The Master came home earlier than usual.
I hadn't been expecting that. Normally he runs like clockwork: leaves exactly seven thirty in the morning, comes back exactly at noon for lunch, leaves exactly at noon-fifteen and returns for realsies at six pm. Exactly, six PM. I've heard about this Geyser, see, and that it does the same thing. What's it called? Ole Diligence? Ole Reliable? Whatever. I'm pretty sure Mr. F. and it were cut from the same cloth. Stone. Whatever people and geysers are made of.
I heard the thumping of boot-on-porch action and the rattle of his keys and nearly had a heartattack. I looked around the room without moving from my spot on the couch.
Floor? Filthy. Not vacuumed, not steamed, and covered in a thick layer of crumbs from that Cheerio fight I had with my shadow earlier. Furniture wasn't pretty. Scuffs, fingerprints, suspiciously sticky stains I didn't remember doing- that sort of thing. Walls? Paintings were askew from general mayhem.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander off real quick to check out the rest of the house.
Upstairs was fine: I didn't go upstairs today. The backyard? Not too bad- he probably wouldn't notice the giant charred spot in the lawn. It wasn't like he went out there a lot, anyways. It might slide. The kitchen. Ugh. The less said about the kitchen, the better.
It took less than a second for me to have a look and return to myself. He was still unlocking the front door.
Well, I thought, wrapping my blankie around me and curling up with my comic. I'm boned.
I slid the book under my shirt so the master wouldn't see it and waited for him to come stomping in.
It was funny. The first few steps were almost cheerful, like he had a slight skip to them. Then they slowed, no doubt as he realized what state his house was in. Then, finally, came the torrent of quick and heavy steps heading straight for the living room.
I could run, I thought.
He'd only find you again, I thought back.
True, I conceded.
He saw me and pointed at me. "You!" he shouted. "What have you done to my house?"
Huh. Suddenly running seemed like a good idea after all.
He caught me, of course. I'd waited too long. I was just lucky he didn't notice the book tucked partially into my pants.
He grabbed me by the shoulder and boxed my ears a couple times. It didn't hurt that bad. Not really. My last master used to use chains. I put on a show, though. I know how much it makes them feel better.
I stood, sniffling and rubbing my shoulder where he'd grabbed me, my head hanging in an appropriately ashamed manner. He stood back and scowled at me.
"Don't give me that," he said. "I know what you're doing."
A smile crept across my face. I stopped playing wounded puppy and crossed my arms.
"Yeah, yeah. Hiya, bossman. What up?"
He rubbed his temples.
"Don’t call me that. I asked you not to dirty up the house."
"No," I said. "Your exact words were to 'not blow the place up while I'm gone'. I didn't blow anything up."
It's true. Lighting stuff on fire is a totally different process.
"You know damn well what I meant!"
I noticed the dark circles ringing under his eyes. Hmm. "Rough day, boss?"
"Oh don't get me started." He stepped backwards until he hit couch, then let himself fall onto the cushions. "The stupid merger's still on, but Jefferson's dragging his feet."
"Still?" I said, inching towards the kitchen.
"Yeah, still. And then there might be a recall from some oxycodone. Had to get that new manufacturer in-"
I slipped into the kitchen while he went on. Yikes. Still bad. I tossed the book into a cabinet filled with pots and pans. I figured it would be safe there, since bossman never actually cooks his own meals. I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and reached for a shotglass. At the last second, I switched off for a regular sized drinking glass.
I just had to get him plastered before he saw the mess-
There was a screech from behind me. He had come into the kitchen.
He didn't catch me, that time. I dropped the bottle and ran for it. He's pretty quick for a human his age, but I can crawl under most furniture.
I ran into one of the guest bedrooms upstairs, snickering to myself as I crawled out the window and stepped out onto the roof.
He'll never find me here.
Sure was funny listening to him try, though. I let my mind wander and watched him run around the house, opening cupboards and checking under beds, cursing loudly just in case I could hear.
Eventually he gave up. I waited a good fifteen minutes afterward before venturing downstairs.
He was in the den, vacuuming up. I unplugged the cord.
"Heya, bossman," I chirped.
"Don't call me that." he said.
I rolled my eyes. "Hello, Maaaaaster." I gave a low sweeping bow.
"Don't call me that, either. Not like that, I mean. Plug the cord back in. No, wait," He stood the vacuum up so it clicked into place. "Here, you clean this up. That's your job, isn't it? Right." He breezed past me and headed down the hall. "I'll be in my study, doing some important experiments. I order you, very specifically, to clean this place up. I don't want to be disturbed."
I shook my head and started up. You'd think by now he'd have learned the difference between a request and a direct order.
* * * *
I went down into the study with some tea.
He had the place all set up. Giant circle in the middle of the floor with a bunch of smaller designs surrounding it, candles lining the room, A bunch of old, musty books were scattered across the desk near the back wall. He was standing at his podium, pouring over one of them.
"So, whatcha doin'?" I said. I shoved aside a few books and set the tea on the desk.
He turned a page of the book.
"None of your business."
I peeked over the top of the podium.
"What did I say about being disturbed?"
"That you'd rather not be. Who're you summoning? Anyone I know?"
"No!" he snarled. "Will you get out of here?"
"Well yeesh. Just trying to help."
I casually scuffed out a few of the lines on the ground on my way out. It would be so funny!
I left him to it and went back to work.
* * * *
I waited until I heard the screams.
Ah, like music.
I ran for the room, hoping to catch sight of the action. I never once thought that the idiot would be in any actual trouble. He normally just summoned up little imps and the like. Ones to spy, to tell the future, the occasionally succubus- just little stuff.
The study's door was jammed.
I frowned. Not a good sign.
I rammed against it until it opened and was hit with a wave of power. It absolutely reeked of heaven.
The room was filled with a near blinding light. The master was lying fetal position against the wall, the table overturned beside him.
In the circle, the cause of all the commotion was standing, its arms crossed.
I ran over to check on him. He was still breathing. Good. I sighed in relief. The coward had fainted. How many summonings had he been through, and this was the one he faints at? The one where I'd need his help?
The angel loomed at me. Angels are good at that. They make themselves taller on purpose, something about height they find comforting. Cats are supposedly the same way.
It looked at me with faceted, silver eyes.
I squinted at it through the light.
"Hey," I said. "Can you tone down the divinity a bit?"
It ignored me.
"Who dares to summon a denizen of the heavenly order?"
"Ah, my bo- er. Master. I think there's been some mistake, though. . ."
I looked at the picture in the book. The diagrams around the circle were off.
Oh, oops. I thought. My bad.
The name on the page indicated that the person who should have been standing there was a succubus named-
"Khoress! I know her." I looked up at the angel. Tried too, anyway. Damned thing was glowing so bright, it was hard to see.
"Listen, there's been a bit of a mixup here. He didn't mean to call you up."
"That voice," it said. The light died down, and I could see who it was for the first time.
My stomach seized up.
"Oh," I said. "Hi, Leigh."
Ah, Leighriel. What can be said about Leighriel? Not a lot, actually. I shared a garrison with him, once, before I got restationed. I shouldn't even be calling him he. Bastard's so androgynous, I never could tell. He's also a run of the mill, garden variety, common-as-mud-
"What was that?" he snapped. "I heard something."
Aww fuckstick, the bastard can read minds.
Bossman chose just then to wake up.
"What?" he squinted my way. "What are you doing?"
"Cleaning up your mess."
I flipped through the pages until I found the spell that would send the summoned party home. Theoretically, I could have just scuffed out the big circle, but then Leigh would have had full run of the house.
"Sorry, Leigh. No hard feelings. Hope you understand."
"I swear, once I get my hands on you, Bric-"
I quickly spat out the spell before he could finish. Bad enough bossman had my contract, he didn't need my name, too.
Leigh opened his mouth to talk, but he was gone in a small puff of smoke. I smiled at a job well done and shut the book.
"What was that?" said bossman, struggling to his feet.
"An angel I knew. You got him on accident. 'S all cool now, though. I fixed it."
"You got rid of an angel." He said the words slowly, as though he were trying to wrap his mind around them as well as his tongue. He glared at me after a moment. "Why do I get the feeling this was your fault?"
"Hey! You're the one who can't get a freaking summoning circle right. Don't look at me."
I tucked my hands into my pockets and headed out to the laundry room.
About an hour later, Khoress wandered into the laundry room.
"Not here!" I hissed. "Not with him around."
She smiled that catlike smile of hers. "Please, after I was through with him? He's asleep now." She rolled her red eyes up to the ceiling like she was counting. "Should be up again in. . . fifteen minutes for another go."
I scowled. "Great. I really needed to know that." I hung up another shirt.
"You know you're doing those inside out, right?"
"That's the point, yep."
She came over and kissed my cheek. "Oh Bricy. Never change."
I shrugged her off and continued hanging clothes. I've seen Khoress without her skin on. Besides, she's like my sister.
"I haven't in a few billion years, why start now?"
She helped me with the laundry for a bit and talked about how things were going down below.
Sure enough, fifteen minutes on the dot and bossman came in.
"Aww, you two are so cute."
Do not punch the master. It is bad form to punch the master.
I looked over at Khoress, who'd put on the sickly sweet smile she saved for customers.
"Fuck him till it hurts to piss," I whispered in the home language.
"It's bad form to break the customers."
He frowned. "What are you two saying?"
I gave him a thumbs up. "I'm just wishing both of you the best of luck."
He didn't look convinced, but he didn't press it. Instead, he and Kho went out to the living room. "Make him bleed!" I called out cheerfully in the old tongue.
They didn't even have the decency to keep it down. I really didn't need to hear that. I tossed all the laundry back into the basket, both folded and otherwise, and headed upstairs. I could finish it up in a guest room or something.
There was a familiar flash of light in the hall on the way to the guest rooms. This time, I managed to close my eyes before any damage was done.
"Leigh," I said, slowly opening one eye. "I thought you'd gone home."
Leigh pulled a sword out of its sheath. The sword promptly caught fire.
"I did. I have returned. There is some business I must attend to."
He started for the living room where bossman and his date were enjoying themselves.
He whirled on me. "You dare to stop me, traitor?"
"Oh no, go right ahead."
He smiled ever so slightly and went off. I dropped the laundry basket and followed.
I watched as Leigh conjured up a ball of flame in one hand and tossed it out into the living room. I heard bossman scream. I heard Khoress scream. I heard Leigh laugh.
Aww hell, I thought. And I just cleaned out there.
The couch had exploded. There was only ash and a charred spot where it had been. Bossman and Kho had been thrown against the wall by the force of it. They had just barely missed the fish tank.
Oh good, I thought. I liked the fish.
"Leigh, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Leigh shrugged. "I am here to prevent unsavory undertakings from undertaking."
"Well you're a little fucking late!" shouted Kho. She was already up and walking. Bossman was still splayed out limp by the wall.
"How so?" said Leigh.
"We're already on round two, you feathered idiot!"
I snuck as discreetly as I could over to bossman.
Still breathing. His arm didn't look too hot, though. The shoulder was most definitely dislocated.
"I had my orders. My orders were to intervene."
"And you fucking failed at them! Why the hell do the up and ups care about this anyway? He's already one of ours."
"Alrighty, bossman," I said to nobody in particular. "This is going to hurt a lot, so don't wake up."
". . . All the same, I cannot leave until I am sure no more of this- this hanky panky will occur."
"Who the fuck calls it that these days? Can't you even say sex?"
"There is no call for-"
"Sex sex sex! Fuck fuck fuck! We were fucking! Like rabbits!"
"Will you two just shut up for one damned second?"
That got them both. I managed to pop in his arm with a sickening "thunk" sound. He went pale, but his breathing steadied a bit, which I took to be a good sign. I grinned and got to my feet, only to find the others were staring at me.
"What?" I said.
"That was. . . interesting." said Leigh.
Khoress pulled out a silver dagger. "Er, Bri? You do know he's on the chopping block tonight, right?"
She nodded. "Loverboy here won the draw. I was supposed to take him out after that last act of passion." She glared at Leigh. "You know, fucking."
"Oh. Wow. Weird." I felt like the walls were moving away. Did the room just get a little warmer?
"Yeah. You're okay with that, right?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure. . ." Wow. You spend five years looking after someone, keeping them alive, cooking them dinner, wishing them death, and when it finally happens, you just don't know how to feel.
Kho came up and placed the knife in my hand.
"Here. You can do the honors, if you'd like. That's his blade.
I glanced over at bossman. He looked so damned pathetic. They use guys like him as currency.
I had been waiting for this, hadn't I? Hadn't I been pining for the day he would slip up, yearning for the chance to shove a knife down his gullet and string him up on the balcony. Burn him like an effigy and make a nice garden mulch from the ashes. . .
I turned to Leighriel. "Aren't you, um, y'know, supposed to stop me?"
"Bri!" Kho shouted. "Whose side are you on?"
"I'm just making sure everything's in the clear," I said. "I don't want one of those flaming swords shoved up my arse."
"Oh, don't worry," said Leigh, smile on his- her- its face. "I've completed my business. No further orders. Presumably, the forces of heaven couldn't be bothered with the likes of this one."
"Doesn't he still have a soul? I thought you lot were all up in that shit. Why'd you even bother coming, if not for that?"
"Technically, yes." Leigh flipped his hair in a most definitely feminine fashion. "But he's far too tainted for our liking. As for why I'm here," she shrugged. "Who am I to question?"
"Tainted? By what? He's been nothing but boring the whole time-"
"You, mostly. Extended exposure to a hellion, though passive, still racks it up."
"Oh," I said.
"Don't worry about it, Bri," said Kho. "He came to us, remember? He was screwed long before you got here."
"Though it still is partially your fault." chirped Leigh. Real helpful, those angels.
Bossman began to stir.
"Demon?" he groaned.
"Yes?" said Kho and I simultaneously.
"I don't feel too good. . ."
I looked down at the knife in my hand. "Listen, guys. I really appreciate all the moral support going on in the room, but I don't think I can do it."
"Deeeeemon," moaned my current and quite possibly soon-to-be-late employer. "Get me some waaaater."
"You're sparing that?" said Kho. "Are you kidding me?"
"Hey, you were the one sleeping with him!"
Leigh gave me a sour look. Which is actually a lot worse than it sounds. She (possibly he) cranked up the heavenly aura a few notches and my skin began to sting. Kho was steaming, literally and figuratively. One 'cause I wouldn't go off Fautsy, the other because she was standing closer to Leigh than I was.
"Look, I just can't do it, alright?"
Kho looked like she would explode. "Do it!" she said. "End his miserable life. Drag him with you on the way down. We've already got another job lined up for you topside. Some old woman killed her grandson and needs a look alike before the parents get home."
I winced. Ooh, that sounded like a cushy gig. Good old-fashioned changeling gambit.
"Damn, that sounds good," I said. "Real tempting-"
Kho smiled. She loved a good compliment.
"But I gotta take a pass."
The looks. Both of them. Ugh. If looks could kill.
"Sorry," I squeaked. I tucked the knife into my belt as casually as I could manage.
Nobody noticed. "Well congratu-fucking-lations!" screeched Kho. "I hope you go rot in- in- in Jersey!
Before I could ask what the hell had happened, a torrent of flame rose up from the kitchen floor and engulfed her. Me and Leigh were fine- fire doesn't hurt us- but bossman was screaming his head off in the corner.
Oh good, I thought, still watching the flames. He's screaming. He'll be fine.
The part of me that notices things pointed out how odd it was that I actually cared whether or not bossman would make it out okay.
Shut up, I thought to myself. If I wanted my opinion, I would ask.
"What's her problem?" I said as soon as the fire died down. The air reeked of sulfur and sin.
Leigh's left eye twitched. Without warning, she turned and slammed me against the wall. Her forearm lay flat against my chest, pinning me there. She snarled. For a moment, the teeth bared my way didn't resemble anything close to human. He (unless it was a she) stuck a hand into the pocket of her robe and pulled out a small card.
"Here," hhe said, holding it right up in front of my nose. "Take it."
I did, making very sure not to touch Leigh herself. She removed her arm and let me slide back to the ground. Angels, man.
"What is it?"
"Why don't you actually read the blasted thing?" said Leigh. She headed for the window.
It was a small, yellow card with a slight sheen to it that made it look extra fancy. There was a small picture of the Monopoly Guy in the corner, crawling out of a pit with a mischievous smile on his face. He was winking.
The embossed text at the top read:
Get Out Of Hell Free!
I turned it over in my hand and read the back. This one depicted the monopoly Guy being booted out of some familiar pearly gates. It read:
A Get Out OF Hell Free card, signifying that the bearer of this card currently is unclaimed by either the forces of Heaven, Hell, Faerie, or other Accepted Parties.
So heaven doesn't want you, and hell spat you up?
The Second Chance is your Last Chance!
Leigh had unlatched the window and was about to take off.
"Wait!" I said. "Is this for real?"
"To quote a succubus I once knew, 'congratu-fucking-lations'. You got one. Most don't. Don't dick it up."
"Wait!" I said again.
"Are you a dude or a chick?"
If looks could kill, I'd be dead a million times.
Leigh was gone in the sound of wings flapping and a flash of light.
Not as showy as Kho's exit, but still fairly impressive from a purely aesthetic point of view. I closed the window and went to check on the bossman.
He was sitting in the corner, looking a bit frazzled. No, that's not it. He was looking like he'd collapse into a puddle of goop.
"That woman," he said as I came closer. "Her skin. There were wings, weren't there? I saw wings. So many of them-" He shuddered.
"Yes, I can imagine." I held the card up to his face.
"You see this?" I waved it a bit. "You know what this means?"
His eyes wouldn't focus right. "Wha?" he said. "I- huh? What. . .?" He blinked a few times before closing his eyes again. ". . .dun' feel good. . . "
Well what did I expect? Congratulations? Outrage? I was definitely going to be asking for wages.
Sighing, I grabbed his shoulder and hefted him up. Together we stumbled into his room, where I unceremoniously tossed him onto the bed. He was snoring within minutes.
The living room was thrashed. The kitchen was thrashed. It was impressive: I never would have been able to cause as much damage without the aid of some outside incendiaries.
And you know what? I thought. He's going to blame me for this.
A small scrap of paper brushed by. I recognized it as part of Constantine's face.
I laughed. I had to laugh. I still had the card. I hadn't let it go the entire time I was getting him settled in. It was warm and comforting in my hand.
It could be a joke, I thought. Heaven and hell tag teaming to screw with me. I shouldn't get so damn happy.
All the same, I whistled as I put out the smoldering bits of carpet. I hummed to myself when I stared chucking away pieces of plaster. And I was singing when I got out the phonebook, looking for someone who covered remodeling.
I won. I didn't know why, or how, but I actually won for once.