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Far From Center: An Imp World Novel by Debra Dunbar (1)

Chapter 1

Gabriel sat ramrod straight in his chair, trying not to notice the fish sandwich and hand-cut fries on the plate in front of him. He wasn’t going to eat them, but it seemed rude not to order something when he was occupying one of this waitress’ tables. Perhaps the angel he was meeting would eat them in his stead.

Correction, Fallen angel. Eirnilius had been a part of Gabriel’s choir before the angel had been caught trying to negotiate a breeding contract with a demon in violation of the two-and-a-half million-year-old treaty that outlined a complete separation between the beings of Aaru and those of Hel. It seemed rather minor now, after all that had happened in the last year, but Gabriel had delivered the punishment, and he was going to stick by his decision.

Although reinstatement after proper penance was always an option. He wasn’t so cruel as to not allow an angel, even a Fallen one, the chance for redemption. That was what Eirnilius was hoping for, and it was that hope Gabriel was leveraging for information.

See? He wasn’t as rigid as his siblings always accused him of being. Forgiveness was in his heart. Not forgiveness of the demons or the rebels who had caused this mess so long ago, though. They didn’t deserve forgiveness. Although, if he were completely honest with himself — which he always was — lately he’d begun to believe even those vile infernal beings might have a chance at redemption in their future. Maybe. When the porcine sprouted wings, maybe.

The Fallen angel slid into the seat across from Gabriel and eyed the plate of food longingly.

“Eirnilius.”

“Please call me Nils, Exalted One. I am no longer worthy of the name Eirnilius.”

The Fallen cast another forlorn glance at the food. As a Fallen, Nils was now a member of the Fifth Choir, and thus came under the rule of the Iblis, the Ha-Satan. Gabriel was fairly certain the imp fed her minions, so Nils’ starving act was an exaggeration. Well, he thought she fed her minions. Given how stingy she’d been with that pizza last week, he had cause to doubt.

“Go ahead and eat the food, Nils,” Gabriel told the Fallen. “I have no need of such things.”

It was the sort of dig that should have been beneath an archangel, but Nils’ flagrant disregard of the treaty terms warranted such cattiness. Besides, what good was eventual reinstatement if the Fallen didn’t suffer during his repentance?

Nils dug in, looking up only when the waitress approached.

“Can I get you and your friend something to drink?” she asked Gabriel, barely sparing the Fallen a glance. “Another sandwich? He seems to have stolen yours.”

Nils remained silent, as befitting his status, glancing over at the bar area to indicate his desire for a beverage.

Food. Alcohol. Would the Fallen want sex with a human next? Would he steal something? Resort to physical violence? Had his vibration pattern descended so low?

“Please bring us two beers. No additional food is necessary.” Might as well order a second one. Nils would most likely want two, anyway.

“What kind of beer would you like?” She beamed at him, doing some odd motion with her hips and scrunching her arms across her chest.

“You can select for us. I’m unfamiliar with the various styles of that beverage and trust your judgement on which one is the better.”

“We’ve got an awesome Saison made on the island here. It’s my favorite.”

She did that jiggling motion with her hips again. It made various parts of her anatomy bounce. What was that about? “That sounds wonderful. Thank you, Marissa. I appreciate your attentive service to my needs.”

Pink rushed from her neck up to her cheeks, and her eyes sparkled. When she turned around and walked off, she twisted her hips, swinging her lower section to and fro in a manner that looked like it might be causing discomfort to her back muscles. When she reached the bar, both the waitress and the female bartender huddled together, whispering and giggling.

“You know, you could totally hit that,” Nils observed in between bites of the sandwich.

“I would never strike a human.” Where in all of creation had this Fallen’s sense of morals gone? Did he really condone violence against a helpful human waitress? For shame.

“Mmm.” The Fallen ignored Gabriel and looked in admiration over at the waitress. “That’s going to be the hardest to give up if I’m ever reinstated to Aaru. There are so many temptations down here, but none so seductive as that. I hate myself every time I do it, but by all that’s holy, it sure does feel good.”

What was wrong with this angel? Violence seductive? Nils had a long road to travel toward reinstatement if those were the things he found tempting.

“Well, you’ll not lay a hand on that waitress, or any other human, while I’m within a hundred miles. Got it?”

Nils nodded ruefully. “I’ll try. Thing has a mind of its own, though. It’s a slippery slope, Ancient Revered One. A slippery slope.”

This topic of conversation was over. Gabriel didn’t want to continue hearing about how Nils couldn’t resist such impulses. The Fallen was closer to a demon then Gabriel had ever imagined.

“So…information? You said you have something for me? You possess information that warranted me coming to this tiny island in the Caribbean?”

Nils nodded. “He’s here. Or he will be shortly. Tura has a stolen artifact and is brokering a deal through a Gormand intermediary.”

“A stolen artifact?” Gabriel gritted his teeth. Now that they were all locked out of Aaru, he had no way of finding out exactly what this traitor had stolen before that final battle.

“I also know that the item is being transferred to another demon from the Gormand — a Noodle.”

Noodles were information demons, so the item could be anything. Besides information, they tended to be magpies when it came to interesting objects. But how could a Noodle possibly have the money to buy a stolen artifact brokered through a Gormand? Gormands were a type of greed demon, and always had currency to spare, but information demons generally were poor. Perhaps he or she had a benefactor.

And beyond a benefactor, the Noodle probably had a bodyguard — a war demon or one powerful enough to protect the weaker class of demon from the Gormand who would surely try to rig the deal.

“So when is all this going to happen, and where?” He could easily defeat a Gormand, a Noodle, and whoever else she brought in for muscle and retrieve the item, but that wasn’t his priority. He was going to capture this rebel, the angel who’d eluded him for nearly two years. Gabriel had a score to settle with this angel, and in this matter, his legendary patience had come to an end.

“Within the next three days. I wanted you to be here early so you can hide your energy signature, and so you can follow the Noodle. She’s your key to finding the Gormand as well as the angel you’re hunting.”

It wasn’t the complete information he’d hoped to receive, but Nils had given him more than any member of his household had been able to do in the last year. This was his chance, and he wasn’t about to let this one slip by.

“How do I find the information demon?” He’d need to find her and trace her back to the Gormand as quickly as possible, since it was likely the angel he sought would vanish once the artifact was transferred to the greed demon. Time would be of the essence here.

“She arrives on the flight from Maryland this afternoon. She and her bodyguards are staying at the Casa Bonita. I managed to get a copy of their itinerary.”

“And how exactly did you do that?” Gabriel narrowed his eyes. “Who is this information demon?”

The Fallen had a bead of sweat on his forehead that betrayed his unease. “She is part of the Iblis’ household. The Iblis is brokering the deal at her end to get the item from the Gormand. I didn’t…please don’t let the Mistress know I’ve been sharing this information with you.”

It made sense. The Iblis had more money than a Noodle, and there were many reasons why she’d want an artifact — not all of them for the benefit of the angels. If he had time he’d need to also retrieve this artifact, whatever it was, before it reached the Iblis. Or, if that failed, alert his eldest brother that the imp he loved, the one who allegedly ruled Hel, was up to something.

“You know that I can’t vow to remain silent on any of this, but I will do my best to keep your cooperation in strict confidence,” Gabriel told the Fallen.

Nils didn’t appear thrilled with that answer, but he nodded and slid a paper over to Gabriel. On it was flight information and two rooms at the Casa Bonita — a first floor, and a third floor. Odd that the Noodle would want to be two floors away from his or her bodyguard. Wait bodyguards? As in plural?

“How many bodyguards is the information demon bringing?” It didn’t matter, but it would let him know how powerful this Gormand was. He wanted to be ready if he needed to exercise considerable force in interrogating the demon. And he wanted to make sure he had enough energy left over to deal with Tura.

“Two.” Nils squirmed. “But you know the Iblis. Her household is mostly Lows. I doubt she has any heavy-hitters. That’s probably why she’s sending two.”

A household full of Lows and a Fallen. What a ragtag group. He almost felt sorry for the Iblis. Almost.

“What is the artifact she’s attempting to acquire?”

“I don’t know.” The Fallen took another bite of the sandwich. Gabriel cringed as he continued to speak with his mouth full. “I don’t think the Iblis even knows. That’s probably why she’s sending a Noodle. Those demons know all sorts of random stuff.”

Which brought to mind another question. “What is she exchanging for the artifact?”

Nil’s shrugged. “Some elven-made item that’s supposedly rare. Looks like a necklace. Makes my skin crawl every time I see it.”

Well that wasn’t exactly helpful. And Nils inability to speak in full sentences was becoming irritating.

“Anything else I need to know?” By the creator, he was starting to pick up the habit himself. Gabriel cringed. “Is there anything else I need to know?”

“I’ve told you everything I found out.” The Fallen picked at his fries, then looked up at Gabriel hopefully. “But if you need anything else, anything at all, please let me know.”

Of course, because the Fallen was eager to be reinstated. Depending on how this worked out, Nils might be one step closer, but Gabriel couldn’t help but torment the Fallen a bit more.

“You’re sure about that offer? What I ask of you might be contrary to what the Iblis, the head of your choir, orders.”

Nils shuddered. “I…she’s very creative in her punishments. I really don’t want to cross her, but I’m willing to suffer if it gets me back into Aaru, and back into your choir, Ancient Revered One.”

Little did the Fallen know there was no more Aaru. Well, there was, it was just that no angel could figure out how to access it. It was one additional thing the Iblis had ruined for them. They’d all been accidently banished, and it looked quite likely that they’d never be able to return to their homeland.

It hurt Gabriel deep inside to think that he might never see his beloved Aaru again, that he might be condemned to a physical existence for all of eternity. But none of this was something Nils, or any angel beyond him and his siblings and the Iblis, needed to know about.

“You’ve proven yourself very useful, Nils,” Gabriel said, standing. The waitress approached with two beers, giving him a disappointed pout. He made a show of digging in his pocket and created the American human currency that was accepted on this island. It must have been sufficient since the woman’s eyes lit up as he handed it to her.

“And Nils,” he added as he turned to leave. “If you so much as lay a finger on this woman, I will personally slice your wings off, one feather at a time.”

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