“But I don’t understand.” She brought up a hand and clutched her throat. Her fingers were shivering, just like the rest of her.
Father Smith stood several meters back, behind the pulpit, the shape of his angry face outlined by the light streaming in through the stained-glass windows beyond.
Even though it was a brilliant, bright, sunny morning, in here it was as cold as the depths of space.
“You need to get out, Maggie. Get out of this town completely. You have to leave before they track you down,” he said, and he had the practiced voice of a preacher. One that shook with power as he took a final step away from the pulpit and pushed a hand toward her.
Though she was standing several meters back, the move had all the force of him locking his hands on her shoulders and shoving her away.
She shook her head.
Trust her, you would have in her situation, too.
None of this made any sense.
From the day her life had changed two weeks ago – when she’d found the box in her dead uncle’s closet – nothing had made sense.
She wasn’t ashamed to say several tears trickled down her cheeks as she clutched one hand into a tight fist and used the other to hold onto the hem of her coat as if it were the only safe thing in existence.
Father Smith took another angry step toward her, and again she saw his contorted face in a beam of light from one of the clear panes of the windows that ran along either side of the church.
His brow was all crumpled, all slicked with sweat. His mouth was pulled to the side, his teeth clenched in obvious anger.
Ever since she’d been a kid, Father Smith had always been her rock. One of those true priests of old. Not someone who simply stood at the pulpit and read from the Bible – one who got into the nitty-gritty of your problems and helped you pick the right path forward. He’d never judged her before, despite her crazy life. He’d always helped her.
Now he was chasing her out.
Literally. He took another step toward her, the tarnished cross he always wore around his neck swinging at the power of the move.
She’d never before assumed that Father Smith would physically harm her – but that look in his eyes….
She shivered back, bringing a hand up and clutching the cross that hung around her own neck.
Father Smith took another step toward her, brought a hand up, and stiffly pointed at the half-open doors to the church. “Get out, Maggie. Leave the city. Leave everything behind. If you don’t, you’ll regret it,” he said, his voice shuddering down low on the word regret.
Now she was crying in full, her body shaking back and forth, the only strong thing about her her grip as she clutched her cross for all she was worth.
But even that? Even that couldn’t stop Father Smith from taking one final step toward her and bellowing. “Get out. You’re not welcome here anymore.”
She turned, tears streaming down her cheeks, loose hair slapping over her shoulders as she ran.
Ran from the only place that was meant to keep her safe.
Where would she go?
She had no idea.
Another sinner. Another chance at redemption. And, more importantly? Another paycheck.
Luc walked through the prison, throwing a small, gold cross in his hand up and down. Every time he caught it, he let the cross roll over his knuckles. He was good at the move. He had good reflexes, you see.
As for being good? Oh, trust him – his skills were the only good thing about him.
He reached the right door, and the nervous looking guard beside it quickly plunged a hand into his pocket, fidgeted around, then brought out the right key. If you had a careful eye – and Luc did – you’d be able to see that it was no ordinary key. Somebody – with a quick, shaking, flighty hand – had scrawled several symbols over it.
Powerful symbols that were meant to keep the dark out.
Well, how ironic – because as the guard thrust forward and opened the lock, he would be letting the dark in.
Remembering his manners and his unique position, Luc offered the guard half a nod. “Thank you,” he said, his accent a lilting one.
Though, to be honest, it could be any accent he felt like. You see, he spoke every language in the world. No, he wasn’t some kind of savant. He was… other.
Rolling the cross through his knuckles, he walked in.
The first thing he felt – the first thing any ordinary human would feel – was the cold. It wasn’t your ordinary cold – it was far more insidious. It was as if the lack of heat had turned into a virus. The cold spread not just through the room and through your peripherals, but seeped into every muscle like poison.
It didn’t affect him.
He shuddered, brought up a hand, rubbed his shoulder, and looked at Luc with a wide-open gaze. It was a gaze that Luc had a lot of experience with.
“You can stay here,” Luc said as he spread his lips into a smile, tilting his head toward the secondary door that would lead into the interview room.
The guard looked unimaginably relieved, selected another key from his pocket – this one much larger than the last and carved with far more symbols. He thrust it forward, though he almost dropped it at one point. Eventually he managed to gather the coordination to push the key into the lock and open it.
Ah, Luc felt it. He could’ve basked in it.
Anger, desperation, cruelty, the desire for death. You name it.
The door swung open, and Luc walked in.
There was a man chained to the desk. Though this was technically an ordinary police setting – those chains were not ordinary.
They were thick, for one, and just as the key had been carved with unique symbols – every single link in the chain had been marked.
It was a painstaking process, and he could’ve laughed to think of how many hours some solitary monk in a monastery of old had put into casting and carving these chains.
He wouldn’t have bothered.
The door swung shut behind him, and he stopped rolling the cross around his knuckles.
He took a single step forward, hooked the small, flimsy metal chair in front of the table with his leg, pulled it around, and sat roughly. Then, holding the cross in his hand, he stabbed it into the table.
The table was made of an inch-thick layer of steel. It was seamless, and should not easily be destroyed. The prisoner was chained to it and left alone in this room without guard, and you didn’t want to give him the opportunity to escape.
As Luc plunged the cross into the table, the metal puckered as he buried the cross right down as far as it would go.
He was old, possibly in his 50s, with long greasy hair that sat in front of his face like an old, moth-eaten curtain.
From beneath the wiry strands, Luc could see two eyes.
They’d been closed before he’d stabbed the cross into the table, but now they opened, slit by slit, like a dragon waking up from sleep.
Beyond the lids were two yellowed, old, bloodshot eyes, the pupils pinpoint and dark, the irises a murky brown like some poisoned well you could never hope to see the depths of.
An ordinary man would recoil.
Luc wasn’t a man.
He was wearing a white suit. Yes, he understood it may not be the height of fashion, but he could pull white off better than most.
It was a joke, see.
As Luc leaned back in the flimsy chair, the legs groaning under his weight, he crossed his arms, the fabric of his suit bunching around his elbows.
He spent some time gazing around the room until he locked his eyes on the man.
The man didn’t move. Not once. He kept staring at Luc through the greasy veil of his long, unwashed, unkempt hair. Which could be said for the rest of him. Though Luc knew for a fact that this prison had washing facilities, obviously this man had been too distracted to care for himself. Or perhaps, he hadn’t had the time.
You see, despite the four walls of this thick prison, a man as accomplished as Blake could still ply his trade.
Shifting back and forth in his chair until the sound of the legs groaning filled the room, Luc came to a stop, sniffing as he brought a hand down and started to drum his fingers on the steel table. “We can do this the long way or the short way – the pleasant way or the…” he let his lips spread wide in anticipation, “or the painful way. You choose.”
“I’m honored,” the man said, voice little more than a growl.
Luc tilted his head to the side. “So you know who I am, then?”
The guy continued to look at Luc with his yellowed, bloodshot eyes from beneath his cracked veil of hair. “Yes,” the man replied. His voice never rose beyond the same dark, twisted pitch.
This man would have little to celebrate. Little to laugh about.
He was what happened to a human soul when it contracted one too many sins.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” the man began, “I’ll negotiate.”
Luc let one eyebrow lift on his admittedly perfect visage. Just as he could change his accent, he could – and often did – change his appearance. Yes, he had a fundamental form, but no, it hadn’t been seen in centuries.
“If you know much about me – you must realize that only I decide who I negotiate with,” Luc said, enunciating every word clearly. He also brought a finger up, tapped it on the top of the cross, and then drummed it there for three beats. With every drum of his finger, the cross was knocked further into the steel.
All it took was the barest movement of his finger – no strength, no power.
The man? Though he tried not to react, Luc could feel it. Luc could taste it. He reveled in it. The man’s fear – as it lapped through his heart, as it pulsed and shuddered in his veins, and, more than anything, as it made him desperate.
“This one’s good. Trust me, you want to know about it,” the man promised, his words whip-crack fast as his tongue licked quickly over his lips.
Luc brought his hand back, shifted in his chair, crossed his arms, tilted his head, and looked at the man. “I’m aware of your recent jobs. But I can’t say they fill me with greed. You’re a small-time assassin, Henry Blake, and always have been. And through the alliance, I have been requested to exorcise you.” He got down to business as he reached forward, clutched his hand around the cross – which was now buried in the steel – and he wrenched it free.
He rose and walked toward Henry Blake, feeling the evil washing off him from here. All Luc had to do was follow it, follow it like you would a rope through the dark. It would lead to Henry’s heart, which was incidentally where Luc would stick this crucifix.
Henry Blake reacted, jolting backward, but he couldn’t push off the table and break the sacred chains locking him in place. He brought his hands up in a supplicating position – but it wasn’t one you would use against the local Catholic priest. His thumbs were bent in until the nails touched and his pinky fingers were spread wide.
It was the symbol of allegiance with the Dark Lord.
Luc paused, but not because that hand gesture surprised him. He’d peered into Henry’s past. Even if Henry wasn’t aware of it – even if Luc’s nostrils didn’t flare – Luc could sniff it off him. All those sins. A life dedicated to the dark.
If it weren’t for the alliance – and Luc’s wretched position in the middle of it – he would offer him a job.
But Luc only had license to negotiate with a few.
He brought his hands up higher just as he clutched the cross above his head, intending to use the sharpened edge to cut right through Henry’s heart.
“My last hit – I’ll give it to you. It’s worth a lot. It’ll be yours.”
“I’m sure it is. But it doesn’t matter. You have nothing—” Luc began.
“It didn’t come from the dark side,” Henry hissed, his lips now moving so fast, they could have torn from his face. “It came from the Church. They contacted me. They wanted me to kill one of their own,” he said, trying to spit his words out so fast they became a mumbled, muttered mess.
Luc hesitated, releasing the tension in his limbs that would’ve allowed him to plunge the cross through Henry’s chest as easily as a man cutting into soft butter.
Luc tilted his head to the side, allowing his eyes to partially shut. “What?”
Henry took a rattling wheeze of a breath. “It came from the church. A hit. Want me to kill some girl. Ain’t a sinner – I did a séance on her. Hasn’t killed. Checked her up through police records – no crimes. But they want her dead. And they were willing to pay with my sins.”
At that revelation, Luc stiffened. “Clarify.” Though throughout most of the conversation his voice had been easy and unrestrained, now it bottomed right out, and even someone who wasn’t aware of the dark arts would be able to hear his natural power filtering beneath.
“My sins – they said they would expunge them from the Holy Record. They said I could go back to a normal life. They said,” Henry gagged, “they would protect me from you.”
Luc tilted his head all the way to the side now. Any further, and he would practically be lying down. “That’s… interesting.”
The light in this interrogation room was harsh, the fluorescent globes above Luc still glinting off the cross, and he watched Henry’s eyes widen as he stared at the cross then back to Luc.
As Henry’s eyes widened? Luc looked right into his soul.
A capacity he had not lost when he’d been forced into the alliance.
The capacity that came easily to all the sons of Satan.
He hadn’t mentioned that yet? His particular family heritage?
You’ll find out soon enough.
“Prince,” Henry said, taking another breath that garbled his words and made it sound as if he’d already slit his throat, “I’ll give you her address – I’ll transfer the contract over to you.”
Luc let his tongue slowly press out and lock over his teeth, taking particular pleasure as it pressed past the pointed tips of his canines. “I have no use for your award. My sins cannot be expunged in the Ledger of Heaven.”
“But… if I transfer the contract over to you… it… must be worth something.”
“Indeed, it is. And you will tell me the Church’s target.”
Henry took another garbled breath. “Some young woman. Maggie… Maggie Brown or something. I got her address. Wrote it down in my black book.” He reached a hand through the unbuttoned top of his prison uniform and plucked out a small black, leather-bound book. One he shouldn’t have. He was in prison – and though this country’s penal budget had been significantly cut, one hoped that they were careful not to allow prisoners to keep ledgers of their contract killings.
But Henry was a resourceful fellow. Luc had read his file – and he could see it in Henry’s eyes. Henry knew more dark magic than your average goon.
Luc reached a hand out, and Henry paused for a single second until he winced and passed the book over.
Luc closed his hand around it.
Then as Henry stared up at Luc with hopeful eyes, with the wish that he had bought his life?
Luc exorcised him.
Henry Blake was a bad man, and it was up to bad men like Luc to keep the balance.
The rest of Better the Devil you know Book One is available from most ebook retailers.