I closed up shop.
There was simply no point in trying to push through with the rest of the workday without power. Even if a customer did manage to bumble their way in, it’s not like I could run credit cards, or operate the cash register. That, and the lack of air-conditioning would quickly turn the joint into a Bosch painting of what folks think of when they imagine eternal damnation.
If you’re been paying attention thus far, yes, Bosch was way off. Good use of color, though.
And while I’m at it, let me just settle one other theological debate right now: Hell has nothing on Houston Summer, no matter what afterlife brochure you read from.
So, I was determined to make use of the impromptu day off, and get started on the puzzle at hand. Firstly, I’d need to talk to my main source in town. Secondly, see what I could dig up on the instrument Uriel referred to. There were a few steps in between, so I got to work straight away.
I made sure the strap on my guitar was secure over my shoulder, did a quick self-once-over to confirm whether or not I needed any fresh bandages—I didn’t. Hooray—and then I locked the front door. There were other considerations with my shop being knocked back to the eighteenth century, too. I’d lose the refrigerated plants, but that was pretty low on my list of pressing issues at that moment.
Leave it to a brush with Death to put matters into perspective, am I right?
My destination was close enough to hoof it, so I left my motorcycle parked in the small lot behind the block.
As I walked, I prioritized. Step one, keep the potential source of side income, i.e. my place in the band, intact. Today’s errand list had just become exponentially larger, and I needed to put some safeguards in place. I pulled out my phone, and put in a call to Reed.
Reed was my man on the inside at the venue I had secured the upcoming gig for my band, and he also happened to be kind enough to let the crew run rehearsal out of his garage in exchange for the odd case of beer now and again. Blessedly, he was into the cheap stuff. Booking quality time at a studio was more than we could afford these days, so that made the guy a saint by my standards, even before he had worked us in to the club’s live music booking. He picked up on the third ring.
I side-stepped a ragged-looking young man coming the opposite way down the sidewalk, and ignored his intense staring. He smelled like cheap vodka and bad barbecue. I let it go as typical Houston crazy.
“Hey, Reed,” I said. “Just giving you a heads up, and hoping you’ll pass it along. I’m probably going to be a little late to the rehearsal tonight.”
“Seriously?” he sighed. “Man, you’re on thin ice as it is. The others are getting pretty tired of the whole fashionably late thing on top of all the other shit. I don’t know if I can run interference for you again.”
Rounding a corner, I hit the walk signal and waited for my turn at crossing. Traffic was light today, thankfully, but it was still a game of vehicular Russian Roulette to cross against the light in this town.
“Look, Reed-” I tried.
“You can’t keep doing this,” he interrupted. “You’re going to find yourself replaced if you keep flaking, man.”
“I know you mean well. I do. But good intentions aren’t going to pay anyone’s rent. If you come off as having no dedication to these people, they’ll eventually have to walk just on principle.”
“REED!” I snarled into the phone.
“The shop’s closed, without power, and I’m on my way to the pawn shop.”
There was a significant pause. “Oh,” said Reed. “Oh, damn man. I didn’t know. That sucks out loud.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You, uh, you need help? I’m not exactly sitting in the green, but-”
“No,” I cut him off. “I’ve got this. I still owe you for April’s bullshit. Just pass it on, would you? With my apologies.”
“Sure, sure. I’ve got your back.” Reed replied. “They’ll understand. Luck, Mal.”
The signal turned just as I hung up, and I made my way down Crocker Street. My final destination was two blocks down on Pacific, and the sun had not risen enough yet to make the trek seem like one of those punishments the Olympian Gods were so fond of doling out.
The conversation with Reed was necessary, but I couldn’t quite smother the twinge of guilt I had. If Uriel was right about this Angel dismantling my life and livelihood, then that meant the guys and gals in Hallowpoint were suffering as a side effect. They were getting boned because of me. I was hardly a stalwart knight that leaped to the defense of the innocent, but this was something I couldn’t abide.
Sure, take a swing at me, just don’t pull the people around me into it just to make a point. I have few friends on this rock, and I like to think I at least tried to do right by them. Unfortunately, my tardiness and absences weren’t bolstering their confidence in me. They might flat out turn me down even if I told them the whole story, and offered to help. And that’s if they bought it at all.
I had to do something, though. That’s what prompted step two of today’s agenda.
I had told Reed the truth of the matter, just not the whole truth. The fact that he drew the wrong conclusion was my intention, making it as good as a lie. The twinge aside, I didn’t sweat it overmuch, because that kept him and the band insulated, at least as much as I could manage. So, the story I pitched about hitting the pawn shop was fact. The reasoning was obfuscated. That being said, if the band did kick me out, I could always find work in public relations firms spinning stories around until they pointed in the direction some company wanted. Or I could sell cars.
I’m a natural.
But this trip to the pawn shop wasn’t about quick cash to solve my business problems. The guy who ran the shop in question couldn’t be counted on for anything remotely resembling a fair deal to begin with. I’d have better luck raising easy money with a loan shark, or a tax agent loose morals compared to this particular pawnbroker.
The guy was of use to me in other ways, however. I needed to get ahead of the situation I was tossed into, and that meant I needed to get more intel so I could at least see the lay of the land. My guy could facilitate both … for a price.
Luckily for my empty wallet, I was banking on him owing me one.
I needed that kind of break, because the only path I could see through this tangle was to wrap this entire affair up as quickly as possible. There were still too many dominoes that would get toppled if I let this go on much longer, and that wasn’t even counting the fact that my life was the last one to get knocked over at the end of that line. It was one thing to know someone planned to murder you. It was a whole other Machiavelli-fest to know that said assassin planned to dismantle your existence first, and not even care about the collateral damage.
My feet kicked things up a gear, and I walked faster. The thought and action were totally unconnected, I swear.
I mentally laid out the plan of attack. A tertiary—but potentially lethal—issue was that my weekly hunts had made me a possible target for other supernaturals. Old “Murray the Hateful Hashmallim” could make use of that to rile the villagers, in a sense. Torches. Pitchforks. Editorial opinion articles. Grassroots political movements with horrible grammar. You get the idea.
On top of information, I would need my guy to work some public relations magic. He was essentially the hub of the gossip wheel for the strange denizens in the area, if not all of Houston. A few well placed words from him would at least start winning some hearts and minds, and if it didn’t earn me some comrades it would at least take some pressure off of me while I took care of the larger problem.
Another potential boon was that he might have gleaned a lead on where Muriel was operating from out of the tide of spooky chatter he collected from the community. Uriel was right that my enemy would be more cagey this time around, but even Muriel wasn’t powerful enough to orchestrate something like this on his own. That meant assistance, and assistance meant underlings that could be followed around.
After that, I’d just have to figure out how to permanently punch Muriel’s ticket, which I still had no fucking idea how to accomplish.
One thing at a time.
Uriel said that “the curious instrument” I had picked up was the key. I racked my brain as to what the hell he had meant by that, and hitched the strap on the guitar in question reflexively. I knew it was old, and that the truss rod in the instrument’s neck gave off a slight vibration of otherworldly energy. That’s what had attracted me to the instrument in the first place when I had made a final stop at my favorite oddball curio shop on my way out of Austin.
Honestly, it wasn’t as unusual as you might think. There are a lot of inanimate objects that pick up mojo over the years. That’s half the reason the world’s filled with tales of artifacts containing awesome power. Usually though, it’s just the echo of energy that was poured into making them, or using them. Not every spooky tchotke out there gets to be another Holy Grail, Excalibur, or Spear of Longinus. Most of them don’t even get to be as potent as Hemingway’s last bottle of scotch.
I had figured another member of the strange community had once owned this, and put some serious time into playing it. It even had a unique key-and-gear system for tuning the strings, kind of like a Floyd-Rose bridge as designed by a fan of Jules Verne. The workings sat flush in the body of the guitar, and tuning the instrument was like winding a clock. It was a circus freak in the world of luthiers; no one that worked on modern string instruments would go near the thing, and that made it special to me. It did mean that I’d be fucked if it ever needed fixing, though.
But “old”, “otherworldly” and “special” alone were not adjectives that equated to a guaranteed means of Angelic execution. I was going to have to hit the books after this pawn shop visit to dig up anything further. That posed its own risks, but it wasn’t like I was spoiled for options. It was frustrating, but I figured Uriel was on the level with the hint, at least. Even he wouldn’t go so far just to pay me back for Gomorrah.
Again, long story, trust me. Epic party, though.
I finally arrived at my destination, and took a moment to catch my breath from the speed-walking. This pawn shop was a less than impressive single story joint on the outskirts of Montrose, closer to downtown proper. The building in question had gone up sometime during the fifties, burned to the ground in the seventies, and was then rebuilt to match the original in line with the architectural movement known as “neo-classical lazy”. The facade had not been kept up with the passage of time, and it still bore all the hallmarks of outdated decoration and amenities, right down to the sadly puttering rusty air conditioning units perched atop the flat roof, and the grimy brick exterior. Surprisingly, none of the taggers had seen fit to scrawl paint over it, even in the rear. I guess they thought, “What’s the point?”
The local legend had it that the current overseer of this pawn shop had simply made a good investment on the heels of that mysterious building fire, due to it claiming the life of the previous owner. It gave the proprietor a kind of vicious gallows celebrity status that suited him just fine.
As with most urban legends, however, the locals were only half right. It was less about claiming property, and more to do with settling a debt. For further examples, please consult Doctor Faustus, or its German source material.
* * *
Like I said, victors write the history books when it comes to public perception of any given group. The Confederates were all seditious slave owners, Napoleon was an irritable dwarf with compensation issues, the Assyrians were way into gruesome lawn ornaments made from their prisoners, and all Demons were out to sow chaos, evil for evil’s sake, and to get you to trade your soul for a candy bar.
None of that is the entirety of the story, but it makes for damn fine recruitment posters, doesn’t it? That being said, while I for one rebuke the rumor mill when it comes to all Demons, there are some choice assholes out there that surely fit the stereotype. I’m first to admit my own shortcomings, but it should be noted that there are plenty of examples of saints and villains on both sides of the ethereal line, and one shouldn’t be quick to judge based solely on affiliation. Not everyone of us is a heinous, scheming prick.
But the owner of this pawn shop absolutely was. Grade A.
I walked into the foyer of West End Pawn, heralded by an electronic chime that started strong and gave up the ghost halfway through its toll, leaving the tail end a sad note that warbled out of existence. Less than encouraging, to say the least.
“Mal!” boomed the paunchy, balding man behind the L-shaped glass display counter that ran along the rear. “What can I do for you today?” I could almost hear him salivating as he spoke.
The slovenly Pillsbury Doughboy understudy addressing me was named Franklin Reubel. Fifty-ish years old, give or take a hedonistic decade, with a pasty complexion that cemented the Pop n’ Fresh imagery in my mind every time I had to deal with him. Only his tragic porn mustache ruined the overall aesthetic. Customers were amazed that Reubel was still standing after all these years, though no one had been foolish enough to stage any kind of intervention or suggest one of those fad low-carb diets. They were too scared.
Maybe it was the rumors concerning the fire. Maybe it was his demeanor; a jolliness that never seemed to actually alter those cold, calculating eyes. Maybe it was his tacky taste in past-prime bowling shirts. Again, the locals were half-right in their reasons for being unnerved by Franklin Reubel.
In reality, Frank was the guise worn by Mammon, noted Demon that had been long since accused by the old tomes as being the Scion of Greed. That wasn’t his only shtick, but I digress.
His birthright was not only the reason folks were a bit put off by him, but also why he seemed indestructible even though he apparently had body health designed by fast food. One of the perks of being a Demon walking around in a meat suit is that pesky things like disease, hereditary disorders, and even high cholesterol never seemed to take. It is literally the only truthful example of that “One weird trick that doctor’s don’t want you to know about!” you see advertised so often.
The Demonic Diet. Your mileage and soul may vary.
The physical facade, like the store, were both part of the theatrics that sold the world on the idea of Franklin Reubel. You instinctively knew what you were in for when you came face to face with a guy like Frank in a business like this. Sure, it certainly fit with his ulterior gig of the accumulation of wealth and manipulation of greed, but it also played on pure, simple, mortal desperation. You knew you were likely to get screwed by walking into the shop, but the fact that things were potentially dire enough for you to come into it in the first place made it almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That made you a prime mark in Mammon’s eyes: the kind that saunters into the snare willingly.
I might have wondered what that said about me, but I planned to game the system. I wasn’t here to bend over for some outrageously high interest loan against a prized antique. A facet of the services Mammon provided for the supernatural community was information, which was the real prize of Mammon’s hoard. Cash spends well, but tasty tidbits of knowledge opened more doors. That was today’s angle.
I didn’t answer his friendly greeting straight away. I put on my best surly frown, which was complimented nicely by the cuts on my face, and I walked over to a section of the display counter a few feet away from Mammon. I idly picked up a crystal unicorn, and began bouncing it up and down on my palm.
“Who pissed in your cereal, then?” Mammon huffed.
I set down the gaudy figurine, and selected another pawned artifact. This one was an octopus with a stupid little smile.
“The shanxiao information you gave me … you vetted it, yeah?” I asked without looking in his direction.
“Of course,” he replied. “All of the info I pass your way is solid, Mal. Why would you ask such a thing?”
I laid the octopus down, and fixed Mammon with a wry look. “Cool. Then would you care to explain how your ‘half-breed chump’—your exact words, mind—somehow turned into a pure-blood old-world monster?”
Mammon’s face turned a delightful shade of red, and he began a stint of indignant sputtering. Good. He prided himself on his information network, and that little reveal had put him on the defensive.
“Bullshit!” he roared. “That info was good, Mal, and it was a free gift to you for being such a good customer.”
His anger was palpable enough to reflect like embers in his eyes, and I knew I would have to walk a fine line going forward. Unlike everyone else, I wasn’t put off by Frank, nor Mammon, by who he was. Neither the costume nor the reality of his character fazed me. I had to tread lightly because of what he was.
Angels are arranged in groups called choirs. Each choir has a few types of Angel, and their own spheres of influence and responsibility. They like their pecking order concise and eternal. Your position does not change, there are no promotions, and you will learn to enjoy your place or find yourself removed from it. Demons, on the other hand, are arranged in something that runs akin to a corporation. Feel free to speculate on who influenced who in that comparison. It’s been an ongoing debate for us for eons.
So, in the demonic scheme of things, you can rise to new vistas of influence and responsibility, or find yourself falling down the career ladder due to office politics. A good year could see you named a duke—who doesn’t love royal titles?—or thrown down to the hereafter equivalent of the mail room. Personally, I’ve always tried to stand apart from that scramble, but that doesn’t change the fact that inevitably I’d be dealing with fellow Demons who were all too keen to pull rank. Too often, that meant an object lesson in the chain of command, and that lesson could be anything from a swift kick in the ass to a direct visit to the charnel house. Do not pass GO. Do not collect anything but brutality.
I’ve got some pull in the community, but the reality was that Mammon was, and had always been, several flights up from me, if you catch my meaning. To keep with the royal job system, I could be fairly considered a knight. That gives me way more credit than I actually want mind, but it fits. Please don’t call me “Sir”, though. It’s pretentious.
But if I was a knight, Mammon was easily a High Lord, and he definitely had the sense of self to match. I couldn’t just piss him off and expect to get my way. Hell, I couldn’t do that and expect to get out unscathed. This would take some tact, some finesse, and some diplomacy.
“Gift for a good customer? Yeah. A good customer to a sloppy info broker,” I countered. What? I said I had to tread carefully. I didn’t say I had to roll over and bare my stomach. “My wounds say otherwise, buddy. That was an old-world freak that put me through two windows and ruined a perfectly good jacket before I put him down. What’s more, you called taking it on a personal favor to you. Your words.”
“Well, maybe, but that doesn’t change-”
I rolled right on. “Spare me, Mammon. You didn’t look closer. You made like Pilate, and waited for others to take care of the issue. But you didn’t even bother to wash your hands, after. You called it a favor. You were as worried about it wandering onto your patch as you were playing to my territorial nature.”
Mammon shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s not the same thing as-”
“Gee!” I crowed, and a put my hands on my face in a goofy expression of surprise. “How would the other customers react if they knew that good ol’ Mammon was getting sloppy? Maybe I should look again into the network the Gamayun are building on the east side. They seemed trustworthy enough. I mean, for bird-people-things, you know? A little too close to Angelic for my tastes, but I take my business where the business is good, and-”
“All right!” Mammon yelled. His stocky shoulders seemed to slump in surrender. “Goddammit. All right, you made your point, Mal. I goofed, okay?” He swiped a hand at the sweat that had freshly prickled his forehead. “What do you want in trade to balance the scales?”
Success. Mammon was many things, but he was primarily a businessman. A bit of lip from me could be forgiven if it meant he kept his enterprise free of too much critique, or from earning a bad score on whatever passed for a business site among the strange. One star, would not make another infernal bargain with.
Pride’s a funny ol’ bit of leverage, ain’t it?
I decided I might as well bargain big to begin with to soften him up some more. I pointed behind his head to the firearm lovingly encased in its own polished cherrywood box. It was unlike any revolver any gun collector had seen, or would see, ever. That was of course because it was one-of-a-kind; a custom fabrication based on the LeMat revolver.
If you’re not way into first-person shooter games, or don’t have a recurring NRA membership with a minor in Civil War history, you might be confused. The LeMat started its legend in the black powder days of cap-and-ball warfare. It was an oddity of nine .32 caliber chambers arrayed around a tenth slot fitted for a twenty-gauge shotgun cartridge. That’s how it got the nickname of “grapeshot revolver” back in the years where the gray guys and the blue guys were having their spat.
There have been modern productions in the following decades, but Mammon had outdone them all. This weapon was sleek, artistic, and chambered for attention-getting .44 magnum rounds. The center barrel housed a rifle round entirely of his own creation, and illegal for civilian use on every planet in the solar system. I had never really learned what went into them, but they were rumored to be something akin to miniature anti-tank rounds, complete with shaped charges designed to penetrate armor to allow for a second care-package of explosives to slip into the breach.
It was a lethal sculpture of gleaming wood and mirror-like steel. It boasted Art Deco lines and bravado. Supernaturals called it the “ethereal-killer”. Locals called it “that big, weird gun of Frank’s”. He personally called it “Joyluck”, after his favorite movie. I know, right? The Demon of Greed was a fan of a Pacific-crossing period film about mothers and daughters. Hard to tell what some folks are into.
Mammon scoffed, and sneered at my suggestion. “We’ve talked about this before. No dice, not for sale, Mal. The ammo alone is worth more than you could pull down in a year. Nice try.”
I shrugged like it was a matter of course. I knew Mammon wasn’t about to part with his high-caliber security blanket, but it made him amenable to parting with other things.
“Had to give it a go,” I said with a slightly sheepish grin. “I’d certainly rest a bit better going into situations with bad info if that beast was on my hip. But, whatever. You can give me whatever you know on a problem of mine, perhaps put some chaff into the rumor radar, and we’ll call it square.”
Mammon relaxed. Now we were back in his wheelhouse, and he was more than willing to settle the debt. “Fine, fine. What do you need, today?”
I thought for a couple of seconds on how to phrase it. It wouldn’t be the smart move to let out more details than were absolutely necessary. Mammon had a nasty habit of squirreling away innocuous data to be later used to devastating effect. Like I said, he’s high up in the ranks, and has remained so for a reason.
“What have you heard about what’s cooking in Houston? I’m talking big, with a major player. Anything on your wire?” I asked.
“Major player? What brand?”
“Angelic. Higher choir.”
Mammon rubbed his chin. I could hear those sausages scraping over the stubble. “Can’t say that I have anything on that, but let me think. Sometimes the headline news is hidden in the fluff. I know recently that there’s a shit-ton of folks swearing they’ve had a leyak stirring up trouble in Pasadena.”
“Small potatoes,” I sighed. “Out of my jurisdiction, anyway. Besides, flying disembodied heads creep me out. What else you got?”
“It’s not the smoking gun, but the Episcopal Diocese seems to be getting into bed with the cops. There’s going to be some big charity to-do coming up for the Christ Church Cathedral.”
I nodded. “Not surprising, given the arsons.”
“I suppose not, Mal,” Mammon said knowingly.
Son of a bitch. Had everyone already read the newspaper today?
“Knock it off,” I spat. “You know that’s not legit, Mammon. I’m no snitch, and I’m no toady for the police. At least not that kind. The cops have been grilling me, not cozying up to me.”
“Whatever you say, friend,” he replied smoothly. Translation: Doesn’t matter if I believe you. If you want others to see it your way, that’s a separate transaction. So much for solving the vox populi problem. I could make it square with that, but that would leave me out in the cold for information, and I had nothing to trade for it. Information was more paramount. I’d deal with the newspaper debacle later.
“Fuck it,” I replied. I waved a hand, as if I were trying to brush the topic aside. “What else do you know? Your sources have to had slipped you something more than creepy heads and church fetes.”
Mammon nodded, and pulled out his phone. “One sec,” he murmured while flipping through apps. “Ah! There it is. Got this email just last night. Word is that there’s a djinn up in Spring that’s set up shop for some kind of long con. Three deaths and a brand new cult, already. One of those bastards could easily pose as angelic upper-crust.”
I shook my head. “They can, but genies consider that slumming, and save it for days when they’re feeling kinky. Doesn’t track with my problem. So that’s all you’ve got?”
Mammon put his phone away, and bobbed his shoulders weakly. “Would help if I knew what your problem was, pal.”
“My problem’s just that. Mine. Fuck … thanks for nothing, I guess. We can settle up later.” I hitched my guitar, and turned to leave.
“Wait, Mal,” he called. “Listen, I do owe you, and the last thing I want or need is you being bitter enough to damage my business by angry word of mouth. I tell you what. The offer on your guitar’s still good. No interest, even. You could take care of your store’s money troubles, and I’ll keep the instrument off the showroom floor until you can pay me back. How’s that for a deal?”
I turned back towards Mammon, and frowned. “You know about my store, but nothing else of note in the city?”
Mammon smiled, and his eyes took on a predatory gleam. “Nature of the biz, boy. Tales of woe fly faster than any other kind. So, what do you say? I wouldn’t even give my own mother that kind of strings-free bargain.”
“Thanks, but pass.” I tugged the strap of the guitar up a bit. “She at least might earn me some cash soon. But don’t worry. I’m not about to go public protest on you, ‘Frank’.”
Mammon began to wipe down the section of display where I had been fiddling with the figurines. “Fair enough,” he said with a touch of relief. “Think it over, and good luck with your problem, Mal.” He had already moved on to the next item on his mental day planner. Meeting over. Door, ass. Thanks for playing.
“Yeah, yeah,” I growled. I left the store, and started marching on to the next stop, cursing the utter waste of time that this pit stop had been.