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The Unlikeable Demon Hunter: Fall (Nava Katz Book 5) by Deborah Wilde (1)

1

The five leaked song titles from Rohan’s upcoming album that I found on the fan boards were either A) written about me because Rohan wanted to publicly profess his forgiveness, B) not written about me because I was no longer lyric-worthy, or C) written about me but in a completely unflattering light.

“Silver Lining” was the first title I learned about. A case for either scenario “A” or “C” depending on whether I was the silver lining to the tragedies Rohan had faced in his life or I was the tragedy. And if it was the latter, what was this silver lining’s name? Because she and I were going to have words.

Next was “Tourniquet of Phrase,” which was just mean and suggested that he had to staunch the words that came out of my mouth. Another one for the “C” column.

“Rhapsody in You.” As the Magic 8 Ball that I’d had for all of three days as a kid before Ari had dissected it to prove it contained neither magic nor science would have decreed in favor of the “A” column, “All signs point to yes.”

Unless the “you” in the title wasn’t me.

Moving on.

“Asp.” Like the death snake that killed Cleopatra? Did he think I’d be the death of him? Seriously? I’d saved his sorry ass from a magicless life. In fact, I’d probably saved him from a reality in which he moved to the top of a mountain in a fit of emo pique, went off-grid, and eventually ended up with a peg leg because he sucked at gardening and couldn’t produce a single fruit or vegetable. The point was, I’d fixed things. Badly, perhaps, but he also wasn’t a legless mountain man, so there. And he calls me the asp?

And then there was the final leaked title. The title that no matter how I spun it, never left the worst-case column, and in fact added a subsection of “get ready to be dumped and hard.” “Age of Consent.” Because we all knew how he felt about consent.

I decided to take it from the top again and see if perhaps reading them for a seventh time changed anything when a strange noise caught my attention.

I slid my phone into my pocket and peered across the kitchen.

Ari Katz, my twin brother, was humming. Sure, sunshine streamed in through the open glass sliding door, the late July sky was a picture-perfect blue with fat pillowy clouds drifting lazily by, and the pop song streaming off Apple Music was pretty catchy. It would have been plausible, nay, likely even, that another blond guy would bob his head to Katy Perry and hum while doing dinner prep, but my brother? The guy who’d been tortured, liked weird art, and whose magic was the literal manifestation of darkness?

Not on your life.

I dumped more oil and balsamic dressing on the salad in the large wooden bowl that sat on the counter in front of me, pondering that Sherlock quote about eliminating the impossible blah-blah-blah to get to the truth.

And the truth’s denim-clad bubble ass was currently bent over in front of the fridge.

Kane Hashimoto elbowed the fridge door shut, holding by a pair of tongs a raw slab of T-bone that glistened with marinade.

“Do you have…” he glanced around. “A plate?”

“Because your meat is dripping?” Ari asked in a mild voice.

“If it was?” Kane popped a hand on his hip, a cocky smirk on his face.

This foreplay made no sense, since no one, and I mean no one, at Demon Club was getting laid. While Kane’s words sounded like some kind of sexy challenge, his arrogance was belied by a look of light panic in his eyes. It seemed unlikely to stem from needing crockery.

Ari, to his credit and my astonishment, didn’t blush. He licked his lips. Slowly. Except again, less foreplay, more well, cheerful determination, like he was faced with a wild stallion he had to gentle and nothing was going to deter him from his path.

Kane broke out in a full-body blush: from his razor-sharp cheekbones, across his bare sculpted torso, and down into his waistband. He ducked his head; even his spiky black hair looked flustered.

My brother trained a fond expression on him and handed him a platter.

“That’s it.” I threw down the salad servers. “What is going on with you two? Because ever since you came back from that mission in Osoyoos, you’ve been all…” I circled my finger around at the two of them. “That.”

Kane transferred all three raw steaks from the marinade bowl onto the platter. “You need a life, babyslay.”

“We kill demons, remember? Lives are overrated. What I need is cold, hard information so I can stop driving myself crazy.”

Blue-gray eyes met dark brown as Ari and Kane shared a look.

“When’s the last time you spoke to Rohan?” Ari said.

I thunked the salad bowl into my brother’s chest, making his faded green T-shirt ripple. “Salt this. And don’t deflect.”

“There’s nothing going on.” Kane tossed the words out over his shoulder, oh-so-cavalierly, and stepped outside. He had the platter in one hand and the BBQ tongs in the other.

Ari shrugged and tossed a dash of salt onto our salad. “You heard the man.”

If I had a twin sister, I’d have had the details ages ago. No matter. I’d break him.

“If you two are dating, then tell me. Don’t pretend it’s not happening out of some kind of misplaced pity. Don’t want it. Don’t need it.”

Ari set the bowl on the dark granite counter next to the forks and plates I’d already gotten out, then plucked Ro’s favorite purple guitar pick from between my fingers. I blinked, surprised to find that I’d fished it out of the front pocket of my shorts and had been rubbing it like a lucky rabbit’s foot.

Again.

I swiped it back before my twin confiscated it in some misguided Rohan intervention.

Ari glanced outside at Kane on the flagstone patio by the stainless steel BBQ, grilling and singing away. “There’s nothing going–”

An alarm blared from upstairs, startling us.

“Mischa!” I yelled, sprinting for the foyer.

The three of us ran up the curved staircase to Kane’s bedroom.

Technically, the surveillance cameras we’d installed in Mischa Volkov’s townhouse weren’t legal. Neither was the B&E that had allowed us entry while he was at work. But what were pesky laws when the fate of humanity was at stake? I’d made the call and would make it again in a heartbeat.

Kane dropped into his desk chair, tapped the keyboard, and shut down the alarm on our side that had been triggered by Mischa’s garage door opening. He peered at the various room views displayed on his monitor, Ari and I hovering at his shoulder. “Look at his bed. The top sheet is messed up.”

Mischa wasn’t Rasha like Kane, Ari, and myself, but he’d spent some time in the military, given his hospital corners and blanket that was usually so taut you could bounce a quarter off it.

“About the right size and shape for a suitcase,” Ari said.

“The tracker,” I said.

“On it.” Kane brought up another window, this one displaying the blinking light that represented Mischa’s car’s turning off his street. “Wherever are you going?”

Over the past few weeks of watching Mischa, it had become clear he was a man of habit. Or a dude trying very hard to stay under the radar. He worked a boring nine-to-five job, shopped and did meal prep for the week on Sundays, and aside from the rare drink out with co-workers, didn’t socialize. Not once had he left his house on an early Saturday evening like now.

Ari and I sat down on Kane’s mattress and settled in to learn his destination in tense silence. Well, tense silence and cramming as much steak into our mouths as possible to temper the excruciating wait while Mischa drove along the highway for the next forty-five minutes.

Over the past month, we’d hit more dead ends in our investigation of what Rabbi Mandelbaum and his select group of Rasha were up to than a fairgoer in a house of mirrors. Ferdinand Alves and Tessa Müller were still dead, Sienna Powell was still missing, and we still had no definitive clue as to the rabbi’s agenda.

I crossed my fingers for a much-needed break, perking up when Mischa took the turn off for the ferries at Horseshoe Bay.

“He’s going to Bowen. Gotta be. What’s the wait time for the ferry line up?”

Ari opened a browser on his phone. “He’ll make the one at 7:10. With the crossing that gives us about a sixty-minute window.”

Kane nudged Ari’s knee with his. “You good to go?”

My brother wiped off his mouth and tossed his napkin on his plate. “Yup.”

Kane handed me an iPad mini, which I tucked into my waistband against the small of my back under my flowy blouse.

“There shouldn’t be any buffering problems,” he said.

They followed me into my bedroom where I stuffed my feet into runners, tugged on a pair of fingerless gloves, and pulled on a balaclava, carefully tucking all my hair under it.

“You sure you don’t want me to take you?” Ari said.

“My portal mishaps were so two weeks ago. I’m rocking Witch Magic 101. Later, gators.”

“Just make sure you don’t end up in the duck lake at the petting zoo again. That was a hard one to explain.” Ari squeezed my shoulder. “And be careful.”

“You, too.” I pulled them into a hug, rubbing my cloth-covered cheeks against theirs. “If this is the start of all hell breaking loose, I want you both to know how much you mean to me. And also that you’ll need to feed me second dinner later because I expect I’ll be hungry.”

Kane pushed me off of him. “I feel like I’m being groped by Deadpool. Go.”

I closed my eyes. Witch magic was based on the idea of infusion and elimination. All I had to do now was eliminate the spaces in between my start and end points. It was still somewhat surreal that I was now my own mode of long-distance transport, but I gotta admit, witches beat Rasha hands down in the magic department.

I took a deep breath and vanished, landing in the small forest clearing out back of the single-storied, very rustic log cabin that Mischa owned on Bowen Island, and startling the crap out of the herd of deer grazing there. As I didn’t end up all Han Solo embedded in the damn animals, all was well. Most of them bounded off, but one snorted, turning its disdainful gaze on me.

I flicked it the finger and strode into the press of Douglas fir.

Ari and I had spent the past couple weeks unearthing everything there was to know about Mischa, including that he owned this property. He hadn’t tried to hide the fact or anything, but then again, he probably hadn’t expected to be under surveillance.

I inched my way closer and closer to the house that was set well back in the woods. It had been cool under the tree canopy, but the temperature shot up pleasantly as I skirted the back lawn to the bushes under the living room window. I elbowed my way into the brush, doing my best to avoid any brambles, and cautiously raised my head to peer inside.

A man with shaggy brown hair sat sprawled on a battered sofa, texting. One of Mandelbaum’s Not-So-Merry Men, this hunter had actually trained at the Vancouver chapter years ago. He tossed the phone onto the cushions, rose, and padded into the small galley kitchen.

I slid my burner phone out of my pocket and fired off a quick text of my own. He’s here. My phone buzzed two seconds later with a thumbs-up emoji. I stashed it in my pocket, and portalled into the cabin.

“Howdy, neighbor.” I’d never spoken to this man before, so he wouldn’t recognize my voice.

Ilya Volkov’s double take and barked Russian profanity were priceless.

I planted my hands on my hips and cocked an eyebrow. “Come on. I nailed that landing. That was a solid ten by anyone’s standards. Even the Russians. Get it. Russians? ’Cause you’re… Okay, do you speak English?”

His furrowed brow got more slanty and scowly. “I don’t talk to witches.”

Ten points for recognizing I was a witch, and a big sigh of relief that he hadn’t realized I was also a fellow demon hunter, since the exact total of all female Rasha was me. Those fingerless gloves hiding my Rasha ring had been an excellent idea.

Even if he’d seen any photos of me, say in the center of a dart board owned by Rabbi Mandelbaum, my balaclava obscured my face so my identity was hidden.

“You just did. Talk to a witch. Because you answered–” I yelped and portalled behind Ilya and out of the path of the knives that rose of their own accord from the butcher’s block and flew across the cabin to impale me.

They thunked into the wall in a reasonable outline of my head and torso, quivering from the force of their embedment.

“Telekinesis! Aren’t you a special boy?”

Ilya spun around and was caught up in a net of my magic electricity. He struggled, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

I spared half a second to get the cabin layout and assess what else Ilya could use as a weapon. It was one big room, with the only inside door leading to a small bathroom. There was a rumpled bed in one corner, barstools shiny with age pushed haphazardly up against a high round table, and a living room area with a sofa and flat screen TV. The room smelled vaguely of cedar.

It was two steps up from “serial killer in the woods.”

“I just want to have a little chat,” I said. “And before you do something stupid like try and eviscerate me again, look at this.” I moved in close enough for him to see the iPad screen.

His twin brother Mischa was strung up by his wrists in a dusty warehouse, his mouth duct-taped, and his head hanging forward, sporting a fat purple bruise over his left eye.

Ilya’s mouth flattened out into two tight lines, but he didn’t speak.

Since he was still caught fast by my magic, I pulled him toward me, as if he was in a lasso. Yeehaw!

I got all up in his face. “Answer my questions and we all walk away. Fail, or hurt me in any way so I can’t give my team members the signal, and you’ll be attending Mischa’s funeral. Nod once if you understand.”

He glowered at me. His snotty disregard for his predicament was pretty impressive, given he was levitating a couple feet off the ground.

“Think it over. I’m gonna get a drink,” I said. “You want anything? No?”

Leaving him in my magic net, which honestly, was so low-grade it didn’t even qualify as strong-arming, never mind torture, I strolled to the fridge and flung the door open. I staggered back, throwing an arm over my mouth and nose and slammed the door shut, breathing in the scent of the orange floral perfume clinging to my sleeve. Sadly, trying to overpower the stank of the sour milk burning my nose hairs was a losing proposition.

The creepy stuffed owl mounted to the wall with the clock in its belly showed that I was twenty minutes into my allotted sixty.

My phone buzzed with a text from Ari. Took private water taxi.

Shit. That shaved a good fifteen minutes off my window of opportunity.

I dropped my magic and Ilya plummeted to the floor. “Talk.”

One of the bar stools flew across the room and smacked me across the small of my back. I howled, crumpling face down, the iPad slipping from my grasp to bounce on the hideous area rug that boasted a pine cone motif. The person who’d looked at that rug and thought “that’s exactly what I need to tie my room together” needed to be shot.

I pushed myself up onto my knees. “Your brother’s gonna die.”

“He’ll die for the cause.” Ilya raised a fist–to show his solidarity, or just toss a sofa at me, whichever. I wasn’t taking chances.

I blew him into the television. He splintered the screen, the set crashing sideways onto the floor. I snatched up the iPad and marched over to him, shards of glass crunching under my shoes.

“Fucking zealots.”

Give me a villain with verbal diarrhea anytime. Placing the iPad within easy reach, I splayed my hand on his chest.

Ilya stiffened and gasped, my magic wreaking havoc with his heartbeat.

“You feel that, right?” I said. “Arrhythmia. A classic. I could give you trippy visuals that would make virtual reality look like 8-bit. It’s all in the synapses and magnetic pulses. But for my purposes today? Lungs.” I ground my palm into his ribcage. “Ever burned your lungs? I made a troll cry last time I tried it.”

The troll had been on a murderous rampage and had killed two hikers. Killing him had been a mitzvah. This? Not so much.

Ilya’s skin turned bright red, his eyeballs bugging out of his head. This was fucking ruthless, but the fate of the world might literally be at stake if I didn’t stop Mandelbaum and I was desperate for a break. Ilya was my last resort.

I steeled myself and did what I had to. “Think of this as your own electric chair session. Your flesh is swelling and stretching. It’ll break soon, but I’m hoping you catch fire first. Apparently it comes with this cool popping sound like bacon frying, so if you’re not going to talk, I might as well get in some practice time.”

Ilya thrashed against my magic, his mouth slack, uttering garbled sounds.

“Did you want to reconsider? Great. What’s Mandelbaum’s agenda with the demons?” I dialed down the voltage coursing through his system.

He opened his mouth… and spat in my face.

My magic flared with a sharp snap before I strapped it back down under control, wiped the spit off with the hem of my shirt, and tapped a key on the iPad.

“Stage two,” I snarled into the iPad’s built-in mic.

After Kane, unrecognizable in his own balaclava, drove his fist into Mischa’s side, Ilya closed his eyes to block out our persuasion tactics.

I turned up the volume on his brother’s strangled screams, punctuated with meaty thwacks. “Don’t like it? You could stop this. Just say the word.”

Still nothing.

According to the Brotherhood, Ilya Volkov was dead. He hadn’t allowed Mischa to believe that lie and I’d been banking on his connection with his twin to get him to crack now. Since he’d snuck away from whatever nefarious agenda he’d been working on with Mandelbaum to come see Mischa, his brother had to matter.

Personally, I would never have even let Ari suffer stage one.

I glanced at the owl clock. Ten minutes left if I was lucky.

Ilya turned as bright red as a boiled lobster and blood leaked out of his nostrils.

On screen, Mischa’s tenderizing continued.

“Huh. Bones breaking really sound like the crack of a wooden baseball bat.” I let up on the magic for a moment in case he wanted to share.

Ilya wiped the blood away with his sleeve.

“You better have the balls to kill me because I’ll hunt you down for this,” he said through wheezing breaths.

“‘Balls?’ Don’t need them. It doesn’t seem like yours are helping you terribly much at keeping it together, does it?” Fuck. He was really going to sell his brother down the river. I cranked my magic up again.

Ilya’s hair was smoking–on his head, on his arms, on his face–but he didn’t say a word.

Seven minutes left.

“Stage three,” I said into the mic, holding the screen up once more.

Mischa’s face was a bloody pulp. His head lolled at an awkward angle. Kane raised a gun and fired it into Mischa’s knee.

Ilya flinched.

I mentally fist pumped. “Last chance. The cause or your brother.”

The pool of sunshine in the cabin had been dwindling down through our encounter to the last dull rays of twilight. The oppressive gloom now pressing in on us went a long way to setting the appropriate ambiance for the grand finale.

Ilya turned his face away from me.

“Shitty birthday gift for the two of you,” I said. “But kudos on your devotion to the cause. Kill him,” I said into the mic.

Words I never thought I’d say. Especially to a twin.

Several months ago, a Rasha had taken down a ward and facilitated the kidnapping and torture of my brother at the hands of a monster. I hadn’t been able to understand that kind of betrayal and yet here I was, the monster now torturing Ilya and blithely ordering Mischa’s death.

I truly was a Fallen Angel, trying harder and harder to hold on to some of my light.

The image jerkily zoomed in to Kane placing the gun against the back of Mischa’s neck.

“No! I’ll talk.” Ilya rushed his words, his eyes glued to the gun trained on his brother. By the time he neared the end of his debrief, he was practically slurring, his words were tumbling out of him so fast.

Good thing the iPad was recording all the important intel he was spilling because my entire focus was on keeping him pinned in place. Physically and emotionally, I was exhausted. My vision swam and my breathing was labored, but I didn’t want to release him until I had the full picture.

A car crunched over the gravel, coming closer up the drive.

My time was up. iPad in hand, I released Ilya, but in the split second before I could portal out, he used his telekinesis to blow me through the window.

Glass exploded around me, cutting into my flesh as I sailed into the air and landed in the driveway with all my weight on my left ankle. My foot twisted, giving way beneath me with a hot burst of pain, and I slammed forward, breaking my fall with my knees and one forearm on the gravel.

Glass sparkled in my lashes like diamonds, embedded all over my skin like I was a human disco ball. I closed my eyes, using my magic to buzz the pieces out of myself, while blood streamed freely from dozens of gashes, soaking into my clothes and providing an underlying silky texture for the swath of road rash striping my body.

The balaclava was ripped from my head.

Ilya squatted in front of me, blinking in confusion. “You? But…” Headlights from the approaching car illuminated the evil glee on Ilya’s face. “No matter. Now it’s your turn to die.”

“Ilya! Happy birthday!” A man exited the car, carrying a bright pink pastry box that looked cheerfully discordant against the tableau of broken window, bloody Ilya, and me, holding the iPad aloft in a weird Lady Liberty impersonation. The man was hale and whole, in perfect health except for the shocked expression on his face as he slammed the driver’s side door. “What happened?”

“Mischa?” Ilya did his second double take of the day.

I had one way out. Mischa hadn’t seen my face yet so there was only one person who could rat me out. I bracketed Ilya’s face with my hand and pulled on his memories of me, eliminating them.

The one good thing about Rohan’s absence was that it had left me with a whole lot of time to nail several witchy arts. This was one of them.

Ilya’s face went slack, his eyes unfocused. Memory wipe accomplished.

Go, me. Gelman seriously needed to start handing out gold stars to her star pupil. Or rugelach.

Mischa’s booted heels rang closer and closer. “Hey!”

Exit, stage left.

I landed on the back lawn at Demon Club, sweaty, bloody, and in copious amounts of pain, prepared to lay here under the cloudless night sky until I was either found by friends or eaten by wolves. I was tapped out and neither my magic nor my inflamed ankle were capable of getting me back into the house.

Ari discovered me about five minutes later. “Shit, Nee.”

He pulled out a jagged shard that had been too deeply lodged in my collarbone to pop out with my magic.

Fire blazed down through my shoulder. I turned my head and vomited onto the grass.

He carefully scooped me up and carried me inside. “Did you get the answers?”

I nodded, waving the iPad. The screen was cracked but it still worked.

Kane bounded into the kitchen. “How did it look? Am I brilliant or what?”

“She’s injured and exhausted. Wanna give her a minute?” Ari carried me into the TV room and lay me down on one of the oversized leather couches.

They got my ankle propped up with a cold pack, my back settled against a bunch of pillows, and let my accelerated Rasha healing magic do its thing.

Kane reheated some Hawaiian pizza for me, allowing me to shovel in three pieces before once more demanding I sing his praises.

“Yes, you’re a genius. Really.” I licked sauce off my fingers. “I’m not being snarky. Even I was uncomfortable watching it and I knew it was staged.”

Kane had used hundreds of surveillance photos we’d taken of Mischa to create a 3D rendering of his face. Knowing Mischa and Ilya’s birthday might be an occasion for them to meet up, Kane had mapped Mischa’s head onto the footage of a purely fictional torture session we’d filmed. My best friend Leonie had hooked us up with a couple of film student friends from university to help make it happen and man, were those dudes warped. We told them we were filming a short horror film, and they immediately had a dozen disturbing ideas to improve it.

Ari, having a similar build to Mischa, had played the body double when required, while the prop body the film boys had brought along had taken the brunt of the damage.

Kane had worked on the resulting footage around-the-clock, and that was what Ilya had watched. Kane had remained at Demon Club to stream it and stay in contact with me to switch up scenes as needed. Blessings for stage make-up, camera angles, and fake blood. Oh, and high-stress situations that smoothed over any suspension of disbelief issues.

“Play the audio file.” I scrubbed at my arm with the damp cloth my brother had brought me. Sure, I’d stopped bleeding, but being coated in dried, flaking blood wasn’t a step up.

Kane and Ari’s expressions grew grimmer and grimmer the more they heard of Ilya’s babbling.

The Brotherhood’s Executive was comprised of six rabbis who oversaw the organization. As its head, Rabbi Mandelbaum wanted to usher in a new era with some very big-picture thinking: in this day of CCTV and iPhones, the rabbi didn’t think that demons–or the Brotherhood–could be kept secret much longer.

Fair enough, except his plan was to strategically unleash the spawn on the world, swoop in, and play hero. He’d intended for Tessa, a witch in possession of dark magic, to cause an earthquake in a major urban center. By pinpointing the right stress trigger, she’d have set off earthquakes across the globe. Mandelbaum would then have deployed Rasha to all those cities, since demons were drawn to disasters. With those places compromised and on high alert, no one in the organization would have thought twice about the redistribution of hunters.

Then, using demons bound against their will to carry out orders, again thanks to Tessa’s black magic, Mandelbaum would unleash the second wave of spawn on the public in those cities where the Rasha happened to already be conveniently stationed. The Brotherhood would present itself as the only de facto option before any other militaristic group could even think about trying to pull rank. Not that the military could kill demons, since their deaths could only be brought about by magic, but Mandelbaum didn’t even want them getting a toehold on the situation. Plus, he could claim he was preventing unnecessary loss of life from the military.

In one stroke he’d reframe the ensuing terror of people finding out about demons into a huge relief that we’d had these secret heroes all along. The Brotherhood would be universally adored and Mandelbaum would be the most powerful man in the world.

Thanks to Ilya, we also finally confirmed what the deal with the modified gogota had been. An early–and abandoned–line of experimentation to try and make demons even more challenging to kill when they sent them after their enemies.

Like Rasha who strayed from the fold.

I hugged a pillow tight against my chest.

“Go team,” Kane said, his body rigid.

Ari sat with his head in his hands.

“You okay, Ace?” Ari had grown up being Team Brotherhood all the way.

“I knew something like this was coming, but to hear it spelled out so matter-of-factly?” He dragged in a shaky breath.

“The trouble with this plan?” I polished off my last crust. “Tessa’s dead. The use of dark magic burned her up from the inside about a month ago. Ilya said that Mandelbaum hasn’t figured out how to do this without a replacement witch.”

“I’d throw a parade,” Kane said, “except Ilya also mentioned that the rabbi was actively looking for one.”

Heaven help us if he found a woman who had that ability–either the one currently AWOL or the one trapped inside me.

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