Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: Devil’s Bargain

German boxer Max Schmeling makes a Devil’s bargain to save his family from
Hitler. But a pair of misplaced 21st century sorcerers were never part of the deal.

Revised Cover for Signed in Blood

“Boss, there’s a wizard out front who wants a word.” John Hanley, the New York Hellfire Lounge’s human “celebrity manager” (aka bouncer to the rich and obnoxious) slouched in the doorway to the new kitchen. His eyes glinted with mischief.

Satan tossed his clipboard on the prep counter. There were almost as many things wrong with Hanley’s statement as there were with the club’s cook line. First, Satan’s magical clients knew better than to announce themselves to the human staff. Second, the rangy Irishman in the tropical-weight Brooks Brothers suit was an ex-altar boy. Religion, magic, superstition—to him it was all hooey. He knew Satan’s current moniker, Nick Nussbaum, was an alias. Hell, it was obvious. But he would’ve laughed at anyone who said he worked for the Devil with a capital “D”. His unwavering disbelief in the face of demon bartenders, infernal accountants, vampires, werewolves and the occasional jinni made him a useful human to keep around.

Which raised the obvious question: “How do you know the guy’s a wizard?”

“He said so.” If the kid didn’t laugh soon, he was going to choke on that smirk. “He also said he had a line on the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight next week.”

“Him and twenty million other guys,” Satan muttered.

Twenty million? Make that two billion. Everybody in the world had skin in this game. Satan should’ve owned those markers. He would’ve, too, if moving the Hellfire Lounge to the much larger premises of the old Blue Heron club had gone as planned. But the easy, six-week renovation of the seven-story building just east of Fifth Avenue was heading into its third month, thanks to a the efforts of a certain German sorceress.

Back Cover, Signed in Blood

A subtle tightening of the shoulders and narrowing of the eyes signaled Hanley’s shift from lazy to dangerous. He asked, “More trouble?”

“Yeah, someone switched the quick release valves on the cook line. The first time we tried to shut off the gas…boom.”

Hanley blew a low whistle. “Boss, you’ve got to do something. Hijacking deliveries and dumping rats in the basement is one thing. This is attempted murder.”

“I need to identify the culprits first.” The human culprits, that is. He knew the ultimate source of the sabotage. Countess Von Hagen couldn’t attack him on the magical front. But she had ample resources to bribe, threaten and suborn a legion of weak-minded humans into furthering her plans. “Who did the plumbing? Never mind. Bub will have the invoice.”

“Kuhn’s—same name as the president of the German American Bund.” In response to Satan’s upraised eyebrow, Hanley added, “I saw the truck.”

Figures, Satan said to himself.

“Want me and the boys to pay them a visit?”

“Nah, Bub’ll handle it.” It wasn’t just a matter of keeping his human staff out of the hospital—or jail—until the club reopened. The time had come to send Von Hagen and her Nazi cohorts a message, and Beelzebub made the perfect, unkillable messenger. “I’m more interested in your wizard friend. Who knows, he might have something worth selling.” Like his soul.

Hanley shrugged and ambled toward the dining room. “It never hurts to hope.”

Not in this case. It would be nice if the tipster really was a wizard. Satan could always use another Talent in his stable. But ultimately it didn’t matter. First impressions, on the other hand, did. Crossing the threshold to the club’s public area was the same as stepping onstage. He straightened his red silk tie, shot his cuffs and magically expunged any dust that might have settled on his white linen suit while he was inspecting the kitchen.

Assuming things went as planned from here on, the club wouldn’t officially become a Hellfire Lounge until Fourth of July weekend. The sign out front still read “Blue Heron”, and he would continue issuing contracts at the old location until the reopening gala. But he was proud of what he’d accomplished so far. He’d stripped the Heron’s faded wallpaper and painted the expansive, high-ceilinged room in shades of charcoal, smoke and silvery gray. Soaring mirrors and modern, streamlined chandeliers glittered like the facets of a diamond turned inside out, projecting an image of privilege and exclusivity guaranteed to pull in the crowds.

Satan liked being a saloonkeeper. He looked forward to the throng’s arrival, to seducing them with food, drink, music and good times as they gathered around tables set with crisply starched napery and the club’s signature candy red ashtrays. From a business perspective, the crowds couldn’t arrive fast enough. The Head Office was on his case because the move—and Von Hagen’s sabotage—had caused a serious shortfall in his second quarter deliverables. But the countess was across the Atlantic in Germany. The Head Office was further still. The lingering fumes of new paint smelled like a promise. The creamy, lanolin scent rising from the new wool carpet was sweeter than perfume. He built this temple of earthly delights from the studs up, and for this blissful instant, it belonged to him alone.

Well, him and the short, scrawny guy in the seersucker suit, shiny black rayon tie, big horseshoe tie clip and straw pork-pie hat snooping behind the bar. Beside him, Hanley growled softly. Satan touched his arm. The growl subsided. The intent remained. Hanley was as territorial as a big cat.

Satan repressed a smile. “Can I help you?”

The would-be tipster jerked backward with a squeal of alarm and crashed into the empty shelves. His hat dipped over his protruding eyes. He snatched it to his chest and scuttled toward the pass-through.

“Oh, my God—I mean, I’m so sorry, Mr. Nussbaum, sir. I shouldn’t have said that name in your presence. I didn’t mean it. I’ll never do it again. I swear. If I’d known it was you, I wouldn’t have bothered you, but the sign out front said the Blue Heron, and I thought, I thought…” The words trickled away. His lips skinned back from oversized teeth. The resulting expression was more of a rictus than a smile.

“Have we met?” Satan asked.

The little guy shook his head so hard his brilliantine-plastered comb-over flopped to the side. “No, Your Infernal Maj—ah, sir. Sir! You don’t know me. I’m not the droid you’re looking for. I mean, I was looking for the owner of the Blue Heron. But you’re not him. So I’m leaving now.”

“Not just yet.”

Beads of perspiration popped out of the stranger’s forehead. Beneath the pong of fear and cheap cologne, Satan’s arcane senses detected a different tang: Magic with a capital “M”. He scanned the stranger’s aura. The little guy was a Talent. Satan could’ve sworn he knew every practitioner of the Craft operating in Europe and the Americas. But here was someone new, someone he never met before, someone who was terrified of him, despite the glamor that kept even psychic humans like Hanley from noticing his horns.

And what the hell was a droid?

He glanced at the bouncer. Hanley lifted the pass-through and extended a hand, ostensibly to offer help. The gesture wasn’t as risky as it might have been. The wizard didn’t have the juice to do the kid any lasting harm.

“Who are you, and what’s this about the fight?” Satan asked.

“Nothing. Nothing. I’m sure you know way more about it than I do, Mr. Nussbaum, sir.” the wizard chirped. His gaze was fixed on Satan as if the streetwise, six-foot-two ex-letterman standing right next to him presented no threat. “It’s just a mistake. You can forget I was ever here.”

He grabbed a handful of nothing. The air above the bar popped like a soap bubble, releasing the stink of a thousand rotten eggs. Hanley gagged. In the second it took him to recover, the wizard shot from behind the bar and tore out of the room.

“After him,” Satan rasped.

Hanley, bless him, ran.

Keeping his breathing shallow, because his nose continued to smell the reek even after his magic dispelled it, Satan investigated the damage left in the wizard’s wake. Damn, from where he was standing, Hanley couldn’t have missed the raw cracks in the rail. This wasn’t something Satan could magically restore, either. Hanley trusted his senses. The shelves needed to be repaired. Much as Satan liked to keep the mystical and mundane sides of his business separate, he couldn’t afford another delay. If he didn’t reopen the club by Fourth of July, he’d be out of a job when the world needed him most. One of Beelzebub’s boys would have to impersonate a human craftsman—collecting double infernal overtime in the process. Satan reached into his pocket for an antacid. Between the move, Von Hagen, her pet Nazis, and now a wizarding question mark, his ulcers were growing ulcers.

In the distance he heard the front door slam. Hanley raced into the dining room an instant later, wide-eyed and out of breath.

“Boss!” he gasped, for once sounding as young as his years. “You’ll never guess who’s trying to get in the old place.”

“Where’s the wizard?” Satan thundered, the promise of damnation flashing like lightning between the words.

The kid was too excited to be scared. “I’ll find him, sir. I’ll get right on it. But you need to get to the old club. It’s the Kraut. Max Schmeling. He asked for you by name.”

Read the rest in Signed in Blood (Bold Venture Press, 2018).