Guy had lived simply, without much adornment. His heavy wooden furniture had the occasional plain cushion, and the cabinets in his kitchen were as ordinary as could be. There were a few wood carvings on the fireplace mantel, and one clock made from a slice of tree trunk on the wall, but other than that, there was nothing to speak to who he had been. Most definitely, there were no pictures of loved ones.

I wondered whether he had been lonely. Had he sacrificed companionship for the sake of his duty as a champion? I’d never be able to ask him.

While Ivan rummaged upstairs, I wandered out the back door. Here, at least, I found something more like the Guy I remembered. A neat stack of firewood lay split and ready for use next to the steps, and on the far side of the yard, several large logs awaited the same fate. See? I knew he was a lumberjack. He’d even left his hatchet buried in one of the logs where it waited for his return.

It took me a few moments to realize why that was wrong. I’ll blame it on my largely being a city kid. The splitting maul, used to break the large logs into manageable chunks, leaned against the firewood beside me. Already, a thin coating of rust had started around the edges. One end of the neat stack had toppled over, weeds growing up between the logs. Someone who kept a house as neatly as Guy wouldn’t leave a tool out to rust in the elements, or a job half done like this. He’d been surprised here.

My cane and I walked across the yard to retrieve the small ax, seemingly balanced on one sharp point in its chosen log. It took a couple good tugs to free it of the wood, so deeply was it buried. I hefted it in my left hand, feeling the balance and how the padded grip fit my palm. I was already picturing how to move with it in combat. This was no tool; this was a weapon-Guy’s weapon.

“What are you to be having?” The wooden steps creaked under Ivan’s weight as he joined me in the backyard.

“I found his weapon.” I showed him the ax, and the old man frowned.

“Why would he to be having it delivered here, where there was no one to be finding it? I have given him instructions otherwise.”

I ran my thumb over the ax, testing the edge to find it razor sharp, and had to smile to myself. I knew why Guy had disobeyed Ivan. “Because he didn’t want anyone to get hurt, trying to avenge him. He was thinking of us.” It was something I would have done, if I were alone. And that realization made me regret, more than ever, that I had never known him.

Knowing that someone would eventually come and claim the abandoned property, Ivan took Guy’s computer when we left, preventing anyone else from accidentally (or purposely) connecting to Grapevine. I took his ax. I couldn’t leave the weapon of a fallen warrior to be claimed by some amateur, or worse yet, to rust away to nothing. I made plans to hang it in my den next to my Japanese silk print. I thought it a fitting place.

All was well for about a week after I returned from Canada, and then Axel slithered back into my yard, literally. My attitude toward the infuriating demon hadn’t improved much in the intervening weeks. I’d long since packed up the chess set and taken it inside. And since I just happened to have Esteban’s machete close at hand, I snatched it up to behead the green garden snake.

“Truce, Jesse! Truce!” The little snake, barely more than a finger’s width around, ducked into a gap in the patio stones.

“You stay in there. I’m getting some gasoline to roast your sorry ass.” Honestly, though, hobbling my way to the garage wasn’t the righteous exit I wanted to make, so I was fairly glad when he kept talking.

“Please, Jesse? I’m really sorry.” He almost sounded like he meant it, too.

I peered into the hole, watching the tiny forked tongue flicker at me. “You knew he’d killed those men, and you let me walk into that. If I thought you’d stay in that body long enough, I’d make you into a hatband.”

Slowly, the flat green head emerged from Axel’s hiding place. “I couldn’t tell. You know the rules. I tried, remember? I tried at the ballpark, and you just wouldn’t give me anything I could use!”

“Then break the rules. Doing a good deed might not kill you, y’know.”

The snake blinked at me, quite a feat considering snakes don’t have eyelids. “Jesse, when it comes down to it, the only things between this world and total chaos are the rules. Don’t be so quick to dismiss them.” I raised the machete again, and he ducked back into the hole. “I said truce!”

“I didn’t.”

“Please, Jesse. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come see you again. There are things happening… down there. Bad things.”

“You’re breaking my heart.”

The snake sighed, and his nonexistent shoulders seemed to sag. “Just… watch your ass, all right? I’d hate to see something happen to you.”

“Before you can get your grubby hands on me, you mean?”

“It’s not like that.”

“It’s not? Then why were you there the night I wrecked my truck? Goodwill and brotherly love? You were checking on your investment.”

“That’s what I’m talking about-”

“I don’t care what you’re trying to tell me. I don’t trust you, and you aren’t welcome here anymore. You will stay away from me, stay away from my friends, and my coworkers, and my family. Or I swear, by any god you believe in, I will find a way to end you.”

“If you’d just listen for a second…”

“Don’t make me say it, Axel.”

“They’re not going to stop, Jesse!” For a moment, I hesitated, startled by the sudden urgency in his voice (my voice?), and he plunged on. “All of this was just the beginning. They’re not going to stop, and they don’t give a rat’s ass about the rules. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

“All of what? Getting run off the road? The computer hacker?”

“I’ve said too much already.”

I made a grab for his scrawny little neck, and he squeezed back into the hole. “Who, Axel? Who are ‘they’?”

He writhed himself into little green knots in agitation. “I can’t tell you! Not without an exchange!”

“You conniving bastard. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?” There was only one thing he’d understand. “I banish thee, demon. Get thee hence!” There are things to be said about the oldies but goodies.

He gave a small yelp and poofed, taking the hapless snake with him.

He wouldn’t stay gone, I knew. He was strong enough that he didn’t need summoning to cross over, and I was, after all, his soul to collect if he could. I would remember, next time, that he was a demon. It disgusted me that I even had to remind myself of that. I would never let my guard down around him again. There would be no more fraternizing with the enemy.

Annabelle came screaming out the kitchen door, Esteban right behind her in playful pursuit. Somehow I managed to avoid being flattened as they chased each other around the yard, and laughter reigned over my little piece of the world. Peace is fleeting, but oh, how sweet it is.

“Hey, watch that arm! I’m not paying for a second cast.”

Oh, and for those who wondered, my mother loved her birthday present. Mira bought her a gift certificate for a day at a spa. It was, apparently, the perfect thing. Have I mentioned how much I love my wife?

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