DANCES WITH DEMONS
A Phoenix Chronicles Novella #4+
I cried when they took away my children. Who wouldn't?
"Mom." Anna, my oldest, might be only nine, but she can roll her eyes like any sixteen-year-old. "We go to Mam and Pop's every summer for two weeks, and every summer you act like it's forever."
"It always feels like forever." I rubbed the sting of tears from my eyes. I couldn't help it. Anna and her brothers were all I had left of Max. But, to be fair, they were all Max's parents had left of him either. So, for the final two weeks of each summer, I allowed my in-laws to drive away from Milwaukee with my babies.
Anna rolled her eyes again, but she allowed me to hug her, even kiss her forehead before squirming away and out the door in the wake of her grandfather.
The boys, Aaron and Benjamin—who’d recently decided he liked to be called Benji—were six and five, and they still allowed me to smooch on them for longer than Anna did. They always had. I ruffled their dark heads, so like Max's, and sent them on their way, then turned to face my mother-in-law, a woman who did not look in any way like she answered to the sweet granny name of Mam. If I hadn't wanted to keep on her good side, I would have been tempted to address her as Cruella. Not that she'd skinned any puppies lately, though I wouldn't put it past her.
Susan Murphy was tall, slim, and always perfectly put together, in control of herself and of anyone else she could manage. I doubted the woman ever left her house in anything less than full makeup and hair that she'd sprayed into an immovable coif. In comparison, I always appeared shorter, dumpier, and less put together than I actually was. I think she liked it that way. She'd certainly never liked me.
I'd hoped that once Max and I had children, Susan and I would bond. Hadn't happened. With my own parents living in Phoenix now, Max's were the closest relatives I had. You'd think we'd spend more time together.
But now that Max was dead, and I had opened a tavern/restaurant then had the bad taste to call it Murphy's—thus tarnishing their name—I doubted we'd ever be BFFs. I didn't mind so much. I had a BFF; I didn't need another. However, it would be nice if Susan would at least pretend not to loathe me.
"Megan." She lowered her head, a dismissal, a goodbye.
"If you have any problems,” I said, following her to the door, then onto the porch and down the walk toward the waiting Lincoln Navigator, "just give me a call and I'll drive down."
"I doubt anything will come up that I can't manage."
The only thing Susan Murphy had ever been unable to manage was her only son. She hadn't wanted him to become a cop. If he just had to help people, why not become a lawyer? Because they were so helpful.
She'd gotten past Max's choice of profession, only to have him turn around and marry me.
In her defense, she'd been right about the occupation. Max had died in the line of duty. But the only thing he'd ever wanted more than that badge was me.
My eyes pricked again. God, I missed him. Some days were harder than others, and today was one of them.
"Who is that?" My mother-in-law's already chilly voice went ice age.
Quinn Fitzpatrick leaned against the side of my house. Tall, lean and dark, with eerily light green eyes that seemed to shine yellow in a certain light, he resembled a panther on the prowl. Until he moved. Then he usually tripped over his puppy feet, dropped a glass, knocked over a tray or worse. I'd never seen a more beautiful man with less grace in my life.
I lifted my hand in hello. Quinn lifted his in return and smacked the gutter so hard it came apart. He caught the loose piece, cracked it against the house, then frowned at the dent. I sighed. He'd fix the thing so it would be better than before. Sometimes I thought he broke things on purpose just so he could improve them.
"He's very . . ." Susan's lips pursed. She glanced at me in suspicion. "Tell me you aren't sleeping with him."
I blinked. "Sleep . . . I . . . No!"
She rolled her eyes, and I saw where Anna had gotten it from. "The man is sex on parade."
"If he were in a parade he'd trip, fall into the tuba section, cause them to knock over the drums, and the entire band would end up in the lake."
"You expect me to believe that a man who looks like that does nothing more than pour drinks?"
"He makes sandwiches too."
"Hi, Quinn!" Benji shouted.
Quinn waved and dropped the gutter on his foot.
"Bye, Quinn!" Aaron hung out the window.
"We'll see you in two weeks." Anna's smile was genuine. Even she had a soft spot for Quinn.
"It's right here I'll be when you come back." The slight Irish lilt that sometimes crept into his voice always made me want to close my eyes and beg him to keep talking. And not touch anything.
"He's Irish!" Susan accused.
"Quinn. Fitzpatrick." I spread my hands.
"You're Megan Murphy and you don't have an accent."
"But I do like potatoes."
"The children obviously know him well."
"He works everyday. He helps fix things around here." Usually after he broke them, but I kept that to myself. "They know him. They like him. He's . . . likeable."
"Do you like him?"
I glanced at Quinn as he laid the gutter on the ground and strode toward the garage where he kept his tools. He caught the toe of his large athletic shoes on a blade of grass and nearly kissed dirt. "I guess."
I'd never really thought of Quinn as anything other than a slightly klutzy first-shift bartender. Certainly, he was lovely to look at, even lovelier to listen to. But since Max had died I'd first been focused on getting through each day without dissolving into a puddle of agony. Once that was accomplished, my next job had been raising the children, then paying the bills.
I'd met Max while I was a waitress in a cop bar on the south side. We'd married, had children, lived, loved, laughed. Then he'd died. All I knew was being a wife, a mother, and running a bar. So I'd opened Murphy's.
It hadn't been easy. The hours were long and, to begin with, most of them were mine. I received a lot of law enforcement business since Max's former co-workers made Murphy's their new hangout, and his former partner, Liz Phoenix, had left the force—Max's death had been as hard on her as it had been on me—and taken a job as my dayshift bartender.
Liz blamed herself for Max's death though I never had. We'd become best friends; we always would be, even though she was now the leader of a group of demon killers pledged to save mankind from the Apocalypse. As I'd attended Catholic school, the approach of doomsday was less of a surprise to me than it had been to her.
My mother-in-law's sigh brought me back to my front yard. "I suppose it's time."
"Yes." I started walking toward the SUV. "I know you want to get on the road." I paused when I realized she hadn't moved and glanced back.
"I meant that it's time you moved on." Though the words were gentle, her face was . . . devastated.
"Max is gone. He isn't coming back. You're alive, so are the children."
"Okay." I had no idea what she was trying to tell me beyond the obvious. Life went on.
Even when you didn't want it to.
* * *
Quinn Fitzpatrick stood just out of sight as he waited for Megan's in-laws to drive away with her children.
He'd felt her pain even before he'd turned the corner and seen the remnants of the tears in her eyes. He'd wanted to take her in his arms and make her every sadness fade away. But he knew better.
Even if she could look past the ghost of her precious Max and see Quinn, she would see the man he presented to the world. A loner with no past, an uncertain future. A man who worked for cash. Not that he needed cash, which was why he slipped it back into the till whenever Megan was gone, however it would cause even more suspicion to work for free. He had no home, no friends, no family. Because he wasn't yet truly a man.
He had been sent to protect Megan Murphy, nothing more. That he had fallen in love with her was both a blessing and his curse. His mistress—
"Liz," he corrected. She hated it when he called her by that title, but he was ancient and such an address was her right. Nevertheless, she had told him not to kneel, not to bow, never to call her mistress again. It marked her as special in a world where special would get you killed.
Liz Phoenix was the leader of the light. She helmed a group of seers and demon killers known as the federation, tasked with saving humanity from the evil beings that wished to bring about the end of this world. Because Liz loved Megan, those beings would either try to use Megan against Liz, or, perhaps, just kill her. Quinn would never, ever, let that happen.
Quinn blinked. How long had he been standing with the hammer in his hand, daydreaming? Long enough for the in-laws to drive away and Megan to call for him.
He strode around the corner and slammed into her so hard she flew backward, landing on her ample—and luscious—backside. Quinn cursed in Gaelic, then reached out to help her with the hand that held the hammer. Had he tried to seem clumsy so many times that he'd actually become so? Apparently.
"Spit out the gum." Megan clambered to her feet on her own, dusting off that backside he spent far too much time lusting after.
Quinn's lips curved at her usual quip. She often teased that he was unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. He did his best to appear so.
"I'm going to start the stew while you repair your latest . . ." She waved a hand at the piece of dented gutter that lay on the ground.
"Aye," he agreed.
As it was Sunday, they opened at four instead of eleven, not only because it was the Sabbath but because Megan made Irish stew. Quinn had not tasted the likes of a stew such as hers since he'd last been in Ireland. He tried to remember when that had been and couldn't. When time was eternal the days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on all blended together.
Megan made the traditional stew with mutton, which meant the brew had to simmer atop the stove for a good portion of the day. But ah, when it was finished, 'twas well worth the wait. Folks would come from all over southeastern Wisconsin to sample Megan's stew of a Sunday eve. When combined with a pint drawn just right, there was nothing better on a cold winter or a warm summer night.
Quinn took his time fixing the gutter. He had long been a creature of the night, had only recently been able to walk beneath both the sun and the moon. But he so enjoyed the sunlight. Especially when it burnished Megan's red hair to a shade resembling maple leaves in late October. Her eyes were a midnight sky and—
He slammed the hammer into his thumb and cursed. "Ciach ort!"
What was wrong with him? He had never in all of his years on the earth ever been so enamored of a woman. Why her? Why here? Why now?
Because Megan was not only beautiful but brave. Her husband gunned down in the street, she'd been left alone with three young children. Certainly there were mornings when fear lived in her eyes. There were nights he stood outside, watching her pace beyond the windows of her home until dawn threatened, but she managed. Megan always managed.
He had come to adore her children nearly as much as he adored her. Perhaps because he had never had any of his own and probably never would.
Quinn finished his task, returned the tools to the shed and strolled toward Murphy's. The tavern was only a block from the house. Convenient for all concerned.
As he opened the door, he wondered why he didn't smell onions frying, then he heard a faint sound, like the hitch of breath, a smothered cry. Ach, hell. Megan was enjoying a solitary sob over being parted from her bairns, and he'd nearly blundered into it. A woman such as she would not welcome the intrusion, so he hovered just inside the door, trying not to listen, not to think of the tears rolling down her cheeks. How would they taste?
He licked his lips, rubbed his neck, and fought the response of his body—both man and beast. Then that bit of beast that remained, despite all his attempts to overcome it, caught a scent that disturbed him. Sharp and wild, like nothing he had ever smelled before. It wasn't right that it should be here.
Quinn moved forward on silent, sure feet, ears pricked. Those cries he'd heard continued. They were distressed, to be sure, and when he reached the kitchen, he saw why.
The man with his hand over Megan's mouth appeared to be just a man, but he was more. Quinn felt it in the quiver that came over him at the very tip of every hair on his body—head to toe. Quinn was a DK, a demon killer, had been from the day he took this form. Within the federation, those such as he worked with a seer, a being of powerful psychic power who could identify the demon beneath the skin of man and woman.
Demons had been around for a long, long time. In days of old—the Old Testament that is—God sent the Grigori, angels known as watchers, to earth to keep an eye on the humans. They lusted after them instead and were banished by God to Tartarus—the lowest, locked level of hell. But they left a bit of themselves behind.
The offspring of those fallen angels and humans are called Nephilim, and they're still here; they are what the federation fights. All those legends about vampires and werewolves and other seemingly fantastical, supernatural creatures are true. The Nephilim might look like other men and women on the street, but they aren't.
The war for humanity had begun. The clock ticking down to doomsday had started. The Apocalypse was nigh. The federation was trying to stop it just as hard as the Nephilim were trying to cause it. At the moment, the bad guys were winning.
There had been a recent purge. Quinn's seer was dead, which was one of the reasons he had been sent here. He knew a demon when he felt one.
The majority died by a few tried and true methods—silver, decapitation, dismemberment. If one didn't work, Quinn was always perfectly happy to try another.
He retrieved the long, slim, lethal, silver knife he kept hidden behind the bar beneath the hat he wore sometimes when he hadn't had time to cut his hair. Then he crept out the front door and around to the back. He saw no others lurking about, but that didn't mean there weren't. But his concern now was Megan. He should never have left her alone.
However, if he stuck too close to Megan, she shooed him away. He couldn't blame her. He'd done his best to appear less than he was, which had only succeeded in making him so much more than annoying.
Quinn snuck in the back, wondering why the fool had not just killed Megan and moved on, then he heard the thing speak.
"Where is the leader of the light?" The creature lifted his hand from Megan's mouth.
Why hadn't Megan screamed in an attempt to bring Quinn running? Because she thought he was incapable.
Quinn stepped inside, pressed the point of the knife to the man's neck. "Let her go."
Megan cursed. "Quinn, I'm—
The half-demon released her. It had no doubt smelled the silver.
"Free," Quinn finished. "Go."
She spun, frowning at the knife. "Where did you—?"
"Go," he ordered, and her frown deepened. "Call the authorities."
It would give her something to do. By the time anyone arrived, this beast would be ashes on the wind. If it couldn’t be killed by silver the thing never would have released her.
Megan went into the bar. As soon as the door closed behind her Quinn murmured, "Are there more of you?"
The creature didn't answer. Quinn hadn't thought it would, but he had to try. He plunged the knife into the Nephilim's neck and it imploded, covering Quinn in gray grime. How he would explain that, Quinn wasn't sure, but anything that threatened Megan must die.
The being had to be some type of shifter—Lord alone knew what—as it had died by silver. He thought it odd that the beast had been asking about Liz. Usually his mistress left a trail of ashes behind her that was very hard to miss.
Quinn retrieved a dustpan and broom as he listened to Megan speak with emergency services. By the time they arrived even the ashes would be gone.
He stepped to the back door, pan full of Nephilim dust, to have his attention captured by a movement in the alley. The hair on his arms lifted again as the fellow smirked. Quinn didn't like that at all. He dropped the dustpan, ignoring the puff of ash across his shoes as he spun toward the kitchen. He sniffed, caught a hint of something wrong, then he heard the tick-tock.
Drawing on his preternatural speed, he sprinted into the bar, snatching Megan around the waist and lifting her easily from the ground.
"Quinn, I'm still—"
He leapt through the front door and raced across the street as Murphy's tavern blew upward, then rained in several thousand pieces from the sky.