Ralgath wants nothing more than to work as a crossroads demon. Too bad he botched his first assignment when a very sexy mortal turned the tables on him. Now he has one chance to get his job back: find two demons who vanished in the human realm. Unfortunately, doing so means teaming up with Chess—the very mortal who cost Ralgath his job in the first place.
Chess has spent the last three years using their infernally granted powers to do good. But now Ralgath has a new offer for them: help him find the missing demons, and he’ll return Chess’s soul.
After their last encounter, Chess is the last person Ralgath should be interested in. But the passion that initially drew them together still burns hotter than the flames of the Underworld. Chess claims they never meant to hurt Ralgath, but can Ralgath afford to trust them? Because while Ralgath may have Chess’s soul, he’s increasingly certain Chess owns his heart.
RALGATH APPEARED in a perfectly timed flash of smoke and flame, accompanied by just a hint of brimstone. Not too much—the stink of sulfur would never come out of his hair otherwise. He’d learned that the hard way during his apprenticeship.
He manifested with his back to the mortal who’d called him to the crossroads—purely for dramatic effect, of course. Let the human see him framed by the sinister light of the moon as it rose over the swamp. It would establish the mood and give Ralgath a chance to take a deep breath or two.
His first day on the job as a crossroads demon. His first solo contract. It was going to be a memory he’d cherish forever.
“You have summoned me, mortal,” he said. He put a bit of infernal power into his voice, so it echoed ominously through the trees. Perfect. “I will give you whatever you seek… in return for your immortal soul.”
Ralgath spun on the last words, and his cape swirled around him. He intended to fix the mortal with a dangerous-yet-sexy look that would further establish his dominance. Getting the upper hand to begin with was critical to these sorts of negotiations.
Instead he found himself gaping.
The human looked as wildly out of place as possible on the dirt roads that bisected the swamp. Their car was all wrong, to start with. Ralgath didn’t know enough about human vehicles to guess any details, only that it certainly looked big and powerful. Convertible.
And screaming, shocking pink.
Not powder-puff, not even blush. It was a pink that grabbed you by the eyeballs and demanded you pay attention.
The vanity plate read NBINARY, beside a THEY/THEM bumper sticker.
As for the mortal themself….
Ralgath wasn’t certain where to rest his eyes. On the flowing hair twisted into a braid? The light brown skin? The spaghetti-strap top with a glitter rainbow on the front?
Definitely not on the tight, tight pants that didn’t leave much to the imagination.
A slow grin settled over the mortal’s firm lips. “Nice to meet you.” Their southern accent softened the edges of the words into a languid drawl: Nice ta meet ya. “Name’s Chesapeake Richards. But you can call me Chess, sugar.”
Ralgath realized he was staring. He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his mouth and tried to ignore the fact that his neatly pressed slacks were starting to feel tight. “Chess,” he repeated. Damn, he’d forgotten to use his ominous voice already. He cleared his throat and tried to sound more impressive. “Tell me what dark desire you have summoned me to fulfill.”
Oh, gods below. That sounded… not at all how he intended it.
Ralgath’s face burned, and he hoped his dark cheeks didn’t show enough of a blush for anyone without heat vision to notice.
The grin on Chess’s mouth widened, and they ran their gaze up and down Ralgath’s form far too deliberately to miss. Ralgath knew he looked good—style was part of what being a crossroads demon was all about. An old-fashioned suit of cream linen, expertly tailored to his body, and a red tie chosen to match the color of both his eyes and of the diminutive horns peeking out of his thick black hair. The cape was lined with the same red, just to make sure his silhouette stood out. He wasn’t the tallest crossroads demon, but his broad shoulders and trim hips had caught the eye of more than one Underworld denizen.
Still, he never expected to be so blatantly admired. He wasn’t an incubus, after all.
“Well,” Chess said. They leaned back against the trunk of their car, showing off those long legs as they did so. “I can think of several desires I’d like fulfilled, now that you mention it.”
This wasn’t going according to the training scenarios.
Training. Yes. He needed to fall back on his training, that was all. With a flash of fire, Ralgath produced a scroll and a quill. Absurdly out of date, but it would never do to ask a mortal to use their finger to sign a digital screen. Where would the blood go?
“I can offer you much,” he said. “Riches. Fame.” There was already a bit too much heat in the air between them, so he left out the usual offer of sex. “Whatever you want. All you have to do is ask.”
A sultry smile played over Chess’s lips. “Oh, I mean to ask,” they murmured. “But you were talking about the contract.” They cocked their head. “I want to hunt monsters—to track them, fight them, and kill them.”
Ralgath blinked. He’d expected Chess to ask to be a supermodel, or maybe a world-famous actor. “You… why?”
He shut his mouth with a snap. Why was one of the questions his trainers had cautioned him against asking. Infernal Affairs conducted its business with a strict nondiscrimination hiring policy. It didn’t matter why some mortal wanted to sign over their soul, only that they did.
Chess gave him a long, searching look. Lords of Hell, they had thick eyelashes. “I want to make a difference,” they said at last, all the flirtatiousness stripped from their voice. “Protect those who can’t protect themselves.”
Oh. Oh dear. Had there been some sort of mix-up? Ralgath looked around quickly, but no, this was definitely right—two roads stretching off into the lonely swamp, midnight, new moon, graveyard dirt, black candle, and a picture of Chess grinning while flashing the peace sign.
They had definitely meant to summon a crossroads demon.
“What?” Chess straightened. “Is something wrong?”
“Not… exactly.” Ralgath coughed. “Umm. It’s just that my department doesn’t usually handle this sort of request.” He shuffled his feet, feeling unaccountably embarrassed. “If you want to be a supermodel, I can do that.”
Chess looked at him for a long moment and then patted the trunk beside them. “Come over here, sugar.”
“I… umm… all right.” Even though part of Ralgath wasn’t sure it was a good idea at all, the rest of him didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to get closer to the gorgeous mortal.
He leaned against the trunk beside Chess in what he hoped was a nonchalant pose. So near, the scent of sandalwood and musk teased his senses as it rose from Chess’s warm skin.
Chess turned to face him, plump lips curved into a small pout. “I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to be turned down. Are you sure you can’t help me out?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Ralgath said quickly. “It’s just that this sort of request is more the thing Celestial Affairs handles. They’re in charge of superheroes, Chosen Ones, that sort of thing.”
Of course, Celestial Affairs didn’t take requests. They did all the picking, and the ones they chose just had to live with it… which didn’t sound fair at all, now that Ralgath thought about it. At least Infernal Affairs offered mortals an option to say no.
Chess ran their hand up Ralgath’s arm. Even through the layers of his suit, the touch went right to Ralgath’s cock. A light sweat broke out over his brow.
“So it isn’t so much that you can’t…,” Chess prompted.
“Er, no. I mean, I could.” Ralgath swallowed heavily. “I just… I might get into trouble.”
Chess’s lips drew closer and closer to his own. “Maybe you ought to let trouble get into you.”
When ex-priest Jack finds a dead man nailed to his bed, he knows it’s going to be a bad night. He just has no idea how bad. Now he’s been recruited by his own personal demon to find the thieves who killed a man, kidnapped his family, and stole something of indescribable value from the demonic Math. To find answers he has to delve deep into the infernal underbelly of his town and face his own past. Jack’s been promised his soul back if he succeeds. As local cop Ben Ambrose risks his own soul by following too closely in Jack’s footsteps, and with a child’s life on the line, Jack has to decide if it’s a deal he’s willing to make.
PEOPLE HAVE always said that the world was going to Hell. In the end it didn’t have to. Hell came to us.
THERE WAS a dead man sleeping in Jack’s bed. A red smile had been cut into his throat, deep enough to flash a sliver of stained bone in his spine, and his hands had been nailed to the headboard with thick iron railroad spikes. Flies buzzed blood-drunk circles in the air or crawled, too glutted to fly, over the pillows.
Jack poured himself a whiskey. It didn’t do much for him—his body had gotten used to harsher spirits—but it felt like an appropriate response to the situation.
He was going to have to get new sheets.
The corpse hadn’t put itself there. Jack had seen suicides cut their throats before—you had to really mean it, but some did—but never drive spikes through their palms afterward. So it was either a frame-up or a message. Jack went to the window and twitched the curtain back to look out.
The moon was bright and silver, and the sidewalks were lit with steady fluorescence from the streetlights. If he blinked, he could see the crimson shadow of Hell’s flayed-skin moon laid along the road, and the streetlights flickered with the lucifer yellow of old gas lamps.
Demons liked gas. It had so many… connotations.
The bloom of the Witching Hour had nearly reached the city. One way or another, pretty soon he’d find out what the corpse was there for. Jack sat down on the floor on the far side of the room, his back braced against the mold-spotted wall and his legs stretched out in front him. Muscle memory made him drink the whiskey as he waited, even though it sat sour and unappealing in his gut—like a childhood friend at a school reunion, not nearly as much fun as you remembered and prone to repeat.
Self-hatred turned belly-up in Jack’s brain and cackled at him. School reunion, it mocked in a scratched-out voice, like if any of your schoolmates were alive, they’d ask you to come?
Jack snorted and tilted his glass in a mute toast and then tossed back the last of the disappointing liquor. He couldn’t argue with that. Last time he’d seen any of his old classmates….
He felt the bloom of the Witching Hour against his shoulders, a tug at old hooks buried down under the skin.
On the bed the corpse gagged on a mouthful of flies and sat up. Ichor dribbled black from the corners of its mouth, and Jack could see the tendons and muscle in the exposed throat work as it struggled to speak.
For a second it was a horror, and then it folded beauty around itself. Dirt-matted gray hair turned to silver, the coarse drink-raddled features sharpened, and the death-bloated corpse tightened. As before-and-after pictures for damnation went, it was effective.
Jack grimaced and looked away. It had been a long time since the demon picked that body to wear, a long time since he’d had to see that face and that mouth. His own fault. It never did any good to think about the past. When would he learn that?
“What the hell happened to my hands?” Math complained. His voice sounded like an opera singer had gargled with ground glass, like a boy had breathed too deeply of hellfire. “Why the fuck am I nailed to the bed?”
“Maybe I’ve gotten kinky,” Jack drawled as he drew his legs under him and pushed himself up the wall.
The eyes should have been blue. That’s how Jack always remembered them. Instead they were black and glossy like jet beads. The smile was the same, though—slow and uneven.
Math pulled his hands free. The spikes sounded wet as they tore through skin, and the fine bones snapped like dry, brittle sticks. For a second Jack saw the rot beneath, and then Math’s skin stitched back together over it.
“What do you want?” Jack asked.
Math smiled a devil’s sharp smile. “Does it matter?”
It should, but they both knew it didn’t. The hook in Jack belonged to Math, and so, by extension, did Jack. He’d do as he was told, like a trout strung from the river on a line, but he didn’t have to be enthusiastic about it.
And if he asked, that small, self-loathing voice in Jack’s head mocked him, what would you do for him if he just asked?
That was still too easy a question to answer. It was how Jack had gotten into this mess in the first place. He stayed where he slouched against the wall, empty glass dangled between his fingers, and waited.
Math gave in first. Patience was a virtue, and on principle, he had no truck with it. He climbed off the soiled bed and padded naked to the dresser. It hurt Jack not to look, to keep his eyes off the long, lean lines of tight muscle and pale honey skin, and it didn’t help. He knew Math’s body, and the ache of want settled in the cradle of Jack’s hips, the cramp of it tight in his thighs and the web of muscle across his stomach. His cock ached, tight and heavy as it stirred under his jeans, and he remembered how his hands had skimmed over the smooth curve of Math’s ass.
“Someone stole from me,” Math said as he pulled open drawers and searched roughly through Jack’s clothes. He left boxers crumpled on the floor and T-shirts piled on the candle-scarred walnut top of the dresser. Jack poked down under the thin buzz of the whiskey for irritation, but he couldn’t muster any. After all the times Math had rummaged through Jack’s soul, it seemed pointless to object to him touching a few old shirts. “I want what they took.”
Jack laughed, and Math turned to look at him. The tilt of his head cast a shadow on the shabby walls that didn’t quite match his flesh. Anger curled his mouth and tightened the pale, perfect skin over bones as sharp as his smile.
“I stole nothing,” Math said. “I took nothing that you didn’t give.”
“You kept it, though. Me.”
Math shrugged and grabbed a pair of jeans. He pulled them up over long legs and tucked his cock in behind the zip. “You dressed better when you were a priest.”
“I suppose I did.” Jack tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I was better when I was a priest.”
Math padded across the room, betrayed by the creak of old, winter-warped boards, and stood too close to Jack. His breath was sweet—cinnamon and first fall apples—but there was no warmth to the hand that brushed Jack’s face. There never had been. His skin had always been cool, even when Jack’s was slick with sweat and dizzy with high summer and… lust.
“Liar.” For a second Jack wasn’t sure what Math meant. They were both lies. He opened his eyes and looked up into coal-black eyes. Math’s fingers lingered on his jaw. “You were the same man then. You were just more… afraid.”
Jack stiffened his neck to resist the urge to tilt his face into Math’s cold hand, like a lover or a pet. He bared his teeth in a humorless smile.
“Not afraid enough,” he said.
Math laughed. There was something under his humor that pricked the back of Jack’s neck with atavistic fear, like the dread one felt when they heard the brittle crack of ice underfoot. It made him hard too. The fact that that was the least of his issues didn’t say much about his life.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Math said as he turned and grabbed a T-shirt from the bed. “You would still have wanted me more.”
It wasn’t that Jack spent a lot of time on his clothes. Interchangeable jeans, interchangeable T-shirts, the same biker boots and leather jacket, but as Math pulled the soft blue fabric over his head, the muscles in his back heavy as they moved under his skin, Jack realized it was his favorite. Or it was his favorite now. Math could make it hard to tell what direction your want ran—to him or from him.
“I guess we’ll never know,” Jack drawled. His mouth was dry with lust, so he grabbed the whiskey from the table and took a swig straight from the bottle to wash it away. It used to work better. “What do you need?”
Math looked at him and Jack felt a cold chill down his spine. It was never easy to forget what Math was but Jack could usually manage it for a while. Until moments like this when Math went to someplace past simply still and a caveman part of the brain freaked that a predator was considering Jack for dinner.
After a moment Math cocked his head slowly to the side. His black eyes grazed down Jack’s body from his shoulders to the hard, didn’t-give-a-fuck-about-good-ideas jut of his cock under his jeans. The tip of his tongue dabbed his lower lip.
“If only you’d been this accommodating when you were alive,” Math said as his gaze flicked back up to Jack’s face. “Now all you have that I need is a car.”
Jack winced. There was nothing like the truth to draw blood.
When Prodigal devils begin disappearing, Archie Fallmont, Viscount of Granville, finds himself in the unenviable position of being required to investigate. He has, after all, sold his soul to the handsome devil—and flashy dresser—Nimble Hobbs. Now Archie must join Nimble, sleuthing out the knotty secrets of noble families and an infamously exclusive club.
But as bullets fly and top hats fall, Archie begins to fear he and Nimble are up against much worse than just dreadful poetry recitals. Not only is a murderer on the loose, but Archie is growing disturbingly fond of having a devil around.
THE VAST majority of days came and went for Archibald Lycrugus Granville, Viscount Fallmont, with the genteel luxuries of fresh-cut flowers, boots polished to a razor gleam, suppers served on gilded plates, and night after night of card games, at which he never lost more than he won.
Butter upon bacon, as Nimble would describe it.
Archibald owned a stable of high-strung racehorses and retained a vast staff at each of his estates—though he rarely strayed from his elegant townhouse to visit either. From time to time, he pretended to woo the latest foreign heiress released into the staid waters of the peerage, and on occasion he indulged the expenses of a handsome artist or pretty actress.
Aside from the wide red shrapnel scar hidden beneath the snowy breast of his shirt, he appeared wholly unmarked by hardship. Fair, tan, and slim, he passed for a blithe youth even now at twenty-five.
His could’ve been a carefree life, except for the one day every third month when he descended to the pits of Hells Below and paid his devil.
March 21st, he woke before daybreak and slipped away from his attentive staff and current houseguests. He walked through the wan blue light, alongside herb girls and the last of the night patrolmen. Somewhere to the west, men called out the wonders of their coffee carts, and Archibald imagined that he could smell the aroma of the bitter black stuff rising on the clouds of steam that drifted from the river and blanketed the streets.
Sunlight burned through the fog by the time he reached the cold, clean room he rented at the Briar Hotel. There he exchanged his fashionable sable coat, his glossy top hat, and his silver pocket watch for the oilcloth cloak and worn cap common to the multitude of vagrant war veterans he’d once numbered among. He took up his bludgeon of an ironwood walking cane and traded his calfskin shoes for the battered army boots that had been far too big for him when he’d first been issued them at fifteen.
The brass mirror on the dresser door cast him in golden tones, but he certainly didn’t cut the figure of Viscount Fallmont anymore. Just plain old Archie now, and not so important that it would do anyone any good to mind where he went or what company he kept.
He departed the Briar by a back door and clipped through the bustling streets, leaving the realm of marble facades and large green parks far behind as he passed through blocks of modest brick businesses, and tramped on across the Crown Tower Bridge. Out in the less seemly section of the city, he picked his way through narrow alleys of cramped tenements, roaring factories, and sparkling gin palaces already filling up with shadows of human beings seeking bright oblivion. Here a few people knew him as Archie—an apple seller and a cat’s-meat man. They exchanged friendly greetings and a little news, then went their separate ways.
At last he reached the towering granite arch that rose over the worn stone stairs leading down to Hopetown—much more commonly known as Hells Below. Archie descended into the humid shadows slowly, admiring the ornate, soot-stained beauty of the mosaics decorating the walls on either side of him. Even through the ages of dirt and in the dim light, he made out bright shards of color and fantastically graceful figures. The mosaics supposedly chronicled the glorious day, hundreds of years ago, when the terrifying and beautiful armies of Hell had ascended to accept salvation and conversion at the hands of the church. Gleaming serpents and winged lions numbered among the burnished gold figures of fallen angels and towering warriors. Satanel, Leviathon, Sariel, Rimmon. Archie traced his finger over the surface of the inlaid metal-and-glass tiles, admiring the magnificence of those beings who’d once claimed dominion over lightning, raging seas, and the souls of the dead.
Not that anyone like them persisted in the vast ghetto beneath the sprawling city of Crowncross nowadays. Their descendants were called Prodigals, and most labored in dark, hard, and hazardous industries, where their natures supposedly lent them resistance to poisons, smoke, and exhaustion. Many weren’t too easy to recognize at a distance, though up close their yellow eyes, black fingernails, and jagged teeth tended to give them away, as did the citric scent of their sweat. But beyond those superficial traits, most Prodigals had as much in common with their preternatural ancestors as Archie had in common with Lord Bottham’s pet macaque. There were the exceptions, however.
As had become his habit, Archie paused, studying the mosaic. One devil’s familiar figure always held his attention. Broad and bronzed, with black hair and eyes as yellow as lemon drops. Even obscured within a procession of infernal dukes and damned princes, that single devil seemed to gaze back at Archie with an unreasonably amused and assured smirk. That was the face of a devil who knew he possessed rare and wondrous powers.
Archie could have sworn it was his own Nimble Hobbs, just about to say, “One day every three months, you’ve sworn to be mine, body and soul. So, haul your pampered ass down these dirty stairs and pay me what you owe me, Archie.”
There were far worse ways to pay a debt than in Nimble’s arms.
Archie took the steps by twos and soon reached the vast cavernous catacomb that spilled out beneath the city. It seemed to burrow deeper yearly, as more and more sewer pipes and gas lines invaded from the city above. Churches and storefronts leered out of the stone faces of the walls, and chipped gravel studded the tracks of mud that passed for streets. Yellow gaslight flickered from the occasional streetlight, and oily droplets of condensation dribbled from the pitted stone ceilings high overhead. The air smelled like grapefruit, piss, and burning shoes.
Archie drew his kerchief up over his nose and mouth before they started to burn. A pair of goggles offered his eyes some protection as he strolled along the wooden walkways, greeting crews of miners, dyers, tanners, and hatters as they passed on their way back from working long night shifts.
A gray-haired, legless Prodigal soldier on a street corner hailed him, and Archie stopped to hear a little of his story; he’d defended Sollum Hill as Archie had, but hadn’t been lucky enough to have Nimble stand over his bloody body, safeguarding him through the last night of cannon fire and cavalry charges.
“We held that damn hill, though, didn’t we?” The soldier’s yellow eyes looked as faded as old newsprint. He gazed past Archie into a remembered distance.
Archie nodded and shuddered as a droplet of condensation from the cave ceiling spat down the back of his neck. “You fellows in the Prodigal battalions won us the hill and the war,” he said, and that was the truth. The Nornians had possessed better steel, more deadly bombs, and enormous cavalries, but hadn’t had Prodigals. They’d been utterly unprepared for the monstrous ferocity and inhuman endurance of those few Prodigal forces.
“If it hadn’t been for your lot, we’d all be speaking Nornic, using paper for money, and eating dry fish for every meal,” Archie added.
A flush colored the old soldier’s sallow cheeks. He studied Archie. “You must have been one of them infants they conscripted to drive the guns and carry the silver crosses. You kiddies did right by us, hauling up fresh water and ammunition.”
“Third Children’s Brigade.” Archie managed a smile, though the memories made his skin feel cold as clay slip. He’d not been called up in a lottery, like so many of the Prodigal children who’d been taken from their weeping parents. No, his uncle had handed him and his brother over, like pennies proudly tossed into a collection plate.
“Rifleman in the Fifth, me.” The soldier scratched at the stump of his left leg, then glanced away to glower at a fat black rat. He picked up a pebble and flung it hard enough to stun the rodent.
While the soldier appeared distracted, Archie slipped a generous contribution into his beggar’s canteen—enough to keep him through this year at least. Then he wished the man a good day and went on his way, up the wooden walkways and over the slate roof of the Blessed Medicine Distillery and through the doors of Mrs. Mary Molly’s Boarding House.
Inside the warm, well-lit establishment, Nimble stood strangling a plump little man dressed in a priest’s frock coat.
Asuka Kawashima is a man without dreams.
Nightmares plague humanity and cross into the waking world—chasing after their dreamers and transforming them into hideous monsters that haunt New York City at night. When Asuka is faced with the choice between dying or selling his soul to the Devil, he offers it in exchange for the chance to continue protecting people. But the Devil is sly, and while he takes Asuka’s ability to dream, making him immune to nightmares, it also removed Asuka’s abstract sense of dreaming. Now life is gray, hopeless, and without wishes.
A chance meeting five years later leads Asuka to Merrick Grace, a man who, despite the dismal world around them, still believes there will be a day when monsters cease to exist. When the Devil reappears, asking for a favor in return for his soul, Asuka must make another difficult decision…
If the chance to dream again—to share a life with Merrick, full of hope and happiness—is worth the risk of almost certain death.
THE FIRST time Asuka Kawashima met the Devil, he had been falling headfirst from the thirty-third floor of One Penn Plaza.
“Want to make a deal?”
Suspended downward, Asuka stared at the face of a gentleman with the highly particular yet slightly indescribable features of a century long since past. New York City and Asuka’s inevitable death lay as a backdrop to the blond in a three-piece suit with a high collar, tapping an unlit cigarette against a silver case in one hand. Shards of broken glass hung in the air around Asuka, reflecting the tungsten orange glow of the city at night.
The tip of the cigarette burned, smoke curling in lazy circles around the blond.
Asuka didn’t remember seeing him light it.
“If you could have anything,” the blond said, smiling a smile just this side of inhuman, “what would it be?”
“I want to save people.”
The blond angled his head and blew smoke devoid of the heady scent of tobacco from his lips. He reached his free hand up and tapped a fingertip against the badge pinned to Asuka’s uniform, as if amused by the irony of the request. “Are you certain?”
“What choice do I have?”
The blond glanced down at the city far below and then smiled once more at Asuka. His stare was endless. Bottomless. Piercing.
Asuka looked away.
“I can make you immune to dreaming. The nightmares will never find you. You will never be transformed into one of these monsters. But the cost will be great.”
Asuka swallowed hard. He looked at the Devil again. “A soul.”
“Your soul, my sweet little bird.”
The wind began to blow.
And one by one, the shattered pieces of glass began to fall.
“Deal,” Asuka whispered.
When Xander Spade went through the Looking Glass, he wasn’t looking for salvation. He’d been running from the devil who took his soul, only to fall prey to the greatest monster in Wonderland City, the Queen of Hearts. Years later, the Queen is dead and Xander has a chance to go through the Looking Glass and back home where he belongs.
Xander’s devil wants him to find a little girl who escaped into Wonderland City, before her presence brings down an apocalypse of uncontrollable chaos to the already mad world. Along with Jean Michel, the former Knave of Hearts, Xander now is in a race against time to find the missing child before all Hell breaks loose and he loses his chance to go home.
FUNNY THING about Wonderland City—even after decades of living behind the looking glass, I’m still fucking surprised by how weird it gets.
Like how the hell does a five-foot-tall White Rabbit in cargo shorts and a fedora get his damned hairy paw to work a shotgun trigger?
“I am so fucking sick of chasing that damned rabbit,” I muttered at the knee-high hedgehog crouched into a quivering ball next to me. He didn’t look up, and I didn’t blame him. The dumpster we were hiding next to had already taken more than its share of damage from the sporadic wide-spray shots the rabbit was packing, and from the itch forming on my scalp, I knew I’d be picking pulverized brick grit out of my hair later.
If there was a later.
Back before I met the Devil and bled my soul out into his hands, I’d have thought chasing a cigar-munching white bunny with pink eyes was something I’d only run into after I chewed on a few peyote buttons.
Now it was a typical Tuesday.
Another blast struck the wall above our heads, and it let loose a storm of rubble. The hedgehog squeaked and impossibly seemed to roll into a tighter ball. His worn felt top hat was on the ground by his back feet, the brim soaking up a bit of the sewer water that dripped from the cracked metal dumpster. Its obviously hand-knitted pink scarf had become a rosary of sorts during the trouble we’d stumbled into. He methodically skimmed his tiny fingers over its tassels, from left to right.
“I just need a clear shot of the bastard,” I informed my bristly friend. “It’s just that he’s so damned fast.”
Mister Hedgehog lifted his head up just enough to give me a withering look and narrow his beady brown eyes with a clear judgment of my intelligence. “He’s a rabbit.”
Even if I had a snappy reply, I didn’t get to answer him, because my bounty, with his seemingly endless supply of shotgun shells, peppered the dumpster again and pushed me back from its edge.
The street had been teeming with people a few minutes before, but once the rabbit caught sight of me, he pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of God knew where and began to blast up the small open-air marketplace. The commotion sent everyone flying for cover. His aim was poor enough that his first victims were a seedless watermelon and a couple of cantaloupes, but it was enough of a juicy splash to serve notice of what would happen to someone’s head if the rabbit got it right.
There were a couple of women a few feet away who were hunkered down behind a fishmonger’s stall, and every once in a while I could see the stall owner’s tuft of feathers poke out as he moved around. The stall didn’t look very big—certainly not big enough for a griffin to fully hide from a rogue gunman. There were a few people on the ground covering their heads with their hands as they lay facedown on cobblestones. Occasionally one of them would draw the rabbit’s attention when they tried to skitter to the side.
Problem was, hiding behind the dumpster, I couldn’t see when the rabbit’s pink eyes were on someone else, so returning his fire with my revolver was hit-and-miss.
The Beckett Street Marketplace was set up at the end of a cul-de-sac, an old-style courtyard that once hosted tea parties and games of charades played for bored aristocrats and their long-suffering servants. Those days were long gone. The former palace gardens, with their labyrinth of walkways, were now city streets bristling with tenements and factories. But there were still signs of the deposed Queen of Hearts’ kingdom if you knew where to look.
I just tried not to look.
“Stay down,” I told the hedgehog. “I’m going to see if I can get closer.”
He might’ve made a noise, or he could have had gas. Either way, he emitted a long, wavering squeal of a sound and began his tassel counting again.
“I’m not going to let you take me in, Spade!” The rabbit fired another shot, but I couldn’t tell where he was aiming. Someone in the trapped crowd screamed, and the rabbit yelled back, “Shut your face. That was nowhere near you. I’m going to give you all fifteen seconds to get out of here. Then I’m going to come out shooting, and if anyone is in between me and Spade, I hope you’ve made peace with your maker.”
Mister Hedgehog was gone before the rabbit even began counting. He snatched up his top hat, shoved it on his head, and scurried off, his pink scarf flapping behind him. The exodus that followed was as noisy and alarming as a sugar-cube mountain covered with toddlers.
To be honest, I didn’t think the rabbit could count as high as fifteen.
I knew the White Rabbit.
He was what I liked to call a legacy bounty—a dumb-as-a-rock career criminal who couldn’t seem to catch a break, no matter what.
I knew his great-grandfather once, and let’s just say the family was never known for its luck.
The chase was already going to shit by the time the rabbit ducked into the Stews. It was difficult to see the late afternoon sky through the tightly clustered tenements, and the threat of rain clung to the air—a snap of electricity with the crackle of brimstone overlaid the fetid aroma of the warrens. I caught a few glimpses of its milky-sienna cloud cover, and the swirling specks of black ash kicked up from the smokestacks swarmed in a faux murmuration and scattered under the hot June winds. The summer heat never let up, and the incoming storm would only make things muggy and cloying and work the slums’ simmering anger right to the razor’s edge.
If I was lucky, I would be able to grab the rabbit and get out of the Stews before the storm hit.
But much like the rabbit and his ill-fated and now-headless great-grandfather, I was never known for my luck.
The rabbit got up to eight, and then I took my chances.
I didn’t know exactly where the rhino was going, but he gave good cover, especially since he was shuffling on his hands and knees. I timed my sprint, dodged between hulking bodies and shadows, and hoped the rabbit wouldn’t notice a blur of movement going the wrong way. I went down hard on my knee when my foot got caught in the ruffled hem of an old woman’s long dress and my boot slid out from under me. She hit me with her purse and caught my chin with its bamboo handles, but I didn’t stop to check if she was okay. Her elderly, hunched-over body was enough to let me know she was human, from the other side of the looking glass, just like me.
Wonderland City and its people were different, less human. Births were rare and usually not welcome. People—especially the ones who looked human—aged at such a slow rate, it was impossible to tell how old anyone was. Yet I’d never seen a looking-glass person as old as the woman I’d nearly stampeded over. She must’ve been at the end of her life when she traded her soul to come here and was trapped in its eternal amber stasis, where she felt every ache and pain of her decrepit body.
I’d like to say I was smart and made that deal when I was in my late twenties, but if I’d been smart, I never would have said yes to the man with the wicked smile when he found me lying in the middle of the back-country crossroads I’d been dumped on.
So instead I was here—hunting rabbit.
“All I need to make this day extra special is a fat little pony with a flower crown,” I grumbled to myself as I worked across the cobblestones on my belly. Clutching my revolver in one hand made the going difficult, but I couldn’t go into the situation unarmed, especially since the rabbit had a shotgun. “I don’t even know the name to that stupid opera.”
But I hummed it to myself all the way over.
The rabbit hadn’t seen me. I found him holed up against a stack of books that were a moldering pile of cracked spines and damp pages. It hurt to see the novels exposed to the harsh elements of the Stews’ weather, but not a lot of people in Wonderland read. I saw no sign of the bookseller. If I had, I’m not too sure I wouldn’t have shot him too, just for what he let happen to the books.
But I couldn’t get sidetracked, not while the White Rabbit still held the cul-de-sac hostage and I hadn’t gotten paid for the high price placed on his head.
Most folks in the crumbling metropolis of Calvary are ignorant sheep, but not Johnny Lockheart. He’s Chosen. Half a lifetime ago, when he was young and stupid, he sold his soul to the Devil… and he’s been regretting that choice ever since.
Now the Devil is back with a new and improved offer. Kill a major TV personality and walk free with his soul. It should be simple, if not for the star’s bodyguard. Adam is Chosen, too, and he has no compunctions about using his powers. When the two of them rub up against each other, their raw chemistry ignites—but there’s no way he’d let Johnny go through with the murder. The only way out is to cut off the power at its source. Is their connection enough to rid Calvary of the Devil’s influence for good?
I WAS young enough to think I knew everything, but old enough that my stupidity could get me into some serious trouble. I bused tables at the Inferno for a buck and a half an hour and a share of the tips. It was a fancy steakhouse, the type of place where people only went for birthdays and anniversaries, ordered a T-bone big enough to feed a family, and bragged around the water cooler the next morning about how much it set them back. But the kitchen was home to just as many rats as the Chinese joints by the river.
If you’d asked me back then—eighteen-year-old Johnny—whether or not I thought the world was fair, I would’ve scoffed. Secretly, though, in my heart of hearts, I must’ve been clinging to that childish belief. Faith is a funny thing. What else can be strong enough to cure cancer but brittle enough to shatter over a single slight?
The Inferno’s tips all went into a big glass jar under the counter by the till, where the hostess and the waiters could keep an eye on things. Because the place was every working-class Joe’s idea of fancy, tips tended to be big. Lots of Lincolns swam in the pool, and occasionally a Jackson. “Got a date with Old Hickory tonight” would thread through the staff in a subtle game of telephone, and everyone worked just a little bit harder in hopes of breaking the triple-Jackson record.
The last birthday boy had staggered out into the night with whiskey on his breath and a passable steak in his gut, and the staff was just about ready to head home. I was heaving chairs up onto the tables in the dim half-light when I first noticed the raised voices.
I kept my head down and minded my own business. I was a lowly busboy, a teenaged nobody, the type of kid who could walk into a room, look you in the eye, and walk back out without ever being noticed. But by the time I turned over the final chair, the yelling was too loud to be ignored.
“Why bother denying it?” a waiter was demanding. “There was no one else who could’ve possibly done it.”
The hostess was in tears. “What the hell are you—? How dare you? After all these years, how dare you?”
“And then, to look us in the eye and lie about it. Just say it, Mary. Admit what you did.”
“It wasn’t me! You want proof? Here!” She dumped out her purse on the counter. A tube of lipstick fell out, a comb, a wad of tissues, a handful of change. One of the quarters bounced to the floor, rolled halfway to the door, spun on its edge an impossibly long time, wobbled lazily, and clattered to its side.
The waiter was unimpressed. “No one else had access to the till.”
“Why would I tell everyone about the twenty and then steal it?”
“How should I know? Maybe you thought there were two.”
“I don’t… have… the money.”
When Mary ripped open her blouse, I was standing by the coat check, invisible as usual. I remember thinking that even if she had noticed I was there, she probably would’ve done it anyway. She’d slept with all the waiters—she was on the pill—and very nearly managed to seduce me, even though, by that tender age, I knew damn well I liked dick.
“You wanna frisk me?” she spat. “How about a cavity search?”
I’ll never forget the sight of her that night, a vision of innocence wronged—smudged eyeliner and flushed, tear-stained cheeks, hair the color of apricots sliding from her carefully pinned bouffant, high-heeled stance planted wide in wickedly pointed red leather pumps, tight skirt rucked up above her knees, blouse torn open to reveal the rigid structure of her brassiere. Angry. And gorgeous in her defiance and strength.
“Put your clothes on, whore,” the waiter sneered. “No one wants to see that.”
Mary’s righteous anger drained. She pulled her ruined blouse around her and attempted to wrap herself in her few shreds of dignity. Without another word—and without her share of the tips—she scooped her things back into her purse, gathered it to her chest, and strode out into the night.
Tips that night were pretty mediocre, but when I slipped out the back door to make my way home, I wasn’t all that put out. Even after such a short lifetime of disappointment, I’d trained myself not to expect much. Maybe all the sheep do.
I was checking for my bus when I saw the black Coupe de Ville. It was a boat of a Cadillac, all broad sweeping curves, with sharp fins and impeccable whitewall tires. The great beast lurked at the curb, practically invisible against the night. Other than the whitewalls, the only thing that showed on it was the reflection of the surrounding lights. I’d seen my share of fancy cars around Calvary, especially around the Inferno, but the big black Caddy topped them all.
I don’t know who I expected to be inside the car. Old money? An older, stiff-upper-lip driver who’d prefer a Cadillac to a Ferrari. But I sure as hell didn’t expect Mary to tumble out of the passenger seat and slam the door behind her with a vigorous, “Fuck off!”
Mary might be dramatic, but she didn’t bother with the drama when she wasn’t playing to an audience, and she had no idea I was watching. After she flipped off the Caddy’s driver, she didn’t cry and she didn’t cower, just headed toward the subway like she was eager to put the night behind her. Maybe I would’ve gone to check on her if she’d seemed a little more… vulnerable. Then again, maybe not. I was just a kid. And I’d never been one to stick my neck out.
I thought about it, though. A car rolls down a tinted window and someone tells you to get in, well, maybe you’d normally keep walking. But with no tips and the daunting prospect of finding a new job, how tempting would it be to at least hear what they had to offer?
Then again, she seemed awfully pissed off. And it’s not like anyone who’d climb into a stranger’s car would have such delicate sensibilities. So… what kind of sick shit had he asked her to do?
I was busy watching Mary make tracks when the bus passed me by. That time of night, it would be another hour or more until the next one, so I ran after it and tried to wave it down. The bus driver saw me—I caught his eye in the sideview. But the bastard didn’t even slow.
I was stooped over, hands on my knees, catching my breath and swearing up a storm, when the black Caddy pulled a U-turn and the passenger window rolled down.
I stood up quick, and said, “What?”
The driver’s face was in the shadows. He crooked his finger. Normally I might’ve flipped him off and walked away like Mary had, but thanks to that tool of a bus driver, I had an hour to kill.
Maybe I was curious too. Mary might be too proud to take his money, but I sucked off strangers for free… and it couldn’t hurt to find out the going price.
I approached the Caddy and the door clicked open, but I didn’t see the driver lean over and open it. As someone who’d never scraped together enough savings to buy a car of his own, I didn’t find that odd. Power locks, FM radio—how would I know what came with the primo accessory package?
Like I said, I was curious… and stupid. So I climbed in.
“Tell me,” the driver said. “Can you imagine what it would be like if life were fair?”
It was an older guy. Striking. A startling white smile, and ebony hair slicked back with brilliantine. Maybe my grandfather’s age—the likely reason Mary didn’t go through with it. Me, though? I was still willing to hear the offer. He wasn’t especially wrinkled or dirty. He didn’t have that chewing-tobacco-and-rotting-teeth smell that hung around my bitter old grandpa. He didn’t smell like much of anything. Beyond the suggestion of immaculately kept leather upholstery, the only thing I scented in that car was the faintest whiff of sulfur, like someone had just struck a match.
The driver looked me up and down and said, “You strike me as a perceptive young man.”
That really should’ve been my first clue that I was dealing with the Prince of Lies.