He walked toward the back doors of the Fine Arts Building—recessed with a large overhang. A perfect spot—his second home. He unzipped his winter coat. Finally, a mild night after a long, cold winter. No more Rescue Mission. No more effing rules.
Relief washed over him. No idiot tried to claim his quarters in his absence. He pulled the heavy comforter from his two-wheeled cart, tossed it on the cement, and sank onto it. Then he reached inside his coat, took out the solid, glass bottle, wrapped in a brown, paper bag, and unscrewed the lid.
Liquid heat. The fluid burned his throat and warmed his belly. The second gulp set his veins on fire. And the third brought the blessed numbness that stilled his mind.
He squinted at a fog gathering at the far side of the park—probably rolling off the bay. It had an odd shape, almost human—a strange patch of glittering shadows. Did shadows glitter? He shook his head. What did he care? He propped his arm on a knee and took a good, long slug.
His muscles relaxed. A few late visitors wandered the pathways that wound through the park. No worry. They'd avoid him. The fountains were quiet, shut off until warmer weather returned. In nearby flower beds, daffodils pushed their heads through the cold ground. His mother's beds had daffodils and tulips.
A pang of bitterness stabbed him. He tilted the bottle again. His mom sided with his wife in the divorce, his own mother. She’d told the judge his children would be better off without him.
He brushed at his eyes. How old were Sara and Justin now? What did it matter? They deserted him too.
Another drink. A few after that.
His arm grew heavy. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the walkways were empty, and the glinting shadow rolled toward him. Sparks of dust glimmered in its dark folds. Not fog. What was it? Was he seeing things? Maybe he’d had one drink too many. Or maybe not enough. He swallowed a long draught.
When the fog grew closer, it stopped, hovering near. Four legs formed. Yellow eyes gleamed. They stared at him, unblinking. Thin lips curved into a cruel smile.
He shivered. He dug his heels onto the cement, trying to push himself into the corner.
Shiny flecks sparkled. His past reflected off them. Short scenes flashed before him...
He was in fourth grade, holding up a ribbon for winning the class spelling bee. His mother cooked his favorite meal and bought a cake to celebrate.
High school. His dad cheering from the bleachers. A winning pass and the state championship. A scholarship for college.
Two years of partying, too much to drink. Flunking out. Returning home. His dad’s friend offered him a job in real estate. Big sales. Good money. Marriage. Kids. Late hours and more drinking. Carousing.
He shut his eyes. He didn’t want to see anymore.
He took a deep breath to steady himself and felt the darkness slip into his nostrils, slide down his throat, and enter his lungs. He clutched his neck. No air. No oxygen. Only foul tasting shadows. He coughed, trying to hack them out.
They slithered into his stomach, wormed through his intestines, and into his bowels. He pressed his hands down, trying to push them out, but they wouldn’t leave. His chest hurt. His stomach cramped. Then the burning started. Acid. Fire. He clawed at his skin, but the pain wouldn’t stop. It spread, eating him from the inside out, until he threw back his head to howl. No sound came. This burn wasn’t alcohol. It felt more like death.
The mattress sagged on Damian’s side of the bed. Reece smiled. It must be daybreak. Her gargoyle was returning home. She waited for him to settle before scooting closer to spoon her body against his. Mmm, he felt good. She was drifting back to sleep when his cell phone rang.
He turned away from her to take the call. Reece gazed at his leathery wings, tucked close to his body. Oh, how she loved those wings. Unfurled, he could drape them around her, blocking out the world and pinning her to him. Petersen’s voice caught her attention, pulling her back to the conversation on the cell. The detective sounded more harried than usual.
“I’m on my way.” Damian pushed himself to his feet to pull on his jeans.
Reece sighed. Urgent calls were one of the down sides of partnering with a guardian of mankind. “More rogues?”
“No, this is…” He searched for a word. “…different.”
“What do you mean?” Fighting rogues was bad enough. What was he up against this time?
“I’ve never heard of anything like Petersen described. I’m calling Benito and Antony to join me.”
Reece threw off her blankets. If Damian was summoning back-up, this must be serious.
His eyebrow arched in warning. “Where do you think you’re going?” He looked beautiful, standing there with the dim morning light warming his gold-tinged, alabaster skin. His dark hair was tousled, making him look young, but his gray eyes were narrowed in worry. His eyes gave him away. They looked as though they’d seen too much over too many centuries.
“I’m coming with you.” Reece snapped her hair into its usual ponytail before reaching for her jeans and a sweatshirt.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t know what we’re fighting, so I don’t know how to defeat it.”
“All the better reason to take a witch.”
“You’re staying here.”
She shrugged. “I can wait until you leave and call a cab. Or I can go with you. Whichever.”
His lips tightened. She’d do it—show up ten minutes after he got there—and he knew it. “You won’t like this one. It’s ugly.”
She pushed past him to grab her leather jacket. A glance out the loft’s three walls of windows at the cold, morning light and she pulled on her gloves. Then she headed for the elevator. “You riding with me or are you going to fly there?”
He tugged an oversized T-shirt over his head. It was a crappy disguise, but it worked at a distance. She’d paid to have the windows of her SUV tinted, so that people couldn’t see him when he rode along with her, but traipsing through a city park in the early hours might bring stares. Heck, his size alone usually earned him second glances. But if Petersen had called him, the detective would make sure people were kept far enough away that Damian could move around safely.
When they reached the parking garage, she checked to make sure no one was there and gave him a nod. Damian climbed onto the passenger seat beside her. “Where to?” she asked.
“Bay City Square, the fine arts building in the park.”
She knew the park well. Her martial arts students gave demonstrations there each year as one of the events for the Waterfront Festival. She loved the winding paths that led between its flower beds, water fountains, and bike trails. During the summer, office workers sat on park benches to eat their lunches, and vendors set up food stands to lure them in.
Reece took Madison Street to Broadway and headed downtown, glancing at her studio as she passed it. Traffic was light, and it wasn’t long before she reached the park. A cop motioned them into a small lot at its far edge. The whole area was patrolled by officers and cordoned off.
“Pete’s waiting for you at the back door of the fine arts building.” Reece recognized the man who greeted them. He’d come with Pete the night she was attacked by her first rogue.
Damian tipped his head. “Reece, this is Detective Hudson, Pete’s partner. Hud, this is Reece Rutherford.”
“The witch. We’ve met.”
Reece looked him up and down. He was taller than Petersen with soft-brown hair and a trimmed goatee. Back then, he’d looked as sorry for her as Pete had.
Hud gave a quick nod. “Glad things worked out for you.”
She wasn’t sure that’s how she’d describe the twists and turns her life had taken since that night, but the werewolf’s touch had awakened her magic and led her to Damian. Both good things.
“Let’s find Pete.” Damian started through the park to the fine arts building. When they reached Pete, he motioned to the recessed area at the back door.
“It’s not a pretty sight. Get ready.”
His words didn’t prepare Reece for what she saw. A skeleton, glistening with scraps of flesh, lay propped against the metal framework. Her stomach flipped, and she clamped a hand over her mouth. She would not be sick.
“Well?” Pete asked. “What do you make of that?”
Damian shook his head.
“Looks like a rib bone that’s been picked almost clean.” Pete motioned to the cement sidewalk. “No blood, no fluids. Odd, don’t you think?”
Reece grimaced. She might never be able to eat barbecue ribs again—one of her favorite meals. The man’s arms were contorted in agony, his jaws wide in a silent scream. “A rogue wouldn’t do that, would it?”
Damian looked up as a sleek Porsche pulled into the curved drive at the front of the building. Andre—tall, dark, and as gorgeous as usual—walked toward them, along with Hecate and Wedge Durrow. Both male Weres were stunningly attractive, but neither could compare to her gargoyle. Damian was a living, breathing work of art. Literally. When his sculptor chiseled him, he made him and his friends perfect examples of manly beauty, unlike many of the grotesque gargoyles that sat on rooftops at the time.
Wedge bristled with energy. Even in his human form, the alpha of Bay City’s werewolf pack exuded power. He narrowed his eyes at the grisly remains. “Not a Were. No gnaw marks. What do you make of it?”
Before Damian could answer, Andre interrupted. “Could a lone rogue do something like this? It would leave scraps, wouldn’t it?”
Wedge raised a brow, considering. “You’ve hunted with us at full moons. The carcass would be picked clean.”
“By a pack, yes, but if only one took this kill?”
“There’d be teeth marks, where the fangs nicked the bones, and there wouldn’t be pain. Fear maybe, but Weres rip out the throat before they feed.” Wedge gave a decisive shake of his head. “Nope, not a Were. Something else, but I don’t know what.”
A plain, white van pulled into the drive and jumped the curb to cross the park’s perfectly manicured grass. It pulled sideways to the building, forming a shield from gawkers’ eyes. The side door slid open and Benito and Antony, called by Damian's telepathy, tucked their wings to exit.
“I sent the van for them,” Pete said. “They can’t fly in daylight.”
Too true. People might not notice them in the dusk, but they’d be impossible to miss in sunlight. Reece gave them a quick nod hello before they turned to study the body—if you could call it a body.
Antony rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “In all my centuries, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Benito frowned. “Vampire kills leave corpses. Drained, but whole.”
“Vampires?” Reece’s voice rose slightly.
“No worry, witch.” Wedge’s lips twisted into a patronizing smile. Damned werewolf. He loved to give her grief. “Vamps aren’t partial to Bay City. They hate gargoyles—no blood to drain—and they dislike Weres even more. Our kind and theirs don't mix.”
She huffed. “I guess you serve some purpose then.”
Grinning, Wedge turned to Hecate. “What do you make of this? Your little witch isn’t old enough to know much, but you’ve been around as long as any of us.”
Reece looked at her mentor curiously. She had been unusually silent.
Hecate rubbed her arms. “Luna and I barely survived a fire demon once. It blew flames at mortals and burned the flesh off them, then inhaled their life’s energy as they died.”
At the mention of her great-grandmother’s name, Reece’s hand strayed to the necklace that circled her neck. Its moonstone pendant dangled over the blood-red, hexagram tattoo that had appeared near her heart when the first rogue touched her. Luna had felt Reece’s magic awaken and had sent her the necklace to enhance her powers. Benito’s marble features turned paler than usual. “A demon?”
Hecate nodded. “Have you encountered one?”
“Mine was of a different sort. A shape shifter. Not like this.”
“How did it kill?” Antony asked.
“Sharp fangs and claws. It shredded its victims and inhaled their energy as they bled to death.”
A shiver ran down Reece’s spine. Her stomach clenched. Her nerves jangled. “But none of the victims looked like this one?”
Hecate shook her head. “No, but very similar.”
Damian grew thoughtful. He turned to Petersen. “Who found the body? Did they see anything?”
“Kids were riding their skateboards through the park. Against the rules. Found the body. They won’t do that again. They said they saw fog rolling across the grass.”
“Fog? It was a clear night.”
“Exactly.” Pete looked at his feet, uncomfortable. “If a demon did this, how do we stop it?”
“We don’t.” Damian’s voice grated like flint. “Mortals won’t stand a chance. If you or your men see it, run. Call us, and we’ll do what we can.”
Pete’s face pinched. He looked at Hecate. “Will there be more victims?”
Benito nodded sad agreement. “In their natural home, demons don’t need to feed. But in our world, they need energy or they weaken.”
Pete tried for a bright side. “Maybe this demon was just passing through, on its way to somewhere else.”
“Demons don’t pop in for visits.” Hecate scanned the area, looking up and down streets, straining to see in alleys. “They’re summoned, and they’re brought for a reason.”
“Should we warn people?” Pete shook his head. Too much to comprehend. Reece felt the same way.
“How?” Hecate spread her hands. “A demon isn’t a vampire. It struck at night because dark things like dark hours, but if it’s hungry, it won’t be stopped by sunlight.”
“Hungry?” Reece looked at the man’s remains in the doorway—nothing but bones. “How much do they eat?”
“As much as possible.”
Damian’s shoulders slumped.
Petersen cleared his throat. “The body baggers are waiting. People will be getting up. They’ll be swarming the sidewalks soon.”
Benito gave a curt nod. “We should return to our nest. We’ll start doing research. We’ll try to find something that will help.”
But Hecate’s expression didn’t invite hope. If Reece read her friend correctly, no one had much luck against a demon.