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Baby Girl

Written by Jon Skovron
Illustrated by Liz Clarke



There was a knock on the door and it wasn't good. It couldn't be good. What knock at 2 am when you were taking a bath ever was?

Cobalt hooked an arm over the edge of the bathtub, pulled himself up a little and listened to the knock. Insistent yet reserved—a hard knuckle knock. Water dripped from his fingertips and fell on the bath-mat with a rhythm that counterpointed the knock perfectly. Cobalt curled his hand up to stop the drip. He hated when different natural rhythms started to sync up. It always meant something unnatural was about to happen.

The knock came again, no more hurried, but hard enough to make the hinges wince.

"Goddamn," said Cobalt and launched himself from the tub, water streaming down his lean, scarred, and naked body. He was tired. It had been a long and unpleasant day and all he'd wanted was a nice quiet bath. He snatched his pants from off the floor and stepped in them and out into the hallway. Beads of water gleamed on the dark brown of his bare chest and shoulders. His wet bare feet squeaked slightly on the hardwood floors.

The knock came again, steady and measured but with a little more clip.

His eyes roved around the studio apartment, looking for anything that might serve as a weapon.

The knock came again, and this time plaster trickled from the door frame in spurts.

"Who is it?" he yelled as he slipped into the kitchen.

"Opportunity," came a high-pitched voice.

"Ha ha," said Cobalt as he rummaged around in a drawer near the stove. He pulled out a twelve inch chef's knife. It would have to do, since he'd left his machete in the car.

The door shuddered looser with each knock.

"Okay, okay," said Cobalt. "I'm coming."

Without further hesitation, he walked smoothly to the front, raised the knife, released the deadbolt, and opened the door.

Out in the building hallway stood the neighbor's kid, Eric. But no, it wasn't the neighbor's kid at the moment. Those chocolate brown eyes looked up at him wide and feral with ancient and hardened wisdom. They were not the eyes of a child.

"Oh," said Cobalt. "Shi—"

In one swift motion the boy backhanded the knife from Cobalt's grip and shoved him stumbling backward. Cobalt's wet feet slipped out from under him and he landed flat on his back. The boy jumped into the air and landed hard with both knees on his chest, then pinned Cobalt's head flat against the ground.

"Get off me!" said Cobalt, his face mashed against the floor, knowing there was no point in struggling.

"Cobalt Jackson!" said the boy. "Is you the Hoodoo man?"

"Shit, I hate that name."

"You prefer Root doctor?"

"What I would prefer," said Cobalt as he rolled his eyes up at his captor, "is that you tell me what the fuck you want and then get out of that poor kid's body before you damage it."

"Will ya listen ta me?"

"I promise," said Cobalt. "I always listen. That's my fucking problem."

"A'rit, then." The boy jumped backwards gracefully into a crouch.

Cobalt sat up and rubbed the side of his face. Then he looked at the crouched figure that was usually a very shy and well behaved little boy.

"Well?" he said at last. "Got a name?"


Cobalt laughed. "Sure it is."

"Waz that mean?"

"It means you don't remember your real name. Your African name. It means that ole Massa couldn't be bothered to tell one slave from the other so he just named them all John. How long ago did you die?"

"I don't know. I guess a while. Things look lots different."

"Yeah, I'll bet they do," said Cobalt. "So, did you ever get free as a mortal?"

"Yessa," said John. "'Scaped up nawth to Ohio wit a few othern. Found me a job an' everythin'."

"So before Emancipation, then," said Cobalt as he pulled himself to his feet. "So what'd you want, John? Revenge on ole Massa? Sorry, man. He's probably been dead as long as you have."

"I don't care 'bout other dead folks," said John, his little boy head shaking with adult weariness. "I gots a wrong to rit afore I can go on. And I need yer help t' do 'um, Conjour Man."

"Yeah?" Cobalt leaned back, one hip on the edge of the small mail desk in the hallway. "What wrong you need righted?"

"The Devil done stole my woman."

"Huh," said Cobalt. His face was a mask of cool nonchalance, but his hand opened the junk drawer of his mail desk and rummaged around until he found the emergency pack of smokes shoved in the back. His eyes still on John, he lit one and inhaled deeply. They were a little stale, but the roughness felt good. Felt right. Finally, on the exhale, "The Devil, huh?"

"Tha's rit."

"Took your girl."


"Is she dead?"


"You sure?"

"Sure as I am dead."

"Fair enough." Cobalt took another hard drag. "So you want me to save your girl from the Devil?"


"I've never met the Devil."

"I can tell," said John.

"How's that?"

"Ya gots the wrong idea 'bout 'em completely."

"Which part am I wrong about? That he's stronger than me?"

"No, he's defn'ly stronger."

"That he's smarter than me?

"No, he's smarter than ya fer shore."

"That he's a tricky sonofabitch who can't be trusted any further than I can throw him?"

"Oh, no, tha's all true too."

"Well, which part am I wrong about, then?"

"That he cain'ts be beat."

"And how do you know that?"

"'Cause I done beat 'em."

"No shit," said Cobalt.

"Tha's rit. See, when I was alive, I was a gambolin' man. One night I was playin' cards with a stranger and when he won all my moneys, he said we could gamble with life isself. Now, I thought fer sure my luck was about to turn."

"Of course you did," said Cobalt.

"And anyways, I was a pretty tough fella so I figured worse come ta worse, I could lick 'em in a fight. So I said shore, double or nothin' on my life. It wasn't until after he'd won that hand that he told me he was the Devil."

"Cause the horns and tail didn't give it away?"

"He was in disguise."

"Uh huh."

"And I might of had some low wine too."

Cobalt shook his head. "Too drunk to recognize the Devil." He took another drag.

"Can I get some of that tobacah?" asked John.

"Those aren't your lungs," said Cobalt. "So, no, you can't." But he put the cigarette out so as not to torture him. Then he said, "So he killed you and took your girl?"

"No, I 'scaped alrit, 'cause of my woman. It was our love that saved me. It was our love that gave me the ability to beat that ole Devil."

"So what happened?"

"Well, we got away. But 'ventually, I gots careless. Didn't stay on my toes. The Devil shore does hold a grudge and he was a waitin' to catch me sleepin'. And shore enough, he did. Comin' back from work on the side of the road. Horse and buggy lost control and done squarsh me flat."

"And when you died, since he couldn't take your soul, he took your girl?"

"Yeah," nodded John. "Somethin' like that."

"So why are you coming to me now? Sounds like you've waited a long time before making your move to get her back."

"I hadda find out how to git to 'em."

"You mean, how to get to Hell?"

John looked at him with a steadiness and clarity that was common among spirits but which Cobalt never quite got used to seeing. "Conjure Man, we alls in Hell rit now."

"Bullshit," said Cobalt. "But you sure ain't helping by running around possessing innocent kids."

"You know hows it is," said John. "Hard to find a mind open and flexible 'nough to let ya in, even for a little while."

"I hear that a lot," said Cobalt. "So you will let this kid go if I help you?"

"A'course." John nodded vehemently. "I'm just borrowin' his mouth sos we could talk. I don't mean no harm to nobody but that Devil."

"Alright, then," nodded Cobalt. "I'll do it."

John beamed at him and it was so open and excited that for a moment Cobalt thought the spirit had already left. But then the boy's face grew serious once again and said, " 'Twon't be easy. Ya gots to light nine candles and pray fer twelve hours so as to prepare yerself, then ya gots to travel upriver blindfolded holdin' a mixture of salt, white mustard seed, and cayenne pepper in yer mouth."

"Uh," Cobalt winced.

"An' don't fergets ta bring a baby coal-black heifer for when that ole Eagle gets hungry."

"Wait, what eagle?"

"An' when ya gets there, whatever ya do, don' mention me."

"I'm still on the eagle part," said Cobalt.

"Oh, an' ya prob'ly want ta bring a broom."

"What? A broom?"

"If ya do all that, I think ya'll be jus' fine." Cobalt could see John letting go of his grip of the boy all of a sudden. "Now hold on a minute!" he said. "I need some more details!"

"And don't fergit," said John as he began to slump against the wall, "the name a my woman," his head began nodding and his voice warbling, "Salome."

"Aw hell," said Cobalt as he caught the boy's body from falling to the floor. A moment later, the boy's eyes fluttered and looked up at Cobalt in bewilderment."Mister Jackson?" said Eric.

"You're alright," said Cobalt.

"What happen?"

"You were sleepwalking," said Cobalt. "About scared the life out of me. Com'on. Let's get you back home."

Eric blinked and struggled to his feet. He looked exhausted, which was typical for someone who'd just been mounted by a spirit. "I had a really weird dream."

"Oh yeah?" said Cobalt, gently guiding him towards the front door. "What about?"

"This really pretty woman who lived inside a big pit of fire."

"Scary, huh?"

"No," Eric shook his head. "It should have been scary, but it wasn't at all. It was kinda nice." Then he sniffed the air and said, "Are you smoking again, Mister Jackson?"

"Now and then," admitted Cobalt.

"My momma says those things are going to be the death of you."

"If I'm lucky," said Cobalt. "Only if I'm lucky."

* * *

The next morning Cobalt went to pay Angelface a visit. While Cobalt didn't exactly think John had been lying, he got the distinct impression that things had been left out. Most obviously, the details of how John actually managed to defeat the Devil. Also suspicious was the fact that John had been heavily addicted to gambling and drinking, which was unusual for someone as happily in love as he claimed to have been with Salome. Then, of course, there was the name itself. Salome? What parent named their kid after a Biblical erotic dancer? But if anyone could confirm John's story, it was Angelface.

He ran a guitar shop down on Carson Street in the South Side. He was kind of a local celebrity, much like Cobalt was in Oakland and Squirrel Hill. He was the guy that people went to when they ran out of other options. Liked by a few, feared by many. And usually treated with disdain until needed. Especially Angelface.

There are many truths that are hidden, about love, innocence, hope, mortality, God, and magic. And the thing was that the majority of these truths were hidden by a person from themselves because they either didn't want to know the answer or they didn't like the answer. Everyone lies to themselves. In fact, lying is such a natural part of human nature that it was said that no matter who they were, anyone whose mouth was cut sideways would tell a lie. The thing was, Angelface's mouth was cut vertically. He was a Truthsayer, incapable of lying, even about the secrets of the Universe itself. If anyone could parse out the real truth behind John's story, it was him. Besides, Angelface owed him a few favors.

Cobalt parked his crappy old blue Buick across the street from the store, turned up the collar on his jacket and hustled through a chill spring rain. The shop door beeped cheerfully as he entered the humid warmth and saw Angelface behind the counter strumming absently on a vintage Stromberg archtop guitar. A tall, gaunt white guy with solemn gray eyes, his shoulder-length blond hair wasn't looking so good anymore since his receding hairline. When he saw Cobalt, the ends of his mouth curved to the right, which Cobalt knew was a smile.

"Hey, CB," he said in a deep baritone.

"Yo, Angel," said Cobalt. "How you doing?"

They clasped hands tightly for a moment, then Cobalt said, "No time to chit chat. Gotta call in a favor."

"Okay," said Angelface. "What do you want to know?"

"Got a new client last night. A spirit named John."

"Bad idea," said Angelface. "Deads never pay well."

"I know," said Cobalt. "I'm a softy for the souls of slaves."

"But not soft enough to trust 'em completely," said Angelface. "Which is why you're here."

Cobalt smiled. "As always, you know me."

"I pity you, CB, 'cause most times I feel like I'm the only one who does."

Cobalt shrugged. "Man of mystery. That's me."

"Well, what's your question?"

"It's about the Devil."

"Oh," said Angelface. The corners of his mouth curved to the left. "It'll be tricky to weed out the truth then, cause that Devil likes to blend the two together till they're almost indistinguishable. In fact, I might even be inclined to say that where the Devil's concerned, there's no such thing as truth and lies, just things said and things done."

"Yeah, great," said Cobalt. He tapped impatiently on the glass counter top. "Can you tell me how this client, John, beat the Devil?"

"Love," said Angelface.

"Yeah, I got that. But I want some details."

"Something about a contest," said Angelface.

"Yeah, yeah, a card game."

"No," said Angel. "That was earlier. This was some kind of impossible task that John had to do...if he did it, the Devil said he'd spare his life."

"But if it was impossible, how'd he do it?"

Angelface shook his head and shrugged. "Love. Or something a lot like it. That's all I know for sure."

"Well, can you at least confirm how I can get to Hell?"

Angelface grinned. "Try shooting yourself in the head."

"Ha, ha," said Cobalt. "I meant a way where I can come back."

"There are many ways," said Angelface. "Too many to list off."

"Okay, well, how about upriver blindfolded with a handful of salt and pepper in my mouth?"

"That would work," said Angelface. "How you gonna do it?"

"Take a motorboat up the Allegheny."

"How you gonna keep from crashing into stuff?"

"You tell me."

"I'll follow you out and guide you on the radio."

"Sounds good to me." Cobalt nodded.

"Just watch out for the Eagle."

"Yeah, John mentioned something about an eagle. Is it that dangerous?"

"Every entrance to Hell has a guardian," said Angelface. "They're all dangerous."

"But if I bring a live black calf to feed it, will that be enough?"

"If the Eagle gets the calf, you'll get by."

"That was a careful answer," said Cobalt, his eyes narrowing.

"Yeah," said Angelface. "So be careful."

* * *

They met back up that night at a small, private pier on the riverbank near the Strip District. Rain was coming down hard and dirty. Angelface stood on the dock wearing a yellow rain slicker with the hood pulled up, partially to keep his precious golden locks dry, partially to shield casual observers from the shock of seeing his face. He watched with amusement as Cobalt struggled down the steps from street level with a thrashing calf in his arms, his face grim and pinched.

"Have fun getting that?" Angelface asked when Cobalt drew near.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a live completely black calf in this town?"

"Yeah, actually. I do." said Angelface.

"Yeah, yeah," said Cobalt. "Help me get this poor little critter in the boat so I can slap you silly."

They took a line and roped the calf's legs together, then left it laying on its side in the bow of the small motorboat that Cobalt had borrowed from an old client.

"You ready?" asked Angelface.

"Why you think I'm so cranky?" snapped Cobalt. "I been fasting and praying, lighting candles and drinking every shit-tasting charm potion I know. I could run a goddamn marathon while smoking a carton of cigarettes right now."

"Okay," said Angelface. "I'll keep with you by radio for as long as I can."

They both eased their boats clear of the dock and out into the river. Then Cobalt took a white strip of cloth that he had treated with holy water and blessed earlier that day. He tied it carefully across his eyes so that nothing but the merest hints of light and dark were visible. The effect of helpless disorientation was immediate: the boat rocking, the calf thrashing and mewling, the rain hissing, his blood pounding in his temples.

"How you doing, CB?" crackled over the radio.

Cobalt fumbled until he found the receiver. "Why am I doing this again?" His voice sounded hoarse.

"Cause you're a crazy motherfucker."

"Right," said Cobalt. "I guess that's good enough." Then he let out on the throttle and the boat began to pick up speed as it cut upstream.

The outboard motor grated against his ears and tickled the back of his throat. He could almost taste the engine fuel on his tongue. The boat seemed to pitch in every direction, buffeted by wind and rain and current.

"How'm I doing, Angel?"

"Just fine, CB. Nothing in your way."

"But am I going straight?"

"Of course. You haven't turned the wheel, have you?"

"No, but this wind feels like it's knockin' me all over the place."

"You're fine," said Angelface.

"Alright." Cobalt reached into a pouch in his pocket and grabbed a fistful of the salt, mustard seed, and cayenne pepper mixture he'd made earlier that day. Before he could give it any thought, he quickly dumped it into his mouth. When the powder hit his tongue, his throat constricted then expanded, unsure whether to swallow or vomit. He took a deep breath through his nose to calm himself. He willed himself to disregard the taste and the burn, to concentrate on something else. Anything else.

The rain was coming down harder now, leaking into his blindfold, stinging his eyes, and chilling him to the core. Water slapped against the metal siding, sending laser-zap vibrations up and down the length of the boat. The calf's breathing came in ragged gasps and its hooves clanged against the nearby bucket seat. And there was something else...a smell that cut like a dart through the scent of rain and river muck and grass and spring pollen and even the burn of the salt and pepper to his nose. It smelled like someone had lit a match in front of his face. Then it was gone. He gripped the wheel tighter. The hiss of the rain on the surface of the water came in waves now, like an ocean, back and forth, in and out, crescendo and decrescendo. The boat dipped side to side, slapped its edge on the water like clapping wet hands. The calf kicked and flailed, its hooves clanging against the metal rail like a bell and its fearful wails shimmering like a chime. The motor chugged along with a constant drone, a bass line, but popping on every second and fourth beat and the calf hit the seat on the fourth and the rain filled the down stroke on the one and three and it all started coming together like fingers in folded hands . . . duba-DAT-bing-doo duba-duba-DAT-bing duba-DAT-bing-doo duba-duba-DAT-bing...

"Oh, fhi . . ." said Cobalt.

"Uh, CB," came Angelface's voice over the radio. "I think—"

The blast of sulfur hit Cobalt square in the face. His nose hairs dissolved as he let go of the wheel and stumbled back. The boat pitched wildly, banging, pounding. He heard the calf on its feet now, clambering around, somehow loose, mooing pitifully and the rain came down with tropical storm strength, pounding on his head and shoulders like pebbles. Loud cracks and he didn't know . . . were they lightning? Was the boat coming apart? He almost tore off the blindfold but then the boat pitched forward and he fell backward. He flailed about on the floor of the boat, trying to regain his footing in the collecting puddles. Then something slammed into his chest, nailed him to the side of the boat. The calf. It pressed its hooves into his chest, and pain flashed but he didn't scream because the powder mixture was his protection and so he clenched his teeth and his tears blended with the raking rain that seemed to be getting hotter. When had the calf gotten so heavy? Its voice was much deeper too, and no longer afraid but now enraged, hot breath blowing on his face. In the background, the rain sound dipped, staggered, became uneven, raindrops hitting raindrops like a civil war of heavenly water until it was a different sound entirely—a trembling, screaming, vengeful sound of madness that built up and made Cobalt want to scream with it in terror, and all the while the cow pressed down harder and harder.

Then a slap.

A screech.


And Cobalt was free.



He ripped the blindfold off and saw an eagle the size of a prop plane carry off the cow. It flew into clear skies streaked with the red of a setting sun. His little boat was no longer in the Allegheny River, but instead in a vast ocean, calm and crystal. The air was humid and the setting sun raked his skin with heat. Nothing else was in sight except a single beach island dotted with one palm tree and a crumbling shack of a house.

He spat out the powder and rinsed his mouth with water. It wasn't salty but he didn't swallow any of it. If he had reached the correct destination, then it seemed best not to take a chance on drinking the waters of Hell.

The motor had stopped at some point. He gave it a few tries, but it wouldn't start so he gave up, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, unhooked the emergency oar from the side of the boat and began to row. He stood at the bow and worked the wooden oar for hours with deep, smooth strokes, inching his way towards the island. During all that time, the sun never quite set, but lingered fat and red on the horizon, laying its heat on him like dead weight. Sweat trickled down his brow and he was thirsty. He looked at the crystal clear water beneath . . . but, no, he didn't drink it. He pushed himself on and on, his head down, his face pinched with fatigue, and his mouth tasting like a dust pit.

Then there was a quiet scrape on the bottom and the boat jerked to a halt. But Cobalt didn't. He pitched forward over the bow, somersaulted with all the grace of a rag doll, and landed flat on his back in the sand. The landing knocked the wind out of him so he just lay there gasping for air and staring at the blood red sun through teary eyes. So much for the element of surprise. So much for an impressive entrance. He expected the minions of Hell to leap on him immediately. But nothing happened. Once he'd caught his breath he stood up and looked around. Nothing on the island but the palm tree and the wooden shack. No animals, no plants, and no demon spawn.

Not quite sure what else to do, he dusted the sand from his pants and shirt, then walked to the shack. He stood staring at the knotted driftwood door for a full minute before he made up his mind and knocked.

"Who's there?" boomed a voice like molten lava."Uh . . . it's Cobalt Jackson."

There was a long pause. Cobalt shifted his weight uneasily.

"No shit," the voice said at last with something leaning towards a mild amusement that could none the less melt steel. "Hoodoo PI is here?" There was a creaking sound, like someone leaning back in a chair. Then, "It's the fuzz, woman. You better open the door."

The door creaked open.

Cobalt nearly went insane.

The creature that stood before him defied reality. Its limbs twisted and knotted back in on themselves in infinite coils and loops that went nowhere yet stretched from horizon to horizon. Worms and maggots writhed from every orifice, swallowing each other as they were swallowed themselves. The eyes were bottomless pools of diseased and putrid coagulated blood and what might have been a mouth sucked in hope and happiness like a psychic vacuum.

"Oh . . . shit," stammered Cobalt like an idiot. "The Devil!"

"Naw," said a voice from behind the creature. "That's just my wife. Hey, Molderina! Move over and let the man come inside."

The creature shuffled placidly aside to reveal a small, cramped but cozy cabin, complete with potbelly stove, kitchen/dinette, and wrought iron framed bed. Lounging in the corner in a rocking chair next to the stove was the Devil. Extremely tall and incredibly thin, his entire body was shaggy and pitch black except for flickering red eyes and a grin so wide it extended past the boundaries of his face. In his mouth were row upon row of fanged teeth. Flopping to the side of the chair was a strangely lumpy short tail. No, wait. Not a short tail. A long penis.

"Well, come on in, Conjure man. You've come this far, haven't you?"

"Uh . . ." Cobalt shuffled numbly inside, trying not to flinch at the Devil's wife. "Sorry about the mix-up."

"It's alright," waved the Devil. "But ain't she something?"

"She sure is," agreed Cobalt. "Have a seat, Detective," said the Devil. He motioned to a very short stool next to him.

Cobalt looked at it and almost said no thanks he'd rather stand. But he suspected this was probably a test of some kind. How much cool did he have? Well, he'd show that fucking Devil he had all the cool necessary. So he sat down on that little stool and pretended like he didn't mind the Devil leering down on him. He also pretended it was comfortable.

"So," said the Devil, "what brings you to the corporate offices of Hell?"

"Corporate offices?"

"Well, this ain't the customer-facing end of the operation. Trust me, when you die and go through the main gates and all that stuff, it's a whole lot more impressive. This is just where me and my little family hang out when we aren't working hard to corrupt humanity or punish the wicked."

"Your family?"

"Me, Molderina here, and our daughter."

"Daughter?" said Cobalt.

"Yeah, she's just getting off her shift in a minute or two. Now, what brings you to my humble home?"

"Well, uh Devil, now that you mention it, this isn't just a social call . . ."

"It never is," said the Devil and sighed tragically, then his grin returned.

"I'm actually here to collect somebody that I gather is being held here without just cause and against their will."

"Is that so?" said the Devil, not seeming in the slightest bit alarmed or surprised. "Well, Officer Hoodoo"

"Please," said Cobalt. "If you don't like Cobalt, just call me CB."

"Alright, CB," said the Devil. "Now, first off, I have to say that I'm both impressed and disappointed in you."


"Yeah. See, I'm impressed that you're so bold and brave to confront me head on like this. Direct. To the point. Just the way I like it."

"Oh, yeah?"

"You bet. But I'm a little disappointed because I was always given to understand from various sources that you actually had a brain inside that head."

"Well . . ."

"No, no. There's no point in disagreeing now. Cause regardless, I'm just going to have to kill you. After all, I can't let you go and tell people about me and my family. You'll ruin the surprise for everybody."

"Wait a minute. Isn't there some kind of traditional . . . contest or something?"

"Hmm. A contest. I don't stand much on tradition, but I do love a contest . . ."

Then, as the Devil scratched his chin in contemplation, the front flap of the potbelly stove flipped opened with a clang. A petite female foot emerged, followed by curved calf and delicate little knee, then a sculpted thigh and a perfect ass, a narrow waist, a matching leg, then a sleekly muscled back, an elegant neck, well-kept but wild dreadlocked hair, perky breasts and a face like a wise and naughty angel. And all Cobalt could do was stare stupidly and say, "Lisa Bonet in Hell?!?!??!"

"No," said the Devil. "But interesting choice."


"She appears as the viewer's ultimate desire."

"Uh . . . oh," said Cobalt. He rubbed the back of his head uncomfortably. "Yeah . . ."

"She's just getting off her shift. CB, meet my daughter, Salome."

In Cobalt's head: Bells. Whistles. Sirens. Alarms.

"Hi," said Salome with a smile like a burst of sunshine after a thunderstorm.

"Huh-huh . . . hi," said Cobalt.

"Good to see you, honey," said the Devil, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Now, if you'll excuse us . . ."

"Of course," said Salome, once again smiling so that Cobalt simultaneously felt the urge to cry and leap with joy. "I'm just going to get cleaned up." Then she opened the front door and walked out into the sand.

"Now," said the Devil. "Where were we? Ah yes . . . a contest."

"Uh, yeah," said Cobalt. Why the fuck hadn't John told him that his woman was the Devil's daughter? Wait, he already knew the answer to that. Because Cobalt wouldn't have taken the case. His stomach was heavy and his throat was thick as he said, "A contest."

"And if you win, I'll let you live, I'll let you leave, and I'll let you take this poor wronged person, whoever they are, with you."

"Sure," said Cobalt, forcing himself to level out. It was salvage time. He doubted that Salome would even be interested in coming with him but at this point he was just trying to save his own life. "Name it."

"Just a simple thing," said the Devil.

"Uh huh," said Cobalt, his eyes narrowing.

"Just sweep up the dust under the bed," said the Devil.

Cobalt looked at the standard-sized metal frame bed. There was a bed skirt so he couldn't exactly see under it, but how bad could it be? "That's it?"

"With this," the Devil produced a broom the size of a tooth brush.

"Oh," said Cobalt.

"And you only have until sunrise."

"I knew it couldn't be that easy."

"Tell you what, I'll even sweeten the deal, just 'cause it amuses me and, all in all, I think you're pretty cool. You do this, and I will not only give you a Get-Out-Of-Hell free card, I'll give you a back up, so that next time you come back snooping into something you won't have to worry."

"Interesting," said Cobalt. "Assuming I ever need to come back."

The Devil just smiled, then said, "Fair enough?"

"I guess," admitted Cobalt.

"Excellent," said the Devil. "Well, you'd better get started." He turned to Molderina. "You too, dear. You're late for your shift." The shambling, rotting mass of chaos nodded, walked over to the refrigerator. She opened the freezer door and somehow pulled her immense bulk inside and shut the door behind her without the least bit of trouble.

That was when Cobalt began to suspect what he was really in for.

"Well?" said the Devil. "Time's a wasting."

Cobalt took the tiny broom and walked resolutely to the bed. He got on his hands and knees, lifted up the bed skirt, and stuck his head under the bed.

* * *

And he stood in an empty room the size of a football field fringed in massive curtains. He realized those were probably the bed skirts. All around him, dust lay in heaping piles swirling and eddying like snow drifts. He stared at his toothbrush, then again at the towering drifts. He remembered only now that John had suggested somewhat offhand that he might want to bring a broom. The fucking bastard knew about this too. He could have been a little more explicit. He also could have been straight up with him about the whole thing. In fact, he could have just never knocked on Cobalt's door in the first place.

It was at that point that Cobalt sat his ass down on the dusty ground and abandoned himself to a little hopeless despair.

"Don't cry, Cobalt," said a steamy, lilting voice.

Cobalt jerked his head around. It was Salome. He jumped to his feet and tried with no success to wipe some of the dust from his clothes. "Uh, hey, Salome . . ." he said.

"Why are you crying?" said Salome.

"Truthfully? Because if I don't somehow sweep up all the dust in this place with a goddamn toothbrush in the next four hours, your dad is going to kill me."

"Don't worry," said Salome.

"Oh, why? Is he just putting me on?"

"No, he means it," said Salome. "But here, you sit back down and have a glass of water and rest a bit. I'll take care of this."

"Well, now . . ." said Cobalt. "I don't—"

"Hush. Sit. Drink. Sleep."

And without question or thought, Cobalt did.

* * *

He awoke suddenly, abruptly, as one who hadn't realized he'd gone to sleep in the first place. He stumbled to his feet in a blind panic for a moment, then looked around. The floor was completely clean and Salome stood before him, radiant as ever except for a small spot of dust in her hair.

"Wow," said Cobalt. "You did it! You—"

"GODDAMN IT, GIRL!!!" came a thunderous voice and a thick cloud of sulfurous smoke appeared beside them.

"Quick!" shouted Salome. "We have to get out of here!" She grabbed Cobalt's wrist and pulled him hard.

* * *

Cobalt stumbled and nearly ran headlong into the hot stove. He swayed and tried to get his bearings coming from the vast empty space underneath the bed to the cramped, cozy cabin.

"Oh, shit," whispered Salome, all composure gone from her exquisite face. She wrung her hands and looked pleadingly at Cobalt. "Help me."

There was a quirk in Cobalt's nature that responded to a damsel in distress on a sub-cellular level.

"Do you want to get out of Hell?" he demanded.

"I want to go with you!" she said.

Cobalt's eyes flitted around the room until he saw something that seemed promising.

"He's coming!" said Salome.

A black cloud of smoke was pouring out from under the bed skirts now and roaring, "Why, why, why, why, WHY!!!"

"Come on," said Cobalt, took her hand, steeled himself, and jumped at the sink.

"Wait," he heard Salome say, "Not the—"

* * *

They were in a metal basin fifty yards in diameter. Cobalt skidded and flailed wildly as he tried to gain footing on a surface slick with water and rotting food. In the center of the basin was a massive drain, and disposal blades glinted menacingly from within its dark recesses. As he fought to stay upright, every movement made his shoes slowly slip closer to the drain with a bright squeak.

"We're so screwed," hissed Salome. She didn't seem to be having any trouble with her footing, but her arms were wrapped tightly around her torso, she was shivering violently, and she kept glancing fearfully up into the darkness.

"Is there any other way out of here?" he asked, his legs spread wide to keep from falling.

"Just that way," said Salome, and she pointed to the drain.



Then there was a harsh chuckle. Cobalt looked up and he could see a pair of giant burning red eyes as the Devil gazed down into the sink at them. Then Cobalt heard a soft click, like a light switch being flicked on. The basin began to rumble and Cobalt looked back towards the drain. The disposal blades began to turn faster and faster, until they were a threshing blur.

Then the Devil dissolved into black smoke again and poured into the basin. When he reformed, he had adjusted his size to match their own.

"You can just go ahead and fall to your messy doom, now, Conjure Man," he growled.

"Thanks but I think I'll stay right here," said Cobalt, trying to make it sound like a choice. His legs were burning from the tension required to keep himself in the straddle position. And underneath him, the disposal motor was making the basin vibrate so hard his feet were going numb.

"It's going to be a lot worse on you if you wait for me to get you," said the Devil. "Trying to kidnap my baby girl . . ."

"He didn't kidnap me, Daddy," said Salome. "I wanted to go."

"And you," the Devil turned towards her. "I am gonna make you wish you were mortal just so you could die, that's how bad it's gonna hurt." Then he stepped past Cobalt, his clawed hands reaching for her.

Cobalt took a deep breath, and through clenched teeth said, "I don't think so." Then he grabbed the Devil's massive penis and squeezed as hard as he could.

The shrieking sound that came out of the Devil's jaws reverberated through the metal basin like a steel drum. Cobalt's legs finally gave way and the only thing that kept him from falling into the shimmering disposal blades was his grip on the Devil's penis.

"Oh, I am gonna invent whole new levels of Hell for you," hissed the Devil. "Let go of me!"

"Stop the blades!" said Cobalt.

"I'm warning you—" said the Devil.

But his words transformed into a pathetic whimper as Cobalt pulled hard on his penis. The Devil raised one shaking hand and snapped his fingers.

* * *

They were back in the cabin. Cobalt stumbled and smacked his forehead on the front door.

"Go, Conjure Man!" snarled the Devil. "Now!"

Cobalt fumbled for the handle, hardly believing what he'd just heard. But as he was about to open the door, he heard a sharp crack and a high whimper. He stopped and turned back towards them. The Devil was slowly advancing towards Salome, a long black whip clutched in his clawed fist. Salome looked over the Devil's shoulder at Cobalt, her eyes mutely pleading, a long bloody welt on her upper arm.

"Goddamn," muttered Cobalt. Then he grabbed the poker by the stove and stepped in between them.

"Out of the way, Conjure Man," snarled the Devil. "I've given you your life back. You should take it and run."

"I'm taking Salome with me," said Cobalt.

"Boy, not only are you dumb, but you're rude. This here is family business. It ain't got nothin' to do with you."

"Call me rude, then," said Cobalt. Then he swung the poker with all his might and hit the Devil square in the forehead. But the Devil did not move except for his eyes, which crossed slightly as they gazed at the poker pressed against his brow. He frowned and the poker went white hot. Cobalt let out a yell and dropped it. Then the Devil hissed triumphantly and reached for Cobalt with a clawed hand while he drew back his whip with the other.

"Daddy, please!" said Salome.

The Devil froze, his hand a hair's breadth from Cobalt's face. "Baby girl . . ." he whispered. His face writhed with frustration.

"I'm sorry I got you mad, Daddy," said Salome.

There was a sound like a buzz saw on sheet metal and Cobalt realized that the Devil was grinding his teeth.

"Please, Daddy," said Salome. "Please let us go."

"Now why you gotta use the magic words!" groaned the Devil as he lowered his hands.

"Magic words?" asked Cobalt wildly, the adrenaline pumping through his veins suddenly useless.

"Please and sorry," the Devil spat the words out. He tossed his whip into a corner where it turned into a python and slithered away.

"You're kidding," said Cobalt.

"Hey," snapped the Devil, shaking a needle-sharp finger in his face. "You don't have kids so you don't know! I'm trying to raise a girl with manners, here. I expect her to honor words like 'please' and 'thank you' and 'sorry.' Now what kind of parent would I be if I didn't do the same? Consistency is the key to solid parenting."

"So you're going to let us go because she said 'please'?"

"And," said the Devil, as if this was direly important, "she apologized for her behavior."

"So, Salome" Cobalt struggled to contain his temper, "Couldn't you have done that from the beginning?"

"Well," said Salome, "I wouldn't have meant it then."

"I see," said Cobalt levelly.

"It was only your brave sacrifice that made me truly sorry that I had disobeyed Daddy. Because I'd rather be stuck in Hell forever than see you damned unjustly."

"But what I don't understand" said the Devil, wringing his hands in frustration, "is why you want to go with this tiny mortal into his tiny, smelly little world when you already know damn well how it's going to end?"

"I don't know how it's going to end," she said, her eyes wide and her lower lip trembling. "Every mortal is different. You've said that yourself a million times."

"I meant that every mortal has different things that would torment them for eternity."

"But if it's true for that, it's true for everything. And I just need a break from Hell, you know?" She gently took his massive clawed hands in her own. "Daddy, there's other things in creation worth doing besides tormenting souls and I want to do some of them before I settle into the family business. Why can't you let me have some time on my own?"

"You had some time on your own, remember?" said the Devil. "And how did that go?"

"But I've learned so much since then! It's been hundreds of years. How long is it going to take for you to trust me again?"

The Devil stared at her for a long time. Then he turned back to Cobalt and on his face was a grimace, a wincing, pleading, loathing, wrathful grimace which was one step away from biting his head off. "I hope you have kids one day. Then you'll understand. So take my heart, my daughter. My baby girl. Take her away from me just like the last one did. You'll use her just like the last one did, and then you'll break her heart. Just like the last one. And I'll have to come and get her and wipe away her tears."

"Wait a minute," said Cobalt. "I think you've got the wrong idea—"

"Thank you, Daddy!" squealed Salome. "Thank you thank you thank you!!!" She threw herself into his arms and then spun around and grabbed Cobalt by the arm. "Come on, let's go! Quick before he changes his mind and uses your intestines for Momma's knitting!" And she began to drag him towards the exit.

"Conjure man!" said the Devil.

Cobalt's heart went icy. He turned around slowly, thinking it was all another trick and now he was going to die. But the Devil just stood there in his cramped cabin, his dark shaggy body heaving with emotion, his eyes pulsing with fire.

And he said, "You know, you mortals have got me all wrong."

"Oh?" asked Cobalt. "How's that?"

"I was never an angel," said the Devil. "I never led no rebellion in Heaven and I never fell." His face curled up into a sneer, then. "This is how He made me. This is how I'm supposed to be." Then he snorted through his nose with a bitter laugh. "Now what does that tell you?"

* * *

The motor still didn't work on the boat, but it didn't seem to matter. Salome just told Cobalt to close his eyes, the boat lurched slightly, and then the hot, salty smells of that tropical place changed suddenly to the rusty cold of Pittsburgh. He opened his eyes and saw that they were floating down the Allegheny River once again. It was early morning and the sun was still warming up as it lit guardedly along the golden supports of the river's many bridges. On the left, the downtown area glittered like a façade, and on the right, houses and bungalows perched atop the hills that overlooked the dockyards. It was brash, noisy, and dirty, and Cobalt couldn't help but sigh in relief.

"Where do we go now?" asked Salome. "Will you take me to your home? Share with me your mortal life?" Her eyes seemed to throb slightly, and it felt like a magnetic field hovered between them and Cobalt leaned unconsciously towards her, his lips buzzing for her kiss. Strange possibilities flickered through his head, hopes and desires. . . .

But then, over her perfect shoulder, he spotted a small powerboat with a tall, ugly, long haired white guy in it. And a different possibility occurred to him. One which was at once so wrenchingly full of loss and so thrillingly full of potential that he shivered.

"What is it?" asked Salome.

"I'd like you to meet somebody," said Cobalt. "A good friend of mine."

Salome turned just as Angelface pulled up along side of their boat.

"You guys need a—" And then he saw Salome

"Uh, Salome," said Cobalt. "This is Angelface. Angelface, this is—"

"Oh!" she breathed. "An angel! I've never known an angel!"

Cobalt almost corrected her, but stopped himself. Instead, he just smiled.

"Nice to . . . uh . . . meet you," said Angelface, his eyes flickering over to Cobalt in confusion. Looking for guidance.

"How lovely you are, Angelface!" said Salome.

That stopped him. He stared at her for a moment, then said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Salome, daughter of Hell," said Salome. "Do you love me?"

He looked at her for a while longer and then his mouth curved to the right in a wide smile. "Not yet," he said truthfully. "But I don't think it'll take long."

* * *

Angelface towed their boat back to the pier. As they disembarked, an old lady stepped down on to the dock with startling agility.

"I knows ya could do 'em, Hoodoo Man!" said John through the old woman's lips. "I weren't worried none at'all." Then he looked appreciatively at Salome. "And damn, girl, if you ain't jus as purdy as eva'!"

"You're still here?" asked Cobalt, surprised. "Usually when the wrong's been righted, the spirit is free to go."

John grinned and there was a hint of malice in it. "Now, was ya still thinkin' I was a normal ole spirit? Afta' what ya jes been through? Ya mean ya act'ly believed alla tha' 'Yessa' and 'Nossa' stuff? Boy, ya head muss be empty as tha' ole Devil's heart!"

"John?" said Salome, her normally musical voice suddenly flat and cold. "Is that you in there?"

"Sho' is, girl," said John.

"You shouldn't be in there," she said. "You should be back in Hell where you belong."

"In Hell?!" said Cobalt.

"Now that I meet him," said Angelface, "I coulda told you right away you'd been hoodwinked."

"Not much help now," muttered Cobalt.

"John," Salome said sternly. "How could you have escaped?"

"Now, girl," said John, and his old woman lips curled up into a sneer, "didja' think I done live with ya fer a whole lifetime an' not learn a thing a' two? I wuz always watchin' ya when ya was don' ya magics. See, I's got my own power now, an' I ain't neva gon' leave this ole worl'."

"It was always about power, wasn't it?" asked Salome. "You never loved me."

"Girl, was' this nonsense you be talkin'?" snapped John. "Don' fugit we married. So shuddup an' come ova' here afore I beat you dumb."

"Salome, you don't have to take that shit," said Cobalt. "This is—"

Salome held up her hand.

"It's okay," she said. "This is exactly what Daddy was worried about. But I really have learned from my mistakes." She turned pointedly to Cobalt and Angelface. "Would you guys mind stepping back and looking away for a minute? This is something I'd prefer you don't see until we know each other a little better."

"Um—" said Cobalt.

"Well—" said Angelface.

"Please," said Salome.

They both nodded, took a few steps back, and turned around.

Cobalt heard Salome say in a chiding voice, "Now, John. You really want to be with me that badly? Well, I got just the place for you."

Then he heard John gasp. Then his breathing came hard and fast and he whispered hoarsely, "No, no, no, no." There was a loud scream that was cut off abruptly by a strangely chilling vacuum sound. Then there was silence.

"Okay," he heard Salome say. "You can turn around again."

She was now easing an exhausted old lady onto a nearby bench.

"Lord, Lord, Lord," wheezed the old lady. "I feel like I done run a mile!"

"You're okay, granny," said Salome. "You just rest now. Get your strength back."

The old woman turned to look up at Salome and her eyes widened. "Oh my Lord!" she cried. "Mister Sidney Poitier! Is it really you? What are you doing in Pittsburgh, Mr. Poitier?"

"Just passing through," said Salome, completely unruffled. "And I saw that you needed some help."

"Well, don't that beat all," said the old woman, her face shining with pleasure. "Helped to a seat by none other than Sidney Poitier. I think I could die happy now."

"Now, now," chided Salome. "I think you got some time before that happens."

Cobalt turned to Angelface. "What do you see when you look at her?"

Angelface smirked. "Think I'm gonna tell you? I'd never hear the end of it."

"Huh," said Cobalt. "Fine. Well, I won't tell you either, then."

"Oh," said Angelface, "I already know what you see." Then he started to humming the theme to "A Different World" quietly to himself.

"Haha," said Cobalt sourly.

"Now, Mister Poitier," the old lady was saying. "Please forgive me for bein' so familiar, but you look jes as young and dashing as when you was in the movies."

Salome smiled. "It's the love of my fans that keeps me young."

"Say," said Cobalt to Angelface. "What happened to John, anyway?"

"Not sure you want to know, CB," said Angelface.

"Believe me," said Cobalt. "After what that punk ass bitch put me through in the past twenty-four hours, I wanna know."

"Well, Salome swallowed his soul."

"So what does that mean, exactly?"

"Well, contrary to popular literature, souls are not digestible," said Angelface. "Not even for Hellspawn. So she'll probably pass him. In a few centuries."

* * *

Jon Skovron's stories have appeared in such places as ChiZine, deathlings, and Lynx Eye Magazine. You can find other samples of his work, along with reviews, columns, and essays, on his website or his blog.

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