Envy Chapter 2

Under normal circumstances, Jim Heron considered himself a sore loser.

And that was with your average, everyday shit like World of Warcraft or frickin' tennis or poker.

Not that he wasted time playing any of those, but if he did, he would have been the type who didn't leave the controller, court, or table until he was on top.

And again, that was just about unimportant crap.

When it came to the war with the demon Devina, he was on fire, he was so pissed off: He had lost the last round.

Lost as in no win. As in out of the seven souls they were battling over, he and that bitch were now tied 1 - 1. Granted, there were still five more at-bats, but this was not the direction he or anyone else needed to go in.

He got defeated? That demon had dominion over not only the earth but the heavens above ... which meant his mother and all those good souls up there, as well as him and his fallen angel soldiers, were looking at an eternity of damnation.

And that was not, he'd recently discovered, just a hypothetical used to motivate the religious. Hell was an actual place and the suffering there was very real. Matter of fact, so much of what he'd previously written off as silly rhetoric from the holier-than-thou crowd had turned out to be dead on.

So yeah, the stakes were high and he hated losing. Especially when it didn't need to go down like it had.

He was flat-out rip-shit at the game. At his boss, Nigel. At the "rules."

It was common fucking sense: When you told a guy he was supposed to influence some jackass at a crossroads in his or her life, it kind of helped if you frickin' told him who was on deck. After all, it wasn't a big goddamn secret: Nigel knew. The enemy, Devina, knew. Jim? Not so much, people. And courtesy of that informational black hole, he'd focused on the wrong man in the last round and blown it.

So here he was, tied with the bitch and pissed off in a hotel room in Caldwell, New York.

And he wasn't the only one with a case of the grumpies.

Next door, on the far side of a connector, two deep male voices were doing the back-and-forth, in the key of frustrated-to-shit.

Not a news flash. His wingmen, Adrian Vogel and Eddie Blackhawk, were not happy with him, and clearly the two of them were chewing him out in absentia.

This goin'-back-to-Caldie-Caldie-Caldie wasn't so much the issue. It was the reason Jim had dragged them all here.

His eyes shifted across the duvet. Dog was curled up in a tight ball beside him, his scruffy fur giving the impression that he'd been heavily moussed and put into a stiff wind, even though he hadn't. Next to the little guy, there was a computer printout of a three-week-old newspaper article from the Caldwell Courier Journal. The title was "Local Girl Missing," and off to the side of the text, there was a picture of a group of smiling friends, heads close together, arms wrapped around one another's shoulders. The caption beneath the pic identified the one in the middle as Cecilia Barten.

His Sissy.

Well, not really "his," but he'd come to think of her as his responsibility.

The thing was, unlike her parents and family and friends and community, he knew where she was and what had happened to her. She was not part of the countless roster of runaways; nor had she been murdered by a boyfriend or a stranger; and she hadn't been cut up by that serial killer who, according to the CCJ's Web site this morning, was at large.

She had been defiled, however. By Devina.

Sissy was a virgin sacrificed to protect the demon's mirror, that most sacred possession. Jim had found her body hanging upside down in front of the thing in the demon's temporary lair and been forced to leave her behind. It had been bad enough to know that she'd lost her life to his enemy, but then later, he'd seen her in Devina's wall of souls ... trapped, suffering, lost forever among the damned who deserved that fate.

Cecilia didn't belong in hell. She was an innocent taken and used by evil - and Jim was going to get her free, if it was the last thing he did.

Which, yeah, was why they'd come back to Caldwell. And the reason Adrian and Eddie were pissed.

But no offense ... fuck them.

With care, Jim picked up the article and brushed his calloused thumb over the grainy image of Sissy's long, blond hair. When he blinked, he saw the stuff covered in her blood and hanging down close to the drain of a white porcelain tub. Then he blinked again and saw her as he had the other night, in Devina's viscous prison, terrified, confused, worried about her parents.

He was going to do right by all of the Bartens. But Adrian's and Eddie's yammering was just aerobics for their pieholes: He wasn't taking his eye off the war, because he couldn't afford to lose to Devina before he got Sissy out of the well of souls. Duh.

The connecting door broke wide and Adrian, a.k.a. the Tone-deaf Wonder, walked in without knocking. Which was exactly his style.

The angel was dressed in black, as usual, and the various piercings on his face weren't half of what he supposedly had all over his body.

"You two finished bitching about me?" Jim turned the article facedown and crossed his arms over his chest. "Or are you just having a little break."

"How about you take this seriously."

Jim got up off the bed and went nose-to-nose with his soldier. "Am I giving any indication I'm fucking around?"

"You didn't drag us back here for the war."

"The hell I didn't."

As they faced off, Adrian was undaunted, even though as a former black ops assassin, Jim knew how to drop a heavyweight like the other angel twelve different ways to Sunday. "That girl is not your target," Ad said, "and in case you haven't noticed, we're down one. Distractions are not our friend."

Jim gave the Sissy reference a pass: he made a point never to talk about her. His boys had been witness to him finding her body, and they'd seen what that had done to him - so it wasn't as if they didn't know enough. And there was no reason to vocalize what seeing her in that wall had been like. Or mention the fact that while he'd been used and abused by Devina and her minions during the last round, he feared the young girl might have seen everything that had been done to him.

Shit ... the stuff on that "work" table was nothing you wanted even a battle-hardened man to witness. An innocent? Who was petrified already?

Besides, in actuality, the violations hadn't bothered him one way or the other. Torture, in whatever form it took, was nothing more than an overload of physical sensation - but again, no one needed to eyeball that, much less his girl.

Not that she was his.

"I'm on my way to go talk to Nigel," Jim bit out. "So if you're finished jerking me off? Or do you want to waste my time some more."

"Why aren't you already over there, then?"

Well, because he'd been sitting on that bed, staring into space, wondering where in the hell Devina had taken Sissy's body.

Except Jim was just that flavor of asshole not to concede the point in the slightest.

"Jim, I know that this girl is a thing to you. But come on, man, we need to take care of business."

As Ad spoke, Jim looked over the guy's shoulder. Eddie was standing in the connector between the two rooms, his huge body tense, his red eyes grave, that long black braid of his over his shoulder with the tail end nearly at the waist of his leathers.

Fuck.

Adrian's loud noise was the kind of shit you could argue with. Or punch - which had happened before. But Eddie's steady, nonconfrontational routine didn't offer you a target. It was a mirror that simply reflected your own dumb-ass behavior.

"I've got this under control," Jim said. "And I'm going to see Nigel right now."

The archangel Nigel was in his private quarters in Heaven when the summoning came through.

It was about time to get out of the bath anyway.

"We are due for company," he said to Colin as he rose from the scented water.

"I shall stay herein - the bath is the perfect temperature." With that, Colin stretched in a languorous arch. His dark hair was damp from humidity and curling at the ends, his regal, intelligent face as relaxed as it ever got. Which was not terribly so. "You do realize why he's coming."

"But of course."

Crossing over the white marble and pulling aside the coral-and-sapphire drapery, Nigel stepped out and was careful to resettle the heavy vet-and-damask weight. No one needed to know who joined him in his bathing suite - although he suspected Bertie and Byron had an idea. They were, however, far too discreet to say anything.

Drawing on a silk robe, he did not bother to clothe himself in anything more formal. Jim Heron was going to care naught about his apparel, and given how this was likely to go, returning to the bath was going to be necessary.

With the pass of a hand, Nigel called the angel forth from the earth below, gathering Heron's corporeal body up and coalescing it here in his private quarters.

On his silk-wrapped chaise longue, as a matter of fact.

The savior looked utterly ridiculous on the raspberry expanse, heavy arms and legs flopping off the sides, his black T-shirt and beat-to-hell blue jeans an offense to such delicate fabric.

Heron came into his head a split second later and jumped to his feet, ready, alert ... and none too pleased.

"Ice wine?" Nigel inquired as he went over to a French bombe chest, the marble top of which served as a bar. "Or perhaps a dram?"

"I want to know who is next, Nigel."

"So is that a 'no' on the tipple?" He took his time choosing among the Baccarat decanters, and when he poured, it was slowly, steadily.

He was not some dolt of whom to make demands, and Heron needed to learn some manners.

Nigel pivoted and took a sip. " 'Tis light and refreshing."

"Fuck the wine."

Nigel let that one stay where it lay, and just stared at the savior.

When the Creator had appeared unto Nigel and Devina, and explained that there would be a final contest, both sides had had to agree to Heron's being the one on the field with the seven chosen souls. Naturally, each opposite wanted its values represented, and the end result was that this massive, war-minded angel standing afore him had equal amounts of the good and evil in him.

Nigel believed, however, that the fact that Jim's slain mother was within the walls of the manse here would be the tipping factor, and he still thought that was true. Moments like this, however, made him question the very foundation of this terminal game they were all playing.

The angel looked ready to kill.

"You have to tell me who it is."

"And as I have said before, I cannot."

"I lost, asshole. And she cheated."

"I am well aware of the lines she has o'erstepped, and if you recall, my advice to you was to let her do what she will - reprisals shall come."

"When."

"When they do."

Heron did not like that answer, and he began to pace about the ornate tent with its drapes of satin and its Oriental rugs and the low bedding platform - around which, Nigel realized too late, two sets of very different clothes were scattered.

Nigel cleared his throat. "I cannot risk having an overturn that goes against us. I have stooped to Devina's level too much already by giving you Adrian and Edward. If I help you any further, I chance forfeiture of not just a round, but the entire contest. And that is unacceptable."

"You know who the soul is, though. And so does Devina."

"Yes."

"And that doesn't strike you as seriously uneven? She's going to go after them herself - probably already has."

"By the established and agreed-upon rules, she's not allowed to interact with the souls. She, as with myself, is supposed to influence you to influence them. Direct contact is not allowed."

"So why haven't you stopped it?"

"'Tis not my purview."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Nigel, grow a set - "

"I assure you, his balls are just fine."

At the dry interjection, both Nigel and the savior turned to the draped archway that led into the bath. Colin hadn't bothered with a robe, but was standing there unapologetically nude.

And now that he had everyone's attention, the archangel tacked on, "I'll also ask you to watch your language, mate."

Heron's brows shot up, and there was a moment of tennis matching, whereupon his head went back and forth between the two of them.

Nigel cursed under his breath. So much for decorum. And privacy. "Ice wine, Colin?" he said gruffly. "And mayhap some robing?"

"I'm fine."

"True enough. But your lack of modesty offers you no better cover than the temperate air in this tent. And I have a guest."

A grunt was all that came in manner of reply. Which was Colin's way of proclaiming that there was no reason to be a stuffy old tart.

Lovely.

Nigel turned back to the savior. "I am sorry that I cannot grant you what you seek. Believe that."

"You helped me with the first."

"I was permitted that license."

"And look at how number two turned out."

Nigel hid his agreeing concern behind a sip of his glass. "Your passion is laudable. And I will tell you that your return to Caldwell is well-served."

"Thanks for the tip. There are two million people in that goddamn town. Hardly narrows it down."

"Nothing is arbitrary, and there are no coincidences, Jim. In fact, there is another who shall seek what you do, and as the separate quests unite, you will find the next soul."

"No offense, but that doesn't mean shit." Heron glanced at Colin. "And I'm not going to apologize to the talk police for that. Sorry."

Colin crossed his arms over his bare chest. "Suit yourself, lad. And I'll do the same."

Read: Maybe I'll pop you now. Or maybe later.

The last thing Nigel needed was a fistfight in his quarters as undoubtedly that would bring the other archangels, as well as Tarquin at a full gallop. Hardly the intermission one looked for.

"Colin," he said, "do go soak your head."

"I'm wet enough, thank you."

"That is a matter of opinion," Nigel muttered before addressing Jim again. "Go forth and have faith that you will be where you should d do what you must."

"I don't believe in fate, Nigel. That's like picking up an unloaded gun and thinking it'll shoot something. You've got to put the bullets in the chamber yourself."

"And I am telling you there are greater things at work than your efforts."

"Okay, wonderful, so put that on a Christmas card. But don't try to feed that bullshit to me."

Staring into the hard face of the savior, Nigel knew a flash of fear. With this attitude, there was yet one more thing stacked against the angels prevailing. And yet what could he do? Heron had no patience or faith, but that did naught to change the rules of the game or the likelihood that the Creator would inevitably redress Devina's liberties.

At least the latter worked in their favor.

"I believe we are through," Nigel said. "Nothing favorable shall come from our continued conversing."

There was a dark, rather evil moment during which Heron regarded him with a kind of fury.

"Fine," the savior said. "But I don't give up this easy."

"And I am the mountain that will not be moved."

"Roger that."

In between one blink and the next, that angel was gone. And it was not until silence rang out within the tent that Nigel realized he had not been the one to send Heron on his way. He had done that himself.

He was becoming stronger, wasn't he.

"Do you want me to go down and watch over him," Colin said.

"When I agreed to him as the chosen one, I thought there were enough reins to hold him. I truly did."

"And so I say, shall I depart and watch o'er him?"

Nigel turned to his dearest friend, who was so much more than a colleague and a confidant. "That is the purpose of Adrian and Edward."

"Stipulated. But I worry where his growing competence will take him. We are not on a good path with this."

Nigel took another sip of his wine and stared at the empty space that Heron had just inhabited. Though he kept silent, he had to agree. The question was, what to do, what to do ...

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