Posted on January 20, 2011 by Flames
In the divine struggle between good and evil, humans are hardly noticeable to the mal’akhim, but when an ancient seal is broken on the grounds of a California college campus, beings from dimensions beyond the balance of holy and unholy erupt from the earth. A retired priest and an ailing magickian must trust the mysterious Walker Between the Worlds and his skin-eating demon familiar as they step through Heisenbergian passages of probability and battle forces that are so far beyond demon they cannot be fully seen in earthly dimensions. Amidst the earthquakes and interdimensional intruders, the students and staff of California Hills University step across the boundaries of their knowledge and faith, revealing their true natures as the night erupts in earth and blood.
Flames Rising is pleased to present this excerpt from An Agreement with Hell by Dru Pagliassotti. An Agreement with Hell is available now at DriveThruHorror.com.
An Agreement with Hell
Jack tightened his hands on the .45, feeling the silver crosses on its grip dig into his palms. The protective spells sewn into the lining of his jacket were playing havoc with his nerves, jangling them with discordant warnings of the presence of the mal’akhim.
The devils circled around the broken angel like ants around a dead bird, their claws and tongues tentatively touching, probing, tasting. The angel quivered. One tattered wing twitched.
Jack swore. Still alive. He slid the semiautomatic back into his jacket pocket. He wouldn’t get any thanks for blowing a hole through a member of the Heavenly Host. Instead, he slipped out his cell phone and hit speed dial.
“It’s alive,” he said.
“Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?”
“The angel. It’s alive, but there’s a pack of devils around it.”
“Save it. I’m on my way.”
“That’s not my job,” Jack protested, but Andy had already hung up. Jack folded the phone and stuffed it back into his pocket, then swiftly touched the St. Jude medallion he wore around his neck.
He edged away from the concrete pillar. One of his boots splashed in a puddle of water that was all that remained of the dried-up river.
The devils hissed, crouching and raising their sharp-muzzled faces toward him. Mirroreyes caught and reflected him, and Jack winced. Right. What would Andy do?
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis….”
One of the devils opened its mouth, its wet tongue lolling in a lewd grin.
“…Sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regunum tuum….”
He forced himself to take another step forward. His heels were loud on the concrete riverbed, and the devils hissed.
“James,” the grinning devil whispered, its mirroreyes fixing on him and reflecting a fractured visage. “James, what are you doing?”
A bead of sweat ran down Jack’s face. He wiped it off and threw his long red braid over his shoulder.
“Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo, et in terra.”
“Pray all you want, James. It won’t redeem you.” The devil slid from the angel’s side, its flesh slipping from shape to shape as it stalked around Jack’s heels. Its narrow head brushed his coat hem. “I think you’ll be mine when you die.”
Jack stumbled, recognizing Drink and forgetting the next line. Diabolic laughter sussurated through the shadows beneath the overpass. He heard a sound like a bottle breaking against concrete.
“Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,” he said hastily, skipping to the end as the sharp scent of whiskey cut through the devils’ stink. More laughter. The devils weren’t impressed. They pressed closer, their shapes blurring as they smelled his sins and fashioned themselves into temptations.
“Have you prayed for Rose lately?” one asked, looking up at him with silver eyes. Jack recoiled. Despair. He knew that devil, too.
He knew them all. Drink and Despair, Pride and Fear, Violence and Rage, Doubt and—
Bright light swept away the shadows as Andrew’s Dodge roared down the dry riverbed, clanking and rattling. The devils lifted their heads, sniffing for the newcomer’s motives and weaknesses.
Brakes squealed and Andy yanked on the wheel, turning the Dodge sideways as it stopped. The heavy door clanked open as he stepped out.
“Get out of here, you pests.” He lifted his golden pyx. “Go on, before I send you back to hell the hard way.”
The devils vanished. Jack sagged.
“Christ! Why don’t they ever gang up on you?” he asked, wiping his forehead on the back of his leather sleeve.
“For one thing, I mind my language,” the laicized priest retorted. Jack grunted and crouched next to the angel, leaving his partner to mutter prayers before returning the pyx to his glove compartment.
The angel wasn’t in good shape. Its wings, one arm, and both legs were broken. Shards of translucent bone glittered in the headlights. Mist poured off its flesh as if it were evaporating.
Its mirroreyes reflected the same incomplete image that had been in the eyes of the devils. Jack looked away, then dragged his gaze back. The angel’s skin was too white, too smooth; radiant with an inner fire and without the pores and hairs that would mark a human. No blood showed where its flesh and bone were broken, and instead of breathing, it seemed to only, perpetually, inhale.
The angel’s resemblance to humankind was a mask hiding a truth Jack knew was unbearable to behold.
“What do you need?” he asked. “What can we do for you?”
“James Ignatius Langthorn.” The angel’s voice was strong and sweet, despite its injuries, and light poured from its lips. Jack held his hand in front of his eyes to block the glare from its words. “Andrew Thomas Markham.”
Andy knelt next to him, fumbling dark glasses from his coat pocket.
“Do you need anything?” he asked, sliding the glasses on. “A prayer? Confession?”
The angel’s one good wing fluttered. Feathers rasped against concrete with the noise of stone grinding against stone.
“Eat and know,” the angel said, evaporating into white ash.
The occult alarms rattling Jack’s nerves faded. He rocked back on his heels and looked at Andy. The former priest pulled off his sunglasses and sat still, letting them dangle from one hand.
“Why do they always do that?” Jack asked. “I hate it when they’re obscure.”
“Angels aren’t talkative.”
“Raphael was an archangel. An archangel wouldn’t get taken down by a pack of devils.” Andy ran his thumb through the ash and crossed himself, leaving a smudge on his forehead, lips, and Hawaiian shirt. Then he dipped his thumb again and repeated the gesture for Jack.
Jack licked his lips. A fire of wine and honey burned the tip of his tongue. For one fleeting moment a single, piercing note drilled through his ears, and he saw a furrowed field streaming with blood, a bone staircase that spiraled down into darkness, worms seething through raw meat, and a hallway full of doors slamming shut.
And in the next breath, nothing.
He looked down, but a cold breeze was blowing away the rest of the angel’s powdery remains.
After a moment, the two men stood. A Styrofoam soda cup rattled down the concrete riverbed, and the wind shook a chain-link fence. Jack turned up his jacket collar. This was the first time he’d ever visited Southern California in the winter. He’d thought the weather would be warm, but even though the days stayed bright and sunny, the wind held a bite.
Andy checked his watch.
“We’d better get on the road,” he said. “It’s almost four. If we hurry, we’ll be off the 405 before rush hour.”
They didn’t discuss the angel until they’d picked up a late lunch—or an early dinner—at McDonalds. The sun was low by the time the battered Dodge pulled up in the campus parking lot. California Hills University looked deserted, students and faculty disinclined to linger outside in December’s chill. A few lights streamed through the curtains of the apartments in the tiny visiting faculty complex, but nobody peered out to wave to them as they hurried up the walk.
Jack set the greasy bags on Andy’s kitchen table while his friend woke up his laptop and began to peck at the keyboard.
“Two Big Macs, fries, an apple pie, and a milkshake,” Jack grumbled, separating out his salad and throwing the dressing packets into the trash. He opened Andy’s refrigerator and pulled out the low-fat, low-sodium dressing he’d bought three days before. “God must have given you a plenary indulgence for cholesterol.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Andy grunted, not really listening. “You saw a field covered with blood?”
“Yeah. Bone stairs. Worms or maggots. Doors slamming.”
“Any idea where that field was located?
“Could’ve been any field in the world.” Jack dropped into a metal folding chair and emptied the dressing over the salad, turning it into balsamic soup. “I know some songs about bloody battlefields, but it looked like plowed land to me.”
“The blood could be literal or symbolic.”
“Life would be a lot easier if angels saw the world the way we do.”
“No doubt. And religion would be a lot easier if the Bible were literal.”
“Does saying things like that ever get you in trouble in the religion department?
“Something else?” Jack looked over at his friend, who was frowning at the laptop screen. A clear, bluish light lit his face, reminding Jack of the radiance that had streamed from the angel’s lips as it had spoken his name.
His name. He knew, intellectually, that God was aware of his name, that God knew him more intimately than any mortal could. But to know didn’t mean to forgive. The dark, cancerous-looking holes in the reflection that he’d seen in the devils’ and angel’s eyes served as a grim reminder that he was a long way away from a state of grace.
“Nothing important. I’m caught up in an administrative pissing match,” Andy said. “I told you my invitation came directly from the university president, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. They’re rebuilding the religion department, and he wanted a Catholic viewpoint.” Jack shrugged. “Strange choice for a Lutheran university.”
“It’s not rabidly Lutheran, and there’s a large Catholic population in the area.” Andy made a face as the computer showed him something he didn’t want to see. He stood, running a hand through his white hair, and joined Jack at the kitchen table. “You know, I don’t think there’s any significant difference between a pint of low-fat dressing and a few ounces of regular dressing. Why are you on a diet, anyway? You look fine.”
“Don’t you watch TV? Half the country is fat.”
“You’re not. Now that you’re on the wagon, you look a lot better.” Andy unwrapped his burger, using the paper as a plate, and dumped his fries next to it. Jack eyed the crispy golden morsels with open longing. “Help yourself. A couple fries won’t kill you. This isn’t some kind of midlife crisis, is it? Or could it be, pray God, you’ve finally got a girlfriend?”
Jack made a disgusted noise and grimly scooped up his floating strips of iceberg lettuce and toothpick-shaped carrot slices. For a celibate man, Andy seemed intent on Jack finding someone to replace Rose.
Nobody would replace Rose.
“Just stayin’ healthy,” he said.
“Uh-huh.” Andy’s gaze was probing. “You’ve been cutting back on the cigarettes, too. That’s good. That’s really good.”
“It’s your apartment.” Jack avoided his friend’s eyes. “So, you gonna tell me what we were doing today?”
Andy hesitated a moment, then let the change of subject stand.
“You know as much as I do.” He looked solemn as he wiped his mouth on a thin paper napkin and leaned back in his chair. “Someone emailed me those GPS coordinates anonymously. Someone who knew the pack would be on a hunt.”
“Anonymously.” Jack mentally dredged through what little he’d gleaned about computers from TV shows and mystery novels. “A hacker?”
“It doesn’t have to be that complicated. The message could have been sent through any remailer that strips off the return address.”
“Is that hard to do?”
Andy smiled. “You know, Jack, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I’m twenty years older than you are, and I know more about the Internet than you do.”
“I don’t have time for the Internet.” Jack reached into his shirt pocket and laid a pack of Marlboros on the kitchen table. He glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes. He’d let himself have a cigarette in twenty minutes.
The sound of a broken bottle echoed in Jack’s memory. He restlessly flipped the cigarette pack over.
Andy had removed all the bottles from the house the day Jack had arrived. There was nothing in the apartment to tempt him except memories and old habits and the lingering smell of whiskey conjured up for him that afternoon.
Jack looked at the clock again. Not even a minute had passed. He stood, grabbing the trash off the table.
“So, who wants you involved in mal’akhim business?”
“Could be anybody.” Andy kept eating. Jack jammed the bags into the can under the sink, catching a glimpse of himself in the black mirror of the kitchen window. No holes in that reflection, just a man in his mid-forties affecting aging-biker chic. He refocused and looked outside at the lights across the narrow courtyard. His heart was pounding. He took a deep breath, trying to force it back into a slow, steady beat.
“So what’s going on in the department?” he asked after a moment, turning his back on the darkness outside.
“The chair doesn’t want me.”
“Doesn’t he take orders from the president?”
“She, and yes, technically she does, after she takes orders from the dean and provost, anyway. But they disagree over which direction the religion department should be taking. The administration and regents want the department to focus on the Old Testament, and the chair wants more social justice-type professors.”
“But you’re an Old Testament candidate.”
“Me and Todd, the other visiting professor. I think we were both hired over the chair’s head. And I don’t think either of us is going to get our contract renewed next year.”
Jack walked back to the kitchen table and sat down. Andy had finished his burgers and was picking at fries and slurping on his chocolate milkshake. Jack wanted to light a cigarette just to kill the smell. His stomach growled.
“Todd’s the guy across the courtyard?”
“Yes. Apocalyptic scholarship in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.”
“You two get along?”
“We haven’t talked much. He’s a big man, but quiet, even at departmental meetings. He works well with the students, though.”
Jack picked up a burger wrapper and looked at the nutritional information, reminding himself why he was sticking to salads. “Don’t the students like you? I’d think they’d get all excited about angelology.”
“I don’t get to teach angelology. Two of my classes are Introduction to Christian Studies, and I’ve got a small special-topics course on Christian-centered cults. I talk about angels a little there, but the students don’t like what I have to say.” Andy finished the fries. “They think angels are sweet, cuddly little things that watch over them and keep them safe. You should see them squirm when I make them take a closer look at what the b’nei elohim actually do in the Bible.”
Jack nodded, crushing the wrapper into a tight little ball.
“Anyway,” Andy continued, “it’s all too old-fashioned for the chair. She doesn’t think the Old Testament is relevant.”
“Your position at Belleville College is still secure, right?”
“Oh, as secure as it ever was. I’m sure I’ll have no trouble going back. I thought CHU might make a nice place to retire, but I’ll do all right in Belleville, if I have to.”
“Retire?” Jack dropped the wrapper and studied his friend. “You?”
“I’m sixty-five, Jack. I’m ready.”
“What would you do?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Andy smiled. “Buy a Harley and hit the road with you, maybe. Find America and fight the forces of Satan.”
“Christ.” Jack shook his head. “You’re not serious.”
“No, not really. I’m at more of an RV stage of life. I might buy a big old Streamline, tour the national parks, and write a few more books. I hear there’s a senior ranger program that would reduce my camping fees.”
“You been thinking about this.” The idea of Andy retiring troubled Jack.
“A little. The recession slowed me down, but I’d like to be out in five years. That’s probably another reason the chair doesn’t want to hire me—she’d prefer younger blood. I mean, that’s what caused the problem in the first place. The campus was founded just over sixty years ago, and now all the faculty who were hired back when this was Cal Hills College are retiring and leaving the departments short-handed.”
“I didn’t know this place was so young. Guess that explains all the construction,” said Jack. “So why hire an old man like you at all?”
“Academic excellence.” Andy grinned. “I’ve got age and the Old Testament against me, but my publication record balances that out. CHU might decide it’s worth a five-year investment just to get my name on its professor emeritus list.”
“This is why I work for myself,” Jack said, shaking his head. “I hate all that bureaucratic wheeling and dealing.”
“So do I, but I enjoy a steady paycheck and benefits. Not to mention a pension. Do you ever think about where you’re going to be when you’re my age?”
“Too late for me to worry about that now,” Jack said, looking away. “I don’t have much of a resume. Folk singing, bike repair, and high magick. Not exactly CEO skills.”
“Motorcycle repair might get you somewhere.”
“In a small town, maybe. But it wouldn’t be the kind of job you’re talking about, with pensions and—and health insurance and all that.”
He could feel Andy’s eyes on him.
“This might be a rude question, Jack, but do you have any savings at all?”
“Nope.” Not anymore. He’d had a few thousand put away for a rainy day, but then it had rained, and the hospital bills had eaten up everything he’d saved. “Don’t matter. I’m not gonna live to your age.”
“But you’re eating better and smoking less. That’s a good start. And if you retired from the magick business….”
Jack gazed at his reflection in the window and shrugged, feeling uncomfortable.
“Come on, what’s going on?” Andy demanded. “I’ve been biting my tongue for days, waiting for you to start talking. Why are you here? Is that angel linked to you? Did you show up on my doorstep with the mal’akhim on your tail?”
“No!” Jack gave his friend a startled look. “No, nothing like that. I told you, I was working with Ma D’Orsy, helping her and her family rebuild and lay down some new blessings. Then Pearl gave me a call and I headed up to Chicago for a few weeks, but it was nothing occult, just tracking down her oldest.”
“He quit his medication again?”
“Yeah. Ended up in St. Louis.”
“And after that you drove here to see me? Without even calling?”
Jack hesitated. “I shoulda called. I had kind of an accident, and I wasn’t thinking too well—”
“Jack,” said Andy, “would you please try to talk like a man who almost earned his college degree? What does ‘kind of an accident’ mean, anyway?”
Jack began playing with the cigarette pack again.
“It was kind of a stroke.”
“What?” Andy straightened up. “A real stroke? Or a magickal attack?”
“A real stroke,” Jack said, looking away. “Doc said I got high blood pressure, touch of atherosclerosis. Too much drinking and smoking and stress.”
“Good heavens, Jack, why didn’t you call me? Where were you? You know I would have flown out.” Andy sounded more angry than worried.
“I know. I didn’t want you bothered on my account.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said. How bad was it?”
“Well, I’m here.” He’d never liked talking about personal matters. He hunched his shoulders, stripping the cellophane off the Marlboros. “I got lucky. No permanent damage. They wanted me to stick around, but what the hell, Andy, I don’t have insurance. I can’t afford expensive drugs. I’ve been tryin’ to stay a little healthier on my own.”
“How long ago was it?” Andy was at his laptop again, working on the keyboard. “Did you get your medical records when you left?”
“October. I didn’t ask for any paperwork. I just wanted out of there as fast as I could.”
Andy growled, his eyes moving over the screen. Jack studied the scuffed toes of his boots in the harsh kitchen light.
“Did you have surgery?”
“Just drugs. I guess it wasn’t a real serious stroke.”
“All strokes are serious. I can’t believe you didn’t call me. I thought we were friends. And you’re still smoking?”
Jack dropped the pack. “I’m trying to quit. I tried the patches, but they don’t do anything for me, and they’re expensive. And this is why I didn’t say anything. I knew you’d make a fuss.”
Andy clicked a button, still reading.
“You have to quit. Cold turkey.”
“I’m working on it. Let me handle this my way, Andy.” The pack had never looked so enticing. Jack looked back at his friend. “And get off the computer, would you? I hate talking to your back.”
* * * * *
An Agreement with Hell is available now at DriveThruHorror.com.
This preview for was provided and published with express permission from Apex Book Company.