My father talked about Atlantic City the way some women talk about their ex-boyfriends. No good. Avoid at all costs. Soul-sucking even without the demons. Never mind that we lived across the country where, by day we worked as mountain guides, and at night he trained me to use my magic—not that I was allowed to showcase it. That was a hard no. So I hid my powers the way he hid his bourbon—until his murder.
With nothing to lose, I hightail it to—you guessed it—Atlantic City, where I make a deal with a group of monster hunters, including Saxon, a hot hybrid that ignites a helluva lot more than celestial fire. If I survive the takedown of an all-powerful demon, they’ll help me investigate my father’s murder. So what’s a girl to do when the chips are down?
Be the Wild Card they never saw coming.
Double Down on Demons is the first book in Pandora's Pride, an urban fantasy series featuring a heroine with a tongue as sharp as her blade, magical adventures, and havoc-wreaking demons.
Completed urban fantasy series by Annabel Chase include:
Spellslingers Academy of Magic (10-book series)
Demonspawn Academy (3 books)
Magic Bullet (4 books)
Release date: April 6, 2020
Publisher: Red Palm Press LLC
Print pages: 219
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) creative magic (1) entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1)
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Double Down on Demons
There’s nothing like the Rocky Mountains in springtime. The sonorous chirps of hatchlings and the beauty of budding flowers that accompanied Mother Nature’s rite of passage seemed like a gift for surviving another hard winter in a challenging environment. These were the thoughts I entertained as I tripped over the carcass of a half-eaten vampire and went sprawling across the rocky ground.
Nice one, Callie. That would teach me to run and muse at the same time, at least in the dark. I dusted off the dirt that stuck to my scraped palms and sprang to my feet. At least the bottle of tonic I carried was still intact or my trek down the mountain would’ve been for nothing. I glanced back at what was once a feral vampire and wondered how it had met its fate. Although they were strong, they weren’t particularly hard to kill because they lacked the intellectual capacity of their non-feral counterparts. You just didn’t want one to catch you off-guard.
A squirrel scampered across the path ahead of me. It stopped mid-run, sensing my presence, and turned toward me with twitching whiskers.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not one of them.” I jabbed a thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the carcass. Feral vamps would suck down the blood of any animal in a pinch. Squirrels were no exception.
The squirrel carried on and so did I, daring to pick up the pace again. My dad would be pleased to see me back earlier than expected. He didn’t like me to spend the night anywhere on my own. Never mind that I was twenty-five and able to handle myself in the face of trouble. I hadn’t intended to leave the group, but one of our travelers needed a tonic after ingesting a few dodgy berries and I was faster on foot than my father. It didn’t matter how many times we warned travelers not to touch or eat anything along the path without consulting us, there was the occasional nitwit that couldn’t resist the call of a juicy fruit. ‘The sirens of the mountainside’ was how my dad jokingly referred to the lush berries.
Thankfully, I managed to cross paths with a healer we knew before I reached the nearest town and we made a swift transaction. I’d learned the hard way not to bargain with an unfamiliar healer. I was ten at the time and ended up with red pinpricks all over my face and body for a solid week. My father treated the experience as a teachable moment and refused to find the tonic that would alleviate the itchy and unappealing spots. Nathaniel, a friend and fellow guide, had taken pity on me and slipped me a salve from his pack supplies. Neither of us ever confessed to my father, so I healed faster and dear old dad felt that I’d been taught a valuable lesson. A win-win.
The snap of a twig made me halt in my tracks. I drew the shadows to me and shrouded myself in darkness. My pulse quickened and I tried to squelch my body’s natural reaction to danger. An accelerated pulse would draw a feral vampire to me faster than a moth to a flame.
I held my breath as a figure changed position, rising to its full height. “Blend all you want,” a voice said. “I can still smell you. When’s the last time you showered anyway?”
I released the shadows and, with them, a sigh of relief. “Nathaniel, what are you doing out here?” I was so happy to see him that I didn’t even punch him for the shower remark.
“Same as you, I expect. Returning to camp.” He emerged from the bushes. “Caught your scent a few miles back and ran to catch up.”
“Without even breaking a sweat,” I said, smiling. “And who says middle-aged men are meek and useless?”
He scratched his head. “Does anyone actually say that?”
“Certainly not about werewolves.” A middle-aged werewolf could handle himself in a threatening situation. Of course, some middle-aged werewolves were the cause of a threatening situation. Not Nathaniel though. He was, as my dad liked to say, on the level.
“You look tired,” Nathaniel said. “What gives? Running up a mountain doesn’t wear you out.”
“You know you’re never supposed to say that to a woman, right?” We continued the trek back to camp.
“I’ve known you since you were twelve, Callie. You’ll always be that sweet little girl that put a dagger to my throat and demanded to know whether I was feral.”
I smiled at the memory. “Hey, in my defense, I was learning and it was too dark to see your clothes. If you must know, I was making record time to save a traveler from themselves.”
“I thought maybe it was because of last night. You were yelling in your sleep. Tossed and turned so much that I thought you were wrestling a bear in your sleeping bag. Your dad turned you on your side and you calmed down after that.”
It had been a miserable night that I’d managed to forget until he mentioned it. “Bad dream.” I’d been somewhere I didn’t recognize with people I didn’t know. They were dropping dead around me, their skin covered in angry red welts. A young girl spoke to me in what sounded like Russian. She seemed to be both afraid me, yet also wanting my help.
“You seem to have a lot of those,” Nathaniel said.
“Can we pick up the pace?” I asked, ignoring his remark. “I’ve got a traveler with abdominal cramps who will really appreciate what I have in my pack.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Bourbon?”
“Ha! You wish.”
Shouts pierced the quiet air and Nathaniel and I exchanged looks of alarm. The noise came from the direction of the campsite. I didn’t wait to watch him shift—an act that fascinated my younger self whose limbs remained humanlike and whose bones only cracked when broken rather than transformed.
The large grey wolf bolted through the woods and I raced after him. By the time we arrived at the clearing, the fight was over. Three humans lay dead on the ground and my father…
“Dad!” I rushed to his side and dropped to my knees next to his seizing body. His abdomen had been sliced open.
“Look…out,” he said, barely able to manage the words.
I jumped to my feet and whirled around in time to catch a blade flat between my hands. In one swift movement, I yanked the blade to the left and dislodged it from the attacker’s grip.
“Weren’t expecting that, were you?” I would’ve smiled if not for the sight of my father’s mangled body on the ground.
The eyes that blinked back at me were unrecognizable. They resembled tiny black peach pits with no iris and no discernible pupil. Male but not human, not vampire, nor any of the other supernatural species that I knew. Before the attacker could react, I flipped the blade around and caught it by the hilt, sinking the metal into his gut. The monster doubled over and pitched forward with a grunt.
I spun back to my father and crouched on the ground beside him. Two functional eyes were all I needed to know the wound was deadly. Still, I had to try to save him.
“Nathaniel, do you see the emergency kit anywhere?” A quick glance told me the campsite was in ruins. The kit wouldn’t be easy to find.
Nathaniel held the limp hand of one of the travelers—Betty. A cheerful woman with a surprisingly deep laugh. He released her hand to walk over to me. He looked at my father and winced. “It won’t do any good,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Tears gathered in my eyes. How could this have happened? We knew the safest passages through the mountains. The closer you get to the cities—that’s where you have to take the most care. We only took brief sojourns into cities and towns, mainly for supplies or as part of our mountain guide service. We frequently assist travelers like Betty and her family to either Denver or Salt Lake City. Although those two cities are still inhabited and controlled by humans, the area in between is the domain of wild fae, werewolves, and the occasional witch. There’s no way to drive without the risk of losing your vehicle to a supernatural, so the desperate and the determined turn to us for help. We were always so careful, so alert. We’d built our reputation on it—and now this?
I swallowed a sob. My father wouldn’t want to see me break down. “I’m so sorry, Dad.” I bent over to kiss his forehead. From the neck up, he looked fine. The only evidence of a fight was the smudge of dirt on his cheek.
“Lark,” he whispered.
My chest tightened at the sound of his pet name for me. He rarely used it now, only when he was feeling particularly sentimental, which wasn’t often. Death’s door probably qualified.
“I’m right here.”
“Take. Green-Eyed Monster.”
A half laugh, half cry erupted from me. “Don’t worry about me. I know how to take care of myself.” I’d been taking the disgusting green potion my entire life, thanks to an inherited disease called Melchior’s Syndrome that affected a tiny percentage of mages and I was one of the lucky ones. When I was little, I started to refer to my morning medicine as the Green-Eyed Monster and the name stuck.
He opened his mouth again and a croak came out. Blood soaked his clothes and dripped into a puddle on the ground beneath him. He murmured something in a voice so low that I had to strain to listen.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I can’t hear you.” I tried to keep my voice from breaking, but it was impossible thanks to the emotions lodged in my throat.
“Trust no one,” my father said in a hoarse whisper. The words seemed to sap the last of his strength.
Pure, unadulterated agony washed over me as he fell silent, his eyes still staring at me, wide but unfocused. My dad was never unfocused. He couldn’t afford to be when we lived in the wilderness. It occurred to me that I’d lost focus and should’ve checked for more attackers. I blinked away droplets of tears. “Are there any more?”
“No,” Nathaniel said. “And I only smell the one.”
A single creature did all this damage in such a short span of time. He wasn’t even very big, but he had the element of surprise in his favor. My father was a skilled mage. He could’ve bested this thing with one hand tied behind his back in a fair fight.
I crossed the clearing and poked the creature with the toe of my boot. It didn’t stir. Definitely dead. “What is he?” I asked.
“No idea,” Nathaniel said. “Has an odd smell. Reminds me of a butcher shop.”
“I would think that would appeal to you.”
“Not a time for jokes, Callie.”
No, it wasn’t. I studied the lifeless body. Around his neck was a chain so thin that the metal was barely visible. Attached to the chain was a red talisman. I snatched the chain from his neck for a closer look. “I don’t know what the symbol is.”
Nathaniel peered over my shoulder. “That’s not a symbol. It looks like a poker chip.”
Nathaniel would know. His former pack took over a small casino chain in Colorado after the Plague.
“One of yours?” I asked. “It says Salt.”
He plucked the chip from my hand and turned it over to examine the back. “No, this one is from Atlantica City.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Are you sure?” Although I’d never been there, I’d heard a hundred reasons to avoid a visit and ninety-nine of those reasons had been listed by my father. Coincidence?
Nathaniel traced the outline of an image with his thumb. “See this?”
“A tall building?”
“And this.” He tapped the bottom half of the chip.
I squinted at the curved image. “Is it supposed to be a wave?”
“The ocean,” he said. “Atlantica City is right on the coast and the casinos are along the beach.”
“On the boardwalk,” I said. Yes, my father had spoken of the boardwalk and the city with its rough edges. It was once known as Atlantic City, but the vampires claimed the area and some genius with an ego the size of the Taj Mahal decided to rename it Atlantica City. Changed it just enough so that you knew it wasn’t the same place, that it was no longer inhabited solely by humans. Vampires have always had a foothold in Atlantic City, of course. And in Las Vegas. They just weren’t open about their control until after the Plague. Then they swooped in and made themselves at home and thousands of humans died in the process. Of course, that didn’t compare with the millions that died around the world.
“What are you thinking, Callie?”
I looked down at the creature. “It’s dangerous there.”
Nathaniel surveyed the campsite. “Here too, apparently.”
I slipped the chip into my pocket, leaving it on the chain. “It’s late. We should get to work.”
His gaze lingered on my father. “I’ll leave you to handle him, unless you’d rather I do it.”
“No, thank you. I appreciate the offer though.” We had to burn the bodies, otherwise we ran the risk of attracting feral supernaturals. I needed to use magic because a regular fire would be like a beacon to every creature on the mountain. A magical fire I could control and hide.
“Don’t blame yourself, Callie. A random attack like this could’ve happened to anyone.”
Except I doubted very much that the attack was random. I was certain my father had been a target. How his presence here was discovered was a mystery though. He’d been relentless in his efforts to live off the grid. He’d never told me the reason, but I knew his paranoia stemmed from his B.C. Life. Before Callie. My father was a man of many secrets and I’d assumed that I had a lifetime to worm each one out of him. Seeing him now, I realized how foolish I’d been to think that. How arrogant. Nathaniel and my dad often mocked me for my inherent youthful beliefs and now I understood why.
Nathaniel and I made a pyre on the site of the destroyed campfire. I carried over my dad’s body and placed him on top of the three travelers. They were stacked like the triple-decker sandwich that I used to order at the diner in Elton whenever we passed through town, where the waitress called me ‘sugar’ and never failed to remark on my healthy appetite. The fleeting comparison sickened me.
“Are you remembering the Wentworths?” Nathaniel asked.
Donald and Yvonne Wentworth were a couple in their sixties who needed safe passage to Colorado Springs to see their newborn grandson. A freak avalanche had claimed them and my father and I had to wait for conditions to settle so we could dig them out and burn the bodies. Even with magic at our disposal, it had been a tough day all around.
“Yes,” I lied. In truth, the Wentworths didn’t come to mind because they’d died of a known risk. It had been sad, of course, but sometimes the mountain made a claim and, that day, it had chosen Donald and Yvonne for sacrifice. This was different, I thought as I watched the hungry flames lick the last of my father’s body.
This was personal. It had to be.
Trust no one. Those were my father’s dying words. Not I love you or even a jokey it’s been a good run. It seemed a strange parting message, though my father had been a strange man. I’d always attributed it to being a mage among humans—Nathaniel and I notwithstanding.
Beside me, the werewolf stoked the fire. Even though the bodies had been reduced to ash, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. This was the last place I would ever see my dad alive.
The flames flickered with brilliant hues of blue and a deep purple that would’ve put the brightest gems to shame.
“I’m glad you weren’t there,” Nathaniel said.
My gaze flicked to him. “Right back at you.” Nathaniel had been with his former pack for the annual interpack powwow. It was one of the few events he still attended. Like me, he hadn’t intended to return to camp tonight. Life was funny like that.
“I’m sorry about Quinn. He was a good man—for a mage.”
I couldn’t resist a smile. Dad and Nathaniel’s favorite pastime was taking jabs at each other’s species. All in good fun, of course.
“No matter how good I am, no one will hire me now.” Guides that lost their travelers were bad luck—a ‘cricket’ according to locals. The only reason we’d avoided the label after the Wentworths was because of their advanced ages. It had been a risky venture from the outset and we all knew it.
“The mountain didn’t defeat you,” Nathaniel said. “This massacre wasn’t the work of nature.”
Neither were we, according to the humans here. They tolerated us because we were useful, but the fear in their eyes was ever-present. Even thirty years after the Plague, humans were still wary of the new world order, not that I blamed them. Where their species had once been the king of the mountain, they were now relegated to a much lower section of the food chain. It was hard to be superior to vampires when you lacked their dangerous fangs and werewolves with their impressive strength and speed. Even harder to be superior to the fae with their photokinesis and telepathy, and witches and mages with their magic. Hardest to be superior to angels—those masters of celestial fire—with their beautiful wings and enviable talent for healing themselves.
“Have you ever seen an angel up close?” I asked. I watched the blue flames overtake the purple ones. The colors seemed to be in competition for which one could dance higher.
Nathaniel snorted. “Why? Do you think one swooped down to claim your father tonight?”
“That’s a lovely thought.” And a pointless one. Angels no more collected the good souls for Heaven than the devil tortured the bad souls in Hell. Humans had learned that lesson the hard way once the pit of despair opened wide and swallowed the world in a single gulp. I was glad I wasn’t raised to believe anything. The truth tasted more bitter with the sugar coating scraped off.
Nathaniel opened his flask. The familiar smell of bourbon wafted over to me. My father drank bourbon the way the gods of old drank mead. I welcomed the bourbon to his lips. It was mainly when he drank too much that I heard the stories of his life before me—before my mother died. I didn’t mind that he’d pass out drunk and leave me to tend to the chores because the payoff was worth it. Another glimpse of the world outside our mountainous bubble. Of life before monsters ravaged the earth.
The werewolf offered the flask to me and I took a long drink. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the burn as the liquid coated my throat.
Nathaniel chuckled. “Like father, like daughter.”
I returned the flask to him. “This stuff’ll put hair on your chest.”
He chuckled again and drank. “I have a few bald patches I wouldn’t mind mending. Age will do that, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Ah, to be young with a thick head of hair.” His gaze settled back on the crackling fire. “What will you do now?”
“That’s easy.” I thought of the poker chip in my pocket. “I’m taking a trip.”
“No. Tomorrow I’ll leave for Atlantica City.”
Nathaniel frowned. “Is that wise?”
“You think my poker face isn’t good enough?”
He laughed. “I think your poker face is incredible. I think the fact that you don’t know how to play poker might put you at a disadvantage though.”
“You could come with me. Show me the ropes.”
He cast a sidelong glance at me. “You and I both know you’re not going there to gamble.”
“In a way I am.”
He held his palms in front of the flame to warm them. “You know I belong here, and so do you. Quinn wouldn’t want you chasing your tail.”
“You don’t care why someone murdered him?”
“You don’t know that it was intentional. That…thing could’ve stumbled upon the campsite like a feral vamp.”
“And the poker chip?”
“A coincidence. Wouldn’t be the first traveler from the East Coast.”
“Except that creature wasn’t a traveler. My father was hunted like prey.”
“Damn straight says me.” I squared my shoulders.
Nathaniel’s heavy sigh pierced my heart. “I don’t suppose I can talk you out of it.”
I stretched my arms over my head. “You know me too well.”
He nodded, his expression solemn. “Good luck to you, Callie. I’ll say a prayer for you.”
“I appreciate that.” I stared into the flames, looking for any sign of what the future might hold. I’d met enough shamans to know it was possible. Not tonight, it seemed.
I returned to a standing position, my knees cracking in the process. If there was to be no hints as to my future, then I had no choice but to rise up and meet it, starting first thing in the morning. I retrieved the chain from my pocket and fastened it around my neck. I tucked the chip under my shirt, but not before Nathaniel noticed.
“You’re going to wear it?”
I ignored the incredulity in his voice. “Yes,” I said simply. I knew what he was thinking—that it was odd to don the jewelry of your father’s killer. This was no random necklace though. I believed this poker chip held the reason for his violent death and that night I made a silent vow to stay in Atlantica City until I discovered exactly what that reason was.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...