Dante ValentineLilith Saintcrow
THE COMPLETE SERIES
Table of Contents
To Miriam and Devi, because they believed.
Working for the Devil
I keep my bargains.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
—Mephistopheles, by way of Marlowe
My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Monday. I’d just settled down to a long afternoon of watching the holovid soaps and doing a little divination, spreading the cards and runes out on the hank of blue silk I’d laid out, when there was a bashing on my door that shook the walls.
I turned over a card, my lacquered fingernails scraping. The amber ring on my left middle finger sparked. The Devil card pulsed, landing atop a pile of flat runestones. I hadn’t touched it. The card I turned over was blank.
“Interesting,” I said, gooseflesh rippling up my back. Then I hauled myself up off the red threadbare carpet and padded barefoot out into the hallway. My rings flashed, a drift of green sparks snapping and popping down my fingers. I shook them off, frowning.
The lines of Power wedded to my front door twirled uneasily. Something nasty was on my front step. I hitched up my jeans, then reached over and curled my fingers around the sword hanging on the wall. I lifted it down, chucked the blade free with my thumb against the guard.
The peephole in the middle of the door was black, no light spilling through. I didn’t bother looking. Instead, I touched the door, spreading the fingers of my right hand against smooth iron. My rings rang and vacillated, reading the flow of whatever was behind the door.
Oh, gods above and below, I thought. Whatever it is, it’s big.
Bracing myself for murder or a new job, I unlocked the door and stepped back, my sword half-drawn. The blue glow from Power-drenched steel lit up my front hall, glimmering against the white paint and the full-length mirror hung next to my coatrack. I waited.
The door creaked slowly open. Let’s have some mood music for effect, I thought sardonically, and prepared to sell myself dear if it was murder.
I can draw my sword in a little under a second and a half. Thankfully, there was no need to. I blinked.
Standing on my front step was a tall, spare, golden-skinned man dressed in black jeans and a long, black, Chinese-collared coat. The bright silver gun he held level to my chest was only slightly less disconcerting than the fact that his aura was cloaked in twisting black-diamond flames. He had dark hair cut short and laser-green eyes, a forgettable face and dreamy wide shoulders.
Great. A demon on my doorstep, I thought, and didn’t move. I barely even breathed.
“Danny Valentine?” he asked. Well, demanded, actually.
“Who wants to know?” I shot back, automatically. The silvery gun didn’t look like a plasgun, it looked like an old-fashioned 9mm.
“I wish to speak with Danny Valentine,” the demon enunciated clearly, “or I will kill you.”
“Come on in,” I said. “And put that thing away. Didn’t your mother ever teach you it was bad manners to wave a gun at a woman?”
“Who knows what a Necromance has guarding his door?” the demon replied. “Where is Danny Valentine?”
I heaved a mental sigh. “Come on in off my front porch,” I said. “I’m Danny Valentine, and you’re being really rude. If you’re going to try to kill me, get it over with. If you want to hire me, this is so the wrong way to go about it.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a demon look nonplussed before. He holstered his gun and stepped into my front hall, peeling through the layers of my warding, which parted obediently to let him through. When he stood in front of me, kicking the door shut with one booted foot, I had him calculated down to the last erg of Power.
This is not going to be fun, I thought. What is a Lord of Hell doing on my doorstep?
Well, no time like the present to ask. “What’s a Lord of Hell doing on my doorstep?” I asked.
“I have come to offer you a contract,” he said. “Or more precisely, to invite you to audience with the Prince, where he will present you with a contract. Fulfill this contract successfully, and you will be allowed to live with riches beyond your wildest dreams.” It didn’t sound like a rote speech.
I nodded. “And if I said I wasn’t interested?” I asked. “You know, I’m a busy girl. Raising the dead for a living is a high-demand skill nowadays.”
The demon regarded me for maybe twenty seconds before he grinned, and a cold sweat broke out all over my body. My nape prickled and my fingers twitched. The three wide scars on my back twitched uneasily.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me get my things, and I’ll be happy to attend His Gracious Princeship, yadda-yadda, bing-bong. Capice?”
He looked only slightly less amused, his thin grim face lit with a murderous smile. “Of course. You have twenty minutes.”
If I’d known what I was getting into, I would have asked for a few days. Like maybe the rest of my life.
The demon spent those twenty minutes in my living room, examining my bookshelves. At least, he appeared to be looking at the books when I came downstairs, shrugging my coat on. Abracadabra once called me “the Indiana Jones of the necromantic world,” high praise from the Spider of Saint City—if she meant it kindly. I liked to dress for just about any occasion.
So my working outfit consists of: a Trade Bargains microfiber shirt, dries quickly and sheds dirt with a simple brush-off; a pair of butter-soft broken-in jeans; scuffed engineer boots with worn heels; my messenger bag strapped diagonally across my torso; and an old explorer coat made for photojournalists in war zones, with plenty of pockets and Kevlar panels sewn in. I finished braiding my hair and tied it off with an elastic band as I stepped into the living room, now full of the smell of man and cologne as well as the entirely nonphysical smell of demon—a cross between burning cinnamon and heavy amber musk. “My literary collection seems to please you,” I said, maybe a little sardonically. My palms were sweating. My teeth wanted to chatter. “I don’t suppose you could give me any idea of what your Prince wants with me.”
He turned away from my bookshelves and shrugged. Demons shrug a lot. I suppose they think a lot of what humans do deserves nothing more than a shrug. “Great,” I muttered, and scooped up my athame and the little jar of blessed water from my fieldstone altar. My back prickled with fresh waves of gooseflesh. There’s a demon in my living room. He’s behind me. I have a demon behind me. Dammit, Danny, focus!
“It’s a little rude to bring blessed items before the Prince,” the demon told me.
I snorted. “It’s a little rude to point a gun in my face if you want me to work for you.” I passed my hand over my altar—no, nothing else. I crossed to the big oak armoire and started flipping through the drawers. I wish my hands would stop shaking.
“The Prince specifically requested you, and sent me to collect you. He said nothing about the finer points of human etiquette.” The demon regarded me with laser-green eyes. “There is some urgency attached to this situation.”
“Mmmh.” I waved a sweating, shaking hand over my shoulder. “Yeah. And if I walk out that door half-prepared I’m not going to do your Prince any good, am I?”
“You reek of fear,” he said quiet
“Well, I just had a gun shoved in my face by a Lord of Hell. I don’t think you’re the average imp-class demon that I very rarely deal with, boyo. And you’re telling me that the Devil wants my company.” I dug in the third drawer down and extracted my turquoise necklace, slipped it over my head, and dropped it down my shirt. At least I sound good, I thought, the lunatic urge to laugh rising up under my breastbone. I don’t sound like I’m shitting my pants with fright. Goody for me.
“The Prince wishes you for an audience,” he said.
I guess the Prince of Hell doesn’t like to be called the Devil. On any other day I might have found that funny. “So what do I call you?” I asked, casually enough.
“You may address me as Jaf,” he answered after a long crackling pause.
Shit, I thought. If he’d given me his Name I could have maybe used it. “Jaf,” however, might have been a joke or a nickname. Demons were tricky. “Nice to meet you, Jaf,” I said. “So how did you get stuck with messenger duty?”
“This is a sensitive situation.” He sounded just like a politician. I slipped the stiletto up my sleeve into its sheath, and turned to find him watching me. “Discretion would be wise.”
“I’m good at discretion,” I told him, settling my bag so that it hung right.
“You should practice more,” he replied, straight-faced.
I shrugged. “I suppose we’re not stopping for drinks on the way.”
“You are already late.”
It was like talking to a robot. I wished I’d studied more about demons at the Academy. It wasn’t like them to carry guns. I racked my brains, trying to think of any armed demon I’d heard of.
None sprang to mind. Of course, I was no Magi, I had no truck with demons. Only the dead.
I carried my sword into the front hall and waited for him. “You go out first,” I said. “I’ve got to close up the house.”
He nodded and brushed past me. The smell of demon washed over me—it would start to dye the air in a confined space, the psychic equivalent of static. I followed him out my front door, snapping my house shields closed out of long habit, the Power shifting and closing like an airlock in an old B movie. Rain flashed and jittered down, smashed into the porch roof and the paved walk. The garden bowed and nodded under the water.
I followed the demon down my front walk. The rain didn’t touch him—then again, how would I have noticed, his hair was so dark it looked wet anyway. And his long, dark, high-collared coat, too. My boots made a wet shushing sound against the pavement. I thought about dashing back for the dubious safety of my house.
The demon glanced over his shoulder, a flash of green eyes in the rain. “Follow me,” he said.
“Like I have another option?” I spread my hands a little, indicating the rain. “If you don’t mind, it’s awful wet out here. I’d hate to catch pneumonia and sneeze all over His Majesty.”
He set off down my street. I glanced around. No visible car. Was I expected to walk to Hell?
The demon walked up to the end of the block and turned left, letting me trot behind him. Apparently I was expected to hoof it.
Carrying a sword on the subway does tend to give you a certain amount of space, even on crowded hovertrains. I’m an accredited and tattooed Necromance, capable of carrying anything short of an assault rifle on the streets and allowed edged metal in transports. Spending the thirty thousand credits for testing and accreditation at the Academy had been the best step I’d ever taken for personal safety.
Although passing the final Test had turned a few of my hairs white. There weren’t many accredited Necromances around.
The demon also granted me a fair amount of space. Although none of the normals could really tell what he was, they still gave him a wide berth. Normals can’t see psychic power and energy shifts, but they feel it if it’s strong enough, like a cold draft.
As soon as we started down the steps into the underground, Jaf dropped back until he was walking right next to me, indicating which stile to walk through and dropping two old-fashioned tokens in. I suppressed the shiver that caused—demons didn’t usually pay for anything. What the bloody blue blazes was going on?
We got on the southbound train, the press of the crowd soft and choking against my mental borders. My knuckles were white, my fingers rigid around the scabbard. The demon stood slightly behind me, my back prickling with the thought—he could slip a knife between my ribs and leave me here, gods protect me. The whine of antigrav settled into my back teeth as the retrofitted train slid forward on its reactive-greased rails, the antigrav giving every bump a queer floating sensation.
Whispers and mutters filled the car. One little blonde girl in a school uniform stared at my face. She was probably examining the tattoo on my left cheek, a twisted caduceus with a flashing emerald set at the top. An emerald was the mark of a Necromance—as if anyone could have missed the sword. I smiled at her and she smiled back, her blue eyes twinkling. Her whey-faced mother, loaded down with shopping bags, saw this and gasped, hugging her child into her side a little harder than was absolutely necessary.
The smile dropped from my face.
The demon bumped me as the train bulleted around a bend. I jumped nervously, would have sidled away if the crowd had allowed. As it was, I accidentally elbowed an older woman with a crackling plastic bag, who let out an undignified squeak.
This is why I never take public transportation, I thought, and smiled an apology. The woman turned pale under her gray coif, coughed, and looked away.
I sighed, the smile again falling from my face. I don’t know why I even try. They don’t see anything but my tat anyway.
Normals feared psions regardless—there was an atavistic fear that we were all reading normal minds and laughing at them, preparing some nefarious plot to make them our mental slaves. The tats and accreditation were supposed to defray that by making psions visible and instituting tight controls over who could charge for psychic services—but all it did was make us more vulnerable to hatred. Normals didn’t understand that for us, dipping into their brains was like taking a bath in a sewer. It took a serious emergency before a psi would read a normal’s mind. The Parapsychic Act had stopped psions from being bought and sold like cattle, but it did nothing to stop the hate. And the fear, which fed the hate. And so on.
Six stops later I was heartily tired of people jamming into the subway car, seeing me, and beating a hasty retreat. Another three stops after that the car was mostly empty, since we had passed rapidly out of downtown. The little girl held her mother’s hand and still stared at me, and there was a group of young toughs on the other end of the car, sallow and muttering in the fluorescent lights. I stood, my right arm wrapped around a pole to keep my hand free to draw if I had to. I hated sitting down in germ-laden subway seats.
“The next stop,” Jaf-the-demon said. I nodded. He still stood very close to me, the smell of demon overpowering the canned air and effluvia of the subways. I glanced down at the end of the car and saw that the young men were elbowing each other and whispering.
Oh, great. It looked like another street tough was going to find out whether or not my blade was just for show. I’d never understood Necromances who carry only ceremonial steel to use during apparitions. If you’re allowed to carry steel, you should know how to use it. Then again, most Necromances didn’t do mercenary work, they just lived in shitty little apartments until they paid off their accreditation fees and then started trying to buy a house. Me? I decided to take the quicker way. As usual.
One of them got to his feet and stamped down the central aisle. The little girl’s mother, a statuesque brunette in nurse’s scrubs and Nikesi sneakers, her three plastic bags rustling, pulled the little girl into her side again as he passed.
The pimpled young man jolted to a stop right in front of me. He didn’t smell like Chill or hash, which was a good thing; a street tough hyped on Chill would make the situation rapidly unbe
arable. On the other hand, if he was stone-cold sober and still this stupid—“Hey, pretty baby,” he said, his eyes skittering from my feet to my breasts to my cheek and then back to my breasts, “Wassup?”
“Nothing,” I replied, pitching my voice low and neutral.
“You got a blade,” he said. “You licensed to carry that, sugar?”
I tilted my head slightly, presenting my cheek. The emerald would be glinting and winking under the harsh lights. “You bet I am,” I said. “And I even know how to use it. So go trundle back to your friends, Popsicle.”
His wet fishmouth worked a little, stunned. Then he reached for his waistband.
I had a split second to decide if he was armed or just trying to start some trouble. I never got to make the decision, though, because the demon stepped past me, bumping me aside, and smacked the youngster. It was an open-handed backhand strike, not meaning to do any real damage, but it still tossed the kid to the other end of the subway car, back into the clutch of teen toughs.
I sighed. “Fuck.” I let go of the pole as soon as I regained my balance. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Then one of the punk’s friends pulled out a Transom 987 projectile gun, and I crouched for nonexistent cover. The demon moved, stepping past me, and I watched events come to their foregone conclusion.
The kids boiled up from their seats, one of them yanking their injured, pimply-faced friend to his feet. They were all wearing black denim jackets and green bandannas—yet another minigang.
The demon blinked across intervening space and slapped the illegal (if you weren’t accredited or a police officer) gun out of the boy’s hand, sent it skittering against the floor. The nurse covered her daughter’s ear with her hand, staring, her mouth agape. I moved forward, coming to my feet, my sword singing free of the sheath, and slid myself in between them and the gang, where the demon had broken one boy’s arm and was now in the process of holding the gunner up by his throat, shaking him as negligently as a cat might shake a mouse.