When the car hit me, there was an intense moment of pain that radiated through my whole body. Then I felt nothing. My sight shifted, and I had the surreal sense of looking down on my sprawled body while my friends hurried to me and the car sped away. Some were trying to talk to me, some were calling 911. Some were talking to each other.
The scene began to dissolve in my vision, fading to black. And not just the scene. Me. I was dissolving. I was losing all substance. I was becoming nothing.
But as I faded away, as the world faded away, I heard a few last words from my friends before their voices also faded.
"Georgina! Georgina!" That was Seth, saying my name like a prayer.
"She's not breathing," said Cody. "And she doesn't have a pulse. Hugh! Do something. You're a doctor."
"I can't," Hugh said softly. "This is beyond me. Her soul . . . her soul's not here."
"Of course it is!" said Cody. "Souls stay with their immortals."
"Not in this situation," said Hugh.
"What are you talking about?" exclaimed Seth, voice cracking. "Carter! You can fix this. You can fix anything. You have to save her."
"This is beyond me too," said Carter. "I'm sorry."
"There's still one thing you can do," said Hugh. "One thing you have to do."
"Yes," agreed Carter, voice full of sorrow. "I'll go get Roman. . . ."
And then they were all gone.
I was gone.
The blackness began to lighten into swirls of color, colors that eventually resolved into lines and shapes around me. I gazed around as the world formed and soon felt solidity beneath my feet. My own body was taking on substance again, the light and hollow sensation disappearing. Feeling and movement returned to me, and for half a second, I thought I had imagined everything that happened in the parking lot.
Then I was struck by a sudden and overwhelming sense of wrongness.
First off, as I blinked the world into focus, it became obvious that I was no longer at the bowling alley. I was inside a room with vaulted ceilings and no windows. It appeared to be a courtroom, complete with a jury box and judge's stand. All the decor was black: red-veined black marble on the walls and floor, black wood trim, black leather chairs. Everything was very sleek and modern, clean and sterile.
The next thing I noticed was that I wasn't in the body I'd just been in. My perspective on the world was from a greater height. The weight of my limbs and muscles felt different too, and I wore a simple linen dress instead of my Unholy Rollers shirt. Although I couldn't see myself straight-on, I had a good idea which body I was wearing: the first one. My mortal one. The one I'd been born to.
Yet it was neither the body nor unfamiliar room that felt so wrong. They were surprises, yes, but nothing I couldn't adapt to. The wrongness came from nothing tangible. It was more a feeling in the air, a sensation that permeated my every pore. Even with the vaulted ceilings, the room felt stuffy and tight, like there was no air circulation whatsoever. And even though there wasn't any actual odor, I just kept imagining stagnation and decay. My skin crawled. I felt smothered by hot, humid air - yet was also chilled to the bone.
I was in Hell.
I had never been there, but you didn't really need to have been to know it.
I was sitting at a table on the left side of the room, facing the judge's bench. Behind me, separated by a railing, was the audience seating. I squirmed around to peer at it. Right before my eyes, people began to materialize in the seats. They were wildly different in appearance: male and female, all races, various states of dress. Some were as prim and neat as the courtroom around us. Some looked like it had been quite an ordeal for them to get out of bed. There was no uniformity to their appearances. There weren't even immortal auras to tip me off, but I was willing to wager anything that they were all demons.
A murmur of conversation began to fill the room as the demons spoke to each other, a droning almost more frightening than the silence that had originally met me. No one talked to me, though plenty of sets of eyes studied me disapprovingly. I didn't recognize anyone here yet and felt vulnerable and afraid. There was an empty seat next to me, and I wondered if someone would be joining me. Was I entitled to a lawyer for this . . . whatever it was? It had all the trappings of a regular courtroom, but I could hardly expect Hell to be reasonable or predictable. I honestly had no clue what was about to happen. I knew it had to be about my contract, but Hugh hadn't gone into a lot of specifics when he'd said that my case would eventually "be reviewed."
There was a table on the right side of the courtroom, one that mirrored mine in size and placement. A man with irongray hair and a handlebar mustache sat down at it, placing a briefcase on the table's surface. He wore an all-black suit - including the shirt - and looked more like a funeral director than a prosecutor, which is what I assumed he was. As though sensing my scrutiny, he glanced over at me with eyes so dark, I couldn't tell where pupil ended and iris began. They sent a new chill through me, and I changed my assessment of him. Funeral director? More like an executioner.
Once the gallery was nearly full of spectators, a side door near the front opened. Twelve people filed out toward the jurors' box, and I caught my breath. I still couldn't sense any immortal auras in this room. Maybe it wasn't necessary in Hell or maybe there were just too many immortals in here for it to be comfortable. Regardless, just as I'd been certain all the spectators were demons, I could tell that half of the jurors were angels. It was in their eyes and their disposition. There was a way they carried themselves that differed from everyone else, even though the angels were dressed no differently. Also, the angels seemed to be conscious of the wrongness I'd felt in here. They kept glancing around, small looks of disgust on their faces. At first, it seemed kind of crazy that angels would be in Hell, but then I realized that, unlike Heaven, there were no gates or barriers to keep anyone out. And unlike mortals, angels had the ability to leave here when they chose. I suppose it made it easy to do business visits like this. Still, I found myself heartened by the sight of the angels. If they were going to be involved in deciding my case, then surely they would be sympathetic.
"Don't count on any help from them."
It was the prosecuting demon with the dark eyes, leaning across his table and addressing me in a low voice.
"I beg your pardon?" I asked.
He inclined his head toward the jurors. "The angels. They've got a nagging sense of justice, but they also don't have a lot of sympathy to those who sold their souls. They figure you made your bed, you have to sleep in it. Pretentious bastards, the lot of them."
I turned back toward the jury and felt a sinking in my stomach. Some of the angels were watching me, and although there wasn't open disdain on their faces, like the demons, I could still see condescension and scorn here and there. I saw no sympathy anywhere.
With so much chatter in the now-crowded room, it was hard to imagine being able to single out any one voice - but I did. Maybe it was because it was one I'd grown so familiar with in the last ten years, one that I had fallen into the habit of jumping to whenever it spoke. Tearing my gaze from the jury, I peered around until I found the voice's owner.
Sure enough. Jerome had just entered the courtroom. Even in Hell, he still wore the John Cusack guise. Mei was with him, and it was the sound of their conversation that had caught my attention. They made their way to some seats near the front, on the opposite side of the room from me, that I presumed had been left open for them. A pang of relief shot through my chest. Finally, familiar faces. I opened my mouth to speak, to call out to Jerome . . . just as his eyes fell on me. He paused in his walk, fixing me with a look that pierced straight to my heart. Then, without any other sort of acknowledgment, he looked away and continued his conversation with Mei as they went to their seats. The words died on my lips. The coldness in his gaze left no question that all the laid-back ease at the bowling alley had been a scam.
Jerome was not on my side.
And, if my empty table was any indication, no one was on my side.
A guy in a much more cheerful suit than the prosecutor walked to the front of the room and called the court to order. He announced the entrance of Judge Hannibal, which would have been a hilarious and absurd name in other circumstances. Everyone stood, and I followed suit. The show of respect kind of surprised me. The adherence to procedure did not.