“Legs in the air, heels toward the ceiling. Crunch, quick!”
I lay flat on my back, legs extended up, and started crunching as the instructor counted off reps. After about three movements the atrophied muscles in my abdomen started to scream for mercy. My legs dropped toward the ground.
“Uh-uh-uh. No, no, no,” the instructor said to me as he walked around the classroom checking our form. He was a tall, handsome African-American man with the demeanor of a drill sergeant. “Keep those legs up.”
He grabbed my ankles and jerked my legs back into position. I tried to remember why I had made this asinine New Year’s resolution to lose weight in the first place. Beezle had laughed for a full half hour when I told him I was going to an aerobics class.
“You should be going with me, too,” I’d said. “Except that you’d scare the crap out of all the fit people.”
Beezle had patted his round tummy indignantly. “I’ll have you know that I am the perfect shape for a gargoyle.”
“Yeah, a gargoyle that gets out of breath going to the kitchen for snacks,” I’d replied.
“Better to get out of breath in pursuit of chocolate than in pursuit of a fitness you will never achieve,” Beezle had said.
I’d sworn then and there to lose thirty pounds by June. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to say out loud, because if I didn’t lose the weight, Beezle would harass me about it for the rest of my life.
“Fifty more!” the instructor shouted.
I groaned and glanced at the clock. Aside from my possibly fruitless pursuit of rock-hard abs, I had a secondary motive for getting up at the ungodly hour of five A.M. and making my way to the local YMCA. I had a soul to pick up, and that soul was Harry Lopardo, presently crunching his way up and down on the mat next to me, scheduled to depart this earth in about eight minutes. Harry was a super-fit middle-aged guy who could easily have been in one of those magazine ads for protein bars. He had that no-body-fat look.
If I knew that I had only eight minutes left on my sand timer, I would definitely be doing something besides crunches. It would probably involve getting Gabriel, the unrequited lust of my life, naked as quickly as possible. Of course, there was a universe of obstacles in the way of that happening.
See, I’m an Agent of death. What that means is that once a week I get a list of names, times and places. The names are souls whose deaths have been foreseen by Agency prophets. My job is to be in the right place at the right time to take the soul to the Door. I’m not sure precisely what’s behind the Door, but I know that the soul has a choice of many worlds.
Death is a bureaucracy. It’s ordered, and filled with paperwork, and pretty much everyone is on a need-to-know basis. As a lowly Agent (a crappy job I inherited when my mother died) my need-to-know ranking is pretty low.
“Leg lifts, slow, then quick, go!” the instructor shouted.
I looked at the clock again. Two more minutes. Thank the freaking Morningstar, because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to bend at the waist ever again if this went on for much longer.
“Fifty more, fifty more . . . Is that all he knows how to say?” I muttered.
Harry looked over at me and grinned. “I know it’s tough, but if you stick with it, you’ll see results.”
“No talking!” the instructor shouted.
I huffed and puffed my way through another few reps, and then Harry’s legs dropped to the ground and he clutched his chest. His face turned purple.
I came to my knees and called out to the instructor. “Hey, you should call nine-one-one! I think this guy is having a heart attack.”
Everyone in class turned to look at us. I took Harry’s hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay; just look at me.”
People started crowding around. The hip-hop music that blared from the speakers kept running, out of sync with what was happening in the room.
“Clear the way, clear the way; give him some air!” the instructor said.
I dropped Harry’s hand and scooted back behind the crowd. This gave me the perfect opportunity to disappear.
I pushed my wings from my back and winked out of sight.
Even though I was invisible I still had to follow the laws of physics. That meant that I had to work around the knot of people surrounding Harry and slip through an opening to get to his body. A second after I knelt beside him again, he breathed his last breath.
His soul came drifting up from the body, attached by a band of ectoplasm. Harry looked down at himself with confusion, then up at me. His eyes widened when he noticed my wings.
“A heart attack? Seriously? I was in great shape,” he said. “Are you the grim reaper? Or some kind of angel?”
“A little of both,” I said, and this was true. My father was Azazel, a fallen angel, and my mother had been an Agent of death. I was also distantly related to Lucifer, and he loved to remind me of that fact.
Harry watched the class instructor giving his lifeless body CPR. “So I guess if you’re here, that means that CPR isn’t going to do too much for me.”
I shook my head and held out my hand. “Will you come with me?”
You have to give the soul a choice. They have to choose to go with you, or stay and haunt this earth forever,. Choosing to be a ghost also creates a lot of annoying paperwork.
Harry put his hand in mine. As he did, he looked me up and down critically. “I meant what I said, you know. If you stick with the class, you will definitely see results.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Got any fitness tips for an overweight gargoyle?”
I dropped Harry off at the Door and made my way toward home. The flight felt a little lonely without Gabriel. He used to be my bodyguard, at the behest of my father, and therefore went everywhere with me except the bathroom. Now he was my thrall, by virtue of my having won him in a magical contest that I was not supposed to survive.
The laws of Lucifer’s kingdom said that once you are a thrall, you are always a thrall. You can be passed from owner to owner but you can never, ever be free. I really did not want to be Gabriel’s owner. But I didn’t want him to belong to someone else who would abuse him, either. So mostly I left him alone and avoided making direct requests of him that he would be forced to follow.
This meant that I spent a lot more time flying solo than I used to, unless Samiel decided to come with me. Samiel was Gabriel’s half brother and he’d recently become a part of my household collection of oddities. He frequently came with me on pickups because he had an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything to do with humans, but Beezle had insisted that Samiel stay home this morning and watch a movie with him. The gargoyle had been strangely mysterious about the choice of film, too, so I just hoped that he wasn’t making Samiel watch something icky, like a really bloody horror movie.
I was flying lower than I usually do, close to the rooftops, which is why I saw the ghost.
It was walking in circles on the sidewalk, which was odd behavior, even for an apparition. Every once in a while it would walk toward the brick exterior of a building and bounce off, almost as if it didn’t know that ghosts could drift through solid objects.
I lowered myself to the ground, so focused on the specter’s weird behavior that I bumped into a kid with a hooded sweatshirt and backpack making his way to a nearby bus stop. The kid stopped and looked behind him, alarmed. Seeing nothing, he continued on, his shoulders tensed as if waiting for an attack.
That was stupid of me. I shook my head and continued on toward the ghost, who was still walking in circles near the newspaper boxes on the corner. As I approached I saw that it was a twenty-something male, and he was talking to himself.
“Got to get to class—can’t stop—got to go now—sorry red—have to go—can’t stay—don’t make me stay—don’t make me stay—don’t make me stay.”
He was dressed in that slouchy, worn-out style that a lot of college students favored. As I got closer his voice rose in a crescendo.
“No, can’t stop—can’t stay—sorry red—don’t make me stay—don’t make me stay—DON’T MAKE ME!” He walked into a building, bounced off the wall and walked back, bouncing off again like a record with a skipping needle.
“Hey,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Hey, do you need help?”
He turned on me in terror, his hands raised and his wrists crossed in front of his face as if expecting a blow. “No, can’t stop—don’t make me!”
I held my own hands up so that he would know that I wasn’t going to hurt him. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You’re safe. Can I help you? Can I bring you somewhere?”
Maybe I could convince this soul to go to the Door. That would probably win me points with J.B., even if he wasn’t my direct supervisor anymore. J.B. hated ghosts. He took the presence of every lost soul as a personal affront to his ordered universe.
The ghost had lowered his hands, but when I asked if I could bring him somewhere, he got that panicky, trapped-animal look again. “No, can’t stop—got to go—don’t make me stay!”
I didn’t know if he’d been damaged in life or in death, and I didn’t usually intervene in the afterlives of ghosts—once the soul has made their choice to haunt instead of go to the Door, an Agent is pretty much out of it. But this ghost was acting so weird, I couldn’t believe that the Agent who had been sent to do his pickup had left him like this. I thought I’d better get him off the streets.
I called an Agent response team and gave them my location.
“Agent Madeline Black, north side, near the bus stop at the corner of Clark and Wellington. Yeah, I’ve got an unruly ghost here.”
I gave the dispatcher some info on the ghost’s behavior and he told me to wait until the response team arrived. I tucked my phone in my pocket and settled in to babysit.
They didn’t keep me waiting long. A few minutes after I’d called, three burly guys who looked like Navy SEALs came flying in. They all wore black shirts and black cargo pants and had the unsmiling look of military men on duty.
“Agent Black? We’ll take it from here.”
I stepped back to let them do their thing. The leader of the squad approached the ghost with his hands in the air, indicating that he meant no harm. The ghost had gone back to walking into the wall over and over again.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. J.B. stood there, glaring.
“What’s up with your ghost, Black?”
J.B. had a thing for me, and if I didn’t have a whole lot of unsettled lust for Gabriel, I might have had a thing for J.B., too, because he was pretty much as hot as it gets. Six foot plus, body of a runner, green eyes, black hair that sticks up in every direction because he spends a lot of time tugging at it.
Unfortunately, he acts like a stick-in-the-mud most of the time. Also, he was presently pissed at me because his mother had put a spell on him to make him act lovey-dovey toward me—part of her master plan of getting a child from Lucifer’s bloodline into her own bloodline. I didn’t know why this was my fault, but once the spell was broken, he’d decided to take out his mother issues on me.
“It’s not my ghost, Bennett,” I said, trying to control my anger. “I found it acting like this.”
“This is the fourteenth one this week,” he said, his eyes troubled. “I want to know what the hell is going on.”
The ghost screamed, and I turned back to see that one of the response team guys had wrapped his arms around the ghost’s to restrain him. Another member of the team pulled out a small black device that looked a lot like a remote and pointed it at the ghost’s eyes. A laser sight appeared on the bridge of the soul’s nose.
The ghost struggled in the Agent’s grip, his cries louder and more frantic. “Can’t stop—KEEP GOING—SORRY RED—I AM THE SCREAM—I AM THE SCREAM—I AM THE SCREAM!”
The other Agent pressed a button on the remote. It didn’t seem like anything had happened, but the ghost abruptly went limp in the Agent’s arms. One of the other guys stepped forward with a binding rope.
“How could fourteen ghosts end up like this in one week? Who was supposed to do their pickups?” I wondered aloud.
J.B. was silent behind me. I turned to face him and saw that his jaw was clenched.
“What?” I said.
He looked like he was struggling with some decision; then finally he said, “They weren’t scheduled.”
“Fourteen unscheduled deaths in one week? And they all ended up like this?” I looked at him with dawning comprehension. “You think it has something to do with the fallen.”
“Doesn’t it usually?” he said. “Every time something weird and freaky has happened around here in the last few months it’s come back to Lucifer. And the weird and the freaky have happened more frequently since you acknowledged your bloodline and came into your powers.”
“And so you think I might have something to do with it?” I said. “You know, you accused me of murder once and you looked pretty stupid after when you found out that I hadn’t been lying about Ramuell.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just saying that you are Lucifer’s child.”
“I’m not Lucifer’s child,” I said. I could feel my magic pulsing underneath my skin—never a good sign. Even though I had made great leaps and bounds in controlling my powers, I still was at the mercy of my emotions.
“Really?” he said, with a pointed glance at my right hand.
My right palm was covered with what looked like a henna tattoo of an uncoiling snake. Unfortunately, the tattooing had not been voluntary. I’d been branded by Lucifer’s sword, and I wasn’t happy about it.
I shook my head at J.B. “I’m Azazel’s child, and my heritage has nothing to do with this in any case. I don’t know what’s causing this.”
“Maybe I should just have you followed,” J.B. said thoughtfully. “You’ll probably stumble onto the solution accidentally. That seems to happen a lot.”
“I resent the implication that I’m Three-Stooging my way through life. I am the only person who’s ever survived the Maze,” I snapped. “And may I remind you that you should look to your own backyard before you start making wild accusations.”
“You think my mother has something to do with this?” J.B. snorted. “She’d never be able to keep a secret this big from the rest of the faerie court.”
“She managed to keep the fact that she wanted a child of Lucifer’s bloodline secret,” I reminded him.
“What motivation would she have for murdering mortals and leaving them like this?” J.B. said.
“What motivation did she have for trying to have me raped and killed?” I said, and as soon as I said it I was sorry. It hung in the air between us like a living thing.
As if by speaking it aloud, my memories—the ones that I tried so hard to suppress over the last month—came rushing back.
The Maze—a swarm of demons, a giant spider, my demon half brother trying to destroy me utterly.
Nathaniel’s face possessed by rage, Nathaniel’s hands holding me down.
Gabriel turning away from me in disgust.
“It wasn’t real,” I muttered to myself. My face was covered in sweat, and a blast of cold January air made me shiver.
“Maddy . . .” J.B. said, and he lifted his hand toward me.
“No,” I said, and backed away, trying to get myself under control, trying to forget again. “I’m not doing this with you. You can’t be my friend when you feel like it and shout at me the rest of the time. Whatever your mother did, I had nothing to do with it, and I suffered far worse at her hand than you did. You were embarrassed by a love spell. She tried to break me, my heart, my mind, my body.”
“But she couldn’t,” J.B. said, and his eyes were hard to read.
“She couldn’t,” I agreed. “And I won’t let you or anyone else do it, either.”
Then I turned and flew away, and he didn’t try to follow me.
I came in the back door so I saw the mess in the kitchen first. Apparently Beezle and Samiel had made waffles, because the counter was covered in batter and the sink was full of dirty dishes. The score from a movie swelled in the living room and drifted down the hall to where I stood with my coat in one hand and my gloves in the other.
“Seriously?” I said, and then my voice got louder. I tossed my stuff on a chair and strode down the hall. “Seriously? Beezle, you are way too old for this shit.”
I stopped when I got to the living room. Samiel and Beezle were sitting on the couch. Both of them had tears running down their faces.
“Gods above and below. What happened?” I said, rushing to Beezle and picking him up. “Did somebody die?”
He pointed wordlessly at the screen. I glanced at it, then back at Beezle.
“E.T.?” I said.
Beezle sniffled, nodding. Samiel blew his nose with a tissue.
“You do know it’s make-believe, right?”
Beezle glared up at me. “If you don’t cry during E.T., you are a robot. No human could get through this movie without shedding a few tears.”
“Far be it from me to point out that neither of you are actually human,” I said. “When you’ve wiped your face you can clean up the mess in the kitchen. I’d like to have breakfast in a batter-free zone.”
Samiel looked at me and signed, He made me do it.
I signed back, You don’t have to listen to him.
He threatened to put Grape-Nuts in my bedsheets if I didn’t make waffles.
Just make sure he actually does the dishes instead of supervising, I replied. Grape-Nuts in your bed is a pretty diabolical punishment. Those little grainy things would probably get everywhere. How would you ever get them out completely?
“We saved some waffles for you. They’re in the fridge,” Beezle said.
I looked down at my nonexistent abs and sighed. “I can’t have waffles.”
Beezle smirked. “Because of your diet.”
“I am going to lose thirty pounds,” I said. “Stop trying to sabotage me by bringing doughnuts into the house.”
“No one is making you eat them.”
“No, but you are making me buy them,” I said. “You could be supportive, you know.”
Beezle made a little “pfft” noise.
“And what would you do if I stopped going to the pastry shop for you?” I said.
“You would deny an old gargoyle a few simple pleasures before I turn to stone?” he said, putting on his best I-am-so-adorable-you-can’t-resist-me face.
“You act like you’re going to turn tomorrow,” I said.
“Who knows?” Beezle shrugged. “It could happen very suddenly.”
“So could a heart attack from saturated fat overload,” I said, and went to the kitchen to make oatmeal. My virtuous breakfast didn’t taste nearly as good as Samiel’s waffles looked.
After the movie was over they came in the kitchen and Beezle started washing dishes with a lot of long-suffering sighing. I told them about what had happened with the ghost I’d found, and how J.B. thought it had something to do with the fallen.
“It probably does,” Gabriel said from the door.
I turned slowly, my heart beating faster, the way it always did when I heard his voice. He leaned in the doorjamb, hands in the pocket of his ever-present overcoat. His face was implacable as always.
“I didn’t hear you come up,” I said.
“You gave me permission to come and go as I pleased. I have come for Samiel’s morning lesson,” he said.
Gabriel was teaching Samiel to channel his powers in a more productive way. Samiel had been raised by a monstrous nephilim and a psychotic angel who’d drilled vengeance into him from the moment of his first breath, and thus mostly knew how to use his powers for destruction. I was very interested in keeping Samiel alive and under the radar of the Grigori, so Gabriel had undertaken the task of making Samiel a more productive member of supernatural society.
“Have your orders changed, mistress?”
“Don’t start with the ‘mistress’ crap,” I said angrily. “I’ve already gotten enough passive-aggressive BS from my other not-a-boyfriend this morning.”
Gabriel nodded stiffly. “As you wish.”
“And my name’s not Buttercup, either.”
I sighed. I didn’t know how much longer the two of us could go on this way. It seemed Gabriel resented me more because I refused to act like his owner. Since I’d already thrown down with J.B., I wasn’t in the mood for another confrontation with Gabriel, especially with Beezle and Samiel watching us like we were the best reality TV ever.
“Why do you think the ghosts have something to do with the fallen? Their own accords state that they aren’t supposed to harm mortals.”
“And you have witnessed for yourself just how well some of Lord Lucifer’s minions follow those accords,” Gabriel replied.
“Not very well at all,” I said, thinking of Focalor and his bid for power.
My darling great-grandfather had told me that Focalor would be punished for his actions at Amarantha’s court. I hadn’t heard what that punishment was, but I was certain it had been swift and severe. Lucifer had to make sure that his other courts understood that treason would not be tolerated.
Samiel rapped his knuckles on the counter so we would all look at him. But to murder mortals and leave their souls in such a state—that law is one that even the most rogue of Lucifer’s court would not break. Lucifer is not interested in the death of mortals.
“No,” Beezle agreed. “He wants to collect them.”
“Because every creature on his side increases his base of power,” I said. “All he’s really interested in his lording his strength over the other supernatural communities.”
“Which is why he is so interested in you, Madeline,” Gabriel said. “You have strength and power that you have not yet begun to imagine, and Lord Lucifer knows this. It is also why you have become such an interesting target for the other courts.”
“Yeah, moving on,” I said. I didn’t like to think too closely about my value to Lucifer and my consequent dead-or-alive value to his enemies. That way lay indigestion and sleepless nights. “Look, the last two times there were deaths outside of the natural order it was because of Lucifer’s sons, so I can see why you and J.B. would think it would have something to do with him again. But really—how many more sons could he have floating around?”
Beezle arched his brow at me pointedly. “Lucifer has been alive for millennia.”
And therefore would have had millennia to reap and sow, as it were, I thought. Was I really going to have to go through this again—stumbling onto more secrets in Lucifer’s kingdom, hunting down another of his children? How many innocents would die before I figured things out?
We all stood silently, each of us brooding on our thoughts. The doorbell rang. Beezle fluttered up and away from the sink, clearly thrilled to have a reason to leave the dishes.
“I’d better see who it is,” he said, speeding toward the window.
“You have to finish the washing when you come back!” I shouted after him.
“With any luck, it will be something horrible and you’ll be distracted for the next several hours,” Beezle snapped back over his shoulder.
I looked at Gabriel, who gave me a sad little half smile. Beezle was probably right. My doorbell rang only when bad things were about to happen. Maybe I should tear the stupid thing off.
Beezle zipped back in through the kitchen window, pulling it shut behind him. “It’s cold out there. It’s Jude at the door.”
I frowned. Jude was a werewolf that I had met about a month ago .I was friendly with Wade, Jude’s alpha, but Jude himself didn’t think very much of me. He hated anyone related to Lucifer.
I trooped downstairs to see what Jude wanted. My household entourage followed me, Gabriel and Samiel crowding on the stairs and Beezle plunking himself on my shoulder.
“Hasn’t anyone in this house ever heard of privacy?” I muttered.
“No,” Beezle said. “Your business is my business, and you’re only going to tell the other two anyway.”
And if Jude was there to claw me to death, Gabriel and Samiel could probably intervene before too much bodily damage occurred.
I swung the door open and saw Jude through the exterior door standing outside on the porch with his back to us. This was standard for supernatural creatures—they couldn’t cross the threshold of my house without my permission. I pushed open the exterior door and tried not to think about the fact that Gabriel was standing right behind me, the warmth of his body radiating into my skin and making my clothes feel uncomfortably tight.
Jude turned when he heard the door open, and I gasped. His face and hands were covered in blood and his eyes were wild.
“You have to come. Wade’s missing.”