When your guardian angel and her friend, the archangel Gabriel, tell you to stay put, it’s probably a good idea to listen.
I should have, but I have inexplicable difficulty with authority figures. It gets me in trouble. A lot.
An old Buick sat to the right of my motel room door looking like it hadn’t moved in a decade or so, and it certainly hadn’t budged since I checked in; a few other cars were parked in the motel’s lot but there were no people. I stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind me, the click of the lock firecracker-loud in the winter night.
I paused. Still no one around. I breathed deep and stepped away from the door, the first time I’d been outside the dingy, musty-smelling room in weeks.
A month ago, the police found a tranny prostitute named Dante Frank dead on a bed in a five-star hotel, hairy chest and hairless vagina exposed for the world to see along with the biblical references his killer carved in his flesh. Dante, whom I’d known as Danielle Francis, was the last victim of the serial killer dubbed the Revelations Reaper by the media. The police had a suspect in the string of killings: me.
I didn’t kill any of them but, if the truth be told, their deaths were on me.
Forget the angels telling me to stay indoors, the fact the local news had been flashing an unflattering picture of my face on the screen every night until a week ago should have kept me inside my seedy room. But you know what they say about common sense…it ain’t so common.
Icarus Fell: living proof.
I didn’t think that because they finally stopped plastering my face all over the six o’clock news they’d stopped looking for me. Every cop in the city likely still carried my picture like they were at war and I was their girl waiting for them back home, but after four weeks in my motel-room-prison, the prospect of remaining inside held as little appeal as being girlfriend to a bunch of cops. I’d spent every moment of the last month thinking about my role in the deaths, wishing things were different. Another minute trapped alone with my guilt might prove one too many.
I slipped away from the motel and down a side street, disappearing in shadows and down alleys wherever I could. The taste of impending snow in the early December air fortified my lungs.
As I ranged farther from the motel, the garbage strewn on the streets and graffiti tags spray-painted on walls — ‘Big Turk Wuz Hear’ and other poetic gems — became less frequent until they disappeared completely. I’d made my way to a neighborhood where people cared, a fact which should have rang alarm bells in my head and made me more careful, but the lack of hookers and drug dealers lifted my spirits and my worry ebbed taking caution along with it.
I paused at the intersection, the lights of an approaching car reflecting on the frost-rimed pavement as I waited to be sure it would obey the stop sign. Without the fresh air loosening my wits, I’d have waved him through, but freedom made my head light in the way of a non-smoker after a few drags on a cigarette. The car’s brakes squeaked as it rolled to a halt. I stepped off the curb and raised a hand in thanks, squinting against the lights, but couldn’t see the driver. Hand replaced in pocket, I continued on my way, thinking nothing of it until I heard the hum and chatter of a power window in need of repair.
The words weren’t spoken with the timbre of someone in need of directions. The caution and worry the beautiful night had leeched from me flooded back; I quickened my pace.
I broke into a run before his engine roared and tires chirped. Cutting across a well-manicured lawn, I hopped a fence, ran through a back yard dominated by an inter-locking brick patio and an in-ground pool emptied for the winter, then vaulted another fence into a rear lane, cursing my stupidity with every step.
Despite a house between us, I heard the car’s engine rev and labor as the driver gave chase. I dove through a line of tall shrubs, their branches scratching my face, and into another yard, keeping my flight to places the car couldn’t go. Ten minutes of fence-jumping and shrub-diving later, I emerged on a sporadically lit street. Familiar graffiti scrolled across the side of a building; Big Turk and his poor spelling were back. Close to my motel. My lungs labored, the cold air hurting my chest instead of refreshing it as a stitch in my side dug in and grabbed hold. I stopped to catch my breath, bent at the waist, hands grasping knees like the world’s worst marathoner run out of steam, but rest didn’t last long. A siren wailed behind me and I forced my legs back into action.
I darted into an alley and the all-too-familiar stink of garbage and piss, depression and decay hit me immediately. I’d lost so many days and nights of my youth in alleys like this, sleeping off a bottle of vodka or poking a needle in my arm. I forced the thought from my mind. This was no time to self-analyze by way of shitty memories.
Tires screeched at the mouth of the alley. I didn’t look back, my attention taken by a figure stepping out of the shadows into my path. A Carrion, I assumed–a human-shaped demon sent to collect souls and make my life difficult–but I quickly realized the silhouette was smaller and more feminine, leaving two possible people. Angels, really. I halted a few paces beyond arm’s-reach in case I was wrong.
“Hey, mister. Long time, no see.”
I recognized the voice immediately. The angel stepped into the light and I saw her gingerbread hair, glimpsed the freckled skin of her cheek.
The Archangel Gabriel is the messenger. She brings scrolls with my assignments inscribed on them: who’s scheduled to pass, where, when, and where to take them when it’s done.
I couldn’t think of a worse time for her to show up.
“Did you miss me?”
Her pure voice echoed off the alley walls and a chorus of swallows which always accompanied her, but that I couldn’t see in the dark, chirped and chittered on a fire escape overhead.
“Don’t have time right now, Gabe,” I said breathlessly and glanced over my shoulder. The alley remained empty, but it wouldn’t for much longer.
She offered a scroll which hadn’t been in her hand a second before.
“Really, Gabe? I don’t–” I gestured toward the alley at my back, offered a pleading look. She shook the scroll at me and raised an eyebrow.
I’d learned the hard way that harvesting wasn’t the kind of job you could slack off at; the hard way seems to be how I learn pretty much everything. I gave in without any real fight.
My finger brushed hers as I grasped the rolled parchment and an electric charge prickled the hairs on my arm, bringing with it a longing to spend time with her, to be in her presence as long as possible. I nearly forgot the man chasing me.
She smiled and shrugged. “You don’t have time, remember?”
Swallow wings beat the air above my head as she walked away. I stared after her for a second before pulling myself from the angel-induced stupor to look at the scroll in my hand. This was my second assignment since everything went down: the deaths, the media frenzy, the explosion at the church. What happened to souls during my seclusion? Did they make other arrangements or were they okay with everyone going to Hell for a few weeks while I got my wits about me? Great vacation for me, but kind of sucked for everyone else.
Unrolling the scroll unnerved me. After being given one inscribed with my son’s name, I couldn’t help but hold my breath. Probably would every time I did it.
I set my captive breath free. Didn’t know him. The address scrawled on the yellowed parchment wasn’t familiar either, but I knew the city well enough to recognize it was close. I read the time of death, then checked my watch.
Two minutes from now.
The sound of shoes hammering pavement reverberated off the alley’s brick walls. I got my legs moving again and took a corner, feet tangling in a pile of garbage bags and spilling me to the pavement. My shoulder hit hard and I skidded a couple of feet along the damp ground, filth snow-plowing onto my jacket. I scrambled to my feet, glanced ahead and behind as the footsteps grew louder, and realized the futility of my flight. Facing my pursuer seemed the only option. Maybe I could talk my way out of it before my appointment came and went.
Bad things happen to good people when I miss appointments. And to bad people; also, the Swiss.
I backed down the alley and didn’t have to wait long for the man chasing me. He rounded the corner, avoided the garbage bags which had tripped me, and skidded to a halt in a pool of light cast by a security light mounted high overhead. The dress pants he wore looked a year or so beyond their best-before date; a long wool coat covered a rumpled dress shirt which may never have made a dry cleaner’s acquaintance. I might have noticed more but the gun in his hand distracted me.
“Mr. Fell,” he said between panted breaths. “If that’s really your name.”
“It’s the name the bastard gave me,” I muttered glancing from gun to a face I’d met a few times and seen many more on the news. The muscles in my jaw clenched and released as I silently counted the passing seconds in my head. “We seem to meet under awkward circumstances, don’t we, Detective?”
“Sometimes happens between serial killers and cops.”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Right.” He leveled the gun, his eternally tired eyes unwavering. “And I’m Serena Williams. Put your hands behind your head.”
A little firework went off in my brain, interrupting my mental countdown. He obviously wasn’t Serena Williams — wrong sex, wrong skin color, and he didn’t look like much of a tennis player — so why pick her out of a thousand possible celebrities to use sarcastically? I chanced pissing him off and stole a peek at my watch: t-minus one minute. My gut wrenched one twist to the right.
If I don’t get out of here quick–
The thought cut off half-formed, bullied aside by another. The detective was the lead investigator in the Revelations Reaper case, the guy the newscasts interviewed no matter how uncomfortable he looked on camera, so I’d seen his face a hundred times on TV. And every time they showed him offering his oft-quoted ‘no comment’, they emblazoned his name on the screen in white letters.
How did I miss it?
Detective Shaun Williams.
I raised an eyebrow. “Detective Williams?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Now that we’ve been properly introduced, put your fucking hands behind your head before I shoot you.”
I peered past him, then to both sides. With his name on the scroll in my back pocket, there had to be someone waiting to ambush this man scheduled to die in about forty-five seconds.
“You need to get out of here,” I said, eyes still searching the shadows. “You’re in danger.”
“Me?” He stretched his arm toward me, pushing the barrel closer. “If you don’t get your hands up right now, you’ll never walk again.”
The seconds ticked off in my head, echoing down the hallways of my mind. I gritted my teeth, fought the compulsion to try and save him.
Not my job.
They sent me to retrieve his soul after his death, not prevent it. But so many already died because of me and my poor choices. Maybe this was an opportunity to make amends–with myself, if no one else. My eyes found his and held his gaze for a second; I didn’t have much more than that.
“You’ll thank me for this later,” I murmured and darted toward him, moving faster than he expected an out-of-shape-almost-forty guy like me could.
He squeezed the trigger but I was on him before he got the shot off. The gunshot nearly deafened me, the explosion echoing through my head, ringing in my ears. My arms encircled him, pinning his at his sides, and inertia carried me forward, driving him to the ground. Breath whooshed out of his lungs when we hit, but I didn’t let go.
“This is for your own good,” I said into his ear. His body jerked but my grip held. The last few seconds counted down in my head.
When I reached zero, I held on a few seconds longer in case my timing was off or my watch was slow. Nothing happened. No gunshot, no one jumping from the shadows; a grand piano didn’t drop from a balcony. Nothing.
I leaned back, a hand on his gun arm to prevent him from shooting me. Some thanks that would be for saving his life. I gripped his wrist expecting him to squirm away, but he didn’t. His lack of movement should have tipped me something was wrong, but I was too concerned with making sure we weren’t about to be attacked to notice. Nothing moved in the shadows, no one approached down the alley.
Could the scroll have been wrong?
Unlikely, but it happened before, when other forces manipulated events. How did I know the same wasn’t the case this time?
A small movement caught my eye and I looked left to see a figure standing five yards away. Fear forced bitter, electric saliva into my mouth like I’d bitten down on a piece of aluminum foil, and I snatched the gun from Detective Williams’ hand, jerked it toward the silhouette. The man didn’t react, but simply stood watching. His presence made a knot form in my stomach which worked its way quickly into the back of my throat. The figure stepped forward into the light and the muscles in my forearm tensed, my finger brushed the trigger. It only took a second to realize he wasn’t as opaque as he should be.
This wasn’t a man, but a dislodged soul.
“What–?” I began but the lump in my throat got the better of my voice.
My brain finally registered the detective’s lack of movement and I looked from the soul to the detective’s face. His tired eyes stared up at me blankly; a dark circle of fluid spread across the grungy pavement beneath his head.
The sight of his glazed eyes hit me like a spinning kick to the gut, stealing my breath and energy. My gun arm sagged, the police-issue .38 resting against my thigh, forgotten. I resisted the urge to shake him by the lapel of his wool coat or slap him awake, call out his name. I already knew what the result would be. The overhead light reflected in the pool of liquid around his head making a grisly halo.
I was responsible for another death.
I shook my head in disbelief and looked back at the spirit. There were no black bags under its eyes or worry lines at the corners of its mouth, but there was no mistaking to whom the soul belonged: except for the felt fedora tilted over the soul’s left eye like he’d stepped out of a Mickey Spillane novel, the spirit wore the same clothes.
My words stuck again. Or maybe I didn’t want to complete the sentence because it would make what happened real. No need to worry, the ghost took care of that piece of business for me.
“You killed me.”