It was late, no more than ten minutes before last call on a slow night, when he sauntered in like he owned the bar. For a minute I thought I was seeing things, he couldn’t be here for me, I still had two years, eight days, six hours, and thirty six minutes left on my contract.
Not that I was counting or anything.
He sat at the end of the bar, opposite from where I was standing. His suit was immaculately tailored and a shade of black so deep it looked like it was crafted from the pit itself. His red tie looked a tongue of flame against his black silk shirt, and he stood out like a sore thumb in the dingy dive that I worked in. He made eye contact with me and I shivered. His facial features were nondescript, not overly handsome, not overly repulsive. They seemed to shift the longer I looked at them, if I had to describe him to a sketch artist, I wouldn’t be able to. Except for this eyes, eyes that I had nightmares about since we made our deal.
Only a thin iris was visible and the color shifted from gold to orange to red depending on his mood. That I knew from our previous conversation. But the most unsettling part of his eyes were what those irises surrounded. Deep, pits of black that could steal a man’s soul away and not give it back. With those eyes staring at me, I felt a cold chill race up my spine. He casually held up a finger, typical of anyone attempting to get a bartender’s attention. When he spoke it was barely above a whisper, but I could hear every word clear as day.
“Bourbon, top shelf, on the rocks.”
With slow halting movement, that didn’t really feel like my own, I grabbed the glass (putting the ice in it) and the bottle and moved to where he sat. I set the glass down and poured the drink. He smiled up at me and tapped the side of the glass.
“Make it a double. It’s been a long day, Collin.”
I topped off his drink and braced both hands against the bar. I wasn’t sure what my plan was; if I was going to leap across at him or push off and start running. He lazily swiped the glass up, smirking at me as he down the drink in one long gulp. He set the glass down and tapped the side again, so I poured another double. He picked the glass up, nursing the drink this time. I was getting edgy.
“What do you want, Satan?” I sniped at him, “My time’s not up yet.”
“I know,” he replied, taking another sip and swallowing loudly before setting the glass down again, “But I am here to discuss Article C, Subsection I, Point 3 of your contract.” He snapped his fingers and it echoed in the small bar. I didn’t have to look to know that everyone in there was frozen in time, unmoving for the moment; he’d done the same thing in the diner when I signed over my soul in the first place.
He flicked his wrist and a scroll appeared in his hand and with another flick it unfurled and was rolling across the floor of the bar. He carefully searched the text while I wracked my brain. What the hell was in Article C, Subsection I, Point 3?
“Here we go: ‘Should the Devil’ that would be me ‘ever require the services, skills, abilities, knowledge, etc. of the Damned Individual’ that would be you ‘the Devil will immediately forfeit and return the Damned Individual’s soul upon the request for assistance.’”
“Are you saying—“ I couldn’t finish the sentence, there was no way this could be happening. The Devil just doesn’t give souls back. With a sigh he reached into his suit jacket and pulled a small, glowing white jar from his pocket, set it on the dirty, stained bar, and pushed it towards me.
“Here’s your soul,” he said, like it was the most normal, trival thing in the world, “I need a favor.”
I hesitated, reaching out slowly towards the jar. The Devil waved his hand and the jar skittered down the bar, jut out of my reach.
“I suppose I should read you Article C, Subsection I, Point 3, Paragraph 2,” he said with a smirk before draining his glass. He didn’t bother to wait for me to pick up the bottle and filled the glass himself. “The Damned Individual, upon accepting the task assigned to him must complete it in a timely manner, as determined by the Devil. Failure to do so will result in the immediate forfeiture of the Damned Individual’s soul, regardless of any length of time remaining in the original contract. Success renders the contract between the Devil and the Damned Individual null and void.”
“So I do you a favor, on your timeline, or it’s straight to the pit for me,” I snarked back at him, “But if I do your little errand, I get my soul back and you rip up the contract.”
“Precisely,” he said polishing off another glass and crunching down loud on an ice cube, “Now I’m sure you want to know—“
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll do it.”
He seemed startled for a moment before a wide, sinister smile broke across his face.
“That’s why I picked you for this task,” he chuckled, “Always the good, little soldier ready to follow orders at the drop of the hat. The task is simple: something was stolen from me, and I want it back.”
“Who would be dumb enough to steal from you?”
“A demon, one of my many minions thought he could make a power play with it,” he chewed on another piece of ice. The gold rings around his pupils vanished and was replaced by bright, fiery red rings, “All he succeeded in doing was pissing me off.” The Devil snapped his fingers and the parchment snapped like a window shade and rolled up, as soon as it finished rolling it was replaced by a familiar looking manila folder, the kind they used to give me when I would be assigned a sniping target.
“The format should be familiar to you. I’ll give you ten minutes to review it and ask me questions.”
I quickly flipped the folder opened, and was greeted by standard information and pictures of people and places. The target appeared to be a balding, overweight man in his mid to late forties. There were several pictures of a decrepit looking house. There was meticulously documented list of movements recorded on parchment that didn’t really feel like paper. Once I had a good idea of what was going on I flipped the folder closed and looked up at the Devil.
“Tick tock,” he tutted, “Five minutes gone.”
“What was taken?”
“A book, from my private selection. Approximately thirteen inches long by eight inches wide by two inches thick. It is bound in black leather with no markings on the front cover or spine.”
“What’s so special about this book?”
“That,” he smiled, “is on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know.”
“Fine. How long ago was this book taken?”
“About twelve hours ago, I’ve spent most of that time doing your recon.”
“Why not get it yourself? Don’t want to get your hands dirty?”
The Devil grimaced, his sour look making is face go dark. It made me take a step back from the counter. He pushed the empty glass from the side and took a pull direct from the bottle.
“The fucker has warded his safehouse against me. I didn’t think it was possible, but he did it. I can’t get within fifty feet of the place. So I need an agent to go in and get it for me.”
“Why me? Why not another demon?” the question was out of my mouth before I could stop myself.
“Because I can’t trust the bastards as far as I can throw them. Shifty fuckers, always looking for a leg up. There was no guarantee that if I sent another demon after him that he wouldn’t just take the book for himself and I’d be in the same damn position. I need an…independent contractor…someone in indebted to me with a little bit of desperation and a specific skill set,” he leaned back from the counter, “you happened to be in the right place and fit the bill for what I needed. Besides you’re the righteous type, wanting to see justice done. That’s why you’re in this mess in the first place, right?”
“Timeline,” I barked at him, louder than I should have. I didn’t have time to dwell on my sister’s murder.
“Twelve hours,” the Devil barked back glancing over at the clock, it was ten minutes until midnight. “I believe he’s planning on moving it during that time and I can’t afford to lose it or him.”
“How do I kill a demon?” I asked, not doubting that it would come to that to recover this book, “I’m assuming a round between the eyes won’t do it.”
“All the right questions this evening,” the Devil laughed before giving me a sober look, “You can’t kill a demon. You can, however send him back to the pit with this.” He pulled a long, black bladed knife from his sleeve. “Stab him in the heart and he winds up back in the pit in a cell he will never escape from.” He slid the blade to me, handle first. I took it without hesitation, tucking it into my belt.
“How do I get the package to you?”
“Just step outside the house with it, I’ll come to you.”
“Any other details or specifics you have for me?”
“Just one and it’s important,” he said leveling me with a stern look, “No matter what. Do not open the book. See you in twelve hours.” He snapped his fingers and the world started moving again but he was no longer seated at the bar. I looked down, the bastard hadn’t bother to pay for his drinks. I snatched up the glass and the bottle.
“Last call,” I bellowed out before snatching up the glowing jar, “We’re closing early tonight, sorry folks.”
* * * * *
Six hours into my twelve hour deadline, I was positioned down the street from the house in the pictures, watching for movement through high powered binoculars. It had taken time to get my usual tactical gear from storage and to make it to the house, which had been located three towns over. Dawn was just starting to crest over the Eastern horizon, I didn’t know if demons slept, but I was going to have to move sooner rather than later.
The house itself looked like it should be slated for demolition. It had at once point been a beautiful Victorian style home, complete with wrap around porch and circular tower. Now, the paint was faded, disgusting rose color and peeling off the exterior in small flakes, all of the windows and doors (except for the front) were boarded up and the boards looked like they were slowly rotting away. Most of the roof on the second floor had collapsed in. The front door looked like it had been boarded up, but the boards had been pried away and stacked neatly to the side.
It would be the easiest point of ingress, but they had to be waiting for something. If this book was as valuable as the Devil made it seem, this demon would know that someone would come looking for it on Satan’s behalf. I had made the circuit around the block two times, once on foot, once in my truck. The only other point of entry looked like a window on the second floor that had a tree right outside of it. There were only two boards on this window and the glass appeared to have been broken out. It was going to have to be my best bet on such a tight deadline.
Making sure the street was clear, I got out of my truck and made my way over to the tree. The climb up was easy, I was still relatively fit from my time in the Marines. Transitioning from the tree to the window and remaining silent was trickier, but I managed. I squeezed between the two boards and landed as softly as humanly possible. I moved across the floor, careful to avoid loose or broken floorboards. I made it to the door and listened. There was a shuffling coming from downstairs and an irate voice.
“Look, asshole,” a male voice snarled, “I need to move the timeline up. I need you here to take this damned ledger in the next hour.” Silence. “No! This is non-negotiable. I’ve been lucky thus far, but he’s going to start sending folks after me.” Another moment of silence and I moved out of the room and down the hall.
“Look, I’m just as surprised as you are that my head’s not on a pike yet, but that just means he’s looking for the right person for the job. You’ve got 10 minutes.”
I lingered at the top of the stairs, the voice and movement were coming from down the stairs and to the left. They were in bad shape, and without him talking on the phone, he was sure to hear me. But I couldn’t wait, apparently whoever was going for the book would be here in ten minutes, which means I had to take him down and get out in nine. I started down the stairs.
As I approached the first floor I could see a man standing by one of the boarded up windows looking through the cracks. He was oblivious to my presence, the next moments were all pure instinct. I was on the landing, drawing the blade I had been given, crossing through the foyer, and then behind him. I grabbed him by the neck and plunged the blade in deep, through his back and right into his heart. What happened next was a little hard to believe and comprehend but easy to explain.
The man imploded.
Rather, it looked like the blade sucked him in like a vacuum. It looked like the cartoony version of someone getting sucked into a black hole. The demon didn’t make a sound when it happened and it was over in an instant. The knife dropped to the floor, making a loud bang when it hit. The whole series of events was over in a minute or two. All I had to do now was find the book.
Looking around what had once been a parlor, there was nothing in the ways of furniture and the large square room had a fireplace on the outside wall. There was a knapsack next to the window where the demon had been standing. I rifled through it quickly, but there was no sign of a book. Which meant he had hidden it. I looked at my watch, seven minutes until the recipient show up. I stepped carefully on each floorboard, tapping my foot, looking for hollow spots and loose boards.
“Shit,” I cursed. There was no time to search the whole house. It had to be somewhere in this room. I took another look, and aside from my foot prints and the demons, there was no disturbance in the dust outside of this room. I walked over to the fireplace, the soot and ashes had been disturbed. I brushed the wood remains to the side, but there wasn’t anything in the fireplace itself. I reached up into the flue and my hand hit something hard and covered in cloth. I grabbed it and pulled it down. The item was large and rectangular, I carefully pulled the cloth covering off and was greeted by the sight of a large, black, leather bound tome.
The front door flung open with a bang. I reacted without thinking, standing, pulling my revolver from its holster, and aiming it at the person crossing the threshold. It was a woman, the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen in my life. She was dressed stylishly in gray trousers and a sapphire blue sweater. Her heart shaped face framed by perfectly maintained golden curls. Her skin was pale and unblemished, like porcelain, her lips were watermelon pink and pouted. Her nose was perfectly straight, slightly upturned at the end. And her eyes…pale sky blue eyes. Eyes that were locked on to me. For the second time in the past twelve hours, I felt like someone was staring directly through me.
“Mister MacNamara,” she said, a melodic lilt to her voice, and stepping into the room. “I believe that you have something I want.” She gestured to the book.
“I’m sorry Miss, but I’ve been sent to retrieve this—“
“By my brother, Lucifer,” she interrupted, “Yes, I know.” I gaped, at a loss for words. Her brother?
“Your brother?” I asked, my words mirroring my thoughts. She smiled, but instead of being radiant, like I expected it to be. It was sad, remorseful.
“Yes, Lucifer is my brother and we were close before our father cast him down for his pride and insubordinate attitude.” My mind reeled.
“You’re an angel?”
“Archangel, to be precise,” she replied, stepping further into the room and extending a hand to him, “Michelle.” I looked at her hand and then back up at her face before holstering my gun. If she was an archangel, a bullet wasn’t going to stop her.
“Collin MacNamara,” I said, ruefully but not moving to shake her hand, “But I’m sure you already knew that.”
“Yes, Mister MacNamara,” she replied nodding, “I know all about you and your deal with my brother.”
“Strange, I don’t remember an Archangel Michelle from Sunday School.” Her smile turned rueful.
“Yes well, I believe there was something lost in translation. Michelle, Michael…they are very similar. Regardless, shall we just jump straight to the matter at hand, Mister MacNamara, I need that ledger.” She gestured to the book I had tucked under my arm.
“Of course,” she sighed, “My brother wouldn’t have told you what it actually was…you can open it up and look, it is his Ledger of the Damned. All of the individuals that he has made deals with, when the deals were made, how much time they have left, whether their soul was originally destined for heaven or hell, and what they made their deal for. Lucifer was always a meticulous note taker.”
Temptation washed over me as I held the ledger in my hands. The Devil, Lucifer, had told me not to look in it, but if it had the details of my deal, maybe I could strike them out…
“I know that look, but I can tell you changes cannot be made in that book unless done by a celestial hand,” I looked up and she had a frown on her beautiful face, “However, I can tell you that whatever my brother promised you, I can make you the same deal.”
“He gave me my soul back…after I made a deal for the police to find my sister’s body. They wouldn’t have been able to send her killer away without it—“
“I know, Collin,” she said with remorse weighing down her voice, “You made that deal so you wouldn’t take that man’s life with your own hands—“
“I was damned either way,” the words poured out of my mouth, “The people I killed as a sniper, what was one more red mark in my ledger? But, he came to me, told me how it would devastate my mother if she lost both her children…how I could get justice for my sister and still be there for my mother and I wouldn’t have to get my hands dirty again.”
“You were never destined for the pit, Collin,” Michelle said taking a few steps closer to me. “Page four twenty-five, line twenty eight.” I took a step back from her, my back bumping against mantle. Cautiously, looking between her and the book I opened it. The page numbers were at the top but I barely noticed them because there were other numbers on the page, moving and changing. Each page was filled with hundreds of countdown clocks that steadily ticked down. It was as she said, there were column headers written in a fine, neat script.
Heaven or Hell
I thumbed through the pages each filled with times running, occasionally I would see a line where time remaining read as something different: Collected, Collecting, Transaction Pending. A chill ran down my spine whenever I saw the word Collecting. Eventually I made it to page four twenty-five and ran my finger down the page until I found my name:
Collin Joseph MacNamera; 8/19/2012; Discovery of Sister’s body for a conviction of her murderer; Transaction Pending; Heaven
My heart skipped a beat, but I remained calm. Heaven…my soul was destined for heaven.
“There are so many names in here,” I murmured aloud before looking up at her, “He’s made this many deals.”
“And it’s put him ahead of the legions of Heaven. If the world were to end tomorrow, Lucifer would win by sheer numbers alone. That’s why I need the ledger…To wipe out the debt, free those souls and balance the scales again.”
“Not to sound selfish, but what about me,” I asked, my voice sounding rough to my own ears, “He was pretty clear about what would happen to me if I reneged on my deal. Instant Hell.”
“I — could protect you from that,” she sent a dazzling smile in my direction. But I could hear the lie. I had been lied to enough over the years to hear the fraction of a second of hesitation.
“Wow, I never thought I would be saying this to an angel, but no thanks…The devil you know and all that…” I stepped forwards towards the door and she was right on my heels.
“You don’t know what you’re doing…we’re talking about the fate of the world. What’s one soul compared to all that—“
“When that one soul is mine, it means a lot, it means everything,” I continued walking to the door. She tried to reach out to grab my arm, but something kept her from doing it. It was like she couldn’t touch me.
“Damn free will,” she cursed, “Please don’t step outside that door. Look I can’t guarantee that I can keep you from going to the pit, but if you do get sent down there I swear I will do everything in my power to get you out and put you where you belong. My word is my bond, just don’t give that ledger to my brother.”
Ignoring her, I stepped outside, where storm clouds were brewing, making the world dark as midnight.
“Well, well,” a familiar voice called from the street. I stood frozen on the walk, halfway between Michelle and Lucifer. “Long time no see, dear sister mine.”
“Lucifer,” she snarled, a glowing sword appearing in her hand. “This matter doesn’t concern you.”
“Oh but it does,” he smiled swaggering up the side walk towards where I was standing before he looked like he hit an invisible wall. “This at least explains how that moron warded this place against me. He had heavenly help. That doesn’t matter now…all that matters is that Collin gives me my book.” He extended a hand out toward me and I hesitated.
“No, he’s going to hand it over to me so I can wipe it clean and put an end to your plot to subvert the host of heaven.” She extended her hand.
Lucifer was right…all my life, I was the good soldier. I always followed the orders handed down by my superiors to the letter, never once questioning their orders. Now that I literally stood between the forces of heaven and hell, I was bringing into question everything I had done in my life. Do I follow orders and hand over the ledger to Lucifer, freeing my own immortal soul but damming hundreds of thousands of others. Or do I disobey and turn the ledger over Michelle, saving those souls, but damming my own.
Do I pick Heaven or Hell?