Chapter 17


In spite of my sorrow over Seth, I was still ready for a storm. It hadn't really registered at the time, but when I woke up on New Year's Day with a wine-induced headache, I accepted the startling truth: I was challenging Hell.

Who did that? No one, that's who. My friends had hinted as much, and I certainly had plenty of myths and pop culture to enlighten me about the futile human dream of thwarting Hell's will. I had my own experience to go on too. I'd signed away my soul for all eternity. There wasn't much wiggle room with that. And yet, in spite of all the things I'd seen and all the people Hell had crushed, here I was, daring to say Hell had no claim on either my soul or Seth's.

I expected to hear about it immediately. I expected a huge uproar, perhaps in the form of Jerome showing up in my condo in all his brimstone glory, threatening me for my impertinence. At the very least, I expected a letter of acknowledgment from Hell, something along the lines of, Thank you very much for your inquiry. We will respond to you within 4�C6 weeks.

Nothing. New Year's Day passed quietly. So did the next. I continued my pattern of packing and making Las Vegas preparations, all the while holding my breath for The Next Big Thing.

I thought something would surely happen a week later, when the long-awaited bowling tournament came around. Jerome and Nanette had flipped for it, and he'd won, meaning we got to hold the match here in Seattle. It saved us from making a trip to Portland, but for the sake of fairness, Nanette got to pick the bowling alley. Rather than our dive at Burt's, she chose a more upscale place, not far from the mall I'd worked at.

I hadn't seen Jerome since I'd filed the petition and was ready now to face his wrath. I didn't know if Nanette's lesser immortals would know about the request, but I felt certain she would by now. She and Jerome might be rivals of sorts, but at the end of the day, they were both committed to Hell winning. I was trying to thwart that and wouldn't have been surprised to find her sharing in Jerome's outrage.

"Good luck," Roman told me, as I prepared to leave the condo. "Remember to watch your footing."

I sighed. "I wish you were coming with me."

He offered me a small smile. "Me too. All that work, and I won't even get to see my students' final exam."

Roman could hide his nephilim signature from greater immortals, but considering the way his kind were hunted, we'd decided it would be best if he steered clear of Nanette while she was in town. Jerome's agreement to let Roman stay was both highly unusual and dangerous. If another archdemon discovered the truth, both Roman and Jerome would be in a lot of trouble.

"I'm afraid of what I'll face from Jerome," I said.

"Don't be." Roman came forward and rested his hand on my shoulder. "You're not doing anything wrong. They did. You're strong, Georgina. Stronger than them, stronger than Hell."

I leaned my head against him. "Why are you so nice to me?"

"Because Carter's not your only fan." When I looked back up, I saw Roman's green eyes were deadly serious. "You're a remarkable woman, just by your own nature. Smart. Funny. Compassionate. But what's really great is that you're so easy to underestimate. I did when we first met, you know. And Hell is now. No matter what their reaction to your appeal is, I guarantee most of them doubt you have a chance. You're going to prove them wrong. You're going to break the unbreakable. And I'll be there helping you, as much as I can."

"You've done enough," I told him. "More than enough. More than I could have ever asked. Now you get to sit back and let me do . . . well, whatever I have to do now."

"Georgina, there's something you need to know. . . ." His face grew troubled.

"What?" I asked. "Oh God. You haven't heard something from Jerome that I haven't, have you?"

"I - " He bit his lip as he paused, then shook his head. His features smoothed out. "Forget it. I'm just going to worry you over nothing. You focus on bowling tonight, okay? Show those Portlandians that . . . fuck, I don't know. That you're a force to be reckoned with in the bowling alley."

I laughed and gave him a quick hug. "I'll see what I can do. How about we talk when I get back, okay? We'll grab a drink." I knew there was something big here he wasn't telling me, no matter how easily he'd tried to brush it off.

"I'd like that. Good luck."

When I arrived at the bowling alley, Peter nearly sank in relief when he saw me. I think he'd been afraid I'd show up without my Unholy Rollers shirt. Through whatever means Hell possessed, all the other patrons in the alley were playing on one side. The other half was empty, save for two lanes occupied by my colleagues. I was the last to arrive and approached with trepidation, unsure of my welcome.

Jerome was sprawled comfortably in a chair, and while it was in better shape than the ones at Burt's, I'm not really sure it deserved the thronelike airs he was putting on. Nanette sat across from him, looking equally regal. Her pale blond hair was rolled into an elegant coif, giving her kind of a Grace Kelly look. Her dress was a pale blue shift with a fuzzy gray cardigan over it, the innocence of the look clashing with the unnecessary vampish sunglasses she was wearing.

"Ah, Georgie," said Jerome. "Right on time and in team colors." He favored Nanette with a lazy smile. "Ready for some humility?"

"Yours?" she asked him. "Always."

Neither gave me much more attention than was due for the last person to fill a team spot. No mention of the contract, no mention of my petition. Glancing around and taking in the full roster here, I saw that Mei had also come to watch the spectacle. The demoness was dressed in corporate black, matching her bluntly cut black hair and heavy eyeliner. Only her red lips provided color to the palette. She most certainly knew about my situation, but like her superiors, she barely glanced my way.

Carter was there, which I had not expected. Nanette and her cronies were clearly uneasy about this. Although all greater immortals, be they angels or demons, shared a certain world weariness with immortality and the Great Game, few were able to bond over it so well as Carter and Jerome. Their relationship was unique, and Nanette clearly felt no camaraderie with the angel. Whereas I received little of her attention simply because I was an underling, Carter she ignored as though he didn't even exist.

He gave me a small smile as I sat down, his gray eyes full of amusement. He was sitting with my friends, perfectly at ease, while Nanette's bowling team regarded him warily. I hoped maybe his presence would throw off their game. There were four of them, just like us, though they'd actually drafted Nanette's lieutenant demon, Malachi, to play for them. Rounding them out were a succubus named Tiara, an imp named Roger, and a vampire named V.

"What's the V stand for?" I asked.

He just stared at me, face blank.

They were an impressive-looking bunch, with deep red bowling shirts and sparkling black embroidery that read DEVIL MAY CARE on the back.

"That's not even a real team name," Peter whispered to me disapprovingly. "And those sparkles are just tacky."

Like ours, their shirts were standard button-ups with their names on the front. Only Malachi's was different, with a small designation declaring him Captain. I guess he needed to make sure his status was asserted over that of the lesser immortals. There was something lean and sinister about them, and in our baby blues, I felt downright cute and cuddly.

A waitress came by with drinks, and once Jerome had a glass of scotch in hand, he deemed proceedings fit to start. There was a part of me that wouldn't have minded a gimlet or two, but I didn't think alcohol was the best call just now. It had nothing to do with team solidarity or messing up my game. When surrounded by unknown and possibly untrustworthy immortals, it was always a good idea to keep your wits about you. And when you were possibly on Hell's radar for dissension, it was an excellent idea.

In my usual lucky way, I ended up having to go first. With all my worries about Seth and the contracts, my mind wasn't exactly focused on all of Roman's good instructions, but I nonetheless did my best to recall his training. I ended up hitting seven and then two pins. Not the greatest, but certainly not the worst. My teammates cheered me voraciously, both because Peter had sent us all a lengthy e-mail earlier in the day about "pep" and because with our track record, nine wasn't that bad.

Tiara went after me, and as she retrieved her ball, Cody whispered to me how she'd gotten in a fight with management earlier because she'd wanted to wear stilettos on the lanes. She'd apparently conceded to wear proper bowling shoes in the end, but unless there'd been a significant trend change in the industry, she'd ended up using her shape-shifting powers to make the shoes more to her liking. They were gold and encrusted with jewels.

Yet those weren't the worst part of her attire. That came in the form of her Devil May Care shirt, which I was pretty sure had shrunk about three sizes since I arrived. The buttons that were still actually fastened looked like they were about to burst. I winced as all that cleavage walked past me, and I wanted to cover my eyes when she reached the lane and bent over unnecessarily far, in order to give everyone a solid view of her ass. Her jeans were nearly as tight as the shirt.

"That is not a regulation stance," declared Peter. He studied her critically for a few moments. "I believe she's trying to distract us."

I scoffed. "Oh, you think?"

"Hey!" Peter elbowed Cody and Hugh who - judging by their gaping mouths - were not catching on to Tiara's ruse as easily as the rest of us. "Focus. Remember what you're playing for: Jerome's good will."

"Nothing wrong with looking," said Hugh. "Besides, there's no way she can hit anything with that - "

His words cut off as Tiara threw. Her ball blasted into the pins and knocked all ten over. With a little smirk and a lot of hip swaying, she strutted back proudly to her seat.

"Shit," said Hugh.

"Ready to focus yet?" asked Peter.

The imp shook his head, still in awe. "I don't think it's going to matter, not if they all bowl like that."

"They can't all bowl like that," countered Cody. But he didn't sound so sure.

Noticing our consternation, Tiara favored us all with a glossy-lipped smile. "We can call it quits right now if you want. We can go back to my hotel and have a party." She tossed her highlighted curls over one shoulder, and her gaze rested on me. "I can also give you some styling advice if you want."

"Oh my God," I muttered. "This is why I hate other succubi." I could almost give Hell credit for finding me the only appealing one in Vegas, even if it had been part of a more elaborate scheme.

Tiara soon became the least of our worries as her teammates took their turns. Strikes and spares all around, quickly surpassing our mix of erratic spares and . . . whatever it was Peter threw. As we moved further into the game, I glanced over at Jerome and saw that his smile had vanished, as had his cocky good mood. At least I could feel confident it had nothing to do with my contract.

V proved to be the most startling of the bowlers. Whenever his turn came, he walked up unhesitatingly, didn't even pause or aim, and threw strikes every time. Every time. He also never spoke a single world.

"How is he doing that?" exclaimed Cody. He glanced at Carter, who was watching everything with quiet amusement. "Is he using some kind of power?"

"No illicit ones," said Carter. "Just his own God-given . . . er, Hell-given abilities."

I hadn't really been worried about the other team cheating or Nanette helping them. I knew Jerome would keep her in check, and Carter's angelic presence was kind of a safeguard against dishonest activity. But his words struck something within me.

"Of course," I murmured. "He's just using what he's got: enhanced reflexes and senses. He's a vampire. He's physically better at everything." No wonder it didn't seem like he needed to aim. He probably was; he was just doing it really, really fast. I turned to Cody and Peter. "How come you guys can't do that?"

Silence met me.

"Cody's our best player," pointed out Hugh.

"True," I admitted. Cody had learned very quickly, and I supposed the difference in his and V's abilities made sense simply because V had been playing a lot longer. "But how do you explain Peter?"

Nobody had an answer for that, least of all Peter.

Cody actually seemed to draw inspiration from V and the realization that being a vampire should provide some natural ability. Cody's already solid performance soon improved, and I wished Roman could see him. Still, it wasn't enough to save us in that first game. We lost pretty terribly. Since Jerome and Nanette had agreed to "best of three," this meant we had two more chances for redemption. I had mixed feelings about this. Jerome's face was growing stormier, so there was some comfort in thinking we might be able to head off his wrath.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded ending this as quickly as possible. Maybe the Devil didn't care, but I was growing increasingly sick of the other team. I was pretty sure Tiara's outfit was getting increasingly tighter and more revealing. Although he never spoke, V's smug expressions conveyed condescension levels that words never could.

And yet, neither of them was as bad as Roger the imp. Every time he got a strike or a spare, he trumpeted his victory with some sort of money-related expression, such as "Jackpot !" or "A penny saved is a penny earned!" Sometimes they didn't even make any sense in the situation, like when he shouted, "It's like throwing pearls before swine!" When he started inexplicably quoting lyrics to "Can't Buy Me Love" at the start of the second game, I really thought I was going to lose it.

Cody nudged me. "He's getting tired. So is Tiara."

I glanced up at the scoreboard. It was a slight change, but those two were showing fewer strikes than spares and sometimes not even getting spares. Malachi remained consistently good, and V remained unstoppable. Over on our team, Peter and I hadn't changed, but Cody had continued - and was succeeding - in trying to prove his vampire skills. Hugh was also improving slightly, a phenomenon we'd seen with Roman sometimes. It was as though the imp needed to warm up in order to remember how to avoid his arm's tendency to throw curves.

I exchanged glances with Cody. "I don't know that it's enough."

"You've done better than this in practice," he told me gently. "I know you've got a bunch of stuff going on, but try to think if Roman was here. What he'd say. Then look at Jerome's face and tell me you don't want us to come out on top."

I didn't really care about Jerome keeping his pride around Nanette, but my friends' well-being did concern me. I knew their happiness would be directly influenced by Jerome's unhappiness. Sighing, I answered Cody with a resolute nod and tried to step up my game, racking my brains for all the words of wisdom that Roman had given me over the last couple of weeks. I admit, I hadn't always been paying as much attention as I could have.

Nonetheless, something started clicking for me. I was a long way from being a pro anytime soon, but between me, Cody, and Hugh, we slowly began to keep up with Nanette's team. It was so subtle and so gradual that when we won by two points, everyone - including my teammates and me - could hardly believe it had happened. We all stared at the scoreboard in stunned silence. Only Carter was able to get anything out.

"That," he told Roger exuberantly, "is how a bird in the hand gets up before the early worm."

"That doesn't make any sense," said Roger.

Carter pointed at the scoreboard. "Neither does that, but there you have it."

Nanette's cool composure had vanished. I don't know if beating Jerome meant that much to her or if people in Portland just took bowling really seriously, but she immediately demanded a five-minute break. We watched as she pulled her team to the far side of the alley and gave them a talk. Judging from her wild hand motions and occasional expletives, it didn't sound like a very heartening talk. I glanced over at Jerome, who still kind of seemed to be in disbelief.

"Any words of wisdom for us, boss?" I asked.

He considered. "Yes. Don't lose."

Cody was already clinging to Peter's arm. "You have to come through for us here. We barely beat them just now, and you know she's putting the fear of God in them. That alone is going to give them some improvement. If you can just . . . I don't know. Get fewer splits. Do something. We can win this, but we need you."

Peter threw up his hands. "Don't you think I would if I could?"

When Nanette and friends returned, they showed us that they were adding a new strategy to their repertoire: catcalling. Every time one of the Unholy Rollers went up to play, we were serenaded with insults about everything from our appearance to our abilities to our bowling shirts. That last one really set Peter on edge, and Tiara picked up on it quickly.

"Did you pick that up at a thrift store? Oh, wait, they screen their items first. They'd never take a piece of shit like that."

"What's with that color? It's like a reject from a boy's baby shower."

"If your crappy shirts are going to say 'Unholy Rollers,' shouldn't you at least be rolling the ball? That was more of a caber toss."

Peter took it all in silence, but I could see him becoming increasingly agitated. Hugh grimaced and leaned toward me. "She's really not that funny. I'd expect better from a succubus."

"At least Peter isn't doing any worse," I said. "He's just getting splits in new and interesting ways."

"Which aren't going to save us, though," said Cody grimly.

It was true. We were staying even with them, but just barely. And when we were halfway through the game, it became clear we were slipping. Jerome was looking pissed off again, and Nanette's confidence had returned.

"Come on, you guys," said Carter, whom I hadn't expected to become a cheerleader. "You can do this. You're better than them."

It wasn't the angel's enthusiasm that changed the course of the game, however. It was when V finally spoke. Peter had just thrown his ball and amazingly knocked down four pins, which left behind a kind of three-way split I'd never even known was possible. We were all taken back.

"You are the worst vampire I've ever seen," said V, staring at the pins wide-eyed.

I don't know what it was about those words that succeeded where our encouragement and Tiara's bad fashion taunts had failed. But suddenly, Peter became a vampire. And not just any vampire. A vampire who could bowl.

From that point forward, everything he threw was a strike. And much like V, Peter didn't even deliberate it. He just walked up and threw, letting his vampire reflexes do the work. He quickly surpassed everyone on our team in skill, even Cody. Really, the only person who could match him was V.

But it was enough, and somehow, against all odds, we won the third game. Hugh, Cody, and I erupted into cheers and traded high fives with Carter. Peter remained much more stoic, however, and regarded the other team coolly. "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched," he told Roger. To Tiara, Peter said, "That shade of red makes you look like you have jaundice." He paused. "And like a whore."

To V, Peter said nothing.

Nanette and Jerome promptly got in an argument, most of which involved her making outlandish claims about how unfair it was to have two vampires on one team and how best of five would be the real determining factor. Jerome bantered back with her cheerfully. He was so smug about our victory, you would have thought he had thrown every ball himself. Seeing her consternation was just icing on the cake for him.

"Well," he said at one point, "we could do two more games, but your team seems terribly worn out. Perhaps once they have some time to recover mentally and physically, we can - "

Jerome stopped and cocked his head, like he was hearing music the rest of us couldn't. A strange look came over his face.

"Shit," he said.

"What?" asked Nanette. She seemed to realize something other than bowling had caught his attention. Near me, Carter had gone perfectly still.

"I have to go," said Jerome.

And he went. Just like that, the demon vanished. I glanced around quickly, but no humans seemed to have noticed, thanks largely to our part of the bowling alley being deserted. Still, teleporting out like that in a public place was pretty irregular behavior for a greater immortal. Even irreverent demons generally knew enough to be discreet among humans.

"Well," said Nanette. "I guess there's no such thing as good winners. Sportsmanship is a lost art."

I thought that was a stretch coming from her, particularly after her team's verbal tirade. In fact, they soon all degenerated into arguing amongst themselves, each one making a plea to Nanette about how the loss had been someone else's fault.

"Georgina," said Carter, drawing my attention back. The smile he'd worn at our victory was gone. "I think it's a good idea if you go home."

"Why?" I asked. "We should celebrate." For the first time since the fallout with Seth, I actually felt like having fun with my friends. "We need to call Roman too."

"Let's go to my place," said Peter. "I can make up a meze platter in no time."

"Fine, fine," said Carter, casting a glance over at Mei. She was still in her seat, trying to observe all conversations at once. "Let's just leave now. I'll teleport you when we're in the parking lot."

I tried to protest that, but Carter was too insistent on simply getting us all out of there. Minutes later, my teammates and I were headed out to the parking lot, still crowing over our victory and how Peter was the undisputed hero of the night.


I came to a halt. There, standing near my car, was Seth. Even in the harsh light of the parking lamps, everything about him seemed soft and inviting. The messy hair. The way he stood with his hands in his pockets. The Flock of Seagulls shirt that I could just make out underneath his flannel coat.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, taking a few steps forward. My friends had come to an uncertain stop behind me. They all knew about my rocky state of affairs with Seth and watched me nervously.

Seth glanced at my backup and then at me. "I . . . I wanted to talk to you."

"That's not what you said the last time we talked," I said. The harsh words were out before I could stop them. I knew I should jump on the chance to talk, on Seth's willingness to talk at last . . . but some hurt place in me responded first.

"I know," said Seth. "I probably don't deserve it. But . . . I've been thinking about a lot of things, and then there's all this weirdness going on I don't quite understand . . . like, my mom moving in with you? And do you know why all these toy ponies keep showing up on Terry's doorstep?"

"Why don't you come over to our place and have your heart-to-heart there," said Peter. "It'll go better with hummus and wine."

Staring at Seth, I felt my heart ache. This could be it, just like Carter had said at New Year's, about how Seth and I still managed to come back to each other. I swallowed, both scared and anxious. "Maybe I should meet you guys later," I said. "Seth and I can go somewhere and talk first."

"Georgina," said Carter anxiously, "you really need to - "

The car seemed to come out of nowhere, and, considering the way things worked in my world, it might literally have done so. All I knew is that one moment we were all standing around in the dark parking lot, and the next, a car was speeding toward us. Or rather, toward me. I couldn't discern any make or model and certainly not the driver. I probably wouldn't have known him or her anyway. All I saw were rapidly approaching headlights, heading toward where I stood alone, out in the open between my friends and Seth.

When the car hit me, there was an intense moment of pain that radiated through my whole body. Then I felt nothing. My sight shifted, and I had the surreal sense of looking down on my sprawled body while my friends hurried to me and the car sped away. Some were trying to talk to me, some were calling 911. Some were talking to each other.

The scene began to dissolve in my vision, fading to black. And not just the scene. Me. I was dissolving. I was losing all substance. I was becoming nothing.

But as I faded away, as the world faded away, I heard a few last words from my friends before their voices also faded.

"Georgina! Georgina!" That was Seth, saying my name like a prayer.

"She's not breathing," said Cody. "And she doesn't have a pulse. Hugh! Do something. You're a doctor."

"I can't," Hugh said softly. "This is beyond me. Her soul . . . her soul's not here."

"Of course it is!" said Cody. "Souls stay with their immortals."

"Not in this situation," said Hugh.

"What are you talking about?" exclaimed Seth, voice cracking. "Carter! You can fix this. You can fix anything. You have to save her."

"This is beyond me too," said Carter. "I'm sorry."

"There's still one thing you can do," said Hugh. "One thing you have to do."

"Yes," agreed Carter, voice full of sorrow. "I'll go get Roman. . . ."

And then they were all gone.

I was gone.

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