Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 46
Stories
The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
by Scott M. Roberts
Liveboy
by Nathaniel Lee
The Machine in My Mind
by James Maxey
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Imitation of self
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
The Angelus Guns
by Max Gladstone

The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
    by Scott M. Roberts

The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
Artwork by Scott Altmann

Two weeks after we stole the Pearl of Great Price from Asmodeus, we got nicked.

Asmodeus's party boys caught me and Brick outside of Twila's Lounge. They didn't say nothing, them square-jawed, perfectly dressed men and women. Just flashed the guns crouching inside their jackets, and the runes that dwelt upon their eyelids. Them winking their runes at me was more disturbing than their weaponry: it meant they knowed I could see what Asmodeus had etched there.

And every one of them was human. No ghasts, ghoulies, devils, nor nothing that wasn't mortal. Which meant they'd also figured out what Brick could do. Rather, what he wouldn't do. A lot of trouble could be avoided if the boy would just use his natural-born gift for violence against flesh-and-blood people the way God intended.

I guess God don't got no say in it no more. 'Course He don't. But back when there was such a thing as Sunday School, the one lesson Brick learnt was the one 'bout turning the other cheek. He got no problem ripping apart any evil ol' spirit or whatever. But he won't so much as breathe a crossways word against a human being.

The party boys hustled us into the back of a seatless van and slid the doors closed. Out came their weapons. Ugly things -- half Hechler, half Faust. Bad for the body and soul both. They pointed all that ugliness my way as they zip-tied my feet and hands.

Didn't none of them mind Brick.

"Hello, hello," Brick said. His big, dull voice boomed against the van's bare walls. "Hello and hello! Hello, hello, hello!"

"Hi, Brick," I said, because that's what you do when someone says hello. And because Brick looked right worried -- glancing here and there, his chin trembling, his eyes wide. Demons and devils, he don't so much as blink. Bunch of well-dressed men and women with angry looks in their eyes? He gets as nervous as a little kid with a full bladder.

"Hello, Dennis!" he said. "Hello, hello, hello!"

No one else answered him, so he said it again, faster, his voice pitching higher, "Hellohellohello and hello! Please, hello!"

No response from them party boys. The van pulled away from the curb. "Easy, Brick, easy," said I. I reached over to pat his leg, comforting-like, but one of the party boys pushed against my shoulder with the barrel of his devil-gun. "He's going to keep saying hello until you greet him back," I said.

One of them hit me. A girl, and a gorgeous one at that; red lips, blonde hair, green eyes. Cute spattering of freckles 'cross her nose and cheeks. But weren't nothing cute 'bout the punch she drove into my face. My daddy'd taught me to take a punch almost soon as I could walk. This itsy bitsy party girl had more beat-down lessons in her fingers than my old man had in his fingers, palms, knuckles, and belt.

"No fighting!" Brick wailed.

But it ain't hardly fighting if there's only one person punching. I brought up my hands to defend myself. Two of her buddies held me still so she could pummel me some more.

A broken nose and a cracked ribbed later, she gave it a rest. I looked past the lump of gristle and pain that was my nose to the men and women standing over me, around me. Pointing their weapons at me. Still.

"Give it to me," the beat-down girl said.

I tried to spit on her, but mostly just dribbled blood down my chin and chest. "With all this crowd watching? I know Asmodeus is the demon of lust, honey, but I ain't no exhibitionist. Maybe we get to know each other first."

Her green eyes sparkled. Pretty as she was -- Asmodeus don't consort with no skanks -- behind her eyes was an ugliness I didn't need my second sight to see. Her personal wretchedness was uglier than any flesh-puncturing, soul-reaving gun, and written deeper than the rune on her eyelid.

Talk is that demons are wicked, but humans is the ones that got them here, and not on accident, neither.

The girl kicked me. Cracked another rib. She said, "Give me the Pearl."

I dry heaved a couple times. "Pearl? Lemme explain something --"

She didn't. She beat me with hands and feet and elbows as the van drove on, as Brick wailed my name, as the rest of Asmodeus's little fan club pointed their guns at my soul.

Unconsciousness -- God's last, best gift to humanity -- stole me away at last.

I came 'round to the feeling of the bones in my face being welded back together.

Being healed was worse than having my face smashed in the first place. Agony so intense all I could do was kind of grunt in my chest. The healing slithered over my nose and skull, wending down my throat toward my ribs. It dug broken bones out of my lungs and soldered them back proper. The healing left me feeling weak, empty, and hot. And slimy, like I'd just sneaked a look into my mama's underwear drawer.

That slimy feeling's what you get when a King of Hell does you a solid.

I opened my eyes. I was face-down on the softest carpet I'd ever bled on. And there was a lot of blood. I couldn't imagine how it all could've come from me. I looked this way and that from my spot on the floor. I was in a penthouse office. A kitchen nook was set into the wall, with an espresso maker, a massive fridge, and a fruit bowl that took up near half the counter. Next to the fridge, a big picture window overlooked the city. The desk in front of the window was a dark granite slab. Some speakers atop it played a soft, marimba jazz tune.

"I've decided to let you keep the Pearl, Dennis." The voice's undertones scratched my second sight.

I wobbled to my feet. Last I'd seen Asmodeus was in a Saint Patrick's Day parade a couple years back. He'd been wearing a young Asian man. The skin he wore now was a balding white guy, tall, with wide shoulders and hips, and a belly to match. He'd somehow squeezed all that bulk into a three-piece business suit. Demon prince of lust, was he? But wouldn't no one lust after this sack of jowls and blubber.

Maybe that was the point. The whole . . . perversity of it.

Didn't matter what flavor meat-suit he wore, my second sight picked Asmosdeus out for what he was. To my second sight, Asmodeus was a cloud of claws and tentacles, gnashing teeth, and hordes of tongues. The suit, the flesh, all his play-pretend just melted away. You can't fool second sight.

"Where's Brick?" I asked. I shaded my second sight so I didn't have to have to watch Asmodeus's tongues flapping 'round.

"He was thirsty and hungry. Apparently, you boys haven't eaten well lately." Asmodeus said. "He's in the cafeteria. You can see him after we've conversed."

I stood there, parsing through the meanings of his words, trying to steady my knees. Finally, I said, "You swear he ain't hurt?"

"He is distraught," Asmodeus said. He sat hisself on top of the desk. Had to jump a couple times to get up there. "None of my people have harmed your man."

"Lemme see him," I said.

Asmodeus crooked a smile and waved at a chair. "Dennis, sit down."

You don't never sit down in the presence of a demon. You run, or you stand and fight, or you worship. I wasn't in no condition for fighting, and I ain't no boot-licker, so I flicked my gaze at the lone door in the wall and ran for it.

In spite of his jowls and belly rolls, Asmodeus moved faster than me. He caught the back of my shirt collar and walked me to the desk.

"Sit down," he said, dropping me into a chair. "Please," he added after a moment.

I bounced out of the chair and made another run for the door. Got my hand on the knob, this time, 'fore Asmodeus throwed me across the room. He pulled a revolver out of his jacket and pointed it at me.

"Fine," said he. "Just sit there and listen, Dennis Mallory. If you move, I will shoot you. Then I will heal you."

I stayed where I was.

"You may not have heard me before," Asmodeus said. "Keep the Pearl. Consider it a token of my . . . faith in your abilities."

He laughed about that, the buttons on his shirt and vest straining as his belly and shoulders heaved. No matter how he shook and chortled, the muzzle of his weapon -- it was an ordinary .38, not one of them demon-guns -- didn't slide neither left nor right.

"I want you to come work for me," he said.

"You find where I hid the Pearl, you can keep it," I said. "I ain't working for you."

His smile didn't waiver. "Don't think of me as an employer or a boss. Consider me your patron, funding your latest kleptological art piece. I merely reserve the right to . . . set some parameters for your work."

"Sounds stifling," said I.

"You're stubborn," Asmodeus said, "and stupid."

The gun cracked.

I stopped counting after the fourth bullet smashed into my thigh, but I'm pretty sure he emptied the .38's chamber into my legs and back. Then he poked his slimy, white-hot demon appendages into me and melted my flesh and bones back together. I screamed and wept and whined for him to let me die.

He didn't. His skin-knitting left me feeling violated, guilty, and feverish. "I want you to work for me, Dennis," he said. I heard him pop the chamber open, heard the click of more bullets being loaded into it. He leaned in close to me. I didn't have the strength to cover my second sight. All them claws, them teeth, them tongues, gnashing and fondling and licking the air . . . I cringed.

Asmodeus said, "No more small talk. You stole from me, young man. You embarrassed me. By the Throne, Beelzebub laughed at me. Lord of Flies, Grand High Emperor of Feces . . . Laughed. At. Me."

Asmodeus pressed the barrel of the .38 against the side of my neck. It was still hot. It blistered my skin, and I tried to writhe away. He fastened a meaty hand 'round my neck and held me still.

"Intolerable," he said. "I will be compensated. You will perform every single task I ask of you, or I will have your pet retard tortured. You'll grow sick of hearing his screams. You'll beg me to let you kill him yourself, just so you don't have to listen to his mewling any longer.

"I'll give you the weapon to kill him. I'll let you walk up to your helpless, retarded friend, and see all the misery and pain your defiance has brought on him. But I will never let you be merciful to him, Dennis Mallory."

I whimpered.

"Was that a 'yes,' Dennis?"

"One condition," I said. My throat was rough as sandpaper. His grip on me tightened, but I plowed on. "Don't call Brick a retard ever again."

Asmodeus roared with laughter. He pulled the gun away from my neck and kept laughing as he stood hisself up. "All right. I won't insult your man's intelligence ever again. What a strange little fellow you are."

He stowed the .38, nodding and chuckling to hisself.

I got up slow. Too late to run for the door now.

A couple of party boys escorted me out of Asmodeus's office, shoving me toward an elevator. One of them mashed a button for the lobby.

"Welcome to the family, Dennis," Asmodeus called as the elevator doors opened, and his boys hustled me inside. "I'll send Shelly with the details."

I ain't got fond memories of my family. This new one didn't look to be no improvement.

The lobby was empty of everyone but a security guard, sitting behind a polished marble desk and a row of computer screens. The guard looked normal. No invisible rune stapled to his eyelids. He saw me standing in front of the elevator and said, "Your man is in the cafeteria. That way."

"Thanks," said I. "Cafeteria open this time of night?"

The guard shrugged. "No rest for the wicked. Plenty of food, though."

I followed the guard's pointing finger, my shoes squeaking on the tile floor. My reflection walked alongside me in the sheen of his desk, and I slowed for just a second to take stock. I was a mess. And not just 'cause of the bloody t-shirt and ventilated trousers: Asmodeus's healings made me . . . gaunt. There was an edge in my eyes that hadn't been there before. Wasn't nothing anyone else would notice. Maybe no one but me.

"This, but no more," I told the reflection.

The cafeteria was cavernous. Wide, floor-to--eiling windows looked out on downtown streets, and the occasional businessman or woman heading home after late hours at the office. I saw Brick right off -- his back was to the entrance, his massive shoulders slumped, his big, blond head bowed. The table was overflowing with food-wrappers and soda cans.

"You save any for me?" I asked.

He about upset the table turning 'round. Then he throwed hisself at me, lifting me off my feet.

"Dennis, Dennis!" he sobbed in my ear. "You are alive, you are all right!"

I let him moan and sob and grapple me. Brick's molly-coddling was . . . well, it wasn't nothing miraculous. Didn't undo the demon's demands, nossir. But it was good. Squeezed some of the gauntness right out of me.

"I'm all right," I said after a long bit. "No thanks to you, Brick. Next time someone sticks me in a van and punches me in the face, you can't just sit there, letting me get walloped. You gotta punch 'em back."

Brick wiped his nose on his sleeve. "I was very angry. But you see? You are all right. You are fine!"

"Put me down."

He settled me beside the table. "Are you mad at me, Dennis?"

"A little," I admitted. But this argument was old and stale. We'd been carrying it on just as long as we'd knowed each other.

"I am sorry I let them hit you," he whispered. He gave me a funny look. "What is that on your neck, Dennis? Is it a hickey? Did Asmodeus give you a hickey?"

He poked at the blister Asmodeus's pistol had burned on my neck. I flinched, slapped his hand away.

"It ain't a hickey," I said. "Asmodeus stuck a hot gun-barrel against my throat. You were down here chawing away, and I'm upstairs getting shot and . . . tortured."

"Complaining about your new boss already? It's only your first day."

She had on different clothes -- a pair of low-rise blue jeans that made her legs look long and her hips tight, a slinky black blouse, and heels that added a good four inches to her height. But they were the same freckles, the same blond hair, and them same green eyes that'd stared me down in Asmodeus's van.

The wretchedness hiding behind her pretty face, that was the same, too. But I had to remind myself to look for it.

"No fighting," Brick said. "No fighting. Please. And hello, hello."

"Hi, Brick," said I.

The girl nodded at Brick. "Hello, Brick."

"Hello, Dennis!" he replied. "Hello, miss. You are nice, now. Dennis, she is nice. No fighting."

"I didn't come here to fight," the girl said.

"Sure, Brick," I said. "No fighting."

I smiled at her. She smiled back. Her smile was brilliant: a mouth for kissing, and a tongue, and . . .

I punched her anyway.

She reeled back, four-inch heels not doing nothing to help her balance. I cut in close enough to smell her perfume, and knocked her to the floor. I pinned her with a knee across her chest, one hand on her throat, and the other raised up.

"No fighting!" Brick called.

But it ain't hardly fighting if there's only one person throwing the punches. It was my turn to be that person, and with the girl pinned and the memories of her beating my face fresh to my mind, opportunity and motive mixed together in perfection. A new, rough, hardened part of me whispered how easy, how right it'd be. Payback for the agony she'd caused me, and for the misery that her boss had settled me into.

But I ain't fit for mercilessness. That's what I told myself as I held her down, grasping her throat and feeling her strain her neck muscles to catch herself some air. I'll con a man, sure. Steal his last dollar, yessir. Maybe knockabout in the shadows a bit.

But I ain't fit for mercilessness.

Had to tell myself that a dozen times 'fore I got convinced. I picked my knee off her chest and stood up. She rolled to her feet, sucking air.

"No fighting?" Brick said hopefully.

"You probably think I deserved that," she said to me, and her hand flashed behind her and came forward again, bearing one of them ugly, soul-reaving pistols.

"No, no, no," Brick moaned.

"Your boss might fuss ''bout me getting dead on my first day," I said.

"He's your boss, too."

"He's my patron," I said. Lamely.

She cocked her head, finally gave a little laugh. "I'm Shelly Ingram. You're going to help me kill Asmodeus."

Shelly kept her weapon out.

"Stealing the Pearl of Great Price undermined Asmodeus more than he's willing to admit. It's the perfect time to murder him," she said. "He can't petition his allies for help for fear of looking even weaker. Even his underlings . . ."

I interrupted. "Skip to where you say something to make me trust you after you kidnapped me, beat me nearly to death, and then left me to be tortured by a King of Hell."

Shelly arched an eyebrow and said slowly, "We are going to kill Asmodeus."

"See? She is nice now, Dennis," Brick said. He grinned and nodded.

Shelly gestured at Brick's table. "Let's talk."

"You want to talk about murdering Asmodeus while sitting at a table he owns, in a cafeteria he owns, in the building he owns?"

She laughed, scooted a chair over to the table, and began picking through Brick's leftovers. With one hand she foraged; the other held her gun. "Asmodeus knows I'm trying to kill him."

"You ain't doing nothing for my confidence. Can't think why we'd get involved."

"Do you think you'll enjoy being Asmodeus's little cat burglar?"

"Are we working for Asmodeus now, Dennis?" Brick asked, frowning. "That is not right. He is not nice, Dennis. We should kill him, like Miss Shelly says."

"It ain't so simple, Brick," I said. "Anyway, I'll figure a way out of this."

Shelly snorted and popped a couple tater-tots into her mouth. When she finished chewing she said, "You're already starting to look like his man, Dennis."

I refused to look at my reflection in the window.

Shelly continued on, "While you're figuring it out, everything you do will be tainted by Asmodeus's influence. The more time you spend in his service, the easier it becomes to do what he asks. Until he asks you impossible things, and you're doing them as a matter-of-fact. Before you know it, he's leaning over your face and tonguing his rune on your eyelid. You welcome it, because you've finally 'figured it out.'"

"Personal experience?" I asked.

She shrugged, bit into the grilled cheese sandwich, chewed noisily. "Help me kill Asmodeus."

"Yes," Brick said immediately. "Yes, yes."

"We could run away," I said. "No reason to stick our necks in with yours."

"Don't be stupid. We have wizards, oracles, and fortune-tellers. The hardest thing about snatching you up this afternoon was finding a van large enough to accommodate the rendition team. And now you're an investment, Dennis. It doesn't matter where you run; you're still Asmodeus's man."

"You ain't said nothing 'bout why we should trust you," I said.

"Killing Asmodeus is the only way you're going to be free of him." Shelly said. "It's not about trust."

"I ain't that desperate."

"I'm sorry I beat you up," she said after a second. "Does that help?"

"Not enough for me to buddy up with you." I tapped Brick on the shoulder, motioned for him to follow 'long.

Shelly wrapped a hand 'round my elbow, stopped me. Her fingers were warm, strong. Wasn't unpleasant at all to have her touch me. "If you change your mind, come find me here. I'm on the fifth floor. Just ask. But . . . bring the Pearl."

I pulled away from her, disliking the thoughts that came bubbling out of the new, gauntish part of my brain. "I hope he catches you and peels your eyeballs out of your skull."

"Asmodeus's man," she said. "It doesn't take long."

She was right. Didn't take long at all.

I got no excuses. I knowed what Asmodeus's game was right from the start. First job he sent our way -- robbing some reliquaries from a dinky sage's suburban rambler -- I dawdled. Gave it a long study, even though there wasn't much to the sage's security. Couple of clumsy runes and a decrepit manticore. But I put it off.

The nightmares started. Just like Asmodeus had threatened -- torture room upon torture room, all featuring Brick. You know how many days a demon can capture inside the space of a single dream?

Years.

And he never let me show Brick no mercy. It got so bad, I made Brick sleep right next to me, like we was boys again, just so I could wake up and put my hand on his back, feel him there, real, living, snoring and not screaming. At first, it was a comfort. Then the new, gauntish part of me whispered the easy out to all my problems: reach over Brick's shoulder, cover his mouth with one hand and pinch his nose with the other, hug him tight as he kicked and tried to breathe.

Be free of Brick, be free of Asmodeus, too, it whispered. 'Cause fear for him was what really kept me tied to the demon.

We did the job. I smudged the runes, Brick killed the manticore. The nightmares stopped.

And Asmodeus bought us a house. Fence, yard, kitchen, den, two bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms . . .

Stick. Carrot. I know how it goes. I got no excuses.

Next job was bigger. Low-rent sorcerer was keeping a bit of dragonskin in a warehouse guarded by a pooka. Four sigils and a maze of glyphs covered the warehouse floor -- sturdy work, but nothing fantastic. I balanced the sigils. I re-wrote the glyphs. Brick put his thumbs through the pooka's eyeballs, and tore off its jaw.

Asmodeus sent his party boys to our house to collect the dragonskin. Shelly was with them.

"You look good, Mr. Mallory," she said. "Lean and hungry."

I passed her the box with the dragonskin. The gaunt reminded me how easy it'd be to flip open the lid, let the dragonskin spill out onto her hands, burn them off with its perpetual heat. Same time, it also spoke how nice it'd be to touch her fingers, trail hands up her smooth skin, tangle fingers in her hair.

I didn't do neither.

But Shelly did. She took the box with one hand, wrapped her free hand 'round the back of my neck, and pulled me into a deep kiss. My whole body filled with gorgeous heat as her lips and tongue met my lips, my tongue. She held me still with the power of it -- nothing sorcerous, mind you, which don't mean it wasn't magical. She pressed her body 'gainst mine, strong, forceful, so close I could feel her heartbeat.

She didn't break it off so much as let me go bit by bit, 'til our lips was barely touching, our mouths barely open to each other.

Shelly spoke into my mouth, "Help me."

"You ain't that good," I whispered back. It was almost a lie.

She let go of the back of my neck and smiled. "Not long now, Mr. Mallory. Come and see me some time."

Shelly beckoned; the rest of the party boys followed her out of the house. I stood in the doorway, still feeling the heat of her body against mine, the pull and tease of her lips and tongue. The gaunt grumbled about her white throat, the scent of shampoo, and taste, and taste . . .

"She is nice, Dennis, hello," Brick said.

"Hi, Brick. And no, she ain't."

"We should work for her instead of Asmodeus. He is not nice."

"He bought us a house. That's pretty nice."

"She kissed you," he said.

"I'd rather have a roof," said I. But I watched Shelly walking down the driveway and seriously questioned my druthers. I shut the door.

"Asmodeus is wicked," Brick said. "It has been a while, I think."

I didn't respond, but turned myself toward the kitchen.

"Have you figured it out, Dennis?" Brick asked.

"Obviously not," I said.

"Have you asked anyone for help? You should ask Shelly. She is nice."

Nice . . . What would it be like, her skin to my skin, her lips on my bare throat, my hands on her the small of her back? Not nice, maybe. What did I want with nice?

"Dennis, we should . . ."

"Brick, shut up," I said. "I don't want to hear any more about Shelly, or whatever stupid idea you've come up with."

"It is not a stupid idea, Dennis, it is a good idea, and you should listen," Brick said.

"Shut up," I said. He didn't pay me no mind -- never had. Bullying right through what all I wanted, never mind anything I got to say 'bout it.

"Brick. Shut. Up," I said again.

He yammered on. Oh, wicked Asmodeus, oh, kind Shelly, like some kind of church litany. Brick's voice mashed against the whispering gaunt. Not drowning it out at all, but filling my head with noise.

I got no excuses.

I pushed Brick, hard. He stumbled, and I pushed him again. But he stopped talking, so the gaunt had my brain all to itself, and what it said, I liked. What it said was right. Why shackle myself to this half-wit boy? Just for the muscle, but now what was muscle to me? I got Asmodeus and all his army of party boys. I didn't need him no more.

"Dennis, Dennis," Brick moaned.

"Shut up," I said, soft. "You never think about me, do you? Just go all your own way. I get kicked and punched and slapped and shot, and you don't do nothing, Brick! Ever since we been together, you don't do nothing for me. So maybe now I give you some knuckle-time. Teach you what it feels like."

I slapped his face. He wailed. And it felt good. Oh it felt right excellent, keen and keener to see his head whip to the side and palm-and-finger marks redden his cheek.

"No fighting, no fighting," Brick cried. He brought up his arms to cover his face.

"Ain't a fight if there's only one person swinging," I said. I curled my hand into a fist.

And caught sight of my reflection in the window. Gaunt, yessir, even though on Asmodeus's payroll we'd been eating better than ever. Thin, yes. Hungry, like Shelly'd said.

I saw myself in my own eyes and with my second sight. It wasn't no real man there in the glass, fist raised up. Grey-skinned, long-limbed, and a jaw full of pointy teeth, that was what my second sight saw in me.

I didn't mind it. Didn't look bad at all. I was dangerous, I was masterful, I was the paragon of stealth and burglary.

The fact that I didn't mind disturbed me. Some part of me, anyway. And though it was nice to hear Brick calling uncle and begging me not to hurt him, I stopped myself. I took a step back. The gaunt egged me on and on -- slap, kick, strike, make him pay, teach him . . .

"Hello, Dennis, hello!" Brick whined. "Hello, hello! Please, hello!"

The greeting he wanted stuck in my craw like a jagged bone. I lowered my hands and backed up 'til my butt hit the counter on the other side of the kitchen. This far and no more, I'd said to my reflection weeks ago. But I'd gone farther, way farther, and now, and now . . .

"Brick, I'm so . . ." But I trailed off 'fore the apology could get past my teeth.

"Hello, Dennis, hello," he said, lowering his hands.

I couldn't stay. The gaunt ached for violence and misery-making, my palm still tingling pleasantly from where I'd slapped Brick across the face. No way I could let it have another go at him.

I fled to the bathroom. The gaunt wanted misery? Wanted violence? Well, I knowed a good couple people to practice on. I opened the cabinet 'neath the sink and kicked the bend in the PVC plumbing a couple times 'til it shattered.

The Pearl of Great Price spilled out of its hiding place in the bend. I scrubbed hair and toothpaste scum off of it and shoved it in my pocket.

Brick was still crouching on the floor when I came out. His eyes were huge and wet. He snuffled.

"Stay here," I said.

"Dennis, hello," he said.

But I left him there, alone.

The Pearl of Great Price is the kingdom of God.

Tale is that for every righteous or innocent man, woman, or child that dies, a little bit of Heaven's added to the Pearl, the idea being that bit by bit it'd get bigger, more beautiful, and more valuable, a right and true symbol of the beauty of virtue and of righteous living.

Or something like that.

But the Pearl ain't no bigger than a bean. Lots of wizards, sages, and jewelry makers've been surprised 'bout that. More than one's sniffed or laughed at it. Maybe God's standards is too high. Maybe the righteous ain't so righteous after all.

'Course they can't latch second sight eyes on it like I can. The Pearl don't grow outward; it grows inward, kind of curling into itself like a seashell. And within that infinite curl are runes written tight and sharp. Private runes, mostly. Names. They spiral forever and ever through the Pearl, taking up no space at all, 'cause they drive through the fabric of the world, on into Someplace Else.

I closed my hand 'round that Pearl and all its etched names when I walked through front door of Asmodeus's building. The guard at the security desk took a look at me and waved me through. I skipped the elevators for the stairs, jogging up 'em one at a time, loosening my legs, warming up my muscles, getting my heart thumping in my chest.

The gaunt egged me on. Violence, it hummed, and pain. Revenge!

"All that," spoke I to the empty stairwell.

There was still a few folks wandering 'bout on the fifth floor, carrying file-folders or laptops or talking on smart phones. I asked after Shelly and got pointed toward a corner office.

She opened the door 'fore I reached the knob. "Mr. Mallory," she said. She didn't look surprised.

I pushed her back into her office and closed the door.

"I'm in," I said.

"You brought the Pearl?"

I opened my hand and showed it to her.

She frowned. "It's tiny."

"You're going to give it a complex," I said.

She pulled a smart phone from her jacket, dialed a number, and said, "I have it. We move now." There was some garbled speaking on the other end of the line; Shelly interrupted. "It doesn't matter. We move now."

The phone disappeared into her pocket and Shelly plucked the Pearl from my hand. She held it between her thumb and middle finger, peering close at it. "Can you see the names?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"I wonder what kind of wizard you'd make. Able to see the magery of others and not just your own work. That's a powerful talent, Dennis. I would really love to help you explore all your opportunities."

"You offering me a job?"

She turned her smile on me again. "Certainly. Why not?"

"I ain't much for wizarding. Never made it past grade eight theosophy."

"Oh, knowledge." She never took her eyes off the Pearl. "It's overrated. We need motivated, practical experts who look beyond the traditional paradigms of arcana, demonology, alchemy, and theosophy. Men and women who dare push toward brighter horizons, more liberated modes of operating."

"I'm a thief," said I. "Not a wizard."

She put her hand on my shoulder. "Dennis Mallory. You're a power."

I shivered. The gaunt shivered.

The door to Shelly's office opened and a broad-shouldered party boy walked through. "We're set," he said. "Only way Asmodeus gets out now is through the window."

"Get some men on the street. Wouldn't be the first time he's jumped to escape me," Shelly said.

"You've done this before?" I asked her.

"Twice," she said. She kissed the Pearl. "Third time's the charm."

The party boy flanked me, latched a hand 'round my arm asking, "This?" He looked me up and down.

"He comes along," Shelly said.

I pulled my arm free. The gaunt cackled. "Just the three of us against a King of Hell?"

Shelly fondled the Pearl. "For the moment."

I cussed myself. Too late to run, now.

There wasn't no one in the halls as we walked toward the stairs. I hadn't been in Shelly's office for more than five minutes, already all them tablet-carrying, smart phone-talking, suit-and-skirt-wearing peons just up and got gone. Couldn't help but look for bloodstains, but I didn't see none.

Two more party boys joined us in the stairwell. Up we went, their hard-soled shoes clacking on the steps. Fifteen floors climbing up, up, up, not a one of them was so much as breathing hard. We passed the twenty third floor, shots and screams rang out. The broad-shouldered party boy touched his ear, but he kept climbing.

"Not much farther," Shelly said.

The chief party boy stopped at the sixty-sixth floor and peered through the narrow glass window. He motioned and the other two joined him. One opened the door; the chief and the other moved through it, weapons drawn.

I followed them into a corridor filled with smoke. Against the wall in the middle of the corridor, the elevator was a wreck of warped metal and charred plastic. Beyond it, I could see into Asmodeus's penthouse office. The demon hisself stood up behind his desk, grinning at us.

Grinning at me. 'Cause Brick was kneeling in front of his desk with his arms and legs wrapped up in chains.

Brick's face brightened when he saw me. "Hello, Dennis! Hello--"

Asmodeus shot him in the head. Brick dropped face first to the carpet, his eyes wide, his mouth open.

I didn't have time to scream.

Four gun barrels appeared around the side of Asmodeus's office door and roared. Devil guns, so it wasn't just gunpowder booming -- there was rage and despair in the sound.

Two of Shelly's party boys went down, clutching their bellies. They curled 'round themselfs weeping midnight-black tears. The seal Asmodeus had placed upon their eyelids bloomed so bright, I didn't need no second sight to see it.

The chief party boy slit their throats with his knife before they lived to do worser to us. With one hand he cut; with the other he aimed his demon-weapon. Pockmarks stitched 'round the office door, and the attackers pulled back long enough for me to find some skinny shelter in the ruin of the elevator doorway.

"Metatron," Shelly said. She crouched across the hall, rolling the Pearl in her palm, chanting, "Metatron, Metatron."

The chief party boy flung a grenade through the doorway. A second later, an explosion rocked the room.

A brighter flash burst from the Pearl.

"Metatron!" Shelly howled. She thrust the Pearl forward, at Asmodeus's office.

Gauzy, white light filled the doorway. My second sight was open wide to it, but couldn't grasp it. Vast and pure, whatever Shelly had summoned wasn't cottoning to my kind of viewing. There weren't no symbols, nor runes, nor shapes that could define it. It was so beyond, my mind couldn't even start to put a form to it.

The light flowed into the room, questing the bodies of the living and the dead. I stumbled forward, the gaunt eager to witness Asmodeus's end. But the man in me only saw Brick's motionless, breathless form, face-down on the floor in a pool of blood.

Asmodeus waddled in front of his desk, standing over Brick's body. "Shelly, this is what you've come up with?"

The light quivered at his voice. It speared toward Asmodeus's mouth, sharp and deadly-pure. One moment, a gauzy-fog; the next a shaft of white heat. Asmodeus's fat fingers caught the light. He bent it, knotted it, squashed it in his hands.

"Trifle," he said. The light writhed, but he held to it, squeezing and molding until it was the size of his palm. In my second sight, his mouths and tongues bit and poked the struggling light, and finally engorged it. It winked to darkness.

Shelly heaved a breath. "No," she said.

Asmodeus shrugged. "You brought an unwilling spirit into the world and didn't even provide it a body. What did you expect it to do, Shelly?"

She drew her gun and fired. A trio of raging bullets struck Asmodeus in the chest. Shelly's party boy stormed the room with her, bringing up his silver knife. Asmodeus caught his attack and snapped his arm. He caught the knife as it fell, drove it into the party boy's throat, and flung the body away.

A slow leak of blood drooled from the wounds on Asmodeus's chest. Wheezing, he pointed at the Pearl in Shelly's hand. "Go on. Summon more little choirboys. I'll give them plenty of flesh to choose from."

He shot the men that remained. Three bullets, powpowpow. It surprised me, somehow, that an ordinary gun could be so loud. His men died without a groan.

"Go on," he said to Shelly. "Summon another holy emanation. Plenty for them to inhabit here, go on . . ."

Shelly said nothing. She ejected the magazine from her pistol and loaded another.

Asmodeus guffawed and slapped his thighs. "You never learned another name, did you, girl?"

She shot him again, taking out his kneecaps. The wounds on his chest had already sealed. Asmodeus howled, then pulled toward her violently, using just his arms to skitter hisself across the carpet. He bowled her over and the Pearl dropped from her hand. Shelly's pistol screamed three, four, five more times, and then her only noise was to gurgle and hiss as Asmodeus closed hands 'round her throat.

"Three men, a thief, the Pearl, and one holy name," Asmodeus said to her. "That was your coup? The dead retard could have planned a better assassination."

I crept forward and snatched the Pearl. As Shelly and Asmodeus wrestled, I slipped up close to Brick. The chains round him were all magic chains; links of darkened, splintery wood, held together by a complex sigil. I stuck my fingers in the sigil, no mind how it frozed and burned me, and I obliterated it. Foul chains coiled off of Brick's body, sucking down to a length of black cord.

"I would have thought you would have had sentiment burned out of you by now, Dennis Mallory," Asmodeus said. He clambered toward me, leaving Shelly sucking for air. "Coming back for the retard's body? You should have run. You are going to have to learn some sense, boy."

He latched a paw 'round my leg. I let him see the Pearl.

"Told you. Don't never call Brick a retard," said I.

And then I whispered the name I knowed into the Pearl. "Hi, Brick."

The light swallowed Brick up. Eager, it stretched from the Pearl, flooded into Brick's body. Neither my flesh-and-blood eyes nor my second sight could follow how it mended what'd been torn.

"Dennis, hello," Brick said. "Hello, hello!"

I didn't reply, 'cause Asmodeus had pulled me into a chokehold.

"Stay back," he said. He thumped the side of my head with a meaty hand. "I'll snap his neck."

"Dying is not a hard thing," Brick said. He stepped forward. "It is not even scary. Dennis, do not be scared."

"Dennis won't get his name written in the Pearl," Asmodeus said. He put his mouth next to my ear. "All your murderous thoughts, your bullying, your cowardice . . . Your gaunt and hollow self, there's no place for you in there. So tell him to back away, or I end you forever."

Brick paused.

"Tell him, Dennis," Asmodeus said. He let up on my windpipe.

The gaunt gurgled in my brain, it spat and hissed for life, life! "For the love of God," I said. Didn't know I could manage prayer no more. "Kill him, Brick."

Brick put his fist through Asmodeus's face. At the same time, Asmodeus twisted and pushed, and a bright, hot agony flexed in my neck. I toppled as Asmodeus fell and my sight went dark.

But my second sight remained awake, watching Brick tear apart Asmodeus's cloud of teeth, tongues, and tentacles. Oh, that ol' devil tried to scatter, but once Brick gets a hold, can't nothing escape, not even a King of Hell. Brick battered and stomped and squeezed Asmodeus 'til he wasn't nothing but a pile of goop on the carpet. The last tongue flopped and lay still; the broken fingers dissolved to smoke, and disappeared.

"Hello," Brick said, a whisper in my ear. He patted my cheek, gentle as he could with his big, rough hand.

I tried saying goodbye. Just one word 'fore I went to wherever thugs and thieves go these days. But my mouth didn't work, and I faded without pushing out a breath.

Wasn't no devil-healing that woke me up. It was plain and ordinary agony.

I screamed.

Meant to scream, anyway. I couldn't get much breath. Some white shapes came 'long, muttering at me. I heard the word 'morphine.'

The agony eased. I stopped screaming.

"Hello, Dennis," a voice said.

I meant to say hi back, because that's what you do. But I couldn't manage.

That happened a lot through the next couple weeks. Wake up; scream; morphine; Hello, Dennis; and the greeting I never got to say.

'Til one day, the agony wasn't so bad that they had to put me all the way under. I whined for more morphine. I begged for it. And when Brick wouldn't give me none, I cussed him with every foul word I knowed to say.

Except one.

Months passed by, and Brick got me out of bed. A year gone by, and he got me out of the hospital into a rehabilitation facility. Another year, and I was walking 'round on my own, without leaning on Brick too much. Shelly sent me flowers and a picture of her posing provocatively on top of Asmodeus's desk. Her number and extension was scrawled on the back of the picture, along with the words, "Need you."

"Miss Shelly," said Brick, seeing the picture. "She is not a nice lady, Dennis."

"She is paying for all this, Brick." I waved my hand 'round at the physical therapy room. Outside, seagulls floated below a perfectly blue sky and coconut palms twisted toward the ocean.

"Miss Shelly is not nice," he said again, frowning.

"You want to go kill her?" I asked. Only half-joking.

He rolled his eyes at me. Can't say where he learnt that. Maybe the Pearl.

"We should not kill her," he said. "Yet."

"Not as long as she's paying my medical bills."

"I have an idea," Brick said. He rolled the Pearl of Great Price 'round in his big palms. "It is a good idea, I think."

I ain't no prophet. My second sight sees the truth of things, but I ain't no mind-reader. I knowed Brick, though. And he hadn't let go of the Pearl ever since I'd woke up. Always kept it in hand. And I had to think, what'd the boy see inside there that made him cuddle it so? Centuries of names. Eons of names, spiraling forever on, so far not even my second sight could see the beginning.

Names of the righteous. The innocent.

The divine.

"You gonna tell me this good idea or not?" said I. My heart thumped like I'd just run up sixty-six flights of stairs. I wanted him to say it. I was scared to death of what he'd say.

He looked me up and down, kind of squinting. Taking my measure, like. "Not yet," he said.

"Well. When you do decide to tell me, Brick . . ." I had to stop. Swallow. "I am your man."


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