Morning, October 30, 2021
The tick-tocking of ridiculously high heels clacked on the patio toward me.
Great, here she comes again. I playfully bemoaned.
“I heard that.” The Angel of Death—of this region anyway—stopped beside me and bumped me with her hip. “Look at you all dressed up in a fancy scarf! Where did you get it? And fashion tip? It clashes with your toga. But I do like the black and white, minus the purple. It’d look better with red accents.”
I stifled my internal laugh. Talking with an Angel of Death was different than with humans. She could not only speak directly to my soul—if I had a soul—but could also hear my responses. “Angel! How’s the reaping business going? And no offense, but you look tired.” I gave her a once-over glance. “I take that back; you look like hell.”
Her chignon of silver, which probably used to be curls, was now nothing more than a pile of frizz, and her painted-red nails were chipped, uneven, and jagged. “Tired?” she scoffed. “I’m exhausted! I haven’t had a day off in a hundred years!”
“So, take a day off.” I shrugged in spirit, but my stone form didn’t show it.
“Therein lies the problem, my friend.” She surveyed the groggy city below. “The human population keeps growing, but nobody upstairs in this world’s original bureaucracy is willing to admit it’s time to make more reapers. And the past two years have been hideously busy.”
“I guess with a different concept of time, decisions from on high are slower coming, huh?” Downtown Chicago was waking up to a sliver of sunlight drawn across it and peeking through the taller buildings. I eagerly awaited the sun hitting me directly. The lit, fake candy corn decorations on the street poles would soon turn off and their frilly garlands in white, yellow, and orange would sparkle in the sun instead. The day-timers were dragging to work, and the night-timers were stumbling home: shift-change for the living.
“I wish it were that easy to take a day off. But somebody definitely needs to make more of us, because I need a weekend off—preferably with a strong masseuse who bears a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem. That man had better hope he never kicks the bucket in my region. I’ll reap his soul and keep him all to myself. Maybe I’ll set him in stone. Like you, gargoyle.” She wrinkled her tiny nose at me in her oddly affectionate way.
As the sun rose slightly higher, I could see how disheveled her black ensemble truly was. The monochromatic black blouse, knee-length pencil skirt, and ankle-length trench coat all looked dusty and faded, not to mention rumpled. She looked like a candidate for political office after a particularly long and gruesome campaign.
I winced on her behalf. “Are there not substitute reapers? I mean, how hard can it be to make another reaper? Aren’t you all made of the same stuff? And what would be the worst that could happen if you took one day off? Wait a minute. Did you set me in this stone?”
The angel barked out a bitter laugh. “The last time I took a day off, I lost eleven souls in the Lake Michigan Triangle.”
“When was that?”
“One hundred years ago tomorrow. Basically, I’m about to hit the centennial of my biggest screw up. Ever.” She stretched her head to one side. “But my eleven lost souls are still nothing compared to the Bermuda Triangle. Hell, even the reaper of the Alaska Triangle? That poor bastard has lost sixteen thousand souls! He’ll never get a day off.”
“What does that have to do with a day off?” I asked.
She picked up my scarf and inspected its handiwork. “When souls are lost in a triangle, they don’t count toward a reaper’s quota if the bodies are never recovered.” Looking at the end of the scarf, she asked “And who is Zosia?”
I mentally furrowed my brow, trying to remember if my beautiful friend had ever told me her name. Was she named Zosia? It was as unique as she was. I turned my attention back to the angel. “How do souls get lost? Don’t you simply take them when they leave their bodies?”
She dropped my scarf and grabbed the back of her neck and squeezed it in increments up and down. “Sometimes, when unexpected calamities happen, we’re not on site. Most deaths are scheduled, but we can get taken by surprise, too. Especially if someone has pissed off Mother Nature. She’s a goddess with little mercy—and rightfully so; these stupid humans have abused her terribly. And, if the bodies are lost and no one is there to collect them, the souls can cling to them. Or attach themselves to something else familiar. The bodies of my eleven souls were never found, not even a trace of them. Stupid triangle gives me nothing but hemorrhoids.”
I pushed for more personal information. “Is that what happened to me? An unexpected calamity?”
She rolled her shoulders. “No, I reaped your soul, but I felt sorry for you. Instead of turning you in, I made you a citizen of the great city of Chicago. You’re welcome.” She gave me a slow, exaggerated curtsey.
“So, what makes you, well, you? I mean, I can watch over the city for a day. Like I do every day.” I smiled as wide as I could, hoping the Angel of Death would be able to see it through my stone face.
“Look, gargoyle, it was made very clear to me I’d never get another day off until I found those eleven souls, and as much as I appreciate our little chats from time to time—”
“Gargoyles have to be waterspouts. I’m not a gargoyle; I’m a grotesque.”
“Oh well, that sounds so much better!” She tried to stifle a snort but failed.
“All I’m saying is I already have wings—”
Her jaw dropped. “You’re a concrete statue of an I-don’t-know-what on the edge of a patio who happens to have a pair of wings.”
“I don’t know how many years I’ve known you, but look, I could be an angel because I have a big nose. You know what they say about big noses…” I wiggled my eyebrows for maximum effect. I had no idea what anyone said about big noses, but I was hoping she would fill me in. And I was running out of reasons I’d make a good substitute.
“You have a jacked-up nose! A snout even!” She yelled and then took a slow, calming breath. “And don’t be a pervert. Do you even remember your name?”
A pervert? I’d have to research that more. “My oldest memories are of the artist who was my creator calling me ‘Errat’ over and over again.”
She barked out a sharp laugh. “Classic! Your own creator called you a mistake?”
Ouch. Being called a mistake hurt, but the pain somehow went deeper than my sculptor. It originated in a place of long-forgotten memories. I shot back out of hurt. “Yeah, like your creator never called any of you angels a mistake! Especially the first rebellious one? Isn’t he the only reason you were even made and have a job? And what about that rogue group of Watcher Angels?”
“Which is not exactly how either of those stories go. Besides, you don’t have any angel ichor in you.”
I waited for a couple of sirens to pass before I continued. “What is ichor?”
“It’s what flows through me and makes me an angel. It’s my heavenly energy, like a blood, and it gives me my life and power.”
“So, what you’re telling me is you’re not powerful enough to animate me and give me any of your fancy life force?”
She eyed me sideways; she knew I was egging her on. “Why do you want to be a reaper so badly, punk?”
“Not necessarily a reaper; but I want to be free to fly around the city skies, to live a little bit. And I can do both at the same time if you want me to. Please let me stretch my wings and soar. I want to move. I promise to do a good job for you. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it exactly.” The sensation I should be living vibrated through me.
“It’s not about what to do as much as it is about what not to do.” She looked up to the brightening sky. “If I gave you enough ichor and energy to animate you for forty-eight hours, to make you a blip on the heavenly radar and fool everyone into thinking I was still here, I might be able to take a weekend off.” She inspected her bare wrist as if some sort of timekeeper were there, but I couldn’t see anything. “A few souls might be late pick-ups, but I can still get them all.”
I could have jumped out of my concrete prison. “I’m in!”
She turned to glare at me, and her eyes held a slight red glow of warning to them. “But you can’t reap anyone. No one. Nothing. Not even a pigeon, do you hear me?”
“You reap pigeons?”
“No. But my point is there are some souls who want to be reaped, and they can be really hard to avoid—like they have a sixth sense when we’re near. Those souls can be very persuasive, too. Don’t listen to them.”
I mimicked holding up my taloned hands in a makeshift spiritual salute of honor. “I wouldn’t dream of reaping any souls. Or pigeons. I’ll only fly about the city and pretend to be you on the radar thing. I need to soar close to the heavens. I need to live.” Truth be told, I might have needed my sweet friend even more.
The Angel sighed heavily but grinned at me, nonetheless. “It took you long enough.”
I sat in the backseat of the bulletproof SUV on the tarmac and stared at the name on the dissolvable strip one more time: JORDAN BLACK. The word GO was written under his name. Hell’s bells, this mission is a go. I watched the driver of the vehicle through the rearview mirror and waited until he looked away before I placed the minty message on my tongue and let it melt.
The details for this assignment came to me the old-fashioned way, on paper and other trinkets, not digitally, which told me that Mr. Black’s problem was a digital one. Small packets of information arrived over the last week via a different messenger every time—tucked in a napkin at a restaurant, slipped into a coat pocket from the dry cleaners’, and wrapped in an old newspaper with my fresh veggies at the market. I worked alone; the rest of my team was remote—which only made their work more impressive.
The specifics came first, but his name only arrived twenty-four hours ago. Sometimes missions are called off, and if that happens, no one else’s cover has to be blown, so names come later. But the strip with the word GO only arrived this afternoon.
The name of my former best friend and one-time lover, who I hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, slid down my throat and churned my guts. My eyes scrunched so tight I might as well have been sucking on a disgusting black licorice. I waited for the familiar feeling of being kicked in the belly by a mule once again. I was terrified. So overwhelmingly terrified to see the man who shattered my heart into a million pieces all those years ago. I was even more afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep the only man I’ve ever loved alive. The Jordan Black I knew wasn’t one for cooperating or taking orders well. I had no idea who was after him yet. I needed him to fill in some blanks.
I lived in Seoul and did my best to blend in by coloring my hair and wearing large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses to hide my light gray, non-Asian eyes. For times when I couldn’t cover my eyes, I had brown contacts and eyelid prosthetics. Lucky for me, Seoul was an international city which hosted many foreign workers and travelers; therefore, I didn’t stand out too much. I didn’t work in South Korea, though. I took assignments only in other countries, and I preferred it that way. It gave me a modicum of peace to not bring my work home.
But once again, Jordan Black was forcing me to break all my rules for myself. And once again, I couldn’t do a damn thing about it, which only pissed me off even more. He was in some sort of trouble, and Seoul was the most logistical place to hide him.
The sound of a small jet landing snapped me back to my mission. Right. I had one last job to do, and then I was free. Free of the government and free of being responsible for anyone else’s missions. I could live for only myself for the rest of my life if I wanted to, or I could make my own missions. Alone.
I surveyed the arena of gold spotlights under the heavy, black sky, looking for anything out of place. The first fog of a clear-day cycle was descending and creating a dome effect only as far as the lights of Gimpo Airport could reach. Summer’s rains had washed away the dusts of spring, and the deepest, brightest blues of October skies would soon be boasting. Autumn in Seoul was perfect in every way; it was festival season and my favorite place to be on the planet.
The sun would be up in about two hours, therefore I needed to get Jordan back to my place ASAP to debrief him. And calm him down. As far as I knew, his hot-headed self was unaware of this mission. He chartered his jet from Hawai’i to Tokyo, but I intercepted his route and brought him to Seoul. My superiors had enough clearance to change his destination without his permission or notifying him. I smiled briefly at the image of him madder than a sack of rattlesnakes when he figured it out. There was going to be hell to pay over this one but knocking him off his high horse would simply tickle me pink. Serves him right.
I told the driver in Korean to stay put, grabbed the bag next to me, and approached the halted plane. I glanced one more time around the tarmac for anything—even the slightest of movements—out of the ordinary. I slowly inhaled a marathon of a breath and waited for the airstairs to unfurl.
Just keep him alive, Stormy. He’s the target in the crosshairs, which means you are too now. So, it’s time to act the part.
Keep Jordan Black alive. That was my one job.
Mariposa del Pilar Fuentes
I smiled at myself and inhaled a deep breath of pride as I ran along with the thinning masses. Being a slow runner had its advantages as the route along Bayshore Boulevard wasn’t nearly as crowded now as in the beginning. And running my first 5K proved doable as long as I focused on something else—like something other than the sweat tickling its way down in between my tetas. I gave my modest bosom a quick, hopefully inconspicuous, shake to dislodge any other would-be travelers, and I said a quick “thank you” to Santa Maria del Pilar for my no more than B cups. My big ass required enough attention—from care to clothes. I didn’t know how the bigger-breasted girls managed boob sweat in the Tampa Bay humidity. I crossed myself on their behalf. Dios las bendiga, señoritas.
I ran to finish this race, but the excitement of finishing grad school also spurred me on. How much dinero did I need, exactly? I mentally ticked off a list in my brain of everything left to schedule for my final documentary project. \ Cinematographer. Sound recordist. Van, plus driver. Luckily, I would be the scriptwriter and the editor, so I still had a choice to pay myself a stipend or not. It wasn’t as if I lacked my own money, but that negated the skills required to successfully budget for a documentary.
The stipend decision could wait until after the fundraiser tonight. I already had the production management software, and I would use the university’s studio to edit. The marketing dollars and cents still required calculations, but that part of my graduate project and thesis challenged me the most. More time, however, couldn’t be bought at any price. Grad school completion hung in the cool morning air in front of my face like a fat, juicy carrot.
My first documentary on the homeless population of Tampa Bay exceeded my benchmark for success last year, and I intended to further my investigations this year with an expanded project.
A refreshingly cool early-spring breeze blew over me from the gulf. The sun barely broke the horizon and was peeking through the ‘land of the flowers.’ Foot races around here had to start super early, else the runners dropped like flies when it got too hot. My reward for all this early-morning training and running: tickets to the Strawberry Festival with unlimited strawberries and whipped cream! Also, the beautiful Spanish-tiled houses, towering waterfront palms, and skyline of downtown Tampa painted a picture-perfect running route.
If I weren’t running, I wouldn’t be breaking a sweat, but the weather would change soon. The homeless who were forced to live in the elements would get uncomfortable before long, and it would be harder for me to find them when the weather increased to sweltering. I needed the money to make the documentary sooner rather than later. I swallowed hard and swallowed my pride even harder at the idea of the ball tonight and what I had signed myself up for to make sure I had the money sooner.
I erased thoughts of my impending humiliation out of my mind and took in my surroundings. With Davis Islands and the water on my right and the convention center’s bright blue columns in sight down the boulevard, I heard the finish line nearing as the music and celebrations pounded their way to me. t was time to get my head out of the clouds and back into this race.
Even at my fastest, I still ran pretty slow compared to everyone else, so I stayed to the far-right side of the lane. I adjusted my sunglasses, glanced down at the track, and jumped as if I had been assaulted in a B-rated horror movie.
“¡Mierda!” I screamed at the sneaker as I jumped over it, and as if the sneaker didn’t scare me bad enough, something hung out of the shoe. A foot? Without a leg attached to it? “¡Dios Mio!”
I changed direction, screamed again, and flailed my hands in front of my face in the most pathetic attempt to rid my eyes of the sight. Oh, God, I think I’m going to be sick.
An evil laugh—no, a hysterical laugh—belted out beside me. found the owner of said laugh, and all I could see was a neon green racing shirt which, not coincidentally, matched the one I wore. The race shirt spread taut over a chest as wide as Cuba with a thick arm on either side, and its owner leaned up against a streetlight pole with one hand and held his gut with the other, as he all but pointed and laughed at me.
Swelling? Oh, I was swelling all right.
In all the wrong places. Or the right places. As soon as this blue-eyed hottie’s large hand skimmed up the back of my bare thigh, my brain dropped straight down to the gutter. I couldn’t remember the last time a touch seared my skin with such electricity—if ever. My mind drew a complete blank, so naturally, my mouth filled the void with words.
I kept my head down, pretending to look at my knee as I gathered my thoughts. The giant pack I had tripped over lay on the ground a few steps away. Camouflage: it matched his uniform. Since when did Portland have soldiers just standing out on the streets? That was the job of the hippies.
Lifting my head, I smiled at the soldier. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Confusion blanketed his face, and he slowly shook his head. “Why would you ask me that?”
“You look a bit like someone just dumped you here. Can I take you somewhere?” His concern for my knee already told me he deserved better than to be abandoned on the sidewalk. Time alone with a hot stranger probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but after eight weeks of boring dates with Jae and a dry spell for over a year before that, my body said it wasn’t the worst idea, either.
His rust-colored eyebrows furrowed as he considered my offer. His very handsome face grew thoughtful, and its intensity ramped up several notches. “How about I drive you home and properly examine your knee? Maybe even ice it for a little while and then check your patella?”
“I think it’s only scraped; I’ll be fine. See?” I placed my foot back on the ground and put my weight on it. A small moan escaped my throat before I could capture it.
“That’s what I thought.” He tossed his giant pack onto his back as if it weighed nothing and secured it on each shoulder. “Where’s your car, ma’am?” Done with my objections, his blue eyes bored into mine.
Did I really want to argue with this man who was concerned over my scraped knee when guys like Jae weren’t even concerned for my future happiness? No, I didn’t. “Only a couple of spaces up, actually.”
“Do you need me to carry you?” He held his arms out.
“Ha!” I blurted. “You have no idea how much I weigh.”
Not one of his muscles budged, but he visually pored over all of my curves thoroughly enough to make my cheeks warm. “Not a lot from the looks of things. Not to mention, you have no idea how much I can carry.”
My cheeks grew even warmer as I stepped out of my comfort zone and boldly returned the investigation of this soldier: his outstretched arms, wide chest, rigid torso, and thighs the size of tree trunks. He was the farthest thing from my parents’ choices, and he looked delicious. “Tempting, but I’m not that hurt.”
He dropped one arm and crooked the other for me to take.
The caring gesture warmed me more than the sun did right then. I couldn’t argue with such a sweet display of gentlemanly affection, either.