Authors: Jamie Quaid
Once I had the casserole cooking, I checked my caller list. Max.
I really, really couldn’t afford to offend a senator, no matter how weird he made me feel. And I owed Andre a lot, as well, so I at least owed him an argument with my ex-do-gooder boyfriend’s conscience in an effort to keep the Feds from condemning the rest of the Zone. Still, it was hard wrapping my mind around Dane as Max—which was probably why I was avoiding him.
With a sigh, while my casserole cooked, I settled into a comfy chair in Julius’s front room and called Max back. I sure hoped no one was tapping his line or recording his calls, because they’d wonder why a
powerful senator was talking to little old fractious me.
“Justy, I need you over here, now!” he shouted.
Okay, that was a surprise. I stared at the phone a full minute before returning it to my ear. “Why?” I asked cautiously.
He sounded immensely weary this time. “Because I asked you to, please?”
Wow, it surely must be serious for Macho Man to use the
-word. “Can I tell Andre that you’re not shutting him down?” I’m a tough negotiator.
“I can’t shut anyone down,” he said with disgust. “I have to stay as far from my family’s freaking plant as I can these days. Acme is a conflict of interest—you
this. I just wanted Andre to tell me what the hell was happening and if you were all right.”
The Max I knew would never give up, but I really didn’t know this Dane/Max person. Heck, I didn’t even know if souls inhabited brains or if he still had Dane’s brains or how in hell he was dealing with this weirdness. I grimaced as the microwave bell dinged. “Okay, let me feed a few people. Where should I meet you?”
“In Dane’s condo. Hurry, will you?” He gave me the address and we signed off.
I wouldn’t be human if my pulse didn’t beat a little harder at the thought of visiting a hunky senator in his luxury tower, but I had no intention of being anyone’s secret girlfriend. Max couldn’t parade me to embassy dinners, and I can’t stomach politicians, so we were so far from compatible as to inhabit different universes.
But Max had once been a friend. I could be there if he needed me.
I delivered the casserole and rolls to Julius, letting him work out how to feed whoever was hanging out in the warehouse.
Relieved that I no longer had to waste my evenings studying, I took Milo back to my place. Saturday night and now I had a date, of sorts. I glanced at my usual threads, removed the cotton T-shirt, found a fancier bra, donned a satiny shirt with my jeans, and considered myself well dressed. I added a leather jacket—after all, it was September and I was riding a Harley.
With my lion’s mane from the devil, I didn’t have to worry about helmet hair. I just snapped my hair into a clip I could take down when I got there. I wasn’t into bling, so Max would just have to take me as he’d found me.
I tried not to be too nervous when I drove up to the security gate at Dane’s place in Bethesda. The towering condos, ornate fence, and elaborate fountains screamed money, but the Vanderventers had million-dollar lines of credit at Tiffany. They could own homes like this all over the world.
I was just having difficulty picturing my biker Max living like this. He used to crash in a dive even more pathetic than my old one.
But it wasn’t my scruffy, curly-haired Max meeting me at the door once I was buzzed in. Senator Dane Vanderventer, with his stylishly coiffed chestnut hair, greeted me, wearing gabardine trousers, a quietly elegant tailored shirt, and a loosened silk tie.
We stared at each other uneasily. The senator was a little taller than Max had been, a little leaner, but he was still one good-looking dude, with broad shoulders and narrow hips and piercing blue eyes. His dimpled chin was even more impressive than Kirk Douglas’s.
“Lookin’ good, Justy,” he murmured as I removed my jacket.
The voice didn’t sound right, but the words were pure Max, and a shiver crept down my spine. He was the only one who used that nickname. Once upon a time I used to fling myself into his welcoming bear hug when he said that. I wanted to do so again. But it wasn’t the same.
Nervously, I resisted any such impulse. Hugging my elbows, I glanced around at the designer-decorated pad. Neutral tans and browns with splashes of black. Fat suede cushions, leather recliner, a huge flat-screen TV hidden behind a faux painting over the fireplace. It was obvious a man owned the place but didn’t really live there. No beer cans.
Gathering my wits, I dropped my jacket over the arm of the couch and sat down, crossing my leg over my knee and peering up at him as if I belonged here. “Okay, I’m here. I’m creeped out. It’s been a rotten long day, and I don’t want to fight. What do you need?”
In a familiar Max gesture, he ran his hand through Dane’s styled hair, disturbing the wax or whatever it is politicians use to maintain that polished image. A hank fell down over his forehead, and I almost smiled.
I used to tease Max about the curl in the middle of his forehead.
“I need sanity, among other things,” he said bluntly. “Dane was a lying, cheating bastard. I’m still trying to pry his girlfriends out of my hair. Currently, they’re threatening to go to the media and tell them what a horse’s ass Dane is. I’ve told them to go ahead. I’d rather not even run for dogcatcher if it means putting up with their histrionics.”
“Histrionics, that’s good,” I said, knowing he was just venting and that he didn’t need me for this. “That’s a Max word if I ever heard one. If you used it on his bimbos, they know you’ve flipped out.”
A corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Yeah, after I blocked one girl’s calls, she threatened to call my grandmother to tell her I need psychiatric help. Dane didn’t mess with two-bit bimbos. These morons actually thought he’d marry them.”
“How many are there?” I asked in awe, trying to imagine dangling more than one expensive high-society babe on a string, even with the honkin’ big Tiffany credit line. D.C. really isn’t a very large world.
“Three,” he said with disgust. “He gave
rings to all of them. Who the hell gives people friendship rings anymore?”
“Your cousin,” I pointed out unhelpfully. “And you didn’t drag me over here to chitchat about your social life. You can handle that on your own. What’s really up?”
Instead of answering, he picked up a remote and flicked on the fireplace. Neat trick, like summoning
the devil with a finger snap. I admired the dancing flames.
“Take a closer look,” he suggested. “Tell me if I’ve really flipped out. I don’t want to check myself into the nearest funny farm unless necessary. Maybe Dane was experimenting with hallucinogens and they haven’t completely left his body. But we’ve both seen hell, so it’s not as if we’re dealing with reality as we used to know it.”
I’d only seen hell in the mirror with Max blocking the view, but that had been vile enough. I got up and walked across the huge living room to look closer at the flames. Expecting to see horns and a devil’s ugly grin, I didn’t see anything, at first.
But the twisting flames weren’t normal. Flames should flicker. These wound around each other as if attempting origami. They whispered furiously instead of crackling. Maybe it was my guilt talking, but I could swear a voice inside my head was saying,
I’m going to kill you!
“Not liking your fireplace, Max,” I said, backing away. “Did you feed it magic pinecones?”
“It’s gas. I don’t feed it anything.” The senator stood well behind me, arms crossed while observing the warped flames. Satisfied I was seeing what he was, he flicked off the remote. “Come look at this.”
He led me through a dining room that could accommodate a state dinner and into a kitchen that would comfortably house a catering crew. Granite counters, marble floors, probably gold appliances for all I knew—they were all hidden behind mahogany cabinetry. I could have fed the entire Zone from there.
Max ate takeout. I could see the leftover Thai cartons still sitting on the counter.
He opened a panel under the gas burners of the stove and turned one on. “I thought I’d heat a can of soup earlier. That’s when I called you to confirm I’m not bonkers. It’s one freaking thing too many. I think Dane was the devil incarnate.”
The stove flames performed the same bizarre dance as the ones in the fireplace, more frantically this time. They almost seemed as if they were trying to form an image. A whispered
Get me out of here!
was painfully familiar, though.
“That’s what you said,” I murmured. “Provided I’m actually hearing what I think I’m hearing.”
Dane/Max hurriedly flicked off the stove. “ ‘Get me out of here,’ right? So I’m not imagining it? Dane has a haunted stove?”
I rubbed my nose with the heel of my hand and tried to dispel the itchiness. I didn’t like any of this. A few months ago, I’d contemplated running away to Seattle to escape this madness. But I had no guarantees that Max’s form of hell wouldn’t follow me.
“You know who that sounds like, don’t you?” I asked, because I had to spell out craziness.
Max ran a hand through Dane’s hair. “The stove sounds like Dane,” he said unhappily.
“Yeah, my thought, too. Wonder if we could get voice analysis?” I asked, sarcasm intended.
If Dane’s demonic soul was still alive beyond the veil . . . Max and I were likely to be crispy critters any day now.
not liking the idea of a real hell. Maybe we were both zonked on crazy juice.
“When did this start?” I asked, grasping at straws.
“Hard to say. I’ve been trying to ignore the weird gas logs, and I don’t spend much time in the kitchen. But I think the voice is getting stronger, and both the stove and the fireplace in one night blew my mind. I just wanted to be certain I wasn’t losing it.”
“Is there any chance we’ve slipped into some kind of alternate universe?” I asked, returning to the front room and searching for a liquor cabinet. “Or better yet, could we theorize, since we never knew hell existed until you hit the wall, that we’ve freaked out, slipped over, gone around the bend?”
Guessing my direction, he opened a sleek, shiny wood cabinet and produced a bottle of vodka and another of Scotch. The Max I knew would have had beer. I opened the concealed refrigerator. It only had juice. I chose orange.
We were standing entirely too close. His expensive shaving cologne cried out for sniffing, and his loosened tie begged for release. I backed off as soon as he filled my glass.
“Post-traumatic stress?” he suggested, eyeing me with just a hint of longing that he disguised by filling his own glass. “We fried our brains?”
“We fried more than our brains,” I pointed out, avoiding temptation by pacing.
“Oh, crap.” Max threw back his whiskey neat.
“Yeah, that’s kind of what I said that first time you appeared in my mirror.” I’d harbored a lot of pent-up
anguish these last months. I wasn’t very tactful in opening the floodgates now. “Andre tried to tell me it was grief, that I was in a state of denial, but I doubt you’re grieving over your cousin.”
“Here I am, a walking, talking freak, and I’m
not buying Dane in hell.” He scrubbed his head some more before pouring himself another drink.
“That’s because you helped put him there, and you don’t like the guilt. Talk to me about guilt sometime.” Dane might have had the original Max murdered, but I’d been the one to damn Max’s soul to hell instead of letting him go to the light or whatever he should have done. That guilt never went away, even though—and perhaps because—I was glad to have him back.
He sent me an undecipherable scowl and threw back a bigger gulp.
I was liking the unpolished image he was achieving. Maybe if I got him out of the silk tie and into bike leathers . . . But he was a U.S. senator. He had to play the part, if only for national security. Explaining that hell existed and that he’d once been a denizen would be hazardous to the public health. I didn’t know if I was being a responsible citizen by keeping my distance or just acting on my usual caution.
“Sell the condo,” I suggested. “You told me you could only see through my mirrors. Maybe he can only see through his flames.”
“Or mine,” he countered grimly. “This is his body, after all. He’s probably still connected to it somehow. If we buy that’s Dane in the fire, then we have to assume he’s attached to this body. My memory of hell is
pretty diluted, but I remember the mirrors. They were my link to you, since I didn’t have a body anymore.”
Because it had burned up in the fiery crash I’d brought down on him, right.
“I don’t suppose you made any good connections down there, did you?” I asked gloomily, not expecting an answer to my sarcastic question.
“Only dead ones, unless you count your grandmother. And that only happened because Themis made the effort. If I believe in the impossible, then I guess I can believe she’s a psychic or a medium or whatever and can talk to the dead.” He paced the designer carpet.
“If Themis is so psychic, why doesn’t she contact me?” I asked grumpily. “I have a lot of questions for the old bat.”
“Which is why she isn’t contacting you,” he said annoyingly, happy to change the subject. “If she’s anything like you, she’d rather act than explain. I had the sense that she was restricted to one place, though. She’s old. Maybe she’s in a nursing home somewhere.”
“Nursing homes have phones. She left notes on my door. And this is a ridiculous conversation. Don’t turn on your stove or your fireplace, and you’ll be fine.” I finished my screwdriver. I didn’t dare have a second one, since I was biking home.
“Not if Dane wants his body back,” Max said gloomily. “If I could take his, there must be some way of him returning.”
Only if I wished for it
. Struck with horror by this thought, I sank back on his fancy couch and buried
my face in my hands. My gift-of-the-devil hair fell forward in a thick, silky mane.
“It’s me,” I told him. “Maybe I’m a
daughter, after all. Maybe Themis has it all wrong. Saturn has nothing to do with anything. I sent Dane to hell, and now he wants me to bring him back like I did you.”