| He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot |
By Stephanie Rowe
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Nick Rawlings hoped he got attacked today. He was bored, itchy for action, and fast coming to the conclusion that even the undying gratitude of his best pal, Jerome Doumani (and the large stack of gold bullion that Jerome was forking over), wasn’t worth three weeks of sitting in a small room with nothing but a frozen sociopath to keep him company.
Nick peered hopefully at the platinum deadbolt on the inside of the steel door to see if someone was trying to jimmy it off from the other side. No luck.
He sighed and wandered across the polished oak floor, his heavy steel-toed boots thudding on the perfect varnish. He glanced back over his shoulder, taking mild satisfaction in the fact that the floors were getting scuffed from his pacing. The Council (the morally questionable, self-appointed governing body of all beings nonhuman) would have to pry open their wallets to ante up for refinishing by the time Nick was sprung from guard duty. Not exactly a fair trade for the Council getting Nick’s pa and grandpa offed and for wiping out Nick’s race, but hey, a guy who’d promised his dying pa that he wouldn’t take revenge had to accept the small paybacks life offered him.
Nick’s friend Jerome was one-third of the Council triad, an ex-pirate who still lived by the code of the high seas, and Nick’s best friend since they were kids. Nothing bonds a couple of boys like practicing swordplay with real blades and no safety masks. Jerome had been recruited to join the Council because of his moral flexibility and consequent willingness to do the tough-guy enforcing that the Council pretended not to support. In reality, the Council was way more bloodthirsty than any pirate, and they were a little too hung up on their power for the good of those they ruled. Their punishments were so brutal that some beings didn’t survive them, especially the Chamber of Unspeakable Horrors.
Nick surveyed the stacks of food and beverages in the corner, which were supposed to sustain him for the next few weeks while he was on guard duty. No beer. No pizza. He was a man’s man, and he liked beer and pizza.
He pulled a plate of crudités out of the fridge and started munching on a carrot. Or not.
He sauntered over to the white horizontal SubZero freezer (nothing but the best for the Council), stuck the carrot between his teeth, then grabbed the industrial-size padlock with both hands. Two tugs, and it broke off with a loud crack. He leveraged the heavy lid up, letting it slam against the wall with a crash that left a nice dent.
More maintenance costs for the Council.
Such a pity.
He peered into the cooler, and a three-by-five-foot block of ice stared back up at him. The ice chunk was swirled with a mixture of blurred colors—pink, blue, and a large amount of gold—as if someone had tie-dyed it. He took a bite of carrot while he surveyed his charge. “So, you’re the oh-so-evil disinherited son of the leader of hell, huh?”
The ice cube trembled, and Nick smiled. “Jerome tells me you were stupid enough to get yourself melted and then frozen before you could re-form. Bested by an ex-pirate, a no-carb–eating dragon, and a mathematician. True?”
The frozen block vibrated even more fiercely, and Nick heard the faint whisper of a particularly creative epithet he hadn’t heard since he’d lived in hell. “Yeah, I hear you. Life can be a bitch sometimes.”
The cube had no response, and Nick let the lid drop shut. So much for entertainment.
Jerome was sure the other members of the Council were corrupt, and he didn’t enjoy being set up as a scapegoat for all the Council’s crimes against the Otherworld, a classification which included all beings nonhuman. Mortal world was the physical place where humans hung out on earth, totally clueless that beings from the Otherworld rode the trains with them, babysat their kids, and laughed at their ignorance.
So, when Jerome heard rumors in the Council men’s room that someone was going to try to spring Satan Jr., he did what any smart guy would do: hired the baddest badass in the Otherworld to keep Satan Jr. safe, which was Nick, of course.
Helping out his best friend had seemed like a good plan at the time, but now that Nick had been there for a week and no one had come through the ceiling with laser guns or Uzis, he was beginning to think his buddy needed counseling for paranoia.
Then Nick heard the key turn in the deadbolt, and his adrenaline spiked. He spun around to face the door, knowing Jerome wasn’t due for poker for another two hours. Playtime.
He leaned against the freezer and rested his palms on the lid, on either side of his hips. He drummed his fingers on the metal, waiting.
The deadbolt turned and the steel door flew open like it was made of paper.
Ah, a challenge. Nice.
A man stepped inside, and Nick immediately rose to his feet as an intense sensation of belonging swept over him. There was no mistaking the wavering air around the man’s body, like the heat rising off a sidewalk on a hot summer day. Was he Markku? Impossible. Markku were extinct.
Well, except Nick, but he was only half Markku, so he didn’t count.
The man stopped suddenly and stared at the air above Nick’s head, his eyes widening in surprise, which made Nick frown even deeper, since his mixed blood had pretty much spared him from the hot-air blur that was typical of the Markku. But this dude was inspecting Nick as if he could see it. And if he were Markku, he probably could. Damn. Was Nick really not one of a kind, after all?
The man was just over six feet and solid, but not nearly as big as Nick. His black pants, black turtleneck sweater, and black boots were overkill and made him look like he was trying too hard, as did the military buzz cut. The man’s gaze flicked down to Nick’s face. “Who are you?”
“Nick Rawlings. You?”
The man cocked his head. “You’re not with us.”
“Us being...?” Were there more Markku?
But instead of answering, the man dropped his shoulder and charged.
Nick barely jumped out of the way in time, nearly paying for his failure to expect another being to be almost as fast as he was. The man slammed into the side of the cooler, his head smashing all the way through the metal. He roared and reared back, dragging the cooler as he tried to get his head free. The freezer screeched across the floor, and Nick grabbed his gun, leveling it at the base of the man’s skull, where it was protruding from the freezer.
No. You must protect your men.
Nick hesitated at the command in his head. His men? He had no men.
This is your man. All the men are your men to protect.
He shook his head to clear it. His damned healer gene was always interfering with his ability to kick some ass. Trying to make him soft and mushy when he was all about violence and enjoying a good fight.
The visiting Markku bellowed and tried to yank himself free.
“Yeah, not so fast.” Nick ground his boot into the back of the man’s neck, pinning him to the side of the cooler. “So, let’s chat. I’ve got loads of questions for you. Are you after Satan Jr.? Who sent you? Who’s ‘us?’ Are you really Markku, or do you just do the hot-air thing to attract women?”
“I’m better than Markku,” the man announced, his voice echoing inside the SubZero.
“Better? Given that the Markku are descended from Satan and are pretty much indestructible except for gold, that’s some kind of claim. So, better in what way, exactly?” Nick dug the heel of his boot in as the man started to struggle more fiercely. “Better fashion sense? Maybe don’t have to shave as often? Do tell.”
“No battle weakness.”
Nick’s foot nearly slipped off the man’s skull. Post-battle weakness was a terrible nuisance that required him to conk out for a day or so after every decent fight, not that he had gotten in many lately. But seeing as how that weakness had been the key to Satan’s Rivka army wiping out the Markku race, it was something to note. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” The man paused in his struggling. “Want in? I could hook you up. It’s a sweet deal.”
“Tempting.” Nick cocked his head. “But no thanks. Sounds like one of those ‘deals’ where I end up chained to a wall, being tortured.”
“You’re sure?” the Markku asked.
“Then I’ll have to kill you and steal the kid.”
Nick grinned. “Be my guest.”
He felt the Markku gathering strength, so he put his gun to the back of the man’s head.
Don’t shoot your man.
Great. His alter ego again. I’ll shoot whoever I want. He gritted his teeth against the almost overwhelming urge not to fire, covered his right eye with his left hand to protect against ricochets, and forced himself to pull the trigger.
The bullets bounced off the man’s skull, ricocheting all over the room, embedding themselves in the wall, the ceiling, shattering the water cooler that was supposed to keep Nick hydrated for the next three weeks, whizzing through the weapons closet in the corner, and setting off a cascade of fireworks. One bullet even bounced off Nick’s shin. The man shouted in protest and twisted so his feet and palms were flat against the cooler. He shoved hard, trying to yank his head free as his body shuddered with the impact of so much repeated force.
“You sure you don’t want to chat instead?” Nick yelled over the gunfire. “Just tell me who wants Satan Jr., admit you can’t beat me, and then we can kick back and play some poker when Jerome gets here. It’ll be fun. What do you say?”
The Markku used the same epithet that Satan Jr. had used. An old-school swear descended straight from hell’s origins. Coincidence? Probably not so much. The rescuer likely had late-night sleepovers with Junior when the kid wasn’t frozen. Apparently, Satan Jr. was hooking up with his dad’s former servants. Interesting.
“Okay, then. Don’t say I didn’t offer.” Nick emptied his clip, grabbed his second gun, and kept firing, slamming bullet after bullet against the Markku’s skull as the Poland Spring water sloshed around his feet, ruining the floor.
The Markku yanked his head free and pieces of the steel cooler went flying. Nick ducked as one piece whizzed past his shoulder and sliced through the wall, disappearing from sight with the power of the Markku’s thrust.
The Markku whirled around and slammed his foot into the side of Nick’s knee with enough force to split a redwood in half.
“Son of a bitch.” Nick’s knee gave out and he fell to the floor, gritting his teeth against the pain. He rolled to his left, dodging the Markku as he tried to jump on Nick. “You say you’re better than a Markku, huh? Slower, maybe.”
“Better.” The Markku pulled out a knife with a golden blade, and Nick swore under his breath. What the hell was he doing with that kind of weapon?
The Markku drove the blade down toward Nick’s right eye, and Nick jerked his head hard to the side. The blade scraped Nick’s cheek and slammed into the wooden floor, barely missing its target.
Hot pain flashed through Nick at the touch of gold. Holy mother of pearl. He’d felt pain before, but this was something else.
The Markku yanked the blade out of the floor as Nick grabbed him and flung him into the wall, denting the plaster with a satisfying thud.
Nick was on his feet before the man had stopped sliding down the wall.
The man hurled the knife, and the blade plunged into the front of Nick’s right shoulder. Nick cursed as the poisonous fire raked through his body, and he dropped to his knees, clutching his shoulder.
Then he heard his pa’s voice, whispering the instructions he’d repeated to Nick so many times when training him as a kid. Use the heat, Nick. Channel it.
Nick gritted his teeth, then pulled the golden fire into his body, recharging himself with the flames, using the pain to fuel his body even as that same heat drained him, sucked away his life force.
The Markku jumped to his feet and lunged for the knife, but Nick grabbed it first. He whipped it out of his shoulder with a roar of anguish, then slammed it in the Markku’s right eye. The man exploded in a cascade of gold dust, his death scream his only legacy as it bounced off the steel door and echoed in Nick’s ears.
Nick clutched the blade and shook the gold dust off his eyelashes, watching it float down, mixing with the Poland Spring water to create a river of sparkling mud. “Better, my ass.”
The door flew open, and Nick reared back to throw the knife, diverting his aim at the last second when he realized who it was.
Jerome yelped and ducked as the blade sung past his ear and embedded itself in the wall behind him. “It’s me!”
“No kidding.” Nick pressed his left hand to his stab wound, trying to stem the flow of blood. The more he could mitigate the damage now, the less trouble he’d be in later.
“Right. Because you’d have killed me if I’d been anyone else.” Jerome straightened up, his scabbard swinging by his side. In honor of his mortal life pillaging on the high seas, he was sporting full pirate regalia today, including an eye patch, even though both his eyes were fine.
Nick kicked a piece of the water cooler out of his way, then stumbled with sudden weakness. Shit. He had to get out of there. He had less than a half hour before he was dead to the world for at least a couple of days. Jerome was the only one besides Nick’s ma who knew Nick was half Markku, so they’d have a hell of a time explaining it away if Nick went unconscious in the middle of Council headquarters.
“You look like hell,” Jerome said. “What happened?”
Jerome paled, and he tugged the eye patch up so he could look at Nick with both light blue eyes. “No kidding?”
Nick waved at the gold dust, and Jerome scanned the room, his gaze coming to a stop on the ice chest. A big hole gaped in the side, and the sound of dripping water was coming from the inside of the SubZero. “You couldn’t keep him from breaking the freezer while you killed him? Getting soft in your old age, are you?”
“Shut up.” Nick turned his back on Jerome to hide a shudder of fatigue. Then he grabbed his stash of weapons and turned to head out, only to find Jerome blocking his exit. “What now?”
“You can’t leave. What if they send another Markku?”
Nick shrugged his injured shoulder. “Gold blade. Gotta run.”
Jerome frowned, his forehead furrowing with concern as he took in Nick’s bloodstained shoulder. “Shit, man. Have you ever been hit with gold before? Are you going to be okay?”
“I’ll be fine, but I’m going to crash. I need to—” He stopped talking as an old, bearded man in a white robe strode into the room, followed by a businessman in an Armani suit. Paul and Otis, the other two members of the Council.
Paul and Otis were the Council members who’d worked with Satan to wipe out the Markku, and they’d killed Nick’s dad, all before Jerome came on board. The Markku had gotten tired of being Satan’s slaves, so when Nick’s grandpa had figured out how to escape hell, he’d made a deal with the Council: if they’d help him lead the rest of the Markku to safety, he’d make the Markku available to help the Council any time they needed some muscle.
But once the Markku had gotten free and the Council realized how powerful they really were, they decided it was bad to have the Markku be a free people, and they made another deal, this time with Satan. The Council traded an entire race of beings in exchange for Satan’s Chamber of Unspeakable Horrors.
Satan had been irate that his whole Markku army had bailed on him, and he’d ordered his Rivkas to destroy all Markku they found. With the help of the Council, who were happy to point out the safe houses they’d created for the Markku to recover after battle, the Rivka had decimated the race with their gold fireballs while they’d slept, except for one or two Markku who’d crashed elsewhere.
Like Nick’s grandpa, which is why Nick’s pa and Nick himself existed.
But they were all who had survived, and the Council had killed Nick’s pa when they’d found him. It was damned annoying Nick had promised his pa he wouldn’t stalk, torture, and maim the Council in retribution. Paul and Otis had no idea who Nick was, and Nick had to keep it that way, or else they’d be so threatened by his existence that they’d find a way to kill him, leaving Nick’s ma and sister alone.
He’d promised his pa, and he’d stand by it, which meant walking away, no matter how hard it was. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try to find out what was up with that Markku who’d tried to kill him. Were there really others out there, hiding like he was?
“Jerome! What’s going on here?” Paul, the old guy, asked, his hands hiding inside the flowing folds of his white robe.
The businessman, Otis, whipped out a Blackberry and started typing on it, his manicured fingers flying over the keys as he typed out an e-mail. “I’m going to have to file a report for destruction of property.”
Jerome raised his brows. “Satan Jr.’s melting. Shouldn’t we order backup refrigeration immediately?”
Otis looked up, peered at the battered ice chest, then cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I suppose we do need to make sure he doesn’t thaw and re-form, don’t we?”
Nick and Jerome exchanged glances at the lack of urgency in Otis’s voice, and Nick suddenly wished he didn’t have to go pass out for a day or two. Satan Jr. would be serious trouble if he got unfrozen.
Jerome opened his own cell phone and ordered emergency freezer backup himself, while Otis walked around the room, tallying up the damage.
Paul moved in front of Nick. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Nick tensed at Paul’s probing gaze. As a half Markku, he blended into human society better than a full-blood Markku, but Otis and Paul had spent a lot of time with the Markku during the rebellion, and Nick wasn’t sure exactly how sensitive they were. Time to vacate. “I was just delivering Jerome’s dry cleaning. Gotta take care of those puffy silk things he calls shirts.” Nick hoisted his machine gun over his shoulder, shoved his guns into his shoulder holsters, and walked out, ignoring the protests of Paul and the curious stare of Otis.
“Wait!” Jerome grabbed his arm. “Who am I going get to protect Satan Jr.?”
“From what? Explain what’s going on, Jerome. I insist—” Paul stopped suddenly and held out his hand, letting the glittering remains of the dead Markku settle on his palm. “Is this what I think it is?”
The trembling in Nick’s legs told him he didn’t have time to hang around. He and Jerome looked at each other, then Nick walked over to the block of ice, pulled out his gun, and peppered the corner of the block until a twelve-inch piece fell off. He ignored the shouted protests of Otis and Paul, who didn’t dare approach him while the bullets were flying.
Too bad. Death by friendly fire would have worked for Nick.
He holstered his gun, and Paul lunged for the small block of ice. Nick swept it out of his reach and walked over to the portable fridge that Jerome had set up for him.
He dumped out the contents, grinned at the beer that had been hidden in the back, then shoved the chunk of Satan Jr. inside and tucked the fridge under his arm. “If anyone tries to re-form Satan Jr. without this piece, he’ll be missing something important. Probably not worth the risk.”
“You can’t take that!” Paul threw himself in front of the door. “Otis. Call for backup.”
As Otis fumbled with his headset, Nick rolled his eyes at Jerome, then grabbed Paul and tossed him aside. The Council member landed with a splash, spluttering, and Jerome had to turn away coughing.
Nick shuddered with weakness again and broke into an uneven jog, forcing his failing body to hurry and willing his way through the pain in his damaged knee. No way did he have the thirty minutes he’d initially thought. The gold blade had taken more out of him than he’d anticipated. Twenty feet to Jerome’s office, where he’d anchored his black-market portal. He preferred using his motorcycle, but he’d figured he might not have time to get back to his safe house by ordinary means, and now he was glad he’d had the foresight.
He shoved open the door, kicked it shut, then strode to the middle of the room, to the faint circle outlined on the floor. The portal kicked on automatically as soon as it sensed him, and he closed his eyes against the faint humming in his body. A couple more minutes. That’s all he had to hang on.
The humming stopped, and he opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by four walls of steel, deep underground. It held only a bed, a fridge, his armoire, and a bathroom. His body trembled, and he dropped the icebox.
He grabbed the chunk of Satan Jr., his muscles aching with the effort, staggered over to the freezer, and threw it inside. Then he made it the three feet to the bed and collapsed, letting the weakness overtake him like a black cloud.
He had a minute, maybe two, left of consciousness, and he relaxed. He was safe now.
Then his phone rang. He smiled at the sound of Toby Keith, the ring his little sister had programmed into his phone for her calls. He hadn’t heard from her in over a week, and he’d been starting to worry.
Groaning, he yanked his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open, letting it rest against the side of his head. “Where’ve you been, squirt?” He closed his eyes and let his hand flop to the mattress.
“Nick! You have to help me!”
The franticness in his sister’s voice caught him, and he battled against the wave of pending unconsciousness. “What’s wrong?” His tongue felt thick and heavy.
“They’re going to kill me if you don’t do what they want!”
Her voice became distant and fuzzy, and he cursed, struggling to stay conscious. Not now. “Who?”
Another voice came on the phone. “Kill the leader of hell by Sunday or your sister dies.”
Sunday? It was already Tuesday. That was kind of a short deadline for killing the leader of hell, wasn’t it? “Dani—” And then the world went black.
Excerpted from He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot , by Stephanie Rowe . Copyright (c) 2007 by Stephanie Rowe . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top