Smell of brimstone sifts in and grows stronger. Sudden flash of light and flame. There's a pointy-horned demon standing on my desk.
"Red," I snort. "How cliche. You look like that old comic book imp Hot Stuff."
"And not really much of a conversationalist either," I reach in my center desk drawer.
"Yeah, you're McQue all right," the demon says. "I heard you was a smart ass." He starts toward me. I slide the geezes I got from my desk in front of him.
"Please," he says, brushing the crucifix aside. "I got no time for that stuff. Stan's gone."
Another flash of light -- this time golden-hued and lovely -- splits my office air and Heather steps out of it. She rarely makes that sort of entrance except in a crisis so I'm not surprised when she says:
"Gavin! Stan's gone!"
A minute later, my sweetie Melody filters down through the ceiling to ghost her way next to me. She touches my arm.
"Gavie pooh," she gushes, "Did you hear the gossip? Stan's gone!"
Some days just start out like that.
So now I got a ghost, the Angel of Death, and some sort of top-end demon in my office all trying to talk at once. I hold up my hand and, for a wonder, everyone shuts up. Heather and the demon are glaring at each other. Melody is being her usual gorgeous, sweet self, and I'm still digesting a piece of news that reeks of ramifications.
"O.K., " I take my battered notebook from my shirt pocket, "One at a time." I nod toward the demon. "You got here first, so you start."
"Day started like all the rest," he says, "Trauma, pain, torture, screams and moans, maniacal laughter . . . the usual. The gang's tooling up for the season . . . Christmas, you know . . . lots of angst this time of year . . . when all of a sudden, zotz!"
"Zotz? Like that old movie?"
"What old movie? Never mind. Nah. Just Zotz. No presence, no oversee, no feeling of being watched. It's spooky . . ." here he looks at Melody " . . . sorry lady . . . and me and a few others go to the boss's demesne to find out what's what. We get there. Nobody home. Stan's gone. No note. No sign of disturbance. No nothin'. We figure her Boss . . ." here he indicates Heather " . . . pulled something."
"And why," Heather sneers, "would you think that?"
"Only possible explanation," the demon shrugs, "Nobody else could make Stan be gone."
I turn to Heather.
"Hate to say it, toots, but that makes sense. What do you know about this?" She turns to me.
"I just learned about this myself. The Boss told me. I came here to ask for your help."
I pinch the bridge of my nose and close my eyes. "Wait a second," I say, "Your Boss doesn't know what happened?"
"He knows," the demon says sarcastically, "He just ain't sayin'--another one of His little games." To Heather: "Likes to play them, don't He?"
"Be silent, you odious malifactor!" Power throbs in Heather's voice. Stillness fills the air.
Surprisingly, the demon ignores her; sticks out his tongue. "Nyahh, nyahh, nyahh, girlie. Gangs of fun for Him; for the rest of us, not so much." He leans toward her: "I guess you really enjoy being kept in the dark, huh? Howzit feel?"
A split second later he's flying across my office into the far wall. Plaster cracks and wall hangings drop.
"About like that, you . . ." Heather begins, but is almost immediately engulfed in a reddish-black penumbra of heat and light. One of my office chairs next to her suddenly chars to ash.
"Hey, hey," I shout, stepping between them and extending my arms, "neutral corners you two." I turn to the left. "Heather, I'm surprised at you. And you owe me for a new plaster job." I turn to the right. "And you . . . whoever you are . . ."
"Beelzebub," he snarls, "And don't call me Beezie!"
"Bubby," I continue, "That was one of my best chairs. Gonna cost you, fella. Now," I say, lowering my arms, "let's settle down and move forward. Heather, tell me what you know about this."
Heather, glares a bit longer at Bubbie, but turns her attention toward me. The glare's still there and, believe me, having the Angel of Death glare at you is not a comfortable feeling.
"I've told you all I know. The Boss summoned me and assigned me to engage you for this task. That vile little thing," she says gesturing at the still wall-stuck demon, "may be telling us the truth, but he's not telling you everything."
I turn to him.
He stops struggling to extract his behind from my office.
"What? You believe her but not me?"
I point to Heather. "Angel." I point to him. "Demon." I shrug. "Duh."
What passes for a smile crosses Bubbie's face.
"Stan was right about you," he pulls himself free of the wall. "You ain't as dumb as you look. O. K. Ask me some questions and I'll tell you no lies."
"Yeah," I say, "Like I believe that . . ." But I got not choice, so I return to my notebook. "When's the last time anyone saw Stan?"
"That would be yesterday, as far as I know. And, before you ask, I was probably the last one who saw him. We just finished going over some . . . plans for the season."
"Yeah. Like I said, we got lots to do this time of year. Got worse after you found that ginzo Spirit of Christmas for us, but not by much. Things evened out after Stan decided to focus on Greed as the Deadly Sin du jours. 'salways a good one, but during the Holidays it's dead easy to promote. You can bet anything you like that just about every one in Christendom--hate that word by the way--gets a little greedy from October on."
"So these plans were . . . what?" I prompt.
"What to whisper in what ears. No prob for the kiddies. Always some new toy that everyone wants and they just gotta have. That's gotten even bigger now that the toys have gone high tech. Smart phones, tablets, virtual reality goggles--all that stuff is like ice cream to the pre-teens and teens these days. For the youngsters, the old reliables still work. Stuff like building block sets, bicycles, Slinkys . . .
"Slinkys?" I interrupt, astonished.
"Best damning toy ever invented," Bubbe chortles. "Simple, elegant, and easy to mess up. Most times a kid's got it for five minutes and it's hopelessly tangled or bent out of true. Then you move from Greed to Envy over the other kids' toys--especially if the other kid has a working Slinky. That usually also spurs Anger for everyone involved--the kid who got the messed up Slinky and wants to share the other kid's; the kid who has the Slinky that works but refuses to share; the parents who get mad when they have to intercede to avoid mayhem. Then, possibly, Sloth seeps in when the kids are too lazy to put the Slinky back in its box. This causes colorful language from the parents and more Anger all around." Here, he pauses a wistful grin on his face. "That's three of the Big Seven Capitals from one, simple little coil of metal or plastic. I tell ya, it's a masterpiece--a stroke of genius." He turns his gaze back to me. "And that's why I want you to find Stan, McQue. He's got lots more masterpieces in him and the Holidays are the perfect launching point for 'em."
I'm dazed. "Are you telling me," I beathe, "that Stan invented the Slinky?"
"The Slinky, the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop, the Yo-Yo . . . all the classics. Oh, you might see some other names listed on the patents, but Stan's the Man with the plans. Them other guys was fronts."
I'm too stunned to handle this. I fall back on practicality.
"Five hundred per day plus expenses," I say, and brace for the shriek. He slides a big envelope across my desk.
"Stan mentioned your fee when he hired you to find the Spirit of Christmas," he says. "That's a two week retainer. Find him before two weeks are up, keep the change. Take longer, we'll pay as you go."
"Piker," Heather hisses. She slides an even bigger envelope toward me. "The Boss has authorized me to give you a month's retainer at twice your fee. Find him before the month ends and you keep what's left over. Take longer and we'll continue doubling your fee for as long as it takes."
I am, I think understandably, flabbergasted. I'm also an opportunist.
"No problem here, I say, scooping both envelopes top my side of the desk, "Your goals are the same. I can work for both of you."
Beelzebub nods. "All right, then. Keep me posted." Flash, brimsone, smoke. He's gone.
"Me as well, Gavin," Heather says. Flash, fragrance, no smoke. She's gone.
A few moments pass while I try to assimilate all this. The two large envelopes under my paws make it easier.
"Not bad, huh Mel?" I say, when the dueling smells of brimstone and Chanel have cleared. "Doubled my fee and got a plum assignment, too." I brush my fingernails along my lapel. "Guess we can start thinking about buying that house . . . What?"
Melody's shaking her head.
"Gavy-pooh, don't be silly. You'll find Stan by the end of the day tomorrow. Nice as the retainers are, they won't get us a house. A good down payment, maybe . . ."
I'm puzzled. "Melody what are you saying? We're talking about Stan, remember? One of the most powerful entities in creation--the Prince of Darkness--evil personified. He could be anywhere! Finding him would take . . ."
"A flight to Las Vegas." She says.
"A fli . . ."
"Think a minute, silly," she continues. "Where else could he be? I mean, ignoring the obvious meaning of the city's name . . ."
"That's just a coinci . . ."
"Remember what that cute little demon told you . . ."
"Cute! Little! Melody what . . ."
" . . . about greed? Where do you find greed more often than at the gaming tables of Las Vegas? Virtully everyone there is greedy--they all want something for nothing--or for as little as possible. Stands to reason that Stan would start his latest greed-oriented project there."
I realize that my mouth is open and I'm staring at about the same time I realize that Melody is making sense.
"As far as where he might be in Vegas," she goes on, "That's a bit tougher, but we can find out by calling her."
Making sense up to now.
"Calling her? Calling who?"
"Oh, I don't remember her name. It was that pretty lady who worked with you and Heather. The one who sent you into my dream . . ."
"Yes. Her. Even if Stan isn't at her Casino, she'll probably know where he is."
"Probably," I agree, "She's some kinda psychic, after all." I embrace Mel's ghostly form and plant a smooch on her becky. "Great thinking, Miss Marple," I say. "Sometimes I wonder which one of us is supposed to be the detective."
"And sometimes I wonder," she replies, "Why you only kiss me on my cheek after I come up with a great idea."
"My oversight," I say, and correct it.
I'm in the foyer of the Grand Legion Casino and watching Epiphany Citrane swivel toward me. She looks pretty much the same as the last time I saw her: swaddled in clothing and utterly sensational. Her remarkable eyes twinkle as she approaches and I get the familiar impression that she's stifling a laugh at my expense.
"Gavin McQue," she purrs, "How . . . interesting to see you again."
"Same here, toots," I grin, "How's tricks?"
This stops her.
"After that greeting," I say, "I figured you wanted to play 'old movie cliches.' Wanted to show that I'm game."
She smiles--for real this time.
"Smart ass, same as ever. Follow me, McQue," she turns into the casino's main gaming floor. "We'll talk in my office."
Her office is a mildly enormous suite on the ground floor of the casino. It's dimly lit and filled with very unconventional office stuff. Most modern offices have computers, file cabinets, printers, desks. Epiphany's work space is filled with arcane metaphysica. A glowing crystal ball rests atop a planth in the center of a plush-carpeted expanse of floor. Bookshelves with grimoires line the walls and comfortable-looking sofas, settees, and easy chairs scatter--but fail to crowd--square footage. Epiphany glides to the room's center and liquifies into a--for want of a better term--chair and gestures me toward one as well.
"Lucky said you'd be here looking for him," she says, getting right to it.
"Lucky?" I reply, sinking into a chair that's every bit as comfortable as it is elegant.
"Stan," she says. "He goes by Lucky in Vegas."
"Stan's here?" I blurt, then, "Of course he is. How did he know I'd be looking for him?"
"I'm not entirely certain you want to know . . ."
"I do, I do."
She shrugs, "Very well. He said, 'Some nitwit who works for me will notice I'm gone and, being a nitwit, will figure I've been kidnapped. Said nitwit will then remember how I used McCue to help find the Chrismas Spirit and hire him to find me. If McCue can't figure where I am--and he probably can't; he's persistent but not the shiniest apple on the tree--his squeeze'll know. Ghost or not, she's the brains of that twosome.'" She smiles. "You asked."
"I did," I said, squirming despite the chair's comfort. "So, where is he? Can I see him?"
She presses a button on the arm of her chair. "He's here, boss" she says, apparently speaking to nothing. She touches her ear. "Right away, sir." She looks at me. "You're in luck. Mr. Lucifer will see you at once." She stands. "Follow me, McCue." And she sways toward her office door. I'm up as soon as I can struggle free of the chair and at her heels. We move into the Casino.
"Boss?" I ask, "Sir? Mr. Lucifer?"
"Stan bought the Casino shortly after you dealt with the Melody issue," she says, leading past the slots. "He owns it outright and is the sole shareholder. That makes him boss, sir, and mister to me--and everyone else who works here." She pushes a door open at the far end of the Casino. It opens. "McQue, Lucky, Lucky, McQue," she says, gesturing to Stan . . . who's sitting behind a desk, his feet up on it.
"Come in, McQue. Take a pew, so to speak," Stan says, waving to a chair opposite his desk. "Took you long enough to find me. Whatsamatta? You didn't ask Melody faster?" He waves. "Thanks, Epiphany. We'll take it from here." She leaves and I stagger toward the chair Stan indicated. I'm a bit confused . . . if completely at sea, qualifies as "a bit confused."
"Lucky? She calls you Lucky?" I say, sitting and temporizing.
"Short for Lucifer, of course. Nobody calls me Lucifer, here. And Stan's just a little too close for comfort. Their comfort, that is. Of course, I could have gone with Lucy." he transforms into a cartoon version of a Charlie Shultz's character. "Or I could have decided on this," he shifts to an Elizabeth Hurley image--complete with schoolgirl outfit. "But I decided against it. I prefer the male manifestations, at least in this milieu."
"Sexist," I murmur as he returns to his usual Stan self.
"You bet," he grins. "Prince of Evil, remember?"
"So," I say, starting to catch my balance. "Why the skedaddle? How come the fade? And why not tell somebody?"
"Had something important to do," he says. "As for telling someone, like who? Bubby? That dimbulb? And he's the best of a bad lot. Besides," he leans back, "I'm the boss. If I feel like taking a little time off to work on a new project, it's nobody's business but mine."
"A new project?" I reply. "That's the important thing you had to do?"
"Sort of," he shrugs. "Got a little tired of the bad publicity I get," he holds up a hand to stop me from interrupting--which I wasn't going to do. "I know, I know, there's no such thing as bad publicity. I believe that maxim. After all, I invented it, but it do get tiresome. Decided to do something about it."
I wait. Wait some more. We stare at each other. A thin reef of smoke starts to rise from Stan's hairline.
"Aren't you gonna ask 'do what?'" he finally snarls.
"Figured you'd get around to it," I reply.
He smiles. Smoke disappears. "I keep forgetting why I like you, McQue. Keep reminding me, OK?" He picks up a remote, presses a button, and an enormous flatscreen monitor descends from his office ceiling. He presses antoher button. "Ever watch this?"
The monitor burst to life and a show starts. I watch for a few minutes.
"Once or twice," I say. "Me and Mel tune in when we need a good laugh. I'm surprised you haven't done something about it."
"I have," he smirks. "I produce it, direct it, cast it, and write it."
I'm stunned. "But . . . but . . ." I stammer.
"Yeah, I know," he smiles. "It's nothing like reality. But, face it, what's reality? This serves my purpose." He gestures to the screen where a hunky, bare-chested, male-model, line reader is sprouting a ridiculously outsized pair of wings from impossibly broad shoulders. The setting and dialog imply that said sprouting is because of an odd sexual reaction to a scantily clad bimbo in the left foreground.
"What possible purpose can it serve?" I ask, finally able to put together a coherent sentence.
"It makes me," he says, "relateable."
"Yeah," he leers. "Folks can relate to me. I'm sort of an anti-hero 'cause of this program."
"Anti-hero my auntie's fanny," I growl, really angry with Stan for once. "You're the embodiment of all things Evil. You're a vile, treacherous, loathsome . . ."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Stan smirks. "Besides, I don't want to be relateable to you, McQue."
He shakes his head. "Nice try, but no. Despite that lame attempt at being hip, you and folks your age and older aren't the demographic I'm going for. Look at this," He presses the remote again and a graphic--mercifully--supplants the network-driven drivel that had been on the monitor screen. "As you can see, this graph represents trends for shows with a 'supernatural' theme since the turn of the century." He somehow controls a pointer arrow in the screen. "The 'X' axis shows the popularity of what used to be called 'evil.' Note the steepness of the rise."
I'm stunned, but I shake it off. "Father of lies," I sneer. "You expect me to believe . . ."
"Me? No, of course not. Believe what you see instead. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, zombies--box office and ratings candy, McQue."
"So what?" I respond. "There's always been folks who like a good scare every . . . "
"Not talking about scares," he interrupts. "Talking about relateability. Think about what's happened with witches, wizards, and sorcery. Rowling and Tolkien are icons, McQue. Once upon a time their protagonists-not to mention their books--would have been burned. Today, they're idols and collectors' items. Or consider vampires and werewolves. How many teenage girls swooned over some stupid, insipid adolescent love triangle involving what once were hideous monsters?"
I'm silent. This is starting to make a horrible kind of sense. Stan goes on.
"And Dragons! Dragons, McQue! Stealers of damsels! Burners of cities! Munchers of knights errant and countless steeds! Nasty buggers by anyone's definition, huh? Oh but that's so 5 minutes ago! That's so yesterday! Today, instead of abducting or threatening princesses, dragons are helping a princess become a queen when she's not busy shedding her clothes or destroying entire civilizations."
"All right, all right! Enough, already," I plea. "Get to your point. "
Stan turns his head and looks at me quizzically.
"I thought even you would get it by now, McQue," Stan says. "I watched all this for years. Mind you, I did nothing to encourage it; nothing to push it along. But I ain't stupid. I saw what's happening . . ."
I wait. Stan lets the pause go. Eventually, he leans toward me and barks:
"Oh, come on! It ain't a mystery. Evil's becoming cool! Bad guys are "troubled," "misunderstood," and "broody." Bad girls are "conflicted," "torn," and "sexually awakened." So . . ."
I hold up my hand. Continue for him:
"So you decided to jump on the bandwagon," I murmur.
"Cliche-ish," he nods, "But essentially correct. I wanted to make sure this continues. I figured that, if all that little evil was doing so well, bigger would be better. And there ain't no bigger evil than me. So I came up with the idea you saw on the screen earlier and decided to put it out there. That's when I found out how much moolah it takes to greenlight a TV show."
"So what?" I ask. "Surely you got access to riches enough to buy Hollywood a thousand times over."
"Yeah, and if I just wanted to buy Hollywood, it would be no problem. But I couldn't use what I already got for this project," Stan replies.
"How should I know?" He snarls. "Ask Heather's Boss, the Fink! All I know is, when I tried to start the financing, I wasn't able to access my account. Too legitimate, I guess. Anyway, I had to come up with some way to leverage the investment."
"So you decided to buy a Casino," I said. "And you use the profits to angel the show."
"He sees the light at last!"
"And how's the show goin' these days?" I prod.
"Mensa, mensa," he replies, wavering his palm. "Audience likes it. Critics, meh!"
"No, you don't understand," I demure, "I asked how's the show goin' these days. It's been on for three years and you didn't buy the Casino until after the Melody incident--last year sometime . . ."
"Don't trouble your pretty little head about time anomalies, McQue," he grins. "They don't really apply to me. Besides, what's the diff? Now you know where I am and what I've been doing. You've earned your fees and you can go back to your ghostie girlfriend."
"Yes and no," I respond, settling into the chair. "See, you think that Beezie hired me because he suspected you were kidnapped . . ."
"Silly twit," Stan says, "Like anyone could pull that off."
I nod. "Exactly! He'd have to be stone stupid to believe that. So, just for a minute, let's pretend that he's not quite that dumb." I cross my legs. "While you're not at your home base, who's in charge?"
"Well, he is . . ."
I nod again. "And he stays in charge as long as you're away, right?"
"Yes . . ." Stan answers, drawing the affirmative out as though he's thinking about it.
"So, if he could figure out a way to keep you away for good, he'd be in charge for what? Forever?"
"No way, McQue," Stan shakes his head. "I know what you're thinking, but there's no way. I can go home whenever I want."
"Can you?" I ask. "Have you tried?"
"No . . ." he shakes his head. "But I've done it before this. I've gone home from here before this . . . wait." He thinks about it.
"Like you said," I repeat, "Don't worry your pretty little head about a time anomaly."
"O. K." he snarls, "It's silly, but O.K. I'll go home and I'll take you with me." He raises his arms. Wings sprout from his back. "Ruby Slippers!" he shrieks.
We're still in his office; still in Las Vegas.
He stares at me open-mouthed. "How did you . . ."
"Last time I was here," I say. "Heather wasn't able to do anything to help me. She's the Angel of Death but she was powerless in Vegas. I thought it was just because it's Las Vegas-the Devils, you know?-but what if it was because her Boss wouldn't let her help?" I rise from the chair and start to pace back and forth in front of Stan. "Las Vegas is just a city name. Its name could be Passaic or McKeesport-wouldn't matter. Any evil it contained wouldn't depend on the city name or any influence from buildings, streets, and other city stuff. But Heather's power wouldn't work here. And, if that was the case, maybe yours won't work either." I stop pacing. "Anyway, that's how I figured it."
"But that doesn't follow," Stan shakes his head. "Nobody knew I was going to be here . . ." but he stops 'cause I'm shaking my head.
"It took Melody about 2 minutes to figure out where you probably were. I might have even thought of it myself eventually. Beezie might be a nitwit, but I bet he's had a lot longer to think about where you might go and not be able to get back," I raise my hands in a shrug. "He knew you were gone. He knew about the Spirit of Christmas caper. It stands to reason he knew about me and Melody's dealings here in Vegas as well. He hired me to find out if he was right in thinking you were here."
I pull my cell phone from my pocket and start pushing buttons. "He hired me, but I don't think I'll like the changes he'll make if you can't get back. Won't like them at all . . ."
I'm back in my office with Melody sitting on my lap when Heather materializes next to us.
"Knock next time, will you?" I say.
She ignores me and says. "So, you found Stan."
"Actually, Melody found him," I reply. "I just managed to bring him back."
"And how did you do that?" she says. "When his power wouldn't work in Vegas?"
"So you knew about that, did you?" I nod. "Thought so. Anyway, you've got no one to blame for that but yourself." I reluctantly slide Melody's ghostly tush off my lap. "See, I remembered that you couldn't help me in Vegas, but there was no reason why I couldn't have helped you."
"Of course," she muses. "Silly of me. You simply . . ." She starts.
"Ordered two plane tickets, drove us to the airport, got Stan out of Vegas air space, and he went home." I complete her sentence while she nods. "You'll see the ticket receipt on my expense report."
"And we'll pay it!" she says, a smile enhancing her lovely face. "The Boss is very pleased that we won't have to deal with Beelzebub instead of Stan. Well done, Gavin!" And she's gone. Melody returns to my lap and we resume canoodling.
A minute later a flash heralds the arrival of Stan.
"Hey you two . . . get a room," he leers.
"We got one," I reply. "It's called my office. Try coming through the door next time."
"Yadadee, yadda," he says. "Here."
He tosses an envelope toward me. It's heavy.
"Here's a little bit of what I owe you for putting me wise to Beezie's scheme McQue. Should be enough to get that house you guys are always talking about . . ." he says.
"Hey. How did you know about . . ."
"Please," he holds up a hand, "Don't make me any more embarrassed than I already am. First I gotta depend on you to get me out of a bind. Then I gotta accept a coach class plane ticket 'cause I can't get myself outta said bind. Don't make me have to explain how I know that you and your girly ghostie want a house." He cocks his head. "Gotta go. Beezie's done basting on one side and I need to turn him" And he's gone.
I look at Melody. She's looking into Stan's envelope with awe on her face.
"Realtors next?" I ask.
x x x
Another year gone for dear old anotherealm. Some really fine stories this year. Thanks to all who contributed. Apologies for salving my ego, but I needed to write this one. Gavin and Melody need a house. Best wishes for a joyous and blessed holiday season. -GM