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Ivan Drake slapped his palm across the offender's reedy neck and shoved hard. Simon Grimm hacked out a groan as his spine and shoulders collided with a brick wall.
It was midnight. Ivan had tracked the mark from his legal office in downtown Berlin to this ritzy underground parking garage boasting rubber flooring and a heated car wash.
"You've been stealing souls, psychopomp," Ivan hissed.
He clamped both hands to the man's bony shoulders and pressed his fingertips until he felt the silk business suit tear and then flesh popped. Blood perfumed the air, meaty and more than a little inviting.
"Let go of me! Who the hell are you?"
Ivan dug in deeper. "I'm your worst nightmare."
"Ha! You don't know nightmares until you've vomited up the sins of murderers. You don't scare me."
How the idiot managed such lack of reasonso many of his marks acted equally as belligerentnever ceased to amaze Ivan. This psychopomp had been moonlighting as a sin eater. Simon Grimm had been stealing souls for years, and Himself wanted it stopped.
Grimm kicked, his leather loafer landing on Ivan's thigh. Though the man was as tall as Ivan, he was slender and wasn't designed for defense. Or self-preservation.
Slapping the guy hard across the cheek sent him reeling to the ground. He landed ten feet from where Ivan stood, but inches from the license plate of a black BMW claiming SHESMINE.
Giving his head a discombobulating shake, Grimm then spat out blood. "Let me guess, Himself sent you. Are you the devil's fixer? Shouldn't you be less GQ and more Demon's Quarterly?"
"You're stealing his souls," Ivan reiterated.
Stretching his left arm out pumped a bicep beneath the fittedItalian leather jacket. So he liked style. Just because he was a badass didn't mean he couldn't look good doing it.
Stalking toward the fallen cretin, he fisted his hands. Neck tense, he strained to unmake those fists.
Just once. Could I resist just once? Turn away and run. Leave this wretched psychopomp to a hell of his own making.
But his fists remained. Ivan was the psychopomp's designated hell for the evening.
Every time Ivan tried to fight the coercion, it coiled tighter about his will. A boa constrictor wrapped about his very being. Anger over his life boiled in his gut, making escape from the invisible bonds impossible.
He was the devil Himself's fixer. And he hated every second of it.
"I'll never stop!" Grimm shouted as he shuffled along the wall, spider-long legs scrambling across the rubber-tiled floor, away from Ivan's relentless approach.
Grimm was a soul shepherd, a man who ferried souls after death, directing them, much like a traffic cop, either to heaven or hell. The official term was psychopomp. Lately, he'd been directing far too many of Himself's plunder in the other directionthat is, after he'd eaten away their sins.
While Ivan cheered for those unofficially pardoned souls, he also understood the universe functioned thanks to a system of checks and balances. If a soul was intended for Himself, it shifted the universal balance to send it elsewhere.
"There's nothing you can do to me that'll hurt worse than my life already does," Grimm slammed out. "Go ahead. Beat me bloody. If I can rescue a soul from the flames, then I will."
Ivan leaned over the shivering psychopomp. "There are no flames," he said calmly.
"How do you know? Every man conceives his own hell. I say there's flames!"
Lifting the man until his feet dangled above the rubber matting, Ivan held him beneath both armpits. Grimm didn't struggle because he was exhausted. So it was easy for Ivan to tap into the coercionHimself's powerand conjure a summoning.
The shadow on the back of his neck pulsated with what Ivan had come to know as a sort of wickedly macabre pleasure. It acted as an entity apart from Ivan, and yet its roots were planted deep in his being.
Focusing his every sense to the psychopomp's spirit, his very essence, Ivan mined deep for those tendrils of darkness never completely purged after an eating. The man had been eating sins and then sending the newly cleansed sinner on to heaven. Even Ivan disapproved of that. Sinners should know better; no amount of money could buy their way to heaven, even after their deaths.
Ivan felt the heavy darkness rise to the man's surface, like molecules of sludge bubbling up through the fragile veil of humanity. Sour wickedness tapped at Ivan's palms, teasing, vying for entrance through the pores of his flesh, but he blocked it.
Instead, he released the summons, and it flowed from Grimm in a massive black cloud, which instantly surrounded the man, fixing to him like a hungry hive eager for blood. It buzzed over the twitching psychopomp as Ivan held him in the air. Legs kicking, and now shouting bloody murder, Grimm struggled against the vicious darkness he'd never known he'd harbored within.
Remnants of his client's stolen sins took their due.
When the inhuman shrieks grew hoarse and the man's body fell limp, Ivan deported the summons. It happened with a sigh from the psychopomp and a prick of icy pain to Ivan's shadow. He dropped Grimm on the ground and stepped away.
Fifty feet away, the exit to the garage opened to the night. Not a single city building blocked the view of the black summer sky. The moon perched high and gorgeous, pale and pocked with mysterious gouges and alien landmarks. Ivan wondered if she were as cold as she looked.
Concentrate on anything but the evil. Grab on to the good. Or you will know your hell, too.
If for a moment, he had to do it, draw his attention away from the task at hand, push out the anger, the coercion. If he did not, then he would be brought down completely, a willing supplicant to Himself.
"Never," Ivan murmured.
Punching a fist into his opposite palm, he turned and pressed a booted foot to Grimm's shoulder, holding him against the wall, for otherwise the man would slump forward and pass out.
"Change your mind?" Ivan asked.
"I didn't hear that. I've just visited all the sins you've eaten upon you. They wish to tear away your flesh and pluck out your eyeballs. Every day. I can set them loose again, and they will be bound to you for the rest of your days on this earth. And when you perish, they'll be waiting for you in hell." He leaned in and tipped up the man by the chin. "You cool with that?"
"No!" Grimm grasped out, but his hand fell weakly upon his stomach. "I'll stop," he muttered. "They all go where they belong from now on."
"Do you swear it?"
"On my mother's soul."
Ivan winced at the easy wager. Didn't the man understand the weight of his words? Should he slip up, Himself would snatch his mother's soul away in a blink.
"I'll be keeping an eye on you."
Ivan pushed away from the man's shoulder and stepped back. Fear emanated from Simon Grimm in a shivery gray mist. Probably he would never again send a soul the wrong direction. Some men were too weak to challenge a wicked fate.
Like you challenge yours during the dark hours?
Likely, Grimm had not asked for the job as a psychopomp. He'd been born into it, no doubt, or recruited. He was as much a victim of the world's whim as any other of the marks Ivan tracked. And for that reason, he could not leave him without one final comment.
"May your shadows be cursed."
Ivan strode out from the parking garage. His work was done.
For this night.
* * *
The sun wouldn't rise for another four hours. Ivan had no other tasks for this evening. He headed home on foot. A small apartment overlooking the river Spree in Berlin offered solace. Perhaps he could manage an hour of sleep.
Not that he was tired. The work, it took a lot out of him, strained his body beyond the limits. And that was quite a lot. But the most devastating effects were mental.
The night was not his own. Whatever Himself wanted, Ivan did. Reluctantly. Always the compulsion to flee, to escape, was present. But he never could. Himself's powerful coercion held Ivan to the task, literally forcing him to it.
The more he resisted, the deeper the shadow at the back of his neck dug into his being. It pricked every nerve with an icy bite. Ivan would never become used to such pain. He embodied pain.
So he did what he was told. Because his mother's and father's souls were held over his head should he refuse.
Ivan tracked immortals and mortals alike, those who had made a deal with Himself and had then reneged on that deal. He fixed wrongs and fetched AWOL souls. He was Himself's fist. And he was feared.
But that was not who Ivan Drake was inside, deep in the pockets of spirit where his soul had once resided.
"I hate this," he muttered, as he stepped inside his building and took the four flights of stairs to his apartment in a dash.
The steel steps clanked under the thick rubber heels of his biker boots. Artificial lemon clung to the air; the landlady's attempt to freshen the stale smell of smoke after a rogue fire in the stairwell last month.
Some day he would be successful. With determination, he would push beyond Himself's control and finally be free.
Until then, Ivan led two separate lives. The night life and the one he walked during the day.
Knocking on the red apartment door next to his, Ivan waited until the door cracked open, then pushed it inside and slipped his hand around the man's neck. Pulling up the strong body of the thirty-something wrestler, he pierced the pulsing jugular with his teeth and drank. The man didn't fight. He expected this most nights. He was Ivan's supplicant, provided by Himself.
For with the immense release of physical and mental energy and his struggle against fate each night, he developed a desperate thirst. He had to feed the hunger, or die.
Dropping the manwhose name he refused to learnat his feet, Ivan turned and backed out. "Curse your shadows."
It was the only sort of blessing he could offer.
Leaving the lights off as he entered his apartment, Ivan looked forward to a shower. But the wave of brimstone flowing out from his bedroom put up his hackles.
"I hate that smell," he muttered, and walked toward the intense odor. "You'd think the Old Lad would try a new cologne after a millennium or two."
The shadow on his back prickled with excited energy.
He should be used to these visits, though no more frequent than every other month or so. Himself's imps usually brought his assignments to him nightly.
Stalking into the bedroom, completely dark thanks to the electrochromic window shades, Ivan didn't need artificial light to see the distorted figure that lounged on his bed.
And he felt the immense pull in his muscles. The compulsion to submit. He didn't want to. He gripped the door frame, fighting the downward pull. But he could not win.
Wood splintering in his grasp, Ivan fell onto one knee and bowed his head. Jaw gritted tightly, he fought against the next move, but as usual, he yielded by spitting out, "Master."
"Always so insolent, Drake, even after all these years. Accept your fate."
Though shadowed, Ivan saw the massive horns move before the window shades. Pinpoints of red glowed from the demon's eyes. The dull clack of hooves as he adjusted his position upon the bed sounded like two blocks of wood.
"You punish the psychopomp?"
"He's stolen his last soul."
"Splendid. Despite your reluctance, you must know how pleased I've been with your work. You never fail, as much as I know that kills you."
"My suffering serves you even greater satisfaction."
"Oh, indeed. But your complete surrender would finally accomplish my education of your reluctant and hapless spirit."
"So you say. I recall your mother having a smart mouth as well. Look where that got you." He laughed loud and painfully, but cut off his demented mirth with an abrupt hiss. "So, I've a new task for you."
"I eagerly await your command."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, vampire. It is vampire tonight, right? I can smell the mortal's blood on you. A nice plump athlete to keep you well fed."
Ivan remained silent. Himself was aware of the fight Ivan put up against the coercion that always made him hungry for blood. To engage in conversation with Himself only served to further vex his spirit, and he knew the bastard always enjoyed that.
"I need you to bring me the book," Himself declared offhandedly, as if announcing a new imp to his legions. "It's in the United States. Along the coast of Maine. A witch guards it."
"Yes, the book. The Grande Grimoire. 'Nuf said. Details are not important to the jobs you perform. In fact, details only muddy the goal and slow you down. But I will give you an address."
Ivan did appreciate addresses.
"Bring it to me posthaste." Himself rose to stand before Ivan. The heat of his closeness waved off his greasy-slick body like sun off the sand dunes. He bent over Ivan's bowed head. "Don't dally, boy. I want it by tomorrow evening."
And the air in the room lightened, as if the humidity had been sucked away by a reverse fan.
Ivan used the iron frame at the end of the bed to push up and stand.
"Just another day at the office. Thanks, Mom and Dad."
He loved his parents. And he did not.
"Why the hell did they do it?"
He clasped his arms across his chest and thought of his childhood. His parents had never made it a secret his soul belonged to Himself. They'd hoped to raise Ivan strong and powerful and resistant to Himself's influence.
That wasn't easy.
Had it been so easy for his parents to sell his soul before he had even been born?
Ivan walked through the sleepy village of Willow Cove. It hugged the Atlantic Ocean along the southern coast in Maine. Granite cliffs and white sand beaches glinted temptingly. A whitewashed lighthouse, easily sighted from anywhere in the small town, transported the more imaginative back a century to a quieter, simpler time.
And Willow Cove was quiet and simple. Removed from the popular tourist destinations, this little village had managed to exist untainted by consumerism for centuries.
The breezy salted air reminded Ivan of Marseilles, on the coast of France. Much more touristy there, but there were a few secluded gems of beach to be had. He desired a place along the white coastline, with a private beach and a home high upon the rocky granite cliffs.