BOOK TWO of THE PLAYLIST TRILOGY: THE DEVIL’S PLAYLIST
CATHERINE wakes up in the hospital, shocked to learn she’s trapped at the center of an ancient battle between Angels and demons. To survive, she must first forgive herself for the damage she caused while under the influence of demons–a task that seems impossible until the last person she would ever trust shows up and offers to help.
MICHAEL died on the threshold of a brand new life. Now, as her Guardian, he will do whatever it takes to keep Catherine safe, but he’s fighting against the Devil, a community turned against them, a destiny they have yet to uncover, and a newly dead enemy who wants revenge. Michael hates Catherine’s ex-boyfriend, Jason, but things get complicated when he learns one of them left a little piece of himself behind.
A DEVIL’S PLAYLIST SNEAK PEAK
PAIN. IT WAS the only thing that was familiar when I came to. That doubled-over cramping in my legs and gut. That deep ache in my bones. That stale nausea creeping up the back of my throat. Then there was that restless, panicky feeling, because you know it’s only going to get worse. I had to get home to my room where I had an Eight-ball of heroin stashed away inside my computer, but where was I? It felt like ice water was running through my brain. I opened my eyes and…shit. There was ice water running through my brain.
I was lying face down in the Rocky River.
Listen again to what I’m saying–
My face. Was completely. Submerged.
I yanked my head out of the water. The sky was dark. Snow was falling. I was freezing, and I had no idea how I’d gotten there. Then the shakes hit. Withdrawal shakes you from the inside out. I started to fall forward onto my hands, but my hands were gone.
I couldn’t see them.
Fear. My world was now just two elements. Pain and fear. That was my last thought before my “face” went underwater again. My “face” was drowning, and Fear was making it impossible for me to save it. So I ordered myself, as I often do, to push the fear back. To master the pain. To control that small piece of ground that exists within my head. I’d conquered that battlefield a long time ago. But the ground in my head was expanding. I could now feel the ice clinging to the riverbank.
That ice was fifteen feet away.
Fear won, and my head exploded with noise. It was the noise of a billion plus brain cells shouting out possible explanations for what was happening. A hallucination? A nightmare? Above the noise I heard a voice. Dark and sweet. Slow and deliberate. Ancient and beautiful.
It said, “You’re dead, Jason. You fell off the cliff. Remember?”
The noise died down as my memory came back. Just pieces. Cate’s betrayal. Rage. The fight through the woods. A bright light. Then nothing.
My life was over? The concept made no sense to me. None. I was in intense pain. I was thinking. I was feeling. My life was obviously not “over.” It was—
“Jason…I can help you focus,” said the voice.
It pulled. It promised. It penetrated my skull.
That voice wanted me.
And I wanted it.
I wanted it like I wanted the heroin that would put an end to this current bout of dope sickness. I wanted it more. I’d never heard that voice before. Knew I couldn’t trust it. But it offered the possibility of gaining knowledge, the one thing I needed most at that moment. But I couldn’t let the voice know that.
I pulled my face back up out of the water, more by force of will than physical power. I couldn’t see my legs, arms, or hands, but I knew where they were…generally. I knew because they were freezing, trembling, cramping up in their nothingness. I wanted to crawl out of them, but instead I held still and set my jaw. First and foremost when facing the unknown: show no fear. No weakness. No need. Definitely not that.
I lifted my chin and looked for the source of the voice.
Twenty feet in front of me, a dark figure was standing tall and relaxed on the bank of the river. Human in form, but possessing an inhuman intensity that physically challenged me from across the river. It pressed down on me. I lifted my chin higher. The face of the thing shone brightly. It was heart-shaped, rounded through the cheeks and sharp through the jaw. It had jet black hair that flowed out freely from its head, like it was blowing in some breeze I couldn’t feel. It wasn’t wearing a shirt, and its chest and abs were all smoothly developed. Indented like a human’s in all of the right places. Not huge. Not bigger than me. It studied me with shiny, wide set black eyes. They were deep like the night sky. They looked through me.
I blinked and the thing was ten feet closer.
“Jason, I understand your needs,” it said. “I can give you answers. I can take your pain away. I just need one thing in return.” Then the pressure it produced, its power, began to pulse hard and fast. I almost fell back in the water the force was so goddamn strong. My ears popped. The thing’s eyes got bigger. It grinned, waiting.
I’d either fallen down the bad heroin rabbit hole, or everything Cate had said was true. The ache in my bones intensified. The nausea got worse. I fought to control the shakes as best I could. And I held my tongue, because if it was true, if I was dead, I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to outsmart the Devil.
Unfortunately, the Devil held his tongue, too. And so we were reduced to a staring contest, the Devil and me. How juvenile. How effective, because…shit, I was sick.
“Withdrawal symptoms can last a long time in Hell,” the Devil said.
My heart stalled, but still I said nothing, hoping for more.
“Perpetually long,” he added.
No. I’d hold out this time. I would. From all the ridiculous movies Cate made me watch last summer, selling my soul to the Devil was not the way to go. But what did I really know about any of that? Absolutely nothing.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Sure you are.” This time the silky voice whispered inside my head. Teased. I staggered backward, tripped, and found myself face down in the water again, my nose sniffing shale. I pushed away from it reflexively with my mind and ended up on my knees, kneeling before him. The Devil’s hot, uncomfortable pressure overwhelmed me. My stomach rolled. Hot bile scalded the back of my throat.
“You can vomit now. It won’t bother me. I’ve seen it all before.”
Could he read my mind? I attempted to douse my thoughts—memories of other nights filled with pain and cold sweat and vomit, wondering if he’d been there, too.
“No. I can’t read your mind, Jason. I could lie and tell you I can, but you’re too smart for that. I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve been watching you. I watch all of you. You would eventually figure that out, and then where would that leave us? What would that do to the seed of trust growing within you? I can feel its tiny roots begging to be set free. Let them go. Wouldn’t that make this easier?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. He thought he could convince me to trust him? I swallowed hard. “I don’t think so.”
“You want to trust me,” the Devil said. The whisper puffed against my ear and a new wave of cramps racked my legs, cutting my mirth off at the knees. I lost my balance, but stopped myself with my right hand on the sharp shale before my face hit the water. I was already learning to function in this post-death nightmare. I didn’t need him.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But I’ll leave you with some music. I know how much you enjoyed Catherine’s music.” Then he was gone and guitar chords were licking my eardrums. Great. The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.” The Devil had a sense of humor.
Then came the vomit. Oh shit…I hated this part.
I SEE ANGELS and ghosts. They’re here to protect me. You would think that would be enough to solidify my faith. It should be rock solid. I should be drifting through life in a state of unshakable serenity.
You try staying serene with the knowledge that Satan wants you dead. You try finding your “Zen” place knowing that Satan, Ye Old Brimstone Blowhard himself, has been whispering his black heart out, plotting your destruction since before you were born. And that’s what he does. Whisper. So quietly, you won’t even know he’s there until it’s too late. It’s over. You’re either dead or broken so badly you wish you were.
I know. Satan almost succeeded with me. Three times in the last forty-eight hours.
First, there was my pitiful caving to the demon-inspired despair that almost drove me off a bridge. Then there was that little tussle with Jason, my homicidal, heroin-addicted ex-boyfriend who tried to push me off a cliff, and finally, my damn near suffocation courtesy of my own asthma deep in Lewis Woods. Without my Angel and my human Guardian fighting for me, I never would have made it. I would have given up. In the end, I fought hard to live, too. I fought because I thought maybe, just maybe, I could make up for all the damage I’d caused during those demon-clouded days. But that was before I knew—
“You’re spiraling again.”
“Catherine…” Michael said back, mimicking my whine. He had it down pat, and he should, poor kid. He’d had to listen to it since the day I was born.
Michael grinned. “Oh yeah. Whining’s one of your specialties. You’re an all-star.”
Michael is my human Guardian. He helps my Angel keep me safe, and right now he was leaning over my hospital bed, his luminous silver eyes not far from my own, daring me not to smile back. I couldn’t let him win. I wasn’t in the mood. So before the corners of my lips twitched upward, I grabbed my pillow from behind my back and sent it flying through his head. It smacked with a soft thud against the wall and fell to the floor.
Michael is also a ghost.
He died last August. After that he was trapped in Lewis Woods, and I was the only one who could see him. I spent four months trying to free him, which annoyed the hell out of him. He wasn’t in the “mood” to be rescued. Then when I almost died, God released him from the woods, healed him, and sent him back to a time before I was born so he, along with my Angel, could protect me from Satan, who wants me dead. So now we’re back to the beginning of my current rant.
Michael reappeared by the window, leaned back against the sill, and ran a hand through his shaggy hair. Michael, unlike my Angel, can also hear my thoughts. He didn’t like them.
“It’s true,” I said, clearing my pneumonia-clogged throat. “I’ve ruined the lives of everyone around me, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”
“Catherine, you didn’t mean to—”
My cold stare broke him off mid-sentence.
“Irritable kitten,” observed Berwyn, Michael’s freaky-pierced Goth Angel who stood guard next to him. Michael thumbed the wide leather strap that crossed his chest, the one that held Foresight, his battle-worn sword, in a sheath on his back.
“Yeah,” said Michael, not taking his eyes off me.
Berwyn fell to staring at me, too. That’s a Guardian Angel’s specialty. Staring with an intensity that can peel paint off cars.
Sure, I was testy. Last night I let Michael lull me to sleep thinking I could start over. That everything was going to work out. With Michael and my beautiful Angel, Roshan, on my side, how could it not? But Michael and Roshan kept something from me. They didn’t tell me about the worst of the damage I’d caused. I knew now, and there would be no starting over. All I could do was try to prevent more harm from coming to the people I cared about.
“There has to be a way to find out what the prophecy says about me and how I need to fulfill it,” I said. “I want it done. I want it over with. Until I do, everyone around me is at risk, including you.” I looked at Michael pointedly. Berwyn snorted. Michael opened his mouth to protest, no doubt ready to extol Berwyn’s many demon-squashing talents, but Roshan cut him off.
“Catherine, Angels the world over have been listening for whispers of the prophecy’s content for years, but there has been nothing. The only proof we have of its existence is the fact that Satan showed up on the day you were conceived to begin his campaign for your destruction. He has devoted a great deal of resources to that end. At this point, it is impossible to guess why.”
That answer wasn’t good enough. I bit my lip and looked back at Michael. “What if I’m supposed to be some kind of demon destroyer, you know? Like a vampire slayer?”
One side of Michael’s mouth curled up as he conjured a visual of that—me and my smallish frame doing battle with demons—but he was already shaking his head no. “Unlikely. Living humans aren’t even in the same dimension as demons. There’s no way for you to attack them directly.”
“What about crosses and holy water?”
“Myth and myth.”
“Ancient prayers? Incantations?”
The grin on his lips grew. “Catherine, there are no magic words or objects that can fend demons off. All you need is us and your faith.”
“Fine.” I grabbed another scenario out of my stockpile of Syfy channel movie memories. “Then maybe I’m going to ring in the Apocalypse? Give birth to the Antichrist?”
Michael lost the grin. His eyes met mine. Our visions matched. Me pregnant with a black-eyed, two-horned devil baby. Try thinking about giving birth to that.
“How ‘bout we don’t think about that,” Michael said. He turned to Roshan, his voice rising an octave. “That can’t even happen, can it?”
Roshan smiled. “I don’t think Satan would be trying to destroy her if she were destined to bring his child into the world. Do you?”
She was right, of course, and I was being ridiculously naïve.
“Well, Satan found out about me somehow. Someone has to know something. If we could find that person, maybe they could tell us.”
Michael, hugged his arms in close to his chest, and my heart leapt at a new possibility. “What about Michael’s father? Before he became a cop, Aidan Casey said he wanted to help the Archangel Michael with his work here on Earth. He had the Archangel’s name tattooed on his arm. Maybe Aidan actually saw the Archangel. Maybe the prophecy was given to him.”
Roshan narrowed her eyes at Michael, who’d wrapped his fingers around the sword and Angel wing tattoo on his bicep. It was identical to the tattoo his father had. “Yes. We have considered that.”
“Then why haven’t you investigated it?”
“Because he’s dead,” Michael interjected.
“Well…can’t you, you know, just ask him? You’re—” The expression on his face cut me off. He shook his head slightly and looked out the window. I got the feeling I’d crossed a line I shouldn’t have crossed.
Berwyn answered for him. “Michael’s father is beyond our reach, kitten. He is home in Heaven where he belongs.”
“Michael, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” my voice trailed off, and my hands began to shake. I felt so helpless.
Michael disappeared from the window and reappeared close to my hospital bed, saying softly, “Things will work out the way God wants them to. You told me that, remember? You gotta trust us. We’ll protect you and your family from Satan’s influence. That’s our job. Your job is to live your life the best you know how.”
“Sure. Live my life. The life I’ve totally fucked up in the last few months.”
Michael rubbed the back of his neck. “Christ, I’ve been a bad influence on you.”
Berwyn coughed. “We can’t all be Angels, Glory Boy.”
“Shut up, Berwyn. You’re a bad influence too.”
I studied the strange Angel with the multiple body piercings, trying to figure him out, but his eyes just flashed at me, then he looked away.
I whispered to Michael, “I don’t think he likes me.”
“Um…Catherine,” he whispered back. “Just so you know, you can’t whisper quietly enough for an Angel not to hear.”
My cheeks warmed as Berwyn’s face swung back to stare at me.
The door opened, and my mom walked into the room with a nurse pushing a wheelchair. My throat tightened. My mom had borne the brunt of my horribly selfish behavior over the last few months, and now she was the one who had to pay for it all. The premature death of her mother and—
“Are you ready to go?” she asked me.
I nodded mutely. The nurse explained the antibiotics and pain medication I was taking home with me. Then she demonstrated how to unwrap and rewrap my shoulder, which Jason dislocated when he attacked me. My morning pain meds were wearing off, and as she bound my shoulder back up, the sharp ache took my breath away.
Michael watched, biting his nails.
It’s not that bad, I thought.
“I hate Jason,” he said back. “I hope they fillet him in Hell.”
“Jason was sick, Michael.”
“He had a choice, Catherine. Junkies always have a choice.”
I let it go. Jason was dead, and it didn’t matter how Michael or I felt about him anymore. I sat down in the wheelchair, and my mom pushed me to the doorway where I sensed her stiffen. “Do you want to see your father before we go?”
My throat constricted even more. I hadn’t seen my dad since he’d chased me down the driveway as I sped away in his Dodge Demon, shouting my name. Tears blurred my vision.
“Baby, I know this is hard,” Michael said. “But you know nobody is guaranteed another day, right?”
“Catherine?” my mom said.
I nodded. Yes, I wanted to see my dad. She wheeled me down the hall. We took the elevator up two floors to intensive care. The smell of disinfectant and the sound of machines overwhelmed me. My mom maneuvered the chair around the nurse’s station and into one of the tiny, glass-walled rooms. My dad lay on the bed, ghost-white and silent. Tubes sprouted everywhere. Plastic bags filled with fluid hung above him, below him. My mom pushed me in close.
“I’ll give you a few minutes alone,” she said and walked out.
After I’d stormed out of the house the night before and drove away, my dad set out to find me. He was worried. I’d promised myself I’d never do that to him—leave him behind in a blind rage.
But I did.
The police found the car he was driving a half hour later in a snow bank not far from our house. An aneurism had blown in his brain. Michael and Roshan knew last night, but they hadn’t told me. They didn’t want to upset me. That’s where everyone was when I’d regained consciousness. My dad took a turn for the worse in the middle of the night, and the doctors weren’t sure if he was going to make it. They still weren’t.
And it was my fault.
I wasn’t going to hide under a rock this time. I wasn’t going to kill myself. Satan had blown his chance to convince me that was a viable option. Michael and Roshan stayed close to me. They loved me. My mom and my sisters loved me, too. In the last twelve hours they’d told me that over and over in response to my repeated, choked-up apologies.
But I hated myself.
And somehow I had to live with that.
“I’m so sorry, dad,” I whispered. Then I broke down with my face on his forearm and cried.
I LOOKED AROUND at the stripped Maples and Black Oaks then blew on my hands to warm them. Nothing warmed them. It was like the cold came from inside me. At least I could see my hands now. It had been two days, I think, since the Devil left me in the woods. I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to tell when you feel like vapor, mixed in and mingling with everything, and your thoughts keep slipping away. The Devil promised me clarity. I didn’t need it. I was managing fine on my own, getting stronger and more focused by the hour. It took practice and patience. It was a head game. I was good at head games.
I sucked at heroin withdrawal.
“At least his pain is over.” Right. People say that at funerals when you die. I guess it didn’t apply to would-be killers and drug dealers. Was this Hell? Purgatory? I gritted my teeth and doubled over as another wave of cramps hit. On a scale of one to ten, the pain was an eleven with no let-up in sight. I needed to get home to my heroin stash, but I hadn’t been able to pull myself together enough to get out of the woods. I could move short distances if I concentrated, but I kept ending up somewhere other than where I wanted to be.
Damn Cate! Self-righteous bitch. I hated her. If she’d minded her own business, none of this would have happened. I’d had everything under control. The prescription drug trade I’d set up at school was booming. I was president of the Programming Club. I was only a sophomore, but my varsity basketball career was taking off. Starting guard, just like my father. Now that was all gone. I was dead. Fucking dead. Was Cate dead, too?
Her body was gone, but there was no way to know whether she’d left the woods alive or in a body bag. It was unlikely she’d made it back to the car on her own. She was hypothermic and barely breathing when I’d fallen off the cliff. Or did she push me? All I could remember was a blinding light and a deafening roar. Damn it! Why couldn’t I remember?
I blew on my fading hands again. Habit. Then studied the tree line. I was close to the woods’ northern border and should be able to make it out of the forest with my next thought. I visualized the cheap little houses I knew were there. It was nightfall and their lights would be on. I imagined myself standing outside one of them then willed myself there. The sensation of moving as a ghost is beyond strange. I felt myself effervescing like the fizz in a glass of champagne, then I was rushing through air, trees, a chain link fence, watching the world pass by through a distorted, concave lens. I had to pull myself back together before I could see my new surroundings clearly.
I wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted to be.
My feet materialized on a trash littered berm beneath a lit plastic sign. The Scarlet Fox. A strip club to the east of the airport. Feeling a familiar nudge, I looked down at my crotch and smiled grimly. Maybe part of me was still alive after all. For once in my life I could do whatever I wanted and no one could stop me, and at the moment, dope sick or not, I wanted to see what went on in a strip club—or what came off.
There were no windows, just a dented steel door with a flyer taped to the front. “New girls tonight. $20. Twenty-one and over.”
I moved right through it.
Then I slid unseen past the bald bouncer and his impressive beer gut.
The stage dominated my attention. Fast flashing lights, hip thumping music and half-naked girls working their poles and trying hard to look sexy. Don’t get me wrong. They were stacked, tight-waisted girls, but the poles were just wrong. So was the scent. I could smell the girls from across the room, and in a subtle, numbed out way, I felt every inch of them, too. That, I was learning, was part of the whole ghost package—the inability to separate myself from the things around me. In this case, it was both a good and a very bad thing. Nice curves. Nasty razor stubble.
Up by the stage, a middle-aged man, who looked half a paycheck short of homeless, was getting an eyeful. I looked from him to the girls and shuddered with disgust. I couldn’t figure out why either would want to be here. If I’d paid, I’d want my money back.
I bent double again. More cramps. More sweat. The view wasn’t worth the pain of staying, but as I turned to leave, my scalp prickled. I felt a familiar pressure rising in the room, the kind the Devil gave off when he stood over me in the river. I glanced back over my shoulder, afraid of what I might see, but longing to see it anyway.
Back in the shadows and cigarette smoke, a few younger guys lounged in velour covered chairs around a beautiful blonde. She was big, larger than life, with a sharp, angular face. Black leather hugged her curves, and spike-heeled boots covered her feet. The guys stroked her thighs and kissed her ring heavy fingers. The shadows cloaked everything around her, including the men she was with—everything except her eyes. They were shiny and black and deep.
And they were watching me.
And they weren’t human.
I froze in the sudden knowledge that the Devil wasn’t the only demon here on Earth.
No one else in the bar took any notice of her and her entourage. They must have been invisible to the living. But for me, the blonde gave off the same hot, oppressive presence the Devil had. Our eyes locked, and I couldn’t look away. Then without averting her gaze, she said to her companions, “Take the new Outlier outside. Explain things to him.”
Stupid! I should have known I wouldn’t be the only one denied access to that rule-bound, utopian society called “Heaven.” And the others, they wouldn’t still be here for the brotherly love. I should have known to be wary of a place like The Scarlet Fox.
I broke our connection and thought my way back to the parking lot, but I was boxed in by the she-demon’s consorts before I materialized. Up close, I realized they were dead humans like me. Their fatal wounds gave them away. One of them shoved me.
“This is our territory, Outlier. Pledge fealty to Moloch or leave.”
The guy who’d pushed me had obviously been thrown through a window before he died. Glass was embedded in his face. He’d pushed me hard, but not superhumanly so. Him alone I could take, but him and his two rotting friends with me dope sick? Not a chance. “Fine. I’ll leave.”
But I couldn’t. I was pinned inside their triangle by a force I couldn’t see. Apparently the offer to leave was rhetorical.
“Moloch wants us to fight,” said Glass Face.
“Moloch likes to watch,” said another, this one still bleeding from a life-snuffing stab wound in his chest.
“Moloch can take a rain check,” I said and tried to leave again. It was impossible. Then I was pushed from behind into the chest of the guy in front of me who slammed his fist into my face. Pain exploded in my cheek. I sent my fist flying back, clipping him in the jaw where it left a faint bruise of silvery light. My fist hurt, and I glanced down to see that it, too, shone with a pale light that was trapped beneath my skin. Distracted, I left myself open to attack. It came from all sides.
As the blows rained down and pain lit me up, the blonde demon watched, her gaze predatory, like a praying mantis waiting for her next meal. Determined not to oblige, I glanced around for a weapon and was startled to see another demon watching from the corner of the building. He was smaller than Moloch, milder in appearance, but with the same black eyes. His coat was red, made of cracked leather, and it nearly reached his ankles. His gaze lingered on me for several long seconds. Then he leaned back against the strip club wall and casually slipped his hand into the pocket of his red coat before walking around the corner and out of sight.
My pocket. My grandfather’s knife. I’d had it on me when I died. Did I still? I plunged my hand into my pocket, wrapping my fingers around the knife’s hard plastic hilt. Then in one smooth motion, I pulled it out, flicked it open, and drove the blade deep into Stab Wound’s stomach. He let out a surprised groan and staggered backward, silver light leaking upward from the cut I’d made. Thorny black ribbons snaked across his face, under his skin, and bulged in his neck. He clutched at the light, trying to staunch its flow then went down on one knee, looked at me with searing hatred, and vanished in a swirl of smoke.
I whirled around and brandished the knife at my two remaining assailants. They backed off, alarm on their pasty faces, and disappeared. Again, I tried to leave but was trapped. Moloch moved in.
Show no fear, I thought. I held up the knife. It was small—an Ibberson paratrooper’s knife—not even meant for combat, but it was all I had. Fake it ‘til you make it, right?
“Back off,” I hissed.
The demon grinned and licked her lips with a thin, thorn-tipped tongue. “Iason Flammarum Vox,” she said. “Welcome to Hell.” She cocked her head to the side and studied me while I rushed to translate the Latin in my head.
Iason Flammarum Vox. Jason, Voice of Flames.
Why did she call me that? I didn’t have the luxury of mulling it over, because the demon lifted her hand and pointed a pale white finger at my face. It grew and sharpened to a point that glowed red hot. I slashed at it with the Ibberson, but her reflexes were like lightning, and she grabbed my hand, immobilizing it before I could do any damage. The mutated finger she moved with unhurried grace, drawing it with precision across my cheek. It burned. Sizzled. Then pale silver light was drifting upward from the wound, clouding my vision. I felt my strength leaving me, and with it, my ability to withstand my withdrawal symptoms. The pain was excruciating, but it bordered on beautiful in her presence. Weakening fast now, my knees gave way, and I looked up into her face. And at that moment I wanted to stay with her. I wanted—
The booming command seemed to burst from inside me. I blinked then shrunk back in horror. The demon was no longer perfection incarnate. She was a black smoke wraith with eyes like fire and a mouth full of decaying, muddy vines. They shifted and slid over her tongue as she laughed. “We’ve been waiting a long time for him. We can wait a little longer,” she said. Then she leaned down and whispered to me, “Pledge fealty next time.”