The Demon Always Wins

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Chapter 1

It was poker night in the Ninth Ring of Hell and the demon Belial was in trouble.

After ten thousand years of exposure to brimstone and heat, his skin had grown too leathery to sweat easily, but now he wiped his palms on his thighs. It was one thing to win a hand of poker. It was another to snatch victory away from the Lord of the Underworld in front of his peers. And Satan expected to win. The syncopated tap of his fore-talon on the table was a tell Belial had seen too many times to mistake.

Cuban cigars perfumed the air, obscuring the usual stench of sulfur. Overhead, Mick Jagger crooned his sympathy. Belial weighed his options. He could fold, throwing away the best hand he was likely to see all evening, or he could stay in and earn top billing on the boss’s shit list—Satan was notorious for being a sore loser. If he called, it would show the other players he was his own man, not a sniveling coward afraid to win a hand of cards for fear of offending his short-fused boss.

“Are you in or out?” Loki’s palm slammed the table, making his beer stein jump. Amber lager slopped onto the green baize.

Belial added some chips to the pile in the center of the table. “I’m in.”

“All right, ladies, let’s see what you’ve got.” On his right, Zeus laid out his cards, a paltry two pair.

Jeg vinner!!” Loki slapped down three of a kind.

“Not so fast, reindeer-fucker.” Satan fanned out three sixes and a pair of queens.

Loki’s pale face reddened as Satan stretched out his skinny arms and dragged the pot towards him. Belial held up one finger. One card at a time, he laid down his hand—four jacks and an ace.

Satan dropped his hands, abandoning the pot.

Belial turned to the Enemy, the final player at the table. “What have you got?”

With a faint smile, his former employer pushed his cards, face down, towards the center.  Cigar clamped between his teeth, Belial raked in his winnings.

Loki’s gaze traveled from Satan to Belial and then back again. Beneath the Norse god’s helmet, with its ridiculous twisting horns, his eyes gleamed. He nodded toward Belial.

“This is the guy you’re promoting to Chief Executive Demon?” he asked Satan.

Satan hissed like a steam locomotive. The surrounding air seemed to grow three degrees hotter. “I haven’t decided.”

Belial sucked in a breath. Surely the boss wouldn’t withhold his coveted promotion over a hand of poker? No one was that bad a sport. He studied Satan’s face. Smoke issued from his horns and his pupils had gone square as a goat’s. Maybe he was that bad a sport.

Lilith, the highest-ranking she-demon in Hell, sidled up beside Belial on her signature stilettos. She leaned over to empty his ashtray and murmured in his ear. “You are so screwed.”

He turned his head so the boss wouldn’t hear. “I was screwed either way.”

“Guess that’s the price of playing with the big boys.” She turned to sashay away, but before she could make her escape, Zeus slipped his hand beneath her skirt. Any demon that dared touch Lilith uninvited would draw back a stump, but the boss had given strict orders about the treatment of tonight’s guests. Lilith froze, her crimson lips drawn back in a parody of a smile, her fingers twitching as the Greek’s hairy hand crept up her thigh. Lilith was a pain in the ass, but this was bullshit.

“Think fast.” Belial picked up his lighter and hurled it at the Greek’s head. Reflexively, Zeus grabbed for it. By the time he set the lighter on the table and reached for Lilith again, she was already halfway across the room. The Greek’s lower lip jutted out in an epic pout.

Belial risked a glance across the table. Satan had seen this by-play and he wasn’t happy. The smoke issuing from his horns was black as oil.

Something crept over Belial’s limbs, taking control. He tried to move his jaw, but it was locked shut. He tried to push back his chair, but his legs were frozen. Even his fingers refused to respond to his command. It was as though a spider web of steel filaments encased every muscle, every tendon, every joint in his body.

Satan smiled and the smoke thinned a little. “Something wrong, demon?”

It was thrall, Satan’s ability to take over a demon and operate him like a puppet. Younger, weak-minded demons stayed enthralled until Satan released them, but veterans were another story.

Belial pushed against the thrall, felt it push back. He prodded at every corner, but there were no weak spots. Even his lungs refused to inflate. Satan couldn’t kill him this way—as a fallen angel, he was immortal, or nearly so—but Satan could subject him to the humiliation of keeling over in front of everyone. Every eye at the table, every eye in the room, watched as he silently struggled. It took every bit of his strength, but with a loud grunt he finally broke free. Satan smirked at him. Common sense said let it go, but pride was stronger.

“You’re getting better at that.” He managed to say the words without gasping, though his lungs ached for oxygen. “You should keep practicing.”

Loki howled with laughter and beat his fists on the table. Zeus guffawed so hard ouzo snorted from his nose. Even the Enemy smiled, but Satan’s horns smoked like a tire fire.

“Whose deal is it, anyway?” The words were a snarl. For a moment, Belial thought the entire table might go up in flames.

“Mine.” He gathered the cards and shuffled them.

Across the table, the boss’s lips pinched tight and his eyes were mere slits. It was the face he wore when he was dreaming up punishments. If Belial didn’t figure out a way to cool him down, and quick, the promotion he’d worked toward since Satan first lured him into joining his organization, would be up in flames.

It wasn’t Belial’s interference with Lilith, or even his win in their little wrestling match that had pissed Satan off. He’d worked with the Lord of the Underworld for too many centuries to think that. Making Satan lose face in front of the Enemy, that was the problem. Satan didn’t give a damn about these other yahoos, but he hated looking foolish in front of their old boss.

Fortunately, the old devil was easily distracted. All Belial had to do was come up with a diversion powerful enough to redirect Satan’s attention. He shuffled the cards, his mind racing even faster than his fingers. What would most beguile Satan? That was easy. An opportunity to get one over on the Enemy.

That was it.

Setting up the boss to win over the Enemy—that was how he’d get his balls out of this vise. The two already loathed one another. All he had to do was create an opportunity for them to go at it, diverting Satan’s attention away from him to other, more profitable, matters.

“You know, the boss is right to keep a tight rein down here.” He tried to sound casual as he divvied out the cards. The Enemy paused in the act of lighting his cigar to cast him a glance of amusement. Loki rolled his eyes.

Belial held up his hand. “I don’t always like it, but a galley travels fastest when its crew rows as one.”

“It’s too late to start licking ass now, demon.” Satan’s voice was rich with the promise of torments to come.

Belial pretended he hadn’t heard. Slouching back in his chair, he surveyed the Enemy through half-closed eyes. “One of your humans, operating on her own, wouldn’t stand a chance against the boss.”

The Enemy stared down his large, aquiline nose. “We tried that once. I won.”

He was talking about Job, of course. It wasn’t exactly Satan’s finest moment—that human doormat stayed faithful through everything the boss threw at him. Satan hissed through his teeth, the very sound a threat. It was a very fine line Belial was treading. This next bit was critical if he was to get any traction. He took a deep breath. “I was talking about the time before that.”

The Enemy didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “You’re speaking of Eve?”

Belial shrugged and straightened his cards. “I could argue that the boss is actually ahead by one, since he managed to compromise Adam in that round, too.”

“That’s true.” Satan’s horns sparked. “Those kids fell into my hands like a pair of ripe pomegranates.”

The clench in Belial’s gut relaxed a little He picked up a remote and pressed a button. At the far end of the room, blood-red panels slid apart, revealing a billboard-sized screen. He pushed another button and the screen glowed silvery-gray with a tiny black dot in the middle. The dot grew larger, until it became a blue-and-green ball.

“Seven billion people on that planet.” The floating ball drew closer, until mountains as well as oceans appeared on its slowly revolving surface. “Three and a half billion, just counting the women. Surely, out of three and a half billion women….” He focused on the Enemy and drew the phrase out to let the enormity of the number sink in. “There must be one you can trust with all that free will you’ve given her.”

Satan went very still. It had been four thousand years since the Enemy had last agreed to pit one of his puny humans against the powers of Hell. The day-to-day work of enticing souls away from the light and into the darkness was on-going, of course. And there had been that attempt to lure the Boy over to their side, but everyone knew that effort was doomed to failure before it even began. The last time Heaven and Hell had gone head-to-head over a purely human soul was Job.

 The boss was practically drooling at the idea, but the Enemy’s brows drew together like storm clouds. Beneath the cavernous ceiling of the Ninth Ring, thunder rumbled and lightning crackled. Swallowing, Belial wondered if he’d pushed it too far. Satan might punish him for centuries, but the Enemy had eternity at his disposal. Then the Enemy smiled.

“Well played,” he said, shaking his finger at Belial. “Well played. As it happens, I do have a woman I trust.”

Ignoring the remote, the Enemy pointed at the screen. The image zoomed in on North America, narrowing in on the Florida-Georgia border. The landscape grew more detailed, until the streets of a small town dotted with sand pines and moss-laden oaks filled the screen. A sign whizzed by—”Welcome to Alexandria, Florida.” Still the zoom continued, until it focused on a flat-roofed, cinder block building. The building was cream-colored, with flamingo-pink awnings over the windows. Over the handicapped-accessible door hung a sign that read, “Matthew A. Strong Memorial clinic.”

The view melted through the walls, coming to rest on a woman in her mid-thirties, seated at a desk stacked with medical charts. Involuntarily, Belial drew in a breath and leaned forward, inexplicably drawn to the image on the screen. Across the table, Satan shot him a sharp look. He hunched his shoulders and narrowed his eyes to show he was merely sizing up his adversary.

She lit up the screen like a torch flaring in the darkness. Her face, with its wide-spaced gray eyes, had the luminous beauty of a pre-Raphaelite Madonna. Her hair hung down her back in a thick braid so long he doubted she had ever cut it. A stethoscope around her neck drew his eyes to burn scars at the base of her throat. They were strangely alluring with their hint of fire and death. Her hands, with their long, tapered fingers, should have been beautiful, but more scar tissue disfigured the backs. The third finger of her left hand bore a plain gold band.

“A doctor?” asked Zeus.

“A nurse,” the Enemy corrected. Then he added, softly, “She is my daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.”

For an instant, Belial felt something akin to pity for the woman on the screen. If history was anything to go by, he was better off in Satan’s doghouse than she was as the Enemy’s favorite.

“Her name is Dara Strong,” the Enemy said.

The boss eyed the image on the screen, licking his lips with both forks of his tongue. The Enemy watched him, his lip curling with distaste.

“Let’s agree on terms,” Belial said, before the Enemy could change his mind. “A win for us consists of getting her to curse you, aloud and in public.”

“Agreed.”

“Timeframe?”

“Seven days.”

If the woman were that easy, the Enemy would never have chosen her.

“Seven times that,” he countered. To his surprise, the Enemy inclined his head in agreement.

Seven weeks would be more than sufficient. Belial held out his hand to seal the wager, but the Enemy shook his head. “First, let’s discuss the rules.”

“Rules?” Belial couldn’t remember the Enemy setting any boundaries on past wagers.

“You may not kill her.”

“Of course not.” Why would he even bring that up? Killing her would be counter-productive.

“Also, you may not kill anyone close to her before their time.”

That was tougher. Without the ability to take away those closest to her, it would be impossible to push the woman to her limit. Satan hissed. “What are you trying to do, demon—set me up to lose?”

“That’s not how we’ve played this game in the past.” Belial directed the words at the Enemy. He was pleased with how cool he sounded, not at all like a demon facing a century in a larvae pit.

“It’s not necessary.” The Enemy pointed his finger at the screen and the focus relocated to a hinged picture frame on Dara’s desk. The frame held two photographs. On the left was a faded picture of a little girl in a frilly dress and patent-leather shoes, flanked by smiling parents. Although the child couldn’t have been more than three or four, she was already recognizable as the woman at the desk. The other photo showed an unscarred twenty-something Dara in white lace, radiant beside her young groom.

“She’s already lost them.” Sadness weighed in the Enemy’s voice. He was far too attached to those billions of disposable souls.

“The usual stakes?” Satan’s tone was brisk.

The Enemy nodded. One human soul.

The taut muscles in Belial’s belly relaxed. His distraction had worked. On screen, the woman typed something into a computer, her brows drawn together in concentration. The scars on her throat rippled each time she swallowed.

“Since this was Belial’s idea,” Satan said, “he will be my principle, as the Strong woman is yours. Win this, Belial, and you’ll have that Chief Executive Demon job you’ve been after.”

It was all Belial could do not to give a fist-pump. Finally, the other C-level demons—Belphegor, Mammon and Asmodeus—would have to acknowledge his superiority.

“What strategy will you use?” asked Loki. “Will you tempt her like Eve or try her like Job?”

Belial nodded toward the photographs of the woman’s dead loved ones. “It appears that she’s already been tried. I think it’s time for her to experience pleasure.” He infused the word with a garden of earthly delights.

The Enemy’s lip curled again and his gaze seemed to drill straight through Belial. For an instant, Belial’s shoulder blades throbbed like his wings were being torn away again.

Defiantly, he shook off the pain. It would be amusing to go Aboveworld again. He’d confined himself below for far too long. Earth was a demon’s playground. You couldn’t swing a split wineskin without dousing something corrupt and foul. Humans deserved everything he’d ever done to them.

“Remember,” the Enemy said, “this contest is about free will. If you usurp her will in any way, make any choices for her, I will consider it a forfeit and I will claim one soul that would otherwise have been yours. You have seven weeks to get Dara Strong to curse my name. Agreed?”

Satan nodded. “My second against yours, dominion versus autonomy. It will settle the free will question for once and for all.”

“What if he loses?” asked Loki.

“He won’t lose,” said Satan.

Belial couldn’t resist driving the point home. “In ten thousand years, I’ve never bedded a woman and failed to corrupt her.”

Loki ignored him. “He’s screwed up before.”

Belial’s smile froze. Hundreds of years had passed since that incident. Would his single failure never be forgotten?

Satan’s lips formed the triangle that served as his smile, but his eyes glittered. “If he loses, he’ll restart his career as our newest greeter at the entrance to Hell.”

Belial pictured himself dressed in red polyester pants and matching vest, sporting a name badge. His mouth went as dry as the Negev. That was worse than the maggot pit.

He had to win this wager.