Demon was such a nasty word.
And so damned old-school. People heard demon and they conjured up all kinds of Hieronymus Bosch helter-skelter - or worse, Dante's stupid-ass Inferno crap. Honestly. Flames and tortured souls and everyone wailing.
Okay, maybe Hell was a little toasty. And if the place had had a court painter, Bosch would have been at the head of the pack.
But that wasn't the point. The Demon actually saw itself as more of a Free-Will Coach. Much better, more modern. The anti-Oprah, as it were.
It was all about influence.
The thing was, the qualities of the soul were not dissimilar to the components of the human body. The corporeal form had a number of vestigial parts, like the appendix, the wisdom teeth, and the coccyx - all of which were at best unnecessary, and at worst capable of compromising the functioning of the whole.
Souls were the same. They, too, had useless baggage that impeded their proper performance, these annoying, holier-than-thou bits dangling like an appendix waiting for infection. Faith and hope and love...prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude...all this useless clutter just packed too much damn morality into the heart, getting in the way of the soul's innate desire for malignancy.
A demon's role was to help people see and express their inner truth without their being clouded by all that bullshit, diverting humanity. As long as people stayed true to their core, things were going in the right direction.
And lately, that had been relatively true. Between all the wars on the planet, and the crime, and the disregard for the environment, and that cesspool of finance known as Wall Street, as well as the inequalities far and wide, things were okay.
But it wasn't enough and time was running out.
To go with a sports analogy, Earth was the playing field and the game had been going on since the stadium had been built. The Demons were the Home Team. Away was made up of Angels pimping that chimera of happiness, Heaven.
Where the court painter was Thomas Kincaid, for f**k's sake.
Each soul was a quarterback on the field, a participant in the universal struggle of good against evil, and the scoreboard reflected the relative moral value of his or her deeds on earth. Birth was kickoff and death was game-over - whereupon the score would be added to the larger tally. Coaches had to stay on the sidelines, but they could put different complements of players on the field with the human to influence things - and also call time-outs for pep talks.
Commonly known as the "near-death experience."
Here was the problem: Like a spectator who had been watching a postseason game in a cold seat with one too many hot dogs in his belly and a screamer sitting right behind his ear, the Creator was eyeing the exit.
Too many fumbles. Too many time-outs. Too many ties that had led to too many unresolved overtimes. What had started out as a gripping contest had evidently lost its appeal, and the teams had been given their notice: Wrap up the play, boys.
So both sides had to agree on one particular quarterback. One quarterback and seven plays.
Instead of an endless parade of humans, they were down to seven souls in the balance between good and evil...seven chances to determine whether humanity was good or bad. A tie was not possible and the stakes were...everything. If Team Demon won, it got to keep the facility and all the players thai had ever been or ever would be. And the Angels became slaves for eternity.
Which made torturing human sinners seem like nothing but a bore.
If the Angels won, the entire Earth would be nothing but one giant Christmas frickin' morning, a choking wave of happiness and warmth and caring and sharing taking over everything. Under that hideous scenario, the Demons would cease to exist not just in the universe, but in the hearts and minds of all of humanity.
Although considering all the happy-happy, joy-joy, that was the best outcome in that scenario. Short of getting stabbed repeatedly in the eye with a pole.
The Demons couldn't bear losing. It just wasn't an option. Seven chances were not a lot, and the Away Team had won the metaphysical coin toss - so they got to approach the quarterback who was going to drive the seven "balls," as it were.
Ah, yes...the quarterback. Not surprisingly the choice of that key position had led to a lot of heated discussion. Eventually, though, one had been selected, one who both sides found acceptable...one who both coaches expected to rock the plays according to their values and goals.
Poor fool didn't know what he was in for.
The thing was, though, the Demons weren't prepared to leave such a momentous responsibility on the shoulders of a human. Free will was malleable, after all - which was the basis of the whole game.
So they were sending someone onto the field as a player. It was against the rules, of course, but true to their nature - and also something the opponent was incapable of doing.
This was the edge the Home Team had: The one good thing about the Angels was they always colored within the lines.
They had to.
"She wants you."
Jim Heron lifted his eyes from his Budweiser. Across the crowded, dim club, past bodies that were clad in black and hung with chains, through the thick air of sex and desperation, he saw the "she" in question.
A woman in a blue dress stood beneath one of the few ceiling lights in the Iron Mask, the golden glow floating down over her Brooke Shields brown hair and her ivory skin and her banging body. She was a revelation, a standout slice of color among all the gloomy, neo-Victorian Prozac candidates, as beautiful as a model, as resplendent as a saint.
And she was staring at him, though he questioned the wanting part: Her eyes were set deep, which meant as she looked over, the yearning that stalled out his lungs could just be a product of the way her skull was built.
Hell, maybe she was simply wondering what he was doing in the club. Which made two of them. "I'm telling you, that woman wants you, buddy."
Jim glanced over at Mr. Matchmaker. Adrian Vogel was the reason he'd ended up here, and the Iron Mask was definitely the guy's scene: Ad was dressed in black from head to toe and had piercings in places most people didn't want needles anywhere around.
"Nah." Jim took another swig of his Bud. "Not her type."
"You sure about that."
"You're a fool." Adrian dragged a hand through the black waves on his head and the stuff eased back into place like it had been trained well. Christ, if it weren't for the fact that he worked construction and had a mouth like a sailor, you'd wonder whether he trolled the women's mousse and spray aisles.
Eddie Blackhawk, the other guy with them, shook his head. "If he's not interested, that doesn't make him foolish."
"Live and let live, Adrian. It's better for everyone."
As the guy eased back on the velvet couch, Eddie was more Biker than Goth in his jeans and shitkickers, so he looked as out of place as Jim did - although given the hulking size of the guy and those weird-ass red-brown eyes of his. it was hard to imagine him fitting in with anyone but a bunch of pro wrestlers: even with his hair in that long braid, nobody razzed him at the construction site - not even the meathead roofers who gave the biggest lip.
"So, Jim, you don't talk much." Adrian scanned the crowd, no doubt looking for a Blue Dress of his own. After focusing on the dancers who writhed in iron cages, he flagged their waitress. "And after working with you for a month, I know it's not because you're stupid."
"Don't have a lot to say."
"Nothing wrong with that," Eddie murmured.
This was probably why Jim liked Eddie better. The SOB was another member of the Spare Club for Men, a guy who never used a word when a nod or a shake of the head could get his point across. How he'd gotten so tight with Adrian, whose mouth had no neutral on its stick shift, was a mystery.
How he roomed with the f**ker was inexplicable.
Whatever. Jim had no intention of going into all their hows, whys and wheres. It was nothing personal. They were actually the kind of hardheaded smart-asses he would have been friends with in another time, on another planet, but here and now, their shit was none of his business - and he'd only gone out with them because Adrian had threatened to keep asking until he did.
Bottom line, Jim lived life by the code of the disconnected and expected other people to leave him to his I-am-an-island routine. Since getting out of the military, he'd been vagabonding it, ending up in Caldwell only because it was where he'd stopped driving - and he was going to hit the road after the project they were all working on was finished.