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A Devil in the Details

A Jesse James Dawson Novel

K. A. Stewart - Author

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ISBN 9781101188521 | 320 pages | 06 Jul 2010 | Roc | 18 - AND UP
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When it comes to demons, always read the find print.

Jesse James Dawson was an ordinary guy (well, an ordinary guy with a black belt in karate) until one day he learned his brother had made a bargain with a demon, Jesse discovered there was only one way to save his brother: put up his own soul as collateral, and fight the demon to the death.

Jesse lived to free his brother-and became part of a loose organization of Champions who put their own souls on the line to help those who get in over their heads with demons. But now experienced Champions are losing battles at a much higher rate than usual. Someone has changed the game. And if Jesse can't figure out the new rules, his next battle may be his last...

There’s a certain sound the human head makes when it hits the trunk of a tree. Meatier than a “crack”; not quite as hollow as a “thunk”—it’s unmistakable. And when it’s my head, I tend to take offense.

I leaned against said tree and glared at my opponent until my double vision returned to single and the world swam back into focus. “That one’s gonna cost you, Crabby.” If looks could kill . . . well, first off, my life would be a lot easier.

On the other side of the clearing, what looked to be a mutant crab-scorpion crossbreed rattled and hissed at me in annoyance as it tried to wipe the thrown dirt out of its stalky eyes. The silver light gleamed off its knobby black shell, giving it a metallic sheen. Its right pincer, large enough to neatly sever my thigh, clicked and clacked loudly. A drop of venom hovered at the tip of its thick segmented tail, the dangerous appendage arching high over its back and weaving like a snake in thrall.

Taking a deep breath, I tossed my thick braid back over my shoulder, out of reach of grasping nasty things, and adjusted my grip on my sword. My breath and the cold night air combined to create frost in my beard, and I wiped it away with my free hand, flinging aside the pellets of ice. The crab creature got its vision cleared and gave a threatening stab of its tail in my direction.

Now, I’m a believer in the power of positive thinking, but do you ever just have a sneaking suspicion you’re not winning?

The distant whump-whump-whump of a helicopter broke the silence as it patrolled the camp’s perimeter and kept the paparazzi and innocent bystanders at bay. Any sane person or animal had long since fled the chill and the noise, which left just me and my definitely questionable grip on reality. The full moon was up in the sky somewhere, casting the world in blue-white serenity, while down here under the tree canopy I did the tango with . . . that.

What I had here was a class two Scuttle demon, the category so named (by me) for the way they . . . well . . . scuttled. Only one rung up from primordial ooze on the demonic ladder, most times they were easily confused and taunted into carelessness. None of them would ever be a candidate for Mensa.

Lack of intelligence didn’t mean lack of speed, however, or lack of armor. I was having a helluva time getting past that thick carapace. My blade already held quite a few nasty nicks from the attempts. Marty was going to kill me for hurting one of his precious swords.

Still, the crab-demon had a few wounds. Intangible dark energy, which passed for blood amongst demonkind, slithered across the forest floor with eerie sentience, coalescing into a ball of black nothingness behind the creature. I’d heard that essence called voidblood, nether-essence, or some other poetic-sounding crap. To me, it was just blight, and it would suck the life out of whatever it touched.

I gave the demon the universal “Come get some” gesture and pushed off the tree to resume a fighting stance. The crab scuttled left, testing me, and I carefully placed my feet on the uneven terrain as I shifted right. It was impossible to feel my way through the thick soles of my boots, and I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off the demon. My armor jingled faintly, sounding like macabre sleigh bells, and the crab hissed and snapped its pincers in return. Not for the first time, I questioned the wisdom of wearing only chain mail and leather for protection. I’d found that I simply could not move well enough if I added plates to it, but was mobility worth it if I couldn’t stop a crushing blow?

Lightning quick, the demon charged, spiny feet carrying it across the clearing in an explosive crackle of dead pine needles. At the last second, I calmly sidestepped right, avoiding the massive claw and dodging the poisonous stinger, bringing my sword down at the juncture of one chitinous leg. The twiggy limb snapped with a gunshot report, and the crab-demon screamed in inhuman outrage. The severed leg dissolved, and dark energy poured from the wound, billowing into the night air to join the rest that had escaped. Slowly it began to swirl, forming the beginnings of a portal.

You don’t really kill demons. You can only wear them down until they lose the strength to hold on to this plane. Thanks to the crab’s armored form, the fight had already gone on longer than I would have liked, and the trick would be to see which one of us was going to tire first. Next time—if there was a next time—I hoped for a fluffy bunny demon, something pink and easily dispatched.

I let my momentum carry me past and away like flowing water, again finding myself across the clearing. Now, I’m a fairly athletic man in the prime of my life, but we’d been at this for the better part of forty-five minutes, and the running back and forth all night was getting old. “Come on, Crabby. I’m too old to play tag.”

The Scuttle demon limped in awkward circles for a moment, as if the now-missing leg had been the rudder keeping it on a straight path. Its eyestalks swiveled to keep me in sight, and it chittered something furious at me. I’d reduced it to babbling. It wasn’t even bothering to speak English in its fury.

The next charge wasn’t quite so coordinated. Twice on that pass, my katana glanced harmlessly off the black shell with a jarring clang. I felt it all the way to my shoulders. As I moved to spin away from the tail again, the demon whirled and slammed that massive pincer into my left hip. I went tumbling head over heels into the leafy forest litter, barely managing to keep my sword. The pungent smell of crushed pine needles filled the air.

It wasn’t broken. Broken hips happen to old people, not to strapping young men of thirty . . . -ish. But it was going to bruise, and I could feel links of chain digging through my jeans and into my skin where the padding beneath gaped. I didn’t have time to ponder the state of my armor or the severity of my injury. I didn’t even have time to get up off the ground.

Crabby barreled over me, screeching at the top of its . . . lungs? There was no strategy to its attack. It had succumbed to rage, flailing wildly as it tried to stampede all over me. I could only curl up and try to protect my poor head. Even so, my braid caught on a spur of carapace, wrenching my neck despite my efforts. I aimed a kick at one leg, trying to make it list harder to port. In retaliation, one of those spiny appendages speared straight through my right calf like a shish kebab. I’m not ashamed to admit I screamed. The crab howled, too, triumphant.

Funny how you can notice key things when you’re about to be skewered by a tap-dancing crab-demon—important things, such as how soft and squishy the underside of the thing looked. Its belly was silvery gray, and pulsated with every grotesque movement. In fact, it looked rather like the raw oysters I’d eaten at a black-tie gathering a few years ago. Yeah, I wouldn’t be eating those again.

I consider myself a philosopher, an educated man. But there are times when learning and culture are simply not applicable. And should you ever find yourself being trampled by a demonic crustacean, when in doubt, stab the squishy spot.

Apparently, Crabby didn’t have eyes on its underside, because it was having a hard time finding me, all tangled up under its legs. And while I was safe from the stinging tail, I was still in real danger of being bludgeoned into mush. A joint cracked against my head as I tried to squirm enough to reach my boot, and colorful streamers darted past my eyes for a moment. My katana was all but useless in close quarters. This is why I carry a plain old skinning knife in my right boot. It may not be pretty; it may not be elegant; but the pointy end goes into the other guy, and that is all I need.

With both hands, I slammed the blade in, up to the hilt, then did a little jerk and wiggle for good measure. Instead of oozing, wriggling innards, blight poured out over my hands, which instantly went numb clear to the elbow. I lost my grip on my knife in the frantic roll to keep the void energy from touching my face and chest. Deep in some primitive, instinctive place, I knew that stuff would kill me if I let it wash over me, and no amount of training can erase the first primal imperative to survive.

The crab-demon shrieked and spasmed above me, losing all interest in pursuing an attack. Staggering first one way, then another, it jibbered and chattered in some pitch approaching supersonic. There was no mistaking the sound of abject terror, even in some language I would never understand.

It occurred to me, perhaps a bit late, that being under the thing in its death throes was not wise. I took the easy exit on hands and knees, out through the hole left by the missing leg, not too proud to scuttle myself when the situation called for it.

The blackness beneath billowed up, a dark fog that flowed over the forest floor to join the rest, the portal growing larger, more defined. The crab-demon continued to shriek and twitch even as I watched its own black carapace collapse inward with a sickening crunch, its will draining away with its strength. First, the spiny legs dissolved and flowed away, and then the shell, inch by inch. The tail stabbed at nothing in the leaves, one last reflexive effort to save itself. The creature’s voice dwindled into a pathetic wail, then into nothingness. The last to go was the giant pincer, clacking to the end, and it finally poofed into an ominous black cloud and flowed into the gaping hole in reality.

The portal itself was a dark mirror, three feet off the ground, as big around as a fifty-gallon drum. It shimmered briefly, the surface going from black to silver to clear in a matter of heartbeats. A faint odor of sulfur tainted the crisp night air, and just out of my range of hearing, something screamed, high enough to make my teeth ache. As always, I tried to get a glimpse through that portal, to see what lay behind. I got no more than a sense of immense heat and terrible soul-killing dread before it vanished with a faint blip and the vague tingle of static electricity. Oh well. I’m probably better off not knowing, anyway—curiosity and the cat and all that.

The only thing left in the battle’s wake was silence. In the distance, some brave night bird sent out a questioning chirp. The breeze was cold enough to sting as I gulped air, trying to will my pulse to slow, to keep my blood from pumping out and down my leg.

You never realize how hurt you are until the adrenaline starts to fade. I flexed my hands until the feeling returned to them. My bruised hip screamed with every beat of my heart, and oddly, hurt worse than the pierced calf. Of course, that could also have been the blood loss talking.

I limped across the clearing to pick up my knife. Though it looked clean, I wiped it on some dead leaves and sheathed it in my boot. That put me close enough to examine my calf. I was pretty sure I could poke my finger through the hole and wiggle it on the other side. I didn’t. Even my stomach wasn’t that strong. I needed bandages and something to stop the bleeding. Beneath the copper scent of my own blood, there was something else, an odd chemical odor. I didn’t know what it was, but it couldn’t bode well.

My body moved on autopilot, bending to collect my katana. I cleaned it as well, though the blade was likewise spotless. There were three new nicks in the edge. Marty was going to have purple kittens when he saw it. You wouldn’t expect a blacksmith to be so damn touchy. I forced myself to stand upright, centering my body a moment before sliding the sword into its scabbard.

Only then did my gaze go to the three men waiting in the tree line. The two on either side, in their identical black suits and earpieces, tensed as I hobbled my way toward them. I couldn’t fault them for that. It was their job. But the part of me that loved inappropriate humor wanted to giggle. Big bad men in black, scared of a scrawny, beat-to-shit samurai. I had to give the guys credit, though. They’d just seen things that weren’t supposed to exist, and it hadn’t even phased them.

It was the man in the middle I focused on. He had salted hair, the lines of many cares on his face, and a suit that probably cost the taxpayers a pretty chunk of change. He pushed his left sleeve up and stared in unabashed amazement at the unblemished skin on his inner forearm. I thought I even saw him blink tears from his bleary eyes. Finally, he shook himself, reached into the breast pocket of his tailored suit, and produced a long envelope.

I snatched it with no remorse whatsoever. The medical bills on this one were going to be a bitch, and he could more than afford it. “Thank you, Mr. President. Your soul is your own again. Try to take better care of it this time.” My right foot was overly warm. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew my blood was pooling in my boot. I didn’t have time for pleasantries.

“Thank you, Mr. Dawson, for . . . Well, thank you.”

“Here.” I produced a card from inside one of my leather bracers, trying not to smear blood on it. It’s a simple card. I print them myself—just white card stock and black letters, JESSE DAWSON, CHAMPION, and a private cell phone number. “If you ever find anyone else in your situation, you can tell them I might be able to help them. Make sure they mention your name.”

He took the card, looking it over carefully, then tucked it away. “Will I be seeing you again, Mr. Dawson?”

“You’d better hope not.” As far as I was concerned, that concluded my business there. I turned to limp toward the paved road, invisible through the trees. Will, my best friend, was out there in a rented car, waiting to take us both home. He was an EMT. He could patch me up until I could get to a hospital. Then they’d call my doc, and she’d fly out to collect my sorry ass. And there would be the lecture. I hated it when she lectured me. Better the doc, though, than my wife. Will should call her, I thought, and let her know I was okay. I was okay, wasn’t I?

Dimly I recognized the rambling of my thoughts as a bad thing. I tried to concentrate, to mentally catalogue the symptoms of blood loss, but anything coherent kept flitting away, just out of reach. I staggered to a halt amidst the trees, disoriented, and wondered whether I was really still walking toward the road or whether I’d gotten turned around somehow. The moon shone on my back, casting my shadow long over the ground. The shadow was a rather handsome fellow, tall and almost too slender, a long braid of hair hanging down past his stooped shoulders. He looked injured. Poor guy. I decided to follow him, since he looked like he knew where he was going.

Okay, maybe a hundred-yard walk through the trees was not one of my more brilliant ideas, but in my defense, I didn’t expect to be bleeding so badly. The chemical smell had invaded my taste buds, and I had nothing left in my dry mouth to spit with. By the time I could see the car, and Will, silhouetted in the moonlight, my body was prepared to go on strike. The moonlight reflected off Will’s glasses, giving him an owl-eyed look. I think he said something then, maybe called my name. Most likely, he said, “Dude?”

The last thing I recall was hitting the dead leaves face-first and wondering idly whether there was any poison ivy about.

Farewell, Camp David. We’ll always have the memories.

* * *

Spring in Missouri is wonderful . . . for about a week. During that week, the sun comes out in all its glory, and the brisk mornings warm up to pleasant afternoons. Most important, there are very few insects out. Then, in the blink of an eye, we have the heat of Death Valley, the humidity of the Everglades, and mosquitoes the size of large poodles come out to carry off small children and family pets. And we have tornadoes. Never forget the tornadoes.

We were still enjoying that blissful week of true spring as I sat meditating in my garden. It wasn’t a large garden, or elaborate. It took up one corner of the backyard, leaving plenty of grassy space open for whatever. Around the small pond, a stone “river” flowed through the landscaping, white pebbles interspersed with cream and black. I had finished moving my bonsai trees, my pride and joy, back out from their winter shelter just a few days prior, and already I could see the rich green of the leaves taking hold in the bright sunlight.

The cheerful trickle of water into the shallow pond (no koi, sadly; we have raccoons) seemed to provide background music for the early-spring birds in the tree branches above me. I toyed with a pair of white river pebbles, turning the smooth stones over and over between my fingers. The soft clicking sound was soothing. Three yards over, I heard a lawn mower start up. It was a comfortable addition to the ambient sounds of the neighborhood. It was the perfect kind of peace, suitable for meditation.

I sat cross-legged in the sun, wearing my favorite pair of sweatpants and no shirt. The sweats, hanging low on my hips, were baggier on me than they had been; I was still regaining the mass I’d lost in my three-week ICU stint. Hospital food sucks, and the weight drops off fast. Building it back up took time, and I was never what you would call bulky to begin with. Some would call me scrawny. I prefer wiry.

The sunlight glowed a cheery red through my closed eyelids, and I smiled to feel it on my face. The mornings were a bit chilly still, and it was interesting to feel the sun chase the cooler shadows across my skin. The hint of warmth was soothing on my aching muscles. They didn’t hurt nearly as much after two months of recovery. I’d even been doing the physical therapy for my leg, like the good doctor told me, in addition to my usual katas and workouts. All right, she didn’t tell me to do it in addition to, but . . . what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

I had chosen the works of Tsunetomo Yamamoto for my meditation of the day. In his written works, called Hagakure, he listed four vows that a samurai should recite every day. The fourth of those was “to manifest great compassion and act for the sake of man.” That was what I focused on for the day, turning it over in my mind as I examined all possible meanings and oppositions. I like to think such mental exercises keep me keen.

Behind me, I heard the sliding glass door open. “Jesse, the phone’s ringing.” Ah, the dulcet voice of the love of my life, my wife, Mira.

Without opening my eyes, I answered, “Can you please take a message?”

I don’t know if I’m the only husband with this talent, but I can actually tell when my wife is gritting her teeth just from the tone of her voice. “The other phone is ringing, Jess.” Oops. Mira did not follow the bushido, so I doubted I’d get great compassion for the sake of man from her at this moment. In fact, she was more likely to throw something at me.

“Coming.” I opened my eyes and bowed from the waist to the little Buddha statue in my garden. No, I’m not Buddhist. He just seemed to belong there, and I hated to leave without at least acknowledging him. Courtesy, you know.

The remnants of morning dew soaked my bare feet and the cuffs of my sweats as I crossed the yard. Stepping up on the brick patio, I grabbed my discarded T-shirt off the lawn furniture and slung it over my shoulder. It gave me a chance to eye the beginnings of a tan. I’m out at night a lot. Add that to the pale blond hair and blue eyes, and I am the poster boy for white and pasty. I was more likely to burn than tan, but every spring I hoped for the best.

The only thing that wouldn’t tan would be the scars, starting just below my left armpit and disappearing beneath the waistband of my sweats. These particular ones were a lingering souvenir from a Skin demon. It had been a hulking white-furred creature, with long grasping arms and talons the length of my forearm. Towering a good four feet over my own six-foot height, it reminded me of a prehistoric sloth. There had been nothing slow about it, however, and even though I won that fight, I most certainly had not walked away from it. When I had nightmares, it was what came at me out of the dark with silver claws and glowing red eyes, killing me night after night.

In my mind, I still called it the Yeti, because the weak attempt at humor was all that kept me from going screaming mad in terror.

My other scars, peppered over my shoulders and arms, were inconspicuous next to the Yeti’s spectacular marks. I could name most of them. The small spattered burns on my forearms belonged to an explosive Snot, two years ago. The horseshoe marks on my shoulders, the size of fifty-cent pieces, were left behind by something leechlike nine months back. I was never sure whether it counted as a Snot or a Scuttle. The tiny scar at the right corner of my mouth, mostly hidden by my goatee, was my own doing. I had cut myself shaving in my youth.

Sure, I had more than my fair share for a man my age, but if anyone noticed that my scars had strange shapes and occurred in odd places, they never said. They pretended to believe they were knife wounds, and I pretended I believed they believed that. It worked out well for all concerned.

Mira was bent over, her head stuck in the dishwasher. She wore a pair of short cut-off jeans and a tank top, her thick mane of sable curls temporarily confined in some kind of twisty clip that probably had a name known only to women. All right, I’m a pig, I admit it, but I stopped to let my eyes wander up the slender column of her legs, over her nicely rounded behind, across the curve of her back . . . to find her green eyes staring at me over her shoulder. She raised one brow, and I shrugged with a sheepish grin. “You can’t blame a guy for looking.”

“Go answer the phone!” She hit me in the chest with a damp dish towel. At the same moment, a hard object collided with something lower down and much more precious to me. No combat training in the world can prepare you for the toddler-head-in-the-junk attack.

“Oof!” I looked down to find the culprit grinning up at me, all red pigtails and blue-eyed innocence.

“Daddy, your phone is ringing,” she informed me, in all her five-year-old seriousness.

“I know, button. Lemme go so I can get it, ’kay?”

“Annabelle, go pick your toys up out of the living room, please.” At the sound of her mother’s voice, she was gone, her bare feet thundering down the hallway like a small herd of buffalo. It was amazing how much noise one small child could make.

The phone—that phone, anyway—never brought good news, so I took my time sauntering down the hallway, smelling the faint incense Mira had burning. Our house was nothing spectacular. I think the real estate agent called it a single-level ranch, three bedrooms, one and a half baths. I called it mundane suburban. Pale yellow vinyl siding and an unfenced yard completed the picture. The house was light and airy, and the maple hardwood floors almost glowed when the sun crept in through the tall windows. We’ve lived here six years already. I guess that means we’re going to stay.

I could hear Annabelle in her room as I passed, giggling fitfully as she tried to hide under her huge stuffed rabbit. We simply could not convince her that snickering madly was not a good way to stay hidden. “You’d better get moving before your mom finds you, kiddo.”

In my den—a walk-in closet, in a former life—the shrill chirp of my cell phone ceased just long enough for the person on the other end to hit REDIAL, then started up again. I closed the door behind me, encasing myself in my own personal haven. My desk and chair were against the far wall, the short wall. Two tall bookcases towered at my left, laden with everything from ancient Japanese philosophies to the latest bestseller from my favorite author. The right wall was adorned with my tie-dyed Jimi Hendrix wall hanging, right next to a Japanese silk print of two samurai battling. Home, sweet home.

I settled into my old desk chair, one left over from Mira’s college days. The abused leather felt sticky against my bare back, and I had to be very careful not to lean on the right arm, because it would fall off and dump me on the floor. It was my favorite piece of furniture in the house.

I examined the still-ringing cell phone before I answered it. Eighteen missed calls already. It was a local number, but not one I knew. Whoever it was, was persistent. I had to give the person that. “Hello?”

There was a moment of confused silence on the other end. Since a simple hello so confounds my callers, I always wonder how they expect me to answer the phone. “Mr. Dawson?” It was a man’s voice, older than I if I had to guess; in his fifties, maybe.

“Yes.” There was a long, uncomfortable pause again, and I just waited, letting him squirm. What can I say; I’m not good with small talk.

“Um . . . a friend of mine recommended you. . . .”

“Who?” I picked up the handy-dandy pen and notepad I kept on my desk.

“Walter Brandt. He said you might be able to help me.”

“And where can I reach you?” He rattled off the name and number of a local hotel, which I scribbled down with a frown. I don’t like it when they go ahead and invite themselves to my city, just assuming that I’ll take up their cause. It was a strike against him, whoever he was. “And your name?”

“Nelson Kidd.”

I had to pause in the middle of writing that down to blink. “Nelson Kidd, the Arizona pitcher? Mr. Perfect-Game-in-the-World-Series Kidd?”

“The same.”

Well how d’ya like them apples? I confess I’m still a bit starstruck at some of the people I wind up working for. But I remembered my professionalism enough to keep from squealing like a fan girl. “I will call you back in twenty minutes, Mr. Kidd.” I hung up before he could protest. I know people hate that, but it gives the leftover rebel inside me a great deal of pleasure.

The first thing I did with any new client was touch base with his reference. I learned the hard way not to just take folk at their word, and I’ve got the scars to keep the memory fresh. Walter Brandt’s name was in my phone book (under B, even!), and I dialed him up.

A woman’s bored voice answered. “Lexicon Industries. How may I direct your call?”

“Walter Brandt, please.”

“I’m sorry, sir, he’s in a meeting. May I take a message or forward you to his voice mail?” It was said with a tone of “I’m only doing this until my acting career takes off, so I won’t bother to treat you with more than indifference.” I could picture her snapping her gum and filing her nails. Do secretaries still do that? Oh wait, I’m sorry—administrative assistants.

Whatever she was, she irritated me. “Interrupt the meeting and tell him it’s Jesse Dawson. He should be expecting my call.” I had no doubt that Walter Brandt would move Hell and high water to take my call. His assistant, however, was apparently not aware of my privileged status.

Her sigh fairly dripped with exasperation—God forbid I make you do your job, lady—but in the end she just put me on hold. I was treated to the plaintive strains of an orchestral version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” followed by something that might have been “Hazy Shade of Winter” before it was butchered—a damn travesty. Finally, the line clicked live again.

“Mr. Dawson?” The words were deep and gravelly around the edges, the voice of a whiskey drinker and lifetime smoker. This was my man.

“Mr. Brandt. How have you been?” I hadn’t seen Walter Brandt since my job for him almost three years ago. He was one of my early ones. I wondered if he still had the same graying handlebar mustache, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask. I envied that mustache, but Mira had sworn to divorce me if I even thought about copying it. I had to make do with my beard in the winter and be clean shaven the rest of the time.

“I’ve been . . . doing well. The cancer is officially in remission. But somehow, I doubt this is a standard follow-up phone call.”

“Did you give my card to someone?”

His voice lowered, though I knew he had to be alone in his office. “Yes, I did. Nelson Kidd.” He nearly whispered the name, as if we were trading state secrets.

“And you truly believe he has come to see the error of his ways?” It mattered, you know, at least to me. I wouldn’t help someone just looking for the easy way out. That’s how they usually wound up in trouble in the first place. Maybe I hadn’t mastered my great compassion for the sake of man. I’d have to work on that.

Brandt hesitated before he answered, thinking it over. I’d have called him a liar if he hadn’t. “I believe so, yes.”

“You know the rules. Is he going to check out?”

“I . . . think so. Truthfully, he didn’t go into a lot of detail. He is ashamed.”

“He should be.” I rocked the chair back into its upright position. “That’s all I needed to know. You have a lovely day, Mr. Brandt.”

“You, too, Mr. Dawson. God bless.” We hung up. I suppose I didn’t mind the blessing so much, despite not being a religious man myself. He meant well.

My fingers traced over Nelson Kidd’s name on my notepad slowly, and I sighed in disappointment. It was one thing for Joe Schmoe businessman to fall, but somehow baseball players should have been exempt. They were the true heroes of my childhood. I still had most of my original card collection, and though I didn’t get to play anymore, I still followed the season avidly.

Nelson Kidd had been a star in his day, leading the league in almost every field a pitcher can. But, like all of us, he got old, and his arm started flagging. Teams traded him four and five times in one year, always for someone younger and faster. Everyone labeled him as done, and there was talk of moving him to the minors if he didn’t retire.

Two years ago, he made his miraculous comeback. It ended with a World Series title for his Arizona team, and the first perfect World Series game since Don Larsen in 1956. It was made even more spectacular when he tested clean for every steroid and enhancement drug they could think of. The fans, the newspapers, the agents went wild, and despite his age, he was suddenly able to name his price wherever he wanted to go.

I knew now how he’d done it. I think I would have preferred the drugs. Nothing is sacred anymore.

With a heavy heart, I called the number he’d given me. He answered on the first ring. “Mr. Kidd? I am listening,” I said.

“Oh, I . . . um . . . Well, I have a bit of a problem, and I was told you were an expert in such matters.”

I had to laugh. The human penchant for understatement never fails to amuse me. “No, sir, you do not have a ‘bit of a problem.’ You made a pact with demonic forces. You sold your soul to the devil, and now you want me to get it back. This qualifies as a huge problem.”

It always takes people a moment to recover when I put things so plainly, and in the silence I added, “I will meet you at the Chino’s across the street from your hotel. You have one hour to convince me.”

The character of Jesse Dawson sprang to life out of my desire to see an "everyman" in extraordinary situations. He's your average Joe. He has a house payment, a wife, a beautiful daughter that he spoils. His job is menial at best, and he'll never be what anyone calls wealthy. Ultimately, his life probably isn't a lot different than yours.

Until, of course, you throw in the demons. Oh, did I forget to mention those?

In Jesse's world, there are creatures who, for the right price, can offer you whatever you dream. Granted, they're not exactly in the fair deal business, and their prices are…extreme. Your soul, for instance. The demons prey on the vain, the greedy, the desperate, and those who have absolutely nowhere else to turn.

To balance out the bad, there are always the forces of good. There are people who, by as many paths as there are champions, have found their way into this dangerous, demonic world. Men and women who put their own souls on the line, just to get yours back.

Jesse is one of them. As part of his own personal code of honor, he can't turn his back on those who need help, regardless of what danger it puts him in. Following the bushido, the code of the samurai, he is a man in a shades-of-gray world, trying to live by very black-and-white rules. It puts him into conflict with not only demons and their ilk, but also with his wife and his friends as they try to understand what drives him to risk himself over and over again.

Mira, Jesse's wife, understands the dangers Jesse faces better than most. She is his link to the world of magic, being a practicing witch herself. She knows about the demons, and believes that Jesse's challenges are necessary. Still, she is the one left behind every time, never knowing if this is the one that will make her a widow.

Jesse's brother Cole is the reason Jesse got involved in the first place. His soul was the first one Jesse retrieved. Once close, the incident changed the brothers, and it remains to be seen if they'll mend things between them before that last fateful battle.

And to top it all off, Jesse has his own personal demon. Axel has spent years following Jesse around, trying to tempt him out of his soul. He's been around so long that they're almost friends, at least so much as mortal enemies can be. In the beginning it's very easy for Jesse to say no, but as Jesse's precious rules start flying out the window, it's only a matter of time before Axel finds that one thing, that one shiny key to winning Jesse's soul.

Nothing is easy or simple for Jesse, and as his author I keep waiting for him to turn around and inform me that he is NOT doing that, thank you very much. But he keeps handling everything I throw at him, with varying degrees of grace. Which means I just need to find more things to throw.


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