“Sin is crouching at your door, it desires to have you, but you shall master it.”
– The LORD to Cain, Genesis 4:7
The Devil is in the details.
Evangeline Hollis understood the true gist of that saying now, surrounded as she was by thousands of Satan’s minions. Some wore Seattle Seahawks baseball caps, others wore San Diego Chargers jerseys. All bore detailed designs similar to tribal tattoos on their skin that betrayed both what species of cursed being they were and what their rank in Hell’s hierarchy was. To her enhanced eyes, it looked like a damn festival for sinners. They were drinking beer, devouring nachos, and waving giant foam fingers.
In reality, the event was a football game in Qualcomm Stadium. The day was classic Southern California perfection–sunny and warm, the eighty-degree temperature balanced by a delightfully cool breeze. Mortals mingled with Infernal beings in blissful ignorance, simply enjoying a bit of afternoon spectator sport. To Eve, the scene was macabre; like watching hungry wolves sunning themselves alongside lambs. Gore, violence, and death were the inevitable result of any interaction between the two.
“Stop thinking about them.”
Alec Cain’s deep, sensual voice made her shiver inside, but outwardly she shot him a rueful glance over the top of her sunglasses. He was always telling her to ignore their prey when they weren’t on the hunt. As if rogue fae, demons, mages, werewolves, dragons, and thousands of variants of the same were easily disregarded.
“There’s a woman breastfeeding her child next to an incubus,” she muttered.
“Angel.” His nickname for her moved over her skin like a tangible caress. Alec’s voice could turn driving directions into foreplay. “We’re taking the day off, remember?”
She blew out her breath and looked away. At a few inches over six feet, Alec was blessed with a powerful chest and tautly ridged abdomen that were noticeable even through his fitted white tank. He had long, muscular legs presently showcased in knee-length Dickies shorts and biceps so beautifully defined they were coveted by both men and women.
He was her lover… occasionally. Like all sweets, Alec was delicious and satisfying, but too much of him caused a sugar crash that left her dazed and reeling. He’d also ruined life as she had known it. Her career aspiration had been interior design, not Infernal bounty hunting.
“If only it was that simple,” Eve groused. “How can I go on vacation when I’m surrounded by work? Besides, they stink even when I’m ignoring them.”
“All I smell is you,” he purred, leaning over to nuzzle his nose against her cheek. “Yum.”
“It creeps me out that they’re everywhere. I went to McDonald’s yesterday and the person serving me at the window was a faery. I couldn’t even eat my Big Mac.”
“Betcha ate the fries.” Pulling down his shades, Alec looked at her with somber eyes. “There’s a difference between staying on your toes and paranoia.”
“I’m cautious, not a basket case. Until I find a way out of this mark business, I’m making the best of it.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Eve sighed. Having Alec for a mentor was such a bad idea, and not just because it was the equivalent of a Hollywood casting couch in most Marks’ eyes. Never mind that the true “casting couch” was the exchange of sexual favors in return for a position you wanted. No one ever wanted the Mark of Cain.
The Marks’ hierarchy started at the bottom with the newbies and topped off with Alec, the original and most badass Mark of them all. There was no way to surpass him. There was also no way to work with him. He was the quintessential loner, the very definition of the word. Yet here was Eve, a six-week newbie in the field, perched solidly at the top because he didn’t trust anyone else to watch her back. She was important to him.
The other Marks thought working with God’s primary enforcer had to be a vacation. While it was true that Infernals didn’t mess with Alec unless they had a death wish, it didn’t make things any easier. Demons now targeted her as a way to get to him. To make things worse, Alec had been marked so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to be new and confused. There were things he expected her to simply “know,” and he became frustrated when he realized she didn’t.
He squeezed her hand. “What happened to the girl who just wanted to forget about everything for a couple of hours?”
“That was before she was kidnapped and nearly blown to smithereens.” Eve stood. “I’ll be back. I need to use the little girls’ room.”
As she stood, Alec caught her wrist. Her brows rose in silent inquiry.
“Angel.” He kissed the back of her hand. “When I tell you to stop thinking about them, it’s not because I want you to live in a fantasy world. I just want you to see the good stuff around you. You saw a mother nursing her baby, but you didn’t see the miracle of it. You were too busy looking at the demon next to her. Don’t give them the power to ruin your day.”
Frowning, Eve absorbed his words, then nodded her acceptance. Alec had lived with the mark since the dawn of time and could still see miracles; she could try.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
He released her. After inching her way past the other spectators in their aisle, Eve sprinted up the wide cement steps. She still marveled over the speed, strength, and agility that came with the mark burned into her upper arm. She’d always been athletic, but now she was Supergirl. Well… she couldn’t fly. But she could jump really damn high. She could also see in the dark and bust through dead-bolted doors, talents she’d never anticipated needing or appreciating.
Eve reached the concourse and followed the signs to the nearest restroom. The line protruded just outside the entrance. Luckily, she wasn’t desperate. More than anything, she’d just needed to get out of her seat.
So she waited patiently, rocking in her flip-flops with her hands in her pockets. An occasional breeze passed by, ruffling through her ponytail. It carried the mingled scent of evil and rotting souls, a pungent stench that made her stomach roil. It fell somewhere between decomposition and fresh shit, and it amazed her that the Unmarked couldn’t smell it.
How had she lived twenty-eight years of her life in complete ignorance? How had Alec lived centuries in complete awareness?
“Mom!” The young boy in front of her was holding his crotch, crossing his legs, and wiggling madly. “I have to go!”
Although the woman looked as if she could be the child’s sister, Eve wasn’t unduly surprised. Many women in Southern California didn’t age. They just became plasticized caricatures of their youthful selves. This one was bleached blonde with a perfect tan, breasts a size too large for her slender frame, and plumped, glossy lips.
The mother looked around.
“Let me go in the boys’ bathroom,” he begged.
“I can’t go in there with you.”
“I’ll be done in a minute!”
Eve guessed the boy was around six years old. Old enough to pee by himself, but she understood the mother’s concern. A child had been killed in a public restroom in nearby Oceanside while his aunt waited outside. The demon who orchestrated that horror had used the oldest trick in the book–pretending to be God.
The harried mother hesitated for a long moment, then gave a jerky nod. “Hurry. You can wash your hands here in the girls’ bathroom.”
The boy ran past the drinking fountains and ducked into the men’s room. Eve offered a commiserating smile to his mom. The line moved incrementally forward. Two teenagers joined in behind her. They were dressed in the predominant fashion of layered tank tops paired with low-rise jeans. Expensive perfume saturated the air around them, which created a welcome relief from the odor of decay. In the stadium, the crowd roared. One of the Chargers’ outside linebackers was a werewolf. From the high-frequency praise of the Infernals in the crowd, he’d done something worth cheering about.
“Why is the line so long?” the girl behind her asked.
Eve shrugged, but the woman in front of her replied, “The bathrooms down there–” she pointed to the left with a French manicured nail “–are closed for repairs.”
As if on cue, the mark seared into Eve’s deltoid began to tingle, then burn. She sighed and abandoned her place. “You can take my spot. I don’t have to go that bad.”
“Thanks,” the teenager replied.
Eve headed to the left, muttering to herself, “Some vacation.”
“You were bored anyway, babe,” purred a familiar voice.
Glancing to the side, Eve watched as Reed Abel fell into step with her, his mouth curved in a devilish smile that belied the wings and halo he occasionally sported for shock value. He was a mal’akh, but there wasn’t much angelic about Alec’s brother.
“That doesn’t mean I wanted to be put to work.” Reed was the handler in charge of her assignments, which was just a nasty trick in her opinion. Why God allowed and encouraged dissension between the two brothers was beyond her comprehension.
“We could blow this taco stand,” he suggested. “Go have some hot, sweaty fun.”
She wasn’t touching that invitation with a ten-foot pole. Like his brother, Reed scorched a girl in both good and bad ways. “Are you kidding about the assignment? Do you need me for something more substantial or what?”
“You thought it was substantial enough before.” He winked mischievously.
Eve smacked him. “Don’t be crude. I refuse to be the latest toy you and your brother fight over. Go find something else to play with.”
“I’m not playing with you.”
There was something sincere in his tone. She ignored it by necessity, although less circumspect parts of her perked up.
“The bathroom?” she asked instead, when the yellow Out of Service sign came into view.
“Yeah.” He caught her arm and tugged her closer. “Raguel suggested it was time for an extension of your classroom training. I’ll go get Cain.”
Raguel was the archangel whose jurisdiction she fell under. He was the bail bondsman, Reed was the dispatcher, and she was the bounty hunter. It was a well-oiled system for most, but her road had been bumpy from the very beginning.
She sniffed the air. The acrid stench of Infernal wrinkled her nose. “You know… this is like sending a medical student into brain surgery the day she first reads about it.”
“You don’t know your own strengths, babe.”
She glared. “I know when I’m getting my ass kicked.”
“You’re batting a thousand so far. This one’s a wolf and you’re good with them. But be careful anyway.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one risking your hide.”
His lips pressed to her temple in a quick, hard kiss. “Risking yours is enough, trust me.”
Skirting the Out-of-Order sign, Eve entered the men’s restroom, lamenting the fact that she was wearing her favorite flirty sandals. Due to the rigors of her “job,” she’d taken to wearing combat boots whenever she left home, but Alec had coaxed her into going casual today. She should have known better.
The harsh ammonia smell of stale urine assaulted her nostrils. Finding her target was easy. He stood in the center of the room, alone. A teenage werewolf who was eerily familiar.
“Remember me?” he asked, smiling.
The boy was tall and thin, his face long and unremarkable. He wore a dirty gray hooded sweatshirt and jeans so low his ass was hanging out. A dark spot moved across his cheek and came to rest on his left cheekbone. His detail–swirls around a diamond shape. Like the mark on her arm, it served a similar purpose to military insignia.
Recognition hit her hard, followed by an immediate chill down her spine. “Shouldn’t you be in Northern California with your pack?”
“The Alpha sent me down here to even the score. He thinks Cain needs to learn what it’s like to lose someone he loves.”
“There was no way to save the Alpha’s son,” she argued. “Cain doesn’t pick and choose his hunts. He follows orders.”
“He made a deal. For you. And he broke his promise.”
Eve frowned. Alec had never mentioned a deal to her. But that was something she would explore later. There was a more immediate question. “You think you can take me by yourself?”
His smirk turned into a grin. “I brought a friend.”
“Great.” That was never good.
The large handicapped stall in the back slammed open and something absolutely horrific thundered out. Holy shit. An Infernal that large should have reeked for yards. Instead, the only thing Eve smelled was wolf.
The dragon hadn’t fully shifted. He still wore his pants and shoes, and dark hair still covered his head. But his mouth was a protruding muzzle of razor-sharp teeth, his eyes were those of a lizard, and all of his visible flesh was covered in gorgeous multihued scales.
“You smell tasty,” he rumbled.
She’d heard that Marks smelled sickly sweet to Infernals, which made her laugh inwardly. There was no such thing as a sweet Mark. They were all bitter. “You don’t smell like anything.”
We failed, she realized with a sinking feeling in her gut. Infernals still had the means to hide themselves in crowds.
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” the wolf asked. “Obviously, you didn’t wipe out our operation completely.”
The dragon roared and it was a fearsome, deafening sound that echoed in the confined space of the bathroom. The mortals couldn’t hear it, though, and Eve’s eardrums were invincible despite their celestial sensitivity. Another boon granted by the mark. The dragon shoved the wolf aside and stomped closer.
“Guess that’s my cue to leave,” the kid said. “I’ll give the Alpha your regards.”
Eve’s gaze remained riveted on her opponent. “Yeah, tell him he screwed with the wrong chick.”
The wolf laughed and departed. Eve wanted to do the same.
For all her bravado, she was out of her league. If she had been capable of physical reactions to stress, her heart would be hammering and she’d be short of breath. No doubt about it, she was going to be suffering when this confrontation was over, …if she was still alive.
A religious person might pray for Alec to get here soon, but that wasn’t an option for Eve. The Almighty did exactly what he wanted and nothing more. The purpose of prayer was to make the supplicant feel like he was doing something. It made Eve feel like she was wasting her breath.
“Where’s Cain?” the dragon growled, approaching her with his hulking, lumbering stride. “I smell his stench on you.”
“He’s watching the game, which is what you should be doing.” Eve couldn’t risk telling him that Alec was coming. He might just kill her quickly and bail. In his mortal guise, with no odor to betray him, he could slip right past Alec. But if the dragon thought he had time, he might toy with her. Infernals liked to play.
“I need a snack.” His voice was so guttural she could hardly understand him. “You’ll do.”
“Have you tried the nachos?” she suggested, her hands fisting. Deep inside her, power coiled. Hunger and aggression, too. It was base and animalistic, not at all the elegant sort of violence she might have expected God to employ in the destruction of his enemies. The surge was brutal… and addicting. “The chips are kind of stale and the cheese is from a can, but it’s a lot less dangerous to your health.”
He snorted, which shot a burst of fire out of his muzzle. “I’ve heard about you. You’re no threat to me.”
“Really?” She tilted her head, frowning in mock confusion. Demons used sarcasm, evasion, and lies to their advantage. Eve did, too. “When’s the last time you got an update on me? Does Hell have a newsletter? A chat room? Otherwise, you’re probably behind the times.”
“You’re cocky. And stupid. You think that sting in Upland made you a hero? Hell’s branches are like the Hydra, bitch. Cut off one head, we grow back two.”
An icy lump settled in Eve’s gut. “More to sever,” she managed, albeit with a slight tremor.
The dragon held up his hands. As thick, sharp claws grew out of the tips of his fingers, he leered and drool ran from his gaping maw. “You’re a baby. Should make you juicy and tender.”
“A baby?” she scoffed, fighting the urge to step back. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through these last six weeks? I have some serious workplace rage.”
Eve widened her stance, raised her fists, and took a deep breath. This was going to hurt. “Ready to see for yourself?”
The dragon’s chest expanded on an inhale and he altered, his body assuming its natural reptilian appearance. He loomed above her, his head bent on a long graceful neck to accommodate the ceiling. He was a beautiful creature, with iridescent scales and lithe lines. Problem was, that stunning hide was like cement. Any attempt to kick or hit it would only lead to pain. For her, not him.
Their hide has very little vulnerability, Raguel had taught in Dragon 101. Points of weakness are the webbing between their toes, the joint connecting the forelimbs to the torso, their eyes, and their rectum. The first will not cause mortal wounds, the second and third require proximity that can get you killed, and the fourth… well, as the kids say, you do not want to go there.
Holding out her hand, Eve requested a blade. A sword appeared, hovering in midair, ablaze but for the hilt. Fire. Fire in Hell, fire in Heaven, fire blasting from the dragon’s nostrils forcing her to leap backward to avoid being singed.
Pyromaniacs, the lot of ‘em.
If she had a choice, she’d prefer her revolver. But she couldn’t carry all the time and the Almighty preferred the flame-covered sword. Never let it be said that God didn’t have a flair for the dramatic. He knew his strengths, and a bit of flashy intimidation was one of them.
The dragon laughed or chortled or choked… whatever. He wasn’t impressed. The sound of his amusement gave Eve the willies and she rolled her wrist, using the substantial weight of the blade to limber up. She’d started out being the sorriest swordsman in her class. Now she was passably proficient, getting better every day.
“You missed me,” she taunted grimly, wincing when her flip-flops clung to the sticky floor. Stupid footwear choice.
One of the many things she’d learned since getting saddled with this job was that presenting a formidable appearance went a long way toward hiding her deficiencies. Her enemies could smell her fear and they thrived on it. Throwing them for a loop with a little cockiness was sometimes the only way to gain any sort of advantage.
The dragon took a step toward her, his talons gouging into the tile, his weight vibrating the ground beneath them. The barrage of flames had made the room hot, but she didn’t sweat. She couldn’t; her body was a temple now.
Swinging at her with one short forelimb, the beast roared with terrible intent. He countered her evasive leap with a lash of his tail, which boasted a hard weighty scale on the tip that was used like a mace. It sank deep into the spot she’d occupied before she stumbled out of the way with a yelp. He yanked the appendage free in a shower of ceramic dust.
As she ran past him, he pivoted, his swinging tail ripping several sinks out of the wall. Eve darted around his side and managed to dislodge one of his scales with a hurried thrust of her blade.
He’d demolished the bathroom, she gave him a paper cut.
“Stupid cunt!” the beast bellowed, seemingly oblivious to the water spraying madly from the broken pipes. The depth of hatred and malevolence in the reptilian eyes added to the growing layer of hardness on her soul that was slowly changing her. Permanently.
Eve’s fury rose to mask her terror. Infernals such as this guy were for much more advanced Marks. If he hadn’t masked his scent and details, she wouldn’t be fighting him.
She was in deep shit. And damn it, she was sick of being soaked all the time. Every Infernal she came across doused her with water.
“Reed.” Her voice was not her own. Lower and deeper, it was the language of Marks. Known as a “herald,” the tone was instinctive and indecipherable to Infernals. “Hurry up. I’m in trouble.”
The sensation of a hot summer breeze moved over her–Reed’s reply.
Lifting her free arm for balance, Eve began to feint and parry, her torso canted to the side to present a smaller target. She ducked behind her sword when another burst of flame spewed from his nostrils. The back of her hand was charred by the heat and she screamed. The damage would heal in moments, but that didn’t prevent the initial agony.
Eve fell back, tripping over broken tiles and sobbing as a sharp piece penetrated the sole of her sandal and dug deep into her heel. Viscous warmth and the resulting slipperiness of her sole betrayed her blood loss. The dragon roared with triumph at the smell of her wounds and snapped at her with his razor-sharp teeth.
She wasn’t going to die in a men’s bathroom. No way.
“How the mighty have fallen,” Alec drawled.
Eve gasped with relief at the sound of his voice. She ducked the beast’s lashing tail, then rushed to peer around his body.
Alec lounged against the tiled threshold of the bathroom with both arms crossed. He looked relaxed and slightly bored, but there was a terrible darkness in his eyes when he hazarded a glance at her. She was his only weakness, a vulnerability he struggled to hide.
“Cain,” the dragon rumbled, his posture wary.
“Damon? You used to be The Man. A courtier in the court of Asmodeus.” Alec made a chastising noise with his tongue. “Now the best you can do is terrorize rookie Marks?”
“Hey,” Eve protested. “Compared to the bathroom, I’m doing all right.”
The fact that her opponent had his back to her and didn’t seem to think that was a danger chafed. What the hell did she have to do to get some respect?
Frustration wiped out her fear and left only angry determination behind. Eve moved to the dragon’s left side and leaped the full height of the room, putting the weight of her body behind the downward slash of her blade. She attacked the slender fold where his tiny forelimb attached to his torso and it severed cleanly, the limb splashing onto the floor with a thud. Crimson blood spurted from the newly made hole and mixed with the water spewing from the distorted pipes.
The dragon howled and spun around, knocking Eve to her back. She skidded several feet in the gore-stained lake that now covered the decimated tile. He retaliated with a burst of flame. The inferno engulfed her, melting hair and skin from the top of her head down to her feet, boiling her in the flood that washed over and around her. The agony was such that she couldn’t voice a sound and when the flames ceased abruptly, she hoped for the relief of death.
But she wasn’t going alone.
Fueled by adrenaline and the animosity of a woman completely fed up with her life, Eve vaulted to her feet. She slammed into the beast’s neck and belly where she clung to the tips of his scales with one-handed desperation. The impact to her raw, burnt flesh was devastating and she cried out, nearly dropping her sword.
Alec was there before her, one arm banded around the dragon’s neck while the other hand gouged at the eyes. The beast flayed and screeched, whipping its neck to and fro in a vain effort to free himself of his attackers.
As Eve plunged the length of her blade through the vulnerable flesh created by the missing forelimb, she felt massive talons tearing into her spine. Her body arched, forcing her weapon the final inch needed to penetrate the dragon’s heart.
The beast howled, then exploded in a burst of white-hot embers.
Eve crashed to the ground, paralyzed by her wounds. She lay blinking, gasping, surrounded by the requiem created by the shower from the pipes.
The vibration of footsteps pounding through water assailed her, then Alec was pulling her gingerly into his lap.
“Angel…” His hands shook as he tentatively touched her ruined skin. “Don’t you dare die on me. You hear me? I just got you back, damn you–”
“Alec.” She tried to open her eyes, but the effort required more energy than she possessed. Shivers wracked her abused frame and rattled her teeth. The faint chemical tang of tap water filled her nostrils, as did the scent of ashes, demon, and blood. Her blood.
She could finally smell and taste the sweetness of it.
“I’m here.” His voice broke. “I-I’m here.”
“The Alpha did this.”
“The Alpha. He wanted… his son… he tried…”
“Shh. Don’t talk, angel.” A hot tear splashed onto her raw skin. Then another. “Save your strength.”
“We missed something in Upland,” she whispered, sinking into an encroaching blanket of darkness. The pain was fading, the fear receding. “Go back… We missed something…”