Duffy balked. “You know this guy?”
“Uh, no,” I said and I really didn’t. All demons looked the same to me. “Why would I? It’s just a demon.”
“Hurtful words,” the demon said. “Perhaps I should jog your memory.”
Too late. In a blaze of red fire from licking off the ends of his blackened fingers, the demon illuminated his face. He was a creepy dude. He had a long hook nose, broad jaw, and reddish eyes with deep dark circles under them.
Okay, maybe I had seen him before, but the one thing good about my crap-shot memory was that I got to forget him.
“You look…vaguely familiar. Have I shot you before?” I said. Immortals fighting immortals was one eternal battle after another. Nobody was ever permanently gone for long. Demons regrew whatever they got shot off and angels just reattached and healed. We felt pain, but it was fleeting. Even Phil, with the majority of his bum shot off and holes in his legs was already piecing himself back together. In about a minute, he’d be on his feet again.
The demon grimaced. “You blew my head off, in London fifty years ago,” he snarled. “A demon never forgets.”
Duffy snort laughed. “Awesome!”
“And I suppose you’ve got an issue with that?” I said. “Well, I hate to burst your revenge bubble, but I’ve blasted the heads off of a lot of demons. You weren’t anything special.”
“Wasn’t I?” the demon said, curiously cocking a thick eyebrow. He leaned forward and in a blink, he moved, shifting his shadowy mass until we were nose to nose. He blew the smoke of demonfire in my face. The sulfuric smell burned at my sinuses and shot into my brain.
The vast unforgiving landscape of Wyoming melted away as I began to remember.
So, apparently, I knew this demon. When I first started in the J.A.C. I was pretty green when it came to demons. I made the mistake, years ago, of letting a demon talk before firing. There was a reason we spent an entire year on target practice at the Academy and it wasn’t because we had nothing else to do.
I was two months out on assignment when I ran across this demon. He tracked me all that night and I didn’t have back up. At first I thought it was just because he wanted to shred me like all demons did, but he didn’t.
He cornered me and made me an offer: Give up a Mortal and he would make all my problems go away.
The idea sickened me. I didn’t give him an answer then. All I did was aim and blast his head off. That was in a side alley in the streets of London fifty years ago and I’d almost completely forgotten about it.
The dirty, trash-strewn, city street faded and the tumbleweed of Wyoming returned. The demon smirked at me, knowingly.
“My offer still stands, Gideon,” he said, rolling my name off his tongue with his thick accent. I wanted to throw up.
“How long did it take for your head to grow back?” I shot at him. Really, it wasn’t a question. I wanted to know how long I could silence him.
The demon didn’t react, but his eyes flicked nervously to my shotgun. One shot was all it took and I already had him in my sights.
“Think about it. No more forgotten names. No more Mortals lost,” he said, enticingly. “No more Junior Angel Corps. Last time we met you’d only been out of the Academy for what? A couple months? It’s been fifty years, Gideon. Fifty long years of second rate tech, recycled wings and one forgotten name after another.”
I stalled with my finger on the trigger. My brain went kaput and it wasn’t pleasant. It was almost as if the demon had read my thoughts and worst fears to vomit out his lies.
“How did you know about that?”
“Every demon does his research. You let a Mortal die on your watch,” he said. “That must have been terribly disappointing.”
“Whoa, Gid. That’s bad,” Duffy whistled low. “Like career ending, bad.”
“Chop,” Min agreed.
“I know it is!” I snapped, lifting my shotgun higher, level with the demon’s head. He flinched backward and put up his hands. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” he shrugged unconvincingly. “But I know you do. One Mortal. That’s all it takes, Gideon. One Mortal in exchange for a perfect memory.”
It felt as if my insides were tainted with dirty oil, through my ears. Lies. I couldn’t handle all the lies! I couldn’t stand it, but I couldn’t stop listening. It took monumental effort to unstick my throat.
“Never.” I didn’t want to know which Mortal he wanted. My head was screaming at me to just shoot and end the sickening conversation and at long last, my body obeyed. The demon’s mouth opened to say more, but I pulled the trigger. His head exploded like a balloon of sticky black tar.
There was a deep silence as the demons watched their leader’s head regrow at the base of his neck the size of a pinhead.
He swore heatedly, his voice high and squeaky from his miniscule vocal chords. “Gah! That stings! Get them!”
I took careful aim, taking out only the biggest demons. Duffy was equally cautious as he emptied his clip, one by one. That left a gassed Min to pick up the slack.
“Anna!” I screamed. “We need a miracle right now!”
Miracles could pull off some seriously amazing demons blasting. It was the main reason why I loved working with them. But from Anna, there was nothing.
Anna rolled over, but I couldn’t tell if she was just getting a more comfortable position to snooze on, or to actually help. Phil was almost put back together completely and crawled on his elbows to his bazooka fifteen feet away. A demon closed in and put his black foot on it just as Phil reached out to grab it.
“Hands off, zit-boy,” the demon said menacingly. Phil put his hands up in truce, not willing to risk of another round of demonfire in his backside.
“I’m out!” Duffy yelled as he clicked on empty again and again.
I had one last shot left and saved it for a hulking demon barreling down on Min. Min had his hands full. He was fighting in a blur of steel at the center of a crowd of demons.
“CHOP!” he screamed the top of his lungs. We had no choice but to go hand to hand combat like demon fighting back in the Stone Age.
I flipped around my shotgun and grabbed it by the barrel. I used the butt to thunk heads and bodies, swinging it like a baseball bat. I estimated we had about five minutes before we were going to be the receiving end of an unpleasant beating.
Well, it wasn’t quite five minutes. It was more like three. Fifty demons went down before they overtook Min and kicked away his swords. They pinned him down on the ground and tossed Duffy and Phil next to him. I had a demon on each arm, two per leg and one with his beefy arm around my neck.
“Let us go!” Duffy said. “This isn’t even our area so let us go home and we’ll call it a night.”
“Nice try,” said the slinking demon in charge. His head was about the size of a tennis ball and his voice was definitely the pitch of Alvin and the Chipmunks. He stood in front of me, his hands smoking in demonfire. “I’ve always wanted to se what would happen if I ripped an angel to shreds and spread him over the face of the earth. I wonder; do you think you’ll glue yourself back together again or just stay in pieces?”
He looked a little too greedily at me, which probably meant I was going to be the first to find out. He raised his hand, ready to strike.
Well, this was it. I flinched, readying myself for the first blow.
“Did someone call for a miracle?”
The demon paused, confused and I couldn’t blame him. Anna had her eyes closed, was on her knees with her arms reached out to the sky. Weird. She also sounded a lot like those televangelists asking folks at home to place their hands on their TV sets to be blessed. Then again, I wasn’t sure if her question was rhetorical or if she actually wanted me to respond.
“Uh… I did?” I said, stupidly.
“Can I hear an ‘Amen’?”
“Seriously? We’re getting trounced here, Anna. Just blow their stinking heads off!” Duffy said. A demon forced his foot onto Duffy’s head ground his face into the dirt. Duffy struggled to break free, but the demon had Duffy pinned.
“Amen!” Phil hollered. “I said it! I said Amen!”
“Amen!” I said as Duffy’s head got bored deeper into the dirt. “Come on. We said it. AMEN!!!”
Anna grinned, satisfied.
“Then let’s party!” Her eyes opened fully and she stood up. White light encapsulated her body as she ripped off her black leather jacket. Her shirt underneath wasn’t really a shirt, it was more like a tripped out fishing vest with pockets covering every inch of the garment.
She pulled out a stick of dynamite and lit the end of it with a lighter she dug from her jeans pocket.
“Anyone need a light?” The lighter flame roared like a blow-torch making the detonator string fizz to the end in a half of a second and explode.
I wish she had warned us to close our eyes instead. The blinding flash of light was migraine inducing. Demons screamed in agony and scattered in every direction. They crawled, ran, and limped to be free of the stinging light.
It took a solid minute for the smoke to clear and to see normally in the dark again. After a few blinks, I saw Anna standing at the center of a crater. Her explosion did some serious damage to the demons, but all around her was left better than it was before. Oil stains in the cement were gone, cracks were mended and everything the light had touched was a little cleaner and newer.
The screams of the demons didn’t go away. More shots could be heard from the underbrush as someone started picking off the demons left behind.
“Wow, that felt good!” Anna said. She stretched and popped a crick in her neck.
“I’m glad someone does,” Duffy grumbled as he spit dirt and gravel out of his mouth. “’Can I hear an Amen’? Anna, that was the lamest line I’ve ever heard.”
“I had to distract the demons,” Anna said. “And just barging in, guns blazing is so last century. I’ve got style.”
“Don’t listen to him. You rock, Anna,” Phil said, giving her a high five. “That was the sweetest miracle I’ve seen you pull off in a long time.”
“Very… cool…” I managed to stammer. I was staring, slack-jawed at the Miracle-girl. I’d never seen her do anything but sleep. Well, and snore. Duffy waved his hand in front of my face.
“Earth to Gideon,” Duffy said.
“Dude, you’re drooling.” Phil elbowed me in the ribs.
I probably was, but my already trippy brain stalled completely.
“Blue,” I said, pointing at her.
“Way to figure out my eye color, Sherlock,” she said as her pale cheeks turned a shade of pink. I don’t know why it struck me that she had the lightest shade of baby blue eyes I’d ever seen. Fully awake, Anna was really… pretty. I already had a thing for Miracles, but she took it to a whole new level.
“Awkward,” Duffy whispered out the side of his mouth. It was enough for my brain to reboot, thank goodness.
“Right,” I said, clearing my throat. “That was good work, Amy…”
“Anna,” Phil coughed out into his hand. Apparently my brain was still only half on.
“Anna. Um, yeah…that was awesome,” I said, tapping knuckles with her. Anna acted like me staring at her was totally normal, which was super cool of her.
“Thanks, but I had help,” she said, nodding to a clump of bushes. In my gape-fest, the shooting had stopped and once again, the Wyoming landscape was quiet. Wind whistled through the sagebrush and the moon started coming up over the high rolling hills. There wasn’t a demon in sight. They even scraped up their tar-like, blown apart bodies and took it with them.
There was an angel, silhouetted in the moonlight. He aimed at the last demon nearly out of range running like mad across the scrubby grass and shot its head off. There was a yelp and then nothing as the demon disappeared.
“Whoever he is, I couldn’t have pulled off that explosion without him,” Anna said as the angel sauntered over. No, he strutted. And he looked familiar. “Most detonations take out a good handful of demons, but mix it with the right anti-demon shell and you end up with a mega watt explosion.”
“How did you know he was here?” Phil said, gaping.
“I don’t know. I was zonked out, so I think I dreamed him,” Anna said.
“Or you just think he’s dreamy,” Duffy snerked.
“I was passing through town,” the Angel of Death said. “It is always a pleasure to aid a Miracle.”
Decked out in every imaginable weapon and ammo, the cocky Junior A.O.D tipped his hat at Anna and holstered his fat .50 caliber Smith and Wesson. The gun was the size and thickness of my thigh. Dang it. The A.O.D. always got the best gear.
“Ma’am,” he winked at Anna and gallantly swept up her hand to his lips and kissed it. Gag. “Your aim is as impeccable as your timing. You are truly breathtaking.”
“Who’s the swag?” Duffy said.
“And why is he slobbering on Anna?” Phil said.
“Ugh. Chop,” Min said as he shook demon splatter off his swords.
The A.O.D. was so intent on devouring Anna’s hand that he didn’t introduce himself. Which meant that I had to. I sucked at intros.
“Guys, this is Steve,” I said.
“Stan,” Stan corrected, his eyes glued on Anna.
“Yeah. He’s A.O.D.”
“Ah,” Duffy, Phil and Min said in unison as if his position explained everything, which it did. The Angel’s of Death were all notoriously cocky.
“Pleased to make you acquaintance,” he said as Anna, thankfully, extracted her hand and wiped it off on her jeans. Sure his southern accent was charming, but he laid it on a little thick.
“So, what are you doing in Wyoming?” I said. “I thought you were assigned to my old area.”
“I was,” Stan said, reluctantly tearing his eyes off Anna. “I got a call from Headquarters about a week ago to come and work this area and good thing too. I’ve never seen that many demons at once in my seventy-five years of working A.O.D.”
“We are lucky to have you,” Anna said.
Blurg. Despite being saved from being torn to shreds, I didn’t exactly feel overjoyed to have Stan in my area. Despite Anna’s sweet remark, Stan seemed troubled.
“Can we chat in private, Gideon?” he said. He didn’t wait for a reply. He grabbed my arm and dragged me off into the brush out of earshot of the others. “What’s going on here? I heard you nearly got kicked out of J.A.C.”
I buried my face in my hands. “That is going to haunt me for eternity,” I groaned.
“But I thought you and the shrink were making progress?”
I looked up with a heavy sigh. “Not really.”
“Come on, Gid. Get it together! This is serious business getting stuck out here. You are one step short of eternal puberty and a janitor job.”
“I know! Though it’s not like I’m the only one struggling. If you have success with the shrink, let know the secret, because everything I’m doing isn’t working.”
Stan backed off, shifting uncomfortably in his boots. “Yeah, I feel your pain, man. It’s not working for me either,” he said. “Don’t tell that hot Miracle worker though, okay?”
“My lips are sealed,” I said caustically. “Why did you get reassigned? What did you do so bad that got you out here in Hell’s playground?”
“Nothing,” Stan said, his brow furrowing. “I was working a crash on interstate ninety-five in New York when I got an urgent call from Headquarters. I was given an emergency transfer to Central Wyoming.”
“The same day I arrived in Muddy Gap. That’s not coincidence,” I said.
Stan chuckled. “Nothing on earth is coincidence, Gideon. You of all people know that. There is always either a demon or angel behind everything that happens to Mortals. Angels are no different.” Stan scratched at his forehead under the brim of his hat “There is much of this I don’t understand. The majority of what I am doing here is small work. Animals and old folks is pretty much it.”
“It’s desolate out here. What did you expect?”
“More.” Stan looked disturbed. He pulled out pitch-black glass bullet off his ammo belt and dropped it into the palm of my hand. “I was given this with a note from The Boss. It’s a Banisher and I’ll know when and who to use it on when the time comes.”
I held the bullet up for closer inspection. It let off no light, which was odd for angel corps ammo. The glass didn’t even pick up a reflection off the moon.
“What’s a Banisher?” I said.
“It’s for when angels fall,” Stan said, his voice flat. “Angels of Death take the living and bring them to the other side. It’s our job. But there is another side to being A.O.D. that I hoped I’d never have to do. We watch over the Angel Corps too for the ones making deals with demons and it’s our job to…”
Stan gulped uncomfortably.
“I get it,” I said. The Banisher did exactly what is sounded like: banished an angel from Heaven.
“It’s not something I want to ever do and I’m flipping trigger happy. I’ll shoot anything,” Stan said. “But Banishers are harsh. One shot and that’s one hundred years in Hell.”
My insides went ice cold. I shoved the bullet back into Stan’s hands. I didn’t want to hold it anymore. Heck, I didn’t even want to look at it. Stan tucked it away again in its special place on his belt and secured it down again. That wasn’t ammo an angel toyed with and came away unscathed.
“I hope you don’t have to use it,” I said.
“Me too,” Stan said. A timer went off on his wristwatch and he checked it and turned off the beeping that sounded like a hospital pulse monitor. “Got to run, Gid. A Mortal’s time is up.”
“Take care,” I said, slapping a quick bro-hug on his shoulder. I didn’t want to say I hoped I’d see him around, because I didn’t. That bullet gave me the willies.
“Will do,” Stan said as he dug a banged up phone out of his pocket and dialed Transportation. “By the way, your Mortal popped up on The List this morning. Thought you might want to know.”
Stan turned to the moon, stepped into its dim silvery light and disappeared.