A wise minstrel once pined, “Death, O’ Death, won’t you spare me over another year?” I envied that bluesman. Clearly, Death wasn’t interested in leaving me be.
There’s a reason that even a child who is born without an immediate understanding of death instinctively knows when they are in the presence of it. There’s a complete finality to it that’s felt on a spiritual level, and it touches every living thing in the core of what makes itself recognize that it is alive in the first place. It’s macabre, and makes one contemplate their own numbered days. However, that little soul shudder is just the passing acquaintance. It’s a whole other level when you’re face to face with the personification.
“Unsettling” is one way to put it, but in all fairness I’m used to it by now. For you drabs, it would be more along the lines of “Hey let’s claw our way through the drywall to get the fuck away from this guy oh my God what is he I want my mother can I teleport to another timezone please I just soiled myself don’t care let me out of here now!”
Though, I might be paraphrasing.
That’s why I knew, even before seeing him, that Uriel had walked into my shop. I had seen his true form once before; the full-on Angel of Death. It’s one of those things that never ever leaves you. It’s the kind of sight that will creep up on the old mental movie screen on certain evenings when your guard is down. He had told me it was a courtesy, eliminating the need for me to burn power to see through a mortal guise, but I knew better. The guy was just being a prick and trying to spook me.
I’d never tell him, but it had worked.
“Morning, Shades,” I said. He might have frowned. It was hard to tell with the guy, trust me. He could have made a killing on the poker circuit with a face like that, and if he wasn’t busy being, you know, Death.
Today he had opted for his usual business casual. His mortal guise was that of a pale man in his early forties with raven black hair, slicked smoothly back over his head and down to his shoulders, and pointed facial features that reminded me more of carrion birds than anything else. To complete the look, he was wearing his usual priest’s garb straight from the runways of the Vatican; black, tailored long, and without embellishment. The only oddity to the overall aesthetic were the early twentieth century glasses, silver framed, set with round, heavy tint lenses that completely hid his eyes.
One might mistake this Father for trying to appeal to the cool kids, but I’m afraid the reality’s a bit more pragmatic. Be it legit flesh, or pure glamour, beings of the strange can pass for you drabs in a pinch without any of you being the wiser. But there’s always one hurdle that none of us have ever seemed to get a handle on.
You see, the old saying about eyes being the windows to the soul is more than just a neat poetic riff. It’s a direct warning to humanity for what to be on the lookout for. The eyes can’t lie, and though we may get close to perfection, our results are always just a bit off.
See someone gorgeous that has a set of peepers with a quality that seems preternatural? Chances are pretty good that they are exactly that. Contacts can go a long way to obfuscate things and make life easier for us, but by and large we opt for more simple work-arounds. It’s why my own set were freely on display even though they were such an unusual orange color. No one’s going to question the strange iris hue of a strange looking dude who’s obviously another counterculture foot-soldier.
As for Uriel, there was simply no way to get around the cold power encased within him, which rendered his eyes a black so deep that the world’s history of languages had yet to progress far enough to adequately describe it. So, like Corey Hart, he wore his sunglasses, even at night.
Hence, the “Shades” nickname. He’s not fond of the title. I don’t particularly care.
“You know,” I said with a smile, “that outfit of yours would make you an absolute hit on Fetish Nights. You certainly rock it with ease, and as it seems to be your go-to ensemble I can’t help but wonder where you’ve been spending your off hours.”
Uriel didn’t take the bait. His precise and melodious voice filled the store as he looked about. “Your store is … less impressive than I had been lead to believe. Though, I will admit that, given the angered looks on the faces of the two that just left the premises, your customer service is still of the same quality I’ve come to expect from you, Malacoda.”
I winced at the use of the verae nominae; the invocation of my True Name. It was a reflex response that most things of the strange experienced, particularly when another being of power got the inflection absolutely perfect. The average mortal will never experience it, save on the rare occasions that they are unlucky enough to come up against some antediluvian badass, because your average mortal’s view of themselves can change on a given day.
But for the rest of us, our core self doesn’t alter with the passage of time and pop culture. The recitation of a being’s true name is the equivalent of pointing a gun at someone’s head to get their attention. Effective both as threat and deterrent. It feels like you’re a guitar string that’s just been plucked, and it vibrates you from crown to toes. The less-than-subtle message Uriel was conveying was that disrespect would only be tolerated so far. At least today.
I responded by flipping him the bird. I smiled while doing so. Let it not be said that I am without social graces or due courtesy.
“I’ll serve anyone with a smile that deserves one,” I answered. “Be they proxy Angels of Death such as yourself, or overzealous members of Houston’s Police Department.”
Uriel did frown at my calling him a proxy. I smiled even wider.
Nothing cut as deeply as the truth, and as far as I was concerned Uriel deserved to bleed a bit. I had certainly bled enough for him already. It might not have been the smart play to antagonize him, but I wasn’t about to just roll over for the guy, either. Given the day I was already having, Uriel was lucky that I was acknowledging him at all. He had a lot to answer for concerning recent history. Officer Brighton was the reason I had to leave Austin, but Uriel was the reason I had crossed paths with her in the first place.
He quickly recovered. “Be that as it may, it certainly won’t help your situation to have them calling upon you so often,” he said. “It only corroborates the growing rumors.”
I blinked at that. “Rumors? What are you on about? What rumors?”
“You really should keep apprised of current events, ‘Mal’. Perhaps read a newspaper once in a while.”
“Print is dead. Long live the Technocracy.” I solemnly recited.
Uriel chuckled, and pulled out the newspaper that had been rolled up under his arm. He placed it on the counter, and regarded me with a knowing smile.
“Take a look at this morning’s corpse,” he intoned without a trace of irony.
Sighing at his choice of words—c’mon, he was Death after all—I glanced down at the front page of the daily rag. There in huge bold letters above the editor’s choice photo of a burning pile of debris read the headline announcing the latest church arson. I moved quickly past the byline, and dipped into the first few paragraphs.
“Old news,” I said. “I already knew this. Just up the way a few blocks from here. Hell, I knew of it even before the wondercops came in to grill me about it. I’m well aware of their scrutiny, Uriel.”
Uriel motioned a pale hand at me. “Read further.”
“Whatever,” I shot back. I kept on down the article, reading aloud. “Blah blah blah, Houston Fire Department responded to the call at four, blah blah blah evidence of accelerants, yadda yadda yadda Houston police Chief refusing to comment on an open case … wait.”
I read, then re-read, and even gave the paragraph a third look just to make sure I was reading it right.
“What the fuck?” I snarled.
I threw the paper down, and stabbed an accusatory finger at the offending bit of copy as I recited. “Local shop owner Malcom Coddaire was cited as a key witness aiding the department with the investigation. Mr. Coddaire has been seen numerous times conferring with law enforcement in the past few weeks. We’ve reached out to both the Houston Police and Fire Departments for clarification of Mr. Coddaire’s role in this matter, but have not as of yet received a response.”
The paper crumpled in my fist, and I hurled the whole affair against the wall. “Son of a bitch! Like I don’t have enough problems? Seriously? Someone’s got to go and paint a big damn target on my back?”
Uriel seemed unconcerned with my outburst, and his shoulders gave only a whisper of a shrug.
“As I said,” he smoothly replied, “this morning’s visit from the constabulary will hardly dissuade others from believing that you are in an active partnership with mortal law enforcement.”
When it rains, it pours. If folks on the shadier side of things have no love for those that work with law enforcement, just imagine how it is with the creatures on the spooky side of the street. The beings of the strange had zero tolerance for involving the mortal authorities on nearly every matter, and given the past history of purges, hunts, crusades and garden variety harassment, being seen as buddy-buddy with the cops was as good as a declaration of being a big fan of treason.
Some asshole had just effectively declared open season on yours truly. I needed to get ahead of this with a swiftness. But I couldn’t do that by plodding around still in a murderous rage. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath timed to a count of ten. Urge to smash falling. Good.
Once calmed, I turned my attention back to Uriel. “Any idea who passed this fairy tale up the chain to the newspaper?” I asked.
“None. However, it stands to reason that this new found celebrity status isn’t coincidence.”
“Enough of the mysterious douchebag act, Uriel. You didn’t come around just to give me a friendly heads up. Tell me what you want, or get out. Or do both. Or just get out. My tolerance for bullshit is now fully in the negative percentile.”
“Muriel is alive.”
For about a full minute, the only sounds to be heard in the shop were the hum of the air conditioner and the pounding of my own heart as it tried to climb up in between in my ears. I could only stare in mute disbelief at Uriel, who seemed perfectly content to wait until my shock had worn off.
“Th-that’s not possible,” I tried. My tongue wasn’t keeping up with my brain. I swallowed to get it back under control, and gave it another go. “Not possible. That bastard’s gone for good.”
Uriel shook his head. “I assure you. Not only is it possible, it is reality. Moreover, the Hashmallim is here in Houston.”
The Hashmallim, singular and plural. They constituted one of the nine “choirs” in heaven. They were the angels of the Dominions and arbiters of Angelic Law; just a step below the Archangels themselves when it came to meting out a justice smack-down for any being, mortal or otherwise, that stepped out of line.
I had gone toe to toe with one, once. It had been a brutal fight. Vicious. I barely came out of it with my skin still in the proper configuration on my body.
And Uriel had just told me that this bad-news bastard was still alive and in proximity. That’s the kind of news that motivates the creation of newer, more venomous swear words.
“No way,” I answered. “No way is that legit. I took care of him already. There have been zero signs, no upticks in activity in the area, and no new Revelations. If he was alive and kicking around my city, there would be collateral damage by dint of him just being here.”
“Though powerful, he is not stupid, Mal. He would not be so quick to act boldly, given how his previous methods attracted a … certain amount of attention.” Uriel stated.
Though they were hidden behind the inky lenses, I could tell Uriel’s eyes were fixing me with a meaningful look. “As such,” he continued, “I would say that there have been plenty of signs, just not the overt ones that you would be alerted to. He was gravely wounded, after all. More’s the pity that you did not finish him off.”
“Hey, I know what I saw, all right?” I retorted. “He was done. And you know what? Let’s say he somehow managed a miracle. It’s not my problem, Uriel. I held up my end.”
Uriel’s head titled to the side, as if I was some kind of interesting specimen. “Do you think so? I disagree. I’m afraid the tenets of our agreement still hold. You do remember our agreement, don’t you?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, and glared right into those stupid sunglasses. “Yes, asshole, I remember it. I can recite it verbatim, if you like. Whether or not old Murray managed to weasel out of his own death is neither here nor there. I stopped him. I brought his plans in Austin to an absolute halt. I kept him from completely destroying The Covenant. Requirements fulfilled, job complete, contract done, end of story.”
“Are you willing to bet your final trip on that supposition, Demon?”
I bit down on the snark-laced retort that immediately sprang to mind. Of course he’d go right to the ultimatum ploy. Ultimatums were kind of a prerequisite for the entire Angel of Death gig. I bet he got endorsed for that more than anything else on his resume website, right above “people skills” and “accounts management”.
Here’s the short version for those of you playing along at home. We Demons get exactly ten tickets to the amusement park called “mortal life.” No more, no less. We’re born, we age, and—excluding any fatal whimsy along the way—we die of natural causes in the twilight of our elder years. It’s part of the stipulations laid on us when we lost that grand war your kind likes to fantasize about. Given that Angels don’t labor under such restrictions, one might imagine that only getting ten turns is a bum deal.
It can be, but it’s all about perspective.
For my part, I’ve lived a tumultuous string of lives. I couldn’t tell you why, but I always managed to pick periods of human history where you drabs were hellbent on killing each other en masse with the newest, shiniest examples of death-dealing available on the market. You want to talk wars of religion, wars of retribution, wars of conquest, and even a war or two based purely on ego? Been there. Done that. Preferred the movies. Hell, my second trip was spent as a Roman Centurion. It’s not a chapter I like to talk about, much, other than to say it was the biggest rookie mistake in the history of rookie mistakes.
I figured that my last go around should be a bit more placid, you know? I’d check out the gift shop and all that rather than bother with the roller-coaster again. I figured at this point that I had earned at least one trip where the only battlefields I would choose to grace would be digital.
What? I really like first-person shooters and fighting games. I also like sim-games, but that’s a whole other story with a whole other psychoanalysis.
I know what you might be thinking, but my hunts against the beasts in the area didn’t count. I considered that pest control, not mortal combat, and certainly not open warfare. Although, a few more heavy hitters like that Chinese thug would necessitate a change in tactics on my part, if not a change of address. Maybe. I was really attached to this little slice of the American Dream I had grabbed.
And, I really hated packing.
But Uriel’s simple question had just changed the lay of the land from something contentious to something approaching dangerous, and he had done it with a flippant air. I was done being bullied. I flared a trickle of power, grit my teeth over the spike of pain, and my eyes gave off a soft burst of fire-glow. He would know I had just tapped in, glow or not, but I prefer the showmanship. I didn’t stand a chance against him, but I wasn’t about to let him punch my ticket without getting really noisy over it.
“That a threat, Angel?” I said pointedly.
Uriel raised a hand. “Peace, Malebranche. I do not threaten. I merely point out that you are missing the obvious in assuming your part in all of this is done, whether we agree upon our arrangement or not. Simply put, I’m not the enemy here.”
The energy seeped out of me, and I relaxed a bit. “Okay, fine. Enlighten me, oh wise guru. Exactly what have I been missing?”
He slid the stool I had set up for the customer’s side of the counter closer, and took a seat.
“Consider for a moment,” Uriel began. “Isn’t it curious? The strange weather patterns in Houston and surrounding towns; the slow but steady increase of strength in the creatures coming into your neighborhood, and the upswing of visits and scrutiny from the police. Your current physical state certainly speaks to the fact that there is an effort to test your limits.
“If that weren’t enough, what about your immediate affairs? How do you explain the decrease in customers that has you in financial straits? How about the dwindling social circle, or the fact that it’s become harder with each passing month for your fledgling band to find paying work? Did you not think it decidedly odd that all of this misfortune seemed to be accruing at a faster rate lately, culminating in this recent attack on your character in the newspaper that is sure to inspire action against you?”
Laid out like that, it forced me to think about it for a moment.
Honestly, I had never really tallied it all up. I had chalked the circumstances and all the stress attached to my life up to just a normal string of bad luck that every other schmuck out there has to deal with now and again. Ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Sometimes the trip through those lows involves a long slog across the morass, and I had pegged the past year as just that. No curses, no preternatural catalyst, nothing more than doldrums to get through, and come out tougher on the other side.
You know? Life, pure and simple, as experienced by the drab and strange alike.
But it started to make a twisted kind of sense, the more I looked at it. Uriel was right. I was blinded by what was right in front of my eyes rather than taking notice of what was going on around me. I had glossed over the overt signs like the weather, because weather in Houston is a fickle mistress at the best of times. As for the stronger monsters slithering into my midst, I just figured that eventually the rest would give up once I had thoroughly knocked their champions down a few pegs. The cop situation was growing increasingly annoying, but I considered it the byproduct of over-zealousness brought on by past events and a desperate need for them to close a case. The lack of customers could have been the time of year, current trends in gardening, or just the usual business competition that I would have to adapt to.
As for friends, well they come and go. Okay, some of them had seemed to cut ties rather abruptly, but such is the age of Facebook, right? And sure, the band had been struggling more and more over the past year, but doesn’t every creative enterprise slam into the wall before they find the break that allows them to climb over it?
That’s what I had told myself.
But the paper Uriel had brought in was the lens that put things into focus, and even then I had fixated on the how rather than the why. Normally I was way more on the ball than this. A few months of relative serenity had turned me into a proper idiot. That’s right, kids: the word “gullible” is nowhere to be found in the dictionary. I may as well have been parading around town holding a sign that read “sucker” like in those old cartoons.
It was more than just someone trying to make me look bad. Someone with a grudge was conducting a slow-burn campaign against me, and they didn’t have the decency to send me a declaration of war first. I had certainly made a lot of enemies over the years, but the list of folks who were organized and patient enough to orchestrate something like this was pretty small.
I had to be sure, though. Just because he was an Angel didn’t mean he was bound to tell the absolute truth. Yet another thing you drabs have gotten wrong.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s Murray back with an ax to grind. Why not just walk into the shop and waste me? What’s the angle, here?”
“In the end, our scruples are not so different from humans. If there is anything that Angels do particularly well, it’s holding a grudge and applying justice as they see fit. Or, did the eons not teach you that invaluable lesson, Mal?”
I felt my eye twitch. “You’re a funny guy!” I said, slathering it in ridicule. “Speaking of lessons not learned, how’s Azrael these days? Hear from Raphael much, lately? Man, whatever happened to those guys?”
Uriel’s hands curled into fists so hard that I heard the knuckles pop. He seemed to struggle to control himself, but finally I saw his shoulders relax and begin to bob as he chuckled ruefully.
“Touché, Mal. I was out of line. Apologies.”
I gave it another count of three before I nodded, just in case Uriel didn’t have a good lid on his anger.
“Water. Bridge,” I said.
Uriel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Jabs aside, the situation is clear, as is your predicament. I know it to be fact that Muriel is here in Houston, and it does not take a great leap of the imagination to connect these events to him. You are, in essence, being bled dry on multiple levels in what I can safely define as an act of vengeance upon you for your failed attempt to kill him previously. Given the pattern, how long do you think you have until he finally decides to ‘waste you’, as you so eloquently put it?”
My mouth opened, but I didn’t have an answer.
“Let me supply one for you,” Uriel offered. “In one week, the month turns to June. It is a month that has long been linked to Angels such as Muriel, and I do not think it’s coincidence that your instances of misfortune have accelerated. Muriel will not have abandoned his plans to shatter The Covenant, and though I do not know this time what his precise methods are, it is safe to assume they will coincide with the upcoming change of season.
“It follows that he would seek to eliminate the only threat that has ever presented itself to his scheme, and he would neutralize this threat soon for the sake of security. Namely, you.”
“Which leaves you with but one course,” Uriel continued. “Though you feel that you’ve satisfied the terms of our agreement, it is now a moot point. Be it by those terms, or by Muriel’s actions, you have one week to find and kill the renegade Hashmallim, or you will find your last trip to Earth cut violently short. Who then would care for these marvelous flowers?”
“Your ability to bring bad news borders on a fucking mutant power, you know that?” I sighed.
The corners of Uriel’s lips crooked up.
Son of a bitch. Here I was unwilling to let him bully me again, and I ended up standing there like a simpleton while he had me by the short hairs. Man, I was tired, and sore in ways I had forgotten existed. I don’t know when it had happened, but apparently I had slumped over the counter. I found myself staring dumbly at the laminated page that listed prices for various types of plant food.
“Why the hell is this on me?” I complained. “Why not someone else, huh? More importantly, why can’t someone on the other team go to bat on this one? Don’t they stand to lose just as much if Muriel and his ilk have their way with the world?”
I looked up at Uriel. He had the decency to look truly apologetic, at least.
“There is no one else, Mal. Even if there were, none are as close to this as you. As you are bound to the rules, so are the Angels bound to their place.”
“That didn’t stop Muriel,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Muriel has yet to break The Covenant. The Angelic Chorus doesn’t punish the criminal before the crime is committed.”
I scoffed. “Uh huh. Lawyers in Heaven and Hell alike adore legal semantics. Do you honestly think they’d even do anything after the fact?”
Uriel fell silent, and his features grew lined with concern. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We can speculate all we like, but by that point it will be too late for all sides, and certainly too late for you.”
Pushing up from the counter, I rubbed at my temples to try to ease the stress headache back down to a dull roar.
“One week? That’s a peach of a deadline, asshole,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”
Uriel sighed. “Though it was not my charge at the Dawning, I am Death. To borrow the mortal phrase, ‘I’ve been swamped’. And yes, there are still rules that I must abide by. The timing of this visit coincides with a loophole, as it were, that allows me to speak to one that might yet avoid their own end.”
“I swear, the first language ever devised was ‘legalese’. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“Fight,” Uriel said. “Do the same thing you’ve always done since establishing yourself here. A paranormal threat has come into your neighborhood. It is not only openly defying you, it means to undo you. Fight, and win.”
I shook my head. “Easy for you to say, but if I couldn’t get the job done before, how do you expect me to be able to pull it off when he knows I’m coming?”
Uriel stood up from the stool, and adjusted his cassock. “I can not tell you, Mal. You know this. My role remains unchanged. I am Death, and as such I can only tell you what is. Even then, I can not expressly give you that which may tip the scales for or against; only that which gives you a choice.”
My face must have crumpled, because Uriel seemed to think about it for a moment before he continued with a sympathetic tone.
“Hope isn’t lost, Mal. You have what you need, now more than ever. The curious instrument you acquired upon departing Austin is a good place to start.”
The curious instrument? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was Uriel being literal here, or wrapping things up again in layers of cryptic bullshit? Yeah I had that old guitar I had picked up outside of Austin, but what the fuck did that have to do with anything?
Couldn’t he just be clear for once? I really, really hated the rules we operated under at times like this. Particularly when I had just been served with such a friggin’ gargantuan problem. Before I could press Uriel on the matter for any other scrap of information, the lights in the store winked out, followed by the unmistakable sound of the air conditioning unit dying.
Oh. Good. Yes. Pile it on, Universe.
“I didn’t do that,” Uriel remarked.
I looked up helplessly at the darkened fixtures. “Overdue bills work faster than terminal illness,” I sighed. When I cast my gaze back down, Uriel was nowhere to be seen.
So much for getting a few more answers. So that left me with a week to figure out what Uriel meant, keep the angry parties that thought I was a rat thanks to that newspaper article off of my trail, avoid more entanglements with the police, keep the sorely needed gig with my band so I could get the lights turned back on and keep my shop open, and oh yes, somehow find and kill a vendetta-seeking member of the Hashmallim, even though I had apparently failed to do so the first time around.
Otherwise, I was a dead man, and the world would be screwed.
Goddamn. I hadn’t even had a coffee yet.