“Are you him or are you the boring one?”
“Do I know you?”
“I used to hang out at the Bamboo House of Dolls. Till he came around.”
“Princess, did the boring one go around kicking in doors?”
“It sounds like you. Wait here.”
Twenty seconds come and go. Too bad. I always liked this door with the gold letters flaking off. But never make a threat you’re not willing to go carry out. I step back a good kicking distance. The door doesn’t look like much, so there’s no need to get dramatic. Just bring up a leg to kick out the lock. I draw it up and for a second I’m standing on the street like a leather flamingo. The door swings open and Candy is standing there. She looks at me on one leg, in dirty leather and a road-rash coat. I look at her. The same ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors. She has on a T-shirt covered with Japanese writing. Looks like it’s for an all-girl band I never heard of. Then we’re both looking at each other. Then it occurs to me to put my leg down.
“Hi,” she says.
She looks at me like I’m a ghost or trick. Saint James must have done a number on these people if no one trusts their eyes. A minute later a grin spreads across her face. She comes out and throws her arms around my shoulders. Jumps and wraps her legs around my waist. She stays that way for a minute before climbing down. And John Wayne roundhouse punches me in the face. I put up my arms to rope-a-dope her in case she decides to punch again. She does, throwing haymakers to my body every couple of words.
“You asshole. You stupid goddamn dumb motherfucker. I fucking hate you and how fucking stupid you are.”
There’s a second of quiet and then a painful, “Ow.”
She reaches inside my coat and pulls open my shirt. Looks at the armor and then at me.
“What the hell is that?”
“Protection from crazy girls who say hello with their fists.”
“I have not yet begun to kick your ass. You run off for a weekend in Hell and don’t come back and we don’t hear anything. Then who shows up but some baby-face hippie version of you who’d rather save the whales than have a drink with me?”
“So you met the prodigal asshole.”
“And then we figure it out. He’s some kind of Hellion practical joke. A monster sent here to take your place. That’s when we know you were dead.”
I try to put my hands on her shoulders but she bats them away.
“I’m sorry about everything but this is me and I’m not dead.”
“Well, fuck you and your good news. You’re probably just a different stupid monster they sent up. What’s your gimmick? You going to macramé us to world peace?”
“I’m my own monster and I sent myself up.”
“To find you.”
She looks away. Digs the toe of her Chuck Taylor into a squashed piece of gum by the door, trying to loosen it. Inside, the Ludere and a couple of patients watch us like a flesh-and-blood reality show.
She says, “I let Stark go because he was being all noble and I wanted to be noble too so he would remember me when he found Alice. Dumbest thing I ever did.”
I get closer.
“How could I forget about you and you torturing me with those stupid robot sunglasses? If you think I was playing house with Alice all this time, you’re wrong. I sent her home the day I found her. It’s me here. Not that other guy. Alice and Hell and all the rest is over and done with.”
She crosses her arms.
“How do I know it’s you?”
“When I said I came back to find you? I lied. I came back for the knife I loaned you. Hand it over.”
She looks at me and furrows her forehead. Her eyes get a little red. Not like “Oh, my God. Godzilla is going to step on me.” More like tears red. But she doesn’t actually cry. She’s a monster and a killer like me. We sometimes tear up but leave the crying to the suckers we hit.
She comes over and puts her hand on my chest. Then slides it over to hug me. Through the armor I feel her body as she lays her head on my chest. She punches me in the side. Lightly this time, so it’s barely a punch at all.
“You ever take off like that again, you take me with you.”
She takes a step back, looking at the armor.
“What’s the story with the Iron Man gear?”
Then she smiles.
“Oh my God. Stark. It all makes sense. You’re really Tony Stark. You’ve been Iron Man all along.”
“Oh God. I can see this joke isn’t going to die anytime soon.”
“You can count on that.”
I put my arms around her and just hold her there.
“Things got weirder Downtown than I ever counted on. I got hurt pretty bad. The Pat Boone clone you met is a part of me that escaped. And he took some of my strength with him. The armor belongs to Lucifer and brings some of it back.”
She looks up at me.
“Hurt like how?”
“If you’re not sure which Stark you’re talking to, ask him to show you his arm.”
I push up my sleeve.
The Ludere and patients peeking over Candy’s shoulder make little gasping sounds. Candy is the only one who doesn’t look like she’s going to be sick. She touches my robot bug hand and runs her fingers up the length of my sleek black arm until she gets to where it attaches to my shoulder.
“This is so fucking awesome.”
If you ever need to confirm that a girl is worth coming back from Hell for, show her your monster arm and see what she says.
Allegra comes out of the treatment room with a bunch of purple plant bulbs in her hands. She smiles in a kind of rueful way when she sees me and comes over and gives me a hug. Unlike the others, she knows it’s me right off.
“I’m sorry about that stuff that happened before. Please tell me there’s no hard feelings. I’m just glad to see you alive.”
“No hard feelings at all. I’m just happy to be back. You know, on the way over I was going to ask you to look at my jaw ’cause it hurt. Then I remembered I’ve been speaking nothing but Hellion for three months.”
“You’ll get plenty of practice at people talk when you tell us everything that happened.”
I’m not talking to anyone about everything that happened, but that still leaves a lot to tell.
Candy turns and steps away from me. I hear her heart rate jump. Smell the faint beginning of tension sweat.
“Stark, this is Rinko.”
Rinko is a couple of inches taller than Candy. Like her, Rinko is pretty, with dark almond eyes and black hair down to her waist. On her right shoulder is a tattoo of a rainbow-striped Oni. Lower down she has Astro Boy wearing a leather biker cap and chaps.
At least Candy hasn’t been alone all this time.
Candy motions Rinko over and I shake her hand. There’s a certain coolness to her skin.
“You’re a Jade,” I say.
Her eyes get hard.
“Something wrong with that?”
“No. I just never met any besides Candy. It’s funny finally running into one.”
If Rinko could breathe fire I’d be crispy bacon by now. The girl can’t stand the sight of me. It’s probably how I would have been around some of Alice’s exes.
Candy takes Rinko by the arm and walks her to the back of the waiting room. They have a fast, intense conversation. All stage whispers and hand waving.
Inside the clinic it’s both familiar and not. There’s the same cheap plastic chairs in the waiting room but the walls have been painted a pale blue. The same overflowing bookcase. The rickety old desk has been replaced with a shiny IKEA one.
Candy’s conversation ends with Rinko throwing up her hands and stomping away into a back room, keeping her eyes down and away from me. Candy gets a jacket off the desk chair and says to Allegra, “I’m gone for the rest of the night. That cool?”
“Très cool,” says Allegra. She gives us a little wave on the way out.
“Let’s go,” she says. “Are they still holding a room for you at the Beat Hotel?”
“I doubt it but cash is the magic anyone can do, and tonight I’m Houdini.”
She stops when she sees the Hellion hog.
“Yep. Like it?”
“It’s almost as cool as the arm.”
A girl to come back from Hell for.
Turns out Kasabian was right and Pope Joan is on duty. It takes $200 to get the old room but I’d rather get inside than haggle, so I give her the money and get the key.
Inside, Candy pushes me down on the bed and climbs on top.
“On the way over, I wasn’t sure I was going to fuck you but then I thought that Rinko is going to be mad at me no matter what, so I’d rather get blamed for doing something than doing nothing.”
She throws off her jacket and shirt and unzips my pants. I pull off my shirt, pants, and boots but not the armor.
“Um. You keeping that on?”
“I’m not sure what’ll happen if I take it off. I know I’ll just be a regular mortal and die if someone slips in here and shanks me while I’m asleep. Or I might choke to death from all the Hellion muck I’ve been eating and breathing.”
She raps on the armor with her knuckles, takes my arms, and pins them down to the bed.
“That’s cool. I’m into cosplay. Between the armor and the arm you can be both brothers in Full Metal Alchemist.”
“So, we’re having a three-way with only two people.”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
When Candy and I were alone together, we had a habit of wrecking rooms. Once upon a time we practically tore the walls down in here. Tonight isn’t like that. It’s slower and a lot more tentative, like Candy is still trying to convince herself I’m real.
Later, when we’re lying around and the sweat is cooling under my armor, Candy says, “This is weird.”
“Sleeping with a guy again?”
“Don’t be stupid. I keep waiting for someone to yell ‘April fool’ and for you to vanish.”
“The only joke in all this was me leaving. I’m not sorry about why I left but I’m sorry I didn’t come back. Before I left, I should have thought of a way to let you know I was all right.”
“There’s that. So how was it down there?”
“Mean and sad and strange and it ends with me being crowned prom queen of Hell.”
“Sure it does.”
She leans up on one elbow and looks at the clock radio.
“Shit. I should get back. Rinko will be waiting up for me. You know how girls are.”
“Don’t keep her waiting. That doesn’t turn out well for anyone.”
She runs a hand through her messy hair.
“Listen, Rinko is an old friend . . .”
“You don’t have to explain anything to me. Not now, not ever. Whatever you do is okay by me.”
She smiles, gets up, and gets dressed. At the door she tugs up her pants leg and slides my black bone knife out of a sheath on the side of her boot.
“You gave me this to hold for you. Now that you’re home, I suppose you’ll want it back.”
“I stole Mason’s. Why don’t you go ahead and keep that one.”
“For real? No take-backs?”
She slips the knife back into its sheath and pulls down her pants leg.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Talk to you then.”
She blows me a quick kiss on the way out.
Once upon a time I saved the world and lost a girl. Then I saved Hell and lost another girl. This is getting to be a bad habit.
The hotel phone rings.
The line crackles.
“That was a hell of an exit, Lord Lucifer. I wasn’t sure you were going to make it.”
It’s a man’s voice.
“Were you relieved or disappointed?”
“Relieved. Thrilled even. The worlds below and above would be much more boring without you.”
“Who is this?”
“Not Vetis. But you knew that.”
“You’re not speaking Hellion. You’re either a possessed mortal or a damned soul. I don’t think a soul could call up here even with heavy hoodoo, so my guess is a mortal.”
“Listen to you go, Deep Blue.”
“Did the hounds make it back all right?”
“The ones that didn’t follow you over the edge. More blood on your hands. You’re like death on a bender.”
“Your voice is familiar but so what? You’ll be someone different next time.”
“Then what do we have to talk about? Fuck off.”
I slam down the receiver and rip the plug out of the wall.
I should have known the moment I decided not to go back Downtown. I don’t have to. Hell will follow me here.
In the morning, when I start to go out, I reach for a gun and remember that all I have is the Glock. A sleek manly gun. Guys who love Glocks love Corvettes because Dad had one and they’re still trying to crawl out of the old man’s shadow. Glocks: the only guns that come with a side of daddy issues. I hate Glocks. But I take it anyway.
I spend the day just walking around breathing in the perfume of car exhaust, dry air-conditioned air, and greasy Mexican food. I buy a fish taco from a van on the street. It looks like the Mona Lisa and tastes like God’s own Lunchable.
I’m still getting used to a sky. And lost and frantic civilians piling up on the street corners, fidgeting, waiting for the green light. Running at the wrong time on the red and almost getting hit by a bus. They gasp like they’re all gut-punched, never catching their breath from the endless running. If they knew they had a billion billion years of Heaven or Hell to look forward to after their measly eighty on Earth, would they slow down or would they get even more wired?