Bargaining with the Devil: A Review
Content warnings: car bomb and explosion (two fatalities; damage to buildings); references to past trauma (nothing specific).
Note: This novella is not a standalone. We strongly recommend reading Where Death Meets the Devil (Hannah's review) and Where Death Meets the Devil :Coda.
Bargaining with the Devil AKA the one in which the spy and the assassin Netflix and chill. And I'm not using that as a euphemism.
For those who need a brief recap: Jack and Ethan met in Where Death Meets the Devil during somewhat unsavory circumstances. The two of them, who operated at opposite sides of the law, found themselves forced to work together. Over their time together, they came to trust and then betray each other, somehow always remaining on the same slightly fucked-up wavelength. Hayward’s starter to this series brimmed with tension, a tension that for me was always less about the external circumstances and more about what it takes for two emotionally fidgety and justifiably distrustful individuals to figure out that some locks need two keys.
While Where Death Meets the Devil had a heftier dose of plot and twists, Bargaining with the Devil is more interested in continuing to explore the relationship between Jack and Ethan. By the end of the coda, the two had reached an agreement that they would get together whenever they’d be in the same place, and, to Jack’s astonishment, the agreement pays out earlier than expected.
In between bouts of sex, a few freak-outs, one car explosion, and a devil costume, Jack and Ethan are literally and figuratively “negotiating with various sore bits,” trying to find “a comfortable position with maximum contact.” For the most part, they manage, but it’s not easy. The author never forgets nor glosses over the fact that Jack and Ethan are engaged in a kind of ménage, in which the shadow of all their betrayals acts as their third. What they put each other through in Where Death Meets the Devil doesn’t disappear thanks to great orgasms (although they do give it a hard try. Terrible pun fully intended).
Jack is always aware that Ethan—lover of fast cars and jealous camels (Miss you, Sheila!)—is an assassin, and that Ethan scares him. He is constantly wondering when Ethan will finally snap and kill him. Ethan, who remains something of a conundrum, simultaneously terrifying and endearing, is fully conscious of this, as well as of his apparent feelings for Jack, and on more than one occasion he tries to give Jack (and himself) an out.
At this point, their half-formed relationship is not exactly healthy, but their dynamic fascinates me, with its mix of tentativeness, alertness, and greediness. So much of what they have, and who they are, together seems like a disaster-in-waiting, but I find watching them navigate all their complications, and finding ways to be with each other, captivating. I hope these quiet, at times even domestic, moments won’t be relegated to outtake novelle.
If I have a quibble with Bargaining with the Devil (and WDMTD as well) it's that I think it makes the mistake of over-explaining emotional beats and decisions that a reader should parse on their own. Especially when part of the fun is trying to discern how much is real and how much is posture. I’m not sure if this heavy-handedness is lack of trust in readers or something else.
While keeping it spoiler-free, I also feel a bit apprehensive after what Ethan, during a very composed, very Ethan-like freak-out, tells Jack in the first of the three short stories. I’m concerned that it may lead to some classic m/m fetishization.
Quibbles and apprehension aside, I continue to enjoy this series, and Bargaining with the Devil adds an emotion-focused layer to a complex relationship and compelling story.