advice to my younger writer self

I don’t know where this question popped or even why, but it did, and it’s been bouncing around my head all day: what advice would I give to my younger writer self?

For a long time I thought it’d be: relax. you’ll get there.

Now, with the forward and unstoppable motion of time, I can’t think of a single piece of writing advice worthy of sending backwards.

There’s a few honorable mentions, in the hopes I wouldn’t make the mistakes I did. But that’s the thing about mistakes–they’re the best way to learn.

Get feedback sooner. It’ll be humiliating and awful no matter how long you wait.

Finish what you start.

Write faster drafts. You’re gonna change most of it anyway.

Don’t write words, tell stories.

All good advice (I hope). And yet if I could time travel back fifteen years (or even five, when I opened up that word processor with the intent of writing and selling a novel), I can’t imagine myself talking about authorship.

How about: Self-care. Do it. Do it now. Depression isn’t mandatory. 

Or: Hey you’re actually gluten intolerant so cut the wheat and feel better. I know it sounds crazy. You’re actually sick, you just don’t know it yet. Trust me–you can still bake awesome cookies.

Because honestly, those things have helped me become a better writer because they’ve made living so much easier, and I feel like an idiot that I waited until I was thirty-something to make those changes. That’s a lot of my life only half-lived. There’s no getting that back.

Oh, wait! I have another one. Start journaling. Set goals every week and learn to keep them. You’ll be amazed by the results.

What advice would you give to your younger writer self?

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get angelhide… free

Want a free copy of Angelhide, the first novel in a contemporary fantasy series?

(I knew you’d say yes! Hurray!!) Here are two ways to get a free ebook of Angelhide.

  1. Sign up for my newsletter! The next issue comes out 9/22/15. Sign up before then so I can send you the download link.
  2. Come to one of my writerly events! I’ll have ebook coupons ready to hand out at any of my Fondulac District Library programs or PeoWriMos events. The coupon expires 10/22/15, so I hope you can make it to one of our meetings or my next seminar. (They’re a lot of fun!)

Angelhide - book 1 of the Angelhide series A guardian angel, abandoned on Earth, races demons to find her missing ward.

Angelhide, a divine comedy of errors

Fresh from Angel Academy, Aggie can’t wait to facilitate God’s Will. All the other graduates are filing paperwork while Aggie is charged with saving a man from certain death. Hallelujah! Except… she’s not saving anyone. First she loses her ward, Nicholas Bayer. Then her phone dies after hours on hold with Divine Intervention. And thanks to a clerical error, Aggie is stuck on campus without a winter coat, a place to stay, or a dollar to her name. When a demon attack nearly gets her killed, she learns that she knows absolutely nothing about her job. Real angels have swords, special prayers, and a slough of bureaucratic forms to wade through. Worse, her search for Bayer brings up more questions than answers: Why does Heaven deem fit to preserve a violent criminal stalking his family? But Aggie isn’t giving up. She doesn’t need wings or a halo to rescue Nicholas Bayer, and she’ll keep him alive, even if she has to save him from himself. She just has to find him before the demons find her.

on Amazon
on Barnes and Noble
on Smashwords

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demonspine is available!

Demonspine

Demonspine is out and available for purchase!

LINKS!:
Amazon (print and ebook)
Smashwords (ebook)

Demonspine should also be available soon through all the usual channels, too, wherever you bought Angelhide from, you should find Demonspine there in the next few days.

Also, I’ve also enrolled Demonspine into the Amazon Matchbook program. If you buy the paperback copy from Amazon, you’ll get the ebook for free. FREE!

(Sorry, I get a little excited. I wish all books worked that way).

You can read the opening chapters here on my Demonspine page, or your can read the entire first half of the novel by downloading the sample from Smashwords.

Happy Reading!

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demonspine excerpt!

 

Read the opening chapters of Demonspine below! (Demonspine’s release is getting closer and closer! Stay tuned for links)
Demonspine

A clueless, wingless guardian angel gets duped into working as Lucifer’s private detective.

Demonspine, book 2 in the Angelhide series

After solving her own murder and saving Heaven from a bureaucratic coup, Aggie retired from her three-day stint as a guardian angel. She has a contract with God to prove it—no one in Heaven will bother her until she dies again.

Except she didn’t make that deal with the Devil. His favorite artifact has been stolen and for some reason, he wants Aggie to serve as his personal sleuth.

But really, what was Lucifer thinking? Aggie’s completely mortal. Suppose for a moment she could actually procure a lead, track the thief back to Earth, and find their super-secret lair. Then what—knock on the door and ask for it back? And how is she supposed to defend herself when she inevitably gets busted snooping? Worst. Mission. Ever.

Oh, and Lucifer conveniently forgot to mention that he won’t protect her from all the enemies she makes doing his dirty work. Great.

Apparently, there’s no such thing as retirement for guardian angels—even the clueless, wingless variety.

excerpt

Chapter One

Not a Late Person

I won’t be late, Aggie had promised.

Who actually said things like that? Only people who ran late all the time. Aggie was not one of those people. She clutched three crumpled, almost-sweaty dollars in her palm and counted out forty-seven cents in change.

A line of people curled around the gas station. Aggie took her place at the end, holding the box of no-brand panty hose at her side to minimize judgment. Not that anyone was watching her—with only one cashier at the lottery-laden counter, they had messages to send, news to check, and haughty airs to affect.

Well, if she had to be late, she could use this time to practice her interview answers again. ‘Belvedere and Associates is a great company with a long history of supporting the community, as well as excellence in legal defense.

In the past year and a half, I’ve been working as a page at the community college library. I love it, but they don’t have enough hours available.’

Hopefully, he wouldn’t ask about what she did before the library. No one would believe what really happened. ‘Well, after I was murdered, an archangel completely wiped my memories and convinced me I was an angel. Then he sent me down to Earth where I was hunted by demons for my immortal soul, so they could sell it to God, who was completely, utterly addicted. That would have worked, too, except I helped God sober up at the last minute.’

It got better—after that, Aggie begged to become human again. She underwent surgery to remove her angel-parts and ‘live a normal, human life.’ And what had she done with her life, besides shelve some books and apply to every single job opening in a thirty-mile radius?

Without an official job history, diploma, and references, there were a whole lot of gaps in Aggies’s CV.

I should have negotiated a job or a fake resume with God when I had the chance. I was too excited about the prospect of being human again to remember all that human… stuff.

A woman barged right to the front of the line. She ignored protests and pushed the first customer out of her way. Her voice was shrill, demanding—an overgrown child. “Are you Latoya Brown?”

The cashier blinked in surprise. “Look, if this is about Darnell, you can’t come here while I’m working. It’s part of the court order—”

“Trashy bitch.” The woman eased her well-tailored ass onto the counter, spilling candy displays and scratch cards. Her emerald suit had a name—not that Aggie knew names of suits or the people who built empires of fashion. “I’m not here for your bullshit family drama. Give me your hand.

The clerk withdrew, arms crossed about her as though she were suddenly naked. “No. And I think you need to leave. Before I call the cops.”

The woman grabbed the clerk’s throat with a single hand, her nails glittering like wet blood.

Aggie suddenly felt sluggish, and could think of no better thing than to take a nap right here on this gas station floor. The other people standing in line seemed to feel the same way. Shoulders hunched. Heads drooped. Someone snored softly.

The clerk went limp. Her eyes glazed over.

Aggie fought her eyes back open with panic—this wave of drowsiness was some sort of psychic attack, which meant that woman was either an angel or a demon. She had too much style to be an angel.

The only way to survive a demon, in Aggie’s humble experience, was to run away. She needed channel that good, old-fashioned fear into an exit strategy. Now.

The demon released the poor clerk, who collapsed behind the counter. She turned and surveyed the crowd, looking for the next victim.

The doors were on the far side of an impulse buy aisle. Aggie sidled slowly past a guy with a case of beer on each arm, cleared the end cap of pre-packaged breakfast sweets, and darted.

It was a great plan, except for her skirt caught on a bent shelf, and she swung around it and slammed into the In door.

The demon grabbed her arm. “Not so fast, mortal. I came for the clerk, but I can tell you’re a tasty morsel. What a nice coincidence.”

Eighteen months. Eighteen goddamn months without a single encounter, and now today when her life was starting to look up, she had to get on the wrong side of a demon at a chance encounter.

Aggie squirmed. “I’m not tasty. I’m nobody.”

The demon’s eyes glittered with hunger and too much eyeshadow. Her grip tightened.

Aggie felt pulled to the demon, as though her blood and even her veins were being drawn from her arm. The desperate mantra survive, survive, survive ran through her head. She steeled and summoned every bit of willpower to keep her insides inside of her.

A warm and pleasant buzzing rolled up her spine and blossomed out to her shoulder blades. It offered her strength, and she took it.

The demon roared back with a hiss. “You aren’t mortal at all. You must be God’s new pet, the Stupidest Angel I keep hearing about.”

Aggie didn’t have time to argue technicalities—she wasn’t an angel, she wasn’t anyone’s pet, and she certainly hadn’t had time to earn such a terrible nickname. She flung a box of cheese muffins into the demon’s face and ran—this time through the right door, to the feeble protection of her boyfriend’s weather-beaten compact.

The demon poked herself out the glass door. “Stay out of my way. If I see you again, I’ll devour you whole.”

Sam’s car started right away, thankfully. Aggie drove off without a rebuttal. Witty replies were impractical. They stole valuable time from her cowardly escape.

Interview Questions

Nine minutes late. Aggie smiled as she walked up to the desk, preparing to charm the receptionist with her introduction. “Hi, I’m Agnes Halcomb, here to see Mr. Belvedere.”

The woman behind the faux marble counter was heavyset with a conservative bun and plaid cardigan. She stared at the clock until it rolled over to 1:10, then slowly handed a clipboard to Aggie. “Sign in, please.”

Aggie wrote in 1:09 as her arrival time, which was embarrassingly late. That kind of late was a strained interview and a we’ll-get-back-to-you that never happened. She wanted to cry, but she kept smiling.

“Have a seat. Mr. Belvedere will see you shortly.”

Aggie sank into the nearest chair, clutching her purse with near-perfect posture. The chairs were stiff and the plastic had an almost sticky quality, like they were factory new, just like everything else in this twelve-story building. She checked to make sure her hand was still covering the duct tape that held her purse together. She pretended to look interested in an art deco painting of an orange desert hanging on the wall.

Hopefully, Mr. Belvedere wouldn’t notice her disheveled appearance. Or her out-of-season autumn blouse and skirt, purchased last week on blue-tag special from the thrift store.

Her shoulders tightened with the same buzzing she experienced at the gas station. It was dull and insistent, growing and filling her with pressure, like her muscles were swelling and her skin couldn’t stretch enough.

Demons. It felt just like demons.

Aggie froze. That couldn’t be. Her angelhide was locked up in a safe in the most secure part of Heaven, dormant until her return in the distant future. Well, supposed to be dormant.

The sensation of demons, itchy and cloying, grew stronger as they came closer. Two of them, neither signatures she recognized.

Calm down, Aggie. They aren’t even coming for you. It’s just a fluke, a random coincidence—

A man with a grungy t-shirt speckled with stains on the shoulder burst into the room. Palpable evil surrounded him like a fog of cheap cologne. His fish net sleeves had more holes than not. Stringy black hair was spiked into anti-gravitational orbit around his head, but his punk aesthetic ended there: no piercings, no tattoos. His face was shaven, his eyebrows a bit too perfect not to be professionally plucked. He threw out his hands in a pseudo-gang sign that made Aggie cringe. “Ags! What up?”

She kept her focus on that orange sand painting. Oh, God, this can’t be happening. Not here. Weren’t demons supposed to ruin lives? Job interviews should be strictly off-limits.

Mr. Belvedere emerged from the other side of the room. He was just another suit, one of many Aggie had seen in the past few months, a middle-aged man with a slouch and bland flyover-state smile that no one could mistake as sincere. “Ms. Halcomb?”

“Hey, Ags, is that your boss-dude?” Another demon popped in the room behind the first. He wore a black leather trench coat and a red clown nose. His baseball cap, which sported a bent peacock feather, was on backwards. “Hey, boss-dude, how’s it hangin’?”

Aggie tried not to sound desperate and terrified, and she failed miserably. “I don’t know these people! Um, hi, Mr. Belvedere, it’s nice to meet you.”

She thrust out her hand to shake his, but the clown-nosed demon grabbed her wrist and yanked it up. “Ags’ got the powah! Yeah!”

Mr. Belvedere stepped back, as though by distancing himself from the weirdness, it could be contained on one side of the room. “What’s going on here?”

“We’re busting Ags out of corporate prison.” The grunge demon played air guitar. “We don’t need your permission, suit-man. We live below the grid.”

Aggie’s cheeks burned with what could only be an epic blush. She wrenched herself free but lost her purse in the process. It slammed into the painting, tore through the canvas, and everything flew out in a mad clatter.

“Is this some sort of joke?” Belvedere demanded.

“No,” Aggie whimpered. “I’ve never seen them before in my whole life. I’m here to interview for the administrative assistant position—”

Clownie kicked up his feet to reveal authentic clown shoes, bulbous and two feet long, and let out an exaggerated sob. “Ags, why you say that? We’re your friends.”

“We love you, Agnes Halcomb.” Pseudo-punk tried to hug her, but she jabbed him in the shoulder.

“This is wasting my time.” Mr. Belvedere shook his head and pointed at the door, in case anyone had managed to forget where that was. “Get out of my office.”

So much for a career in law.

“Right on, boss-dude. We’re taking dear old Ags on a joyride now.” Pseudo-punk bobbed his head front to back with pursed lips. “Catch ya later, losers.”

Belvedere stormed off. The receptionist gawked with a phone at her ear. She snapped, “I’m on the phone with security. They’re on their way.”

“That’s our cue,” the demon replied.

Aggie gathered her meager belongings. Her hands shook and her knees felt wobbly. “You won’t get away with this.”

“I’m so-o-o-o scared,” said Clownie. He took her by the arm and pulled her to the door, ripping another seam in her skirt. “Come on.”

She tried to wrench away from him, but he was stronger and bigger. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Without responding, they dragged her into the hallway. She kicked Clownie in the shin. He stumbled and screeched but didn’t let go, and they both tumbled to the floor.

“What’s the problem here?” Two security guards stomped out of the elevator. They looked alarmed, until they beheld Aggie and her demon captors, then they huffed in anger. “We’ll need to ask you to leave at this time.”

Pseudo-punk grinned. “No problem. We were just on our way out. If you’ll just excuse us—”

“Wait!” Aggie cried. “I don’t want to go with them. They’re going to hurt me.”

“We haven’t told you what we’re going to do with you.” Pseudo-punk winked. “Are you going to keep laying there like an undignified fool?”

She nearly reminded him that less than a minute ago, he was playing air guitar. Once the demon helped her up, she threw herself at the chest of the sturdier-looking security guard. “Help me,” she begged.

Pseudo-punk waved his hand dismissively at the security guards. “You don’t want to help her. Do you, boys?”

The other security guard wouldn’t even look at her. He gazed in a fugue state at Pseudo-punk and growled, “I’ll show you the exit. Does that help?”

“But you have to help me, you’re public servants—”

He tapped the embroidered logo on his collared shirt, which read ‘Armed-All, Inc.’ “My employer wants you off the property immediately.”

Pseudo-punk smirked at Aggie. “Come on, now. Nobody wants to save you.”

Like Hell. Aggie kept the guards between her and the demon, like a chubby, fleshy shield. “Call the real police! They’re trying to abduct me.”

“Right now, you’re trespassing on private property. That’s a real charge.” The guard turned, hands on his hips. “Don’t make us use force, ma’am.”

Force—now there was an idea. Unfortunately, these for-hire men didn’t carry much on their belts Aggie could use—not even a pair of handcuffs to chain herself to a door or a taser to point at the demons. “Oh, I will,” she said, feeling very much like she was standing on the ledge of a very high window. “I’ll do it. I’ll make you use force.”

Pseudo-punk snorted and muttered in the infernal language, which was a guttural, scary version of Latin. Goat horns sprung from his head. His eyes became red like coals. A scythe appeared in his hands. “Well, I guess it’s time for wanton chaos and destruction.”

Clownie summoned his mantle gleefully. His weapon of choice was a scimitar, its blade a dull red. “Have you ever tasted human blood, Simon? Delicious.”

Pseudo-punk Simon licked his lips. “I bet it tastes just like chicken.”

The security guards appropriately lost their shit. They quivered and stared, too stunned to do much else.

Aggie knew the demons were just kidding, but that didn’t stop her stomach from turning.

Simon rushed at the nearest security guard, driving the end of his scythe through the man’s tender, roundish gut. The poor guy never really processed what was coming. He crumpled with a shocked, pained look and clutched his intestines as they slid out. Spasms rocked his limbs.

The other guard had the wherewithal to flee, but he was no match for two immortal predators drunk on violence. They caught up to him a mere twenty feet down the hall. Aggie frantically looked around for some way to hide before they remembered her. All she found was a fire extinguisher built into a wall cabinet.

Well, it was better than nothing. She twisted the knob, pounded on the red button, and yanked the extinguisher free. Deafening alarms clanged overhead. With a grunt, she heaved the extinguisher to chest level and pointed herself at the demons, who had dragged the other guard to the floor and were tormenting him with shallow cuts on his face and chest.

Secretaries, managers and clients fled into the hallway in a flurry. They screamed and fled, pushing against each other to get away from the murdering monsters.

Aggie popped the pin and squeezed the trigger. A cloud of dry powder puffed out of the hose. It grew quickly, obscuring everything in the hallway and making the air itch. When the extinguisher ran out of steam, she abandoned it and took off running into the nearest crowd, heading toward the stairs. A pair of young women complained that this drill was wasting their lunch break.

Aggie wormed through the crowd, looking for a less-obvious exit. Square windows framed the base of each stairwell. Tiny locks secured the windows.

Shouts rang out overhead. The demons must be pursuing her. Of course they were. What kind of demons would give up after the paltry distraction of a fire extinguisher?

Aggie shouldered past an older man and yanked at the latches. They popped open with ease. Her plan was not, in any fashion, well-formed. The ground below was a few feet away. She was in dress flats. As if being clothed for a jump would make any difference.

A dumpster lay slightly to the left, full but topped with carpet remnants and foam bits. There was no time to think about how horrible of an idea this was. She climbed onto the sill and threw herself at the dumpster.

She lost momentum with her lower half dangling over the side, hips pinched at the raw metal edge. She reached for a sturdy-looking two by four and kicked wildly, worming her way deeper into the dumpster like a fish flopping.

A breeze wafting across Aggie’s posterior suggested that her skirt was all the way up—or was that down?

With another sound kick or three, she slid inside. As she rolled all the way in to the dumpster, her ankle banged against the edge with a loud, gonging sound. A roll of carpet fell on top of her, which while unpleasant was probably the best possible thing a girl could find in a pile of refuse. Good thing she hadn’t applied to a diner.

Yet.

Aggie lay there for a long moment, maybe two, trying to tell herself to keep breathing. Her foot stung something fierce—then again, so did the rest of her. A cut throbbed on her arm.

Shouts pierced the air on the other side of the parking lot. Aggie pulled herself up slowly, wincing the entire time, until she could prop up against the side and peek out.

The crowd formed in front of the building. Simon barked orders, scattering terrified workers like wolves corralling sheep. One young girl was pushed forward. The only resemblance to her and Aggie was their hair—long and dishwater blonde. When Simon realized it wasn’t her, he threw her onto the hood of a nearby car. She shrieked in agony with her arm twisted beneath her.

Aggie ducked back down, pressing her eyes tight to keep them from watering.

“Look, that’s her shoe,” Simon called, his voice coming closer. “Down the hill, over there.”

She flexed her good foot. Shit. She must have lost it right outside the dumpster. Her shoe would lead them right to her.

The other demon swore. “No good, man. I bet she picked up a ride on the interstate. She could be anywhere.”

“We can’t lose her. We just can’t.” Simon’s voice came from further past the dumpster, where the constant buzz of high-speed traffic just down the hill made him harder to understand. “This is the only point of contact we have. We’re fucked unless we wanna admit to Lucifer that we lost her.”

Aggie held her breath, squeezed her eyes shut, didn’t move a muscle. Could she be so lucky? She chanted to herself, Demons are too good to look in dumpsters, which are dirty and gross and completely un-demonlike. And Aggie would never, ever hide in one. Just walk past it…

The unnamed demon snorted. “Relax. That P.O.S. over there? It’s hers. She’ll come back for it.”

“Oh, yeah. Good thinking. She’ll have to backtrack soon—before they tow it tonight.”

“Let’s stake out her car after we grab a bite to eat. A good slaughter always makes me hungry.”

“Me too, man. Me, too.”

The Not-Dream

“Em?”

“Huh?” Em blinked and wiped her eyes. “Did you say something?”

Schwartz cocked his head. “I said a lot of things, actually. What’s going on, sweetums?”

“I dunno.” She stabbed a piece of lettuce and stared, wondering why she was eating when she wasn’t hungry. Or maybe she wasn’t hungry anymore because she’d already eaten most of dinner. “I must be off today.”

“I noticed.” Schwartz leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “Did you sleep well?”

“Last night was fine.” Em nodded to assure him. A tornado could hit the apartment and he’d sleep through it. “My afternoon nap, though… it was weird.”

“Weird dreams?” he asked with trepidation. Considering Em’s dreams were of the prophetic variety, he usually kept that subject at arm’s length. His breed of atheism didn’t believe in anything remotely supernatural, even though he’d seen angels and demons and proof that her dreams came true.

“More like…” Em chewed her lip while she searched for a description. She hadn’t given it much thought, but now that she couldn’t seem to focus, it merited her attention. “A blank dream.”

“So you didn’t dream, then.”

“I did. I always dream.” Em set down her fork, since the rest of the lettuce looked too wilted to enjoy. “It’s not like I don’t remember. I think I dreamed of nothing.”

“So, you didn’t dream?”

She said, “You know, like a tape that’s been recorded over with silence. Not a blank tape with nothing on it. A tape with silence.”

“Or like a corrupted data file?”

“Yes, exactly.”

He shrugged. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Jerk. If he didn’t understand, he shouldn’t be positing such great analogies. “Well, that’s all I got. I’m sure that I dreamed, it was just empty. Void. Error message, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.”

He piled the dirty dishes and disappeared into the kitchen. When he appeared a moment later, he dragged his chair around the table, next to hers. “It must be rough. Disorienting, too.”

“Yeah, it is.” She gave him a weak smile to appreciate his efforts at empathy. “I rely on those snippets to get me through the day. Even if my dreams don’t tell me anything important, they are, I dunno, information I’m used to having.”

“Have you talked to your mentor?”

“She’s on an anniversary honeymoon for the next few days,” Em said. “I’ll ask when she gets back. I guess it can wait until then.”

“Have you considered some alternatives in the meantime?”

The question threw her off guard. He sounded sincere enough, but what could he possibly mean? Em took a deep breath. “Considering this problem is a couple hours old, I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

He smiled playfully. “Fair enough.”

“What do you have in mind? I smell ulterior motives.”

“Hey now.” He sniffed his pits. “I smell like man-spice. No motives here, unless you’ll punish me for caring about my girlfriend.”

“I might.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, I guess I can’t give you this.” He patted his pocket.

“Give me what?”

Schwartz held a business card over his head so she couldn’t read it. “Nothing.”

“You lying liar of lyingness!” Em grabbed for the card, but Schwartz held it further out of reach. This resulted in her plowing him in the face with her face. She kissed him sloppily, while not-so-subtly reaching over his head. When that didn’t work, she plastered a silly grin on her face. “Oh, noodlums, I would never in a million years punish you for caring. You’re the bestest and I wuv you.”

He raised one eyebrow. “What was that you were saying a minute ago—something about a lying liar of lyingness?”

“It’s true.” She retreated to her chair, only a bit deflated. “I mean, you did lie. But you’re my liar, and that makes it okay.”

“Ohhh… well, if I’m your liar…” Schwartz flipped the card onto the table with a flourish. “You could check this place out.”

Purple and blue embossed the card with trippy lettering. The Lunar Laboratory offered ‘spiritual healing, ancient wisdom, and new age gifts.’ The logo was a dream catcher and the address listed the shop on the north side of River City, probably in the kitschy part of town locally famous for bullshit boutiques. “Schwartz, what are you up to?”

“Nothing. Just thought if you didn’t want to wait for your mentor, you had something to try in the meantime.”

“So you’ve just been keeping this card in your pocket, waiting for the right opportunity to toss it out there and help me?”

He chortled. “Remember Steve, the guy who helped me do the lighting for the spring musical?”

“Vaguely.”

“I ran into him today. His brother just took partial ownership of the store. He insisted I take a card and ‘pass it on to a lost soul who needed some direction and community.'” Schwartz smiled. “Not that I think you’re lost.”

“So you think I need a bunch of looneys?” Em tossed the card back on the table. “If I remember right, Steve was a little excitable.”

“What talent with understatement you have, my darling.” Schwartz pulled her onto his lap and squeezed her tight. “The only looney you need is me. If you don’t want to go, then don’t. I don’t pretend to understand what makes you tick. I just want to see you happy.”

Em didn’t understand how she ticked, either, but somehow she had come to accept it. Dreaming the future was one thing. Admitting it aloud was another entirely. And Schwartz, bless his dear heart, was doing his best. “Aww, shucks. Is this the part where we kiss then dart to the bedroom?”

“That would certainly make me happy.”

Chapter Two

Secrets

“What happened to you?” Sam ran to the door and held out his arm for Aggie.

The hobble to their second-floor apartment had winded Aggie and made her foot throb even worse. She was terrible at lying. Everyone knew it. So instead of directly answering the question, she whimpered. “Can you help me get to the couch?”

He offered his steady strength until she sank into the worn cushions. She sighed and kicked off her remaining shoe.

Sam’s apartment hadn’t changed much in the year and a half Aggie lived there. His wall of fedoras was the focal point of the living room, and the boxy television across the couch was turned off. One of three guitar stands stood empty, which meant he left his acoustic in the bedroom, where he often played.

“It was awful, Sam.” As though it weren’t obvious by her injured foot. On the way home, she had stopped at a different gas station to clean up her arm and throw away her bloody cardigan. The attendant was nice enough to let her have a bandage, so her scratch was covered. She wouldn’t have to answer questions about that—yet.

“I bet it was. What can I do to help?” Sam glanced at the clock. It was almost time for him to leave for work at his second part-time job. He was already dressed in a white collared shirt that made his shoulders look stiff, even when he slumped. At least if he had to wash dishes for money, he could do so at a fancy restaurant that paid a dollar an hour more than most places.

He always tried to be optimistic about it, but he worked three times more than she did, all dead-end jobs that had nothing to do with his long term goals. The only reason she even had her part time job at the library was from her contacts. Schwartz, really.

She gingerly touched her ankle, which had swollen in the hour it took her to crawl out of the dumpster, jump-start the car, and drive back using the wrong foot. “An ice pack, if we have one?”

“Sure.” Sam went into the kitchen, which was nearly as sparse as Aggie’s wardrobe, and came back with a bag of frozen corn wrapped in a thin dishtowel. “Twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off.”

The cold brought relief through numbness. “Thank you.”

He fetched some ibuprofen and offered it with a glass of water. “You might want this, too.”

She swallowed the pills obediently, grateful he spared her the trip. That was worth a smile. “You’re sweet.”

He sat on the far side of the couch, staring at her leg through droopy eyes. “So what happened?”

“It’s so stupid,” Aggie said. Her cheeks burned. She had to look away. Deceiving him made her want to cry. The pain made her want to cry. Hell, she should stop trying not to cry. “I tripped going up the stairs.”

It was obviously a lie. She didn’t even sound like she believed herself. Yet Sam merely eyed her bandage and said, “What about your arm?”

He would believe the truth. He knew that demons and angels existed. In fact, he probably suspected she’d had a brush with something today.

But.

He shouldn’t have to worry about her like that.

She sniffed. “I fell down at least half a flight. I don’t know what I got caught on.”

He held up her shoe. The sole slopped free of the base and hung limply. “Not to kick you while you’re down, but you need to take care of yourself better.”

“You’re right.” She pressed her palms against her face. The pressure against her eyes felt good, like she was tapping a release valve in her head. “I thought I wouldn’t have much walking to do. It was a desk job.”

“So I take it the interview didn’t go well?”

“He said he’d call me in a couple of days.” They all said that. Aggie had a job interview once every three weeks or so, but she never got callbacks. Even the lowliest jobs found better candidates with actual work histories and experience.

Sam’s mouth was stiff. There was no way he could believe her. Maybe he was just too tired to care anymore. With a shrug he said, “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”

And hopefully, while he was keeping his fingers crossed, he wouldn’t catch the local news. The ‘robbery’ at Sky Terrace would stick out in his mind—though the reporters wouldn’t mention the supernatural, he would wonder why the robbers wore costumes and strange hats. A fog enveloped the mind of humans after they dealt with demons and angels. People justified, twisted, explained everything they saw into something mundane.

Sam would recognize the signs. Then he’d want to know why she had demons after her.

Why did she have demons after her?

“I gotta get to work,” Sam said after a long moment of silence. “Take it easy. I’ll bring some food when I’m off.”

“Have a good night.”

He kissed her softly on the forehead, lingering a bit longer than usual, and trudged to the door with the faintest smile.

At least he wasn’t worried about her.

Aggie scrunched her face, as though by clenching all those muscles she could gather and release the day. It didn’t work. She couldn’t escape the pain, exhaustion, and worry.

Simon and the other demon didn’t have her address, but it was only a matter of time before they did. Her address was on file at every employing business in East River City. And seriously, what could they want with her? Why had she suddenly sensed them like she could when she was an angel?

Her ankle throbbed to remind her—she was still quite mortal, and still out of her league.

Your Prayer is Important to Us

Aggie hobbled up the metal stairs outside the Muffin Emporium. After a night of rest, her ankle was almost a normal size. She should be resting instead of trudging up treacherous stairs. If only that were an option.

She knocked on the door labeled with a crooked number two. Something went bump on the other side. Art answered the door, rubbing his eyes. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his shirt needed a trip to the laundromat. Otherwise, he was still Art—all scowls and bad posture and cheap cologne.

Aggie said, “I’m sorry to bother you.”

“I’m sure you are,” he grumbled. “What do you want?”

So much for a good start. Aggie would have gone to anyone else, but the only angel on Earth she knew was Art.

His apartment had sagged in on itself since the last time she was there. Junk was piled everywhere. Grime coated the entryway tiles. The table where he kept his keys was two colors—dark where his hands brushed the corner, and gray with a thick film of dust and cobwebs.

The ancient sofa in the middle of the room had one empty space, so Aggie eased herself onto the least-cluttered cushion. Art turned on the overhead light, which sported a single functional bulb in the naked fixture, and stared at her expectantly.

She cleared her throat, suddenly unsure of where to begin. Art didn’t care about her. The only reason he would help her was because his daughter, Em, was her best friend. Em was the reason he did anything at all.

“What’s the matter?” he finally asked.

Well, may as well get on with it. “Can I use your phone?”

“You drove all the way across town to borrow my phone?”

“I took the bus, actually.” The bus pass was practically her most valuable possession. God gave it to her as a parting gift, and it never ran out of fare. “I need your Heaven-Sent phone.”

He just stared.

She fidgeted. “I need to call Divine Intervention. I have some questions.”

More staring.

Aggie sighed and told him about the attack. “And that’s why I need to ask God what happened to my angelhide. I shouldn’t be able to sense demons.”

And more staring. Silence, too.

Aggie added, “I’m hoping God will be able to help me. I don’t have a way to contact him on my own, so I need to borrow your phone.”

Art drew a blocky black phone from his pocket, but instead of handing it to her, he swiped at the screen. “Does this have anything to do with Em?”

“No. I haven’t talked to her.”

“You’re sure?”

“Well, considering I don’t actually know what’s going on, not really. But I haven’t talked to her since last week, and the demons were after me specifically. They didn’t mention anything else.”

“Alright.” Art punched in a couple of numbers and reached out with the phone. “It’s already dialing.”

Hold music greeted Aggie. She winced at the familiar and condescending tone. “Thank you for calling Divine Intervention. All our representatives are busy at this time. Please stay on the line. Your prayer will be answered in the order it was received. Your prayer is important to us. This prayer may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.”

The last time she called this hotline, she’d been stuck on hold so long her phone died. This time, she only had to listen to the greeting three times before a real person—or rather, angel—answered flatly. “Thank you for calling Divine Intervention, River Valley District and Surrounding Tri-County Area, Consumer Services Division. My name is Wanda. May I have your Holy ID?”

“Hi, Wanda. This is Aggie and I don’t have a Holy ID—”

The representative’s voice went even flatter. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I don’t have a Holy ID.”

“Your ID number is on a sticker on the back of your Heaven-Sent device,” she replied. “Your device is currently in your hand. It’s the phone you are calling with.”

“This isn’t my phone. Like I said, my name is Aggie and—”

“How did you get that device, then?” she asked curtly. “Heaven-Sent Inc. is proprietary technology that belongs only to official Guardian Angels. If you are not an authorized user, you must discard the device immediately.”

“No! Could you just listen to me, please?”

For a long moment, Wanda breathed loudly through her mouth. “Go on.”

“I’m a retired Guardian Angel, Level Three. I have a contract with God that allows me to be human. However, my abilities have manifested inexplicably and I need to speak with God.”

“God is currently unavailable.”

Of course he was. Wanda didn’t believe her. Aggie smiled so her voice would sound warm and sweet. “Please? It’s very important.”

“What was your name again?”

“Agnes Halcomb.” She frowned, suddenly less sure of herself. “Or maybe you have me on file as Cheryl Marie Dalton, my human name before I died.”

“What?” Wanda rolled her eyes. It was showing in her voice.

“It’s a long story. Anyway, I’m Agnes Halcomb.” She spelled out her name.

The typing of keys, frenetic and pounding, suggested Wanda was trying or at least pretending. “You’re not in our system. Do you have a Holy ID or other case number?”

“I just told you—I don’t have a Holy ID.”

“Or other case number?”

“Or other case number.”

Art grabbed a folder from the stack of papers next to his chair. “It’s 995-4342.”

“Wait, it’s 995-4342.” Aggie put her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said, “How did you know that? What’s in that file?”

“It’s a copy of your contract,” he said, as if he cared as little about her privacy as he did for dusting.

“How did you get it?”

“Ma’am?” Wanda asked.

“Yes?”

“You just gave me case number 995-4342. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Just a moment while I pull up the file. Can you please hold?” Without waiting for Aggie to answer, Wanda was replaced with some slow harp music.

“So, Art. Why do you have that?”

“Have what?”

“My contract! You know, a private document that’s between me and God, but somehow you have a copy on a pile of junk mail next to your armchair?”

“That’s not junk mail,” he said. “That’s everything that pertains to my assignment.”

“I’m not your assignment.”

“My assignment, for whatever reason, considers you her friend and wastes her time socializing with you. Permanent Umbrella Clause.”

Aggie sighed like she’d given up. There was nothing she could do about it, and she didn’t care if he disapproved of her. Actually, she did care. “What’s wrong with me spending time with Em?”

“You’re dangerous.”

“Me?” Aggie lifted her eyebrows at him. How was she a threat to anyone? Was it because she ran away from the first sign of trouble, or was it because she spent most of her time at the library reading?

“Ever since you died, trouble has followed you. Things haven’t been right. Don’t deny it. Yesterday you got attacked by demons.”

“I didn’t get attacked—they tried to abduct me. There’s a difference.”

“They killed a man and put a woman in the hospital. So if they try to ‘abduct’ you while you’re with my daughter, she becomes collateral damage.”

“You’re her guardian angel. Protect her.”

“I am, by warning you to stay away from her.” Art shook his head. “You never listen, and then you get people killed. You don’t belong here.”

“I—” She cut herself short, because she couldn’t argue with that. She’d been so proud to return to Earth, but she hadn’t found that happy life she wanted so badly. Her relationships with Sam and her friends were strained at best, her search for a career was bust, and she hadn’t done anything worthwhile in the eighteen months she’d been on Earth.

The harp music was cut off and Wanda spoke. “Ms. Halcomb? I’ve reviewed your case file and I will be unable to allow you to speak with God at this time.”

“Why not?”

“Page five of your contract, halfway down. There’s a non-intervention clause that states neither God nor client will have contact each other for the duration of contract.” Wanda sounded victorious.

“But there’s a problem. I need someone to check on my angelhide, because I’m having—”

“Would you like to breach your contract and nullify the arrangement?”

“No, of course not. I just want someone to check on my angelhide and tell me if there’s a problem.”

“Please refer to page six of the same document, second paragraph. ‘God shall hold the client’s angelhide in a secure safe and maintain it until the client has need.’ If you want someone to ‘check on it,’ as you call it, you’re asking for God himself, because he’s the only one with access.”

“But there’s a problem. This is an exception.” Aggie forced herself to keep smiling because she couldn’t let her teeth clench or otherwise show her frustration. Then she’d get no help at all.

“I fail to see an exception clause in this document, ma’am. If I were to put you in touch with God, you will be in breach of your contract.”

“Hold on for a second.”

“I can hold for up to sixty seconds, but at that time I will have to release the call.”

Really? Aggie rolled her eyes as she thumbed through the contract. She hadn’t read it more than a year, but most of it was familiar, since she had negotiated it herself. Now, she realized there was so much more she should have asked for—namely, for demons not to bother her.

An education, too.

If terms of this contract are not upheld by God and the client, the non-intervention clause will be revoked and the client shall resume contracted work by the permanent employer, God.

Aggie wasn’t ready to be an angel again. But she wasn’t ready to die, either, or see her friends die when those demons finally figured out how to find her.

Did she care more about her own life than the lives of her friends?

“Put me through to God. I really need to talk to him.”

“Please hold.”

After at least ten minutes of music so soft and lilting it threatened to put Aggie to sleep, Wanda’s smug voice jolted her alert. “Thank you for holding. I apologize for the wait. God is not available at this time.”

“What?”

“I said that God is not available at this time.”

“I heard you,” Aggie said with a remarkable amount of patience. “Why isn’t God available?”

“He’s on vacation.”

“Then can I speak with Hazel, the Right Hand of God?”

After another twelve minutes on hold, Wanda came back on the line to half-heartedly apologize for the wait. Again. “Hazel is unavailable at this time.”

“Really?”

“I have no reason to deceive you, ma’am.” Wanda breathed heavily, as though she were recovering from a bout of laughter. “Hazel is on the same vacation as God. It’s called a honeymoon.”

“When will they be back?”

“I don’t have access to their personal calendars, ma’am. Would you like to leave God a message about how you’d like to break your contract?”

“No,” Aggie said quickly. “I’ll call back another time. Don’t tell God anything.”

“Of course, ma’am. Is that all I can do for you today?”

“You haven’t really done anything for me.”

“Thank you so much for calling Divine Intervention. Have a blessed day.”

Aggie stared at the phone, refusing to believe that just happened. But it had. She was out of luck and out of help. “Well, thanks for letting me try, Art.”

“You’re really not welcome,” he grumped. “I want you out of Em’s life, right now, before this gets further out of control.”

“Fine.” Aggie didn’t have the energy to argue anymore. “I’ll cancel all our plans until the demons are out of the picture.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I’ll think of something.”

Gentleman Demon

Five hours later, Aggie still had no idea what she would do about the demons. She pretended to read the classifieds and listened to the soft sounds of Sam’s guitar playing in the bedroom. How could she focus on her job search when Simon and his buddy could show up at any moment? They wouldn’t let her escape next time.

And really, how had they missed looking in the dumpster? That was the lucky break of a lifetime.

As she stewed about them, her shoulder blades tingled with the growing irritation of evil. No! Not here.

But then, this demon’s signature was different than Simon’s or that other guy. This one was familiar and alone.

Abraham.

Shit. Abraham was relentless and ambitious. He knew her well enough to block all escape routes and to hit her right where it hurt the most: Sam.

Aggie slipped on her worn sneakers and perused the kitchen for a weapon. The best she could manage was a cast iron skillet. She felt silly holding it, but she’d rather feel silly than completely unprepared.

She found Abraham sitting on a faded picnic table in the ‘family area’ of the complex, which was really just a square of infrequently-mowed grass that no one used. He casually smoked a cigarette and pretended not to notice her as she hobble-crept forward.

In the past year and a half, he’d let his hair grow into curly locks that covered his ears. His sandals and khaki shorts made his ankles look scrawny. “Hello, Aggie,” he said. “How have you been?”

She clenched the skillet tighter. “What do you want?”

He held out a silver cigarette case, his other hand up and out in a gesture of supplication. “To catch up with an old friend, of course.”

“Lies.” Aggie pointed the skillet in his general direction, though it was a futile defense. At least she’d kept Sam safe by getting out of the apartment before things got violent. “No thanks. I don’t smoke.”

He slid the case back into his pocket. “Have a seat. Chat with me a while.”

“No, because then you’ll use your illusions on me, and then I’ll wind up reciting Canterbury tales while you cut me open like an autopsy to steal my angelhide.”

“Aww, Aggie, just because it happened once doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen again.” Abraham pouted. “Seriously. I won’t hurt you. We need to talk.”

She considered reminding him that he was the Demon of Fraud and Deception, therefore, whatever he said must surely be a lie.

But.

He was supernaturally fast and strong. She would be dead already, if that was his plan. Aggie slowly made her way across the overgrown grass, menacing the skillet every other step. “Talk about what?”

He patted the table next to him. “Will you stop being so ridiculous and sit down?”

“Me? Ridiculous?” Aggie’s voice quivered. “You tried to kill me four times.”

He nodded with a reluctant smile. “I actually did kill you, the first time.”

“You killed me twice! I only survived the second because my promotion healed my throat, right as you were trying to slit it.”

“Is that what happened?”

She sighed and sat on the table next to him. “Point is, I associate you with pain and death. It’s a bit hard to be friendly-like, especially since I was attacked by two of your pals yesterday.”

“One: not my pals.” Abraham held up two fingers. “Two: they were not supposed to attack you.”

“They murdered and seriously injured two or three people!”

“Well, yeah, they’re demons. Murder and grievous harm is what we do.” Abraham stubbed out his cigarette and flicked it away. “But you personally were not to be harmed. They’re being punished for what they did to you.”

“For sabotaging my job interview and forcing me to hide in a dumpster?”

“For the dumpster.”

“What about the job interview? I could be gainfully employed right now.”

“Hey, I’m apologizing here. I’m sorry those buffoons hurt you. They don’t know how to complete a mission.” Abraham fiddled with a large ring on his thumb. It had an onyx stone that seemed to wink in the light.

Her initial terror of discovering Abraham at her home faded, only to be replaced with a new dread that made her feet heavy like concrete. “But they were on an official mission. To take me somewhere.”

“To Hell.”

“I’m not going to Hell,” Aggie snapped. “Well, if I weren’t already an angel, I’d be going straight to Hell, but I’m not letting a pair of demons drag me there.”

“You’re right.” Abraham smiled cheerfully. “About the pair of demons. You’ll be escorted to Hell in style with one very classy demon.”

She gave him a blank look. “I’ve never met a classy demon.”

“I take it you’ve never ridden in a Jag?”

“I’m not going.”

“But I apologized.” Abraham slid another cigarette out of the case. “My dear, I’m afraid you don’t have much of a choice. Lucifer himself requests an audience with you.”

“Why should I believe that?” This time when he absent-mindedly offered her a cigarette, she took and it let him light her. It was a strange sensation—she smoked pot all the time with Sam, but this was hotter, almost like the difference between tea and coffee. Her fingers tingled and suddenly she was going to take over the world.

He shrugged with a playful smile dancing in his brown eyes. “It’s the truth. Spare me the questions—I don’t know why Lucifer wants you, but he does. And he sends a formal, sincere apology for the way Ezekiel and Simon treated you.”

“You’re the formal, sincere apology?”

“I’m not dressed for formal.” Abraham pulled a slim black case from his other pocket and clicked it open with his smoking cigarette balanced between his lips. A syringe with vivid green liquid and a scary large needle lay inside. “But this is quite sincere.”

She inched away from him and stubbed her cigarette out before she caught someone or something on fire, most likely herself. “I’m not even going to ask what that is.”

“Good. Surprises are fun.” He held up the syringe and tapped out an air bubble. “Give me your hand.”

“Oh hell no.” Aggie bolted up, completely forgetting that her ankle was injured, and tumbled face-first into the grass. She rolled, but Abraham was right there. “Don’t touch me, demon!”

“You’re not accepting the apology very gracefully.” Abraham grabbed Aggie’s arm and jabbed the syringe into her skin. The green liquid slid down, disappearing under her skin.

A burning shot up her arm and overwhelmed her whole being. Muscles tightened to the point of snapping off bones. Her spine popped in a dozen places. She tried to scream but her lungs refused to expel the air.

Then instantly, the pain disappeared and left her light and dizzy. She somehow wound up clenching Abraham’s hand so tight she drew blood with her fingernails. He smiled and helped her up.

“Is that better?”

“Huh?” Aggie blinked. Everything was different. She could read the rusted sign for the auto body shop across the street with new clarity. Blades of grass were distinct instead of the lawn being fuzzy rolls of green and brown. Abraham’s ring had a slight crack in the stone. “You enhanced my vision?”

The demon chuckled. “You must have needed glasses before. What about your leg?”

Oh. She took a tentative step forward. Her ankle didn’t hurt. Not only was the pain gone, her leg was strong and flexible like she hadn’t spent the last day and a half lounging around. She yanked the bandage off her arm. The skin underneath was unblemished.

“Why did you do that for me?”

“Like I said, a formal and sincere apology for what happened. Consider it a grave miscommunication on our part.” Abraham bowed. “You’ll be my distinguished guest while we’re in Hell.”

“I’m not going.”

“Aggie, this doesn’t have to get ugly.” He glanced not-so-subtly up to her second floor apartment.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “So if I go with you, no more demon attacks or surprise visits? We keep Sam and my friends out of this?”

“You got it.”

For Em and Schwartz and Sam, she had to go. “Fine. Lead the way.”

Chapter Three

Deal with the Devil

Without further explanation, Abraham drove Aggie to an abandoned warehouse on the crumbling side of town. He strode across the cracked parking lot to a boarded entrance. “I’ll need you to hold on to me.”

Aggie slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow, wondering why she hadn’t entered full panic mode. Instead, she wavered between half and three-quarters panic with a splash of dread. “Is there anything I should know before we do this?”

He looked up from his phone just long enough to show off a predatory smile. “Absolutely. Never show fear.”

“How comforting.”

A strong wind rattled the boards and creaked the awning. Aggie’s brain somersaulted in her skull and as it squished back into place, they stood on a smooth silver platform in the middle of a round room. Plush carpet the color of merlot lined the floor. The walls were a giant, continuous lava lamp with indigo lumps the size of cars bathing in an ever-changing rainbow of diffused light. Papasans encrusted with precious gems dotted the floor.

“Welcome to Hell.” Abraham walked to the door, which slid open as he approached. “Are you suitably impressed, or do I need to expound on the wonders of Hell-Spawned architectural engineering?”

“No?” Aggie followed meekly, afraid to lose him and more afraid to touch anything. Was it too late to worry about getting evil cooties?

They went through a series of narrow corridors all smooth and twisting like a starship. Without warning, the last door slid open into a large and very noisy hallway. The opposite wall was entirely windows, allowing in the harsh light of a red sun. Screens plastered the interior wall, blinking numbers and charts too rapid-fire for Aggie to discern them. Ads proliferated the space between—luring consumers to drink the beverage, eat the food, and buy the thing.

Well, I guess it does make sense that Hell is a capitalistic society. All the ones on Earth are certainly run by demons.

A constant horde of people pushed through the hall, chatting into devices and spamming buttons. The chaos was urgent, maddening. There were demons of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and ethnicity, but they all had one thing in common: impeccable suits.

Oddly, her angelhide wasn’t complaining. Before, Abraham’s signature was enough to set her into panic mode, but there was simply too much going on around her. It was all background noise.

Abraham ushered Aggie onto a moving belt, which sped along a waist-high glass wall. They passed a duty-free shop, several check-in ports, and a couple baggage claims piled high with all sorts of cargo. “Here,” he said as he pointed ahead. “Next right.”

The gate was manned by a pair of demons. They waved metal detector wands around Aggie and her escort, who flipped out a card for inspection. They clicked through turnstiles and approached a heavy curtain, which was opened by another demon dressed as a vintage bellhop. He murmured, “Be welcome to Lucifer’s domain.”

The first chamber was a waiting room, complete with a feinting couch and an eight-hose hookah carved up from the ground to look like a sandstone stalagmite. Candles lined an overhead shelf circling the perimeter, each lit and dripping to create a halo of soft glowing wax as a decorative border.

Two more demon bellhops stepped forward bearing a silver platter with goblets and cups of sweet mints. As one they said, “Please enjoy refreshments while you wait on the master.”

Abraham sank into the couch. “I’ll take a glass of cabernet sauvignon, excellent vintage. She’ll have pinot grigio from Lucifer’s private reserve.”

A moment later, Aggie realized he was talking about her. To say she was overwhelmed was an understatement. This was happening so fast and Hell was so strange. What did the devil want with her?

Wine was served in crystal cut to reflect the light and all the rich hues of the wine inside. Abraham winked at her as he took a connoisseur-like sip. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Relax. If he’s sharing this wine, he’s not going to kill you.”

There was that.

The wine was the best she’d ever tasted—not that she spent much of her short life tasting fine wines. She nearly melted as it rolled on her tongue and warmed her belly.

Right as she finished the last drop, one of the servers emerged from another curtained room. “The master shall see you now.”

When she stood up, her head spun. Great. She was going into this tipsy. Or more than a little tipsy. Aggie did her best to act sober, but she was incapable of acting anything, most of all natural. She fumbled with her purse and stumbled over hookah hose.

Lucifer slid open the curtain and smiled. He was a tall individual, six and a half feet tall with another foot of diabolically curving horns. His teeth were perfectly white, which contrasted his completely black eyes. “Ah, Ms. Halcomb. How delightful to finally meet you.”

She didn’t want to correct him—they had met. She was just too busy dying from an allergy attack to make proper acquaintances. But what was she supposed to say? “Uh. Lucifer. Hi?”

“Come in, come in.” He gestured grandly toward the darkened room beyond.

Abraham rose, but Lucifer raised his arm. “I’ll see Ms. Halcomb privately. Thank you for escorting her. You may wait here until it is time to see her safely back to Earth.” To the nearest server he added, “Cut him off from the wine.”

Lucifer’s lair was as sinister and occultish as Aggie might have imagined. There was more crimson carpet, so lush it was like walking on pillows. A stone fire pit crackled with sweet-smelling herbs in the center of the room. If the candles in the other room were ample, the ones here were downright excessive—waist-high pillars dotted the space, each packed with glowing white wax. Skulls hung on the walls, their eye sockets gleaming with flickering flames. An altar was a focal point for the room, with kneeling benches surrounding an oil portrait of Lucifer.

Oh, God. I hope he doesn’t expect me to kneel, because that’s totally not happening.

Lucifer walked to the far end of the wall and twisted an unlit skull. The wall opened up to a dark staircase leading down. “This way, Ms. Halcomb.”

Sconces on the wall emitted enough light for Aggie to descend. The air was stale and paper-dry.

Down and down they went in the relative silence of their footsteps against rough and dusty stone. The stairs ended at a dull wooden door. Lucifer unlocked the padlock with a skeleton key and opened the door. “Ladies first.”

Aggie tentatively stepped in. Fluorescent lights high overhead glared as they warmed up, illuminating a mini-gold course. The last hole was a caricature of God, with a large bulbous nose and wiry Einstein hair. He grew fangs at random intervals to create a ball trap.

She didn’t know what was funnier—Emmanuel’s lopsided grin or the fact that Lucifer’s super-secret lair was mini-golf.

Lucifer walked to the concessions area and sat underneath an umbrella. Two red slushes waited for them. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Aggie sat carefully, still expecting her ankle to hurt. “I didn’t expect mini-golf.”

“That’s why it’s a secret lair.” Lucifer slurped his slush and gazed out over his domain. “But I didn’t bring you here for nine rounds. This place is also entirely secure, so no one can hear this discussion. Shall we proceed with my business proposition?”

Aggie was incredulous. “You sabotaged my job interview for a business proposition?”

“Of course,” he replied smoothly. “If you had already secured employment, you would not be amenable to my offer.”

A job? This was all about a job? She was too stunned to reply, and the devil interpreted her silence as an invitation to continue.

“Something very important of mine has gone missing. I believe you are the prime candidate to retrieve this item for me, because of your unique skills and unusual position within our Enlightened society.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Angels and demons are tremendous gossips. If I ask one of my minions for help, word will get out that something rare and precious has been stolen. I cannot look weak in front of Hell. That’s exactly why you are perfect for the job. People forgot about you after the coup. You became old news when you became human. And since you’re technically an angel, I can count on you to be honest to a fault, loyal, and ethical.”

Aggie gave him a skeptical look. “You haven’t met many angels, have you?”

“Touché, Ms. Halcomb.” The devil laughed. “Let me amend that: I have studied your character, and I know you value those traits.”

She certainly wasn’t honest, not after the way she treated Sam. Aggie closed her eyes to focus on the topic at hand. “But I’m not an angel. I don’t have powers. I don’t have anything.”

“You found God with nothing. Your tenacity and resourcefulness saved your own hide when you should have been dead.” Lucifer nodded graciously. “Most importantly, this is a mission of recovery, not of revenge. You do not have to engage the thief, nor put yourself in any danger. I wish first and foremost to see my artifact restored to me. I shall deal with the perpetrators once it is safe.”

She considered. The correct answer was no, a thousand times no, a million times no.

Except it wasn’t. Sam and Em and Schwartz were in grave danger if Aggie pissed off the Lord of Hell. He probably already had the hostage card ready to play.

“I’ll do it,” she said with a fierceness that shocked herself.

Lucifer couldn’t hide his surprise, either. “Really?”

“Yes,” she blurted, before she lost her bravado. “And in exchange, we make a deal. I want a non-interference clause so demons don’t bother me or my friends again, and I want a stipend disguised as regular income so I don’t need to keep looking for these goddamned jobs.”

He winced at hearing the Good Lord’s name in vain. “Done.”

That was easy. Too easy. “I also want petty cash, transportation, and an expense account.”

“No problem. Anything else?”

When in doubt, go for broke. “I heard you’re generous.”

“You will learn that first hand, Ms. Halcomb.” He twisted to the side and pulled a contract from a briefcase that hadn’t existed a moment ago. “Shall we begin with the contract particulars, or the assignment itself?”

“Contract.” She wanted to nail down that down first, to make sure she was sharp for the negotiations. “And do you have some coffee? I could use a pick-me-up.”

Short and Sweet

An hour later, they signed a four-page contract that provided Aggie a lifetime free of Infernal Interference upon her successful retrieval of the artifact. The only thing the devil seemed to care about, other than his artifact, was the non-disclosure agreement. His eyes flashed volcano red any time they spoke of rumors or information leaks, and Aggie had to assure him that their secret was safe with her. Then she signed on it.

Lucifer smiled in relief. “I didn’t expect you to agree so readily.”

“I figured you were just going to make my life miserable until I did, so I may as well start in a stronger negotiating position.”

“I appreciate it. You spared me the effort of kidnapping your friends, torture, and murder—a waste of time, really.” Lucifer folded his copy of the contract and tucked it into a pocket in his cape. “Now, let’s discuss my artifact.”

“Alright.”

“Yesterday, the nails of the true cross were stolen from my sleeping chamber. These nails are approximately five inches long, made of iron, and there are three of them.”

Aggie couldn’t hide her shock, nor did she try. “The nails of the true cross? Are those yours by right?”

“Of course.” He scoffed. “They were given to me as a gift by Jesus Christ himself, before he succumbed to final death.”

“How long ago did he die?” Aggie quickly amended herself before she got the obvious answer. “Really die, I mean.”

“Several hundred years ago. How I came by the nails is neither here nor there. They were stolen from me, and I have reason to believe they are hidden on Earth.”

“Why?”

“All my personal artifacts are secured with tracking devices, but that technology doesn’t work on Earth yet. Don’t worry, my Hell-Spawned team is already on that upgrade so this won’t happen again.”

Aggie wasn’t particularly worried. She asked, “Who do you think took them?”

“Not a clue. That’s why I hired you.”

Well, that was just great. She had nothing to go on and no idea where to start looking. It was kind of like her search for Nicholas Bayer all over again, except this time she wasn’t naïve enough to believe she was actually doing good. “I’ll need to see the scene of the crime.”

He blinked and tossed his head back slightly. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? That’s the first place a detective starts.”

“Oh.” After a long moment he added quite profoundly, “You are correct, Ms. Halcomb, and that is why you are the correct person for the job.”

“I’m really not. I just happen to read a lot, and while I was recuperating in Heaven, I read a bunch of cozy mysteries.”

“I doubt this will be cozy, Ms. Halcomb.”

She should have negotiated for a preternaturally smart cat companion who could solve the mystery for her, so she could stay home and Sam would never know she’d just made a deal with the devil.

Oh, God. She really had made a deal with the devil. There was no way this could end well.

And she’d been gone for hours now.

“I really need to get back to Earth now,” Aggie said. “I’ll come back tomorrow to look for clues. Do not disturb the scene any more than you already have. Please.”

Lucifer stood effortlessly. “Abraham will be waiting to escort you back. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at your earliest convenience.”

They took an elevator back up to his sinister lair and parted ways. Abraham didn’t press her for details, and he dropped her off without delay. The door to her apartment creaked, betraying her cautious movements.

She was untying her second sneaker when Sam came out of the room with his guitar. Aggie’s mouth hung open while she fumbled for an excuse.

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “I figured you’d let me know when you wanted to go to bed. Sorry.”

She shrugged and kissed him on the cheek as they crossed paths in the hall. “Goodnight, Sam. I love you.”

She slumped on the edge of the bed when she was alone. The relief she felt from not having to lie was overshadowed by a new, crushing doubt: had Sam really not noticed she was gone for three hours? Or did he just not care anymore?

The Time for Dignity

As promised, Aggie found a regular mail package from a PO box waiting on her doorstep the next day. Included was a letter with instructions to operate the transportation device, as well as a uniform for her ‘new job.’ She held up the short, candy-striped skirt with no small amount of disdain. The red polka dotted stockings weren’t any more appealing, but she practically sobbed aloud when she saw the suspenders.

At least she didn’t have to wear it for long. Happy Times Diner was famous locally for its willingness to hire anyone. Anyone willing to wear the uniform, that was. Aggie had avoided applying there, because she wanted to hold out for a job that allowed her some dignity.

The time for dignity was over.

She stuffed the clothes into the bottom of a book bag and headed out to the parking lot across the street. Her new-to-her compact import waited for her, as specified in the contract. It started without any of the rituals and finagling Aggie was used to, which thrilled her to pieces.

She drove to the same abandoned warehouse Abraham had taken her yesterday. The device—a fob not unlike a mobile authenticator—transported her to a familiar room. She followed the directions listed in the care package until she felt thoroughly and completely lost inside the never-ending airport that was Hell. The devil’s private quarters were on the top floor of a five-star hotel. A gold-and-mirrors elevator glided all the way up, opening to a hallway so posh that Aggie felt cheap and unwashed simply by gazing at it.

Lucifer paced outside his room at the end of the hall. During the entire conversation with him the day before, he’d never moved so much. Now, his jaw twitched, hands wrung, and feet shuffled, never ceasing. “You’re late.”

Aggie’s first instinct was to apologize, because she did that a lot. Instead she frowned. “We never agreed on a time.”

“Well,” he huffed. “I thought you were a morning person.”

Aggie stared at him dully, keeping her thoughts firmly to herself. You also thought I was the best person to do this. You’re a terrible judge of character, Lucifer.

The devil hesitated with his hand on the door handle. “I’ll be honest. I haven’t let anyone inside my quarters in a long time. This is a personal space.”

“Of course it’s personal. It’s a bedroom.” When that did nothing to get him moving, Aggie smiled sweetly. “I’ll be professional.”

“Okay,” he said. “I put that non-disclosure into your contract, didn’t I?”

“Yes. Seven different amendments to the clause, with eighty-four painful penalties for breaking it.”

He finally opened the door. The room itself was nothing spectacular—for a five-star hotel. The bed was four poster and covered with a smooth silk comforter. A bar in the corner stocked enough booze to give a football team alcohol poisoning. The wall of windows allowed a mountain-range view, with jagged amaranth peaks jutting into turbulent vortex clouds. The sky was a peculiar shade of deep blue, and the air rippled as water. Aggie couldn’t help but stare and try to take it all in.

“Don’t touch that!” Lucifer grabbed Aggie’s arm and yanked her toward him. Behind her, a T-shape of desiccated, dark wood was fixed to the wall. Old, brown blood dripped down each side of the T and crusted on the floor.

Aggie had almost backed into it in awe of the view. “What is that?”

“It’s the cross.”

The cross?” Aggie shouldn’t have been so surprised. If the devil had the nails, then why not the cross itself, perfectly preserved after two thousand years?

“Well yeah,” Lucifer said. “It was gifted to me by Jesus himself after his first death on Earth.”

“Given.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“It was not gifted to you. It was given.” She shuddered. “Gift is a noun. Give is a verb.”

He blinked, probably surprised that somebody—especially a mere mortal—dared critique his grammar. “Whatever. So where was I? Jesus gave the nails and the cross to me as a gift several hundred years ago.”

“And the nails have been in your possession ever since?”

“Yes.”

“Who had them before that?”

“I don’t know. Jesus, probably.” Lucifer towered over her. “You’re a very inquisitive individual. What’s the point of this interrogation?”

“Investigation, not interrogation.” She stayed firm, even as the devil breathed onion and garlic in her face. “We don’t have any suspects or leads yet. I have no idea where to start searching unless you tell me everything you can about the nails. Where were they when they were stolen?”

“On the cross, of course.”

“Who else knew their location?”

“The maid. She’s dead now.”

“That’s terrible.” Aggie pulled a notebook out of her purse and jotted some notes. “How recently did she pass? Before the theft, or after?”

“After. I had to kill her to keep her from telling anyone that the nails went missing.” Lucifer beamed proudly. “She was the one who discovered the theft. I was in a business meeting.”

He murdered his maid to keep a secret? And he actually thought that was a good thing? Aggie took a deep breath. “Did many people know about your meeting?”

“It’s a weekly meeting I hold with my archdemons. So yes, just about everyone knows I’m unavailable at that time.”

Great. He’d killed the only witness and everyone in Hell knew the room was empty. “Does anyone else have the key to your room?”

He turned away, shoulders hunched. “No, but… I might have left the door unlocked.”

Aggie sank onto the bed. Really? This had to be some ridiculous prank—maybe God was already in on the joke, too.

Lucifer screeched, “What are you doing?”

“I’m taking notes.” She drew a sad face next to the line that said ‘door unlocked.’ Then she drew an angry face tearing its hair out.

“You’re touching my bed. Why are you touching my bed?”

She stood up promptly. “I wasn’t thinking. Sorry.”

“Egads, you angels are weird. Do you always sit on other people’s beds?”

That wasn’t worth a response. “What security measures do you have in place?”

“Cameras in the hallway. The elevators require a passkey, but all demons have that.”

“Okay. I’ll need a log of everyone who used those elevators on the day the nails were taken, and the tapes from the cameras.”

“There’s nothing on the tapes. I already checked.”

“Nothing? Nothing at all?” Aggie blinked. “Can I at least look for myself?”

“Sure, they’ll be in security.” He paused. “You’re not going to tell anyone there why, are you?”

“If I have to. They’re your security—if you can’t trust them with important matters, why do you keep them?”

“Because reasons, Aggie! Even the devil has a right to privacy.”

“I’ll have them sign NDAs, then. Does anyone else know that the nails have been stolen?”

“My Left Hand—the Holy Ghost.”

“Who is your Left Hand?”

“The Holy Ghost.”

“I—” She sighed. “Never mind. I don’t actually need to understand that. Is there anything else you can remember that would help me track down the nails?”

He tenderly put his hands on the edge of the cross, stroking with the wood grain. “No. I just want my babies back. It’s very, very important to me.”

So important he left the door unlocked, murdered the only witness, hired a human to do the job, then refused to be helpful. At all. And if she didn’t find them, she’d end up like the maid.

There was really only one thing to be done about it. Aggie asked, “Which way to security?”

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survival strategies: boardwalk empire edition

The women of Boardwalk Empire employ different survival strategies to keep themselves safe.

It’s easy to dismiss Lucy and Gillian because they use their sexuality and are upfront about that. It’s easy to loathe Gillian because of how she handles men.

But…

Spoilers and more under the cut, discussing Season 1 and the first half of Season 2. Continue reading

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competition between women: boardwalk empire edition

boardwalk_empire-1024x682I might perpetually be a bit late to the party, but this week we’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire. I have thoughts, of course.

Season 1, Episode 4: Anastasia.

There’s an unspoken competition going on between two female characters. Spoilers will abound, so look for my thoughts under the cut.

Continue reading

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germ farts

Food is so weird.

I mean, it’s not. We eat other living things that our bodies process as energy, blah blah blah. All organisms ‘eat’ in one form or another.

But the process of food… how did we get here from there?

Take grass. We grow some grass, we pop off the seeds, then take the shells off of those seeds, and we dry them. Oh, and pulverize those seeds into powder.

We’re not done yet! At some indeterminate time later, we add water to the grass seed powder and mix until it’s this gooey, elastic ball. And we add bacteria, too, because hey–bacteria.

Those bacteria eat tiny bits of the gooey, elastic ball and fart out air. We throw the whole ball–germ farts and hydrated seed powder–over or into a fire to give the ball structure.

It’s so weird. Who thought, hey, these seeds are nice and chewy but let’s start doing all this weird stuff to them. Shelling and drying make logical survival sense–grains and legumes alike last longer if they’re properly preserved–but I really want to know the story of yeast. Was it a happy accident? A poisoning attempt gone awry? Aliens? The obligatory ‘invention’ of a time traveler who just really wanted a sandwich, anachronisms be damned?

I think I might stop calling it bread. Germ farts in hydrated seed powder has a much better ring to it, right?

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