Location: Brimstone, galley
Time: In transit, just after Hell for the Company
“I thought you both said you enjoyed this game?” Ness fidgeted uncomfortably with his cards, gaze shifting from Shax to Verin and back.
“We do, cupcake.” Shax murmured, then he raised his head from his cards, one perfect red-gold eyebrow arched. “Whatever’s the matter?”
“You’re so very serious. And Verin’s scowling.” Ness flicked his wings carefully so he wouldn’t scatter cards. “This doesn’t appear to be fun at all.”
“Verin’s always scowling, my dear,” Shax murmured, returning to the earnest contemplation of his cards.
“It’s how you play, Twinkles,” Verin said on a puff of steam. “You can’t let anybody know what you’re holding.”
Ness pulled his cards in closer. “I understand that part. I’m not showing anyone my cards.”
“Hmm, yes.” Shax removed two cards from his hands, placed them face down on the table and tapped them. “Two please, Ver. It’s more than that, Ness. You can’t let anyone know what you have, good or bad. If you’re not careful, your face shows what sort of hand you have.”
Verin slid two cards across the table to Shax. “Get your hand out of your fucking pocket, your highness. We agreed to no cheating. Ivana, are you watching him?”
“I have my eye on our hot little captain, don’t you worry,” Ivana sang out from the ship speakers. “He’s not cheating. Yet.”
“Always so suspicious.” Shax rolled his eyes and handed a plasfilm printout over to Ness. “The ranking of hands. In case you forget. It’s a lot to remember at first.”
Ness thanked him and divided his attention between the list and the cards Verin had dealt him. He was supposed to make a valuable pattern from what he had been given, much of which had to do with chance, though there were definite probabilities involved. The cards included three red ones and two black, the red ones all displaying the same symbol, the parallelogram up on its point, and the black ones both showing different symbols, the clover sort of shape and the one that looked like a stumpy tree. Bottom lip caught between his teeth, Ness removed the two black cards and slid them toward Verin.
“See, that sort of expression, cupcake. You look worried. Tense. Other players will read into that,” Shax murmured as he rolled one of the foil-wrapped chocolates they were using as money across his fingers.
“Oh.” Ness tried his best to look blank and serious, or blank, or serious, knowing he probably looked ridiculous. He picked up the cards Verin gave him, and managed to stifle a gasp in a sniff. Both new cards were also red, both with the four-sided symbol. That had to be good, yes? He checked the value of each card and after some shuffling, realized he had a sequence…but only four in a sequence. Frowning, he studied his chart. Ah. The sequence would have to be all five cards to count, but wait. All five cards with the same symbol--suit. That was a flush. Even better than a sequence.
Calm. Uninterested. He wasn’t to give himself away. He put his first chocolate out in the center when Shax and Verin did, into the pot, which was silly. There was no pot. Not even a skillet.
Shax, still wearing his most serious face, tossed two more chocolates into the center. “Raise. Ness?”
The rules of betting had been explained several times until Ness believed he understood. He felt terribly wicked gambling, but he supposed since it wasn’t for money, it wasn’t truly sinful. “I, ah, see your two and raise two.”
“Damn it. I got less than shit,” Verin grumbled. He put his cards face down with a huff. “Fold.”
One of Shax’s eyebrows crept up, but he met Ness’s bet and raised again. This went on for several rounds, each time Ness becoming more and more nervous under Shax’s skeptical gaze. Finally, he only had two chocolates left and he had to concede.
“You must have something truly astounding, love,” Ness said ruefully as he lowered his cards. “I suppose I must fold, too.”
“So? What’d you have, bonehead?” Verin growled.
Shax’s grin spread slowly over his handsome face as he placed his cards face up on the table. Ness leaned over to decipher what had beaten his lovely flush—a tree king, a heart two, a tree three, a clover 7, and a four-sided 9?
“But…” Ness checked his list and tried to make sense of the cards. “But that’s…nothing!”
“And that, my dear…” Shax unwrapped a chocolate and popped it in his mouth, still grinning madly. “Is how you win on attitude alone.”
“That’s not—” Ness wasn’t certain what he would’ve said. Not fair. Not right. Not cricket. Just not nice. But in that moment he understood both the game and the universe according to Shax. It was a good thing Ness loved him.
Location: Elistrus Station Ring
Time: About a month prior to Hell for the Company
Disappointing, that’s what it was. Shax sighed and turned away from the new shop, full of boring mechanics tools. This had been his favorite shoe store in the Elistran station ring, one that had been stuffed full of shiny, flashy footwear, a full-spectrum explosion of boots and pumps and oxfords. And now? Wrenches and ratchets.
Shax pulled up the station map on his com, hoping the store had just moved, but Zephyr’s was no longer listed in the directory. “Pity, that. Should have picked up the faux ostrich last time I was here.”
At any other time, he would have lectured any younger demon about situational awareness on a human space station, but the sudden and depressing crumbling of his plans for the day distracted him more than it should have. Shax was formulating a new route through the corridors, perhaps past the chocolatiers, when he slammed into a wall that yelled at him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Up against the wall, demon!”
Oh, lovely. The enormous mound of human blocking Shax’s way was station security, not even proper law enforcement, of the sort Shax referred to mentally as TWB (Thug With Badge.) These sorts called for careful handling.
“My apologies, officer.” Shax straightened the officer’s lapel. Hideous uniform. Dreadful shade of brown. “I wasn’t paying attention. My fault entirely.”
“I said up against the damn wall! Now!”
Shax managed to suppress both a sigh and an eye roll as he assumed the position, which would have been a lot more fun if the security thug had been one of those dashing, dangerous types, or had better breath.
“Anything sharp in your pockets I should know about?” the thug snarled as he pawed rather clumsily at Shax for the obligatory pat down.
“No, but if you reach in my left pocket far enough, you could shove my cock a bit to the—ow!” Fine, not the smartest thing to say, but ear boxing probably isn’t in the security training manual. “No need for that, officer.”
Shax found himself spun around and pinned with his back to the wall, a meaty and apparently not-terribly-clean arm across his throat.
“Listen up, you little demon smartass. I don’t like your kind in my section. You got any brains, you’ll get back to your ship and stay there.”
The merchant association is going to hear about this. Scaring away good customers. Shax kept his thoughts behind his teeth and instead dredged up a meek and trembling voice. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Good. Get your filthy ass out of my sight.”
Shax took the shove down the corridor with good grace and hurried away like a good cowed demon. As soon as the security goon was out of sight, he straightened and began pulling things from his jacket. The officer’s badge and pistol went in the nearest waste bin, since those most likely had trackers. Shax kept the rings he’d stripped from the goon’s fingers. Probably cheap, not worth a single credit.
He stuck them in his pocket, whistling. It was the principle of the thing.
Location: Elistrus, Downtown Gomorrah
Time: Before the final scene of Hell for the Company
Ness checked the shop numbers on either side of the street and conceded he was lost again. It had all looked so easy on the map, but somehow the nice, orderly lines of streets didn’t translate to walking the route. Spatial translation issues. It was why he’d been a simple angel foot soldier and not a pilot.
Admitting temporary defeat, he found a concrete divider wall on which to perch, out of the way of foot and small vehicle traffic, and pulled out the little bag Ivana had given him. Jellied candies for his excursion, she had said, so he had something to snack on. He supposed he could pull up the holo map on his wrist com, but Verin had told him to avoid doing it in public. Looking lost made you a target.
Verin had also told him to keep his “big-ass wings” under his coat, and compliance was becoming rather hot and itchy.
“What’s wrong with your back?”
Startled by the high-pitched voice, Ness glanced around and finally down to find a small person glaring up at him. “My…? Oh. Nothing’s wrong with it.”
“It’s all lumpy.”
“Yes.” Ness turned before he could stop himself for a quick glance over his shoulder, as if he could see his own back. “Those are my wings.”
The small person took a step closer, face shadowed by a deep hood. “Do your wings got feathers?”
“Feathers. Mine got, er, have feathers.”
The person pushed back her hood, revealing thick black curls and a cunning cherub face. “Angels I’ve seen don’t keep ‘em all covered up.” She climbed onto the wall, a rather laborious process during which Ness couldn’t figure out whether to offer help or not. “And your coat and shit is all black leather. You look more like a pirate.”
“I suppose I am an angel pirate now. More or less.” Ness held out the bag. “Jelly? They’re cinnamon flavored. A little hot, but not bad.”
“You’re a really weird angel,” the little girl pronounced, though she happily plunged her hand into the bag and came up with three jellies. “So what’re you doing here, looking all lost and shit?”
“Does your mother know you use those words?”
The girl shrugged. “She’s dead. So I’d say probably not.”
“Oh.” Ness chewed slowly on his jelly. Did he say he was sorry? She was so matter-of-fact about it, perhaps she wouldn’t welcome that either. “I’m, ah, looking for something.”
“What’re you looking for?”
“Er…” If he admitted to being lost…but she didn’t seem dangerous.
“C’mon, I can probably help. You know, payment for the candy.”
“I’m looking for sulfur.”
“Yes. It’s a mineral, often yellow and—”
“I know what it is, you big twit.” She rolled her eyes. “What the hell do you want it for?”
“Oh. My friend needs it, for medical purposes. I thought I knew where the shop was, but I seem to have turned myself around. Badly.”
“Huh. So you gots demon friends?”
“How do you know—never mind. I’m sure you see all sorts of people in this city. I don’t suppose you could tell me where Minerva’s is? Where I’m supposed to buy the sulfur?”
She jumped down from the wall, dusting off her hands. “I’ll take you, Mr. Angel Demon Pirate.” She took his hand and turned him to walk back the way he had come. “And you can buy me lunch.”
“Can you read maps? Don’t you find them confusing?” Ness asked after they walked a block and a half, her little hand warm and comforting in his.
She tilted her head back to glance up at him, forehead wrinkled. “You really are a weird ass angel.”
Location: the Brimstone's pilot pod
Time: a few months after the end of Potato Surprise
“Shaxy…what in all the fucks that ever fucked is that?” Benny’s little rat nose scrunched as he leaned closer in the holo imager.
“It’s a statue. Solid gold, I assure you.” Shax shrugged. “Granted, it’s not the loveliest depiction of a woman—”
“She’s got crossed eyes and huge feet and a clock where her stomach should be.” Benny squinted harder. “Come on Shaxy, what’re you trying to pull here?”
“I’m not pulling anything. I’ve had this in my collection for some time. Can’t recall how I acquired it.”
“You accidentally breathed in a roomful of nitrous oxide,” Verin growled. “After that, everything was freaking hilarious. She’s not the only stupid thing you stole that night.”
Shax glared at him. “Unusual, perhaps. But not stupid. Regardless of the bizarre workmanship, it’s still gold. Can you get me a buyer or not?”
Benny let out a long breath, but his beady eyes had shifted from suspicious to calculating. “Lemme see what I can do, your demon-ness. I’ll get back to you.”
Several minutes ticked by on the stomach clock after Benny signed off, Shax sipping at his coffee while he tried his best not to glance over at Verin. He didn’t want to get into it. He really didn’t.
“So give, bonehead.” Verin obviously wasn’t going to let him off so easily. “Why now? You’ve had that butt-ugly thing for years.”
“It was a reminder of our misspent youth, Ver.”
“Don’t give me that sentimental crap. And it doesn’t explain why now.”
Shax let another three minutes tick off on the clock, each movement of the minute hand an abrasive, tinny click. “It’s gotten louder. No matter where I stash it, I can still hear it in my cabin. I’ve been sleeping in the galley the past few nights.”
“Told you not to steal it in the first place, genius.”
“So you say. I don’t recall.”
“Course not. You were high as a fucking orbiting satellite.”
Benny didn’t call back that day or the next. When he did call back on the third day, he was twitchier than usual, his eyes unable to focus on any one thing. “I got you a buyer.”
“But? There’s definitely a but there.” Shax folded his hands on the console, determined to be patient.
“It’s an old lady in the capital on Scarlen. She, um, collects weird shit. But she says she wants you to deliver in person.”
“All right. That’s not so odd.” Shax drummed his fingers beside Benny’s holo image. “Give, Benny. What aren’t you saying?”
“Um…look.” Benny twitched and actually looked behind him, though no one was ever in his workspace. “She collects really weird shit. I looked into it. Like fingers and organs and…demon horns.”
Shax blinked at him, then sat back slowly in his chair. “I see. Huh.”
“You know, Benny, I’ve decided not to sell after all. Someday this will be a museum piece. A historically significant artifact. I’ll wait a few more centuries. But thank you for giving it a try,”
“Anytime, Shaxy.” Benny’s shoulders relaxed, a skitter of a smile rushing across his face. “Anytime.”
Again Verin and Shax were left in the silence of the pilot’s pod with the ugly clock lady ticking away her maddening accounting of the minutes.
“Out the airlock?” Verin asked softly.
“Too damn right. I’ll race you.”
The scramble to the airlock was neither dignified nor safe, but the lady with the clock for a stomach finally turned peacefully, silently in the vacuum of space.
Author's note: There is an actual inspiration for the clock lady statue. If you're of a certain age and watched Sesame Street in its early years, you may remember it. ~ Angel
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
About the Author