Eve of Chaos (Marked, #3) : Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

Evangeline Hollis watched with clenched jaw as a kappa demon served yakisoba—Japanese pan- fried noodles—to her mother with a broad smile. Eve guessed that the ratio of mortals to demons at the Orange County Buddhist Church’s annual Obon Festival was about fifty-fifty.

After three months of living with the Mark of Cain and her new “job” as celestial bounty hunter, Eve was resigned to the reality of Infernals mingling undetected among mortals. However, she was still surprised by the number of transplanted Japanese demons who had come out to play at the festival. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of them present.

“You want some?” her mother asked, holding out the plate. Miyoko had lived a mostly quintessential American life in the United States for thirty years. She was a naturalized citizen, a converted Baptist, and her husband, Darrel Hollis, was a good ol’ boy from Alabama. But she appreciated her roots and made an effort to share the Japanese culture with her two daughters.

Eve shook her head. “I want yakidango.”

“Me, too. It’s over there.” Miyoko set off, leading the way.

The festival was contained within the gated parking lot of the temple. To the right was a large gymnasium. To the left, the temple and school complex. The area was small, but still managed to hold a variety of food and game booths. A taiko drum was elevated in a yagura tower overlooking a space that would later showcase Bon Odori dancers. Children competed to win prizes ranging from live goldfish to stuffed animals. Adults hovered over displays of trinkets and homemade desserts.

The Southern California weather was perfect, as usual. A balmy seventy-eight degrees with plenty of sunshine and very few clouds. Adjusting her sunglasses, Eve relished the kiss of the sun on her skin and breathed in the scents of her favorite foods.

Then a foul stench wafted by on the afternoon breeze, assaulting her nose and ruining her rare moment of peace.

The putrid smell of rotting soul; it was unmistakable. It was a cross between decaying flesh and fresh shit, and it amazed Eve that the Unmarked—mortals lacking the Mark of Cain—couldn’t smell it. She turned her head, seeking out the source.

Her searching gaze halted on a lovely Asian woman standing across the aisle from her. A yukionna—a Japanese snow demon. Eve noted the Infernal’s white kimono with its delicate sukura embroidery and the detail on her cheekbone that resembled a tribal tattoo. In truth, the design was the demon’s rank and it was invisible to mortals. Like the Mark of Cain on Eve’s arm, it was similar to mortal military insignia. All Infernals had them. The details betrayed both which species of damned being they were and what their rank in Hell’s hierarchy was.

Contrary to what most theologians believed, the Mark of the Beast wasn’t something to be feared as the start of the Apocalypse; it was a caste system that had been in place for centuries.

Eve’s mark began to tingle, then burn. A call to arms.

Now? she asked with a mental query, exasperation clear in her dry tone. She was a Mark, one of thousands of “sinners” around the world who’d been drafted into service exterminating demons for God. She was expected to kill at the drop of a hat, but her mother was with her and they were at a house of worship.

Sorry, babe. Reed Abel sounded anything but. You’re in the wrong place at the right time. Her number’s up, and you’re closest.

You’ve been singing that tune all week, she retorted. I’m not buying it anymore.

She’d been vanquishing a demon a day—sometimes two—for the last several days. A girl needed more than just Sundays off when her job was killing demons. Why am I always closest?

Because you ‘re a disaster magnet?

And you’re a riot.

Reed—aka Abel of biblical fame—was a mal ‘akh, an angel. He was a handler, a position that meant he was responsible for assigning hunts to a small group of Marks. It was a lot like skip tracing. The seven earthbound archangels acted as bail bondsmen. Reed was a dispatcher. Eve was a bounty hunter. It was a well-oiled system for most Marks, but to say she was a squeaky wheel would be an understatement.

Dinner tonight? he asked.

After that wisecrack, cocky bastard?

I’ll cook.

She followed her mom, keeping an eye on her quarry. If I’m still alive, sure.

In the back of her mind, she heard and felt Alec Cain—Reed’s brother—growl his disapproval. Alec was her mentor. Once known as Cain of Infamy, he was now Cain the Archangel. She and Alec had a history together, starting ten years ago when she’d given him her virginity. Nowadays, his position as archangel had stripped him of the ability to have an emotional attachment to anything other than God, but Alec held on to her anyway.

What means more? he had asked her. When someone wants you because he can’t help it? Because of hormones or some chemical reaction in the brain? Or when he wants you because he chooses to want you? Because he makes the conscious decision to want you?

Eve didn’t know, so she was drifting along with him, trying to figure it out.

She was certifiably insane for stepping in the middle of the oldest case of sibling rivalry in history, especially since the three of them shared a unique bond that allowed a free flow of

thought between them. Eve often asked herself why she played with fire. The only answer she came up with was that she just couldn’t help herself.

I’m calling dibs on breakfast tomorrow, Alec insisted gruffly.

One-Eyed Jacks? No one cooked them like Alec. Grilled pieces of bread with a hole in the middle to hold a fried egg. Buttery and crispy, and served with syrup. He also toasted the centers and sprinkled them with cinnamon-sugar to serve on the side. Delicious.

Whatever you want, angel.

It was a given that Reed wouldn’t be around for breakfast, since dating two men at once meant that all three of them were sleeping alone at night.

The yuki-onna excused herself from her handsome companion and moved toward the gymnasium, taking the tiny steps dictated by the tight fit of her kimono and the geta wooden clogs on her feet. Eve was at an advantage with her attire. Her stretchy capris and ribbed cotton tank top didn’t impede her range of movement at all. Her Army-issue “jungle boots” were breathable and functional. She was ready to rock. But that didn’t mean she wanted to.

“I have to wash my hands,” Eve said to her mother, knowing that as a retired registered nurse, Miyoko would appreciate the need for cleanliness.

“I have antibacterial gel in my purse.”

Eve wrinkled her nose. “Yuck. That stuff makes my hands sticky.”

“You’re too fussy. How many dangos you want?”

“Three sticks.” The rice cake dumplings were grilled on wooden skewers and coated with sweet syrup. They were a childhood favorite that Eve enjoyed too rarely, which aggravated her disgruntlement. If the demon ruined her appetite, there would be Hell to pay. Seriously.

Eve handed over a twenty-dollar bill, then set off in pursuit of her prey.

She overtook the demon and entered the gym where picnic tables had been arranged to provide seating for diners. Dozens of festival-goers filled the vast space with echoing revelry—laughing, conversing in both English and Japanese, and eating. Mortals mingled with Infernal beings in blissful ignorance, but Eve noted every one of Hell’s denizens. In return, they knew what she was and they eyed her with wary hatred. The mark on her deltoid betrayed her, as did her scent. As rotten as they stunk to her, she smelled sickly sweet to them. Ridiculous really, since there was no such thing as a sweet Mark. They were all bitter.

Tucking herself against the wall, she watched through the tinted glass doors as the yuki-onna approached. From the forward vantage, Eve could see the demon’s feet hovering just above the ground. Backing up slowly, Eve rounded the corner to stay out of sight. A glass case was mounted to the wall at her shoulder, displaying trophies and a lone katana within its lighted interior.

Eve glanced around quickly, noting the distraction of the rest of the gym’s occupants. With superhuman speed, she pinched off the round metal lock with thumb and forefinger, and withdrew the sheathed blade. She held it tucked between her thigh and the wall, hoping it was more than a decoration. If not, she could always summon the classic flame-covered sword. But she’d rather not. Buildings had a nasty habit of catching fire around her, and she had greater

proficiency with the sleeker, moderately curved “samurai sword” than she did with the heavier glaive.

Her prey entered the gym and turned in the opposite direction, heading toward the restrooms just as Eve had guessed she would. Closing the women’s bathroom while food and drink were present in copious quantities was always a bad idea, but Eve didn’t have a choice. Her mother was waiting, and she couldn’t risk losing her target.

Her present dilemma was one of the many reasons why Marks weren’t supposed to have family ties. The sinners who were chosen were usually loners easily transplanted to foreign soil. Relatives were a liability. Eve was the sole exception to the rule. Alec had fought to keep her close to home because he knew how much her parents meant to her. He was also motivated by guilt, since their indiscretion ten years ago was the reason she was marked today.

The wheels of justice didn’t turn any faster in Heaven than they did on Earth.

When the bathroom door swung shut behind the demon, Eve followed. The mark throbbed hot and heavy within the skin covering her deltoid, pumping aggression and fury through her veins. Her muscles thickened and her stride altered. Her body’s reaction was base and animalistic, the surge of bloodlust brutal and addicting. She had come to crave it like a drug. Too much time between kills, and she became short tempered and twitchy.

Despite the rush, her heartbeat and hands remained steady. Her body was a temple now, and it ran like a machine. As she entered the bathroom, Eve was calm and focused. When had she become so at ease with her murderous secondary life? She would have to ponder that later, when she had some privacy and time to cry.

All of the stall doors were slightly ajar, except for the handicapped one at the far end of the room. The stench of decaying soul permeated the space. Affixed to the wall near the door was a tube that held a collapsible Wet Floor sign. She tugged it free and set it outside in the hallway, then closed the door and turned the lock. It wasn’t quite as useful as an Out of Order cone, but it would have to do.

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