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1

The worst day of my life started with an angel. An honest to goodness, wings and bright light kind of fucking angel. It might have made me feel special, an angel in my house, if it hadn’t scared the absolute, complete shit out of me.

“Ruthie, get your butt in gear or we’re going to be late getting you to school,” I called out as I refilled my travel mug with more coffee before preparing her bagel. I started thinking about the same things I did every day. What did we need from the store? Did I pack Ruthie’s soccer gear in her bag for after school? Was I enough as a single father to give Ruthie a good life?

Then I heard her scream. “Dad, help!”

I dropped the bagel and had my gun in my hand before even thinking about it. Busting into her room, I aimed at the man standing by my daughter. “How did you get in here? Who are you?”

“I am Wormwood, angel of the Lord,” he said calmly, smiling at me.

“Yeah, and I’m Santa Clause. Get the fuck away from my daughter.” Then I saw two things at once that changed our lives forever. A massive dog moved out from behind me—how, I didn’t know, because I was along the wall so there was no place for it to hide. And Wormwood—a terrible name for anyone—suddenly had wings.

I almost dropped my damn gun.

And then just about shit my pants when the large dog started growling.

“There is no time to explain, Lt. Eugene Harris,” Wormwood blurted as he glanced past me with wide eyes. “Your daughter is in danger, and we’re here to bring you both to safety.”

“Dad, he’s got wings,” my nine-year-old whispered as she reached out to touch them.

“Ruthie, stay back,” I barked, hating that I had to be that harsh when I saw tears build in her eyes. “Come here, baby girl. Nice and slow, away from the crazy man with the fake wings.”

“Will you take me to see my mom?” Ruthie begged.

“No!” My heart skipped several beats. Her mother had been dead for two years now. The only way to see her was— “You can’t take my child. She’s healthy. She’s not dying!”

“She is healthy but might not be for much longer if we don’t get you out of here,” the angel worried, his eyes full of fear as the dog growled louder.

“What does that even mean?” I snapped, glancing from him to the dog to Ruthie.

He opened his mouth to answer but there was a loud noise at the door of our apartment, and I heard it crashed in. I turned to face another threat, but the dog shoved me aside. What kind of breed was as big as a baby horse?

Two men entered our apartment, and since the front door was a straight shot from where I was standing, past the kitchen, I saw them immediately.

And their red eyes. Everything in me screamed they were evil, like raw, biblical evil. Of the two choices I had, the man with wings or the ones with red eyes—my decision was easy.

“Get us out of here,” I agreed, rushing over to Ruthie as I holstered my gun. The second I was close enough, I picked her up and moved her head against my chest as I looked at Wormwood. The two men raced into the room and the dog attacked, one of them easily smacking the animal away. It cried out in pain and fell to the floor.

Who defeats a massive dog like that?

“Don’t be afraid.” He took my hand and looked at the dog. In the blink of an eye, we weren’t in our apartment anymore, but standing outside of a massive building that looked like a dorm or school. Then angel rushed over to the dog and put his hands on it. “I’ve got you, my friend. You’re going to be fine, Braedan.”

The dog took in a huge breath, shaking as if something was happening to him that I couldn’t see. Then he got to his feet and shook his head.

“Castillo! We’re under attack,” Wormwood called out. Another person appeared out of nowhere and joined them.

“Dad, I’m scared,” Ruthie whispered, shaking against me.

“Me too, baby girl. Me too,” I cooed, rubbing her back as I tried to keep my own panic at bay. I glanced around, trying to figure out where we even were or which way to run.

“Running won’t help,” the new man, I’m assumed Castillo, said to me. “We are not here to hurt you, Eugene Harris. Those men with the red eyes were coming to take your daughter to Hell. It’s complicated, and she’s not the only one, so I ask you be patient a bit while we figure out—”

“I’m not a civilian,” I snapped, realizing he was talking to me the way I spoke to victims or witnesses when they got hysterical. “I want answers and now.”

“Not as easy being on the other side of the coin, is it?” Castillo chuckled, walking towards us and patting Ruthie’s back. “Hello, little Ruthie. How have you been?”

“Good, I guess. I’m scared, Castillo,” she answered, recognition on her face as she stared at the man. “Thank you for coming for me.”

“You know this man? You’ve spoken to my daughter before?” I yelled, turning her away from him. “What have you done to her?”

“Dad, it’s cool. Castillo’s an angel too,” she soothed as she kissed my cheek. “He checks up on me from time to time. He came the night Mom died.” Then she pulled back enough so she could see the angel. “Why didn’t you ever show me your wings? I would have liked that.”

“I know, Ruthie, but I have bigger, brighter wings than Wormwood, and I didn’t want to hurt your eyes. I couldn’t risk it because you’re so special.”

“I’m not special,” she sniffled, quickly wiping her eyes like the brave girl she was. “My mom sold my soul to the Devil. That’s a curse.”

“What?” I gasped as I almost dropped her. I shot Castillo my best authoritative look like I did my squad when they disappointed me. “What have you been telling my daughter?”

“The truth,” he sighed, giving me a sad smile. “Let’s get you both some breakfast while we tend to any other injured coming in. Then I promise we will talk.”

“You’re insane,” I hissed as he motioned to the school. “I’m not walking into that place where you’d have a better advantage of hurting her or—”

“We were attacked!” another man called out as he appeared with a dog and a little boy. “The demons were waiting for us. We arrived just as they were killing Ben’s father to get to him. Help Tristan! He jumped in front of Ben.”

“Don’t let the dog die,” the boy cried as he tried to reach for the animal. “He saved me. They killed my dad!”

And just like that, dozens more showed up, all with the same type of story on their lips. There was a panic of movement, everyone yelling at once.

“Ben, come here, buddy,” I said to the scared child as I set Ruthie on her feet. He looked at me and his eyes practically screamed no way.

“My dad’s a policeman,” Ruthie told him, understanding what I was doing. “He’s a good policeman who helps.” Ben glanced at her a second and then nodded before rushing to us. I hugged him as I told him everything was going to be okay, smiling when he took Ruthie’s hand.

But I had a feeling I was lying to the kid. Nothing about this was okay.

We moved around and added any children to our group who seemed without parents.

“Take anyone injured to the clinic to be healed by Michael or Raphael. Everyone else to the cafeteria,” another man ordered loudly. I felt my heart flutter when I saw an outline of wings behind him. It was hard to explain, but it was like they were there, but not. As if hidden in the shadows. Then he turned to me. “Archangels cannot fully hide their wings, but we can cloak them, if that’s the right term. I’m Gabriel and I know you’re scared, but we need your help, Eugene Harris. We have to save the other children in danger.”

I saw the worry in the man’s eyes, and after what I’d already witnessed, I went with my gut, knowing it had never failed me before. “What do you need from me?”

“You know how to stay controlled in a crisis and we’re in a crisis. Help us with the other parents until we can speak to them and explain all of this.”

“Okay.” I took Ruthie and Ben’s hands, nodding for the other kids to come with us as I followed after Gabriel. We walked around the school, probably understanding how going through the doors would worry the parents.

“No, I can read your thoughts,” he told me, glancing over his shoulder. “You’re right that walking inside with all this chaos is a bad idea. We’ll go around to the patio and people can see it’s just a cafeteria.”

“What is this place?” I asked, hopeful I could get a few answers as we walked.

“It’s a school and safe haven for people like your daughter.” He fell into step with me sighing as he stared at my head. “Your thoughts are racing too fast to keep up with. I’m sorry, but what your daughter said is true. Your wife made a deal with a demon for Ruthie’s soul before she was born. Hell found a loophole, a way for parents to sell their child’s soul before they’re born, reap all the benefits of that deal, and when the child turns twenty-one, they go to Hell.”

“No, Maria would never have done that,” I argued, nausea swarming me. “She was a good mom. Self-centered and flaky at times, but I know she tried. She adored Ruthie.”

“She did. When her end of the bargain didn’t come through, she thought it was over and Ruthie was safe,” Gabriel consoled. “She did make this deal before Ruthie was even born or named.”

I dropped Ben’s hand for a moment and grabbed Gabriel’s arm. “Look, I hear what you’re saying and I get this is big. I will process this and help you, but later, I’m going to come to you alone and ask you what deal the love of my life made and you will be straight with me about it. Deal?”

“Yes, but she wasn’t the love of your life, Eugene. I think you know that.” I let him go, shocked at his response, and he kept walking. I could barely breathe as Ben took my hand again and the kids pulled me after the angel.

I couldn’t believe this was happening.

Once in the cafeteria, I got all the children without parents settled with Ruthie, another mom on her own helping me. She went and got them breakfast while I showed them my badge, tried to keep them calm, and basically gave the guest lecture I had a dozen times before when Ruthie had brought me in to school or when I spoke at other classes in my district.

It was about fifteen minutes before we got any real news, a man who worked for the school coming in and making an announcement that the kids were going to be separated from us until we could be cleared. I wasn’t sure what that meant and I rushed over to Wormwood.

“You’re not taking my daughter,” I growled, steam practically coming out of my ears.

“Just for a little while,” he sighed, rubbing his hands over his head. “Look, we’ve spoken to you, cleared you as having a good soul and nothing to do with the deal for your daughter. But we haven’t done that with the other parents. We need to talk to them.”

“And if one parent gets to keep their child here, they all will demand it,” I finished, knowing full well what was needed to contain a situation.

“She’ll be fine, Eugene. We’re going to make the kids take a nap in the gym. She won’t be scared.”

“You can do that? Knock her out?” I gaped, seriously wondering what world I’d stepped into.

“We can. Once we get organized, we will bring her back to you.”

“Okay,” I agreed, my heart heavy as I walked back to Ruthie and the others. “So, guess what? You guys are going to go on a special adventure with the angels for a bit. They need to talk to us adults alone so we can keep you all safe.”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Ruthie giggled as she stood on the cafeteria bench and kissed my cheek. “We’re safe here. Castillo told me about this place. I’m not afraid.”

“My brave girl.” I hugged her, trying to keep myself in check before showing her how scared I was. Wormwood moved up behind her and touched Ruthie’s shoulder. I caught her as she went right to sleep, checking her pulse and breathing before handing her over. When he took her from me, I fisted my hands and tried not to freak out as most of the other parents were doing.

I understood why they were doing what they were, but no parent should have to go through something like this, worry for their child in this kind of way.

But we did, and I needed to get a handle on that fast.

Moments later, I was paired up with a teacher at the school who took down all my information. Then she started asking me weird questions, and I gaped at her a moment. “We’re never going back, are we? You’re trying to figure out how to separate us from our lives as easily as possible with raising as few problems as you can.”

“You’re right,” she murmured as she reached out and patted my hand. “There’s no going back. Ruthie is safe here with the angels and hounds protecting us, but the moment she steps off the property, demons will try for her. And if you want to stay with her, you can’t leave either unless escorted by an angel to protect you.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked, studying her closely.

“The angels rescued me three years ago. I was one of the first to be saved. They had to grab those closest to twenty-one first because we were at the head of the line for Hell. But you don’t have to stay, Lt. Harris. You can go.”

“I’m not leaving my daughter.”

“Then you’re a better father than mine was,” she whispered, glancing down at my form again. “I was twenty so I could manage on my own, but I was still scared. He said he wasn’t getting involved in all of this shit just because my mother sold my soul.”

“Can I ask what she sold it for? I mean, is that rude? I just don’t know what to make of all of this—”

“I don’t think most people like to be asked, but I don’t mind. A better body. She sold my soul to become pretty and hopefully land someone better than my father.”

I just sat there and gaped at her until she asked the next question. What a stupid thing to sell an unborn child’s soul for. What kind of evil was really out there in the world? And here I thought I’d seen it all in the thirteen years I’d been a cop in New York.

I guess I was wrong.

Once I was done with my interview of sorts, I went and grabbed some coffee from the cafeteria line. There was no place to pay and people rushing about to refill drinks. I wasn’t sure what to do to help, so like a nervous idiot I never was, I saw the storage cabinets under the coffee and started refilling supplies.

“Thanks, we don’t have enough hands,” one worker said as he rushed by me carrying empty carafes.

“No problem,” I mumbled, realizing how hard it was for everyone here, not just parents coming in. I looked up in time to see a guy glancing around like he was up to something. And all my years of being cop taught me, if people looked as if they were doing or have done something wrong—they were.

I trailed after him, curious and worried as to what was going on. When we reached the cafeteria doors that lead into the school instead of outside, I didn’t need two guesses to figure out what he was up to.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought to sneak out and check on Ruthie either.

“We need to stay in here and stay calm,” I instructed, darting around him. “I know, I want to see my daughter too, but if they let everyone go, someone dangerous could get near our children. Let them do their jobs, okay?”

“Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?” he snapped, moving forward.

“A cop who knows panicking and disrupting the process will lead to people getting hurt. Now, go sit down, get some coffee, and don’t distract these people by causing trouble. I want to see my daughter too and they can’t do what needs to be done if they’re dealing with us.”

The guy eyed me closely, probably trying to size me up and wondering if he could get past me.

“You can’t,” I answered for him, knowing how scared people thought. “I’m armed and even have handcuffs since I was dressed for work. Don’t do what you’re thinking and walk it off.”

“Asshole,” he mumbled before turning on his heel.

“Thanks, he’s like the tenth one who’s tried to sneak off,” a guy with the clipboard said to me. “I’m Sandro Thompson. I’m one of the teachers here.”

“Eugene Harris. If you want, I’ll stand here at the door and help keep an eye on wandering parents.”

“Yeah, I’d really appreciate that.” He turned back to another person with a clipboard as I moved closer to the door and leaned against the wall. This I knew how to do. I could watch a crowd for trouble in my sleep, and honestly, helping kept me calm.

A man who looked in charge came into the cafeteria and gestured to Sandro. They stepped out into the hall, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Moments later, they walked right back in and Sandro stood on a chair and let out a whistle. Then the other man took his place and glanced around at everyone.

“I know you’re scared. I know this is all confusing. The best way you can help us keep everyone safe and focused is to stay here. We can’t afford to waste time searching for parents who are selfish and so search for their kids.”

“That’s not being selfish! I want to see my daughter,” someone yelled from the back.

“It is when you risk all the other kids here,” the man snapped and I couldn’t agree more. “Any parent caught screwing with the system will be locked up with the parents who sold their kids souls to Hell. You want to act like idiots, fine, I’ll throw you in with the evil assholes. We are trying to help you people. Help us do it.”

“Maybe if we knew there was some sort of plan,” another one called out.

“We weren’t prepared for this. The demons attacked and that’s not happened in the years we’ve been rescuing souls. So I get this is a mess, but tracking down people won’t help. Our goal is to have the cleared parents help us with the kids when it’s time for lunch. Then we’ll try and group some together off to the side somewhere once we know things are safe so we can make room for new people coming in. Please be patient with us a little longer. We’ll figure something out.”

The moment he stepped down, all the parents called out questions or started bitching.

“What if we got one of the angels to fence off a big area around the patio,” Sandro mumbled to his friend, close enough I could overhear it. “We’ll get some bouncy houses or something and make it a big play date for the kids. Maybe get the seniors to watch the fence with a team of hounds for any runners.”

“I’d help with that,” I immediately offered, willing to do anything to speed up the process so I could see Ruthie. “I’m a cop and my wife who made the deal is dead.” It hurt just saying that, especially when I hadn’t come to terms with the idea but I had to be brief when they were so busy. “I get needing to protect the children, but you’re hours away from a mob riot. Let me quietly get a group together of parents who could help.”

“Do it,” he agreed, glancing at Sandro. “Find anyone with law enforcement, military, or anything like that kind of background. I’ll get Castillo over here to help, and we can get the senior class to start bringing kids over here for lunch and recess or whatever.”

The man left and Sandro looked at me with hope. I actually chuckled even with the extreme circumstances. I knew a man in over his head.

“Okay, shut it!” I called out, taking the spot on the chair. Instantly the crowd went quiet. I wasn’t lieutenant for nothing. “They’re working on bringing our kids back, so let’s hold it together a bit longer. We need to keep them safe and secluded from the others coming in. We don’t know who is a danger, so anyone with law enforcement, military, or experience like that, come see me. Also, any doctors or nurses, come up as well so we know your faces just in case. Thank you.”

“Kind of in love with you right now,” Sandro blurted out as he saw some people approaching and the rest calming down.

“Thanks, but you’re not my type,” I chuckled, rolling my eyes at the kid—even if he was a teacher, he looked about eighteen.

“Hey, don’t be booby-biased here. We seem to have gay couples crawling out of the woodwork.”

“I don’t have a problem with that. I’m from New York, we don’t care enough to be all that prejudice. We only like other New Yorkers no matter who they are or love.”

“Well, I’m from California so I guess we won’t be friends.” He shot me a wink, and I swore he was the good-looking, smooth-talking kind of boy I’d always worried would show up one day when Ruthie was older and steal her heart.

Which would suck because then I’d have to bury him in the woods for touching my daughter.

A few minutes later, I had a team of ten ex-military, five cops, and two FBI agents. We also had a dozen doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Wow, they had brought in a lot more people since the last time I’d looked around. Amazing complete chaos hadn’t broken out yet.

Sandro gave us the all clear to head outside and plan, once more guard dogs showed up. I’d worked with the canine unit before, of course, but I’d never seen such massive shepherds that knew who to listen to no matter which owners they switched to.

Someone really had to know how to train dogs here. Always a good early warning system for protection.

The moment we were outside, Castillo appeared. “Tell me what to do and fast because there’s a lot going on.”

“Okay, I think we should make it like a big playground for a birthday party. Keep the kids distracted.”

“I need you to tell me what that means,” Castillo told me calmly. “I don’t have children and overlooking humans was never my job.”

“Wait, my son just had a party,” one of the women mumbled. She opened her purse and pulled out her tablet. While she was busy with that, I started with basics.

“We need to enclose the area as far as can be seen, but not too close to any easy grab points like corners of the school, and away from the trees. So a big fence that abuts the school and has a couple of gates.”

“That I can do.” He waved his hand and then there was a fence. He fenced in practically a football-sized area with a wave of his hand.

“I keep thinking I have a head injury and I’m seeing things,” one guy mumbled, staring out at the six foot chain link fence that would have taken all of us a day or two to put in.

“Me too.”

“Here, we’re going to need a few of these,” the woman said once she had the pictures loaded. I glanced over and saw she was pointing to a swing set attached to a jungle gym. Then she flipped to the next picture with a huge castle bouncy house.

“A couple of those too,” I told Castillo. He nodded and stared out at the now protected land, and it appeared. “It’s like a having a genie.”

“I think I should be insulted,” he hedged, his eyebrows scrunching together.

“No, not even remotely,” I chuckled. He shrugged and we got back to it. Five minutes later, the back of the school had the most tricked out playground I’d ever seen, complete with cotton candy and slushy machines. “Once the kids eat and start coming out here, we need to spread out. There’s enough for our kids to play on that we can still keep them close. Now, let’s go handle crowd control for lunch.”

Everyone agreed and we headed back inside. I overheard that same friend of Sandro’s who was probably in charge talking to a woman about having food delivered since the staff wasn’t ready to handle all of us. I stepped up to them and listened for a moment before jumping in.

“If our job is containment and bringing people here to safety, then leading strangers here will confuse things and let bad people in,” I warned him.

He shot me a quick smile. “The angels have sigils all around the property. Demons can’t step foot on the grounds.”

“You should tell people that. Most of these parents are freaked out because they’re not by their kids and think we’re going to be invaded.”

“Do it. Tell them. As long as we keep people on this land, everyone here is safe. Then I want the guys you rounded up to work with Ann on getting deliveries in here. We have a loading bay into the school, but we don’t want caterers and whoever else in here asking questions we can’t answer.”

“Yeah, good call,” I agreed before turning back to my new team. I filled them in and we made announcements about the property being safe and food coming. Everyone seemed to chill out after that, some having a couple of hours to digest all these changes.

Once the kids started coming in, it also helped people see we were safe here. I picked up Ruthie and swung her around, smiling when she giggled at my antics. I’d never been so relieved to see my daughter safe and sound.

Ever.