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Jenna Black

The Devil's Playground

Chapter One

No one would have called my life normal even before I became the human host of Lugh, the demon king, who was embroiled in a mostly covert war for the throne. So the fact that I was beginning to think of my life as “normal” now could have been a cause for alarm. But hey, it had been more than two months since anyone had tried to kill me, torture me, or frame me for murder. These days, that was about as normal as it got.

The truth is, my life had settled into something that resembled a routine, and I was beginning to get pretty comfortable with it. Since I was no longer under suspension by the U.S. Exorcism Board, I spent time at my office almost every day. I performed an exorcism maybe once or twice a month, and there was enough paperwork and general office management to keep me busy for a couple hours a day. Not exactly a nine to five, but routine enough to lull me into something like complacency. Before I’d become Lugh’s host, I’d routinely done one or two exorcisms a week, but that required me to travel all around the country, something I couldn’t afford to do anymore. Lugh and all the members of his royal council on the Mortal Plain agreed--possibly a first--that it would be “unwise” for me to venture too far from home when a crisis could pop up at the drop of a hat.

After the disastrous exorcism of Jordan Maguire Jr., which had almost cost me my career and my freedom, I’d been on a lucky streak, with more hosts than usual coming out of the exorcisms with their minds intact. My lucky streak had just ended, however. I’d had an early-morning exorcism, a teenaged boy with a face only a mother could love. When I’d cast out the demon who’d possessed him, he’d been catatonic. There was no way of knowing if he would ever snap out of it. I could still hear the mother’s heartbroken sobs when the authorities gave her the news.

Naturally, I was a bit depressed afterward. I went to my office and tried to bury myself in paperwork, but I wasn’t exactly being productive. So when someone knocked on my office door, I was glad for the interruption. Until said interruption opened the door at my invitation.

I hadn’t seen Shae, owner of The Seven Deadlies, a demon sex club that made my stomach curdle just thinking about it, in over two months, and I’d liked that just fine. I’d have been happy never to see her again in my entire life. She was a mercenary and a predator. She was also an illegal demon--one who’d taken an unwilling human host--and a snitch for Special Forces, the Philly police department’s demon-crime unit. I’d have loved nothing more than to exorcize her ass, but her status as police snitch protected her.

I’m not what you’d call a conservative dresser--I love low-rise jeans and low-cut tops--but I could never compete with Shae in sheer flamboyance. If her tight white pants dipped any lower, she’d need a bikini wax to wear them, and her sheer red lace top made no attempt to hide the black bra she wore beneath. On most people, that outfit would have looked silly at best, slutty at worst. On Shae, it reminded me of the plumage on a tropical bird, showy and exotic.

My first impulse was to tell her to get the hell out of my office, but I was getting better at this whole impulse-control thing. There was no way Shae was here on a social call, and I probably needed to hear what she had to say, whether I wanted to or not. I flashed her my best imitation of a welcoming smile.

“Well, this ought to be interesting,” I said. “Have a seat.” I gestured toward one of the chairs in front of my desk, then frowned theatrically. “If you’re capable of sitting down in those pants, that is. I wouldn’t want you mooning passersby.” Never mind that Shae and I were alone in my office with the door closed.

Shae’s smile always reminded me of a shark. Or the Big Bad Wolf. I don’t think her teeth are really any sharper than a normal person’s, but they always looked it. Plus, they were movie-star white against her Heart-of-Africa skin. She made a big production out of sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair, craning her neck for any signs of visible butt-cheek.

I rolled my eyes and refrained from comment. “So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?” I asked.

Shae’s smile turned sly and calculating. “I have some information you might be interested in hearing.”

“Okay, lay it on me,” I said. But I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Shae did nothing out of the goodness of her heart. If she was offering information, then it would be for a price.

“What’s it worth to you?” she asked, right on cue.

I laughed. “How should I know? You haven’t told me what ‘it’ is yet.”

She pursed her lips, and a hint of annoyance flared in her eyes. “I’m doing you a favor by coming to you. I can just as easily walk right back out that door.”

If she thought I’d find that option unappealing, she was very much mistaken. “You don’t get to call it a favor when you’re offering it for a price.”

“Fine.” She stood up and made to leave. I let her get as far as the door before I caved.

“All right, I’ll quit being a smart-ass,” I said. “Come and sit down.”

She didn’t leave, but she didn’t come sit down, either. Instead, she just stared at me, her head cocked to one side. It was hard not to squirm under that intense regard. I’m not at my best when I’m uncomfortable. So I did what I usually do when uncomfortable--I lashed out.

“I wonder what Raphael would do if I told him you were trying to sell me information,” I mused, and was gratified to see a momentary break in Shae’s composure.

Raphael, Lugh’s youngest brother and member of the royal council, had a reputation for cruelty that was, as far as I could tell, unparalleled. The fact that I knew he deserved it didn’t make our alliance an easy one. But he was one hell of a bogeyman to threaten Shae with. She was the only person outside the royal council who knew who was hosting Raphael on the Mortal Plain, and she was scared enough of him to keep the secret.

Unfortunately, Shae regained her legendary composure almost before I had a chance to see the flash of terror in her eyes. Her spine straightened, and she bared her teeth in something that bore little resemblance to a smile.

“I know more about the demons of this city--both the legal and illegal--than anyone. I can be a valuable asset. But if you sic Raphael on me, I swear to you I will never volunteer another scrap of information again, no matter how important it might be.”

I pondered that for a moment, but she continued before I came to any conclusions.

“Raphael can’t intimidate information out of me if he doesn’t know I have it. I’m much more useful to you in the long run as a willing business partner.”

Her logic was impeccable, though I didn’t like it. Sure, Raphael could probably “coax” her into spitting out whatever it was she had now. But I knew her threat wasn’t an empty one. I might not much want her as a friend, but I wanted her as an enemy even less.

“Okay, fine. I’ll leave Raphael out of this. But until you give me some hint what it is you have, I can’t even begin to figure out what it’s worth to me.”

The last time I’d had to negotiate with Shae, we’d determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that I didn’t have the kind of money I’d need to pay for her . . . services. Hell, I barely had any money at all! My insurance company had finally come through with the money they owed me after my house burned down, but since I wasn’t exactly raking in the bucks with my one to two exorcisms a month, I knew I’d have to make that money last. Though I yearned for my quaint little cottage in the suburbs, I couldn’t afford to rebuild it and was still living in a cookie-cutter apartment in Center City.

“What if I told you my information pertained to Dougal’s ambition to take the demon throne?”

I really hated the fact that Shae knew I had any involvement in Lugh’s struggle with Dougal, but since information was her currency of choice when cash wasn’t available, and since I’d been forced to negotiate with her before, she knew far more than I was comfortable with. I suspect that the moment those words left her lips, my face froze in some kind of ridiculously transparent expression of interest mingled with alarm. I’m finally starting to accept the reality that I will never have what you’d call a poker face.

“Okay, you’ve got my full attention,” I told Shae, since she could see that already.

“Glad to hear it. Now let’s talk payment.”

I’m a sucky negotiator, and I wasn’t in the mood to spar with Shae. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want?”

Shae blinked, like the idea that I might not want to spend half an hour playing cat and mouse came as a complete surprise to her. Maybe those tight pants were giving her the wedgie from hell, or maybe my bluntness genuinely made her uncomfortable, but I swear Shae actually squirmed.

She rallied her mental troops and tossed out what she had to know would be an impossibly outrageous demand. “I want to know exactly what your involvement is with Lugh and his . . . family troubles.”

I snorted. “Not going to happen. Nice doing business with you. Bye-bye.” I crossed my arms over my chest and waited for her next offer.

Shae clucked her tongue. “Perhaps you don’t understand how this game is played. I make an offer, then you make a counteroffer, and we go back and forth until we find a mutually agreeable middle ground.”

“Do I look like someone who plays by the rules?” I asked with an arched eyebrow. Sitting there in my office wearing jeans and a crop-top with a total of seven earrings in my ears and a tattoo on my lower back that would be on prominent display if I stood up, I looked about as far removed from your typical, businesslike exorcist as it was possible to look. Not that there’s any kind of official dress code for exorcists; it’s just that most of them tend to dress somberly, in respect for the gravity of their jobs. Don’t get me wrong: I take my job as seriously as anyone. I just don’t feel that I have to dress like a business-school clone to show it.

Apparently refusal to negotiate was a pretty good negotiation tactic, at least for me. Shae was tapping one bloodred fingernail against the arm of her chair, the gesture no doubt an unconscious one, as she regarded me through narrowed eyes.

“You hang out with Adam, one of Lugh’s chief lieutenants, and with Raphael, one of his brothers. And yet you’re a human exorcist.” I think despite her usual mercenary sang froid, Shae was actually dying of curiosity, above and beyond whatever advantage she could take out of figuring out my relationship with Lugh. “Your involvement makes no sense. Explain to me exactly what your role is, and I’ll tell you what I know.”

Since my role was as host to the demon king, and since Dougal would burn me at the stake--thus killing his brother so the throne could pass to him--if he found out, this wasn’t information I could divulge. I shook my head.

“I could have sworn I’d already said no to that,” I said with a false smile. “I hear the third time’s the charm.”

Shae stopped tapping her nail, and I think that signaled an end to her uncertainty. “I have information that is important to anyone who supports Lugh and some of his more radical plans for change. I don’t plan to share that information with you unless you tell me what your involvement is with Lugh. That’s my price. Take it or leave it.”

So much for the give and take of negotiations. I gritted my teeth as I leaned back in my chair and wondered what to do. On the one hand, the bait Shae was dangling in front of my nose was pretty tempting. On the other hand, the price she was demanding was pretty steep. Too steep. Shae already knew that Tommy Brewster was Raphael’s host, which, considering Raphael had betrayed Dougal and was on his hit list, was a terrible risk. Raphael was confident his fearsome reputation would keep Shae from telling anyone who was hosting him, but I couldn’t see taking the same risk with Lugh.

Any ideas, Lugh?

Once upon a time, I’d only been able to communicate with Lugh through dreams, but the barriers between my mind and his were considerably thinner now than they had once been, and I could converse with him silently while I was awake.

You can tell her the truth without telling her the whole truth, he suggested. It’s common knowledge amongst Dougal’s henchmen that you were once my host, but it’ll be news to Shae.

That was true. For a while, Raphael had been something of a double agent, pretending to support Dougal in his attempted coup while remaining loyal to Lugh. During that time, he’d fed Dougal the story that I had been coerced into summoning Lugh, but that Lugh had taken a new host in an attempt to escape the assassins Dougal had sent after him.

I’m a really shitty liar, but I hoped Shae would attribute any awkwardness in my delivery to my discomfort over revealing delicate information. Bracing myself as if for battle, I sat up straight and looked Shae in the eye.

“I was Lugh’s host when he first came to the Mortal Plain.”

Shae’s eyes dilated with an almost sexual excitement at that news. “Well, well,” she said, licking her lips, “that explains a lot. Fascinating.”

I refrained from informing her that Dougal already knew this. The more forbidden she thought the knowledge was, the more it would buy me.

“Okay, I answered your question,” I said. “Now it’s your turn. What is this mysterious information that’s so important to Lugh’s cause?”

I was pretty sure Shae was giving serious consideration to trying to pry more out of me, so I put on my most implacable expression, just to let her know it wouldn’t work. The corner of her mouth twitched, and I didn’t know if it was a hint of a smile or a grimace of disappointment.

“I would be more inclined to talk if I knew for certain that my information would make its way to Lugh’s ears.”

Curiosity stopped the instant refusal that had sprung to my lips. “Why do you care if Lugh hears it?”

“Because if he finds his way back to the throne, he will make possession of an unwilling host a crime in the Demon Realm, which it currently is not.”

Interesting that Shae would volunteer that bit of information. The demons didn’t exactly run around advertising that their law had no problem with them taking whatever host they wanted, even if it was a capital crime to take an unwilling host under human law. I’d learned a hell of a lot about demons since I’d become Lugh’s host, and most of it was shit they kept secret for a very good reason.

“If he makes possessing unwilling hosts illegal,” Shae continued, “I want to make sure I am granted immunity. Though I have walked the Mortal Plain more than eighty years now, I would someday like to go home, and I don’t want to return to a prison sentence. If Lugh knows I’ve supported him . . .” She shrugged.

I’d seen before that Shae had no compunction about playing both sides. It came as no great surprise to know her offer of information served more than one purpose.

“I can’t guarantee that Lugh will hear about your cooperation immediately,” I said, hoping the lie didn’t show on my face. “But I can promise I’ll do my best to get a message to him, which probably won’t be that hard if he does end up on the throne again. Now I’ve already given you the information you asked for. Time for you to start talking.”

There was still a calculating gleam in her eye, but thankfully she didn’t press me for any more. “I’ve had a notable increase in demon membership in my club over the last several weeks,” she said. “I’ve been in business for going on fifteen years now, and I’ve never seen a membership spike like this before.”

Not immediately knowing what to make of this news, I decided to inject a little of my usual snark. “I thought you had a months-long waiting list for membership.” It went without saying that the waiting list only applied to humans.

Shae gave me a dirty look but didn’t rise to my bait. “Most of these demons are clearly illegals, and when they first show up at the club, they look pretty rough. Lots of track-marks, too skinny, weatherbeaten. They clean up pretty fast once the demon has been in residence for a while, but still . . . It isn’t hard to imagine that their hosts are the kind of people who can drop off the face of the earth without anyone noticing or caring.”

“They aren’t exactly dropping off the face of the earth,” I muttered, but I knew what she meant. These were people who didn’t have friends and family who would raise a stink over their loved one being illegally possessed.

“Why are you telling me?” I asked. “Isn’t this more up Adam’s alley than mine?”

Shae just looked at me, her eyes cold and hard. I guess I already knew the answer to that question. She might be forced to work with Adam in her role of police snitch, but she sure as hell didn’t like it. Or him.

“Forget I asked,” I said. “Do you know how these demons are getting to the Mortal Plain?”

Once a demon was on the Mortal Plain, it could transfer from host to host via skin-to-skin contact. However, it couldn’t come here from the Demon Realm in the first place without an invitation from a willing host.

“Don’t know,” Shae said. “I don’t seem to be missing any regulars, though, so it isn’t a case of legal demons moving to new hosts. These demons are definitely new arrivals.”

The implications made me shudder. Although a host had to voluntarily invite a demon onto the Mortal Plain, there were any number of ways someone could be forced to “volunteer.” I was a prime example, having been drugged and manipulated by Raphael so that I would invite Lugh to the Mortal Plain and into my body, even though being possessed was--at the time--my worst nightmare. Luckily, because of my, er, special genetic makeup, I retained control of my body, except in rare occasions where Lugh took over--usually by mutual agreement, once in a while by brute force. But whoever these hapless “volunteers” were, they were worse than dead, their minds fully intact, trapped inside bodies they could not control.

“I don’t know how these demons are gaining access to the Mortal Plain,” Shae said, “but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there would be this sudden influx while Dougal is keeping Lugh’s seat warm.”

I didn’t, either. Because Lugh was still king even though he was AWOL, Dougal was only the regent, and his powers were limited. But since Lugh hadn’t officially outlawed possession of unwilling hosts yet, and since there were always way more demons wanting to come to the Mortal Plain than there were willing hosts, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that Dougal had arranged to make more hosts available.

“I need to know exactly how they’re getting here,” I muttered, more to myself than to Shae.

“I’d love to tell you,” Shae said. “For a price.” I opened my mouth to say something indignant, but she cut me off. “I’d love to, but I can’t. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that I am not to ask any questions about these new members.”

“By whom?” I asked sharply.

Shae shook her head and didn’t answer.

“You’re not the type to let someone come into your place and tell you what to do,” I said. Yeah, Raphael had been able to intimidate her into keeping quiet about his identity, but I doubted there was anyone else who would inspire the kind of terror Raphael did.

“I’m not,” she said, and there was faint gleam of malice in her eyes.

And suddenly I understood. I felt like slapping myself on the forehead. “That’s why you came here to tell me about this. Not because you really wanted to trade information but because you’re pissed off at whoever gave you the gag order and you want to sic Lugh’s supporters on him.”

A slight grin curved her lips, though the gleam remained in her eye and turned the grin into something decidedly unwholesome. “I’ve told you nothing that I was forbidden to say, so technically I have broken no agreements. What you decide to do with the information I’ve given you is your concern, not mine.”

She rose from the chair, the motion strangely sinuous. “As always, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” she said, then turned toward the door without awaiting a response. Which was just as well, because I hadn’t the faintest idea what to say.