“We are all searching for someone whose demons play well with ours.”
“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
Shaking the rain off her shoulders, Mara Dullahan hustled into Bruisers Sports Bar, her favorite restaurant in all of Hollis City. Located at 45 Joyal Street, the bar—much like Hollis City itself—looked rather average on the outside. Inside, however, it was expansive and inviting with a large dining area and massive U-shaped bar. Dozens of TV sets broadcast nearly every available sports competition, and since it was within walking distance from several hotels and the Hollis City Convention Center, Bruisers was often frequented by travelers, but was a popular and well-known haunt for regulars as well.
Mara was one of those regulars.
The bar was only about half-full, but Mara knew as soon as the Convention Center disgorged its contents, many of the jaded and restless business people would find their way to Bruisers in short order for burgers, beer, and whatever else tickled their fancy. She slid into one of the bar seats, put her phone on the bar, and then tied back her thick, dark hair. The sleek length fell over her shoulder and the bar light accentuated the red highlights.
“Hey there, Mara.” Joe Louis Jones, Bruisers’ owner and head bartender, held a glass up to the light, wiped it once more, and put it in the rack.
“Hi, Joe. What’s up?”
“Same shit, different day,” he answered with a chuckle. Short and stocky, Joe’s hair was thinning at the top.
“Oh, believe me, I know,” Mara said with a sigh.
“Drink before dinner?”
“Jameson on the rocks,” she said.
“That means it was a tough day at the office.” Ice clinked as Joe poured the rich dark liquid with a flourish. She took a sip and relaxed back into her chair.
“Had a prospect get cold feet about a deal we’ve been working on,” Mara told him. She swirled the alcohol in her glass.
“He back out of it?”
A calculated smile curled the corner of her mouth. “Oh, hell no. He’s just going to need a little more encouragement than I expected. Nothing I can’t handle.” And I am not losing this deal, not with year end so close. That little weasel is not going to screw up my winning streak. Not this quarter.
A chuckle rumbled out of Joe’s chest at her confidence. He excused himself to wait on another customer, and Mara took the opportunity to look around. The bar was a rich hunting ground for prospective clients--there was always some dissatisfied soul who thought he could do better or thought she’d been wronged. And while she had an extensive list of solid prospects, unexpected gems could often be unearthed in a place like Bruisers.
Taking another sip of her whiskey, Mara glanced across the bar. A man with pock-marked cheeks and slicked-back blond hair was slouched over a beer. He looked up with sullen eyes and gave Mara a nod. She returned the gesture. Despite the fact they often competed, Frankie was one of a handful of devils that Mara was friendly with. But as far as Mara was concerned, it was the end of the week and there was no reason they couldn’t co-exist for an evening without business getting in the way. As Mara finished her drink and flagged Joe down for a second, other patrons started trickling into the bar.
A rather beleaguered-looking middle-aged man dumped his waterlogged coat over the back of the chair next to Mara’s, flopped into the seat, and barked for a beer.
“Having a rough day?” Mara asked.
He looked over and raised an eyebrow, clearly trying to puzzle out why Mara was trying to start a conversation with him, and she elected to ignore the fact that his eyes almost immediately dropped from her face to her breasts and then stayed there.
“Yea,” he said, “I’m in for the convention. My flight from Duluth was delayed, and I missed part of a customer meeting. So Tony took the lead. Now everyone wants to listen to the new Golden Boy, and screw the guy with experience.”
As annoyed as she was, Mara could smell the waves of discontent rolling off him. She shifted just enough to make the middle button on her shirt strain. It did the trick. The businessman’s eyes bulged.
“Well, that sucks. My name’s Mara.”
“Donald,” he answered, still fixated on her button.
Haven’t even glanced at your wedding ring, have you, you dog? “Nice to meet you, Donald. So, what’s this Golden Boy doing?”
“Tony? Bastard.” Downing his first beer in a few gulps and calling for a second, Donald scowled and offered Mara a litany of Golden Boy’s transgressions and the ineptness of his co-workers who couldn’t see the truth. “I’m due for that damn promotion. I earned it, and it’s going to go right to Tony now.”
“So, what are you going to do about it?”
“Do about it? Get drunk. Try to forget. Maybe have a little fun for a change,” Donald grunted as he finally raised his eyes from Mara’s cleavage to her face and offered a rather lame attempt at a charming smile.
“You sound like my type of man,” Mara said, and when Donald’s face lit up, her eyes glittered. He was almost on the hook. “Let’s have another drink, and you know, I bet we could come up with some fun ways to make Golden Boy’s life miserable.”
“Maybe we could talk at my hotel?” Donald’s offer was tentative and lacked confidence, but Mara looked at him over the edge of her glass as she took a drink, capturing him with her dark eyes. She knew exactly what kind of talking he wanted to do back at his hotel.
Before she could say another word, Mara’s phone, lying on the bar, began to vibrate and buzz like it had been set on fire. She picked it up and frowned at the “urgent alert” icon blinking on her screen. With a tap, she opened the message—R.Nottingham/DOA—before shaking her head in disbelief.
“You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding me. Now?” What have you done, you stupid SOB?
“Trouble in paradise?”
Mara sighed. “Something like that. I’m so sorry, Donald, but that’s my office and I have to go.” She fished cash out of her purse and waved to Joe as she put it on the bar.
“Just my luck.” Donald’s shoulders slumped dejectedly.
“Well, things have a way of turning out.” Mara slid off the bar stool. She looked across the bar and caught Frankie’s eye before she jerked her head towards Donald. His eyes widened in surprise—competition was pretty fierce in their office, and favors were typically few and far between. For a split second, his eyes flamed red, but he didn’t hesitate and headed around the bar. Mara dawdled long enough for them to pass.
“Seriously? You’re down with this?” Frankie whispered, and Mara could hear the disbelief in his voice. She didn’t hold it against him. In their line of work, a kind gesture almost always came with strings attached.
“For real. He’s yours if you can land him,” she answered.
“Thanks.” There was a lingering trace of doubt in his voice.
“De nada. Don’t say I never did you a solid, Frankie,” Mara whispered as she headed to the door.
Outside, the night air was crisp, and the rain had passed, leaving the pavement shiny under the glow of antique-style streetlamps. Mara walked quickly down the street for about two blocks before she was alone on the street. She glanced around, and then over her shoulders to be absolutely certain no one was around, before she ducked into a side alley between two older brick buildings. Silently, she moved in the shadows, deeper into the darkness.
Her eyes glowed crimson as she raised her hands and beckoned, and a satisfied smile crossed her face as the shadows and the darkness responded to her call, peeling away from the brick, slithering and undulating down the walls and across the fractured pavement. Reaching her feet, the darkness eddied and churned, circling around her and rising higher. Raising her arms, Mara drew the darkness up until it enfolded her, surrounded her and she vanished into nothingness.
The front end of the magnificent black Maserati Gran Turismo Sport was completely smashed into the trunk of a massive tree. The echoes of the crash had dissipated and the only sound left was the faint hiss of the radiator somewhere in the wreckage. Mara folded her arms and tapped a foot. She didn’t enjoy waiting. With an impatient sigh, she uncrossed her arms and looked at her fingernails. They were painted a beige color that had a gold shimmer in it and she’d picked it simply based on the name—“Tart with a Heart.”
She glanced up when she heard a low, faint moan inside the car. Oh for the love of… would you die already, you stubborn bastard? I have better things to do than wait for you all night. When an alert said DOA, she expected DOA. She’d have to have a word with the clerk who sent it.
Pacing around the car, Mara assessed the damage and offered a passing glance at the other body. Whoever the dying blond woman was, she wasn’t Mara’s problem. A whisper of wings drew her attention and Mara looked over her shoulder as an angel softly touched down on the springy turf. He folded his wings back, tamping down their luminescence.
“Hey, Yehudiah. Been a while,” said Mara cheerfully as the angel offered her a polite nod. “Where’s Azrael? He got too much on his plate? Or is collecting collateral damage too far below an Archangel’s pay grade?”
“Show a little respect,” scolded the angel, before giving her a suspicious look. “Why are you here?”
“Give me some credit, Yehudiah. I’m no poacher. The idiot behind the wheel with the nose full of coke? My deal’s with him.”
The angel offered another subtle nod and Mara looked him up and down. He was handsome enough with his salt and pepper hair, tailored grey suit and conservative navy blue tie.
“The suit looks good on you, Yehudiah,” she said.
He glanced at her, unsure if Mara was making fun of him or not, and Mara knew by his furrowed brow he was trying to be polite and think of something appropriate to say about her outfit. Gone was the conservative, corporate pencil skirt and silk blouse that her business prospects were always so comfortable with. During the moments between vanishing from Hollis City and rematerializing in Hollywood, Mara had taken the opportunity—and a small bit of her power—to change clothes.
She knew changing outfits was vain, but now she felt like herself: decked out in slim jeans and over-the-knee black boots that had chains and jewels around the ankles, along with a cropped leather jacket over a black tank top that had “The Devil Made Me Do It” written across the front.
“Thank you. Your outfit is, uh, memorable,” Yehudiah said after fumbling for the right word.
But whatever else she or Yehudiah may have wanted to say vanished as a low hum glided through the air, the vibration making the hair on Mara’s arms stand up for a moment. She knew exactly what that feeling meant: a soul had slipped its earthly bonds, ready to leave the mortal world for the Immortal Planes. Near the angel, the air thickened and clouded, light flickering inside the translucence, and a woman’s form shimmered into existence. Young and blond, she wore a curve-hugging cocktail dress and strappy shoes with obscenely high stiletto heels.
“Paula Winslow?” Yehudiah said her name gently, almost as if he was talking to a child.
“What? Oh…” Paula’s eyes widened as she looked at Yehudiah and the aura of angelic power that radiated out from him. She started shaking. “Who are you? Goddamn it, what’s going on? What happened? Where’s Ricky?”
The angel winced slightly at the blasphemy.
“Oh, Ricky will be along momentarily. Don’t worry your pretty little head over that,” said Mara.
Paula spun and stared at the car. “Ricky! You have to help him! Oh God! He’s still in there,” she cried.
“No one can help Ricky,” said Yehudiah quietly, but the Angel of Death’s words didn’t seem to register, and Paula stared at the mangled chassis of the Maserati.
“We left Ja’Nay’s party and were going up to the overlook in Thompson Park. I don’t remember any of this. How did I get out of the car…?”
Mara interrupted before Yehudiah could answer, “Technically, you didn’t ‘get out’ of the car. You got thrown out.”
“Must you do that? This is difficult enough,” snapped Yehudiah.
“She deserves the truth. You angels sugarcoat death too much.”
“Sugarcoat what? Wait just a damn minute. Death? I’m not… I can’t be…” Paula shook her head stubbornly.
“Not what? Not dead? Hate to break it to you, sweetie, but yes, you are. Want to come around here and look at your pretty little corpse?” Mara waved towards the passenger side of the car. Unwilling to look but unable to stop herself, Paula took a few steps and stopped short. On the ground next to the tree was her body. Glass from the car’s windshield was embedded in her face and her blood-soaked cocktail dress was torn. One of her legs was bent in the entirely wrong direction, and her glassy eyes stared up at the sky, empty, blank, and utterly dead.
“See what happens when you don’t wear a seat belt?” asked Mara.
A wail of despair ripped out of Paula.
The mournful sound sent a sharp, swift, and quite unexpected stab of regret lancing through Mara, and she flinched. With a quick roll of her shoulders, she dismissed the emotion. But the echoes of it lingered.