Agent of Light Episode One

Agent of Light Episode One

Chapter 1

Rooftops and Rain

The rain fell from above in a light wave. As Mira made for the pavement, it spattered over her heavy overcoat, which almost dwarfed her diminutive form. The gray sky pressed against the buildings above her as it shed its load. The rain mixed with the dirt that caked the storm drains and gutters, and it permeated the air with a sodden, musty aroma. Mira screwed up her nose as she skipped onto the dry pavement under an awning, her long dark-brown hair sticking against her coat from the rain.

She stood in front of a large two-story brick building, stained a dark brown from the rain. Big plate-glass windows let a soft orange light onto the street around her. A quick glance through them told Mira there were hardly any patrons at Boothby’s tonight.

But that was still too many.

She opened the door gently, but the bell above it still tinkled loudly.

People looked up and watched her enter. This was just what she needed – witnesses.

Oh well.

Mira jammed her wet hands into the lined pockets of her overcoat and let out a little sigh. She never had any luck. Whether it was with games, bets, the weather, or even romance – she could never rely on the Good Lady. And as for her job, well that was a whole other level of misfortune.

“Have you located the target yet?” the voice rang out in her mind. Audible only to her, it spread through her awareness like a soft cloud.

She nodded then quickly shook her head in thin-lipped exasperation. The voice couldn’t see her, could it? How many years had she been doing this?

She called up a flicker of concentration with a deep breath and answered with a thought: “I just got here, what do you expect already?”

“I expect a little discipline.” The voice sighed in her mind. “No, that’s not right: I’d hoped for discipline, I expect you to stuff up as usual with your cavalier ineptitude.”

Her bottom lip pushed forward in a pronounced pout. “You’re not helping,” she almost shouted to the world at large.

“Just get on with it, Agent.”

Well, that was easier said than done. Another cursory glance at the three patrons of this dingy establishment told Mira that any one of them could be her target. Any one of them could be infected with a slimy evil demon of hell.

She walked toward the large, solid wood counter at the end of the room. Two staircases flanked it on either side, and hidden away in the dark alcoves alongside them were two of her fellow customers. Sheesh, why did dodgy people always make it so hard to eyeball them from afar? At this rate, she would have to sidle right past both of them without letting her search become conspicuous. And that was the really hard bit; demons always knew when you had your eye on them. They’re used to being hunted, after all.

The other patron, a short man with a countenance like a buoy bobbing in the ocean, sat at a table next to one of the windows. He had a ray of graying hair around his round head, and his nose was buried in the large tabloid he had spread across the table.

She could start with him, cross him off the list at least. He looked like middle-aged middle management – probably the owner and operator of a stationery company. Could there be anyone less likely to be possessed by an agent of evil? Perhaps her angelic self, maybe, but stationery manufacturers would come a neat second. Demons would quickly see that their chances of world domination would be trounced if they signed on with the texta dexter over there.

She took several more steps through the room, picking her way carefully around the tables and chairs, trying to maintain a loose-shouldered nonchalant walk that would put all demons at ease. The bartender looked up and blinked at her slowly. She took the opportunity to beam back with a wide, mega-cute smile, her deep brown eyes twinkling.

The bartender turned from her and shuffled off with a tall glass of something suitably alcoholic for one of his customers.

Hmmm, people never appreciated her amazing smiles. He probably had the demon if he wasn’t won over by that winning grin. She quickly flicked her eyes up to closely analyze the figure of the bartender as he carried the glass across the room. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the heavy black aura of the damned.

The bartender headed for one of the men in the corner.

Mira dug her bottom teeth into her lip and sniffed softly. This demon was hardly going to catch itself, and if she waited any longer, the damned fiend would get all jittery from late-night caffeine.

“Excuse me!” she called out with a cute little wave, “I’m looking for someone.” Hands innocently tucked into her pockets, she ran up to the bartender and the shadowy-alcove-dwelling customer. “And I was wondering if you could help me.”

The bartender slowly placed the steaming glass on the table with a snow-white, knife-like hand and turned to her. His face was equally pale, and the dark circles under his sunken eyes only added to his ghostly appearance. One web-like thin eyebrow was raised.

She instantly grinned as she tried not to balk. Her neck still receded into her collar, though, and she only widened her grin in an attempt to appear unaffected. “Umm,” her voice was unusually high, “I’m looking for someone,” she repeated before she could catch herself.

The bartender’s lips parted slowly, like mist rising off a gravestone. “And?”

Ugh this guy was creepy! He was way creepier than a low-level demon. Whoever he was, he was definitely into the dark arts. He wasn’t a demon, though – she would know by now – but he wasn’t your average bartender, either.

She suddenly realized she hadn’t replied and, quickly clasping her hands together in embarrassment, nodded politely. “Well, I, ah, there’s this guy.” Her cheeks began to flush with a warm shipment of blood, and she realized she was falling apart. Things always went pear-shaped when she had to improvise. “Annnnnd, well he said he’d meet me here…” her voice trailed into a thin whisper.

The ghostly bartender blinked. “I see.”

“Really? Because I’m having trouble following you, Angel. If this is how you handle the staff, I can’t wait to see your style with a demonic agent of Hell.” The voice in her head rang out with a clear and quick tone.

She almost bit through her lip. Her Controller always had it in for her.

“Who are you looking for?” the bartender prompted, his sunken eyes appearing to recede further into his sallow face.

She let her eyes drift to the man behind the bartender. He was why she was here; she had to check if he was really a red-eyed master of death. A closer look revealed nothing but a set of broad shoulders, a rigid, chiseled face, and dark, swarthy features. He looked more like a stiff-lipped gym teacher than Lucifer.

“Ahh,” she stalled for time, “Bob?” her voice uncontrollably peaked on Bob like it was a question. “Bob,” she quickly repeated with more confidence.

The bartender licked his lips with a whip-like dark-red tongue. “I do not know a Bob.”

Just as the words left his mouth, a figure darted across the base of the stairs. It must have wandered down to catch a glimpse of them. Out of the corner of her eyes, she’d seen it. Seen as it had popped its extended, grayed head around the door, its long-boned hand on the wall. One red-rimmed eye had stared at her, unblinkingly.

Bingo. This must be one of those stupid demons, hallelujah.

“Ah, that’s okay! You know, I think Bob might be upstairs!” She pushed herself quickly, but gracefully, toward the stairs. “Bob!” She threw herself up them. “Bob, what are you doing up there?”

“So much for keeping this quiet, I knew I should have chosen a better Agent.”

She ignored the voice, applying all her concentration to the dark stairway before her.

Above her something grated as a heavy object shifted its weight.

She reached the top of the stairs and quickly pitched into a dive roll. She didn’t even bother to check for danger. There was only one thing she needed to know: the room was totally dark.

She curled her back against the uneven wood before lithely jumping to her feet with a thud. Twisting her neck from side to side, she desperately listened for a sound of Bob the demon. Heavy breathing, shuffling feet, maybe the unfurling of black wings. There was nothing, though.

When her eyes had adjusted to the gloom with inhuman speed, she noticed a long window was open at the end of the room. It let in the smell of rain and a ray of dim light.

“Bob! God bless you, Bob!” She took pleasure in the curse; nothing irks a demon like a good old divine blessing.

A heavy, high-pitched grunt cut through the open window.

Winking to no one in particular, Mira sped toward it. With deft moves, she avoided the stacked chairs and tables that littered her way.

She leaped at the open window before she ascertained what lay beyond. She sailed through the cold air then landed on the steep roof. Scrabbling against the wet tiles, she slid downwards like a puck across ice.

“Ah ah ahhhh!” She desperately tried to pull herself upright and fight the downward pressure of gravity on lubricated roofing.

Finally gaining traction, she dug both feet into the slate and pushed backward, instantly flattening herself against the roof, fingers scrabbling and toes clenching.

“Errrrgh.” She was barely centimeters from the gutter and the unpleasant 15-meter plunge to the dirty city street below. Was that lucky, or what?

There was a swoosh as something unfurled behind her, blowing a cold gust of air and rain against her back.

“Ohh… not so lucky, then.” Still pressing her body into the hard tiles, she twisted her head. In the gap between her building and the next, floated the demon. Stretched thin like a sheet of plastic wrap, and unfathomably dark like a black hole, it snapped its contorted head toward her.

“You dare hunt me, human? Me? Lord of the dead, king of the underworld, of the putrefying flesh of your brethren? Bringer of pain….”

Mira rolled her eyes and took a deep, reverberating sigh. If you let ‘em, demons would talk your ear off, in more ways than one. “Sorry to interrupt,” she carefully pushed herself up, “but the Agency isn’t pleased with you, mister.”

The demon let out a shriek, clawing at its face with a hand twisted and bent like a misshapen rake. “Agent?”

She nodded. “And secondly,” she reached into her pocket, “you’re not the king of anything.” Demons hated it when you brought them back to Earth. “You’re just a lowly little foot soldier.”

The demon shrieked again, this time with a terrible high-pitched whir. “You lie! You will never encounter a greater—”

Mira leaped forward. Her hand whipped out from her pocket and brandished something before her. It was a palm-sized medallion on a heavy chain. “Go to Hell!” She hurled the pendant at the demon. It arced above the creature, and as it reached its zenith, Mira shouted: “Seal!”

A blazing, engulfing light cascaded around the demon, trapping it between its luminous rays. The demon shrieked once more, but the shriek was distant and soon cut out altogether. The rays shot back toward the pendant, which lay suspended in mid-air, and soon the light it cast receded into a dim pulse, then nothing at all.

“Phew, that went better than expected.” Mira smiled and gave several little claps of appreciation for her own clever self. “Now I can go home and watch TV!”

The pendant slowly fluttered toward her as if on the wings of an angel. She snapped a hand toward it and grabbed it, stuffing it back into her pocket in a quick move.

For a moment she hesitated on the edge of the roof, not sure whether to take the long or short way down. She quickly decided that seeing the ghoulish bartender wasn’t something she wanted to do before bed, and she made for the edge of the roof.

In several quick and calculated moves, she disappeared.

A cigarette landed on the roof and slid down to the point where Mira had been standing moments before. Its red glow flickered and extinguished against the wet slate.

“Well,” a voice said from the open window. “I’ve never seen that before.”

 

Mira threw out a hand and managed to catch the edge of the bowl. She pulled it toward her with a caveman grunt, crisps spilling across her reclined body and cascading over the edge of the couch.

“What did you have to go and do that for?” she scooped up a crisp and flicked it into her mouth. “Now I’m going to have to pick you all up.”

She made several attempts at corralling the loose crisps without actually moving but soon gave up. “Be that way, then.” With a sharp wave, she dismissed the crumbly mess to some future cleaning frenzy.

She lolled her head back in the direction of the TV and grinned. Just what she needed – a good movie. Not just any movie, though – a Brent Double, perhaps the finest looking man since the gods’ invented muscles and cheekbones. She beamed at the screen and stopped short of offering a thumbs up.

The phone rang just as the opening music faded to a frantic car chase full of screaming tires and women.

“No, no, no, not now!” She leaped off the couch, the bowl flying off her belly like a startled bird from the coop.

She sprang toward the kitchen, feet eating into the lush carpet in her mad dash to get there before the phone rang off.

In the center of the kitchen table was a large fire-engine-red phone. It was old school, maybe even retro by now, with its chunky receiver and curled cord. Heaven, after all, never ran with the times.

Hand beset with the slightest tremble, she snapped up the receiver. “Erm, hello?”

“Hello? Hello? Who answers the phone with hello?”

Mira shrugged slowly and frowned. Hell-o, there was something in that, she conceded. “Controller.” There was no time for pleasantries when your business was protecting humanity from encroaching evil.

“Your mission was a success, Agent, though it lacked finesse.”

Ohh no, ten points off for style. What did they want from her? A fricking Lycra bodysuit and a catch phrase? “Yes, Controller.”

“Just yesterday Michael managed to subdue an underground satanic cult, the lot of them possessed by a level 5 demon. Now that was memorable.”

A blush warmed Mira’s cheeks at the mention of the Agency’s finest. She even added a little shake of her shoulders and a twitch of her nose.

“Jumping through an open window and scrabbling down a roof doesn’t make it onto my list of acceptable agent conduct. I expect a full report.” The curt, high-pitched voice cut out without so much as a goodbye, let alone a well done for saving the world.

Mira pulled the phone away from her ear and sneered at it before plonking it back on the receiver.

She waited a moment, the fingers of one hand drumming on the table with a soft rat-a-tat-tat.

A single white feather floated down from above and landed on the table before her. It emitted a soft yellow light and instantly changed into a long oblong tube.

Angel mail: not nearly as useful as email, though still kind of cool.

She grabbed the tube and quickly pulled out the contents: one demon-hunt declaration form, a bill for lodgings, and a copy of the Good News Monthly. Mira threw the bill over one shoulder and, with the other two documents in hand, headed back to the couch.

She detested paperwork.

Mira had hardly begun filling in her report when she’d been distracted by the Good News’ new shiny cover.

Obviously, they had some new blood in their design department. Perhaps they’d even spruced up the usually drab contents, too. Even if they hadn’t, it was better than recounting her unstylish encounter with Bob the demon.

Plus, she was supposed to be in this issue. They’d gone and picked a random Agent from each level – from the highest to the lowest – and yeah, she was the prime example of low in the Agency.

The whole article was something about “meeting the foot soldiers of the revolution; the wings behind the work.” She hadn’t been paying attention when the memo had come around, all she’d cared about was selecting the right picture for her bio.

She fumbled quickly through the pages, her fingers searching for grip against the slick, glossy paper. There was a lot of fluff in this magazine. Interviews with the bigwigs, analysis of demon-possession trends, even an article on the latest set of revelations to come out from the Eternity Scrolls.

With a nervous grin, she found her page. The grin quickly morphed, her lips dropping into a pronounced frown. What a horrible picture!

Mira pushed her face into the magazine, trying to find an angle where the small picture of her didn’t look like it showed a frazzled, beatnik yeti with wild, boil-like acne. How dare they use such an old hideous picture!

The bio itself wasn’t too impressive either. It read like a personal ad. A bad personal ad, the kind of ad you might use if you were looking for abject, pitiless rejection.

Her fingers tightened around the edges of the magazine, her knuckles white streaks across her ruddy hands. Whoever wrote this article was mean, mean as Hell…. Well, not that mean. Still, this wasn’t very lucky.

As her chagrin settled, she began to flick through the rest of the article. She rested, inevitably, on Agent Michael.

“Wow,” she flicked her eyes across his bio. “You really are magnificent, aren’t you?” 260 sealings, 569 healings, 45 commendations, 3 Pure Heart medals, and a set of Golden Wings. Lord knew he was the best.

For a slow hour, Mira divided her attention between Brent Double, Agent Michael, and her report.

The night outside grew darker, and a crisp air fluttered through her window before she eventually reached the final question.

Question 25 was always the hardest. She had to hold her innate sarcastic nature back. What do you think the demon was trying to achieve? What kind of a question was that? How the Heaven was she supposed to know? Demons don’t stop to fill you in on their plans while they seek to possess the innocent.

She chewed the end of her pen with short, sharp chomps. It was getting late, and this question was still bugging her. What was Bob up to at that greasy bar? Socializing, eating nuts, drawing caricatures on napkins?

Eventually, with a heavy, belly-shaking sigh, she wrote down her answer. There was no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a random demon attack.

Finally satisfied, Mira rested back into the couch and fixed her attention back onto the muscle-bound Brent Double.

The perfect end to a hard day’s night.

Chapter 2

Country Charm

Mira very rarely felt like an agent. Even when she was flying across a rooftop in hot pursuit of a demon, there was always some part of her brain that couldn’t quite believe it. She didn’t trust herself enough.

It was fair to say that the Agency shared her misgivings. Throughout her selection, training, and even graduation, her superiors had always been upfront about her prospects. In ordinary circumstances, under ordinary conditions, involving an ordinary enemy, Agent Mira could be relied on to get the job done. And that was it; she was never going to make it above ordinary.

Mira blew on the window and rubbed at a smear with the cuff of her sleeve. Great view from this abandoned farmhouse, pity it had to be a Hell Hole really.

It was very early morning, so early the sun had only just managed to send a few weak rays across the distant hills. Why couldn’t she work during the day? Was it so much to ask to spend a proper night in bed once in awhile?

The mark gradually began to shift, so Mira put her shoulder into it, rubbing the window harder until she could see clearly. Really, this farmhouse wasn’t such a bad place; once you got past the satanic symbols smeared across the broken walls, it had a pleasant rustic charm. A bit of plaster and a lot of paint, and this place would make a wonderful country home. It might be a bit hard to sell considering its diabolical history, though.

Once the window was clean, and she had ascertained that absolutely nothing was moving in the cold summer morning below, she kicked off into the rest of the room. Hands clasped behind her back, she paced around the small attic, shifting her head to dodge several low beams.

In usual Agency style, they’d hardly briefed her at all. She’d received a curt phone call from her Controller, giving her the place and time, and that was about it. He’d mumbled something about another team having cleared the truly evil ones from the building last night. Apparently, all she was expected to do was hold fort until the sun rose.

Hold fort, that was it. Mira jabbed her foot into a little pile of dust and crunched it under the toe of her boot. That was about all she was good for in their eyes.

In theory, some enterprising demonic force might try to repossess the building, take advantage of its newly cleared status, perhaps a passing gargoyle or some unusually forthright zombie. In practice, it never happened, though.

Nope, nothing was going to happen here. Mira patted the wall with a flat hand. “Earghhh!” The wall was sticky, and she yanked her hand away, large blobs of clear slime catching on her skin. “Oh, that’s so gross!” She snapped backward from the wall, shaking her arm in great arcs, trying to dislodge the gelatinous substance.

She took a closer look at the wall, wiping her hand against her thick jacket. She hadn’t really paid much attention to it before; it was kind of dark, after all. But now, as she looked at it, she gulped. All across the surface, all down one face of the wall, over the cracks and holes, was a clear sticky film. It looked like something that might surround insect larvae or the fetus of some alien child. “Ewwwww!” Mira bounced up and down on the balls of her feet and made a disgusted face.

She took it all back: this wasn’t some charming country cottage that had simply had the misfortune of becoming a satanic hidey hole – this place was rank.

She pushed herself back until she was standing roughly in the center of the room, as far from the walls as she could manage. Her face felt pale and her skin itched. What in all of Hell was going on here?

The walls began to ooze. Whereas before the slime had simply covered the surface, it now began to bubble and drip, falling to the floor in great big drops.

“Ahhhhh.” Mira danced from foot to foot. This wasn’t in the manual. Dripping walls had never been covered in training, nor had she ever read about them in the Standard Grimoire. What was she supposed to do?

Mira watched the slime gather at the base of each wall. It was becoming thicker now and had taken on a pallid white hue, like sections of squid flesh.

There was no backup for this mission; she didn’t even have a Controller in her ear. It was just her and a melting house.

So there was only one thing to do, right? Get out of the melting house.

A wet dollop of slime landed on Mira’s head and slid down her neck. She gave a sharp shriek and pelted for the door. Her boots caught a pool of slime, and she skidded into the hall.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God.” It was everywhere, seething and bubbling as if it were alive.

She somehow made it down the stairs, even though by the last step she was ankle-deep in the gunk. All around her, the building seemed to melt, the wood and plaster almost completely disappearing.

By the time she managed to cross the floor, the ceiling above had begun to sag and was threatening to knock off her small beret. “Eeeeeekkk.” She shook her hands about and took huge lumbering steps through the goo.

The door stood before her, but she barely recognized it. Only the tarnished brass handle was visible underneath the bubbling mass.

There was nothing else for it. As best she could, she stumbled toward the door and kicked it with all her might. Her foot drove through the goo and connected with what remained of the wood. Though the goo slowed down the force of her kick, she managed to preserve enough strength to snap the wood. With a dull crack, the door gave way.

As the door fell forward, a great wall of yellow-white, rubbery slime took its place like blood plasma sealing a wound. With a gulp any cartoon character would be proud of, Mira plunged through it.

It was like jumping into a great big bucket of… yeah… snot.

When Mira had fought her way to the other side, she fell flat onto the grass and gasped for air.

Click, click, click. Even though the slime still covered her face, she knew what that noise was.

“Don’t move.”

She froze, prostrate on the grass, still completely covered in the, by now, opaque goo.

“What in Hell is it, sir?”

“Looks like some kind of neo-demon, maybe still in the larval stage.”

“You mean like that spore creature we found at the municipal tip last week?”

“Yeah kinda, but this one is twice as disgusting.”

Mira listened to their words with the kind of detached interest being completely covered in demonic slime could afford a girl. Sure, their words kind of stung, but right now she was a little too shocked to care.

“It’s not moving much? Do you think it’s too young?”

“I don’t know, Merry, it still looks pretty dangerous. Maybe we should get the captain over here.”

Oh, this was just great. This was completely and utterly fantastic. Wasn’t she just so darn lucky? “Look, I’m an agent,” is what she tried to say. What really came out sounded like a gurgling growl.

Click, click. “Don’t even think about it, little demon; we’ve got a whole Unit here.”

Unit? Mira made the mistake of opening her mouth and gasping. Rather than sucking in a breath of air, she pulled in a mouthful of slime. She began to cough and splutter.

“Whoa, what is it doing?”

Mira rocked backward, patting her chest with one hand as her throat constricted further, and she started to choke.

She began to panic; she was running out of oxygen. She tried to point at her throat in the hope that the idiots before her would understand, but she could hardly move her arm.

“What’s going on here?” Out of nowhere a set of strong arms pulled her up and, looping around her middle, slammed hard into her chest. “There you go.”

With one last wheeze, Mira’s throat finally cleared, and she sagged into the arms behind her.

“So you were just going to let her choke to death, then?” the voice asked from behind her. It was deep and melodic, but the tone was even and strict.

“Ummm, we thought it was a demon… what…. What is it, anyway?”

“As far as I can tell, it’s the agent that was on duty in the house,” she felt the captain twist his head, “or whatever is left of it, anyway. Looks like you just made it out.”

It took her a moment to realize he was talking to her. Whether it was from the shock or something else, she’d zoned out. His words brought her back to Earth, and she pushed herself up and free of his arms.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

She attempted to clear her throat but eventually nodded instead.

“Right. Look, go report to your commander, you two; I think the show’s over here.” She heard the captain wipe his hands together.

In a second, several sets of footsteps receded. Slowly, carefully, her body filled with bitter embarrassment, Mira put a hand up to wipe the goo from her face.

“Controller said there was supposed to be an agent in the building.” The captain didn’t move from behind her. “Those idiots were supposed to check the building before they cast the detonation spell. I’m really sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think they’ll be making it into Unit anytime soon.”

No, funnily enough, that wasn’t much of a consolation. Detonation spell? They were going to destroy the place all along, and no one had bothered to tell her? Mira pulled a clump of goo from her hair and flicked it onto the ground.

Then again, it made sense to destroy this Hell Hole. The Agency would hardly let a demonic trove like this continue to stand. It had been the home of various satanic cults for over 100 years. Continual exposure to evil like that would have infected the entire building, seeping into the wood like acid.

The Controller had told her to be out of the house by sunup. She should really have put two and two together. Still, a simple elaboration would have been nice.

“You sure you’re okay?” The captain clapped a hand on her shoulder and wiped off a clump of slime.

The simple move sent a shiver down her spine, which she hid with a little shake.

“Aha,” she muttered.

“Anyhow, I’m sure we can manage things here if you want to go and catch a—” he coughed.

“Shower?” she filled in, finally clearing her mouth enough so her words were more than gurgles.

“Yeah.”

She turned to him to salute or something but froze, her fingers spread wide like a cat sprung mid-pounce.

Michael.

“Not that I’m saying you ah…. You probably just want a shower, right?” He was standing with his hands loose at his sides, his head dipped slightly toward her, a pleasant, almost cheeky smile on his perfect face.

Michael, Michael, perfect Michael. 6ft tall, broad but not stocky, beautifully proportioned shoulders, a chiseled jaw you could crack a nut on, and the deepest, light brown eyes.

She made a noise close to the coo of a bird.

“Anyhow.” He reached out another hand and lightly patted her shoulder as he pushed past her to survey the house as it continued to melt on the spot. “You’re dismissed, Agent.”

Ah ha….

It took Mira another millisecond to run away. She was covered in goo and had just met the man of her dreams…. If she ever got her hands on the Fates, they were so dead.

Whack. It went something like that, didn’t it? When a situation got so ludicrously ridiculous that it was like a smack in the face with a rolled-up list of your faults and failures? This whole thing was whack.

Mira walked her fingers over the table in front of her. The tips of her fingernails drummed out a little beat across the wood. Her left foot tapped against the table leg. She leaned on her free hand and stared down at the document before her with the kind of blank, unperturbed expression only naivety can afford the damned.

A Notice of Assessment. She’d almost choked when she’d seen it on the table. She’d even hesitated before hopping in the shower. For just a second she’d wanted to sit down right then and there, still sticky from the remnant of her disastrous morning, and get all the bad news out.

Now she was showered and her hair was twisted up in a towel, though various untamed strands sent water dripping down her front and onto the plush fabric of her bathrobe. The shower had calmed her a little, taken the edge off her burning embarrassment. But now her shame had been trumped by a twitching despair. Was this it? Had she stuffed up one too many times? Were they going to sack her?

Mira’s foot banged harder against the table leg until a little red mark started to appear over her already hot skin. This wasn’t fair. She walked her fingers over the document and, pushing her finger into the paper, pulled it toward her.

The Agency, apparently, wished to inform her that they were currently conducting an audit into her performance. That’s right, an audit. Like you do when you count how many pens are left in the stationery cupboard. Was Mira a couple of pens short now, is that what they were trying to tell her?

“Ahhh!” Mira slammed an open hand down onto the table. Not too hard, though; she wasn’t trying to break it, and she didn’t have anyone to impress.

The frustration was building across her back with the squeeze of a straightjacket. This was so unfair.

From now on, according to this fantastic letter, the Agency would be watching her every move. They hadn’t phrased it like that, they’d mentioned something along the lines of performance assessment, but she knew what that meant: stalking.

They’d go through her files, too. Not that they’d need much reminding; her errors weren’t exactly forgettable. She was barely a rookie as it was. She was only one step above paperwork for a living.

Oh yeah, her life was going exactly how she’d hoped….

Mira leaned back into her chair and tried to sigh, but she couldn’t force the air out. It sat in her chest with an aching pressure. It was like she was suffocating while still breathing or drowning without being near a drop of water.

After about five minutes of wallowing, Mira scrunched up the letter and threw it at the wall. It was time to ignore it. The Agency could try to ruin her day/life, but they surely underestimated her impressive ability to pretend. She could pretend everything was fine, and Heaven, that’s just what she was going to do.

Mira forced a grin and stuck to it until it softened into a smile. She was on duty tonight, something about rooftops. You could see the whole city from up there, and if the view didn’t kill her, God knows her fall from grace would.

Chapter 3

Unwelcome Surprises

Mira balanced on the edge of the roof. One foot wedged into the gutter, the other perched on the steeply pitched slate, she peered at the street below.

Everything was dark. The city appeared as a matrix of solid black buildings among a snake-like series of gray shadowy streets.

She crossed her arms. Her whole face descended into a deep, furrowed frown. Things were not going well. First, that stupid assignment in the melting house, and now, night duty – somebody didn’t like her very much.

Mira eventually sighed and unwound her arms. She couldn’t wear this serious face any longer; it was hurting her lips. “Errrrah!” She kicked out her legs and landed in a seated position on the edge of the roof with a thud.

“Stupid.” She swung her legs back and forth. “Stupid.”

A whole legion of thoughts threatened to overcome her as she sat there. None of it was her fault, she knew that. This stupid audit was a waste of time. The Agency was wrong; she wasn’t their worst agent. She was just unlucky. Really, really unlucky.

Mira swung her legs harder and faster.

None of the other agents seemed to face the kind of demons she did. Hell appeared to have it in for her. Well, that was as a given, really. But… there was something different, wasn’t there? The foes she faced were harder than the small fries her colleagues were assigned.

In the past several months she’d been in so many accidents, so many near misses. The melting house was just the tip of her iceberg. Two weeks ago she’d been sent to spy on a crazy satanic baker and he’d set two leviathans on her. Leviathans! She’d almost popped a lung trying to run away. And then there was that incident with the flesh-eating bats – that had been awful.

The point was, she kept stuffing up, not because she was a bad agent, but because she kept facing enemies that were way above her station. The Agency called it coincidence; she called it intimidation. They were obviously trying to make a point. A point that went something along the lines of “rack off.”

Mira’s legs came to a sudden stop, and she fell back against the slope of the roof with a heavy breath.

On the other hand, there was every possibility she was making it up. She was manufacturing a conspiracy theory out of a perfectly innocent set of circumstances. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Mira bashed out a beat with her fists on the cold slate. “Stupid me.”

When was she going to grow up and accept responsibility for her actions? There was only one rational explanation here, wasn’t there? Everyone else seemed to see it, too. The problem here was her. Mira just wasn’t the agent she should be.

She stared up at the dark night sky above her. Why did things always feel like they were out of her control?

“Agent,” the voice of the Controller rang clearly in her mind.

“Ahh!” Mira jumped, her whole body sliding perilously close to the edge of the roof.

“Agent, report.”

Mira scrambled back from the edge of the gutter.

“Agent!”

She clapped a hand over an ear. For a voice supposedly beamed directly into your mind, it had the same effect as sticking your head into a jet engine.

“Agent. Have you managed to find the source of the etheric disturbance yet? We need your report immediately.”

She brought a fist down with a slow, deliberate thump. Why did they always call at the wrong time? “Ahh… I’m onto it.”

“All reports have ceased, you have missed your opportunity.”

She blinked. “Sorry?”

“Your mission has failed. Whatever has caused the disturbance has now passed. You are dismissed.” The familiar click of disconnection buzzed between her ears.

“Whaaaa? Are you serious?”

The cold night did not answer.

“This was all for nothing? Ahhh!” Mira snapped up and marched up the sloped roof, hands drawn into tight balls of rage. “Waste of stupid time.”

She kicked the window ledge as she clambered through into the abandoned attic. “Stupid!”

Mira had every intention of stalking all the way home, striking anything and everything that got in her way. It was just like the Agency to operate like this: send her out with no hope of success on some stupid waste of a mission. They really had it in for her. A disturbance in the etheric field? What kind of a pathetic, weak excuse was that to send—

Mira stopped dead, one foot on the sill, one on the floor of the room.

It reeked like burnt blood in here. A choking odor of acrid putridity filled the dark room before her.

Involuntarily she gagged. Her hand snapped over her mouth to cover the noise, but it was too late.

“Backkkkkkk.” A sharp hiss cut through the darkness. “Backkkkkkkk.”

A rush of adrenaline shot through her body, chilling her brow and diving into her stomach with a sharp punch.

“Hhaaaaaaaaaaa.” It sounded like scalding steam escaping a pipe.

Seconds, for precious seconds she could not move. She stood there, riveted, the dark and stench smothering her.

“Ha ha ha.” Its laughter was short and sharp, like bursts of machine-gun fire.

It was enough to break the spell.

Mira pushed off the sill and dive rolled back out the window. Her body thumped against the slate as she slid, out of control, back down the roof. Tiles ripped up as she hurtled over them, desperately trying to dig her heels in for purchase.

“Commmme Baaaaaackkkk with meeeee!” There was a whoosh as wings unfurled behind her. “Baaaaackkkk.”

“Eraaaaaahhhh!” Her free-falling body shot over the edge of the roof like a child down a slippery slide.

There was no time to think. She pushed her arms wide, scrabbling at the air before her as she dropped like a stone. A desperate hand somehow latched onto the downpipe of the opposite building. Her hand slammed into the rivet holding the pipe to the wall as her arm absorbed the force of her fall.

The rivet broke.

The downpipe pulled away from the wall with a rusty groan. From somewhere she heard a scream. “Auuhhh!”

Tiles skimmed off the roof, cascading around her like hail from hell. The downpipe continued to rip away from the wall, its rivets popping liked aged joints against the momentum and her weight.

With a final high-pitched scream of metal fatigue, the whole thing began to fall. The top of the pipe, a segment of drain still attached, crashed into the opposite wall. It grated against the brick with the terrible cry of metal against stone.

It shuddered, then came to a halt.

The downpipe had fallen between the gap in the two buildings like a perilous bridge. It sagged in the middle, under Mira’s white-knuckled grip.

Her mind could not catch up.

The pipe snapped right underneath her hand. She plummeted to the ground and this time there was no saving her. She instinctively tucked into a ball as the last several meters of air whistling past her.

Mira struck the ground with a shuddering thump. Absorbing the majority of the fall, she rolled twice then lay flat on her back, gasping for air.

In all the seven levels of Hell, nothing had ever hurt more. She indulged in a brief, tortured groan.

Her fluttering eyes eventually caught sight of the black shadow rushing toward her from above.

Against every seemingly broken bone in her body, she kicked her legs over her head and rolled backward onto her feet.

The demon’s black fist plunged into the street where she had landed, cracking the cobbles like empty husks.

It snapped its head toward her, a truly demonic grin stretched across the red slash it had in place of a mouth. “Backkk!”

She scuttled backward. With a whack, her back came up sharp against the unyielding brick wall behind her.

Nowhere to go.

The demon cocked its head to the side with unnatural flexibility, like a marionette whose strings had been cut. It widened two slit-like nostrils and sniffed.

She clutched at her pockets, the chill night air sweeping across her sweat-drenched brow.

Star of David. Her hand closed around it just as the demon spread its wings for the final swoop.

The thing dived for her, its red eyes flashing as its sinewy arms opened. Mira sprung to the side. She flung the Star of David in a desperate pitch, aiming it at the center of its chest. The Star hit home.

The demon screamed, its wings flapping with a sudden convulsion. Thin trickles of black oozed from the wound.

She took her chance. She knelt, bringing her hands up in prayer.

Please.

Her hands tightened around the Holy Seal.

Please seal this demon.

A wonderful, impossible blue light erupted from the seal. Around her feet, in a holy halo, the words of the seal flashed in ancient, scribbled text.

“Please.” She opened her hands, revealing the seal. “Seal this demon!”

The light shot around the demon, encasing it in a brilliant cage. Its terrible screams soon dwindled like the cry of a crow on the distant breeze.

The light twisted and furled, curling back into the Holy Seal in a silent, warm dance.

Hot energy tickled through Mira’s body, the light coursing through her veins and healing the wounds of her fall. “Thank you.” The Seal closed with a click.

The street was silent once more.

Hours later, Mira crawled into bed, satisfied at one more Seal under her belt. At the same time, the remnants of the demon crawled out from between the broken cobbles like insects returning to the hive.

Contrary to her hopes, Agent Mira had not managed to seal this demon.

The sun beat down with the kind of full, bright, hot light only a midsummer morning could bring. People milled about on the streets smiling and laughing, trying to get their chores done before the day fulfilled its promise to become stinking hot and impossible.

Mira walked along the pavement, the long skirt of her summer dress billowing around her legs with every step. She held a bag full of groceries in both arms, one loose hand clutched around a slim roll of papers.

She smiled at the blue sky. Such a wonderful, warm day, so different from her horrible waste of a night. This was just what she needed.

She swung her head both ways, her loose hair playing freely over her shoulders, and walked across the wide street. The park was before her, sparkling like an emerald set in the silver ring of streets and buildings. It was the perfect place to have a picnic. There was this little spot deep amongst the scrub, under a huge old willow. Its long soft green leaves dropped to the ground on all sides, making the tree like a giant moss-covered stone. Beneath the curtain of leaves was feather-soft grass. She could lean against the tree, lay out her picnic before her, and quickly finish her paperwork. Nothing but the gentle rustle of leaves would disturb her for the rest of the morning.

A child rode past on a bike, face pulled tight with concentration, probably learning the wheels for the first time. A couple walked along behind, hand in hand. All across the park people enjoyed the day, feeding the ducks, walking dogs, or sunbathing on the grass.

Such a perfect day. Well… almost. She still had paperwork to do from the night before, and this time she had to make it good. She’d already received a smack down for her last attempt. What with her audit and the next round of promotions coming up, she really needed to be careful not to let her shocking form slip to unemployable.

With the kind of sigh that reminded her of a half-eaten zombie laboriously digging itself out of its grave, Mira pulled out the documents. Why the Agency required such detailed paperwork on every single incident always eluded her.

Pen over paper, ready to declare her unexpected demon sealing, she stopped. How was she supposed to word this? She jumped through the window, and there it was – bam, a random demon. She’d been through the attic on her way up onto the roof in the first place; she hadn’t felt a damn thing. This was going to look stupid, or worse – negligent.

Mira ran her teeth over her bottom lip in little circles. Come to think of it, there was no way she could make herself look good in this report. Far from showing her expertise by successfully dealing with an unexpected attack, this would highlight her general ineptitude. Really, the demon had been barely 10-meters from her for, quite possibly, most of the night, and she hadn’t felt a thing. That was not the kind of thing you wrote in your report.

And there was that business about the etheric disturbance in the first place. The Controller had clearly said that all disturbances had stopped. If the bloody great dark demon hiding in the attic wasn’t disturbing the etheric field, then it was made of tougher stuff than she’d thought.

Mira chomped down on the end of her pen and rolled it around in her mouth. All in all, the whole thing was something she’d rather forget.

She grinned, her lips pressing up around the pen. There was no reason she couldn’t forget it. What was another random incident report going to do for the Agency, anyway? Fulfill their weekly filing quota? They never actually used the data rookie agents gathered; she knew that.

The decision was made. Mira spent the rest of the day enjoying the peaceful shade, all paperwork an unpleasant, but distant, memory.

Chapter 4

A golden opportunity

Mira walked into the building. By walked she meant snuck on all fours, cramming her uniform-clad form into the tiny ventilation shaft on the flat roof.

It smelt of chemicals, all metallic and acrid, and as she snaked her way through the cold metal bends, she acted as a giant chimney sweep. She was covered in a green-brown muck. Not that she could see, of course; she was stuck in a dark ventilation shaft at night. But she could easily imagine the awful, putrid mess that clung to her uniform.

She didn’t even know what building she was in, for crying out loud. She’d tracked a nervous-looking Satanist through a bustling night market and ended up here, in some kind of office block.

There were so many things that were wrong about this. First and foremost was obviously breaking and entering. Oh, it was alright for the freaking devil worshiper – he could smash right through the plate-glass window out front without any worry of official reprimand. That the glass had mysteriously grown back up into its pane had been… unexpected. But still, her sentiment remained. There was something deeply unfair about being made to follow a set of rules that your enemy could exploit. There was no way Jeff the Occultist here would be held accountable for his actions, he wouldn’t face an inquiry or a pay cut.

Mira reached a quiet looking t-bend and kicked out the vent cover, leaping deftly onto the floor. The metal cover clanged to the ground beside her, and she winced. The sound reverberated around the empty hall as clear as a church bell summoning the faithful to prayers.

Except the kind of believers in this office block weren’t likely to pray for fluffy bunnies and world peace.

Instinctively, licking her lips with the tip of her pink tongue, Mira shrunk backward. She couldn’t hear anything, and nothing appeared to be moving in this deserted corridor.

It was dark, but not dark enough. She could make out the shape of chairs and desks behind the glass walls that led to the office spaces. Here and there a different shape, maybe a filing cabinet or a computer.

Nothing moved. It was the kind of eerie stillness you would expect on the moon or maybe if you could walk through a photograph. It was as if things were no longer capable of moving, like they’d had something sucked out of them, something important.

Every step forward, every time she muffled her breath or hushed her footfall, she felt like she was shouting out with a megaphone, indicating her exact position in this silent, still photo.

It was just her luck to get the creepy ones. A film of sweat appeared across the nape of her neck. She could feel it itch and crawl as it slipped down her back.

Pull it together, girl, she thought. It didn’t help; this was still damned creepy.

She kept on walking, as carefully as she could, down the corridor. Her head continually swiveled from side to side, as she surveyed the offices through the dark glass walls.

Jeff the Occultist was in here somewhere, she knew that for sure. She could feel his evil presence like a sword hanging over her head. An odd sensation, yes, but she knew just how Damocles had felt. One wrong decision and it would all be over.

“Grrrrrshhhhh.”

Mira stopped. Her heart sped up. She gave a breathy yelp and threw all her attention in the direction of the sound.

It was a low guttural groan. Somewhere between a rasp grating across metal and the most animalistic, primitive cry you could imagine. It spoke to something in her hindbrain, and every hair on her arms stood tall.

It was fight time.

Mira snapped around, spinning in a circle, trying to find out where the cry was coming from. But she couldn’t see a thing.

She gulped, she actually gulped. Perhaps it was flight time.

She spun again, her breath becoming short and sharp, her mind becoming more focused and desperate.

Finally, she saw something, right there through the dark glass. Behind one of the cubicles, something moved.

Not giving herself time to regret her decision, Mira dove at the plate-glass before her. She sped toward it, leaning into her shoulder, ready to drive her body into it. No time to find a door, not around something that sounded like a tractor monster.

With a sound similar to a plunger sucking up liquid, she ran straight through the glass. It did not break; it somehow reformed around her.

She skidded to a halt in the office, a row of darkened cubicles before her.

Wow. So that’s how Jeff had done it. Well, darn, if she’d known that, she wouldn’t have had to climb all the way through the ventilation shafts to get at him. But no, she hadn’t even thought to check if the magical glass trick worked for do-gooders, too.

Someone laughed. Clap, clap, clap.

She spun around to see a door leading to a large office behind the cubicles. Through it she could see the dark form of a man seated behind a desk.

Slowly, trying to transform her sweaty-palmed fear into resolve, she walked through the cubicles.

“That was really quite something,” the man called out to her. “The look on your face was priceless,” he hissed the last word like a snake.

She took a deep breath. “I’m surprised you could see from there.”

“GRRRRSHHHKK.” This time the growl was so close, she could feel the sound rattle her bones.

“Oh don’t worry about my pet,” the man chuckled, though it sounded more like a hiccup, “he won’t kill you until I tell him, too.”

“That’s,” she made it to the door and kicked it fully open, “comforting.”

Jeff the Occultist was sitting behind a large cherry-wood desk. It was the kind of piece that belonged in a museum, all ornate and carved. Not under the legs of the erstwhile Jeff as he leaned back in his chair, his feet crossed jauntily on the edge of the wood. “Don’t you ever give up?”

“Depends: where’s your friend?” She didn’t shift from the doorway. Who knows, there could be a sudden earthquake, after all.

“Busy,” Jeff gave a breathy sigh and scratched his cheek, “let’s talk about us.” Jeff plonked his feet off the table and leaned onto it, resting his chin in his hands. “You know,” his eyes fluttered coyly, “you and me.”

“Ahhh… excuse me?”

“The hunter and hunted, the fisherman and his catch, the sniper and his target. Don’t be coy, my dear.”

She shook her head. What in Hell had they sent her this time? This guy wasn’t just some Satanist calling up the dregs of Hell; he was clearly on some kind of other drug, too. “Okay… not really following.” Mira shifted to one side until her back was pressed against the edge of the doorframe. The one thing that bugged occultists more than anything else was to have their monolog interrupted.

“No, my dear,” Jeff had obviously been watching too many period dramas. “Now, now, now, I told you not to be coy.”

“Sorry, you did, didn’t you?”

“Thank you,” Jeff put as much emphasis on th as was possible without taking another breath. “I need to discuss with you where we take it from here.” Jeff leaned forward until a ray of light from the window cut across his face. Jeff was maybe 35, with a round face and shoulder-length hair. He looked at her with the kind of wide-eyed fervor any fundamentalist would be proud of. “Now I said let’s talk about us. I know some people who’d like to meet you. One man in particular—”

Mira rolled her eyes. This was getting old. “Sorry, buddy, I don’t make house calls.” With a flick of her shoulder, she turned on the light behind her. It had exactly the kind of effect she’d envisioned – Jeff screamed.

In the light of two neon tubes, the office of Jeff looked fantastic. It was intricately decorated, with statues and carvings on the coffee table and bookcases. There were even several giant paintings on the walls, beautiful and, quite obviously, expensive. If Mira hadn’t been in the middle of something, she would have found the time to admire them.

Jeff fell onto one of his hands, like a poet lamenting his wasted life, a thick strand of oily hair cutting across his face. “How dare you.”

“Sorry, I like to see people when I’m talking to them.” Mira made a point of bouncing up and down on her toes, peering around the office. “So really, where’s your friend?”

Jeff pushed back into his chair until it scooted across the red and black Persian rug and banged into the bookcase behind.

She winced as a perfect little golden statue teetered. Jeff sniffed wildly and peered at her through a gap between his fingers. “You’re going to regret this!”

The window was open; that’s probably where that breeze was coming from. And, if she wasn’t mistaken, which she wasn’t, that’s where Jeff’s friend would be.

“Do you mind if I close the window?”

Jeff took a breath and balled up his fists, slowly bringing them down to his lap. With a sudden snap, he reached behind him, grabbed the golden statue, and hurled it at her.

She caught it deftly, more than a little surprised. “Damn, Jeff – what the hell was that for?”

Jeff looked for all the world, in his black T-shirt and jeans, like an adolescent throwing a tantrum. “Get her!”

Oh, that didn’t sound good. Sure enough, from the direction of the window, a sound like metal biting into wood caught the air. Backing off, she looked at it just as a huge, gray, stocky creature climbed in.

It was lumpy like it had been fashioned out of balls of clay, with tiny wings and a long pointed snout. Teeth and claws too – had she mentioned those yet? Because those were long and sharp.

“Do you like my gargoyle? I made it myself, you see.” Jeff spoke through a pouting frown, like he half expected her to apologize and turn off the light so he could finish his soliloquy.

She muffled a high-pitched laugh into a strange cough. “Oh ha… it’s very nice.” She backed out through the open door, the statue still in her hand. “But I don’t think you made it yourself. I think that brand comes pre-packaged.”

Her joke didn’t exactly hit home. Jeff’s eyes became more sunken, his expression ten times as dark. “I made him. I called him up from Hell!”

“Oh, aren’t you a clever boy?” She was still backing away; by now she was halfway through the cubicles.

“I’ll get him to finish you! Damn my orders, they can find someone else.”

Okay, no more games. The Agency hadn’t told her there would be a bloody gargoyle. That level of creature was way beyond the Standard Grimoire she usually dealt with. What was she expected to do? Pray it out of existence? No, this kind of creature required something with a little more BAM!

The best thing she could do was hightail it out of here and call for backup. Who knows, if she was lucky (because she’d hit rock bottom on her luck stakes right now), she might even run into a certain captain.

Mira spun into a turn and screwed up her face in anticipation. It wasn’t going to be fun getting out of this building.

“Look, Donald, it’s not like I’m saying this kind of stuff happens all the time – obviously it doesn’t.”

Donald moved to protest, he opened his mouth and turned sideways to Fred as they walked along the deserted, dark street. Fred waved him into silence.

“All I’m saying is you have to be prepared for anything, right? Anything.”

At this juncture, Fred’s advice could not have been more correct. For out of the third-floor window above hurtled a dark shape. It wasn’t until it crashed through an awning and landed with a great, “ooff,” at their feet that they realized what it was.

“Jesus Christ! Are you okay?” Donald was the only one who could speak.

The figure, a woman in a peculiar uniform, picked herself up with a pained grunt and leaned, panting, against the railing. She was holding a small statue, the glint of gold obvious even under the weak streetlights. “Better than the window.”

The bad joke sailed right over both Fred and Donald’s heads, the sheer lunacy of the situation taking precedence. A woman had just jumped out a window and landed at their feet with a golden statue in hand….

“Look.” She pushed herself off the railing and walked over to get a better look at the window she had recently somersaulted from. “You guys probably want to get out of here.”

Both men stood still, in jaw-dropped shock.

“Okay, well I have to go, then.” She smiled stiffly and waved goodbye with the statue as she sped off down the street. “It probably won’t attack you anyway,” she called back.

It had taken Fred another good 10 minutes, by which time he and Donald had run all the way back to their mate Barry’s house, to be able to speak. When he did all he could offer was: “well I hadn’t been prepared for that.”

Never again did Fred try to lecture Donald on the vagaries of Internet Dating.

By the time Mira called for backup, she was already dead on her feet. Dead tired that was; fortunately, her brush with the enemy hadn’t been that effective. A bath was in order, definitely a nap, and maybe even a tub of ice cream. But, fortunately, no coffin.

There seemed to be a pattern these days, in the kind of mental, ridiculous jobs she was getting from the Agency. Everything was supposed to be routine, touted as just another ordinary mission any Rookie could accomplish. Problem was they weren’t. Things were getting damn weird. Rookies weren’t supposed to deal with gargoyles – they should be handed off to Unit, not her.

What was she supposed to think? Was Agency getting that lax that they no longer matched agents to enemies? Or was this some kind of message? Were they trying to put her into impossible situations so she inevitably screwed up, and they could finally kick her out for good?

By the time she’d gotten out of the bath, she’d pretty much decided to march into Head Office and ask them what in Heaven was going on.

Walking into the kitchen in her bathrobe, her hair a dripping mess down her back, she grabbed a whole tub of ice cream from the freezer. Just as she crammed a gargantuan spoonful into her mouth, the phone rang.

“Hello, is this the Agent that was tracking… ah… Jeff Henderson?”

She quickly swallowed her ice cream and immediately got a mega brain-freeze headache. Rubbing her palm on her forehead, she plonked herself onto her chair. “Yep,” she answered casually.

“Hi. This is Captain Michael of Unit. I’d like to clarify something with you, if I may.”

Mira actually fell off her chair. The ice cream came tumbling with her, landing with a slop onto her chest. Fortunately, it didn’t make a racket, and she controlled her voice long enough to mumble a meek, “Oh.”

“You were right to call us – the gargoyle has now been dealt with. There is something else, though. The office that you… redecorated—”

Mira squeezed her eyes shut. Things had gotten a little rough there for a while – chairs had been thrown, tables broken.

“I understand that it must have been a hard battle, and no one is suggesting that you acted out of line.”

Mira couldn’t speak; she couldn’t even make a noise. She was still lying there on the kitchen floor with cookie-crumble ice cream pooling across her chest.

“But there was an object of significant value that has gone missing in the scuffle.”

“Oh.”

Michael made a strange noise, like an awkward laugh but closer to just plain frustration. “I might as well be honest here. That office you chased Jeff into was my father’s.”

Just as she started pulling herself up, she fell back down. She’d trashed Michael’s father’s office?! “I… I… but it had enchantments on it. I thought it belonged to Jeff!” she squeaked.

Michael laughed again, this time with less frustration. “Yeah, Dad was none too pleased. The enchantment has been removed. It seems Jeff used to work for my father, you see. He had… issues apparently.”

A picture of Jeff seated behind that big desk, pretending to orchestrate the situation, his eyes wide and strained, came to Mira’s mind. “I get that.”

“Yeah. Anyhow, while you were being chased by the enemy – sorry, I mean while engaging the enemy—”

Despite the fact he’d insulted her, Mira smiled at his save.

“Did you come across a small golden statue of an angel?”

Her smile froze like someone had dipped Mira into liquid nitrogen. Not moving her head, she darted her eyes toward her kitchen table. There it was – the statue in question – all golden and pretty. To be honest, she’d forgotten she’d had it until well after she’d called Unit. It had just been in her hand, she’d felt no compulsion to put it down. And by the time she’d headed home, she hadn’t really had any other option but to keep it for a while. It would not look smooth to walk back in while Unit was cleaning up her mess and plonk the statue down with a “sorry, I kind of walked out with this.”

“It’s just my father only recently acquired it…” Michael’s voice was strained, and it was obvious he was extremely uncomfortable. “And it’s really quite valuable.”

Right, so for all intents and purposes Mira had just stolen Michael’s dad’s priceless golden statue. “I, ah… don’t remember seeing it.” She clapped a hand over her mouth, but it was already too late. She’d just set in motion a lie, one she could hardly back down from now. From whichever angle you looked at it, it did not look good.

“Oh… right. Are you sure?”

There was that little worm dangling on that big old hook. Mira took one furtive look at it and decided it was better to drown. “Nope….”

“Right,” he was sounding more defeated all the time. “Okay, then. Look, thanks for all your work, Agent. Good job.”

Michael hung up. Mira listened to the call tone for around a minute then followed suit.

Things were not good.

“What in the name of Heaven am I going to do with you?” Mira whirled around, like you might expect a passionate attorney to do mid-spiel, and pointed at the golden statue with a stiff finger. “How am I supposed to return you without getting sacked?”

The statue sat there glinting in the morning sun streaking through her blinds.

“Option One – break back into the office and get caught returning you by Michael. Wind up in prison and become the first agent to be charged with theft since Karl the kleptomaniac monk.” Mira marched over to the kitchen bench and leaned against the cold gray granite before pushing off again in a fit of nervous tension. “That is obviously not an option. In fact, returning it at all at this oh-so-incriminating juncture is just going to reaffirm my guilt.”

The statue once again remained silent. Though, for the briefest of moments, Mira entertained the possibility it was watching her. It could be like the Mona Lisa, right? Its eyes placed in such a position that they looked like they were tracking you across a room? Or it could just be Mira’s growing paranoia mixing with all that ice cream.

“So my options are really just to keep you.” She bit hard on her lip. “I can’t believe I just said that. Keep you? Am I insane? How is that a solution?” This is just what she needed right now: a reason to go insane. What with all the crazy stuff going down with the Agency, being landed with possible incarceration was the icing on the cake.

“You know—” She walked over to the statue and rested her hands on either side of it. If it had been human and not gnome sized, Mira’s move would have been quite intimidating. But as it was, it was lost on the golden statue. “There are times I wish I’d never joined the Agency.”

She sighed and collapsed into a chair. Not taking her eyes off the statue, she scratched her neck. “Things would be a lot easier if I were normal. I could work in a bookstore.” She let her eyes drift down the statue; it was so beautifully carved. “Or maybe with antiques. I could have a boyfriend and two cats and a little cottage on the outskirts of town. I’d commute every day, but that would be okay because I’d be able to see the sunset and hear the crickets in the backyard…” Mira let her mind trail off.

It’s not like she’d had any choice, though. It hadn’t been her decision to join the Agency; she’d been found. She didn’t really know how to do anything else either.

“Thanks for listening, statue. I wish you could come to life and help me out, but as it is, I might have to do this on my own.”

Chapter 5

Michael and Mira

After a day of living with regret, Mira had become more frazzled than a shag-pile carpet set through a tumble dryer. She hadn’t even brushed her long, dark-brown hair. It was usually sleek and smooth, but today it stood up around her head like a lion’s mane.

The guilt was killing her. She sat at the kitchen table, meekly trying to eat her porridge, but unable to pull her eyes from the statue.

Michael’s father’s precious golden statue. It was like a mantra, like a destructive prayer she could repeat over and over again to burn up the rest of her sanity in a fit of sorrow and despair. What had she been thinking? Seriously, what? Why had she lied to Michael?!

Several possible plans to fix this humongous problem had formed in her head only to be trumped by her writhing despair. Take it back: nope – she’d get caught. Keep it: nope – that would make her a thief. Leave the country: nope – the Agency would find her.

Whichever way she looked at it, she was screwed.

It didn’t help that she had to work. She’d received her orders in a dispatch with the morning post. Some kind of demon had been spotted out in the country in an abandoned church. Why the Agency didn’t pool together and knock down all abandoned churches, mosques, and synagogues she didn’t know. They were like the abandoned warehouses of ordinary crime – of course they had bad dudes inside.

By the time Mira piled into her car, she hadn’t even glanced at the demon’s specs in the standard grimoire, nor had she figured out her grand plan for reclaiming her innocence. So she packed up the grimoire and statue and stuck them both in her car boot.

Who knew, she could get lucky and find a way to deal with both problems at the same time.

Then again, knowing her luck, things could just get worse.

Michael was about as sure of himself as a teenage boy headed to his first dance in his father’s hand-me-down corduroy suit. He took another long look in the mirror and shook his head. It wasn’t his clothes that were bothering him or his shoddy shaving. No, he was having a far larger existential problem.

What in Heaven was he doing with his life? For the past several years, growing like a weed at the back of his mind, was this sense of discontent.

It had started about the time he’d accepted full command of Unit. It was the highest honor in Agency, apparently, but he was only 28 for Heaven’s sake. It’s not that he felt the job was above him, or that he was somehow alien to it. His family had a long line of commanders and captains. That his father was an antique dealer was a little aberration, but the Agency was in Michael’s blood. It was his destiny, apparently. A family tradition he’d had no real option but to follow. Agency had always recruited from the Nazeer family, and who was Michael to stand in their way?

He ran his hand over his chin, feeling the tiny pinprick of hairs across his fingers. He didn’t have time to shave again, nor did he have the energy. The party was in half an hour, and the drive out would take at least 40 minutes.

So far he’d dealt with his mutinous thoughts in the best possible fashion – he’d ignored them or sought out distraction. But every time he walked back into Agency Headquarters, every time he received his orders from one of those pompous Controllers – they flooded back again.

He had to admit to himself, quietly in the privacy of his own head, some part of him hated Agency. Some part of him fought against the control, the secrecy, and the system as a whole. He understood the work, of course he did, and the need to protect humanity from the evils of the underworld. Hell, he’d seen Hell, and he was wholeheartedly dedicated to guarding against its advances.

But something no longer seemed right. He couldn’t put it into words, and he would not dare too, but the Agency seemed… different.

Michael turned away from the mirror, finally satisfied that his reflection could not be that bad.

Tonight, was not a formal mission. In fact, one of the Controllers in a fit of social enthusiasm had even told him to have fun. But he was still expected to be the face of the Agency at this party, and the host – Lord Ashbolt – was a major contributor.

This felt less like protecting the world and more like politicking, but the Controllers had assured him that it was all necessary.

By the time Michael had left the house, his mood hadn’t shifted. It had been the same for several months now, so it was no real surprise.

The thing about abandoned churches, other than the fact they were always infested by denizens of the Dark, was that they were creepy. It was all that cold sandstone and those huge domed ceiling. They sealed in the loneliness and despair.

The fact that this particular church was housing a nasty little demon didn’t help on the creepy scale, either. The fact that the stained-glass windows were all broken and that the chandelier lay shattered on a pile of smashed-up pews also wasn’t helping her nerve. And frankly, the occultist symbols strewn across the floor in what looked like blood were threatening to tip her over the edge.

Mira took another tiny step into the room. Her shoulders shook slightly as she tried not to gag from the smell. The subtle metallic scent of the blood had mixed with the general musty aroma of the room to make a truly choke-worthy cocktail.

It looked empty, but judging by the current decorations, she was not alone. There were claw prints in the blood, after all.

She still hadn’t looked at the demon’s specs. It shouldn’t be a problem, though; they were all the same. The best thing to do with a level 1 demon was to blind it with holy water and seal it for eternity with a Holy Seal. She couldn’t imagine this one would be any different.

She fought the urge to call out and announce her arrival. A general skipping nervousness had taken hold of her limbs, and she twitched her knees up and down to dispel the tension.

The call of a fox outside made her yelp like a puppy and set her heart off into a gallop.

“YOU CAME.” From out of the darkness, a demon spoke.

It was odd to hear one speak; not all of them could. But the ones that chose to exercise their vocal prowess usually used it as a lethal weapon to bore you to death.

She didn’t answer, just tracked backward until her back came up sharp against a wall.

It was above her in the rafters. She could see it now, make out its dark elongated shape and those two slits for eyes.

“THEY SAID YOU WOULD.” It bobbed its head from side to side as it spoke, like an Elvis doll on a car’s dashboard.

She reached into her pockets and prepared her weapons.

“THEY WANT YOU TO RETURN WITH ME, YOU, A HUMAN.”

She was hardly paying attention to what it was saying, just watching and waiting for it to pounce, her own body stiff as a sheet of steel.

“HE WANTS TO SEE YOU.” With a loud whoosh like air being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, the beast’s wings unfurled.

The demon leaped from the rafters, landing nimbly on the broken pews, its clawed legs sinking amongst the shattered wood. “HE’S CLOSE NOW.”

Mira uncorked two holy waters and readied her throw.

The demon edged forward into a ray of moonlight snaking through the crack in the window and sniffed the air. “BUT NOT HERE YET.”

She almost dropped the vials, a sudden snap of tension arcing across her arms. That demon… it couldn’t be… it was… it was the same demon from the other night, the one that had chased her off a roof.

But it couldn’t be – she’d sealed it!

The thing must have sensed her indecision and took the opportunity to cockily sniff the air again, letting its slit-like nostrils expand and contract like bellows. Then it shot off across the church, hunched low like a leopard darting through the grass.

Mira felt cold and sweaty. Her mouth was dry, the shock twisting through her as if a washerwoman had a hold of her stomach and was trying to knot the water out.

How… how could the demon be the same one? That was meant to be impossible. She’d sealed that demon; it should now be locked away for all eternity.

She pushed off after it and scooted across the stone floor.

Was she mistaken? Did the demons only look alike?

By the time she reached the broken door and rolled through it, the demon had already started out across the open field that lay at the back of the church. She could track its form as it streaked across the darkened landscape.

Regardless of whether she’d fought this particular guy before, she couldn’t let it escape. She couldn’t let it hurt people.

Mira shivered and set off into a desperate run, following it across the grass. In the distance, just past a field and a set of long hedges, stood a house. Large and commanding, akin to a manor or small castle, its surrounds were dotted by cars and even from here she could make out the lights.

People, the demon was running toward people.

Her heart pounding and her mouth dry, she followed.

This shouldn’t be happening!

Mira pushed her body forward, forcing her limbs to claw through the crushing pall of fatigue. She flung herself through the path of wreckage, stumbling over the broken chair legs and tabletops of this ransacked storeroom.

The Damn demon had run right into the manor, destroying everything in its path. It was like a heat-seeking missile, capable of calculating exactly how best to cock up this situation. And its conclusion had been marvelous – run straight for the giant house full of people.

Thankfully they hadn’t yet encountered another breathing, living soul. The demon had picked its path through the rear of the dwelling, and judging by the construction equipment, this section of the manor was closed off for renovations.

That was a small blessing, but it wouldn’t last. There were a lot of cars outside, and that meant that somewhere around here there were a lot of people. With one wing of the Manor closed off, it simply meant that the guests would be packed into the same room somewhere.

She couldn’t even call for backup. She did not have a Controller in her ear, and she’d stupidly, negligently left her phone in the car. Her slim hope was that the Agency would detect a disturbance in the etheric field and figure that it was way too close to a large group of people. They’d dispatch several Units immediately, and they’d come and save the day. Of course she’d get a serving for failing to stop the demon, but what was another nail in her coffin at this late stage of her career?

The blood was rushing through her head with an ear-aching roar. She’d never had to run this hard before. Then again, she’d never fought a demon that couldn’t be sealed before either.

Mira touched one hand to the floor and pushed off into a neat somersault, clearing the top of a pile of heaped, broken furniture. She landed solidly and launched herself back into the chase.

She couldn’t lock onto it. Every time she ducked and weaved, the edge of the demon’s black pointed tail would dance out of view. All she could rely on were the crashes and clangs as it bashed its path through the service rooms.

She couldn’t let this continue. The noise alone would attract an army.

A frigid cold spread through her chest. What if Agency couldn’t detect the disturbance… what if she was on her own?

She shot around a doorway and quickly ducked as a loose light-fitting cut across her path like a blade. It shattered against the wall, spewing glass and sparks into her path.

“Eaaahh!” She tucked into a roll and came up running.

Loose strands of hair sprung from her ponytail in a wild, frazzled mane. A shiny slick of sweat covered her brow, and her face was crumpled with a combination of frustration, concentration, and fear.

This shouldn’t be happening.

From three floors up, the crashes on the ground floor could hardly be heard. Dull little thumps coming through the floor, but no one could notice; the party was too loud and the guests too distracted.

Even when the demon crashed through a large window, shattering it into a million pieces, the swell of the music and voices blocked it out completely.

Not one single person saw the night outside get impossibly dark. Nor did anyone see the outside lights bend and elongate as they were sucked down into a swell of blackness.

Outside the warm summer night froze. The rustle of the leaves in a gentle breeze and the call of the crickets turned deadly silent.

Though there was a great balcony that led out from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the ballroom, no one was on it.

Somehow, there was no one to see what would happen next.

Henry Cage was none too pleased he had to take his cigarette outside. The head waiter had mumbled something about the smoke damaging the wallpaper and waved him out of the back entrance without so much as a sorry. It was cold out here, even though it was summer. There was some strange dead chill in the air, like you used to get at the port on a frosty winter’s morning.

With his head tucked close to his chest, Henry took another puff of his cigarette. Off to one side, the distant sound of smashing glass caught the air.

He frowned, curling the cigarette around his mouth until it poked out from the other side. The noise had come from in front of him, not from the kitchens behind.

Another sound: something scrabbling, scuttling across the gravel.

He kicked off the wall and made for the ruckus. His hands were still in his pockets, the cigarette still hanging bent in his mouth.

He made it around the side of the building, coming to the large turn circle at its back.

He shivered, the cold creeping up on him so quickly that his shoulders contracted with a snap. This was almost Arctic; the cold stabbed through him like a thousand icicles.

Something was out there, just past the beige gravel of the turning circle, just out of reach of the light. The light… why was it so dark out here?

That was the last rational thought Henry Cage could manage before the fear curled into his stomach with a bowel-shaking thunk.

It drove him to his knees; a bitter cold and dark surrounding and pressing in on him like the depth of the abyss. It choked, smothered, and drowned.

The dark ate into his chest, clutching desperately with all its might.

Mira curled into a dive roll and shot past the pointed shards that encircled the broken window like shark’s teeth. She rolled to her feet, fragments of glass clinging to her clothes and hair.

“No!” Her eyes snapped wide, and her lips froze into a thin circle.

It was calling. The demon was calling the dark to it. It was going to feed.

Blood trickled from the cuts on her arms and hands, but its warmth was quickly extinguished by the growing chill.

With each pounding heartbeat, her hands shook, tapping the sides of her thighs with a disjointed rhythm.

It was so dark. She couldn’t see where the demon was.

Her breath hit the air in violent bursts, freezing into a mist that fell back on her face.

Something moved. The gravel crunched to her left. Something heavy fell to the ground with a thud.

She hesitated. She couldn’t, couldn’t make herself move. Her limbs were heavy, grounded to the spot.

She was afraid, deathly afraid.

There was a long, dull sound like a man on the edge of death taking one last breath.

It broke the spell. It cut through her mind and called to her heart. She had to move, she had to protect; it was her duty.

Her hands curled into fists, and she dove into the darkness.

It was at that point Lord Ashbolt decided to give a speech. He struck the side of his champagne glass with the end of a silver spoon and took a deep clearing breath.

His guests turned to the stage, and finally the buzz of noise began to falter.

There was a thud from downstairs as Mira’s body hit the brick wall and crumpled.

Few guests noticed. And the ones that did knew nothing of what it meant.

Henry Cage slowly picked himself up. His hands dragged limply at his sides for a moment until he snapped them around his torso with a crunch.

“Nghhhhahhhhhhaa.” The sound echoed from his chest, never passing his lips.

He lumbered heavily, pitching his body from side to side as he walked forward.

His crumpled cigarette lay before him, the embers at its tip still glowing a dim red.

He stepped on it, twisting his foot, crushing the embers into the ground until the fire died out completely.

Henry Cage headed for the back entrance of Castle Weathercrop, a changed man.

The party was in full swing, the guests mingling in clusters around the extravagant buffet. Waiters dodged lithely through the crowds, trays of champagne and orange juice at hand.

In the center of the room, with a commanding view of the ornate staircase that led onto the landing above, stood a smaller group of people. At their center was Lord Ashbolt, one hand on the head of a carved walking stick, the other holding a full glass of blood-red wine.

“Delightful party, Lord Ashbolt.” A woman touched a hand to his forearm. “You’ve outdone yourself.”

“Outdone myself?” He drummed his fingers over the head of his walking stick. “My dear, if you imagine a simple party is the limit of my talents, then you are sadly mistaken.”

The woman paused, blinking quickly.

From beside the Lord, someone coughed through a laugh.

The Lord turned to him. “Ah, Michael, you are certainly one to understand the breadth and depth of my many talents.”

“Hmm,” Michael turned two pale brown eyes to his half-empty glass. “Keep on talking like that, Franklin, and people might start believing those stories of your legendary arrogance.”

The Lord didn’t falter. If it was an insult, it wasn’t barbed. Franklin Ashbolt’s half-smile didn’t dwindle. “Legendary? What poor stuff for a legend. Now,” his sharp brown eyes danced across the room, “if I were constructing a legend, I might just turn to you.”

The other guests could not follow this exchange. Various levels of confusion contorted their brows and weighed heavily on the edges of their mouths.

Michael bowed his head slightly and took another sip of wine.

Soon, as the other guests began a concerted rally to regain the Lord’s attention, Michael found himself at the back of the group, mingling at the edge, behind a large man who kept clearing his throat to emphasize his points, which, apparently, he had a lot of.

Lord Ashbolt would occasionally shoot him a curious glance as he drifted further and further away from the fray. At one point the Lord appeared about ready to wade through the crowd and drag him back to center stage, but that soon dissipated as the throng deepened.

This was not the place to discuss business.

Michael turned to the windows again and stared at the black night outside. He had lost count of how many times he’d done it, but the people behind him were starting to notice. A heavyset man in a box-like suit gave him a narrowed-eyed stare. Michael ignored it.

It was dark outside, much darker than this summer’s night should permit.

He let the fingers of his hand press into the unyielding sides of his glass. Nothing seemed out of place. But things did not seem right either.

He gently ran his teeth over the fleshy underside of his lip and stared at the contents of his glass. He had not heard of any operations in the area, nor of any threats.

He took one last look out the windows. The level of black outside, in his estimation, was between the pitch black of a lightless night and the deepest black of the eternally covered eyes.

This was no natural phenomenon.

And then he felt it. Across his back, through his stomach, and washing over his face – the icy snap of recognition.

Evil was in the air.

Michael headed straight for the door.

Mira gasped.

Her trembling hand pulled itself across the grass and grasped at her hip. A slicing pain scythed through her back.

She wanted to cry out, but couldn’t. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened her mouth in a silent, teeth-bared scream.

The thing’s tail had collected her side. It had whipped through the darkness and smashed her against the wall with superhuman strength.

And now she lay in agony, unable to move or cry out, should anything be present to hear her.

The demon had left her for dead or, more likely, for painful paralysis until it had completed its task and could return to finish the job.

Against every bursting nerve in her body, she pushed herself up.

“I wouldn’t.” A voice cut through the darkness that still surrounded her.

She stood.

An arm snapped out of the darkness, grabbing her firmly around the middle.

Mira screamed, but a hand clamped tightly over her mouth.

Adrenaline pumped through her veins in a numbing wave of bitter cold. Aided by her flying heart, she began to struggle.

The hands clutched tighter, pulling her in until a warm whisper hit her ear. “Are you trying to get us killed, Agent?”

She sagged, falling into the arms that surrounded her with a trembling relief. That one word was like a blanket.

Mira’s eyes fluttered closed, her adrenaline succumbing to her overpowering exhaustion.

Mira came to on a slab of cold concrete. She was lying on her back, her long hair surrounding her in a messy shroud.

She fumbled at her side, clutching at the place above her hip where the demon’s tail had struck her. It was wet.

A hand came from beside her, pinning her own hand before she could explore the wound further. “Holy water.”

Her mind wound up and down through peaks of exhaustion and embarrassment.

There was only one person who that dreamy, melodic voice could belong to. There was only one person who could have kept her safe from that demon. And there was only one agent who bothered to wear French Cologne.

Michael.

Her other hand snapped up and covered her mouth. This was the worst possible thing that could happen.

Agent Michael had rescued her from a demon-sealing gone wrong against an enemy she should never have fought, in a place she should never have been. Now the Agency’s finest was crouching beside her in the dark nursing her injuries. If she had any hope of clearing this mess up before it got to the Head Controller, it ended with Michael. And to top it all off, the freaking statue was in her car. Way to go, Mira.

“How are you feeling?” his voice had a gentle timbre, and she could picture the warm smile playing across his lips as he spoke.

How was she feeling? Well… not so good considering. “Uhhhh,” was what she actually managed.

His hand pressed warmly into hers. “I’m going to go seal it. I’ll come back for you when I’m done.”

“The light. W-why is it still so dark?” A diffuse pain throbbed at her side, robbing Mira of breath. “Enghhh, and w-why does it hurt so much?”

“This is a very strong demon, it ate the light.” He placed a warm hand on her side. “It hurts because somehow demon blood got into your wound.”

Mira gave a choked gasp. Demon blood, once in the system, would possess you from the inside, gradually corroding away your soul until you were a lifeless husk. She had exorcised an Infected before, it was horrible.

“It’s okay.” He squeezed her hand tighter. “The holy water has destroyed it, that’s why it hurts. You’ll be fine. Once the pain subsides, your wound will disappear.”

Relief swept over her tensed body in a warm wave, and she relaxed back against the concrete.

She felt Michael rise to his feet. “You will be safe here. It won’t double back when there are so many fresh souls elsewhere.”

His footsteps fell softly as he left the room, leaving Mira alone in the dark.

He was wrong, as Mira would soon find out, the demon would double back.

Michael could feel it as he neared. It left a trail of evil acrid stench in its wake. Like burnt fingernails and hair, it seared his nostrils with every breath. The light was bent, too. What little remained, seemed stretched thin like a pale shroud illuminating the room with the barest glow.

If this was the demon’s handy work, then he had been right. This was no ordinary fiend. Michael reached into his pocket and grabbed his spare vial of compressed Holy Water. And this was not going to be an ordinary exorcism.

He only hoped no one else would get hurt. A notion the demon, of course, would not share.

Mira took another deep, cleansing breath. She could feel the pain dwindle at her side. The last strands of cold were being pushed out by a hot pulse. Her whole body seemed to throb in time with the beat.

With the wave of relief and warmth, came a much-needed dose of reality. In a snap, she recognized her situation for what it was: dire. She couldn’t just lie here and wait for the triumphant Michael to return. He’d take her back to the Agency, and she’d be crucified for ineptitude and lies.

She pushed herself up, breaking through the heady wave of dizziness until she stood. There was one pale beam of light that could break through this darkness, and that was the darkness itself. What if Michael hadn’t seen her? Yes, so he’d saved her and nursed her back to consciousness, but this pitch black would have protected her button nose and freckles. She was such a lowly agent compared to him that there was no way he would already know her. He’d only actually seen her once, and that had been under a pile of goo.

It was a faint hope. But it was all she had.

Mira took a steadying breath, clenched her fists, and stumbled forward in the dark.

Okay, so this plan could wind up seeing her in a lot more trouble than she could imagine, but at least jumping out of the frying-pan and into the fire was doing something.

Henry Cage could smell it moving. The scent of the human was breaking against him like the ripple of an ocean liner pulling out of a bay. He had to hurry; he could not let her escape.

With a silent, pressed-lipped smile, he shot down the hall. Something was following him, he knew that, but there were limitations to human speed, limitations this body was no longer beholden to.

With superhuman haste, Henry Cage shot toward his prey.

It was so dark! Yes, so she’d read about Pitch Black in the training manual, but this was insane. It was like being stuck in a cave miles under the earth, far from any source of light. She couldn’t even see her hand when she waved it in front of her face. How exactly was she expected to find her way out of here?

With her hands outstretched and her body stiff from the threat of smashing into some terribly pointy object, Mira inched forward. This was the slowest of escapes. For all she knew Michael was probably watching her from a chair, bewildered but amused.

It was probably the demon’s blood, she reasoned. Agents were trained to have exceptional night vision. Most of their battles occurred in the shadows, after all. But the demon blood would have momentarily cut through her abilities. If she was patient, the light would eventually return.

Until then she’d just have to stumble forward as best she could.

Where in Hell was it? His training, his senses, everything told him it should be heading toward the hall, toward the people. But it wasn’t; he could feel it had changed directions, that it was doubling back on itself toward the west wing.

How on earth did a demon as powerful as this get so close to people in the first place? And what was the Agency doing sending one small agent after it? It was obvious the agent, whoever she was, was acting alone. The only agents that weren’t assigned partners were rookies or commanders, and he hadn’t recognized her voice. So what in the name of all that was holy was the Agency doing sending a rookie out after a level 7 demon? Were they trying to get her killed, or had she come across it by chance?

And now the beast was doubling back toward her. She’d suffered an injury and a major shock; she was in no state to fight it. Let alone the fact that she was only a rookie.

Michael sped down the corridor, eyes constantly darting to and fro to maintain his position in this impossibly dark room. His sight was just holding up. He could make out objects, differentiate between space and matter. But that was it.

He wasn’t gaining on it, but he could still hear it as it crashed through the hall. Michael sucked in a breath and pushed himself forward with the rough-edged determination that was becoming all too common to Unit’s Captain.

It had started off like a scrabbling, maybe a rat or some kind of woodland creature scuttling across the floor. It had quickly swelled as whatever it was advanced toward her. She could make out the squeak of something hard on marble.

The demon. It was back.

Not bothering to keep her breath silent or suppress the little yelp of pain that escaped her lips, Mira turned and headed, as quickly as she could, back the way she’d come.

Desperation was making her mind buzz with that numb feeling you get when you’ve been struck on the head. She could hardly run, she couldn’t see at all, and the thing was gaining on her like an F-16 against a snail.

With a scream, she knew that it was upon her. Sure enough, an arm lashed out of the darkness and snapped around her middle, pulling her off the ground like she weighed little more than a feather.

The funny thing about demons was that they too had limitations. Nary would you find a demon actually covert human form. But for this job that was just what he’d needed.

Opposable thumbs. That’s right, the evolution of a monkey. He, the greatest demon of them all, required a quirk seen only by hideous chattering creatures that dangled from trees.

Human hands lent to delicacy much more than a claw. And for the incantations and symbols he’d have to write, he needed that dexterity. He also needed the blood of a possessed – which his current host would provide in ample quantities.

He hefted the form of the human woman higher, so he could take the stairs three at a time. She squirmed against him, trying to lash out at his hold. But there was no use; she had no chance now.

It was headed up. He’d heard her scream. It had cut across his face like a slap. He’d left her alone, and now the thing had got her. He was the captain of all Unit, and he’d just gone and abandoned a rookie to a fate far worse than death.

With a burst of speed, he’d hardly known was in him, Michael bounded up the stairs, his tie streaming over one shoulder. The demon was at most one floor above him. Where the Hell was it headed, the roof?

It crashed through the door without opening it, just placed one hand forward and rammed into it.

Mira found herself crumpling closer to its chest, shrinking away from the shards of wood that exploded around her. She wanted to scream, but this close to its cold body she could hardly breathe.

They were on the roof, she realized with a slow blink. The light was better up here, or her eyes were finally adjusting. She could make out the flat, broad space and the casing for the ventilation duct.

Why did she always end up on the roof?

Vaguely, at the edge of her hearing and reason, she could hear another set of footsteps.

“Not long now, not long now.”

It took her a moment to realize the demon was talking to her.

“Keep on interrupting. Must deal with him.” The demon turned to face the door, just as a figure pelted through it.

“Put her down,” Michael’s voice was a harsh command, layered with the kind of forcefulness that could make a raging bull stop mid-dash.

Unceremoniously, the demon dumped Mira to the ground. She groaned as the fall jolted through her side.

“Leave us, human, you aren’t allowed to meddle here. You’ll find out all there is to know, soon enough.”

“Shut up,” there was that voice again – the force, the power. Michael reached behind him, pulling something out of the back of his belt. It was the hilt of a sword. With a whispered word, light blazed along it, forming a blade.

A Holy Sword, Mira had heard of those. Now that she was further away from the demon’s dead chest, her faculties were clearing. She shifted her weight, trying to scuttle backward, but the demon clamped a hand down on her shoulder.

“I will not be silenced, Michael Nazeer, nor will I be defeated. You think your little light can beat me? Such a small light could not defeat even the newest of turned souls. Now leave before I scatter your mind through the seven levels of Hell.”

Michael didn’t respond, just launched forward, holding the sword in one hand and pitching a vial of holy water with the other.

The demon was obviously not expecting such a sudden attack and broke off its hold on Mira as it rolled to one side. Michael was relentless though and darted after it.

The two shapes dueled in the dark. Michael’s form only recognizable as he held the bright blue light of the Holy Sword.

She was transfixed. The demon in the body of a human danced from left to right. It didn’t have any weapon to speak of save for the strength of ten men and the agility of a whole circus troupe. It ducked and darted, whipping around like a boy-band dancer on speed.

It reminded her of a scene from a movie – two men fighting wildly on a darkened roof, the injured damsel sitting pathetically nearby. It would have been more fitting if her dress had been ripped and her ankle sprained, but she wasn’t wearing a dress, and her ankles were quite sturdy, really.

Plus, she was no damsel. She had no intention of waiting here pathetically while Michael had all the fun.

Mira groped in the back of her pockets, searching for a weapon. Now she was standing, now she had a purpose again, the effects of the demon blood were beginning to fade fast. There was something about sitting there all meek and mild that had tricked her into thinking she was down. But now she was up, it was time to do whatever she could to help Michael. This was all her fault, after all.

Mira’s hand closed around a set of holy scrolls. Miniature little prayers written on strips of waterproof (and blood-proof) paper, they could be used to momentarily stop or surprise a demon. Sure, this demon did seem a little beyond her conventional methods of fighting, but the prayers should still give it cause to pause. Especially considering it had possessed a human.

Just as Michael slashed out with his sword, the demon swinging backward with a move that defied gravity, Mira ducked forward and threw the scrolls to the ground.

Neither man paid much attention to her, though Michael angled his head slightly. But in this light, it was impossible to tell where those pale brown eyes were looking.

As the demon surged forward again, forcing Michael back on his guard, it stamped one foot over the pile of prayers. It froze. It was sudden, like a man standing on an open wire; a jolt of energy passed through the demon, his hands momentarily freezing by his sides.

Michael took the opportunity to snap forward, bringing the sword up and through the center of the possessed man’s chest. There was a sound akin to a helicopter rotor starting up.

There was no patter of blood, no great sigh of death. Instead, as Michael pulled the sword out quickly and cleanly, a great black cloud shot up from the man. It formed a shapeless mist and twisted back and forth, struggling to find a shape again.

The possessed man fell forward, unconscious but not dead. Though the demon had had a strong hold on him, there had still been a scrap of his humanity left. Depending on the curse and the method of possession, most people could come back from the brink of Hell, if they wanted to.

The wisps of dark smoke that twisted in the air began to spin more wildly, as if a fell wind was slicing through them. It appeared to dart to and fro, as if assessing its chances, then, with a hiss, it shot off, dispersing into a thousand particles.

Silence.

“I hadn’t expected there would be such entertainment tonight.” Michael turned to her, and she could see the outline of his face illuminated under the pale moonlit sky. Now that the demon had departed, the night had returned to its usual semi-dark state. “Are you okay?”

Mira gave her most girly smile under the cloak of darkness then pulled her mouth into a more formal grin. “I guess so. How about that guy?”

“He should be fine. It wasn’t a Hell Curse, so the blade wouldn’t have hurt him at all. With a bit of a lie-down and a strong drink, he should be back on his feet in a couple of hours.” Michael strode over to her, powering down the sword and tucking it back into his belt. “But what about you, can you walk?”

Not when you’re this close, she wanted to giggle. There was that yummy French cologne again. The only thing she could do now was fall over and fan her face, walking could come later. “Ah yeah… of course.”

“That was a pretty nice move, by the way.”

“Hmm?”

“The scrolls… I hadn’t thought it would work on that kind of demon, but I was wrong.”

“Oh… um, thanks, I think.”

Michael took one more agonizing step closer. “Michael, by the way.” He offered her his hand.

She took it warily. “Umm… Belinda.” It was far too late to retract it once she’d said it. She rolled her eyes in the dark and bit down hard on her lip, but it was already too late; she’d started off another string of lies.

“Belinda?” There was that hook again.

She coughed lightly. “Yes….”

“You a rookie, Belinda?”

“Ahhh….”

Michael didn’t know the names of all the rookies, did he? He couldn’t, could he?

“Yeah,” she managed.

“Hmmm.” Michael sounded halfway between impressed and suspicious.

Mira felt an overpowering flush start to burn her cheeks. “Is… is… there a problem?”

“Oh no, not really… well, yes, yes there is. What were you doing fighting a level 7 demon?”

“Level 7?” Mira repeated in surprise. That demon had been level 7? What in the Hell had she been doing fighting a level 7 demon? No wonder she couldn’t seal it. “Ah… I….”

“Look, sorry to interrogate you, it’s just that thing should have been dealt with by Unit 12, not a lone rookie.”

She sucked in her lips and made a little popping sound. She wasn’t quite sure where this conversation was going, was Michael insulting her? “Well, I didn’t do too badly, I guess….” She’d almost sealed it when she’d fallen off that roof, and it had been level 7. Wow!

“Oh no,” Michael coughed, “that’s not what I meant. You did… good.” He rubbed his hands together and gesticulated wide for emphasis. Even on the darkened roof, she could tell he was uncomfortable. Maybe the captain wasn’t so used to handing out compliments. “It’s just you shouldn’t have been anywhere near here. How did you get here, anyway? Were you a guest at the party?”

Mira closed her eyes and tried to think hard. How did she get here? By car, by a car that incidentally had Michael’s dad’s golden statue in it. Why was she here? Because she’d failed to seal a demon and had freaked out about going down for fraud. Why had the Agency set her against a level 7 demon? Quite possibly because they hated her. She didn’t really feel like sharing these explanations with Michael. “No… I was… on patrol.”

“Oh, right—”

Several light footsteps climbed the stairs behind them then a loud, “tisk tisk,” filtered in through the broken door. “I do hope the Agency is going to pay for this.” A man picked his way through the mess, his walking stick knocking away several chunks of wood from his path.

“Lord Ashbolt.” Michael jogged toward him. “Sorry—”

The Lord put up one hand and pointed with his stick at the unconscious man lying several meters away. “Is he alive?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. And who are you, my dear?” Lord Ashbolt turned the stick on Mira.

Mira floundered for a moment, shocked by the sudden change in the situation. One moment she was fumbling through a conversation with Michael, the next she was being interrogated by a dandy with a stick.

“Belinda, she’s an agent.” Michael chimed in.

“Alright, then. My butler will be up in a moment to deal with our man. Unfortunately, Michael, I’m going to have to ask you to come back to the party. Everything is over here, I trust?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Michael mumbled.

“Very well. You can take it from here, my dear? Good girl.” Lord Ashbolt didn’t wait for an answer, just turned tail and walked back toward the stairs.

Michael turned to her, but before he could offer to stay, offer to take her back to the Agency for a checkup and a much-needed dose in prison (not that he’d know prison would follow hospital, but there’s no doubt that it would), she put up her hand to silence him. “I’ll be fine, honest.”

Michael walked backward a couple of steps, still looking at her, and shrugged his shoulders. “Wait for me after the party, okay?”

Hell no. “Yeah, alright.”

“Goodbye, Belinda.”

“Goodbye, Michael.”

By the time the butler lumbered onto the roof to remove the unconscious man, Mira had already practiced her excuse a hundred times. “I’m sorry, sir, but another problem has just come up. I need to dash. Please give my apologies to Michael.”

It wasn’t the most original nor detailed of excuses, but it got the message across. With a curt nod, the butler let her go, and she didn’t look back.

Her nightly escapades were just getting weirder and weirder.\

Chapter 6

Boy I sure would like to buy you a drink, ma’am, and while you’re there, spill the beans, sucker

The Agency was an operation: that was the best way to describe them. It was akin to a modern military unit. They assessed incoming risks and dispatched units or agents to deal with them. So, just like with a regular human agency, the Agency gave out orders and equipped its agents with the kind of tools required to get the job done.

There were a couple of things that were different about Agency, though. The enemy they fought was a collection of the most terrible, evil beings to be imagined by all the religions on earth – the actual denizens of Hell. Each of these creatures was written down, or cataloged, for identification by the Agency in a set of texts called grimoire. Each class of being was documented in a specific grimoire, based on their level of threat.

The Standard Grimoire, as the name suggested, reflected the enemies that occurred most often. Your level 1 demons, possessions, and zombies. They posed little real threat to the Agency and humanity at large, but still required action. Thus a dedicated section of Agency was directed at controlling the creatures of the Standard Grimoire – rookies. It was the most basic of fieldwork, but someone still needed to do it. The Agency treated it as a step up, a training ground for inclusion into the more specialized units.

After Rookies came Divisions. Divisions were specific teams of agents combined under specific Units. Each Unit had its own commander, and each was trained to deal with a specific set of creatures from some of the more unique grimoires. Often divided along cultural and religious grounds, there were units dedicated to the demons of Christian myth, the leviathans of Kabbalah, and the djinni of Islam, to name a few.

Though there was nothing above the classification of Unit, the commanders and leaders also formed a special subgroup. In times of great difficulty, when creatures from the Locked Grimoire arose, the heads of each Unit would combine to create a specialized force. At the head of this force was the commander of all Unit – Captain Michael.

And that’s how the cookie crumbled – Agency style. The administrative, or backup side, fell into two divisions: Controllers and Dominion. Controllers were directly in contact with field agents. They relayed orders from above and maintained the training and health of the agents. The Dominion, by contrast, had little if no actual contact with agents. More often than not they were stuck behind a round table covered in ancient scrolls, trying to predict and control the direction of Good.

On paper, the Dominion and the Controllers were on equal footing. Beholden to The Word, they could not act to control or direct the Agency on their own. In practice, however, the Controllers had grown to become the real controllers. The analogy of mimicking a real human military unit holds: its actions are only as good as its orders, and in recent years the orders of the Dominion had lapsed.

The last fact was not known to many, and the true depths of its implications were suspected by even less. Gone was the Age of Prophets, where humans could directly contact the divine. Gone too was the Age of Scrolls and, like the rest of humanity, the Agency had found itself smack bang in the middle of the Age of Uncertainty.

Uncertainty heading a well-trained, well-equipped military unit was an explosive recipe. And as Inspector Phillips tapped one large hand against the side of his computer, he began to appreciate just how difficult this was going to get.

Inspector John Phillips of the City Police Department (CPD) had a secret double life. No, he was not heading an investigation into the most powerful and mysterious religious sect of history. The CPD tended to stick to more mundane classes of crime like assault and theft. This was more of a personal project.

On the surface, John was an ordinary detective. Sure, he’d put away more crims than most, but he put that down to an unusually developed sense of truth. John could just tell when someone was lying; it oozed out of them like pus from a sore.

But past the dark features and black cropped hair, past the heavy-set jaw and steely gray eyes, past the long gray coat and weather-beaten hat, lay something else. Inspector John Phillips had a history, a long, intricate family history that spanned the chasm of centuries. John was a Knight, and not just any Knight – a Knight of the Order of Truth.

The Order of Truth, and thus John’s whole family history, was intricately interwoven with that of the Agency. In a way, they were kindred spirits, two orders set up to shepherd and protect the path of human faith. But that is where their similarities came to an end, for the Order of Truth was set up with the grand purpose of watching the Agency.

Quid custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards? John Phillips, that’s who.

John pushed himself back into his chair and yawned loudly. He let his gaze drift around his office until it settled on the window. Not much of a view out of that speck of glass, just enough to see a couple of clouds race by. That’s all he needed, just a speck of reality to keep him grounded.

With a manly sniff, he rested his hands back on the keyboard and continued to type.

There weren’t many of them now. In fact, with his mother’s health and all, he was the only knight operating in the City. The other families had broken up or moved away. There wasn’t much they could do these days. A small order, sworn to secrecy, with no hope of outside help, destined to track a huge underground agency with unlimited resources. It sounded impossible, and it was.

The Order existed solely to bring the Agency into the light. With something close to clairvoyance, the founding fathers of the Order of Truth recognized that the Agency could not fight shadows in the dark without having someone shine a light on their activities. The Order was that light. They were there to ensure the Agency did not slip down too far, coiled in the dark arts, dragged under by the very enemy they fought.

It wasn’t easy; no bit of this was easy. Hell, he’d tried to run away before, throw his history in the bin and head toward a different kind of future. Problem was, you can’t escape this kind of lineage. It follows you everywhere.

So after a briefly wayward youth, John had accepted his purpose. He’d joined the police force at 24 and staked out his first possessed church by graduation. By 28 he’d been promoted to detective and had begun work on a database of Agency sightings. By 34 he’d secured his position as an inspector and had mapped out the current organizational structure of the Agency, hell, he’d even created family trees for most commanders. By 40 he’d rejected several more promotions and, for the first time ever, had a lead.

Phillips paused and looked once more out of the window at those racing clouds. It had taken him 16 years, but now he finally felt like he had something more than a mound of paperwork and maybes.

He’d seen her in that dingy bar. His informant had told him she’d be there. Sure enough, she’d walked in. Smaller than he’d expected, much younger too; she couldn’t be over 25. But the way she’d looked at the bartender – that had confirmed his suspicions. Then there was that little incident up on the roof. That had confirmed everything.

It was rare to see an Agency agent at work; he usually came along afterward and pieced together what he could. And that’s why this was so important, why this was the lead he’d always needed. Because, contrary to every police rule ever written, he’d followed her home.

Miss Mira lived in an apartment block on Eastside. All he had to do now was watch her like a hawk and soon she’d lead him right to where he needed to be – the heart of the Agency.

There was a knock on John’s door, and he quickly closed the laptop.

“Chinese or Italian, sir?” A rookie detective poked his head around the door.

Phillips shrugged, resting his hands behind his neck as if he were afraid the rookie would be able to tell what he’d been typing just by looking at his fingers. “Italian, I guess. Go steady on the cheese, though.”

The rookie nodded. “Got ya.”

Silence again.

Did he feel guilty? No, not really. Not about the cheese that was – about investigating an ostensibly private case on police time. Yeah, occasionally he felt pangs of what could be called mild regret, but not enough to stop him. You see, he fully appreciated how important his investigation was to humanity as a whole. He always got his work done, anyway. And, no, of course he didn’t have a family or a pet; he was married to the cause.

Jogging. He didn’t do it to keep fit. He did it to think. There was something about pushing yourself to the edge of adrenaline, the edge of fatigue, that shook a keen sense of life into your mind. Right now he needed to plan, so right now he needed to jog.

Phillips kicked off along the wide, winding road, his large long legs taking to the ground like a gazelle over pasture. There was a mild morning sun filtering through the houses and warming up the damp that had collected over the city streets since last night’s rain.

He’d followed her again several nights ago. At a distance, though, always at a distance.

As far as he could tell, she had no idea. She certainly had other things to demand her attention, anyway. When she’d fallen off the roof, it had been terrifying. He’d run to the window, heart in his mouth, only to find her hanging on a drainpipe. When the pipe had snapped, he’d actually screamed. But somehow she’d been okay, rolled or something, only to have that demon pounce on her like a cat on a rat.

Since then he’d learned to hold his tongue and not to underestimate her. He had to remind himself that he wasn’t dealing with real people here. He couldn’t get involved, and he couldn’t blow his cover. Because if he was careful, if he were really careful, she’d lead him straight to the Agency.

Phillips sped up as he pushed himself up a hill, feeling the sweat drench down his back like he was stuck in the driving rain.

Finding her had been… well, an act of God. He still remembered it like it was only yesterday….

2 months ago, Peter St Mardi Gras, 11:36 pm

Phillips arched his back, forcing out his shoulders and sighing wearily. Night patrol was the worst, especially in crowds. There was something so primal about a large crowd. People’s instincts peaked, and the crush of bodies somehow transferred the dumbest criminal into the wiliest coyote.

The music was blaring, it thumped through the crowd and along the street, rattling his teeth and beating through his legs. People thronged around him, laughing and dancing, their eyes bleary from the booze and bright lights.

The whole street had turned into a neon-lit circus parade. Sequins, feathers, and glitter – he felt like he was back in Rio.

By and large, the revelers broke away before him, like pack ice before a ship. No matter how drunk and lost in the moment the people of this city became, they could always sniff a cop.

The harsh blow of a whistle sounded from somewhere down an alleyway, and it caught Phillips’ attention like a rat wandering into a trap. He doubled back, straining his neck to get a clear view over the crowd.

Now he plunged through the revelers with purpose, and people had to scurry to get out of his way. He reached the mouth of the alley just as a small dark shape ducked out of sight at the other end.

Something whistled again. But now he was closer, now he was running through the darkened laneway, he realized it wasn’t a whistle. It was too sharp, too high pitched. It sounded more like the call of a bird, but no bird that was native to these parts.

He broke through the other side of the alley, his eyes darting around, trying to get a fix on the mysterious dark shape. To his left, just at the mouth of another laneway, he saw something shift, and he pelted toward it.

The whistle sounded again. It sent a great shivering electricity over his spine, plucking at the tips of his hair with sharp fear. He was closer now, and that was no bird. It sounded like some kind of animal.

He darted along the laneway, which was steadily becoming darker and danker, trying to get a fix on the shape as it sprinted before him. His body was pumped full of sudden surprise, his mouth bitter with the taste of iron.

The shape kept low to the ground like a monkey scuttling along on all fours. But occasionally, as it darted to the side of an alleyway, it would rear up on both legs and stalk forward as if evolution had suddenly struck it.

It was the adrenaline and sheer determination that kept him following it. Every other sense he’d ever developed was screaming at him not to follow the mysterious creature further down these dark alleys. They were so far away from Peter Street now that the music was a distant mumble.

He didn’t even know what street they were in; everything was so dark, and each one of these laneways looked identical, with their sheer-brick-wall buildings and rickety fire escapes.

One more whistle, one more high-pitched, whirring cry, and the thing stopped dead in the street. The dark shape, somehow a pitch black that seemed darker than the depths of the deepest cave, stood tall on its haunches.

Phillips skidded to a halt, his mind shifting gear from the hunter to the hunted.

It turned and somehow he could make out the eyes. They were slits see, slits of glowing red.

“There you are!” something shouted from above. “You wait there until I get down from here, you pesky demon!”

It was like being shot. The voice was so unexpected. He’d been preparing for a full-frontal attack by a demon of Hell, not the cute rambling of what sounded like an annoyed young woman.

Not knowing what else to do, and with the demon darting its neck around trying to spy the owner of the voice, Phillips ducked behind a trash skip.

It was the most cowardly thing he’d ever done in his life. But rising through his belly in a cold wave, a sudden snap of realization told him this wasn’t his fight, that he should watch and observe from safety.

A loud pounding came from above, quick feet thundering down the metal stairs of a fire escape. Phillips saw the demon crouch back on its haunches, its tail flipping wildly.

“I’ve been chasing you all over the city – the least you could do is slow down for a while.”

He could see the woman now. She was short and small, easily mistaken for a teenager from this distance. But the stiff, authoritative way she carried herself and her determined voice put her in her mid-20s.

He shrunk up against the cool edge of the bin, barely noticing the whiff of rotten food as he funneled his attention onto the scene before him.

The girl jumped off the last step lightly, patting both knees as she landed, then smoothing down her knee-length skirt with a pat. “You have been such a pain.”

The demon answered with another spine-tingling cry.

“Not very talkative, are you?” The girl ducked as the demon furled its tail at her like a cowboy unleashing his whip. “No need to get angry!” She rolled to the side, coming up running, grabbing at something in her pocket.

Phillips watched from the corner of the skip like a man watching TV for the first time. The movements, the sounds – he didn’t quite understand them. But all the same, it riveted him to the spot.

The demon reminded him of a cat, tail flashing, waiting for the pounce. But the girl paid no attention, pulling something out of her pocket and pitching it at the demon with a sharp snap up of her arm. Something struck the demon and exploded over its chest with a crack of shattering glass. The thing cried again, this time with a croaking anger.

Whatever she’d thrown at it sizzled across its chest like acid. The demon clawed at it. The girl took her chance and grabbed at a chain around her neck, throwing some large round talisman at its feet and kneeling down in prayer.

For a sudden brief, intoxicating moment, the whole alley was filled with the warmest of lights. It reminded him of a burst of hot sunshine on a winter’s day; it thawed the fear that had been building in his bones.

With a snap, the light broke, and the alley returned to darkness. Except the demon was no longer there. Where it had been standing, there was nothing but air. The girl sauntered forward and snatched up the talisman, throwing it in the air once before jamming it back around her neck. “I always feel like leaving some kind of calling card. Oh well,” she sighed deeply and wiped her hands twice on her skirt, “another day in the life of Mira. I wonder if that party is over….”

That was that. After she’d left, he’d picked his way out from behind the bin, stretching the anticipation and fear out of his stiff legs. He walked over to the foot of the fire escape, staring at the ground as if waiting for the demon to pop out like a jack-in-the-box.

It took him a good 15 minutes to walk away, to make his way back through the alleys to Peter Street. All night he stood on duty, searching the crowd with a keen eye, hands two balled-up fists in his jacket pockets. Slowly, like a feather fluttering to the ground, he realized what he’d seen. After countless years, that had been his first demon. All this time, all this searching and, by chance, he’d come across one. But that’s not what had Phillips staring into the crowd like a sniper. His first lead in the case of his life had just sealed a demon right in front of his eyes.

For the first time ever, Phillips had directly witnessed an agent from Agency, and her name was Mira.

Phillips crested another hill, letting the cool breeze chill him through his sweat-ridden clothes. It had been two months now, and what did he have to show for it? Not much.

Wheezing, he leaned against the trunk of a tree. There was going to be a limit to how much he could get from just watching her. One of these days he was going to have to do something a little more proactive.

Phillips shook his head once and smiled gruffly. He was sounding more and more like a stalker. Hell, he’d even lock himself up for talking like that. But there was no nice way to put this, no simple way to say that Mira was the only chance he had. Yes, that was manipulation. Yes, on several levels it was creepy. But he had to get to the bottom of the Agency, and right now he only had one way in.

He was a thorough fellow, or so the Detective Inspector liked to say. Something about him never letting go, holding onto every scrap of evidence like a terrier nipping at your heels. Phillips liked to think of it more as a talent than a personality trait. Something he could refine and perfect over time.

He cracked his head from side to side with the stiff-necked masculinity that would make even the hardest street fighter think twice. You had to do it slow, see; you had to give the guy time to see the muscles in your neck flex and contract. But you had to keep your eyes straight and keen, like your neck was doing it on its own, like you had no control over your own body and, yeah, like you wouldn’t be in control for what happened next.

She watched his move and shrunk back slightly, eyes so wide her nose had flattened against her face. She even looked over her shoulder quickly, obviously assessing her escape routes.

No chance.

“So.”

“Yeah…?”

“You been here long?”

“Not long.” Her face had assumed a frozen, stiff-lipped grin. It was the kind of primal expression any monkey watching the tiger skulking through the grass could appreciate.

“You come here often?”

“Ummm… no.”

He nodded. “That’s funny….”

“It is?” She was as pale as a lump of salt. Her lips danced around, trembling over every syllable.

“Because I saw you here… now when was it?” He pulled out his notepad with a snap and leafed through it for effect. He already knew the exact date and time, but that wasn’t the point. Her expression was the point, that little film of sweat over her brow, that receding neck – those were all excellent points. “Ah, here it is. On the 15th of January at 10:15 pm.”

She was now pressed so far into the leather chair that the sides were threatening to engulf her.

“Well, not here, to be precise, up on the roof. Though you may not have seen me – you were busy at the time.”

“Oh!” her voice had the pitch and keening tone of a flute. “Ohhh… oh, that wasn’t me.”

“You okay… you look a little purple?”

“Oh, maybe I’m not so well. I think I need to go, actually.”

“Already? But the night has only just begun.”

“Oh I’m not here for the—” she fumbled with the edge of her bag, “the dating – I’m not here for that.”

“No? What are you doing here then?”

She shifted around in her seat, trying to get out of the circular cubicle. “Just a drink. Plus… not really my kind of scene.”

“Are you referring to the dominant Gothic theme with strong satanic undercurrents? You’re not telling me the guy in the blood-red shirt and leather slacks doesn’t do anything for you?”

Under her swathes of loose hair, he could see her cheeks turn a bright pink. For someone who was an agent of the corrupt side of Good, she sure did have a lot of genuine innocence.

“No. Not even the guy with the panda-eye makeup… but like I said, I’ve got to go.” She rose sharply.

“I think perhaps you should sit down, Mira.”

“Wh- how do you know my name?”

“I know more than your name. If it’s personal facts that are going to keep you seated, then I’ll tell you all about Agent Mira.”

She looked ready to pop and took one huge breath before sitting with a thump.

“Working for the Agency must be tough, ha? I imagine they aren’t the best of employers.”

“But how do you… are you… are you from the Agency?”

He narrowed his eyes and tried out his most disbelieving look. “No, I’m not from the Agency.” He pulled out his badge and flashed it with a flick of his wrist. The kind of move that had taken him hours to perfect in front of the mirror – flick it just quick enough so the perp could see the badge of the city with the gold lettering of Police, but not long enough to make out your number. “I’m from the Police.”

If he’d thought she’d looked pale before, that had nothing on this. She looked like the ice that might develop on the side of a chunk of space junk left out in the cold vacuum of nothingness. He was getting through to her, then.

“Police?”

“Yeah.”

“But I—”

“Haven’t done anything wrong? Let me be the judge of that.” He pulled out his pen and scribbled on the edge of a clean page in his notepad – just to prove that the pen worked and that, yes, he would be taking notes.

“Oh no, no, no – I can’t answer your questions.”

He feigned disbelief, stretching his head right back as if he were looking at the most unbelievable thing he’d ever seen. “Wow. Are you sure that’s the right answer?”

“No. No comment.” She snapped up, clutching her bag with two stiff hands. “I can’t comment, sorry.”

He stood up, too. Not too quick, though. He’d seen the clientele in here; a sudden surprise would send them to their axes and baroque blades. Why the kid had found the time to come back to this dump, he didn’t know. It was definitely a hotbed of satanic activity, but why the Agency would send only one inept agent to deal with it was a mystery. He knew most of the faces in here, knew what they were up to, knew the kind of heavy blood they drew – the Agency were fools to let their exploits go unanswered. But then again, that was the modern shape of the Agency; that’s exactly what he was fighting against.

Letting his thoughts run away with him, letting the righteous anger rise in his belly, he turned to her with an undisguised snarl. “Sit down, we’re not through here.”

She put up both hands diplomatically, her face hardening against his tone. “Don’t speak to me like that, Inspector. And no, we’re done here. I doubt this is a real investigation, and I don’t feel like volunteering anything tonight. Goodbye.” She walked, or more accurately stalked, off through the crowd of Emos and Goths, back as stiff as a plank.

Damn, he could have handled that better. He shouldn’t have treated her like a crim. It had worked in the beginning, but his intimidation had painted her into a corner. And then she’d fought right back.

Phillips sat there for a good half-hour before he bothered to leave. He finished his whiskey with a smack of his lips, swallowing away the last of the guilt and unease that had assailed him. This was the first time he’d genuinely confronted an Agent, and he’d let his temper get the better of him. Still, there was always tomorrow.

Chapter 7

A Knight in tarnished armor

Belinda. That’s all he had, just a first name, not even a surname. What was he supposed to do with that? There were literally hundreds of rookies working out of Agency HQ, thousands if you took the Agency as a whole. How was he supposed to find one Belinda amongst so many?

He shouldn’t have left her alone (again) on that roof. So what if Lord Ashbolt had insisted? The butler had muttered something about her having something else to do when Michael had finally made it back from the party. When pressed, the butler offered little more than a cold stare indicating he’d said his piece.

Which was just great. Michael had no way of knowing who she was, if she was okay, or where in Heaven or Hell she had got to. It was almost like Cinderella, except she hadn’t left him anything nearly as useful as a glass shoe; you could probably get some kind of DNA identification out of a shoe. All she’d given him was Belinda.

Michael kicked off his shoes and walked over to the kitchen. He had at least ten reports to read, at least 20 to write, and he had to return his father’s rushed phone message. It was something more to do with that damn statue. Why his Dad just wouldn’t let it go, he had no idea.

It had been bad enough ringing him to tell him his office had been redecorated. When his father had sauntered through the door barely 10 minutes later and rushed over to his office mumbling something about an angel, Michael had been ready to jump out a window. He was supposed to be in charge of a freaking Unit of hardened warriors, it didn’t look good when your dad made you ring up random rookies and ask bizarre questions in the middle of the night.

Michael paused as he surveyed the contents of his empty fridge. Settling on an incredibly old jar of peanut butter (it had been there since he’d moved in three years ago), he opened it and sniffed carefully. He usually ate out; he was never home. He’d hardly seen the inside of his apartment for the last two weeks.

The Agency demanded a lot, especially out of their commanders. But there was something more to this unseasonal burst of activity. Several new powerful demon kings were starting to surface. One, in particular, had the Agency running around like mad goats on a hill. His name was Knight. What made Knight so terribly frightening was that he was human, mostly.

Knight had gone and possessed himself a human host, but not just any human – Dan Carter, ex-drug-lord and gunrunner. The possession had been a mutual agreement to share power rather than an out-and-out capture of Dan’s body and soul.

The story of Dan’s possession was frightening because it heralded a new era in Agency history. Dan, who had strong ties with paramilitary groups in central Africa, had come across something truly demonic on one of his working holidays.

Wandering through a cave used to house weapons for the insurgency, as they liked to call themselves, Dan had come across an ancient scroll. How he’d done it, whether he’d fallen through a hole in the cave’s floor, or wriggled through a gap in the rocks, the Agency didn’t know. A far more reasonable account put Dan Carter’s acquisition of the scroll down to shrewd negotiation with a Swiss purveyor of fine demonic fare, not a romantic trip down a cave in Africa. How he got the scroll was not the point, though; the fact that he had it and had used it is what had sent Agency to their knees almost two years ago now.

The scroll was a Forbidden Grimoire. It housed incantations that could call up the most hideous and powerful of the ancient beasts of Hell. It was like a small terrorist group wandering across a football field full of atomic weapons – lethal and terrifying.

Dan, being the shrewd unscrupulous man that he was, quickly found out which was the most fell of beasts contained within said scroll, and had called it to his service. That beast was Knight. An old General of Hell who had been locked away in the Forbidden Grimoire until the ends of time.

What made Knight far worse than the other nightmarish creatures of the Forbidden Grimoire was that he was not entombed by Heaven, but by Hell itself. He had turned on his own kind in a civil war. He had attempted to dispatch The General himself in a bloody, violent coup.

He’d failed and had been sealed away forever. That is, until now. Knight had sensed a partner, a kindred spirit if you will, in Dan Carter, and had made him an offer Dan could not refuse (the kind of offer made with a claw to the throat). If Knight possessed Dan, gave him unlimited power and immortality, then together they could take over the very world. For Dan had something that Knight needed – knowledge. He had contacts, money and, in the eyes of Knight, a legitimate means to set himself up as the greatest criminal in all of history.

Knight had lied, of course. He had little interest in setting the history books ablaze with tales of Knight-Dan’s hideous exploits. Knight’s plans had not shifted; he still desired Hell in all of its damned glory.

So why then had Hell allowed him to remain? It had been two years now, plenty of time for Dan Carter to have an accident. The problem was, Dan Carter was useful. With his kind of knowledge and tactics, and with the power and backing of an ex-General of Hell, Dan was making waves. Never before had more turned to the dark arts. From gunrunners to drug lords to the dictators of whole nations – Knight was turning more to the dark side than in any other period in human history. Hell needed him, and Hell knew that.

Why then had the Agency not acted? The official line was that they currently did not have the resources or manpower to challenge Knight, and thus Hell, head on. Doing so would be like ramming the gates of Hell with your grandmother’s Mini Cooper – it would not end well.

This was the shape of the modern Agency – a Gulliver tied down by too many small scruples. Evil could not be tackled head on because to do so would introduce an unstable element to the checks and balances of modern policy. Aim for a status quo. Anything else, the Agency assured him, was fantasy.

Michael leafed through the remaining reports on enemy sightings and activities, his untouched peanut-butter toast sitting on the couch beside him.

He was expected to read all of these before tonight. Because tonight was an important night; he’d be meeting Knight face-to-face. Why in Heaven Agency had accepted Knight’s invitation, he didn’t know. But tonight Michael and the four other commanders would be going to Dan Carter’s very own house for a charity function. No doubt by charity Knight had meant exploitation, but the invitation still stood.

Knight wanted to show off in front of them, brazenly parade his possession of Dan Carter, knowing that they couldn’t touch him. The Agency apparently felt it was a golden opportunity to observe Knight close up, to accept his invitation and spend the whole night standing in his face gnashing their teeth.

Michael didn’t really understand politics; it all seemed too indirect to him. Still, it meant another night, another party. Boy, wasn’t his life fun.

Eventually, Michael finished his reports, but not before he’d spent several unproductive hours looking through the Agency’s register of rookie agents. He didn’t have much luck, though several did look familiar. But no matter how many times he told himself to drop it, he found himself picking it up again several minutes later.

Who in Heaven was Belinda?

What happened when Mira had finally gotten back to the car had been… bizarre. To trump all the most peculiar experiences she had gone through in the past couple of weeks (most of them, strangely, on rooftops), this little experience had stretched the limits of her insanity.

She’d jumped in the car after having run most of the way back across the fields to the church. By now her side had mostly healed, though she could feel a massive bruise developing.

But she’d pushed herself, not wanting to run into Michael again. The more peculiar little meetings she had with him, the more she incriminated herself. The only option for her was to run home and bury her head under the covers for a couple of weeks. She would let all this die down, watch a couple of movies, and become fat eating chips and chocolate – such was her brand of self-punishment.

She’d reached the car with quite a sweat prickling across her brow. But the sight of her tiny little Corolla hatchback with the passenger door open, its window completely shattered, had sent a stake through her heart.

When she’d reached the boot and seen that that too had been broken, she’d actually screamed. The golden statue was gone. Michael’s dad’s precious golden statue… she’d decided to take it walkabouts, and now it had been lifted from the boot of her car. This was just… fabulous.

It had taken a full minute of her clutching onto the boot breathing with forced calm to realize there were tracks leading away from her car. Small tracks, no bigger than a child’s. Great, she’d thought as she’d followed them. Rowdy kids.

The tracks had led to the church. No surprise there, it wasn’t like the juvenile delinquents would have immediately found a place to profess their sins, more likely they were looking for extra windows to break.

Still, they were only kids, right? So maybe not so bright. There was every chance the hoons were still in the church wreaking havoc. So in she’d marched, ready to pull them up and snatch back the statue.

She hadn’t expected… that.

Standing in the middle of the church, staring up at the remnants of a window depicting the Resurrection of Christ, a… well… an angel. She was wearing a huge flowing dress with many layers and large flowing ribbons. Her hair was glossy and golden, hanging about her head in bouncy locks with a heavy fringe that completely hid her forehead. Her face was cherubic, her hands brought together in prayer.

The angel had turned to her. Small and childlike, she’d smiled warmly, finally pulling her hands back from prayer. “Mira,” she’d called like a tinkle of a bell. “Mira.”

Mira stood there, arms crossed in front of her, blinking rapidly. The day had been so very strange. First a level 7 demon, then a brush with the Agency’s most eligible bachelor (actually, she didn’t know if he had a girlfriend, but hope springs eternal) then she’d stumbled upon a bona fide angel. Wow, this was one for the diary.

That the angel had known her name had been interesting but not that surprising; she was divine, right? But what she’d said next had been downright odd.

“I’m here to help you, Mira.” The angel half walked, half floated toward Mira, her arms outstretched like a child waiting for a parent to pick it up. “You need my help.”

There wasn’t much you could say to that. Mira had managed: “Okay.”

And that had been that. The angel had grabbed hold of Mira’s arm, smiling like a kid who’d won the lolly lottery, and followed her outside to the car. Once there, Mira had decided to try the responsible approach. She’d never seen an angel and didn’t really know what Agency protocol was, so she suggested a quick trip to the Agency.

Well, that’s when the sweet little angel had started crying. Just like a kid this one; she’d yanked hold of Mira’s arm and jiggled it like a jungle vine. Between sobs, she’d mentioned that she’d get in trouble unless her pact was completed first.

“Pact?” Mira had leaned heavily against the car, trying to take the weight off her arm.

“Yeah.” The angel had sniffed heavily, patting at her eyes. “I can’t go back on it. I’ll get in trouble.” She’d looked up at Mira with the biggest, softest doe eyes, her bottom lip trembling.

Mira could feel herself melting. “Okay then, what’s your pact?”

“I have to help you, silly! I’ve told you that already!” The angel had latched on harder to Mira’s arm, threatening to pull her over.

“What?”

“Let me help you! You said okay!”

“Ah.”

“Please!”

“Okay!”

There wasn’t much else she could do. So, with a broken window and boot that kept flapping up every time she drove through a pothole, Mira took the angel home. She had no other option; every time she mentioned the Agency, the angel started bawling and flapping around. Mira certainly couldn’t take it to the police either, owing to the fact it was definitely a mythical creature.

So, home sweet home.

Could her life get any more bizarre?

Of course it could, what a stupid challenge to make to the powers that be. Tempt the Fates, and they’ll sock you right in the jaw.

The invitation had come in the mail. There had been a couple of bills, some Agency dispatches, and even a catalog from the grocer down the road. But the invite had stood out like a pink-painted penguin in the flock. It was printed on bone-white paper with little gold-leaf letters. It was quite possibly the most valuable thing (now that she’d lost her stolen statue) that Mira had in her apartment.

She’d read it almost 20 times before she’d let the excitement build. An invitation to a ball at a man’s house she’d never even heard of. A charity event apparently. But it wasn’t that that had set her heart pounding. It was the message scrawled across the back in glossy red ink:

If you want to know what’s going on, then pay me a visit.

Yours truly,

K

Mira had sunk onto the couch, her mouth open like a frog catching flies. It looked so expensive, so real. But it was so unexpected, so out of the blue. And what did it mean? If she wanted to know what was going on? What? She didn’t have any unsolved mysteries, did she? What on earth could K want from her?

For the rest of the day, Mira fluttered to and fro, her mind racing wildly from possibility to possibility. Someone, a secret admirer possibly, was about to fill her in on some massive secret. He was obviously rich (or had spent all his money on the invitation) and had impeccable handwriting – it was all just so romantic! It was as if she was some detective or investigative journalist finally about to find their lead. She was none of those things, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the moment.

The angel, which she had now begun to refer to as Angel (very imaginative), had sat by sharing in her enthusiasm with tinkling giggles. The kid was really starting to grow on Mira. She didn’t really do much, but she was so friendly and warm, like the little sister Mira had never had.

She’d even helped Mira pick out a dress. And all that afternoon, what with the faffing and chatting, Mira did not have one moment to consider reality. Because reality would have offered her a sterling observation – receiving invitations from people you’d never met was darn right creepy.

Mira took one final look in the mirror and shook her head one last time. What in the name of all that was Holy was she doing here? Really, was she insane? Why had it taken the whole journey here for her to realize that she shouldn’t even be here? Seriously, what was she on?

What momentary insanity had overtaken her? It was the demon blood from a couple of days ago, it had to be. She’d been light headed all morning, like some kind of bird flying high in the sky.

Stupid freaking demon blood.

She smoothed down a crease in her dress, her fingers sliding lightly across the satin finish. She had to admit, Angel had found a pretty good dress. Black satin, neck to floor, no slits, no fancy cuts. Decent but stylish.

The elbow-long white gloves added a touch of class, too. It may not have been an Audrey Hepburn knockoff, but at least she didn’t quite look like a frightened, be-freckled panda either.

Whatever she looked like though, it would have to do. She was far too nervous for her reflection to secure more than a second glance. She’d actually made it through the front door, handed in her invitation, and got all the way to the ballroom before reality had punched her firmly in the gut.

There was only one possible course of action now, and that was to retreat. Yes, it was truly embarrassing to admit that she had come all the way to the party (the bathroom, more specifically) and was now going to leave, but at least it was the safe option. No more demon blood and idiotic decisions for her. She did not need to court stranger-danger when she was already in a whole other pot of trouble.

At that moment the door to the bathroom opened wide, two chatting women walking in. They ignored her and set up station either side of Mira, staring into the mirror as they talked and checked their makeup.

All opportunities for self-talk gone, Mira headed for the door and, hopefully, for freedom.

The building was packed. Various fantastically dressed, bedazzled guests milled about in the giant ballroom. Mira had to bite down hard on her lip to stop from choking at the sight of such sheer wealth. A shiver raced down her back with the very idea of even chipping the champagne glass a waiter handed to her (he had been very pushy, and she hadn’t had the heart to tell him she was leaving). For someone as ungraceful as her, the likelihood of breaking something in this room filled with antiques, giant chandeliers, and fantastic paintings was a dead-on certainty. Another reason she should push her way through the throng and race on home.

It took her a full five minutes to cross the floor in her effort to get to the western exit. She never made it. A completely unexpected sight made her stop dead in her tracks. Mira took a little sharp whinnying breath and gently bit the edge of her glass. This couldn’t be happening to her, not now!

Standing in a group, off to the side of the majority of mingling guests, were four painfully familiar faces. Michael, Petra, Davisha, and Findor – Michael and his Commanders.

It had to be Michael. Of all the people she could run into, it just had to be Michael. For someone that she would theoretically die to meet, she was putting herself through Hell trying to stay away from him.

Mira felt a fervent, guilty blush engulf her cheeks with a burning sting. What the Hell were they doing here? Was this it, had the Agency found out about her? Had Michael remembered something? Were they here to take her away? Had the invitation been some kind of cruel joke? Was this a bizarre trap? Ahhhh!

Her mind continued to shoot impossible likelihoods at her as she stared, almost open-mouthed at the group. The Agency’s four finest, in one room, at one time. This was huge. They only bothered to send the four Commanders out if they were going to bring down a heavyweight, super demon, not to arrest a delinquent rookie.

Petra, the Agency’s best female agent. She stood a full 6 ft, with long graceful limbs and soft golden curls. She was amazing, beautiful, and unbeatable. Her face was drawn into a stern queen-like gaze, her slender arms crossed before her. More than half the men in the room seemed to be gazing at her at one time or another.

Beside Petra slumped Davisha. His suit seemed too large for his thin, sinewy body. But it didn’t make him look ridiculous, far from it. He wore his over-large clothes like a champion boxer might wear an earring – with a keen, unflinching stare. He was renowned for his work against the undead. No other agent had ever readjusted more zombies than Davisha Proud.

Next to Davisha was a massive brick wall of a man. Findor was at least 6’5, and all of it was muscle. He looked like the pinup boy for protein shakes, or the result of illegal government experimentation into steroids. While Petra posed and Davisha slumped, Findor inhabited. The space in which he stood seemed to be pushed back at all sides by his sheer bulk. It was no surprise he had a reputation for being the strongest agent in the Agency.

And finally, there was Michael. Always the paragon of stylish cool, he leaned against the wall, one hand in his pocket, the other loosely cupping an untouched glass of wine. His clear brown eyes shone so brightly as they swept over the room. She could hear her heart thump harder as they drifted over her. But, without pause, they shot straight past her, settling on something over her shoulder.

A strange mix of relief and disappointment poked at her belly. She hadn’t even elicited a blink. His beacon-like eyes had sailed on by. Okay so that was really a fantastic thing, but it didn’t feel fantastic.

At least now she had confirmation that he had not recognized her. It didn’t look like she was going to be dragged off just yet either.

Clang! The edge of a silver tray smacked Mira across the back of her head.

“Nahhhhh!” She stumbled forward, her full champagne glass spilling down her front.

There was a sudden hush in her general area, shocked guests turned to stare as she dripped over the marble, her face contorted in pain.

“My w-word!” The pale-faced waiter put a trembling hand to his mouth. “I’m so sorry, ma’am!”

She rubbed her head with her palm, trying to bite back the pain. “It’s okay!” She really had to comfort the frightened boy – he looked about ready to burst into tears or prostrate himself at her feet and beg for clemency. “It’s okay!” She smiled warmly. “Just an accident.”

She could feel the stares of the other guests eat into her like hot laser beams. Her face was already threatening to melt off from embarrassment. Eventually, she managed to convince the waiter that everything was fine, and he turned tail and fled back through the party, possibly to flee the country with the look that was plastered on his young face.

Finally satisfied, the majority of guests gave her one last prim glance and turned back to their conversations.

Mira stuck out her tongue until it just touched the edge of her lips. Snobs. She turned on her heel to head for the bathroom.

She took a defiant step straight into the sticky puddle of champagne that had collected off her dress. With a frightened yelp, her leg shot forward.

A hand clasped around her elbow, fixing her to the spot.

“You’ve been unlucky enough today.” The hand guided her arm backward until she stood straight but pressed against a cool, hard chest. “I prefer my guests not to engage in impromptu acrobatics at my parties.”

If Mira thought that all eyes had been on her before, she had been wrong. Before her, a sea of open-mouthed, wide-eyed guests stared. She could not escape them; everywhere she looked people turned to see the spectacle.

He stepped away from her, his fingers dropping from her arm like dead leaves curling off a tree. “Accept my apologies, madam.”

Stupid.

She snapped her eyes to the Agents. They weren’t there. Her stomach gave a kick; they were picking their way through the crowd, Michael at the front, eyes narrowed and hard.

Stupid!

She turned to the man who had saved her, a hurried escape plan forming in her mind. “Ummm, thank you. I ahh, umm yeah I need to go to the… bathroom.” She made to push past him.

He stepped in front of her. “I would feel embarrassed if I did not make up for this accident.”

She pulled up sharp. “I—”

“And negligent if I let you leave with such a wound.” He reached a hand behind her, his fingers gently brushing the back of her head.

She gulped, frozen to the spot. His handsome face barely a foot from her own, the corners of his lips drawn into the smallest of smiles. “I- It… it was nothing.” She flicked her gaze quickly to the floor.

He brought his hand back in front of her, the palm red with blood. “You are needlessly brave.”

Blood? What the…? Mira shivered, a quick trickle of blood running down the back of her neck.

“Do not worry,” the man clasped a hand around her wrist, “I will deal with it myself.” He began to pull her through the crowd.

Her mind spun, a strange cold stabbing in from the back of her head. Why was she bleeding? How had she…?

His hand was tight around her wrist but cold like stone in a dark cave. He gently but firmly directed her through the parting crowds, headed for the small exit on the eastern side of the room.

What was going on? How had that waiter… who was this man? Where were the Agents? Where was he taking her?

He turned to face her, his metal-gray suit twisting with a rustle. His eyes were so clear and blue. His short hair was ice blond, almost like a halo of light. “Almost there,” he had a strange voice and a strange flicker in his eye.

Finally, they made it through the crowd. His hand still pulling her along, they almost ran through the door and into a cool corridor beyond.

The door closed behind them with a rush of air.

Alone.

The corridor was wide and dark. Rooms led off on either side, the filtered light from under their doorways the only thing holding back the dark.

“Ah.” He quickened his pace, hand still locked on her own. “Now why is it dark?”

Cold.

In the middle, the corridor opened out onto a landing, a set of stairs dropping off to one side. Four shadows leaned across the railing, their bulks dark but unmistakable.

The man pulled up sharply, Mira bumping roughly into his side. “Rude of you to turn off the lights, Michael.” He tightened his grip on her wrist.

“Let her go, Knight.” The form of Michael pushed forward from the railing.

“Don’t,” Knight hissed like steam escaping a gap in the earth, “interfere.”

“How stupid do you think we are?” came the Irish lilt of the largest shadow.

“Just enough,” Knight snapped.

What was going on? Thoughts dashed through her mind like streaks of rain. The cold from her wound stabbed through the back of her head like a giant icicle. But somewhere at the edge of reason, a massive question mark loomed.

What on earth was going on here?

Her limbs were heavy, laced with some mysterious dead weight as if they were trying to pull her through the ground itself. Her heart beat slowed, all notions of flight forgotten.

This wasn’t right.

Knight did not let go of her wrist, just stared at Michael through the darkness, head tilted. “I’d like to know what you think you can do here; I imagine it will amuse me greatly.”

It wound from her wrist, up her arm in a twist of cold pain.

“You think one against four is funny?” the thinnest male figure asked in a deep Southern American rumble. “Cause I get the joke, but don’t think you’ll like the punchline.”

Knight growled.

Michael took another step forward, hands descending into his pockets. “Hand her over.”

The cold was like a river now, gushing up through her veins with a mean crackle.

“No. It’s too late anyway, she’s mine now.”

“Michael,” a warning rang through the female figure’s voice, low and quick.

“Listen to lovely little Petra, Michael. Break the spell now, and she’ll be nothing but an empty husk.”

Michael’s shadow seemed to grow larger, his shoulders lengthening and back stiffening like a rod. “If you think we are just going to let you take another sacrifice—”

“Sacrifice? Who said anything about a sacrifice?” Knight chuckled sharply. “My dear Michael, you have no idea what I’m planning.”

“Release,” Michael spat, his voice sudden like the clap of a book snapping shut, “the spell.”

Spell?

Mira’s body was cold and stiff as a statue, but that word snaked through the gap of her closing consciousness. Spell.

“No. How many times do I have to say this, Michael, please at least pretend to listen. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some important business to attend to.” Knight backed Mira toward the stairs.

Michael stepped between them.

“Michael, you really are trying my patience, boy.” Knight pulled his arm up and around Mira, twisting her close, his strong arm pinning her to his chest. “Now what do I have to do to make you realize you’ve lost?”

Spell?

She couldn’t move; her whole body was pushed against his in a stiff embrace. Knight pushed his face forward, resting his chin on her shoulder. “Michael, you look sick, are you coming down with something?”

Spell?

Knight tilted his head toward her, his face brushing against her hair. “I want your light.” His voice was the barest of whispers, little more than a hush of air.

Spell?

Everything rushed back toward Mira in a blinding punch of recognition. The blood from her wound, his three fingers digging into her gloved wrist, the silent chant – he was casting a spell on her.

Defiance rose between a rush of heart-racing fear and anger.

“Hell no.” Mira pulled her wrist away from him, twisting against his thumb. She slammed her free shoulder into his chest and pushed.

No one had expected that.

There was a crack like a whip and Knight’s hand dropped from her wrist. He fell backward, the massive form of Findor rushing toward him like a bull. But the move had overbalanced Mira, and she began to pitch backward, her high heels slipping against the top of the stairs.

Time slowed down. Michael twisted toward her, his shocked face coming into view. He shot out an arm, grasping for her hand. His fingers brushed past her own, and she tipped back into the darkness of the stairwell.

She didn’t scream; there was no time as she fell from his grip. Knight did, though. A terrible, whining scream, like the rising blare of a klaxon, cut through the air. “Idiots!”

There was no sound of her body hitting the stairs.

Knight’s shoes squeaked against the floor, and he grunted against the stifling hold of Findor. “Idiots!”

Michael sped down the stairs, her shocked, pleading face seared into his mind. Those stairs were so long, they’d surely snap her tumbling form like a twig under a boot.

A long tail looped out of the darkness, snaring Michael’s ankle and pulling him back with a snap.

It was soft, too soft for a pillow or even a feather. And warm too, like the dying glow of an open fire. Two small arms wrapped gently around Mira’s middle. They had reached up out of the darkness, catching her as she’d fallen down the stairs.

“You’re heavy.”

Mira slowly woke from the dream that embraced her. “Ehh?”

“You’re so heavy!”

Something went crunch, and the warm arms pulled her backward, crashing into a pile on the hard ground.

“Owww!” the yelp rang loud in her ear.

Mira pushed herself forward, freeing herself from the tangle of small limbs that had taken her fall. Through the darkness she could make out Angel’s petite face, brow furrowed and lips curled in pain. She still wore her long, billowing robe, its white folds and purple ribbons splayed around her prone form in a chaotic spread. “Owww, Mira, that hurt.”

“What…?” Mira instantly clutched at her wrist. The ache was gone, but the cold remained. “What the Hell?” She sat back on her haunches, sweat forming on her brow as her mind caught up to her perilous situation. “What happened?”

Angel pushed herself up with a wink, her child-like form dwarfed by the giant mountain of her skirt. “You’re okay now!”

Mira pulled off her glove. It felt like spiders were crawling up her arm. She brought her hand up, trembling, trying to catch enough light to see her wrist.

The floor beneath her shook. She snapped her head up to the landing above. Dark shapes dueled.

Mira gasped. “What’s going on?”

Angel leaned forward, planting her hands on the floor amongst the folds of her skirt. “There are two demons.” Her voice had the matter-of-fact ring of a child pronouncing a memorized fact.

An ice-cold flurry raced down Mira’s back. Everything was coming into sharp focus. The four agents were up there fighting off the man who’d tried to possess her and the two demons that had come to his aid.

Mira held up her hand and slumped back against the wall behind her. She stared at her wrist. How could she have been so stupid and weak? That man had almost had her. What was she even doing here? Is this why she’d been invited?

“It’s okay.” Angel stood up and offered her a hand. In the darkness that surrounded her, the hand almost shone. “Everything will be okay.”

“Davisha!” Michael called from the landing far above. “Firepower.”

“Onto it.”

There was a zing as shots cracked the air.

The banister shook. The four shapes of Michael, Petra, Davisha, and Findor were visible above, pressed together in a group against the looming shape of two demons. Between the demons, their wings cramped by the close walls stood the dark form of Knight. He laughed. “Surprised? Personally, I’m insulted; you crash my party and don’t even have the decency to bring anything more than a Blessed gun. No real weapons tucked under that suit, Michael?”

“I have to help them.” Mira rose, banishing the aching guilt and shock.

“How dare you interfere with my plans,” Knight’s voice boomed with fury.

Mira made for the stairs, hands searching for the Holy water vial stowed in her garter.

Angel grabbed the edge of her dress. “Don’t. Don’t go. They’ll be okay.”

“I’ve had enough Knight for tonight.” Michael clicked his fingers, and there was a brilliant glow from above.

Mira tried to pull free, but Angel redoubled her grip. “You can’t! You have to get the other demon! They’ll be okay.”

“Other demon?” Mira slowly turned her head from the scene above. “What?”

Angel started to drag on her dress. “It’s over there. They can get that demon; you have to get this one.”

“Holy Sword?” Knight’s voice filtered down from above, the arrogance touched with a waver of fear. “The Agency has released that? Well, well, aren’t we desperate?”

“Mira, Please!” Angel begged.

Mira made a decision. Just as the light began to flash from above, she turned on her heel and fled toward the exit. Angel was right; she was no match for the demons above. Anything that could give the Agency’s Four a run for their money could crush her like a cockroach.

In the barest light, she made for the doorway at the end of the room. Its edges were outlined with a soft glow.

There was nothing she could do on the landing above, but maybe the demon on the other side of this door would be doable.

As she approached the door, a crackling sensation of evil crawled across her back. She burst through it, Holy Water in hand, more than ready to take her anger out on something relatively solid and completely evil.

There were small blessings to be had, Michael realized. Knight had constructed some sort of barrier around the party, ensuring that no stray guests would wander through into a small-scale Holy War. He wasn’t quite willing to go public yet, apparently. That made it easier to fight, knowing that the stakes didn’t include a room full of fresh souls.

Still, it had been a hard battle.

It was over now; Knight had fled down the corridor.

That was little consolation. The fight wasn’t over – just paused. Knight would return. Perhaps not tonight, but he wasn’t done taunting the Agency yet.

“Getting too bolshy for my liking.” Findor pulled off the tatters of his ripped dinner jacket. “Right in front of us, what did he expect? It was like the sod was playing with us. And leaving his minion here to fight while he fled like a coward—”

“It’s exactly what we should expect.” Petra brushed her perfect blond hair over one shoulder. “This was just some kind of trap, he was testing us. Snaring some stupid girl right in front of our eyes, he wanted us to follow him.”

“He could have just asked. I’m happy to have a showdown with the slimy devil anytime, anywhere.” Davisha pulled a toothpick from his jacket pocket and crunched it between his teeth.

Michael said nothing. Instead, he leaned down and stared at the base of the staircase one last time.

She wasn’t here.

The woman Knight had ensnared had disappeared.

How had she gotten away? Her body had never hit the stairs; he hadn’t heard a thing.

“So boss, you think he staged it?” Davisha picked at some imaginary grain of food between his teeth.

Michael stared at the ground, face contorted with compacted concentration. “No, I think he saw an opportunity he could not refuse; fresh blood drawn by accident, far too tantalizing to pass up. He was planning something, though; those demons were already out here. I think the girl just changed his strategy.”

“The guy’s got balls, boss – a hostage spell right in front of us? That’s pretty darn risky.” Davisha returned the used toothpick to his pocket.

“Not really. He was right; there’s nothing we could have done against that spell.” Michael touched a hand to the floor, his fingers brushing over a dark red stain.

“But why did he break it then?” Petra ran a hand through her hair, fluffing up the ends with a pat. “He had us in the palm of his hand.”

“He didn’t break it.” Michael stood, removing a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his fingers clean.

Petra snorted. “Don’t be stupid, Michael. And where did the mystery damsel go, anyway?”

Michael stared around him, hands stowed in his pockets. “Flown away.”

Mira flipped to the right, landing low and pushing herself into a quick roll. The demon’s tail sliced beside her, fixing into the wall an inch deep.

“Errah!” She ducked into another roll, the torn sides of her dress flapping freely around her legs. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m not going to miss you this time!”

The demon replied by twisting his tail around like a rotor.

Mira closed her hand around two shots of Holy Water, ducking under the tail as it swooshed past her face. “Enough already!” She threw each vial so they both smashed together, an inch above the demon’s head.

It screamed.

Mira sealed the demon with all the prayer she could muster.

By the time she’d found the sheltering Angel and hightailed it away from the party, Agent Mira was in great need of a bath and had no intention of filling in her paperwork.

She had a lot to think about.

Mira sank deeper into the tub of steaming hot water, her lips just resting over the surface.

She had no idea where to start. To say she was on the verge of a catastrophe was a lie; she was belly-deep in a tangled web of danger and deceit. If going to that party had been just another in her series of self-made calamities, then it was time she tie herself to the couch and renounce the outside world for good.

Tendrils of steam wound around her face, playing through the wet tangles of her hair.

Knight? Who in the Seven Realms of Hell was Knight, and why had he tried to cast a spell on her? And no, it hadn’t escaped her attentions that Knight started with a K.

That the four Commanders of Agency had been there, what were the chances? Mira slapped the surface of the water with her hand, splashing her face and the cool tile wall behind her. She was so unlucky! She’d not only run into a powerful demon in human form, but she’d almost been possessed right in front of the Agency’s finest.

She felt her cheeks flush hotter than the bath water, and she gave her face a little half slap. What was she doing? A vision of Knight’s calculating smile flashed across her mind. The look in his topaz eyes as he’d pulled her along….

Mira ducked her head under the water, shaking it in an effort to dislodge the treacherous thought. She eventually burst through the surface, breathing heavily, unable to punish herself any longer while remaining conscious.

What was she doing? Was she trying to disturb herself? Knight had tried to possess her for the Devil knows what purpose. Why could she still see those eyes?

“Uhhhhhhhh.” Mira put her face into her wet hands. How had she let things get this bad? Being attacked in front of the Agency’s Four then running away like a coward. It was a surprise the Agency Enforcers hadn’t burst through the door and dragged her off, towel and all. If any of the Four figured out she was an Agent, then it was lights out. All they had to do was pick up the latest copy of Good News, after all.

Mira let her head loll to the side, and she stared at the clean white edge of the bath. Things couldn’t really get better from here.

“Mira!” Angel knocked lightly on the bathroom door. “Mira, are you okay?”

“Blahhhhh.” Mira sank down, letting her lips blow bubbles through the water.

“I’ve made you a cake!” Angel’s voice peaked with a cute chirp.

Mira sat straight up. “A cake? Are you serious?”

“It has pink icing!” The sound of Angel clapping her hands together filtered dully through the door.

Mira grabbed a towel. Plenty of time to drown in her thoughts later.

Chapter 8

Mutiny in the car park

Mira pulled on her boots and stood. She straightened her jacket, tucking it firmly around her large belt. She sighed; proper Agency regalia always irked her. Navy blue pinched jacket with fat white belt, over a mid-length flounced black skirt and knee-high brown boots. To top it off, she had a little white woolen beret. If she ever found who’d designed this uniform, she would imprison them for the term of their natural life and nary would they go near a fabric store again.

She stamped her feet twice to chase away her sour face. She was about to go and greet the Lord Ashbolt; she could hardly say hello through a mad-faced scowl. Her record didn’t allow for eccentricities. It only allowed for absolutely perfect behavior. All she needed was one more mistake, or her current series of mistakes to catch up with her, and she was dead. And considering she was about to revisit the very same manor she’d been chased through by a level 7 demon, there were plenty of opportunities to put the final nail in her coffin.

Her only saving grace was that no one would recognize her. Hopefully. Lord Ashbolt had barely glanced her way on that roof, and she’d scuttled off before the massive butler had managed a good look at her face. Plus, it had still been seriously dark up on that roof. No one would recognize her.

Hopefully.

Even if they did recognize her, it wouldn’t be that bad, right? Okay, so she’d told Michael she was Belinda, but he sure as heck wouldn’t be here today, so there was no problem.

Hopefully.

She strolled slowly but stiffly toward the door. She felt totally ridiculous in these clothes; it was torture to wear them in front of people, especially people who weren’t even from the Agency.

A butler gave her a long, amused glance, which he tried to hide under his giant eyebrows. Fortunately, he wasn’t the massive butler from the other night. “Lord Ashbolt and your colleagues are waiting for you in the drawing room,” he bowed, his arm opening wide to invite her in.

She smiled stiffly, like a child selling toothpaste. “Great. Colleagues? I thought I was the only one…?”

The Butler led her across the atrium to a large ornate door. Her heart sunk. Colleagues? That was just great. She was going to have to follow some upstart lieutenant around all day. It would be “yes, sir,” “no, sir” and “please, sir, give me something even more ridiculous to do, sir,” until teatime.

The door opened before her, and Agent Mira almost screamed.

Michael, Petra, Davisha, and Findor. Game well and truly over.

Lord Ashbolt nodded at her to enter, but she couldn’t move. Moss would start growing over her feet before she could convince them to run. Her body was squeezed between doe-eyed fear and belly-shaking surprise.

Petra hardly looked up. Davisha stared past her at the butler, and Findor continued to flick through the documents on his lap. Michael, on the other hand, locked eyes with her. The recognition began to sour his face, working down his brow, dragging his features into a wide-eyed, parted-lipped stupor.

The adrenaline won, and Mira took a sudden step backward, forcing the butler to jump to the side. “Hold on,” she yelped, “I’ve left something important in the car. I’ll just get it!” She offered a manic smile and pelted out the door.

She twisted her head from side to side, looking for anywhere to hide as she half-ran half-jogged across the atrium. Her hands were shaking, and her mouth was raw. Her mind hadn’t quite caught up, but that was okay – flight was her heart’s domain. She nodded her head sharply and finally decided that outside was the safest bet.

His footsteps were quick behind hers, light and agile like a cat’s. “Agent.”

She pretended not to hear him and burst through the door. She jumped down the steps, her feet crunching over the gravel as she scuttled forward, desperate to find her car or at least a blanket to pull over her head.

“Agent!”

She flew down the path, quickly reaching the car park.

He broke into a run behind her.

She broke into a sprint.

“Agent!”

She stopped. Angel was in the car, what was she thinking?

Michael slammed into her back, unable to pull up from his frenzied dash. His arms were locked around her middle, and they both slammed to the ground.

“Ghhahhh!” Mira’s chest and face were being squished into the gravel, Michael’s heavy form pinning her to the ground like an anvil.

He scrambled off her then locked a hand around her arm. “You.” He pulled her up, gently but firmly. “You’re an agent?”

The shock had widened those crystal brown eyes and hardened his angled jaw. He opened his mouth to add something, but he shook his head instead.

The tribal beat of her heart roared in Mira’s ears but hadn’t drowned out his words. Her lips opened, ready to blurt out the million excuses she’d been practicing, but nothing would come. Instead, she just nodded her head.

“What the Hell do you think you are doing, Agent?” Michael had found his voice and had brought along a verbal whip.

Mira swallowed, trying to lean away from him without technically jumping up and starting the chase anew.

“Agent! This is not a game, explain yourself now.” He clapped his hands over her shoulders. The move was sudden and snapped, like the door to a cage crashing closed.

“I – I’m so sorry!”

But Michael wasn’t paying attention. This close to his face she could see his pupils dilate. He locked his gaze onto something behind her.

There was a swoosh.

Michael grabbed her and pulled her to the side, moving his back protectively over her own.

There was a crunch, and Michael groaned. A jet-black tail whipped up and out of her view, blood spattering from its tip. She felt him collapse over her, body still.

“Michael!” Mira shuffled out from underneath him, her head twisting, desperately trying to track the demon behind her. It had jumped atop a car and was sitting with its arms before it, like a monkey watching from a treetop.

Mira snapped to her feet, placing herself between Michael and the demon, spreading her arms wide to emphasize who was the bigger target.

The demon chuckled. It sounded like a fish gasping for air. Glop, glop. Glop. “Wantsss to ssseee you.” The demon jumped off the car, landing with a light furl of its wings, a meter from Mira.

“Leave him alone!” Mira clutched at her utility belt, her fingers groping for a weapon.

Michael groaned. The gravel crunched as he pushed himself to his feet behind her. “Get out of here, Agent.” His voice was pressured, but clear.

Mira half turned to him, shocked that he was even standing after such a blow. Her hand tightened around a Star of David, but it was too late. A tail shot over the ground, coiling around her ankle like a vine.

“Ahh!” Mira fell roughly to the ground, dropping the Star out of surprise.

Michael skidded to his knees, locking an arm around her own. But before he could gain purchase, she shot from his grasp, the demon pulling her along the ground like an angler drawing in their catch.

He launched himself after her, pushing out a hand. But he couldn’t reach. Brown eyes blazing and brow sunken, Michael’s face stiffened with shock. It was the last glimpse she saw of him before the demon reeled her behind a low car.

Her back ached from the friction, her face white and cold. She couldn’t see it, but its tail still ate into the soft flesh above her ankle like barbed wire.

It jumped from above, landing astride Mira, pinning her wrists in its vice-like claws. “Wantssss to sssee you,” it inclined its long snout down, an inch from her face, its putrid breath harsh against her cheek.

Mira gasped and struggled wildly against its grip.

Swoosh.

The Star of David cut into the demon’s head, embedding itself right between its red eyes. A ray of blood shot out from the wound, spraying Mira across her chest and face. The demon’s eyes rolled into the back of its head, and it pitched to one side, freeing her from under its grip.

She scuttled backward, clawing desperately at her face, trying to remove the blood. Her breath was stuck, her heart hammering through her rib cage. She gave a choked yelp, the frenzied fear smothering her mind.

“It’s okay.” Two hands grabbed her wrists, pulling them from her face. “You’ll be fine.”

She shook her head frantically, like a dog shaking its wet coat. The blood was eating into her flesh. She could feel it pressing through her face, trying to find a way in.

Something popped, and a cool liquid dripped down her brow. With a sizzle, the blood evaporated.

Holy Water.

The frenzy falling from her mind, Mira slumped forward, her hands coming to a rest on her knees. She took a deep breath and finally looked up.

The tail shot out from next to her, pinning Michael against the car with a crunch. His face pressed into the passenger door, shoulders loose and still.

The demon twitched, trying to draw its limbs in and lift its body. But with a great convulsion, that sent a shiver through its closed wings, the demon fell face down. With a hiss, it disappeared in a wisp of black smoke.

She stared at it a moment then caught Michael as he slumped toward her.

“Michael!”

But there was no hope; this time he was out cold.

Mira sat there for a moment, Michael’s warm head cradled in her lap. The overwhelming fear and panic had given way to an ominous silence. She couldn’t think, what was she supposed to do?

Tears began to well up in her eyes, and her hands tightened around Michael’s limp shoulders.

Tap, tap, tap.

Mira swung her head to the car beside her. It was her car, all this time she hadn’t even noticed. Angel tapped on the glass, her doe eyes wide with shimmering fear. “Mira,” she mouthed.

Mira leaned up and opened the door, Michael’s head lolling in her lap. Angel spilled out of the car, not even bothering to stand up, just pitching herself forward.

She took one look at the stricken Michael, and her bottom lip began to tremble. “Mira? Mira, is he okay?”

His face was hot against her lap, she could feel it even through the fabric. “I….”

Angel reached out a hand, resting it on the blood-soaked mess that was Michael’s shoulder. “He’s okay, Mira.”

Mira shook her head. She couldn’t believe that. “I—”

“Maybe some water?”

“What?”

“Maybe you should get some water.”

“I… I… okay.”

Despite her size, Angel wrested the still unconscious form of Michael out of Mira’s lap. She’d lost that childlike edge and had regained that angelic presence she’d had when they’d first met.

“Okay,” Mira repeated to herself. “Water. Water. I’ll go get some water.” She walked off, her jacket soaked in blood, her mind cold and numb.

It was like waking up on a lazy Sunday morning to the sun shining through the blinds.

Michael blinked his eyes open, shifting his weight against the hard gravel. He tried to shimmy his shoulders up, to gain enough purchase to pull himself into a seated position. A stabbing pain shot through his forearm, and he winced.

“Oh no… I don’t think you should do that.”

Michael looked at the owner of the voice, a small child with a mass of bouncing curls. “What?”

“You’ve been hurt.”

Michael nodded politely and pulled himself up. His head spun like a whirlpool, and he leaned down before he fell over again. “Yeah.”

“She’s gone to get water.”

“Ha?” He tried to center himself, pull in a couple of breaths and let the pain dissipate to a throb.

“Mira went to get some water.” The kid’s kind smile didn’t shift. There was something strangely familiar about it.

“Who?”

“Mira, silly.”

“Oh….” It had dawned on him before she’d repeated the name. Mira.

“Do you feel okay?”

“Feeling better actually. “

As he shifted position and felt the depth of his wound with several prying fingers, Michael stumbled over his memories. He remembered chasing Mira out of the manor, remembered the anger and shock that had ripped through his chest. All this time she’d been an Agent. He’d gone to bed with her shocked face plastered through his mind, wondering where in Hell she’d gotten to, and all this time she’d been an agent.

He pushed himself to his feet, grunting like a gladiator before battle.

“Oh, what are you doing?”

“I don’t feel like sitting still.”

He was going to get to the bottom of this.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” The voice sounded from behind her like the blast of a foghorn.

The skin on her back writhed. She knew that voice. Sure enough, with one turn she saw the form of Inspector Phillips march toward her. His lips were drawn into a thin line that matched his narrowed eyes perfectly.

It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair. She’d gone to get water, gone to find the other agents, tried to get help. But who had come sauntering through the door just as she’d made it around the back entrance? None other than her favorite renegade cop. With her top covered in blood and her face pale with shock, she’d done the most sensible thing and had pretended not to see him.

Mira struck off into a speed walk, her arms and legs stiffly pulling her along without technically breaking into a run.

“Ma’am.”

The problem was, Phillips had obviously seen her.

She gritted her teeth and stopped herself from looking around; she couldn’t encourage him further. The last thing she needed right now was Inspector Phillips sticking his nose in. He would take one look at her blood-soaked top and the unconscious body of Michael next to her car, and his policeman logic would fill in the gaps.

She sped up, her shoes skidding along the gravel.

“I have some questions for you, ma’am.” The man was like a hound of Hell galloping over the gravel behind her.

She ducked behind a car and quickly rolled its length, coming up low behind its front-passenger side.

She heard his footsteps falter. She took her chance and dive rolled to the next car.

She could keep this up all day, or at least until the cars ran out.

The footsteps began again, this time striking off along the other side of the car she was behind. She offered a silent blessing to Heaven. Finally, her luck had changed.

“Now what do we have here?”

Her heart bottomed out from her rib cage and fell to the floor.

“Officer.”

She slammed both hands over her mouth. That was Michael’s voice.

“And who’s this?” the question rang lightly on the inspector’s voice as if he were slightly amused.

“Well, I don’t know,” Michael’s voice had that same trill. “Certainly saved the day, though,” he appeared to breathe through a chuckle.

Mira tried to dig both fists into her mouth. No, no, no, no.

“Well, ma’am, lucky you were in the right place at the right time,” the inspector said.

“Mmmm,” the sweet light voice of Angel replied.

Mira’s hands shook as they still covered her gaping mouth. This was the worst possible thing that could have happened.

“And moving onto you, Michael, it is Michael, isn’t it?” the inspector’s voice had gone back to its usual ominous baritone.

“And you are?” Michael’s voice remained calm.

“Inspector Phillips. Perhaps you can help me with my inquiries. I’m looking for a woman called Mira, she ran past here recently all covered in blood.”

There was a pause. Mira could swear her heart was shaking free as it pounded away in her chest.

“No. But would it surprise you to know, Inspector, that I am looking for the same woman?”

“Well, ma’am, perhaps you can help us then? Looks an awful lot like you, different colored hair, though. Older sister, perhaps?”

Mira closed her eyes. She knew what was going to happen next. For some reason, for some impossible reason, Angel could not lie. Of course Mira hadn’t known her long, but long enough to recognize an impossible sense of truth. She just couldn’t lie. Plus she had that uncanny sense of knowing where Mira was, and where any kind of spirit was for that matter. She was certainly handy to have around, generally that was, just not right now.

It was time to act.

“Eh?” Angel replied.

“Where is Mira?”

Swallowing every last scrap of courage, Mira stood up, just as Angel pointed her way.

Both the inspector and Michael paled with recognition. Their angry eyes pierced into her as she slowly walked toward them.

“What’s that,” she sucked in a choppy breath, “someone is looking for me?”

The inspector was standing over Michael as he sat on the edge of the fountain. Angel was kneeling next to him, dabbing at the exposed wound on his bare shoulder.

Quite a sight that. Michael’s muscle-bound shoulder poking through the ripped remains of his white shirt. He looked so darned rugged, just like Brent Double out of one of his movies. Considering the circumstances, though, it wasn’t a good idea to stare.

Mira brought a hand to her neck and rubbed a finger down along her jaw. “Soooo.” She came to a stop two meters from the inspector’s coat-clad hulk. She wasn’t stupid after all.

“Nice of you to join us.” The inspector shoved a hand into one of his voluminous pockets.

Mira balked. She took a quick step away, a nervous laugh shaking her shoulders. “I can explain!”

The inspector’s hand remained in his pocket. His expression was neutral, but his eyes flickered intensely.

Even Michael reacted to that; clearing his throat, he pushed himself to his feet. With a quick strange look in her direction, he positioned himself between her and the inspector. “Maybe I can help you with your enquiries now, Inspector Phillips.”

The inspector’s mouth slowly twitched down into a frown. He reached out a stiff hand to Michael’s uninjured shoulder and tried to move him out of the way.

Michael would not move.

The staring match began. An electric wave of testosterone-fueled hatred erupted between the two men. Neither could back down now.

“I would like,” the inspector spoke through bared teeth, “to begin my inquiries with her.”

“Maybe later,” Michael’s stiff lips formed each word.

Mira stared at the scene. Her mouth silently fell open. This was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever seen.

“You are interfering with a police investigation.” The inspector smiled stiffly.

“No, I’m just standing here.” Michael repositioned his feet, shoring up his shoulder.

A wash of anger flushed down the inspector’s face, freezing his sharp features into a frightening gaze.

Mira felt like she was going to pop. A mixture of intense embarrassment and fear pricked away at her cheeks, tingeing them a deep red.

The two men were surely going to come to blows. It was inherent in the manly code they both subscribed to that they couldn’t back down from a challenge like this. They were either both going to stand there until one of them realized how stupid they looked or they were going to erupt into a wrestling match right there on the grass.

They were staring at each other with blood-curdling glares, their backs as stiff as steel rods.

This could not end well.

Suddenly, both men froze and looked down. Angel was standing between them, a hand on each of their sleeves. She had a wide light smile on her face, and her eyes shone with unmistakable innocence.

There was a strange pause as the pent up masculinity ran for the bushes, tail firmly between its legs.

Angel gave their sleeves a little tug, her smile never fading and her grip never failing.

The inspector took a snapped step back, and Michael offered a small, confused laugh.

Angel didn’t let go of their sleeves. Instead, she gave them another tug.

“Can I help you?” The inspector coughed slightly.

Angel bowed her head, her smile somehow growing warmer. “Isn’t that…” she said in a whisper.

Both men leaned a little closer, unable to make out her soft words.

“Isn’t that one of your friends?” Angel, still holding onto the inspector’s sleeve, pointed one delicate finger at the roof.

There was a man standing on the flat part of the roof, his blue uniform and white hat just visible. He was waving his hands up and down like a gas-filled clown-balloon.

“I think he might want to speak to you.” Angel released his sleeve.

The inspector gave a short grumble. “Thank you, ma’am, but I’m sure it’s nothing.”

The police officer atop the roof began to point at the inspector then dramatically point to his own position. His arms moved so stiffly and obviously that he looked like a technician on a flight deck directing traffic.

This time the inspector gave a belly-shaking sigh. Frustration plastered over his face in a creased-brow façade, he marched away over the grass. “I will talk to you later,” he almost spat as he walked past Mira.

There was a moment. It stretched on for a while. It was a moment which she and Michael shared. The inspector was gone, and that left them alone, almost.

Michael still had his back to her. Mira began to back away cautiously.

“Run,” he said, “and I’ll catch you.” He pivoted on his foot, Angel’s hand finally falling from his sleeve. “We need to talk, Agent.”

She froze, her legs fixed her to the spot despite her overwhelming desire to run away screaming like a frightened child.

His face was so stern. Gone were the pleasant smile and warm brown eyes. In their place was a stony, stiff glare. “What the Hell is going on here?”

She winced at the curse, her hands beginning to tremble.

He didn’t shift, just waited for her answer.

“Ummm… ahahah… welllll….”

He took a step closer, and his face hardened even more.

This was it; it was all over now. This stupid, stupid game she was playing was lost. The Agency would find out about Angel, the statue, the level 7 demon, and her fraudulent paperwork. She didn’t know exactly what they’d do to her, but she doubted it would be pleasant.

The confusion and fear must have played across her face as if it were a billboard, because Michael shook his head. “So you’ve realized how much trouble you are in then, don’t you think it’s time to start talking?”

Her face felt so hot. “I… I don’t know where to start.”

“At the beginning—” he stopped. Angel had her hand on his sleeve again, and that same smile was back.

“No,” Angel shook her head, her bronzed locks pattering against her shoulders. “You shouldn’t be so mean to her.”

“S-sorry?” Michael’s cheeks took on a warmer tinge. “I don’t—”

Angel was still shaking her head gently. “Shouldn’t be so mean. She likes you, you know, so you shouldn’t be so mean to her.” She emphasized her point with several more tugs on his sleeve.

Mira’s knees buckled, and she fell flat on her bottom. The shock was too much. Her body was going into shut down. First the threat of imprisonment and suspension and now this, it was all too much.

Michael flicked his eyes to her. Whatever he felt, it was hidden behind that flicker of clear brown.

“And,” Angel kept tugging his sleeve, “you need to go.”

“I… I… what?” The usually unflappable cool of the Agency’s number one agent crumbled. “I don’t understand.”

“Your friend is in trouble.” One final tug. “He needs your help.”

From her seated position on the grass, Mira watched the change in Michael. In a flash the agent had returned, bringing with him a stiff-necked determination. “What are you talking about?” His voice was firm.

“Eh?” Angel shifted her head to one side. “Can’t you feel it?”

His eyes slid closed. His chest expanded with a deep breath as he pulled the air into his lungs.

The cold began to creep over Mira, too. Even sprawled over the grass like a dehydrated jellyfish, she could feel the wave. Something evil was near.

Michael snapped his eyes open, for a moment they darted over Angel’s face. “Thank you.” He turned on his heel sharply. “As for you,” he twisted his head to Mira, “I would say stay there, but I know you won’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you that wherever you run to, I’m going to find you, and we’re going to have a chat.” The words came sharp, like a slap, but for some reason, it didn’t seem like his heart was in it.

Mira thought of the only reply she could to such a threat, “I’ll put the kettle on, then.”

She watched him race toward the castle, her heart beating like a drum. He reminded her of a knight – the picture of bravery: headed for danger, injury forgotten, all in aid of a friend. It was no wonder he was the Agency’s finest – handsome, brave, and loyal.

Mira watched until his figure disappeared around the side of the castle. Then, with a massive intake of air, she sighed heavily. “What have I gotten myself into?”

Angel sat down lightly beside her.

“What am I supposed to do now?”

Angel reached out a hand and covered Mira’s. Mira stared into her eyes.

From the corners of her mind, crawling past her exasperation and panic, Mira’s natural tenacity returned. There were so many questions unanswered, so many problems she had no solution for. What was going on with the demons? Why had she been pitted against things she couldn’t hope to fight? What in Heaven was Angel and why was she really here?

She rose.

This was a setback. A huge, monumental setback, but by god it wasn’t over. Mira was not going to give up.

“Right, where to next?”

Chapter 9

A little bit of background

There was nothing like a good snoop. Inspector Phillips marched up the beaten brick steps with a grim smile. Better than a good snoop, though, was a good lead – and that, his sources had assured him, was exactly what lay within St Marianne’s Orphanage.

It was right on the outskirts of town, on the border between the industrial section and the city’s filth-encrusted slum – great place to raise your kids (or someone else’s). Inspector Phillips sniffed hard as his brown boots crunched against the pockmarked brick. He instantly regretted it though as a lung full of musty, acrid grime seared his throat.

Goddamned slums.

The door to the orphanage, strangely, was clean. Painted a ‘70s shade of orange, it almost glistened in the early morning sun. It got him wondering – who spends their obviously small resource budget on door maintenance while letting their front stairs decay into rubble? By 9:15, as he sat in the headmistress’ office, he’d found his answer.

“I really don’t understand how I can help you with your inquiry.” Sister Nana sat back in her chair and pressed her fingers together, the kind of move you might see a hardened mob boss do as he’s picking the next dead guy, not a 60-something old dear with coke-bottle glasses. Perhaps she’d seen it on the TV.

“Well, I’m sorry, ma’am, perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly the first time.” He coughed for effect, letting his words settle ominously. “This is a police investigation, all I need is for you to answer my questions.” He settled back into his own broken plastic chair and did not blink once. The move would have threatened that previously mentioned mob boss, but this one, Sister Nana, was cool as stone.

“I can hear, Mr Phillips. I also have a talent for hearing what remains unsaid.” She slowly took off her glasses and began to rub them clean with the hem of her robe. She too knew how to play with threatening body language, apparently. Whatever kids lived at this dump had to appreciate her sheer mastery of implied danger. “And you have not told me why. Nor have you produced any evidence to suggest this is an official inquiry. And frankly,” she looked him up and down, giving him cause to believe the glasses were some kind of bizarre prop, “I don’t think you can.”

He swallowed and sighed, letting her see his frustration. Great, it was just his luck to meet Attila the Nun. “Maybe you’re right, ma’am…” it was time to take a chance, “but call me wrong,” he let his eyes drift around the room for a moment, to make it seem like he was thinking hard, “I think you might want to tell me.”

Sister Nana laughed heartily with the pitch and tone of an overweight bricklayer. A technique she had perfected, no doubt, to put her enemies on guard. “Mr Phillips, what a delightful boy you are. Very well then, you get me a cup of tea from over there and two shortbreads, and I will tell all I know of Mira Day.”

She’d arrived as a newborn. Not dumped on the steps as you might expect, or even brought in by the police. No, whoever had left baby Mira had wanted to be absolutely sure that the Orphanage got the message. So they’d broken in. In the wee hours of the morning they’d smashed the top floor window and scrambled to Sister’s desk. They’d left her there in a little basket, wrapped in a plain cream blanket.

Sister Nana, apparently, had not appreciated the gesture. “I found glass in the rug. It was a very poor way of getting my attention.”

“I can appreciate that, Ma’am, glass is very hard to get out of the carpet.”

“Yes, Mr Phillips, I’m sure you of all people can understand the particular kind of annoyance it causes. Anyhow….”

….

She hadn’t had the upbringing he’d imagined. There was something about Mira Day, something akin to finding a perfectly preserved bottle on a beach. That kind of stuff only happens in the movies, in real life, the glass gets smashed on the rocks. Mira was… unique. There was something about her that simply shouldn’t be there. But enough with the romanticizing, she was part of the Agency. A strange part, but a weak part nonetheless. She was his inroad. He had waited for this for years, and finally he had found a string to pull.

It sounded like she’d been happy. She’d been bubbly and friendly, always getting into mischief like the time she’d whited out the second b on the Sister’s bible. She spoke of that particular incident with a strange mix of nostalgia and anger.

Mira had been neither the model student nor the model brat. On the face of it, she had been unremarkable.

Sister stopped a moment, her mouth still open, her eyes slowly drifting over the documents strewn before her. It took her a long while to formulate whatever played within her mind. “They came to get her on a Tuesday.”

Phillips sat up straighter, the pinprick of his skin telling him he was getting to his lead.

“The Agency, they called themselves. I don’t suppose you know of them.” She almost smiled. “They were up front; they’ve adopted children from us before, you see. But I had never seen one of them before.”

“Them?” He tried to wait a moment, to give himself time to breathe, but his curiosity burned across his palms and crawled across his back.

“One of the tall ones, Inspector, one of the Controllers.”

A rock, tied to an anvil, tied to a sodding great boulder smashed through the inspector’s gut. He’d heard that word before; he’d heard that goddamn word from his grandfather. The Controllers were high level, the board members and CEOs of Agency’s world. They decided where, when and why the battles were fought. For all his grandfather’s life, he’d searched for one. Corrupt he’d called them, the root of decay.

“He’d been polite, well almost. There was a strange reservation to his actions, like when the school bully has to play nice around the principal. I didn’t like him, Inspector, and I am not ashamed to say I often form lasting opinions upon first glance.”

“I understand; the nose of a good policeman, ma’am.”

“The others had been nice, Inspector, good God-fearing souls. I trusted them. But there was something different here….”

“Go on.”

“I’m afraid that is all. It is as simple and as plain as that. On her fourteenth birthday, Mira Day was adopted.”

He struggled for a moment as a cold sweat prickled across his back. His grandfather’s words were echoing in his head like a gunshot through a valley. Find a Controller, and you’ll find the Agency. They are its lifeblood. He was close; for the first time in his life, he was close.

“You want more, but I just can’t give it to you. I don’t know what the Agency is…. Well, not entirely, but I imagine you already know more than me.”

He nodded; he was way past smoke-screen secrecy. She’d been honest with him, after all. “Thank you very much for your help, Sister Nana.”

“I see her occasionally, you know. She comes here from time to time….” Sister Nana stared down at her old bent hands. “It’s good to know she still remembers us.”

He nodded in silence and rose from his chair.

“You can’t run from your family.” Sister Nana darted her beady eyes up, like a tiger tracking sudden movement. “It’s best to remember that one, Mr Phillips.”

He’d walked to the car with a head full of memories and possibilities. Mira Day was shaping up to be the lead of his dreams. Finally, an inroad into the Agency.

Phillips grabbed his keys and stamped out the butt of a flaming cigarette some kind individual had left on the pavement.

He didn’t know how long it went back, how many generations had been stuck with the duty. It was odd to think that, like him, his forebears had all been compelled, pushed, contorted, and pulled into tracking the Agency. Ever since the Agency had gone into hiding, his family had been there to drag them back into the light of day. But the modern Agency was different. His task and the task of his mother and grandfather had been impossible. The modern Agency was not some castle on a hill for all the people to see – it was underground, protected by money, power, and something extra. And without anyone to watch over them, to guard the guards, who knows how corrupt they had become.

By the time Inspector Phillips returned to the office, a new plan had formulated in his mind. It was time to exploit his lead and see just how far she could lead him down the rabbit hole.

There was a line somewhere, but he’d crossed it years ago now. But in the back of his head, vaguely pulsing away, was guilt. He spent a lot of resources, a lot of police time, chasing up something that wasn’t technically on the books. Following up private cases was the prerogative of a Private Eye, not a state-employed detective. Still, the guilt was vague.

The Agency was still, as he saw it, the biggest threat to national, international, and inter-bloody-dimensional security. He was bound by his family oath never to let them go, to let them slip too far into the shadows. Because a group that fights shadows in the shadows, is indistinguishable from the shadow itself.

Phillips tapped the base of his palm on the steering wheel. He strained his neck as he peered along the darkened street. It was lined with cars, an aberration for this kind of area. This was one of the most exclusive areas of the city. Usually, the Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes would all be parked in huge garages next to the wax and polish cloth. No self-respecting elitist would park their pride and joy on the common street; poor folk may put their greasy paws on it. But this was no ordinary night – tonight was a party.

He pulled over abruptly, finally spotting the megalithic cream house of 22 Future Road. He yanked up the parking brake a little too roughly and winced at the metal groan it made. He was thinking too much, letting his mind run away with all his attention.

“Right.” He grabbed the set of documents neatly piled on the passenger seat and began to leaf through them. “Michael Nazeer, it’s time to cut you out and fit you into my puzzle.”

It had been one of those rare moments of shining luck. The Detective Inspector had marched into his office, in his usual military style, his fat mustache bristling and eyes two slits of permanent anger.

“Phillips!” the DI had no volume control. “The goddamned Chief is getting in my way again.”

Phillips slowly put down the map he’d been perusing and nodded solemnly.

“He’s telling me I have to go to some goddamned fancy party.”

Phillips nodded again; there wasn’t much you could say to that.

“I’m not going, Phillips. I’m in the middle of a goddamned mob war, a drugs jamboree, and my wife invited her mother over for tea.” The DI’s skin began to glow bright red. “So here’s the invite.” He slammed a piece of paper onto the edge of Phillips’ desk. “Have fun.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and Phillips,” the DI marched toward the door, “good work on the Petrova case, you’re my best man.”

Phillips had to admit, he and the DI were kindred spirits; that man had chutzpah. But possibly a cardiac problem, too.

When Phillips looked at the address and saw who the host was, he turned that same shade of red. Mr Nazeer of the Nazeer dynasty. To anyone else in the office, to anyone else in the city, that meant little. Mr Nazeer was a philanthropist, an art dealer, and the owner of several museums. To Phillips it meant something entirely different. The Nazeers were one of the main families Agency recruited their commanders from.

From what his mother had told him, the Nazeers were descended from a Bedouin tribe similar to the Magi. From the beginning of the Agency, when it was set up only God knows how long ago, the Nazeers had always been amongst its ranks.

With a sniff, Phillips pulled himself out of his car and straightened his dinner jacket. Begrudgingly he admitted to himself Michael’s history was similar to his own family legacy. Both of them were bound from birth and could not escape. The only difference was the Agency was corrupt and corrupting. Whoever Michael had been as a child, it didn’t matter anymore. He was a senior member of the Agency, and that was all Phillips needed to condemn him.

Something niggled away deep in Phillips’ gut as he marched up the drive with the other party guests. It felt a lot like uncertainty, but he was determined not to believe that.

“It is delightful that you could join us, Detective Inspector Hargrove; Mr Nazeer is very keen to meet you.” The butler looked at him with the straightest of faces.

Phillips tried for a small smile, anything more, and he’d be laughing. “Not the Detective Inspector, I’m afraid. Couldn’t make it, emergency at the office.”

“Oh.” The Butler’s expression didn’t change; you could tell he didn’t care. And why should he?

Phillips didn’t wait for any imaginative reply, just pushed on past and across the marble atrium.

It was… splendid. You didn’t often see places like this, places where rich people obviously had taste. Beautiful rugs, tapestries, statues, and mosaics – it had the rich, earthy colors of a Moroccan bazaar. It even smelt like spice. It was places like this that made you envy the way the other half lived. Rich not in money, but in history and culture.

The other guests obviously weren’t as impressed as he was. Their eyes darted past the splendor around them and fixed onto each other: pearls, dresses, diamonds, and suits. Other people’s money.

“Fantastic, have you heard about his new museum?”

“Did you hear how much it will cost? All for a museum!”

“I heard he gets his money from… foreign investments.”

Phillips muffled his snort as he walked through the guests. He had to hand it to the semi-elite of this town – a true streak of suicidal arrogance. He wouldn’t be insinuating the host had links to illegal funds in the middle of his goddamn living room. Plus, as far as Interpol could tell, they were just rumors anyway. What the garrulous guest was trying to get at was that familiar theme of racism. Nothing like a good session of foreigner bashing to raise a blush to your white-collar comrade’s cheeks.

He tried to pay attention to the guests, but they were starting to grate on his ridiculously thin patience. It wouldn’t be a good idea to create a scene at a party he wasn’t technically invited to.

What he had to concentrate on was finding as much information out as he could. He was not going to get another opportunity like this again. To be in the actual home of the Nazeer family….

“Mr Phillips, I’m most humbled that you could come.” He appeared at his shoulder, silent and sudden.

Phillips took a moment, calmed the little kick of shock that had arced across his back. He usually kept an eye on people, could pick out the pointed movement of a man through a crowd – he’d been trained, after all. It sent a prickle of disappointment through his stomach to have missed Mr Nazeer appearing at his side. “I’m sorry that the Detective Inspector could not attend,” Phillips managed.

“Of course, it does not matter.” Mr Nazeer smiled, and it seemed genuine as it curled the edges of his dark brown eyes. “I think you might have more interest in my collection, anyway.”

Phillips didn’t swallow, though the temptation was there. He’d made the mistake of taking a swig of his wine as Mr Nazeer had been speaking. Mr Nazeer’s pointed comment had made him want to gag. Nazeer had known his name too; so much for keeping a low profile. “I do like what I have seen of your collection so far.”

There seemed to be a permanent smile behind Mr Nazeer’s eyes. “Oh yes, you like it?”

“It reminds me of my grandfather… though he didn’t quite have the same budget.”

Mr Nazeer’s laugh was melodious, like a bell tinkling in a great big hall. “You embarrass me, Mr Phillips. I collect because I am compelled to protect history… the land of our ancestors is rich and beautiful. Your grandfather was right to want to protect it.”

Phillips had no intention of discussing this.

“I hope I am not too forward, Mr Phillips, but where did your grandfather come from? You have a strange accent, I can’t quite place it.”

He wasn’t getting into this, not with Mr Nazeer of all people. “Eastside.”

Mr Nazeer hid a frown as he brushed the edge of his chin with the back of his hand. “Really, I guess I was wrong then.”

“And you, Mr Nazeer?”

“Westside, Mr Phillips.”

There was a pause.

“Congratulations on the opening of your new museum, sir, I will be sure to make the time to go and see it.” Phillips began a verbal retreat. There was no point in insulting Nazeer. The man seemed nice enough. Regardless of the family history and connection, it was his son Phillips was after.

“I would be delighted to give you a tour. In fact, if you have some time later, I would love to show you my newest items – a rare collection of religious relics from ancient Persia.”

See, nice things happen when you, in turn, are nice; his mother was right. Not letting the smile reach his eyes, Phillips nodded lightly. What better way to see more of the Nazeer home? Short of wandering off and being hauled back by a watchful bodyguard, that was. “That would be an honor.”

“I don’t think he has the time, father.” Michael appeared in front of them, his face neutral, one hand in his trouser pocket, the other loosely clutching a full glass.

That Michael could appear in a snap wasn’t surprising. He was an Agency commander; he could probably snap other things fairly quickly, too.

“Michael!” Mr Nazeer threw up his hands, only just keeping the wine in his glass. “You came!”

Michael shifted his dead expression into a tolerant smile. “Apparently.”

What passed for affection between father and son slowly subsided as Michael kept a deadpan expression and clenched shoulders. A frown danced across Mr Nazeer’s face, but it was slowly replaced with a wan smile. “It is good to see you, son. Have you met—”

“Inspector John Phillips?” Michael’s body language was punch-in-the-gut obvious.

“Oh.” Mr Nazeer coughed diplomatically. “You know each other?”

“We’ve met on occasion,” Phillips jumped in; god knows what Michael would dream up if left to his own devices.

Mr Nazeer did not say a word. He regarded Michael with undisclosed sorrow, his brow inching down his face. “You look tired, son.”

“Work keeps me busy, father, you know that.”

For a moment, Phillips guessed, the father and son had forgotten him and descended into their own little world of mutual pain. It would figure that Michael had daddy issues.

“Yes.” Mr Nazeer switched his eyes to the wine in his glass, inspecting it thoughtfully as he swirled the contents with little flicks of his wrist. “I know that.”

Phillips half considered sidling off before Michael noticed. That way he could get a head start before being thrown out of the door kicking and screaming.

“So… you are alone? You have not brought a nice young lady perhaps…?” Mr Nazeer asked his son.

Phillips almost winced at the catastrophic change in subject. He was no expert on father-son relations, but this did not sound like a healthy topic.

Sure enough, Michael’s face hardened all the more until his hand almost sliced through the glass he held. “No, father.”

“Oh,” Mr Nazeer scratched his neck, “what about that lovely girl… Jordan?”

“Petra.”

“Why did you not bring her along? You know the invite said—”

“Because, father.”

Phillips found himself siding with the father. Michael was being deliberately obtuse, deliberately cold. Damn, couldn’t he just tell his father was worried? Not pestering or prying, just caring.

Phillips almost blushed when he realized what he was doing. He was allowing himself to be caught up in the soap opera unfolding before him when he should be exploiting it to find all the clues he could. Damn, he was making a lot of mistakes tonight.

“Oh.” With the smallest of shudders, Mr Nazeer’s eyes suddenly locked on Phillips, as if he’d completely forgotten he was there. “I am sorry, Mr Phillips, how rude of me.”

“I wouldn’t bother apologizing, father; like I said, Mr Phillips was just leaving.” Michael regarded him with an impossibly civil look, and it scared the hell out of Phillips.

Steeling himself and resisting the desire to crack his neck, Phillips grinned. “I just got here.”

“Michael!” Mr Nazeer’s tone had lost the wounded edge. “Do not be rude to my guest.”

A flicker, almost a flinch, crossed Michael’s face. “Work, father, work—”

Just then, as if sent on an emergency diplomatic mission from the UN, a sultry lady appeared at Michael’s arm. From the tiny black dress and the look of pouting seduction, she probably wasn’t sent from The Hague, though. Still, the outcome was the same. Confused, Michael looked down as she slipped her French-manicured hand over his arm.

“Michael! It’s so good to see you.”

The look of shocked confusion didn’t shift from Michael’s face, and Phillips found it hard not to laugh. Michael had gone from a hardened enemy commander to an inexperienced adolescent in a snap.

“Ummmm… hi.”

Phillips was trying so hard to swallow his grin, but the situation was only getting funnier.

“Ah Kitty,” Mr Nazeer said clearly. “How is your father?”

Kitty still had not removed her hand. She arched an eyebrow up, jutted out a fat glistening bottom lip, and appeared to think hard. “He’s on his boat I think.”

Michael may have been blushing, Phillips couldn’t tell, but his mouth was twitching slightly.

Phillips took a hearty swig of his wine and coughed back a chuckle. This was comedic gold, it really was.

“That is… good,” Mr Nazeer offered to her bizarre response. “And yourself?”

She looked up at Michael with what could only be described as desire. “Single.”

Michael choked. Phillips laughed into his hand. Mr Nazeer stepped forward and took Kitty’s hand.

“Really, Kitty, there is someone that you must meet.” Kitty spluttered a bit, but Mr Nazeer began to lead her away. “Mr Ball’s son is in town, a wonderful young man.”

Phillips was still, unashamedly, half-wheezing half-chuckling, though Michael’s face was returning to its usual reserved anger.

“Amused?”

Phillips let the threat settle between them before he offered a boyish smile. “Brought a tear to my eye.”

“Well then, party’s over – we can’t have a crying policeman ruining everyone’s fun.” Michael, somehow, seemed to fill up every available gap in the room until it was only the two of them.

Showdown, then.

“I was delighted to be invited,” Phillips let his grin return after every word, “simply delighted.”

“My father is a generous man.” Any hint of the confusion from before was gone, replaced with deathly steel.

“I’d never met him before, very interesting. You know the two of you are nothing alike,” Phillips said. He was pulling all the right strings; Michael’s reserved calm was starting to break as his hand literally twitched around his glass.

“I’m not going to discuss this with you.” Michael’s civility barely remained. “Why the Hell are you here?”

“Invite. I’m surprised you had the time to come with your busy schedule.”

“You of all people should know, John, family is important.”

Phillips let the grimace freely crumple his mouth. “I can see that. You obviously have the greatest respect for yours.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge. At least I didn’t run away.”

Phillips could only describe it as a king hit. The kind of sadistic move your adversary leads you into when his only plan is to cause as much damage as possible. “You arrogant—” he stopped and sucked in a quick breath.

“Temper, Mr Phillips. We know all about you, does that shock you? All about your family legacy, or whatever in Hell remains of it. You think you’re being brave, being some kind of hero – but you’re not. You’re messing with things you don’t understand. You’re putting people’s lives in danger.”

“Really?” He stalled, trying to stem the vitriol into a smart comeback, but it was burning through his mind like lava spewing from a volcano. “You know everything, do you? All about the Agency, all about how corrupt it is, ha? How every year it falls further into the shadows, every year it blurs the line? Do you really love the Agency that much?” He was keeping his voice even, trying not to draw any attention. “Because it’s all a lie. And I am not going to stop until I draw you out into the light. My investigation does not end here.” Defiant, he jabbed a finger toward Michael.

“I’m warning you, I’ll do anything to protect her.” Michael stepped forward until his chest came up against Phillips’ finger.

Before he could stop it, the confusion flickered across his face. “Your loyalty to the Agency is sickening.”

“What makes you think I was talking about the Agency?”

Phillips stepped back, reassessing the situation. “She’s interesting you know – great lead. The girl’s just the weak link I’ve been looking for.”

“Get out.”

“I—”

“Get out of my house.”

Pulling himself up to his full height, jutting out his chin like he’d seen the wharfies do before a fight, Phillips took several steps backward. There was no point in making a scene here; the DI would firebomb his office. No, time to retreat, and the best retreat is a defiant one. He’d already got what he was looking for, anyway.

With a little bow, he picked his way back through the crowd and left.

By the time he’d reached his car, the itching sensation of close confrontation had given way to contemplation. Phillips licked his lips and sat heavily in the driver’s seat. Just as he readied to start the car, a man came running down the driveway.

He paused for a moment, unsure of whether it had anything to do with him. But there’s something about running that catches a policeman’s attention, anyway.

The man quickly turned out to be Mr Nazeer, and he came to a skidding halt next to Phillips’ car. He motioned for Phillips to wind down the window.

Phillips obliged.

Mr Nazeer leaned into the car until his words were completely obscured from the world outside. “Please understand, Michael is a good boy.”

Phillips didn’t know what to say. The sheer desperation dancing through Mr Nazeer’s eyes was startling. So he just nodded.

“And, Mr Phillips, this is my card.” Mr Nazeer carefully pulled a card from his breast pocket. “If you wish to see that collection I mentioned, please call. You will find it very interesting, I think.”

“Okay,” his voice stammered; he was shocked. Mr Nazeer seemed so… honest.

“A word of advice, if I may. Things are not entirely as they seem.” With that, he straightened up and walked back up the long driveway toward his house.

For a good long while, Phillips sat there, waiting for the reasons to come, waiting for his policeman’s logic to catch up.

Just as he started up the engine, and the old motor purred into life with the cough and splutter of a hardened smoker, he saw something. Off down the street under a large oak planted on the nature strip, something moved. It was fast, black, and large. But by the time a snap of adrenaline had brought Phillips’ heart to a frantic beat, it had gone.

He couldn’t help feeling, as he pulled away, that that had been just another piece of advice.

Chapter 10

Officer, I can explain

Inspector Phillips cleared his throat. If there was one thing that showed you meant business, it was clearing your throat. It was like the clear tones of a bell signaling the start of trading. After this point, the game of cat and mouse was officially on.

He pulled a small notepad and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket. An old touch perhaps, but it had its uses. The pen and paper of a policeman were like his Hollywood hat and cape; with them, he turned from an everyday plod into a Force of Law. Because once it was written down in his notebook, no matter how flippant a remark his quarry might have made, it was set in stone. That made people nervous, and Phillips loved nervous.

He placed the notepad on his knee and made a show of flipping to a blank page. He looked up to see the pale blue eyes of his suspect curl. The chump looked amused. “So,” Inspector Phillips cleared his throat again, this time letting it draw on in a series of guttural bursts. “Mr…?”

“Knight.” The man leaned further back into the recliner, its leather squeaking against his cold gray suit.

“First name, Mr Knight?”

“I don’t have a first name.” Knight tapped his fingers over the base of his chin. “Just Knight.”

“Just Knight?” Phillips delivered the question with the short, sharp timing of the clearly unimpressed. “Are you a Brazilian Soccer player, Mr Knight?”

Knight chuckled into his hand. “No, Inspector.”

“Then what’s your first name, lad?”

“Very well, Lucifer then.”

Phillips let his eyes roll freely, wanting this upstart to recognize how deliriously unfunny his attempts at subterfuge were. “Parent’s devil worshipers then?”

Knight’s eyelids descended in a slow blink, like a man on the edge of sleep. “The worst kind. Now, Inspector, as important as my name is to the wellbeing of society, I suggest you ask what you really want to know.”

Phillips leaned back in his own chair, making a show of straightening his jacket and ensuring his shoulders sat just comfy between the leather sides of this plush chair. “It’s funny, Knight, says here your name is Dan Carter – why’d you change a perfectly good name like that to Lucifer Knight?”

Knight obviously ran a tongue along his teeth, the little bump traveling along the flesh of his lips. “Well, aren’t we informed? Knight is my preferred name, Mr John Phillips. Now really – get on with it.”

There was no way he was going to let this little slime ball control the conversation. “In good time, son.”

“You would not want me as your child, inspector; I have very demanding tastes.” Knight continued to slump, his act of disinterest seeing his body continue to slip further down the chair, like an adolescent determined to spend every moment as if they were asleep.

“Tastes that include cults, Mr Lucifer Knight?”

“Fascinating.” Knight closed his eyes again. “A good cult is a fascinating thing to behold. What one strong personality can do for a set of lost lambs is almost,” he snapped his eyes open, “godly.”

“So you consider yourself their god then?” Phillips made a note.

Knight, head still resting limply in his hand, let his eyes walk over the inspector’s face. “Aren’t we nothing more than the sum of perspectives that tie us to the material world?”

Phillips clicked the end of his pen twice, and the tip darted in and out. “Don’t believe in a soul then, my boy? Interesting, for a devil worshiper.”

Knight smiled – the kind of smile a Mafioso might give upon learning of the brutal murder of his rival – thin-lipped and cold. “You are a clever man, Inspector.”

“Just happy to get your attention.”

Knight let the smile wither. “Are you here to talk about my organization, or is there something else on your mind?”

“Yes, now that you mention it.” Phillips flipped back several pages in his notebook. “What do you know about the Agency?”

To Knight’s credit, his reaction was not immediate. Rather, he let a low chuckle develop like the puffs of a steam engine beginning to roll. “The Agency, now there’s a topic I’d be glad to shine some light on.”

“Specifically, what do you know of one Mira Day?”

Knight slumped forward, his legs scooting across the carpet, elbows coming to a rest on his knees. He brought one bony finger up to his mouth. “Shhh. Don’t kiss and tell.”

After that, Inspector Phillips was shown the door.

Michael stared at his team through the plate glass. They were the best; that was for sure. He couldn’t ask for better partners. But….

With a sigh, he crossed his arms before him. Could they weather the storm that was brewing? Too much was happening, too much had shifted, too much remained unclear.

Bang. Something slammed into the glass, causing the frame to shiver from the force. A grinning Davisha waved at him, a rock held in his hand. He motioned for Michael to join them, waving one of those thin hands with the kind of arrogant flippancy that only Davisha could show.

Michael nodded. He hadn’t told them about Mira yet, and it made his shoulders itch. There was no reason for it; he didn’t owe her any loyalty. Far from it; her naïve idiocy had almost cost him his life. And keeping such a thing from his team, keeping it from the Agency, was squarely the stupidest thing he’d ever done.

Fobbing off the injury had been easy, though. Oh, they’d teased him, amused that a lowly demon could even scratch their enigmatic leader, but it had ended there. He was unsure whether they suspected anything, but the injury itself had healed quickly.

Michael ran a hand over his shoulder, searching out the scar from yesterday’s tussle. In fact, the injury had healed far too quickly even for him.

He nodded at the technician operating the control panel. “I need a challenge.”

“Challenge?” The man’s boyish face lit up with delight. “Got just the thing. Summoned last week, one Hell of a beast, if you don’t mind the pun.”

With one hand, Michael loosened his tie, pulling the knot down until it lay limp against his chest. “Good.”

He walked through the door and made his way to the armory, hands stowed in his pockets.

He’d arranged to meet her at 12.

Agent Mira.

Michael grabbed a standard Blessed Sword from the rack, throwing it from hand-to-hand with ease.

He’d find out what she’d done. Then he’d tell the Agency.

Agent Michael buzzed himself through the security door. First, he was going to let off a little steam.

Café Domingo, center of town, busy shopping strip, packed with customers. Expensive, but he wasn’t hungry.

Michael twisted the glass in his hand, rolling its base lightly on the table in a little circle. She picked her way toward him, button nose drawn up with creased-brow worry. Beside her walked the child, one hand clutched firmly by Mira. The child’s face was wide with wonder, her head darting around, looking at the cakes on display literally like a kid in a candy store.

Mira seemed to slow down as she neared, probably recognizing the gallows rope in Michael’s eyes. Her shoulders were caved in at the sides, her eyes diligently watching her footfall.

“You’re late.” He didn’t bother to pull out a chair for her.

“Sorry… I, Angel… I… sorry.”

If it were anyone else, Michael would feel sorry for the defeated ring to her voice.

“You have a lot to explain, Agent Mira, not a good start.”

She pulled out a chair for the child who bounced into it, instantly twisting around to keep her eye on the cakes.

Mira sat heavily. She still hadn’t looked at him. “I’m not sure where to start.”

He leaned back, hand still rolling his glass in increasingly larger circles.

“I… don’t really know what happened, everything kind of got out of hand. I know it was stupid.” Her eyes trembled, the pupils shifting back and forth with blinked rapidity. “I know it was stupid, but I didn’t know what else to do! First, it was that stupid demon, I thought I’d sealed it! I honestly did—”

The kid latched a hand onto Mira’s sleeve, tugging her sideways. “Eh, Mira? Can I have a cake?”

“Umm, ha I didn’t bring any money, Angel,” Mira turned to the kid, her attention suddenly flipping, a warm smile spreading her lips. “Sorry.” She patted the kid gently on the head.

“Oh.” Angel’s face pitched into a frown, her head drooping toward the table.

Without taking his eyes off Mira, Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He handed it to Angel. “Tell them to put it on my tab.”

Angel squeaked with joy and hurried off.

Mira slowly shook her head, her lips forming a silent “no.”

“It will give you a chance to talk, Agent.”

“You really don’t want to give Angel carte blanche in a cake store; I really don’t think she’s that kind of kid—”

“You don’t think? You sound like you’ve only just met her. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter – I know what I’m doing. Now enlighten me as to your objectives.”

“Okay.” It was like watching cracks appear in the Hoover Dam. Mira’s stiff lips began to twitch, her eyes growing wider in little bursts. With a sigh, she slumped forward. “I sealed a demon, except I didn’t seal a demon, I just thought I’d sealed a demon. But then it came back, so I tried to seal it again, but this time it almost killed me. That’s when you found me the first time. And I… well, it was dark, and I didn’t think you would have seen me after you saved me,” her voice grew quieter, “so I ran away. I didn’t want to get in trouble. But then it kinda kidnapped me, which is where you came in—”

Michael blinked at the volley, unprepared for her complex babble. Part of him understood, though, and unease spread through his chest. She was Belinda? He involuntarily shrunk back at the memory of that possessed man running up the stairs with her.

“Anyhow well… you know that story…. So a couple of days later I get this invitation to go to this party, and I’m still kind of high from demon blood, so I think, sure, why not? So I finally get there and decide that it was one of the most stupid, naive ideas I’ve ever had and go to leave but then, bam, I’m hit in the head with that plate. Then that demon guy tries to put a spell on me, and it takes me ages to even realize he’s trying to do it. Then I fall down the stairs… and I run away again.” Mira stopped abruptly, her lips snapping closed.

Michael swallowed his surprise, regaining his composure and stony voice. “And?”

“I run into you, you recognize me, you chase me, you save me from a demon again, the thing attacks you, I freak out and go to get help, but Inspector Phillips kind of chases me…. I think you know the rest.” Mira took a gulp of water, her face flushed red. She’d apparently given him an unending blast of everything she’d done wrong in the past several weeks (which was an impressively long list). But what was a lie, he could not tell. She seemed to be holding back on something.

“That’s it?”

She scratched her nose. “I guess.”

“So the party, you were there because you’d received an invitation? From who?” This time he leaned forward, the glass coming to a rest in his hand. “What do you know about Knight?”

She shook, a shiver running so clearly across her chest it was as if 1000 volts had passed through her body. “Nothing… I’d never met him before.”

“So you went,” he felt his face harden with more than anger, “to the stronghold of one of our most powerful enemies, because you’d received some dumb invite in the mail. Wow, I’m speechless.”

His words seemed to cut through the fragile strings that held Mira together. Whereas before she’d shivered, she now shook like a blade of grass in a hurricane.

It had been at the edge of his memory ever since that night, her helpless, blank-eyed face as Knight had held her in his spell. Even through the dark Michael had seen her, tried to search for life in her eyes.

The memory infuriated him, rising through his gut in a tidal wave of anger. Now it was all he could see. “You shouldn’t have been there.” His words were hurled like stones, aimed with bared-teeth vehemence. “And if you were still suffering from the effects of demon blood, well then, you should have bloody waited for me on that roof.”

Mira flinched.

Another memory beset him: he saw her face as the demon in the car park had pulled her away, her eyes wide with shock, her skin pale with fear. He even caught a glimpse of his arm in his mind’s eye as it failed to pull her back. “You’ve gone and jeopardized everything.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t—”

A cupcake with fluffy pink icing appeared before his face. Michael reeled back, the shock dousing his anger. Angel stood next to him, a cupcake raised in each hand, one right under his face, the other thrust at Mira. Angel looked solemn, like a monk giving an offering.

“I…” it was his turn to stumble over his words, all thought of what he’d been saying lost in the vibrant shade of pink before his nose.

“It’s sweet.” Angel thrust the cupcake closer to his face.

Mira deflated and accepted the cupcake like the first rays of sunshine after the storm.

He took the cupcake too and, for reasons lost on him, took a bite. The sickly sweet flavor bounced through his mouth, and his jaw threatened to lock from the onslaught.

Angel looked up at him, her smile beaming like a thousand heat lamps. He smiled through the pain. “Thanks.”

Mira coughed and patted a hand flat against the table. “So sweet!”

Angel clapped her hands together and giggled. “I picked the icing myself!”

Michael bit down the urge to laugh, but couldn’t fight the grin that creased his mouth. Laughter had been the last thing on his mind moments before, how had a diabolical cupcake changed that so radically?

Angel turned her smile on him, and he felt his own grow with her infectious warmth. “Yay! No more fighting, more cupcakes!” She turned and rushed off back to the counter.

They were alone again, but the mood had changed. Knight was gone from his mind, and a new question had formed. “Who is Angel? I read your file; you don’t have any next of kin. But she looks,” he peeled the paper from the sides of the cupcake, “she’s a strange kid.”

He expected her to freeze, to admit to some new depth of incompetence, or at least laugh it off in another lie. But Mira turned her head to the side, hand idly picking at the blue icing off her cake. “She’s really good at sweeping, I mean freakishly good at wielding a broom.”

He looked at her, clearly unimpressed.

“I don’t know, a friend I think….”

It was a strange, cryptic response that was touched with melancholy. He leaned back and stared at her, not with the hazed vision through which he’d previously beheld her, but with something verging on sympathy. He’d done enough today.

“Are you going to take me in now?” Her trembling shock was gone, replaced with stoic surrender.

“No.” He brushed the crumbs off his fingers. “I’m going to watch you like a hawk.” He stood up. I’m not going to take my eyes off you for a second, he thought, pushing the chair in with a shift of his foot. Because if I do, you’ll be gone again.

She rose, her hands grasped at her sides. “What? Really? But… what about the demon, aren’t you going to tell the Agency?”

“I dispatched it – end of story.” It was a lie, the Agency would froth at the mouth if they’d found out a rookie had been fighting a level 7.

“But—”

“Goodbye, Agent.” He walked away.

Cakes were everywhere. On every bench, spilling over the table, even on the couch – a veritable mountain of baked goods. There was everything from truffle cakes, house cakes, and cheesecakes to shortcakes, mud cakes, and lemon meringues.

Mira tried a couple of deep breaths, but it didn’t help. Angel stood there in the middle of the room, several more cakes in hand, the happiest she’d ever been.

“Where,” Mira clutched at the wall, the only place not tinged by the swirl of hyper colors around her, “did they all come from?”

“Michael!”

“What?”

“Michael!” Angel clutched her hands together, as if in prayer, and danced on the spot.

“Why on earth would Michael buy us a room full of cake?”

“I had them delivered from the shop.”

The world grew cold. “You, you… you charged them to his card? Oh, my word.” She sunk to the floor. “This must be $1000 worth. He’s going to kill me.”

He knocked twice.

What had possessed him to look up her address on the files, he didn’t know. But now, standing outside her white door, a strange impatience made his feet fidget. He’d mulled over her babble on his way back to HQ, dissecting what he could remember. But her words had been so rushed and jumbled. But they somehow… she somehow seemed important.

He knocked again.

Something squeaked from inside, a sound like a scared rabbit hiding from the farmer’s cat. “Umm, who is it?” a little voice, unmistakably Angel’s, reached through the gap under the door.

“Michael.”

“Michael!” The door burst open. Angel stood there with a grin so wide her eyes were almost closed.

He laughed, trying to hide behind his hand, embarrassed at her enthusiastic reaction.

“Michael.” She darted out into the hall, grabbing his hand and pulling him inside. “Michael!” She bobbed her head. “You came!”

“Umm,” he chuckled again, loosening his tie with his spare hand, “I—”

“Thank you!”

“Ah umm… okay.”

“Thank you for the cake!” She waved a hand at the room, like a TV host revealing a fantastic prize.

His smile dropped like an anvil off the top of the Eiffel Tower. There were cakes everywhere. He recognized those cakes, they had the kind of fancy decorations that only one store bothered with – Café Domingo.

This had better be a joke.

“Oh no,” Angel dropped like a cut flower in the sun, “Mira said you’d be mad. I’m sorry.” She let his hand slip. “Please don’t kill her, it was my fault.”

He blinked. “Kill her?”

Angel shook her head, eyes wide. “Don’t!”

He swallowed and tried to look solemn. “I won’t kill Mira.”

Angel clapped her hands together. From the other room, there was a snuffle as someone shifted in their sleep. “Ehh,” Angel pressed a finger to her lips, “Mira’s asleep, shhhhh.”

Michael leaned forward and peered through the door to what looked like the lounge room. Mira lay sprawled on the couch, her limbs a strange tangled mess, one arm pinning a cushion to her face. He shook his head – that had to be the oddest sleeping position he’d ever seen.

Angel tiptoed toward the kitchen and, lost for words, he silently closed the door and followed.

Mira woke with a start. She tried to roll over, but her feet ran up against something hard at the bottom of the coach. She tried to shove it. It shoved back. “Do you mind, I’m trying to eat here.”

Mira fell off the couch.

Michael was sitting at the end of the couch, a plate on his lap with at least four different kinds of cake jammed on it. He flashed her an unapologetic look and took another bite.

She squealed, flapping her hands at her face, trying to cool it down. “What are you doing here?” her voice hit such a high note, he flinched.

“I’m eating my cake.” He carefully cut off a slice of meringue with his fork. “Which I bought, apparently.”

All thoughts of sleep had been driven from Mira’s mind, her body so pumped with sudden shock that her eardrums rattled. “I can explain.”

“Too late.” Another bite. “Angel already did,” he pointed at Mira with his fork, “and I agreed not to kill you.”

She couldn’t seem to blink; her eyes were wired open as if her hands held them there.

“What are you looking at?” Michael gave the kind of cheeky half-grin that, under any other circumstances, would have made Mira melt.

“Wh – wh – why are you sitting on my couch?”

“Your kitchen chairs are covered in my cake.” He shifted, taking up more room. “Only free seat in the house.”

Mira leaned forward, her arms growing stiff from holding her body in still frame, and tucked her feet under until she sat cross-legged. “Okay… this is punishment, isn’t it?”

He frowned through a bite. “Punishment? Sitting on your couch eating my cake – you think that’s the worst I could do?”

She sucked in her lips, biting them hard with her teeth.

“No this is my promise to watch you like a hawk. I’m coming hunting with you, rookie – not going to let you out of my sight.”

Mira tried to fight back the blush as it crawled up her neck. No, no, no! He had to be joking!

“See, if you are actually as unlucky as you make out. And,” he leaned forward, resting his head in the hand that held his fork, “if we run into the General himself – you’re off the hook.”

“Ha?”

“I have to explain, are you serious? If we run into something that’s… a little too difficult for you—” he smiled at her frown, “then you are off the hook. It’s the Agency’s fault; they shouldn’t send you after something you can’t manage. The rest of it…” he paused. For a second his brown eyes narrowed, his face grew stern. “Has nothing to do with you. Wrong place, wrong time.”

She couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

“Don’t get me wrong.” He placed the half-finished plate beside him and rose. “It was the stupidest thing you could have done going to Knight’s party, but the harm to the Agency will be minimal.” He stood over her. “You’ll never make it past rookie, but you won’t lose your job just yet.” He reached out a hand.

She stared at it.

“I’m not going to bite.”

Wincing, she took his hand.

Chapter 11

Broken Statues

He walked beside her, hands in his pockets, staring off into the middle distance.

It was hard to think. This was the closest she’d been to Michael without her being out of it, or him shouting at her like a drill sergeant. The flush would not shift, but at least the growing dusk hid it from all but the closest squint.

They didn’t speak.

He smelt like a mix of that trademark French cologne and a bustling bakery. She tried her hardest not to stumble or fall or even speak; she couldn’t trust herself right now. Everything would come out babbled and rushed.

So they walked in silence. Whatever was on his mind, she didn’t know. He hardly even glanced her way.

“Is this a record for you not speaking? Or should I wait a couple more minutes?”

She choked, turning it into a rushed laugh. “No….”

“Not feeling very chatty, are you?” He yawned. “I’d forgotten how boring rookie duty was.”

She swallowed, pressing her lips tightly together.

They walked on until their footfall softened from cobble onto grass.

“Graveyard?” Michael yawned again, stretching his arms up and around the back of his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

She couldn’t stop it any longer. “Look, I’m sorry I’m not a lieutenant or a captain, or whatever – but this work has to be done, too.” Hands clutched tightly at her sides, she marched off into the dark graveyard.

“She speaks.” Michael trotted off after her.

There was no reason for him to be in such a cheeky mood. Earlier today he’d been ready to throw the book at her, now he was poking and prodding her like a kid in kindergarten. How had it changed so fast?

He couldn’t see that face anymore… the dead-eyed gaze after she’d succumbed to Knight’s spell.

Michael pressed two fingers into the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. He ran the fingers down his jaw until they rested on his chin, tapping a slow beat. This promised to be a slow night, though; he couldn’t feel a thing from this graveyard.

A crow settled on the old dead tree poking out over the rundown parish wall. In a moment another landed beside it. They angled their heads toward him. He frowned slightly. Late for crows.

“Mira, wait up.” He jogged after her.

She didn’t slow down, just picked her way through the gravestones, apparently heading for the crypt near the center. It was a great dark shadow in the rapidly dissipating light. Odd that a small graveyard would have a crypt.

Just before the crypt stood the statue of an angel. The tips of both wings had long since crumbled. Mira reached it and threw herself onto the pedestal with a sigh.

“There’s not far to go, Michael; it’s a small graveyard.” Her feet dangled over the edge of the pedestal, her legs not long enough to reach the ground.

Yes, it was a small graveyard. Michael almost skidded to a stop next to her. But it sure had a lot of statues. He saw them now, lined up around the walls, one on each corner and one in each cardinal direction, the largest in front of the crypt.

The wind whistled.

The angels didn’t have their hands open as you would expect; each had their arms crossed over their chests, heads dropped in shadow.

He grabbed her wrist, pulling her close. He felt her body stiffen, her chest expand against his own with a sudden gasp.

“Michael?” Her warm breath buffeted against his throat, playing up his neck.

Slowly, he backed her away from the statue.

The wind whistled louder, chopping around the graveyard in a loop.

Nine Turned, what in hell were they doing here?

His arms were like a brace, fixing her to his chest with impossible strength. She couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to.

He stepped back again. She could feel his heart beating through his chest. What was going on?

The wind picked up and seemed to whistle as if it were shunted through a shaft.

“Wha-what’s going on?”

He didn’t answer, just reached a hand behind him and pulled something from the holster at his side.

Nine sets of wings cracked open and nice angels flew into the air.

Swoosh. The Holy Sword blazed to life.

Only then did the evil reach her. Far colder than anything she’d ever experienced, like the numbing vacuum of space.

An eerie sound cut the air: the sound of a high-pitched choir singing a mournful tune. The skin along the back of her neck erupted in goose bumps.

“Get behind me.” He released her, his voice so clear and forceful.

She ducked under his arm. The creatures were circling them, pinning them into a tight wheel with no escape. They were angels, except they weren’t. Their wings were black, their heads lolled to the side like broken dolls. Slowly, their crossed arms were unfurling, revealing palms with all the fingers snapped off.

The fear shook through her body, her hands shaking with the rapid beat of her racing heart.

Michael backed around her. He held the Holy Sword aloft in one hand, the other arm spread wide. He circled her, trying to protect her from all the angels at once.

There was nothing she could do. These creatures, whatever they were, were far beyond her.

Floating off the ground, the angels closed in.

She’d never seen an enemy like this. But from Michael’s reaction, it was clear he had. It was also clear he could fight them while she didn’t have a chance.

Just as she resigned herself to staying behind his rigid, protected stance as he did all the fighting, her hand closed around her Holy Seal. The least she could do was offer a distraction, right?

Her other hand closed around two Star of Davids.

Nine Turned – this shouldn’t be happening. These were the kind of fell beasts that were lost in the Sealed Grimoires. He’d only ever fought one, and that had been in the crypt of a demon king. Now there were nine, nine in a small graveyard in a small town. None of this made sense.

He licked his lips, their dark forms pressing around him until their widening arms almost touched. He had to time this just right.

Mira burst into a run. He couldn’t stop her. “Mira!”

She rolled forward, flicking two Star of David’s at the closest angel. Perfect aim: they cut across its bare arms, cracking through the stone. The angel pitched to one side, its arms crashing to the ground. She ran at it, seeing a chance that wasn’t there.

“Mira!”

She knelt, a Holy Seal clasped between her hands. Before she could finish the prayer, the angel’s arms regrew. With a hiss like water turning into steam, its arms appeared from thin air. One shot out, fingers bursting from its palms and wrapping around Mira’s neck.

She spluttered, hands grasping at the angel’s fingers.

“Mira!” He ran at her. The sword held high, ready to break the hold. He didn’t reach her, another angel darted before him and brought its stone arms round in a wild swipe. He ducked.

The angel that held Mira brought its free hand up grabbing her arm, loosening the choke on her neck.

Michael surged forward, slashing at the angel that had attacked him. The sword shot through its arm and wing, and they crumbled to dust. With a swoosh, they regrew, but cracks had begun to appear.

He pushed past it, but two more angels swooped into his path. He screamed as if his anger and frustration would be enough to crush them on the spot.

Bang, bang, bang. Several shots slammed into the angel nearest to him, tearing into the stone at the base of its neck. Flecks of shrapnel burst out, hissing into a wisp of dust.

“Well, howdy doody, ain’t this a sight.” A tall, thin shadow leaned against the outer wall, one leg braced on the crumbling stone. Davisha. He held a shotgun and pulled off rounds, aiming at the angels’ wings and heads. “How come we weren’t invited to the party, boss?”

Two other shadows appeared next to him, a female and a huge man: Petra and Findor. Petra held her circular blade, Findor nothing but his brawn.

Michael snapped his head back to the fray, Davisha’s bullets continuing to slam into the angels. Through the whiz of bullets and hiss of cracked stone, he tried to look for Mira. The angel had moved. It floated through the melee, hands still grasping Mira by the throat and shoulder, headed for the crypt.

He ducked and rolled, two angels swooping at him. Petra’s circular blade sliced through their arms, and they crumbled to dust yet again. Throughout the group of angels, larger cracks were beginning to appear over their stone bodies. Every time they were hit, and a limb or wing regrew, fissures formed deeper and deeper in their forms.

“Keep going, boss, they’re running out of regenerations.” Findor slammed into an angel, bringing his elbow sharp into its torso.

The angel had Mira at the threshold of the crypt. It curled its wings, stone feet landing on the ground, ready to walk her through the door.

He couldn’t get to her in time. “Davisha! The crypt!”

It was too late; the angel took Mira into the crypt.

Want to keep reading? You can buy the conclusion of this series, Agent of Light Episode Two, from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

  


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