"Sam!" Ted said, passing through the aisle where Sock had just engaged Sam in a game of catch. "Since you're clearly not working, could you call up KSR Electronics and ask them what we're supposed to do about the refunds on the Volta?"
"Sure," Sam said, somewhat guiltily. The mop head Sock had tossed at him bounced off his shoulder and fell to the floor. "What's the number?"
"I don't remember. Check the contact book."
Sam flinched so visibly Sock rolled his eyes, thinking here we go again. As for Ted, he frowned and asked, "Is there a problem, Sam?"
Sam squirmed. "Um. Uh, no. No problem, but.."
"Sam has a temporary attack of telephone anxiety," Sock said, laying his arm around Sam's shoulders. "It happens sometimes, just out of the blue. His therapist is trying to do something about that. Don't worry, I'll help him out."
He led Sam out of the aisle, ignoring Ted calling after them, "I don't believe that for a minute, Wysocki!"
When they had reached the phone desk and were well out of hearing distance, Sock asked, "So, is it? Telephones?"
"No," Sam said sulkily. "It's books. They scream at me."
That had to be among the most awesome things Sock had ever heard, but he guessed it was a nuisance too. "Okay. So I look the number up for you, and as soon as we get a chance, we go find the soul and put an end to this thing. Do you have a vessel?"
"Yeah. It's a typewriter."
"Okay, well, that's something, right?" Sock tried to sound encouraging. "Typewriter and books, that probably means an author of some sort. And he's probably been dead for at least a decade or two, considering the typewriter. Or else the Devil's just trying to be cute with you. Either way, an author who was a really bad person, that can't chalk up to more than... okay, probably most of them. Still, we're gonna have this figured out in no time." He made an encouraging fist.
"No? What's with this defeatist attitude? Of course we will!"
Sam pushed him away. "No. As in, I'm not doing it."
"Saaam," Sock whined. "Not this again. I thought you were over this shit, man! It's only gonna piss the Devil off, and then he'll do something gruesome. Even if he doesn't, the soul will start killing people or whatever sent it to Hell in the first place. Just do the job and get it over with."
"No," Sam said, crossing his arms. "This is the fourth soul he's sent me after this week. I deserve a break sometimes, damn it! Besides, I've checked with the church. Ben was right the first time. You can't sell someone else's soul."
"You know, as theologically accurate as that may be, you still have a life to live now, and you know he can screw it up for you."
"I don't care. I'm not gonna let him bully me."
"You let everyone bully you," Sock said matter-of-factly.
Sock threw the contact book at him. "Whatever," he barked. "Make the call!"
Sam cracked the book open, and a blood-curdling scream filled the room. He hurried to snap it shut again, looking more than a little shaken.
Sock gave a slow whistle. "That's what I call a message heard loud and clear."
"You did that on purpose!" Sam said. His voice was petulant and his face beet red.
"Of course I did. Now, get over yourself, unless you want to listen tothat all the rest of your life."
But Sam's face had that stubborn expression that meant this would be another long, needless struggle. Dammit, he loved the guy, but sometimes he was really annoying as all fuck.
"Hello, Sock," the Devil said amiably, showing up by the side of the car.
Sock stopped, keys in hand, and tried his best not to jump to any unpleasant conclusions. "Hi there."
"You do prefer Sock, don't you?" That smile was a hell of a lot more unnerving when it was aimed at you. "Or am I supposed to call you Bert?"
"I can't stress enough how much you're not."
"Sock it is, then."
"Are you going to kill me?" Sock asked. It seemed like the most reasonable conclusion, and that severely detracted from the coolness of the situation. His mouth was starting to feel a bit dry.
"Kill you?" The Devil sounded shocked. Somehow, this failed to be comforting. "Why on earth would I want to kill you?"
"Because Sam isn't doing his job, and you're pissed?"
"I am pissed." The Devil smiled. "And I'm sure if I did kill you, that would put Sam back in the fold... at least for a while. Particularly if I did it in front of him," he said with a thoughtful look. "Still, death is so very permanent. I was thinking of a different, more repeatable form of incitement."
Sock stuck his finger into the key chain so he wouldn't drop it and started fumbling with the keys in the lock. "What kind of temptation are we talking about here?"
"The kind of temptation that would have you oh so innocently asking what kind of temptation we're talking about."
His thoughts started chasing each other in a loud but incoherent babble, but somehow he managed to get the door open and sit down. The car didn't have power locks, and he certainly didn't bend over to unlock the passenger door, but never the less, the Devil sat down too.
"That's really the kind of thing you should ask Andi."
"I could ask Andi," the Devil admitted, sounding thoughtful. "I've kept her out of this so far, but that's more courtesy than anything else. You know, let the kid have something normal in his life. I can do withou in a pinch, if I have to, but I don't know if I can trust Andi. I do know I can trust you."
Not a lot of people said they trusted Sock. In fact, he couldn't recall the last time anyone had said it. And the fact that it was the Devil saying it was massively awesome �" or would have been, if not for the fact that it was Sam's ass on the line. Literally, even, which was a thought too weird to even contemplate. "Hey, I'm on Sam's side in this."
"Of course you are! Of course you are. I just get the feeling that sometimes you're better than Sam at figuring out what his side really is. Aren't you?"
Sock couldn't argue with that. "So what is it you expect me to do?"
"Well, that's up to you, really, isn't it? You've known him longer than I have, I'm sure you can come up with something."
Clearly the Devil was working some weird mojo on him, because this was starting to make far too much sense. "Listen," he said, and his voice cracked so he had to swallow hard. "We're not... I mean, I may joke around a bit, but that doesn't mean... it's just not gonna happen."
"Really? Based on the things you say in the shower, I got quite a different impression."
Choking on his own tongue, Sock was very grateful that he'd never got around to starting the car. This was bad enough without a flaming wreck to worry about.
"You watch me in the shower!?"
"Give me some credit, Sock! I have imps for those things. And let me tell you, getting the paperwork from an imp... You don't know what hell means. Anyway." Although Sock was absolutely positive the Devil had held nothing when he stepped into the car, now there was a ledger in his hands. "This evidence is pretty conclusive. Do you want some quotes?"
"All right. I suppose you know what you said." The Devil kept reading the ledger and gave a little chuckle. "Sorry. It's just the imp giving some cheeky comments. I think you may have yourself an admirer there. Always something to consider if things don't work out with Sam."
The thing was, despite the shower, despite the jokes and the occasional glance and the way he'd totally risk his life for Sam, Sock had never really contemplated things "working out" between them. In his mind, it was slightly lower on the credibility scale than Playmate of the Year coming alive and declaring her undying lust for him.
"So you're saying," he said slowly, in case this was not at all what the Devil was saying, "that Sam would... be into that?"
"I can't give you any guarantees. No one knows the future �" well." His face hardened. "No one except someone whose name we won't mention, and I think even He may just be showing off. I can tell you this, though. Judging by my notes on Sam, you have a pretty good shot." He leafed through the ledger and nodded at what he saw, his expression once again jovial.
"Really?" Sock asked, tickled by the thought. He had believed that he was happy with the way things were �" no, scrap that, he had been happy with the way things were �" but this was really too good an opportunity to miss. Especially with the Devil as his own personal Yenta.
Some people would say that this was a bad thing. Those people were what Sock would call spoilsports, and didn't bother him much. Still, he was curious. "Listen, I gotta ask �" and your answer in no way affects my willingness to do this, you understand �" but it's a sin, right? That's why you want me to do it in the first place?"
"What?" The Devil looked skywards and shook his head slowly, muttering, "Don't say I never did anything for You. Listen, Sock, as far as I'm concerned, sex is always a win-win situation. If you have it, you piss off some overzealous tightasses who start foaming at the mouth and spouting some really fabulous stuff," he snickered, "that in the end only serves to drive people away from Him. If you don't have it, you'll be miserable and frustrated, which is always a good growing ground for conflict and dissent. You think you have a better plan to get Sam back in line �" go for it. I just thought you might enjoy this method, that's all."
"Okay, thanks," Sock said, feeling a bit dazed.
"No problem. You know, I like you. I'm sure in the long run, we can be very mutually beneficial to one another."
The Devil laughed. "Very cool indeed." He patted Sock on the shoulder. "Good luck, sonny. I'm glad we had this talk."
"Yeah, me too," Sock replied, but before he had finished speaking, the Devil was already gone.
He found Sam at an info desk in the whiteware section. No one was looking for info, but there were enough customers strolling the aisles that he'd have to take an indirect approach to this whole temptation thing.
"Hey," he said. "How's it going?"
The answer to that was pretty obvious, he had to admit. Sam had bags under his eyes the size of Anna Nicole's bras, and there were fret lines around his mouth. Furthermore, he replied to the question by leaning his head on the desk and groaning.
"That bad, huh?"
"Do you have any idea how many books there are in this world?" Sam moaned.
"This whole resting thing isn't working out for you, is it?"
"Don't give me a hard time, Sock."
"I wasn't. I promise." Sock watched his friend slump against the desk and thought about how much easier things would be on Sam if he could just learn to go with the flow. Sure, trying to rest was all very well, but it wouldn't do him much good if he didn't learn the other R: relaxation. No amount of preaching seemed to convince him of this fact, though, which left Sock at a loss.
"He came to see me, you know."
Sam lifted his head a little. "Oh, man, I'm sorry. What did he say?"
"A bunch of stuff. Some of it was pretty interesting, actually."
A pained frown started forming on Sam's face, and very slowly he straightened up. "Like what?" he asked, and it was pretty clear he didn't look forward to hearing the answer.
Sock did something he didn't usually do �" he hesitated. Making a move wasn't the problem; if he got turned down he got turned down and that was all there was to it. But this was Sam. Sam got embarrassed at everything. He'd moan and squirm (and not in a good way), and if you were really unlucky he'd stop talking to you.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He threw a glance down the aisles �" there were fewer customers there now, and the ones left seemed pretty occupied with their own shopping. Leaning in closer, he put his thumb under Sam's chin, gently tilting it up a little.
"Sock? What are you..."
Sam's reflexes had improved a lot during the assignments from the Devil, but it seemed there were still areas where they were �" fortunately �" slow as all fuck. Sock closed the gap between them and planted a kiss on Sam's mouth.
Sam made a bewildered noise and his arms flopped around a bit, but he didn't pull back. It was hard to know whether to take this as encouragement or rejection. With Sam, nothing was ever hell yeah or hell no like with a normal person. He had these teeny little reactions that made a world of difference but were really hard to interpret.
Sock let go and watched his friend cautiously. There was shock in that expression, definitely. But what else?
"You kissed me!" Sam said.
"You..." Sam seemed to struggle with the concept. "Kissed me!"
"That's right," Sock said patiently. "Did you like it?"
"Why would you kiss me?"
"Because I thought you might like it. Did you?"
"I don't know."
Well, at least he wasn't running and screaming. Sock tried reasoning. "Okay. See, I kind of have to find out, so I know if I should promise you more if you finish the assignment, or threaten you with more if you don't."
"Assignment?" Sam asked, and the puzzlement slowly ebbed away from his face. "From the Devil?"
"Are youblackmailing me!?"
"A little bit?" Sock offered with a shrug.
"No! Come on, no! You can't just come in and kiss me, and then tell me that the Devil has set you up to blackmail me! What the hell is that?"
"Uh, you guys?"
Sock waved at Ben, who was coming up to them holding a printed out photo. Sam spun around, spotted Ben, and turned dark pink.
"I think I found the guy," Ben said, showing them the photo. "Robert James Arnold. Big name author of crime novels about thirty years ago �" until the cops found the corpse of his latest victim. Turns out, he'd killed five people in different ways and put it into his books."
Sock gave Sam a meaningful glare. "Okay, blackmail or not, that soul needs to go down."
Sam took a deep breath and nodded, looking a bit pale. "Where's the vessel?"
The fact that Robert James Arnold had killed a bunch of people in disgusting ways was one thing. That he was scrawny and short and looked like an accountant was another. That he was currently trying to hit on a woman, which in Sock's opinion no serial killer should ever do �" well, that just meant they'd have to haul his nasty soul back to hell pronto. But in the crime section of a bookstore?
"Dude, is that his own book?" Sock asked in disgust. "He's actually using his own sick murder descriptions to score chicks."
"Pretty narcissistic," Ben said.
"I don't know about that, but he's definitely a smug, self-obsessed jerk."
Sam started hauling the typewriter out of his canvas bag, and then stopped. "Can we do it here? I mean, people are gonna notice, aren't they?"
"People could get hurt," Ben pointed out.
The woman leaned closer to Arnold, reading the passage he pointed out to her in the book.
"Dude, she's falling for it," Sock said. "I swear I'll never understand women. He gets to take her out, you just know they're gonna find her head in some dumpster."
"Right," Sam said, stuffing the typewriter back into the bag and walking up to the couple in the crime section.
"Hi there!" he said, his voice so unnaturally loud and high pitched that every word could be heard from where Ben and Sock were standing. "Is that a Robert James Arnold you're holding? It's been... been a long time since I saw one of those. Ha! Yeah. He sort of went out of fashion, huh, when it turned out he'd really killed all those people? Tell people you like him now, and they think you're some sort of psycho. Which is ridiculous! Jut because you like a serial killer, doesn't mean you are a serial killer..."
The woman scurried away with a horrified expression, and Arnold turned to Sam, giving him the kind of look a middle school teacher might give a kid who's chewing gum in class. Sock held his breath, watching the two of them talk in hushed voices �" and then Arnold ripped the canvas bag out of Sam's hand. The typewriter fell to the floor, and Arnold took to running, pushing past Sock and Ben on his way out.
Nobody wasted any time saying things like Don't let him get away! They just pelted after him.
Sam fell behind at first since he had to pick up the typewriter, but Ben and Sock chased the guy out into the parking lot. Shit. If Arnold got away, they'd have hell finding him again. But which car was his?
While Sock was still trying to figure this one out, Ben sped off to the right, about a second before Arnold started running in the same direction, both heading for a woman holding car keys.
"Get out!" Ben yelled, and the woman, wide-eyed, took a few stumbling steps before lunging towards her car and getting in as fast as humanly possible.
Sam had appeared behind him with the typewriter and was punching at the keys. Wispy red smoke rose up from it, and Arnold quickly changed course, heading straight over to Sam like one of those Spanish bulls.
Oh,fuck no. Sock charged after him, arriving a moment to late to stop Arnold from throwing a thread of darkness around Sam's neck. He pulled Sam away and prayed that supernatural strangling took just as long as the real thing.
"Sam! Hey! You with me, buddy?"
Sam drew a harsh, gasping breath.
Arnold threw another thread, this time towards Sock, and Sock dived down behind the typewriter. Hiding behind the vessel seemed the smart thing to do. He punched the keys furiously, and Arnold took to running again. So far so good, but the vessel didn't actually draw him in, now, did it?
"Sam!" he asked. "Can you use this thing?"
But Sam was still lying on the ground, gasping for breath. Ben had taken off after Arnold, which was great, but it pretty much left the typing to Sock. He stared at the typewriter. Maybe you needed the right combination of words or something. Shouldn't they be told that kind of thing?
"G-O-T-O-H-E-L-L," he tried, but the red wisps still just flew around aimlessly. "D-I-E-Y-O-U-F-U-C-K-E-R. T-H-E-PO-W-E-R-O-F-C-H-R-I-S-T-C-O-M-P-E-L-S-YOU. Is there one or two Ls in 'compels'? Sam! How do I do this?"
"Man..." Sam rasped.
"Man? M-A-N. That's not working. What man? G-O-D. No? D-E-V-I-L. What's wrong with you, stupid vessel?"
"Man..." Sam started again.
"S-H-U-T-U-P-S-A-M, I'm trying to think here..."
Before he had even stopped speaking, the wisps formed into hard red hooks that shot out the hundreds of yards between them and Arnold and pulled him back, sucking him into the vessel.
"Manual," Sam concluded.
"There's a manual? Why didn't you tell me there's a manual?"
Ben came hobbling towards them, something gleaming in his right hand. He was breathing heavily, but it was normal, 'I've been running too hard' breath, not 'I almost got strangled by a soul escaped from hell' breath.
"Is he okay?" he asked, nodding towards Sam.
Sock forgot about the manual and scooted closer to Sam. "You okay there, dude?"
Sam nodded. "Thanks, guys."
"No problem," Sock said, patting Sam's arm clumsily. He struggled against a need to burst into hysterical laughter. "No problem at all."
Ben switched his Swiss army knife shut and made a grimace. "I guess I'd better do something about those tires I slashed. Can't very well tell the owners that I was trying to stop an escaped soul."
Sam flat-out refused getting an ambulance called, and he probably knew best considering he was the injured one, so Sock didn't nag. He did hover some, though, because that was one nasty bruise forming around Sam's neck, and he didn't trust that SOB Arnold not to have added some long-lasting effects.
Sam seemed unusually quiet as they dropped off the vessel with Gladys, and Sock asked, "Are you sure you're okay, man?"
"Yeah," Sam said, his voice still raspy. It sounded pretty good, though, added a nice touch of machismo. "Can we talk?"
"Well, I know that technically you were the one to capture the soul..."
"Technically my ass," Sock said. "I owned that bastard." He noticed Ben shaking his head, and quickly changed the tune. "Don't feel bad or anything. You're still the hero. It's just, now and again, the sidekicks get to step up to the plate. Like Robin does when Batman's hurt or whatever."
"Yeah," Sam said. His Adam's apple bobbed through the swelled and blueish line in a way that looked very painful. "I was just thinking, about your promise."
"My promise." Sock tried to stop himself from smiling. "It still stands if you want it to."
"Yeah, I..." Sam's mouth twitched, and he made that endearing half-frown. "I kind of do."
"Okay. So maybe later, we could hang out at my place �" or yours, if you'd rather."
Sam threw a glance in Ben's direction.
"If you guys need a minute," Ben said with a shrug, "all you have to do is say so."
"We need a minute," Sock said immediately.
"No," Sam protested. "Hang on. Ben!"
"It's no problem," Ben said, raising his hand in goodbye. "See you tomorrow."
"That wasn't necessary," Sam told Sock.
"Yes it was." Sock watched Ben turn a corner, and then turned back to Sam, stepping closer. "Because as long as he's around, you wouldn't want to do this." He caught Sam's chin gently, minding the injury, and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Would you?"
"I guess not," Sam said.
"You wouldn't," Sock reaffirmed and kissed him again, a bit harder this time.
Sam laughed faintly. "You know, this is really..."
"I don't want to hear it, Sam," Sock said, running his fingers through Sam's hair. "I don't want to hear your little mind running around in its hamster wheel. This is good, that's what it is."
"Don't ever make deals with the Devil again."
"I won't have to."
"I won't! I won't." Another kiss, deep, hard, breath-taking, and if this wasn't enough to get Sam's mind off Andi Sock would so throw in the towel. "So, my place?"
"Yeah," Sam agreed with a dazed smile.
"Okay." Sock let go of Sam very reluctantly, and as they started walking down the street, he glanced around and mumbled to any present representatives for either higher or lower powers, "No sneak peeking on this one, you hear me?"
"What did you say?"
"Nothing." He slid his hand around Sam's hips. "Come on, let's go."
MANUAL FOR THE HELLMASTER 666 PORTABLE MANUAL TYPEWRITER
§12. Always engage the carriage lock when moving the machine around.
§13. To return a soul to Hell, type the name of your most beloved companion.
§14. The Hellmaster 666 comes with a ribbon selection of black, red, and white.
a) For cutting stencils, set ribbon selection to white.