A Dark Dream
By Derek Pearcy
"I'm not crying," I shot back at Charlie.
"That's cool," he said, calming down as his hooves reverted to pink, fleshy feet. "You just sit there not crying while I shove my guts back where they belong." Even though that angel had bashed him up pretty badly, he stood like a mountain, holding his intestines together while he used his last bits of Essence attempting to heal his wounded body.
"Goddamn it," Charlie spat after fiddling with his guts for a few moments, "this isn't working. Look, I'm going to high-tail it back to my garage and get another body. Get there when you can."
"No, no!" I shouted, waving my arms madly to keep him from leaving. "After you're all set in your new body, come over to my place. We still have a whole other problem."
"What," Charlie said. It wasn't a question, it was a demand. I had to stall until I figured something out. Charlie's a badass, but if I told him right then about the hit squad of avenging angels arriving in the morning, he might suddenly remember an out-of-town engagement – then what would become of me?
"I'll tell you when you get there," I blurted. He glared at me through narrowed eyes, then sighed and nodded. His eyes unfocused before rolling back in his head. There was a thud as 250 pounds of dead meat hit the pavement.
I wiped tears from my eyes and took in the scene. We'd killed the angel – somehow! – and since they were cowering in fear, odds were high that the two people hiding in the Cherub's car were just humans. I pulled my tie straight and shook my head. Humans I could handle. It's what was on the way that I didn't want to hang around for. All around me, the Symphony throbbed like a hammered toe from the chaos we'd caused. My heart rate doubled. After the Symphony takes a beating, you can bet that both sides are on their way to check it out.
The Symphony is what we celestials – which is to say, angels and demons – call the background structure of reality. And while reality is a tough nut to crack in some ways, we'd whaled on it pretty hard that day: throwing Essence around wildly, shapeshifting right and left, leaving a trail of evidence that a bunch of angels could easily follow to our back yard. You know, all the stuff they tell you in demon school is bad – not bad as in "evil shoots, evil scores," but bad as in "decidedly awful for my cause in general and genuinely terrible for me in particular." The question wasn't whether my Prince had noticed the Symphony's jangling, but when he would take a moment to ask me about it himself. The downside of occasionally having the undivided attention of a Demon Prince is that you occasionally have the undivided attention of a Demon Prince. I shuddered quietly, tried to calm my racing heart, and began to put my story together.
"It's no big deal, oh darkest of dark, dark lords," I imagined myself saying as the screws tightened. "It went down like this . . . "
Let me get right to the point. None of this was my fault. I'm not responsible for any of this. I swear to . . . I swear, I didn't know what was going on. I just had one lousy evening, and now everything's gone to hell.
I've only been on Earth for three years, although I'm older than I care to think about. It all becomes a blur after awhile. But in those three years, I've only dealt with the demons I was assigned to: Adam, Sabrina and Charlie. At first, all I knew about them was that they, like myself, were "in favor" with their respective Princes. We knew we were pawns, so even though we'd been assigned to work together there was little trust between us. They never told me who they worked for, and I never asked. If someone knows your agenda, they can predict your actions. Not all the time, but often enough to make your life miserable.
Adam's a Balseraph, a typical head-shrinker of a demon. Balseraphs are the Seraphim who've fallen from grace. While Seraphim are Heaven's truth detectors, Balseraphs are Hell's greatest liars. Adam tries to come off as modern-but-cultured – he wants you to think he's an old-world demon in a young-looking body. I always thought he was just a pretentious fool with a ponytail. At different times, Adam gave me reason to believe he worked for half of the diabolical royalty in the hopes that I'd open up to him. I never did.
At the other end of the cool scale, there's Sabrina. She's one of the Lilim, and a real piece of work at that. Lilim can make almost anyone do almost anything. I'm proof of that, I guess. And I'm nearly positive she works for the Princess of Nightmares, Beleth, although Lilith is always a safe second guess with those types. She was always good for conversation, but I rarely saw her apart from Adam.Adam and Sabrina had a rocky relationship, the kind where the only thing keeping it going was mutual disdain for the rest of the world and the universal force of inertia. For demons, this can be a healthy sort of relationship. It was certainly one I envied. I'd always felt an unhealthy attraction to Sabrina, even when she wasn't exerting her diabolical charm upon me.
Then there's Charlie. He and I work for the same Prince. I can always call on him to save the day, and Charlie seldom asks questions. He'll do practically anything as long as it serves our side, which usually means making things bleed, explode, burn up or turn to salt. I'm glad Charlie's on my side – he's damn violent, even for a Calabim.
We each had our own schemes, but we frequently relied on one another for help with this plot or that. There could have been other demons in town, but we never heard from them. Or at least I didn't. I got the impression Charlie's strong-and-silent act was just that – an act – and that he knew a hell of a lot more than he let on. But he's cool, and while I wouldn't confess it even under torture, I might trust him a little bit.
Adam, Sabrina and I got together every Thursday night at a little coffeehouse downtown, and I met with Charlie at his cycle repair shop every other Sunday. As far as I know, Charlie never encountered Adam and Sabrina outside of a job. The only other times I'd see any of them was when we were working together on some project – following a suspected do-gooder, framing celebrities who didn't further our plans or tracking down the occasional benevolent menace – the usual.
Actually, there was very little activity on the part of the Others. Every once in a while, we'd pick up an echo of something stinking of divinity, but we could never track it down. Over and over again, we ended up getting all excited for no bad reason. Nothing looks better on a young demon's record than wrangling credit for rooting out a previously-unknown heavenly threat, and we all knew it. It's a good way to get noticed. That's why it didn't surprise me that Adam waited to tell me about the angel in our midst until his plans blew up in his face.
Adam had asked me to meet him and Sabrina in the Rocko Taco parking lot. I don't really like Mexican food, but I went. Like I said, we had to help each other out. Even though there wasn't much trust between us, our Princes insisted we grant aid to one another, within reason. If Adam wanted me to meet him in front of a holy church, I'd ask which one. Once, I asked him to meet me behind a morgue with a set of bolt cutters and three glossy fashion magazines and he didn't even blink. So Mexican it was.
He was already there when I arrived, perched on the trunk of his swank red convertible and admiring his fingernails. Sabrina sat in the front seat, fixing her makeup in the rear-view mirror.
"Here's the deal," Adam said to me as he hopped off his car. "It's a petty job, but I have to do it. These guys are understaffed late at night, especially tonight. We go in, we each order a ton of food and slow the place to a crawl. The idea is to get people pissed off from waiting, destroy the staff's confidence in themselves and finally turn them on one another." He threw me a fifty and turned to walk toward the restaurant. "And I mean a lot of food," he added over his shoulder. I made eye contact with Sabrina as she stepped out of his car, but she only gave me one of her carefully-practiced shrugs.
"Excuse me," I said, putting up a questioning finger. "Why don't I order at the drive-thru? Three-pronged attack and all."
Adam smiled at me as though I was a simpleton. "I disabled their drive-thru's microphone while we were waiting for you," he said. "They've put a 'Closed' sign on it, but why don't you go get the sign and meet us inside?" I sighed loudly at him.
"Besides," he added, growing sober, "we need to talk." Uh-oh.
When I came in, deftly cramming the sign into a trashcan near the door, Adam was arguing with the cashier. There was a sign dangling from a string over the counter which read, "Rocko Taco! We put the fast back in fast-food! You'll get your food in five minutes . . . or your money back!"
"So for the other half of the order, you wanted five half-chickens, six beef fajita tostadas with the works – no tomatoes and extra sour cream – three taco salads with no guac, a large tea, and a flauta." The harried clerk took a quick mental inventory, and wiped his forehead with a greasy palm. "Ah, look, this might take a few minutes –"
"You forgot the cheese enchiladas," Adam monotoned, glancing briefly at the promise of free food which literally hung over the man's head. The cashier got the creeps at that point, rang up the order and moved on to Sabrina. As Adam's order registered on the computer display in the back room, you could see the one guy staffing the kitchen explode into action – and it looked like he was already several orders behind.
"The same thing," Sabrina said to the shocked cashier, dropping some bills on the counter without even looking at them. Instead, she shot a dirty look at Adam as she got her change, then walked away with her tea. Sabrina rarely said much, but her expressions were priceless.
"Make that seven half-chickens," I said, smiling as I approached the counter.
After ordering, I joined Adam and Sabrina on the patio. We sat at one of those uncomfortable round metal tables with the logo of some strange Mexican beer painted across its face. Well, well, I remember thinking, it's not entirely unlike Hell.
Uncharacteristically, Adam came straight to the point.
"There's an angel in town," he said, "and it knows about us."
"Goddammit!" I shouted, my hands turning into fists.
"But it's all right" he said quickly, waving his hands, "it's going to be okay."
Okay? Okay?! I shut my eyes and clawed at the air, speechless.
"It's going to be okay," Sabrina said, reaching across the table and touching my hand with her own. "Really. But until Adam takes care of the problem, we have to lie low."
"I can call Charlie," I offered. At that point, I was probably going to call him anyway, just to watch my ass.
"Let's not call your friend unless we think we're outgunned," Adam said. "If it's just the one angel, I'll be able to handle it without lifting a finger." He took a moment to look across the patio, back into the restaurant. The cashier had moved to the back to help prepare our food and frustrated customers were waiting at the register.
"Look," we could hear the cashier shout, "it's going to be a couple minutes before we can take any more orders." Adam smiled.
"So how did you find out about the angel?" I asked. Adam and Sabrina exchanged glances.
"I've been watching an artist," Sabrina started, "a man named Rudolph Sorenson." She paused to see if I responded to the name. "He's a bit of an eccentric," she continued. "He creates elaborate glass-and-copper fountains that pour blood instead of water. I felt he had a certain . . . diabolical perspective." She downed the rest of her tea and then folded the straw in half, then in half again, and so on.
"This guy was being manipulated by our angel," Adam finished for her. "She wanted to use his art to establish a divine Tether." I could feel the blood leaving my extremities as he spoke. The scenario Adam and Sabrina painted was just too horrible.
"A divine Tether," I said, remaining calm, "in our back yard. Lovely."
"We thought so, too," Sabrina said, sharing my sarcasm. "That's why we're taking her out tonight, before she has a Tether to hide in."
"Hide?" I said, sneering. "She won't be hiding! She'll invite the whole goddamn Host over for barbequed demon. We're screwed."
"Not entirely," Adam said quietly, leaning forward with a smile on his face. "I've corrupted her servant." Adam and I laughed – it's always delightful to use an angel's own servant to stab it between its pretty white wings. Sabrina just smiled her inscrutable little smile and lit a cigarette.
"Please," Adam implored me. "This one time, help me by not doing anything – don't spend any Essence for any reason. I want the Symphony to be as uncluttered as possible while I hunt."
"So you're going to take care of this yourself, Adam?" Sabrina said after a pause.
"Yes," he said, turning to face her, "yes, I am. Do you have a problem with that?"
"No, no," she said, holding up a black-gloved hand. "No problem. Go ahead and take the credit. It's just not the first time that I've had to sleep with some wretched servant so that another, less-talented creature could make the kill and take the glory." Well, I thought, that's Adam all over.
"Listen, Sabrina –"
"I said it's fine, I can just spend the evening with Marcus," she said, gesturing to me. "He and I will just lie low this evening." She turned around to face me, blowing low coils of smoke from her nostrils. "Since we're supposed to be sitting on our hands, how about we do it over at my place?"
"Sure," I said, imitating her practiced shrug. "That sounds cool."
If Adam were an egg he would have cracked. As it was, he just sat there like a big demonic dope and examined his manicured fingernails. I had no idea what Adam and Sabrina's actual relationship was, but I'd always assumed they were a pretty tight couple, girlfiend and boyfiend. Not that it kept me from wanting her. Demons, I thought to myself, you gotta love 'em. My heart beat faster.
"Too bad you've already got something to do tonight, Adam," Sabrina said. "You know I'd love to have you over."
"But of course," he said, turning his attention to the clamor coming from inside. Evidently there'd been a nasty fight in the drive-thru when the cars backed up. While a frantic couple tried to call 911 on the pay phone, their voices were drowned out by angry customers demanding their money back.
"Meet you over there?" she asked, smirking as she picked up her purse.
"Sure," I said. "What about the food?"
Sabrina laughed, rolling her eyes. "Let Adam take care of it. You don't even like Mexican food, do you?"
I let myself in. Sabrina never locked the door. I mean, who's going to get very far breaking into some demon chick's place? Anyway, before long we were talking about work. I swear, when demons get together it's always work, work, work. It is cool, though, that whatever you've done, you can tell your friends and it's okay. There have always been people in my life, like Sabrina, who I felt really close to from the first moment we met, people I could tell anything. And since she liked that blood artist, I thought I had just the story for her.
"I sold this vet some defective stitching," I said.
"You what?" Sabrina lilted, calling from the kitchen. It was a nice pad, her place. She was cooking something that smelled great, either spaghetti or an even more diabolical meal she said she likes to make for her darker guests – lasagna. Demons like Italian food, but they love lasagna. Consider a demon who likes to cook Italian food to be your very best friend.
"I sold this vet some defective stitching," I repeated, "and he used it on this dog. Well, it wasn't so much defective as it was just the wrong kind. He thought it was the normal stuff, but I gave him the kind of stitching they use inside mouths. It dissolves much more quickly."
"Go on," she said, closing her eyes as she tasted her work.
"So picture this," I said, making little Ls with my hands at arm's length and squinting through one eye, as though framing a shot. "Dad's come home from work, Mom's come home from work, they fought out who was going to make dinner and afterwards the little family's sitting in front of the television for their daily dose of Lucifer – "
"So," Sabrina interrupted, punctuating her speech with a long wooden spoon, flicking tiny drops of tomato paste at me, "are we really influencing people through the television?"
"Like, hello," I said, blinking and shaking my head, as though I really knew. "Why do you think they call it network programming? Look, just consider everyone you see on TV to be working for us, whether or not they know it. That's not the point of the story."
"Well, I didn't know that about television. I mean, you hear a lot of stories about what we're doing on Earth, but you never really know which ones are true."
"Yeah," I shrugged. "Demons. Lying sons-a-bitches. Anyway, so they're watching TV. They're settling down."
"The family. The point of the whole story. This family, they had these two kids and a dog."
"What kind of dog?"
"It doesn't matter. Maybe it was a wiener dog. It was hurt real bad, and the vet had to cut him open from his neck to his navel, then sew him back up."
"Where is this going?" she said to the air, fanning steam away from her pot with a Tupperware lid.
"Just wait," I said. "So, everyone's sitting around, enjoying the evening, when the dog barks."
"Yeah, just this little 'yip.'"
"So that's it? The dog barks?"
"No, that's not it," I said, frustrated. "I wish you'd shut up. I can never tell you anything."
"Well, you stopped. I thought you were done."
"I was not done," I said, straightening my tie. "That was a dramatic pause."
"So the dog barks," she sighed, fishing around in a drawer.
"The dog barks its little yip, and everyone turns to look at it. It's just sitting there on the couch, up on its hind legs. It yips again, then totally comes undone." I crossed my arms and smiled broadly.
"It what?" she asked, finally stopping what she was doing to look at me.
"The dog," I said, smiling and laughing, "totally comes undone. From stem to stern the little thing unzips from the lame stitching, and spills its doggie guts out in front of the whole family."
Sabrina put one hand to her mouth and leaned against the Formica countertop with the other. She looked to her left, then to her right, then back at me – and I'm laughing.
"So then, they all completely freak," I said.
"You're a sicko," she said.
"No, no," I said, laughing, "no, not really. I have fun with my work."
"Yes, really," she said, dishing out some lasagna into a Tupperware bowl. "So what is your Word, anyway – Domestic Animal Disembowelments? Are you 'He Who Disfigures Small Animals' or something?"
"I don't have a Word," I said, and she shot me this look that said, "If you believe I thought you had climbed so high up the diabolical ladder that you had become an incarnation of an immortal Word of the Symphony, you are totally wrong."
I decided to change the subject.
"Hey, do you mind if I smoke in here?" I asked, patting down my jacket for a lighter.
"Why don't you go?" she said. "Here, take some lasagna. I don't think I'll be having any."
And just like that, I'm standing outside holding a plastic container of rapidly-cooling Italian food, alone. I swear, you can't tell anyone anything any more.
Normally, I prefer to hang out with demons. Demon chicks are different from human girls, they really understand what you're going through. But if I'm not going to spend the evening letting some cute young diabolical thing tie me to a chair and smear ice cream on my back, I thought to myself, I could always go over to what's-her-name's house. That's why she's there.
And I'm telling you – the best way to discover how humans tick, to learn for yourself how fragile and insecure they really are, is to date one.
It didn't take me more than five minutes to get to her house. That's good, since I was already two hours late for our date that evening.
"You're late," she said when she answered the door, refusing to remove the chain on her side of the door.
"Aw, come on," I said, "what're you talking about? Let me in. Please? I was busy, I had work stuff." Holly pouted briefly – wait, Holly? Is that right? Heather, Haley, Holly . . . right. Holly. Anyway, she was never mad at me for very long.
"Come on," I repeated. "You know I mean well." I stole a glance behind her at the fridge in the kitchen. "Don't you want some ice cream?" I said suggestively. What I wanted to do was reach through the opening and steal some Essence from her. That's my resonance – I'm an Impudite, the kind of demon who gets attached to humans and occasionally sucks their souls dry. Invoking my resonance doesn't stir up any nasty vibes in the Symphony, so I could charge up on Essence and not disturb Adam's stalking. The problem is, she has to let me. If I just barge in and drain her of Essence, I might attract angelic attention and that would be bad news.
"No, I'm mad at you," she remembered. Now, Holly's always been stupid – but she's seldom stubborn. Why the sudden change?
"Besides," she said, growing sober, "we need to talk." Uh-oh.
"I want you to move in with me," she said. "I know it's sudden, but I just want to know we're on track, relationship-wise, you know?"
"Aw," I said noncommitally, "I don't know." Christ, I thought, it's already been a long night. "I'm just too busy to deal with moving in with you. I mean, I like seeing you when I do, but it's just not the sort of thing I have time for on a daily basis." She pouted even more, backing away when I tried to touch her through the small gap allowed by her door chain. "I hope you understand," I added, withdrawing my arm. Damn. I could tell I wasn't going to get any Essence out of her.
"But why don't you want to move in with me?" she insisted.
"I just don't," I said, backing away from the door and jingling my keys in an "I'm leaving now" fashion. "I like my privacy, okay?" I didn't know what her problem was, but resisting the temptation to force my way in and suck delicately at the energies of her soul was becoming too much trouble. My palms grew sweaty.
"Are you afraid of 'living in sin'?" she giggled chidingly.
"No," I chuckled. "That's not it. Look, I'll leave you alone. Get some sleep. Talk to you soon?"
I went home. My place was a wreck, but then I've never cleaned it. As soon as I discovered that to best fit in among humans as a single male in my mid-20s I must keep a filthy and disorganized household, I resolved to do my duty to my Prince. I live in a sty.
But I like it that way. I know where everything is. My problem recently had been animals – one animal in particular. An orange cat had just adopted me as his new human and spent every evening meowing outside my sliding glass door. It had been raining the night before so I'd let him in and promptly forgot about him. I don't know why I let him in; I hate cats. When I made it home that evening, the cat sat on the floor, in the middle of all that crap, meowing up at me.
"Cat," I said to him in what I hoped was a stern voice, "you have to leave." Then the phone rang.
"This had better be good," I muttered, digging for the phone. "Hello?"
"Marcus," gasped Sabrina on the other end. I put on my sexy voice.
"This is he," I purred back.
"Get over here," she said. "And stop it with the voice, it's not like that."
"What's it like?"
"I just got a big, you know, feeling. Something just happened, but it's sort of fringie." Ah, technical terminology. The Symphony just exhibited some minor deformation, and she was picking up on it. "I think it's trouble," she insisted.
"I'll be right there," I said, and was almost out the door before the phone hit the floor.
Sabrina sat in a green leather chair, elegantly perched and biting her fingernails.
"Did . . . did you like the lasagna?" she asked me first. It was a strange question, but she looked upset and I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
"Sure," I lied. "It was great." She beamed a weak little grin back at me.
"So what's up?" I asked, sitting on the couch opposite her.
Sabrina pulled a length of her hair between two fingers and twirled it eight or nine times.
"This – this angel," she mumbled. "We didn't just seduce her servant."
"What did you do?"
"We also sort of killed the artist. This morning." I snorted. I was awake this morning and I think I would've heard it in the Symphony if a human had prematurely gotten the axe anywhere near our side of town. She must've read the look in my face. "He was a junkie," she continued. "Adam made a delivery the night before. You get it?" I got it. Since Adam didn't directly kill the guy – the artist ODed by himself from the sound of it – it didn't screw up the Symphony as much.
"So what about it?" I demanded.
"So what if somehow they've tracked it back to Adam," she rushed, "and that chaos, that was them doing him in – and what if they somehow use Adam to track me down?" I didn't say anything. This was starting to sound more and more like a paranoid's bedtime story, and when the line someone's feeding you gets that bad you can be sure there's a Balseraph behind it. I wondered where my favorite Balseraph was hiding.
"I'll find him," I said, standing up. "I'll call Charlie and we'll find Adam. Then we'll kick the ass of whatever angel thinks she can just set up shop in our town."
"I'll be okay here," she said wearily, curling up in her chair. "I'm not going anywhere."
On the way back to my house, I whipped out my cell phone and called Charlie, navigating through busy streets like a madman while waiting patiently for the other end to ring.
"Speak," Charlie answered.
"Hey, it's me. Did you just . . . feel something?"
"Yes," he said. "Something big."
"Great," I choked, punching the steering wheel, "that's just great. Listen, be ready in about half an hour, we may have a problem. I'll call you back."
"I'm ready now," said Charlie, and hung up.
In almost no time at all, I made it back to my house. Holly's car was out front – damn! Then I reconsidered. She probably wanted to make up, and as long as I was going after Adam I could at least load up on Essence first.
The orange cat was outside, waiting by the front door. She must've put him out when she went in. He meowed up at me, and meowed and meowed. What a selfish creature, I thought. Perhaps I'll keep you.
I walked in quickly, closing the door to keep the cat outside and whipping past Holly before she could say a single word. I went straight to my bedroom and grabbed the gray duffel bag from under my bed, the one with all my special hunting crap in it – unholy water, a knife, a compass and I don't even know what else.
"Going somewhere?" she asked.
"Listen, honey, I don't have time for this," I said. Holly took a deep breath.
"Well," she said, clicking with her tongue, "I just thought maybe you'd want to see this painting." I looked up, and my world flipped 180 degrees.
"Do you know what this is?" I heard her ask.
I gawked. I mean, I openly gawked.
Imagine you've spent your whole life studying Impressionists. And you think you've seen every single stroke ever made by a master's brush on canvas, until one day someone walks into your office and hands you a Monet he found in his attic.
It was a relic, one of a set of paintings which, among other things, were capable of trapping a celestial's soul between the layers and folds of its paint and canvas. All of them were thought to be owned by the major celestial powers – Demon Princes and Archangels. The problem is that you need an artist of a peculiar bent to actually use one. Now granted, there are probably a lot more tortured artists today than when the Medici ruled Italy, but you might be surprised at how few of them are genuine about it.
What this added up to about my girlfriend, I didn't consider until it was too late to run. I stood motionless while her face rearranged itself, eyes widening and cheeks narrowing, her hair turning blonde, until . . .
"Nicole," I murmured, my heart racing. There before me sat not only the avenging angel I'd been warned about, but my ex-girlfriend from way back. Way back. At least, I thought, it can't get any worse.
"I don't want you," Nicole said matter-of-factly. "I just want your friends."
"My friends," was all I could say.
"Don't think you can get away. I've had a Cherub following you for weeks, looking for your weak spots. I know where you go. I know who you see. I know what you do." She narrowed her eyes at me. "I know what you did to that dog." Great, like I wasn't in enough trouble. Value judgements suck.
"Here's the deal," she continued. "If you help us take out your two friends, I'll only destroy your corporeal vessel. I'll leave your soul intact. You shouldn't have much trouble clawing your way out of Hell again."
"You flatter me," I said.
"It's only flattery if it's not true," she smiled. "And really, don't think you're going to get a better deal than this. I'm not bargaining, I'm telling you how much you can get away with – which is to say, your soul – and you should be on your knees kissing my heels for that. There's a cadre of Malakim showing up tomorrow."
"Malakim!" I squeaked, unable to remain calm. Malakim are the nastiest Choir of angels. They never, ever let demons get off easy. If Nicole was telling the truth, she was doing me a huge favor by merely killing me.
"It's Khalid," she admitted. "He's been trying to stockpile some of Archangel Eli's more powerful relics, and he's willing to do almost anything to get them. But mostly he didn't want any demons getting hold of it."
"Or any other Archangels," I pushed.
Nicole fiddled with one of her earrings – a silver crescent. "I wouldn't know about that," she said.
"So what does this relic thing have to do with your Tether?" I asked. She blinked twice.
"My Tether? What are you talking about?"
"Your Tether," I shouted, "you putting your silly little mark on our territory –"
Nicole started laughing. "My Tether? No, I'm afraid our artist was playing both sides against the middle. His sculptures generated so much disgust and horror in his exhibit hall that if anything he would've established a new infernal Tether. But I'd have been done with him well before then.
"Sadly," she concluded, "he introduced a servant of mine to his two diabolical patrons, your friends, and they've been plotting to manuver me into their smiling jaws."
"Buuut," I mumbled, running my hands across its textured, ruddy surface, "does it work?"
"The painting?" she asked, forcing a bitter smile. "I don't know. I never got a chance to try it, thanks to your friends. I'm one dead artist away from testing it." She drew me directions to the place her Cherub last spotted Adam. "If he's doing what I think he's doing, out there in the woods, you should be able to find him pretty easily."
"What do you think he's doing?" I asked. She shrugged. Goddamn it, I hate when people just shrug.
"Kill him," she said, "then kill that other thing masquerading as a human and bring their heads to my house in the morning." She tossed a key at me. "Show up without their heads, and I'll throw you to the Malakim and they'll have your soul for brunch. Show up a moment before sunrise, and I'll kill you myself without hesitation."
"But tell me though," I said, lowering my voice as I moved closer to her, staring up at her with what I hoped were puppy-dog eyes. "How long have you, you know, been my girlfriend again?"
She pursed her lips together. "Not that long, ice cream boy."
Adam wasn't hard to find. The previous disturbance was only the precursor to a much greater one – by the time I'd made it halfway through the directions Nicole'd given me, I could feel the Symphony drawing me the rest of the way. I parked my car what I hoped was a quarter mile back and walked the rest of the way.
I found him standing on the hood of his little red convertible, arms spread wide. Five road flares had been arranged in an upside-down star pattern around his car, and an incredible amount of Mexican food lay in a pile just outside the crude pentagram. Adam was performing an invocation ritual – he was summoning his Demon Prince.
"Haagenti!" he called out to the night. "Your favored Servitor requests your attention!" Oh man, how cheesy – although I guess that's to be expected from someone working for Haagenti, the Demon Prince of Gluttony. Servants of Gluttony are rarely known for their good taste, although Adam certainly had managed to fake enough style to keep me clueless. The Mexican food was the primary component to his ritual – which didn't seem to be working.
Well, I decided, brushing the dirt off my hands, it's time for me to rock your world, Adam.
It's easier to surprise people if they don't know who you're working for. Me, I work for Saminga, Demon Prince of the Dead. He knows all sorts of secrets about how souls attach to bodies, and he taught me this one particularly cool trick once when we were partying in New Orleans, back when I first came to Earth.
I balled up all the Essence I had, which wasn't a lot, leaped out of my body and forced my way into his. I could taste the shock in his mind before my consciousness drowned him out.
Taking over another body isn't really much different from trying on a new suit. Some places feel tight and strange, other places feel loose and odd, but you get used to it quickly. I clenched my/Adam's jaw, snapping quickly at the air. Servants of Gluttony can eat just about anything, from what I hear. That could come in handy.
Using the strength of Adam's vessel, I carefully laid my body in the trunk of his sports car, then peeled out of the forest as insects struggled between their attraction to the flares and their hunger for the large pile of cold Mexican food, rotting slowly in the night.
I called Sabrina. Even without Adam's vocal cords, it wouldn't be too hard to imitate him. "Darling," I said when she picked up the phone, "we're in trouble."
"Trouble?!" she howled across the line. "What's this 'we' shit? Have you seen Marcus yet?"
"It's a long story," I said, holding back a laugh.
"Did you slip up with that idiot? You were just supposed to stake him out and leave him for the angels! But it's okay, I already asked him if he'd eaten the lasagna and he said yes."
"He said what?"
"Yes! He said yes, he'd eaten it! So when the angels attune themselves to the artist's corpse to find his killer, they'll be pulled toward the blood I put into his lasagna! They'll hunt him down like the dog he is and –"
I didn't need to hear anything else. "Don't worry about Marcus," I said slowly, hoping I was doing Adam's low, gravelly tones correctly. "He and I will see you in Hell." That'll give her something to think about. I hung up and called Charlie.
"What's the deal," he said.
Talking at my usual rapid pace, I gave him the rough outline: there's at least one angel in town who needs to be put down like a British cow. Charlie tells me to swing by and pick him up. Remembering Nicole's little stunt, I started working on Adam's face. The only time I stopped for a red light was to look in the mirror and see how convincing it was – pretty damn convincing, I decided. It wasn't permanent, so Adam would still wake up looking like himself, if he woke up again.
I screeched up to Charlie's place, and before I could unfasten my seat belt, he emerged from the shadows and hopped into the convertible. He did a double-take when he looked at me, so I guess my disguise wasn't perfect, not to mention the fact that I was wearing Adam's clothes and driving his car. But if Charlie had a problem with the situation, he sure didn't say anything. He worked for Saminga too, I'm sure he knew what I was up to. Zooming away into the night, it occurred to me that maybe he trusted me as much as I trusted him – which wasn't much, but at least it was something.
"So where's this angel?" Charlie grinned. I gunned the engine.
"You tell me," I said. He's much more perceptive about Symphony things than I am. We drove around for almost half an hour before Charlie started picking up hints of the divine. In an unusual moment of civic loyalty, we slowed at a stop sign and he took the opportunity to unfasten his seat belt and lean forward, sniffing the air. The car approaching from our left had the single ugliest paint job I'd ever seen. Charlie pointed to it, and as it passed under a street light I could make out three figures inside.
"You're sure?" I asked. He nodded, so I floored the accelerator, aiming straight for the side of the uglymobile. We slammed into it hard.
As I crawled free, knife at the ready, I noticed Adam's car was miraculously undamaged from the impact. Now that's not normal. I made a mental note that Vapula, Demon Prince of Technology, must also be involved somehow.
But what got out of the other car was not Nicole. It was a huge hulk of corporeal force, red meat and red hair, moving slowly and silently. Only angels ever look that cool, I thought. This must be the Cherub. He sized up Charlie, then pointed at me. "You're next," he mouthed in my direction.
"Not like you drive an inconspicuous car, man," I said to the angel, pulling two cigarettes out of Adam's jacket – do all demons smoke? – and performing a Song of Shield, amplifying the cigarettes' smoke to cover the area. What was going to happen would be nasty, and I didn't want anyone checking out the action who didn't already have a front-row seat.
Charlie hauled off and punched his opponent once, a good solid blow to the jaw. The Cherub stood there and took it.
"So are we going to keep this flesh-and-bloody?" the angel asked Charlie. He answered by kicking off his boots with a fluid motion and turning his feet into hooves. I didn't know the last time Charlie had gone one-on-one with an angel, but he sure was enjoying it.
I stood and watched as they launched themselves at each other, Charlie grabbing the Cherub in a tight wrestling hold just as the angel reached inside his jacket for something bright and shiny. Even though he was trapped by my friend's massive arms, the divine agent could still move his hands around, as though tickling the demon's belly. Charlie made several painful grimaces before falling to his knees but he maintained his hold.
The Cherub, pinned beneath my friend, choked out a chuckle.
"You must be the boy with the ice cream fetish," he said. In typical corporeal response, I clenched my fists and bared my teeth.
As his own response, Charlie tightened his grip around the angel, shattering his holy rib cage, but this only made the Cherub laugh again.
"Mighty sweet girl you were with," he managed to get out. "Didn't care for you very much, though."
"Didn't care for you, I said. That's how Nicole got to impersonate her – your girl went camping for the weekend with a college boy who doesn't eat little pieces of her soul."
"That's it," I said, turning on my heel, dropping my knife and stomping back toward Adam's car. "You're dead." I dug around in the trunk before finally coming up with a tire iron. I slapped it against my palm a few times to get a feel for its weight, then dashed like a madman over to the Cherub and began whacking all the parts of him that Charlie's wrestling stance didn't cover – his feet, his shins, his neck, his head. More than likely, I was yelling something like, "Who's laughing now, funny boy? Huh? Who's laughing?!" but I don't really remember. I do remember hearing some ugly cracking noises before the angel finally gave in.
And boy, did he give in – but he didn't give up. He blew what was surely the last of his Essence in one powerful Song. I don't know what it was, but it knocked the hell out of me. I was blinded by a topaz brilliance, stunned – the world disappeared beneath me. Every moment of my life before then seemed like a senseless wandering, a dark dream I'd been shamefully stumbling through, earnest in selfish rapture. I felt very humble there, before the Symphony in its purest form.
I was gliding, my dirty black tie floating out in front of me like a prehensile tongue. As I drifted, shapes began to form out of the greens and pinks that licked at my eyes, until my mind fully awakened and I realized I was seeing Charlie holding me at arm's length, shaking me by my shoulders. He didn't look well. For instance, his intestines lay in broad loops down around his ankles.
"The angel's finished," Charlie said, blood trailing from ears, mouth and nostrils.
I heard him as well as you hear someone talking to you on the phone while you're watching something really interesting on television. As I tried to collect myself, my life snapped back sharply into focus – Sabrina, Adam, their setup, my betrayal. Man, I really did like her.
"Don't cry or anything," Charlie said, setting me down to collect my wits while he groped for lumpy coils of intestine.
"I'm not crying," I shot back at Charlie. You know what happened after that.
So as soon as Charlie's soul vacated his damaged vessel, first one human and then another come running out of the car. The first, a woman, ran over to the angel and starts getting all weepy. The other, a wimpy-looking guy, stopped when he saw me and started making these burbling noises as though his mind just wasn't willing to process the scene. What I didn't need was for him to spiral up into a full-scale freak out, especially since my smoke screen had almost completely run out.
At that point I was thinking, I could always bite his ear off. That'd probably shut him up. Then it occurred to me that he wouldn't be able to see the absence of his ear, greatly reducing the horror factor. What about a finger?
A thumb presented itself more easily than a finger, so I leaped forward and bit it off. It was incredible – I just leaned over, and snap! there it went. It was a really powerful feeling, thinking that I could eat anything. I must've been grinning like a loon. Thumb boy looked to be in shock, but I didn't have time to fool around.
"Where's the painting?" I said as slowly as possible, because I wasn't in a mood to repeat myself.
"I . . . I don't – don't – I don't know," he sputtered. See? Humans are weak. I slapped him around a little, kicking him once or twice after he fell to the ground.
"You have no idea how bad my day's been," I told him. There was no point in roughing him up any more, and he didn't have any Essence in him, so I stomped over to the car with the hope that Nicole had given the painting to her Cherub friend for safe keeping. I found it in the trunk, gave it a big sloppy kiss, and split before anything else happened to ruin my mood.
For the gazillionth time that night, I pulled into my driveway, but this time there was a dull "buh-dump" as I stopped. Getting out, I saw I'd run over the orange cat – the selfish animal had been sitting there in the driveway, waiting for me to come home and feed it. But I knew a trick or two to do with dead cats, so I picked the poor guy up and carried him inside.
Hmm, I thought as I dropped the kitty corpse into a burlap sack, tied it off and shoved it up into the chimney. I wonder if I could wrangle a promotion out of this whole mess? "He Who Disfigures Small Animals?" I shook my head. Too over-the-top.
It took another couple of minutes to hide the painting in the back of a closet. That Cherub had probably attuned himself to it, but it was going to be a little while before he got back from Heaven and created a new vessel for himself. If I saw Prince Saminga in the next day or two, which seemed likely given all that had transpired, I could hand the relic off to him, move all my crap to another house and feel reasonably safe.
Satisfied that at least one part of my improvised plan was going well, I got to work on my corporeal vessel. It looked fine, lungs breathing and heart beating just like usual, though my cheek and forehead were bruised from bouncing around in the trunk. I set my body across a long couch, then as an afterthought went into the kitchen and hunted up a towel and a six-pack. I placed the towel across my forehead, then I opened a beer and put in one of my body's limp hands.
"Don't go anywhere," I told my body. "I'll be right back."
Blazing a trail back across town, I found a 7-11 within two blocks of the address Nicole gave me and abandoned the car in the parking lot. I used to be the kind of demon who'd park in handicapped spaces, but I've come a long way since those days. Humans find it much more annoying to see a car taking up two legal spaces, as opposed to taking up just one parking space practically no one uses anyway.
Okay, I thought to myself as I lobbed Adam's keyring as far as I could into the empty lot next to the 7-11 – what to do, what to do? I still had to find some way to draw a Malakim hit squad off my back. If I could convince them I was dead, that would help, but even if I provided them with a corpse they'd still try to hunt down the painting. If I could distract the angels with someone else, I could get the painting to my Prince and win a few points. What to do?
So I showed up at Nicole's house – very "her," white picket fence and all. As I'm walking around the back, I see the ugliest car in the world clunk up to the front, with Nicole at the wheel and thumb boy riding shotgun. I snuck around back, let myself in. When she came in, I accosted her and the bitch shot me, as promised. I think I gave a pretty convincing death scene. The last thing I saw was a white heel on my chest, pushing me over onto my back . . .
With a start, I woke in my own body with a wet towel on my forehead and a beer in my hand. Mmm, I thought, someone likes me. The scratching from the chimney said that my latest project was finished. A few minutes later, my new undead servant clawed its way out of the bag and stumbled into the living room, covered in soot and sneezing little cat sneezes. Cats, you gotta love 'em.
I don't know how long I sat there before Charlie kicked my door in. I swear, I go through more doors. I'd ask Saminga for a door budget but he'd think I was being insolent. My friend was loaded for bear, with large and nasty guns in each hand and countless rounds of profane ammunition strapped to his chest in long belts.
"What's the other problem," he demanded.
"It's not that big a deal anymore," I said, dismissing it with a wave of my hand. "There's another angel in town, a Mercurian, but I think she's taken care of now." He stared at me for a moment in obvious disappointment, then began pawing at the rest of the six-pack I'd left on the floor.
I started going through my duffel bag, sorting out things I needed to throw away versus things I needed to get as far away from me as possible. The Tupperware went in the latter pile. Charlie opened it up and inhaled the thick aroma.
"Lasagna," he murmured, fingering the plastic container. I told you, demons love lasagna.
Let's see: Adam's toast, the angels think I'm dead – at least until that miraculous disguise wears off – Sabrina thinks Adam betrayed her and Charlie's going to eat the lasagna. He could take care of the Malakim, probably. Things might turn out okay after all. My throat caught for a moment as I thought about Sabrina. I really liked her. She was truly, truly evil. It's a small world, I thought to myself, I'll run into her eventually – with a flaming diesel truck, God willing.
"You hungry?" I asked Charlie with one of Sabrina's trademark shrugs. "Take it. My good deed for the day."