Angel Maker – Part One
Father Brian was dead.
Michael sat in the cathedral, still trying to comprehend that fact as people in mourning clothes trickled out, the funeral finally over. To any outsider, Michael would have looked at ease, lounging in the pew as if he held a permanent residence there. Only those that knew him, really knew him, the way Father Brian had, would see that he was coiled tighter than a trampoline spring. Anyone who knew exactly what Michael was would be offended by his presence in a house of God. Michael himself felt a bit offended by the great, gilt monstrosity that was Father Brian’s church. But he stayed in the pew. Father Brian deserved this last farewell.
“’O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Power of God, Cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.’” The raspy voice of one of the Priests wandered around the church, bouncing off the wall behind Michael where the aforementioned angel was depicted in yet another gold frame.
“Evening, Father Malhoney,” Michael muttered. He didn’t bother repeating the ‘amen.’
“You’ve been here for quite some time, my Son.” The Father paused at the large painting, looking over Michael’s head at the dips and swirls of gold and white. The archangel Michael, a scale in one hand and a sword in the other, was facing off against a red dragon. The angel held giant golden wings aloft, shielding the humans behind him as he pointed his sword at the dragon: Satan.
A shimmering, golden halo radiated from Michael’s head, casting a glow over the ones he protected. Golden hair, golden armor, gold sword, even his eyes were gold as they glared at the dragon. In direct contrast, Michael, the not-quite-man, was wearing a dark blue button down with dark jeans and boots. His leather jacket rested on the pew beside him, level with the snarling dragon’s head. Those gold eyes might as well have been glaring at him. If the real Archangel Michael were here, he’d definitely be glaring. The two of them had never gotten along.
The priest creaked and groaned as he settled into the pew beside the Reaper. Even a normal human would be able to see that the man only had a few more years left. His stooped figure and wrinkled hands were enough proof of that. The bulbous knuckles where arthritis had set in and the various cracks and valleys that lined his mouth and eyes seemed as much a part of the church as the pews to Michael. The Reaper looked beneath the shell of skin and watched the cheerful soul crackle brightly, small but undimmed under the weight of the years Father Malhoney had lived.
“I take it our friend is gone now?” Malhoney asked. Michael’s eyes flicked to where the altar was empty, the reaper in charge of collecting the soul, having vanished after its task was done.
Father Malhoney smiled. “It’s strange. Most humans, we go about our lives believing there’s a Heaven or an afterlife. We comfort ourselves with that thought. But, deep inside, there’s still a doubt or two.” Michael raised an eyebrow at the old man, curious about where he was going with this. “I, on the other hand, know Brother Brian is in Heaven, but I still feel sad. . . He was my best friend.”
For the first time, Michael actually turned to look at the priest, pulling away from the soul within and focusing on the physical body. Though the paper-dry voice hadn’t given anything away, there were tear streaks down the Father’s face. His hunched form quivering in the pew from the ache that had taken up residence in his heart. Michael nodded to the old man, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. He let the priest cry, tears soaking through his shirt mixed with snot as sobs wracked the wizened frame. The warm fluids soaked through to his frozen skin, but Michael didn’t feel the warmth.
“I’ll miss him, too.”
He left the church an hour later, having escorted Father Malhoney to the kitchen, where they spoke about the good times they’d each had with Father Brian. It was nice. Michael hadn’t been able to visit the Father as much as he’d have liked, but Father Brian and Father Malhoney had been constant presences in his life over the past half century or so. His mind wouldn’t quiet as he wandered the streets aimlessly, letting his feet take him in any direction they pleased. He’d been quite fond of the two men, and sad to see one of them gone. Even after a thousand years, he hadn’t lost that ability yet. He still felt things like sadness, empathy and joy. It had been a struggle to hang on to that much of his humanity, but he couldn’t bear to lose it. Not like others of his kind. Speaking of.
“I know you’re there, Anuk,” he called. The Reaper appeared from the collected shadows. A trim African-American woman with skin so dark it was almost blue materialized, her dreadlocked hair falling around a pure white, sleeveless pantsuit with touches of gold accents to set off the jewelry at her ears and wrists. The light from nearby establishments curved around lean muscles built up from years of combat. She looked ethereal and dangerous, which, of course she was. A gold chain followed the plunging neckline of the top, the scythe symbol at the bottom labelling her as one of the higher ranked Reapers, and his superior.
“I know,” she said softly, a lilting drawl accompanying the words. “I was waiting for you.”
“A job?” He wasn’t hoping to be put to work this soon, but it couldn’t hurt to have something to keep his mind off things. Her dreadlocks swayed as Anuk shook her head, a soft smile curling her lips.
“A break,” she said firmly. “I granted you a favor by collecting that old man’s soul personally. He’s in heaven now. A warm, quiet place, with those he’s loved and lost in life. I found it quite peaceful.” The quirk of her lips told him that she’d truly enjoyed her time in Father Brian’s heaven.
“And you doing me a favor gets me a break how?” Michael wasn’t one to complain about breaks, but he didn’t like the implication that he needed one.
“I’m not blind, cher. You’re exhausted, and slipping. A month won’t hurt you. Besides, you’ve just lost another friend, and I have other Reapers that can do your job in the meantime.”
“Well, that stings,” he grumbled. He knew she was right. Anuk was always right. He’d been slipping over the past year. Too many souls, too many stories, all of them screaming louder and louder in his head as he delivered one after another to either Heaven or Hell. It had started weighing on him, especially after his partner retired. Erin had faded with a smile, dissolving into that space between and beyond realms, where only Reapers could go. He’d been told it was neither Heaven nor Hell, but something both more and less, a quiet place. Somewhere between ashes and stars. He groaned and dug a knuckle into the space between his eyes; thinking about Erin gave him headaches. “I suppose you’re right though.”
Anuk flipped a fistful of dreads over one shoulder. “Cher, I’m always right.” Spinning on one golden stiletto heel, she started swaying down Rue Royale, heels clicking on the sidewalk.
“Enjoy the time off,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll have plenty for you to do when you get back.” Michael sighed, clunking off much less gracefully in the opposite direction towards Mickey Markey Park.
Eight PM was not hot traffic hour for the park, but there were a few stragglers hanging out beneath the oaks and on the playground. A few teenagers drunkenly played on the slide and monkey bars. Someone was wringing mangled pop music out of a violin in the middle of the grassy area. He couldn’t tell who; they were too far away. A man was arguing with an artist over one of the paintings set up against a bench. Michael didn’t care much for the noise, choosing instead to plonk down on a different bench on the Piety Street side of the park. Without thinking, he summoned his headphones to his jacket pocket, pulling them from the shadow dimension with ease. The Score filled his ears, blocking out his thoughts. Black Sabbath came next and he closed his eyes, letting the music bleed into his subconscious until he felt the tension drain out of his body.
“Hey… Hey! Pretty Boy, I’m talkin’ to you!”
Michael lunged forward, almost falling off the bench. He caught himself just in time; his headphones weren’t so lucky. “What?” he growled. The headphones needed to be cleaned off, but they were fine once he collected the bright red buds that had fallen amidst dirt, old birdseed and cigarette butts. Looking up he found himself face to face with a young woman. Her features looked mostly human, Latina in origin if he had to guess, but the pointed ears that peaked from beneath her beanie denoted another kind of creature. Both ears were liberally studded with small stones and hoops and nestled in kinky curly chestnut hair. She was scribbling furiously on a sketch pad with a broken pencil, which had been gnawed on more than once.
“What?” he asked again, more forcefully this time, when the girl just let the silence drag out.
“Hm?” she looked up from the pad, one hand smeared with graphite as she flicked curls out of her eyes. “Oh, nothing. I just needed a better angle to get your face.” She flipped the pad around to show him a rough outline of someone that looked like him on a bench, only the face had been left blank. “Hold still, will ya?”
Shocked, Michael didn’t say anything until she sighed and flipped the first page over to a clean one.
“So,” the whatever-she-was began conversationally. “What’s a Reaper doing in New Orleans?”