This is my Fort Knox, my office, and my panic room. I've laid the heaviest protective hoodoo I know around this place. Of all the hideouts I ever thought of running to when things got weird, a library was right behind a leper colony and a burning garbage truck. But here I am.
I haven't paced the place off, but the library looks about a football field long, lined with two floors of books in hundred-foot stretches of ornate dark wood shelves. The ceiling is domed and painted with scenes illustrating the three tenets of the Hellion church. The Thought: God and Lucifer arguing that if humans have free will so should angels. The Act: the war. It's pretty but stiff and trying too hard to look noble, like a Soviet propaganda poster. The New World: Lucifer and his defeated, punch-drunk Bowery boys in Hell. He looks like a tent revival preacher selling snake oil to rubes, but in his own fucked-up way, the slippery son of a bitch is trying to do right by his people.
I've made myself a comfortable squat over by a wall of the Greek wall, the stuff Samael told me to read. In a copy of a half-falling-apart Reader's Digest condensed large-print book on Greek history, I found his notes (it's embarrassing that he knows me well enough that he left the info in a book written for shut-ins and half-blind grandmas). He included names of people I could think about for the Council. If they're the Hellions I can trust, I'm not ready to meet the ones I can't.
I dragged a plush red sofa trimmed in gold, a big partner's desk, and a few chairs over to my squat. Sometimes I even let people in to use the chairs. Not many and not often, but anyone who comes in is on my turf. I know which carpets cover binding circles. I know which books are hollowed out and stuffed with knives and killing potions.
The desk and nearby shelves are covered with books, paper, pens, and weird little machines. Stuff you can only find at an Office Depot doubling as a night school for amateur torturers. There's a spongy red clamshell that growls when you squeeze it and spits out what I think pass for Hellion staples. They're sharp and thick, like they're designed to punish the paper and not just hold it together. There's something that looks like a set of brass teeth. The teeth chatter sometimes. Sometimes they don't do anything for days. There's a gyroscope that when you spin it talks in a deep monster-movie voice in a language I've never heard before. On one of the bookshelves is a gold armillary sphere. When I touch any of the golden rings, I feel like I've fallen out of myself. Like I'm nowhere and being pushed through empty space by a freezing hurricane. There are stars far away and beyond them a mass of pale boiling vapor streaked with lighting. I think it's the chaos at the edge of the universe and that this is the deep void that separates Hell and Heaven. Wherever and whatever it is, it's a lonely and desolate place.
In L.A., I lived with a dead man named Kasabian who worked for Lucifer and could see into parts of Hell. I don't know if he can see me here, but sometimes I scrawl notes and leave them on the desk for days. Some are to friends. Most are to Candy. We're a lot alike. Neither of us is quite human. And we're both killers. We try to forget about the first as much as possible and try to avoid the second as much as we can, which, the way things are, usually isn't long.
There's a click behind me. I put my hand on my knife and turn.
Two Hellions come in through a false section of bookcase that slides away like Japanese paper doors.
Merihim, the priest, bows. He's in sleeveless black robes. Every inch of his pale face and arms is tattooed with sacred Hellion script. Spells, prayers, and, for all I know, a recipe for chicken vindaloo.
The guy with him, Ipos, is big and blunt. Like a walking fire hydrant in gray rubber overalls. The heavy leather belt around his waist holds tools that range from barbarian crushers to delicate surgical-quality instruments. From a distance you can't tell if he's the palace's maintenance chief or head torturer. His job in the palace makes him a useful agent. No one pays attention to the janitor.
"Did we interrupt playtime with your toys, my lord?" asks Merihim.
"Go harass an altar boy, preacher. I'm working."
On a table near the sofa there's a line of peepers projecting images from around the palace onto an old-fashioned home movie screen I found in a storeroom. I pop out my right eye, drop it into a glass of water, and stick a peeper in the empty socket, rolling back the images the eye picked up like a video rewinding. Like I said, I have a few of Lucifer's powers but mostly Vegas magic-act stuff.
"What are you looking for?" asks Ipos. His voice is a low rumble, like an idling sixteen-wheeler.
"The front of the palace where I dumped the bodies of three bushwhacking assholes. I want to see what happened after I came inside."
Merihim and Ipos are the only two Hellions who can walk in here on their own. They were Samael's confidants and spies and I inherited them with the gig. I don't thinks Samael would have lasted as long as he did without them. I know I wouldn't still be here.
I roll back to where I came inside and let the peeper play. The officer I talked to barks orders at the troops who are about thirty seconds from a soccer riot trying to get a look at Ukobach and his dead friends. The officer orders most back to their duties and others to take the three bodies to the gibbets. A young officer comes over. They walk along the gory trail where I dragged in the bodies. I try to read their lips but they're too damned far away.
"I see by your hands you were hurt in the attack," says Merihim. "I'll send for a healer from the tabernacle. I daresay they're more discreet than the palace medical staff."
"I'm fine. All the bastards did was murder was my jacket. It was a nice one too."
I switch my eyes back, pour myself a shot of Aqua Regia, and hold out the bottle. Merihim shakes his head and walks away. He does that. Prowls the room when we meet. I've never seen the guy sit down. Ipos nods for a drink and picks up a glass with his big bratwurst fingers. When I start to pour, he flinches.
"I'm sorry," he says, and nods in my direction.
"The arm, my lord. Would you mind? It's . . . distracting."
I flex my prosthetic Kissi hand. The Kissi were a race of deformed, half-finished angels that lived in the chaos on the edge of Creation. One of God's first great fuckups while creating the universe. Kissis give Hellions the shakes. I think they see themselves in those other failed angels. It reminds them that even in Hell you can always fall lower.
I dig around in the desk and find a glove. This time takes he a drink. He carries it to the sofa and sits down. I sit on the desk. Merihim prowls.
"Thank you, my lord," says Ipos.
"Stop with the 'my lord' stuff. It bugs me."
Merihim smiles, leaning over the peepers. Projected images from around the palace flicker on the screen like a silent movie.
"What's up with you?" I ask.
"Nothing. It's always amusing watching you pretend you're not who you really are."
"I'm only interning in Hell for college credit. When I find the right replacement, I'm gone, Daddy, gone."
"Of course you are. Why would you want any influence over the creation of a new Hell? Or care about the welfare of the millions of mortal souls you'll be leaving behind? I wonder if Mr. Hickok will be allowed to keep his tavern or will he be thrown back into Butcher Valley? But what do you care? 'All are equal in the grave.' Isn't that what you living mortals say?"
"Keep talking, smart guy. I'll fake a heart attack and make you Lucifer. Let's see how you like whitewashing this outhouse with a target painted on the back of your bald head."
Ipos glances at the priest.
"It would probably look better than all the scribbling."
Merihim gives him a sharp look, flips through the pages of an ancient Hellion medical book, and sets it down.
"Someone has found out about your habit of riding alone and what routes you take. You can't ever ride like that again."
"I know. There's something else."
I take out the Glock and set it on the desk.
"Where did these pricks get guns? Only officers get to carry weapons these days."
Merihim frowns and crosses his arms.
"We need to find out — very discreetly — if there are any officers who can't account for their weapons."
"There are merchants who sell stolen weapons in the street markets. I can get people on the road repair crews. They might see or hear something," Ipos says.
"Wait. It gets even better. I checked the attacker who lived. He'd been hexed. He might not have even known what he was doing."
"An enthrallment?" says Merihim. That gets his attention. He comes back to the desk. "That's not a power many in Pandemonium would possess. I doubt that any of the officers could do it."
"Maybe the bastard bribed one of the palace witches," says Ipos.
"I think whoever set up the attack tried to hex me too. After I dumped the bike, I couldn't think or fight or defend myself. I've been in plenty of wrecks and it didn't feel like a concussion. It felt like someone was trying to get inside my head."
Merihim starts wandering again.
"It makes sense. One, Mason Faim created a key that allows him to possess bodies. Two, the key is missing. Three, according to you, it works on mortals. Four, there's no reason to think it wouldn't work on Hellions too. That means whoever arranged your attack either has the key or is in league with whoever does."
Ipos says, "I suppose if any of us would be hard to possess, it would be Lucifer. They probably won't try it on you again."
"This might not be an assassination attempt at all," says Merihim. "An isolated ambush would be a good way to cover up a psychic experiment. If your attackers killed you, all the better. If you killed your attackers, the only evidence would be the corpses of a few rogue soldiers."
"That makes sense. It's one thing to kill Lucifer but another to spellbind him," says Ipos. "You could make him do anything. Something unforgivable."
"Which means I get to live this little drama all over again."
Ipos nods. Merihim picks up the gyroscope from the desk and spins it the wrong way. The ominous voice comes out high and weird. A demonic Alvin and the Chipmunks.
"Definitely," says Ipos.
"And it will be both subtler and more serious. We have access to potion makings in the tabernacle. I'll personally prepare some draughts to protect you from psychic attack."
"What I want to know is why now?" say Ipos. "After all this time, why would someone attack you?"
"Maybe someone caught me counting cards."
Merihim says, "Something has changed. They've discovered something or they're afraid you will, and they need to kill you before you discover it too."
I say, "It's the possession key. Mason wasn't exactly generous with information. He created the key and wouldn't want anyone else using it, so it's not like there's going to be a user manual lying around. Maybe it's taken this long for whoever has it to figure out how it works."
Merihim waves off the comment.
"Perhaps. Speculation is pointless. We need to contact our operatives among the legions and the palace thaumaturgy staff to see what they can find."
"Did anything interesting happen at the Council meeting?" says Ipos.
"Not really. Marchosias wanted to fuck me in her limo to annoy the others. I called Buer a Nazi and sent them all home to watch a silent movie about good architecture and a mad scientist."
"It sounds charming," says Merihim.
"There's even a robot."
"A masterpiece, then."
Ipos says, "We should get to work."
He sets his glass on the desk, holds it there, and pushes on it. The desk rocks a fraction of and inch up and down.
"I thought so. You wore down one of the legs dragging it over. I'll fix that the next time we meet."
"I can just stick a matchbook under it."
He looks at me.
"No, you can't. You might run the kingdom but I maintain the palace. This is my domain."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Wizard."
After they're gone, I sit down at the desk and light a Malediction. Toss the Glock into the bottom drawer of the desk. I don't like Glocks. They're the gun equivalent of a middle-aged guy buying a Porsche.
From the top drawer I take out a shiny silver Veritas. The coin is a useful little pocket oracle. Another Veritas helped me survive my first few days when I first escaped back to L.A. The Veritas sees the present and the near future and never lies, though sometimes it's a little shit about it.
I flip it and think, What now?
It comes down showing the image of a man pouring money into a woman's hands. I've seen the symbol before. A hooker and her customer. Around the coin's edge, in perfect Hellion script, it reads, Don't make any long-term investments. Have a good time now. That's what I mean. The little prick could have just said, You're doomed, but it likes showing off.
I toss the Veritas back in the desk, pick up a book, and lie down on the sofa. I'm reading a chapter about a Greek philosopher named Epicurus. The guy was a kind of depressed swinger. Imagine the Playboy Mansion run by Mr. Rogers. Epicurus was all about pleasure but in a stingy eat-your-vegetables-or-you-won't-get-any-dessert kind of way.
A lot of this philosophy stuff puts me right to sleep, but Epicurus must have been able to see into the future when people like me can't read more than a paragraph without checking our e-mail because he spit out the important stuff short and sweet. It's called the Tetrapharmakos and it's a kind of a PowerPoint list to fix whatever ails you. It goes:
- Don't fear God
- Don't worry about death
- What is good is easy to get and
- What is terrible is easy to endure
He got it at least half right. That's better than most people.
"Don't fear God." No problem. I met the guy. He had a nervous breakdown and is broken into more pieces than me.
"Don't worry about death." I died a couple of times already. It was boring.
"What is good is easy to get." Here's where Epicurus's head starts disappearing up his own ass. This seems to be a common problem with philosophers.
"What is terrible is easy to endure." Try being born half angel and half human, pal. A nephilim violates all the rules of the universe. I was born an Abomination, the only thing alive hated by Heaven, Hell, and Earth. Try that on for size and tell me how easy it is to endure, you grape-leaf-eating son of a bitch.
I drop the book on the floor. This is all Samael's fault. I should have guessed that part of my torture in Hell would be having to read. L.A. was a lot more fun. Stealing cars, ripping out zombies' spines, and getting shot at. Good times.
I get up and scrawl a note in big block letters and leave it on the desk in case Kasabian can see it.
Candy. I miss you. Stark.
Lucifer's library has a pretty limited fiction section. I push around the pile of books by the sofa until I find The Trial by Franz Kafka. It's about a guy on trial for something he doesn't understand, accused by people he can't find. It's fucking hilarious. It might not be my first choice for how to spend an evening, but it's better than going back to the Greeks. I don't need another morality lecture from a dead guy. I've been getting those half my life.
My eyes snap open few hours later. I sit up. I don't even remember falling asleep. I get up and check the peepers.
After-hours flunkies sorting and filing endless piles of palace paperwork. Soldiers patrolling the grounds. Cleaners trying to get blood and gravel out of the lobby carpets. All expected. All boring. Good.
In L.A., I used to dream about Hell. In Hell, I dream about L.A., but it doesn't make me any less homesick. Home in my dreams isn't home. I see the city turning soft and sinking into the desert. Whole neighborhoods are swallowed or just wink out of existence. The sky is black and bruised like Hell's, and then turns normal again. Sometimes instead of fighting in the arena, my arena dreams turn into a floodlit Hollywood and Vine.
This time I'm circling a Hellion roughly the size and shape of a locomotive. I have to fight with a rusty junkyard na'at while Casey Jones has a shield and a Vernalis, a kind of steel crab claw the size of your average go-go dancer. A bunch of red leggers, freelance raiders and looters, hoot and cheer for blood.
We drive each other back and forth across the killing floor. I slip one of his attacks and get in close. Just as I'm about to open him up like a can of pork and beans, my na'at jams. It was rigged and the Hellion knew it. The next thing I know, I'm on my knees screaming. There's a wet sound as the Vernalis slices through meat and crunches through bone. When I look down, my left arm is lying in the intersection next to a three-month-old People magazine.
And that's not even the worst dream. The worst are when I wake up sweating from nightmares about city-planning meetings. Swear to God. I dream about signing papers. I dream about progress reports on freeway repairs. About digging through mile-high piles of office supplies for Post-its and paper clips. I'm a magician, an ex-gladiator, a killer, and now the Devil himself and my greatest night terrors revolve around lost memos and trying to remember the Hellion word for "incentivize."
Some nights I swear I'm tempted to sneak back to the arena and step in for a couple of fights, like a junkie looking for one more fix. It's sick, I know. Yeah, it's misery, but it's a familiar kind and sometimes that's as close to happy as I'll get down here.
No wonder Samael took a powder. For all his talk about going home to make up with the old man, he was really running away from eternal damnation as a salaryman. I didn't figure out until I was doing it that this is Lucifer's damnation. The Light Bringer reduced to riding herd on bank clerks. It was worse than any torture.
I get up and pour myself a drink. Throw the robe over the back of a chair and slip the black blade behind my back. I leave through the fake bookshelves and head downstairs to the kennels.
It's afternoon and the senior planning staff is waiting in the palace meeting room. The place looks like Bring Your Clown to Work Day at a Masonic lodge. The slick suits and Hellion power dresses aren't the problem. It's everything else they're wearing. Ceremonial aprons covered with old runes. A morbid rainbow of colored scarves and gloves showing everyone's place in the food chain. Blinders. Gaggers. Masks.
They're all giving me the pig eye as I roll in. I take my time getting to the head of the table. The dirty looks aren't just because I'm late. I'll always be that sheep-killing dog Sandman Slim to most of them, and now, just to rub their ugly noses in it, I'm their boss. At least the armor is doing its job. No matter how much they hate me, they keep their hex holes shut with my devil armor shining like the mirrored belly of a chrome wasp.
There are twelve on the planning committee. With me there's thirteen. A cozy little coven. Buer is there. So are Marchosias and Obyzuth. Semyazah would be here but none of the generals will put up with this shit.
Technically I'm supposed to be in ritual drag too but I have a hard time picturing Samael dressed up like a Brooks Brothers Pied Piper, so I follow his example and skip the wardrobe call.
There's a silver circle in the center of the table. Lines radiate out to the edges, cutting the table into twelve sections. Each trick-or-treater steps up and sets down a different ceremonial object. The junk looks like leftovers from a Goth-club garage sale.
Obyzuth sets down a green rock, like a Templar meditation stone. The Hellion next to her sets down an athame knife that cuts through ignorance or butters magic toast or something. Buer drops a snake carved from the leg bone of a fallen Hellion warrior. It goes on and on like that. I'm supposed to light a red candle at the end of the ritual but things are going too slow. I fire it up now and light a Malediction off it.
"Don't take it personally, but if I have to sit through one more of these meetings, I'm going to gut every one of you like catfish, shit in your skulls, and mail them to your families. This isn't Hell. It's a PTA meeting. Maybe all we need to save Hell is a bake sale."
I flick my ashes over the candle.
"Here's how it is from now on. Do your projects any way you want. Fuck the budgets. Fuck the schedules. When it's done, you get one minute to tell me about it."
The room is silent. It's not like regular silence. More like the kind you get with a concussion.
"In case anyone thinks letting you off the leash is a license to steal or stab me in the back, let me introduce the newest member of our team."
I go to the doors and open them. A hellhound clanks in on its big metal claws and looks over the room. The hound is bigger than a dire wolf, a clockwork killing machine run by a Hellion brain suspended in a glass globe where its head should be. They're terrifying on a battlefield but in an enclosed space like this, the whirs and clicks of its mechanics, its razor teeth and pink, exposed brain, are enough to give a Tyrannosaurus a heart attack.
The hound follows me around the table, folds up its legs, and settles down on the floor next to me. A dutiful guard dog.
"This is Ms. 45. The new head of HR. Any of you upstanding citizens that do less than your best work, conspire against me, or sell supplies to the black market can explain it to her. She works nights, weekends, and holidays, and if she's indisposed, Ms. 45 has a few hundred colleagues downstairs. In fact, the hounds now have the run of the palace, so watch your step. I hear stainless-steel turds stain bad."
No one says anything. Besides the hellhound, the only sound is people restlessly moving their feet.
"Now get to work and leave me the fuck alone."
All twelve of them file out, right into the other two hounds I stationed outside. It would have been a hoot programming them to eat each Council member as they left. A little counterproductive, though. I need them to do the work I'm sure not going to do. But If I can't have a little fun being the Devil, why bother?
Now I can get back to figuring out the rest of Lucifer's power so I can get the hell out of here.