Copyright © 2012 Jodi Redford
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Samael Gorasola grimaced as the blaring strains of It’s Raining Men pounded through the speakers recessed in the walls of his prison cell. There weren’t many things that made him yearn for a quick, merciful death. Not even the three-centuries-old demon currently torturing him. Disco music on the other hand—where was a damn bullet to the brain when he needed one?
Right on cue, Toran joined in on the chorus with a piercing falsetto that was akin to sharp toothpicks jabbing into Sam’s corneas. Sam gritted his teeth. F**king. Kill. Me. Now.
A series of crackles fizzled and spit through the air, and a second later the charged wires of Toran’s whip snapped across the exposed skin on Sam’s back, sizzling his flesh with white-hot agony. Despite his best efforts to cage it, Sam’s pained roar broke loose. At least the sound momentarily drowned out the horrendous music.
“What’s the matter, Gorasola? Can’t take the heat?” A grating laugh rumbled from the punishment master. Sam didn’t know what he despised more—Toran’s sh**ty taste in music or incredibly lame sense of humor. The whip whistled across Sam again, almost masking the patronizing drone of Toran’s voice. “I’m going to miss you when you’re dead, Gorasola. Who the hell will give me the same delight in torturing than you?”
“Imagine you’ll find someone.” Damn dickhead.
A heavy clang reverberated, and Sam tensed, thinking it was Toran increasing the whip’s voltage—or worse, cranking up the sound system. Instead, a distinctly feminine cough echoed in the chamber.
“Forgive the interruption, Master Toran.” Pricilla Roundtree’s cold, haughty tone provoked Sam into grinding his molars. Eighteen hours of Toran’s harshest punishment while a continuous loop of It’s Raining Men played in the background held more appeal than a single second spent in Pricilla’s presence. The demon king’s personal secretary was a poisoned thorn in his side. One that refused to be extracted.
“Mistress Roundtree.” Toran’s voice dripped with enough ass-kissing grovel to give Sam a serious case of indigestion.
“I’m here to speak with Samael. Could you give us a moment?”
“Certainly. Do you want me to chain the prisoner to the wall?”
“No, I’ll handle him myself.”
Sam didn’t care for the acid sweetness in Pricilla’s statement—and the notion of her handling any part of him made his flesh crawl—but balking would only earn him another electrified bite from Toran’s whip.
“Very well,” Toran offered reluctantly. “If Gorasola gives you any problem, I’ll be down the hall.”
“I’m sure Samael will be on his best behavior.”
A grunt fell from Toran, more than relaying his thoughts on the idea of Sam being anything less than a troublesome pain in the ass. Heavy footsteps tromped across the stone floor, and a second later the music fell mute. The cell door clanked again, announcing the punishment master’s departure. Pricilla stepped closer, and her heavy, cloying scent of gardenia ambushed him.
“Hello, Samael.” Sharp-tipped fingernails scored the scythe-shaped gun tattooed on Sam’s back, making him flinch. “It’s been a while. Missed me?”
“About as much as I miss that damn disco music.”
A bucket of ice contained more warmth than Pricilla’s laugh. Her fingers dug into him, making him wince. “Is that any way to speak to the individual who holds the deed to your life?”
Every muscle in his body seized. “What?”
“It took some doing, but I persuaded the king to sign your contract over to me rather than execute you.” Pricilla traced the line of his spine before ruffling his hair in a way that was entirely too territorial. “I own you now, Samael.”
To say the thought left him far from warm and fuzzy was a severe understatement. “I’d rather be dead.”
“You wound me with this unprovoked hatred.”
“Unprovoked?” Being flat on his belly atop the metal torture table made him less threatening than a toothless dog. Still, it didn’t muzzle him enough to stop the growl from slipping past his throat. “You went behind my back and revoked my petition to have my contract with Antoinette Delacroix severed, you viperous bitch.”
Pricilla’s clawlike nails dug into his skull, creating a painful sting he couldn’t readily ignore. “Mind your tongue. As for your complaint and petition, I saw no reason for the king to allow it, just because your mistress was a ghost. You’re a demon familiar and a soul collector, Samael. Your duty was clear. If you’d simply done as told instead of taking matters into your own hands, you wouldn’t be where you are now.”
In other words, neck-deep in a pile of s**t. Sam’s jaw clenched hard enough to trigger a cramp. F**k me. Aiding in the permanent demise of Antoinette Delacroix hadn’t been one of his more brilliant moments. But damn if he wouldn’t do it all over again. Eternal punishment was a small price to pay for packing Nettie’s spirit off to hell. Served the damn bitch right after making it her mission in life—and death—to ensure his existence was mired in misery. The past six months were a vacation compared to being under her thumb all those years.
Only now it looked like he’d be under an even worse one. For devil’s sake, would someone damn well kill me already?
The bindings around his right wrist suddenly slackened before releasing him entirely. Rolling onto his side, he glared at Pricilla. She was dressed in a tailored black pantsuit, her only concession to color provided by her scarlet lipstick. Even the coal-dark hair pulled into a rigid bun was in keeping with her all-black ensemble. No doubt she’d chosen the color to match her heart. Assuming she possessed one.
He stretched his fingers, attempting to work out the kinks. “If you expect me to bow at your feet for the honor of being your slave, you’ll have to undo the rest of my manacles.”
Judging from the tightening of her lips, his sarcasm hadn’t missed its target. “I’d start acting more grateful, if I were you. I’m not averse to inviting Toran back in here to give you a proper farewell.”
He was leaving? Now? For the first time in what felt like forever, a spark of hope flickered within Sam. Five minutes ago, before Pricilla came waltzing in with her pronouncement, the prospect of seeing a world beyond his dank prison cell was an absurd dream. He’d resigned himself to this existence. It’d been easier that way. But now that he was being offered another chance…it seemed too good to be true.
The reminder of the role Pricilla played in his newfound freedom smothered his rising spirits. Of course it was too good to be true. Because he wasn’t really free. Not as long as he was beholden to the damn bitch.
“I see from your scowl you’re not pleased with our arrangement.” Pricilla’s mouth curled upward. If an asp could smile, it’d look exactly like the calculating devil spawn. “No matter. You’re still mine to command. Better get used to it, Samael.”
Command. The damnable word hazed his vision with red. He was tired of doing the bidding of others. Of being nothing more than a f**king errand boy to one asshole after another. It used to mean something, being a soul collector. A title to be proud of. Now his status felt like a noose, vising tighter and tighter.
As if she’d read his torturous thoughts, Pricilla stepped to the other side of the table and ran her fingertips over his tattoo—the official seal of his now-despised title. The coldness of her touch leached into him like a condemnation. “I have great plans in store for you, Samael Gorasola. Just you wait.”
Less than an hour later, Sam walked out of the Demon Detainment Center. Or as he’d fondly come to refer to it the past six months—his s**thole away from home. The blazing sun was an assault compared to the weak fluorescent lighting in his cell. He squinted, wishing for his polarized Ray-Bans. His favorite shades conveniently came up missing from the pile of belongings that’d been returned to him at checkout. If he found out which of the guards had filched the sunglasses, someone would be getting the remainder of their meals fed to them through a straw.
He flexed his arm, not quite used to the absence of the manacles and the cuff that’d blocked his ability to transport—just one of the many tools of the trade that came with his soul-collector status. The last thing he’d expected was for Pricilla to allow for the removal of the cuff. Of course, now that he was her damn beck-and-call boy, it wasn’t as if he could take advantage of the situation and pop down to some tropical isle and lay low with a bevy of busty beauties in skimpy bikinis. His luck, Pricilla would call him to her side the minute he started getting cozy with the local scenery. S**t knows it’d been Nettie’s favorite pastime, yanking him around on the invisible leash that’d chained him to her. Safe to say Pricilla would be no better.
He wished like hell he knew what good ole Pris was up to. Why she wanted him badly enough to seize control of his familiar contract. She hadn’t elaborated beyond her cryptic promise in his cell. Not that he’d expected her to. As a general rule, demons weren’t quick to spill their plans. Distrusting assholes, the whole lot of them. Himself included.
Especially himself. Setting his jaw, he mentally flipped the bird to the building behind him before teleporting to the front entry of his Savannah bachelor pad. The small bungalow had always been his private sanctum—the one place where he could kick back and enjoy a little R&R on the rare occasions Antoinette hadn’t dispatched him on a soul hunt.
So he was suitably annoyed when he spotted his cousins—Nikki and Cassidy Lassiter—lounging on his leather sectional, looking very much at home. He took in the scuffed combat boots Nikki had propped on the lacquered coffee table.
A growl crept up his throat. “What the f**k are you doing squatting in my place?”
Both sisters jumped, but it was Nikki who first leapt into a fighting stance. The instant her eyes locked on him, her mouth dropped and she lowered her fists. “Sam?”
“Who the hell else were you expecting? This is my damn house.” His scowl deepened as he noticed the discarded greasy pizza carton and crumpled potato chip bag littering the floor. No doubt both were courtesy of Nikki. She might be one of the best grim reapers in the biz, but she was also a f**king slob. “Nice to see you’ve been partying in my absence.”
Cassidy broke from her stupor and tore across the room before ambushing him with a fierce hug. While the gesture softened his foul mood a fraction, it also reminded him his body hurt like the devil. He winced, something Cass didn’t fail to observe. She pulled back and eyed him, her expression sharp with concern. Usually she was the quieter, gentler Lassiter sibling, but at the moment her fiery gaze nearly matched the color of her hair. “What did those bastards do to you?”
“Yeah, you look like s**t,” Nikki added in her typical blunt fashion. She strode toward them, the reaper cuffs anchored to her belt loop giving a metallic clank as they bounced against her hip. “Please tell me you got in a few punches of your own, and the asswipe who roughed you up at least looks worse than you do.”
“Yeah, he does,” Sam grunted. “But only because Toran was born ugly.” He extricated himself from Cass’s grasp and limped toward the couch, only to slam to a standstill when he spied the blank section of wall where his fifty-inch flat-screen used to be. “Where the hell is my TV?”
“I moved it into the guestroom.” Nikki shrugged in response to his glower. “I like to watch The Tonight Show, and you didn’t have a set in there.”
His blood pressure spiked into the danger zone. Damn it, he’d just endured six months of torture. Was it too much to ask to come home and not find his private sanctum overtaken by moocher relatives? “Put the TV back.”
Nikki’s forehead scrunched. “How will I keep up on Leno?”
“From your own damn bedroom, that’s how.”
“Sorry, no can do, dude. Cass is on the outs with Pops again, and I’m here for moral support.”
For f**k’s sake. Sam plowed a hand through his hair as his last shred of patience shuttled off to Hawaii. Without him, damn it.
Roughly every other month Cassidy and her dad fought over her adamancy about not joining the family business. At the moment, Sam more than understood her decision to steer clear of soul reaping, but he was too cranky and tired to give much of a s**t about her personal problems.
“You’re not living here.” He transferred his glare to Nikki. “That goes double for you, Pig-Pen.”
“Sheesh, getting tortured makes you grouchier than usual.” Nikki cocked her head to the side and considered him. “How did you get out of there, anyway?”
He narrowed his eyes. “If I tell you, will you leave?”
He was desperate enough to take his chances. Five minutes later he’d laid out the gory details of his new unglorified status as Pricilla’s familiar. Cass and Nikki were suitably horrified and sympathetic, but they made no move toward packing their belongings so they could hustle their asses out of his home.
Weary defeat sat heavier than a one-ton boulder in his gut. S**t, he was never going to get rid of them. What was it with females and their incessant desire to make his life a living hell? “I’m going to take a shower.” He shot Nikki a warning stare. “Your ass is grass if my TV isn’t on that wall when I come back out here.”
Nikki only rolled her eyes. His teeth in danger of being ground to dust, he staggered into his bedroom. He was gratified to see it looked exactly the same as he’d left it. He’d half expected to find it redecorated in hot pink and fuchsia, with giant stuffed teddy bears or f**king fluffy purple bunnies strewn on his bed.
He shrugged from his grungy shirt, his bruised and battered muscles screaming a fit. Grimacing, he dropped the filthy garment and started toward the bathroom. He managed two steps across the carpet before his gaze landed on the dresser. Or more to the point, the second drawer down. The one that held the sum total of his life’s greatest achievement. And ultimate downfall.
No matter how hard he struggled to resist the calling, his feet still edged him in the direction of the dresser. He yanked open the drawer and stared at the specially commissioned Smith & Wesson revolver resting on a stack of neatly folded T-shirts.
Some males named their cars or boats. He named his gun. Fingers cramping slightly, he reached for the revolver. His palm absorbed the familiar coldness of the steel. It’d been six months since he’d held Lucy. He’d never gone that long without having her close by. Hell, she’d practically been an extension of his hand for seventy-eight years.
His thumb brushed the smooth wood grain of the handle, relearning its texture. How many damn souls had he confiscated with Lucy’s aid? Too f**king many to count. Most hadn’t meant a damn thing to him, just casualties to his profession. The only one that’d cracked through his dispassionate shell had been Nettie. Oh yeah, taking out that bitch had been sweeter than sweet.
Although he knew the dual barrels were empty, he spun the cylinders open, each hollow click of the revolving chambers increasing the tension in his gut. He still vividly recalled the day the demon council handed him Lucy and he officially received the branding on his back to seal his status. That simplistic tattoo was a pale shadow of the design he wore now—the end result of a drunken whim many moons ago, before his life really went down the sh**ter. He’d been stupid to think his rebellious decision to cover up the old tat with one of his own doing somehow made him the wielder of his own future. Owner of his own damn body.
What a f**king crock that was. Nothing would change the fact he’d signed over all rights when he’d followed the long-standing Gorasola tradition of becoming soul collectors. The hell of it was that he had been happy in the beginning. As was required of all demon soul collectors, he’d found a voodoo priestess to sanction his status in return for his services as her familiar. Lucinda Delacroix had more than fit the bill, and he’d actually liked her. Enough to even name his damn gun after her, for some asinine, sentimental reason. That was back when he’d been less jaded and cynical. Back before Lucinda’s devil spawn, Nettie, poisoned her mother so she could inherit all of Lucinda’s worldly goods—including Sam. The forty-eight years that followed with Nettie as his mistress were a slow spiral into the endless s**t that became his existence, culminating with his present circumstance.
Growling, he slammed the chambers back in place on his revolver and tossed Lucy into the drawer before ramming it shut. First chance he got, he was renaming his damn gun. Chuck, Frank, Melvin. He didn’t give a rat’s ass, as long as it was anything other than another female. He’d learned his lesson dealing with that particular gender. Damn women were nothing but bad news. It certainly didn’t take another six months on execution row to convince him of that sad reality.
Weariness dragging at his limbs, he stripped off the remainder of his clothes and climbed into the shower stall. Hot water pounded his battered body, and he groaned as the heat temporarily banished his aches. Too bad all the other bulls**t foisted on him today couldn’t be so easily swirled down the drain.
After cranking off the water, he snagged a towel, dried off and changed into clean jeans and a black T-shirt. He headed into the hallway, fully intending to grab a cold brew from the fridge, but the sound of Nikki and Cass arguing in the kitchen stalled him short. A tidal wave of irritation welled inside him. What was the world coming to that he couldn’t get drunk in the peace and quiet of his own home? Clenching his jaw with enough force to cause a painful spasm, he returned to his room and dug his wallet out of the nightstand drawer. A quick check verified that none of his money was missing. Damn good thing too, because with the mood he was in, there might have been bloodshed if Nikki or Cassidy had absconded with his cash.
After tucking his billfold in his back pocket, he teleported to the rear alley of his favorite watering hole, Champions. The only ones around to witness his sudden appearance were the family of stray cats scrounging in the dumpsters, and they seemed more interested in the discarded scraps than they were in him. He rounded the side of the building and stepped through the entrance. Grungy heavy metal pounded from the jukebox, providing a welcome respite to his ears after the months of crappy disco music he’d endured. He edged through the sea of patrons and slowed to a stop when he spotted Ian and Jasper Quint sitting at the bar.
A sharp spike of frustration slammed him between the shoulder blades. Of all the f**king nights to run into the two biggest pain-in-the-ass demon hunters known to mankind. To make matters worse, the last time he’d crossed paths with the brothers, Jasper managed to stab Sam in the shoulder. The flesh wound hadn’t been anything too serious, but it still chapped Sam’s ass that Jasper got the better of him.
Any other night, he’d love the opportunity to even the score with the Quint brothers and prove once and for all that it’d take a lot more than fancy footwork and a damn KA-BAR blade to take a Gorasola down.
Sam’s gaze tracked to the unmistakable outline of the knife strapped beneath the leg of Jasper’s jeans. Rather than give in to the urge to bid adieu to the bar and the two hunters who’d given him endless grief throughout the years, Sam hesitated, his words from earlier spinning in his head with taunting clarity. For devil’s sake, would someone damn well kill me already?
Sam continued to stare at Jasper’s and Ian’s profiles until a cold, grim purpose spread through his chest. Well s**t. Who said there was only one way to skin a cat?
Or kill a demon.