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The Demon You Know





Barbara Elsborg



COPYRIGHT


The Demon You Know is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.


Copyright @ 2017 by Barbara Elsborg

Cover design by B4Jay

Edited by Deco


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or transmitted in any manner without written permission from Barbara Elsborg, except for brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For all enquiries please contact Barbara Elsborg at bjelsborg@gmail.com

Image/art disclaimer: Licensed material is being used for illustrative purposes only. Any person depicted in the licensed material is a model.


Smashwords Edition

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Epilogue

About the Author



The Demon You Know


A good demon?


Ezra is a timekeeper in Hell, responsible for building and maintaining the clocks that tick away eternal torment. He’s never believed he deserves to be in Hell, and when the reason he’s there is revealed, he’s horrified...yet filled with hope. But is this just another form of torture? When Ezra’s given a chance to go to the surface, he’s determined to uncover the truth, but his fellow demons seem just as determined he won’t survive the journey.


A bad angel?


Roman doesn’t understand why an angel who failed his training the first time round has been given the job of policing paranormals in the UK’s capital city. He’s consumed by unhappiness. He might not be in Hell, but sometimes it damn well feels like it.



When Roman meets Ezra his failings come back to haunt him. Ezra makes him want to break the rules, but an angel protecting a demon? Discovery would bring an eternity of suffering, and with a boss none other than the archangel Michael, it'll take more than a miracle for the lovers to stand together.




The Demon You Know is book 3 in the Norwood series. All the books are stand-alone.


Book 1 – Jumping in Puddles (MF)

Book 2 – Bloodline (MM)

Book 3 – The Demon You Know (MM)



Chapter One


Ezra sat in the darkest corner of the room with his knees bent, trying to make himself look as small and inconspicuous as possible. He was the guy everyone liked to pick on when there was nothing better to do, and there was rarely anything better to do in hell than be mean to someone. He could see and hear the clock he’d mended a few days ago ticking on the rock wall opposite. No matter how hard he tried to ignore the sound, there was always ticking in his head. Along with howls and cries and screams. He didn’t know what silence was like.

Those who’d gathered for the meeting were looking at him and laughing, not in a nice way, and he wished he’d not brought his book because he knew what they’d do if they got hold of it. Hoping no one could see, he slid it out of the back of his pants, pushed it behind one of the standing lamps, and pasted a vacant expression on his face. Maybe Vine would arrive before they started in on him, though depending on the guy’s mood, he might not intervene.

The kick at his ankle came out of nowhere, and he gasped in pain.

Lamar sneered, his misshapen face twisting to something that made Ezra swallow hard. “Oh dear. Did we hurt little Worm?”

Ezra pushed to his feet and pressed his back to the wall.

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing here,” Cres said, a snarl on her long, spotty face. “You’re not going to make it to the surface. Why don’t you fuck off and let someone else have your place in the Corriendo?”

Ezra had been surprised to be included in the group of Corriendo demons—the name for those being trained to take a short run from hell to the surface—but he wasn’t going to give up his place. He hated everything down here: the vile smell that seared his throat, the incessant heat, the snakes, the insects, and every fucking demon that was down there. As Adder elbowed Ezra in the ribs, Lamar knocked his legs from under him so that Ezra fell onto the stone floor, and then they were all on him, kicking, biting, punching, and laughing hysterically. This time Ezra didn’t fight back. It was more important to keep their blows from inflicting damage that might stop him leaving hell tomorrow.

“Quit fucking around.”

Vine’s voice scattered Ezra’s assailants. He was a huge demon with shoulders twice the width of Ezra’s, with black horns and black teeth. Ezra slowly uncurled, shoved himself up to sit on one of the stone benches, flicked away an inquisitive snake, and wiped the blood from his lips with the back of his hand. Vine stared at him in disgust. Few seemed to look at him with an expression of anything other than disgust. Ezra would have worried if they had. The thought made him smile—briefly.

“Everything’s set for tomorrow,” Vine said, and a chorus of whoops erupted. “Last-minute instructions for those who need things repeating more than ten times.”

For a change, Vine’s gaze didn’t settle on Ezra but on Cham, who was a few bricks short of a fireplace and whose bulging eyes always looked on the brink of falling out.

“A reminder about hosts,” Vine said. “It’s wise not to stay inside one for too long, or you’ll leave them a gibbering wreck.”

“So what?” Cham giggled.

“People notice gibbering wrecks. The whole point is to stay under the radar while you do your collecting. Doesn’t matter if your hosts aren’t likely to fall. They’re a means to an end.”

Cham scratched his head. “The end of what?”

Vine rolled his eyes. “You use the hosts to find the right targets. Thieves, thugs, murderers, bankers, lawyers. The obvious fuck-ups. The ones like you.”

A ripple of chuckles circled the room.

“But if you opt for easy marks like drug dealers,” Vine said, “or someone who’s mentally halfway down here, that’s not going to impress anyone. Nor will taking from the weak and vulnerable—addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes. On the other hand, don’t waste your energy on someone who’d struggle too long without falling to your temptation. You’re not experienced enough to handle the righteous. On your first Corriendo, you should always play it safe.”

“Ah damn, I had priests on my list,” Lamar said.

Everyone but Vine and Ezra sniggered.

“If any of you lot collect from a priest, I’ll eat my foot.” Vine glared at Lamar. “Show good judgment. In the end, that’s what will count. You prove your worth on this run, and you have a chance to join a more experienced team. Don’t be greedy.”

Ezra found his gaze wandering to Adder, who was almost as wide as he was tall.

“You have five days from the time you reach the surface. Use it wisely. Collect with caution from at least ten people. If you don’t already know London, get to know it, watch its inhabitants, and learn how everything ticks. Information is power. The next time you go up, if you go up, you’ll be better equipped.”

Ezra’s heart pounded as excitement raced through his veins, but he kept his face blank.

“What if we don’t find anyone suitable to collect from?” Treen asked, a spider waiting to lick up the drool falling from her mouth. Is it only me the damn things bite?

Vine sighed in obvious annoyance. “You think everyone up there is an angel? The vast majority are much closer to us. Your tattoos will help you make the selection.”

How? There was far too much Ezra didn’t understand, which pissed him off since he’d never missed a training session. It crossed his mind that he was being deliberately kept in the dark. He coughed and voiced the question. “How do the tattoos help?”

Vine just laughed.

“What if they don’t help?” Treen asked. “What if we can’t find anyone to collect from? What if we can’t get close enough?”

“Then you’d be a pretty poor excuse for a demon,” Vine barked. “You’ve all had lessons in how to tempt.”

Ezra hadn’t. Fuck. Not that he wanted to tempt anyone.

“Use a secretary as a host and have some fun. Fuck his or her boss; fuck the coworkers. Only the married ones, of course. You—though it chokes me to say it when I look at some of you—are the elite. The best of our newcomers.”

You weren’t considered anything but a newcomer until you’d been in hell for fifty years. Ezra felt as if he’d been there for a hundred.

Vine scanned the room, letting his gaze settle on each of them apart from Ezra. “You—are the lucky ones. The vast majority of demons never have a chance to return to the mortal plane. You are our future vanatori—our hunters. Providing you meet the grade.”

“Except for Worm,” someone whispered.

All heads swiveled to face Ezra, including those of the spiders.

“He’s entitled to this opportunity,” Vine said.

But Ezra knew he wasn’t being treated fairly. The others knew far more about this than him. He suspected there had been meetings he’d never been invited to.

“If you fuck up and return having collected from less than ten, you don’t get another chance. If you make no collections at all, you automatically descend to level eight. If you run…” He stared at Ezra. “You will be brought back, and you’ll go into the pit.”

Ezra’s heart thumped painfully. He didn’t think any demon could read the mind of another, but maybe he was wrong.

“Tomorrow, meet at the gate at seven,” Vine said. “You’ll be given money. Enough to avoid having to steal. You do not want to come to the attention of the authorities, mortal or paranormal. Maintain your disguise at all times when you’re outside a host.”

“Why would we leave a host?” Adder asked.

Vine gritted his teeth. “I already told you, stay in them too long and you’ll damage them. People will notice, and if the wrong people notice, you’ll be hunted. There’s also a chance you might accidentally kill your hosts or they might make you feel ill. Not everyone is a match. Plus you could find them too difficult to control.” He stared at Cham. “The younger the hosts, the better. They’re usually the easiest to manipulate. Or the very old.”

“Can we fuck them?” Cham asked. “Can we make them pregnant?”

For once, Ezra wasn’t the subject of derision. The others laughed so hard he thought they’d choke.

“You’re going to be inside them, Cham,” Vine said. “How could you do that?”

Actually, Ezra wondered if there was some way you could, but since he wasn’t going to use a host, it was a moot point.

“But when you’re not using a host?” Adder asked.

Vine grinned. “Enjoy yourself. There’s no risk of leaving a litter of little demons. You’re dead, remember?”

Ezra shuddered.

“Also in the wallet will be the details of one item you’re required to bring back,” Vine said, “apart from the energy of ten people. Remember, failure means this is the last trip you’ll ever make. Whatever else you return with is up to you, but you’ll have to carry it. After you’ve made the ascent, you’ll realize that comfortable bed or fancy couch you planned to bring back just isn’t going to happen.”

“My Maserati.” Lamar moaned, and the others chuckled.

“Once you’ve passed through the gate tomorrow, you’re on your own until you reach the barrier. From there, you’ll be guided the rest of the way to your first hosts. Use them to orientate yourself on the surface. Only leave them when you’re unobserved. Make sure you maintain a disguise, or you’ll freak everyone out.” He glanced at Ezra. “Some of you have more work to do than others on that. Your tattoos will help you blend in.”

“How?” Ezra asked.

And why do I have more work to do than the others? As usual, Vine ignored him. Ezra hoped someone else would ask questions, but no one spoke.

Well, he’d do the best he could to blend in so well he’d disappear. Imagining the delight he’d feel in being on his own made his pulse pound in anticipation. Would demons be lurking in case anyone tried to run? They’ll have to find me first.

“I know I’ve told you this over and over, but I want you all to understand that if you’re not back here in the allotted time with the energy from at least ten souls, you’ll never be allowed out again and will automatically drop to level eight.”

Bile bubbled into Ezra’s throat As Vine spoke, Ezra could feel him staring.

“Don’t even think about running,” Vine addressed Ezra directly.

Shit.

“You’ll be caught and thrown in the pit.”

Ezra shuddered. He couldn’t help it. Level eight was bad enough from what he’d been told, though he knew better than to believe anyone. Air too hot to breathe, water too hot to drink, every surface sharp and jagged, but the pit was what they all feared—a place where they’d be torn apart over and over.

“And what’s the benefit for us in going to the surface?” Cham asked.

Vine gaped at him. “You like it down here? None of us can leave forever, not until the Battle Day. Until then, we take our pleasures when we can.”

Battle Day was supposed to be when the forces of hell and heaven met. Ezra couldn’t see that being possible. If all demons could do was send a small contingent up to the surface at a time, there would never be a way for everyone to get out. He hoped it never happened.

“Everyone have their ink time?” Vine asked.

Ezra’s appointment was in thirty minutes.

Vine glanced around. “Any questions?”

A million, but none Ezra would voice, because he knew they wouldn’t be answered. As they filed out, Ezra lingered, wanting to retrieve his book, but Vine still stood there after the room had emptied. Ezra fidgeted. Vine strode across the floor. He towered over Ezra; everyone did. Another reason Ezra was picked on. At six feet, he was the shortest demon he knew and one of the skinniest. Even the women were bigger and taller than him.

“You know I don’t approve of you going to the surface,” Vine said.

Ezra gave a small nod. He still didn’t understand why he’d been included in this group.

“But it’s been decided you’re to have this chance.”

Who decided? Why? He’d asked when he’d heard the news but had been told if he asked again, he was out of the Corriendo. He wasn’t going to risk pressing now.

“There’s something the matter with you.” Vine furrowed his brow. “I just can’t put my finger on exactly what.”

“Probably my cheeky grin,” Ezra blurted and winced. This wasn’t the time to be a smart-arse, but nerves always made him blab.

“I suspect it’s only your lack of respect for authority that’s gotten you this far,” Vine barked.

In other words, Ezra was bad but not bad enough. He didn’t fight, bully, cheat, or lie. He was just…awkward and asked questions.

“Well, lack of respect, your strange face, and your tight butt.” Vine narrowed his eyes. “I hear it’s rather popular.”

Ezra bristled.

“We’ve taken bets on you. On whether you’ll even make it as far as the surface.” He leaned in close until his mouth was against Ezra’s ear. “I bet against you.”

The prick was still chuckling as he walked out.

Ezra retrieved his book and tucked it into the back of his pants, pulling his dirty T-shirt over the top. He exited the room into a gloomy alley, tried to block out the screams and howls and, instead of taking the more direct route, decided to take another in case any of his fellow travelers waited to ambush him. There was no way he’d let anyone stop him going to the surface tomorrow. Quite an irony he’d spent all these years not being very good at being bad, and now he thought he’d do anything to make sure he didn’t miss this chance.

Shit. Was that what would trip him up? They’d tell him to chop someone to pieces before he’d be allowed through the gate? Maybe he needed to redefine his limits. There were some things he wouldn’t do.



Chapter Two


Out on the poorly lit, rancid street, no sky overhead but solid rock, he stepped over a big snake struggling to swallow a slightly smaller one and headed toward the row of places that did tattoo work. He employed his usual trick of keeping to the shadows, and when he sensed more than one person coming his way, he slid off the main path to detour through narrow passages or stepped into doorways to wait, steeling himself to ignore the skittering spiders. If they decided to bite him, he’d be in agony for hours.

Unfortunately, one alternate path took him past a place he’d been avoiding for days. Doubling back would make him late, so he took a chance and darted past Chili’s, only for a hand to come out of nowhere and catch him around the neck. Attached to the hand was one of Ezra’s worst nightmares.

“Ezzzra.” Marax pulled him into his embrace, tightening his arms around him like the big fat hairy gorilla he was, his palms gripping Ezra’s hips, talon-like nails ripping holes in his pants and digging into his flesh as he mashed Ezra against his foul body.

Ezra gasped. “I’m late for my tattoo appointment.”

“This won’t take long.” Marax yanked Ezra’s hand between them. Ezra had already felt the press of Marax’s rigid cock. “See? I just need your sweet mouth.”

It would be quicker and easier to give in. Even if he managed to give Marax the slip now, the demon would find him later and make him pay. Ezra let himself be pulled into the club. Once through the wooden door, the heavy bass pounded hard enough to make the rock floor vibrate and shut out the cries and moans of tormented souls. Ezra’s head throbbed out of sync, and he felt ill.

“Like a drink?” Marax asked.

Ezra shook his head, surprised he’d been asked.

“Well, I want one. Go to the room.”

Ezra picked his way around the edge of the crowded dance floor, being careful not to bump into anyone, though no one would have dared mess with him while he was in Marax’s club. Dozens of half-naked, sweaty men were bumping and grinding to the beat, some trapped in perpetual motion, doomed to keep moving until they dropped. Even then, they’d still be twitching as they were tossed to a lower level. He used to feel sorry for those who’d lost their minds; now he figured they were the lucky ones. No matter how bad the level was, they wouldn’t notice. Unless everything reset and…oh shit. Ezra’s imagination did him no favors.

The first time Ezra had danced at Chili’s had been one of the biggest mistakes he’d ever made. Not allowed inside until he was of age, he’d been desperate to gain entry to a club he’d thought was full of men like him, those who liked other guys. But he’d been catnip to a demon like Marax and flattered by his attention when he should have been scared. There had been no chance to find a guy like himself, one who was looking for kindness and companionship. Instead Ezra had been doomed the moment he’d walked in and fallen under the owner’s gaze.

Ezra came to a halt when he saw the crowd accumulating at the rear of the club. Guys were pressed together in front of an archway, waiting to be allowed access to a corridor of rooms beyond. The two guarding the way recognized Ezra and beat at the crush of men with sticks until they parted for him to pass through. Ezra was aware some of those waiting had probably been there for months, rolling and rocking together in one mindless body of lust. He shuddered.

He hated looking anyone in the face, hated the blank stares as much as the manic glints. Desperation swamped every emotion down here, satisfaction forbidden. You could never eat enough, drink enough, sleep enough, fuck enough. Unless you were one of the elite, you spent days working on hateful tasks that never ended. Nights were spent trying to find whatever it was you’d lost, even though you knew you’d never uncover the answer.

But Ezra was different from the others, not just inside his head but physically, although with no mirror to check, he didn’t know exactly how or why. All he knew was that he didn’t fit in, didn’t look right, and was repeatedly told he looked like a freak among freaks. He didn’t feel he was a bad person, just a hated one, and it scared him, though it didn’t make him any less desperate than the rest. Maybe it made him more.

As he moved around a bend in the corridor, the noise of the dance floor faded, replaced by the sounds of hoarse male grunts and groans accompanied by an occasional bloodcurdling scream. There were rooms on either side, all with chain curtains to obscure the view, though no screens were currently in use. Men in various stages of undress stood watching what was happening inside the stone cells, some of them jerking off, some fucking.

Trying to pretend you wanted the opposite of what you actually craved sometimes worked, but not always. Claim you’d like to be watched, and maybe the curtains would slide open. Ask to be whipped, not fucked, and maybe you’d avoid a whipping. But Ezra no longer tried to manipulate the situation. He let Marax and any other demon more powerful than Marax do what they wanted. Acquiescence was less painful. Sucking Marax off and sucking up to him had kept Ezra relatively safe.

He made the mistake of glancing into the room with the biggest audience around the doorway and saw a guy not much older than him being fisted. A big-muscled demon had almost his entire arm buried inside the smaller demon’s body. Ezra cringed and walked on. Sometimes tails were used for that particular activity. Only the older demons had tails and horns. Ezra checked his butt and head every time he woke, just in case.

Being fisted or tailed hadn’t happened to him—yet. Maybe because he’d suggested Marax would miss the tight clasp of his arse around his cock, but since most demons healed quickly, it wasn’t an argument that would hold forever. Ezra didn’t heal anywhere near as quickly as the rest, and so far he’d managed to keep that a secret. The wet slap of flesh and ragged cries followed him down the corridor to the room Marax always used. The air stank of sweat and cum, blood and shit, but mostly of fear and despair.

When he reached the room, he stopped. It was already in use. Three huge hairy guys, two of them with horns and tails, had a slim-built younger one suspended in a sling, his legs spread. One demon fucked him in the arse with a cock and tail while the other shoved his dick deep into his mouth. Ezra had been in that sling more times than he could count, but he didn’t have time to be trussed up today. If he was late for the tattoo appointment and missed his slot, he couldn’t go to the surface tomorrow.

For a brief moment, he wondered if that was Marax’s plan. The older demon had made an official protest when Ezra had been picked to be part of the Corriendo, but his request that Ezra not be allowed to go had been dismissed by the Sinta—this level’s council. No, Marax wouldn’t dare stop him going now.

The slim guy choked on the cock in his mouth, and a shudder ran through his body, immediately echoed by one running through Ezra’s. Ezra turned away and went into the empty room opposite. He undressed quickly and folded his clothes into a neat pile, sighing at the claw-tears in the sides of his pants. He slipped the book out of sight before taking off his shoes. The concrete floor was hot underfoot, but Marax liked him to be completely naked. Ezra leaned against the wall and massaged his cock to a semi hard state by thinking of tomorrow. The things I will see. The things I will do…

He jumped when Marax squeezed his shoulder. “Starting without me?” He shoved Ezra down by the head and kept his fingers twisted tightly in his hair as Ezra knelt in front of him. Ezra shifted until there were no stones under his knees, then pressed his mouth against the bulge in Marax’s pants. As he exhaled against Marax’s rigid cock, he looked up into a flat, hairy face with a nose as wide as his mouth. You are so ugly. Ezra longed for something beautiful in his life.

“Hmmm, yeah,” Marax moaned.

With seconds ticking away in his head, matching those coming from the clock on the wall, Ezra balanced an anxiety to get this over with against an awareness that Marax would make him start again if he went too fast. He unbuttoned and unzipped Marax’s pants, ignored the big hairy belly that flopped forward, pulled out his cock, and reached for his tail. He no longer thought about what he was doing when he was made to do this or when he was fucked; he just did it.

While he sucked and licked and teased and swallowed, his mind was on what he’d soon see for himself. He’d read about blue skies, green grass, multicolored flowers, rivers, the sea, mountains, but he’d never seen them. All color was muted below the surface. Tattoos were the nearest they had to beauty, plus fireworks occasionally if the senior demons were celebrating.

There were always horrible injuries when there were fireworks. Some self-inflicted when idiots held on to rockets and Catherine wheels. Maybe he’d be lucky enough to see fireworks on the surface, bursting in the air as they were supposed to and not in confined spaces in the middle of crowds. Fireworks, stars, the moon, clouds, lightning, thunder, rainbows, snow. Ezra longed to see them all, especially snow. He’d listened to others talk about the world above until he felt it was once his world too, but it never had been.

Ezra had been born in hell and lived there all of his life, though he’d never had anyone he remembered calling mother or father. Until he was sixteen, he was the youngest demon down there. No one came to hell before they were sixteen, no matter what they’d done, and after they arrived, they didn’t age. Ezra had been a novelty at first, passed from one demon-minder to another, until he became old enough to be thought a nuisance, and then he learned to keep out of sight as much as he could until he could blend in. But he somehow didn’t blend in.

Not as tall, not as strong, not as bad, and according to what he was told, not as disfigured. That should have been something to be pleased about, but anything that made him different was dangerous. And to be honest, many told him he was uglier than the rest. Ezra didn’t know what to believe. The words it’s not fair bubbled in his head, and he pushed them back. But it wasn’t fair. He’d done nothing to deserve being here.

Marax slammed his hips into Ezra’s face, driving his cock deep into his mouth, hitting the back of his throat hard enough to hurt. When Marax’s tail slipped from Ezra’s hand, the slimy thing wrapped around his throat instead. Ezra tried to pull it off and couldn’t. Hurry the fuck up. He swallowed against Marax’s shaft, doing everything he could with his tongue to make Marax come. Finally, the guy grunted, his tail unwound, and his cum spewed down Ezra’s throat—hot, thick, and sour.

When the last spurt had surged from his dick, Marax withdrew, tucked his cock and tail away, zipped up, and tipped the bottle to Ezra’s lips. Ezra took one gulp of warm, bitter ale before Marax pulled the bottle back.

Marax hauled him to his feet. “Come back here tonight after you get your tattoo.”

He must have caught the dismay on Ezra’s face because he scowled. “You think I’m going to let you go to the surface without fucking your little heart out?”

Ezra forced his lips into a smile. “I need to leave or I’m going to be late.”

“Then go.”

He heaved a sigh of relief when Marax walked out. He dressed quickly and slipped the book back in its hiding place. As he headed down the corridor, the group outside the fisting room yelled and whistled. Blood trickled between their feet, and much as Ezra told himself not to look as he passed, he couldn’t help it. The fisted guy’s guts were coiled on the floor in a steaming pile, and the demon who’d ripped them out through his arsehole was licking them and offering them to his victim to lick too.

Ezra retched and pretended he was coughing. Fuck. Demons could heal any injury eventually, even loss of limbs. Eternal torment was the whole point, but Ezra didn’t want to test that out by having his intestines extracted, thank you very much. Some demons loved pain because they craved sensation of any sort, but Ezra wasn’t one of them. He wondered if those like him just pretended to like it to fit in. Ezra might have tried that if he hadn’t known his reaction would give him away. Marax was well aware when he was hurting him, but Ezra hadn’t yet been pushed too far. He dreaded the day that would happen. He couldn’t afford to appear to be any more freakish than he already was.

The tattoo artist was waiting for him. Deacon was known as one of the best, booked up for months in advance and expensive, not that Ezra was paying for this. He felt lucky he’d been assigned to Deacon. The guy was even thinner than Ezra, with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. His horns had just started to grow.

Rumor had it Deacon didn’t have a single tattoo, though his skins, those demons he’d tattooed, were walking works of art. When there wasn’t much beautiful down there, a colored canvas was greatly admired. Ezra drew enough attention without sporting a tattoo, but a trip to the surface wasn’t allowed without one. They were part of the means of pulling energy from souls, though Ezra wasn’t sure exactly how that worked. He wondered if he’d not been told because they didn’t want him to stop it happening.

“Hi, I’m Ezra.”

“I know who you are,” Deacon said. “Strip and lie face down.”

Ezra put his clothes and shoes under a chair, his book hidden in the pile. He lay down and immediately relaxed against the softness of the couch. His bed was a stone slab with a tattered shirt serving as a pillow. He bit back his sigh when Deacon wiped his back with something that, for a brief moment, gave the illusion of being what he imagined cool to be like, until the sensation evaporated. Nothing down here was cool. The temperature never fluctuated. Though it was hotter at the lower levels. If eight was unbearable, what was level one like? Ezra hoped he never found out.

“What was that you used?” Ezra asked.

“Something to clean your skin.”

“If you could just keep doing that for another ten years…”

Deacon chuckled.

Ezra was filthy. Almost everyone was. He sometimes thought it was only dirt that held him together. Water was too scarce to waste on frequent washing. The water that did flow even at this level was too hot to use directly. The only way they had water to drink was to take barrel loads from the boiling torrent and leave them to cool. Not that the water ever really cooled. Not to the level of cold he’d read about. Cold that could crisp the air you breathed, make your lungs hurt, freeze water so you could walk on it, or best of all change water droplets into beautiful, soft flakes that fell from the sky and melted on your tongue. He wanted to experience all that for himself. Would he be lucky enough?

“What’s been chosen for me?” Ezra asked.

He knew Lamar would be getting snakes, because he’d done nothing but brag about it for days. Apart from demons, snakes were the only things down here. Lots of them, all sizes, all nasty. A food source for many, though not Ezra. Ezra had once tried to make one a pet, and just as he’d thought he’d succeeded, another snake had eaten it.

“Fire,” Deacon said.

“Oh.” Ezra knew he hadn’t kept the disappointment from his voice.

“Oh?”

Deacon slowly stroked the cloth down Ezra’s back all the way to his left buttock, leaving a delicious frisson in its wake.

“One of the others is having fire,” Ezra mumbled.

“Even so, fire was chosen specifically for you.”

Ezra’s heart missed a beat. “Specifically?”

“Because of your sin.”

Ezra gulped. “My sin?”

Deacon tsked. “Do you have to parrot everything I say? Your sin. The reason you’re down here.”

“But I was born here.”

The tattooist laughed. “No, you weren’t.”

Ezra’s tiny world began to twist and tumble. “I grew up down here.”

“You came very young, it’s true—the youngest I’ve known. The only demon I’ve ever watched grow and age, but no child is born here. There are no children. No one under sixteen. You haven’t noticed?”

“I thought I was different.”

“You are. You look more…normal than the rest of us.”

“What did I do?” Ezra whispered, wanting and yet not wanting to know.

“You set fire to your home and killed yourself, your mother, father, and three siblings, one of them a ten-week-old baby.”

I killed my family? Ezra thought he was going to be sick. He retched, and Deacon pressed a hand on his back.

“You’re no different from the rest of us. Did you think you were?”

I can’t have done that. I can’t. Ezra took a deep breath. Deacon was lying. No one was kind to anyone down here. Maybe this guy was into mental cruelty. I didn’t do that. I’d have remembered.

“You’re still in denial.” Deacon laughed. “Nothing unusual in that.”

Ezra’s heart ached.

“If you could choose your tattoo, what would you like?” Deacon asked.

You say that to me and expect me to carry on as normal?

“You must have thought about it,” Deacon said.

The tattoo? Or the reason he was down here? “Water,” Ezra whispered. “Flowing and frozen.”

Deacon’s fingers traced a path from his shoulder to his butt. Ezra felt nothing sexual in it. Deacon lived with a woman called Bel who had every inch of her body tattooed. People paid to see it.

I killed my family?

“Water would work,” Deacon said. “Sure that’s what you want?”

“I can choose? I thought you said fire had been selected for me.”

“Water and fire go together. I haven’t done water for a long time. I don’t see why you shouldn’t have it. Water’s stronger than fire. There’s significance in that.”

“I choose water.”

The pain began, and Ezra shuddered. He wasn’t a wimp but—shit that hurts. He tried not to move, aware it would make Deacon’s job harder, but it was difficult.

“Hurting?” Deacon asked, and Ezra didn’t miss the hint of excitement in his voice.

“Just feels unusual.” Ezra told a half-truth. “You can see this is my first time.”

He never complained about anything because it got him nowhere. Well, no, actually, that was wrong. Complaining always made matters worse. Ezra’s mantra was Keep my head down, do my job, and stay quiet. But sometimes questions slipped out, awkwardness prevailed, and he paid dearly for it.

I had a family? Could that be true? Ezra didn’t want to believe it because he didn’t want to accept he’d killed them. But no matter how much he told himself this was just a mind game, the seeds of doubt had been sown. It was true many were in denial, constantly complaining they didn’t deserve to be in hell, that they hadn’t done anything. Could he have wiped something like that from his memory? Had the exception been made about his age because what he’d done was so evil? Don’t believe him. He can’t prove it. Maybe he could, but Ezra wasn’t going to ask him. Not about that, anyway.

“How do the tattoos work?” Ezra asked.

“Didn’t Vine tell you?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’m not going to.”

Damn. “I didn’t want to make a mistake.”

“The tattoo won’t let you. You can trust it. You’ll feel it react. That’s as much as I can say. Did Vine tell you not to go for the easy ones?”

“Yes.”

“If I were you, I’d go for easy ones. At least you’ll come back with something, right? And don’t leave it too long to make up your numbers. You have to come back with energy from ten. There are those who’d like you to fail.”

Ezra already knew that, though he didn’t know why he was so disliked unless Deacon had just given him the answer—because he’d killed his family. But that didn’t make sense. Down here, plenty of people boasted about what they’d done. He doubted anyone would think less of him for such a crime. But I didn’t do it. Oh shit.

“What’s the climb like?” Ezra tried to distract himself.

“No route out is easy.”

He’d already picked up some information on the ascents by eavesdropping. One plus of being a timekeeper meant he traveled everywhere on this level and was privy to the conversations of many. Though he’d not been lucky enough to hear anyone talk about the stuff he really needed to know.

“I nearly gave up the first time,” Deacon said. “There was a long stretch where the path was no more than a narrow ledge cut into a sheer rock face. Just enough room to put one foot in front of the other. Two fell ahead of me. Next time I went, I took rope and rock pins, only to find the route was different and there was no section like that. But there’ll undoubtedly be places where you need to sling a rope around an overhang and swing across a gap. You have to be careful.”

That was more information than Vine had given him and nothing in there to trap him unless the point was to make him so anxious he fell. “Thank you.”

“Bring me some inks back if you can. Red and yellow.”

“If I can.”

Deacon worked long into the night, and Ezra staggered back to his slab of rock half-asleep. He had just enough self-awareness to check he was unobserved before he climbed up the rock face, pushed out a slumbering snake, and tucked himself deep into the crevasse. Most demons hewed themselves sleeping bays in the rock and over time added rooms, but Ezra moved every few months. He never felt safe enough to stay in one place. He checked that his stash of coins and his backpack were where he’d hidden them. While he still had strength in his arms, he pulled the clock into his hand and wrapped his fingers around it. Tomorrow was not a day to wake up late.

Sleep was one of Ezra’s few pleasures because he never dreamed, but Deacon had stolen that element of fragile peace. A family. Did I really kill them? He didn’t want to believe it was true, but something had burrowed under his skin to poison his memory of life here as a child. Had he made it all up? Was that why no one liked him?

The steady ticking echoed in his head, beat against his palm, and finally took him under.



Chapter Three


As Roman stared at Bastion, the only thing running through his mind was the thought of ripping off the vampire’s head. Bastion knelt in front of him, held in place by two of Roman’s agents, Inigo and Pye.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Bastion sniveled. “How many times do I have to say it?”

The vampire tried to get to his feet but was prevented from doing so.

Head off or heart out? Roman couldn’t decide.

“I made a mistake,” Bastion said.

“A mistake?” Inigo barked. “You didn’t mean to cut her into pieces? You were opening a letter and your knife slipped? You had a bad day at the office? You—”

“Inigo,” Roman snapped. “Enough.”

“I panicked.” Bastion tried whimpering. “I couldn’t stop drinking. So tasty. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

Roman was moved neither by the blood tears sliding down the vampire’s face nor by the apology.

“You think saying sorry makes everything right?” Inigo rolled his eyes. “Damn, I sucked you dry. Oh shit, I cut off your arm. Sorry. Oops, there goes your head. Sorry. I—”

“Inigo,” Micah said quietly from by the door. “Think before you next open your mouth.”

Roman understood why Inigo was so upset. What Bastion had done had brought danger to all vampires, and Inigo had once been a vampire, though if the guy didn’t shut up, there might be more than one person losing their head in this room tonight.

Bastion’s nostrils flared, as if he’d just scented Micah, Inigo’s partner, standing behind him. Micah was a faerie and irresistible to vampires.

“I was scared.” Bastion licked his lips, his mind no doubt drifting toward the idea of a faerie snack. Roman hoped he didn’t try it, because Inigo would kill him before Roman had the chance.

Roman tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “You held a mortal captive for a month and fed off her until you sucked her dry. To disguise what you did, you dismembered her and drove around London disposing of the pieces of her body. Your next victim was in the vehicle with you, unaware of what you had in the trunk or why you kept stopping. Do I have any of that wrong?”

There was a flash of defiance in the vampire’s eyes, but he swiftly switched back to groveling. “I was so hungry. I can’t think straight when I’m hungry.” He glanced at Inigo and then frowned. “I thought you were a vamp, but you’re not.”

“I used to be,” Inigo said.

“Used to be?” The surprise on the vampire’s face was the first genuine emotion he’d revealed. “What are you now?”

“Your worst nightmare,” Inigo snapped, which saved Roman from ripping his head off for revealing what he’d been sworn not to.

Bastion gulped. “You know what it’s like. We can’t help ourselves.”

Inigo glared. “I was nothing like you. I could control myself.”

Just not your mouth.

Inigo looked straight at Roman and smiled. I can control my mouth just fine. Ask Micah.

“Did you ever suck a mortal dry?” Roman asked Inigo. “Cut a body into bits with a chainsaw? Put the parts in the trunk of your car?”

“No, no, and no,” Inigo said. When he began to say more, one glare from Roman stopped him.

“Forgive me,” Bastion pleaded.

“Most vampires manage to exist without destroying innocent lives.” Roman pinned him with his gaze.

“Hardly innocent. She was a fucking prostitute,” the vampire said and tried again to get free.

Inigo and Pye kept him kneeling, and Micah uncrossed his arms where he stood in front of the door. The vampire had no chance of escape. One kick from horse-shifter Pye and he’d be unconscious.

“Is that supposed to make what you did acceptable?” Roman asked. “She was a young woman with a child who had to be taken into care when she disappeared. Now she has no mother.”

“I won’t do it again. I swear to you,” the vampire whispered. “Give me another chance. I promise not to let you down.”

“She wasn’t the first,” Roman said.

The flicker of surprise on Bastion’s face betrayed him.

“I’ll know if you lie,” Roman said, though he couldn’t always tell.

“Not the first.” The vampire cringed. “Okay, I admit I need help. A sanctuary. I’ll sign myself in. Please.”

“Stand up.” Roman nodded to Inigo and Pye. “Let him go.”

The momentary relief that swept across the vampire’s face as he thought he was being released flashed to concern as Roman stepped forward in the role of judge, jury, and executioner. There was only time for terror to flash in Bastion’s eyes before Roman drove his hand into his chest and yanked out his heart. Blood sprayed everywhere as Bastion exploded. All that was left of him was a sticky mess on the floor and over Roman.

“Next.” Roman walked back to his chair, wiping his blood-soaked hand on his pants.

“Wow,” Inigo whispered, wide-eyed. “Do you juggle as well?”

“Inigo,” Micah snapped.

“Sorry.” Inigo’s shoulders dropped.

“Want us to clean up before we bring in the next?” Micah asked.

“No,” Roman said. “It provides a pertinent message.” He glared at Inigo.

“I haven’t done anything,” Inigo blurted. “Well, I might have done something, but not anything that warrants you putting my heart on the menu. That was really impressive, by the way. I don’t think I want to see it again, though. He just sort of disintegrated. Oh God, can I do that? Would that happen to me?”

Micah stroked Inigo’s face. “Calm down. Roman’s not talking about giving you a message.”

“I might be if you don’t learn to curb your tongue,” Roman said. “You nearly revealed—”

“But I didn’t.” Inigo pretended to zip his lips.

Roman sighed. Inigo was incapable of silence.

The young guy Inigo and Pye brought in next took one look at the floor and audibly gulped.

“Name?” Roman asked.

“James Silva. There’s been some sort of mistake,” he babbled. “I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but I haven’t done anything. I really haven’t.”

“If you don’t know what I think you’ve done, how can you know you didn’t do it?” Roman leaned back in his chair.

The shifter sighed. “Tell me, then.”

“You’ve deliberately fomented trouble, setting one pack against another by raping a beta’s daughter.”

Silva’s eyes widened. “What? It wasn’t rape. I love Lizzie. She loves me. We aren’t the ones who’ve caused the trouble.”

“That’s not what her father says. Not what your alpha says.”

The wolf clenched his fists. “Ask her. Ask Lizzie. I didn’t rape her.”

Roman glanced at Micah and Inigo. They’d been tasked with finding Lizzie Furniss, but they shook their heads.

“Why can’t she be found?” Roman asked. “Is she dead?”

The wolf visibly paled. “Oh hell. If they’ve hurt her, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” Roman stared at him.

“If she’s dead, I don’t want to live.” Silva’s fists unclenched.

Roman felt a pang of discomfort that might just as easily have been a stirring of jealousy. He had a feeling the wolf was telling the truth.

“You’ll stay in custody until Lizzie is found and tells her side of the story.”

“Please don’t do anything that might get her hurt,” Silva blurted. “I love her so much.”

Roman wondered if this was a matter of old alphas baring their teeth, trying to dictate pack behavior. Times had changed. Youngsters wanted to choose their own mates. He nodded for Pye to take the wolf out. Silva had sounded sincere, but Roman wasn’t infallible. It was possible the youngster was merely playing the role of devastated boyfriend. The alphas of both packs had been furious with Silva and his girlfriend and with each other. Whatever the relationship between the young wolves, it had caused outbreaks of violence that drew too much attention to their world.

He dealt quickly with the next two cases. A gargoyle aptly named Tom caught spying on naked women at a hotel spa, and a faerie who’d stolen a vast quantity of sex toys, enhanced them with magic, and made a fortune online. Roman found it hard to summon up the enthusiasm to be stern. What the gargoyle had done—implanted himself in a Corinthian pillar, where he’d subsequently become stuck and only discovered because he’d told a friend where he was going, though not what he was going to do—had made Roman want to laugh, which was hardly appropriate. The faerie’s ingenuity impressed him. But the bottom line was that Roman was in charge of policing supernaturals in London and responsible for punishing those who transgressed. It was up to him to make sure the mortal population remained in ignorant bliss of who and what they lived alongside.

I hate my job.

Though to be fair, it wasn’t so much the job he hated as his life.

After Micah and Inigo left, Pye came back into the room.

“Want to go hunting?” Pye asked.

“Go home and pamper your mares.” Pye lived with seven female horse-shifters. Roman wondered how the guy had the energy to do his job as well.

“It’s a relief to come to work,” Pye said with a groan. “And no, I can’t read minds. I just know what you’re thinking because everyone thinks the same. My life sounds fucking fabulous, but you try living with seven women—all premenstrual at the same time—and fourteen kids.”

Pye might be moaning, but the guy was one of the happiest and most well-balanced that Roman knew. The offer to go hunting had been made to improve Roman’s mood, rather than through any desire to spend a night on the streets away from his family.

“Home,” Roman repeated, and Pye gave a melodramatic sigh as he left.

Roman made his way to the top floor of the building to the bathroom next to his office. He took a black plastic bag from under the sink, stripped off every item of clothing, including his shoes, then put them in the bag before tying the top. He blinked when he saw his reflection in the mirror, his untidy sun-bleached blond hair and blank face spray-painted with blood, a neat line where his shirt had stopped the splatter.

As he stood under the shower, he watched red-tinged water dripping from his fingertips. Was he supposed to feel something after an execution? Because he didn’t. Neither regret nor satisfaction. He knew what message he was sending but had no idea what lesson he was supposed to be learning, or even if what he was doing was effective. Maybe he was doomed to be unhappy for the rest of his existence. Not bad enough for the real hell, just hell on earth.

He squirted liquid soap onto his hands and began to wash. It took him a long time. It always did, because no matter how much soap he used and how long he stood under the water, he never felt clean. Maybe that was the point. He’d never be free from sin.

Well, guess what? I’m about to sin again.

He dressed in jeans, a soft gray T-shirt, and shoes from the supply of post-execution clothing in the closet and snagged his three-quarter-length dark-blue woolen coat from the peg in the office before he left. As he headed toward his car in the basement of the building, he had a call from Christian White, the vampire king of London.

“Bastion St. Clare,” Christian said.

“Executed.”

Christian hissed. “He was young.”

“He knew the rules. He was caught in the act. He killed and dismembered more than the one woman whose remains we found. He’d certainly have done the same to the passenger in his car.”

“He was mine to punish.”

“But you hadn’t. You were told what he’d done, and yet my agents were able to pick him up off the street.”

“That’s the fourth of my people you’ve had in front of you this month,” Christian snapped.

“Then tell them to stop breaking the rules.”

“Be careful, Roman. You—”

Roman snapped off the call. “Now where would be the fun in being careful?” he muttered.

He drove too fast. No cameras would capture his license plate. If the police stopped him, the case would only go so far before it disappeared. Roman was tempted to keep going, out of the city, into the country, straight into a tree. Except that wouldn’t kill him, merely wreck his car, and he rather liked his Jaguar F-Type. He was on edge, adrenaline surging at what was to come, though he knew what he headed toward would only satisfy for a while.

The house was an unprepossessing four-bed detached property on a winding lane. This was the fifth time Roman had been here, and he needed to find somewhere else. While he could bury many things too deep for them to be discovered, this was a side of himself no one should learn about. It made him look weak, and that wasn’t something he could afford.

So stop doing it.

He didn’t turn around.

He left the Jaguar in the pub car park and walked back down the quiet lane to the house.

The woman opened the door almost immediately. Her name was Janine Roebuck and her husband was called Simon, but they didn’t know Roman’s name, nor were they aware he knew theirs. They were ordinary mortals with an extraordinary business. “You know the way.” She gestured down the hallway.

Roman walked past the photos of the family pets, all golden retrievers, past the light and warmth and homey smell of the kitchen, and down the stone steps near the back door that led to the cellar. The man was waiting for him in the gloom. One of Roman’s stipulations. It had to be dark. Even though Roman spaced his visits, he could give no explanation for his lack of scarring. If questions were asked, he’d never come again, but then this would be the last time.

Simon was a big, strong guy, though nowhere near as strong as Roman, despite Roman’s slender frame. Simon was also a sadist, which didn’t make this the perfect match because Roman wanted to be hurt. Roman wanted the pain, which implied he was a masochist, though he didn’t enjoy it, so he wasn’t. This interaction had nothing to do with pleasure.

He took off his clothes and laid them on the chair before he walked over to the wall. He slipped his wrists into the leather restraints and sucked in his cheeks as Simon tightened them. They wouldn’t hold him if he wanted to get free, but it made it easier to stand there in acceptance.

“Fifty?” the man asked.

“One hundred.”

Roman caught the slight intake of breath, the hint of excitement. He was paying Simon to never question him. On Roman’s first visit, faced with a choice between a few destructive strokes or a longer period of increasing pain, he’d selected the type of whip Simon could wield for a period of time without shredding his back. They’d also decided on a safe word Roman would never use. Daniel.

The first strike made Roman shudder. The second made him gasp. Then pain wiped out everything. Each time the whip fell, it felt as though his skin was splitting open like a peach. Guilt, sorrow, regret, anxiety, fear—all swallowed by the agony racing along his veins. Before long, blood trickled the length of his back, over his butt, inside the crease of his arse, down his thighs.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. The words pushed past the pain, but he wasn’t even sure who he was saying sorry to. Probably to himself for being so stupid. His legs buckled, and he hung by his wrists. Each stroke of the whip sank deep into his soul, crippling his love for what lay hidden on either side of his spine. His pride, his joy, his downfall.

When the whip fell still and silent, Roman opened his eyes and the restraints were loosened. He staggered as he stepped away from the wall and put out a hand to steady himself. Simon knew better than to touch him.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Simon said. “I enjoyed that.”

There was a shower in the corner, and Roman took a deep breath before he headed toward it. More blood to wash off. More guilt to deal with, because wasn’t he encouraging Simon in unnatural practices?


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