There was a demon in McDonald’s.
And it had a powerful hunger for Big Macs.
Most days, I loved my after-school job. Tagging the soulless and the damned usually gave me a mad case of the warm fuzzies. I’d even given myself a quota out of boredom, but tonight was different.
I had a paper to outline for AP English.
“Are you gonna eat those fries?” Sam asked as he grabbed a handful off my tray. His curly brown hair fell over his wire-frame glasses. “Thanks.”
“Just don’t take her sweet tea.” Stacey slapped Sam’s arm and several fries fell to the floor. “You’ll lose your entire arm.”
I stopped tapping my foot, but kept my eye on the interloper. I don’t know what it was with demons and the Golden Arches, but man, they loved the place. “Ha-ha.”
“Who do you keep staring at, Layla?” Stacey twisted in the booth, looking around the crowded fast-food joint. “Is it a hot guy? If so, you better— Oh. Wow. Who goes out in public dressed like that?”
“What?” Sam turned, too. “Aw, come on, Stacey. Who cares? Not everyone wears knockoff Prada like you.”
To them, the demon looked like a harmless middle-aged woman with really bad fashion sense. Her dull brown hair was pinned up with one of those old-school purple butterfly clips. She wore velvet green track pants paired with pink sneakers, but it was her sweater that was epic. Someone had knitted a basset hound on the front, its big, sappy eyes made of brown yarn.
But despite her drab appearance, the lady wasn’t human.
Not that I had a lot of room to talk.
She was a Poser demon. Her astronomical appetite was what gave away the breed. Posers could eat a small nation’s worth of food in one sitting.
Posers might look and act human, but I knew this one could snap the head off the person in the booth next to her with little effort. Her inhuman strength wasn’t the threat, though. It was the Poser’s teeth and infectious saliva that were the real danger.
They were biters.
One little nip and the demonic version of rabies was passed to the human. Totally incurable, and within three days, the Poser’s chew toy would resemble something straight out of a George Romero flick, cannibalistic tendencies included.
Obviously, Posers were a real problem unless you considered a zombie apocalypse fun times. Only good thing was that Posers were rare, and every time one bit somebody, its lifespan was shortened. They usually had about seven good bites in them before they went poof. Sort of like a bee and its stinger but dumber.
Posers could look like anything they wanted. Why this one was rocking an outfit like that was beyond me.
Stacey made a face as the Poser moved on to her third burger. She wasn’t aware of us watching her. Posers weren’t known for their keen powers of observation, especially when preoccupied with secret-sauce awesomeness.
“That’s disgusting.” Stacey turned back around.
“I think the sweater is hot.” Sam grinned around another mouthful of my fries. “Hey, Layla, do you think Zayne would let me interview him for the school paper?”
My brows rose. “Why do you want to interview him?”
He gave me a knowing look. “To ask what’s it like to be a Warden in D.C., hunting down the bad guys and bringing them to justice and all that jazz.”
Stacey giggled. “You make the Wardens sound like superheroes.”
Sam shrugged bony shoulders. “Well, they kind of are. I mean, come on, you’ve seen them.”
“They’re not superheroes,” I said, falling into the standard speech I’d been giving ever since the Wardens went public ten years ago. After the skyrocketing increase in crime that had nothing to do with the economic downturn the world faced, but was more like a signal from Hell saying they no longer wanted to play by the rules, the Alphas had ordered the Wardens to come out of the shadows. To humans, Wardens had come out of their stone shells. After all, the gargoyles adorning many churches and buildings had been carved to resemble a Warden in his true skin. Sort of.
There were too many demons topside for the Wardens to continue to operate without exposure. “They’re people. Just like you, but—”
“I know.” Sam held up his hands. “Look, you know I’m not like those fanatics who think they’re evil or something stupid like that. I just think it’s cool and it would be a great piece in the paper. So what do you think? Would Zayne go for it?”
I shifted uncomfortably. Living with the Wardens often made me one of two things: a back door to gain access to them, or a freak. Because everyone, including my two closest friends, believed I was just like them. Human. “I don’t know, Sam. I don’t think any form of press makes them comfortable.”
He looked crestfallen. “Will you ask him at least?”
“Sure.” I fiddled with my straw. “But don’t hold your breath.”
Sam leaned against the hard seat back, satisfied. “So guess what?”
“What?” Stacey sighed, exchanging a woeful look with me. “What random piece of knowledge are you going to wow us with?”
“Did you know you can freeze a banana until it’s so hard you can actually nail something with it?”
I lowered my sweet tea. “How do you know these things?”
Sam finished off my fries. “I just do.”
“He spends his entire life on the computer.” Stacey pushed thick black bangs off her face. I don’t know why she didn’t cut them. She was always messing with them. “Probably searches for random crap for the fun of it.”
“That’s exactly what I do when I’m at home.” Sam rolled up his napkin. “I search for little-known facts. That’s how cool I am.” He threw the napkin at Stacey’s face.
“I stand corrected,” Stacey said unabashedly. “It’s porn you spend all night searching.”
The hollows of Sam’s cheeks turned bright red as he straightened his glasses. “Whatever. Are you guys ready? We’ve got some outlining to do for English.”
Stacey groaned. “I can’t believe Mr. Leto wouldn’t let us do our classics report on Twilight. It is a classic.”
I laughed, momentarily forgetting about the job I had to do. “Twilight is not a classic, Stacey.”
“Edward is definitely a classic in my book.” She pulled a hair tie out of her pocket, tugging her shoulder-length hair up. “And Twilight is way more interesting than All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Sam shook his head. “I can’t believe you just used Twilight and All Quiet on the Western Front in the same sentence.”
Ignoring him, her gaze bounced from my face to my food. “Layla, you haven’t even touched your burger.”
Maybe somehow I’d instinctively known I was going to need a reason to stick around. I sucked in a sigh. “You guys go ahead. I’ll meet up with you in a few minutes.”
“For real?” Sam stood.
“Yep.” I picked up my burger. “I’ll be down in a few.”
Stacey eyed me suspiciously. “You’re not going to bail on us like you always do?”
I flushed with guilt. I’d lost count of how many times I’d had to ditch them. “No. I swear. I’m just going to eat my food and I’ll be right there.”
“Come on.” Sam wrapped an arm around Stacey’s shoulders, steering her toward the trash can. “Layla would’ve been done eating by now if you hadn’t talked to her the entire time.”
“Oh, blame it on me.” Stacey dumped her trash, sending me a wave as they headed out.
I set the burger back down, watching Lady Poser impatiently. Pieces of bun and meat fell out of her mouth, splattering on the brown tray. My appetite was effectively slaughtered within seconds. Not that it really mattered. Food only eased the ache gnawing at my insides, never stopping it.
Lady Poser finally completed her feast of fatness, and I grabbed my bag as she ambled out the door. She plowed straight into an elderly man, knocking him right over as he tried to come in. Wow. This one was a real gem.
Her cackle could be heard inside the noisy restaurant, sounding as thin as paper. Luckily, some dude helped the man up as he shook his fist at the retreating demon.
Sighing, I dumped my food and followed her out into the late-September breeze.
Different shades of souls were everywhere, humming around bodies like an electrical field. Traces of pale pink and robin’s-egg blue trailed behind a couple walking hand in hand. They had innocent souls—but not pure.
All humans had a soul—an essence—good or bad, but demons weren’t rocking any such thing. Since most demons topside looked human at first glance, the lack of soul around them made my job of finding and tagging them easy. Besides the soulless factor, the only difference between them and humans was the odd way their eyes reflected light like a cat’s.
Lady Poser shuffled down the street, limping slightly. Out in the natural light, she didn’t look well. She’d probably already bit a few humans, which meant she needed to be tagged and dealt with ASAP.
A flyer on a green lamppost caught my attention. A fierce scowl and sense of protectiveness filled me as I read the thing. Warning. Wardens Aren’t God’s Children. Repent Now. The End Is Nigh.
Underneath the words was a crudely drawn picture of what I assumed was a rabid coyote mixed with a chupacabra.
“Sponsored by the Church of God’s Children,” I muttered, rolling my eyes.
Nice. I hated fanatics.
A diner down the block had the flyers plastered across its windows and a sign proclaiming they refused to serve Wardens.
Anger spread through me like an out-of-control wildfire. These idiots had no idea of all that the Wardens sacrificed for them. I drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. I needed to focus on my Poser instead of silently stomping my mental feet on my pretend soapbox.
Lady Poser turned a corner and glanced over her shoulder, her glassy eyes drifting over me, dismissing me outright. The demon in her didn’t sense anything abnormal about me.
The demon inside of me was in a hurry to get this over with.
Especially after my cell went off, vibrating against my thigh. Probably Stacey wondering where in the Hell I was. I just wanted to be done with this and go back to being normal for the rest of the evening. Without thinking, I reached up and pulled on the chain around my neck. The old ring dangling off the silver rope felt hot and heavy in my hand.
As I passed a group of kids around my age, their gazes moved over me, stopped and then swung right back. Of course they stared. Everyone did.
My hair was long. Big deal there, but it was such a pale blond that it looked nearly white. I hated when people stared. It made me feel like an albino. But it was my eyes that really caught people’s attention. They were a light gray, almost leached of color.
Zayne said I looked like the long-lost sister of the elf in Lord of the Rings. That was a huge confidence booster. Sigh.
Dusk had begun to settle in the nation’s capital as I rounded Rhode Island Avenue and came to a complete stop. Everything and everyone around me disappeared in an instant. There, in the soft flicker of the street lamps, I saw the soul.
It looked as if someone had dipped a brush into red paint and then flicked it over a soft black canvas. This guy had a bad soul. He wasn’t under the influence of a demon, but was just plain old evil all on his own. The dull ache in my gut flared to life. People pushed past me, casting annoyed looks in my direction. A few even muttered. I didn’t care. I didn’t even care about their soft pink souls, a color I usually found so pretty.
I finally focused on the figure behind the soul—an older man dressed in a generic business suit and tie, briefcase handle clutched in a meaty hand. Nothing to run from, nothing to be frightened of, but I knew different.
He’d sinned big-time.
My legs moved forward even as my brain screamed at me to stop, to turn around, even to call Zayne. Just hearing his voice would make me stop. Would stop me from doing what every cell in my body demanded I do—doing what was almost natural to me.
The man turned slightly, his eyes drifting over my face, down my body. His soul swirled crazy fast, becoming more red than black. He was old enough to be my father and that was gross, really gross.
He smiled at me, smiled in a way that should’ve sent me running in the other direction. I needed to go in that direction, too, because no matter how rotten this man was—no matter how many girls out there would hand me a gold medal for taking him out—Abbot had raised me to deny the demon inside. He’d raised me to be a Warden, to act like a Warden.
But Abbot wasn’t here.
I met the man’s stare, held it and felt my lips curve into a smile. My heart raced, my skin tingled and flushed. I wanted his soul—so bad my skin wanted to peel itself off my bones. It felt like waiting for a kiss, when your lips were moments away from joining, those breathless seconds of anticipation. But I’d never been kissed before.
All I had was this.
This man’s soul called to me like a siren’s song. It sickened me to be so tempted by the evil in his spirit, but a dark soul was as good as a pure one.
He smiled as he eyed me, his knuckles blanching around the handle of the briefcase. And that smile made me think of all the horrible things he could have done to earn the swirling void around him.
An elbow dug into my lower back. The tiny speck of pain was nothing compared to the exquisite anticipation. Just a few more steps and his soul would be so close—right there. I knew the first taste would spark the sweetest fire imaginable—a high for which there was no equivalent. It wouldn’t last very long, but the brief moments of pure ecstasy lingered as a potent allure.
His lips wouldn’t even need to touch mine. Just an inch or so, and I’d taste his soul—never take it all. Taking his soul would kill him and that was evil, and I wasn’t—
This was evil.
I jerked back, breaking eye contact. Pain exploded in my stomach, shooting through my limbs. Turning away from the man was like denying my lungs of oxygen. My skin burned and my throat felt raw as I forced one leg in front of the other. It was a struggle to keep walking, to not think about the man and to find the Poser again, but when I finally spotted her, I let out the breath I was holding. Focusing on the demon at least served as a distraction.
I followed her into a narrow alley between a dollar store and a check-cashing place. All I needed to do was touch her, which I should’ve done back in McDonald’s. I stopped halfway, looked around and then cursed.
The alley was empty.
Black garbage bags lined mold-covered brick walls. Dumpsters overflowed with more trash and creatures scurried along the gravel. I shuddered, eyeing the bags warily. Most likely rats, but other things hid in shadows—things that were worse than rats.
And a Hell of a lot creepier.
I walked farther in, scanning the darkening passage as I absently twisted the necklace between my fingers. I wished I’d had the foresight to pack a flashlight in my schoolbag, but that would’ve made too much sense. Instead I’d put a new tube of lip gloss and baggie full of cookies in there this morning. Real helpful stuff.
Sudden unease trickled down my spine. I dropped the ring, letting it bounce off my shirt. Something wasn’t right. I slipped my hand into the front pocket of my jeans, pulling out my beat-up cell as I turned around.
The Poser stood a few feet away. When she smiled, the wrinkles in her face cracked her skin. Thin slivers of lettuce hung from her yellow teeth. I took a breath and immediately wished I hadn’t. She smelled of sulfur and rotting flesh.
The Poser cocked her head to the side, eyes narrowing. No demon could sense me, because I didn’t have enough demonic blood flowing in my veins for them to pick it up, but she was looking at me like she was truly seeing what I hid inside.
Her gaze dropped to my chest and then her eyes flicked up, meeting mine. I let out a startled gasp. Her washed-out blue irises began to churn like a whirlpool around pupils that retracted into a thin point.
Crap on a cracker. This lady was so not a Poser.
Her form rippled and then scrambled, like a TV trying to digitally piece back together an image. The gray hair and banana clip disappeared. Creased skin smoothed out and turned the color of wax. The body stretched and expanded. The track pants and horrible sweater disappeared and were replaced by leather pants and a broad, muscular chest. The eyes were oval-shaped and churned like an endless sea—no pupils. The nose was flat, really just two holes above a wide, cruel mouth.
Double crap on a cracker the size of my butt.