Gemma had a talk with Ione.Karen came out of the bathroom, drying her hands with a towel. "Ben, what's going on?"
Jack stood behind Ione. "You're going by Ben now?"
"You have no power here!" Ben tried to push past Ione. "Begone!"
Ione pushed back against Ben. "Hey, wait!"
"Ben, what are you doing?" Karen grabbed one of Ben's arms and tried pulling him back in. "Ione? What's going on?"
"Jack, I think the time has come." Ione turned to Ben. "Would you stop it? He just drove me here."
Ben focused his attention on Ione. "That's all?"
"Yes, 'Ben', that's all. I have some errands that need to be completed, so I will leave Miss Ione here in your more than capable hands for now." Jack turned to leave.
Ione's hand reached out and grabbed Jack's shoulder. She heard an inhaled hiss of pain. "Not so fast, Jack. Everyone, inside." She herded Jack and Ben into the hotel suite. "Sorry about this, Karen."
Karen tossed the towel at the counter, falling short by a metre. "What's going on?" She guided Ben to the couch and forced him to sit down. "Ben, do you know this person?"
"Oh, indeed he does." Jack sat on a dining room chair, Ione hovering behind him. "We've had dealings."
Ben snorted. "'Dealings.' I've stopped you from tempting people."
"You know, I am tired of people talking over my head. I've been threatened at gun point and saw a man get shot and walk away without even a blood stain." Ione walked in between the two men. "Now, I may be a tad upset right now, but I am done with being on the outside looking in. Jack, what is going on?"
As Jack hesitated, Ben said, "If you don't tell her, I will."
"If that is the way all this must unfold." Jack faced Ione. "My dear, I am what many of your clergy would call a devil. 'Ben' here is an angel."
Ione took a moment to process the information. "Do you really expect me to believe that?"
"An angel?" Karen rubbed Ben's arm. "I mean, I know Ben's kind and gentle, but, an angel? And how would you know?"
"He's telling the truth," Ben said. "About us both."
"You two are in on it." Ione began pacing in a circle. "You two know each other and decided to pick some random person to drive crazy. And you brought Gemma in on it because, hey, why not?" She stopped mid-stride. "I need a drink. Maybe all this will make sense after a beer or five."
"Gemma?" Ben got up and took a step towards Ione. "I don't know who this Gemma is."
Ione jumped away from Ben. "Not any closer. I'm in no mood to deal with any of this bull. I want the truth."
Karen pulled Ben back to the couch. "Ione's right. I mean, angel, devil, we're just expected to believe you on your word?"
"That is the problem, isn't it?" Jack said. "We are making extraordinary claims. How does one prove one's divine or infernal nature?"
"A minor miracle, maybe?" Karen looked over at Ione. "Something that's not possible normally? Heal the sick or something like that?"
Ben nodded. "I'd need someone sick, but if that would work."
"I wouldn't do that, Ben." Jack held up a finger in admonishment. "I've been trying to find one of your people. One miracle and he'll notice and we can't let him notice."
"That's convenient, Jack." Ione spun on her heel to face him.
"Which one of us, Jack?"
Jack shook his head. "I can't give you his name. He'll hear. Suffice to say that there's a segment of your kind that wants to get the Final War over and done with so that they can be victorious."
"Final War?" Karen paled. "As in, an apocalypse?"
"The Apocalypse," Jack corrected. "Rivers of blood. Dogs and cats living together. The end of the world."
"I had heard rumours." Ben took a deep breath and exhaled. "I was hoping that they weren't true."
"Hello?" Ione waved to get the men's attention. "You still haven't answered my question."
Jack stuck a finger through a bullet hole over his left breast. "This good enough for you, my dear Ione? Your Gemma is a good shot with a pistol. Tight placing, too."
Ione fell into a chair. "Great. Just great. I've been led around France by a demon."
"That's devil, my dear. There's a difference. A slight one, but it does matter to me."
Karen got up from the couch to dash to her friend's side. "Ione, are you okay?"
"I could use that drink."
"Not yet, my dear. I still need you this afternoon, fully functional."
"Do I look fully functional, Jack?"
"You're still recovering from the shock of my explanation."
"Jack, leave her alone," Ben said.
"If I had that choice, Ben, I would. However, I need your colleague stopped before he triggers the Final War. If I tried to stop him myself, he'll use me as his excuse for the War."
"Then let me, Jack."
"You?" Jack laughed. "Ben, you can't stop mosquitoes. How are you going to stop one of your superiors?"
"One of my superiors. Oh, no, not him." Ben collapsed backwards on the couch. "Right, I can't stop him. Maybe delay him a decade at most, but he won't listen to me. He doesn't listen to anyone, really."
"Why Ione?" Karen asked.
"She's human," Jack answered. "What my nameless quarry wants is to force a devil to attack him. His plan is to strike at organized crime, creating a crisis there to draw out one of my brethren. Unfortunately, too many of my brethren would fall for such a ploy. I've managed to cut deals with them, saying that I'd take care of their problem in exchange for a service later."
Ben chuckled. "You turned a crisis into your own little market, Jack. So typical of you."
"Keep in mind that, if your superior succeeds, I will never collect. All I've done is bought time."
Ione leaned forward in her chair. "If you can't stop him, how am I supposed to?"
"I'm still working on that part. However, tonight may be my best chance."
"Our." Ben stood up. "I don't want the Final War, either. I like humanity. They're fun, endearing, and delightfully frustrating. And I think you do, too."
Karen held up her hand. "Sorry. Does this mean all organized crime is run by devils?"
Jack smiled. "No, not at all. You'd be amazed at how little an influence devils and angels have on your world. It's part of the 'delightfully frustrating' bit of humanity. The capacity for evil," Jack paused as he caught a glare from Ben, "and for good in humans is infinite. I could work years on tempting someone and, just when I have him, he'll go off and do something self-sacrificing and redeem himself."
Ben nodded in agreement. "I've seen it the other way around. One act of evil and all my work is gone. It's why I work here and there as a barista. It's better to nudge."
Ione broke into peals of laughter. As everyone looked at her, she explained, "Ben, you said you studied humanity. I didn't realize you meant it literally."
"I think she's broken, Jack." Ben stared at Ione. "What did you do to her?"
"I'm good." Ione caught her breath. "I'm good, really. I just have one question: Why me?"
"I thought you would have a reason for finding --" Jack broke off as he tried to work out a name.
"Mr. Warehouse," Ione supplied.
Dubious, Jack continued, "Mr. Warehouse. You saw him when your team died. I was trusting the human desire to not leave things alone to drive you, which it did."
"Not everyone died. Gemma was there, too. That's why she was looking for me, to find out why I survived."
Ben looked over to Karen. "Gemma?"
"The bitch who hit me on the head." Karen rubbed the back of her skull.
"Jack, Gemma has resources that I don't. Why not bring her in, beyond the fact that you knocked her out after she shot you."
Karen giggled. "I can't wait to see that conversation."
"Ione has a good idea, Jack. If nothing else, this Gemma person could fight beside Ione."
"It would be a good idea except for one small problem. The woman who shot me has Valkyrie blood. That's the only reason why I knocked her out instead of killing her."
"Valkyrie?" Karen had a confused look on her face. "What do you mean?"
"The Norse myth of the choosers of the slain," Ione explained. "Apparently, she chose Jack."
"Your sense of humour has improved, my dear. However, it still leaves the problem of Miss Gemma."
"I hate to agree with Jack, but he's right."
"Oh, Ben, say that again."
Ben shot a dirty look at Jack before continuing. "If a Valkyrie attacks Mr. Warehouse – really, Ione? - it opens a can of worms. Does the attack count towards aggression? Will Mr. Warehouse retaliate against other representatives of the Norse? The theology isn't there to predict the results."
"Speaking of theology," Karen began, "one thing I was wondering about. Ben, why are you worried about the Final War? Wouldn't you be on the winning side?"
"That's the problem, Karen. If the War can be won, it would be over by now. As it stands, angels and devils are in a state of cold war, each side probing. We don't come into direct conflict. Not many of us on either side really want to see the Final War. There's no guarantee that one side would win, and no one knows how many casualties both sides would suffer. Plus, there are folks like me and Jack here that don't want to see your world destroyed through collateral damage."
Jack nodded slowly. "That's why I want a human to stop Mr. Warehouse. It would be an act of self defense. No one from either side would see it any other way."
Ione got to her feet. "I'm in."
Karen spun her head around to face her friend. "Ione!"
"What else can I do, Karen? This is the end of the world. How many people are at risk?"
"You are! Ione, what am I supposed to tell your family if something happens to you?"
"I can't walk away now. There's too much at stake."
"Fine, then I'm joining you."
"No, Karen, it's too dangerous."
"That's my point, Ione!"
Ben stepped in between the two women. "Ladies, please, no fighting. You're friends."
"Ben, tell her that I can't let her take the risk alone."
"This is what I mean by frustrating," Jack said. "Perfect example, both of you dear ladies. You are willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good."
Ione snapped her fingers. "Wait, what about Mara? Can she help?"
"Jack, you let Mara see Ione?"
"Mara and I have talked. Why?" Ione glanced sidelong at Jack. "What's wrong with Mara?"
Ben answered for the devil. "She's a succubus."
"Aren't those the sex demons?" Karen asked.
"Temptation demons, to be precise, Miss Karen." Jack shifted in his seat to get comfortable. "However, sex is a major temptation for most people."
"Ione, did you and this Mara, you know . . .?" Karen let the rest of the question unspoken.
Ione gave her friend a look of disgust. "Really, Karen? No."
"I told Mara that you were off limits, my dear."
"And would she listen to you?" Ben asked. "Her nature is to tempt. Ione, did she tempt you with anything at all?"
"Does chocolate count? Because she tempted me into ordering a chocolate torte last night."
"How was it?" Karen asked.
"Chocolate doesn't count." Jack got to his feet. "I have some details to finalize before tonight. Ione, I will need you this afternoon so that Marco sees you and can confirm to his bosses that I am who I say I am. After that, we must prepare. I'll send Mara over to get you before the meeting." He bowed to Karen. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Karen, and your loyalty to your friend is commendable." Turning to Ben, he said, "Do what you need to do. I will welcome your help, but I can't ask for it."
Ben clapped a hand on Jack's wounded shoulder. Seeing the devil wince, Ben said, "Sorry. I'll help anyway I can, but it could get awkward later." Jack left, Ben making sure the door closed behind him.
"Want anything, Ione?" Karen walked over to the studio's small fridge. "There's beer, wine, rum, gin, and some soft drinks. Or I could make something for lunch. Ben did a grocery run after we checked in."
Ione sat down on the couch. "A beer sounds perfect right now."
Karen pulled a can of beer from the fridge. "Well, I'm starving. I never got breakfast." She tossed the can to Ione. "As for you, Ben, when were you going to tell me you were an angel? Or were you just going to lead me on and then disappear."
A guilty expression crept over Ben's face. "Karen, I never meant to lead you on. You have to admit, this was a whirlwind. I only met you Friday."
"And you were nice and gentlemanly and listened to me. You were so the perfect guy."
"Um, Karen?" Ione opened her beer. "That's what angels do. Or, that's what angels assigned to Earth do. They listen."
"Ione's sort of right," Ben said. "I listen. I wasn't going to hurt you, Karen. I'd have waited until there was someone else in your life far more suitable for you, then have you break up with me."
"Just how long would that have been, Ben?" Karen rummaged in the studio's fridge before pulling out a baguette and butter. "What if that person never showed up?"
Ben joined Karen in the small kitchen. "Someone always does. It is up to you to recognize when your match comes around. Life isn't random, but life does take effort."
"I don't need platitudes, Ben."
"Karen, you're being hard on him." Ione took a sip of her beer. "Blame me, not him."
Karen slammed a knife on the counter. "Why? You never invited him to the nightclub. You didn't tell him to be charming and sweet."
Ben slipped the knife out of Karen's reach. "Go talk to Ione. I'll handle lunch." He guided Karen back to the studio's living room.
"He cooks." Karen glared at Ben. "You weren't going to tell me that you can cook, were you? I find the perfect man and it turns out, he's not real."
Ione raised her beer can in a mock toast. "Hear, hear." She set the can down on the coffee table. "That's it, though. There's no such things as 'perfect'. I aim for good enough. But, Ben, the only reason you were at the nightclub was to protect me, wasn't it? You knew I had talked with Jack."
Ben retrieved onions and pork from the small fridge. "He tends to leave a lingering trace on people. Not quite corruption and the mark fades after a day or so, but I can tell who he's been near. I also sensed the other woman, the Valkyrie, though I didn't know what she was at the time." He began chopping the onions.
Karen sat down beside her friend. "And you never told her?"
"Not so perfect now, is he?" Ione nudged Karen in the side with her elbow. "I assume you disabled Gemma's car?"
"I had to do something. Karen, I just can't come out and say what I am. No one would believe me." Ben found a frying pan and set it on the stove. "Found that out the hard way." He added olive oil to the pan and turned on the burner.
"Karen, you have to forgive the angel." Ione giggled. She covered her mouth. "Sorry. I'm saying things I never imagined I'd say."
Karen glowered at her friend. "It's not funny, Ione."
"No, but it's absurd. I never really believed angels and devils exist." Ione waved at Ben. "No offense."
Ione continued, "Yet, here I am, in the middle trying to help a devil stop a war against Heaven's angels and finding myself mediating between my best friend in the whole world and her angel boyfriend. This could be worth losing my job."
Ben prepared the meat. The olive oil sizzled in the pan. "Be careful around Jack. He doesn't follow the rules."
"He's a devil." Karen folded her legs up on the couch. "Why would he follow rules?"
"Jack's still part of a hierarchy." Ben added the pork and onions to the frying pan. "There are still rules even he won't out and out break. Bend out of shape, but never, ever, break. The consequences are dire."
"How dire?" Ione asked.
"Dire enough to scare devils into not breaking the rules. Ione, if you get a chance, ask Jack how he knew you were at the warehouse."
Ione took a drink of her beer. "If I get a chance. Jack has been keeping his timetable to himself. He'll probably send Mara over to drive me meet the gangsters."
"And you trust him?" Karen asked. "Even after finding out that he's a devil and lying to you all this time?"
"Jack never lied to me." The scent of the meal cooking wafted through the studio. Ione closed her eyes and inhaled. "Oh, Ben, you have to teach us how you did that. Anyway, Jack never lied. He just never told the whole truth. Jack also kept me from getting totally involved. Sure, some of that had to be deniability. At the same time, he treated me well. Not like a friend. I don't think Jack can do friends. More like a colleague."
Ben walked away from the stove. "He was also trying to get you to fight the rogue."
"It's the end of the world, Ben." Ione set down her beer can. "How can I walk away?"
"If we can now begin?"
"This deal is being set up to fail."
"There's a reason why the angel had to say those words."
"Invite me to the wedding."