The great thing about Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim novels is, there's no foot-dragging. Each book in the series pushes the story forward — usually with a punch in the gut. Case in point: the fourth Sandman Slim Book, Devil Said Bang, starts out with Stark in a very different position than the previous novels. (If you haven't read the third book, Aloha From Hell, go read it now.)
Now we get to see how Stark copes with his challenging new position — and judging from our exclusive excerpt from the first 40 pages of the novel, it's going to be the craziest ride yet.
I punch the tunes into the jukebox and make sure it's turned up loud. I've loaded up the juke with a hundred or so devil tunes. The Hellion Council can't stand it when I come to a meeting with a pocketful of change. Wild Bill, the bartender, hates it too, but he's a damned soul I recruited for the job, so he gets why I do it. I head back to the table and nod to him. He shakes his head and goes back to cleaning glasses.
Les Baxter winds down a spooky "Devil Cult" as I sit down with the rest of Hell's ruling council. We've been here in the Bamboo House of Dolls for a couple of hours. My head hurts from reports, revised timetables, and learned opinions. If I didn't have the music to annoy everyone with, I would probably have killed them all by now.
Buer slides a set of blueprints in my direction.
Hellions look sort of like the little demons in that Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Some look pretty human. Some look like the green devils on old absinthe bottles. Some are like what monsters puke up after a long weekend of eating other monsters. Buer looks like a cuttlefish in a Hugo Boss suit and smells like a pet-store Dumpster.
"What do you think of the colonnades?" he asks.
"Yes. I redesigned the colonnades."
"What the fuck are colonnades?"
General Semyazah, the supreme commander of Hell's legions, sighs and points to a line of pillars at the center of the page. "That is a colonnade."
If the hen scratchings on the blueprints are different from the last bunch of hen scratchings Buer showed me, I sure as hell can't tell. I say the first thing that pops into my head.
"Were those statues there before?"
Buer waves his little cuttlefish tentacles and moves his finger across the paper.
"They're new. A different icon for each of the Seven Noble Virtues."
He's not lying. They're all there. All the personality quirks that give Hellions a massive cultural hard-on. Cunning. Ruthlessness. Ferocity. Deception. Silence. Strength. Joy. They're represented by a collection of demonic marble figures with leathery wings and forked tongues, bent spines and razor dorsal fins, clusters of eyestalks and spider legs. The colonnades looks like the most fucked-up miniature golf course in the universe and they're on what's supposed to be the new City Hall.
"I have an idea, how about instead of the Legion of Doom we put up the Rat Pack and the lyrics to 'Luck Be a Lady'?"
"Excuse me?" says Buer.
"What I mean is, it looks a little fascist."
"That wasn't a compliment."
I push the blueprints away with the sharpened fingers of my left hand, the ugly prosthetic one on my ugly prosthetic arm.
Buer doesn't know how to react. None of them do.
There's Buer the builder, Semyazah the general, Obyzuth the sorceress, and Marchosias the politician. Old Greek kings used to have councils like this, and since a certain friend hinted I should read up on the Greeks, I have a council too. The last member of the Council is Lucifer. That's me. But I'll get to that part later. The five of us are the big brains supposedly in charge of Hell. Really, we're a bunch of second-rate mechanics trying to keep the wheels from coming off a burning gasoline truck skidding toward a school bus full of orphans and kittens.
The Council is staring at me. I've been down here a hundred days and still, anytime I say anything but yes or no, they still look at me like I'm a talking giraffe. Hellions just aren't used to humans giving them back talk. That's okay. I can use that. Let them find me a little strange. A little inexplicable. Playing the Devil is easier if no one has any idea what you're going to do or say next.
They're all still waiting. I let them.
We have these meetings every couple of days. We're rebuilding Hell after it went up in flames like a flash-paper bikini when the original Lucifer, the real Lucifer, blew out of town after sticking me with the job. The trouble for the rest of the Council is that I don't know how fast I want Downtown back in working order.
I say to Buer, "I'm fine with Hellion pride. It's troubled times, the team's in last place, and they need a pep rally. Cool. But I don't want Hell's capital looking like we're about to goose-step into Poland."
Obyzuth turns the blueprints around. I still don't know what she looks like. She wears an ivory mask that covers everything but her eyes, and a curtain of gold beads covers them.
She says, "Buer's designs expand and celebrate many of the classic historical motifs of Hellion design. I like them."
Obyzuth is into the spiritual side of the rebuild and doesn't usually comment on things like this. I've upset her. Good.
I say, "This Nazi Disneyland stuff, it's too cheap and easy. It's like something the Kissi would dream up."
That's hitting below the belt. Calling a Hellion a Kissi is like calling Chuck Norris Joseph Stalin. Buer looks like he wants to stuff the blueprints down my throat with a road flare. Obyzuth and Semyazah look at me like they caught me eating cookies before dinner. Marchosias raises her eyebrows, which is about an inch from her challenging me to a duel at dawn.
The Bad Dad thing usually works. Hellions are big on pecking orders and I have to remind them regularly who's at the top. Now they need a pat on the head from Good Dad before things go all Hansel and Gretel and I end up in the oven.
"You're a talented guy, Buer. You get to redesign all of Pandemonium for the first time in about a billion years. No one's going to get a chance like that again. Throw out the Albert Speer bullshit and modern up. When God tossed you fallen bastards into Hell the builders were the only ones who saw it as more than a pile of rocks and dust. Do that again."
I can't believe I'm learning how politics and court intrigue work. I feel a little dirty. I miss punching people. It's honest work but I don't get to do it much these days.
Marchosias shakes her head. She's skinny, pale, and birdlike, but her instincts are more like those of a Velociraptor.
"I'm not sure. In unstable times people need comfort. They need the familiar."
"No. They don't. They need to see that whoever's in charge has balls and vision. They need to see that we're making a new, bigger, and better Hell than they ever had before."
Obyzuth nods a little to herself.
She says, "I cast the stones this morning, and although I like Buer's work, if things must change, the signs are in an auspicious alignment for it."
"See? We've got auspicious alignments and everything. We're golden. Let's draw up some new plans."
I pick up a handful of little crackers from a bowl on the table and pop them one by one into my mouth. Really, they're fried drytt eggs. Drytts are big, annoying Hellion sand fleas. I know that sounds disgusting, but this is Hell. Besides, if you fry anything long enough, it gets good. The drytt eggs go down like fried popcorn.
Semyazah hardly reacts to anything in these meetings and he chooses his words carefully. He says, "You've been dismissing everyone's ideas for weeks. What ideas do you have?"
"I worry about this place ending up like L.A. All Hellion strip malls, T-shirts, and titty bars. The Pandemonium I remember is more of a Bela Lugosi-and-fog kind of town. When I have to choose between Dark Shadows or fanny packs, I'll step over to the dark side every time. Have any of you ever seen a Fritz Lang movie called Metropolis?"
They shake their heads.
"You would love it. It's about bigwigs that kick the shit out of proles in a city that's all mile-high skyscrapers, smoke-belching machines and office towers that look like dragons fucking spaceships. The place is clean, precise, and soul crushing, but with style. Just like you. So that's everyone's homework. Watch Metropolis. It's in the On Demand menu."
That's right. Hell steals cable. Call a cop.
The three most popular TV shows Downtown are Lucha Libre, Japanese game shows, and The Brady Bunch, which Hellions seem to think is a deep anthropological study of mortal life. I hope watching the Bradys depresses them as much as being trapped here in Creation's shit pipe depresses me.
"Let's take a break. I need a drink."
I walk to the bar and sit down. I make the Council hold its meetings here for a couple of reasons. The first is that Hellions love their rituals, and trying to get anything done is like a Japanese tea ceremony crossed with a High Mass, only even slower. There's enough ritual hand waving down here to put the Dalai Lama to sleep.
Reason two is this place. It's Hell's version of my favorite L.A. bar, the Bamboo House of Dolls. The main difference between this and the other Bamboo House is that Carlos runs the bar in L.A. In Hell, it's my great-great-great-granddad, Wild Bill Hickok.
Wild Bill already has a glass of Aqua Regia ready for me when I sit down.
"What do you think?" I ask.
"About what. About the damn meeting."
"I think you're about to drive them fellers crazy."
"They're not all fellers."
He squints at the Council.
"There's ladies in the bunch?"
"Damn. I never did learn to tell the difference with Hellions. 'Course they're all pig-fucking sons of bitches to me, so what do I care if I guess wrong and hurt their feelings?"
I don't think running a bar was ever Bill's dream job and he's not exactly the type to throw around a lot of thank-yous, but I know he likes it better here than in Butcher Valley. Bill died in 1876, was damned, and he's been fighting hand to hand with other killers and shootists in that punishment hellhole ever since. Taking him out was the least I could do for family.
"Is anyone giving you trouble? Do they know who you run the place for?"
"I expect everyone's aware by now. Which don't make me particularly happy. I'm not used to another man fighting my battles for me."
"Think of it this way. This setup isn't just about me having a place to drink. It's about showing the blue bloods who's in charge. If anyone hassles you, it means they're hassling me, and I need to do something loud and messy about it."
He puffs his cigar and sets it on the edge of the bar. There are scorch marks all over the wood.
"Sounds like it's hard work playing Old Nick. I don't envy you."
"I don't envy me either. And you didn't answer my question."
He's silent for a moment, still annoyed that I'm asking about his well-being.
"No. No one in particular's been causing me grief. These lizardy bastards ain't exactly housebroken, but they don't treat me any worse than they treat each other. And they only get up to that when you and your compadres aren't around. That's when the rowdies come in."
"If you hear anything interesting, you know what to do."
"I might be dead and damned for all eternity but I'm not addle-brained. I remember."
We turn and look at the Council.
He says, "So which one do you figure is going to kill you first?"
"None of them. Semyazah is too disciplined. He saw Hell come apart the last time it didn't have a Lucifer. I don't really get a whiff of murder from any of the others. Do you?"
I finish my drink. He pours me another and one for himself.
"Not them directly. But I figure at least one's scribbling down everything and passing it to whoever's going to do the actual pigsticking."
"That's why I keep the rebuilding slow. Keep the big boys busy and scattered all over. Makes it harder for them to plan my tragic demise."
"It's funny hearing blood talk like that. I wasn't exactly a planner when I was alive and it never crossed my mind anyone else in the family would ever come by the trait."
"It's new. Since I moved into Lucifer's place, I spend a lot of time in the library. I never read anything longer than the back of a video jacket before. I think it's bent my brain."
"Books and women'll do that. Just don't get to thinking such big thoughts you forget to listen for what's creeping up behind you."
"I never read with my back to the door."
He nods and downs his drink in one gulp.
"All it takes is the one time," Bill says. He looks past my shoulder. "I think your friends are waiting on you."
"Later, Wild Bill."
"Give 'em hell, boy."
The others look impatient when I get back. For a second, I flash on Candy back in L.A. After knowing each other for almost a year, we'd finally gotten together right before I came down here. Managed to squeeze in two good days together. What would she think of Hell's ruling elite hanging on my every word? She'd probably laugh her ass off.
"We did all right today. Knowing what you don't want is about as good as knowing what you do. Let's meet back here at the same time in three days. That enough time for you to sketch out some ideas, Buer?"
"I'll watch your Metropolis show tonight. And have something for you at the next meeting."
"That's it, then. Anyone have any questions. Any thoughts? Any banana-bread recipes to share with the class?"
Nothing. Hell's a tough room. They gather up papers and notes. Stuff them in leather bags and attache cases.
"Thanks for coming."
I head back to the bar, where Wild Bill is already pouring me a drink. I need a smoke. I take out a pack of Maledictions and light one up. It might be Hell but at least you can smoke in the bars.
Bill pours a second drink in different glass and walks away.
Marchosias is behind me. She does this after meetings sometimes. She says she wants to practice her English. I don't mind; after three months of speaking nothing but Hellion, my throat feels like I've been gargling roofing nails.
She says, "What you said to Buer, that was either very rude or very smart."
"The Devil gets to be both at once. It's in the handbook. Look it up."
"You caught everyone off guard. I've never heard you ever mention the Kissi before. Everyone admires how you handled them, you know. Getting others to do your killing is the most elegant way and you did it masterfully."
In another time and place I'd think she was being sarcastic, but I know she's not. She gets off on what I did. Why not? I brought the Kissi down here like we were allies, trapped them between Heaven's armies and Hell's legions, and wiped out most of them in one big royal rumble. That kind of treachery covers pretty much all of the Seven Noble Virtues. Her making goo-goo eyes at me for it makes me want to punch Marchosias very hard and often.
I say, "I'm usually more of a hands-on guy when it comes to killing."
"Of course you are. Sandman Slim has an ocean of blood on his hands. 'The monster who kills monsters,' isn't that what they called you in the arena? Now here you are, Lucifer, the greatest monster of them all. Maybe God really does have a sense of humor."
Her eyes shine when she says it. She loves being this close to the grand marshal of the Underworld parade. She'd like to have Lucifer's power but the thought of it scares her stupid, which makes it that much more exciting. This is why she stays behind. An intimate tete-a-tete with Satan. It's not getting her any brownie points with me and she knows it, but it makes the rest of the Council nervous and that makes it fun for her.
I take a long drag on the Malediction like maybe it'll start a tornado and carry me back home like Dorothy.
"All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
She looks at me and then glances at Wild Bill, not getting the joke. Bill ignores her and wipes down another glass.
"While I have you here, you've never told me why you chose me for your council. Or why you decided to create it. Lucifer — "
"The former Lucifer, you mean," I cut her off. "I'm Lucifer now. That other guy goes by Samael these days and he's home crashing with Daddy."
"Pardon me. Samael would never have considered working with anyone but his most trusted generals."
"Maybe if he'd asked more questions, this place wouldn't look like a second-rate Hiroshima. I don't have a problem with getting advice from smart people. And to answer your question, Samael recommended you."
She glances over her shoulder. The others are all outside. She's enjoying making them wait.
I say, "Your English is getting better."
"So is your Hellion. You've lost most of your accent."
"Someone told me I sounded like a hick."
"Not that bad. But you've become more dignified, in every way."
"I'll have to watch that. Dignity gives me gas."
Over by the door of the bar someone says, "Are you ready to go, Lucifer?"
It's a military cop named Vetis. He runs my security squad. He's a mother-hen pain in my ass but he's an experienced vet with his shit wired tight. He looks like Eliot Ness if Eliot Ness had a horse skull for a head.
"I'm staying but the lady will be right out."
Vetis goes outside. I nod toward the door.
"Your caravan is waiting."
Marchosias straightens to leave but doesn't move.
"You never come back with us. Why not ride in my limousine with me? It's very comfortable and roomy."
All the councilors travel in individual limos and vans between a dozen guard vehicles. It's like the president, the pope, and Madonna cruising town with a company of demon Wyatt Earps riding shotgun.
"Thanks but I have my own way back."
"You don't trust me."
She picks up her bag.
"Anyway, I like to clear my head after a meeting."
"Of course. I'll see you in three days."
"It's a date."
She slides a leather satchel over her shoulder. Rumor is that the leather is the tanned skin of an old political opponent.
I call after her.
"One more thing. I know one of you is gunning for me. When I find out who it is, I'm going to stuff their skull with skyrockets and set them off like the Fourth of July. Feel free to tell the others. Or keep it to yourself. You're smart. You'll know which is best."
She raises her eyebrows slightly. This time in amusement. She gives me a brief smile and walks out.
Of course she's not going to tell the others. Just like none of them said a word to her when I told them.
"That got her attention," says Bill.
"I already had her attention. She won't tell the others, but I want to see if she tells anyone else."
Bill shakes his head.
"She's not going to tell a soul. She's got a knife tucked up that right sleeve, you know."
"Everyone knows. That's what it's there for."
When Bill starts to pour me another drink, I put my hand over the glass.
"How do you know she's not the one making a play for you?"
"I don't. I don't know about any of them. I'm just stirring the pot and waiting for something interesting to happen."
"That sounds like putting your boot up the ass of fate, and that's a mite dangerous."
I shrug and puff on the Malediction.
"I'm locked in a loony bin with God's worst brats. I have to do something. It's screw with them or get a dog, and I'm not a dog person."
Bill nods. His eyes go soft like they do when he remembers his life before he took a bullet in the back.
"I'm not much for dogs either. I saw an elephant in a tent show once and thought it might be a fine thing to have one of them. Ride up on some Abilene rowdies atop that walking gray mountain and take bets on which of them shits himself first. Yes sir, I'd prefer an elephant to a dog any day."
I push away from the bar and get up.
"Look for a big box and a ton of peanuts on your birthday, Bill."
He hands me the leather jacket and helmet I keep behind the bar during meetings. Let the rest of the Council ride though town like Caesar's army. I'll take my bike down and do a flat-out burn all the way to the palace. Yes, I have a palace. I'm a rich, pampered prince and politician. I'm everything I ever hated.
I slip on the jacket and put on my gloves. Bill watches me out of the corner of his eye, pretending to wipe down the bar. My prosthetic hand and arm are a beautiful horror. A weird combination of organic and inorganic. Like something someone pried off a robot insect. The Terminator meets the Fly. I look at Bill. He nods at my hand.
"Seeing that thing disappear always puts me in a pleasant mood. No offense, but I keep waiting for it to creep over here and strangle me with my own damn bar rag."
"You have my permission to shoot it if it does."
"Good 'cause I wasn't going to take the time to ask."
I grab a handful of the drytt-egg crackers, pop a few in my mouth, and put the rest in my jacket pocket.
"Keep your ears open for me."
"I always do," says Wild Bill.
I go out through the rear exit. The motorcycle is parked out back, covered with the dirtiest, shittiest tarp in Hell. No one is ever going to look under it.
They don't exactly have a lot of stock motorcycles Downtown, so I had some of the local engineers build me a 1965 Electra Glide. I'll give the local boys and girls credit. They did their best, but it's a lot more Hellion than Harley. It's built like a mechanical bull covered in plate armor. The handlebars taper to points like they'd be happier on a longhorn's head. The exhaust belches dragon fire and the panhead engine is so hypercharged I can get it glowing cherry red on a long straightaway. There's no speedometer, so I don't know how fast that is, but I'm pretty sure I'm leaving a few land-speed records in the dust.
I swing my leg over the bike and kick it to life. I always put on my helmet last. It's the story of my life that I had to come to Hell to start wearing a helmet. Back in L.A., Saint James, my angel half, hated that I rode bareheaded. All I had to worry about back home was cops. Here it's the paparazzi. I like my solo rides and don't want the rabble to know about them. They give me a chance to blow off steam. Plus, I get to see Pandemonium at street level without flunkies or political suck-ups telling me what they think I want to hear.
I gun the bike and swing into the street. I don't worry about traffic. The streets are still a bombed-out wreck in this part of town, so most of the traffic is trucks hauling soldiers and supplies. Almost everyone else is on foot. I rev the engine, turn, and blast down a side street, taking the long way back to the palace.
Block after block, streets are buckled and houses are knocked off their foundations. But now there's food in the markets and the burning buildings aren't the only lights in the streets. I steer around a panel truck where Hellion soldiers are dragging cuffed and shackled looters. The troops aren't gentle about it. The looters are a bloody limping mess. Fuck 'em.
It wasn't always like this Downtown. I spent eleven years trapped down here, so I got to know the place pretty well. But a mortal named Mason Faim and Lucifer's generals (Semyazah was the lone holdout) tried to start a war with Heaven. Bad idea. The city burned. The sky turned black. Earthquakes opened sinkholes that swallowed whole neighborhoods.
When I look at Hell, I see L.A. It's a funny kind of magic. A Convergence. An image of each place dropped over the other. It's weird but it makes it easier for me to get around. Hellions still see old Hell. They don't need a Fatburger at 2 a.m. If they did maybe they wouldn't be such 24/7 dicks.
I'm going slow putting the place back together, but I can't stall forever. I want to keep these devils, plotters, and knife-in-the-back bastards busy. But sooner or later they're going to finish rebuilding. Until then all I want is to not get assassinated and to figure a way back to the real L.A. and back to Candy, a girl I left behind.
There's a bottleneck up ahead where two collapsed buildings cover most of the street, their roofs almost touching. There's a slight incline between the buildings and smooth road beyond. If I hit it just right, I can get the bike airborne a few yards on the other side. I twist the throttle and I'm doing around fifty when I hit the incline.
They're waiting for me at the top. Two of them.
The one of the right catches me across the chest with piece of rebar, and instead of a nice smooth flight on the back of the bike, I'm airborne all by myself, doing a backflip onto the asphalt.
I slam down on my gut and look up just as the second attacker gets to work. He runs up a big pile of rubble and launches himself off at me, an armored gorilla in SWAT-team coveralls and hobnail boots. I roll onto my back and try to get up.
He lands feetfirst on me like he thinks if he stomps hard enough he'll get wine. Hobnails isn't finished yet. He kicks me in the side. Long, careful, well-aimed kicks. This guy's had practice. A second later the guy with the rebar joins him in clog-dancing on my ribs. This isn't the quiet ride home I'd hoped for.
If I was a normal mortal, I'd be dead by now or at least a four-way gimp after Hobnails landed on me and snapped my spine. But I'm not a normal mortal and this isn't a normal situation. I'm hard to kill any day of the week and I'm even harder now that I have on Lucifer's armor under my shirt.
One of the goons has gotten bored with kicking and is looking around for something to drop on me. These assholes are having more fun than if they were at Chuck E. Cheese.
I push myself up onto my knees. Going to throw some crazy monkey-style Bruce Lee moves on these guys. Any second now. Soon.
But I just kneel there, letting the two idiots kick me. My mind goes blank. I have the sick, dizzy feeling that I forgot something. There's something I'm supposed to be doing or somewhere else I'm supposed to be. It feels like there's something crawling around behind my eyes. Maybe I'm just supposed to wait until these guys kick the living shit out of me.
Then the feeling is gone. It must have lasted all of ten seconds, but it was long enough for Hobnail and his friend to knock me back on my face. I reach into my pocket, get a handful of the drytt crackers, and throw them. The kicking stops. I push myself back onto my knees.
You know how young vampires without any training can be so twitchy and compulsive they have to organize anything you throw in front of them? The same goes for brain-dead Hellions, and these two don't look like they could run the fryer at McDonald's. When I tossed the crackers, they went for them like zombies after a one-legged blind man.
After all the body shots, I have to crawl a few feet before I can get up. I take off my helmet and set it on the pavement, getting out the black bone blade I always keep hidden in the waistband of my pants.
The Glimmer Twins are crouched on the street, pushing the eggs into neat piles. I wrap my arm around Hobnail's head, pull it back, and drag the blade across his throat. Black Hellion blood oozes down over my arm like leaking engine oil. His friend is concentrating so hard on stacking eggs that he doesn't see the blade until the last minute. I swing and his head pops off and rolls away, coming to rest against my helmet.
I go over and look at it like maybe I'm going to have the head stuffed and mounted like a big-mouth bass. I'm waiting for a sound. And there it is. The tiniest tick as a boot comes down on a pebble behind me. I spin and toss the head like a scaly bowling ball. Hellion assassination teams usually work in threes. Seeing as how the first two had the combined IQ of waffle batter, whoever is left has to be the squad leader.
He's taller than the other two, with the same not-bright lizard look you see in a lot of the legion's grunts. His SWAT body armor is heavier than the others', so the head just knocks him off balance for a second. He has a Glock strapped to his hip, but he's making flashy fighting moves in the air with a couple of nasty-looking serrated long swords. He could go for the gun, but he wants to make himself a name by slicing up Lucifer old school. Fucking devils and their fucking rituals.
I take a step back like I'm dazzled by his video-game moves. I fought in the arena down here for years. Swords hurt, but after you get cut a few hundred times, they're about as scary as road rash. Meaning they're something to avoid if you can but they're nothing to lose sleep over. Still, they hurt and I'm already hurt. And I lost my snack.
He takes the bait and charges. I step forward and catch his wrist with my forearm, deflecting the blade as it comes down at my head. Now that I'm in striking range, the textbook step two of an attack like this is simple: while your opponent is busy blocking your downward attack, you step in with a forward thrust of your second blade, skewering him like a cocktail wiener. The only problem with it is that every sentient being in the universe knows it and is ready for it. Instead of attacking, I let him plant a powerful shot in my solar plexus. His blade kicks sparks when it hits the armor and snaps in two. It startles him long enough for me to move a couple of steps and plant a foot behind my helmet on the ground.
When he comes back at me, I kick, sending the helmet into his face like a cannonball. I hear bones crunch and he spins around before landing on his face. I stand over him, kick the sword out of his hand, and shove his pistol in my pocket. I grab him by the lapels, spin and slam him headfirst into a pile of rubble. While he's busy trying to breathe through a crushed face, I rifle his dead friends' pockets. Empty. They don't even have dog tags, so I can't tell what part of the legion they're from.
Their boots and body armor are the heavy kind issued to frontline infantry who are basically cannon fodder. But since the war with Heaven is over, clowns like this aren't supposed to have time on their hands. Avoiding this kind of fucking mess is why I'm going slow with the rebuilding. Why aren't these pricks with their rest of the grunts, clearing rubble or rebuilding roads? Did they think if they killed me, one of them would be the new Lucifer? Maybe they were going to share the title — Moe, Larry, and Curly, the Three Infernal Stooges. But not one of this bunch had the imagination or balls to try something like that on their own. Someone put them up to it. The one I clocked with the helmet is coming around, so I go back to him.
I pick up the unbroken long sword and press it against his throat.
"You awake, sunshine?"
He grunts. Shakes his head, trying to clear it.
"Who sent you?"
"No one. I don't need permission to slaughter mortals."
I lean forward, using my weight to press the tip of the sword into him until he bleeds.
"This mortal signs your paychecks, ugly. Guess who's not getting a Christmas bonus?"
He grimaces and spits.
"A mortal will never be the true Lucifer. Mortals are spirits, good for nothing but torture and chores you could teach an animal. I curse you and the mortal Mason Faim. At least he promised us Heaven. What have you given us?"
"I haven't cut off your arms and legs and made you into a throw pillow. How's that?"
He tenses. Even with the sword at his throat he wants to lunge at me. This guy is the real deal. A true believer. His type built Auschwitz and had lynching parties back home. Who knows what games he and his friends are playing with souls down here?
I take the sword away from his throat and smack his mangled face with the broad side. He groans and doubles over. Lucky bastard. I'd like to being lying down groaning too. My bruised ribs hurt. I toss both of his swords into the nearby sinkhole.
"You still haven't answered my question. Who sent you here?"
He catches his breath and says, "We came on our own to kill the false Lord of Perdition."
I grab his head and press back into the rubble. I've always been good at telling when people are lying, but Lucifer can see things I can't and the armor gives me with bits and pieces of his powers. It's mostly sideshow-level tricks so far but I can tell if someone is wearing a glamour to conceal themselves or if they've been hexed. I look all the way to the back of the assassin's eyes. There's a fluttering inside, like a microscopic strobe light. That's it. He's hexed. Someone sent him and his friends out hunting for me and erased their memories so the fuckwits would think it was their idea. I let go of him and sit above him on the rubble.
"What's your name?"
He looks at me hard. He really hates being questioned by a mortal.
I could take Ukobach back to the palace, hand him over to the witches, and let them take his mind apart. They might be able to find something useful inside, but I'm not sure about this guy. Whoever picked these three chose them because they didn't have an overabundance of brain cells. With an intelligent Hellion or human, even after a memory wipe there's usually some residual impressions left. Sometimes you can find it if you dig deep enough and aren't worried about killing them or leaving them a vegetable. But with the power of the hex I saw in Ukobach's eyes, there isn't going to be anything useful inside him. I can't throw him in the asylum or jail. I'm Lucifer, after all. Whoever sent him needs a statement.
"Okay, Ukobach, here's where things stand. You ambushed me and you blew it. Your friends are dead and I don't think you're much use for information. Plus, your goddamn sword ripped my jacket."
He stares at me.
"I'll make it simple. I can kill you now or I can let you live, but it's going to hurt. You choose."
Ukobach shifts his weight. He wants to take one last kamikaze shot at me. I finger the rip in my jacket sleeve. It's not too bad. I can probably get it fixed. I'm kind of hard on clothes. It's all the stabbing and shooting.
"I'd kill you and every mortal in the universe if I could," he rasps. "When your souls reached Hell, I'd spend eternity weaving your guts into tapestries of glorious agony and hang them from every wall and parapet in Pandemonium."
"If wishes were horses we'd all have shit on our boots. Choose, Chuck. A quiet death or a messy life."
"I choose life. Any chance to return and kill you for murdering my comrades is worth whatever feeble punishment a mortal can muster."
"I thought so. If I were you, I might have gone the other way."
He kicks low, trying to sweep my ankle. I take his Glock from my pocket and shoot him in the knee. He howls and rolls around, holding his leg. It gives him something to do while I get to work.
I cut six long strips of material from Hobnail's overalls. I use four around his and his dead friends' wrists. Then I get the Harley on its wheels and roll it back so I can tie the dead men to the rear shocks. I take the last two strips and tie Ukobach too. He kicks at me and swings his fists as I haul him to the bike, but when he moves, it hurts him more than it does me. I loop my arm through the front of the helmet so I can hold it while I ride. There's no sense in hiding who I am now. Before I get on the bike, I look down at Ukobach.
"This isn't the kind of thing I normally do, you understand. Back home I'm a bad person but I'm not this kind of bad. Before he left, Samael told me I was going to have to be ruthless to survive, and he was right. People have to understand that if you dance with the Devil you better not step on his toes."
Ukobach looks up at me. I don't know if it's pain or fear or general boneheadedness but he has no idea what I'm saying. I get on the bike and start the engine.
"And away we go."
The bike creeps forward like it wants to tip over in quicksand. Even a Hellion motorcycle isn't geared to drag three full-grown bodies behind it. I give the bike some throttle. It straightens and moves forward. Slowly at first, but it picks up speed as I twist the throttle. When it feels stable, I kick the bike hard and we shoot down Santa Monica Boulevard to the palace. I don't turn around. I don't want to see what it looks like behind me.
The closer we get to Beverly Hills, the more Hellions there are on the street. They stare and point as I cruise by. I'm tempted to stop and make a joke about how this is how I always tenderize meat, but I keep rolling without meeting any of their eyes. I don't have to. Seeing their ruler covered in blood and dirt, hauling a few hundred pounds of bleeding bologna behind him, is all they need. The story will be all over town in an hour. By tomorrow there will be rumors that it wasn't three. It'll be a dozen men. Fifty. I killed them with a bitch slap and dragged them with my pinkie.
The guards around the palace see me coming and step out of the way like the Red Sea parting for Charlton Heston. I stop the bike by the palace lawn, heel down the kickstand, and get off. A hundred Hellion soldiers watch me in dead silence.
I say, "This is what happens to assassins."
Soldiers crane their necks or climb onto jeeps and Unimogs for a better look at what I've hauled in.
An officer walks over. I don't know his name and I don't ask. He looks scared.
"I killed two where they jumped me. One was alive when I started back. Gibbet all three. If the live one is still alive after two days, let him go. Alive and skinless, he'll still be an object lesson for others."
"Yes, my lord," says the officer.
I start into the palace but turn after a few steps. I can't tell the condition of the bodies from here. There isn't much of a blood trail behind the bike. That's probably not a good sign for Ukobach. The guards stare at me.
"One of you take my bike into the garage and have it cleaned and polished." Not that I'm ever going to get to ride it again now that everyone knows what it looks like.
I head inside wondering what Candy would think about what I just did. I'm pretty sure she'd understand. She might even approve. She won't have to, though, because this goes on the long list of things I'm never going to tell her.
In this funny Convergence Hell, Lucifer's palace is the penthouse of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I'm not saying my digs are nice, but I am saying that my rooms make Versailles look like an outhouse.
Palace security guards ring the inside of the lobby. I give them a nod while tracking dirt, road grime, and blood across the carpets. I head straight for my private elevator. Slap my hand over a brass plate on the wall and the elevator doors roll open. Inside I touch another plate and whisper a Hellion hoodoo code. The car starts up, the pulley and wires humming overhead, gently rocking the compartment. It feels good. A Magic Fingers motel massage loosening the tension knots in my shoulders. I move my arms and legs. Rotate my head. The palms of my hands are scraped raw from the fall off the bike but there's no real damage to anything but my damned jacket.
The car stops at the penthouse. I touch the brass plate again and step out onto the cool polished marble floor. The penthouse is a sight. Like Architectural Digest climbed to the top of the hotel roof and shit out a Hollywood movie mogul's chateau. Windows everywhere. Expensive handmade furniture. Pricey art. And enough bedrooms and bathrooms for all the cowgirls in Montana to stop by for a pillow fight.
I kick off my boots by the elevator. Fuck the lobby carpet. Wash it. Burn it. I don't care. But I don't want blood all over my apartment.
It still feels funny to say, but I have to admit that after the three months the place is starting to feel like home. I used to run a video store in L.A. If I could move the inventory and a wall-size TV in here, I might go totally Howard Hughes and never leave. If I got Candy a day pass, I could definitely get used to the Hellion high life. Up here, surrounded by tinted glass and silk-covered furniture, I'm Sinatra with horns and Pandemonium is my boneyard Vegas.
I go to the bedroom and glance at the peepers I've scattered around the apartment. None are twitching and nothing looks out of place. I can relax. The truth is, I'm less worried about getting into another fight than I am about snoops. I need one place in Hell where I don't have to look over my shoulder 24/7.
In the bedroom I strip off my clothes, dropping them in a heap at the foot of the bed. The ripped jacket I ball up and throw into the closet. I could get it fixed but I'm goddamn Lucifer. I'll tell the tailors to run me off a new one.
I lock the bedroom door and run my hand over the top of the lintel. The protective runes I carved are still there. I get under a hot shower and stay there for a long time.
I might have gotten used to the apartment but I'll never get used to showering in Lucifer's armor. I never take the stuff off. The moment it's gone, I'm vulnerable to any kind of attack. Knife, hoodoo, or a squirrel with a zip gun. I know I look schizo soaping down in this Versace tuna can but I don't have to look at me.
When I'm done I pull on black suit pants, a silk T-shirt, and a hotel robe thick enough to stop bullets. The black blade goes in one pocket and Ukobach's gun in the other. Then over to the dresser for a quick check of the bottom drawer. There's the singularity, Mr. Muninn's secret weapon to restart the universe if Mason or I broke it. There's my na'at, my favorite weapon when I was fighting in the arena. And there's the little snub-nose .38 I brought with me from L.A. One bullet is missing from the cylinder. The one I tricked Mason Faim into blowing through his head three months ago. That's when Saint James, my angel half, took the key I need to leave Hell and left me stranded here. To tell the truth, I'm glad the goody-goody prick is out of my head. But I'd take him back in a second if it would get me the key.
The bedroom doors swing open and Brimborion walks in with a fistful of envelopes and messages. He's something else I never wanted in my life. A personal assistant, which is to say a professional asshole that knows more about me than I do.
"What did I tell you about barging in here without knocking?"
"If I didn't barge in, I'd never find you."
"That's the idea."
Brimborion looks fairly human except he's as skinny as a grasshopper, with limbs and fingers long enough to pluck a quarter from the bottom of a fifth of Jack. He dresses in dark high-collar suits like he fell out of a Dickens story right onto the stick up his ass. He also wears round wire-rim glasses. I think it's those glasses that really make me hate him. What a weird choice for an affectation. I mean, whoever heard of a nearsighted angel?
I say, "How did you even get in here?"
He rolls his eyes heavenward.
"You mean those pretty doodads you scratched above the doors? I'm your personal assistant. I need to be able to follow you anywhere."
He unbuttons his shirt and pulls out a heavy gold talisman hanging from a chain around his neck.
"I have a passkey. It opens any door in the palace no matter how many wards or enchantments are on it."
"Nice. Where can I get one?"
"I'm afraid this is the only one."
"Maybe I should take it."
"Feel free, my lord," he says. "And don't worry. I'll do my best to suppress the scandal."
"The one about how the Lord of the Underworld, the Archfiend, the Great Beast is afraid of a glorified secretary. I hate to think what your enemies would make of that."
I want to stack cinder blocks on this four-eyed fuckpop until he explodes. He opens his eyes a tiny bit wider behind the fake glass in his fake glasses and stares.
But the little prick has a point. Until I'm up to Samael's full strength, I don't want ambitious peasants storming the castle with pitchforks and torches.
I reach for the letters and messages, closing my hand around his. I squeeze. Not hard enough to break bone. Just enough to remind him I could if I wanted.
I let up and take my messages. He massages his fingers but doesn't say anything.
"Learn to knock and we can go back to being BFFs. Got it?"
"Of course, my lord."
He does a tiny bow and leaves.
I remember when I was out drinking with Vidocq in L.A. he introduced me to another old-time thief. He said the best way to deal with lock pickers is the simplest. You take all the furniture you can and stack it up so it's perfectly balanced against the top of the door. Anyone who tries to get in will get a dresser or a rocking chair on their head. If you want to fancy things up, you can add a bucket of lye dissolved in water. The real trick is remembering to tell the maid before she comes in the next morning.
I take the na'at out of the dresser and put it under the pillows at the head of the bed. Stacking furniture sounds like too much work.
I toss the messages in the fireplace. Infernal bureaucrats can kiss my ass.
I head down to the library.