An endless sea of cars, pickups, and RVs--most carrying out-of-state tags--cluttered the dusty parking lot.
The flea market, a long chain of covered wooden booths, offered everything from oranges to costume jewelry, tools, electronic equipment, clothing, DVDs, guns, ammunition, and lawn furniture. Folks in baggy shorts, tank tops, flip-flops and baseball caps flocked the booths and the fast food plaza.
Dressed in a form-fitting black tee shirt, red shorts and custom-designed black sneakers with a red T stretched over each toe, Tiffany LeBouf inched down the aisle. Her thick honey-blond hair slid quietly across her back like a shimmering curtain of gold.
This was her first time in Florida. It was just as crowded as California, but hotter, brighter, and more humid. As she edged down the congested aisle, the excitement on the faces of the people swarming the booths uplifted her spirits.
Twenty feet ahead, Chip, the weird little guy who'd pulled her out of Hell, checked out a booth selling potted plants. His shock of wild red hair stood out like a roving fireball among the crowd. She'd better keep an eye on him. He'd be in serious trouble if he picked up something and ate it. An inferior demon with the spirit form of a flower, Chip's idea of a happy meal was a plate of crushed eggshells, burnt coffee grounds, and a pitcher of fresh spring water. He had no qualms about grabbing a plug of dirt from a potted plant to suck on, even with the vendor watching.
Earlier this morning, a middle-aged couple had picked up Tiffany and Chip outside Louisville and dropped them off here, just a few miles north of St. Augustine.
The driver's name was Bertram. He and his wife Alice smoked cigarettes and chattered away about their divorced daughter Belinda, who had two small boys, spent a fortune for Day Care and lived a few miles from the high school, where she taught Social Studies, drove a second-hand Toyota Supra, liked Bruce Willis movies and dabbled in gardening.
Bertram let his wife do the talking while he drove. He reminded Tiffany a little of her father.
Chip's tiny green eyes had lit up when he climbed into the back of the light-blue Lincoln Town Car and saw Alice chattering away on a cell phone.
Chip had a strange contempt for cell phones. Thought they were silly. He'd even hinted that they were first thought of in Hell by the demons Balboa Whip and Breath Mint--or whatever those big, nasty jerks called themselves.
Although Tiffany didn't believe cell phones were invented down below, she understood Chip's skepticism about them. He hadn't been up here in fifty years. The last time he'd been sent up, no one had ever heard of a cell phone.
"Give you a good deal on a necklace, young lady."
Tanned and bony in his frayed brown tee shirt, suspenders and patched black corduroys, the gray-haired man winked devilishly. The burning cigarette stuck between his cracked lips framed his seamed face with billowing gray tendrils.
"It's marked thirty. I'll take twenty." He lifted it carefully from the glass case and handed it to her.
Ignoring the strong mix of cigarette smoke and sweat emanating from him, she took it.
Tiffany had seen tons of jewelry in her short lifetime. In Hollywood, where she'd lived the last four years of her life, you quickly learned what was real. This went for five bucks, tops, in any costume jewelry store. But she didn't want to hurt the man's feelings. She handed it back. "I really don't wear jewelry."
"Fine-looking young lady like you?"
Marilyn Monroe seldom wore jewelry in her private life. She said it took the attention away from her looks. When she was alive, Tiffany wanted to become the New Millennium Marilyn. Besides, she'd never liked things moving around on her wrists or neck and was pleasantly surprised when she'd learned that she and her idol shared this peculiarity.
"I just don't like how it feels." She hoped he'd understand.
"On you? It'll spark like fireworks."
She knew he was feeding her a line. She felt sorry for him. One brief probe, using the powers she'd developed since she and Chip came up, had told her much. This man sold junk because he was afraid he wouldn't have enough money to live on from his retirement as a plumber. His wife no longer paid attention to him, even made him sleep on the couch when he came home drunk. Aside from a grown daughter who never saw him and a few drinking buddies who didn't even know his name, he had no one.
"Tell you what. I paid five for it. You can have it for ten. I'm only making, what? Five?"
"But I really don't--"
"Go ahead, cupcake." Chip, munching on wet dirt from the plug of grass in his hand, had snuck up to her. "That trinket'll look just dandy hanging around that gorgeous swan-like neck."
Had she heard him correctly? "Gorgeous? Swan-like?"
He shrugged. "Best I can do for now. These crowds are playing havoc with my concentration skills. Otherwise, I would've come up with something nicer."
Tiffany gazed into his eyes, searching for the familiar impish glint. Chip was a demon. A trickster and a jokester. Nicer just wasn't his style.
"Are you feeling okay?"
"Hey, you told me to behave."
"Yes, when Bertram and Alice picked us up. That was hours ago."
"I thought I'd try working on my issues."
"Speaking of issues..." She pointed to the plug.
He shrugged. "I have the munchies."
"So take the necklace."
She lowered her voice. "But I don't want it."
Chip winked at the vendor. "She's hoping I'll buy it for her. Aren't they just precious? They don't think we know what they're doing."
The vendor stared. He moved closer to Chip. "This lady...she's...with you?"
Chip grinned. "Abso-damn-lutely."
The vendor squinted, looking Chip up and down.
"Problemo? Looks like you've got gas. Or some weird eye-thingy going on."
The vendor sighed. "Guess I've seen just about everything now."
Chip lowered his voice. "This lady's my partner."
The vendor blinked. "Partner?"
"You know--five-oh, five-oh. All for one and all that other cuddly crap."
"Partner?" The vendor still appeared confused.
"I guess you could say we've been through Hell together. That goes a long way with chicks--especially when you've saved their butt."
Tiffany wanted to slap Chip. Or shove the tip of her tennis shoe into the seat of his pants. If only he hadn't mentioned the Hell thing... And the fact that he'd saved her...
"You...saved her butt?" the vendor asked.
"You seem to be having trouble keeping up, don't you?"
The vendor blinked. "Keeping...up?"
Chip winked. "You know...you ask me something, I answer, then we move on. Get it?"
The vendor scratched the back of his neck. "Partner?"
Chip moved closer to Tiffany and whispered, "This boy's a couple of French fries short of a happy meal. I think we need to pick up the necklace and move on."
"Chip?" Tiffany decided it was time for him to shut up.
"Stick a sock in it."
"I was you?" The vendor gave Chip a solemn look. "I'd buy this lovely lady partner of yours whatever she wants."
"You've just convinced me, sport. Besides, she's giving me that look. Know what that means?"
The vendor chuckled. "Means you'd better buy her that necklace."
"I was gonna say that when she does that, she's ready to kick some serious ass." Chip tossed the plug of grass into the crowd, reached into his pocket and produced an imaginary twenty.
"Get your change." The vendor pulled a battered shoe box from under the cracked wooden counter and opened it.
"I knew it." Her neck grew warm. "That remark about your issues. It was just...baloney."
He winked. "What'd you expect, lamb chop? Baby steps for this kind of stuff, right?"
"Baby steps? For what you just did?"
"Have you forgotten my roots already?"
"You're being cruel," she whispered. "He has to pay rent for this booth."
"I'll bet he got that necklace for next to nothing."
"He paid five dollars for it."
"And you believe him?"
She was probably being naive again. But she couldn't help it. You can't change who you are--not even when you're dead.
"Here's your change."
"Keep it," she said.
His gray brows bumped together. "It's...ten bucks."
"He doesn't care," she said. "My partner, here, just inherited money."
Chip blinked. "I did?"
She elbowed him sharply in the side.
"Congrats. And thanks." The vendor winked at Chip. He wrapped up the necklace in a white Wal-Mart bag and handed it over.
Chip stared at the bag.
The vendor shrugged. "They were free."
Chip followed Tiffany outside, where the afternoon sun turned the long uneven row of windshields into a jagged line of blinding starbursts.
"How long do I have to keep fixing your practical jokes?" she asked. "That poor man has to put up with rude, nasty people all day. He doesn't deserve to be swindled."
"Babykins, when will you start developing an evil side? In Ohio you promised me you'd do interesting things while we're here. I assumed you meant interesting bad things, but I'm beginning to think it was just a line."
She dropped the bag on a chipped wooden tabletop as they passed.
"You're gonna leave that there? After I paid for it?"
"You didn't pay for it."
"What was I supposed to do? Tell him we're demons and that the only money we have is the stuff we conjure up?"
He could be so clueless...
"One, I'm not a demon. And two, telling anyone about our imaginary money trick would be really stupid--even for you."
"Why don't you just put that on and make me feel better?"
"I don't wear jewelry and it won't make you feel better if I put it on."
"You can be cold, girl."
"When the occasion calls for it."
"So what's wrong with being bad as well?"
"You know I'm not comfortable with bad."
"Need I remind you what you did in Ohio just a few days ago?"
She hated when he brought that up. Sending the subordinate demon Gutril back to Hell was not the sort of thing you could easily forget. But it had been necessary. Gutril wasn't even supposed to be up here.
"I wish you'd stop bringing that up. If he hadn't been so obnoxious, I probably wouldn't have done what I did."
"But at least we're still up here. And need I remind you why we're still up here?"
She didn't need reminded and didn't even want to think of that just yet. It made her feel dirty, used. Evil.
But at least it kept her from going back down there.
"I haven't forgotten."
"We'd better get our minds back on track and find a ride to Orlando. We've only been given a few days to get this done. You need to stop wandering around, turning on these horny vendors."
"All I did was walk past his booth."
"That's all it took."
"What am I supposed to do?"
He shrugged. "Do what you did in Ohio, when you made those perfectly perky, playful puppies a little less mouth-watering and--"
"Will you please stop?" He could be such a jerk.
"If you insist."
"I guess you're right, though--about our wasting time. We really need to get to Orlando and find Breath Mint so we can--"
"The super's name, my beautiful, bountiful, but often times brainless butt-kicking babe, is Braithwaite."
"It sounds just like Breath Mint. And don't call me brainless."
"Might I remind you that this dude is a super demon? With a nasty temper? We don't want to antagonize him by screwing up his name, do we?"
She didn't care. From what she'd already learned, demons didn't deserve any consideration. But she knew better than argue.
"I'll try to remember."
"We've got to play by his rules. Otherwise, he'll send someone after us and we'll find ourselves down in Olivier's rock garden, being peed on for the next five hundred years."
"I'm aware of all that."
"So get his name right."
"And why the attitude? I thought you liked being up here."
"I guess I'm just nervous. Breath Wafer sounds really disgusting."
Steam trickled out of Chip's small pointed ears. He groaned, ran a hand through his thick red mop and farted loudly. "Tifferoo, for such a breathtaking babe, you can be such a blond."