Under the Rose
Roy ambled out of the casino. It had been a big night–he had kicked asses and taken names, won a monster pot at the end that would give him a month off to laze about, and on a stone bluff, too!
Well, not exactly “laze about,” since he had other duties these days, but at least he wouldn’t be parked on the South Gate twiddling his thumbs for a while, once he cashed in the time-chips he’d scored, and that was something.
He felt pretty good–until he looked up and saw Mephistopheles leaning against one of the columns holding up the casino’s portico.
The skinny old demon grinned like a rabid wolf when he saw Roy. He pushed off the column and there was no question that he had been waiting for him.
Uh oh. This could be trouble.
Mephisto–called “Mo” by those who knew him–had been around for a long damned time and always in the inner circle where he was one of a handful of demons who had The Chief’s ear. Mondo clout, Mo had, and he knew how to use it. He and The Chief were Farthest Fallen, and they went all the way back.
Roy hadn’t spoken to him since he couldn’t remember when. Dark Ages?
Mephisto was tall and thin, all angles and sharp elbows, and he didn’t look particularly strong or powerful, but it would be a mistake to make that assumption. As shapeshifters went, he was among the best. He could change his looks in a blink–bony-ass old man to voluptuous young woman to bodybuilder on steroids, bap, bap, bap, just like that.
Nobody was sure if the skinny version was the real him or an illusion he used to gull people into thinking he was weak. Lot of demons had made that error, assuming he was weak. They only did it once.
“Mo. How’s it goin’?”
Mo shrugged. “If I complained, who would listen?”
Roy gave him a fake smile. “Yeah, I hear that. So what can I do you for?”
Mo said, “‘The eagle flies with the dove.’”
Roy blinked. If Mo had turned himself in to a giant spider and scurried up the casino wall to spin a web saying “Some Pig!” it would have been less surprising.
No fucking way!
“Roy? Don’t don’t you have something to say to me?”
Roy managed to figure out how to work his tongue. He gave the response: “‘Love the One You’re With,’ Stephen Stills, 1970.” He shook his head.
Roy said, “I can’t fucking believe that you are working with–”
Mo cut him off: “No names, Roy, the walls have ears. Let’s go some place private and have a few whiffs of hydrogen sulfide and a brew or two.”
Roy nodded. Motherfucker! Mo was working for Jay? What the hell was Hell coming to here?
Mo kept an apartment nearby, small, but nicely-appointed inside, lot of expensive knick-knacks. There was a demonservant at the door who silently admitted them and who wordlessly went to fetch inhalers and drinks.
“My dogsbody Dante,” Mo said. “First-rate.”
“Not real talkative, is he?”
“Had his tongue cut out. It’s taking a while to grow back.”
Roy raised an eyebrow.
“I have it removed again every year or so before it gets long enough to allow speech. An object lesson.”
Roy nodded. He didn’t ask. He didn’t want to know.
“The pad is clean,” Mo said, as Dante returned with a couple of inhalers and glasses of foaming something that had a peppery, ginger smell. “We can talk without fugue.”
Roy nodded again.
“You’re wondering how I came to be associated with our friend from On High.”
Mo shrugged. “You know how things are. Wheels-within-wheels, factions, alliances so twisted you couldn’t follow the lines with bloodhounds and magnifying x-ray glasses.”
Yeah, Roy knew.
“A smart demon needs to keep an ear to the ground, and an eye to the future. Never know but that what seems solid and set in steel will blow away in an instant like vapor.”
“Something in particular?”
“Not really.” He took one of the inhalers and snorted a big blast. The scent of rotten eggs permeated the air. He offered the other inhaler to Roy, who took it and sniffed in a blast himself. Nice.
“No, it has to do with continuity,” Mo continued.
Roy nodded, as if he had a fucking clue what he was talking about. “Uh huh?”
“As in, there has been an awful lot of continuity here for a long time, same-old, same-old. This is not a steady-state kind of place. Change is going to happen, it has to, and it’s only a matter of when and how much. When it all comes down, I don’t want it to land on me.”
Roy nodded again.
Roy reached for the stein.
“So I need to know what Larry has been up to, and there are a few things you need to know, to keep abreast of the current situation. Are we copacetic with that?”
“No problem,” Roy said.
Mo smiled at him. “You used to be really good at the game, Roy. Why’d you quit?”
It was Roy’s turn to shrug. “I got tired of all-bullshit-all-the-time. Always having to sleep with one eye open, not knowing who is getting ready to stab you in the back, it gets old. I figured a few hundred thousand years doing scutwork would give me a chance to take a break.”
“Opening and closing a gate? Dealing with the little old lady next door?” Mo said.
“Oh, Mrs. Bentley is a ballbreaker, but she’s straight-up what-you-see-is-what-you-get. That’s ... refreshing, in its own way. You know what they say, ‘no brain, no pain.’ Doesn’t take a genius to keep up: Gate is open or is it closed. You are on the list or you aren’t.
“Except that Larry threw a monkey wrench into that.”
“Yeah. But, to tell the truth, I was getting a little bored. He caught me on the right day.”
He looked at Roy. “From what I hear, you haven’t collected too many cobwebs nor too much rust.”
“Like riding a bicycle, ain’t it?” He took a drink from the stein. Ah. Nice. Some kind of metal-etching acid.
“More like riding a bicycle on a greased high wire in a stone hurricane over the deepest Pit,” Mo allowed.
Roy shrugged. “Ridden one, ridden ‘em all.”
“I bet Lilith would love to hear you say that.”
Roy shook his head. “Is there anybody in this fucking place who hasn’t heard that baseless rumor about us? C’mon, Mo.”
“You might have to walk a long way to find somebody hasn’t heard it. But not far at all to find somebody who knows the difference between ‘baseless rumor’ and reality, kid. Don’t forget you you are talking to here. Hell, I have videos of you two ...”
Roy stared at him.
Mo laughed. “Just pulling your chain.” He paused a second. “Long ago, Lilith and I, we ... well, let’s just say, we respect each other’s talents and abilities.”
Roy didn’t have anything to say to that, so he kept quiet. Mo and Lilith? He couldn’t even imagine it, unless Mo had a different look, but–what the fuck did he know? He could never have imagined himself and Lilith in his wildest dreams, either.
Mo continued: “So, let me fill you in on some things that–ah–Jay has passed along ...”
“I’m all ears.”