“This can’t be right,” Her voice became shriller with every word. “This is a mistake. I’m a good person. A Christian!”
The man behind the desk smiled serenely, as if he was watching waves crash on the beach, and not an increasingly agitated mom-of-two shift in an uncomfortable wooden chair. The pen in his hand tapped absently at the file in front of him. “No ma’am, we’re quite sure.”
Cynthia’s jaw went tight. She focused her attention on anything but the reflection off the case worker’s bald head. “I’d like to speak with your manager.”
Her resolve plummeted as the manager stepped into the little room. Until now, she could have believed she was simply there to switch her car insurance, trying to save a few dollars for that cruise to Cancun. But the manager who strode over to her chair, confidently offering a hand to shake, was bright crimson. Two little horns curved out of his forehead, blunt-tipped and ash grey.
For a brief moment, Cynthia suppressed a manic giggle. The suit he wore was pure Brooks Brothers, but the devil in front of her was the same color as the first car she had ever purchased; a sleek red Miata she’d driven off the lot like a bat out of…
“Cynthia Bleaker? Pleasure to meet you. I’m Neuphadel. I was told you asked to speak to a manager?”
His hand was soft and warm, with just the right amount of pressure in his handshake. He leaned, all-together too close for comfort, against the corner of his subordinate’s desk. Cynthia smoothed her hair back from her face. Her roots had started to show. Hopefully something could be done about that before the funeral.
“Like I was saying to…”
“To Gerald here, a mistake has been made. I have two children, Matthew and McKayla. Mattie’s going to be a freshman this year! He’s on the baseball team. McKayla just got her first solo in show choir. I’m vice-president of the Jr. High PTA. I sponsor one of those little orphan kids in Haiti. I do yoga. I recycle!”
“I’m sorry, I’m not understanding your complaint.” Neuphadel smiled, the same beach-and-waves serenity that made her fist clench involuntarily.
“I’m a good person. I’m a Christian! I shouldn’t be here!” She lowered her voice, as if saying it out loud was the one thing that would make this whole place real. “I shouldn’t be in hell.”
Neuphadel shook his head, his smile never slipping. “Statistically, we’ve found little correlation to religious beliefs and souls joining us. And we’d appreciate it if you didn’t use such a Christian-centric term. Hell is so prosaic. You happen to be a ward of the Principalities of Evil. Welcome, by the way. Did Gerald give you the coupon book?”
Blinking, Cynthia held up the blue packet. The corners of it were dog-eared from turning it over and over in her hands.
Neuphadel’s smile grew wider, showing off a set of movie-star teeth. “Now, I recommend taking yourself on down to Cold Day in Hell and getting a Mango Chili Breezer. It’s a revelation to your taste buds. And, even better, it’s a great way to get acquainted with the neighborhood. Gerald, has she been given her domicile yet?”
“No, sir.” Gerald flipped through the large manila folder on his desk. “But she’ll be staying at the Rose Garden.”
“I didn’t realize Rosie had a spot open up. Oh, excellent.”
“Staying at…” Cynthia shook her head, desperately trying to quell the rising tide of panic that clogged her throat, made it hard to breathe. “I am not staying anywhere! I don’t belong here!”
The smile vanished from Neuphadel’s lips. The little room, the could-have-been an insurance office, flickered at the corners. Goosebumps sprouted on her arms, as if someone had suddenly turned the AC down. McKayla was always doing that, like they lived in Phoenix, not St. Paul.
A snap of his red fingers made Cynthia focus. Gerald slapped the folder into Neuphadel’s waiting palm, entirely too smug for her comfort.
“You don’t belong here?” All the warmth, the comforting car-salesman patter, had drained from the devil’s tone. He skimmed the file, then began reading out loud, Cynthia’s own voice coming from his lips.
“I am going to die,” he gave a hiccupping sob, “alone and old and ugly. Oh, God, I would give anything to go to prom with Greg Halliday. My life, my soul, anything.”
She could still hear the clap of thunder ringing in her ears. That had been such a bad storm it flooded her parents’ basement. But the next day in biology, Greg had kicked the back of her chair and asked her to prom.
“I… I was sixteen!”
“Old enough to know what a soul is.” Neuphadel smiled again, a tight, pitying curl of the lips. “See, Cynthia, we’ve got kind of a… soul-based economy down here. But it’s not all bad. In fact, for most souls, it’s not much different. The thrill is in the collection of a soul, not whatever torment you were doubtless imagining. Well, with few exceptions. But they merely prove the rule.
“And I think you might really find a home here. I see here,” he flipped a page of the file, “you were an active participant in your neighborhood HOA. We could certainly use your attention to detail.”
He snapped the folder shut. The sound reverberated in her bones.
Cynthia woke to a soft thump landing on her feet. She groaned, the quilt tangled around her body, evidence of her tossing and turning. Bleary-eyed, the package at her feet came slowly into focus at the foot of her single bed. Wrapped in unassuming brown paper and twine, it looked like it could have been straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Unfortunately, her room looked just as it did when she’d gone to sleep.
The delicate hummingbird of hope that had taken refuge in her chest stuttered.
It had been easy enough to nod along when Gerald read her the description of the scene. She remembered bits of it anyway. The first big storm of the winter, a green SUV spinning out, a paramedic who tried to revive her for twenty minutes. It had seemed ridiculous that a whole person’s life was only worth twenty minutes of an EMT’s time. If their roles had been reversed, she would’ve tried harder than that, but she’d kept her mouth shut as Gerald recited the facts. Now, though. Now…
She looked around the room that had been assigned to her, every surface covered in doilies, porcelain figurines, and enough tchotchkes that even her grandmother would’ve complained about the clutter.
“I really am in hell.”
The package seemed to agree.
“Maybe today someone will take me seriously.” With a nod to herself, Cynthia tore open the package and recoiled in horror.
A chime sounded, and then a knock on her door. A vanguard of rose-scented perfume rolled through, more effective than caller ID. Behind it bustled her landlord, the veritable Miss Rosie. A woman out of time, Miss Rosie was piles of grey hair kept upright by a too-tight corset and layers upon layers of lace. She had a booming laugh, as Cynthia discovered last night trying to plead her case.
“Cynthia, dearie, we missed you at breakfast!” Miss Rosie tutted as she took in Cynthia’s pajamaed state and the open package at her feet. “You best be getting dressed now. Your settling agent’s here. You’ll be wanting to make a good impression on your first day.”
With a sigh, Cynthia held up the contents of the package. “They can’t seriously expect me to wear this.”
“Oh!” Miss Rosie exclaimed, a brief flash of panic in her eyes. “A regulatorum! We haven’t had one of those in our boarding house in quite some time.”
“It has shorts! It’s a uniform with shorts!”
Miss Rosie sniffed. “Yes, well, I’ve been on them about making something more modest, but it can get quite hot some days. Now, hurry on down girl. I’ve got to do something about the hedges. Can’t have unkempt hedges with a regulatorum in the house.”
“Is the neckerchief really necessary?”
The whole uniform, from blazer to shorts, from button down to neatly-tied scarf, was shades of olive green, done in hues that didn’t quite complement each other. The knee-high white socks and white Keds made her feel like she was back in grade school.
Gerald frowned. “Yes. We’re already late. Come on.”
Hell looked different in the daylight. Gerald, for all that he was balding and pot-bellied, strode along the sidewalk with purpose. They turned onto a wide avenue and joined a crush of people all rushing to work. She’d never seen such a mix of humanity. She wasn’t the only person in a uniform, either, though her olive drab seemed unusual amongst the mix of blues, greens, and khakis. The few devils she could pick out of the crowd seemed to favor suits like Neuphadel.
Here and there, someone would call out a greeting to Gerald and he’d wave back, never stopping to chat. Cynthia trotted to catch up with him.
“Does everyone in hell work?”
“Please stop using that word. But yes. In the Principalities of Evil, everyone has a job to do. We’re all here for eternity. Better to keep busy.”
“But Miss Rosie said last night there was no money.” She bumped into a man in a red robe who gave her a dirty look.
“Why would we need money? Why do we need the sun to rise? Mrs. Bleaker, we are dead. We sold our souls, and now we are here. The sooner you accept that, the happier you will be. Ah, we’re here.”
The Regulatorium, as declared by the carved scrollwork over the impressive stone archway looked part Greco-Roman hall, and part corporate office building. It towered over most of the buildings along the street, with an imposing number of steps leading up to the revolving door. Men and women, dressed in similar uniforms dashed up the steps like they were training for a cameo in Rocky, checking their watches and shaking their heads.
“Come on, I need your supervisor’s signature to verify that you were passed along.”
A man who could be Ebenezer Scrooge’s clone, from his bald crown to his stringy hair, plopped a large tome on the desk. A pair of pince nez glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. The only thing ruining the illusion was his olive-hued uniform instead of an oversized Christmas Carol nightgown.
“This is volume one of the rules and regulations of the care and upkeep of the Principalities,” he said. His voice creaked as he talked, as old as his bones. “It’s imperative that you read this cover to cover. Without us, without the regulatorium, this place would be utter chaos!”
Cynthia snorted. “Chaos? Really?”
“Chaos!” He reiterated, waving a finger in her face. “Complete anarchy.”
“Listen, despite what Gerald may have told you, I’m here by mistake.”
Scrooge chortled. Undeterred, Cynthia pursed her lips and began again. “I’m here by mistake. I’m sure I’ll be gone by the end of the week, so there’s really not much point to me doing all this studying.”
“Oh, you do tell a joke, don’t you, girl.” He patted her on the shoulder. “It’ll be nice to have another humorist in the office. Well, I’ll leave you to it. Bruce will be by after noon so you can join him on his rounds.”
With that, Cynthia was left alone in the little white room. Just her, the desk, and the book. The fluorescent light flickered overhead. She examined her cuticles. They were perfect, just like her nail polish. Nancy had done a fantastic job on her manicure, as always. The Vietnamese really had a knack for it.
With a sigh, she opened the book and began to read.
Bruce’s smile was blinding as he turned it on Cynthia. “Don’t you just love first days?”
“Um,” she began, but the living – was this living? – Ken doll beside her just kept talking.
“You can really see all of the possibilities stretching out in front of you. A whole new life. A chance to be a new person.”
Tan and muscular, but not too muscular, with the perfect 80’s poof of hair, Cynthia couldn’t help but feel like she’d seen him before.
“That’s what I enjoyed about acting,” he continued. “The chance to just step into a role, really inhabit it. Every role was a new beginning.”
The way they strolled down the residential street felt more like a leisurely, after-dinner walk than work. Most of the houses here looked much like the one she was staying in, echoing Victorian manors that could easily fit ten people or more. The few souls out and about gave them a wide berth, even as Bruce smiled and waved pleasantly.
“Ah, what do we have here?” Bruce squatted beside the front lawn of one such manor, pulling a ruler out of his jacket’s breast pocket. Squinting, he jotted the measurement in a little notebook. “I’ll write up the official citation back at the office.”
“I can’t actually see what’s the matter.” Cynthia frowned at the neatly manicured grass in front of her.
“That will come with practice.” Bruce popped up again, fishing a palm-sized book out of his fanny pack. It was also olive, an officially licensed accessory. “Page 78, I think the second paragraph.”
“Rule 203.1.4,” she read aloud, “For any lawn or open space that abuts public spaces, such as a sidewalk, path, or road, any grass must be of one of the three approved varieties (see rule 203.2.8) and can be no taller than seven centimeters (2.75591 inches) high. Other approved lawn or open space configurations: xeriscapes (see rule 203.2.10 for approved plant life), zen gardens, and rock gardens (see rule 203.2.7). All other configurations must be approved by special dispensation. No bouncy castles will be approved under any circumstances. No bouncy castles?”
“See, you’re getting the hang of it already. And 591 Ifrit Ave has grass that is exactly 8.5 centimeters tall. Hence, citation.”
“Bruce, can we just pause for a second.” Sweat gathered between her shoulder blades, dripping all the way down her spine and into her underwear. Miss Rosie had been, unfortunately, right about the shorts. “What are we doing here? It’s only a centimeter and a half taller than it’s supposed to be. No one can tell.”
Bruce laid a heavy hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I normally don’t like to show people this on their first day, but I think you need to see it.”
Together, they gazed up at the ugliest building in the entirety of the Principalities. Grey concrete had been stained by weather and smog, even though the air was clean and fresh. A chain-link fence surrounded the lot, and weeds grew up in the cracks of the path leading to the door. A woman, about Cynthia’s age, she guessed, sat in a rocking chair and gazed back, her brown eyes as hard as stone. She wore an apron around her waist, and a plain calico dress like Cynthia remembered from Little House on the Prairie. She was skinny, like she’d worked hard in life, her brown skin shining in the bright sunlight.
“This, Cynthia, is where the innocents live. That’s Auntie, there. It seems like she never leaves that god awful chair. Watching us, with her creepy stare.” Bruce shuddered, his hair flouncing with the force of it.
“Huh? The innocents?” The rocking chair creaked, as if to punctuate the question.
“You know, the people who insist they don’t belong here. You see, in the Princies, not everyone gets here the same way. You and I, we sold our souls. Others are sent here for their crimes against humanity. You do not want to associate with them, total bummers. And, every once in a while, it will turn out that someone has been brought here by mistake and they’ll get taken properly to the Realms, you know, up there. It’s sad really. Gives the rest of them hope. The people who live here insist they are innocents. And that’s why their home is so gross. The Principalities aren’t like earth. You change things with a thought.”
“So… if I wanted to, I could make my uniform blue?”
“Well, no. That’s an official uniform. But your hair? We could do something about that.”
Cynthia touched her roots self-consciously. “I don’t get it.”
“They could choose to be part of society,” Bruce said, jerking his head at Auntie. “They could totally live in a beautiful house. Get frozen yogurt on a hot day. All they have to do is take a chill pill. If they wanted it, it’d happen. But instead, they live like this, as some sort of, like, protest. And the worst part is we can’t stop them from creating this eye-sore. This entire lot is out of our jurisdiction.”
“But,” the weight of the woman’s gaze was another blanket on an already hot day, “I’m here by mistake.”
Bruce laughed, head thrown back like he was being filmed for a commercial. “Theophilius said you were hilarious. Come on, let’s go get some fro-yo.”
Sleep wouldn’t come. If that was really what she even did. If she was a soul, like Neuphadel said, then did she have to sleep? Have to eat? Gerald said they didn’t need the sun to rise. So why were there days? Why were they so dang hot?
Already, she’d blinked the giant Victorian nightdress Miss Rosie had given her into boxers and a tank top. Bruce had shown her how to do that while they were sitting at a table at Beelzebub & Jerry’s. He’d fixed her roots and then suggested a perm.
The pink quilt covering her slid to the floor as she tossed and turned. If there were innocent souls in the Principalities, and mistakes had been rectified before, there had to be a way for hers to be, too.
She’d clearly taken the wrong approach. When she had been secretary at Hadlin, Hadlin and Earl, Hadlin Sr. was always going on about negotiating in a common language. Clearly, she was not speaking a language that was respected here. If she could learn their language, then they would have to take her seriously.
Cynthia pulled out the pocket-sized regulatorum guidebook Bruce had lent her and began to study. Bruce was right. Every day was a new beginning.
“Theophilius, sir, I realize I am new, but I’m ready to hit the streets.” It wasn’t hard to follow the old man as he surveyed the rows of regulatorums as they filled out his paperwork. It was actually harder not to step on the back of his shoe every time he came to a sudden stop.
“I admire your verve, Christine, but I can’t have an untrained regulatorum wandering the Principalities.” He glanced over at the stack of signed notices on the desk of a regulatorum in her sixties, wearing a thick pair of black reading glasses. “Excellent work, Nancy.”
He turned to frown at her. “No, no, I’m quite sure this is Nancy.”
“I mean, my name is Cynthia, sir. And I stayed up all night studying. Did you know we don’t really need to sleep here? Anyway, I’ve memorized the rules and regs. You can quiz me!”
Theophilius squinted through his pince nez glasses, tilting his head back slightly to focus. Cynthia plastered on her biggest smile, her varsity cheerleader smile.
“Very well, you are patrolling your neighborhood and you see a house with vibrantly violet shutters. What should you do?”
“Use my official regulatorum paint chips to determine which shade of violet, sir. Per rule 428c, the only approved shades are Sugar Plum, Dreams of Lavender, and Violet is a Girl’s Best Friend. If the house is in violation, I should note down the number, time of day, and any other additional violations. Then, after patrol, I will return here to fill out the official citation.”
With a sniff, Theophilius nodded. “Very good.”
“So… I can do field work today?”
“Memorizing the rules and regulations is but one part of your training. If you pass the official exam this morning, I will allow you to skip ahead to partner work. Bruce, who you worked with yesterday, is one of our official field trainers.”
Cynthia’s heart leapt. “Thank you! I won’t let you down, I promise.”
Bruce took a prolonged slurp from his straw, sucking up the last bits of his chocolate-banana milkshake. He tapped his empty cup against Cynthia’s full one.
“You know we’re dead right? No calories to count here.”
“I know,” Cynthia sighed, her despondency glaring like too-bright lipstick. “I just keep thinking about all those poor, innocent souls in that nasty tower.”
“Cynthia,” Bruce’s teeth glittered in the afternoon sun, “you worry way, way too much. Don’t forget. It’s their choice. They could leave any time they wanted. They just would have to give up their petition for promotion.”
“Petition for promotion?”
“You know, to get to the Realms. Because of their supposed innocence.” Bruce made finger-quotes around innocence, as if his derision wasn’t clear enough. “Oooh, do you see what I see?”
She squinted at the house on the corner.
“Newspaper on the stoop.” She checked her official regulatorium watch, a chunky digital thing, though Bruce assured her there were much nicer versions available once she was no longer a trainee. “After 3pm. Clear violation of rule 943.8.3, porch-approved items.”
“Why don’t you take this one down.”
Quick as a whip, Cynthia pulled out a little notebook and began scribbling down the relevant facts. Bruce leaned on the house’s white picket fence, surveying her work.
“I heard once that there’s a secret portal to the Realms. But no one knows where to find it.”
“Really?” Cynthia did her best not to sound too interested.
Bruce shrugged. “It’s just an old wives tale. An urban legend, if you will.”
She snapped her notebook shut. “Bruce, if there’s no money in the Principalities, what is the point of these citations?”
“To prevent chaos,” he replied with a wink. “Or so Theophilius would have us believe. Sometimes it’s just a reminder of the rules. Sometimes violators get moved to a lesser job. Or stripped of a title. Of course, some devils prefer to dole out the usual torments–flaying, stretching, yadda yadda yadda. It all depends on the violation, whether you’re a repeat offender, etc.”
“Oh.” Cynthia tossed her cup in the nearest trash can, stomach churning. A spatter of strawberry milkshake landed on her hand. Wrinkling her nose, she blinked it away. That was, at least, the one definite advantage to being alive; it was so much easier to be clean here.
That evening, Cynthia took time to dress for dinner, thinking up one of her favorite outfits to wear out in St. Paul. The pearl earrings had been given to her by her husband on their fifth anniversary.
Miss Rosie, of course, was tickled to see her finally enjoying herself. Cynthia poured them both a generous glass of wine before passing the bottle to another one of the lodgers, a tall, gangly man with hands large enough cover her whole face, who had had introduced himself as William. He tipped his top hat at her in thanks.
“So how was your day, Cynthia? Getting on well at the regulatorum?” Miss Rosie asked.
Summoning the little etiquette her mom had attempted to teach her, Cynthia took a demure bite of roast beef. If she didn’t need to sleep, and calories didn’t mean anything did she even need to eat? “It went really well, thank you. I passed my book test, so now Theophilius is allowing me out to do training work in the field.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Already making the Rose Garden proud.”
“I’m learning all sorts of things about the Principalities. Did you know there’s an entire set of guidelines for rocking chairs? And an entirely separate one for porch swings?”
Miss Rosie rubbed her wrist absently. “Yes, I was aware of that, actually.”
“And Bruce was telling me all about the different neighborhoods, and the Realms of Good, and did you know there’s supposed to be a portal straight to the Realms hidden in the Principalities?”
William chuckled. “That’s an old wives tale. No one’s ever found it. In my day, it was supposed to be behind that one iced cream shoppe.”
“Beelzebub & Jerry’s?” Cynthia asked.
“No, no. The other one.”
“No, it’s, um,” he squinted, thinking hard, “you know, near the corner of Baphomet and Asakku.”
“Oh!” said Miss Rosie. “Surgat & Spice!”
“Yes, that’s it exactly. Behind Surgat & Spice.”
“How interesting,” Cynthia murmured. “So, William, what do you do?”
It wasn’t difficult to crawl out of her window and climb down the big oak tree growing next to the house. It made her feel like a teenager again, like she was sneaking off to meet Greg Halliday to make out and maybe let him cop a feel. Landing on the ground in her white keds, she brushed bits of bark off her skinny jeans and fished a leaf out of her hair. Finding this portal was going to be so much better than getting to second base.
Like everything else in the Principalities, the alley behind Surgat & Spice was sparkling clean. She fished the little olive-colored flashlight, another official piece of the regulatorum toolkit, out of the waistband of her jeans and turned it on. There was some rust on the corner of the dumpster. Which was a violation of Rule 1090.7.b, but, she reminded herself, she wasn’t there on official business. She could deal with it tomorrow. If she were still here. Tomorrow, her soul could be sipping mai tais on a beautiful beach, spending eternity in blissful peace instead of sweating through a linen shorts-suit.
At first glance, nothing appeared portal-ish. She’d never seen a portal to another realm, but she was reasonably sure she could recognize one if she saw it. Like porn. She wondered how Mattie was doing. He’d been going through tissues like a mad man.
“Focus, Cynthia.” She dragged a few boxes away from the wall, but nothing glowed, or flashed, or looked even vaguely portal-y. Across from the ice cream shop was a deep dish pizza place, Oni’s. Apparently, the Principalities had a thing for deep dish. But other than the shared dumpster, nothing backed up against their lot, and while pizza was round, Cynthia ruled that out of her portal hunt.
There was only one thing left to look behind.
“Alright dumpster, it’s you and me.” She rubbed her hands together and heaved.
It didn’t budge.
“I need to get back into a yoga routine.”
Shaking out her arms, she leaned her whole body against it, pushing with her legs. There was a terrible screech as it moved just a fraction of an inch.
Something inside the dumpster thumped against the metal and she scrambled back.
“What the hell!”
A head popped out of the dumpster, and without thinking, Cynthia focused the flashlight’s beam right on his face.
“Ow, dude, my eyes!”
He looked young, and with his high fade, like he could have stepped right off the Fresh Prince of Bel Air set. Cynthia’s back straightened, though she lowered the beam.
“I’m Cynthia Bleaker, of the Regulatorium. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
The teenager looked her up and down, squinting suspiciously.
“Nah, you aren’t wearing those little shorts. I don’t have to tell you shit. You tell me, what are you doing out in the middle of the night, Cynthia Bleaker.”
Pursing her lips, Cynthia blinked, feeling her regulatorum uniform settle in place.
“Well, fuck. Auntie is gonna be so pissed.”
“Let’s try this again. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Jamal McKinley, and I don’t belong here. Not that it means shit to people like you.”
Cynthia frowned. “Huh? People like me?”
“You know, demons.”
“I’m not a demon. And I don’t belong here either, for your information.”
“I ain’t seen you at the estate.”
“The estate? What?”
Jamal swung a long leg over the edge of the dumpster and jumped down. She could see now that his sweatshirt — Florida State, she knew her college football — was frayed at the cuffs, with dark stains here and there. Like it hadn’t been washed in years. His sweatpants weren’t much better. Face to face, he had at least six inches on her. Cynthia swallowed hard.
“I’m innocent, alright? Got a petition and everything. I’m walking home from baseball practice, the next thing I know, some cop is yelling at me about a robbery and waving his gun around. Then, I wake up here. But Auntie says I’ve got a good case, this cop is a cursed instrument, whatever that means. ‘You just gotta be patient,’ she says like it’s that easy.” He blinked hard, voice cracking. “So like, arrest me or whatever it is you demons do, let’s get this over with.”
“Arrest you…I’m not a cop. Listen,” Cynthia belatedly remembered to point her flashlight at the ground. “I might have this stupid uniform, but I’m not supposed to be here either.”
“Yeah?” Jamal looked her up and down again. “You look like you’re supposed to be here.”
“Well, my mother always told me looks aren’t everything,” she snapped, immediately regretting it. She definitely needed to get back into a yoga routine. Taking a deep breath she tried again. “I’m looking for something.”
He squinted, weighing the truth against her drab shorts. “Oh yeah? What?”
“There might be a portal out of here. To the Realms.” She shrugged. “I haven’t looked behind the dumpster yet.”
“Huh.” Jamal crossed his arms. “Let’s say someone else might have heard this rumor too. What then?”
“I’d say two heads are better than one.”
She could practically see him doing the math of suspicion, but finally he nodded. “Well, I didn’t find anything in the trash. But I don’t think two people are enough to move that thing. Don’t you have demon powers or something you can use?”
“Demon powers? I don’t know if it works that way.” She tucked her flashlight back into her waistband. “Come on, we should try the old-fashioned way, at least. On the count of three.”
She closed her eyes as she counted, imagining herself as one of those bodybuilders on ESPN2. On three, she heard Jamal grunt beside her, and she pushed with all her might, strength surging through her.
The metal of the dumpster shrieked, scratching against the concrete as they propelled it several feet.
“Holy shit.” Jamal patted her shoulder and she flinched, but opened her eyes. There on the wall was a small, glowing, blue disc. It undulated with waves of energy.
“We found it,” she whispered.
“We found it,” he echoed. “Shit! We found it!”
As they watched, the portal grew larger, expanding until it was body-sized and beckoning.
“You should go first, Jamal. You’ve been here longer than me.”
He didn’t even take his eyes of the portal. “Yeah. Yeah, ok. Do you think it’s safe?”
“As safe as any other portal.” The voice bounced through the cramped alley. Cynthia’s stomach dropped.
The horns came through first, then the smiling red face of Neuphadel. He stepped through the wall and straightened his tie. It was red, matching his skin exactly. “Well, what do we have here? Mrs. Bleaker? Trying to run away already? And who is this.”
Neuphadel circled Jamal like a shark scenting blood. “You know there is quite a hefty price for trying to run away, don’t you Cynthia.”
Her mouth moved on its own, robotically reciting the regulation. “Volume two, Article 457 sections A-ZZ, dealing with the attempted or successful escapes of bound souls, and additional violations stemming from the former or latter. Punishments include those described in the aforementioned sections up to and including torments at the discretion of the binding party.”
“Which would be me. But you, you I don’t recognize.” He drew a finger across Jamal’s cheek. “Every few months, we do manage to tempt someone out with this little ruse. Do you know him, Cynthia?”
Her eyes darted from where Jamal trembled in Neuphadel’s grip to the smirking face of the devil. The eerie blue light of the portal flickered across the devil’s crimson skin. He looked twice as big now, towering over Jamal than he had perched on Gerald’s desk. Mouth dry, she swallowed hard.
“He’s an innocent. Jamal McKinley. I followed him here. Volume two, article 109.6.p denoted that he was outside of his jurisdiction and I wanted to see what he was up to before issuing a citation.”
“An innocent?” Neuphadel’s black eyes lit up with unfettered glee. “Oh, Jamal. Your Auntie is going to be so disappointed.”
He snapped his fingers and Jamal’s form began to fade. Cynthia made the mistake of glancing up to his face, but it wasn’t betrayal there, just resignation. The asphalt felt tilted under her feet, just a degree, just enough to make her footing shaky.
Neuphadel sighed in satisfaction, like a man who had gorged himself at Thanksgiving and needed to unbutton his pants. He lay an arm across Cynthia’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “See, I told you. You fit right in here.”