Tarmac span into the ravine as the truck scraped past a tree that had fallen across the road; its roar drowning out the sound of their pursuers for a moment. Slice wedged herself further into her hiding place and did her best not to listen as their howls bounced down the valley. The snarls sliding over the snow were getting closer. There was a lurch as her ride gained traction and more of the road spun into the chasm.
Knives and bullets she could deal with, they had men behind them, but winter was different. Slice needed a hell of a lot more rest if she wanted to influence a mountain range. She scraped hair from her cheek. The blood had washed off days ago, but she could still feel it on her skin. It was going to take even longer to forget the warehouses smell as it went up. She’d been warned, right from the start, and more than once. But Slice had never listened when she was curious. She liked to make her own mind up; her friends had died at the Stations of the Cross with candles for mouths, and cinders for eyes because of that. She hadn’t realised it would be so quick, so powerful. Slice tried to rub the exhaustion from her eyes. At least she was on her own now; maybe it was better that way.
‘And I have this.’
She stuck her head between the logs she was clinging too and let air so full of ice she could barely breath slide into her lungs.
‘…how you doing Earl?’
‘Could be better…long drive.’
Slice opened an eye that felt like frost had tried to weld it shut during the night and stuck her head from her sleeping bag.
He told me you’d be late. We need to get your cargo off and the rig turned round with me in it, like, yesterday.’
As they faded into the distance she risked peering round the logs. A run in with the law meant questions. Unless they believed her lies about missing papers there were bound to be problems, and the spot that had been itching between her shoulder blades ever since the fire was growing worse. She’d no idea how far she’d have to travel to get away from the sort of attention they’d attracted, no idea if it was even possible. Slice glanced at the cars zooming past. She had a hundred bucks and her thumb.
‘Where you going girl? In case you haven’t noticed it’s going to snow later on. What are you a fool?’
‘Good morning Sir,’ Slice made sure to stretch her best smile across her face, the one she’d used when they were recruiting, and leant towards the car’s open window. ‘My rides broken down. Can you help? Anywhere a little further along would be just fine.’
The man in the beaten up jeep gave her the once over, ‘You from round here?’ He spat leaving a crater in the snow near her feet, ‘What’s wrong with your eyes?’
‘Nothing to be worried about, sir,’ Slice pulled her hat from her head, ‘I’m as normal inside as the next young girl even if my Mum always says they must have given her the wrong kid at the hospital. The condition’s called Polycoria it makes me look a bit odd.’
He gave her a slow once over, taking in the rips n and whirls where her pupils had spilt across her eyes.
‘I’m going as far as Spokane. First sign I see of you being more of freak than you already look you’re back on the road side.’
It turned out the man’s name was North, and he was a vet: from oil rigs to a half dozen bullshit conflicts he’d been there.
‘…I’m ready for retirement now; had enough of the mountains.’
They’d parked by the rail road not long after she’d made the offer. For a moment he was silent, ‘Gonna settle down somewhere warmer – fish myself to death.’
The engine ticked for a moment and Slice sighed. It was time, there was no point delaying it any longer.
‘Then you won’t mind this.’
When she’d finished the Monofilament made a wet sound like a kiss as she slid it from his neck and put the reel back in her pocket before closing his eyes. They’d been so hopeful when she’d said yes; she wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d parked on the tracks instead of beside them.
Slice dug through his pockets lifting money, discarding ID, thankful nobody had her prints below the border, not yet anyway. They’d think it was a suicide if she lit the car properly.
She’d gotten as far as the first carriage before the lights began to strobe. She supposed she should have expected it. North had been more alive than she’d thought. The fire burning off the car wasn’t the only beacon she’d lit.
She’d gotten as far as the first carriage before the lights began to strobe. She there?’
A shape was just visible in the gaps where the floods didn’t reach.
‘Where you going little Slice?’
‘What business is it of yours? You shouldn’t even be here.’
There was a pop and they snapped back on all the way. The figure perched on the junction’s sign post was so huge it had bent the metal like a straw, and it had the pits lowest circle’s metre long horns.
‘Neither should you: the boss wants a word. You shouldn’t have run.’
Slice shrugged, ‘You didn’t see what I called. How’d you find me so fast? I didn’t dedicate to you.’
She turned to go. Devils all wanted the same thing, and she’d enough blood on her hands from All Hallows. She’d gotten as far as the nearest railway cars before the wind filled with the voices she’d last heard back home.
‘I’ll let them loose Slice. You know I will, I’ve an offer you should hear.’
‘What makes you think I’d do business with you?’
‘Because I’ll offer you your heart’s desire.’
She stifled a yawn. It had been too long a journey for the usual bullshit, and the one stop North and her had made for coffee hadn’t done much for topping up her reserves.
‘Heard it before,’ said Slice as the Devil started to clamber down the sign post snapping off boards with the names of towns she’d never heard of as it went. ‘Stay away from me.’
She put as much of the voice into it as she could, glad to see it pause.
‘Who taught you how to do that?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Little lonely Slice. I can offer you something better than that.’
‘That’s your train,’ it pointed in the direction of a goods car, and a door slammed back, ‘when you get to your destination I want you to deliver a present for me.’
Slice hadn’t noticed before, but the Devil had something in its fist.
‘Your reward, you work for me and I’ll make sure you get something no mortal has ever had. All you have to do is one thing.’
Slice could see what it had in its hand now: they looked like dice; except every surface was printed with a six.
‘The pass for the Gates of Hell. If you help me fulfil my quota I’ll let you keep it.’
‘I don’t know. I’ve my own ideas about work.’
‘There are perks,’ the Devil dropped a leather holdall at her feet, inside was a gun like they used in beauty parlours. ‘I’d use it myself, but they’re on to me. Even in my circle theft gets noticed. Pretty soon armaments will be here. Take it and spray as many of the vermin that come crawling past you as possible.’ The Devil watched the expression on Slice’s face, ‘If you do I’ll show you what we’ve done to your Father.’
‘He’s with you?’ Slice shook the dice in her fist, ‘and with these I can…?’
‘Any time you like.’
She bent down and scooped up the case like she was picking up gold. The one thing she wanted more than anything in the world was too see that old bastard again, and wipe the smile off his face.
The railway yards lights had begun to flicker again, so badly it was getting hard to see as scraps of paper raced by fast enough you’d have thought they were being chased.
‘That’ll be them,’ The Devil craned its head to look at where the moon was just visible through the clouds. As they watched something passed across its face; the Devil turned to Slice. ‘Go, quick, remember, spray them well. They’ll thank you.’
Slice didn’t hesitate she ran down the tracks so fast her feet had trouble keeping up. She’d met Hell’s Department of Harmaments once before, and once was enough.
It was raining when the train stopped for the last time; and she got the impression the townsfolk probably liked it that way the place was that clean.
‘Mr I know it’s late, but I need a room.’
Slice slapped some more of North’s money down, hoping that the lake forming at her feet wouldn’t put the guest house owner off, ‘a week should do it
‘Sure, and a newspaper. I’m looking for work.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a tanning technician,’ She put the box the Devil had given her on the counter, ‘I give people fake tans.’
Slice was up half the night before she hit jackpot. She circled the add and the woman’s name, and this time the bargaining to get it right took more out of her than it ever had before.
‘Never told me I’d have to do all the leg work did you?’
Slice pulled at one of the bags under her eyes with a finger and grimaced. It felt like Hell had given her a year or two extra in return for assistance this time.
There was a knock on her door, and she stopped her examination.
‘You in there Miss Slice?’
‘I wasn’t sure if I should say anything; its odd timing, but there’s an opening at the local beauty parlour. The owner’s a friend of mine and I mentioned your name. Come see me when you’re ready. I’ll give you the number.’
Slice smiled, and glanced at the sheets, she’d have to throw them away before her landlord noticed the scorch marks. But it was a good start to the morning none the less.
When the woman sat in the neon lit parlour looked up her mascara had run half way down her cheeks. Slice tried to smile a little less widely.
‘Hallo, my name’s Slice. Mr Bartholomew at Crabapple Guest House sent me. I hear you’re looking for someone.’
‘Yes, but…I don’t know…it’s so soon. If it wasn’t for the rent being due and Porter needing a hip replacement I wouldn’t even be considering it. If I give you a booth and let you get on with it can you manage that? We’ll sort things out at the end of the week. The other girls will keep an eye on you.’
‘Why, what’s wrong?’
The woman stared at a spot somewhere past Slice’s ear.
‘A friend of mine was washed up on the shore last night, it looked like someone had…’
She rubbed at her cheeks as she tried to chase her tears away.
‘Just don’t cause any trouble.’
‘I won’t, I promise.’
Slice doubted she’d heard her, she certainly never saw her newest operative’s smile as she left.
By bthe end of the month Slice had more customers than anyone else in the Parlour.
‘What do you do to them?’ Her colleague, Cheri, smiled. Cheri had four kids and a husband who was always fooling about, and the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. ‘Nothing I try gets the sort of response you do.’
‘I tell them what they want to hear.’
Her colleague lifted a slat on the blinds. ‘I don’t know if it’s working so well today, look at them.’ Some of the customers on the row of chairs were itching so much they had welts on their skin, ‘You sure what you’re using’s Ok?’
‘They just need another treatment is all. I tell you what: if I let you have the ones I don’t want will you keep quiet about this?’
‘I suppose…if you give me ten percent.’
‘Sure, Cheri,’ Slice was as sweet as knives when she wanted to be, ‘you can have as much as you like.’
She opened the door and was nearly flattened as the first of her customer’s pushed past.
‘My skin’s peeling.’
‘I can’t feel anything.’
‘Calm down, calm down,’ said Slice with a weathergirl’s smile: broad and shiny as the sun, ‘all you need is another sesh. Now, none of you’ve been to the Doctor have you? Like we agreed?’
Not that it would have mattered, Slice had been visiting him in the dead of night too, and the old bachelor would have cut his wrists open than harmed the young girl he liked to call his ‘angel’.
‘It felt so good at first,’ said a woman with half her face hanging off.
‘It will again, I promise,’ said Slice.
‘But we’ve no money for another sitting,’ that was one of the town’s yuppies, and you could see the scales peeking through his skin.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Slice beamed, ‘today’s freebie day.’
That was a busy morning, she sprayed ‘til her fingers ached, and her customers shone like bronze.
It was on all of their lips.
That night Slice made her first trip to see Dad.
‘You didn’t tell me it would need so many.’
‘Why should I?’
The Devil spread its palms wide, ‘You really thought you could just walk in and out without something to offer?’
Slice shut her mouth. She wasn’t a child, she’d been dealing with the pit since she was sixteen; of course there were trades to be made.
‘When will you take them?’
‘That’s the beauty of it, we won’t, not straight away this time. They’re just the start. Now, do you want to see him?’
When she finally got back to her booth and pulled the curtains around her she still had the smell of Hellfire on her clothes and screams in her ears. At one point she’d thought she was going to damage herself, only the Devil catching her arms had stopped her.
‘Just watch a moment Slice see what he’s got an eternity of, then you can start again, and again, and again. Every time you come back he’ll be ready.’
She could still feel the soft flicker of its tongue as it whispered the words. She went back plenty of times after that, just like the Devil had known she would. Nothing had ever felt quite as good as watching her father crawl on his stumps to where they’d torn his limbs from their sockets.
‘And they put them back afterwards?’
‘Of course, it wouldn’t be much fun otherwise.’
She’d taken one last look at the whimpering thing as it tried to escape her, and flicked it off the end of her boot.
‘See you soon Dad.’
Slice pulled her thoughts back to the present. It was the middle of the night, and she was alone in the shop, or she should have been. A knock on the window made her look up.
‘Who’s there? Come on; you know I’m busy.’
Pretty soon she wished she’d kept her mouth shut as hands bounced across the glass trailing skin that had peeled into ribbons.
‘You have to help us.’
‘…we need another spray.’
The bell tinkled and her customers came in. Most of them hadn’t bothered to dress this time. But a few had odds and ends on them like they’d forgotten what they were doing as soon as they’d started, or forgotten why they were doing it in the first place.
‘We don’t open till nine.’
‘Slice, please, we need it now.’
‘It hurts real bad.’
The shapes glistening under the lights looked like they’d been hit with a hammer, annealed, until what flesh they had left was stretched over their scales like ash. Slice decided they had a point.
‘Here, do it yourselves.’
The gun arched over their heads and landed in their midst.
Slice watched as their hands thrashed and tore until they found what they wanted, and the shop door slammed open hard enough to shatter glass. Slice looked at the storm that had come with them, and then back at the huddle round her booth. They’d started spraying already. She could hear the hiss and clack of the gun. She was outside in the snow before anyone remembered she existed.
‘Told you you’d be able to visit Hell as often as you liked. You’re going to live in it soon.’
The Devil was sat on the shop front, and it didn’t take her long to realise it was laughing.
‘You said I could come and go.’
‘Did I? I forget, anyway, I meant the other place. By the way you’re not running off anywhere, I want you to watch.’
Of course she tried, but every time she got close it picked her up and brought her back. She got a ringside view after that; even if it was a cold one. Slice kept to the church mostly, no one had told its owner that girls like her weren’t supposed to cross its threshold, and it was quiet, particularly in the steeple.
She supposed it was about the tenth day when they finally gave up on subterfuge. Slice watched a woman scream her way past below, and debated whether or not to try and help. But she knew if she went down she wasn’t coming back; the creatures that had done it were only yards behind. As she watched one of them put her out of her misery, and Slice really started to think about how she was going to get out of town.
At first she was worried she wouldn’t find the gun in the shattered glass and shed skins of the ruined Beauty parlour. But as the Church bell rang in her ears her fingers touched its casing, and she heard something whisper in her head. By the time she returned it looked like her former customers could tell something was amiss. They clutched at their ears and fell to the ground popping and thrashing so much they were in danger of hurting themselves, as if they could smell something and they didn’t like it. Slice wondered if someone had seen what she’d been picking in the churches graveyard, but she doubted it because they would have run if they knew what was good for them. Slice decided to get to work, and swung up and down on the bell tower’s rope performing arabesques and pirouettes until her palms were sore. By now so many baby lizards had appeared in the square it was packed. When there was enough of a crowd she sprayed so much that even the houses were soaked with Hemlock by the time she’d finished. Soon the figures that had thrashed like their hamstrings had been cut were leaving the ground behind and her neck had grown tired of trying to follow them through the night sky. Slice walked through the muck they left behind the happiest girl in the world; listening to silence for the first time in her life. She didn’t even hear the Devils howl of rage as she kicked severed eyeballs into the gutters with a smile on her face.
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