After a horrible accident while filming the third episode of Project Demon Hunters, Audrey Barrett can’t get the if onlys out of her head. If only she hadn’t tried to play hero. If only she’d stayed out of the way. In the end, Michael sent the demon in question back to hell…but at a terrible cost.
The cable network has pulled the plug on the show, and they’re all out of a job. Now there’s nothing left to do but tie up loose ends. At least Audrey still has Michael, alive and by her side. But those loose ends are a clear sign — gouged deep in oak — that the demon who’s been making their lives miserable isn’t through with them after all.
They have no choice but to confront evil on its own ground. But if they can’t pin a name on this demon, nothing will save them…not even an ocean of holy water.
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Audrey had never been sent to the principal’s office when she was in school, but she imagined this must be exactly what it would feel like — to have some suit-clad authority figure staring at you from behind an imposing desk, complete with steely stare and steepled fingers. Even though she knew she had done nothing wrong, had only tried to stop a demon before it could get away from them all and disappear, she couldn’t quite ignore the impulse to blurt out her guilt about her inadvertent role in their sound operator’s accidental death on the site of the exorcism in Santa Barbara, just so she could accept her punishment and get this whole ordeal over with.
Luckily, Michael and Colin, as the show’s executive producers, were the ones doing the talking.
“The Santa Barbara P.D. ruled it an accident,” Michael said. He sat next to her, with Colin on his left, and while he certainly wasn’t smiling, he also didn’t look nearly as worried as Audrey felt. “A tragic accident — one that we’re all still trying to come to terms with — but there is absolutely nothing about Susan Loomis’s death that would require us to halt production.”
“So you say,” said the cable exec. He was a bony-looking man in his late fifties or possibly early sixties, with slicked-back gray-flecked dark hair and the sort of features you couldn’t imagine doing anything except frowning. In fact, he reminded Audrey a good bit of the actor who’d played Mr. Slugworth in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, and he gave her about the same creepy-crawly sensation down her back.
Actually, she thought her world over the past few days had felt a good bit like the terrifying boat ride in the same movie, the one where the boat kept speeding up and speeding up, and you were sure you were going to go shooting over a precipice at any second and get smashed to a pulp. Even now, her hands felt shaky, so she kept them clasped in her lap and prayed that the cable exec wouldn’t notice her extreme unease.
“However,” the exec went on, “we’re concerned about the optics of the situation. Your project barely got approved in the first place, and now — ”
“Now we’ve got notoriety on our side,” Colin broke in. His sandy brown hair was disheveled, and he looked as if he hadn’t slept in two days, blue eyes bleary and shadowed and even more bloodshot than usual. But his voice was firm enough as he said, “People are going to want to watch just to see what was so dangerous about the show that someone died during filming.”
Michael winced, and Audrey noticed the way his hand clenched and unclenched on top of his knee. Was he trying to prevent himself from clapping that hand over Colin’s mouth…or maybe giving him a solid punch?
She wished she could. Anything to make him shut up, to stop him from saying something that would cheapen the tragedy which had struck the Project Demon Hunters set. Ever since that horrible day, almost a week ago now, Audrey had been wracked with guilt, convinced Susan’s death was her fault. If only she hadn’t gone chasing after her, hadn’t flung that holy water in a vain attempt to stop her —
But no, letting their sound engineer go hadn’t been an option. She’d obviously been possessed by the demon that had inhabited young Kayla Vargas’s body until the moment when Michael drove it out while Colin’s camera kept filming. Why the demon had jumped into Susan, instead of any one of the other people who’d been present at Kayla’s exorcism — Colin, or Kayla’s mother Ariel, or Audrey herself — none of them really knew.
“Possibly that is a selling point in your crowd, Mr. Turner,” the exec said, voice dripping disdain, “but it is not the sort of thing this network wants to associate itself with. Production on Project Demon Hunters will cease immediately, and you will hand over the footage you’ve shot so far.”
“Like hell!” Colin spluttered, but Michael held up a hand.
“All right,” he said, tone level, but also with a touch of resignation to it, as if he’d known all along this was where their negotiations would probably end up. “But we get to keep half our contracted remuneration, since we’ve already shot half the season.”
For a long moment, the exec said nothing, only stared at Michael with cold gray eyes. Then he gave the slightest lift of his shoulders. “All right,” he said at last. “Needless to say, don’t bother to shop any future projects to this network.”
Michael didn’t blink. “That won’t be a problem,” he said smoothly. “There are plenty of other people interested in our work.”
“If you say so.” The exec glanced down at his iWatch; Audrey couldn’t tell for sure if he’d had a text come through, or whether he just wanted an excuse to get rid of them. “I’ll expect all your video files by the end of the day. You can make arrangements with my assistant to have them uploaded to our servers.”
Colin made a growling noise in his throat, but at least he only gave a single curt nod, didn’t try to protest.
“You’ll have them,” Michael said.
The exec didn’t appear impressed by this promise. He looked down at his watch again and said, “I trust you know the way out.”
Michael stood, so Audrey did as well, glad of the chance to escape. After a brief hesitation, Colin got up, too, but she could tell he only did so because he knew the exec would be all too happy to call security and have them thrown bodily out of the building if they didn’t cooperate.
In silence, the three of them left the exec’s office, passed the reception desk, and kept going.
Audrey cleared her throat. “Weren’t you supposed to talk to his assistant about sending over the files?”
“I can send her an email,” Michael replied. “I just want to get out of here.” By that point, they’d reached the elevator. He leaned forward slightly and pushed the button to summon it.
“If you think — ” Colin began, but Michael shook his head.
“Wait until we’re in the elevator.”
Their producer subsided, but Audrey could tell from the heightened color in his cheeks that he was about to blow a gasket. Luckily, he held in his ire until the elevator doors opened and they all got in. As soon as they were on their way back down to the ground floor of the office tower, however, he rounded on Michael.
“Way to bend over,” he snapped. “I didn’t know you liked taking it up the ass.”
Audrey felt her eyes widen slightly at the casual obscenity, but Michael appeared singularly unperturbed.
“Yes, we’re going to send them files,” he said calmly, and shrugged. “But so what? Files can be endlessly duplicated. It’s not like this is all on film or on tape, with only a single copy in existence. You’ve got everything we’ve done already captured on your hard drives. Who cares if we send them a copy?”
Colin’s angry flush subsided somewhat, and he even grinned. “I like the way you think.”
“But won’t they take legal action if you use the recordings without their permission?” Audrey asked. She hated to be the voice of reason here, but Colin was looking way too gleeful after hearing Michael’s comments…especially since they should all be remembering Susan’s tragic death, not the footage she’d helped film.
“Well, it’s not as though I’m going to upload them to my YouTube channel,” Michael said reasonably. “But things get leaked all the time. Who’s to say such a leak didn’t happen after the files were transferred to the cable network’s servers? It’s not as though this sort of thing hasn’t happened before.”
That was true enough. Audrey would be the first to admit that she didn’t follow entertainment news very closely, but even she could recall instances where servers were hacked and copies of eagerly anticipated blockbusters began to spread across the internet like viruses. It was so hard to contain information if someone was truly determined to get access to it.
The elevator reached the ground floor, and they all fell silent as they exited into the lobby and headed out to the parking structure. Once they were out of earshot of any passersby, she said, “But…what’s the point? I mean, I don’t like information being suppressed, either, but I also don’t see why you’d want to just release those videos into the wild, so to speak. And what about the rights of the people on those videos?”
Michael and Colin exchanged a single glance. Were they inwardly laughing at her naïveté? Colin, probably…she doubted Michael would ever do anything to mock or ridicule her. Still, the more time she spent with them, she realized the less she knew about how the business worked.
When Michael spoke, however, he sounded patient enough. “Edgar and Jackie Samuels signed a release. So did Ariel Vargas. The McGraths weren’t even in residence when we filmed at the house in Glendora, so that’s not an issue.”
He had a point, although Audrey still couldn’t push away her all her misgivings. “True, but I still don’t think they agreed to have their stories spread all over the internet.”
“If they were that worried about privacy, they wouldn’t have agreed to be on the show in the first place,” Colin said, both his tone and his expression singularly unconcerned. “And since we won’t be directly making any money off the leaked footage, it’s not like they can sue to be compensated.”
“We’ll edit everything within an inch of its life, Audrey.” Now they’d reached Colin’s Cayenne SUV and had paused behind it. Michael glanced around, but no one was in their immediate vicinity, so he obviously thought it was safe to continue. “We’ll blur faces, change names, make sure we don’t provide enough identifying details to allow viewers to locate the properties where the videos were shot. That should be enough to protect us from any liability. As for the rest….” He trailed off, and Colin picked up the thread.
“I’ve been angling for a show on Syfy forever,” he said. “I add this stuff to my reel, and I might have a shot at it. As for Michael, he’s always selling a book or a conference appearance. This will just get his name out there that much more.”
While Audrey really didn’t like how any of that sounded — it all seemed so mercenary — she at least could understand something of their motivations. Besides, she should probably keep her mouth shut. After all, they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place if it hadn’t been for her not stopping to think, trying to play hero. If she’d only waited, let Michael handle Susan’s sudden, shocking possession —
“We’re not going to do anything right away,” he said. His tone was gentle, and Audrey got the feeling that he’d guessed at some of what was going through her mind. “Just exploring possibilities. For one thing, we’ve captured some of the most spectacular paranormal phenomena ever caught on tape. We’d be doing the world a disservice if we allowed all that footage to get locked away where no one could ever see it.”
Those motivations sounded a bit more noble. And also, she was reassured by Michael’s comment that they weren’t going to do anything hastily.
“Okay,” she replied.
He reached out and rubbed his hand up and down her bicep. Just a quick, reassuring touch, but she appreciated it — and was glad they didn’t have to hide their relationship any longer. That was one good thing to come out of the aftermath of Susan’s tragic death. Michael hadn’t seen the need to hide things anymore, not when it was clear that Project Demon Hunters was going to get shut down. They’d all known that was the likely outcome of the tragedy, even if Colin hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the fact, had kept talking as though they could somehow turn this thing around. The meeting with the exec had been a formality, nothing else.
“We’re heading back to Pasadena,” Michael said. He gave Colin a careful look. “You going to be okay?”
“Oh, sure,” Colin replied. “After fifteen years in this town, I’m used to having my plans shit on at least once a month. Daniela’s coming over. No worries.”
Audrey had to admit she was surprised that their flirtation — if you could call it that — had survived the last nightmarish week. She really hadn’t thought their makeup artist would stick around, but Daniela was proving herself to be more attached to Colin than anyone could have guessed.
They said their goodbyes, and Audrey and Michael walked a few spaces down to his beat-up old Land Cruiser, which looked hugely out of place in a parking garage that had more than its fair share of Mercedes and BMWs and Audis. As soon as they’d gotten back from Santa Barbara, he’d turned in the rented Grand Cherokee he’d been driving, as if he’d somehow known the plug was going to get pulled on their budget any day now.
Silence for a few moments as they backed out of their parking space and then paused at the booth to pay their fees. Obviously, the exec hadn’t made any mention of having them ask his secretary to validate their parking.
Once Michael had his car pointed north on Barham Boulevard, he said, “How about you? Are you okay?”
Good question. Audrey honestly didn’t know how to respond, because her world had been so full of emotional ups and downs the past week, she still wasn’t quite sure where she was. “I don’t know. I’m okay. I think.”
He reached over and touched her left hand with his right. Briefly, because traffic was thick and he needed both hands on the wheel, but even that quick brush of his fingers against hers was immensely reassuring. It was hard to believe that he’d only been in her life for three weeks, more or less, because right then she couldn’t quite imagine what she would do without him.
True, some people might have liked to point out that she wouldn’t have been in any of these terrible situations if he hadn’t come into her life in the first place, but she knew that was disingenuous thinking at best. She’d made the final decision to join the Project Demon Hunters team; no one had held a gun to her head. At the time, it had seemed like an easy way to get the money she needed to pay off that pressing property tax bill. At least Michael had negotiated for them to keep half their earnings, so she could still get rid of that bill and have a bit left over. The thought should have cheered her up, but she couldn’t feel terribly excited about paying property taxes on a place that was currently uninhabitable, thanks to the destructive behavior of a bunch of marauding demons.
“I just keep playing it over and over in my head,” she said quietly as they passed Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Hollywood Hills facility. The irony of the location struck her; however, she didn’t want to dwell on that for too long, even though it was almost impossible to keep herself from wrestling with her role in Susan Loomis’s death.
Because it was Michael, he didn’t tell Audrey she was being silly or that she needed to let it go, even though they’d gone over this subject many times in the days since Susan had tumbled down the stairs at Ariel Vargas’s house. “You did the right thing,” he told her. “Or at least, your instincts were correct. We couldn’t allow Alastor out in the world.”
Alastor, the demon that had possessed Kayla Vargas for weeks, and who had jumped to a new host as soon as Michael flushed him out. Audrey didn’t bother to ask how much harm that particular demon could have caused, because she’d seen firsthand what Kayla had suffered while it had taken up residence in her body. If a demon was in a human host when that host died, then the demon was expelled, sent back to hell.
But at too terrible a cost.
Despite Michael’s reassurances, the guilt kept throbbing in Audrey like an unhealed wound. “I wish I’d tried to get to know her better.”
“Susan was a very private person,” Michael said. “Actually, I was sort of surprised she came with us to the wrap party at the Bahooka that one time, because she usually begged off that sort of thing.” He paused for a moment to take the sharp turn at the on-ramp to the eastbound 134 Freeway, then went on, “I feel partly responsible, too, just because I was the one who recommended her to Colin. I’d worked with her several times over the years and was impressed by how steady she seemed. I thought she’d be the perfect person on a project like this, just because I knew she wouldn’t get rattled easily.”
No, Susan had been almost preternaturally calm while filming demon attacks and exorcisms. Audrey had been impressed by her as well. “You still haven’t heard anything from her family?”
He released a sigh. “As far as I’ve been able to tell, she doesn’t have one. She lived alone. Everyone in the industry spoke well of her, but no one seemed to know much about her. We’ll have to figure out something soon, though, because the coroner isn’t going to hang on to her body indefinitely.”
Audrey couldn’t help wincing at that comment. It was only the truth, and yet she hated the thought that no one had come to claim Susan, that no one even seemed to notice she was gone. As terrible as it had been when her own parents were murdered, at least they’d had Audrey and her aunt waiting for their bodies to be sent home from Hawaii. And what a horrible time that had been, with Deb having to pay for the whole thing out of her pocket because there wasn’t anyone else to help. GoFundMes hadn’t even existed back then.
“But,” Michael went on, his tone turning brisk, “I figured I’d pay Susan’s funeral costs if necessary. That seems the least I can do.”
That was just like Michael, except Audrey wasn’t sure he should bear that burden alone. “Shouldn’t Colin pitch in?”
“He’s leveraged to the hilt, between his house and the car he’s driving and that fancy camera he bought to film the series.” He shook his head, as if troubled by his producer’s extravagance. “He likes to put on a big show, but he doesn’t have any extra money to throw around.”
“At least the cable network is paying half your salary,” she ventured, and he nodded.
“That will help, I have to admit.”
She was relieved as well. While it would have been nice to get the whole hundred thousand she’d been promised, fifty grand would still go a long way toward covering her expenses, even if she hadn’t yet tackled the problem of getting her house cleaned up after the demons had trashed it. Sooner rather than later, she’d need to start the whole process, but she was dreading the necessary first step of getting estimates for all the repairs. Without Colin’s production insurance to help her out, she was probably going to have to spend a large chunk of the fifty thousand she’d earned for filming half the season.
Maybe it was far too early in their relationship to be asking about money, but the question slipped out anyway. “And you — are you leveraged, too?”
Michael turned his head toward her, gave her a quick smile before he looked back at the crowded freeway before them. “No. I bought my house for cash, and I have a chunk of passive income from my books and videos and YouTube channel. Most of what I was going to earn from Project Demon Hunters would have gone straight into the bank.”
His reply made her feel a lot better. At the same time, she couldn’t help but be a little shocked that he earned enough to have paid cash for his house. How much had that been out of pocket? Three quarters of a million? More? She supposed a lot depended on when he’d bought it, but from the way he talked, she thought he hadn’t been living there for more than two or three years at the most.
Another brief touch on her hand, and he said, “We’re going to be fine, Audrey. I promise.”
She smiled, warmed by the way he had said “we.” Already he seemed to be thinking of them as a couple, of the two of them facing the future together. It was hard to admit the truth to herself, but she knew the way she’d dragged her feet on getting estimates for the work on the house was only partly because of the cost. No, it was also because she liked living with him, liked waking up in his bed, making coffee in his kitchen, even cooking breakfast there because she’d told him it was silly to keep going out when she could make some mean scrambled eggs.
“I know,” she said. “And I know I’ll get past this eventually. It’s just…rough.”
He gave her a sympathetic nod but was quiet, probably because they’d come to the place where the 210 Freeway ran into the 134, and the traffic was crazy. She took her cue and was silent while he maneuvered past the clot of cars and got over to the right so they could exit the freeway.
Funny how getting off at Lake Avenue now felt like coming home, even though she’d only been staying at Michael’s house for ten days. Or was it longer than that? The days had begun to blend together, what with everything that had gone on over the past few weeks. At any rate, she was starting to get to know the grocery stores in the area, the restaurants. But still, she had unfinished business back in Glendora, although at least her friend Rosemary swung by Audrey’s house there every few days, checking to make sure it was all right and that the demons hadn’t burned it down or anything.
They’d be doing me a favor if they did, Audrey thought ruefully as Michael turned down his street and pulled into the carport behind his house. At least that way I’d get the insurance money for it.
She knew she should have been ashamed of herself for harboring such a thought. It was the only home she’d ever known, the place her parents had worked so hard to fix up and keep in good repair. …
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