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The Devil Inside

Chapter One

Topeka, Kansas. Demon capital of the world. Not!

Demons, the illegal ones at least, tend to like the biggest cities. More anonymity. More prey. But every once in a while, one would pop up in the most unlikely place. Like Topeka.

I flew into Kansas City, Missouri, then had to rent a car for the ninety-minute drive to Topeka. I live in the suburbs, but I’m a city girl at heart. Driving ninety minutes on toll roads out in the middle of nowhere is my idea of hell. But wait, it gets worse--no one bothered to tell Kansas it was spring, so it was snowing.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve driven in the snow. If I hadn’t known they might burn an eleven-year-old girl to death if I didn’t show up, I’d have ridden out the storm in Kansas City.

The speed limit was seventy, but I drove about thirty-five, squinting out the windshield, hoping there weren’t any cows grazing on the interstate under cover of the blizzard. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a blizzard by mid-west standards, but it’s all a matter of perspective.

Kansas is one of ten states--including my home state, Pennsylvania--that allow the execution of humans hosting illegal demons. I called from the airport to let them know I’d be late. I almost choked when I noticed the area code for Topeka was 666. Gotta love the irony. Luckily, they weren’t anxious to put a cute little girl to flame, despite the fact that she was allegedly possessed by a demon who’d murdered at least three people, so they agreed to wait for me.

The demon containment center-cum-execution chamber was in the basement of the courthouse and had more guards than most maximum security prisons. Why the idiots used legions of armed guards was beyond me. What were they going to do, shoot the host to death if a demon escaped? Yeah, that might solve the immediate problem and leave the demon without a body to inhabit, but if it found another host, you can bet revenge would be high on its to-do list. The only way to kill a demon is to exorcize it or burn its host alive. Lovely, huh?

I’d read little Lisa Walker’s case on the plane. She and her parents had been visiting New York. They’d gone to a Broadway show, and when they were leaving, Lisa got knocked down by some thug who was running from the cops. Probably they thought it was exciting, because hey, things like that just don’t happen in Topeka.

It wasn’t until they’d gotten home that they’d noticed anything wrong. She didn’t do a Linda Blair and spit pea soup, but she definitely wasn’t herself. It was the little things that gave it away--a suddenly more sophisticated vocabulary, a hint of attitude, the occasional expression in her eyes that was too old for her age. They’d called in a priest, and he’d immediately declared her possessed.

Me, I’d have been skeptical. Demons usually prefer strong, adult bodies to inhabit, not delicate eleven-year-old girls. And no matter what they claim, priests aren’t qualified to declare a person possessed. Yes, some of them are sensitives, and can see auras, but it’s not a job requirement like it is for an exorcist.

So if I didn’t think the kid was possessed, why had I flown all the way out here to bum-fuck Kansas to perform an exorcism? Because the court had ordered it, and the parents had approved it--and if the kid really was possessed, they’d barbecue her if an exorcist couldn’t cast the demon out. The parents had demanded the best, and they could afford me, so here I was, freezing my tailfeathers off in Corn City USA.

I had to clear two checkpoints before I even got close to the containment center. I’m sure I’d have made it through faster if I’d dressed the part, but if I’d wanted to wear suits, I’d have gone to business school. My uniform was a pair of tight low-rise jeans with a clingy sweater and a pair of kick-ass pointy-toed boots.

The director of the Topeka Containment Unit was one Frank Jenkins. He was a short, pudgy guy who looked harmless at first glance. He came out from behind a steel-barred door, smiling until he got a good look at me. Then, the smile faded from the outside in until it morphed into a frown of disapproval. The frown didn’t look anywhere near as harmless.

I put on my best hail-fellow-well-met smile and held out my hand. “Morgan Kingsley,” I said, sounding almost perky. “You must be Mr. Jenkins.”

He shook my hand and nodded, but he didn’t look happy about it.

“I suppose you came straight to the courthouse without stopping by your hotel,” Jenkins said, the frown still firmly in place.

That was true, though I wouldn’t have changed clothes even if I had checked in. “I thought it would be best for everyone involved if we got this over with,” I said. Which was also true. I couldn’t imagine what the parents must be going through. Not to mention Lisa, trapped inside a body she could no longer control, a helpless passenger while the demon rampaged.

The theory was that the thug in New York had been hosting an illegal demon who was on the run, wanted for three murders. When he bumped into Lisa, the demon thought it had found the perfect escape. Just hitchhike out of New York in an adorable little girl’s body and hope to find a more suitable host later. The police had caught the fleeing thug eventually, only to find his brain fried.

“Well, let’s get to it,” Jenkins said, still frowning at me. At five foot nine, I was about three inches taller than him. I got the feeling he didn’t like that much. Actually, I got the feeling he didn’t like much of anything about me. Maybe I was a little too big-city for him.

Without another word, he led me through the steel doors into the heart of the containment center.

Why, you might ask, would a small-time burg like Topeka, which hadn’t had more than one or two illegal demons in the last five years, need its own containment center? Because Kansas didn’t take well to demons, legal or otherwise. Enough of their citizens believed in the Biblical view of demons as minions of Satan to keep execution legal, and they wanted to be prepared in the event they had a chance to rid the world of one more evil.

What did this mean to me? It meant that while the personnel had all been trained for the job, they had little or no practical experience. And I saw evidence of that every step of the way as we made our way to the execution chamber.

“Mr. Jenkins,” I said when we stopped outside the chamber for him to key in the passcode, “why are your people not wearing gloves when you have a known illegal demon in custody?” An incorporeal demon needs an invitation to possess a human body, but one that already has a host can transfer from one to another through skin-to-skin contact. No one within a hundred yards of an illegal demon should be showing more skin than absolutely necessary.

Jenkins glared at me, liking me even less. “I can assure you, Ms. Kingsley, the demon is contained.”

I bit my tongue to stop myself from reminding him of several incidents of “contained” demons escaping and wreaking havoc. He didn’t strike me as being open to constructive criticism.

The door mechanism made a few clicking and ratcheting sounds, then Jenkins swung it open. It gave a sigh when it opened, as if the room behind it had been vacuum sealed,

I’d thought the containment center staff not wearing gloves was unprofessional. Brother, I hadn’t known what unprofessional was until I stepped into that room.

Lisa Walker was strapped onto a sliding steel table. At one end of the table were a pair of heavy metal doors that led into the oven. She was positioned so that her feet faced the doors. So that she could stare with her wide little-girl eyes at the oven that would burn her alive if I failed to exorcize the demon.

Tears had matted her eyelashes and the fine yellow hair that framed her face. Her whole body was shaking with terror, and pity stabbed through me so hard I had to fight not to put a hand to my chest. I reminded myself that I could very well be looking at a demon giving an Oscar-worthy performance, but the pity didn’t go away.

If the child wasn’t possessed, she might never recover from this trauma. If she was possessed, then this was a new low for demon-kind.

But Lisa Walker’s pitiful little frame wasn’t what horrified me the most. No, what horrified me most was that her parents sat huddled together on a bench at the other end of the room. Mrs. Walker’s eyes were swollen with tears, and Mr. Walker’s face was pale and tense.

I whirled on Jenkins. “You’re letting the parents watch? Are you nuts?”

Exorcisms are never a pretty sight. There’s usually a lot of screaming and cursing. From the demon, not from me. And about seventy-five to eighty percent of demon hosts end up dead or catatonic when the demon is cast out. So far, no one has come up with a reliable method of predicting which hosts would survive intact.

“She’s their daughter,” Jenkins said, drawing himself up to his full, not very impressive height. “If you fail, they’ll have to sign the consent form.”

I looked at Lisa Walker and a very unpleasant lump formed in my throat. I hate demons with a passion. And I don’t like the legal ones much better than the illegal ones. But even I wasn’t sure I could sign the order to burn an eleven-year-old girl alive to destroy the demon. Especially not if the girl was my daughter!

“You could have had them sign the consent beforehand,” I muttered, disliking Jenkins now as much as he disliked me.

“They’d want to say goodbye.”

I glanced over at the parents, who hadn’t said word one to me. They couldn’t even bear to look at me. Can’t say I blamed them. I wished I’d worn a conservative business suit after all. I don’t think my jeans and sweater gave them great confidence in my competence.

But the worst thing I could do now was make them wait and worry any longer, so I settled my shoulder bag on the floor and slipped out of my full-length leather coat. I glanced around for somewhere to put it, but there wasn’t anywhere, and Jenkins didn’t offer to take it for me. He was being juvenile, but then, I’d insulted his facility more than once. I’d probably have been juvenile in his shoes, too.

I laid my coat carefully on the floor, which was spotless white tile anyway, then unzipped my bag. A muffled sob from Mrs. Walker made my shoulders hunch. There were only three times in my career when I’d faced a demon I couldn’t cast out. But none of those three had been in execution states, and none had been inhabiting adorable little girls. If I failed, this was going to suck on so many levels . . .

The execution chamber was so spare and sterile there was nowhere to put my candles except on the floor. I could have asked Jenkins to get me a couple of tables, but it didn’t matter where the candles were, and I was betting all of us wanted to get on with it.

Every exorcist has a ritual he or she performs to get into the trance state. Some are really elaborate, with chants and special clothing and incense--the works. Mine is disarmingly simple. I place vanilla scented candles all around the room, then turn off all the lights. Then I stand over the demon-possessed body with my hands about six inches above it and just close my eyes.

Usually, I’m already starting to slip into the trance after my first deep breath. Today, I was having a harder time. Jenkins had taken to fidgeting with his ID badge. The noise was slight, but annoying. And I could hear Mrs. Walker’s persistent sniffles. I imagined the table sliding into the oven with little Lisa Walker on it. I imagined hearing her screams.

I took another deep, vanilla-scented breath and reminded myself that, in these enlightened times, they’d anesthetize her before sliding her into the oven--there would be no screams. But that didn’t make the image any more bearable.

The pressure was like nothing I’d ever felt before, and something akin to panic stirred.

Then, Lisa Walker spoke.

“What’s happening?” she asked in a quivering little-girl voice. “Mommy?”

It broke what little concentration I had, and my eyes popped open. I met the gaze of a pair of red-rimmed eyes of cornflower blue. So innocent-looking. But her words and her voice were so patently pathetic, so manipulative, that they gave me pause. So I watched closely, and something stirred behind those eyes. Something not so innocent. And I knew that they were right, that there was a demon inside this little girl. A demon who had no qualms about using the body of a child like a disposable plastic cup. When it found a more suitable host, it would slither out of her body, not caring that it might leave her dead or brain-damaged.

I gave the demon a nasty smile. “Fatal error,” I told it in a low whisper that I hoped to God the parents didn’t hear. “You should have kept your mouth shut.”

The cupid’s bow mouth widened. I closed my eyes. And the trance took me immediately, fueled by my anger. Distantly, I was aware of that little-girl voice making pathetic noises, pleading with me and with its mommy, but I was too far gone to hear the words.

In my trance, I see with my otherworldly eyes. Everything looks different. Simpler. I can’t see things. All I see are the living, and I see them as patches of primary colors. People show up as blue in my otherworldly vision. Jenkins was a dark, solid blue, like a person at rest. If he felt any strong emotions about this whole procedure, I couldn’t sense it. The parents, on the other hand, were a mess, their auras roiling with every shade of blue imaginable.

But on the table under my hands, the aura glowed blood red. A demon aura, so overwhelming there was no sign of human blue beneath it. The aura squirmed, and I realized that the body was struggling against the restraints. The demon saw its destruction coming and was making a last-ditch effort to escape. I hoped they hadn’t gotten squeamish when they’d secured the restraints. The supernatural strength of some demons is enough to bend steel, but even an inexperienced staff would know that.

I heard the distinctive sound of groaning metal. Alarm trickled down my back. This thing was strong. And desperate. Behind me, someone cried out. The yellow tint of fear blended with the blue of their auras to make the humans look almost green.

Just like everyone has their own ritual to get into the trance, everyone has their own mental image they use as a metaphor for casting out a demon. Mine is wind.

I imagined a gust of hurricane force wind hitting that red aura. If it had been your average, run-of-the-mill demon, that one blast would have been enough. But this fucker was tough. The aura didn’t waver, and I heard an echo of laughter ringing in my ears.

There were more cries of distress from the humans, and again metal groaned as the demon struggled. My heart pounded in my throat, and fear almost stole my concentration.

None of the three demons I’d failed to exorcize had come close to escaping, thankfully. I may be the scourge of demon-kind, but I do not want to be trapped in a room with a loose, angry demon in need of a new host.

The fear radiating from Jenkins and the Walkers pounded against my concentration, worse than my own fear, because there were three of them feeding each others’ panic. I prayed Jenkins wouldn’t do anything really stupid, like open the door to take himself out of harm’s way.

As soon as I thought it, though, it happened. My concentration snapped completely, and I was out of the trance in time to see Jenkins shove the Walkers out the open door before he dove out himself.

At least he had the good sense to swing the door shut behind him. I really didn’t want to see what would happen if the demon got loose in the containment center halls with all those inexperienced armed guards wandering around.

Of course, I really didn’t want to be trapped alone in a room with a powerful, pissed-off demon either.

I looked at the table, and my heart stuttered at what I saw.

Steel restraints bolted to the table held Lisa’s thin arms and legs down, and there was another steel restraint around her waist. She’d pulled so hard on those restraints that the table had buckled beneath them, though so far she hadn’t managed to break free. Blood poured from her wrists and ankles--the demon didn’t much care what happened to this poor little body. It just wanted out. It pulled Lisa’s lips back in a feral snarl. The metal groaned again.

Shit.

I drew in a deep, quavering breath and forced myself to close my eyes. If I gave it enough time, this thing was going to free itself. And I was going to become an unwilling host to an illegal demon myself.

No pressure.

Sweat trickled down the small of my back. I tried to calm myself. My life depended on it.

I slipped back into the trance more easily than I’d expected. Amazing what desperation will do for you. Once again, I hit that demon aura with a blast of wind. It wavered for a moment, then settled firmly back in place.

The metal didn’t groan now so much as scream. The temptation to open my eyes and see what progress the thing was making was almost unbearable, but I resisted.

A small, delicate hand clapped onto my arm with a bone-crushing grip. But her hand was over my sweater, no skin-to-skin contact.

I stifled a scream and sent another blast of wind at the aura. Somehow, I managed to stay entranced, even with a demon squeezing my arm so brutally I’d wear bruises for days even if it didn’t break anything.

My breath burned in and out of my lungs and my heart slammed against my chest. I was so scared I could taste it, but if I let the fear win, I was demon-chow.

I gathered my power into me, concentrating on drawing every ounce of my strength into my center for one last try. There was another scream of tortured metal, and a second small hand grabbed me.

I almost panicked and let my next blast loose at that moment, but I knew I had only one more chance. If I didn’t throw enough power against the demon, I was toast. So I fought my instincts and held myself together a few seconds more.

The demon’s fingers tore through the fabric of my sweater, and that little demonic hand pressed against the skin of my forearm.

I screamed louder than I’d ever screamed in my life, overwhelmed by terror, horror, revulsion. My worst nightmare come true. A demon forcing itself into my body, taking me over, destroying everything I was without actually killing me . . .

I shoved my gathered power at it, knowing it was already too late--demons can transfer from one host to another instantly. The millisecond it touched me, I was gone.

Except, I wasn’t.

That red, red aura crept up my arm from the demon’s hand, and then withdrew, half a heartbeat before my power hit it.

I’d thrown everything I had into that blast. The aura shattered into a million tiny pinpricks of color; then it was gone.

I opened my eyes, hardly believing my good fortune, hardly believing I was still myself.

I wobbled on my feet. The floor bucked under me. I felt myself falling in slow motion but couldn’t even get my hands under me to cushion the fall. My head hit that cold tile floor, and I was out.

 

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