was stuck with my services whether she liked it or not. If not for that, and my own personal honor, I might have bailed a long time ago myself.

She sniffed, her jaw tightening in displeasure. I got the feeling that she was used to getting absolute answers. From her dyed hair to her real pearl necklace, from her trimmed-in-real-mink coat to her purse by some designer I'd never heard of, Mrs. Effingham was a lady. The kind that expects you to use the word with a capital L like some kind of title. When she snapped her manicured fingers, she expected the world to come running. Guess that explained how her kid wound up like he was.

Junior was standing behind Mummy, shoulders stooped sullenly. He obviously didn't want to be here, despite the fact that he was the guest of honor. His very expensive haircut was ruined by the fact that he probably hadn't showered in days, and with his hands stuffed in his pockets, he practically oozed teenaged angst. Occasionally, he would look up at his mother and this flicker of absolute hate would pass through his eyes, but most of the time he gazed vacantly into space.

The breeze carried a faint hint of lilac and the promise of a spring shower. From the manor house behind us, I could catch the smell of something in the soup genre being prepared for dinner. Though, it probably wasn't soup, it was something fancy like bisque or… whatever rich people eat. Nothing out of a can for this family, no way.

It was definitely the fanciest backyard I'd ever been in. Tall stone walls marked the borders, stately and dignified. The elaborate koi pond put my own water garden to shame. I mean, what they called a pond, I'd call a pool and me and my buddies would be swimming in it. And I would forever be envious of the barbecue grill (apparently unused) sitting on their expansive patio. The gas grill was almost big enough to require its own garage.

Dressed in my tarnished mail, with a sword hanging on my left hip, I stood out on their carefully sculpted lawn like one of those tacky yard ornaments. Maybe the one of the old farmer mooning. Damn good thing their neighbors couldn't see into the yard. The high walls prevented that, and cast long shadows across the grass, creeping slowly toward us as the sun made its way downward in the sky.

Beyond the walled garden where we stood, down the hill in some quaint New England village, a church bell tolled the half hour. The time was drawing close.

"Mrs. Effingham, if I could have you return to the house while we do this. I only need Elliot here with me." And take your gawdawful yappy dog with you.

"I prefer to remain with my son, thank you."

I finally turned to face her, drawing up to my full height to make sure I got the "looking down" part just right. Scruffy and uncouth as I am, I know how to be intimidating when I need to be. "That wasn't a request, Mrs. Effingham. That was an order. This is not a spectator sport."

Splotches of color flared under the caked-on makeup on her cheeks, not an attractive look at all. "How dare you? I am paying you good money—"

"You are paying me to be an expert in what I do. So we either do this my way, or I walk now, and your darling little boy goes to Hell. With or without the handbasket." Sometimes, I'm just an asshole. I admit it. I couldn't have walked away, not with the contract set, but she didn't need to know that. She gaped like a landed fish for a few moments before jerking the poor poodle into her arms and stalking across the landscaped lawn to the house.

Only then did I get a faint smile from Junior. "Man, you royally pissed her off."

"I have that effect on people." With Mummy gone, I could feel some of the tension go out of my shoulders. Sad when I'd rather face a demon than an upstanding social matron. Guess I could understand some of Junior's rebellious tendencies. "How are you doing?"

He shrugged his shoulders, finding the grass infinitely more interesting than looking at me. "Okay." Not much on public speaking either. I figured it just never got to be his turn to talk with his mother around.

"Do you understand what's going on here?" In all my negotiations for this particular challenge, I'd had very little chance to actually talk to the kid. Mummy had handled most of the details.

"Yeah. Guess so." He shrugged again and kicked a bare patch in the grass.

"Do you understand that this is your only chance? If I fail, your soul is bound for Hell when you die. No getting out of it, no reprieve." There ought to be an age limit on demon contracts. A sixteen-year-old shouldn't be able to just wish away their soul on any little thing that catches their fancy.

Scuff scuff went the sneakers.

"Do you even want your soul back?"

His fidgeting stopped, and after a moment, he nodded. I was just happy to get something that wasn't a shrug. "I'm cold all the time now. I want to warm up." Most likely, the chill was in his mind, but whatever worked.

"Even if I win, if you do this again, you're on your own. Mommy can't buy you out of this again."

Junior nodded once more, his dark brows almost meeting above his eyes. "Yeah, I got it. She's been screaming it in my ear for weeks now."

"She's just worried about you."

Junior snorted. "No, she's worried that I'm gonna embarrass her. Can't let anybody know that Ava Effingham's boy sold his soul for a freakin' car. Somebody else's kid probably sold theirs for a Harvard degree or something, much more respectable."

I had to give the kid a teeny weeny bit of credit. He'd sold his soul for a '72 Corvette Stingray. I mean, at least he sold it for a car, not some piece of crap. Of course, I'd only seen pictures of the vehicle. It was currently in a pile of scrap in some auto yard, chunks of the telephone pole that killed it still embedded in the metal. The boy was lucky to be alive.

See, that's the thing about demon contracts. They never say what you think they do. Just because the demon promised you a car, or whatever it was, doesn't mean that it said how long you get to keep it.

I also had to give him credit for the most words I'd heard him string together. There was no mistaking the bitterness in his voice. "Sounds like there's issues there."

That earned me another noncommittal shrug. "Just usual stuff."

The shadows from the wall had reached the toes of my boots, and I loosened my katana in its scabbard. Flexing my left wrist, a small item dropped out of my thick leather bracer into my palm. I examined the coin—just some worthless carnival trinket I'd dragged home from somewhere—and rolled it over the backs of my fingers a few times 'cause it looked cool. The metal made my skin tingle. It was almost time. "Where's your dad in all this?"

"He died. Three years ago. Mom says it was cancer, but I know better. It was… that liver thing you get when you drink too much. What is that?"

"Cirrhosis?"

"Yeah, that's it." Junior shrugged yet again. He had a very limited body vocabulary. "We weren't really close."

"You know, in ancient Japan, if a boy's father died, the boy became the head of the household. Kids even younger than you. They were expected to armor up and go fight as knights, just like their fathers had."

"That had to suck."

"They were treated like adults. They were given great respect."

He snorted. "That'd never happen here. Mom's a control freak."

"No?" The shadows oozed over the toes of my boots. Almost there. Flip flip flip went the coin, back and forth across my knuckles. "You were grown up enough to sell your soul, even if it was for something stupid. I figure if you're enough of an adult with that crowd, you're an adult for me. You want a bit of advice from a total stranger?" Shrug. "Well, you're gonna get it anyway, 'cause I might be dead after this and then I won't get to say it."

That caught his attention and he finally looked up, puzzlement in his eyes. I suppose it had never occurred to him that a man may die today because of him. For kids, death is something that happens in movies and video games, or hidden away in sterile hospitals. It doesn't happen in your backyard, with somebody's guts spilling out on your Chuck Taylors.

"Your dad is gone. You're all your mom has. Even if she rides your ass sometimes, it's only because in her own warped way, she loves you. Man up, grow a pair, and earn that respect you want."

Junior didn't seem to know what to say to that. I didn't expect much. Hallmark moments don't really happen, and I highly doubted there'd be some miraculous change in him no matter how the next hour or so turned out.

My boots were cast in full shadow. The church bell tolled again. Quarter 'til. Time. With a flick of my thumb, I launched the coin into the air and watched as it sparkled on its descent, sinking into the bottom of the koi pond with a tiny splash. Smirking to myself, I murmured, "No magic on my person. Yessir Mr. Demon, whatever you say."

Next, I turned to Junior and offered him a respectful bow. "With your permission, sir, I'll get this show on the road."

"Um… yeah, sure… What do I need to do?"

I adjusted the heavy leather bracers on my wrists, rolled my shoulders to loosen them up, and did one or two deep knee bends. My armor jingled faintly. I was ready. "You don't need to do anything but stay out of the way. And whatever you do, keep out of the shadows."

With a startled look at his feet, Junior took two big steps back from the wall's advancing shade. Me, I stood right at the boundary, that wavering line between light and dark.

As the last distant bell died away, the shadows in front of me… rippled. It's the only way I could think to explain it. Like tiny waves lapping, they rippled in a way that had nothing to do with the texture of the ground beneath them, or the breeze that still stirred the evening air. With each subtle pulse, the darkness gathered substance, grew, solidified. Something oozed up from the earth itself, and the grass turned brown and withered as I watched.

And up from the ground come a-bubblin' crude. Oil that is. I smirked at my own humor, but kept it to myself. The kid probably wouldn't know what I was talking about anyway.

The oily-looking substance took on form, rising up like a liquid serpent, and swayed in front of me, its "head" at eye level. A sickly parody of a rainbow colored the dark surface, shifting and changing with the viscous fluid beneath.

It was a Snot demon, as I classified them, lacking the power to hold a more complex form, and barely sentient enough to negotiate for the souls it required. The amorphous head dipped and turned as it eyed me, the body stretching out into the yard nearly to the wall. It had to be a good twenty feet long, and as big around as my thigh. The smell of sulfur and ozone overrode the lilac in the air.

I slid my katana out of its scabbard and took one step forward. "I am Jesse James Dawson, here to champion the soul of Elliot Eugene Effingham." The kid's mom musta hated him. I vowed to never bitch about my own name again. "Are we in agreement?"

The black tattoo covering my right arm from knuckles to elbow said that we were. The contract had been negotiated as tightly as possible, considering the Snot's lack of communication skills. I'd even managed to work in a few sly tricks of my own. I hoped. I flexed my left wrist, feeling the empty place in the bracer where the coin had once been. I had to trust that I'd bargained well, or this was going to be a short fight.

The ooze creature rose up to tower over me, no doubt to be intimidating, but it misjudged the height of the wall behind it, and the last rays of the setting sun caught it. It ducked back down with a hiss of displeasure that caused tiny bubbles to rise from its innards and pop on the surface. The smell of sulfur got stronger, and I had to hide my smirk.

Yeah, these things weren't too bright, and as long as the sun was in the sky, this thing was confined to the shadow of the wall. It could advance only as quickly as the sun set, following the absence of light over the grass. It would take time to get it where I wanted it, but hopefully it was enough time to let me really piss it off, which was just what I needed.

A face formed at the end of the long serpent, with barely enough definition to even be called a face. There were indentations that could be eyes, an opening that might be a mouth. The nose was… well, a lumpier lump among the rest of the lumps. The faux face stretched into a broad smile, appearing inordinately cheerful. Okay, that was just plain eerie. "We are ____. We are ready."

First off, the mere sound of the creature's name, impossible to spell or pronounce with any human tongue, made things inside my head seize up and quiver, quietly calling for Mommy for a few moments. And second, the oily sheen on the creature's surface seemed to taint its voice as well, and my stomach rolled as the strangeness slithered into my ears and coated my tongue. I forced myself to swallow the sour taste at the back of my throat. The first time I heard a demon speak, two years ago, I'd puked. I was past that now.

The kid wasn't. I could hear him ralphing up his breakfast behind me. It may have even been last week's breakfast. And his sneakers. And someone else's sneakers. Ew.

"Elliot, if you could move back toward the patio when you're done?" The shadows were creeping ever forward, and I needed room for what I had planned. It was either going to be freakin' brilliant, or the stupidest thing I'd ever tried.

"You must come out of the light." The thick serpent's head bobbed up and down, feeling out the limits of its shadowy confinement.

I couldn't help it, the smirk finally made its escape. "Go into the light, Carol Anne." And I struck.

It wasn't a hard blow by any means. More of a love tap, really. But when I drew back, a thin slice of demonic ooze flipped off my blade, vanishing into a wisp of black mist before it hit the ground.

The oil serpent reared back more in surprise than pain, then whipped its tail around to take a swipe at my legs. I jumped and it missed, passing beneath my feet. The demon recoiled out of the stinging sunlight, massing for another attack in the safety of the wall's shadow. Me, I was just impressed at my air time, considering how much my gear weighed.

When it lunged at me again, I sidestepped and flicked my sword, slicing off another thin layer of… whatever it was made out of. The wound just filled in, leaving no trace, but that wasn't the point. The second tiny wisp of blight vanished, but I knew it wasn't gone. When there was enough of it, free floating demon essence, we'd have a portal, and then I could get rid of Monty here.

Y'know, Monty? As in Python? 'Cause he's like a snake? Oh come on, that was funny.

To the untrained observer, it looked like I wasn't doing much at all. A slice here, a nick there, dodge, duck, parry. To a trained observer, it was blatantly obvious that I wasn't doing much at all. The damage I was inflicting was healing up as soon as the blade came free, and the blight I was draining out was minimal at best.

But the sun kept setting, and the wall's shadow kept advancing. I lurked at that edge, careful to never dart into the darkness for more than the length of a thrust, retreating across the carefully manicured grass one step at a time.

The Snot demon left a trail across the greenery, burned dead and brown like a snail trail from Hell. (Mrs. Effingham wasn't going to be pleased at all when she saw that.) Twice, it braved the waning sun to try to wrap me up in its slimy coils, but I was too fast and it was too wussy to handle the light. Bubbles rose to its oily surface, bursting against the air with the stench of sulfur, the sound creating a distinctive hiss of frustration. It was getting pissed off.

Good.

The sky was sunset red when my heels hit the tile border around the koi pond, and I had to grin. Sure, I had no more room to retreat, and in about ten seconds, the sun was going to drop down below the top edge of the wall, casting the entire yard in darkness and giving the demon free rein. I had Monty right where I wanted him.

In an eyeblink, the sunlight was gone, and the angry demon rose above me, swaying as it towered. The face at the end was pocked by bursting bubbles of agitation, but there was no mistaking the snarl on the mockery of a mouth.

Come get some, bitch. I took one step back, into thin air, holding my sword safely to the side as I fell back.

I hit the water hard enough to almost knock my carefully gasped air from my lungs and sank straight to the bottom. From there, I watched through the riled waters as the enraged oil serpent dove headfirst after me.

It intended to crush me, I think, the heavy mass of black sludge spreading out to fill the shape of the pond, its entire body pouring into the water. For a split second, I thought it was going to succeed, and I know I felt my ribs creak under protest. The natural human demand for "Air!" registered in my brain, certain I was about to be smothered or drowned, or both, but before I could even think of flailing in panic, the weight suddenly lifted, and the demon launched itself out of the koi pond with an inhuman shriek.

I fought to the surface despite the weight of my armor (and the padding beneath that had soaked up its own weight in water), to see the Snot demon writhing on the grass like a salted earthworm. Over and over the coils rolled, like it would tie itself in knots, and a thick oily smoke rolled off its transparent skin.

I'd be lying if I pretended I wasn't a little smug. "That's right. Holy water, bitch. Suck it." The glint of gold caught my eye, and I bent to retrieve my coin from the bottom of the pool. My fake, absolutely worthless, magically blessed coin. Thank you, my love. One of my wife's brilliant ideas. I couldn't wait to tell her it had worked.

A hand entered my vision, and I looked up to find Elliot offering to help me out of the koi pond. Probably not a bad idea, considering how much heavier I was now than when I'd gone in. "Thanks, kid."

I grabbed his forearm, intending to haul myself out, when I heard it. It was the sound of bacon sizzling, the sound of water boiling furiously. I looked over, dreading what I already knew I was going to see.

There was Monty, swelling up like the world's biggest blood blister, its surface straining to contain the rolling boil within. Even as I watched, a thin slit appeared, and the oil slick spurted from it, driven by the unbelievable internal pressure. Monty was about to blow.

"Fire in the hole!" I grabbed the kid by the front of his shirt and dragged him into the water, falling on top of him to protect him further. Problem being, there was room for one man at the bottom of the pool, but not two. Half submerged as I was, the explosion was enough to deafen me, the sound wave skipping across the top of the water to smack me upside my very thick skull.

I waited as long as I could, until bits-o-Monty stopped raining down on me, before I fought my way into standing, letting Elliot scramble for air. Drowning the client would be bad, m'kay?

He threw himself facedown at the side of the pool, gasping and coughing, while I examined the state of my demon-splattered self. Already, the boiling droplets had eaten through my leather bracers, and were currently burning into the skin beneath. With a hiss, I plunged my forearms into the water, sighing at the soothing relief. I dunked the rest of me for good measure, surfacing with a splutter and shaking myself like a wet dog.

"You okay, kid?" I glanced at Elliot who had become strangely quiet, then turned to follow his stunned line of sight.

The portal was there, hovering just against the back wall, swirling in shades of black and blacker. All over the yard, tiny gobbets of Snot demon were dissolving into their base component, blight, and drifting through the planar tear. It looked like an eerie black river running uphill, finally slowing to a trickle before the portal snapped shut with an audible pop and the reek of ozone.

Just to be sure, I stripped off my right bracer, and scrubbed the remnants of the tattoo flakes off with the blessed water. "There we are, Elliot, all nice and shiny again."

He examined his left arm, bare now too, then bent to scour it off as well. He scrubbed and scraped until the skin of his arm was blistering pink and I was afraid he'd draw blood. I caught his hand. "Hey. It's cool, okay? It's all over."

He stared at me with wide, shock-filled eyes for a long moment, then nodded. There were tears glimmering in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall, and I pretended I didn't see.

Instead, I turned to eye the destruction left in the wake of my battle. The yard was essentially burned barren, the grass withered and downright charred in places. I was still standing knee-deep in the once-pristine koi pond, which would probably never support life again. Already, the large ornamental fish were starting to float to the surface, eyes gone cloudy in death.

I managed to clamber out of the pool, flopping on the dead grass with a wet squishing sound. It was going to be days before the padding under my mail dried. Hell, it might be days before I decided to stand up again.

The arrival of my arch-nemesis, Mitzi the poodle, was heralded with a string of high pitched yips and yaps that threatened to burst my eardrums. The vicious little rat came streaking out of its doggy door, tiny needle fangs bared and aimed right for my face now that it was within its short little reach.

I waited until it was almost on me, then roared "Boo!" at it. The pink dog almost flipped itself completely over, scrambling to reverse direction, and it disappeared back inside with the high, "yi! yi! yi!" of fear. I laid my head back on the ground, folded my hands across my chest, and just watched the dim light of the stars appear overhead.

I hate poodles.


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