It had been so long since I had been in a school, I’d forgotten how tedious high school education could be. I stood behind my Mortal all day. All day of looking over her shoulder as she studied, read and took notes. Let me illustrate how boring that was: Watching a Mortal sleep is more exciting. In fact, deep in REM, they might even sleep talk which can be pretty entertaining, but a normal day at a high school? BOR-RING.
I watched the clock. Technically, I could speed up time for my Mortal and make the bell ring. All it takes is a little mind trick, numbing the frontal lobe with a Slugger ice bullet to slow down brain function as time continues on. Pop the Mortal with one shot and BAM! It feels as if time flies. The only problem was that I’d never tried it on myself.
I was one week into my job. It was Friday afternoon and there was ten minutes left on the clock. The day was so uneventful, I could have skipped it entirely and read the Cliff’s Notes later on. I fingered the row of ammo on the dual belts strapped across my chest. I had a clean set of five Sluggers and I was seriously considering knocking myself out with one of them. My other option was to just flat out scream at the top of my lungs because the monotony was getting to me that bad.
Sitting upright and alert was my Mortal. How on earth she had the energy to stay awake and be coherent after 8 hours of school was baffling. Even if The Boss had shunted me aside, he certainly had a sense of humor about it. Cody… I mean Bill. Crud. Katelyn…was the easiest Mortal I’d ever been a guardian for. She certainly made memorizing her name a snap. She wrote her name out at the top of her homework in clear capital letters, doodled it on her notebook and vandalized her first and last name on the pages of every textbook she owned. I’d have to be beyond stupid to forget. That part was easy, the rest was just to pass time, like for example: I’d committed to memory the curve of her face. She had this left cheek dimple that popped up whenever she ate, smiled, grimaced, frowned or vaguely moved. I found it fascinating.
Wow. I was really bored.
Despite the groovy dimple, Katelyn had hazel gray eyes, long curly light brown hair hair, pale skin and a crooked nose. Her curls were so frizzy that I caught myself tilting my head back and forth to study the patterns the sun made through them.
I didn’t know how many weeks or months or years I could take staring at this girl, but I was going to stick to it. Heck, I might bore myself into a second death…not that it was possible, but an angel can hope.
Seven minutes until freedom. Yeesh. If I didn’t know better, I’d say time was marching backward.
Duffy crawled in through an open window and laid himself out on the black Formica biology lab table in front of me.
“Got any weekend plans, Gid?”
“Don’t call me Gid,” I said, irritably. Muddy Gap High must have been getting under my skin.
“Oh come on, you know you’re free to have a little fun.”
“Not it if means you and the other guys are going to rig the school with booby traps.”
“Hey, that exploding garbage can was total genius,” Duffy grinned. “I’m thinking, next time, we get all the cans to blow to the tune of Jingle Bells. Ooh! That is brilliant. I bet we can shake all the cans in the vending machine and get them to blow as the grand finale.
I stifled the urge to roll my eyes. “No thanks.”
“So, you’d rather tail after goody-goody girl Katelyn, instead of hang with us?” Duffy said. He shrugged and rolled off the table to his feet. “We were going to go into town to do some demon hunting tonight, but if you want to stay with your boring gal pal, I totally understand.”
That got my attention. Next to me, Katelyn stiffened. She was cleaning up her lab area, but her actions were tense and intent. Weird. Mortal teenagers were particularly deaf to angels so I ruled out that she was listening in. Then again, the boy in front of her kept turning around and staring at her. That would get annoying. I considered shooting him with something that would get him to mind his own business, but my brain was hung up on…
“Demon hunting?” I said. “I thought you said there weren’t any?”
“They still stagger through town, Gideon,” Duffy said. “It makes for some sport. Besides, it’s been months since I shot one. When was the last time you blasted demon scum?”
The answer to that would be ‘last week before my transfer’, but after hours and hours of standing in classes at the school, my fingers were twitching to pull the trigger. “It’s been long enough,” I said.
“So, is that a yes?” Duffy said, eagerly as he leaned forward and grinned. His dark skin set off the crazy as he got his eyes open wide enough to show the whites around his eyeballs. He was nuts.
The answer stuck in my throat. I’d been running a twenty-four hour detail on Katelyn. She had a simple schedule: go to school, go home, do homework, eat, read and sleep. I even hung out on the lawn in front of her house all night long, one hand on the grip of my gun, just in case.
Katelyn heaved out a heavy sigh and idly flipped open her notebook. She doodled her name in the blank heading and then began to write:
I wish I had friends. I feel so empty…
She quickly scribbled it out.
Finally. Guardian stuff. There were about a million ways I could go about getting Mortals a decent friend. Some were easier than others, but I had ammo for that. A quick shot of endorphins and a link bullet to another Mortal and viola! friendship. I could shoot her and some random Mortal and I’d be done in five minutes flat. Which also gave me plenty of time to have some real fun. And, of course, do what we were trained to do, which is keep the demon population down.
“Earth to Gideon,” Duffy said, waving a hand in front of my face. “Demon hunting. You in or out?”
“In,” I said. Katelyn stuffed her notebook in her backpack as the last bell of the day rang. Her eyebrows knit into a wrinkled line as she stomped out of the classroom. Not like I was an expert on her moods, but she looked mad. Or was it sad with a mixture of angry? I couldn’t tell. The staring boy followed her down the hall, so I figured she might just be irritated about him.
“Sweet!” Duffy exclaimed triumphantly. “I’ll tell the guys. Be out in front of the school in ten and we’ll start scouting. This is going to be awesome!”
“Yeah, can’t wait,” I said, fist bumping Duffy as I ran past him after Katelyn. I pulled out my silver six-shooter and emptied the barrel in the palm of my hand. The white demon defense shells shone brightly and I slipped them into my back jeans pocket. Then I fished out what I needed. I had four sunshine yellow Linker shells in my ammo belt and I pushed them out with my thumb. With an eye on Katelyn, I stuck one shell between my teeth and I loaded the other. Two ought to do it; one per Mortal. Now all I needed was to find a Mortal who looked like she needed a friend. I shoved in the second shell and slapped the barrel shut and spun it until it caught and loaded.
Katelyn was at her locker stuffing what she needed into her book bag. I took aim at her head and squeezed the trigger. It was the perfect shot. No, I didn’t blow her head off, but the shiny yellow bullet collided into her skull and dissolved instantly. She wouldn’t even have a headache.
“Now, to find you a buddy,” I muttered to myself. It’s not like I knew what to look for. What did girls like? Yeesh. I couldn’t fathom that one. Did I randomly hit someone and hope for the best or carefully pick somebody out? I didn’t know and I really wasn’t all that interested. I randomly picked out a similar aged girl and took the shot. I’d be linking a fresh-faced, blond to my girl Cody…Korin, I mean Katelyn. That sounded good to me. I pulled the trigger and it was over. The yellow bullet dissolved in the other girl’s golden hair.
“Job done,” I said, popping open the empty barrel and reloading with anti-demon ammo from my pocket. I didn’t bother to see if my shots worked. It always worked. This was angel ammo, invented by The Boss Himself; it was the best in the universe. “Now it’s time to party.”
On the front lawn were stragglers left over from the mass exodus out the school and a clump of angels standing off to one side under a silver maple with its orange autumn leaves all blown off. Phil had his bazooka hefted on his shoulder, Duffy was holding up a dozed off Anna with the tip of his finger and Min was doing ninja practice with his swords.
“My source says the demons are on the outskirts of town,” Phil said. “You know he won’t come, Duffy. The new guy’s got dedication, sure, but he’s no fun at all.”
“He said he’d be here, so chill it, Phil,” Duffy said.
“Yeah, listen to…” Anna said drowsily before ending the sentence in a snorting snore.
Min looked up from his sword routine and grinned as I walked over.
“And he came!” Duffy crowed. “I knew you would.”
“Sup?” I said. We exchanged fist bumps all around. “Of course I did. No decent angel would pass up a chance to fight off a few demons. Besides, being on the most boring Guardian detail ever for an entire week was getting to me.”
“Good, because my girlfriend…” Phil began, but was rudely interrupted by a chorus of loud groans.
“Phil, just because the girl in Dispatch over our area has pity on you enough to chat you up on the phone does not mean you two are dating,” Duffy said. “You don’t even know what she looks like.”
Phil was smiling, punch drunk. “Yeah, but she’s got the most amazing voice.”
“Chop,” Min said, shaking his head.
“Demons,” I said loudly. “Are they cutting through town or what?”
“Totally,” Phil said. “About fifty miles north of here.”
“Fifty miles… Seriously? That’s a little far out of town, if you ask me. What about Guardian duties?”
Duffy shrugged. “Do you have anything else planned?”
I really didn’t. My Mortal was hardly high maintenance and if I really wanted to talk myself into it, it was our job. We were just stretching the rules a bit. Okay, a lot. We were only supposed to demon hunt within a ten-mile radius of our assigned Mortals. It’d be hard to explain away a fifty-mile trip, but it was possible to do.
“I guess we could spare a few hours. Let’s get out there before dark,” I said. “It’s easier to catch a light…” I flipped open my phone and was about to call Transportation when Duffy tackled me.
“No Transportation,” Duffy said, slapping my ancient flip phone shut. “As soon as we call it in, it gets recorded.”
I got the gist of the mission pretty quick. “In other words, we’re going rogue in another angel’s territory and you don’t want headquarters to know.”
“Yeah,” Phil said, matter of fact. “What did you think we were doing?”
I was about to enumerate how many hundreds of rules they were breaking, but frankly, the prospect of demon hunting was too tempting. I checked over my shoulder to see that the blond Mortal was chatting animatedly with Katelyn. She’d be fine for an hour or two. “So, do we walk or hitch a ride?”
Duffy grinned. “I like the way you think, Gideon.”
After walking for about seven miles along the highway, a dumpy old truck ambled by for us to catch a ride on. It was a bit of a trick getting Anna–half asleep and dragging her feet–into the bed of a moving truck, but between the three of us we managed it in the end. The old beater belched copious amounts of black smoke out the tail pipe and the engine sounded rusty. It was a slow ride. It felt like eternity when we finally reached our destination in the town of Jeffery City, which made me laugh. I spent all my fifty years working for J.A.C. in real cities like New York and London where people were crowded together with angels and demons practically sandwiched on top of each other, shoulder to shoulder. Calling Jeffery City a ‘city’ was a stretch. It was a cluster of twenty buildings, and a handful of metal sheds. Tumbleweed and sagebrush outnumbered Mortals one million to one.
“This is it?” I said as we leapt off the side of the truck to scout the area. “Where are the demons?”
We stood under the flickering single light at a closed gas station. It buzzed and blinked weakly as it shed a weak light on the oil stained cracked cement.
“Um…” Phil paused. The sun was setting behind the hills where everything was growing at a forty-five degree angle do to the relentless wind. There was nothing. Mortals were in for the night, and any other angels or demons were nowhere in sight. “I’m sure they’re here somewhere…behind a shed, maybe?”
“Oh man, we are going to be in so much trouble. I don’t know why I listen to you, Phil,” Duffy said, clutching his frizzy black hair in his fingers. “You and your stinking imaginary girlfriend!”
“For the millionth time, Dispatch Babe is totally real,” Phil snapped back.
Min glowered at his quarreling friends. “Chop!”
“Whasss going on?” Anna said groggily. “Where are the demons?”
“Dispatch Babe? You don’t even know her name?” Duffy screeched incredulously.
“Hey, I have class. I’m not going to go demanding her name. That’s not gentleman-like.”
“I’ll shove your gentleman so far down your…”
“CHOP!” Min screamed at the top of his lungs. He whipped out his swords ready to whack both angels. If I didn’t interfere, I’d be hitching a ride back to Muddy Gap with an assortment of body parts.
“Enough,” I bellowed as I leapt to the center of the brawl. “It’s almost dark and there’s no time for fighting. Either we’ve got to get back home on another truck now or camp it out here for the night near a light.”
The argument shut off in an instant. We all knew what full dark meant: no light stranded an angel. We all hated the dark because it made us an easy target for demons to harass. Demons lived in the dark, loved it and multiplied there. Another thing demons loved was to tear an angel to pieces.
Mortals were turning in for the night and they didn’t see the need to keep the porch light on for the sagebrush. Ominously, other town lights began to go out, at regular intervals that were little too predicable for my taste. Almost as if someone was going lamppost to lamppost and unscrewing the bulbs. The sun had already gone down and in no time at all, the only light we had was a cluster of stars and the blinking light over the gas station.
“I vote stay,” Anna said, one eye barely open. “I could use a nap.”
“How much ammo do we have?” I said nervously. I hated the dark. Not like, afraid-of-the-monsters-under-my-bed kind of scared, but the full on, I could get-my-lights-punched-out-by-a-horde-of-demons freak out. It had happened to me once in a back alley of the darkest part of London and it was the worst night of my life.
“You’re really jumpy,” Duffy said. “It’s Wyoming, Gideon. Not even the fleas jump as much as you do here.”
“It gets darker here than in the big cities,” Phil said. “Give it a few weeks and you’ll adjust to it.”
“Or not,” Duffy snickered. “Oh man. I think my brain just blew a fuse. I’m going to have so much fun pranking you. It’s like Christmas came early this year and The Boss blessed me with an angel scared of the dark.”
“I’m not scared of the dark,” I said.
“Sure you’re not.”
“Look, there is a difference between being scared and…”
The gas station light flickered erratically, casting an eerie blinking light on a shadow zipping up the metal post. There was a hissing sound like steam shooting out a pressurized tank. I knew that sound all too well. The demons arrived.
I whipped out my six-shooter and aimed. The demon was moving fast, practically flying up the pole to the dying light bulb. I pulled the trigger, but it was too late. The demon grabbed the bulb and shattered it.
We were in for it now.
“Was that a…?” Phil gaped.
“Not just a demon,” Duffy said. “Loads of demons.”
“This is why I hate the dark,” I muttered to myself as we all backed up to cover each other’s hind ends. Anna slumped against my shoulder, but I hardly thought it was because she wanted protection from a strapping Guardian like me. She’d nodded off again, though how in Heaven’s glorious name could she fall asleep now was beyond me.
“My, my,” said a deep, thickly British accent from behind the darkest shadow. “What do we have here? Sweet little angels stranded in the dark. How lovely.”
In an instant, I knew we were surrounded. The shadows shifted and shimmied where demons split into two. There were so many of them, I couldn’t keep an eye on all of them at the same time. I searched for an opening, even a slightly less dark building or shed we could find cover behind.
Being plunged into sudden darkness night-blinded me for a brief moment, but I found an escape route and took it. I grabbed Anna by the wrist and wrapped her arm around my shoulders mid-run. Demonfire licked at my heels; red, sulfuric and–if I let it touch my skin–burned like acid. Duffy, Phil and Min followed me close behind as we ducked for cover behind a shed bathed in starlight.
“Where the bleep did all those demons come from?” Duffy said, panicked.
“The dark!” I gasped. It was all I could say. My heart was thumping in my throat. “I told you. I hate the dark!”
Phil tripped a several feet shy of safety and face planted in the gravel. His bazooka soared out of his hands as he doubled up on the ground in a pile of tangled arms and legs. If he didn’t move fast, his backside was going to get reamed.
“Cover me!” I said. I shoved Anna off me and rolled her to safety. She was dreaming peacefully. Duffy whipped out his glock while Min ripped open the front of his shirt. I was about to shout at him that this was no time for a wardrobe malfunction, but under his crisply ironed flannel shirt were rows of glittering throwing knives.
“That works,” I said. “Aim for the darkest shadows.”
Phil scrambled for footing, but his arms were flailing uselessly and his legs were twisted around each other at the knees. He yelped in pain every time a round of demonfire slammed into his butt, which was often seeing as the demons were having a hey-day using his bottom as target practice. Duffy started the counter attack, taking solid shots at moving shadows while Min carefully picked off demons doing the most shooting.
I ran into the center of it all, skidding to a stop on my knees at Phil’s side. The klutzy guardian whimpered as I untangled his legs and rolled him to his knees. Grabbing Phil under the armpits, I dragged him back behind the shed and laid him out next to Anna.
“Ow,” he groaned. “How bad is it, Gideon?”
I glanced down at his smoking jeans, or what was left of them. He had burns everywhere.
“Not bad,” I said. “You just completed the shortest diet ever. Lost a solid five pounds off your backside.”
Phil sobbed out a chuckle. “Dude, not funny.”
“Joke later,” Duffy shouted. “We’ve got demons incoming!”
Demons were closing in fast. There had to be hundreds of them, crawling over cars, scaling the gas station walls and the shed roof to rain fire down on us. I rolled to my back and spun out my six shooters, taking down two demons over-head.
Laughing like a maniac, I sprang to my feet and emptied both barrels, finding a mark with every shot. I was in my element now. This was what I trained so hard for and why I took Guardian work. I shot until the end of the barrel and clicked. Demons still swarmed the gas station parking lot. Min was out of throwing knives and shifted easily to close combat with his two wicked curved swords. He was a freaking ninja maniac as he sliced through demons like butter.
Duffy reached the end of his clip as I unstrapped my shotgun off my back. I had six shots left, and even though I could have emptied them all on the horde, I saved them. Backing up, I stood over Phil–who was clutching his bottom– and Anna, who was snoring.
“Please tell me you have ammo left,” I said to Duffy as the demons closed in hungrily.
“A half clip,” he said slapping the spare back into his glock.
I took a quick assessment of what we were up against. We’d thinned the demons out considerably, but there were still hundreds swarming. I had six shots, Duffy had five and Min had two swords. He was tiring fast as he stumbled backward and scrambled to our side, protecting Phil and Anna.
“Chop,” he said, gasping for air. His hands shook as he tried to get a better grip on the hilt. I tightened my hold on my shotgun, pressing it firmly into my shoulder.
“We could use a miracle about now,” I grumbled.
“Fat chance,” Phil said. “We’ve tried for years trying to get Anna awake. Either she is asleep, or she’s not.”
“Now is a good time to not be asleep,” I said.
I glanced over my shoulder. Anna was still out. Regardless of the noise, gunfire and shouting, Anna was enjoying a delightful nap. Duffy nudged her with the toe of his cowboy boot. She didn’t even stir in her sleep.
“Come on, Anna!” Duffy said. “We’re surrounded!”
We were definitely surrounded. Demons solidified out of shadows. They looked and walked like a Mortal, but the edges of their bodies melded to the dark giving them a hazed appearance. Everything about them was cast in darkness, even their faces as they eyed us warily and crept closer. My original count of a hundred was underestimated. They multiplied as they walked. They shimmied, split and formed into another demon right before our eyes.
“Chop,” Min swore fervently.
“Not quite,” said the head demon with the thick accent. He flashed me a disarming smile. “Hello, Gideon.”