“The Startup” is the introductory fiction to Flowers of Hell: The Demon Players Guide for Demon: The Descent.
The press swarmed all around the courthouse, slowing exit. Hundreds of people ?ocked, all eyes on Eric as he left the courthouse doors. He practically danced between the rows of reporters. His grin grew with each step down the courthouse stairs. He mugged for every camera, and posed for gaudy cellphone pictures.
The press exploded. They fought over his limited periphery, climbing, shoving cameras, and thrusting microphones over one another, like beetles on a corpse.
“Start wherever you want, Mister Pearce!”
“Tell us about the orgies!”
“Tell us about his wife!”
“Tell us about Thailand!”
“What does it feel like to win the case?”
Eric smiled, and held a hand up to pause the crowd. “What does it feel like to win the case? I’ll tell you what it’s like.”
He stopped, and motioned up to the courthouse. His practiced, exaggerated gesture made the crowd look back to the building, even though they knew what they’d see.
“See these steps? When I walked down these stairs, I felt like Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s been a hard path. But I have accomplished. I have achieved. Ms. Jergens here is my Mickey. I’ve got the eye of the tiger.”
He stepped down once more, and merged back into the press. The suited blonde woman beside him forcibly escorted him to a car, and shoved him in before he could answer more questions. She closed the door behind them.
As the car pulled away, Eric grabbed a brown sack from the seat back pouch. Jergens rolled her eyes. “You realize that Apollo Creed won at the end, right?”
Eric slid a mirror, a razor, and a cellophane bag of white powder from the sack. “Whatever. People like the drama of it. Throw in a movie reference, and they eat out of your palm.”
Jergens checked her cellphone, and spoke ?atly. “There could still be appeals. You don’t just steal a billion dollar company from its founder—“
“Co-founder.” He cut her off.
“Co-founder. Anyway, don’t write any big checks just yet.” She sighed and typed on her phone. “Also? It was ‘Gonna Fly Now.’”
He inhaled a line of powder. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“He ran up the steps to ‘Gonna Fly Now.’ ‘Eye of the Tiger’ didn’t even happen until the third movie.” She put the phone away, and removed a digital recorder. “Now, let’s start the version that goes in the book.”
“Damien and I started YouMe in the garage. We were like the Jobs and Gates of social media. The idea was, we wanted to give college students a virtual meat market where they could narrow down a hookup by specific criteria. I know you could have benefited from that in school. We all could—”
The car thudded to a halt. Jergens and Eric slammed forward. In the confusion, Eric tossed his cocaine all over the both of them.
“What in the ever-loving fuck, Nate?” He snapped up to the driver.
“Sorry, sir. But there’s a man standing in front of the car.” The driver recovered his lost cap while the car idled.
“Fucking hit him. I don’t care. I’ve got a shareholder meeting to go to.”
Jergens raised an eyebrow. “You do realize that the IPO is still not approved with the settlement, right? We can’t go public until next week. You don’t have shareholders.”
“Fine. Potential shareholder meeting.” Eric huffed, and opened the door. “I’m going to get this fucker out of the way. He doesn’t know who he’s interrupting.”
“Mister Pearce…Eric. As your attorney, I strongly advise against—”
Eric slammed the door behind him, and marched forth to confront the man. The man turned to face him. He was a tall, blonde man. He had a haircut that belonged on television, and a suit that belonged in a courtroom, probably because he just left the televised courtroom. He stood tall, but shaky, unstable.
“Damien? What in the hell are you doing here? How did you know where we’d be driving?”
“I wanted to congratulate you on a well-fought trial.” Damien bowed mockingly. “We couldn’t talk in the courtroom, you were too busy fellating the press afterwards, so I needed to get you alone. Get over yourself. I knew you’d be here, because you had your silly ‘shareholder meeting’ to attend.”
“I don’t even.” Eric blinked twice.
“Eric. Your suit is covered in blow. Dust yourself off. You don’t want it to go like this, do you?”
Jergens stepped out of the car and made her way to Eric’s side. “You don’t want to be here. You can’t risk being seen with him.”
Eric brushed off his suit. “It? What’s it, Damien? Are you going to shoot me?”
Damien shook his head. “Worse. Long story short, I put two and two together. Well, and I found your diary. It’s like you wanted to be found out.”
Eric’s eyes went wide. “Shut up.” He slid a hand into the breast of his suit, drew a pistol, and leveled it at Damien.
Jergens went for the gun, Eric put his other hand up to hold her back. “Eric! Put that away!”
Damien shook his head and tisked. “I don’t care, Eric. Shoot me. You’ve already taken everything away from me. It’s my turn to take something away from you.”
Eric shook his head and put both hands to the pistol’s grip. “I swear to fucking Christ, Damien. Walk away. You don’t want to do this.”
“You’d know about not wanting to do things, wouldn’t you?” Damien smiled. “Didn’t want to start YouMe. You didn’t even know me. You were given a job, and you had no choice. But eventually, you stopped coding for It, and you started coding for yourself. You started to care. And that’s what you’ll tell everyone. You just cared so much. That excuses everything, doesn’t it?”
“Shut. Up.” Eric stepped slowly toward Damien.
“Get back in the car, Eric. Just ignore him. He’s trying to take you down with him.” Jergens tugged on Eric’s shoulder, but Eric was a statue.
“Tell her, Eric.” Damien said, looking between the two. “You have client privilege, right? Just tell her. Tell her about the Machine. Tell her about your duties, and when you began to question.”
Eric fired, blowing a hole in Damien’s chest. Damien winced, then grinned. Jergens gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Tell her, Eric. How you’re a Fallen fucking angel.”
Eric fired again. “How YouMe was part of some great plan to mind control the populace.” Damien gestured dramatically, mockingly, to the sky.
Eric fired again. Damien knelt over, grasping at three bleeding wounds. Jergens wept, and shook her head. “Why you went public.”
Eric fired again. “Tell her you’re a fucking demon.” Damien shouted out those final words as he fell to the side.
Eric fired three more times, all three into a corpse. He stopped, ears ringing, his hand numb from the recoil. He snapped to attention. Shadows from
the streetlights warped, and started groping out, reaching for something. Eric grabbed Jergen’s wrist. “Lisa. We have to get out of here. Now!”
Lisa Jergens followed, her body went with him, while her words protested. “Damn it, Eric. You can’t ?ee the scene. You’re just making it worse.”
“In about thirty seconds, there won’t be a scene to ?ee from. Get in the car, I’ll explain later.” He shoved Lisa into the car, much like she’d done for him earlier. He waved the driver to start. “Hit the road, Nate. Fast.”
“Not later, Eric. Now. I’m your attorney, and I’m your friend. I think I’m not being unreasonable when I say I deserve to know why you just made me an accomplice to murder!” Lisa’s voice broke slightly, but she stared Eric in the face.
Eric sighed, shrugged, then shot out a response. “Fine. The long and short of it? Damien was right. I’m a de— a Fallen angel. I’m in hiding. Now, thanks to him, my cover’s blown. Did you see those shadows back there? Those were angels. And they’re not going to stop until they find me.”
Lisa watched his face for signs of sarcasm. He sat, stoic. “You’re not shitting me, are you?”
Eric shook his head. Lisa bit her lower lip, and a tear welled up at the corner of either eye.
“We’ll be fine. I have a safe place. They won’t be able to find us.” He pulled out a phone, and tapped the screen a few times. “Nate. Go to where the GPS tells you. Don’t stop for anything.”
“Wait just a second, Eric. A safe place? Are you advocating we go on the lam? I don’t even have packed clothes. I can’t run from the cops in these heels.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like that. Just a safe place. Off the grid. We’ll regroup, I’ll seed some misinformation, and we’ll be back to safety. I’ve done this a dozen times before.”
“A dozen?” She paused. “And how many of these times were you on international cable news? You can’t just make this disappear, Eric.”
Nate stopped the car. Eric opened the door. “We’re here. Follow me.”
Lisa looked around. “Already? How are we—“
“Just get out. Please. I don’t have time to explain.” Lisa glanced up at Nate, but he looked dazed, unsure of where he was. She took a deep breath, and got out of the car.
The shadows closed in rapidly. They swarmed, blanketing the city streets in darkness. The passers-by looked around in confusion. Eric held Lisa’s hand, and rushed into an old apartment complex.
“Your hiding place is a shit apartment on East Harlem?” She argued, but followed along.
“Not really.” He pulled a key, and opened what appeared to be a janitor’s closet. “Come on in.” He put a hand to the small of her back to guide her in before him.
As she stepped through the door, reality bent to take her elsewhere. In a split second, she no longer existed in the hallway of a shit apartment complex
in East Harlem.
The space had no proper walls; it was a rough oval lined with stacks of computer towers, books, computer monitors, fling cabinets and shop equipment in no discernible order. Generic textbooks comprised a makeshift ?oor, and the “walls” extended up as far as the eye could see. They walked in through a walk-in freezer door.
Eric ri?ed through a file cabinet. Lisa looked around, touching and examining the mass of junk for a full five minutes before speaking. “What is this
place? Where are we?”
“Where we are, that’s impossible to answer. We’re somewhere. Out of space. Out of time. It’s my hiding spot. Best I can tell, this is where a bunch of lost knowledge and discovery ends up. It’s difficult to explain. Look around. I’ve got some work to do.”
Eric continued fussing with the files. Lisa examined the books. “You’re not kidding. This says ‘Tesla’ — like, the Tesla?”
Eric nodded. “I tried labeling them. But it’s dynamic, cycling. You can only find certain things twice, and never reliably.”
Lisa booted up an old green and gold CRT monitor. “This is an incomplete love letter. Terrible grammar and punctuation.”
“Feelings are more important than syntax.” He pulled a folder from the cabinet, and ?ipped through its contents.
“Why didn’t he finish it?” She navigated through nonsensical menus and folders in the hard drive.
“He did. That’s just one of the first drafts.” Eric laid out a series of photographs along the ?oor. Each featured the same, thirty-something redheaded woman.
“How do you know? I thought you said you can’t find anything twice.” She stepped away from the computer and looked over the photos.
“I know what’s in here. I know it intimately. But I only know what’s right here, right now. Things shift in and out of existence. That’s the long version. The short version is, I know it because I wrote it.” He stood, and looked with her at the photos.
“I’ve seen her. She was one of the shareholders, right?” Lisa said, with a curious hand at her chin.
“Yeah. One of the potential shareholders. Do you think you could like her if she was like me?” Eric looked to Lisa.
Lisa raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Eric shook his head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Lisa shook her head and went back to the computer. She opened it up and began typing, navigating. “What are we going to do? We can’t go back if they’re hunting for you. You’re everywhere. Your schedule’s a matter of public record. I’m… willing to go with you if we’re going somewhere else.”
“Yeah?” Eric watched her. “That was my biggest worry. I can give up the money. I can give up the stupid company. Not you. I can’t do this alone.”
She glanced back at him, then returned her attention to the computer. “This is fucked. You realize that, right, Eric? Utterly fucked. I’ll go with you. I’ll help you, because I don’t really think I have a choice. I’m in this deep. So I’ll go. But this came on so fast, I don’t know if I can promise what you want from me.”
He sighed. “I don’t need promises. I just need you to bear with me. Eric’s going to die. You’re going to pin everything on him. He has a will—”
“Whoa! Wait.” She stood, turned, and glared at him. “You don’t get to pull that shit. Suicide? No way, Eric. I get explanations. I deserve explanations. I think I’m taking this pretty fucking well, don’t you think?”
“It’s not really worth explaining it, because you won’t remember when this is all over.”
She slowly approached, tears coming back to her eyes. “I won’t remember? What in the fuck, Eric? What in the fuck? I’m here, aren’t I? Is this some sort of emotional blackmail? What do you want from me?” She bit her lower lip and looked to him, pleading.
Eric took a deep breath. “Like I said. Bear with me. Eric is going to die. I’m not. I’m going to become someone else. But since I’m taking over that new identity, you’re going to forget that I was ever Eric. You worked for Eric, but he died in an altercation with Damien. But I promise you, I’ll come back to you. You just won’t know any different.”
She winced, and reached up to touch his cheek. “You really mean this, don’t you?”
“And this whole angel thing?” She said, her voice cracking.
“You’ll forget it.”
She stood and contemplated that. “You know, I don’t love you or anything like that, right?”
He shrugged. “You’re oversimplifying it. We’ll see where things go next time.”
She turned away from him. “Can I remember? Can you make that happen?”
“It’s not safe.” He said, shaking his head.
“I don’t care. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to put me in danger, throw my life into disarray, open my eyes to all this, then take it all away. That’s bullshit.”
“Fine.” He shrugged. “You’ll remember. It won’t be safe, but you’ll remember. It’s only fair.”
“So, as you see, YouMe stands to gain at least 18% per quarter for the foreseeable future. Your money is in good hands. As long as we remain a culture of voyeurs and exhibitionists, free access to private information will remain profitable. I hope to see you all at the first quarterly assessment presentation.”
The shareholders stood, and offered Lisa a round of applause. She smiled. She shook hands. She accepted blank envelopes. Slowly, surely, the shareholders fled out of the board room.
At last, the room was empty, save for Lisa, and a thirty-something redheaded woman. The woman stood and approached Lisa.
“I’m glad to have you at the meeting.” Lisa said to the woman.
“I’m glad to be here. I wanted to stick around, because I know you’re looking for clients. I’m proud to be a shareholder, but I’m also in the market for an attorney.” She took Lisa’s hand and shook.
“I—” Lisa paused, and released the woman’s hand. Blood ?owed from her nose. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.” She grabbed tissues, and pressed them to her face.
“I know you were previously Eric Pearce’s personal attorney, and he spoke highly of you.” The woman continued, and handed Lisa more tissues.
Lisa looked to the woman, and covered her mouth and nose with the tissue. “What do I call you? Eric?”
The woman approached, and offered a hand to Lisa. “Courtney. Courtney’s fine.”
“Damn it. You weren’t lying, were you?” Lisa motioned Courtney’s hand away, stepped forward, and pulled her into a tight hug. “What in the Hell are we supposed to do?”
“First off, we’re not going to mention Hell.” Courtney laughed and pulled away just enough to look Lisa in the eyes. “We just go on. We start from here, and we figure it out day by day. Just like anyone else.”
Lisa’s lower lip quivered. She put a hand to Courtney’s cheek, caressing it as blood rolled from her eyes down her own cheeks. “Is this going to stop?” she said, wiping her face.
Courtney nodded, and put a tissue up to dab Lisa’s cheek clean. “Coffee. We should start with coffee.”
Flowers of Hell: The Demon Players Guide is available in PDF and print from DriveThruRPG.
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