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I’d stalked my quarry for two months. A long hunt, but I had him cornered, finally, in his stronghold.
Didn’t matter. Nowhere on Earth was safe from me. Today I’d finish the job of ruining the young preacher, with a couple of hours to spare on my contract’s deadline. One more nudge and the dominoes would begin to fall.
And he’d never know the entirely unearned scandal that ended his career had been engineered by the quiet “young” woman he’d welcomed into his flock mere weeks ago.
I leaned toward the woman on the pew beside me, her thin lips pressed together in a tight line. Her conservative skirt and blouse could have been bought from the same catalog I’d used to conjure mine. Self-righteous judgment radiated from her in an almost palpable aura.
“He’s very good,” I whispered.
The woman’s gaze fixed on the preacher. “He is, Sister. Much better than our last pastor.”
“Oh, I agree.” I hesitated a calculated three seconds. “Although…”
I could have—I had—predicted her avid stare.
“Although?” she asked.
I forced a blush. “It’s just…” I dropped my voice another notch. “I heard he wanted to let those people into the Seminary. Maybe even allow them to be ordained!” I wondered briefly which segment of humanity was being vilified this century. Jews? Moors? Women?
“You mean,” she said, and her voice fell as low as mine, “homosexuals?”
Yeah, sure, whatever. As if Heaven cared about stuff like that as long as you lived a good life despite your personal circumstances.
I hadn’t. Lived a good life, I mean.
I nodded and kept my brow furrowed.
She sucked in a scandalized breath. “Oh, my! But you know, I heard another rumor about him last week. Something about missing funds.”
I already knew this particular bit of gossip because I’d been the one who’d started it. I’d also stolen the cash in question.
The woman clicked her tongue. “And he seemed like such a nice man. I’ll have to bring it up at the next board meeting.”
With that, my job was done. The preacher’s influence would be curtailed by vicious gossip instead of inspiring his community to become a little outpost of Heaven on earth.
Didn’t seem right, but far be it from me to question Heaven’s or Hell’s motives. My contract was signed by both Powers. I just did the job. And if destroying this man’s life stung something buried deep in my chest, well, I knew it wasn’t my heart. That had died before the rest of me had.
At least the preacher hadn’t been scheduled for an early dispatch and delivery. Assassinations really annoyed me.
The preacher’s words of love and forgiveness stung like bile in my throat, like acid on my skin.
I needed to get out of here.
I scooted to the far end of the pew and turned to leave. My gaze collided with that of a gloriously long-haired, dusky-skinned Adonis sitting at the back of the chapel.
His expression was odd, as if he realized what I had just done and didn’t condemn me for it. I saw compassion and understanding in his dark eyes, echoing the ideal of charity from the preacher’s sermon.
I had no need to force the flush that rose to my cheeks this time.
Stupid mortal. What right did he have to judge me, or offer me his forgiveness? His tiny handful of years gave him no foundation to understand the complex issues that made my actions necessary.
No matter that the complex issues were so convoluted I rarely understood them myself.
I averted my face and slipped from the chapel, jumping planes in the deserted foyer where no one could see me fade from view in a billow of gray aetherial fog.
I stripped off the nasty faded-blonde wig and scratched my sweaty scalp through the tight braids wound around my head. I wanted a long, hot bath, but I knew from experience I’d still feel vaguely grimy no matter how hard I scrubbed.
So I stopped at The Fulcrum’s Point instead.
The red and purple neon sign blinked against the smoke-gray roof and perpetually beige sky, the only color in the whole plane of Limbo, drawing the eye like gossip drew weak minds.
The Point resembled a neighborhood sports bar, the kind where nobody minded if you hung around all night as long as you ordered a drink once in a while. Except for the beige-on-gray color scheme and the fact that the only TV screen hung above the bar at the front. Most of us factotums—agents who were neither angels nor demons, but something in between—ended up spending large chunks of our downtime clustered around The Point’s laminate tables and weathered bar. I guess serving the only substance in the known planes that could get us drunk was a major draw.
The lighting was dim, the décor bland, and the service merely okay. Completely middle of the road. Just like me.
Sometimes I hated this place.
I took my drink to a table at the rear, away from the other factotums and the screen showing some loud sporting event that inspired a great deal of shouting. I sat with my back to the wall, a habit I hadn’t yet discarded from the time I’d spent in jail last year taking down a prostitution ring run by the county sheriff out of the women’s lock-up.
In the course of the operation—all right, while I was servicing the guy—I discovered the sheriff had a distinctive birthmark on his genitals, which strengthened our case enough the judge believed the ladies’ tales of the sheriff’s depravity.
Let’s see an angel take on that job.
I swallowed my metheglin gratefully, eager for the honeyed taste and the promise of forgetfulness.
Despite my command encore performance as a prostitute, saving those girls was a lot easier on my peace of mind than the time I’d been called in to heal a terminally ill mafia don who’d gone on to torture and kill fifteen people the month after his “miraculous” recovery.
That memory deserved a particularly large gulp of my chosen sedative.
I suppose the fornication had left a stain on my soul that healing the don had not. Frankly, I preferred the stain.
A movement at the door caught my eye, and I turned to see the Adonis from the church walk in.
I sucked in a startled breath, and most of the drink I’d just taken ended up in my lungs. I spewed the rest across the table as I choked and coughed.
What in the planes was he doing here?
How had I not recognized him as a fellow nonmortal? I knew both the angelic and demonic agents on the preacher’s case, and this kid wasn’t either of them. So who was he?
I mopped my streaming eyes as he threaded his way through the tables to the bar. Metheglin burns like a branding iron when it gets in your sinuses.
The kid’s mahogany hair swung in a braid past his broad shoulders, the rich brown vivid against his spotless white t-shirt, and faded jeans made his butt look spectacular. The colors weren’t all that bright, but here in Limbo–where all tints faded to shades of gray–he stood out like Christmas in the midst of a brutal winter.
In life, I would probably have described his face as angelic, with his perfect, clear-cut features. But now that I’ve met plenty of angels, I knew they look as ordinary as daisies unless they put extra effort into the whole glowing halo effect. This kid had them all beat.
He leaned on the bar to order a pint of acerglyn from Grace, the solid bear of a woman who ran the place. The kid’s voice was as dark and rich as his hair.
Was he a new factotum, fresh from training and looking for a little on-the-job mentoring? That would explain his presence in the church–but not the weird way he’d looked at me.
I wiped away the last of the choking-induced tears and tossed back a slug to cool a flare of irritation. I wasn’t in the mood for babysitting today.
I lowered my glass and saw Adonis had moved right in front of my table.
“This seat free?” he asked, a cheery smile crinkling his dark eyes.
I looked pointedly around at the surrounding tables and booths, empty because of the game on the screen at the other side of the room.
He laughed and sat across from me. “I feel like company.”
“The company is over there.” I nodded to the knot of people shouting insults at the ancestors of the onscreen referees. “I knew your grandfather!” a skinny red-headed kid yelled. “He was just as blind as you are!”
Adonis shook his head. “Too noisy. And you look interesting.”
I raised an eyebrow. My eyes were probably still red, my plain brown hair was wound tightly around my head to accommodate the tacky wig I’d ditched, and the calf-length, flowered polyester skirt and baggy white blouse made me look like a faded spinster—twenty seven going on sixty.
Too bad he liked this pathetic disguise. Easy on the eyes or not, I demand a certain level of taste in my associates.
Nursing my drink, I stared past him at Grace, wiping glasses behind the bar.
“You handled the church assignment well,” he said.
I let my eyes drift over him, giving him a cool stare. “Thanks.”
“Do you like doing that sort of thing?” He sounded genuinely curious, not at all like he was trying to insult me.
I’d hated it, but that was none of his business. I shrugged and glanced back at the crowd around the screen. Apparently, our team (whichever one that was) had just done something exciting. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the cheering. “It’s okay. Has to be done.”
“But why?” The dark liquid in his glass glinted as he sipped. “Why not help people be happy instead?”
Not a new factotum, then. I grimaced as it dawned on me. “You’re a recruiter.”
He tipped his head to the side like a cocker spaniel puppy waiting to see if his master was really angry that he’d piddled on the good rug. “Yes, I am.”
“Angel, right? Of course you are. When will you guys just quit? You know it’s just taunting at this point, don’t you?”
His forehead wrinkled. “No! I wouldn’t do that. Not to you. Not to anyone. But you’ve been a factotum for a long time now. What’s it been? Three centuries?”
Damn. Had it only been that long? “Give or take.”
“You might be the longest-serving factotum here. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
I used my napkin to blot up the splatters from where I’d spewed my drink across the fake weathered wood of the tabletop. “Move on to where, kid? Hell? Been there, done that, before I even died. Don’t care to go back.”
He gave me a rueful half-smile. “I was thinking more of Heaven.”
I lifted an eyebrow, studying his earnest face. “You saw what I just did to that poor bastard of a preacher. And that was sweetness and light compared to some of the stuff I’ve done. No. Heaven hasn’t been a possibility for… a long time.”
“But that was a contract! A job, a–”
“A mission from God?” I finished, my voice dry.
“Well…” He shrugged. “Yeah.”
“It was also a mission from the Devil. But whatever. I’m the one who lied and stole and gossiped. I’m the one who gets the blame.”
“Seriously? I was told you factotums were only here to work out a few issues; you just needed to decide where you wanted to end up.”
“That’s the impression I got, too. At first. Didn’t take me long to figure out I was wrong. Nope. All this sin is going straight on my soul.”
“Why don’t you just refuse the assignments that will damn you, then?
“And risk getting sent someplace worse than this? Limbo sucks, kid, but it beats the alternative. I’m sorry I have to hurt people sometimes, but better them than me.”
“You don’t really feel like that.”
I slammed my glass down on the table. “How do you know what I–”
“Everything okay here?” Grace appeared at my side, swapped my empty glass for a full one, gave the table a cursory swipe with a splotchy gray rag, and slanted me a questioning glance. She sure could move quickly for such a large woman.
“Somebody got out of the nursery without learning his manners, that’s all.” Damned naïve angel.
“Sorry,” Adonis said. “Please, don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that… Well, it doesn’t seem fair. Not to you. Not to that poor pastor today.” The kid frowned into his acerglyn, doubt creeping into his expression.
Who had let this baby angel out on his own? Where was his keeper? Why had he been allowed to get anywhere near a dingy, half-damned soul like me? If I wasn’t careful, I’d drag him down to my own level.
“Fair?” I snapped. “How fair is it for someone to simply skip off to Heaven after leading a long and charmed life while others less lucky have to scrabble and fight to survive? Have to choose every day between stealing or starving? How fair is it for those people in the church today to live their whole lives with someone like that preacher watching out for them, while others are led astray by the very ones who should have guided and guarded them? How fair is it…” My voice tightened, and I realized with horror that tears clogged my throat. Black-tinged nightmare glimpses of my earthly life shuddered far too clearly through my head. How had I let this get so personal?
I began yanking hairpins from my hair, letting the strands fall as they would, to show how little I cared about his opinion. “Bet I know how you died. Bet you did something stupid to save someone, didn’t you?”
He was looking at me all soft and non-judgmental again, damn him.
No, not him. I was the one who was damned.
“Yeah. Got in the way of a bullet. Better me than the little girl.”
I forced a laugh, dropping the hairpins onto the laminate tabletop. “Figures. You died saving someone. I died killing someone.” I’d do it again, too. The guy had meant to rape my sister, my only surviving family. Using me hadn’t been enough for him. So I’d killed him. And I wasn’t sorry at all.
My soul was so black I wondered why Hell had allowed me to escape as far as it had.
“Listen, kid.” I made each word hard and precise, clear as diamonds. “Don’t waste your time trying to help me.” I shoved back from the table. “I’m a factotum because I died a prostitute, thief, and murderer. My alternative was Hell. I judged this the better choice.”
Skirting the angel’s chair, I headed for the door.
He caught my hand as I went past. “But does it make you happy?”
I jerked away. “Touch me again and I’ll rip your wings off, angel boy,” I snarled.
I stalked out, each step measured and deliberate so he knew I wasn’t running away. But I needed to escape before my very presence smeared that perfect, white shirt.
The constant twilight threw frozen shadows across the pebbled sidewalk, each gray or bone or tan lump limned in black. Pale aether marbled every dark nook, disappearing if I looked straight on. The unsettling sense of motion caused seasickness in some new agents. Didn’t bother me anymore.
Beige stone apartment blocks topped with gargoyles and spires like some gothic cathedral repurposed for housing rose on either side of the street. Too kitschy and new-fangled for my taste. I kept rooms in a wattle-and-daub cottage that had been the height of modernity at the time of my death.
A strange tingle on the back of my neck made me turn as I reached the front door. Angel boy stood on the deserted stretch of graytop outside of The Point, the light from the neon sign setting purple and red highlights in his hair.
I curled my lip at the thought of that goody-two-shoes shoveling his self-satisfied propaganda at an experienced factotum like me. What did he know about working in the trenches? He got the plum assignments, always riding to the rescue of adoring clients.
Let angel boy stalk me. I didn’t care. I’d keep on doing the dirty work, adding to the grime on my dingy soul while time and the world spun by without so much as a single word of thanks.
Without even knowing I existed.
A new assignment arrived in the morning post. I glared at the flat gray envelope while I mechanically shoveled down an egg and bagel. I didn’t have to eat, but “miracles”–both for good and ill–took energy, and that energy had to come from somewhere. Angels and demons got it from their bosses. Factotums had to fend for themselves.
I’d hoped for a break between contracts to rest and recover my equilibrium. The church job had upset me far more than it should have. I’d lied and stolen, but fornication and murder hadn’t been required. An easy contract.
Time was ticking away on the contract’s deadline. I couldn’t procrastinate much longer. As much as I hated my existence now, Hell was worse. I had to believe that.
Dumping my plate in the sink, I ripped open the sealed envelope and read the terse message.
Jairo Reyes, Villa Ipala, Guatamala. Dispatch and delivery. 5:00 A.M. local.
An assassination. I shivered. When had Limbo gotten so cold?
At least the job should be quick.
I wondered what the man had done–or what he would have done, had he been allowed to live. Perhaps he was a drug lord, corrupting all who came into contact with him and his nasty products. I wouldn’t feel too awful taking out someone like that.
But I felt so tired today. Tired of Limbo. Tired of being the bad guy. Tired of–everything.
Couldn’t I pass on this contract, for once? Let someone else kill the guy? How bad could Hell be, really?
At least it would have more color, albeit mostly in flame tones.
Sighing in defeat, I checked the contract for the correct signatures. Heaven’s and Hell’s seals were each in order, as were my supervisor’s initials. If God had agreed to this, the job couldn’t be too evil. This death was part of The Plan.
Whatever kind of person he was, good or evil, Jairo Reyes had to go. And I’d been chosen to usher him out.
I geared up and jumped planes to the contract location, stopping well outside mortal detection, where agents tend to hang when not directly interacting with their clients.
“Hey there, sweet cheeks,” called a voice like a gravel road.
I turned to see Pete Francesco coming toward me through shifting ebony billows that faded to ash gray as he approached, his cheerful, round face split in a welcoming smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You’re always glad to see me until I mess up your fun.”
He flung his beefy arms open and laughed. He reminded me of a plaid-shirted, Italian Santa Claus, if Santa Claus switched his “naughty” and “nice” lists and began giving out presents for stealing cars and learning new arson techniques. “Now, don’t be like that. You’re a sight for sore eyes no matter whose side you’re on.”
“Then why am I ‘sweet cheeks’ today, when the last time I saw you I was ‘queen bitch’?”
“Can’t blame a guy for blowing his stack after he loses a big commission like that, can ya?”
I submitted to his enveloping embrace, and even refrained from breaking his arm when he pinched one of the said “sweet cheeks”—and not the one on my face.
“Watch the hands, Pete.”
“I am,” he said, ogling my rear. “And I’m enjoyin’ it.” But he let me go and stuck his hands in his pockets, so my nether regions were safe for the moment. “You here to give me a hand with this one?”
“Maybe. Is Jairo Reyes your client?”
“Yep. No joy so far. The kid’s got looks, charm, smarts, so I tried to play on his pride. But he don’t got none, far as I can see. He won’t even badmouth a teacher.”
Kid? Teacher? Must be a college student, or maybe a new graduate in his first teaching job.
Crap. I hated taking out the young ones. He didn’t sound like a drug lord or anything else evil, either. My shoulders slumped.
I pasted on a half-smile to disguise my reaction. “Sounds like a tough case, but you won’t have to worry about him for much longer.”
Pete’s grizzled brows lowered, casting shadows over his black eyes. “You bumpin’ him off?” He swore and spat into the beige mist that served as ground. “Damn. I needed the commission on this one. You take him now, he goes straight to Heaven, and Angel Babyface over there gets the credit.” He waved a hand at an approaching figure.
A mahogany braid flipped out from behind the man’s back, caught in a sudden swirl of milk-pale aether, and my breath stuttered.
Angel boy. Here, on my job. Again.
Was he stalking me?
Pete sighed and ran a hand over his sparse hair. “Might as well end this now, I guess, if the kid wasn’t ever going to fall. Better luck with my next client, eh?”
“Yeah, sure, Pete,” I murmured. “See you around.”
Pete faded from view as he settled more solidly into reality. Off to savor his last hours away from Hell.
Leaving me alone with angel boy.
His face glowed with sheer good-natured enthusiasm. “We didn’t get a chance to introduce each other last night. My name’s Ezekiel.” He stuck out his hand.
“Of course it is,” I said. Figured he had the angelic name to go along with the rest of the package. Folding my arms, I studied him silently.
After a moment he let his hand drop and gave a nervous cough. “And your name is Constance, isn’t it?”
“Hmm,” I agreed. “What a coincidence that we’re assigned to the same case.”
He laughed. “Not really. I asked to replace the other angel on this job. I wanted to watch you work. You… You’re kind of a legend. My trainers talked about you.”
I turned away, wincing. He didn’t know what my assignment entailed, or he wouldn’t be so puppy-dog cheerful. “Yeah, your trainers used me as an example of who to stay away from. I’m no hero, boy.” I would have liked to call him “son” but I couldn’t bring myself to use that particular epithet for a man whose eyes made me feel anything but motherly.
My lip curled in disgust at my own foolishness. I had no right to think about him that way. He was an angel, and I was… me. “I’ve got work to do, so why don’t you fly on home,” I snapped.
He shook his head. “I’ve got a job to do here, too.”
I did not want this innocent to see me kill the man he was supposed to be protecting from evil. Sure, Jairo was slated for the fast track to Heaven and Ezekiel would get the commission, but…
This kind of assignment was brutal and bloody, and necessarily deceptive, since I had to manufacture evidence to provide a reasonable explanation for the death. When I couldn’t arrange for the death to look like an accident, some other mortal took the rap. I tried to frame only truly deserving people. Still, the person who’d take the rap for murdering Jairo Reyes wouldn’t be the one who actually killed him.
Because that was me.
I flinched, imagining the disgust in angel boy Zeke’s eyes when he saw Jairo’s blood on my hands. “You don’t have a job here anymore, understand? Not this time. Your boss turned the matter over to me. And you don’t want to stick around to see what comes next, I promise you.”
“I know you have to do unsavory things at times.”
I gave a bitter laugh and stepped back into a low bank of dim, gray mist. “You clueless cherub.” I spat into the fog beside me, unconsciously mimicking Pete. “You’re soft, with no hint of smut on your hands or your conscience. You don’t belong here. Go home.”
His face grew solemn, and the compassion in his eyes stabbed at my heart, a pain too real to ignore.
I sucked in a harsh breath and turned away. “Stay then, or go. I don’t care.” I strode off into the marbled haze of aether swirling around my thighs, making the effort of will to move in the peculiar direction that had no earthly equivalent that took me nearer to the mortal sphere. I thought of it as “down.” Although, considering who and what I was, “up” might be a better description.
I didn’t look back.
The fog cleared and warm afternoon sunlight flared across a dirt road and tangled jungle. I stayed a bare breath away from corporeality. A very few mortals might sense some part of me, if they were in the right frame of mind. That’s where ghost stories came from.
Taking a deep breath, I froze my emotions and forced my mind back to the job. I’d swoop in, do the hit, and get back to The Point in time to get plastered.
Across the road, lush ceiba and mango trees surrounded a stretch of worn grass where a battered swing set held court next to a long, low building roofed with red tiles. Through the windows, I saw rows of children jamming papers and books into wooden desks. School was nearly over.
I fingered the contract with its trio of signatures I’d shoved into the back pocket of my jeans. If this Jairo was as good a guy as Pete said, I could guess why Hell would want him eliminated. But what did Heaven get out of it? I didn’t understand.
But it wasn’t my place to understand. I just had to fulfil my contract.
I moved to another wing of the sprawling building and peeked in.
Ranks of bunk beds lined the pale blue walls, separated by cheap pine dressers dotted with well-used matchbox cars and bedraggled stuffed animals.
An orphanage. I was supposed to kill someone who worked in an orphanage.
A bell rang, doors swung open, and a tide of shouting children flowed onto the playground. They wore simple clothes, but well-mended and clean.
“Ya find him yet?” Pete’s voice from behind made me jump. He laughed.
So the demon had found me. At least angel boy hadn’t.
I didn’t bother to glare at Pete. He’d just laugh more. “No. Which class does he teach?”
“Teach? Sweet cheeks, didn’t anyone tell you?” If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I heard sympathy in his voice. “He’s not a teacher, babe. He’s one of the rugrats. See? He’s over there, pushing that gimpy kid on the swings.” Pete’s hairy arm shot past my shoulder, pointing the way.
Numbly, I followed Pete’s finger. A sturdy, handsome boy of about nine or ten helped a tiny girl–little more than a baby–with a heavy cast on her diminutive leg sway back and forth on the flat seat of the swing.
Jairo was a kid?
The Powers would never send me to kill a child. Maybe the “angel of death” guy from the firstborn of Egypt affair could handle this sort of contract, but not me. I didn’t do kids. The Powers knew this. I died protecting one; I wouldn’t kill one now.
But what alternative did I have?
My vision darkened, and I wondered if a nonmortal could pass out.
A strong arm slid around my shoulders, steadying me. “Sit down,” Ezekiel’s voice said, close to my ear. “You’re wobbling.”
Crap. I could actually feel the grime crawling off me and onto him. With a violent shove, I thrust him away and staggered toward Pete, who watched with detached amusement.
He caught me, using the opportunity to feel me up. Whatever. His fast hands fit a prostitute and assassin better than Ezekiel’s chaste ministrations.
“You want I should do the job for you, sweet cheeks?” Pete said, almost able to hide the note of eagerness. In life, Pete had been fond of kidnapping little boys and killing them.
I shuddered, removed Pete’s hand from my boob, and backed away from both men.
If Pete killed Jairo, I knew well the boy’s end would be neither quick nor painless.
“No,” I said, fixing him with a hard stare. “I’ve got it.”
Ezekiel stepped toward me, hand outstretched. “Constance,” he began.
“Shut up,” I snapped. “Leave me alone.”
I made the final jump to the mortal plane, landing in the brush outside the orphanage gates. I fervently hoped that the pair would go away so I could finish the job in peace. The thought of Ezekiel seeing me smeared with the blood of a grown man caused my stomach to churn. How much worse would it be if he saw me kill a child?
I went to a seedy little bar on the outskirts of town to look for my fall guy. And if I indulged in a few too many tequilas, it was nobody’s business but my own. It’s not like I could get drunk on mortal alcohol, although I could pretend to be, which was almost as good.
Night came all too soon. I had until five in the morning, local time, to complete the job.
I scanned the sweltering room. The stench of stale beer, piss, and sweat writhed in an almost visible miasma through the dense tobacco smoke. Rough men, and a few equally rough women, huddled around mismatched tables.
I faded into the aether just far enough to see if anyone in this pit had a hovering angel or demon. I needed to cut a deal.
A fat weasel with graying hair and dirty fingernails propped his shiny blue Tony Lamas on the rough planks that passed as a bar. He had the shadowy outline of a pair of agents at his shoulders, both women I’d worked with before.
After a quick negotiation with the ladies, I had my fall guy. Blue boot man was a small-time drug transporter with big ambitions. He liked to beat up family members of people who got in his way. Women, kids. Didn’t matter to him.
No one would object when he was accused of Jairo’s murder.
He’d make new contacts in prison to expand his business, so the demon on his case was satisfied. And while he was off the streets, his younger brother would have an opportunity to break away and find a legal job in another city, allowing little brother to raise his family outside the influence of the drug cartels. So the angelic agent was on board, too.
The angel also hoped the prison time might reform the guy. Fat chance of that, but angels tended to be naively optimistic.
With the bargain struck and a packet of trace evidence collected, I slipped out into the night and headed for the orphanage.
The road stumbling past the orphanage’s cinderblock wall was deserted at this hour, somewhere in the black pit between midnight and dawn. I ducked into the undergrowth and circled to the back, where the wall bordered the edge of a deep gully. I scaled the block wall with the help of a few low-hanging branches, just to make sure I could.
Drawing enough aether around me to soften my outline, I moved to the silent dormitories. Jairo slept in a bunk close to the window, his dark hair curling damply against his smooth forehead.
“I’m so very sorry, kid,” I whispered as I leaned through the wall to stroke the hair off his face. My hand passed through the strands instead of moving them aside. He didn’t stir.
I moved inside and walked through the orphanage, running insubstantial fingers across each sleeping head, sending all but Jairo deeper into dreams.
Outside, I created a disguise for myself out of aether and faith, and became a sobbing, tattered girl of about Jairo’s age, huddled underneath his window.
All was still, except for the ragged intake of my breath and a few louder sobs I threw in to make sure my target would hear.
I heard the window creak open.
“Little girl.” The whispered words from above me were in Spanish, but the whole “gift of tongues” thing came with the job. “Little girl, are you all right?”
I shook my head and sniffled. “No. I’m lost, and my little brother fell in the gully over there and I can’t get him out. I think he’s hurt.”
“I’ll get Señora Alvera. She can help…”
“No!” I sprang up, as if ready to run. “They’ll take him away and send us to a place where they’ll starve us and beat us, and I won’t be able to protect him.” I kept my voice intense, but low. The others were only deeply asleep, not comatose.
“They won’t!” Jairo leaned out, stretching his hand toward me. “Come in and see.”
I shook my head and took another step back. “Mama told me how those places work. She said she’d send us there if we didn’t behave. But José is hurt, and I need help.” My story became more muddled by the minute. I had to get him out of the building before he noticed the inconsistencies. “Can you help me?”
“We’re not supposed to leave our rooms at night.” Jairo frowned doubtfully.
I burst into fresh tears and turned away.
“Wait! Don’t go. I’m coming.”
Yes, Jairo was a good soul.
He clambered out the window. “Where is he?”
“Here.” I led him to the back of the yard, where a vine-laden jacaranda leaned over the block wall. “I climbed over right here.”
Together we managed the scramble, dropping into the dense brush on the other side. “This way,” I said as I pushed deeper into the patch of jungle.
I heard his footsteps pattering after me, away from safety.
When I judged we were out of earshot of the orphanage, I turned and dropped the disguise.
I had not been tall in life, but that hardly mattered now. Being nonmortal had given me a stature, a presence, which far outpaced my actual height. My hair waved in a dusky halo around my head, framing a face that some had called lovely, if you weren’t looking for too much emotion. I didn’t glow, but aether billowed around my shoulders, giving the impression of gray wings spreading out on either side of me.
Jairo’s eyes widened.
“A-are you an angel?” he stammered.
I didn’t let the sting show on my face. “You’re a good boy, Jairo. I’m here to take you to Heaven.” Or send him there, anyway.
He drew in a long, slow breath, straightened his shoulders and moved steadily toward me. Bless him, he didn’t run.
“I’m ready,” he said. No arguing, no whining, no tears.
My throat squeezed shut so painfully I automatically started to raise a hand to rub the ache away. I cut off the movement, and forced a smile at the brave kid, opening my arms. “Then come,” I said, careful to keep the razor-edged blade in my right hand thoroughly wrapped in aether, invisible.
He stepped into my embrace, and I just held him a moment. He felt so good, nestled to my breast in perfect trust, as if I truly were an angel.
I’d have to kill him now. Slide the knife under his chin and slice. Hold the boy steady while his body thrashed in its death throes. Feel his hot blood bathe my arms, my belly, my legs as his heart pumped out the dregs of his life.
Here he was, vulnerable and willing.
Do it. Do it now.
Oh, please, God, let me not have to do this thing!
But God had never cared about what I wanted. Why should he start now?
I shuddered, and forced my hand to begin its long journey toward Jairo’s neck.
I jumped violently at the quiet voice, and the boy gasped.
Ezekiel stepped from the aether not two yards away. His aether-wings were blindingly white.
Ezekiel, angel boy, had found me.
“Go away,” I said. “Don’t frighten the boy.” It took all my strength to keep my words steady and low.
“I’ll do it,” Ezekiel said.
I blinked, sure I’d misheard him. My hand started moving again. I had to get this over with before poor Jairo got too scared. I didn’t want him to be scared.
“Constance. You don’t have to do it this time. I can see how it tears at you. I’ll take care of the boy.” He stepped nearer, out of the aether and into plain view. The pale billows fading at his back shone with a warm, clear light. His eyes locked on mine, and I saw the compassion–and maybe something more–in their depths.
Rookies. Always the same. “You can’t do it, you know. You can’t save everyone. You can’t save me.”
“I can save you this pain. Give me the boy.” He reached out, laying a hand on Jairo’s shoulder. He was too close now for me to slit the boy’s throat and not get blood all over Ezekiel.
“It’s my job, Ezekiel, one only a factotum can do. Your job is to escort this boy’s soul straight to Heaven’s gate where you both belong. You can’t do this for me; not and remain an angel.”
“It doesn’t have to be your job, Constance. You don’t have to be a factotum. You’ve served long enough. Let the boy go, and you can come with me.”
Why was angel boy making this harder? Did he know how much his impossible offers hurt me? Let him pester some other factotum, one with a soul not quite as black as mine.
He reached for the knife I clutched, and his fingers brushed my hand–the hand that would kill Jairo, the most unclean part of my whole body.
I jerked away, and the boy’s arms tightened around my waist. He stifled a sob.
“I’m afraid,” he whispered.
I pressed a kiss to his curling hair, momentarily taking away his fear.
The respite wouldn’t last long.
“I can’t go to Heaven, Ezekiel,” I said. “Not after all I’ve done. I’m a factotum, and that’s all I’ll ever be until the end of time. I made my choice and I’ll abide by it. Besides, who would take my place? Pete?” I barked out a sharp laugh.
“You shouldn’t have to worry about that. You’d rather do good deeds. Why not just do them?”
“There’s a Plan, Ezekial. It created you. You exist as a strong arm for Good because of my efforts. I keep the playing field level until all the players have had a turn at bat. A lot of souls still wait on the bench, and until they get in the game, I’ll be here.”
His gentle tone robbed my grand speech of all its self-righteousness. I felt tawdry, ragged, and so very, very weary. I dropped my chin to look at the dark head resting against me. My arms tightened protectively around the boy.
“Yes,” I said in a voice so low it was almost inaudible. “If I have to.” But my hand, weighed down by the knife and Ezekiel’s touch, didn’t move.
Ezekiel was silent while I tried to gather my resolve.
“Do it fast, please.” Jairo’s voice was muffled in my shirt.
The knife shook a little as I moved it away from Ezekiel’s hand to a point beneath Jairo’s chin.
“I’ll do it.” Ezekiel’s statement was hard and determined as steel, sounding much different from the first time he’d said those words. He pulled the boy out of my arms. “Give me the knife.”
I needed to finish this job before my head exploded. Or my heart. “We’ve already done this dance, angel boy. My job, my kill.”
“I’ll do it,” Ezekiel repeated. “I’ll do this job, then I’ll take over for you as factotum. I’ll take the guilt that burdens your soul. You’ll be free to move on–in my place.” He reached for the knife.
My breath stopped. My head stopped. My heart stopped. The knife fell from my limp fingers, and I nearly followed it to the ground as my knees went limp, too.
This was an offer I’d never heard before. If Ezekiel took over for me as factotum, took the sins from my soul, I really would be free to move on, to rest, to…
Oh, God, please! To take over his job. To be an angel. I’d get the good jobs, all the good jobs, only the good jobs.
I’d never again have to prolong the life of a wicked man on the slim hope he’d repent, only to watch the anguish he caused when he continued on his old paths.
I’d never have to bring disease and pain to another good wife and mother in a test of faith I’m not sure even I, from my more-than-mortal perspective, could pass.
I’d never, ever have to cause the death of a child. This destroying angel could hang up her charcoal halo and retire.
I blinked up at Ezekiel’s beautiful, stern face and felt one touch of the utter joy–the complete delight–that my existence could be. For just a moment, I reveled in the possibilities.
Then I saw my blade, a harsh reality in Ezekiel’s hand, and the moonlight writhed as it shuddered off the bright edge.
My joy would come at the expense of Ezekiel’s. He was an angel, a real one, not just a wannabe like me. If I allowed him to take this step, allowed him to free me of the burden of responsibility for this and all the other evil acts he would be required to do as factotum in my place, he would suffer greatly, and forever.
He didn’t deserve that fate.
I slid my backup blade from its sheath under my sleeve and slashed it across Jairo’s neck, catching him as he crumpled, carrying him to the ground. I cradled him close as his body fought its fate. With a touch I sent him to sleep, making his passing as quick and painless as possible.
Ezekiel stood looking down on us, the nonmortal woman and the post-mortal boy, silent and grave.
“If you want to help, you can meet him on the other side and show him the way.” I wiped Jairo’s blood off my knife onto the weeds and put out my hand to take back the one Ezekiel still held.
“I’d have done it, you know,” Ezekiel said. “For you, I’d have gone through with it.”
“I know,” I said, sheathing my knives. I planted the skin scrapings, hair, and flecks of blue boot leather on Jairo’s body to frame a not-so-innocent man for the murder.
“Thank you.” His simple words held a world of emotion and meaning, but tonight wasn’t the time to examine it further.
I nodded, met his eyes. “Go on. Jairo’s waiting.” I wouldn’t get to see the boy. He was already beyond my reach, on Heaven’s doorstep. Ezekiel and his kind took over from there.
Ezekiel began to fade into the aether.
“Hey,” I called. “See you around.”
He smiled, and even nearly transparent, with swirls of aether obscuring his form, I felt that smile–gentle, grateful, and as full of tears as of joy–pour over me like a spring rain.
My hands were red with Jairo’s blood, but my heart…
Tonight, my heart felt clean.