Tari placed the binoculars down carefully beside her and looked up into the black sky. No moon, and the stars were faint pinpricks of light.
It was a good night for a hunt.
Tari slowly let her gaze travel from the single-story bungalow to her left, across to the mansion where Senator Patricia Fleming sat with her back to the large bay window, and to the well-lit house to her right, where a raucous party had ended an hour ago.
The immediate vicinity now resided in silence, broken by the occasional rustle of leaves dancing in the cool breeze. The only source of light came from the senator’s ornate desk lamp and the streetlamps along Victoria Boulevard.
Tari wasn’t even sure that anything would happen. The eventual attack on the senator was based on a hunch, and for a fleeting moment, she was worried that a different person would be the victim of another vicious ambush.
But she felt sure of her instinct. For the past several weeks, high-profile government officials have died under mysterious and savage circumstances. One murder may have passed Tari’s scrutiny, but not three. And the manner in which the third person died-stomach ripped to shreds and the head torn off and placed on a desk-was more than enough to set her internal alarms ringing.
It sure smelled of demon work.
A faint scream caught Tari’s attention. Looking through the senator’s window, she saw the woman stand up, holding her hands in front of her face just as the room went dark.
Tari launched herself forward, gaining speed as she focused on the window sixty feet away. The senator’s screams increased into a high-pitched crescendo of utter terror as Tari crashed through the window feet first, landing solidly on the large wooden desk. Senator Fleming had backed herself into a corner to the right, her hands still raised.
Tari’s sharp eyesight spotted the disfigured menace as it scuttled backwards to crouch several feet away. A shadow that was slightly darker than the blackness within the room, it was the size of a well-built Rottweiler. Except that this animal could stand on two legs, as it did now, and had bony hands with needle-sharp claws, which the demon flexed as it prepared to charge.
The horrid stench of sulphur and sewage made Tari’s eyes water, but she angrily blinked the tears away. "Senator, don’t move," she called out.
The senator’s screams had diminished to a soft whimpering, but Tari heard furtive movements behind her-the woman was ready to bolt.
"Senator Fleming, I said-"
Glass crunched as the terrified woman ran for the window. The demon tracked her progress, but kept its glowing yellow eyes on Tari, as if waiting.
A sharp intake of breath, then the powerful scent of copper and iron as blood flowed. Against her better judgment, Tari glanced over her shoulder-
-Then immediately turned around, her swords in both hands as the demon leaped. Crossing her blades into an ’X’, she slashed outwards, the sharp steel connecting with each skinny arm and slicing them off as she ducked. The demon sailed over her, out the window and into the backyard.
The senator, thank God, had had the good sense to hunker down below the windowsill. This was their chance. "Come on," Tari whispered urgently, grabbing hold of the woman’s arm and hauling her up to her feet. "Let’s get moving."
She obliged, allowing Tari to drag her out of the room and into a dark hallway. All the lights were out. "Which way to the front door?" she whispered.
"T--Turn l-l-left," Senator Fleming stammered. She was in shock. Tari couldn’t blame her.
She sheathed one of her swords and, holding the other in front of her, found her way to the large oak door. "Do you have a car?" When the senator didn’t answer, Tari shook her slightly. "A car. Do you have one?"
"Yeah. It’s in the public garage down the street, about three blocks away."
"Shit. " Opening the door, Tari looked around quickly-nothing was in sight. "Come on. We’ve got to hurry."
"What was that thing? A dog?" Senator Fleming asked as the two women hastened down the street. Although the streetlamps were still functional, they didn’t offer enough light and were too far apart to slow down the demon. Their only chance was within the brightly lit fluorescent building, three long blocks away.
"I’ll explain later when I get you out of here," Tari told her. "Keep moving."
Smelling blood, Tari glanced at the senator’s hand. "How’s the cut?"
"What? Oh, okay I guess." She held it up, covered in a blue and red material. "I tied it off with my scarf."
It would have to do for now. "I’ll take a look at it when we get to your car."
A sharp scraping noise behind her and to her left brought Tari’s gaze around to find the armless demon trotting after them, feet dragging on the road’s tarmac, and its thick black ichor trailing behind it like some oil slick.
"We’ll have to make a run for it," Tari said softly. "Don’t look back!" she cautioned, as Senator Fleming tried to look over her shoulder. "Kick your shoes off."
The woman did so, flinging one high-heeled pump in front of her, then the other. Without waiting for Tari’s signal, she jogged, picking up speed as she headed for the parking lot.
Smart lady, Tari mused as she raced behind her, glancing frequently over her shoulder at the demon, which did its best to catch up. It let out a long, low bellow, and by the amount of blood blackening the street, Tari guessed it was almost dead. Good riddance.
The lot was deserted; a sign on the booth stated that the attendant was taking a break and to please wait for the attendant’s return.
"Fuck that," Tari stated, hopping the bar and helping the senator over.
"God damn it! I forgot my purse and the keys are in it!" Senator Fleming exclaimed.
"Don’t worry, we’ll hotwire it."
They hurried upstairs to the third level, Tari reflecting on Murphy’s Law and how their means of transportation was the furthest away from the exit.
"There," the senator said, panting heavily from her exertion. "The sky-blue Lexus parked in the corner."
She ran towards her vehicle, but Tari slowed down, one sword up, the other clearing its sheath with a whispered hiss. She did a 360 degree turn, her steps light and deliberate.
That stench was here, on this floor.
Tari watched as the senator punched in the code to open her door, then got in and slammed it shut. She stared at Tari with fearful eyes, and then looked down, her hands all over the wheel and dashboard. She was trying to figure out how to take it apart. Good girl-it would keep her busy.
A raspy snarl came from the stairwell, and Tari turned to face the killer, her swords in front of her, bright and itching to carve some demon ass. The demon came straight for her, glancing briefly at the senator when she belted out a short scream, its sharpness muffled within the car’s interior.
Tari knew that even without its arms, it would still have a few tricks lurking behind its fiendish yellow eyes. Even so, she barely got her swords up to protect herself as the demon opened its mouth, emitting a shaft of hell-light straight for her head. The sulphuric-smelling aura deflected towards a nearby SUV, shattering its windows and scorching the entire side to burnt ash.
Then the demon leaped for her, its taloned feet outstretched and ready to tear her face off. She dove to one side, her swords up and swinging. One of them struck flesh and bone. With a thin scream of pain, the demon fell with a hard crash. But before Tari could move in for the kill, it was up on its one remaining leg and hopping towards the Lexus and the now frantic Senator, who was beating at the steering wheel with her fists. It wanted to complete its mission.
Tari ran after it, the larger samurai sword raised in her left clenched fist, the smaller female version poised and ready to strike if she missed in her first attack.
The first cut almost took the demon’s head off, while the second sword finished the job. Its body slowly crumpled to the ground, while the head rolled under a car next to the senator’s.
Tari fished the head out, pierced her sword into its maw, and rummaged for the holy water nestled in her pocket. Uttering a blessing, she sprinkled the demon head, watching carefully as it dissolved into smoke and ash, and finished the job with the rest of its body.
Satisfied, she turned back to the senator, whose wide blue eyes were glazed over in shock. She pulled on the driver’s side door, but it was locked. "Senator Fleming, open the door please."
"Just who the hell are you?" the senator shouted. "And what the fuck was that thing?"
Tari exhaled a soft sigh of exasperation. "If you open the door, I’ll explain it all to you. Besides, we need to get out of here."
"I’m not opening this door until you tell me what’s going on!"
Tari shrugged. She had expected as much and knew that Senator Fleming would change her mind soon enough. "Suit yourself. I’m not hanging around out here exposed." She started towards the stairs. "Good luck getting your car started."
Tari took five steps before she heard the door open and the senator call out, "Wait! Please!"
She turned around to see that Senator Fleming had stepped out of the Lexus, her gaze darting around furtively. "Are you sure there’s no more of those animals around?"
"No, I’m not sure-that’s why we need to go now." Tari moved towards the car; the senator scooted over to let her sit in the driver’s seat. Locking the door, Tari smashed the casing surrounding the ignition, and in a few short minutes, had the luxury car humming.
"Where are we going?"
"Some place safe." Tari pulled out her cell phone and hit a number.
It picked up on the first ring. "Talk to me," a deep, masculine voice answered.
"I’ve got her."
"No. It was a low class fiend, which was surprising since-"
In the distance, several low howls reverberated throughout the parking lot. Tari hesitated, listening.
"What was that?" Senator Fleming whispered.
Tari shook her head. She lowered the window slightly, pressing her other ear up against the crack. There it was again. "Zach, you hear that?"
"Yeah. Get your pretty backside in gear. Where are you?"
She gave him the location, and then listened to his last minute instructions. Pulling a wireless Bluetooth earphone out of her pocket, she secured the small device into her ear, while clipping the cell onto her belt. "Fasten your seatbelt, Senator," Tari advised, doing the same. "We’re not out of this yet."
With a growl, the Lexus peeled out of its parking spot, tires squealing as they fought for traction. A sharp turn to the left had them on the ramp leading down to the next level. As she gunned the motor, speeding towards the next ramp, Tari noticed several black figures racing and weaving amongst the parked cars, coming straight for them.
"Stay down, Senator," Tari told her.
"Oh my God!" the senator yelled. She curled up into a ball, keeping her head down and covered with her arms.
Tari gave a sharp flick of her wrists; the car responded beautifully, turning a 180 before heading down the next ramp.
"Zach, where are you?"
"Heading east on Rosedale Drive. Almost there-ETA four minutes."
"You’d better make that two."
One more level to go. As Tari made the last turn, something heavy landed on the roof, scraping the metal with an ear-splitting screech.
Senator Fleming was trying to scream, but the only sounds that came out of her mouth were hyperventilated breaths, as if she had been running a marathon. But she kept herself down and out of the way.
"Hang on!" Tari slammed on the brakes; the car stopped abruptly and the back end lifted off the ground. The demon flipped head over tail in front of her, landing several feet away. In moments, it got to its feet, but it was shaking its head, stunned. Without waiting for an introduction, Tari put pedal to the metal, The demon shrieked as 2,500 pounds of luxury vehicle ran over it, turning it into sludge.
Zooming down the last ramp before hitting street level, Tari glanced in the rearview mirror-three demons, all of them closing fast.
"Zach, three stinkers are on my tail."
"Forty-five seconds, gorgeous. You come on out, and I will take care of the rest."
Before the Lexus hit the street, Tari had the steering wheel locked in a hard right. The car skidded, its back end losing purchase before correcting itself. Fifty feet away, Zach’s black Ford pickup was a menacing shadow sitting in the middle of the street, the headlights twin beacons illuminating their hellish nightmare.
"Whenever you’re ready, sunshine!" Tari called out, driving past and then slamming on the brakes. She decided to stay in the car to keep Senator Fleming occupied; normally, she would be out there backing Zach up.
Three shots in quick succession, followed by three piercing shrieks of agonizing pain as the area lit up in a dazzling display of light. Zach did have that kind of effect, after all.
"All clear," he stated over the Bluetooth.
"We’re okay now, senator," Tari said gently, placing her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
Senator Fleming took a deep breath before looking up. Tari couldn’t see her face, but the smell of fear was potent. "Are you sure?"
"Sure as I am sitting beside you."
Senator Fleming slowly uncurled herself, her spine cracking as it settled into place. She looked out the window, and then behind her, letting out a short scream as Zach suddenly appeared at the window. "It’s okay. Zach’s a friend of mine. He took care of the other de-I mean animals."
Her eyes were wide. "How can you be sure? How do you know there aren’t more of those-things-running loose?"
"Believe me; Zach has a nose for this business." Tari rolled down the window as Zach leaned over, his blond hair falling across his pale features. "Everyone okay?" he asked.
"Yes, thanks to you. You did cut it a little close, though."
"You know me-I love making the dramatic entrance, saving the damsel in distress." He spared a quick glance at Senator Fleming before casting his gaze across the car. He whistled. "Sweet ride. Hers?"
"Yes, Mr. Discreet." Tari smiled. "But I will say that the car handled like a dream."
"I have to get back to my office."
Tari and Zach watched Senator Fleming, who was rubbing her injured hand. "I need to get my purse, my house keys are in it-"
"Senator, it’s too dangerous to go back."
"I need my purse, damn it!"
Tari recognized the first signs of shock setting in. "Listen, how about if Zach got it for you? Just tell us where it is."
The woman shook her head, slowly at first, then more vigorously. The second sign-denial-was kicking in. "No, I can do it myself. Just take me back."
Tari released the steering wheel and placed her hands on her lap. "You know we can’t do that."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because we don’t know if there are more demons roaming in the area," Zach replied.
"There are no such things as demons! Those were-were mutant dogs or something!" The senator was becoming more agitated by the minute, and Tari knew that if it continued she would have to subdue her-gently, of course.
"Okay, they’re mutant dogs." Tari glanced at Zach and shrugged. "Just how do you propose getting back to your office, on foot, if there are more of these ’dogs’ about? They’ll pick up your scent and hunt you down. This is why I’m suggesting that my friend get your purse and anything else you’ll need."
Tari had to give Senator Fleming credit-she thought about the idea for about four seconds. "No."
And then the inevitable question. "Just who are you, anyway?"
"Tari Merytmut. T he gentleman beside me is Zachariah."
He swept her a bow. "A pleasure, Senator Fleming."
"And you were at my office because-?"
"Because three of your colleagues are dead. And you were ambushed once before."
Senator Fleming reached up to turn on the overhead light, and looked at Tari closely. "How did you know that?"
"It’s our business to know. Now, before we get all cozy in the car, I’m going to take you some place safe. And-" Tari warned, when the woman was about to speak. "Zach will get your belongings. End of discussion."