The Devil & Dan Cooley

by Holly Lisle and Walter Spence

TUESDAY, JUNE 7TH

God’s pager chimed the first couple of bars of Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue in D major. That meant Heaven calling again. God frowned and switched off her pager—lately most of her problems came from Heaven. She wondered if she could just let this one go for a while, pretend she’d been too busy to notice the beeper at all, maybe even answer by e-mail instead of with a personal visitation. Off to one side of her, the Maypole dancers wove in and out around each other, swirling and skipping in their ethereal robes to the beat of an extraordinary drummer and the piping of the original Pan. It was going to be a great party. The folks in the pagan afterlife always threw great parties.

But Honorial, Heaven’s Chief of Data Processing, never called unless he had an honest-to-God emergency. Maybe, God thought, this will just be a little one. Maybe I’ll be able to handle the trouble in Heaven and get back to Summerland in time for the buffet.

God switched out of Goddess mode into the long-bearded persona his Christian children overwhelmingly preferred (he forgot once when he left Mt. Olympus and went through the pearly gates as Zeus, but nobody noticed) and slipped into Heaven, the Christian neighborhood of the afterlife.

As he came through the doors, Heaven’s choirs finished up some brand new Bach and switched to rock and roll, with Elvis doing the lead vocals. Elvis sounded great. That short stint in Hell before he repented had been better for him than the Army, and had given him some new themes to write about.

God liked the new song; he snapped his fingers and bopped with the beat. By the time he reached his recording angel, who sat frowning at the computer screen, he was singing along with the chorus.

“Cause buh-buh-buh-baby I don’ah like it—
No, no, no, no, I don’ like it—
Oh, baby, I don’ like it—
Where it’s hot!”

Honorial, the Chief Recording Angel of Data Processing, sighed. God remembered a bit too late that Honorial much preferred Gregorian chants and madrigals to any other music, and considered more recent styles discordant. He quit singing and surrounded the two of them with silence.

“Problems?”

“Yes, Almighty. The numbers on Operation Tarheel just came in and they aren’t good.”

“They aren’t?” That came as a surprise, and things rarely surprised God. He leaned over the angel’s shoulder and looked at the monitor. Honorial brought up the North Carolina numbers in Heaven’s accounting program, MicroSoul Redeemer, and the graphs rolled across the screen in heavenly gold on celestial black. The graphs showed a net decrease in Heaven-bound souls, and a corresponding net increase in the Hellbound. God shook his head. “That’s bad. Decidedly bad. Operation Tarheel initially gave us a four percent increase in net. Now we have an almost equivalent decrease.”

God had been pleased, but not surprised, by the increase in the Heavenbound after Operation Tarheel kicked in. His subordinates had expressed shock and disbelief when He turned loose roughly fifty-eight thousand fallen angels, devils, demons, and assorted imps and gargoyles into North Carolina, with only the meagerest and most lenient of rules to govern their behavior. It had been a great joke and an inspired operation, and Dayne Kuttner, the young mortal for whom he’d created the project, had responded magnificently. She’d torn Hell’s second-in-command, a fallen angel named Agonostis, out of Lucifer’s grip simply by loving him and making him love her.

Hell had no room for love.

Still, nearly everyone but God—in Heaven, on Earth, and in Hell—had been certain the whole state was on the fast track to damnation. Heaven’s hosts expressed shock as redeemed devils and imps, recalled to Hell for straying from their appointed tasks, began applying at Heaven’s gates for admittance; they watched in disbelief as damnedsouls looked at the events in North Carolina and found hope even in the midst of their Hellish torments—and repented.

But now God realized that somehow Lucifer had found an edge. North Carolina’s numbers had reversed themselves, and the state’s population seemed to be heading downward at an alarming rate.

“The Father of Lies must have come up with a convincing one,” God said. “I wonder what it is.”

“Shall I form a task force to go down and investigate?”

Honorial had been itching to go to Earth ever since the Unchaining. God suspected he had friends among the Hellraised he wanted to visit, and that maybe he was a bit envious of the way things had turned out for Agonostis.

“No. No task force. I already told you, a physical presence by any of Heaven’s forces is outside the bounds of my experiment for now, in any case. No. Just monitor the situation for me, and when you find out what the unspeakables are up to, let me know.”

Honorial nodded, disappointment clear in his expression. “You going to be around?”

“Page me. I have some work I need to take care of elsewhere.”

God switched into her Goddess form on the run. She was going to have to hurry—those pagans could clean a buffet faster than a plague of locusts could wipe out a cornfield. If I’m lucky, God thought, hurrying back to Summerland, I’ll get there before the ambrosia and the fried chicken run out.

CHAPTER 2

Dan Cooley jumped as a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree in the park nearby, momentarily lighting the pre-dawn sky and casting the Raleigh street in eerie shades of blue and white. He mopped his face with a sweat-soaked sleeve and shifted on the vinyl car seat, trying to find a position that would let him drive without touching the seat-back with any portion of his anatomy. He felt his shirt sticking and tugging at his skin as he moved. Damned irritating. He tried the air conditioning again. Sometimes it worked, but not today.

North Carolina summers are the worst, he thought as he drove along the empty street. Its ninety out here already. Might break the one hundred mark by lunchtime if it doesn’t rain.

It probably would rain, though. The thunder and lightning had to be bringing rain with them sooner or later.

A sudden gust of wind blasted between two buildings and buffeted the car. Scraps of newspaper and assorted trash spiraled up from the gutter and skittered across his windshield. His headlights picked out several winos huddled against the stained brick of an abandoned building. One passed a brown paper bag to another. The third turned his face away as Dan drove by.

Eight months ago, this part of town hadn’t been too bad. It got worse every day, though. He passed Harriet’s Fruit and Produce Company, which had still been in good shape when he moved to Raleigh. Broken bottles littered the empty parking lot. Someone had replaced the shattered glass panes with cardboard. Racist graffiti decorated the walls, along with crude drawings of nude women and oversized sexual organs and slogans like “Go to Hell for the Holidays.”

The winos weren’t the only bums living in the streets, though. Even some of the Hellraised were out of work. Dan saw stories about devils standing in breadlines and demons and gargoyles and imps clogging welfare offices demanding to be put on the rolls. According to some rumors, Hell was downsizing its operation in North Carolina because of the population drop as people fled the state.

Goddamn the Unchaining anyway. The state was driving straight to Hell, lights flashing all the way.

“I wish I could do something to make a difference,” he muttered.

Lighting crashed into the top corner of the building at the next intersection and for an instant he saw the strobe-slowed images of bricks and trim flying in all directions. He hit his brakes to keep clear of debris. The rain started—a few hard, big splats on his windshield preceded a torrent so fierce that the roar of the rain drowned out the sound of the radio.

He slowed further and squinted past his flailing windshield wipers, looking for his turn.

There it was.

As he prepared to turn right, a small form dashed in front of him, momentarily illuminated by the glow of the headlights.

“Shit!” Dan slammed his foot on the brakes. The Mustang fishtailed on the wet road and slid to a stop.

“What the hell …?”

A man raced behind the child. Both were sodden, tattered, bundled in filthy clothing. The rain blurred them, and they dashed out of his headlights before he could decide whether they were running toward something or away from it, but before he could move forward again, half a dozen young men ran after the pair, which answered the question. The young men hooted and yelled obscenities. Several threw bottles and pieces of brick.

He thought he heard one of them shout, “Get ’em! Get ’em!” and another yell, “Let’s cut ’em!”; he couldn’t be sure. The rain and the radio together made their voices tiny.

There were still no other cars on the road with him. Feeling uneasy, he backed up and aimed the headlights in the direction in which everyone had run.

The pack of teenagers were spread out in a semi-circle, their prey trapped in the corner of a warehouse parking lot. Dan could make out baseball bats and broken bottles and a knife in the hands of the various attackers.

The voice of common sense told him, “You can’t do anything; there are almost a dozen of them. Get to a phone fast and call the cops.” He wished he had a car phone. That would have helped. He didn’t, though. All he had was his car—with its doors locked against any intrusion from the dangerous world outside—and a conscience that he could tell wasn’t going to let him flee to the nearest phone.

Dan felt his stomach knot. The thugs were closing in on the man and the kid. “Oh, screw it.”

He yanked the gearshift into reverse, aimed the car at the middle of the gang, then floored the gas pedal. He jumped the curb; the impact rattled his teeth. As the tires hit the parking lot, chunks of gravel rang on the Mustang’s chassis; he kept accelerating, rear end first, towards the group. He leaned on the horn the entire time.

It worked. The kids ran off, but not too far.

“Shit!” Dan slammed his foot on the brakes. The Mustang fishtailed on the wet road and slid to a stop.

“What the hell …?”

A man raced behind the child. Both were sodden, tattered, bundled in filthy clothing. The rain blurred them, and they dashed out of his headlights before he could decide whether they were running toward something or away from it, but before he could move forward again, half a dozen young men ran after the pair, which answered the question. The young men hooted and yelled obscenities. Several threw bottles and pieces of brick.

He thought he heard one of them shout, “Get ’em! Get ’em!” and another yell, “Let’s cut ’em!”; he couldn’t be sure. The rain and the radio together made their voices tiny.

There were still no other cars on the road with him. Feeling uneasy, he backed up and aimed the headlights in the direction in which everyone had run.

The pack of teenagers were spread out in a semi-circle, their prey trapped in the corner of a warehouse parking lot. Dan could make out baseball bats and broken bottles and a knife in the hands of the various attackers.

The voice of common sense told him, “You can’t do anything; there are almost a dozen of them. Get to a phone fast and call the cops.” He wished he had a car phone. That would have helped. He didn’t, though. All he had was his car—with its doors locked against any intrusion from the dangerous world outside—and a conscience that he could tell wasn’t going to let him flee to the nearest phone.

Dan felt his stomach knot. The thugs were closing in on the man and the kid. “Oh, screw it.”

He yanked the gearshift into reverse, aimed the car at the middle of the gang, then floored the gas pedal. He jumped the curb; the impact rattled his teeth. As the tires hit the parking lot, chunks of gravel rang on the Mustang’s chassis; he kept accelerating, rear end first, towards the group. He leaned on the horn the entire time.

It worked. The kids ran off, but not too far.

Dan skidded to a stop near the two figures. He reached over and unlocked the passenger door and yelled above the sound of the rain, “Get in!”

His overhead light wasn’t working; the two of them couldn’t see him, couldn’t see that he didn’t intend them any harm. He saw their dark forms move forward nervously, way too slow, and he yelled, “Hurry up, dammit! Those creeps aren’t going to wait forever!”

The kid jumped into the darkness of the car. “In back!” Dan said, pushing him over the bucket seat.

The man yelped, then squeezed into the car and slammed the door. As he did, a rock banged off the hood.

“Shit!” Dan said. “Hold on!” He shifted into drive and peeled out of the parking lot. Something thumped against the trunk before they got completely away.

His heart didn’t slow down for another minute. When the shakes passed, he said, “That was close! Oh, shit, that was close. Are you okay?” He tried not to notice the smell of the two of them, which approximated wet dog only if the dog in question had been roadkill for a couple of days.

The man mumbled something.

“Huh?” Dan asked.

“Got hit in the face by a rock. But, yeah, I’m fine.”

“What about your kid?”

The man turned to stare at him. In the darkness, Dan only caught the outlines of his passenger, but he noticed something subtly wrong. His skin began to crawl.

“My kid?” the man asked. His acid-etched ground-glass voice held a note of bewilderment.

“Yeah.” Dan glanced in the rear-view mirror. He drove beneath the light of a street lamp as he did, so he got a good look the bright blue nightmare that popped over the back of the seat to grin at him. Heavy jowls hung in folds down both sides of its face, and beady black eyes stared out at him from a web of wrinkles. Dagger-pointed teeth poked out of the huge, lipless mouth, curving out and up toward the flat nose and down toward the receding chin. Two tiny horns erupted from the sloping forehead.

“Holy shit!” Dan stomped on the brakes. The car spun out of control. The Mustang spiraled to a halt in the empty intersection, then stalled.

Dan froze and pulled back from the thing. “What in God’s name is that?”

“God had nothing to do with it. It’s an imp.”

Dan turned to look at the man beside him. His jaw dropped. Yellow eyes with square pupils stared back at him. Two horns larger than the imp’s stuck out through holes in the ball cap, which bore the legend “George’s Pepsi Vending Service”. The devil’s skin was covered with tiny shimmering copper scales.

“Jesus,” Dan breathed.

The Hellraised monster grinned. “Nah, not hardly. I can understand though—folks get us confused all the time.”

Dan felt dizzy. “Say what?”

“Oh nothing. I was just making a joke, you know?” The devil looked around. “I don’t have a driver’s license, but shouldn’t we get out of the intersection? If I’ve learned one thing since I’ve been on earth, it’s that the yellow light means speed up.”

Hell’s monster had a point. Dan started the engine with difficulty, then continued down the street. “So he’s an imp. And what—I mean, who are you?”

“My name’s Puck. I’m a devil. Second class.” The tiny monster looking over Dan’s shoulder whined. “That’s Fetch. It’s an imp. Class nine, level four. One level up from animated shit.”

“Hello,” Dan said to the imp. Jeez, he thought, it looks like a bright blue Shar Pei.

“Don’t bother waiting for an answer. It can’t talk. Too low on the pecking order,” Puck said.

“All right. My name’s Dan. Cooley.” The stink, unbelievably, got worse. They were from Hell, and they smelled like it. He breathed shallowly and tried to think of a way to get them out of his car. “Why were those guys chasing you?”

“You know much about the Hellraised?”

“I know a few things. We haven’t seen many of you people in Raleigh. Lot of you in Charlotte. Or so I’ve been told.”

“Yeah. Used to be the case. Things were pretty good under Agonostis, and even Punksucker, the temp, wasn’t too bad. I had a nice cubicle, a terminal, a Hellnet account, a demon crew The new boss is Hell, though, pardon my pun. Company policy’s changed.” The devil frowned. “Next thing I know, I’m waiting to be downsized—direct orders from the boss. Say you don’t know much about our kind, huh?”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

“We can’t hurt people. Those guys knew that. The imp and I were sleeping in a trash bin nobody was using; they found us there. Wanted to have some fun with a pack of cigarettes and some matches. Under different circumstances, it might have been cute. You know, like kids trying on grown-up clothes. They’ll be in Hell before too long, might as well get their practice in here. Things being the way they are though, I didn’t feel like playing. So we ran.”

Dan’s eyes watered from the stench. He considered the potential unpleasantness of torrential rain pouring into the car and weighed that against the stink, and rolled his window down. He knew they couldn’t hurt him, but he’d also seen people who pissed off a demon or a gargoyle and had to deal with their ideas of revenge. They’d had a lot of experience in revenge. So he toughed out the stink. “I thought you guys could pop in and out at will. Why didn’t you teleport away?”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It can’t teleport without help,” Puck said as he jerked his thumb at the imp. “Satan’s flaming balls, man, it’s lucky they gave it a hole to shit with. Wish I’d had one when I started out. Made life tough in my early days, let me tell you.”

Dan felt queasy. “I see. So why didn’t you vanish?”

The devil slouched. “I can’t. Not anymore.”

“I asked you before, why not?”

He sighed. “I’ve been fired.”

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