Authors: Tori Centanni
Tags: #Demon's Assistant Book 1
I stop drinking and start gathering abandoned plastic cups. Heather’s words run through my head: “This is my death warrant and you brought it to me like it was nothing.” Is that what I’m doing? I chuck a cup full of potato chips into the trash bag. No, it can’t be. The act of delivering a letter isn’t what kills them. How can it be? I’m just the messenger, giving them a time or, at least, giving her a time. Who knows if the letters are ever the same? Anyhow, she was expecting someone, hence the holy water trap. So she knew something was happening today and her desperation proves she didn’t think it was good. She knew her time was up before I got there. But then, why send the letters at all? What’s the point?
“Earth to Nicki.” Melissa is standing in front of me, waving her gloved hand.
“Hey,” I say, trying to shake off the unease. “What’s up?”
She takes the empty beer cup I’m holding and chucks it into the bag for me. “I’m about to miss curfew, so I’m out. Just wanted to say bye.”
“How’d it go with Brian?”
She shakes her head sadly. “He’s oblivious or not interested.”
“I guess. But I’m still his ride home, so I should go. He’s already in the car.” She hesitates, eyeing me. “Are you—”
“I beg you not to finish that. I’m totally fine.”
She smiles, and for the first time all night, I think she actually believes it.
The party breaks up pretty soon after that. By the time everyone who can fit piles into the cars of the sober people and those without rides pass out on sofas or, like Josh, on the floor, it’s nearly three in the morning.
Up in Cam’s room, he grabs me and runs his hand beneath my shirt. “You should wear my clothes all of the time,” he slurs. “It’s so hot.”
“You are wasted,” I say, gently moving his hands back down to my hips. “You know the rule.” The rule is that we don’t have sex when he’s drunk.
He grins sloppily. “Can I at least have a kiss?”
I pretend to consider. “I suppose. One.” I hold a finger up to his lips and he kisses it, and then leans down to kiss my lips. He tastes like rum and salt, but it’s a passionate kiss, warm and reassuring. When we break apart, he stumbles a little and then laughs.
“All right, buddy. Time for bed.”
Even drunk, he manages to put on pajamas and brush his teeth before falling into bed. I pull off my bra and slide in next to him.
He turns over and puts his arm around me, holding me a little more tightly than usual. “Promise me something,” he says softly. His warmth against me makes me sleepy and his arms make me feel safe.
“Sure,” I say, already fighting the pull of sleep.
“If he comes here tonight, wake me up. Don’t run off alone.”
He doesn’t have to specify who “he” is. “Okay.”
Satisfied, Cam drifts off, and soon, he’s snoring softly. But now I’m wide awake, expecting the demon to tap on the window, even though we’re on the second story. Although, come to think of it, I don’t know if that would stop him. I wonder if Heather Bancroft had the right idea with the holy water and salt, or if that was a shot in the dark.
I get up and double-check that the front and back doors are locked before getting back in bed. Surely, though, locks can’t keep him out, can they?
Seven months I’ve worked for the demon, Azmos, and the amount that I know for certain is pathetically small. Now that people are attacking me when I play delivery girl, it’s time to demand some real answers.
The next few days pass without a single visit from Azmos, which is a relief until Wednesday, when I start to worry. Not for him. I’m sure he’s fine. After all,
. He’s probably been forcing innocent teenagers to skip class to do his bidding for the last two millennia.
Instead, I worry that he’ll show up at any second. Any flash of auburn or sunglasses throws me off balance. And then I start to worry he might never show up again, and somehow, that freaks me out even more. I lose the thread of conversations and my class notes start to turn into doodles of little envelopes and spikey-haired demons. I’ve never been a stellar student, but by Thursday, I’m starting to wonder what it would actually take to flunk out of high school.
I’m so pathetically relieved to see Azmos leaning against the stone wall that lines the path to my apartment building that I nearly run to him. He’s wearing a prep school jacket and pants and has a red backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Nice outfit,” I say.
“I don’t suppose it’s one you want to tell me.”
“Not even a hint?” I push. Normally, I’d let it drop, but I’m tired of knowing so little about something that takes up so much of my life.
“You don’t need to know.” He reaches into his jacket and I expect him to take out the usual envelope, but instead, he pulls out a silver cigarette case and lights a smoke. He offers me a cigarette and I wave the case away.
“Maybe I want to know.” He doesn’t respond. “Smoking’s disgusting.”
He blows the smoke away from me, but some of it lingers and makes my nose itch. “I find it relaxing.”
I lean against the stone with him. “Are you immortal? I mean, can you get cancer?” He laughs and chokes a little on the smoke, and it takes him a second to stop coughing. “Okay, point made,” I say. “Stupid question.”
“No, it’s a good question. Such a basic one that I fear I take the answer for granted. No, I cannot get cancer. As for immortality,” he rubs the butt of the cigarette against the stone, leaving a trail of black ash, “that’s a matter of perspective.”
It’s an answer, which is more than he usually gives me, so I try another. “What happens to the people I give the letters to?”
“We both know you’re not that naive, Nicolette.”
“No. I mean. I know. Sort of. I mean, do they get dragged off to hell? Is there a hell?”
“Are you asking me if you’re damned?” He’s grinning, but it’s not his usual, snake-like smile. This is a casual, friendly grin. He’s teasing me. He’s amused. The urge to punch him fights with the rational part of me that knows punching a demon is probably unwise. And worse, I realize that is exactly what I’m asking.
Am I damned?
I swallow, hard. “Am I?” He tilts his head, thoughtful, and considers. I almost don’t want him to answer.
“Human mythology gets a lot of things wrong. Not surprisingly. You work with what you’ve got. Sometimes, it’s not nearly enough.” He turns the cigarette over in his fingers. “You’re not damned. What I know of the Spirit Realm is limited, but I don’t believe there is such a thing as damnation, not really. And if there is, I am not the sort of demon who doles it out, if such demons exist.”
“Oh,” I say, letting out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I can’t decide what stuns me more: That my definition of demon has a lot of room for expansion or that he actually answered a question. But I’m relieved to know I’m not headed for a fiery eternity. “Then what are you?”
He straightens and takes off the backpack. “Demon is close enough. I believe the last civilization to come up with a more accurate word perished a long time ago.” He pulls out the familiar, silver envelope and I groan theatrically like I’m taken by surprise. His smile doesn’t waver. “I don’t bargain for souls.”
I take the envelope. It’s weightier than normal, but there’s still only one name and address. “So you bargain for lives?”
“It’s not that simple,” he says, zipping the backpack up. “But I guess you could say that.”
I tap the envelope against my leg. “Do you know beforehand who’s going to need your services?”
Azmos tilts his head and examines me. “Sometimes. Sometimes, it’s merely a case of good timing.”
“Which was I?”
“An exception.” He pulls the backpack on over his other shoulder. “You should get going.”
“What do you mean, exception?”
“I mean yours is a unique case.” Which explains exactly nothing.
“Could you have stopped it?” I ask. “Could you have saved my mom?”
He stares, but his hands clench and unclench into fists. He takes a breath. “No.”
“So it wasn’t a choice between me and her?”
He reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder. “No, Nicolette. It was never you or her. She was already lost.”
I take in a shuddering breath. I had no idea how much that question had weighed on me until this moment and now I feel a sense of relief. A little bit of guilt dissolves inside me.
“You should go,” Azmos prompts, dropping his hand.
“When I hand these people the letters, am I—“ I don’t know how to phrase it. Killing them? Handing them their death warrants, like Heather said? “If I didn’t, would they live?”
Azmos is clearly surprised by the question. “No,” he says. “I bargain with people who are out of time. But there’s only so much I can give them.”
Which is what Heather said. I swallow. “So how much time do I have?”
Azmos lights another cigarette. “As I said, you’re an exception.” I let out another breath. Before I can ask what that means, Azmos taps the envelope in my hand. “Now hurry along. That’s urgent.”
I put the address in my phone. I know it’s in Ballard, but the bus app will tell me if there’s a faster way to get there and back than the usual bus line. “Thanks,” I say, looking up at Azmos. He raises an eyebrow over the rim of his sunglasses. “For actually talking to me. I mean, a little.”
“You caught me at a good time.” He walks to the sidewalk. By the time I get my directions and look up again, Azmos is nowhere in sight.
The house is easy enough to find, a block away from a main street and a bus line. It’s a blue rectangle, built so the first floor sinks into the ground. The name on the envelope is Harold Nunez. I stand out front on the sidewalk, wondering if Harold is watching me and preparing to attack. Heather knew I was coming, and she wasn’t the first. For every person who looked dazed by the delivery, there were five who seemed to be on edge and expecting something, just not a teen girl with a shiny envelope.
I count to ten and then march up to the front door. I knock and then step back, listening closely for any sound that might indicate a gun or weapon.
But Harold is not threatening. I’d peg him at over thirty, with graying, black hair and high cheekbones. He wears a collared shirt and jeans and there’s a sadness in his eyes that tells me he’s well aware his time is almost up. If he’s angry, he doesn’t show it. He takes the envelope and I bolt, not waiting for him to open it.
No matter how at ease he seemed, I don’t want to risk it.
Errand done, I get on the bus, going the other way, and slump into a sideways seat near the back. I pull out my current assigned book for English class,
It doesn’t hold my attention, and two stops later, I shove the book back in my bag and pull out my phone. I text my Dad, who sends back a short message that he’s okay and Nonna’s okay, but to call him later. My stomach twists at the prospect, because if he has news, it’s probably not good. Then I start to wonder what would happen if Azmos needed me to deliver something if I were out of town. I make a mental note to ask him, because it’s likely I’ll be flying to California sooner rather than later.
I feel oddly uneasy, like I’m being watched. I look up and the guy across the aisle is staring. He has inky-black hair, vampire-pale skin—it’s still light outside or I’d wonder—and his blue eyes are trained directly on me. There are flecks of silver in his eyes and cold seems to waft off of him, but maybe it’s because he’s wearing a black t-shirt without a coat in fifty-degree weather. His skin is way too smooth. He can’t be human. Which means he has to be a demon.
A demon who is staring at me.
My heart picks back up again and a cold sweat breaks out on my upper lip. I wipe it away.
“You must be Nicolette,” he says. His breath puffs out into the air of the heated bus. I nearly stop breathing.
“Who are you?” I narrow my eyes and try to act unruffled, as if demons appear in front of me all the time and know my name.
“I’m called Xanan,” he says.
We’re alone at the back of the nearly empty bus. But there are mirrors and the driver can see us. I’m not actually alone and this would be a bad place for him to try anything, assuming he cares about witnesses. That thought chills my blood.