The angel descended from on high in a glorious arc of flame. Casual spectators would point up at the evening sky and comment on the unusually past-season meteor shower. One or two would even make a wish, or sing the 'twinkle twinkle' song. Only one person on the entire planet was in position to hear the rapidly approaching screams of:
And lo did the former principality Lokiel fall to Earth, where he hit a street lamp, bounced off a masculinity compensating hummer, careened off a wall, and crash painfully into a dumpster, where he lay smoldering amongst McDonalds bags and used condoms.
* * * * *
When Mallory woke up to the sound of screaming sometime around midnight, she wasn't all that concerned. This was downtown, after all. Screams, sirens, shattering glass, gunshots, and loud music were all part of the city's nightly regime. If anything, when it ever got to be too quiet was the time to worry.
The ball of fire illuminating the night sky and hurdling through the air at -by her estimate- a gazillion miles an hour, though, that was new. Her first coherent thought was;
Oh crap. It's a meteor, and it's coming straight at me.
Instead, it passed her by and landed in the next street over.
After a moment of consideration weighing her curiosity against her natural inclination to Let Someone Else Deal With It, Mallory shrugged and wriggled out of her sleeping bag. Without hurrying, she rolled up the bag, tied it securely to her pack, and put her pack into the shopping cart she'd snatched from a WalMart. Just because stars were falling from the sky didn't mean you had to get careless, after all.
She pushed the cart along until she came across the dumpster. She knew whatever-it-was was inside the dumpster because tendrils of thick smoke were billowing out. Cautiously, she stepped onto nearby crate and peeked over the edge.
It was crumpled up heap of something. Mal couldn't quite get what she was seeing; her mind could only accept it in segments.
There was clothing. It was white. Ish. White-ish.
There was an arm. Presumably, it was connected to a body. She took a baseball bat from her cart (the one she kept for 'protective purposes') and unceremoniously prodded the heap. Some gentle nudging revealed that, yes, there was a body. It appeared to be male and was wrapped in the white-ish clothing.
And there were feathers. That was the bit her brain couldn't get a handle on. A falling person was bad enough, where did the feathers come into play? She stared at the pile for a long time, trying to focus. For some reason, everything seemed very far away at the moment.
Then the pile shuddered. The head attached to the body moved a bit. A mop of tangled, light-brown hair fell aside to reveal a thoroughly beat up looking face. The eyes flew open, rolling around wildly until they found Mallory's own. They were silver. Not the calm gray color like her brother had had, but actual reflective silver that seemed to shine with an internal light.
I wonder if they glow in the dark, she thought vacantly.
Then the face screwed up and tried to talk.
"Son of a bitch," it managed. "That hurt." He sat up in the dumpster, rubbing his head and cursing.
"I would imagine," she said.
"I mean, I knew it would be bad," the man went on, "but I didn't think there'd be so much, y'know, gravity involved. Gah. Dunno how you people put up with it."
He plucked a banana peel from his hair and tried to stand. All he managed to do was wobble a bit before falling out of the dumpster in a heap of feathers. A lifetime of societal enforced politeness took over and Mal helped him up.
"Thanks." He looked down at her and smiled. "Human. Female, right? Probably . . .ah . . .don't tell me." He squinted at her and frowned. "Early adulthood?"
"Something like that," she said.
He pumped a fist. "Yes! I'm normally not too good at that kind of thing, so it's always nice to get it right. Name's Lokiel, by the way." He stuck out a hand.
"Mallory," she said, reaching out and. "So," she said slowly, "you're a fallen angel?"
"No," he said. "I'm not fallen, per say. I'm just not quite as elevated as I should be." He began staring intently at his feet.
"Oh," she said.
"Yeah." he said.
For a few minutes, they stood apart in awkward silence. Well, awkward for Mallory, at any rate. The angel struck her as the sort of person who could stand around not talking for hour on end without being bothered. A rat skittered by her foot.
"Uhm," she said eventually, unable to take the silence. "Why are you down here?"
"I got demoted." He sighed and looked mournfully at his wings. "I used to be a Principality, you know. Very important."
"Oh?" said Mal politely, pretending to know what that was. "That's nice. What did you do?"
He waved a hand. "Oh, you know. Things. And such. Cosmic things. You wouldn't understand- you're all organic and stuff."
Oh. . . kay. "What happened?"
He shrugged. "Atlantis."
"Didn't that happen a long time ago?"
"Well yeah, but that was my first strike. I was a Power before that. This time is because I lost my brother's sword."
"Well, hid," he admitted. "But I can't remember where at. Pretty sure it's Earth though. Earth or Venus. But I'm pretty sure it's Earth."
"Oh," she said.
"Yeah," he said.
When it was clear to Mal than nothing productive would come of continuing the conversation, she mentally shrugged and turned to her cart.
"Well," she said. "Good luck with that."
"Wait, you're leaving?"
"Yep." She rolled down the alley and turned down her street, determined to ignore the rather large dent in a hummer parked nearby. By the time she'd reached the end of the block, all thoughts of the angel had been put aside for more pressing matters. For the past couple days she'd been sleeping behind the dumpster, but one of the local cops was starting to catch on. She'd have to find a new squat tonight or –shudder- go into a shelter.
"That's astounding," said someone behind her.
She made sure not to look. "What is?"
"How you can just make yourself ignore me like that." The speaker was following her. She could hear its footsteps a few feet away.
"There's nothing to ignore. You don't exist."
"Oh, I like that. Wish I could just go around telling people they don't exist."
A pebble hit the back of her neck. Mal whirled around in time to hear the rustling of feathers and the faint flapping of wings. Nobody was standing behind her.
Another pebble hit her in the head. This time she didn't turn around.
"Are you just going to keep following me?" she said to the empty air before her.
"I might. It would serve you right for just walking off on me like that. Tellin' me I don't exist. I got feelings too, you know!"
Something began tugging on her cart. She reached out and grabbed it, tugging it towards her without turning around.
Through gritted teeth, she said, "Let go of my cart."
"Hey, maybe I can be one of those shoulder angel things. I've heard about those, you know. Saw them in a Loony Toons cartoon Raziel brought back one time. I could be the little red one."
There was suddenly a very faint pressure on her shoulder. Without thinking, Mal swatted, sending the now pint-sized angel flying into the side of a building.
It appeared again before her, this time as its usual size.
"Ow," it said, rubbing its nose.
"Don't you have anything better to do than follow me around?"
"You don't want me?"
"No!" she hissed. She glanced around nervously, hoping nobody had seen them. She wasn't sure what an onlooker would see: her arguing with herself, or her arguing with a tall, robed man with wings, but either way she didn't want to find out. When it was clear that the only three other people on the street didn't gave a damn what she was doing, Mal started off again.
The angel walked along side her. "But aren't you in awe of my glory? Just a little?"
She pushed the cart along faster and refused to answer.
The angel frowned. "Oh, so now you're not talking to me."
"No," she said. "Because you don't exist. If you exist, then I'm crazy. If you don't exist, then I'm still crazy, but in a much more normal way."
"I'm insulted. Really. I should just leave."
"Yes!" said Mal. "Please do."
She pulled the cart to a stop. "Why?"
He shuffled uncomfortably and began picking at his sleeve. "My dad kicked me out. I'm grounded until further notice."
He nodded. "Yeah, that's the one."
"Well, why're you following me around? Shouldn't you be in a church or something? I'm pretty sure they have people specially trained to deal with angels and things."
"What, really?" A large grin split his face. "Well come on then! D'you know if there are any around here? Can you show me?"
"Yes," she said, relieved. "Does it matter which religion? 'Cause the closest one is just down on Elmstreet. I don't know what it is, but they've got a cross out front."
"That sounds fine. I don't really pay attention to that sort of thing. I'm not very good at rules, you know?"
He grabbed hold of the cart. "Here," he said. "I'll drive. You lead."
"No," she said, tugging the cart out of his hands. "I'll drive and lead. You don't say anything."
He opened his mouth to say something, then apparently thought better of it. Instead, he nodded and let her lead the way.
Together, they walked on.
* * * * *
"Well," said Lokiel. "That didn't go very well."
"Shut up," she said.
They both sat on the steps of the Edenborough library, each resting their chins in their hands and their elbows on their knees. Across the street, firefighters had just finished putting out the church and were now gathering up their things.
"This is all your fault, you know," said the angel. His wings were gone, hidden from the visible spectrum.
"Me? You're the one who brought out a fuckin' burning sword!"
"Yeah, but you said to prove to the priest what I was."
"You didn't have to set the whole damn place on fire."
"I didn't mean to! And how was I supposed to know everything down here is so darn flammable?"
They watched the fire trucks pull away.
"It's the priest's fault, anyways,' she said. "You got the fuckin' silver eyes and fuckin' wings. Dunno why he needed more."
"Yes. He really got greedy there, didn't he?"
"So in a way, this was probably for the best."
"Yeah. Probably a lesson in this."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate it once he's out of the hospital."
"I've never seen anyone faint like that. Do all humans do it?"
She shook her head. "No. Just the wimpy ones."
They sat in silence and watched the building smoke. It had been a small church, and the few people who worked there had already gone home.
A limo pulled up to the curb and stopped in front of them. The back window rolled down, and a hand poked out. It gestured for them to come closer.
They glanced at each other and simultaneously shrugged. They got up.
"Yes?" said Mal as she approached the window. "Can I help you?"
The man inside smiled. "I believe you can. Come inside, both of you."
She turned to Lokiel and pulled him down so she could whisper, "You still got the sword?"
"If I need it, yeah."
"Good. If things get weird-"
He nodded. The valet got out and showed them into the car.
The first thing she noticed was how large the limo was on the inside. She'd never actually been inside one before, and had only ever seen them in movies. There was plenty of room for the three of them, with enough space left over for another seven or eight people. As soon as they settled in, the car started up. They were moving.
The second thing she noticed was the man himself. Everything about him screamed money. The carefully trimmed goatee, the clothes, even his shoes looked fancy. He was stocky, but it was the kind of stocky that comes from having a lot of muscle crammed into a tiny space.
"My name is Maxwell. Maxwell Crane. Call me Max." He smiled warmly, his eyes flicking first to her, then to Lokiel, then back to her again. "Hello, miss. . .?"
He waited a moment for the last name. When it didn't come, he let it slide. "A pleasure to meet you. And your friend?"
"Lokiel," said Lokiel. "Call me Luke."
"Well, Max, it's nice meeting you and all, but what did you want?" She glanced out the window and saw the alley she'd found Lokiel in whiz past.
"I'd like to make a deal with you. Both of you." He opened a box beside him and took out a cigar. "Would either of you care for one?"
"No, thanks," said Mal. "What kind of deal?"
He lit up. "My sources tell me that one of you-" he looked at Luke. "Is, to put this delicately, of a different order."
"Me," said Luke, raising his hand. "It's me."
"I thought as much. And I assume that you're new in town, aren't you? You must be, or we'dve had this conversation long ago."
"Yeah, I just flew in this morning."
"Fell," said Mal. "You fell in this morning. I had to fish you out of a dumpster, remember?"
He kicked her leg. She kicked him back. Before an outright kick-war could start, Maxwell cleared his throat.
"And am I to assume you haven't settled down?"
"Settled?" said Luke.
"A place to stay. A way to survive. A job."
"Oh. No, none of that." he looked at Mal. "I have to get a job?"
She shrugged. "I'm probably not the best one to ask about that."
"A job is exactly what I'm offering you," said Max. "Living quarters. An allowance. Everything you could possibly need. All I ask is that you work for me."
Luke frowned. "I kinda have something I'm supposed to do," he said. "Something I have to look for. It's kind of important."
"Weekends off, plus paid vacations and three paid sick days a year. Also medical, dental, optional 401k, and hour long lunch breaks."
"Take it," said Mal. "Take it!"
The limo pulled into a long, winding driveway.
"What about her?" said Luke.
"She'll receive a respectable finder's fee." The car stopped. "We're here. The contract is upstairs, in my office. What do you say? Would you like a job?"
Luke shifted and scratched his arms. "I don't even know what I'll be doing-"
"Security," said Max.
"Or how to do it-"
"We'll train you."
"Don't worry, man," said Mal. "I'll help."
Luke smiled weakly. "Okay, then. I guess I'll do it."
A valet came and let them all out. Maxwell Crane led them up the marble steps into a house bigger and probably older than any Mal had seen in her life. It was full of polished wood and plush carpet and things that served no purpose other than to look good. She craned her neck around, trying to see everything at once.
"Can you see it too?" whispered Luke. They slowed down enough to let Maxwell walk a few feet ahead of them, hopefully out of earshot.
He gestured his head. "This, all of it. It's covered in spells. Enochian ones. There's another angel in here aside from me."
"His source, probably. It's good! That means you'll have a friend."
He frowned. "I guess . . ."
Maxwell lead them into an office every bit as posh as the rest of the house, with walls full of bookshelves and a huge desk sitting in the back, right in front of a window that went all the way from the ceiling to the floor.
On the desk there was a carved lacquer box that looked like another cigar box, a few papers Mal took to be the contract, a penholder, and a suitcase. Maxwell went over to the desk and took a pen from the holder.
"Luke? I'll just need you to sign here." He held out the pen.
Only it wasn't a pen. It was a penknife. Mal watched as Lokiel unceremoniously cut into his index finger and dabbed it onto the blank spot on the paper. The blood was yellow and shimmered, and spread out on the paper, forming a strange, glowing symbol. "Like that?" he said, handing Max back the penknife.
Max nodded. "Yes, perfect. Now hold one just one second. . ."
He took the contract, tore off the part with the signature, and wrote another sign on the back.
"Hey," said Luke. "What are you-?"
Max didn't answer and stabbed the paper with the penknife.
The angel was gone. A small silver pin fell onto the desk. Crane calmly picked it up and inspected it.
"Very nice," he said. "Very nice indeed."
Mal stared. "What did you do? Where is he?"
"Miss Mallory, please. Calm yourself." He opened the lacquered box. Mal peeked and saw that with was full of needles, all sticking up in rows, stuck into the cushion lining the bottom of the box. He gently stuck Lokiel's pin into an empty spot, then closed the box.
"You tuned him tin a pin? You- you said you were going to give him a job!"
"I may have exaggerated." He opened up the briefcase. "I do require his services, though. So I suppose it is a kind of job."
"Let him out."
"No, I don't think I will." He pulled out a few rolled wads of bills from the case. "Here," he said, tossing her the money. "As promised, your finder's fee."
"You're paying me?"
He looked genuinely puzzled. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Because you just kidnapped- you- I-" She glanced down at the money. The bills were all hundreds. "This. . .this is a lot of money." She'd never seen so much money before.
He came over, wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and walked her out of the office. "I really appreciate what you've done for me," he said. "And I'm always on the lookout for new additions to my collection. If you ever find anymore, give me a call. You know where to find me."
They were at the front door. "Goodbye, miss Mallory. And good luck."
The door slammed behind her.
"'Kay," she said, dazed. When no other option presented itself, she started down the winding driveway.
* * * * *
The first thing she did with the money was buy a set of lock picks, a glass cutter, heavy duty cutters made for cutting metal, and a hunting knife- 'just in case'. She wasn't sure if she'd need any of it, but it she'd rather be safe than sorry.
The gate around the front of the property was well-maintained wrought iron, as was the side exposed to the street. The gate near the back, however, beside the gardener's shed, was rusting. It looked older than the other sides, like they'd forgotten to replace it when they remodeled.
The bars snapped easily, giving her a Mallory sized entrance onto the property. She ran up to the house proper, making sure to step on every flower bed on the way up.
She went in through the kitchen window. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was huge. Unlike the rest of the house, it was full of shiny and clean gizmos and gadgets that looked like something out of a spaceship. She left and went looking for the stairs. Crane's office was easy to find, and to her surprise, it was empty. She fought back a wave of relief. She hadn't needed to bring the knife after all.
She found the pin box sitting on one of the bookshelves and opened it up.
"I'm really sorry!" she whispered to the pins. "I- I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't know. I thought he'd give you a desk job or something!"
None of the pins answered. She didn't even know which one Luke was in. The plan hadn't gone this far, and now that she was here, she wasn't sure what to do next.
Footsteps came from down the hall. She quickly closed the box, flicked off the lights, and then dove under the desk just as the door opened.
The lights flicked back on. Whoever it was went over to where she'd just been standing. The box clicked open.
"Hello, little friends," said a familiar voice. "Time to earn your keep."
The box clicked closed, and he left, flicking off the light as he did. As soon as the door shut, she immediately went back to the box. It was still there, but one of the pins was missing.
Okay, I can deal with this. She grabbed the box and followed Crane down the hall.
* * * * *
Crane took the pin into the basement. She followed him, creeping along quietly and trying not to breath.
The stairs were partly hidden by wall. She twisted her neck around to see what he was doing.
On the basement's concrete floor, there was a circle. Inside the circle were more of the strange signs he and the angel had used earlier. Just outside the circle was a table with a bowl, book, bell, and knife. She watched as Crane set the pin into the center of the circle. Then, he went behind the table, back to the stairs, and rang the bell.
The noise was incredible. It wasn't one bell ringing, it was hundreds of bells. Thousands of bells. Big ones, the kind hunchbacks used to pull in France. The noise of them filled the room and rattled her teeth.
Lokiel appeared in the center of the circle, sitting down and looking like he was about to throw up.
"Augh," he said, rubbing his head. "Are all jobs like that?"
"That wasn't your job," said Crane. "That was your new home."
Lokiel got wobbly to his feet. "Can I trade it for a better one?"
"I'm afraid not."
Lokiel tried to walk out of the circle, only to hit an invisible wall. "Hey!" he said, beating on the wall. "What's going on?"
"This is actually why I hired you," said Crane. "Stick out your arm."
Lokiel's arm shot up, to his obvious surprise. "How'd you do-" he glanced down at the markings on the floor. "Oh."
Crane came forward with the knife and bowl. "Keep still," he said. "This might hurt."
Mallory had seen enough. She crept quietly down the last of the steps and snuck up to the desk. Luke saw her, but was smart enough not to say anything. She grabbed the bell of the desk and opened the box of pins.
Again, the thousands of bells rang. When they'd finished, twenty nauseous, miserable looking angels were out of their pins and trying not to vomit on the floor. Most of them had scars on their forearms. Some of the scars were fresh.
Crane lunged at her with a knife. She screamed and rang the bell again, harder. The floor shook. He stumbled. She knocked the table out in front of him, and he fell.
"Guys!" she shouted. "Little help here?"
Lokiel was still hitting the side of the circle, yellow blood dripping from the cut in his arm. "I can't get out!" he said. The other angels stared at them both blearily. She wondered how long they'd been in there. They looked terrible.
"Use the sword, genius!"
Crane was up again. Instead of going after Mal again, he grabbed the book from off the floor and opened it. The air grew heavy as he started chanting out something in a language she didn't know.
"I'm trying!" He'd summoned the sword, but it wasn't going through the wall.
"Try cutting the ground? Maybe the signs-"
One of the other angels had stopped throwing up and had come up behind Crane, who was absorbed in his book and still chanting. The angel picked up the knife Crane had been using earlier form the ground where it had fallen. She looked at it for a second, then at him, then stabbed him nonchalantly in the back.
He fell down, dead before he hit the ground, but she kept stabbing him anyway. The wall immediately vanished, sending Lokiel stumbling forward mid-swing.
"Hey, watch it," said Mal, ducking out of the way. "It'll be like the church all over again."
The sword vanished in a puff of smoke. "Hey," he said to the one stabbing Crane. "I think he's dead."
"Not dead enough," she grunted. She glared up at him, daring him to try and stop her.
"Easy," he said, putting up his hands. "Just trying to help."
Mal went to the other, less aggressive ones in the corner. "Are you all okay?" she said, speaking to them like she would a child. "Where did you all come from?"
"Guardians," croaked one. He seemed more composed than the others. "We were guardians. But they got rid of us. Sold us." He pointed to the stabby one. "She was his. He bound her when he was still a child."
Mal winced. "Ouch. Do you guys have anywhere to go?"
"Home," said Lokiel. "You guys get to go home. I'll make sure of it. In fact. . ."
He went into the far then of the room and held out his hand. The sword reappeared, and he slashed the wall. The blade went through the concrete like a hot knife though butter, and when he'd finished, there was another sign in the wall.
"Hey!" he shouted into the sign. "Hey! I know you can hear me!"
There was static. Like a phone. Like a walkie-talkie. Mal stared.
"Yeah?" said a voice eventually from the other side. "What do you want, Luke?"
"I just found a whole flock down here and they need help, badly. I need you to get down here and-"
"Already done," said the man who'd just appeared beside him. The new guy strode over to the flock and touched them one by one on the arm. They vanished in a flash of light.
"No!" said the one with the knife when he came for her. "I'm not done stabbing him!"
"I'm sorry, sister," he said, tapping her shoulder. "It's time to go home."
She vanished, too.
The new guy came back to Lokiel, and they both stood across from each other, arms crossed.
"Thanks," said Luke eventually.
"Don't think I've forgiven you," said the other.
"Oh are you really going to bring that up? Right now?"
"Why shouldn't I? It's all your own fault-"
"You're such a daddy's boy-"
"You shut up-"
Both heads turned to her. "For fuck sake, you're both grown me-an- you're both adults! Act like it."
Luke stared. The new guy looked like he was going to start laughing.
"Friend of yours?" he said.
"Kinda," said Luke.
"I helped him out of a dumpster," said Mal. "Are you his brother? The one whose sword he lost?"
"Yes." He stuck out a hand. "Name's Sariel."
They shook. "I'm Mal."
"Look," said Sariel. "I've got to get back and sort out those new guys. Get the paperwork ready and all. Try not to blow yourself up, okay Luke?"
"I'll try, but it seems to happen anyways."
Sariel sighed. "Keep an eye on him, Mal. He means well, he's just kind of stupid."
But Sariel was already gone.
"So," said Luke. "What now?"
Mal stretched. "Well, we're in a rich dead guy's house, and it doesn't look like anybody will be coming around for a while." She headed for the stairs. "Take anything expensive looking you can carry. I know a good fence."
"You're such a good influence on me," he said.
"What can I say? I'm a saint. Come on, I saw some silverware in the kitchen and I think it might actually be real silver."