By J. R. Ward
Sometimes a girl just needed a new pair of kicks.
As the demon Devina strode through the Freidmont Hotel’s lobby, she was all about the good feels, strutting it large, hinging those hips. In her mind, her thoughts were locked on last-night action. On her body, she wore skintight leather from her double-Ds to her size nines and all the acreage in between. And talk about pheromones—if she put out any more of them, her fuck-me aura would burn holes through the paneled walls.
Eyes followed her. Men’s and women’s. But why wouldn’t they? Caldwell, New York, wasn’t that far from NYC, and famous people came up all the time from the Big Apple. Besides, even though they didn’t recognize her from movies or TV, she was still a world-class beauty.
At least in this current suit of flesh.
Back to the shoes.
She was heading to the revolving doors, crossing that smooth stretch of shiny, creamy marble, when she saw the stilettos—and stopped dead. Under a Plexiglas case, as if they were jewels, the pair of golden Louboutins was spotlit from above, and oh, the loveliness: The entire skin of each of them was covered in a million micro Swarovski crystals, until their surface looked liquid. And the style? Razor-thin heels that were high enough to put you en pointe. Tiny toe box to show off the cleav. Hidden platforms to provide support on the ball of the foot.
And the capper was, of course, the red sole, the underside of the heels flashing the color of a candied apple.
It was love at first sight.
“Madam, would you like to try these on?”
She didn’t even look at the man who’d materialized beside her. OCD was a disease of capture, and its hooks were once again nailing her in the heart. Even though she had nearly a thousand pairs in her wardrobe, the idea that she couldn’t have this particular twosome, that someone or something might get in the way of her possessing them and keeping them, made her chest tight, her palms sweaty, and her blood flutter through her veins.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Size nine.”
“Come with me.”
She followed like a lamb, looking over her shoulder to double-check that the shoes were still where she’d seen them. Worse came to worst, she could always just steal them—
In the back of her mind, a whoaaaaaaaaaa-Nelly rang out. For the past year, she’d been going to therapy to try to stop these kinds of tailspins.
Calm the fuck down, Devina. It’s just a shoe. It’s only . . .
It is not going to solve your problems with Jim.
Okay, now she felt like throwing up.
FFS, what was she supposed to say to herself? She tried to remember the combination of words that was supposed to put this out-of-control need into a healthier perspective, but there was a traffic jam in her system of neuro-highways. All she could think of was, Get it, keep it, count it.
Get it, keep it, count it. . . .
Get it, keep it, count it. . . .
Damn it, this was a big step back. Thanks to that fully actualized, post-menopausal woman with the PhD on her wall and the couch-cushion body, Devina had been making headway with the compulsions. But this . . . this was old-school, and not in a good way.
And yeah, she knew why this was happening.
It was easier to think about the shoes.
The boutique was in the rear of the lobby, and as she walked through the glass-and-marble entrance, the scented air did nothing to ease the burn. The only thing that was going to help was—
“Was that a nine?” the salesman asked.
Devina shot a glare over. Mr. Can’t Remmy a Damn Shoe Size had a good suit on and a silk tie, and his salt-and-pepper hair was sculpted back from his Botox’d forehead. Turned out the sophisticated fragrance in the place was his cologne, and as he fiddled with his handkerchief, his nails were buffed to a high shine.
He was too put-together to kill. And besides, how would she get her shoes then?
“Nine,” she said sharply. “I’m a nine.”
“Very good, madam. Would you care for a mimosa?”
No, I want my fucking shoes. “Thank you, no.”
Left to her own devices, she paced around the fake Aubusson and checked out the other high-ends you could buy. Judith Leiber minaudières. More shoes, but nothing she was panting to have. Akris jackets. St. John knits. Armani dresses.
Catching sight of herself in one of the many mirrors, she checked out her own ass . . . and thought back to how she’d spent the night.
Her one true love had banged the shit out of her. They’d had about eight hours of epic sex up in her suite, just like she’d wanted. And the fact that the entire time he’d hated himself for it? Icing on the cake.
Jim Heron was a hell of a lover.
Tragically, that wasn’t the only thing he was—and therein lay the problem. He was a cheater. He was a liar. And he didn’t understand the concept of monogamy: Even after their incredible night? He’d gone back home to someone else.
And God, the idea that that virgin Sissy was the competition? Now that shit made her want to buy everything in this store. Even the crap that didn’t fit her.
As she started to estimate the cost, item by item, she stopped herself and tried to placate her OCD with the reality that she was leading three rounds to two in the war over humanity—so if she won the battle for this current soul? By the rules the Creator had set up, she got everything: Not only did she keep her precious collections and her children down in Hell, but she gained dominion over the earth as well as Heaven above.
For someone hardwired like her, it was a wet dream unparalleled, a winning Powerball lottery ticket with a jackpot in the hundreds of billions.
You wanna talk about shoe collections? She could enslave Manolo, Stuie, Christian—and get them to make nothing but footwear for her for time immemorial.
But even better, she’d get Jim—
“Madam, I am so sorry.”
Devina turned around. Mr. Manicure had come out from the back . . . but didn’t have a box in his hand. “Excuse me?”
“We have only the size eight. I can order—”
The man cleared his throat. Twice. Then he opened his mouth to try to breathe. Brought his carefully tended hands up to his carefully knotted tie. Went walleyed.
“You were saying?” Devina drawled.
A little clicking sound came out of him as he tried to remain composed while failing to bring air into his lungs.
But damn it, if she killed him, how would she find the shoes in the back?
Devina released the invisible pressure. “Bring me the eights.”
The man wheezed and threw a hand out to catch himself on the Leiber display, knocking a couple of the hard sparklies off their posts.
“Now,” she barked, flashing her eyes at him.
Cue the shuffling across that rug. And the instant he was behind the silk curtain, the round of coughing and wheezing was like an asthmatic in a greenhouse. But he did emerge with a beige-colored box about two minutes and thirty-nine seconds later. Not that she was counting.
She didn’t hear a word he said as he approached, her eyes locked on what was in his hands. There was a temptation to snatch the shit out of his grip, but she wanted to see the shoes on her feet, even if they didn’t go with her outfit.
Although, dayum, Swarovski and black leather was classic.
Devina hit the row of three damask-covered chairs and kicked off her black Guccis. “Give them to me now.”
The box came to her on command and her hands shook as she popped the top and sighed. The pair of red bags with Louboutin’s black signature on them were a sight to behold and her hands shook as she took one out and pulled open the drawstring. Then . . . oh, what a beauty.
The gem-like twinkling was better than those little purses. Better than what she’d seen out in the lobby through the display case. And the color was that of Caucasian flesh.
She closed her eyes reverently and sent up a prayer for the salesman to keep quiet—if he said one thing about her feet being too big, she was going to take his head off, and not verbally.
With care, she un-bagged the other one and lined up both shoes side by side on the floor. Then she released the structure of her feet so that as she slid her tootsies into the works of art, her bones and skin were like water filling a vase, nothing but accommodation.
The salesman seemed a little surprised as she stood up and walked around all comfy-comfy, but he wasn’t going to say boo, and how lucky for him. Plus, come on, the Loubous were what, like nearly five grand? And he had to be on commission.
Devina smiled as she stared down at her feet, a flush of giddy relief wiping away all the angst about Jim and the war and that fucking Sissy. All at once she was glowing from the inside out, as if she’d had a rip-roaring orgasm, a hot-fudge sundae, and a deep tissue massage all at once.
These were the most perfect shoes in the entire world, and they were hers and nobody else’s, and she was taking them to her wardrobe right now—
That bell in the back of her head rang again, the one that told her when she was backsliding. But screw that.
The stillies were epic, and she couldn’t wait for Jim to see her in ’em. Preferably while the rest of her was nakey.
Yup, these she would save for him.
Popping them off her feet, she put them back into the box just as they’d been presented to her and double-checked to make sure the little red bag with the extra heel tips was in there. Then she glanced over at the salesman—who was taking a discreet puff from an inhaler.
“Put them on my tab,” she said triumphantly. “I’m in the penthouse.”
When your man went home to another, retail therapy was the only way to go.
Standing over a white-and-blue bowl, Sissy Barten cracked an egg so hard, the shell didn’t just shatter but vaporized. “Oh, come on.”
Turning to the sink, she cranked on the water and cleaned off her hand. Which was shaking. Actually, her whole body was shaking, like her spine was a fault line and everything else was in danger of going the way of that egg.
As she cranked off the faucet, the old mansion got way too quiet, and with a jerk, she looked over her shoulder. Hairs prickled across the back of her neck, warning her of . . . what? There were no footfalls, no screams, nobody with a knife or a gun stalking her.
Great. Guess immortals could lose their minds. And wasn’t that a happy future to look forward to.
You couldn’t kill yourself if you were already dead.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
Drying her hands, she grabbed the bowl and washed the thing out. Then she went back to the carton and . . .
Stalled completely. She didn’t want to make scrambled eggs for herself. She didn’t want to be stuck in this house. She didn’t want to be dead and separated from her family. . . .
And while she was at it? She really, totally, absolutely did not want to have that image of Jim Heron half-naked in her head. The sight of him coming out of that bathroom in the wee hours of the night, a towel around his waist, a wasted expression on his face, was like a billboard in front of her brain. She saw every nuance of his body, those huge shoulders, the tight abs, the tops of his hip bones, and that little line of hair beneath his belly button.
Mostly, though, she saw the scratches in his smooth skin. There had been three sets of them, and there was only one thing that could have made—
Abruptly, her shaking got worse, and she tried to do something about it by cracking each one of her knuckles.
Okay, this was ridiculous. You’d think, given her current résumé of being a sacrificial dead-ass virgin resurrected from Hell into a war between a pair of fallen angels and a real, live, honest-to-God demon, that the main thing on her mind would not be some guy. Then again, reality had gone wonky on her weeks ago, so could she really be surprised—
She wheeled around.
No one was there. Again. No one was moving in the house or outside on the scruffy grounds. Adrian, the other fallen angel, had gone up to sleep in the attic where he stayed. And Jim? Jim was on the second floor, doing REM recovery from his night of pneumatic sex.
“Damn it . . .”
Bracing her hands on either side of the bowl, she leaned into her arms. In spite of her rising paranoia, fear wasn’t responsible for her case of the paint mixers.
The urge to kill was.
And that was only a liiiiittle hyperbole. Because her half-naked, towel-wrapped savior had gotten those scratches on his body from a woman’s fingernails. And his mouth had been swollen not from getting coldcocked in a fight, but because he’d been kissing someone. A lot. And his walk-of-shame expression?
Well, that was on account of his clearly having banged someone for hours instead of doing his job. Which just made her furious. Angels responsible for making sure good prevailed over evil? In a war like this? Generally speaking, keeping their eye on the ball was a better idea than being with some whore for hours.
Or, God, maybe she was a nice woman. Who, like, cooked for him as well as gave him great blow jobs.
The more she thought about it, the angrier she got.
Did he have a girlfriend? Well, obviously . . . although maybe that was naive of her. Did men have girlfriends? College students did—but Jim was faaaaaar from one of those—
She glanced over her shoulder for a third time. But nope, Jim was not coming through the doorway. Nobody was.
Hell, for all she knew, he’d already left to have coffee with his—
“Stop it. Just . . . stop it.”
As her rage level went up another decibel, it felt like an eternity since she’d been a college student taking her mom’s car out to the local Hannaford for some ice cream . . . aeons since she’d been approached there by . . .
She couldn’t remember that part. Couldn’t re-create exactly what series of events had brought her to her mortal end, but she recalled everything that came after that: the viscous walls of Hell, the tortured damned twisting around her, her own pain turning her ancient.
Jim Heron had ended up down there, too—for a time. And Sissy had seen what the demon did to him. Had watched those shadowy minions do . . . horrible things to his body.
All things considered, she should cut him some slack, right? He was a victim in all this, too, wasn’t he? So if, in the midst of this war, the man wanted to get a little grind, lose himself in someone, have a break from the horror and the pressure . . . what business was it of hers?
The guy had gotten her out of Hell, and for that solid, she owed him. But that didn’t give her the right to get all hot and bothered about him having gotten all hot and bothered with someone else.
Although granted, there was a lot at stake—if he lost, her own parents, her sister, her friends . . . herself and Jim and Adrian, all would go where she had just been. Now that was too horrific to think about. She had been down there for only a few weeks and it had felt like centuries; she had aged centuries. If it was going to be an eternity? She couldn’t even fathom the experience.
Refocusing, she decided to have another go at the cracking routine. And what do you know, egg number two split in the wrong place, half of the shell ended up in the bowl, and she had to go back to the sink and wash her hands again.
Turning off the water, she stared out the window. The backyard was downright ugly, the landscaping version of a man who hadn’t shaved for a week and didn’t have a good beard pattern working for him: Even though spring was gaining a firm toehold in Caldwell, New York, with buds forming on the tips of tree branches and the snow gone even from where it had been piled up high by the plows, a coat of green leaves wasn’t going to help back there.
In her previous life, she’d be getting excited for summer—even though all that entailed was her sharing an apartment in Lake George Village and serving ice cream at Martha’s for two months. But hello, summer was awesome. You got to wear shorts and hang out with your friends from high school, and maybe, just maybe . . . meet someone.
Instead, here, she was. An immortal with no life—
“You making scrambled—”
Sissy spun around so fast, her hip slammed into the counter—and her only thought was, Where was the nearest knife?
Except she wasn’t going to need a weapon.
Adrian, Jim’s wingman, was standing in the doorway from the hall, and the instant she saw him, she calmed down. The guy, fallen angel, whatever, was well over six feet tall, and in spite of that bad leg of his, he was built big and hard. He was also handsome in the way of a military man, with that strong jaw and the stare that followed everything, although the piercings gave him an anti-authority edge.
As did the fact that he was blind in one eye, the pupil having gone milky white from some kind of injury.
He frowned. “You all right?”
Nope. She was rip-shit pissed and absolutely terrified—both for no good reason. “Yup—I was just going to make breakfast.”
Like he hadn’t already figured that out?
Adrian limped over to the square table in the center of the kitchen, and when he sat down, his body was like a sack of loose bones, landing in the chair with the grace of Twiddlywinks falling. But that didn’t mean he was a lightweight.
“What’s going on,” he demanded.
Yup. For what she’d learned about him, this was pretty typical: straight shooter, no bullshit.
“You want four eggs?” She turned away from him. “Or three.”
“Talk to me.” There was another groan and she imagined he’d leaned his heavy arms on the table. Or tried to cross his legs. “You might as well. We’re the only ones up.”
“I guess Jim had a hard night.”
“He told you about the loss?”
“Yes.” Way to go, Jim. Fantastic. Hope those orgasms were worth it. “So how many eggs you want.”
She glanced at what was left in the carton. “I can offer you four. I broke two and I want two myself.”
And Jim could fend for himself. Or go ask his girlfriend to make some breakfast for him—
“Girlfriend?” Adrian asked.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, you did.”
She threw up her hands and pivoted back to face him. “Look, no wonder Jim is losing. He’s too busy with some woman to pay attention to what he’s doing.”
Adrian just stared at her. “You mind if I ask where this is coming from?”
“Let’s just say I caught him coming home at four in the morning.”
Adrian cursed under his breath—and didn’t go any further than that.
Sissy shook her head. “So you know about his girlfriend, or fuck buddy, or whatever she is. You know what he was doing last night.”
“Look, it’s complicated.”
“That is a Facebook status. Not an excuse for screwing around on your job. Especially given the biblical stakes he’s playing for.”
On that note, she got cracking, so to speak. And made it through the rest of the carton fine. Poured a splash of milk in. Whisked her little heart out as she got the pan warmed up and the butter melted.
“My mom always told me to wait,” she muttered.
Okay, either her mouth needed to stop working or he needed to lose some hearing. Like she was going to talk about sex with the guy?
Then again, it’d just be a short convo, at least on her side.
Sissy shot his big, hard body a glance—and decided the topic would probably not be a quickie on his part. “Till the butter was right. Before you put the eggs in, you know.”
Ironically, the whole virginity thing was the reason the demon had taken her, the very thing that had set the wheels in motion and landed her here: just a couple of miles away from her family but separated by a divide so great she might as well have been on another planet.
“Shoot!” Sissy lunged for the smoking pan and picked the thing up without a pot holder, burning her palm— “Goddamn it!”
From out of nowhere, that murderous rage made her want to destroy something: The stove. The kitchen. The whole house. Blinded by anger, she wanted to splash gasoline around the base of the wooden mansion and light everything on fire. She wanted to stand so close to the blaze her pores got tight and her eyelashes curled.
And maybe, just maybe, she wanted Jim to have to claw his way out to safety.
Big hands came to rest on her shoulders. “Sissy.”
She was so not up for some kind of parental pep talk. “I don’t need—”
“Jim is not your problem. Do you hear me?”
With a yank and a shove, she stepped away. “It doesn’t bother you that he’s distracted?”
Adrian stared down at her, that eye on the right positively opaque. “Oh, it does. Trust me.”
“So why don’t you do something about it! Talk to him or something—you’re close, right? Tell him to stop . . . doing what he’s doing. Maybe if he refocused, he’d start winning.” When there was no reaction, she cursed. “Don’t you care about what happens? Your best friend is up in that attic, dead because of—”
Adrian shoved his face into hers. “Stop right there.”
The tone in his voice shut her up.
“You and I?” he said. “We get along. We’re cool. But that doesn’t mean you get to talk about shit you don’t know about. You have problems with Jim? I get that more than you realize. You don’t appreciate him getting wound in the head about some chick? Join the fucking club. You’re worried about what happens next? Head to the end of a very, very long line. But watch your mouth about Eddie, ’cause that was before your time and it’s none of your damn business.”
For some reason, the fact that he was partially agreeing with her just pissed her off even more. “I gotta get out of here. I just . . . I gotta get some air. Make your own eggs—you can eat my share.”
Back in her real life, Sissy had never been much of a stomp-and-slammer. She’d been a good girl, the kind who had besties instead of boyfriends, was always the designated driver, and never, ever made a fuss about anything.
But death had cured her of all that.
She marched over to the door, ripped that thing open like she wanted to tear it off its hinges, and pounded her way outside. As she kick-shut those wood panels behind her, it occurred to her that she didn’t have anywhere to go. But that problem was solved as a glint of metal caught her eye.
The Harleys were parked inside the detached ancient garage, and she went for the one she’d used before. The keys were in the ignition—which would have been stupid except for the fact that this was an otherwise good neighborhood, and say what you wanted about Jim and Adrian, they were the kind of men who could get a bike back if it was stolen.
And not by calling the police.
Throwing a leg over the seat, she pumped the engine, tilted the weight so she could free the kickstand . . . and a second later she hit the gas and roared off, screaming down the drive past the old mansion’s flank, screeching out into the street and powering off.
With no helmet on her head, the wind roared past her ears and mixed with the engine’s din. Her sweatshirt offered little buffer between her skin and the cool morning, and would offer even less protection if she wiped out and hit the pavement.
But she was already dead.
So it wasn’t like she had to worry about pneumonia or dermabrasion.
Besides, who the hell cared?
Jim Heron came awake like he was shot out of a cannon, palming his forty, jacking upright, ready to pull the trig.
No targets. Just faded flowered wallpaper, the bed he was lying in, and two piles of laundry on the floor in the corner, one clean, one dirty.
For a split second, time spaghetti’d on him, no longer a function that was linear, but a fucked-up mess where the past twisted around the present. Was he looking for a rogue operative? A soldier who was in the wrong place at the wrong time? An assassin who’d come for him?
Or was this a morning from the second chapter in his life? Where a demon’s minions were after him? Maybe Devina, herself?
Or was that bitch assuming another mask where she looked like—
The roar of a Harley engine igniting outside his window snapped his head around. Up on his feet, he went over to the window and parted the thin curtains.
Down below, Sissy Barten was on Eddie’s bike, cranking gas into the engine, making that Harley talk. With quick efficiency, she freed up the kickstand and took off, blond hair streaming behind her in the spring sunlight.
His immediate instinct was to go after her, either on one of the other Harleys or by ghosting out and traveling on the wind. And he gave in to the impulse, yanking some jeans on, dragging a Hanes T-shirt over his head. He was shoving his socked feet into his combat boots when he stopped.
And pictured his enemy.
Devina was six feet of brunette sexpot—at least when she slipcovered herself in all that appealing flesh. Underneath the lie? She was a pinup only by Walking Dead standards. But in either garb, she had the focus of a laser sight, the smile of a cobra, and the sexual appetite of a frat boy on Molly.
In the last round of this war, he’d spent so much time worrying about Sissy that he’d made the wrong call about which soul was on deck. And lost a crucial win as a result.
He couldn’t afford to do that again.
The Creator had set up the conflict with very clear parameters: seven souls, seven shots for Jim to influence someone at a crossroads. If the person in play picked the righteous path? Angels won. If not, score one for Devina. Winner got all the souls of the quick and dead, and dominion over Heaven and Hell. The loser was game-over’d.
Pretty clear, right? Bullshit. In reality, the war wasn’t playing out along any neat and tidy rules, and the biggest deviation that screwed him where it hurt was that Devina wasn’t supposed to be down on the field. Technically, only he was allowed to interact with the souls—but when your enemy was a liar down to her black and evil core? All bets were off. Throughout the entire game, the demon had totally refused to color within the lines—easy to do when you had no sense of morality, and “fair play” was not in your vocabulary.
Shit . . . Sissy.
Jim scrubbed his face, and felt like a rope being pulled in two different directions.
As a former black ops soldier for the U.S. government, he was hardly the nurturing type. And yet, from the second he’d found that girl hanging upside down in the demon’s tub, her life ended so she could function as ADT for Devina’s precious mirror? He’d been strung up on her.
The truth was, she was the reason that he was on the verge of losing this whole goddamn war. He’d traded one of his wins to the demon to get her out of Hell. And then he’d been so distracted trying to make sure Sissy didn’t lose her mind in the transition, he’d tanked the last round.
If not for Sissy Barten, he’d be up by two and on the verge of shutting things down in a good way.
Instead, all it was going to take was one more fuck-up and Devina was the HBIC—and the aftermath was going to make any concept of doomsday look like an infomercial for luxury time-shares.
He thought of his dead mother, up in the Manse of Souls, spending the eternity she deserved with the rest of the righteous. He cocked this up? Poof! Sorry, Mom, pack your bags, you’re retiring down south. Waaaaay down south.
All because I got my head scrambled by long blond hair and a pair of blue eyes.
And yet he still wanted to go after Sissy. Just to make sure . . .
From out of nowhere, he pictured her sitting up in his bed, nothing but a white T-shirt on, her eyes wide as she stared at him.
Her voice had been soft, but strong. Just kiss me and I’ll go. It’s the only thing I’ll ever ask of you. . . .
He’d fought the seduction and then lied to himself as he’d given in, his brain insisting it was only going to be a kiss when his erection had known otherwise. Clear as day, he saw himself leaning into her, her lips parting for him. . . .
And then everything coming to a screeching halt as Sissy’s voice had said his name—from outside in the hall. Instantly, Devina had emerged from the lie he’d fallen for, the demon replacing the illusion that was in front of him, her black eyes sparkling, her smile pure evil.
The bitch had been out of there a second later: Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.
Talk about your crossroads. He was at one now. Either he went after Sissy again . . . or he got with the program and did his job.
Jim finished tying up his boots and headed for the door. Indecisiveness had never been a problem with him before—any more than plastic explosives would take a moment to introspect before going off. And yet, when he walked into the kitchen and saw his remaining wingman cracking eggs over a bowl at the counter, he had no fucking clue what he was going to do.
Adrian put his palm out to cut any questioning. “No, I don’t know where she went.”
“It’s all right.”
Ad’s eyes narrowed. “Lemme guess—you’re going after her.”
Jim felt a pull toward that damn door that was nearly irresistible. The idea that Sissy was out in the world by herself, hurting and confused—it was enough to make his heart go snare drum on him.
Curling his hands into a pair of fists, he turned to the table. Went over. Sat his ass down. “We need to talk.”
Adrian looked up to the ceiling as if searching for strength. “You mind if I have breakfast first? I hate hearing bad news on an empty stomach.”
Rage was the octane in her veins as Sissy shot through the streets of suburban Caldwell, jerking the Harley into lefts and rights, blowing through stoplights and intersections, flying past a hospital, some strip malls, a school. . . .
Nothing really registered. Not the SUV she cut off or the delivery truck she nearly crashed into. Not the pedestrians that jumped back or the stray black cat that skipped across her lane.
All she could think about were flames . . . the ones she had started days ago in the mansion’s parlor. Red, orange, yellow, licking out of the fireplace, fueled by the dusty sheets she had ripped off the furniture and shoved into the oven she’d created. Heat on her face, singeing her eyebrows and lashes, making her pores sting, echoes of the flickering light spotting up her vision. Hunger in her gut for more, more, more. . . .
Jim had been the one to stop her before things had gotten completely out of control—
In the corner of her eye, a pattern registered, one that was part of the real world, not the stuff in her mind.
It was a fence. A ten-foot-high, glossy black wrought-iron fence.
Beyond which were graves.
The Pine Grove Cemetery.
How had she ended up in this part of town? Then again, if you didn’t have a destination, a tank of gas and a machine could take you somewhere. Didn’t mean you had to go inside, however.
And she really meant to continue on by the place—it just was not the way the Harley happened to go. The gates were open because it was after eight, and as she zoomed through them, her stomach went on the grind.
The landscape of blocky gray markers, and tombs that looked like banks, and white marble statues of angels and crosses made her think of that tattoo on Jim’s back, the one of the Grim Reaper.
And this, naturally, took her right back to the fingernail scratches on his chest.
She was still cursing as she rounded a fat turn, ascended a brief hill . . . and found herself at her own grave site. Hitting the brakes, she was surprised that she’d managed to make it to the right place. The cemetery was a maze of all-the-same and she had been here only once before.
When her remains had been sunk beneath the surface.
Funny, she’d always had a fear of being buried alive, those Edgar Allan Poe–era stories of people scratching at the insides of their coffins scaring the crap out of her. Now? Turned out that hadn’t been worth worrying about. She’d have done herself more of a favor not to have made that ice cream run to Hannaford’s.
Killing the engine, she dismounted and walked across the asphalt strip. The scratchy spring grass was a bright fresh green, and crocuses and tulips were pushing up to the sun, their pale shoots searching and finding warmth, their flowers about to come out and see the world.
She was careful not to step on them as she made her way over to the grave marker that had her name and dates on it.
The groundskeeping staff had done a pretty crappy job with the rolls of grass over all that loose dirt, the lengths a little cockeyed, one of them trimmed too short.
She pictured her funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her mother crying. Her sister. Her father. She saw her artwork arranged in the narthex . . . and that groundskeeper who had been so kind to her . . . and all the people, young and old, who had come to pay their respects.
Abruptly, it was hard to breathe.
None of them deserved this destiny of hers.
And the longer she stood over her own grave, the more she became convinced that virtue was so overrated. If she hadn’t been a virgin, none of this would have happened. Instead, she’d be gearing up for finals right now and in the studio with her favorite art teacher, Ms. Douglass. She probably should have just given it up to Bobby Carne when she’d been a junior in high school. Even though he’d had octopus arms and a tongue like a dripping sponge. . . .
From out of nowhere, another image of Jim popped up, this time from when she’d knocked on his door the morning before and he’d scrambled to open it. His hair had been a mess and he’d been half-dressed, nothing but loose sweats hanging off the curves of those pelvic bones. He’d looked at her . . . in a way he hadn’t before.
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was the way a man looked at a woman when he—
“Okay, you need to stop,” she said out loud.
God, she really couldn’t believe he had a girlfriend in the middle of all this. Or that she cared one way or the other.
What she needed to get focused on was freeing the others who were like her, those who didn’t belong down below, the poor fools who had been sacrificed and claimed because of their virtue.
On this fine spring morning, she needed to put the crazy anger aside, go back to that house, and sit down with that ancient book Adrian had given her. She had to find a way, a loophole, some wiggle room where she could right the wrong that had ruined her own life as best she could for the others like her . . .
It was hard to say how long she had been standing there when she realized she wasn’t alone: Just as the iron fencing had gradually gotten through to her, so too did the presence that was in the shadows under the cedar trees over on the left.
A woman. With long brunette hair and tight black clothes. And she was looking right at Sissy as if waiting to get noticed.
Talk about out of place. She was like some model at a fashion shoot, and as she started to come over, she somehow managed to walk across the grass without her stillies sinking into the earth and tripping her up. In fact, it was as if she were floating . . . ?
Sissy’s instincts started to roar, her mind making connections and conclusions that were horrific—this was no stranger, and the female, or whatever she actually was, was definitely not out of place in a cemetery.
Run! an inner voice screamed. Run—get out of here now!
Except no. She wasn’t turning away; she wasn’t giving in. She was standing her ground over the symbol of why she needed to fight.
“So you know who I am,” the demon said as she got within earshot.
“You look different. But yes.”
The demon stopped on the other side of the grave marker, her black eyes glinting. “You look just the same.”
The dry tone indicated that that was not a compliment. Then again, you didn’t get to be the biggest source of evil in the world because you were a stand-up gal.
“Annnnnd?” Sissy kicked up her chin. “You have something to say to me?”
“Don’t kick a hornet’s nest, little girl.”
“What are you going to do? Kill me? Been there, done that.”
The demon leaned forward, her shadow darkening the top of the smooth granite marker. “As if that’s the only thing I can do to you.”
Sissy shrugged. “Threats don’t scare me. You don’t scare me.”
And this was true even though she was alone in the cemetery with the specter of all evil: Her inner anger was a kind of power in and of its own.
The demon settled back on her high heels and crossed her arms. Then she smiled—which was somehow more dangerous. “Do you want to know how I spent last night?”
“I don’t blame you.” The demon flexed her hands, her long, red painted nails flashing in the sunlight. “I think it would upset you.”
That image of Jim’s scratched chest barged into the front of Sissy’s mind like it had been planted there deliberately.
Oh . . . God. No—
“Jim’s a fantastic lover.” The demon reached up and rubbed the back of her neck, arching as if stiff. “Very aggressive. I don’t think he’d be for you, honestly. Not that you have anything to compare it to, of course. It’s just, you really need to have a certain . . . stamina . . . to keep up with a man like him.”
Sissy could feel the blood leaving her head, the world tilting on its axis, the sky spinning around her. “I don’t believe you.”
“No? Ask him. And go into it knowing that he’s in love with me.”
“Bullshit. He’s fighting against you.”
“You want to know how he got his job? I picked him. Me and that simp archangel Nigel put our heads together and made the choice—and the reason Jim was right by my standards? He’s got plenty of me in him, Sissy. He’s got evil inside, deep under that surface of his. And that’s going to win out over the stuff you’re no doubt fantasizing about. At the end of this, however and whenever it finishes, he’s going to be with me.”
In a flash, Sissy’s fury boiled up hard and fast once more, taking over her body, her heart, her soul. And the sight of that sly smile made her positively violent.
The demon’s voice got lower, so low it seemed to warp. “That’s right, Sissy. You got it right, everything you’re thinking, the hatred that you feel. Go with it. Be with it. . . . Jim was calling my name all night long, Devina, Deeeevina . . . and that pisses you off. I can give him things you can’t, and that eats you alive. Go with the anger, little girl . . . don’t be a pussy like you were in life. In death”—the demon leaned forward again—“be strong.”
At that point, Sissy’s hearing conked out, and yet even though her ears stopped working, somehow she was still able to hear what the demon was saying as images of bloodshed flickered through her mind—
For a third time, something intruded upon her consciousness. A rhythmic sound, repeating over and over, getting louder.
The demon’s head snapped around. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
Sissy glanced over and did a double take. It was Jim’s dog, and the scruffy, limping mutt was coming across the grass at a clip, ears pricked, short snout angled up like he was giving a lecture.
The demon took a step back. “Listen to me, girl. Jim is not for you.” That smile came back. “I can feel your anger from over here, and it’s a beautiful thing. Better than a man you can’t have, that’s for sure. Breathe in and embrace it—let it take you. Be strong. Let it take you, girl . . . be strong and fight back.”
Just like that the demon was gone, no poof of smoke lingering where she’d been, no spark of light extinguishing or anything—there was simply air left in her wake, as if she had never been.
But that wasn’t true, was it. Deep in the recesses of Sissy’s brain, those words were repeating, the demon’s voice like a seed planted in earth that was fertile. Let it take you, girl . . . be strong.
Where was the dog? Sissy wondered, looking around.
It was only her, however. Her and her grave site. And that anger.
Jim Heron was sleeping with the enemy. And not as in the old Julia Roberts movie.
“I’m sorry, what the fuck did you just say?”
As Adrian’s forkful of eggs went back down to his plate and the other angel did some more swearing, Jim lit up a Marlboro and took a nice long drag. “Quitting.”
“Lemme get this straight. Devina comes to you and says, ‘How ’bout we hang it up.’” Ad jacked forward over the table. “And you fricking took her seriously. Was that before or after she won this round?”
“I’m just telling you what she said.”
“So what, the two of you just no más it and then what? You think the Creator’s not going to have an opinion?”
“Relax. I’m not saying I buy it.”
“Good. Because then you’d be a fool as well as an asshole.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Jim exhaled a steady stream of smoke. “And she had another happy little update. She says now that Nigel’s gone, I’m due for a promotion.”
“That’s all I know.” Jim leaned back and looked at the ceiling, which had had all kinds of flaking paint about a week ago. Now? It was like it had been sanded, sealed, and rolled out with a fresh coat. “Is it me or is this house, like . . . rejuvenating itself?”
At first he’d assumed things were looking better because they had a woman around and Sissy was cleaning. But in the last two days, the changes that had emerged were structural, not anything explained by one hell of a Swiffer job.
“Wait, wait, promotion like what?”
Jim shrugged. “With Nigel gone, I’m supposed to take his place up there.”
He pictured the archangel with his three dandy backups, having a proper English tea up in Heaven. Then tried to imagine himself sitting there, passing scones and the sugar bowl around with his pinkie extended and his legs crossed at the knees.
Adrian moved around in his wooden chair, his weight causing the thing to groan. “I didn’t know that was in the rules.”
“What a fucking surprise.” Jim took another drag. “We need to verify the information. Any idea where we can go?”
“Yeah.” Ad resumed eating. “And he’s dead up in the attic.”
There was a period of silence during which Ad became a member of the Clean-plate Club. When he was finished, he pushed himself away from the table, cupped the back of his neck with both hands and sprawled.
“Maybe we should just take a trip to Purgatory.”
“Excuse me?” Jim asked.
Ad shrugged. “That shit about not making it into Heaven if you commit suicide is no bullshit. Trust me.”
As the guy cleared his throat like he’d gone too far, Jim’s wheels got turning. “You’re saying Purgatory is real.”
“Been there, got the T-shirt. Blah, blah, blah.”
“So how’d you get out?”
Jim sat up straight. “You’re telling me Eddie went in there and came back out? With you?”
“Hold up.” The guy extended his hands in classic stop-it-right-thur style. “I was just being a smart ass—don’t even think about that. You’re our special golden boy, whatever—and Eddie condemned himself to do it. Besides, no offense, but you’re still getting up to speed, this is a clutch round, and we both know how well things go when you’re ‘distracted.’”
The air quotes would have made Jim violent . . . except for the fact that he had come to the same conclusion, which was why he was here and not going after Sissy. As much as it pained him, he needed to win and he needed to somehow keep his job even with Nigel being dead. If he could prevail, and avoid turning into an archangel, then after the great victory or whatever he’d have an eternity to help Sissy. Now was the crisis time for the war, though.
Besides, the rounds had been coming faster and faster. Forty-eight hours. Maybe seventy-two—and he could refocus on her.
“I’ve got to go over and bring him back.”
“Jim, you’re fucking crazy—”
“What’s my other option?” Jim narrowed his eyes. “If Devina’s right, and I’m supposed to succeed Nigel? I can’t let that happen. I don’t trust anyone else to do this job—I can win this, Ad. I can goddamn win this.”
All he had to do was think back to the way he’d spent the night. Devina had a critical weakness . . . and it was him. She wasn’t suggesting they both throw in the towel because she was scared of losing—it was because she didn’t want to lose contact with him: Unless he quit, he was apparently going to have to step into Nigel’s spats and she didn’t want to fight with anyone other than him. Fuck the rules, fuck the archangels, fuck the Creator—Devina was a parasite addicted to acquisition and he was her number one target.
And she was going to take that weakness to her grave.
Because he was going to personally escort her there with it.
Adrian’s one functioning pupil roamed around Jim’s face, and Jim held himself perfectly still. He was prepared to take any scrutiny, because he knew, down to his soul, what he needed to do . . . and how he was going to do it.
“Ad,” he said in a low voice, “I can do this.”
The other angel almost hid the tremors that crept into his hands. But the fine tic that teased his bad eye was nothing he could camo. “No, you can’t.”
“What put you in there, Ad. How’d you get over.” Not questions, because he knew the answer. “Devina got into you, didn’t she. She got to you somehow, and you couldn’t take it—so you ate a bullet. You slit your wrists. You hanged yourself—”
“A cliff.” The voice that interrupted was so hoarse, it was made of ninety percent air. “I, ah . . . I had made a deal with her to save someone.”
Jim waited for the story to roll out. When it didn’t, he said, “What happened.”
Ad cleared his throat and covered his face with those shaking hands. “I made an arrangement to save someone and I turned myself over to that demon. I was down on that table of hers for . . . it felt like years. Eddie told me later it was two nights of earth time. When I came back, after she released me, I wasn’t the same.”
Like bats out of Hell itself, memories of Jim’s own time down there swarmed and descended, clouding his brain. He knew exactly what Ad was talking about. He’d been on that table, too.
That was how his path had first crossed Sissy’s.
After he’d found her body, that was.
“I thought I was okay.” Ad shook his head. “I wasn’t. I lasted about a week, made some excuse to Eddie about going somewhere. I was going to shoot myself, but I’m an angel, right? I wanted to die flying. So I jumped and did nothing about it . . . the canyon was about seventy feet deep. I hit hard and that was all it took. Split second later—shit, I thought I’d survived. I woke up in Purgatory—I thought it was gray because of moonlight or some shit.”
Finally, Ad dropped his arms. His eyes, both of them, were red ringed from tears he refused to let fall.
“Eddie went there because of me, but he was also the reason we got out. The Creator has a thing for love.” Ad stared at his own hands, watching them shake. “I mean, Eddie sacrificed himself for me, and that’s love, right? Not the dumb-ass romantic kind . . . but the real shit. So yeah, when Nigel went to the Creator and argued for us—that was what worked. Nigel was able to strike an arrangement that freed us about a month before you came along. If we see you through this war? We’re free. It’s our penance.”
“So you can help me find that archangel and get him back.”
“Maybe Devina is talking out of her ass, though. Not like that bitch has a problem lying—”
“So you can help me,” he repeated.
Ad shook his head again. “Jim, this is a really bad idea.”
“But you can get me there, can’t you.”
“No, that’s on you.”
As their eyes met, Jim knew exactly what the guy was talking about. “But you can help me out of there.”
“No, I can’t. Didn’t you listen to me? It’s not up to us, buddy.” Ad looked up at the ceiling. “Your exit visa can only be issued by the Creator.”
Jim could sense the guy retreating—and that couldn’t happen. “Listen, this is an extraction. Nothing more, nothing less. You think I haven’t done one of these before? I’ll go in, get him, bring him out—”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“There has to be a way.” Jim curled up a fist and banged it on the table, making the plate and fork dance. “Even if Devina is wrong? Heaven is stronger with Nigel back up there. Colin’s head is completely fucked with the bastard gone, and right now, Bert and Ernie—”
“That would be Albert and Byron.”
“Fine, whatever. Call ’em Mozart and Beethoven for all I care. The two of them are holed up in the Manse of Souls, stuck there, while Colin is disintegrating. And this is not a hypothetical. I went up there after I got home last night. All it’s going to take is for Devina to get a hard-on to hit the place, and then we got another set of problems we don’t need. Hell, the Creator can’t even control her, and she sure as shit doesn’t follow the rules. What do you think is gonna happen.”
“But what if I can’t get you back? Then what? Or haven’t you thought it through that far.”
“Then you take over.”
“Not in the rules.”
“Fuck the rules. You’ll handle things because that’s what men like you and me do.”
“On that logic, you could just go up and be Nigel now, and let me take care of the next schlub who fills your shoes. Save the trip to the other side and skip the risk that you’re going to get stuck there.”
“But I’m the reason Nigel’s gone.” Jim jabbed his thumb into his own chest. “I did it. It’s my fault. If I had done shit different . . . except that doesn’t matter anymore. I want to make amends for the death, and the only way to do it is to bring him back. I settle my debts, Ad. You hear me?”
Adrian scrubbed his face. “I don’t know. I guess there might be a way to get you out.”
“See, I knew this was going to work.”
“I did not say that.”
“Whatever, I’m not a quitter. Even if Devina wasn’t a liar, I’m not quitting this. I’m marshaling my weapons and moving forward. First, we get Nigel back. Then we’re going to hunt down Devina’s lair, we’re going to take that mirror of hers, and we’re going to win these final two rounds. That is our plan. We are going to execute it.”
“What about the next soul?”
Jim opened his mouth to reply—but didn’t get that far. The back door to the mansion blew wide open like it had been hit by a gale-force wind.
“You’re fucking her?!” Sissy spat.
Sissy was breathing hard even though she’d run only the fifteen feet between where she’d parked the Harley and the back door to the old house. Then again, she’d had to hang onto the bike’s handlebars with a death grip on the ride back. It was either that or lose total control.
Or had that already happened, even though she’d made it here in one piece?
“Well?” Like Jim hadn’t heard her. “You’ve got nothing to say?”
Jim reached forward and calmly stamped out his lit cigarette. “Sissy—”
“She had you raped!” As Jim’s face went ashen, she slammed the door behind herself, shutting them all in. “Did you think I don’t know what she had done to you? We all saw it from the walls! I watched when they . . . hurt you. How do you—” Her voice cracked. “How can you be with her after something like that?”
At that moment, she wanted to weep, but she didn’t give in. How could she? This wasn’t a safe place for her, even though the two “men” who were at the table, both so silent and still, were supposedly angels.
“Whose side are you really on?” she demanded.
Jim put his palms on the table and braced his arms. As he stood up, it was clear he had an iron lock on his temper, and for a split second, she felt a flash of fear.
But she’d already faced off with the devil herself. So she wasn’t about to be frightened by him.
“Fine, forget about what she did to you—she murdered me!” Sissy barked. “That bitch took my life away from me. She ruined my family’s lives. Nothing will be the same and nothing will ever be right—and you’re sleeping with her?”
Jim’s voice was deep and low. “Adrian, you need to leave this room now.”
The other angel was up and out of his chair before the sentence was finished. And as he limped out, Sissy was glad for the privacy. Shit was going down, and this did not need an audience.
When they were alone, Jim locked eyes with her. “I didn’t want you to see that.”
“What they did to you, or the scratches she left on your chest last night?”
He closed his lids, but she wasn’t sure whether that was because he had serious regrets . . . or because he was trying to figure out what to say.
“I just don’t get you.” She shook her head. “And maybe that makes me naive—”
“This is war,” he cut in.
“And that is just sick!” she yelled back. “You’re disgusting!”
With an explosive lunge, he flipped the table over, sending a plate flying, scattering chairs. “Do you think I’ll stop at using anything it takes to win! Even if it’s myself!”
Sissy took a step back, and hit the counter by the stove. Something about seeing his anger got hers under some control.
After a long moment of standoff, she said grimly, “I don’t expect you to enjoy it, how ’bout that. Or are you going to tell me men can get it up even though they’re grossed out by someone? Didn’t think the anatomy worked like that—then again, I’m a virgin, right. So what do I know.”
Jim was breathing hard now, his blue eyes glowing, and not in a good way. But he wasn’t going to hurt her—in spite of what he’d just done to that poor table, she knew deep down in her soul he would never, ever hurt her.
At least not physically.
He’d already torn her apart on the inside, however. Although she wasn’t sure exactly how he’d gotten the power to do that.
“I hate it,” he said raggedly. “But I will use any weapon in this war, even my own body. Are we clear?”
“So now you’re a martyr as well as a savior? I don’t know, like I said, I think men have to enjoy it, don’t they.”
“I can’t do this with you.” He started shaking his head. “I’m not going to do this with you.”
“As if it’s none of my business? Like the outcome of all this doesn’t affect me?”
“No, as in you aren’t entitled to this airtime.” As she gasped, the anger flushed from his face and he stared at her with no emotion at all. “You’re the reason I lost the last round. Not Devina. It was you. I was so goddamn worried about you that I couldn’t concentrate—and the results were disastrous on too many levels. So I’m not going to do this with you. I can’t. I just . . . fucking can’t.”
She recoiled. “It was . . . me you were distracted by?”
“It sure as shit wasn’t Devina.”
Jim cursed his way over to the table and righted the thing like it weighed no more than a dime. Then he picked up the plate, located the fork over by the ancient refrigerator, and took them both over to the sink.
“I’ve got work to do,” he said on his way out.
And that was that.
At least on his side.
Sissy went after him, catching him by the arm before he hit the stairs in the front hall. She had to throw her anchor out big time to get him to turn around.
“I don’t need you to worry about me,” she gritted out.
“Okay, I won’t.”
She hid her wince. “And as for you and Devina, that’s your business.”
“Damn straight it is.”
“But I need you to let me help.”
“Oh, hell no. There’s no place for you in this—”
“I earned the right to fight by dying in her bathtub. By being in her wall. I earned the right to be in this, Jim.”
“No fucking way—”
“I have to fight for the others like me.” That shut him up enough for her to get a word in. “There are more like me down there. And they deserve to be free just like me. So you either let me help you win this, or I’ll go after her on my own. Your choice.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“The hell I don’t.”
“She can read the book.”
At the sound of Adrian’s voice, both of them turned to the front door. It was wide-open, and the other angel was parked on the front steps of the house, facing the sunshine.
Like he knew he’d gotten their attention, Ad twisted around. “If you want to get in and out of Purgatory in one piece, we’re going to need her. Unless you want to spend the next twenty years on Google Translate—and we don’t have that kind of time.”
“What book?” Jim demanded.
“The one that might be able to tell you what you need to know.”
“Purgatory?” Sissy interrupted. “What the hell are you talking about?”
The archangel Colin sat on the river’s shore up in Heaven, staring at the rushing water. In his dirty right hand, a crystal dagger rested against his palm, and in his filthy left, a bottle of gin. He’d gotten both from Nigel’s tent across the lawn.
The mess upon his flesh had been from his recent endeavors.
He took a deep swig of the Beefeater and squeezed the hilt of the dagger even tighter. In spite of his being an immortal, his body could function in the manner of a human if he assumed the flesh he was in the now.
And that meant he could feel the liquor taking effect, the exhaustion in his bones . . . and the madness in his mind.
Of all the ends he had considered in this war, him sitting alone and Nigel gone had not been among them.