By J. R. Ward
New American Library
“Okay . . . where am I? Where am I . . . where—”
Cait Douglass leaned into the steering wheel of her little Lexus SUV, like that was going to increase the odds of her finding the hair salon.
Tennis-matching it between the road ahead and the lineup of ritzy shops to the left, she shook her head. “The real question is, what the hell am I doing . . . ?”
As she trolled down an Epcot Center of luxury boutiques, she was out of her element. French bedding. Italian shoes. English stationery. Clearly this part of Caldwell, New York, was not only worldly, but capable of supporting these triple-H places: high-end, highbrow, high-cost.
Might be worth a good gander sometime, just to know how the other half lived—not going to happen now, though. She was late, and more to the point, it was seven thirty at night, so everything was closed. Made sense. The rich were probably sitting down in their crystal-strewn dining rooms, doing whatever Bruce Wayne did when he was out of his Batman costume.
Plus the environs made her nervous. Yup, lesson learned: Next time she decided to get her hair done, she was not asking her cousin, the one who was married to a plastic surgeon, for a reference—
Cait hit the brakes. “Gotcha!”
Yanking an illegal U-turn, she parallel-parked at a meter that didn’t require plugging, and got out.
“Brrr.” With a shiver, she pulled her lapels in tight. Late April in upstate meant that it could still get cold enough to count as February in more reasonable places, and as usual, the winter was hanging in strong—like a houseguest with nowhere else to go.
“I’ve got to move somewhere. Georgia . . . Florida.” Maybe relocating could be the crowning glory of her year of reclamation. “Tahiti.”
The hair salon was the lone still-open standout on the block, its interior lit up bright as daylight—and yet there didn’t appear to be anyone inside. Stepping through the glass door, the air was all sweet perfume with an undertow of chemicals, and the discordant, wavy music was way too sophisticated for her.
Whoa, fancy. Everything was black and white marble, the dozen or so stations spick-and-span, the row of sinks with their Liberace leather reclining chairs like some kind of napping center for grown-ups. On the walls there were framed, larger-than-life head shots of models rocking Zoolander’s Blue Steel, and the floor was shiny as a plate.
As she walked up to the reception desk, her sensible shoes made a squeaking sound—like all that Carrara didn’t approve of them.
Rubbing her nose as it kept tickling, she thought, for the love of God, the thing needed to sneeze or get over itself.
Lot of mirrors—which made her truly uncomfortable. She’d never been much for looking at herself—not because she was ugly, but because where she came from, that kind of thing was frowned upon.
Thank God her parents lived out West when they weren’t traveling. No reason they’d ever know she’d set foot in a place like this.
“Hello?” She went deeper into the interior, checking out the island in the middle that was obviously where they mixed the colors. So many tubes of various hues of blond, brunette, red . . . and some of a more Crayola spectrum. Blue hair? Pink?
Maybe she should blow this off . . .
The man who came out of the back was thin as a shadow, those shrink-wrapped black jeans clearly helping his toothpick legs keep him upright.
“Are you zee Cait Douglass?” he said in an accent that she couldn’t place and could barely understand.
“Ah, yes, I am.”
As his dark, dark stare narrowed and locked on her hair, it was like a doctor eyeballing a rheumatic patient—and though he hardly looked like a serial killer, something about him made her want to turn and bolt for the door. Her skin was literally itching for her to get out of here, and this time it didn’t have anything to do with her family’s fundamentalist value system.
“My chair, eez dis over here,” he announced.
At least . . . she thought that was what he’d said—okay, yup, he was pointing at one of the stations.
Now or never, Cait thought, glancing around and hoping to borrow some courage from something, anything. But nobody else was with them, and that trippy electronic music bubbling overhead made her brain spin. Worse, rather than being inspired by those photographs, all she could think of was that people really didn’t need to take what grew out of their head so seriously.
Wait, that was her mother talking.
“Yes, thank you,” she said with a nod.
Following his lead, she sat down in an incredibly comfortable leather seat, and then she was spun around to face the glass. Ducking her eyes to her lap, she jumped as he burrowed his surprisingly strong hands into her hair.
“So what are you thinking?” he asked. Which came out as something close to, Sue va troo zinking?
This is a bad idea, is what she was zinking.
Cait forced herself to focus on her reflection. Same deep brown hair. Same blue eyes. Same fine features. But there was makeup on her pale skin now, something she’d just recently learned how to apply without feeling like she was going into Kardashian territory. The body was different, too. Eight months of working hard in the gym had leaned her out in ways that the scale didn’t necessarily recognize, but her clothes sure did. And the handbag in her lap was bright red, the sort of thing she never would have worn a year ago.
Naturally, everything else was gray and black, stuff that had been in her closet since before this year of change. But the Sephora tips, like the pop of color, made her feel . . . well, not the way she used to.
“Zo . . . ?” the stylist prompted, as he came around and struck a pose against the mirror.
With his arms crossed and his chin dipped, he reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t place it.
Cait fingered her hair like he had, hoping it would germinate an idea in her head. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
As he pursed his mouth, she realized he had lip gloss on. “Bloond.”
Bloond? What the hell was—“You mean blond?”
When he nodded, Cait mostly sucked back the recoil. Red accessories were one thing. Lady Gaga was another: She was prepared to dip her toe in the salon waters. Not drown herself.
“I wasn’t thinking that extreme.”
He reached forward and did that fingers-through-the-locks thing again. “No, deftly bloond—und viz the law lits as vell.”
Law lits? Like he wanted to go tort reform on her hair?
“I don’t even know what those are.”
Cait met her own eyes again, and for some reason thought of her closet, where everything was arranged by type—and she would have done color sorting among the blouses, pants, skirts and dresses, too, but there were only so many variations on shadow.
Photoshopping a blond wig on her head made her want to hit the door again. But she was sick of her mouse-brown, too.
Now is the time to live, she thought. Never any younger. Never any better. No guarantee that tomorrow would come for her.
“Bloond, huh,” she whispered.
“Bloond,” the stylist said. “And ve’re lawyer up, tou. Ze changing vroom iz trough vere.”
Cait looked over her shoulder. Trough vere was a little hallway that had four doors opening off of it. She didn’t suppose which one you chose mattered. But not all decisions had such lack of consequences.
“All right,” she heard herself say.
Getting to her feet, she squeaked her way across the shiny floor and felt as though she were walking on water—but not like Jesus did. This was not a miracle; this was a mortal woman feeling unsteady on an otherwise stable floor.
But she wasn’t going to pull out. The recent tragedy that had struck the community in so many ways had woken her up on an even deeper level, and she wasn’t going to waste time with any lack-of-courage bullcrap. She was alive, and that was a gift.
After a moment’s hesitation, she went through the first door on the right.
As Duke Phillips strode down the sidewalk, people got out of his way, even though this was a rough part of Caldie after dark. Probably had something to do with his size, which was a bene he leveraged in both his jobs: big and muscular. Maybe it was his temperament, too: In violation of the New York State code of avoidance, he met the other schmoes right in the eye, ready for anything.
Hell, even looking for something.
The full-on stare routine was a favor rarely returned. Most of the men, whether they were gang members, drug dealers, or partiers heading for the clubs, followed the rules, their peepers shifting away from him and staying gone.
Too bad. He liked fights.
As for the women? He didn’t pay attention to them—although that was because he didn’t want to fend off the inevitable “hey, daddys,” not because they were a threat to him.
God knew females couldn’t touch him on any level except physical, and he wasn’t interested in sex at the moment.
What he was in search of was a purple door. An ugly-ass, stupidly painted purple door with a billboard-size handprint on it. And what do you know, about fifty yards later, the entrance he was looking for presented itself on the right. As he gripped the black handle, he wanted to snap the thing off, and the red neon outline of the word Psychic made him curse.
On so many levels, he couldn’t believe he was coming here. Again. It just didn’t—
A sudden fluttering in his chest made him wonder if he’d gone into atrial fib from annoyance—but it was just his phone on vibrate. Taking the thing out, he recognized the number.
“You need me?” he clipped, because he hated wasting time with any kind of “Hello, how are you, hasn’t the weather been good/bad/rainy/snowy lately” shit.
Alex Hess’s voice was deep for a woman, her words as direct as a man’s. “Yeah, can you pick up an extra shift for me tonight?”
His boss was probably the only female he respected—then again, it was hard not to take seriously someone who’d snapped a grown man’s tibia in front of you: As head of security for the Iron Mask, she didn’t appreciate dealers on her turf, especially ones with short-term amnesia who she’d already warned not to sell in her club. You had one shot with Alex. After that? You were lucky if the damage was merely cosmetic and/or cast-related.
He checked his old watch. “I can be over in about forty-five, but I’ve got to be somewhere at ten tonight—that’ll only take a half hour, though.”
“Good deal, I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Duke hung up, and faced off at the purple door again.
Compelled by a force that he had long detested and never understood, he threw the thing open, the old wood panels ricocheting off the wall. As he caught the thing in his fist on the rebound, he looked up the flight of stairs that double-backed on itself for five stories. He’d been coming here for how long?
And yet his heavy boots carried him up two steps at a time, his thigh muscles grabbing onto his leg bones, his hard hand gripping the iron railing like it was a throat, his body coiling for a fight.
When he got to the top, the sign on the door read, PLEASE HAVE A SEAT AND WAIT TO BE GREETED. Like it was a shrink’s office or something.
He didn’t follow the directions, but paced back and forth on the cramped landing. The two chairs available for asses were mismatched and painted in a psychedelic array of bright-and-rainbow. The air smelled of the incense that was burned inside. And under his boots, a Tibetan rug was threadbare, but not because it had been made cheaply.
He hated waiting on a good day. Despised it in this context—frankly, he didn’t know why the hell he kept coming back. It was like some unseen steel chain was linked around his chest and pulling him to this place. God knew he thought this was a waste of time, but he kept showing up—
“I’ve been waiting for you,” came a female voice on the far side of the closed door.
She always did that. The woman always knew when he’d made an appearance—and it wasn’t like she had video monitoring equipment mounted on the ceiling.
Then again, his pacing probably wasn’t silent. Not with all the muttering, at any rate.
The knob on the door was old and brass, its face polished by the countless palms that had twisted it over time. Watching it turn, a warped sense of unreality crept into his body and laid claim to his mind. As the woman in draped robing revealed herself, he was the one who looked down and avoided confrontation.
“Come in,” she said in a low voice.
Damn it, he hated this; he truly did.
As he stepped inside, a clock began to chime . . . eight times. In his ears, it sounded like a scream.
“You need to be cleansed. Your aura is black.”
Duke shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and flexed his shoulders. “How’s that different than normal.”
Exactly. Shit, for all he knew, she was making things worse instead of better, cursing him instead of healing him.
“Sit, sit, sit. . . .”
He glanced over at the round table with its central-casting crystal ball, and Tarot card deck, and white candles. Just like the heavily draped psychic herself, tapestries hung from the workspace to the floor, pooling in a swirl of every color imaginable. There were two chairs, one large enough to be considered a throne, the other more pedestrian, the sort of thing you could find at Office Depot.
He just wanted to leave.
He sat down instead.
Six . . . seven . . .
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Jim Heron waited to see if the grandfather clock on the landing had anything else to say. When all he got was an earful of silence, he took a draw on his Marlboro. He hated that goddamn timekeeper—the tone of it, the incessant gonging, and most especially the fact that from time to time, it let out a count of thirteen.
Not that he was superstitious.
Okay, maybe just a little. Then again, events had recently shaken him out of his belief that reality was a single dimension based on what you could see, hear, and touch: Courtesy of accepting the position of savior of the friggin’ world, he’d learned that the devil in fact existed—and liked Louboutins over Blahniks, long walks on the beach, and sex doggy style. He’d also met some angels, become one himself, and been to a version of Heaven that appeared to be based on Downton Abbey.
So yeah, clocks that didn’t need to be wound, weren’t plugged into an outlet, and couldn’t count right? Not funny.
Taking a drag on his cigarette, he tilted his head back and blew out a steady stream. As the smoke rose, he looked around at his digs. Faded Victorian wallpaper. Ceiling with a stain in the corner. Leaded-glass windows in old sashes that were painted shut. Bed the size of a football field with a Gothic headboard that made him think of Vincent Price movies.
There were another thirty-three rooms like it.
Or was it thirty-four?
He’d been looking for inexpensive accommodations that were a little off the beaten path. He hadn’t exactly planned for a decrepit ark that had iffy running water, spotty electricals, a stove that burped gas, and drafty walls that let plenty of chilly air in.
Perfect. Right out of House Beautiful.
The mansion’s sole redeeming attribute, at least that he could figure, was the dour exterior: With dead vines crawling over its face and the cockeyed shutters and twelve kinds of glaring overhangs, the vibe suggested that whoever was inside might eat you alive. Plus the grounds were nothing but a couple of acres’ worth of brambles, spiky underbrush, and soon-to-be poison ivy to fight through.
Wouldn’t do a damn thing against Devina’s minions, but would defo keep the idiot teenagers away.
“Where are you . . . ?” He stared up at the ceiling. “Come on, bitch.”
His demon opponent was not known for being patient—and he’d been waiting for a response for how long?
As he stabbed out his butt, the colorful flag across the way was a glaring reminder of how his newest tactic might have gone sour. In the game between good and evil, where he was the quarterback interacting with the seven souls on deck, and Devina, the whorish demon, and Nigel, the archangel with the stick up his ass, were “captains” of the teams, Jim was solidly ahead. Or rather, he’d put the good guys in front three to one. All it was going to take was one more victory—one more soul teased into choosing good over evil at a crossroads in his or her existence—and he had saved not just the world, but the afterlife, as well. And yeah, victory looked pretty much like you’d think it would: Not only could all the humans on the planet continue to go about their days, but the moral God-fearers who had passed Go, collected two hundred, and entered Heaven’s Manse of Souls, were safe for eternity.
Like, for example, his own mother, who’d been raped and murdered—may she rest in peace—could stay right where she was.
All things considered, he should feel pretty damned good about where he and his remaining wingman, Adrian, were.
He did not.
Fucking Devina. That demon had something he wanted, something that didn’t belong in her viscous prison of the damned. And thanks to all his military training and experience, the tactician in him had come up with a plan: Give him the innocent, and he would turn over one of his wins to the demon. Fair trade—and legal under the rules of the game. Those victory flags were his possessions—Nigel had told him that himself. And when it came to your possessions, you could do whatever you wanted with them.
Which was why eBay and frickin’ craigslist existed. Duh.
He’d expected the demon to bitch and moan about things—but he’d been so damned certain that ultimately she’d jump at the chance. Yeah, sure, according to Adrian she was nutty about her stuff, but this was the war—and if she won? She got to take over everything; Hell would literally come unto the Earth.
Instead? After he’d made his offer, she’d told him she’d think about it.
Like it was a fucking pair of shoes or something? Come on. WTF.
Getting to his feet, Jim stalked around the room, disturbing the fine layer of dust that covered the floorboards. When the inevitable creaking got on his nerves, he headed into the bathroom out in the hall.
Talk about your bed & breakfast fantasies gone bad. The rose-patterned wallpaper had faded until there was nothing but a shadow of color left—probably better that way, considering all that estrogen-drenched-decor crap made him scratch. The ornate mirror over the sink was cracked and had liver spots across its reflective face, so when you looked at yourself, you got an eyeball full of where you were headed when you hit seventy. And the floor was a forget-about-it stretch of chipped marble.
But come on, he’d showered in so much worse.
Going over to the claw-footed tub, he supposed the thing might have been romantic if, one, he’d been into that shit, which he wasn’t, and two, it hadn’t been stained yellow on the inside from mineral deposits, and green on the outside from the copper feet. And then there was the noise. As he cranked the once-gold-leafed handles on, the cold side let out a scream, like the pipes were not happy about pulling chilly stuff in from the main line in the street.
The water that came out of the corroded showerhead was more a drool than any kind of spray, but over the last two days, it had proven capable of soaping him up and rinsing him off. Dropping trou, he stepped under the cold dribble and reached for the soap.
His body wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that there was no warmth. God knew, during his career in XOps, he’d done a hell of a lot worse to it. Sudsing himself up, he passed his palms over all kinds of scars, from old stab wounds, to bullet and shrapnel aftermath, to a couple of surgeries that had been performed in combat zones—except for that one that had been done in a bedroom in Paris.
“Where are you . . . Devina . . .” FFS, she was going to do his nut in.
Which was crazy. During his twenty-year career as a shadow assassin for the U.S. government, you’d think he’d be used to this: War had a rhythm that was counterintuitive. There were long stretches of inactivity and waiting—interspersed with great explosions of life-or-death, keep-it-tight-or-get-jacked drama.
Usually he handled the lulls better.
Not anymore, apparently.
Although, granted, the stakes were higher than anything ever wagered on his performance before. He won? Hell was nothing but a morality play that didn’t have a stage anymore.
So maybe he should have just cooled his heels for one more round, taken a fourth win, and then the innocents would have been free, and everything would have game over’d in a good way.
The trouble was, he didn’t know whether Sissy Barten would survive that. The girl was trapped down below in that wall—and if Hell was destroyed, wouldn’t she go poof! with it? Or did she get a pass because her soul was clean?
He didn’t know, and he couldn’t take a chance on that . . . so he waited for Devina’s response.
And had to wonder what the demon was cooking up—
Brilliant light exploded into the bathroom, blinding him so badly that he dropped the soap to cover his eyes with his hands.
He knew who it was—even before an aristocratic English voice cut through the anemic shower.
“Have you lost all your wits!” Nigel, the archangel, demanded.
Great. Just what he was looking for.
A confron with the boss.
Adrian’s first clue that all was not well in Casa d’Angel was the illumination that cut in around the closed door to his bedroom. Bleeding through the jambs like the detonation flash of a car bomb, it could only be explained by a visit of the archangel variety.
Either that or that crap-ass stove downstairs in the kitchen had spontaneously combusted.
Getting off the bed, he limped to the door naked and opened things up so he could get a gander at the drama.
“. . . not interested—so fucking not interested . . .”
As Jim marched out of the loo with a towel around his hips and water dripping off his hair, his voice was deep and low, like a rattlesnake giving a warning.
Nigel wasn’t impressed. The boss man from Up Above was tight on the other angel’s balls, the English-accented dandy looking like he was on his way to the symphony: White tie seemed a little formal for the ass kicking that was rolling out. Although it was after dark.
Neither of them seemed to notice as Ad leaned back on his doorjamb and Milk Dudded the show. Then again, any kind of third-wheel routine was way down on the list of their priorities.
“. . . did you think you can just give away a win?” Nigel bit out as they went into Jim’s room, his accent sharpening the syllables into knives. “You have no right— Dear God, is that the flag?!”
Adrian whistled under his breath. The last time he’d heard that tone come out of that otherwise proper mouth?
He and Eddie had spent a century or two in Purgatory.
Jim’s gauge was still hitting high on the fuck-ya meter, however. “My possession, right? They’re mine—you told me that yourself. So I can—”
The slap that resonated out of the open door made Ad wince.
“That’s your free shot,” Jim growled. “Next time you do that? I’m going to kill you.”
“I’m not alive, you fool. And you are putting everything at risk.”
“How do you know what I’m doing with the goddamn flag.”
“You’re giving it to her. For whatever reason I cannot discern. In fact, I cannot fathom what could possibly be as valuable as your being one win away from victory.”
Adrian repositioned his weight off his bad leg and shook his head. Okaaaaay. Not aware that Jim was tampering with things on this kind of level. But he knew who it was about.
“Fuck,” Ad muttered as the math added up. “Fuuuuck.”
“Nigel, welcome to reality,” Jim spat, “you are not in control here.”
“Have you no thought of your mother!”
There was a beat of silence. “You think that’s your ace in the hole? My leash to bring me back to your yard?”
“Forgive me for making the assumption that you might care about her eternal salvation.”
As the pair of them argued, swiping insults and getting angrier, the grandfather clock on the stairwell landing began to chime.
But hadn’t it just gone off?
One, two, three . . .
That thing creeped him the fuck out.
. . . four, five, six . . .
Such hostile voices going back and forth, the pair of them like two wolves circling. And meanwhile, somewhere in Caldwell, a soul was in play—and Devina knew who it was.
But Jim did not.
Adrian rubbed his eyes and tried to refocus them. Getting used to having only half his vision was taking time, the flat plane of landscape screwing with his depth perception, his sense of where he was in space, the arrangement of his limbs.
. . . seven, eight, nine . . .
This stuff with the flag was bad juju: Jim takes a win down off the wall without telling Nigel? There was only one reason for that . . . the guy was going to try to trade it for Sissy’s soul.
This was out of control. The whole goddamn thing.
. . . ten, eleven, twelve . . .
Adrian glared across the second-floor foyer, at that old clock on the staircase’s landing. “Go on, do it, you fucking—”
The thirteenth chime that followed sure as hell felt as if the thing had flipped him off. And as the mournful sound faded, the argument raged on, Nigel and Jim locked into a rhythm where they were just emoting, neither of them listening to the other.
And as they wasted this energy? The game was continuing: Although there were parallels to football, there were no time-outs in this seven-round war between good and evil. And from the way things were just going in Jim’s room? The savior wasn’t giving in or seeing the light; he was just going to do whatever he damn well pleased.
His attention wasn’t on the war. It was on Sissy—and it was going to stay that way.
And Nigel’s focus? It was on wanting to beat the crap out of Jim.
Devina, however, was no doubt moving forward, circling around the soul even though she wasn’t supposed to. . . .
The solution Ad came up with was radical and had a poor likelihood of success, but what else could he do?
The two bigger players on the team were at each other’s throats—and there was no better predictor for an enemy’s success than that kind of divided attention.
Going into his room, he pulled on some clothes, sat on his bed, and gripped his knees. As he closed his eyes, he sent out a request, the paranormal equiv of a page.
It took about two seconds to receive the summoning he was looking for.
Which meant Colin, the archangel, knew exactly why Nigel had gone earthbound—and was no happier about shit than Ad was.
That’s who the stylist reminded her of, Cait thought as Pablo shampooed the color out of her hair. And that wasn’t an insult. It was the guy’s black hair, sharp cheekbones, and the thin legs. And that posing/pouty thing he did with one hip out.
“Okay, sitz ups fer us.”
Cait followed instructions, pulling her head out of the washing sink. Everything that was wet was immediately captured in a towel wrap, and then she was up on her feet, heading back to the chair.
“Noes oo lovf zis,” Pablo announced as she sat down.
Guess he was saying that she was going to love it?
The strange thing about that accent was that it moved around, distorting different vowels and consonants in different ways, the lack of consistency suggesting he was either posing or had an intermittent speech impediment.
As for what her opinion was going to be . . .
He unfurled the towel, and everything flopped onto her shoulders.
It was impossible to tell what was what. Sure, there were some lighter parts, but considering all the foils he’d folded onto her head, she expected a hell of a lot more.
Pablo pulled open the top drawer of the stand-up cupboard by his mirror and took out a square brush the size of a cutting board. Palming his hair dryer, he began fanning things out and running the hot air underneath.
“Ve dry frst und ten ve cut, cut, cut. . . .”
Man, his eyes were dark as he worked. Not so much brown as black.
Looking into the mirror, she squirmed. This was such a dumb idea: Those three tubs of color with their separate paintbrushes? She could come out red, white, and blue for all she knew. And the hour it took for him to stripe down those tinfoil strips and origami them up against her scalp? Never getting that back. And the cost—four hundred dollars?
Maybe she was more like her parents than her chronic rebellion suggested. Because this excursion into vanity seemed like a waste on too many levels to count.
Plus she was going to have to keep it up—
“Oh . . . wow,” she said slowly as she turned her head.
The section he’d been working on was . . . really beautiful. Now dry and straight, her hair was the color it had been during her childhood, what appeared to be a hundred different shades of blond weaving in and out of the thick, shiny strands.
“Ive toll youz,” Pablo said. Or something to that effect.
And the more her hair dried out, the better it got—except then there was a pair of scissors in his hand.
“Are you sure we have to do anything?” she asked, as the blades flashed in the overhead lighting.
Wow, she really couldn’t place that accent of his.
Things started flying at that point, his hands spinning around her head, those sharp scissors slicing into her hair, pieces falling to the floor like feathers from a flushed bird. It looked as if she was getting layers—oh, God, bangs . . . she now had bangs. . . .
Cait closed her eyes. Color could be corrected with some Clairol back home. This stuff? It was going to take a year to grow out. The trouble was, she was on the ride—no getting off in the middle of the roller coaster.
What had she done to herself . . . ?
A tickle lit off on the back of her hand and she cracked an eyelid. A section of her hair had landed on her wrist, the three-inch length curling ever so slightly at the end. Taking it in between her fingers, she rubbed the smooth strands together.
Blond. Very blond.
When Pablo said something, she could only nod, her emotions bubbling up in her chest and distracting her from the outside world. The desperate edge to all this transformation business was not something she could ignore, not while she was busy getting turned into Veronica Lake. Not while she was paying so much for something that was entirely superficial.
Bottom line, unfortunately, was that it was so much easier to address defects in your appearance, and your car, and your apartment, than it was to dig deep and take a good hard look at your choices, your mistakes . . . your faults.
Like, for example, how playing it safe all your life had landed you in a prison of your own making.
The music track abruptly ended, as if the speakers had clocked out for the night, and in the silence, Pablo swapped the blades for something that looked like a curling iron, except it had two heated plates.
Straightener, she thought it was called. And the fact that she wasn’t one hundred percent sure on that made her feel her isolation from the world even further.
A rhythmic tugging started up as Pablo pulled the wand down her hair, over and over again. And as he worked his way around her head, she had too much space to think, too much time to stare at the blond strand she held.
As tears speared into her eyes, she cleared her throat. At least authorities had found Sissy Barten’s body . . . so those parents of hers had something to bury.
What a waste. What a further reminder that you have to live while you can—because you never knew when the ride was over.
“Look at vat vee haff.”
Pablo spun her about to face the mirror, except for a moment she couldn’t look away from what was in her hand. But then she lifted her eyes and . . .
“Oh . . . wow,” she whispered.
Soft, shimmering waves fell from the crown of her head, the frizziness gone, the new highlights popping out, the length not much different at all.
Pablo’s accent got rolling as he described the weight he’d taken off, and how that had freed her hair to express itself more completely. Blah, blah, blah—it was just vocabulary she let wash over her. What she paid attention to was how much younger she looked. Or maybe it was more . . . feminine? Vibrant?
This was some serious butterfly shit, as her brother would have called it.
She glanced down at the hair between her fingers, and let the strands fall to the ground. There was no rewind button you could punch, no going back . . . only ever forward. She had learned that when she was twelve, her first grown-up lesson at a very young age.
And Sissy’s death had recently reminded her of that fact.
“My hair is . . . perfect,” she heard herself say.
Cue the smiles from Pablo.
After he whipped the cape off her shoulders, she went back to the dressing room, put her clothes on, and got another load of whoa. Her hair elevated the black slacks and simple sweater to something that might have come from Saks. Even her red Coach bag took a step up, looking downright Italian all of a sudden.
As she walked out of the dressing room to pay, she felt like she had television-commercial hair, the kind that bounced with every step, and shined under even low lighting, and made men and women stop short.
At the reception desk, she got out her checkbook, and felt her eyes bulge even though she’d known how much this was going to cost.
“Vuld yoo lick ta mayb yoo next abbointment?”
Cait glanced up from the zeroes she was filling out. Right behind Pablo, there was a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and over his right shoulder, she caught sight of her new look.
Excellent marketing device, she thought, as she stared at herself and began to nod.
She left five minutes later with considerably less in her checking account, and an appointment card for a touch-up in six weeks in her purse.
As she walked out and went over to her Lexus, she couldn’t believe she’d done it. But at least she was getting familiar with this feeling of buyer’s shock. Heck, she still had it over her new car—well, the SUV was “new” to her. CarMax had given her a great deal on a used one, and she had to admit, it was the nicest thing she’d ever driven.
But she continued to have the head spins over the thing from time to time.
The second she got in her SUV, she cranked the rearview mirror down and fluffed her goldie locks. What good timing, she thought—considering that for the first time in God only knew how long, she was meeting a friend after hours.
Starting her engine, she pulled out onto the empty road and retraced her route away from the wealthy enclave. Her “date” was actually her old college roommate—
As the past began to bubble up, she turned on NPR to cut the quiet, and hit the brakes at a red light. Leaning in, she couldn’t resist glancing into the rearview again—
“Oh, crap . . .”
Cait turned her head to the opposite side, even though that was silly. But at least she hadn’t lost both her earrings.
The thing had probably come out in the dressing room. Her sweater had a tight neck, and those little gold shells had iffy backings. As the light turned green, she hit the gas and told herself to just leave it—
That didn’t last long.
The earrings were solid fourteen-karat, but more than that, she’d bought them on her one Bahaman vacation right after graduation.
Wrenching the wheel left, she executed an illegal turn and headed back to reclaim what was hers.
As Adrian manifested himself in Heaven, he hummed that Eric Clapton song—in tune, because there was no one around to annoy with his fake tone-deaf routine.
“. . . would you know my name . . .”
The lawn was a bright spring green, and the sky as brilliant and resonant a blue as a cathedral’s stained glass. To the left, the protective walls of the Manse of Souls stood sturdy and tall as a mountain range, the drawbridge down over a moat that shimmered in sunlight that had no obvious source.
Up on the parapet at the top of the wall, only two victory flags waved in a lazy way—one colorful banner was missing.
What the hell was Jim thinking?
Adrian kept walking. Off to the right, next to a croquet setup, there was a table set for tea, four chairs surrounding all kinds of damask and porcelain and silver. No one was sitting at it. In fact, as he looked around, he got the distinct impression he was alone.
Made no sense—Colin had summoned him here, so the archangel had to be—
The whistle was high-pitched and distant, floating across the landscape to his ear. Pivoting around, he looked toward the river, and then started marching over in the uneven gait he was still adjusting to. Funny, he hadn’t noticed before how much grass there really was—but with his bum leg, he’d been learning new things about what distance really meant.
The archangel Colin was down at the tree line, by the old-fashioned British campaign tent that was his private quarters. Standing in the stream that wound around his little slice of Heaven, he was buck-ass naked, the rushing water teeming up to his hips.
“Moving a bit slower now, mate?” the guy said as Ad got in range.
Whatever—his gimp routine was not the reason he’d come. “We have a big fucking problem.”
Typically, Colin was good for a wisecrack or two—not tonight, evidently. The archangel emerged from the river, his powerful body glistening, his strong legs leading him over to where he’d hung his white towel on a tree branch.
“How bad is it down there?” he asked as he covered up.
Ad grunted while he lowered himself onto a rock, its warm face feeling good on his sorry ass. “So you know where Nigel is.”
“But of course.”
“Then you also know why I’m not going to waste time here.” Ad held up his palms to cut the oh-no-I-couldn’t-possibly’s. “Jim’s just taken a left-hand turn off the road and into the weeds. No one down there is in the game—except for Devina, and you know what? If Jim’s distracted now? That ain’t nothin’ compared to what’ll happen if the demon gives him that girl.”
Colin’s response was just a shake of the head. And that was so not good enough.
Ad cursed. “Seriously. Before we lose this whole goddamn thing, you need to step up. I already know I can’t go to Nigel about anything—he and I are oil and water and then some.”
Colin pushed his dark wet hair out of his harsh face. “I had hoped . . .”
When that was as far as the guy got, Ad shrugged. “Hoped what? That Jim slipped in the shower and hit his head hard enough to wake the fuck up? Hell, if there was any chance of that, I’d cock him upside with a two-by-four myself. But let’s not kid ourselves. The savior’s no longer in this game, and I don’t think he’s coming back—even if Nigel threatens to rip him a new one.”
Colin curled his hands into fists, like he wanted to do a little swinging himself. “Jim is the sine qua non. There is nothing we can do to turn him over, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Like I want the job?” Ad laughed harshly. “Are you fucking me.”
“That is not why you came?”
“I want to win. That’s the only reason I’m here.”
Colin lifted an aristocratic brow. “You are actually engaged in the war. Quite a shift for you, is it not.”
“We can’t lose this.”
“Because of Eddie?” When he didn’t reply, the archangel frowned. “One need not apologize for loyalty to the dead, and in truth, if it makes you focus, I shan’t complain.”
“Give me the name of the soul. That’s all I need.”
Colin didn’t seem surprised, but then again, he wasn’t an idiot. Unfortunately, he also wasn’t prepared to break the rules: “You know I can’t do that.”
“We’ll keep it between the two of us.”
“Don’t be daft. And no, it’s not Nigel I’m concerned with. I have some sway over him. It’s the Maker, dear boy.”
“Then get down to Earth and intercede with the soul yourself. Jim isn’t going to—and this obsession he’s got going on is gonna kill us all. Who the fuck gives a win away?”
“Were you unaware of his intentions with the flag?”
“Of course I wasn’t! I’d have done something to stop him—my buddy’s soul is on the line.”
Colin plugged his palms into his waist and walked around, his bare feet leaving a pattern in the silt by the river’s edge.
“Tell me who it is,” Ad prompted, “and I’ll take care of it.”
“You cannot intercede, any more than I’m allowed to.”
“Okay, fine, give me the soul and I’ll figure out a way to put Heron in front of him.”
The old Adrian would have push-push-pushed into the silence, but the logic was sound, and spoke for itself—and Colin was the rational one in the group. Always had been.
“I can’t get involved,” Colin said under his breath.
“Then let me.”
“That isn’t done either, I’m afraid.”
Great. “So what’s our goddamn option? Sit around and watch Jim blow this whole cocksucking thing?”
When nothing but silence came back to him, he began to get really worried. “Colin, you gotta help us. Not to go Star Wars on your ass, but you’re our only hope.”
“Forget about it. Just . . . fucking do something, would you?”
The archangel was silent for a very long time. “I can’t take you all the way.”
“You don’t have to. Point me in the right direction—that’s the only thing I need. But know this. You boys up here keep doing the hands-off shit? We’re going to lose this. I’ll put what’s left of my balls on it.”
Alex Hess’s office at the Iron Mask was just like the woman herself—stripped down to its most functional components, with a lot of hard corners. As Duke waited for his knock to be answered, he jacked up his jeans.
The door opened inward, and the guy on the other side was the only thing Duke would ever take a step back for: Alex’s husband was tall as a basketball player, built like a boxer, and had the kind of physical confidence only trained killers had.
Mortal combat wasn’t just a video game to him.
As they passed, Duke nodded, and John Matthew, as he was called, did the same—and that was the extent of it. No one had ever heard the SOB say a word, but by the same token, anyone built like that didn’t have to talk.
“Sorry to bug you,” Duke said as Alex sat down in the chair behind her desk. Her eyes were on the departing hubs, lingering at a level that suggested she was checking out his ass. “Where do you want me? Can’t find Big Rob.”
That was where they usually put him, although God only knew why. He was more barbed wire than velvet rope.
“Any special instructions?”
Now she looked at him, that dark gray stare narrowing. “Nope. Just do you.”
Lucky him. That was the only thing in his repertoire.
Striding back out into the hall, he pushed through the staff-only door into the club proper, and on the far side, the Goth clientele was a total snore for him. He’d long ago lost interest in women who wanted people to be interested in them: After so many push-up bras, bustiers, and sprayed-on leather pants, the ready-for-anythings formed a composite identity that just spelled desperate and easy.
They liked him, though, their eyes locking onto him like Alex’s had to her man—and wasn’t that the eternal conundrum of sex: Chicks who needed attention only got hot and bothered over men who didn’t notice them. The good news, he supposed, was that when he did want sex, there were always volunteers.
Outside, he took position next to a guy named Ivan who was built like an SUV, and faced off at the line that had already formed. The rule was two of them at all times—because you never knew what could—
“. . . fucked my sister! You did! You fucked my sister, you cocksucker!”
“I got this,” Duke said, breaking rank and striding down all the antsy, stamping, pre-drunk, ante-stoned, chilled-to-the-bone people.
“. . . did not fuck her! I let her blow me—”
Apparently the brother didn’t appreciate the fine line between a suck off and coitus.
And then it was a case of cue the hysterics. The woman in question, a lovely little beaut with Marilyn Manson features, mime makeup, and your friendly neighborhood stripper’s version of a wardrobe, got right in between the men.
“Danny, listen to me! I—”
Before Duke could reach them, the pair of men locked onto each other—and the sister got shoved right into the road, her high-heeled boots failing to find purchase on the sidewalk, the curb, then the payment.
Duke let her go. One of two things was going to happen—she was going to land on her ass and rip that skirt, or she was going to get mowed down by a car. In either event, it was off club property, and not his business.
What was part of his job was the fact that her boyfriend or fuck buddy or whatever he was to her was all about the payback—so what you now had were two guys in New Rocks shoving each other in a china shop of other people who were jonesing for their fix of drugs, alcohol, or sex.
And therefore likely to hit back.
Given that humans one-on-one were dumb enough, but in a group they could be truly stupid, he knew he had to take control. Jumping in between the two, he strong-armed both at the collarbone.
Before he could start his speech about pulling their shit together, the four men behind the fight decided to get involved.
Fists flew around him, one of them clipping him in the head.
No more talking.
Duke dominated the situation, grabbing lapels and throwing men bodily onto the concrete, elbowing others in the chest, coldcocking whoever tried to step to him. The entire time, as hands latched onto him and he ducked punches and dodged a knife, he was utterly calm, totally detached.
He honestly didn’t care whether he got arrested for violence, or stabbed, or shot. And he didn’t give a damn whether he did permanent damage to the people he was submitting—or whether that chick got turned into a hood ornament or not.
“Nah, let him go,” he heard Big Rob say over the din. “He needs the exercise.”
The sound of flapping clothes and the grunted curses from the crowd he was controlling cut through the night as the line tried to re-form around the drama and all kinds of cell phones broke out. Fortunately, the club’s front entrance was not well lit, and this was going to be over soon.
Which it was.
There weren’t a lot of MMA fighters waiting to get in line to hang out at the Iron Mask, so the men who had volunteered for a beat-down didn’t have a lot of staying power. One punch was usually enough to wipe their slate clean—which was a pity. He enjoyed hitting them, feeling his knuckles connect with flesh, watching them go down or trip over their own feet.
He was not interested in being on the news, however.
Wrapping things up, he went over to the two primary aggressors, who had parked it at the curb and were in recovery mode, grimacing as they rubbed their jaws, their heads, their shoulders. The sister in high-heeled boots had tottered back into their orbit, her mascara-stained face and crazy hair pretty much the way they had been before the argument over familial relations had broken out.
Both men gave Duke the hairy eyeball as he loomed over them.
In a quiet voice, he said, “Don’t stand in my line again. Or I’ll follow you home. Clear?”
“You can’t threaten us!” the lady of the hour hollered, going all stampity-stamp-stamp with her size sixes. “We have rights.”
Duke leaned in, putting his face into hers. “You won’t know I’m there. You won’t see or hear a thing. But I’ll come after you—you can bet your life on it. And know this—I like scaring people. It’s fun for me.”
Whether it was his dead eyes, or the hiss in his voice, or the words he spoke, she went quiet. And moved closer to the man who she’d put her knee pads on for.
Duke looked down at the two dummies, giving them a chance to speak up if they were so inclined. Total silence. And then the pair of them stood up and escorted the girl away.
Turning back to the club, he found that the line had reestablished itself and was back to inching its way inside. Keeping his head down, so that any pictures wouldn’t show him clearly, he regained his post.
“Shit, man,” Ivan said. “You’re not even breathing heavy.”
Duke just shrugged. When you worked road crews for a living, shoveling hot asphalt in the summer and road salt in the winter, your heart was quickly turned into an efficient machine, its atria and ventricles, its myocardium, its three hundred or so grams, pumping with total coordination to supply oxygenated blood to the body.
No big deal. Just an issue of training.
The real miracle was that he was somehow able to live without one. Oh, he had that hollow muscle posterior to his sternum, sure. But in the metaphysical sense? He’d lost his heart years ago—and he wouldn’t change a thing about that.
Duke lifted his arm to check the time— “Fuck.”
“I lost my fucking watch.” He leaned out and looked down the sidewalk to where the fight had taken place. Naturally, there was nothing on the ground that appeared even vaguely metallic.
Then again, if that clasp had broken, and the thing had slipped off his wrist and been seen by any one of the, oh, say, hundred or so kibitzers? It would’ve been snatched. Vintage Rolexes were desirable, even to morons.
It was the only nice thing he owned, a relic from the past.
Had owned, that was.
Whatever. He’d lost more than that along the way, and he was still upright and walking.
“I gotta leave a little before ten,” he told Ivan. “But I’ll flipside in thirty minutes.”
“That’s what Big Rob said. I think he’s going to cover.”
Back at the hair salon, Cait knocked on the glass door and leaned in, trying to tea-leaf whether Pablo was still inside. The lights had been dimmed, which was not a good sign, but come on, it had taken her less than five minutes to—
The stylist walked out from the rear, in the process of pulling a black jacket on. “Vev closed,” he called out.
“I know,” she shouted back, her breath condensing on the glass. “I lost my earring? I just want to check the dressing room floor?”
She tugged at her earlobe, like that would help in translation.
Pablo was a little huffy as he unlocked things and let her in. “Lovt und fond behd desk?”
“I think it’s probably in there.” She pointed to the hallway.
“Wen yoo in here?”
Cait frowned. “I’m sorry?”
He waved his hand with impatience. “Yoo go thur. I get out box.”
Wow, she thought as he turned away. Maybe he had short-term amnesia from all the peroxide in the hair color? Too much aerosol from the sprays? Mousse-induced dementia?
Cait went back to where she’d done her disrobing and got down on her knees, patting under the built-in bench, looking around on the carpet. She even pulled her sweater out at the neck to see if the shell had gotten stuck in the weave.
“Damn it . . .”
Heading back out, she went over to Pablo, who was clearly tapping his boots to go home. The “lovt und fond” was in fact a Stuart Weitzman shoe box, and in it there were two pairs of sunglasses, a stringy scarf, a couple of chunky, fake-gold necklaces, and . . .
A hoop earring that was big enough to double as a choker.
No dainty seashells. But she hadn’t really expected it to be there—Pablo didn’t seem like the type to rock a vacuum around his business before he left for the night.
“Okay, thanks,” she said. “It’s a little seashell, a gold shell?”
“Do ve haf number for oo?”
“Ah . . . your assistant called it yesterday to confirm my appointment with you?”
He seemed confused. “Vell, wee call if fond.”
Outside, she shook her head. Weird, weird, weird. But lost accessory be damned—the guy did great hair, and that’s what she was paying him for.
He must have one really short Christmas list, though.
Back in her Lexus, she gave the whole head-to-Old Caldwell thing another go, and about fifteen minutes later, she made it to the part of town where an entire twelve-block section of multicolored Victorian mansions had been turned into condo associations, cafés and shops—although the latter were nothing like where she’d just been. Here they were folk-art galleries, organic spice sellers, hemp clothiers, that kind of thing.
“Four seventy-two . . . four seventy-two . . . where are you . . . ?”
Seemed like this was the theme for the night, her out in the dark, searching for—
“Got it,” she said as she hit the directional signal.
The café was called the Black Crow, but its exterior was all about the friendly: the gabled details, the overhang above the door, and the curlicues under the eaves were painted pink and yellow and pale blue. Matter of fact, the facade looked like a cartoon face, its two plate-glass windows like oversize eyes, with the rafters as the brows and the slate roof like a bowl haircut.
Following the arrows around behind, she rode out the potholes in the dirt lane between buildings and parked in the shallow lot.
Grabbing her bag, she got out—
Over by a door marked “Staff Only,” a man was getting off a vintage motorcycle . . . and as he removed his helmet, long dark hair swung free across a broad back. His leather jacket was beaten up, but it seemed weathered from age, not some kind of designer distressing stuff, and his long legs were covered with the sort of jeans that were very un-Victoria Beckam.
With a smooth movement, he bent down and took something from the back of the bike—a guitar case?
She couldn’t see the front of him because he was facing away from her, but the way he strode into the back of the café would have made her notice him even more than that dark rush of hair: He moved with total confidence. Maybe he was an owner? Or . . . the talent, given that case?
Whatever his role, he was in charge.
As that door clamped shut behind him, Cait shook herself, feeling strange that she’d just eyeballed some man. Then again, maybe the blond had gone to her head?
Har-har, hardy har-har.
Shaking herself back to reality, she walked around to the café’s front entrance and pulled open the door.
In a rush of air, she got hit with a hot blast of coffee, vanilla and patchouli—like a latte had been splashed in her face by a member of the Grateful Dead. Rubbing her finicky nose, she eyed the thick crowd and wondered how she was going to find anyone in the place: the café was long and thin as a cattle chute, with a bar that ran down one side, little tables lined up along the opposite wall, and about two hundred people squeezed between the two.
At least she was in the right place to hear music, though. At the far end, there was a raised stage big enough for a quartet, and all around the exposed brick walls, folk instruments hanging from wires alternated with fairly serious-looking speakers—
“Cait! Over here!” came a holler from down in front.
“Hey!” With a wave, she started to work her way toward the stage, squeezing between vertical waiters in sherbet-colored T-shirts, and seated patrons who struck her as disproportionately female.
“What the hell did you do to your hair?” Teresa Goldman said as she got to her feet for a hug.
Teresa had been a good friend in high school and a great roommate in college, the kind of girl who could be depended upon to give you a straight answer whether you needed it or not. In short, she was awesome—and a little frightening.
Especially when you’d gone from blond to brunette without any warning.
“Is it awful?” Cait fussed with her bangs. “Is it—”
“Fuck, no! It’s fantastic! Are you kidding me? And, Christ, have you lost more weight?”
Cait shuffled into a wooden chair that squeaked. “I haven’t lost any, I swear.”
“Does your mother know you talk like that?”
“Who do you think taught me to curse?”
As they went through the back-and-forth they’d coined in their freshman year, a server brought Cait a menu printed on cardboard.
Cait stopped laughing as she looked things over. “Wait a minute—what’s all this stuff? Kombucha? Tulsi? Yerba mate?”
“You are so behind the times—”
“These people ever heard of Salada?”
“What a plebe—”
“No Earl Grey—?”
“You are not cool enough for your hair.”
Just like the good ol’ days, Cait thought with a smile. And see, this was exactly what she needed: a break from her work routine, a good distraction from her mourning, an opportunity to put her money where her mouth was—and live a little.
Teresa leaned forward. “Fine, forget the libations—I didn’t bring you here for the drinks.”
“Good.” Cait frowned. “Because I’m going to pass on all this. Call me common, but I’m proud of my simple Midwestern roots—Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is as exotic as I get.”
“The singer. It’s all about the singer.”
That man on the motorcycle? she wondered. “I didn’t know you were into music played in a place like this. Not exactly Aerosmith or Van Halen.”
“Ah, but the good news is Katy Perry isn’t showing up, either.”
“Hey, I like to work out to her stuff.”
“I can’t help that.”
“You know, you should really try to past eighties metal. How old were you when it came out? Three?”
“Have some kombucha with that judgment, would you?” Teresa grinned. “Anyway, his name’s G.B. and he comes here the last Monday of the month. As well as Hot Spot on Wednesdays at eight, the Hut on alternative Tuesdays, and the—”
“Are you a fan or his tour manager?”
“Wait’ll you see him. He’s incredible.”
The waiter in the raspberry shirt came back. “What can I getcha?”
“I’ll just have water.”
“We have tap, Pellegrino, Rain Forest—”
Too much choice around here, she thought. “Just tap.”
“With or without cubes?”
“Ah . . . with?”
“In a mug or a glass?”
“Honestly, just plain tap would be great, thanks.” She smiled up at him as she handed the menu back.
As he left, she exhaled. “I don’t know how you handle it.”
“Again, not here for the drinks. Although I’ve tried the strawberry infusion and it’s awesome.” Teresa eased back in her chair. “So what’s new? I feel like it’s been a month since I saw you over the holidays.”
“That would be five months ago, I think.”
“Is it almost May? Wow.” Teresa shrugged. “I don’t pay much attention to time.”
“Which was why you gave me your schedule of classes each semester.”
“You always were a great sheepherder. Wish my assistant was as good as you were.”
“Same shit, different day. But I knew that tax law wasn’t going to be glamorous.”
“It’s clearly lucrative, though. What kind of bag is that? Prada?”
“Aw, you noticed, how sweet.”
As Teresa settled into a pause that grew much, much longer, Cait stiffened. Silence was antithetical to her old roommate. “Okay, what’s up. And tell me now, before the waiter comes back and interviews me for five years over whether or not I want a cinnamon bun.”
“Their croissants are better.”
“Spill it, Goldman.”
The hesitation lasted through the delivery of a tall mug full of ice cubes and H20.
When they were alone again, Cait said grimly, “You’re scaring me, Teresa, and no offense, after the last couple of weeks, I don’t need any more of that.”
“Yeah, I’d heard that Barten girl went to Union.”
Cait ducked her eyes. “She was in my drawing class.”
“Shit, Cait . . . I didn’t know you knew her.”
“I did. And she was a lovely girl—I had her for my intro to sculpting seminar, too.”
“You going to the funeral?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.” Cait looked up. “Now tell me what you don’t want to tell me.”
“There’s a sentence and a half.”
Her old friend cleared her throat. “Did you hear about Thom and the girlfriend?”
Cait looked away again. Yes, she thought. “No,” she said.
“They’re pregnant. Due this month, as a matter of fact. I ran into him downtown at the courthouse. I guess one of his colleagues was brought up on embezzlement charges and he was there to testify, and I was there for . . . shit, what does it matter. I just . . . yeah, I figured you’d want to know.”
Cait forced a smile onto her face, and didn’t know why she bothered. Teresa knew better than to be fooled by a fake show of teeth. “I’m happy for him. For them, I mean.”
“Look, I don’t mean to be a bitch, but it had to have been a mistake. I can’t picture Thom with his nitpick all covered in spit-up, while he changes diapers and fills bottles with formula. That man used to vacuum his dorm room. Who does that?”
“In his defense, we did.”
“Traditional sex roles much?”
“Whatever. You know what I mean.”
Cait nursed her water, feeling a cold tingle in that molar with the iffy filling she needed to take care of.
The truth was, Thom had told her the news six months ago. As soon as they told their families. And to his credit, it had been in a kind way—because he didn’t want her to hear it from anyone else, and his GF was shouting it from the rooftop, evidently. Cait had been shocked to the core, but she’d said all the right congratulatory things . . . then hung up the phone and burst into tears.
The woman who was about to give birth to his baby was the one he’d cheated on her with.
Margot. Her name was Margot. Like she was a French movie actress or something.
Hell, maybe it was even spelled Margeaux.
At least they’d been together for a while now. How many years had it been? Almost as long as Cait had been with him. No, wait . . . longer. So why the pregnancy had been such a shock to the system, she hadn’t a clue. But it had thrown her into a tailspin that had landed her here, in this hard little chair, with new hair, and an improved body . . . and a sense that she was through hiding from life, and ready to . . .
Okay, she didn’t know the answer to the “what” on that one.
“Hey, did you know you’re missing an earring,” Teresa said.
“Oh, yeah. I think it happened at the hair salon—”
“Here he is,” Teresa hissed as she sat up straighter.
Cait glanced over her shoulder. And did a little spine stretching of her own.
Yup, it was the one she’d just seen by the bike . . . and if the guy had been an eye-catcher from the back, the front view was even better: His face was a stunning composite of strong lines, enhanced not only by that holy-crap hair of his, but a goatee and a pair of hooded eyes that had bedroom all over them. Long and lean, he was wearing just a muscle shirt now, his arms covered in flowing black and gray tattoos marked with lettering in a foreign language.
As he sat down on a pine stool, he drew a hand through that hair, pushing it over his shoulder—and it refused to stay put, copper highlights flashing in the stage illumination as it rebelled back into place.
His smile was easy as a summer breeze, and as he tapped the mic to make sure it was working, Cait found herself wondering what his voice sounded like—
“Hey,” he said, deeply, softly. “How you doin’ tonight?”
The line was anything but cheesy coming from him, especially as the tenor of the words floated down from the ceiling like a caress.
“So I wanted to share a new song with you, something I just wrote.” He looked around as he spoke, and even though Cait was sure he didn’t focus on her, it felt like he was speaking to her and only her.
“It’s about living forever,” he intoned. “And I wish I could use my guitar, but there’s been a technical difficulty there—so you’re just going to have to put up with my voice all by itself.”
The clapping was quick and fervent, suggesting that there were a whole lot of Teresas in the crowd. In fact . . . this was why there were just women here tonight, wasn’t it.
He was even waving at a couple of them, like they were friends.
As he cleared his throat and took a deep breath, Cait found herself turning her chair around to face the stage.
“Told you,” she heard Teresa say with satisfaction.
The demon Devina took form in front of the nondescript, almost-modern headquarters of Integrated Human Resources, Inc. Located in one of Caldwell’s countless professional services complexes, the “firm” had no clients, no employees and was neither a resource for humans, integrated, or incorporated. It was, however, the perfect, protective shell for her collections, and the name was a nice play on what she did.
She was good at integrating herself into humans.
Had just come out of a rather accommodating vessel, as a matter of fact.
Loved those black jeans.
Striding to the door, she passed through the locked steel panels and emerged into the empty, shadowy interior. Inside, there were no desks, no phones, no computers, no coffee machines or watercoolers—and even M-F, eight a.m. to five p.m., there were no meetings being held, interviews set up, or business being conducted. If she had to, however, she could conjure that illusion out of the air at the drop of a hat.
After her last hideout had been infiltrated by Jim and his angel buddies, she’d had to relocate, and so far, so good.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” she said to the newest sacrificial virgin who was hanging upside down over a tin tub by the elevator.
He didn’t answer her, natch.
In his previous life, before he’d become something important, he’d been a computer geek—God, with the chronic shortage of virgins in contemporary America, she’d never been so grateful for technology; all she had to do was search the yellow pages under IT.
And yet, even with him serving as a metaphysical ADT system, creeping tension made her walk faster and faster toward the elevator doors. There were two choices for other floors: “2” and “LL,” and when she got inside, she hit the latter. Silence accompanied the drop in height as she proceeded down to the windowless, open space of the basement. Her breath trapped in her lungs as the doors parted. . . .
“Oh, thank fuck,” she said with a laugh.
Everything was there. All her clocks, which responded to her presence by resuming their count of minutes and hours; her many bureaus full of things that had just re-lined themselves up, their pulls still clapping from the return to proper position; her countless knives that were now once again facing point-first to the south; and her most important possession—the most priceless thing of all, in spite of its ugly state of decay—her mirror, was right where she had left it in the far corner.
Well, and then there was also the fun stuff in her “bedroom” area, the king-size bed, the vanity with all her makeup, her racks and racks of clothes, her shelves of shoes, her cupboards of bags.
Whenever she left, her possessions discorded, the orientation of the vast space becoming jumbled and confused. When she returned? Order was reestablished.
The same way a magnet would pull metal shavings together.
And just as her objects orbited around her, she too was drawn to them. Her greatest fear, at least on Earth, was that someday she would come back here and something would be gone. Or all of it would be. Or just a part.
As her heart rate regulated and she took off her fur coat, she walked down the aisles created by the bureaus. Stopping randomly, she pulled open the top drawer of a Hepplewhite she’d purchased from its maker back in 1801. Inside, there were eyeglasses from the period, thin wires curling around, circles of aged glass glinting. As she touched them, the energy of their past owners surged into her fingertips and connected her with the souls she had claimed and now held in her prison.
She knew each and every one of the sinners, her children, the beloved chosen who she nurtured through eternal pain and humiliation in her wall down below.
Fucking Jim Heron.
That goddamn “savior” might well be the death of her—literally. And that was not supposed to be the way shit went. In the beginning of this seven-round war, she’d had such hope for him, had been convinced that his bad side, cultivated in his professional pursuits for so long, would serve her well. Instead? That cocksucker was playing for the other team.
If he pulled off one more victory?
Overwhelmed, Devina surveyed her collections, tears spearing into her eyes.
If that savior won for Team Angel, all of this was gone, all of her things no longer existed—worse, all of her souls were history as well. Everything she had spent eons amassing? Up in smoke.
Fucking Jim Heron.
Marching over to her vanity, she tossed the mink onto the bed, pulled out the dainty chair, and sat down. As she stared at herself in the oval mirror, she approved of the way she looked—and hated the way she felt.
First off, she despised the fact that there was a female who Jim wanted badly enough to give a win up for. And then there was her personal rock and a hard place—give up something she owned?
When was the last time she’d let anything go?
Well . . . hell, she’d have to go Taylor Swift on that one: never, ever, ever. . . .
Man, OCD sucked on a good day. Faced with losing all the shit in this basement? It was enough to give her a fucking heart attack—
Bracing herself on the vanity, she had to open her mouth to breathe. “You’re immortal . . . you’re immortal. . . . you don’t have to call nine-one-one . . .”
’Cuz for fuck’s sake, you couldn’t resuscitate someone who didn’t exist in the crash-cart kind of way.
Good logic. Except as high-octane panic roared through her veins, and knocked out her higher reasoning, that little slice of rational got kicked in the can. With a trembling hand, she brushed her dark hair out of her face and tried to remember the cognitive behavioral therapy she’d been doing.
Not going to kill her. Just physical sensations. Not about the things, Devina—it’s about trying to exert control over . . .
Bullshit it wasn’t about the things. And even immortals could in fact die—she’d proved that when she’d killed Adrian’s precious little buddy Eddie in the round before last.
“Oh, God,” she moaned as a sense of disconnection separated her from her environment, her eyesight going funhouse, her balance destabilizing.
Winning the war meant that she had dominion over the Earth and all the souls on it. Awesome. Totally. But losing?
Just the thought made her want to throw up.
The stakes could not be higher.
Fucking Jim Heron—
“Can’t . . . breathe . . .”
Great. Looked like this was going to be another three-appointment week with her therapist. Maybe four.
Forcing herself to focus, she tried breathing in deep with her belly. Tightened her thigh muscles repeatedly. Told herself she’d been in this pounding place of adrenaline overload a million times before and survived it every single time. Thought about the new season at LV and what she was going to buy in New York at the mother ship on Fifth. . . .
In the end, what brought her back was an earring she wouldn’t have worn even if there’d been a crystal knife at her throat.
Seashell? Really. How fucking Cape Cod.
The woman who’d worn it had probably gotten the damn thing from some boyfriend or another after a long weekend spent walking on the beach, holding hands, and doing it missionary position in a B & B.
Taking the pathetic fourteen-karat trinket out, Devina bypassed a lineup of five bottles of Coco by Chanel and pulled forward a shallow plate made of a shiny silver composite. The earring bounced as she dropped it, and for a split second, she wanted to crush the thing to dust . . . just because she could. Instead, she began to speak in her mother tongue, her voice distorting, the Ss prolonging like a snake’s hiss. When it was time, she closed her eyes and extended her palm, the spell gathering in intensity, heat brewing up.
Images began to lift from the object, the movie of its owner channeling into her, the narrative and visuals locking into Devina’s CPU for future use. Oh, yes, metal objects were so handy, the energy of their possessors forever trapped in between the molecules, just waiting to be absorbed by something else.
Before she ended the session, she gave in to temptation and added a little something else to the mix, a minor chaser, just an itty-bitty push in her own direction. Nothing like she had done in previous rounds, nothing even close.
Just a little artificially manufactured law of attraction.
That was all.
Cracking her lids, she stared into the white-hot maelstrom that was spinning like a tornado above the flat plane of the plate—and then it was done, the energy exchange complete, the interaction between objects over.
No big deal. And if the Maker wanted to split hairs to this degree? He needed her therapist, too.
Devina sat back, the presence of her objects something she felt, the essences of the souls down below intermixing, and yet retaining their individual characteristics.
Just as things were in her wall.
Fuck Jim Heron.
And fuck the game, too, by the way. The Maker needed her. She was the balance in His world—without her? Heaven would lose its significance altogether; no need for it if Earth was a utopia.
Evil was required.
Unfortunately . . . however true that was, this war was going to determine the future.
She was down by so much: four rounds, and she had only won one.
Grabbing her iPhone, she went into her contacts, hit a number, and while the call was going through, she deliberately stared out over her things, reminding herself of how much she had—and how much there was to lose.
“You’ve reached the voice mail of Veronica Sibling-Crout, licensed social worker. Please leave your name and message, as well as a number where I can reach you, repeated twice. Have a lovely day.”
“Hi, Veronica, this is Devina. I’m wondering if you have any sessions available ASAP? I’m going—” Her voice cracked. “I’m going to make a difficult decision right now, and I need some support. My number is . . .”
After she rattled off the digits, repeating them twice even though the woman no doubt had her on speed dial at this point, she hung up, closed her eyes and gathered her strength.
This was going to be the hardest thing she had ever done.
Other than fucking Jim Heron, of course.
Because like the war and the position she was in, it was difficult to admit . . . that she truly had fallen in love with him.
And that was another reason this hurt so badly.
At nine fifty-one, Duke left the Iron Mask’s front door, getting in his truck and hitting the Northway. Two exits later, he got off at a cluster of apartment developments that were conveniently located right off the highway. With names like Lantern Village, which had an old Colonial theme, and Swisse Chalets, which was some Albany architect’s version of Gsaatd, these were well maintained but densely packed stables for young professionals just starting their double-income, no-kids lives.
He should know. He’d lived here once.
Turning in at the signage marked Hunterbred Farms, he was on autopilot as his truck wound around the various horse breed–referenced streets, passing identical stacked buildings that were painted dark green and gold and had central staircases open to the air.
Eleven-oh-one Appaloosa Way.
There were two spaces allotted to each two- or three-bedroom apartment, and he pulled in next to a five-year-old Ford Taurus. He didn’t bother to lock up as he got out and strode up the walkway. Two at a time for the stairs. Down to the far end. Last door on the left.
He knocked once and loudly.
The woman who opened up was still in surgical scrubs, her dark hair loose on her shoulders, her eyes exhausted after what had undoubtedly been a very long day. As she shoved her bangs back, he caught a whiff of a chloroxylenol-based antimicrobial soap.
“Hi,” she said, stepping back. “You want to come in?”
He shrugged, but entered. The truth was, he didn’t want to be here at all.
“You eat tonight?” she asked.
“I was just sitting down to Lean Cuisine.”
As she headed through the sparse living room, he took the envelope he’d filled with five hundred dollars in cash out of his pocket. There was nowhere to put the damn thing—no table by the door, no side stand by the wilted leather couch, not even an ottoman to lay up aching feet on after a day running meds to ICU patients.
Damn it, he thought as he followed her to the linoleum-floored eating area, with its round table and four chairs.
From out of the galley kitchen, she emerged with a black plastic tray filled with something that was steaming, and a glass of pale white wine.
She sat down and arranged the stainless-steel fork and a paper towel to the left of her “plate.”
No eating, though. And she couldn’t look at him—which was nothing new.
“Here,” he said, bending forward and putting the money on the chipped tabletop.
As she stared at the envelope, she looked like she was going to cry. But that was also not a news flash—and another thing that was none of his business.
“I’m going to take off—”
“He’s getting into trouble,” she mumbled as she took her fork and stabbed at whatever creamed thing was fresh from the freezer and the microwave. “It’s bad.”
“At school?” Duke said remotely.
She nodded. “He was caught stealing a laptop from the computer lab.”
“Three days—and mandated counseling. He’s been at Mom’s until I can pick him up after work—I’m due over there right now.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how to talk to him. He doesn’t listen to me . . . it’s like he can’t even hear me.”