Month: January 2013

Scoring Seraphim

I left the health department at the end of another scoreless day. Worried, I didn’t at first notice the young demon on Church Street.

“Hey.” He was scruffy and slouched against a sculpture of two kids playing leapfrog. “Hold on. I know you.”

His horns barely poked out from his dreads. A low demon. The entire town was below my talents. I was only here at my overseer’s insistence that I transfer from Atlantic City. She said it would give me some breathing room to rethink my commitment to the divine host.

I continued walking. After a long day in heels, I wanted to get home to give my feet a break and let my wings stretch out.

“No wait!” the man called out, grabbing my edge of my blouse. “Remember me? I’m the son of your mom’s demon friend.” Not wanting to be rude, even to a dark one, I remained silent but picked up the pace in the hope he would drift away.

“Your mom invited mine to her book club, trying to branch out and be more inclusive and all,” he said, trotting alongside me. “Hey, so I know you’re all about helping people and stuff, and see, I’m kind of down on my luck. My boss is a real tightwad and I need the bus fare to get to Plattsburgh. Could you help me with, like, an Andrew Jackson?”

I turned and stared. He was dressed Burlington-style, with ratty cargo pants, a “Climb High” t-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt. Lots of hemp jewelry draped around his neck.

“My mother is the Angel of Truth. There’s no way she’d have anything to do with a demon,” I told him. “Or a book club, for that matter.”

He laughed. “Okay, got me,” he said. “But I do need to get to Plattsburgh.”

Unlike seraphim, demons easily mix falsehoods with verity. While he was obviously lying about my mother, I wasn’t sure whether he spoke truthfully about wanting to travel to Plattsburgh. It was the kind of town where people still washed their dishes with phosphate-filled detergent, burned leaves when the danger of forest fires was high and knocked out their neighbors’ teeth on the weekends. With the population already so rotten, it was scorched territory for dark ones looking to get their talons into humans.

But it was also where my predecessor in Burlington, Urizel, was transferred. The feathers along my shoulder blades rippled with irritation.

“I miss the big guy,” he said.

“Urizel?” I asked. “I never thought demons were fond of seraphim.”

“Honestly, it’s more of a competitive issue.” He sighed quietly but stopped his breath suddenly, noticing I was watching him intently. “There’s nothing better than a day up against the dude. What you see here — ” he swept his hand down Church Street, indicating Girl Scouts planting flowers around a tree and a group of college students handing out brochures supporting healthcare reform “— didn’t exist before him. So I’m going to Plattsburgh. Gotta go where the power is.”

“So the demons are already writing me off?” I asked. Not that I blamed them. My accomplishments so far included convincing a graduate student not to plagiarize and dissuading an old woman from stealing her neighbor’s doorstep-delivered newspaper. In Atlantic City, my clients were murderers and drug dealers.

“Oh, don’t take it the wrong way,” the demon said with a sheepish smile. “You know us demons. Always up for a challenge.”

“I’m not against challenges myself,” I said. The demon smiled at me ingratiatingly, believing he was scoring one for the dark team by convincing me to hand over a piddling $20, but he was giving me a glimmer of an idea.

Seraphim focus on humans. At the end of each day, we log into SCALE to report our successes in getting people to make divinely inspired decisions. For each positive outcome, we receive one point.

How many points would one earn for influencing a demon to our side? I wasn’t sure, but it must be enough to wrangle a transfer to a city with even more problems than Atlantic City. Like Cleveland or Detroit.

My feathers, cloaked from his eyes, smoothed against my back. I would stymie this demon from traveling to Plattsburgh and work him over to our side. He would be my ticket out of this town.

“I’ve heard wonderful things about Urizel. Of course, I’ve got $20 for you,” I said, the sound of helpfulness ringing in my voice.

But then my tongue suddenly felt cold and my saliva congealed like refrigerated oil. I was about to lie, something I had never tried before. Even though I realized my falsehood would achieve a greater good by bringing this demon to the light, the words fell thick and muffled from my mouth.

“But I- I don’t have it on me,” I stammered. My skin turned to gooseflesh and the urge to tell the truth nearly overwhelmed me, but the impulse skittered away when I remembered my failing score.

The demon didn’t appear to notice my stumble and cocked his head at me hopefully.

“Meet me tomorrow at 9 a.m,” I told him, and scribbled an address on a piece of paper.

The demon took the slip with a sly look. His black eyes carried flecks of silver in them, something I had never seen before in a dark one.

“What’s your name?” I asked.


I started to laugh. Joshua, as in God is Salvation. “You’re kidding me.”

“Helps me fit in,” he said, smiling. “I already know your name — every demon in Vermont knows who you are.” A thrill traveled down my arms and through my wings. He gave me a wave as he sauntered toward the steeple rising above the end of Church Street.

An Archivist of Leaves

Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.

They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.

One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.

But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.

She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.

She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.

“Del?” she said.

She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.

“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.

The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.

And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.

“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.

She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.

Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.

“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.

“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”

“That is the wrong answer.”

“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”

“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”

The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”

The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.

“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”

“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”

“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”

“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”

“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.

“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.

The 13th Prophet

They say Defiance is dead. Yeah right. Some kid on the street threw a bottle at my head.

Men with long black beards sit on the sidewalk huddled around a TV, like a fireplace, warming their hands. A man shouts in a deep poet-preacher’s voice, “The Prophets have spoken! Cross-cut shawls for women, high beam neck ties for men! All straight from the Temple! The new Control ‘Blue’ hits the shelves today, and it is to die for! The Prophets scoff at the styles of last season!”

A young man punches the speaker in the gut. “The Prophets mourn! Defiance is dead!”

Defiance is dead. What a joke.

“Need a tune up?” says a young thing with more makeup than skin. “What’re you running? I got twenty bucks with your name on it if I can’t guess what you’re runnin’.”

“And if you can?” This will be fun.

“You come in and see what we’re selling?”

“Sure” I say, and she starts guessing.

“Tell me your name and what you do. I nail it every time.”

“Burke,” I say. “Mulligan Burke.”

“What do you do, Mulligan?” she asks, and I tell her it’s Burke to people who like me and Burke to people who don’t and she says, “You’re very funny. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were running a Solitude model . . . ” She eyes me, checking for a tell. It’s obvious she’s running a Control Model 10 with some Bliss highlights. I can almost see the source code for this one. “So, tell me what you do, Burke.”

“I’m a PI, lady,” I say.

“Like in those old movies?” she says.

“An old job for an old dog,” I say. I’m not too hot these days. A little rounder and softer than I used to be.

“Okay, I got it,” she says. “You’re running a Courage model. But you’ve augmented it by overlaying a ‘Blue’ rising touch.” I ask for my twenty bucks and she scowls. She offers me a discount, but I’ve had enough of her patter so I beat it.

An old Chinese woman sits at a little stall. She’s selling Bliss knockoffs. She winks at me as if that’s enough. Hey, these days it is.

“The Prophets have spoken!” coming from another street hawker – god I hate 77th street on days like this. “If you’re still wearing the Model 15 Desire Personality you need an update. The long-awaited Desire Model 16 hits the shelves tomorrow! Be first in line! Be first in line!”

By the time I reach the door to the Mercer Building, I’m sweating. It’s a cold sweat. And there’s this crowd packed in around the doors, shouting. The TVs out front are running the daily fashion lineup and Defiance is missing. There isn’t a body, but so what? The city is his chalk outline. The vibrations on the train, like Morse code, tick tick ticking out the words: Defiance is dead.

Desert Song

The Chevy truck looked like it had been painted by a team of monkeys on acid. Its front was bright green, the rear a muddy brown and the camper stuck on its back sported daubs of pink and yellow in no apparent pattern.

“Bought it from a hippie,” Ray yelled as he passed the kitchen window. We still said things like that in 1982.

I left the dishes in the sink and bolted out the back door in time to see the truck struggle around the corner into what passes for our backyard but looks more like a car cemetery. The thing looked even worse standing still. The passenger door was hanging on one hinge with a single strand of rope preventing it from peeling off entirely. The windshield was cracked from what looked like a bullet hole. It had no front fender and one headlight. When Ray shut off the motor, it kept running for about a minute. I thought it whimpered a couple of times too, but that might have been me. Ray said that he’d gotten it for “almost nothing” which seemed about right.

Ray doesn’t get enough auto repairing to suit him at his job at the Ford dealer downtown, so it’s not unusual for him to show up with stray vehicles that he fixes up to sell. It brought in extra money that we needed to survive in San Francisco, even though we lived in a rundown flat in the fog belt a block from Ocean Beach, so close to the zoo you we heard the lions roaring at night. I didn’t mind him working on his vehicles on the weekends, but when I saw that truck, I thought he had gone too far. If you’d told me then I was going to set out across the western plains in that heap and be chased by a skeleton to boot, I would have called you crazy.

“The engine isn’t bad,” Ray said. “Transmission seems okay. All it needs is a muffler, brakes, maybe a new carburetor and a little body work.”

“More than a little. That’s the sorriest-looking vehicle I’ve ever seen.”

He gave me a hug, crushing me against his chest. “I know it looks bad, Franny, but the engine’s sound. And I can fix up the camper so it’ll be just like home. You’ll see.”

I didn’t say anything.

“So, are you mad?”

“No. But don’t get too busy on it today. We’re having dinner with Rita and Jake. Six sharp.”

“Aw, Franny. Why don’t you let me barbecue up something right here?”

“Because we promised we’d come.”

“Aw, Franny,” he said again, but a smile was threatening to break out on his solemn face as he went into the shed to look for the right tool to start working on the truck.

The Right Game

A motorized carriage trundled down the street, splashing dingy water and filth onto the crowd. Avery waited until it had passed before crossing the street, leaping over puddles and maneuvering around people. A man stuck his hand out and Avery denied the entry to his inner jacket pocket with a twitch of his wrist before slipping down the alleyway created by two leaning buildings. Water dribbled down the eaves and wet his face while two youths exchanging goods and money looked up quickly and scurried out the other mouth of the alley.

“Don’t ignore me!” Davis hissed as he caught up, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trim, red waistcoat. “You can’t just tell me they’re going to hang Caelie and then walk away! Are you really just going to just let them do it? You two practically grew up together.”

“I’m not going to let them do anything.” Avery plucked a hat from the head of a sleeping street dweller, settling it onto his head as he moved down the alley. “I imagine they won’t consult my opinion at all. Of course, if they did, I would be happy to speak on her behalf.”

“I’m sure the thought keeps her warm at night.”

“Why do you care so much? You know how it was between us.” Avery paused at the mouth of the alley, fishing in his coat pocket for his pair of binoculars. Spying across the way, he could see the broken glass of a window at the top of an apartment building; the wind and rain let in to shake the damp curtains; their destination. No shadows inside, no light, no occupants. The police had already given it up. He folded up his binoculars. “We rarely lasted more than two days without property damage and we hated each other at least half of the time that we were around one another. Tell me, would you risk your neck for that?”

“Damn it, yes! Half the time is about as good as a person as volatile as you is likely to get,” Davis said, forced to shout as they crossed the busy intersection and grunting as he pushed past the people and dodged the rare motorcar. “Show me the woman who can put up with you for more than half of the time and I will gift you a unicorn for your next birthday.”

“Oh, don’t tease me, Davis. You know how badly I want a unicorn.” Avery fished the parchment from his pocket, unfurling it as he looked up from the stairwell of the building. “Room two-two-one, should be a straight flight up. Best be quiet now, better that no one know why we’re here.” Avery pushed open the door, leaning in.

“Do you have to be so cavalier?” Davis dragged him back a pace onto the stoop, staring. “Sometimes I think she was the only thing in the world keeping you human. At least when she was around you were always busy.”

“Busy hunting her down, you mean. Busy being berated for losing track of her again.”

“Oh, spare me. The only thing you care about is your ego and the fact that she just might be smarter than you.”

“Well, she wasn’t smart enough this time, was she? Honestly, caught stealing from the king.”

“I shudder to think what you would do if it were me in that prison cell.”

“At this juncture, I’m not disagreeable to the notion of an entirely paper-based correspondence.” Avery pulled his hat lower and entered the building, not looking back. “Stay outside if you’re going to be difficult. We’re here to solve a murder. Try to keep your mind on the king’s business. Honestly.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Davis grumbled and shut the door behind him.