Chapter V

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Boise Idaho, Present Day

JOHN CLEARED THE GROUND level of his house quickly. He found no one and nothing, so he crept up the stairs, looking for enemies. It wasn't exactly fun, it wasn't what he might call enjoyable, and yet somehow he only really felt alive when his life was at stake. I guess that's what led me down this path in the first place. The typical version of the American dream just wasn't ever enough for me. I always knew there was more, as if I was meant to live a different life.

Voices resounded in his head, accusing voices that told him he never really loved his wife and daughter, not if he always felt the need to go off and play tough guy all over the world. Clearly he loved the job more than the home life, and it had shown in his actions. He wondered if he'd ever given them enough of himself. Would they say, now, that he had loved them with everything he had in him? Why do I feel like having a wife and a child was a mistake, as if I was going against my own convictions?

More voices piled up guilt and regret and shame, telling him the only thing that had ever satisfied him had been this, stalking killers and thugs, making illicit deals in dark alleyways with unscrupulous men, selling power to the power hungry. The fact was, he was hungry for power too. He was addicted to it.

He peeked into the guest room, gun first. Nothing. Nothing under the bed, nothing in the closet. He felt like he was going through the same motions, the same drill he used to perform for Airel when she was only five or six, checking the room for monsters. See, sweetheart? Nobody's in your closet. There are no bad men in this house.

What was it that drove him to pursue this life? Why had there been so much secrecy over the years? It was like his own family didn't even know him, not really. Why was he so driven toward risk, toward grappling with rough and monstrous men in dark places?

Maybe it's just in my blood—that's all.

Was that it? Was it something inevitable, something he had inherited?

As he came back into the hallway at the top of the stairs, his ears pricked. What is that? He couldn't place the noise he heard. He thought it was coming from Airel's room—the last place he wanted to find something, the last place he wanted to see—but he didn't know what the sound was. He shook his head and trying to get a clear thought through his brain. He double-checked that the safety was off on his 12-gauge and walked toward the source.

There it is again. It sounded like someone choking. John swallowed. The door to Airel's room was open a crack. He was sure he had left it closed. The light from the moon, so out of place in this powered-down electric suburbia, washed out into the hallway. Shadows moved in its beams. Somebody's in there.

John's pulse quickened to a thunderous gallop, nearly deafening him as it pounded through his ears. He stood six feet away from the door to his comatose daughter's bedroom, thinking of his next move. He brought the butt stock up and crooked it tightly into his shoulder. He looked down the barrel as he raised it, drawing a bead on the door at just below head height. He couldn't control his breathing; his aim was inconsistent, bobbing up and down. He laid a finger across the trigger. He was ready.

But he wasn't ready for this.

"Cross," came a hissing whisper from inside the room.

It chilled him right down to his toenails. He felt the great tug of fear pulling him backward palpably, urging him to flee. "Step out in the hallway, bastard," he said. "I've got something for you."

The door edged a little toward the jamb the way it would when there was a sudden differential of air pressure in the house, like when the heat kicked on. Movement. Shadows in the darkness. And a smell of rottenness.

"Come out!" John commanded.

The door, which opened inward toward the bedroom and which was not a cheap hollow core but rather a solid pine slab, now exploded through the jamb into the hallway, ripping off its hinges. The intruder followed immediately and he was a big boy, towering over John by at least a foot, maybe more. It was hard to see details in the dark.

He raised the muzzle of the Mossberg and squeezed the trigger. The muzzle flash revealed something impossible. It was all black, unclothed. Its mouth—such as it was—was full of fangs. And it had a tail. He saw all this in the blink of an eye. This wasn't a man. It was something straight from hell.

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