He’d dragged me aside earlier in the day to get some of my deep thoughts on being a daddy. Personally, when I’m being held up as the bastion of fatherhood, the world’s in sad shape, but I did what I could, and he seemed grateful. Nervous as hell, but grateful.

The winning T-shirt of the day proudly proclaimed MEAT IS MURDER. TASTY, TASTY MURDER. Evidence of my convictions was sizzling on the grill, and I stood over it like a king over his domain. Or something.

Esteban reached out a hand toward the lid and I swatted him with the flat of my spatula. “Ahht! No touchy the burgers!”

“But I’m starving!” My seventeen-year-old protege had hit a growth spurt sometime over the summer, topping my own six feet by a good couple of inches now, and it was entirely possible that he was about to faint dead away from not eating in the last thirty seconds.

“They’re not done, but if you think you can get past me, by all means, take one.” I smirked and picked up a pair of long tongs in my other hand, dropping into a fighting stance.

Will started up a chant of “Fight, fight, fight!” and Esteban made a grab for the long grill brush, arming himself. We moved out into the yard, never taking our eyes off one another. This was not the first time we’d done this. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time we’d done this today, much to my wife’s annoyance.

Right from the start, I had Esteban at a disadvantage. Sure, he had the longer reach on me, and both of my “weapons” were much shorter than my preferred katana. But I had two weapons to his one, and I hadn’t even started teaching him how to counter a dual-wielding opponent. Not many demons used swords; it didn’t seem a priority skill to teach.

The teen eyed me for a moment, trying to figure out the best way around my double threat. I stood, balanced on the balls of my feet, and just waited. He had no patience; it was one of his key flaws. He’d make the first move.

He tried to go on the offensive, I’ll give him that. But there was no way I was gonna let the upstart get the jump on me. He feigned a lunge that I pretended to fall for, and when he tried to reverse under my guard, I whacked the brush aside with the tongs and went for his throat with the spatula.

Just like that, it was over. He blinked, feeling the edge of the utensil pressed just below his jaw. If I’d put any force behind it at all, I could have drawn blood. I wouldn’t, of course, and that wasn’t the point. He understood the lesson. In a real fight, he’d be dead by now, just that quick. His shoulders slumped in defeat and he dropped his eyes to his sneakers.

“Hey.” He looked up. “You can’t be expected to know everything yet. We’ll work on dual-wielding next week, okay?”

After a moment, he nodded, and I pulled him into a headlock to noogie him good. Trying not to laugh, he pushed free and rolled his eyes, pretending to be too cool for such antics.

It had taken us the better part of the summer to get to this point, where he didn’t get all pissy and butt-hurt when I beat him and where I realized how to work around his stiff pride. I hadn’t killed him yet. Things were looking up. Now if I could just repair things with the rest of my crew.

Jesse hadn’t been the most jolly of sorts this summer for a variety of reasons. Okay, really, I’d been a right bastard for a lot of it. My temper flared at weird times, and even I’ll admit I was surly on my good days. Part of the object of this party was to convince the guys I really wasn’t a raging asshole. Maybe to convince me, too. It had been a rough six months, since that mess back in March.

I guess, no matter what kind of badass you think you are, having someone try to murder you kinda takes a toll on your mental processes. More than one person had mentioned PTSD, but never where they thought I could hear.

I caught Cole handing Will a five-dollar bill as we came back to the patio, and raised a brow at my little brother. “Et tu, Brute?”

“Someday, that kid’s gonna take you.”

“Not today.” I wiped the tongs on a towel and went about flipping the burgers over. “Hey, can you grab me the-” A chorus of new voices interrupted my train of thought, and I looked up to find Dr. Bridget arriving with date in tow.

At least, I assumed it was a date. It was a strange person of the male persuasion. A date? Since when was she dating? Granted, she was my wife’s best friend, but only my doctor. I guess she wasn’t required to file her itinerary with me, but… A date? Really?

“Who the hell’s that?” Will asked as we all turned to watch this new male in our territory.

“No clue. She didn’t say she was bringing anyone…”

This new fellow was… not like us. That much was obvious. We were proudly part of the long-hair-andtattoos club, my brother excluded. Marty had a kilt on and his tattooed arms were proudly displayed. Will’s mop of curly hair was barely confined under his ball cap, and my own ponytail was there only to keep my hair out of the grill.

This new guy was clean cut (okay, I can’t hold that against him given that Cole keeps his hair cop-short too) and there was gel in his dark hair. And a polo shirt? Khaki shorts? Loafers, for the love of little fishes! The moment he accepted a mango daiquiri from my wife, we knew this was a creature unlike any we knew. I mean, no straight guy drinks a daiquiri, let alone anything in mango. Not in Kansas City, the most “mid” of Midwestern cities.

“Guys, this is Cam.” Bridget presented him with a smile, but there was that hint of unease lurking in her eyes. She knew how ruthless we could be, if provoked. “He just moved to the area recently, and he doesn’t really know a lot of people yet, so be nice.” Her eyes were fixed on me at that point, and I held my hands up defensively.

“I’m a perfect angel!” Will and Marty both took turns choking, and I glared at them. Dr. Bridget glared back at me.

“I mean it, Jess. Oh, and he used to be a priest. Watch your language.” And with that she abandoned the newly dubbed “Cam” and retreated back to the female section of the patio. He watched her go for long moments. If he was smart, he was willing her to come back and save him.

The five of us looked at him, and he looked back, all of us trying to figure out the other. Finally, Will broke the silence. “So… Cam?”

“Short for Cameron.”

“And you were… a priest?”

Cam-short-for-Cameron fidgeted with his glass uncomfortably. “Not really. I went to seminary, but I left before I took my vows.”

The burgers were going to burn if I didn’t start paying attention, so reluctantly, I went back to tending the food and left the interrogation to my buddies.

“Does that mean you automatically go to Hell?”


“What?” He looked at Marty, all bewildered-like, truly having no idea that it wasn’t an appropriate question. I often think that Will was born without that little voice in his head that says “don’t.”

“Welcome to the area.” Cole finally took the role of responsible (and sane) adult, and stepped forward to offer his hand. Cameron shook it with a grateful smile, obviously pegging my little brother as a kindred spirit.

“Thanks. It’s hard, moving when you don’t know anybody.”

That led to the questions of why he moved, yadda yadda, and I might have actually listened with more than token interest if the last party guest hadn’t turned up just then. A totally uninvited party guest that I was not at all happy to see.

I didn’t know the name of the man who walked around the corner of my house with a broad smile, but I’d always called him Axel. Y’know, like “Sympathy for the Devil”? He wasn’t a Jagger, for sure, and that just left… oh never mind. It made sense when I did it, trust me.

On the surface, he looked rather normal. He wore faded blue jeans, a plain white T-shirt, and scuffed black boots. Granted, there was the blond Mohawk, the totally excessive piercings, but when you work at the kind of clothing store that I do, his appearance was rather tame. I knew it was a mask, a cover for what was truly underneath.

Axel was a demon. He was my demon, actually, intent on collecting my soul if he could. I hadn’t seen him in months, since I cast him out of my yard last spring. To say we were not speaking was putting it lightly.

He spotted me and made a beeline in my direction. “Jesse! I tried ringing the doorbell, but no one answered… Are we having a party?” For one horrifying moment, I thought he was going to hug me, but he stopped short. “Ooh, burgers!”

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