"I worked with another imp when I lived in Dallas. Raquel. She brokered this one deal with a guy who was pissed off when his wife left him because he found out he was sterile. Couldn't have kids." Hugh helpfully illustrated the meaning by pointing down toward his lower torso.
"I know what sterile means, Mr. Wizard. Get on with it."
"So, he sold his soul under the conditions that his ex-wife couldn't have kids either. He was bitter and into the poetic justice thing, apparently. Wanted to punish her with what she'd punished him over. So, he gave up his soul, and our side gave her some kind of inflammation thing that totally destroyed her fallopian tubes and scarred up her uterus. I don't know. Girl stuff." I had to hold back an eye roll. Hugh might feign ignorance about 'girl stuff,' but he'd found time in his years of corruption to go to medical school. He knew more about this than I did.
"Harsh," I said. "But fitting from the guy's point of view, I guess."
"Yeah. Should have been a done deal, but something went wrong. Or, well, right. Her ovaries still worked - she was making eggs, even if she couldn't carry a baby. She and her new husband found a surrogate mother. The wife donated eggs, they mixed up a Petri dish cocktail, and the surrogate carried the baby. Bam!"
"The wife had a child after all," I mused. "Wow. Hell gets defeated by science. All those philosophers from the Enlightenment were right."
Hugh scoffed at my joke. "It was stupid. Someone - by which I mean, Raquel - should have thought of that when they picked the infection as a way to make that lady infertile. Raquel f**ked up. The guy was able to take his case back to Hell and won his soul back for breach of contract."
"Oh, wow," I said. "I bet that went over well. What's Raquel doing nowadays?"
He grimaced. "I think we're all happier not knowing."
I agreed. "But what's this have to do with me? That's kind of a rare case."
"Eh, it happens more than you'd think. Most of the time, the seller doesn't even notice something got messed up. But if the imp or someone else in authority catches it, I've seen them move Heaven and Earth - no pun intended - to fix it."
"So, you're implying that Niphon's here, finagling all this stuff with Tawny, because he did something wrong in my purchase?"
Hugh spread his hands out. "I don't know. All I know is that when an imp shows up and is going to this much trouble over something, the evidence suggests it's big. Maybe not a situation like Raquel's, maybe not a breach of contract, but something."
"My contract's long since done," I murmured. "Everyone it involved is dead now. If there was a problem, I would have had to bring it up back then."
"Like I said, I don't know. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions."
"Could you look? Could you get a hold of the contract?"
"No." Hugh's answer came almost before I finished speaking. "Absolutely not."
"But if there's some wording I didn't know about - "
"You think I can just go walk into Hell's records and pull a contract I'm not involved with?" he exclaimed. "Fuck. If I got caught, it'd make what happened to Raquel look like a promotion."
"But - "
"No," he said again, voice like stone. "No debate. I love you, sweetie. You know I do. You're like my sister, and I'd do almost anything for you, but not this. I'm sorry." I glared. He glared back. "Look, you want my advice? Get rid of Niphon. And Tawny, if you can. Expose them if they really are pulling something here, and Jerome will take it from there."
"Jerome's not even around! Damn it. Why can't you help me with this? You were so quick to help with my love life when you were talking to Seth the other night."
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "It was probably the best thing I've ever done for you."
"Are you insane? He's walking around talking about that now - all worried about how he's going to hurt me and make me miserable!"
"Good," snapped Hugh. "He should be."
I shoved my trash onto my tray and stood up. "See you later. Thanks for...well, nothing."
Hugh followed me over to the garbage bins. "You're behaving irrationally. On all of this."
"I'd never treat you the way you're treating me," I said, dumping my tray. "I'm your friend."
"Friendship has nothing to do with this."
"It has everything to do with this!"
He stacked his tray on the others and looked at his watch. "Look, I have to go. I'm sorry I can't give you the answers you want. Am I going to see you at Peter's?" Peter, unable to pass up party-giving opportunities, was hosting a Christmas dinner, weird as that seemed.
"No. I'm going to be with Seth. Unless he breaks up with me because of your great advice."
Hugh bit his lip on some remark that probably would have been uncomplimentary. Shaking his head, he turned around and left.
I didn't expect to hear from Dante so quickly. Based on what he'd said about the difficulty of the Nyx-charm, I'd figured it would be a while - if at all. Hugh's observations on the matter had only reinforced my growing skepticism about Dante's abilities.
"I've got your protection," Dante told me on the phone. "Or at least as close as I can get. You want it, come pick it up." He disconnected.
I drove to Rainier Valley, finding Dante's shop empty as usual. "Guess you don't see a lot of business so close to Christmas, huh?"
"Actually," he told me, emerging from the back room, "you'd be surprised at the kind of desperation the holidays can bring out in people. Here, catch."
He tossed me something baseball-sized. I caught it, feeling a little disappointed when I studied it closer. It looked like a wicker ball, made of very thin, dark branches. Through the gaps, I could make out a few things inside. One looked like a rock. Another looked like a feather. The whole thing rattled when I shook it.
"This is it?" I asked. "This is going to keep away an uber-powerful dream entity? It looks like a prop from The Blair Witch Project."
"It can't force her away," he said. "Nothing can. But it might make her think twice. It's more of...a repellent."
He rolled his eyes. "Yes, like citronella. Depending on her energy charge, she might blow past it. If she's weak enough...well, it might hold her back."
I examined the ball again. It still didn't look like much to me. I sensed no power or magic off of it, but not all objects had an aura I could sense. For reading inanimate items, a psychic mortal tended to be more adept than a lesser immortal. My silence appeared to further annoy Dante.
"Look," he snapped. "You don't have to use it, but it took a f**kload of power for me to craft it, okay? It'd be nice if you could maybe withhold your customary sarcasm for a whole five minutes to thank me."
"My customary sarc - "
I stopped the burst of temper starting to flare in me. Dante ranked near the top of my list of cynical acquaintances, but I wasn't exactly Pollyanna myself. I'd given him nothing but a hard time since I first came to him for help. And now, studying him, I noticed he was pale and tired-looking. His eyes were bloodshot. The ball might be worthless, but he'd clearly exerted some sort of effort in making it.
"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry. Thank you. Thank you for this."
His eyebrows rose, and I could actually see the self-control it took for him not to mock my sincerity. He nodded. "You're welcome." We each waited for the other to speak. I don't think we knew what to do without the sarcasm. "So...did you find your angel friends?"
"No. I apparently need a f**king Bat Signal or something. Jerome's gone too. Hugh - this imp friend of mine - could get a hold of him, but it'd probably piss Jerome off if we were wrong about all this." I scowled, recalling the conversation in the deli. "Anyway, Hugh's pissing me off right now, so I don't even know if I want his help."
Dante smiled. "I thought succubi were supposed to make friends everywhere they went. Or is that a myth like the bat wings and flame eyes?"
"He's just being an ass**le about Seth."
Dante looked at me expectantly. I sighed.
"He thinks us dating is a waste of time. And not because of the sex thing. He thinks I'm going to get hurt."
"Terribly altruistic of an imp. But then, considering your quasi-morals, I'm starting to think it's a bad idea to assume anything about you guys." He took a few steps toward me and playfully tapped my nose. "And what about you? Do you think you're going to get hurt?"