Raph had been cooped up in Cara’s headquarters for days, if not weeks. He wasn’t sure how long it had been, exactly. While the gang ran around Hell and Earth gathering information and helping the plan along, he was unable to leave the sewers thanks to the wanted posters.
Isabelle had brought him one one day, a fairly decent portrait of himself printed on it and the word “REWARD” splashed across it in big, bold letters. He’d been impressed at the price on his head, until Allister had informed him that the Hunter, Mammon, was commanding a bounty worth almost ten times as much as his.
He’d been forced to stay put, overseeing the operation as everyone else worked their contacts, bribed and threatened and out-right stalking high-profile demons in their quest to find a way to rescue Gabe.
But a group of teenagers from the wrong side of the Styx could only do so much--as time ticked past, Raph was beginning to lose what little hope he’d had. He kept working, though. Abby--he’d promised Abby. He was going to do everything in his power to keep that promise.
He’d been poring over hand-drawn maps of the dungeons that someone had begged or borrowed or stolen from…a guard? Maybe? Like time, the minutiae were all starting to blur together.
He hadn’t noticed Cara come in until she slapped something down on the table, shouting a triumphant “Ha!”
Raph started, and looked up at her in surprise. “What?” he asked, voice flattened by exhaustion. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept.
“Wow, you look like garbage!” Cara said cheerfully as she plopped down onto her lounge seat, reclining halfway and resting her head in her hand.
Raph scowled at her. “Of course I do!” He threw his hands up in frustration. “We haven’t gotten anywhere yet, and I’ve been stuck in this sewer for--wait, how long has it been? What day is it?”
Cara held up a finger to silence him. She looked thoughtful as she counted off the next three seconds, holding up three fingers. She grinned. “Happy New Year.”
Raph’s stomach sank in despair. “That long?” he whispered in horror, more to himself than Cara. Anything could have happened in that amount of time--Abby could be dead or worse, and he would never know, trapped here, deep in the bowels of Hades.
Cara frowned, and snapped her fingers in his downturned face. “Hey, relax! Can you at least look at what I brought you before you sink into a deep depression or whatever?” she pushed the object across the table, and it slid to a stop beside Raph’s hand.
“A brochure?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and looking unimpressed.
“Open it,” Cara urged. “Check out the back page. You aren’t gonna believe it.”
Raph did as she asked, flipping the glossy paper open and unfolding it, accordion-style. Pictures of cookie-cutter homes with manicured green lawns greeted him. “Max Realtors” was emblazoned in red letters on the front page of the leaflet. Smaller print read “Proudly serving the greater Portland area for 50 years.” Raph gave Cara a dubious look, and she waved her hand impatiently, motioning for him to hurry up. He looked at the back of the page, at the section entitled “Our Associates.”
Raph’s eyes scanned the page until they landed on a familiar face. “No. Way.” He breathed.
Cara’s grin widened. “Oh, way. Allister saw her with a client. She was getting ready for an open house.”
Astarte, one of the Original Fallen, General of the armies of Hades, smiled up at him from the brochure, a warm, red-lipped smile lighting up her blue eyes. Her blonde curls were pulled back into a professional, if charmingly fluffy, bun.
Raph couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. “So Astarte is moonlighting as a realtor in Maine?”
“Oregon.” Cara corrected, leaning in closer. “And that’s not even the best part! Astarte, or should I say, Astrid Jones, has a human family. Husband, three kids, house with a white picket fence--she’s living the American dream.”
Raph laughed. “And Lucifer wouldn’t be happy about that,” he said. “A secret life, and half-breed kids…that’s got to be frowned upon.”
Cara nodded. “It’s just bad for business. I think Astrid will be happy to help us break your angel buddy out of prison. Only one way to find out, though.”
Raph felt cautious hope swell in him, and let it grow. Maybe this was the thing they’d been looking for. “Let’s go pay a visit to Mrs. Jones.”
The apple-shaped timer on Astarte’s granite counter let out a buzzy chirp, and she bustled over to the oven, pulling on red polka-dot oven mitts that matched her apron as she did. Heat and the heady scent of gingersnaps wafted out of the oven as she pulled the door open wide, expertly grabbing a cookie sheet in each hand. She placed them on the cooling racks she had set up that morning.
“Something smells great,” a deep voice said from behind her, and Astarte turned to smile at her husband, Ben.
“I think I’ve finally perfected my recipe.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Ben said, using a nearby spatula to flip a hot cookie off of the pan and into his hand. He took a bite and closed his eyes, moaning in exaggerated pleasure.
“Hey!” Astarte cried, smacking his hand lightly as he reached for another one. “Save some for the guests--I’ve already had to chase the boys away from the buffet table twice, and the party doesn’t start for another hour.”
Ben winced, unable to hide a grin. “They must’ve snuck over while I was feeding and changing Sophie. Don’t worry, I’ll keep them out of your hair until seven-thirty.” He said, leaning forward to press a soft kiss onto Astarte’s forehead, brushing a stray curl behind her ear. He came away with a handful of cookies, sneakily grabbed mid-kiss. “Love you!” he called, booking it out of the kitchen before Astarte could do much more than gasp in mock indignation.
She rolled her eyes, smiling to herself. “Love you too,” she said, loud enough that he could hear her as he brought the cookies over to share with their children.
There was a sudden knock at the kitchen door, and Astarte cursed, looking down at her flour-smudged apron and bare feet. She could only imagine what her hair must look like--she’d been cooking and cleaning all day, and hadn’t even had time to shower yet. The knocking sounded again, more insistent this time.
“Is that the door?” Ben called, sounding surprised.
“I’ll get it!” she sighed in exasperation and defeat, striding over to the door and muttering darkly to herself about having friends and neighbours who apparently couldn’t tell time. She pulled open the door, plastering her best customer-service smile onto her lips, the one that almost looked genuine.
“Hiiii, we’re still not quite ready, but--“ The words died in her mouth.
A group of young demons stood clustered on her doorstep, and Astarte found herself at a loss. “I--what--“ she gathered her wits quickly, and drew herself up in fury. “Leave. Now!” she spat in the demon tongue, her eyes flashing crimson.
A young man with wild dark curls stepped forward, into the light spilling from the warm kitchen. “Are you sure?” He raised dark eyes, staring flatly into hers with ferocity and desperation burning in equal measure. “I can think of a few people who would kill to know about this, General Astarte.”
“You dare to threaten me, a General of Lucifer’s armies?”
The boy shook his head. “Not you, my lady. But the human you harbour, and the half-breed children? They’re fair game.”
Astarte snarled. “Try, and I’ll tear you to shreds and scatter the pieces from here to the Styx.”
The teenagers behind the boy shifted nervously, and one of them, a hellhound, reached out to touch his arm. “Raph, maybe we should--“
“No.” Raph said, and Astarte felt a spark of recognition.
“Raphiel…Satan’s Thief.” She laughed sharply, a little relieved. “Your head would fetch a higher price than mine, boy. If you wish to keep it, leave. This is my last warning.”
“And mine.” Raph said, squaring his shoulders. “We need your help. There is an angel trapped in the dungeons, Sataniel’s prisoner. I have to free him. You’re going to help.”
Astarte levelled a look of disgust and wonder at the boy’s audacity. “I won’t. Get off my lawn, I have guests arriving in…” she glanced down at her watch and swore again. “less than an hour, and they’re expecting a charming, or at the very least, clean, hostess.” She made to slam the door, but Raph caught it, holding it open with white-knuckled fingers.
“You’re going to help,” he repeated, his voice low and dangerous. “Or Lucifer will find out about this. All of it. I’ve already made the arrangements. If I don’t return unharmed to Hades, proof of your secret human life is to be delivered to Lucifer within the hour. So you are going to help us.”
Astarte glared at him, fury colouring her cheeks, mind racing. This Thief, no, this…child, dared to threaten her?! She itched to grab the knife from the counter and--she closed her eyes, breathed in slowly. No, she had to remain calm. It was stupid, but--if only she’d been more careful--cursing her own short-sightedness, Astarte did what she had to do.
Forcing that smile back onto her face and willing herself not to appear threatening, she opened the door wide and stepped out, slipping past Raph. “It seems like we have a lot to discuss.”
She walked through the cluster of adolescents, each of them stepping away from her in trepidation. She could practically taste their fear. She dusted the scattering of snow off of the bench Ben had built, the handsome dark-stained wood gleaming dully in the moonlight. She sat, looking for all the world like a queen speaking to her gathered subjects, despite her messy hair and bare feet.
Raph stared at her with rapt attention, every fibre of his being trained on her.
“You,” Astarte said, indicating him with a wave of her hand. “you said something about rescuing an angel? Explain.” Raph opened his mouth to speak, and Astarte interrupted him. “But be quick about it. My party starts in forty minutes, and I expect you all to be long gone by then.”
Raph hesitated for a moment, unsure of who was in control here, then nodded.
Astarte allowed herself a small, victorious smirk. If she played her cards right, she knew that she would manage, as she always did, to have the upper hand. She settled in to listen to Raph’s demands, confident that by the time this was all over he would be dead, and she and hers would be just fine. Threatening a General?! The boy had no idea what he was getting himself into.