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Neon Wings

NEON WINGS

 

Tales of the Fallen: Book 2

 

 

David G. Barnett

 

 

NECRO PUBLICATIONS

2016

 

 

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Also Available from Necro Publications:

 

 

Dead Souls

Tales of the Fallen: Book 1 — Awakenings

Spying on Gods

 

 

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NEON WINGS © 2016 by David G. Barnett

Cover art “Zodiac Man” © 2016 by Egle Zioma

Model: Jason Baca

This edition 2016 © Necro Publications

 

ISBN: 978-1-944703-17-2

LOC: 2016917098

 

Book design & typesetting:

David G. Barnett

www.fatcatgraphicdesign.com

 

Assistant editors:

Tara Cleves

 

Necro Publications

5139 Maxon Terrace, Sanford, FL 32771

necropublications.com

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author, or his agent, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a critical article or review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper, or electronically transmitted on radio or television.

 

All persons in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance that may seem to exist to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

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Dedication

 

 

For Pogue Mahone.

 

 

– | – | –

 

 

The Players in The Tales so far…

 

Mal.

 

Once a low-life living on the streets craving that next kiss of the bottle, now the greatest assassin on earth, as well as Heaven and Hell.

Things change for Mal when a stranger kicks him into the gutter and sets him on fire. That was then… Now Mal is a divine (or is it hellish?) killer, trained by an underground cadre of angels hellbent on getting back into Heaven—and they’ve just given him his last assignment. But this final assignment has Mal running headfirst into the truth behind his miraculous ascension and why he was chosen. Mal now has one final goal for his retirement: Storm the Gates of Heaven and take over.

 

Travis.

 

He wanted one thing…revenge. He spent decades setting everything up to get the justice he needs.

His solution?

To summon a demon of revenge.

Only, the demon isn’t exactly what he had in mind. Dew is a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, junk food loving demon glad to be out of Hell, if only for a while. Sure, Dew will fulfill his demon-duty to aid Travis, but first, he’s damn sure going to take advantage of his vacation. First up—a trip to Las Vegas to find the secret entrance to the traveling sex club: Painfreak.

Dew and Travis have a good ol’ time until another demon appears and screws everything up. Dew and Travis escape Painfreak and finally head off in search of the man Travis has sought revenge on. Only when they get to him, again, it’s not how Travis, or Dew, imagined it would be. For Travis, his life was wasted on a vengeful bloodlust for Mal, a man played by far greater powers than either of them had ever imagined. As for Dew, he finds something he never dreamed he’d encounter. Now Dew and Mal are forced to join forces; Mal so he can get information and maybe some muscle from the gigantic demon, and Dew…if Mal is successful…could it be that Dew would see Heaven again?

Then, there is…Gabriel.

Angel and ruler of Heaven, having successfully ejected God from His throne and banished him to Earth. Now God must travel the world awakening sleeper angels he placed here millennia ago for just this reason. The first to awaken is Rose, very unhappy. Very angry. But God’s promise to her wins her allegiance.

Meanwhile, in Hell, Lucifer is changing his game plan and his dominion. Hell is growing exponentially as all the new souls are being denied entrance to Heaven. They pour into Purgatory leaving it bursting at the seams. And Lucifer will gladly take these soon-to-be forgotten souls should Purgatory come undone. His tempting new marketing plan to appeal to those denied means a whole new direction for Hell.

 

And now…

 

The road to Heaven is filled with angels and demons preparing for yet another battle. Only this time, thanks to one human and a demon, and whomever, or whatever, they find along the way…the final battle may just be on its way.

– | – | –

 

 

Prelude

 

Chapter 1

 

Chapter 2

 

Chapter 3

 

Chapter 4

 

Chapter 5

 

Chapter 6

 

Chapter 7

 

Chapter 8

 

Chapter 9

 

Chapter 10

 

Chapter 11

 

Chapter 12

 

Chapter 13

 

Chapter 14

 

Chapter 15

 

Chapter 16

 

Chapter 17

 

Chapter 18

 

Chapter 19

 

Chapter20

 

Chapter 21

 

Chapter 22

 

Chapter 23

 

About the Author

 

 

– | – | –

 

 

PRELUDE

 

 

“Wings?”

“Wings. Large, white wings. A dozen sets.”

“That’s a big job.”

“I know and that’s why I came to you, Mr. DeSanto. I did my homework and no other company produces the intricate detail and quality that you do. I’ve seen the pieces on your website and have even seen some in person. They are, in their own right, works of art. Such wings will be a perfect complement to my art.”

Tony nodded his head as he took in the guy standing in front of him. The one thing Tony definitely knew: the guy fucking stunk. Like months of ball sweat, ass sweat, pit stink all amassed onto one body. The more Tony took in his stink the more he realized this guy smelled…smelled like…like death.

But, despite the guy’s nails, caked in what Tony figured was paint, he didn’t look dirty. In fact, he looked good. Handsome guy. Super model handsome, in fact. Long black hair, the kind women fell in love with. Eyes the blue of a clear summer sky. Still, something about him was off. Besides the stink.

He had introduced himself as Daniel, an artist. Ah. That explained the stink, Tony figured. He had worked with artists in the past, their artistic talent seemingly negating the need for personal hygiene. This guy took that cliché to heart. Tony smelled him as soon as he walked through the door.

“So you can do it?” Daniel eyed Tony with a hopeful expression.

“Yes…but are you sure that’s what you want for your art? I mean, neon isn’t exactly a subtle light source. Most artists want a warmer, more natural light.” Tony was trying to figure this guy out.

“Very sure. I need the harsh light. I need it to be bright. I need people to see the detail in the work. Neon…it seems to brings the world to life. Look at Vegas and Times Square. The lights move, add a frenetic, chaotic element to their location. If there is already action and movement, the neon amplifies it! Do you understand?”

Daniel’s eyes seemed to burn as he spoke. But after a few moments Daniel noticed Tony’s apprehension. He decided not to make his would-be light-maker nervous. Daniel stepped back.

“Sorry, Mr. DeSanto. I sometimes am too exuberant when talking about my work. It’s my passion, my life, everything. It is my salvation.”

Whatever, Tony thought. All artists he had ever met were the same. Nothing but pretentious bullshit.

“Sure…sure. We can work up some designs and get production going as soon as you approve them. It will take a few weeks to put them together.”

The door behind Tony opened and a young man walked in.

Tony and Daniel both looked at the new arrival. “Ah, good timing,” Tony said. “Stu, I’d like you to meet our new client.” He pointed to Daniel. “This is Daniel. He’s an artist and would like us to design some pieces to highlight his work.”

Stu kept his head down. He didn’t like meeting new people. He had been out for his daily walk and hadn’t expected to be stopped. He shuffled his feet back and forth.

“This is Stu. He’s our resident genius, and an artist in his own right. He will be working on your project and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.”

“Excellent,” Daniel said, extending his hand to Stu. Stu, however, stayed in place, arms at his side.

Tony gave Daniel a little wink. “Stu is kind of shy.” Then to Stu, “What do we do when we meet someone new, Stu?”

Stu mumbled something.

“Come on, Stu, you can do this.” Tony placed his hand on Stu’s shoulder reassuringly.

Stu took a step forward and reached his hand out to shake Daniel’s. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Daniel,” he said softly.

Daniel stepped forward and clasped Stu’s hand…

Everything stopped.

A charge of electricity shot up their arms, freezing both men in place. Stu finally looked up and locked eyes with Daniel. They stood there, like statues, for what seemed an eternity. Daniel heard a faint voice in the distance…

“…what’s wrong?”

Daniel tried to let go of Stu’s hand but couldn’t; it was like they had merged into one. Then suddenly, his hand was free and falling to his side as was Stu’s.

“Guys? Hello? You all right?” The voice was hollow, like an echo from the past but soon became clearer and louder. Daniel snapped out of it and focused on the face now in front of him. He felt a slight breeze blow against his back.

“Daniel…?”

Snapping fingers in front of his face brought Daniel fully around. And he found himself staring into the massively confused face of Tony DeSanto.

“You with me, buddy?” Tony said.

“Huh?” Daniel shook off the last few frozen moments. “Yes, yes. Sorry.”

“You both spaced out there for like a minute. Had to pull you apart.”

“Both?” Daniel asked, confused.

Tony’s face showed concern. “Yeah, you and Stu.”

“Oh…Stu.” Daniel looked around. Only Tony was in the room with him. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know. As soon as I pulled you apart he took off out the door.”

“I…need to go.” Daniel wasn’t sure what just happened but he needed to find this Stu. Quickly.

“You sure you’re all right, buddy?” Tony asked, genuine concern in his voice.

“Yes, I’m fine, Mr. DeSanto. Please…” Daniel was obviously distracted. “Um, please move ahead with the wings. And when Stu comes back could you let me know? I’d like to, uh…go over plans in detail.”

“I don’t know… I can try. He prefers to work by himself. Stu’s kind of different as I’m sure you could tell.”

You have no idea, Daniel thought. No idea at all.

 

 

– | – | –

 

 

ONE

 

 

In the city, if you’re lucky, you can see a couple of stars in the night sky. But the bright lights and smog pretty much eliminate meaningful stargazing. For that you need the countryside, away from the lights. And the deeper out, the better, where the sky’s so clear and big, it’s scary. The kind of sky that makes you insecure. Like an ant stuck in an empty silo.

It’s humbling.

So many stars to see.

Sure, they all look alike, but so what. Each bright light was a star, each one with its own planets circling around it. There had to be life on some of those planets. There just had to be. Looking out there and thinking about how space is endless, about how we’re but an insignificant speck of nothing in the vastness of the universe. What lies beyond the universe? And what lies beyond that. Wondering if it’s all in a box, and then what’s on the other side of the box. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Shit like that could drive you crazy thinking about it.

 

««—»»

 

Three miles out in clear-sky country, from the very north edge of Barrington, Dack Neumann wasn’t stargazing about the meaning of life or pondering the dynamics of astrophysics.

“Fuck me!” Dack screamed.

See, if he were to feel insignificant about himself while looking at the stars, he needed to be able to see them. And for that it needed to be dark, really dark, like it was ten minutes ago.

But minutes ago, there was no forty-by-twenty-foot bonfire lighting up the deep Oregon country sky north of Barrington. No, minutes ago there was a nice little business sitting in the spot now engulfed in flames. Dack’s little business, in fact. It was something he ran out of a makeshift barn roughly the same size of the fire.

“Fuck…me…hard!” Dack screamed at the fire that now swallowed his entire meth lab. “Right…in…the…ass!” And with that, he slammed the door on his Ford pickup—with camper top, thank you very much—and drove off into the night. He needed to get as far away from that massive fuckup as he could.

So Dack drove off leaving a trail of “Shit!” and “Fuck!” hanging in the night air.

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWO

 

 

The tracker had waited for the last local-yokel cop to climb into his cruiser and take off down the long dirt road. He waited until the country darkness ate up the taillights, then he emerged from a line of trees about 100 yards away from the smoking remains of a large storage shed.

The man slid through the darkness, a slight breeze carrying him along. The same breeze fed a couple of small fires dotting the landscape. Pieces of burning wood glowed from the inside. Soot-covered metal scraps creaked and cracked as they cooled. The tracker settled down into the remains of the meth lab and took a deep breath. The acrid air was heavy with burnt chemicals and charred wood. The smell stung his senses. This made him smile.

He poked a lump of melted plastic with his bare foot. Then he looked off into the distance, his eyes resting on the faint glow of neon marring the sky above the horizon of trees. He took another deep breath and sighed.

I smell you.

I’m coming.

He lifted his arms slightly away from his sides. He closed his eyes as his body broke into pieces, then those pieces broke into smaller ones, until he was no more than specks of dust hovering above the ground. The breeze grew to a wind, and the dust swirled and rose upon that wind, toward the neon glow far in the distance.

 

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THREE

 

 

This deep in the woods and this late in the night, there wasn’t much light happening. So the neon glow of Big Bull’s could be seen for 10 miles in every direction, a beacon to those desiring cold beer, warm whiskey or even a wet hole to fire your jizz gun into. Or at least it once was, but things had changed. A lot.

And, as usual, this was where Dack found himself, sitting behind of the wheel of his pickup, staring at the neon glow of a sign:

 

BIG BULL’S PECKERHOUSE

A GENTLEMEN’S CLUB FOR GENTLEMEN

 

Story goes, years back Bull got it in his head that his place needed, as he put it, “a little classin’ up.” Unfortunately for Bull, he didn’t really understand that adding the word ‘gentlemen’ to the sign wasn’t gonna class up the word ‘peckerhouse’ no matter how many times he used it. He didn’t really care about redundancy, or know what it meant for that matter. Nor did he grasp the fact that a giant neon sign depicting a bull with a giant cock bouncing up and down wasn’t exactly high class either.

The sign was actually pretty damn sweet, and Dack wondered for the hundredth time just how much money Bull had spent on the damn thing. He’d seen signs like that in big cities and figured they must have cost a pretty penny. How the hell did some backwater place like this warrant such an extravagance?

Dack got out of his truck and reminded himself to ask Bull about the sign before he got too hammered trying to forget that his money-making machine was now a smoldering pile of melted plastic, twisted metal and ashes.

Dack let out another loud “fuck,” slammed the truck door shut and, within seconds, found himself walking deep into the peckerhouse.

 

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FOUR

 

 

His latest creation was beautiful. He knew it would be. Before him, he was certain, was his best work to date. All the other work was just a prelude to this. He turned in place taking in his earlier pieces lining the walls of the abandoned warehouse. His earliest work was just…juvenile. Back then, he had no idea what exactly he was trying to do. But he’d kept those pieces to remind himself of just how far he’d come. He looked them over in order, oldest to the most recent, and then his eyes settled, once again, upon his newest…dare he say? Yes, it was… This was his masterpiece.

There was a muffled whine coming from a corner. Daniel smiled and held his arms out wide. “What do you think? Be honest now.”

He turned to the little girl in the corner. She was one step away from complete shock. She huddled and shook uncontrollably, little mewling and whimpering sounds slipping from her bruised mouth. He approached her, crouched down and wrapped a long arm around her shoulders. She cringed and tried to pull away, but he held firm. “Look at that. Beautiful, right? Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

The girl continued to shake, not sure if this lunatic wanted an answer or was talking just to talk, like he had over the weeks while she had been imprisoned in this nightmare. She was simply his audience, shackled and watching as he created his atrocities over and over again. No sane human should ever have to witness what she had. Her mind was unraveling. She turned her head away from his “creation.”

Daniel gently grabbed the girl’s chin and turned her head. “I know, I know,” he consoled her, running his hand soothingly down her hair making it a tangled mess as it stuck to his blood-covered hands. “Sheer beauty can be painful to look at. You don’t feel worthy.” Then he looked into her eyes. “Like looking upon God.”

The girl’s eyes were swollen and red from constant crying, but they opened wide as she looked into Daniel’s eyes. Those eyes. So piercing. So gorgeous. She had gotten lost in them the first time she’d seen them, as if everything around her disappeared and she found herself floating on a cloud, her and this beautiful man with the mesmerizing eyes. Then…

She woke up in her new prison, her face hurting from the fist he had landed while she stood hypnotized under his gaze. It was a harsh shock, going from his heavenly eyes to this vision of Hell, surrounded by his “art”—his brutal, abominable art. That had been at least five weeks ago. And each day Shelly found herself clinging to her sanity by an ever-tightening thread, so close to snapping.

She began to speak, “I-I…it’s…”

Daniel quieted her by placing a large, blood-sticky fingers to her lips. She recoiled as the finger touched her, but he held her tight, trying to comfort her. “Shhh. Don’t speak. Words can’t describe what I have created.” Then he released her and she scrambled back against the wall.

Daniel stood and walked in front of her, blocking her view of his horrible creation. He spread his arms wide. “It’s as if God himself had guided my hand,” he proclaimed. Then he stood there for a few moments breathing deep, his eyes, closed, as if waiting for the voice of God to reward him with praise. Then Daniel dropped his arms and turned back to the cowering girl. “But maybe…the inkwell isn’t fully dry, hmmm?”

Oh shit, not again, the girl thought frantically.

All she could do was watch as Daniel moved to the center of the room.

“After all,” Daniel continued, “I have a brand new, beautifully pristine canvas to work with. Let’s see where God’s hand guides me this time.”

Oh, God, please… “P-p-please,” she managed to squeak.

Daniel stopped and looked at her. “What, my dear little mouse?”

“N-n-not again. He’s had enough. You’re done, just leave him alone.” Shelly propped herself up so she would seem more defiant, but she doubted it was working. Her body failed her, and she fell back into a heap in the corner. Her sobs began anew as she waited for…

Waited for the metallic sting of fresh blood to fill the air and its drip-drip-drip as it fell to the forever crimson-stained cement floor.

Waited for the knife to drop from Daniel’s hand to the same filthy floor.

Waited for him to begin humming as he peeled away yet another…canvas.

Waited for the rattling of the rusted chains suspending the poor man in mid-air, arms and legs stretched into an excruciating X.

Waited for the screaming to start again.

But…

Daniel let loose a laugh. “No. You’re right. This latest work is my David, my…Mona Lisa.” He faced his newest work of art again. “This… This is what will define me for the ages. For this is me. This is my art and this is my pain.” He let out a pleased sigh, as if for the first time in a long while he was finally content. “This…will bring me home.”

Then Daniel turned on Shelly again. “But of course this is bad news for you, isn’t it?”

No, please… The girl pulled at her bindings. He’s going to kill me now. Oh, God.

“Please, mister. Please. Don’t kill me,” she pleaded, a new torrent of tears falling from her eyes.

Daniel took in the girl’s panicked eyes, his head cocked to the side as if confused. “Kill you? Why would I?” He shook his hands and head at the same time, flecks of blood speckling the girl’s filthy clothes. “No, no, no. I brought you here to bear witness to my creation. You will be my voice to the people. You will herald the coming of my genius.”

Daniel moved to the girl again and reached down, grabbing her leg. He produced a large key, the old kind, like in a movie, and jammed it into the lock on the shackles binding her ankle to the wall. With a slight click the shackle popped open and Daniel backed up. “Go, my sweet. Find the highest hilltop and scream to the masses. Tell them of the beauty you have witnessed. Be my Pied Piper and lure the human vermin here with promises of looking upon God. Go now and bring them unto me.”

A sliver away from a complete mental meltdown, Shelly bolted from the corner and ran. She had no idea where she was, but she didn’t care. She ran and ran until her feet bled. She ran until she saw lights darting back and forth in the distance, and then she ran faster, until she burst onto a highway heavy with traffic. Her sudden appearance caused a multi-car accident, but all Shelly cared about was getting far away from her nightmare. Eventually, her body gave out and she collapsed. As she lay there on the black asphalt, and people got out of their cars and gathered around her broken body, she looked into their faces and said through dry, bruised lips, “I’ve seen the beauty of God. Do you want to see it, too?” Then she laughed the laughter of the mad and passed out, a breadcrumb-trail of bloody footprints marking the way back to Daniel and his art—his…vision.

 

– | – | –

 

 

FIVE

 

 

There were things about BIG BULL’S PECKERHOUSE—A GENTLEMEN’S CLUB FOR GENTLEMEN that threw most first-timers for a loop.

One: None of the denizens of Bull’s could be considered gentlemen. In fact, most of them didn’t even have a pecker.

Two: Bull was real, but…well… The current Bull was second-generation.

Dack saddled up on a barstool and before he could order, found a cold draft sitting in front of him. “Thanks, Bull,” he said without looking up.

“No problem, man. Heard about your little problem.”

Dack shook his head and let out an amused snort. “Listening to the scanner again?”

Bull gave him a quick nod.

“Great…means the cops are all over it by now.”

“Don’t look so good for you, huh, hon?” Bull said, placing her big hand on Dack’s shoulder, offering as much comfort as she could without making him feel uncomfortable.

Dack appreciated the gesture and knew it didn’t come easy to Bull. Dack considered her ‘just one of the guys’, only if one of the guys was a 280-pound, six-foot-three, butch dyke who could bend most guys into a pretzel.

“Nope, don’t look so good for me.” Dack took a big gulp of beer, set it back down, and stared deep into the amber liquid as if the answer to everything might bob to the surface. But it didn’t, so he took another swig.

“So, how much time you think I’ve got till he comes for me,” Dack wondered aloud. He felt Bull’s meaty paw lift from his shoulder as he felt the temperature in the room lower enough to make his pecker shrivel.

Bull stood up straight, her eyes leveled at the open door. “I’d say about five seconds.”

Fuck, Dack thought. Just plain FUCK!

 

– | – | –

 

 

SIX

 

 

Daniel stood transfixed by his new work. His hands glided toward it, and his fingers began to dance lightly over the puckered, raised flesh stretched taut on the wall before him.

He hummed softly as he caressed the lines marring the beautifully white skin. His fingers traced the images he had carved into the flesh. Images so fine, so detailed, so real. It was as if he was looking at photographs. But photos like this could never exist, for no man had ever seen such sights.

Daniel dropped his hands and stared. Every inch of the skin was covered in etchings. The lines blood red, standing in stark contrast to the white background of flesh he had lovingly dabbed clean of excess mess.

The images moved, scenes coming to life.

“Do you see?” Daniel turned to the man hovering in the air behind him and moved closer until he was but mere inches away. “Do you see what we created, brother? Isn’t it lovely?”

“N-n-no,” the man said. “I-I-it is an abomination. Just like you.”

Daniel’s gorgeous eyes turned black, and his hand lashed out smashing into the man’s face. “WRONG!” he screamed. “This is my way back. This will call to him. And he will forgive.”

“He will never forgive you. You turned your back on him.” The man coughed, his chains rattling as he did. “You turned your back on all of us.”

Daniel moved to strike again, but held back. His eyes returned to their usual beauty and he smiled. “You’re wrong, brother. This is my art. This was his gift to me. He has brought us together for a reason. This will call to him and he will come for us and forgive our sins. He will bring—”

“Salvation?” the man asked, a smirk crossing his lips. “You’re a fool, Daniel. You always have been.

 

– | – | –

 

 

SEVEN

 

 

“Where’d ya get the sign?” Dack asked Bull.

Bull started to speak, “Why… What?” The question threw her off. She was expecting more of a “give me a shot o’ Makers before I die” kind of thing to come from Dack.

“Always wondered about the sign,” he went on. “Never asked. Figured I’d ask before fuckface back there does a Jimmy Hoffa with me.”

Bull gave a slight shrug and nod. “Dad had it made about ten years ago. Back when he was runnin’ things,” she said, never looking at Dack, just watching the sheriff wander around saying ‘hi’ to a bunch of the regulars. Bull could tell it was an act to show Dack who was in charge. No need to rush, no need to make a scene.

“And…” Dack pushed.

“I gotta retard brother. Well, not retarded so much as what they call autistic. He’s one of those idiot savants. Can barely wipe his own ass, but for some reason he’s a fucking genius when it comes to making those signs. Dad had a friend down in Culver who ran a shop. Made all kinds of signs. Started doing the neon crap but wasn’t real good at it yet. One day, Dad took Stu—that’s my brother—to the shop to pick up some other signs he had made for the bar.” Bull paused, still watching the sheriff as he slowly got closer to the bar. “Dad and the sign guy went outside to have a beer and a smoke and kinda lost track of time, and Stu. When they realized he wasn’t around, they rushed into the shop and expected to see Stu cut up and hurt or something.” She paused again, watching the sheriff lean into a table of women, putting the charm on.

Fucking idiot, Bull thought. Bet he thinks he can fucking turn ‘em.

“Tick-tock, Bull. Grim Reaper’s fingerin’ my hole,” Dack said, nodding at the sheriff, yet caught up in Bull’s story.

Bull went on. “They rushed into the shop and found my brother in a corner plugging in a small neon sign. Dad said he yelled at Stu to stop, but he just went right ahead and plugged the thing in. And you know what?”

“What?”

“The fucker lit up.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. Made the thing in no time. Dad said he and the sign guy almost crapped themselves. They had only been talking for about thirty minutes. Said Stu just stood there staring at the sign. Then turned to dad and said, ‘You. Dad.’ Dad looked at the sign and broke in’ta hard cry, ’cause the sign said ‘Dad.’”

Sudden realization marked Dack’s face as he turned to his left and looked at the small neon sign on the wall near the bathroom. It said DAD. He had seen that sign hundreds of times and thought nothing of it. But there it was. He turned back to Bull amazed. “No shit?”

“No shit,” she said holding her hands up in front of her. “Hand ta God. He’s a fucking artistic genius. All you have to do is give him a drawing of what you kinda want and he can turn it into a neon piece of art. He’s the Michelangelo of fucking neon.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Dack said, sincerely impressed. “He still making signs?”

“Fuck yeah. How do you think I keep this place going?” she asked. “These dykes ain’t exactly the rich and powerful. Stu still works at the sign guy’s place but he moved it to the city when it got too big for Culver. One of the biggest sign shops in the country all thanks to Stu. So he’s down in Portland. The guy takes care of Stu real good. He lives in the shop in a nice apartment up on the third floor. Pays him real well, but Stu just has me handle the money cuz he has everything he needs right there in the shop. I go see him every couple of weeks.”

“Ahhh,” Dack said. “So that’s why you’re closed every other Monday?”

“Yeah.”

Dack nodded his head. “That’s fucking cool, Bull. Real fucking cool. Would have liked to have met him sometime.”

Bull finally stopped glowering at the sheriff and looked at Dack, sympathy and concern lining her face. “I’m sure he would have liked that, man. He loves meeting people. Loves to show off his work.”

Dack smiled at Bull and slowly lowered his head and looked into his almost empty beer. Yep. He thought it would have been nice to have met Stu. Met an artist. Met someone who had a purpose for their life. Not like him. Not a fucking loser who was about to…

Dack felt a heavy hand land on his shoulder. “Dack,” came a loud voice from behind him.

Dack lifted his glass and shot the rest of the amber liquid into his mouth and swallowed. He savored the flavor, knowing it would be his last taste. He placed the glass on the bar and sat up straight. “Sheriff.”

“What say you and me step outside and have us a little talk?” the sheriff asked Dack.

But Dack knew it wasn’t really a question. “Sure thing, sheriff.” Dack got off his stool and stood tall and turned to face his fate. The sheriff wore that same fake-ass smile he always did. Dack wished he could smack that fucking smile right off his fucking face.

The sheriff’s hand never left Dack’s shoulder as they headed toward the door. “Looks ta me like you had quite a bit a trouble tonight, Dack.”

“Seems so,” said Dack, his voice dry already.

“Hey, Dack.” Dack heard Bull call from behind him.

He stopped and turned, and as he did, so did the sheriff. Only, when the sheriff turned around, he found himself nostril-deep in a double-barreled shotgun.

“Down,” was all Dack heard Bull say, and he didn’t hesitate. His legs buckled, and he dropped instantly as the bar erupted in the loudest sound he had ever heard. He felt a rain of warmth settle down over his back. When he looked up, he saw the sheriff just kind of swaying. Then, in a flash, his body joined Dack on the dirty floor, head pretty much gone.

He looked up at Bull. She looked down, disgusted at the sheriff, then she hauled off and kicked his slightly-twitching body full-on in the balls. She leaned down and looked into what was left of the sheriff’s face and yelled, “That’s what you get, you fucking son-of-a-bitch!”

 

– | – | –

 

 

EIGHT

 

 

A small army of shadows moved in swift and silent efficiency. A dozen or so men clad in black, blending with the night and merging into the dark presence of the hulking mass of rust. The fact that the doors to the dilapidated warehouse were wide open only made the S.W.A.T. team more anxious.

Detective Aaron Watts could feel their anxiety, and everyone had good reason to feel that way. It took hours and some massive sedatives to calm the girl down enough to question her. And even then, what she described sounded more like the ravings of a lunatic than the ordeal of a now completely broken street whore.

So, between her story and an idea of what to expect inside this warehouse, there was damn good reason for the tension filling everyone. And if this guy inside truly did what the girl claimed, if he was truly responsible for several missing women over the past two years, then this was going to be huge—especially for Watts.

He turned to the bigass, bald man who was calmly ordering men into position. Commander Hank Baker was the epitome of S.W.A.T. leadership. A fucking iron barge of a man whose age had softened his body, but those who challenged him quickly learned…there was nothing soft about him. And Watts was damn glad he was here. “What do you think, Hank?”

Baker stood stone-still staring into the darkness of the gaping doors. “Nothing good can come from a lunatic’s welcome mat,” he said flatly. He motioned to two of his men who had taken up position on the rickety, metal-flaked fire escapes. “Report,” he ordered with a quiet firmness.

A hiss in his ear told him, “No signs of explosives by the front door, sir.”

“You see anyone?” he asked, his voice deep, calm and cold.

“Negative, sir. Not from this angle. Too damn dark in there.”

Baker gave a quick grunt and stood there, thinking. Then, “Everyone in position?” His head didn’t move, but his eyes quickly fell on all his men in the distance, looking for the thumbs-up from each leader. When his eyes settled back on the open warehouse doors, he squinted, paused and then fired the order, “MOV—!”

But before he could finish, light exploded from every door, window, crack and space of the warehouse. He heard some of his men scream—the ones wearing night-vision goggles—as the light slammed into their eyes. Shock-produced profanity fired out from a distance.

Baker, stunned for a split second, quickly rebounded and screamed into his headset, “GO! NOW!”

And like that, a dozen spotlights set up around the warehouse grounds turned night to day. Voices filled the air as the S.W.A.T. team moved in practiced precision and dropped from above, moved in from side doors and rammed an armored vehicle through the front door. It was all over in seconds, and Watts and Baker stood silent, waiting.

After a few more seconds Baker said into his headpiece, “Rollins, report.”

Watts looked at Baker when no answer came over his earpiece. Baker chewed his lip, and Watts didn’t like that.

“Frank, fucking report. Now!” Baker demanded.

A dry voice crackled over the com. “Uh… [cough] Sir…”

Baker was becoming visibly agitated. “Frank, what the fuck? Report. You have something?”

Frank Rollins’ voice sounded small and frightened, and that was not a good sign to either of the men standing outside. “Yeah, we got something,” Rollins said, his voice shaky. “You need to get the fuck in here, Hank. You and Watts need to get in here now.”

Watts and Baker looked at each other, neither telling the other of the chill that ran up their backs. They put on a stiff front and moved toward the awaiting doors, guns drawn. Something told both of them that they were walking into the mouth of Hell…just as the manic girl strapped to a hospital bed downtown had told them.

 

– | – | –

 

 

NINE

 

 

Before Dack could wrap his head around what-the-fuck just happened, the bar’s front door exploded and a deafening wind whistled in. Tables started to fly. Customers dove for cover, and the ones who didn’t were thrown against the walls or knocked to the ground. Glasses and bottles shattered.

Dack couldn’t move. He had no idea what was going on. Bull had taken a defensive stance, gun poised and tracking the small tornado tearing the shit out of her bar.

“What the fuck?” Dack screamed.

Bull kept her focus. “Don’t know. Stay the fuck down. EVERYONE!”

The tornado finally stopped tear-assing around the bar and settled to spin in one spot. Bull took careful aim at it, but waited. Everyone in the bar, even the people bruised and bleeding, had their eyes trained on the swirling mass, the murder of the sheriff already a distant memory. Everyone watched and everyone…waited.

The tiny cyclone slowed its spinning and, as it slowed, a shape manifested within its dusty borders. There was a loud swoosh, followed by a sucking sound and the bar was still. And now, where the whirlwind had just been, stood a man.

“Mister, you’d better stay right the fuck where you are,” Bull ordered.

Dack looked up at her, amazed at how steady she was. Although he could see a slight sheen of sweat covering her face. He shook himself and pushed up off the floor and stood behind the giant bartender. “What the hell is he?” he whispered to her.

“You think I fucking know?” Bull snapped back.

The man tilted his head like a dog hearing a dog whistle.

“What d’ya want, mister?” she asked, training the shotgun on the stranger.

The man just stared at Bull, as if studying her. Then he sniffed the air, again, like a dog. He took his eyes off Bull and looked around confused, still sniffing the air. Finally his eyes came to rest on the dead sheriff near Dack’s feet. The man’s face pinched up, eyes narrowing, brow creasing. Dack knew that look. That was the look of being royally pissed.

The man moved forward toward Bull, Dack and the dead body.

“I said stay where you are, asshole!” Bull screamed.

But the man kept coming.

“I’m fucking warning you!”

He ignored her, continuing forward. Bull fired right at his chest and it disappeared. But not in a his-chest-just-got-blown-the-fuck-away way, but more like a where-the-fuck-did-his-chest-go way. The man kept coming and Bull fired again, and again, the man merely parted segments of his body to let the bullets pass through. He reached Bull and she pulled the trigger again, but only got a loud click. The man grabbed the gun by the barrel, tore it from Bull’s hands and threw it so hard against the wall that the barrel impaled the wood paneling and buried itself so deep it poked through the bar’s outer wall.

He placed his hand on Bull’s chest and shoved. She went flying into the bar and hit hard, crumbling to the ground in an instant.

“Motherfucker!” Dack screamed and brought his arm back, ready to land a full swing into the guy’s head. But one look from the man halted Dack’s attack.

“Move,” the man said to Dack. It wasn’t a harsh order or a bark; it was a simple, soft word that entered Dack’s ear and made him do just that. He moved.

The man stopped and looked down at the still-bleeding body of the sheriff. “What did you do?” he said softly.

“Look, buddy…” Dack tried to say, but was cut off by the man’s hand wrapping around his throat and lifting him a good foot off the ground.

The man turned to Dack and brought him within inches of his own face. Dack was trembling, gasping for air, as he looked deep into the man’s eyes—eyes that burned red with rage.

“He was my prey, my kill. MY KIIILL!” The walls shook and more bottles and glasses fell from shelves. Everyone covered their ears and cringed.

Then he dropped Dack who fell to his knees choking for air.

The man looked toward Bull and in one fast, fluid motion he was across the floor to where she struggled needlessly to get to her feet because the man had reached down, grabbed her by the throat and had her dangling in the air in a second. And if anyone was not already amazed by the man as a mini-tornado, they were in frightened awe as he took the 280-pound woman by the throat, dangled her in the air with one arm, and shook her like a ragdoll.

“Woman, you have stolen that which was mine. You robbed me of my kill and I will have your…” The man stopped shaking Bull but kept his choke-hold on her throat. Her eyes bugged out, filling with blood as she gasped for any air.

He looked at her, confused. His eyes narrowed as he brought her closer to his face. His nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath, smelling Bull. The man’s eyes went wide in stunned shock and he dropped her and backed away. She fell to her hands and knees, struggling for air.

The man leaned down, his face close to Bull’s. “You reek of the blessed.”

Cough cough. “Whhh-at? Get the f-f-f-uck away from me, asshole,” she croaked.

“You have the stench of the Host upon you.” He stood up straight, still looking down at Bull. “Yet, you are not of the Host. How is this?” he asked, his confusion growing.

Dack watched, equally confused, but for different reasons, like wondering how everyone who was still conscious was going to get the hell out of the bar during the lull in the chaos. Some crawled, others limped. The lucky few who could, did an outright sprint through the front door. Many dragged the unconscious out with them. Pretty soon, Dack realized that he, Bull and the quickly cooling body of the sheriff were the only ones left in the bar with the whatever-the-fuck-he-was guy menacingly demanding an answer from Bull. But she had no answer.

Then the man took his eyes off of Bull and turned in place, taking in the entire bar. He seemed to be looking for something, his head tracking back and forth, trying to zero in.

Dack took the opportunity to crawl over to Bull. He supported her as she fell back onto her butt and leaned back against the bar.

“You all right?” he asked concerned.

She coughed again. “Yeah,” she croaked through her damaged throat. “Body hurts… Should be okay…”

They both watched the human tornado as he hovered just above the floor. Then, he locked onto something and he glided across the floor, moving toward the bathroom.

Dack leaned into Bull and whispered, “That’s just fucking creepy.”

“Ya think? Everything is just fucking creepy right now, man. Every-fucking-thing,” she whispered back.

Dack just nodded and watched the man slip out of view. He grabbed Bull by her arm and yanked. “Come on, let’s bolt.”

Bull didn’t hesitate. She pushed herself up and Dack came up with her and they ran for the front door. They got about ten feet, and, aww hell, the tornado guy suddenly blocked their way. Bull and Dack back-pedaled a few steps as the man stepped forward, bringing his left arm up, something big in his hand. Dack and Bull flinched, but nothing flew at them. Instead, they found themselves staring at the neon sign that simply said, “DAD.”

Bull looked stunned for a second, then she got pissed. “Give me that, you fuck!”

“Where did this come from?” the man asked sternly.

“None of your fucking business. Now give it!” Bull yelled.

The man dropped the sign to his side and took one step closer to Bull and looked into her face. Then he sighed and stepped back again.

“Many times bravery can be confused with stupidity. This is one of those times. Now, realize this… If I wanted you dead, you would be dead. But I have not been paid to kill you, so therefore you still live. Now, answer my question and you will continue to do so.” He brought the sign up again and held it out to Bull as an offering. “Now, one more time, where did you get this?”

Bull reached out and let the man place the sign in her hand. She brought it to her chest and held it there. “My brother made it.”

“I think not,” the man said flatly.

“Fuck you. He did.”

“Yeah, her brother’s a genius or something with this stuff,” Dack chimed in. “He made it for their dad.”

The man looked back and forth from Bull to Dack as if gauging the truth in their words. Then he nodded slightly. “Perhaps.” He stood up straight and said to Bull, “I would like to meet this brother of yours.”

“I-I-I don’t know where he is anymore,” Bull stammered. “He disappeared…”

“Do not lie to me, woman. His scent is fresh on you.” Then the man turned from her, toward Dack. His arm flashed out and once again Dack found himself dangling a foot above the ground and unable to breathe.

The man glared back at Bull. “Now that will be the last time you lie to me. Take me to the one who made that sign and I will not kill this man.”

Defiance peeked through Bull’s squinted eyes. She was about to say something before Dack let out a strangled “Bull…ackk!”

Bull closed her mouth and relaxed her shoulders. “Okay. For godssake, put him down.”

The man released Dack.

Dack’s hand went immediately to his throat and started rubbing. “Dude, you really need to stop doing that.” His voice was ragged. “Seriously.”

The man ignored Dack. “Now, your brother…”

Bull walked over to the bar and placed the sign down gently and turned back to the man. “Okay, but you have to promise not to hurt him.”

“That I cannot promise,” the man said simply. “That will be up to him. I can tell you that I wish him no harm. But I must meet him. I have a feeling we have a…mutual…friend.”

Bull shook her head. “There’s no way. He’s been here all his life. Doesn’t know anyone but me and the people at the shop. Like Dack said, he’s special, as in, you know, mentally handicapped.”

“I will not deny that you think of him as your brother, woman. But there are many layers to this tale that have yet to be told,” the man said. “Take me to him and everything will become clear.”

“And you won’t hurt him?” Bull asked again, seriously worried.

“As I said, that shall be up to him.”

Bull nodded and placed her hand heavily on Dack’s shoulder. “You’re coming.”

Dack was about to protest, then remembered the dead sheriff stiffening on the floor and realized they should get as far away from this scene as possible. The people who escaped the bar surely made calls, and the sheriff’s cronies would arrive soon enough. And Dack felt sure that one of them knew the sheriff had tracked down Dack at Bull’s.

“What about him?” Dack asked, poking the sheriff in the ribs with his foot.

Bull, as if suddenly realizing what she had done, looked down at the sheriff’s body. “Oh shit. I fucking shot him, didn’t I? I am so fucked.”

Dack and Bull looked at each other—they knew they were both fucked.

“Stand aside,” the man ordered. He didn’t wait for them to move, just slid between them and stopped at the body. He began moving his arms in tight circles above the corpse. Again, the bar filled with wind that whistled in from the front door. With it came dirt and dust and sand. The man continued swirling his hands, faster and faster. The debris gathered in a spinning cloud above the body and grew large, until it was slightly bigger than the corpse. The man’s hands halted their circles and began to move down. As they did, the dust cloud settled atop the body, encasing it until it was nothing more than a pile of dirt. Then with a flourish, the man raised his hands, and then motioned to the front door. The cloud rose up from the ground and shot out the door. And once again the bar was silent.

Dack and Bull stood there, mouths agape, staring down at a bare floor. The sheriff’s body was completely gone, pooled blood and all.

“Holy…fucking…shit,” was all Dack could say.

Bull continued staring at the floor, but to the man, said, “Mister, you have severely fucked up my world. I mean… Seriously… What the fuck?”

The man spoke to Bull. “Although the sheriff did not die by my hand, I will turn him into those who hired me to dispatch him. You, of course, will receive the bounty.”

“I don’t want any bounty,” she said softly. “He had it comin’.”

The man nodded in understanding. “Be that as it may, you made the kill, you get the reward. But, as I said, the kill was mine. You took it from me and you are in debt to me. However—”

“I don’t owe you shit,” Bull screamed, turning on the guy. “Look what you did to my fucking—”

The man’s cold stare quickly shut her up.

“However,” he repeated, “Take me to this brother you speak of, and your debt shall be paid.” He turned toward the door. “And don’t forget that I handled your little incident here. There will be no trace of your having killed the sheriff. So you are in debt to me two-fold.”

Bull and Dack looked at each other, knowing full well the guy was right.

The man motioned for them to follow. “So, let us go see the one you call your brother and all debt will be forgiven.” He stopped outside the door and turned back.

Dack and Bull hadn’t moved.

The man grunted impatience, saying, “Don’t be confused, this is not a negotiation. This is charity, and you will be well-advised to see it as such.”

After a second, they both nodded. A little charity never hurt anyone. And they followed the mysterious assassin out the front door into the multi-colored, neon night.

 

– | – | –

 

 

TEN

 

 

Baker and Watts led the way full tilt into the gaping mouth of the warehouse.

It was a sensory overload.

The carrion stench of a thousand bloated roadkills hung dense in the air. The two men felt as though they were choking on a piece of rancid meat shoved down their throats. Swarms of flies dive-bombed them in an endless, germ-laden attack.

Baker and Watts saw him first.

A lone figure standing in the middle of the warehouse.

A million fluttering wings buzzed like a sonic backdrop to the auditory assault that blasted the thick air as S.W.A.T. team members, detectives and uniformed officers shouted orders to the figure on all sides.

Baker and Watts came to a quick stop next to Sergeant Rollins who also had his gun trained on the figure, but didn’t seem too keen on getting any closer.

Inside the warehouse it was lit up like the Vegas strip. Dozens of massive neon lights suspended from the ceiling, running along the rafters, up and down the walls, some blinking, while others seemed to be throbbing. But they all lit up the middle of the massive room as if pointing to something, to someone. And that someone was a man, standing in the spotlight, arms outstretched, spinning slowly in a circle, his glowing eyes taking in all those surrounding him.

“Subject is armed, sir,” said Rollins flatly, keeping his gun trained on the man.

Baker saw that the man had two long and beautifully treacherous knives, one in each hand. And as he spun, the blades seemed to leave a trail of light, like writing in the night air with a sparkler, blades shining brighter than the neon blazing down upon them

It was magical.

So magical, that both Watts and Baker almost failed to notice the man hanging behind the figure.

But soon enough they did see him. Head down, chin buried in his chest, suspended from chains and pulled at the limbs as if to be drawn and quartered—a glowing white X under the glowing neon. Everyone assumed he was dead, as he wore a peaceful grin, eyes shut tight and deathly still.

They were wrong.

He stirred.

Everyone jumped a little, surprised to find life in the hanging body.

The figure in the middle of the room stopped his slow circling dance and tilted his head, a sideways glance at the hanging man. “Ah, my muse awakens. Just in time to join us in welcoming our first audience.”

Baker decided it was time to chime in. “Put your weapons down, now! Do it or we will be forced to take you down.”

The man’s head jerked around. He gave Baker the same sideways glance, only this time, with a tinge of menace in his smile. His lips parted, and a laugh came from him that chilled everyone in the room to the bone.

Slight movement from within the team brought quick reaction from the man. The knife in his left hand rocketed from his grip, a glowing tether trailing behind. It bee-lined for the movement, and in the blink of an eye, the center of an officer’s head was gone. In horrified amazement, all eyes watched as the blade tore from the obliterated face of a S.W.A.T. sniper and shot back into the man’s outstretched hand. The body of the sniper dropped first to its knees, then what should have been face-first onto the ground, his rifle clanging to the floor. There was no blood, just a slight hiss as smoke rose from the hole.

The man they surrounded sadly shook his head. “I was never good at taking criticism.” Then he laughed again, solidifying the chill in everyone even more.

Every armed officer took a second to come to terms with what they had just seen. Then they snapped back around to their lunatic host, leveling their weapons and just a split second from…

“NO!”

The voice infiltrated their heads, their trigger fingers, their whole being suddenly immovable. They all stood motionless, nothing more than breathing mannequins, a captured audience in a theater of terror.

The hanging man moved again, rattling the chains that bound him. He coughed a few times before choking out some words. “No more, Daniel. No… No more killing.” The man coughed more and then found his voice completely. “The humans aren’t toys for you to play with. Put the knives away—they were never yours. You’ve ruined something divine.”

“Not mine?” asked Daniel. Then louder, “NOT MINE?”

Daniel spun around, arms outstretched, the glowing knives an extension of his hands. “I made them, you fool. Me! If they belong to anyone…it’s me!” Daniel swept himself toward Stu, the knives’ deadly tips fusing together underneath Stu’s chin. “It is my essence—my…fire—that powers these glorious weapons. I gave them life. Weapons made for you, for our brothers and sisters…”

“To destroy our brothers and sisters.”

Daniel pulled the knife tips away just a bit. “They ceased to be our brothers and sisters when they chose to follow that treacherous traitor.” He moved in closer, the tips of the knives once again digging into Stu’s flesh. “I won the war!” he screamed. “I saved us all!”

Stu looked softly into Daniel’s eyes. “No, old friend. You damned us all.”

Daniel began to shake. His eyes flared white hot, tinged with red. Filled with rage, he threw his chest out. He brought his arms back, back, back, the knives taking aim at Stu’s chest, to his heart that lie deep within. Daniel screamed, tears streaming down his hot cheeks. He screamed one last time and thrust his arms toward…

Stu blinked once…

The gunfire that erupted drowned out all other sound—the death buzz of a million flies, the electric cackle of a dozen radios screeching in the night, and Daniel ’s scream—agonized, rage-fueled—cut off as hundreds of bullets penetrated his filth- and blood-covered, ghost-white flesh. Daniel’s lunge fell short as he dropped to his knees, another barrage of bullets driving him down, down, down. His arms fell to his sides, the knives digging into the blood-soaked earth.

Tears flowed from Stu’s eyes as he gazed down upon Daniel.

Daniel.

Once his master.

Daniel.

The one who had trained him and helped him hone his art.

Daniel. His teacher who taught him to catch starfire, to control it, to bend it to his will and to bring life to his beautiful art. Art to adorn their beautiful home.

Art for Heaven.

For their Father.

Here, in this stinking warehouse, surrounded by unknowing humans, was his brother. His brother, the once great artisan of Heaven who crafted the very throne their Father sat upon. The one cast with the deplorable role of creating weapons that would undo the brothers and sisters he had spent eons with. The one who sacrificed his sanity to end an endless war.

Here was the once great Daniel, architect of Heaven and the destructor of its innocence, now riddled and bloody on the floor before him.

The bullets continued their assault as the ghostly pale man kneeling on the filthy floor refused to drop his weapons, refused to collapse to the ground and just…die.

“STOP!”

The word was like a sonic boom, rattling the building to its foundations. The officers lost focus on the dying man on the floor. They lost their footing and stumbled against each other before falling to the ground, hands clasped tightly against their ears. Chains rattled from metal rafters. The thin, corrugated warehouse sides bulged to almost bursting. Then everything quieted. No gunfire, no rattling, no creaking, no buzzing of flies, no radios crackling, no voices rising in anger or fear.

The only sound came from the bullet-riddled and bleeding man crying in the center of the room, aglow in the neon light surrounding him from on high.

The light focused on Daniel.

He looked one final time at his old friend. A brother he had once loved but had hurt so long ago and had now made to suffer his atrocities. The two wounded, abandoned angels looked deep into each other’s eyes—eyes growing hot-white and brilliant in the aftermath of pain and sound.

Daniel wept as he simply said, “I’m sorry.” His body was wracked with sobs. “Tell them all I am so sorry.”

Stu’s gentle eyes closed as he nodded to Daniel.

Daniel screamed one final time as he raised the knives up in front of him. He spun the blades in his palms and drove them deep into his chest, aiming for the blackened lump that lay shriveled in its depths.

Stu’s arms stiffened in their restraints. His back writhed then erupted as enormous wings burst forth. With the wings came a golden light that fired around Daniel’s still form, encasing him as the knives found their target. Daniel’s head shot back, the roar of a thunderstorm arising from his mouth as cracks snaked along his entire body. White light seeped from each crack, the light flowing as the cracks grew larger, longer, wider, and Daniel’s body exploded into a million hot, white beams. Beams that would have destroyed everything and everyone around for miles had Stu not put forth his heavenly shield. No longer a threat to humanity, the light that was once Daniel shot upward in a cylinder of blinding, white hot heat, blowing out the roof and rocketing upward into the night sky. It rose to tap upon Heaven’s door like a wet, raggedy dog scratching to come in, to be safe and warm and loved once again.

Stu let more tears fall before collapsing his wings back into himself, then he sighed. He sighed for the loss of a friend, of an enemy, of a brother. And he hoped that after aeons of torture, Daniel had finally found peace.

Earlier, quieter sounds came to life once again. The gaudy neon that Stu had dedicated most of this life to, and had lit Daniel’s demise, had blown out. Stu looked around at the confused faces lost in shadows that filled the warehouse, and smiled. Then he closed his eyes and let exhaustion take him away to blissful unconsciousness.

 

– | – | –

 

 

ELEVEN

 

 

It was a two-hour drive to Portland. And so far, it was the most uncomfortable and nerve-racking trip Dack and Bull had ever taken. They were only a half hour in, and Dack had already grown real twitchy. He had finally had it and turned around to face the assassin sitting in the middle of the back seat.

“You gotta name, mister?” he asked.

Bull kept her eyes on the road, but perked up a little waiting for the guy to talk.

“Of course,” the man said, eyes looking straight ahead, taking in the oncoming road.

Dack sat there waiting for him to give up a name, then it became clear he wasn’t saying anything else.

“Well? What is it?” Dack asked, not hiding the annoyance in his voice.

The man finally turned his head and looked right at Dack. “I suppose that would depend on whom you are speaking with. I have many names in many places.”

“Yeah? Well, what’s the name your momma gave ya?”

The man let a small smile cross his lips. “The Earth is my mother and we never spoke in terms you would understand. Besides, that was so long ago, I have forgotten. But, as I said, over the eons, there have been many, and I lose track.”

Dack nodded as if he understood, but he didn’t. So he just said, “Well, pick one.”

“I suppose I am referred to by my clients as The Zephyr,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

“‘K,” Dack said. “Sounds a little too X-Men for me. What if we just call you Zee?”

“If you wish,” Zee said, returning to staring out the windshield.

Dack turned back around and stared down the road as well. And that lasted for about as long as it takes to flick a booger off a finger. He spun around so fast, Bull actually jumped.

“So, I’m just gonna ask, all right?” he said, looking at Zee. “What the hell are ya?” He turned to Bull. “I mean, we’re both thinking it, right?”

Bull shrugged her shoulders.

Dack shrugged his shoulders, too, mocking Bull. “Oh, right. Like you’re just too cool to wonder what the fuck this guy is, huh? Bullshit,” he said, disgusted.

Bull was putting on a good show of not-giving-a-shit, but deep inside she was just as curious as Dack. What the hell is this guy?

Dack had returned to staring at Zee. “Seriously, dude. You blow into Bull’s, and I mean blow into Bull’s. Tear-ass around the joint all tornado-like. Then the crap with the sheriff’s body… I mean, there is some seriously weird shit going on here.”

“I’m sure it’s all very confusing,” Zee said calmly.

“Confusing? Confusing? You gettin’ this shit, Bull?” Dack flicked her in the shoulder with the back of his hand. “Mister, you’ve shoved a whale dick up my ass and unraveled the asshole of my life.”

Bull let out a good laugh, feeling some tension release.

Zee looked at Dack with a slightly amused smile.

“Oh, right. Just fucking laugh at me. Fucking great.” Dack spun around in his seat and began what he planned would be a good long pout.

Bull kept driving and smiling.

Minutes went by.

Then Zee spoke.

“I am but one of a countless number of things that would… How did you so eloquently phrase it… ‘unravel the asshole of your life?’”

Bull snickered again. It sounded even funnier coming out the Zee’s mouth.

Dack continued to brood. “Hmph.”

Bull chimed in. “So, what are you? Some kind of god or something?”

Zee shook his head. “No, not a god. Just a humble servant.”

“Servant for who?” Bull asked.

Zee remained silent for a few seconds, then said, “The highest bidder.”

There was a bitterness to his words that implied the topic was one best dropped. At least for now.

A renewed, heavy silence settled over the cab of the Suburban. And it stayed there for a while. Dack and Bull still had no idea what to make of the guy in the back seat. No idea why he was so intent on meeting Bull’s brother. No idea what was going to happen when he finally did meet Bull’s brother. There was just a whole helluva lot of not knowing going on.

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWELVE

 

 

Everyone worked in stunned silence unable to fully grasp what they had just witnessed.

Baker had seen some fucked up shit in his life. Two tours in the Middle East during the first Gulf War and a decade on the force had left him pretty immune to the sights he had just witnessed in the warehouse. Or so he thought.

It was as if he had stepped into a meat market. Only, this was Hell’s version of the neighborhood butcher shop. Where it should be cool, with the slight smell of chilled blood in the air mixed with the acrid scent of bleach and cleanser, this place was hot and humid with a smell that a hundred gallons of the strongest, most caustic cleanser could never destroy. And instead of hulking, hanging sides of beef and pork ready to be carved, there were human bodies…female bodies.

Dozens.

Lined up in rows like so many jackets hanging in a closet.

Dropping heavily from rafters 30-feet in the air, rusted chains and cold, blood-covered shackles wrapped around their wrists, pulling their arms up and away from their bodies, pulling up so far their feet didn’t touch the ground. Ankles shackled and attached to more chains stretched taut and fastened to spikes in the warehouse floor, their legs spread far apart.

Each end of the place was filled with these hanging bodies. Brutal atrocities marking the air above with bloody, raw X’s of meat. All in varying stages of decay. Some so old the flesh was sloughing off the bones.

Flies filled the air in clouds, the bodies below them a haven for their children…maggots wriggling and chomping away in parasitic euphoria. The buzz as deafening as the stench was suffocating.

Had the place been cold, the bodies not exposed to heat and humidity, it might have been a little less grotesque. But the rot and decay smell from one end of the place to the other, top to bottom, made it all so much worse. When Watts and Baker had first run inside the warehouse, the smell had hit them like a heavyweight’s punch to the face, bringing them to a coughing halt. After they composed themselves Watts had pulled out a little jar of Vick’s. “Here cover your whole fucking face with this,” he said to Baker, handing him the jar after he took a sizeable glop for himself.

But even with their upper lips coated heavily with the mentholated balm, the stench still filled their noses and mouths, coating the back of their throat with a fetid flavor they would never forget.

No, this place was ruined, an abysmal pit in the universe. Every single inch tainted with atrocity and…evil. Baker felt the pain and despair of the women seep into his skin, filling every pore with a filth he could never wash away.

He could tell Watts felt the same. He had seen the man shiver a dozen times as each new discovery sent new waves of chills up his spine. Baker had to admit, he felt the same chills, he was just better at hiding it.

“No wonder the girl is a fucking basket case,” Watts said slowly making his way down the rows of bodies.

“Yeah,” Baker agreed, “I think I left a little of my sanity at the door.”

“Usually not as bad as the witness says. Hysteria adds a lot, but I don’t think she even came close to describing this fucking horror show. Poor girl is never gonna be right again.”

Baker looked closely at the head of one of the bodies as if he could miraculously recognize the victim from the raw, rotting gray meat where the face should be. “I don’t think any of us are going to be right again.”

They both turned at a shuffling behind them. A young officer approached them, breathing heavily, his nose and mouth covered with a blue mask. Fear danced in the kid’s wide eyes. But he stood tall, making a show of keeping it together. But Baker and Watts both knew the kid was riding a razor wire between sanity and complete meltdown. If he makes it through this, then he’ll make it through anything else from here on out. It simply didn’t get any worse.

“Excuse me, sirs,” said the youth. “You’re wanted over in the center of the warehouse.”

 

– | – | –

 

 

THIRTEEN

 

 

“So. Tell me of your brother,” Zee said, breaking the almost hour-long silence.

Bull and Dack were startled out of their individual road trances.

Bull fidgeted in her seat, not wanting to say anything about Stu to this freak. Fuck him for threatening her and Dack. Fuck him for forcing her to take him to her brother. For all she knew, he would kill Stu on sight. And she couldn’t let that happen.

As soon as Bull got in the SUV, she had started devising a plan. Over the years, she had made this trip hundreds of times. She could do it with her eyes closed. Bull knew every roadside stand, every gas station, every landmark along the way. And she knew that in another two miles there was a local Highway Patrol station. Bull knew exactly what she was going to do.

Bull sensed a slight movement behind her. Before she could react, Zee’s arm was around her neck, his mouth all but touching her ear. “As I told you before, I cannot guarantee I will not hurt your brother. However, I have a strong feeling that it won’t come to that. If he is what I think he is, I cannot harm him. And if he isn’t…then he is of no further concern to me. But your brother has been in contact with the Host.”

Zee’s voice took on a weird, thoughtful tone. His hold on Bull’s neck was still rock-hard, but he sounded distant. “…How he’s been in contact, I am not sure. It is possible he is of the Host or perhaps…blessed…in a manner…”

He shook from the reverie, hardening his words again. “Either way, I will have answers to my questions. Now I ask you, woman, do you fully grasp what I am saying to you?” Zee loosened his arm from Bull’s neck so she could speak.

“Ye-ye-yes. I understand,” she said, gasping for air. But did she understand? His talk of the Host…and the blessed…?

“Good,” Zee said calmly, but keeping his arm pressed against Bull’s neck. “Now. Tell me of your brother.”

Bull nodded her head once.

Zee released his hold on her neck and sat back in the seat. “And, Bull…”

Bull was rubbing her neck, shaken and trying to keep a cool façade. “Yeah?”

“Please refrain from driving this vehicle into the upcoming police station. Because if you do, I will kill you and your friend here and be gone before the bumper touches brick. Are we clear on this?”

Bull’s face pinched in annoyance. Her eyes became slits and Dack could actually feel heat coming off of her.

Zee asked again, “Are we clear?”

“Yessss,” Bull hissed through gritted teeth. “Clear.”

Dack, who had pushed himself so hard against the passenger door he had the door’s cloth pattern pressed into his back, looked at Zee. The Zephyr smiled back at him.

“Good. Now that we’re all on the same page, weave me a tale of your family and this brother of yours.”

Dack settled himself into his seat. Zee held a complacent smile on his face. And Bull, raging inside, told of her brother.

At least, what she knew about him.

 

– | – | –

 

 

FOURTEEN

 

 

Something seemed wrong as soon as they pulled up to the factory. It was still dark out, but the inside of the factory was lit up.

Bull parked the SUV by the front door and got out with the engine still running. She stood looking at the building, not sure what to do next. Zee materialized at her side. She gave him a nasty look, which he ignored.

“It would appear someone is home,” Zee said. “Shall we?” And he motioned to the front door.

Dack jumped out of the cab and stood nervously as Bull headed toward the front door with Zee gliding effortlessly behind her.

Bull reached the door and pulled on the handle. “Shit! It’s locked. Figures.”

“I don’t suppose you have a key?” Zee asked while looking the building over.

“No,” Bull said, annoyed. “I can call Tony, the shop owner, and get him down here.”

“No need,” Zee said. He raised his arms, and as Bull and Dack looked on, Zee broke apart. Big pieces at first. Then he broke into more pieces, smaller pieces, tiny pieces, until he was no more than a man-shaped cloud of sand. Then he was gone, and Bull felt a brisk wind blow past her body toward the glass door. Dack moved next to Bull, both of them staring at the shop’s front doors as if they might talk or dance or something. A slight whistle blew through the cracks between the doors. Once it stopped, Zee’s form churned and formed anew on the other side of the door. Within seconds he went from nothing to a man. He unlocked the door and pushed it open to the shocked Bull and Dack.

“Mister, that’s just too fucking cool,” Dack said.

Bull gaped and nodded her head in agreement.

Zee smiled slightly and motioned with his hand for them to enter the shop.

There was a definite buzz in the air—a certain electricity that made all the small hairs on Dack and Bull stand on end. They grew uncomfortable in their own clothes, resisting the urge to scratch. Bull noticed Zee’s caution as they moved slowly along the line of offices on each side of the hallway. Little pools of blue light from the computer monitors dotted their way along the tightly woven carpet and to the large double doors that led to the factory floor.

Flashes of multi-colored light shot through the Plexiglas windows in the doors. The buzz grew louder as they approached the doors. Zee reached them first and stopped, taking a cautious look through the window. He motioned for Bull to join him.

Bull peeked in, surprised to see no one in the factory. The lights were on and the faint sound of voices filtered from somewhere on the other side of the room. Bull pushed open the door and slowly walked into the factory. Dack stayed back, unsure and suspicious, but Zee placed his hand on Dack’s shoulder and gently pushed him forward. “Please,” Zee said, and Dack obeyed.

The factory seemed all wrong. Factories, even a small one like this, usually had a sense of life about them. A kind of hive-like buzz—the hum of machines, the sound of metal striking metal, voices shouting. But there was none of that, just soft voices in the distance. Bull headed toward the voices—who was here at this time of night? And where the hell was Stu?

As they approached the voices, Bull sensed Zee beside her and then his arm shot in front of her, halting her. Bull stopped and Zee moved his hand close to her face, extending his index finger toward her mouth but not touching her. She felt a slight tendril of electricity reach toward her lips. Zee gave her a look; she understood she was to stay there while he checked things out.

And just like that, Zee was gone. He left nothing but a trace of a breeze in his wake. Bull listened again to the voices. What are the saying? Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She felt Dack behind her. They stood there waiting, hearts pounding in unison: voices, hearts, voices—

click—

No more voices, just heartbeats. And then—

“You may come now,” Zee said from a distance.

Bull and Dack moved toward Zee. When Bull came around a corner, she found Zee inside a cubby hole full of tools and hardware. He was sniffing everything. He peered at Bull in mid-sniff of a screwdriver. She gave him a puzzled look, and Zee thumbed over his shoulder to a shelf and a small radio. She sighed with relief as Dack came barreling into her back. Bull shot forward, slamming into the table full of cans and bottles of screws, nuts, washers and other fasteners. The table’s floor bolts kept it still, but Bull’s hands and arms sent everything flying. Clanging metal bits, large metal cans and old Mason jars rained down on the cement floor in a cacophonous explosion.

Dack had fallen to the floor and scrambled in a field of prickly pain. Screw tips and broken glass pierced his skin. Something in his brain blared Stop moving!, so he did. Then he really heard, “Don’t move!” right where he’d been standing. No shit! he thought as he collapsed with the pain. A quick breeze flowed over him, then the sound of a man getting the wind knocked out of him, and then a slight scuffle. When Dack managed to sit up, he saw Zee. The fucker was doing it again—a gasping man suspended in the air, legs flailing and face turning beet red. Dack heard more noise and turned—Bull, regaining her footing, Bull spinning, Bull screaming at the gasping man, at Zee, “No!”

Zee leveled an easy eye at Bull as if to say, What?

“That’s T-Tony,” she stammered. “For fuck’s sake, put him down. You’re killing him.”

And just like that, no expression nor feeling, Zee gave sweet release to Tony.

Tony crumpled to the floor in a huddled, choking mass, struggling to breathe while Zee stood over him.

Bull stepped gingerly across the floor to Dack and offered him a hand up. He took it and she pulled. “Be careful,” she said, nodding to the scattered mess on the ground.

“Got it,” Dack replied, pulling bits of glass from his forearms.

Zee motioned with his arm and a gust of wind blew the debris across the room. It amassed against a far wall, clearing the way for Dack and Bull to move freely.

Tony had barely stood when he saw what Zee had done. “What the fu—?” nearly escaped his lips, then he opted to gape at Zee instead.

Bull grabbed him by the shoulder. “Tony. Snap out of it.”

Tony swayed in Bull’s grip, gawking at Zee, wondering, searching for an explanation. Zee offered nothing to him but a mere smile and nod. Then Tony felt a hand slap him upside the head. Startled, he turned ready to let loose a fist—hey! Oh. Just Bull.

“I said wake the fuck up!” Bull yelled.

Tony’s fist stopped and quickly relaxed. “Bull? What the hell are you doing here?” Then jerking his head toward Zee he asked, “And what the fuck is that thing?”

Bull shrugged, “That’s Zee. He’s…” Bull realized she didn’t really know just what the hell Zee was, so told the truth, “I don’t know what the fuck he is. Hasn’t been real straight up about that. All I can say is don’t fuck with him.”

“Oh, jeez. Ya think?” Tony said while rubbing his neck.

“Where’s my brother?” Bull got right to the point.

“Uh…” Tony looked confused as if struggling to find the right words.

Bull got annoyed. “My brother, Tony. Where is he?”

“Not here.”

Bull stared at Tony for a beat, then… “What do you mean ‘not here’? He’s always fucking here, Tony.”

Tony looked around as if suddenly exhausted. He moved across the room toward a high stool and planted himself atop it. Zee stayed in place keeping an eye on Tony, but still subtly sniffing the air. Dack continued to pick glass from his arm. He was covered in it, pissed off about it and oblivious to everything going on around him.

Bull waited. Impatiently.

She almost let irritation get the better of her, then looking at Tony, really looking at him, she let it all go. Instead of pounding him about her brother, she asked, “What’s going on around here, man?”

Tony looked up at Bull and she saw him just deflate. Tony was around her dad’s age, but never really looked it. Always big and strong with a constant smile across his face. He was family, to her, to Stu, and she saw him as a second father. A powerful man with a heart of gold and a personality bigger than life. Yet right here, right now, that man was nowhere to be found.

“Talk to me, Tony. What’s wrong? You look like hell.” Bull moved toward Tony and slid over another workbench stool and leaned back against it. She just looked at Tony and waited.

After a few seconds Tony said simply, “He’s gone.”

Bull felt her heart stop for a few ticks. What did he mean, gone? Gone as in to the store? Gone as in taking a walk? Gone as in…

“W-what…?”

“He left. Just left. Asked me not to tell you.”

“What?” This time, she yelled the word. “You let him go and didn’t bother calling me?”

“I wanted to. I swear,” Tony yelled back, tears streaming from his eyes. “But I couldn’t. Every time I picked up the phone…” Tony’s chin hit his chest and he shook his head. “I just couldn’t.”

Bull was furious. She placed her huge hand on Tony’s chest and pushed him against the workbench. She moved forward, her face inches from his. “He’s fucking retarded, Tony! Retarded! He can’t be on his own. How could you…”

Tony pushed her back and stood up, defiance lighting his eyes. “Get off of me! Don’t you think I fucking know he’s retarded? I’m the one who’s been taking care of him for ten years. I know, Bull, I know!”

Bull stood her ground. “Then how could you have let him go? He’s probably fucking dead by now.”

Tony step back a little. “I don’t think so.”

Bull was livid. “Really, man? A retarded guy on his own in the world for over a month and you don’t think so?”

“He’s changed.”

“What?”

“He changed, Bull. He’s not the Stu you knew.”

Bull would have none of it. “Yeah. Right. Retarded people don’t just stop being retarded, Tony.”

Tony moved forward again, right in Bull’s face. “Yeah? Well, if you had bothered to visit him the past couple of months you would know what the hell I’m talking about!”

This time it was Bull’s turn to deflate. She shrank back. Tony was right, she hadn’t been to see Stu in months. She had met someone and let it get in the way of her responsibilities to her family. Or at least what was left of it.

Tony saw the hurt in Bull’s eyes. He reached out, grabbed her and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her. Bull broke down, sobbing into Tony’s chest.

“I’m sorry,” Tony whispered in Bull’s ear. “I’m so sorry.”

Zee’s soft, calm voice filled the air. “Perhaps we should all take a moment to regain ourselves, and then discuss the events leading us here. I think it best not to place blame on any one person. What has transpired here is of no fault of either of you.”

Tony and Bull separated. Tony cast a cautious eye at the stranger in the corner still not sure what to make of him. “Come on,” he said, “Let’s get some coffee. I’ll explain as best I can.”

He grabbed Bull’s hand and led her to a set of swinging doors. Dack followed leaving Zee behind, not noticing as the strange man sniffed the air. Zee’s brow creased and his eyes narrowed. Something foul hung in the air, something spoiled, tainted…evil.

 

– | – | –

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

 

Forensics had given Baker a rough estimate on the body count…

Hundreds.

Hundreds of bodies, all in various stages of decay littered the warehouse. But until they dug through all the layers, deep down through the rotten flesh, curdled blood, maggots, bone and more, they couldn’t be sure of the exact number. It could take weeks to reassemble all the bones into full skeletons and get a final count.

Then there were the skins. The things were strewn throughout the place. How could they ever match them with the rest of the bodies without some deep DNA shit? The horrendous task lay before them, leading to nothing but tears and despair for the families of the identified bodies.

Baker was glad he wouldn’t be the one to tell families. At this point, he was already far too frayed at the edges.

“Sir?”

Baker snapped out of his thoughts and looked at the forensics officer. He saw his reflection in her huge work-glasses and he barely recognized himself. He rubbed his hand over his face as if doing so would return it to its younger, youthful glory or at least to what it was before he set foot into this atrocity.

“Um, sir?” the petite woman said again, looking up at Baker.

“Yeah, Hendricks, what is it?”

Hendricks seemed more nervous at dealing with Baker than she did with all the morbid shit around her. Her voice cracked, “Well, we have something weird here.”

Baker let out a little laugh. “This whole fucking thing is weird, Hendricks. And not in a good way. Be more specific.”

“Well, we have what appear to be human skins, covered in intricate designs. Kind of like they’re etched.”

“I know. I’ve seen them. What about it?”

“Well, it’s the ones piled up next to the victim we took down from the chains. They’re different from others scattered around the place. Yet, they are all alike; perfectly white, no sign of blood flowing from the carving. Sir, that’s not even the strangest part. There are no apparent signs of decay even though there are dozens of them.” She gestured across the space. “All the other skins—they’re rotting as you would expect, but these are…intact. Even the ones strung up in display under the neon lights.”

Baker narrowed his eyes just enough to make Hendricks even more nervous. “What are you saying? They’re not…human?

“I-It would seem so, sir. And they appear to all have come from the victim. As he was put into the ambulance, I noticed his skin. It was different. I mean, different from when I first got here. It looked…whiter.”

Baker nodded; he’d seen it, too. The strange change in the victim’s skin. When they had first entered the warehouse, from a distance the victim looked normal. Well, as normal as the situation would allow. However, later, when they took the vic down from the chains his skin appeared paper-thin. It was if it was made of vellum, the veins showing beneath the frail skin. But as the EMTs stabilized him, the skin became thicker. Whiter. No longer transparent. Baker thought he was seeing things. He’d tried to suppress what he saw in hopes of ignoring his descent into madness a little longer. But now it was obvious he, and Hendricks, had seen it. And he was sure others had, too.

“Sir, I know it sounds far-fetched, but…”

“Already there, Hendricks. There are a lot of things about tonight we can’t explain.”

“Yes, sir.”

Baker’s eyes came to rest on one of the skins stretched taut under the bright lights. The images carved into the flesh seemed to move. Baker felt a chill crawl up his spine. He had given part of his sanity away tonight. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever see it again or if this place had devoured it for good.

“Bag it all up, Hendricks. Keep track of what you have. Especially our un-human skins here. Something tells me they’re far more important to this case.”

Hendricks nodded. “Agreed, sir. We’ll give them priority. It’s weird…”

“There’s that word again.” Baker turned to Hendricks. “What?”

“Follow me.”

Hendricks moved toward one of the hanging skins. Baker followed hesitantly. He was tired of finding more ‘weird’ things.

“This skin… All of these particular skins. They’re different in more ways.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“Like I said, they’re not rotting; they don’t smell. But check this out…” Hendricks reached out to one of the displayed skins and ran her gloved-hand across it. “You see that?”

Baker didn’t want to admit it, but he had no choice. “Yeah.”

“Weird, right?”

“That’s the word of the day it seems.”

“It’s like it’s calling to me to touch it,” Hendricks said staring at the skin. “Know what I mean?”

A chill went up Baker’s spine. He did know what she meant. He longed to reach out, to absorb its texture…feel the pain etched into it by a madman. But he resisted. He’d have to touch one of these abominations eventually but…not yet. He didn’t think his sanity could take another hit right now. He didn’t want to know what it felt like to touch the shockingly white skin with the delicate carvings of a battle. A battle of winged creatures filling the skies and littering the ground. Horrible. Beautiful… And Baker certainly didn’t want to know what it felt like when those carvings, those beautiful, horrible pictures felt like when they moved.

Yes. Moved. That’s what they did under Hendrick’s touch. No, not tonight, Baker thought. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he’d deal with it. Tomorrow he’d go to the hospital and talk to the strung-up soul they had rescued. Because that guy had a lot of explaining to do. He was more than just a victim, and Baker knew it.

However, tonight… Tonight he needed to go home and see if his sanity was hiding at the bottom of a beer. And if it wasn’t in the first one then he’d have another, one beer at a time, until he found it or passed the fuck out. Either way, sweet oblivion was waiting…at least for a few hours.

 

– | – | –

 

 

SIXTEEN

 

 

“I don’t know, Bull, he just…you know…changed.”

Bull was getting more and more frustrated with Tony. “No, I don’t know. Changed how?”

They were in the employee break room. Tony had poured coffee for all of them. He handed one to them out, hesitating as he gave one to Zee. Zee took the cup and thanked Tony.

“Can you even drink?” Dack asked Zee. “Or eat?”

Tony backed away from Zee, confused by what Dack had just asked.

“Thank you. Very kind,” Zee said to Tony.

“You’re welcome,” Tony said, and then he turned to Dack. “Why’d you ask him that? What’s wrong with him?”

Bull saw the awkwardness mounting and stepped in.

“Don’t worry about it. Get back to my brother. Where is he?”

Tony gave Zee another once-over before moving to a table and settling into a chair with a huff. Bull sat across from him. Dack stayed where he was leaning against a counter and Zee remained standing between them and the door. His position told them they were going nowhere.

“Your friend is giving me the creeps,” Tony whispered at Dack, thrusting his chin toward Zee.

Dack let out a snort as he choked on a sip of coffee. “Brother, you have no fucking idea.”

Bull rapped her knuckles on the table. “Just ignore him. Hell, ignore both of them and focus here. Stu. Go.”

Tony looked down at his coffee and thought about that first meeting with the artist named Daniel…how once he and Stu met, things had changed—quickly. He sighed and began the story for Bull, Dack and the odd stranger, the one whose face seemed a constant blur.

 

– | – | –

 

 

SEVENTEEN

 

 

Stu was comatose in Room 415 of the Angel of Mercy Hospital. Even though his body lay motionless his brain was afire with memories that didn’t seem like his own. Years, decades, centuries of memories, of his many lives, bombarding him, then blurring into a muddled haze.

But none of them compared to the oldest memories—the ones of a glorious place full of love and light. But those memories soon became coated in blood, pain and suffering. It was these memories that hurt Stu the most. Confusion, betrayal and loss haunted him as he remembered the war in Heaven and how his hands helped in the destruction of his brothers and sisters…and in the end…Paradise.

It was that day in the shop, the day Stu shook hands with Daniel, the day he…awoke. The flow of memories had begun as a trickle, then slowly sped up until a deluge of images assaulted his mind and left him physically sick.

And in need of answers.

Daniel had insisted on meeting Stu again, but whenever Tony brought up the subject, Stu would shake his head violently and become upset to the point where Tony had given up the idea until…

…until it came to making the neon wings for Daniel’s art. Stu felt he owed Tony, but with the constant barrage of his many pasts, Stu began to realize who and what he was, and that his life—his current life—was about to change course drastically. He was no autistic savant; he was so much more. He, Stu, was once an artisan in Paradise. He harnessed starfire and fused it into wondrous works of art for his Family and more importantly, his Father. He had created works so glorious they would make a mortal man cry and never stop. But even though his work was grander than any human could imagine it paled next to the work of his Mentor, his Brother, the Angel called Daniel. Daniel’s work could bring God himself to tears.

 

– | – | –

 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

 

Tony sat back in his chair and gave time for his story to settle in. Bull just stared at him. Dack appeared to be looking for answers in his cup of coffee. After a minute or so Tony took the opportunity to change the subject.

“So, buddy,” he said looking toward Zee. “What’s your deal? You friends with Bull here?”

Bull snorted.

Dack shook his head and gave a little giggle that came out too girly for his liking. He cleared his throat, stood up straighter and flicked a thumb in Zee’s direction. “This is Zee. He’s a bounty hunter. He figures Bull owes him on account she stole his kill when she blew the head of our local corrupt sheriff right the fuck off his shoulders. Zee had tracked the sheriff to Bull’s—to me—where he’d come ta take me out to the woods for a nice game of catch-the-bullet.”

Bull laughed. “Sheriff went first.”

“You killed a sheriff?” Tony looked stunned.

“Yep,” Bull said flatly. “And I’d fucking do it again. Should have done it a long time ago when he…”

Bull stopped, but everyone was waiting.

“When he what?” Dack asked, concerned.

Bull steeled herself for the words about to come out of her mouth. “When he killed my dad.”

“Shit,” said Tony.

Bull slumped back into her chair. “Yeah…shit.”

Dack came up behind Bull and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Fuckin’ A, Bull. You sure?”

“I was there. Happened when I was eighteen. Sheriff and his boys decided they needed to pop a nut that night and I happened to be the one they found first when I was taking out some trash at the bar.” Bull looked up at the ceiling then continued. “Two of the deputies had me pinned facedown on the hood of a cruiser while the sheriff raped me from behind. They kept calling me a ‘dyke’ and saying ‘all I needed was a good fucking from real men.’ But then Dad came out, wondering what took me so long. He went apeshit and went after the sheriff with a bat he kept near the door.” Bull laughed. “Dad always kept a bat near every door and a couple behind the bar. Said you never knew where you’d need to beat the shit out of someone.”

Dack patted Bull. “Wise man.”

“Yeah. Anyway, he hit the sheriff upside the head and dropped him to his knees. Took out one of the deputies too but the other one jumped on him and took Dad to the ground.” Tears threatened, but Bull kept going. “There was a loud sound and when I looked again, Dad was on the ground gasping for air.” She wiped at her eyes. “That asshole sheriff had fucking shot him.”

“Jesus,” said Tony shaking his head.

“The deputy and the sheriff picked up their other man and brought him around. Sheriff told them to get the fuck out of there and come back only when he called. Then he turned to me, slapped me across the face and punched me in the stomach. I hit the ground trying to catch my breath when he pulled my hair back and told me if I ever told anyone what happened, he’d kill me.” Bull’s expression was like stone. “I told him to fucking kill me. Then he gave me that evil fucking smirk of his and said he’d kill Stu. That shut me up. Shut me up for a decade.”

“Well, guess you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Dack said. “He’s gone.”

“How’s he gone?” Tony cut in. “Where’s the body?”

“That’s where Mr. Bounty Hunter comes in. He got rid of the body. Poof.” Dack waved his hands in the air. “All gone, just like that.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Just gone. Don’t ask, you’d never believe it.”

Tony squinted his eyes at Zee. “You’ve creeped me out since I first saw you, fella, now I’m really creeped out.”

Bull and Dack both laughed.

Zee finally moved and when he did Tony jumped. Zee brought his arm up and pointed to the TV that had been playing behind Tony the entire time. The sound had been turned way down but Zee could hear it.

“Turn that up please,” Zee said to no one in particular.

Dack saw the TV’s remote next to him on the counter, grabbed it and turned the volume up. Tony turned around and they all started watching what Zee had been watching for some time.

On the screen was a shaky video of a giant shaft of light emerging from the roof of a warehouse and shooting straight up into the sky.

“Curious,” was all Zee said.

 

««—»»

 

“…scene of a massive police operation and, well, a yet unexplained event occurring at a long abandoned warehouse in the St. Johns area. The team got here in time to get this video…”

The screen filled with an image of the blinding shaft of light shooting upward from the center of the warehouse, and then switched to a female reporter: “We’re trying to find out exactly what it is we’re seeing. The police haven’t yet released any official reports regarding the incident, nor can we get any closer to the scene.” Behind her, the warehouse’s massive silhouette loomed, lit by an assault of intense spotlights and two helicopters hovering above. Dozens of figures and emergency vehicles moved around the building. Many of the figures seemed ill, hunched over, vomiting or dry heaving into the dirt, weeds and rocks surrounding the warehouse.

The camera’s light illuminated the reporter’s red hair with a blinding sheen as her dark green eyes stared deep into the camera…a look that hinted to something, perhaps sinister?…in the situation unfolding behind her. Her voice was unsteady but she forged on:

“More video from various sources is coming into the station which we’ll broadcast as soon as possible; in the meantime…” The helicopter engines blared overhead. She took to shouting and ducking: “…we’re trying to get official statements from the police. So far, there are a lot of ambulances filing into the area and it appears every vehicle from the city morgue is here as well. There is also—” The reporter coughed suddenly, covering her nose. “—a stench in the air surrounding the scene. Something big has happened in this warehouse and I will do my best to bring you the latest details on just what it is. This is Ann O’Connor reporting. Back to you, Rob.”

The screen switched to a groomed man in his 50’s, dark hair peppered with gray. “Thanks, Ann. Channel 5 will indeed keep you up-to-date as this story unfolds. You can also view the video on our website as we go through the new footage coming into the station. We’ll be right back.”

 

««—»»

“It is in our best interest to find out everything we can about this event.”

Everyone turned to Zee still lingering in the corner.

“What? Why?” asked Bull.

“I have encountered something like this in the past.”

“Like what?” asked Dack.

“That light. It was a long time ago, far away from here, but it was the same. A shaft of light shot toward the stars. It occurred when one of the Host died.”

“There’s that host-thing again. What exactly do you mean by ‘host’?” Dack squinted his eyes at Zee.

Tony interrupted. “You mean, like…angels?”

Zee looked at Tony with a slight smile. “Exactly, Mr. DeSanto. What you call angels.”

“Angels?” Bull asked incredulously.

Zee shrugged. “Scoff if you like. But Angels are real. Demons are real. And I…” Zee extended his arms away from his body. “…am real.”

Dack nodded. “Seriously, Bull, you’ve seen what Zee can do. Is it really that much of a leap to believe angels exist?”

Bull mulled it over for a second. Zee’s whirlwind. His shape-changing. His ability to disintegrate a dead body to nothing. “Suppose not.”

“And as I told you before, I think your brother is of the Host.”

“And you’re saying that explosion, that light, is like an angel dying?” Bull asked.

“Indeed.”

“So you think my brother just…died?” Bull shook her head. “No. NO.”

Zee moved forward and placed his gloved hand on Bull’s shoulder. Gently this time. “We can’t be sure, but, yes, it’s possible. So, I’m saying we should find out.”

Dack spoke, looking to perk up his friend. “Yeah, Bull. Let’s see what we can find out. Add some more freaked out bullshit to this day.”

Bull tapped her fingers on the table and chewed her lip. She was terrified for what may have happened to Stu. Yet, she needed to find him, good or bad. She needed to know. “Okay.”

Zee nodded. “Okay! Then the first place we go is there.” He pointed to the TV, to the red-haired reporter back on the screen.

To the warehouse behind her in the distance.

 

– | – | –

 

 

NINETEEN

 

 

Stu awoke to the glare of fluorescent lights from above. He blinked a few times to gain some focus. When his eyes finally cooperated, he looked around and found himself in a hospital room strapped to a bed, a sheet covering him halfway up his chest. Machines flanked him, lights of varying colors flashing in tandem with a shrill chorus of blips and bleeps.

He tried to lift his hand to study it under the harsh light, but found resistance from the straps. Stu hesitated for a split second before breaking the strap with one quick, sharp yank. He slowly rotated his hand back and forth before his face.

His skin had completely regenerated.

Not really a shock now that he knew who…what…he was.

Stu heard a harsh, male voice yell from the door. “Nurse! He’s awake.” When Stu looked toward the door he found the source of the voice: two armed policemen, looking very uneasy.

“Take it easy, buddy,” the other one said, gripping the gun at his hip. “We’ll get the doctor in here to check you out.”

A sudden flurry of activity flowed in from the hall as a team of nurses and doctors pushed past the gun-toting men and surrounded the bed.

Stu heard one of the cops say to someone, “He just snapped it. Lifted his arm and snapped the strap like it wasn’t even there.”

A cacophony of voices attacked him, directing him to lie still. Machines were clicked, fluids were increased and decreased, medical instruments were applied to Stu’s skin, vitals were checked all while countless faces appeared and then quickly disappeared only to reappear seconds later. It all became too much for Stu and soon the sounds, faces and harsh light from above gave way to sweet, dark silence.

 

««—»»

Stu awoke again, but this time, the harsh lights were gone, replaced by darkness highlighted with the greens, yellows and reds of the machines around his bed. Night had settled across the room. Stu was relieved; no sensory assault this time. He was strapped down again and this time he let the restraints be. He settled into his pillow and took a deep breath. No police this time, he thought. He was alone. Or so he thought.

A slight rustle from one corner of the room caught his attention. Quiet, as if a mouse had moved, but Stu’s hearing was extraordinary and he noticed. He left his head upon the pillow and said, “Come.”

More rustling and a form appeared beside his bed. So slight, so tiny. A normal person wouldn’t have even known it was there.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he told the form.

“I had to. I wanted to be here in case you woke up. I sneaked in when the guard was on his phone. More than once, I’ve been here. They never even knew.” Her frail voice hinted of pride at the accomplishment.

“You’re Shelly, right? The young woman from the warehouse?” Stu asked. His eyes remained closed, his head resting on the soft pillows.

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad you’re doing well.”

Shelly laughed. “Am I? Not too sure about that.”

Stu sighed. “I’m so very sorry you saw what you did. No one should have had to experience what you have.”

Stu felt a hand fall lightly upon his. “It’s okay. I’ve realized… It was my destiny. My blessing, to see his creations. You and Daniel created pure beauty.”

Stu opened his eyes and stared at the girl. She was so thin, so frail, so damaged. But there was an intensity in her eyes. It was almost fanatical—and Stu didn’t like it. This girl had been scarred so deeply that she would never heal.

“Daniel sent me back into the world to spread the word of his art. So that is what I will do.”

“No!” Stu near screamed, the effort tiring him. “You can’t do that. What Daniel did was an abomination of his heavenly gift. He took the blessing of our Father and destroyed it. Ruined it with his insanity.”

Shelly removed her hand, hovering it above Stu’s. Tears filled her eyes. “No, no. That’s not true. I was there, I saw what he did. He showed me Heaven. Showed it to me through you. It flowed across your skin and it was beautiful.”

“No,” Stu said again as he snatched her hand. “I can’t let you remember. The horrors you’ve seen will taint your soul till the end.” He squeezed her hand. “I can’t allow that.”

Then his voice commanded: “Look at me.”

She knew what was coming, but she couldn’t resist. Shelly looked deep into Stu’s eyes and soon she was lost. Spinning through darkness. Her mind became a mess of thoughts and memories. She could feel them being shuffled as some were plucked from the furthest recesses of her mind. Then… She was back.

Stu released her hand. “Go back to your room. Live your life and be happy.”

Shelly was dazed, unsure of where she was and what was happening. She was only sure of what the voice had told her: Live your life. Be happy. She walked out into the light of the hallway into the presence of one very confused police officer.

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWENTY

 

 

It seemed like every emergency vehicle in the city was heading in one direction. Bull locked onto a squad car and followed until she saw a blockade in the distance.

“Looks like we ain’t getting any closer than this,” Bull said, her frustration mounting.

Tony shook his head, “No, we can get a better look.” He thumbed the air, pointing back the way they had come. “Turn around, go back to Monroe and hang a left. There’s a side road that goes around the hill. Should get us close enough to check things out.”

“You sure?” Bull asked.

Tony looked at her. “Yeah, it’s my city.”

“Okay, okay…” Bull did a U-turn and headed back the way they had come.

Zee rustled in the back seat and spoke up for the first time since they left Tony’s shop. “Ah, good. Closer now. I will join up with you later, once I have investigated to my satisfaction.” Zee disintegrated into a whirlwind of dust flecks and was gone out of the window in an instant.

Tony stuck his head out of the passenger window. “What…the…” He watched the dust cloud head off toward the blockade.

Dack shrugged his shoulders, laughing at Tony. “Yeah, he does that.”

Bull let out a curt Christ under her breath and stepped on the gas.

 

««—»»

Baker had worn out his search for sanity at the bottom of a bottle and fell into a mini-coma filled with one epic dream of hi-def cinematic quality:

He was in a hall, the walls glowing neon white causing him to shield his eyes. The buzz of the neon filled his ears. Stark red images lined the white walls. He tried to focus on something—anything—but he couldn’t. The images were in constant motion. They danced a beautifully choreographed ballet of carnage and destruction.

The hall spun and spun and spun, and soon became a round room with Baker at the center. He stood trapped as the centrifuge of gore spinning around him began to slow. Winged shapes darted in and out of his vision—thousands of them—many brandishing wondrously deadly weapons seemingly made of light.

Angels.

He was watching angels, all attacking each other with an animal’s ferocity.

The wall of the round room pulsated and the figures upon it dove at one another, their claws extended, seeking the flesh of their brothers and sisters.

Baker locked onto one angel who stood out from the others, his presence demanding. The angel roared like an enraged lion, his wings propelling him like a lightning bolt across the white wall. Raised above his head, he held a brilliant and enormous sword that shone with the light of a million stars. His roar continued and assaulted Baker’s ears. He dropped to his knees, but his eyes never blinked, never lost sight of the angel rocketing toward his target—a beautiful angel bathed in blood. This angel turned toward her oncoming brother and answered his roar with one of her own, then launched herself at him.

Baker clasped his hands over his ears and watched. They were two raging comets thirsty for each other’s blood, hungry for one another’s flesh and when they met the universe stopped. All sound stopped. All motion stopped. The other angels became frozen on the white wall as if awaiting a cue. Waiting for…

The sun exploded.

That was all Baker could think when the two angels collided with one another, a train wreck of celestial flesh. And when the light burst subsided, and Baker’s vision had returned to focus on the wall, only one figure remained.

The angel with the sword.

But he did not stand victorious. He was plummeting. The sword peeled from his grip and somersaulted away from the limp body.

And Baker watched…

And all the angels watched…

And the body fell…

…fell…

…fell…

Then was gone…disappeared off the bottom of the wall.

Suddenly, all that had been frozen returned to life. The sound renewed with vigor as thousands of angels released blood-curdling screams and began their own individual descents into the darkness below. And just as wrenching as the screams, were the mournful wails of those angels—not falling—but instead rising up and away from those they had loved since the beginning of time.

Soon the wall was a white, blank slate. Its pulsating diminished to nothing as the final angels descended and ascended.

And all that remained was the insistent hum of the neon wall.

 

««—»»

 

He awoke in a sea of florescence. A voice invaded his mind.

“Oh, shit! Sorry, sir!”

Baker squinted at the figure in the door of his office.

“I didn’t know you were in here.”

He sat up and rubbed his eyes; his hands came away wet. “It’s okay, Hendricks.”

Hendricks entered the office slowly. “You, uh…all right?”

Baker was suddenly embarrassed. “Yeah. Eyes are sore as shit and I think my neck might be broken.”

“That happens when you sleep at your desk.”

There was an awkward pause between the two before Baker asked, “You need something?”

Hendricks stumbled out of her silence. “Got the prelims and was gonna put them on your desk. Like I said… You know… Sorry to wake you up.”

Baker cracked his neck. “It’s fine. I was having a bitch of a nightmare anyway.”

Hendricks placed the case file in front of him then aimed a finger at a wall. “It’s no wonder. Shouldn’t go to sleep surrounded by that shit.”

Baker looked where she pointing. A large white board covered almost an entire wall in his office. On it hung dozens of gruesome pictures from the warehouse nightmare. He nodded. “Probably right.”

They shared a meditative silence. This time Hendricks broke it. “Looks like the surviving victim is awake.”

“Really?” Baker asked, shocked.

She nodded. “Yeah. Wide awake. And apparently doing fine.”

Baker rubbed his face again. “Fuckin’ A,” he sighed. “Why am I surprised?” He stood up and rolled his shoulders. “Guess I’d better head over there and get some answers.”

“Yeah, good luck with that. I bet the answers are gonna fuck this up even more.”

“You think?”

Hendricks gave Baker a wry smile. “Oh, and…”

“Christ, what else?”

“Well, you fucking stink. Like the warehouse. You might want to clean yourself up before going anywhere.”

Baker sighed again and nodded. “I don’t think I’ll ever get this stink out of my skin.”

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWENTY-ONE

 

Officers Dan Deming and Doss Connor were standing guard at the back door of the warehouse. Their faces were covered with paper respirators coated with Vicks VapoRub to mask out the smell of death and decay housed behind them.

Connor flinched first and looked at Deming. “I’m gonna hurl, man.”

Deming let out a slight huff of amusement. “Well, make it quick, because I’m about to do the same.”

They had been ordered to stand guard and keep reporters and lookey-loos from sneaking in. Grunt work, but it was better than duty inside. The stench from the brief minutes near the bodies, plus the Vick’s, clung to their sinuses. They had pulled the door closed in a vain attempt to block the smell. A small gap between the bottom of the door and the floor allowed the odor to drift out and continue its assault on the two officers.

It was this gap where Deming heard a whistling sound. The dirt and leaves at his feet rose and danced about. The whistling stopped, the leaves and dirt settled and Deming wished Connor would return from his puke in a mass of scrub; Deming was ready for his turn.

It wasn’t just Deming who noted the wind. Everyone in the warehouse felt it pass by. It was refreshing for a brief moment…

Zee flowed through the building. Zee, the whistling wind, a reprieve from the heat and stink of the warehouse. Zee, covering every corner of every room from the floor to the rafters. He spun over the skinless bodies yet to be removed. He whirled around live humans cocooned in yellow suits streaked with red, masks covering their mouths and noses, goggles protecting their forever-scarred eyes, doing their best to focus on evidence, and not the horror of the scene. Zee listened to their conversations, gathering information, noting their individual horrors and fears.

He spiraled up and out of the hole in the ceiling, the path of the light beam, then dove back down to the blood-stained floor causing the chains suspended above it to clash.

People working nearby looked up with dead-tired eyes, toward the dancing chains, then returned to the gruesome task at hand.

Zee hovered above the stained floor, above the set blood and tortured air. It screamed in pain at the atrocity collected in such a small area…forever tainted. So many deaths in one spot…

His mind reeled. This was overwhelming, even for a being such as him. He knew, knew, the Host was here, knew it when he saw the explosion on TV. Even with the scent of a hundred deaths clinging to the air… The Host rose above it all.

Zee knew the smell all too well. He had encountered many angels, many demons, since the Fall. Yes, they were born the same, yet, there was a distinct difference between them.

Host.

Fallen.

Here, he smelled the Host. Strong. Pure.

But there was another smell.

Fallen.

But he was wrong. It wasn’t Fallen. No demon-smell. It was something else—no longer one and not quite the other. It was the smell of a rancid infected wound, something fouled beyond redemption.

Stu… No. Stu could never smell like this. Anyway, he survived. It was a different being he smelled. The one blasted through the roof and into oblivion… What was it? A demon in training? A human gone over the edge of the abyss and riddled with insanity? Or was it a sleeper—awakened and too soon—confused, lost in a world it didn’t recognize? And if it had been a sleeper, why all this? Why all the suffering? To what end? I don’t know. I don’t know. May its torment be over now.

Zee had a job to do—find the Host. If only I’d done so sooner… Perhaps preventing this nightmare from happening.

But, he could lament later. Zee had to get back to the others, tell Bull about her brother and then get on with the task at hand.

Find the Host.

Zee whipped himself into a mini-cyclone. He spun faster and faster. He whirled his frustration, his anger, and fast-pulled the rank air toward him. Once he got enough speed he expelled his rage by launching himself up and out of the hole in the roof. Corrugated panels burst upward along with him and the warehouse rocked with the force.

“What the fuck…?” Connor threw open the back door, Deming right behind, and ran inside to find people thrown to the floor, the suspended chains rattling and papers flying about.

“Man…fuck this place!” Deming yelled through his mask.

 

««—»»

“You smell that?” Bull took a couple sniffs of the surrounding air.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Nasty.”

Dack move up to the guardrail lining the hilltop road and stood next to Bull. “Like roadkill.”

“A whole warehouse full of roadkill,” Tony said while moving next to Dack.

The scene below was a circus of flashing lights and people yelling. They all stood there, just watching, staring out over what looked like a terrorists’ crime scene. Dozens of emergency vehicles and hundreds of police, detectives, SWAT members, morgue and forensics teams all moved in a controlled, chaotic waltz of stunned professionalism. Everyone knew their role and moved efficiently like a swarm of ants.

“What is all this? A warehouse filled to the brim with dead bodies, I guess.” Tony noted.

“And your brother was down in that mess,” Dack stated flatly.

Bull tried to process all that was going on. “Yeah. I…I suppose.”

“Not suppose. He was.”

Suddenly, all three of them jumped. Dack stumbled forward into the guardrail, nearly flipping over it and rolling down a steep incline.

Bull and Tony spun around to find Zee standing there looking…well…the way Zee looked—composed and curious.

“GOD…DAMNIT!” Bull shouted. “At least make a wind whistling noise or something when coming up behind us.” She pulled Dack from the rail by his collar and spun him around to face Zee.

“My apologies.”

Tony shook his head while Dack glowered at Zee. He was working hard to keep his anger in check. After all, this was some sort of wind god. But still, Dack thought, fucker needs a bell.

“I’m going to start carrying a goddamn wind chime,” Bull said as if reading Dack’s mind. She let her heart slow down some. “So what about my brother? What did you find out?”

“He’s been taken to an area hospital, St. Charles.”

“I know where that is,” Tony offered.

“Cool, let’s go,” Bull said, moving toward the SUV.

Dack threw a nod over his shoulder to the scene below. “What’s it like down there? Bad?”

Zee took a second before answering. “Yes, it is bad. Very bad. I have seen many things like this throughout my existence. The level of depravity humankind can enact on its own kind is at times appalling and inconceivable. However, this time it was not human destroying human.”

Tony and Dack stared at Zee. Not human?

A loud car door slam broke them out of their daze.

“Let’s go,” Bull yelled from the driver’s window.

They piled into the SUV. Dack and Zee climbed in the back. Bull hit the gas and they took off up the hillside while Tony gave directions from the passenger seat.

Dack curled his nostrils. “Zee, you stink, brother.”

Zee stared ahead. “Atrocity rarely smells pleasant. Brother.”

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWENTY-TWO

 

 

Baker got to the hospital a little after noon. He wanted to get there earlier, but when he got out of the shower and dried off… Man. I still stink. He started the whole process over again. Then did it two more times. His skin had turned a nice shade of bad sunburn when he finally decided he’d had enough.

As he walked through the sanitized halls of St. Charles hospital, Baker was pretty damn sure everyone could smell him. I am going to fucking smell like death for the rest of my damn life, he swore.

He approached two officers outside of room 415. They both turned their heads and looked at the detective. Then they looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

“What?” Baker demanded as he stopped in front of them.

“Detective.”

Baker looked at the officer. “Don’t ‘detective’ me. What was that look you gave each other, Garcia?”

“What look?” Garcia asked.

“‘What look?’” he mimicked the officer. “I stink, don’t I? You smelled me coming down the hall.”

Garcia looked confused. “Uh…no.”

“Then what was the look for?” He turned on the other officer.

Officer Courtley shrugged. “You look like a fucking lobster, Baker.”

“Oh,” Baker relaxed some. “I’m sure I do. Better than smelling like death.”

Both officers nodded.

“You boys got off lucky with guard duty.”

“You ain’t kiddin’. We’ve been hearing horror stories all night. The whole department is gonna need therapy after what you all saw,” Courtley said.

Garcia leveled his eyes at Baker. “Is it really that bad?”

Baker nodded. “Take what you heard and multiply it by a million and you still won’t have any idea. And be fucking glad you don’t.”

They shared a couple of moments of silence.

Baker gestured at the door. “Our boy up?”

Garcia grabbed the door lever—the door opened with a soft click. “He’s been in and out. Nothing coherent yet.”

Baker walked into the room. “Let’s see if I can wake him up.”

“Good luck,” Garcia said and slowly closed the door.

 

««—»»

“They’re not going to let you in.”

The four sat in Bull’s SUV watching the front entrance to St. Charles.

Dack went on, warning Bull. “They don’t even know who Stu is right now. Just another John Doe to ’em.”

“All those reporters and cops-on-guard aren’t helping either,” Tony added.

Bull knew they were right. She could go in there screaming up a storm that she was the mystery guy’s sister, but then again, anyone could.

“Now what?”

“Well, Ol’ Windy here could get in, do some recon.” Dack looked at Zee. “Maybe find out what room he’s in.”

And just like that…Zee was gone out the car window.

Tony frowned. “Why am I already getting used to that?”

“I know, right?” Bull replied.

 

««—»»

 

Baker looked down at the bed. Can’t be the same guy. But there he slept. The same guy he saw packed into the back of the ambulance the night before. But…different. That raw, red flesh was gone and replaced with smooth, alabaster skin.

The room was dark despite the afternoon sun peeking through the blinds. In the dim light, Baker saw that the man in the bed had a soft glow about him.

It seemed almost blasphemous to disturb the guy. But Baker had a job to do. He moved to the window and opened one set of blinds allowing light to invade the room. He turned and looked at the guy in the bed; his skin reflected with a beautiful radiance. Baker was taken aback.

Stu’s eyelids twitched and his eyes opened, slowly. Again he was assaulted with light.

What light?

Neon.

Neon.

Not neon.

This light was warm and real. He took it in, felt it seep into his body. He could still feel a slight tingling as his flesh regenerated. He was past the bad part and soon he would be completely healed—physically. His mind and his heart were a different matter.

A shadow fell across Stu offering his eyes some relief.

“You awake?” asked the rough-voiced shadow.

Stu turned his head. Eventually his eyes found a very tired looking man in a crumpled, disheveled suit looking down at him with blood-shot eyes. And very red skin…

Stu tried to talk, but only a scratchy sound came out.

“Hold on,” said Baker. He moved to the bed-stand and poured water into a small yellow cup then handed it to Stu. “Just sip it, don’t gulp.”

Stu took the cup and did just that. The water felt good sliding down his dry throat. He coughed. “Thank you.”

“Yep.” Baker gave the guy a few seconds to gather himself. Then he started. “My name’s Baker. Detective Baker. I know you’ve been through a lot, but I need to ask you some questions. You good with that?”

Stu let out a long breath. He was weak. He wanted to leave. But he needed more time to recover fully. Questions. Fine. “Yes.”

Baker moved around the bed and pulled up a chair between the guy and the door. “I’m gonna sit. Been a long night and I’m running on empty.”

Stu stuck out his cup. “Water?”

Baker let out a small laugh. “No thanks, wouldn’t want anything interfering with my coffee.”

Stu offered a gentle smile and rested his head back in the bed.

“First off, what’s your name?”

“I guess you can call me Stu.”

“You guess?” Baker asked.

Stu sighed. “It’s complicated.”

“Of course it is. Everything in the past 24 hours has been complicated, why not something as simple as your name.”

Stu shrugged. “Sorry.”

Baker cut right to it. “You remember what happened to you?”

“Every excruciating detail, Detective.” Stu shut his eyes as if that would ward off his memories.

“Guess that’s good for me, huh?”

Stu said nothing.

 

««—»»

 

Garcia and Courtley stood at their post outside the door. They could hear voices inside the room but couldn’t make out what was being said. Both wondered what Baker was finding out. To the two officers, the men in the room had seen Hell on Earth. They tried to imagine what the two had experienced but both figured it best they stop doing that and just be glad they’d survived.

A slight whistle came from somewhere close. Both men felt a breeze across their legs…

 

««—»»

 

“So let me get this right. The guy who had you tied up, was torturing you, was your brother?”

Baker didn’t hear the whistle, nor did he see a faint shape form behind him.

But Stu did. Stu looked past Baker, at the wispy shadow hovering above the floor. A head took shape within the cloud. Eyes looked out at Stu and held his gaze. Stu’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. Then he looked back at Baker. “Yes, in a way.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well, it’s…”

“Let me guess… Complicated?”

“As you said, Detective, it’s all complicated.”

Stu watched the wisp disappear from behind the detective. This time Baker heard the low whistle and turned to look over his shoulder.

“I would like you to contact my sister.”

Baker was thrown off. “Sister?” And that whistling sound. What the hell is that? “Um, well…” He found himself writing down how to find this sister of Stu’s.

Stu closed his eyes. “I’m tired, Detective. Please contact her and allow me to rest.”

Baker wanted to protest, to continue his questioning, but he found himself standing and moving toward the door.

Outside Courtley and Garcia looked at Baker. He appeared lost.

“Anything useful?” Garcia asked.

“Ah…” Baker stuttered. “I don’t…” He quickly ripped off a sheet from his notepad and handed it to Courtley. “Do me a favor, track down the sister and bring her here. I gotta go. See what’s happening at the crime scene.”

“No problem,” Courtley said, looking concerned.

Baker shambled off and ducked into the first men’s room and puked up an acidic mix of coffee and bile. He loomed over the bowl, Stu’s face and skin and words pounding in his head. That whistling. What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened.

 

««—»»

 

Zee flowed through the hallways, up the stairwell, until he reached the door to the roof. Ahh. Daylight. Up further he flowed… He joined the winds, soaring, rising, and then falling and rising again. He spun and took in the scents around him. He was as he should be, free of form, sailing across the sky, absorbing the warmth and power of the sun. This was how he was for so long. But the past was all a blur.

Zee remembered the Beginning, when he and his elemental kin were born and sent to mold the landscape of this New World at the request of their mother, Gaia. Long, long ago before the humans came, before they changed his Mother’s name to Earth, before they started destroying her.

Zee had emotions, but they were simple.

He loved his Mother.

He loved and feared his Father.

And he could hate.

For so long he hated the humans, wanted to see them crushed for the parasites they were. He never understood why his Father had put them here. One drop in the water and they spread like a disease. And for millennia Zee wished for their demise. But as time moved on, he realized the disease had become part of their world, their norm. This fascinated him. As did all of their complexities. He moved among them, absorbing their culture. And soon he realized what his Father had seen in them and why he had offered up his Mother to them. They were like Him, but they were free. Free to make their own decisions, live as they wanted, free to do right and…free to do wrong. Only they were allowed this. Not even the blessed first at his Father’s side were allowed to do wrong. Why? Zee often wondered. Why didn’t the blessed just make their own decisions? Then one day they did. And everything changed. A great war erupted and many of the Host fell, becoming abominations. Others loyal to the Father remained by His side. And still others, ones the Father saw future use for, were released among the humans to live a thousand lives, hidden from above and below. They were spread far and wide, only to be gathered later. And because of his talents beyond that of his kin—his invisibility, his swiftness and shape-shifting—Zee was given a task: to find the hidden.

Zee traveled the winds riding past the large structures, over the smaller rural buildings and onward to where humanity was sparse and the trees were dense. He rose toward the sun then dove down, down, down into the trees. He twisted through them caressing their rough texture until he came to an opening under the forest canopy. Here he cycloned into a form he knew his Father would like, the form of man.

 

««—»»

 

“Well, this is taking a long time,” complained Tony. “Figured he’d be back by now.”

Bull nodded, “Yeah, too long. Wonder what’s up.”

She felt a vibration in her back pocket. She pulled out her cellphone, hit accept and put the phone to her ear. “Yeah,” she grunted. “It is… Jesus, is he all right? Yeah, I’m already here… On my up now. Thanks.”

Dack looked at her. “Guessin’ we don’t need to wait for Zee anymore, huh?”

“Nope,” Bull said. “That was the police. They just gave us front row tickets to the horror show.”

“Awesome,” Tony shook his head. “Just awesome.”

“Well, let’s see what the fuck is goin’ on.” Bull exited the truck and the others fell out behind her. Together they walked across the lot to the hospital, felt the cool air escape from the lobby as the doors slid open, let out a collective sigh and forged ahead.

 

««—»»

 

Zee stood in the clearing and waited. He’d put out the call, sending the message into winds, down into the earth and rippling through waters until it reached Father.

He didn’t have to wait long. No bang, no flash, not even the slightest rustle of leaves. Just his Father standing before him, and…

Rosiel.

Rose.

Zee stared at the first Host he’d tracked down. She was tall and thick, broad-shouldered with long hair the color of his sister Fire. Zee knew the first time he ever saw her, that she was a perfect example of the Host. His Father had been very happy Zee had found her.

“Hello, my son. I was so pleased to receive your message.”

Zee broke his gaze at the woman, and bowed toward his Father. “It is my honor to serve you,” he replied.

Rose let out a disgusted grunt. “Oh, please. Can we dispense with the ass kissing?”

Zee gave the Host a hard look and took a step.

“Okay, okay,” Father said, stepping in between Zee and Rose. He turned to her, “Rose, please, I know you’re upset about everything, but…”

“Upset!” Rose yelled. “That doesn’t even come close to how I feel right now.”

Father looked into Rose’s eyes. “You have every right to be upset. However, you did agree to my task so, please, control of your anger. Save it for when we will really need it. For now, we must hear what hear of your brother’s. Once we are reunited with him you’ll feel much better. Okay?”

Rose glared at her Father. He looked so tired, not the Creator she had known so long ago. His light was dim. She was sure being away from the throne was draining him, his power fading with every passing day. She relented. “Fine.” She looked hard at Zee. “Where is my brother? Where is Sturiel?”

 

««—»»

 

Baker exited the bathroom to the elevators, pushed the down button and waited. Though his stomach felt better, his mind was a swirling mess of skinned bodies, tattooed flesh and buzzing flies… I can still smell that damn warehouse.

A loud ding snapped him out of his head and the elevator doors revealed an odd assortment of people. In the middle was a woman, large and buff, like a lumberjack. Baker had the quick thought that he would not want to be on her bad side. On her left was a scrawny nothing of a man. Flat, greasy hair, big nose and twitching eyes. The detective would bet money the guy was a tweaker. The guy on her right was a middle-aged man, balding and looking nervous as hell. Normal guy next to these two, Baker thought.

“Can I help you folks?” Baker asked. “I’m Detective Baker. This floor is off limits right now.”

Baker backed up as the woman stepped off the elevator and looked him in the eyes. “Your people called me. You have my brother.”

“That was fast,” Baker said, surprised. “I was told you live a couple hours away.”

“I do, but was up here to see Stu, and Tony here.” She flipped a thumb at the nervous guy on her right. Then, “This here’s my friend Dack.”

“Good timing. You can see Stu, but let’s talk first. He’s asleep anyway and needs his rest.”

Baker motioned the group toward a small and uncomfortable waiting room. They all sat, everyone looking nervous and miserable.

“Tell me about your brother.”

 

– | – | –

 

 

TWENTY-THREE

 

 

Bull looked down at Stu. Her brother looked…good. She was shocked. Based on what the Detective told her, she was expecting Stu to look like a bag of dog shit. But no… He looked better than ever. He seemed to have a faint glow about him. A small smile gave him the appearance of utter peace while he slept.

“He looks pretty damn good,” Tony said.

Bull nodded, “Yeah, thought he’d be all beaten up and stuff, but he looks better than he ever has.”

“Guess that’s a good thing,” Dack offered.

Baker stood by the window, opposite the other three. He leaned back against the sill. He kind of disappeared in the gloom, a hint of sunlight peeking through the cracks in the heavy curtains pulled closed between him and the large window. The only other light was from the warm glow coming off Stu.

Baker cleared his throat. “Now, Bull, tell me again how you two are related.”

“Like I said, Pops found Stu. Or I should say Stu found Pops. Stu’d wandered into the bar one day looking like hell just took a dump on him. I was young at the time, real young, around five. Pops took pity on Stu and brought him home. Mom had already passed then, so it was just me an’ Pops.”

“Your dad just brought a strange man home with him? And with a little girl at the house?” Baker asked. “That seem weird to you? Then? Now?”

“Nope,” Bull replied. “That was Pops. He was a bigass, scary looking man with the heart of an angel. Whether it was a hurt animal or a broken soul, Pops was always there with his helpin’ hand-out.”

Tony nodded in agreement. “He was a great man. Albeit with an awful taste in neon for his bar.”

All three of them laughed.

“Yep,” Bull agreed. “Heart of an angel, sense of humor of a drunk sailor.”

Despite the laughter, tears flowed down her cheeks. Tony handed her a tissue from the hospital bed-stand.

Baker gave her moment, then pressed on. “So none of you have any idea how Stu ended up in that warehouse? No idea he just up and left his life, his work?”

Tony looked at the detective. “Like I said, he just disappeared the other day.”

“He never did this before?”

“Nope. Always stayed close to the shop. Had a set routine which seems pretty common for someone like him.”

“What do you mean?”

Bull inserted an explanation. “He was autistic. Or, at least, that’s what Pops thought. Said Stu’s brain was different and that he had his own way of doing things. So we always just let him be. He was kind of like a robot running through a routine. Did all his work around the bar like a well-oiled machine. It was nice. Kept the place neat and tidy. And he just became part of the family. He was always there, like a big brother.”

Dack broke in. “Hey. You said you were five when he showed up, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Now I know it ain’t polite to ask a woman her age…”

“Be thirty next month,” Bull admitted freely. “Not afraid of my age, man.”

“Okay, thirty… So it’s been twenty-five years since your dad brought Stu home.”

“Yeah. What’s your point?”

Dack shrugged toward Stu, still sleeping. “Well, look at him. You don’t see anything odd?”

Bull looked at her brother. Peaceful. Safe. “No, looks like Stu.”

Baker jumped in. “I think what your friend is saying is that your brother doesn’t look a day over 25.”

Bull cocked her head sideways, like a confused dog. “I never…”

“Neither did I,” Tony stated.

“Weird, right?” Dack asked.

Everyone nodded.

“Ain’t a goddamn thing about this whole case that isn’t weird,” Baker said. He looked at Tony.

“Now you said that Stu started acting differently after some customer came in.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, real creepy guy. Something off about him. And he smelled awful. But his money was good. He paid in cash and I put Stu on the job and… Well, I just forgot about it.” Tony realized his words. “That’s weird, too, right?”

Baker snorted. “Like I said, this whole fucking thing is weird. Any idea what the guy’s name was?”

“No, I… I don’t remember.” He looked at Bull and said, “I’m sorry.”

Bull shook her head. “Don’t be. Something messed up going on here.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” said Dack.

Bull looked at Baker. “So you have nothing on this guy? You said he’s just gone?”

“No trace of him. Not a damn thing. We scoured that warehouse. No fingerprints, no clothes, no DNA… Nothing. I don’t think we’ll ever know his name.”

“His name is…or was…Daniel.”

Everyone in the room jumped, and turned toward the bed. Stu lay there, his eyes finally open.

“Stu!” Bull screamed and grabbed his hand.

“Hey, Bull. So wonderful to see you.” Stu looked past Bull at Tony. “And you too, Tony.” He saw Dack. “You I don’t know…”

“This is Dack. Kind of forced on this little expedition,” Bull informed.

“Well, nice to meet you, Dack. Any friend of Bull’s is a friend of mine.” Stu shifted, trying to see everyone. Baker stepped in, adjusting the bed.

Bull let go of Stu’s hand and took a step back in confusion. “You’re…talking. A lot.”

Stu gave Bull the most serene smile. “Yes.”

“That’s kind of weird, right?”

“There’s that word again,” inserted Dack.

Baker handed Stu a cup of water and he took a long drink. “Thank you, Detective.”

“How… How did you…know?” Baker stammered.

“I’ve been in and out and listening when I could.”

“Okay. So, the guy who abducted you was named Daniel?”

Stu shook his head. “He didn’t abduct me. I went to him of my own accord.”

“Why would you do that?” Tony almost yelled. “The guy was a full-on creep.”

“He…” Stu paused. He knew his audience. How can I explain… “He…called to me. Pulled me to him. I know it sounds like childish wanderlust, that I was snatched up off the street. I wasn’t. I went to him.”

It was Bull’s turn to ask, “WHY?”

“Sis, please. When Daniel came to the shop, something stirred in me. Something hidden and primal. It roiled in me. I had to know what was happening. So I went to him. And I learned.”

“Learned what?” Baker asked.

“That Daniel was my brother. My true brother.” He looked at Bull, smiled and grabbed her hand. “But never fear, my beautiful Bull, you are my sister as well—family of a different kind, but family none-the-less.”

Bull smiled, still not understanding, but she squeezed Stu’s hand tight.

Baker had questions of his own. “That’s nice and all, but what were you doing in that warehouse?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Detective? I was being tortured.” Stu let out a little laugh.

Bull frowned. “That’s not funny.”

Stu nodded, “I know, I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why was he torturing you?” Baker asked.

“Two reasons: he was forcing me to awaken, and he wanted to use me for his art.”

Baker bristled at the thought. “You mean all those… That was his art?

“Yes, Detective. Let’s spare my sister the details of what occurred in that house of morbidity.”

“Really?” Dack asked incredulously. “After all the weird shit of the past day… This… This is where we draw the line on what went on there? Are you fucking kidding me?”

Bull nodded, “He’s right. I want to know everything.”

Stu took another pull of water and cleared his throat. “Daniel was an artist—a brilliant one. Back at home he was heralded as The Artisan.”

“Where’s ‘back home’?” Baker knew enough to make Stu clarify ‘home’.

“I think you know, Detective. You have all the clues, you just don’t want to believe. But I shall tell you now… Believe.”

“Well, we don’t have all the clues, so how’s about you fill us in.” Dack said. “Where’s home?”

“Heaven.”

After a couple of confused seconds, Dack spoke up. “Buuuullllshit!”

“It’s true.”

Something in the room shifted. All four of the people standing felt their hearts speed up, as if from a massive fright. Baker reacted first, pulling his service revolver and pointing it, where? Where the hell do I point? His aim landed somewhere between Bull and Tony toward the door behind them. Bull whirled and backed into an IV stand and machine, sending it crashing to the floor. Tony stumbled into Dack and they both flailed backwards until the wall stopped them from crumbling the floor.

“Hold it!” Baker yelled. “Everyone hold it or I’ll…”

A quick motion from a figure in front of the door ended Baker’s threat when his gun just… wasn’t there anymore.

“What the fuck?” Baker looked at his empty hand. He shook it as if it were numb.

Stu opened his eyes. “Hello, Father.”

Baker looked on, stunned, as a small, older man emerged into the room; two more figures followed him. On one side a large, beautiful woman with glowing red hair and on the other side a man in a long coat and floppy hat.

“Zee!” Dack yelled. “Wondering where you’d been. Kind of abandoned us there, my man.”

Baker’s jaw dropped. “You know these people?”

Bull answered. “Yeah, one of them anyway. Relax, Baker.”

Zee nodded at the buff woman. “My apologies, Bull. I had a duty to fulfill.”

The one Stu called Father stepped forward. “Yes, yes, he was calling me, letting me know he found my son.”

“Your son?” Bull struggled to free herself of the IV tubes and wires still entangling all her limbs. How is this shit still holding me…?

Stu sat up on the edge of the bed. “Yes, this is my Father… All of ours, actually.”

Dack backed into a corner of the room. “No, no, no, no, no. No fuckin’ way!”

Bull finally liberated herself and stood up, facing Dack. “What? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Open your eyes!” he screamed. “Can’t you see what is going on here? This Father… How Stu fucking glows… Cyclone Charlie over there.”

“Zephyr,” Zee corrected.

“WHATEVER!”

The old man turned to Zee. “I like the new name by the way. Very superhero and mysterious. Fits well.”

“What…the…fuck?” Dack screamed.

“What?” Bull screamed back.

“Just look! LOOK! I may be a dirtbag mountain hick, but I ain’t stupid. Three people just appeared out of thin air, no noise, not even a whisper. A friggin’ Amazon with fire hair. A walking tornado. Right there! Talking to who I’m assuming is…” Dack paused, put his palms up to the others. “Now wait for it…God!”

“Horseshit,” Tony said.

Stu got up then. “Not horsehit, Tony. He’s right. I told you he was all our Father.” He quickly sat back down. “Whoa, little shaky still.”

“You’re telling me that we are in a room with God?”

Everyone looked at Baker.

“It’s true,” said the one called Father. “I am your maker. Less impressive than you imagine, I expect. But I am Him none-the-less.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” said Rose with a smirk.

“Rosiel? So good to see you,” Stu said with a huge smile.

“You to, Sturiel. Been so long.” She rushed to him and bent to hug him, then stood to full height bringing him up off the bed with her. “Hey, go easy,” Bull said, worried at Stu’s condition, but then she saw the light between them—glowing, beautiful light—and Stu hugged his arms tighter around Rose. The glow grew intense and the others had to shield their eyes.

“Break it up, you two,” said the old man.

They did and took one step back from each other. Stu stood on sure legs now, that mild glow he had earlier glowing ever brighter, then ebbing back to its normal state.

“Thank you for that, Rosiel.”

“What’s a sister for? It’s Rose now. I’ve been Rose for so long I feel like my old name is a stranger.”

“I understand. Call me Stu.”

Bull grabbed Stu by the face. “You look better. Great, actually.”

“Rose gave me some of her starlight. I feel like myself again.”

“Good,” said their Father. “You’re going to need it.”

“Okay, freakin’ hold everything.”

Everyone looked at Baker. Again.

“Yes?” The Father could read the man’s doubt.

“Sure,” said the Detective. “Let’s say you are God. You two must be angels, what with all the glowing, voodoo shit going on. And you—” He looked at Zee. “What the fuck ever. All this shit…above my pay grade. What I do get paid for is catching murderers. Who is Daniel, why did he kill dozens of people, carve pictures into their flesh and then skin them? And more importantly, where the fuck do I find him?”

Bull, Dack and Tony stared at Baker, stunned.

“And, oh,” the detective went on. “Your boy, Stu, here is smack in the middle of it.”

“I had nothing to do with Daniel’s…transgressions,” Stu said.

“Yeah, I know,” Baker replied in a smartass tone. “We found you chained up after all. Now it’s the why he had you chained up that I’d like to know.”

“For art!” Stu spread his arms. But he didn’t say it as a beautiful truth. He said it with sarcasm and venom. “It was always for art. Everything he did was art. He put everything he had into it.” Stu leveled a hard look at his Father. “Everything.”

“I know, my son, I know. I am sorry. But now is not the time to dwell on our past mistakes. We have new issues at hand.”

“Let me guess. Another battle. Another war for the arrogant to play at.”

Rose stepped between the two. “Listen to him, Stu. Please. Things have gone bad.”

“Is ‘bad’ up for interpretation? Because we’ve seen bad. We’ve seen horrors unfathomable. So tell me, sister, what is bad? Keep in mind I just spent the past week being skinned. Repeatedly. While my insane brother attempted to create art so glorious that he—” Stu point at the Father, “—would see fit to allow him back into Heaven.”

“Oh, Stu,” Rose said, her eyes filled with tears.

“My son, I am—”

“Enough apologies, Father!” Stu glowed with his rage. “What I’ve gone through? Me? How about all of us you pushed into war. All because you had to save face against that egomaniacal lunatic. You should have put him down like the dog he was and all of it would have ended. But no, not you!”

Bull’s worry for Stu grew into fear at his scene. She backed up against the wall behind his bed. Tony fell into a chair on the opposite side of the room. Dack had slid down the wall and was pressing himself into a corner trying to make himself small. And Baker didn’t seem to know where to look.

“It wasn’t as simple as that, my son.”

“Well, how’s this for simple. Daniel was the kindest, gentlest of us, and you forced him to twist the gift you gave him into weapons of destruction. His entire being was meant for creation and what you made him create, uncreated his brethren. You destroyed him, then you abandoned him to solitude after he had been driven mad by what you asked of him. And now he’s gone. Returned to starlight, undone by one of the very weapons you had him forge. Simple enough?”

The Father remained solemn, but his eyes were steely. “It is true what happened to Daniel is one of my greatest regrets. That is why I hid him, here, on earth, along with you and many others. You remained loyal and I didn’t want you to fight anymore. You were not warriors, it’s true. So I set you here with the protections and skills to survive the millennia.”

“Until what? Until you needed us to fight another war for you?”

The Father paused, and Rose looked past Stu, fearing his eyes, his anger.

His anger turned to confusion. “Wait… You’re not here to bring us home, are you?” It dawned on Stu. “You’re here because you were kicked out, weren’t you? WEREN’T YOU?”

Stu laughed so loud the walls began to shake. “I should have figured it out sooner. You look so frail. Your light is dim.”

“Stu…” Rose moved toward him, putting her hand on his arm. Her touch seemed to calm him.

Stu closed his eyes and took a breath. “Who was it? Who kicked Father out of Heaven?”

“Gabriel,” Rose answered.

Stu nodded his head. “Of course. It had to be him. The next in line to inherit the arrogance of Heaven.”

The aged man looked at Stu. “I need you, my son. I need all my wayward children to help me home, and back to my throne.”

“Rose, what about you? You can’t possibly wish to go through all that pain again.”

“He promised me something.”

“He promises everyone everything and delivers nothing! Nothing but sorrow. He’s no better than the snake that rots below. Get out, Father. I will not marshal your war.”

“You will. It is written.”

Stu rushed forward and towered over the old man, locking eyes with him. “Listen to me,” he hissed. “I will not follow you. I will not fight for you. You abandoned me here for eons and now you think I will just fall in line again? You are weak and you hold no sway.”

His Father held his stare, unafraid. “You will help, and I assure it will be of your own volition.”

“Unlikely,” Stu growled. Then he backed up. “This is my home and this,” he pointed to Bull and then Tony, “is my family.”

“For now,” his Father simply stated.

Stu charged his Father again and lifted him by his threadbare jacket. “Do not threaten me!”

Rose put her arm between the two, struggling to pry them apart, when the room erupted into chaos. Zee dropped his human form and began to churn.

“Oh, man, not again,” cried Dack.

“What’s happening?” Tony yelled.

His sentiment was echoed by Baker.

“Get low and dodge the flying shit,” screamed Bull.

Papers, cups, the privacy curtain all spun in a maddening dance. A bedpan winged at Baker’s head and dropped him quick. Just a plastic one, but it hurt like hell.

“Call off your dog, Father,” Stu yelled through the mayhem.

Rose struggled to break Stu’s grip on the old man.

Zee’s winds were fighting hard to separate the two as well, but Stu’s grip was iron.

“ENOUGH!”

The Father’s voice boomed through the room, sending cracks up the walls. He brought his hands up and pushed Stu hard against his chest. Stu flew back and hit the bed, knocking it backwards. It would have crushed Baker had he not been flat on the floor rubbing his forehead.

Stu crouched on the floor, a snake ready to strike. His back arched and Bull could see his flesh ripple and… What the hell… The ripples turned to ruptures along each side of his spine.

“Stu! Your skin!” But Bull had to duck, for giant wings were erupting from Stu’s back.

“My…God.” Bull dodged again as the wings filled the room from wall to wall.

Stu leaped with a scream but was intercepted by a big gust of Zee. The Air elemental wrapped itself around Stu and carried him up and over the bed and through the wall and window, the giant wings swirling inside an explosion of metal, wood and glass that rained down into the parking lot below.

Zee drove Stu through and down, landing on a pristine Mercedes G-Class that also exploded into a blast of metal and glass.

In the post-chaos of the room, no one noticed Baker. He clung desperately onto the side-rail of the hospital bed that was precariously hanging out the window. He screamed.

Tony scooted on his stomach to the ragged edge of the hole in the room’s wall, and looked down. He saw Zee and Stu fighting atop parked cars and, well, only the cars were losing.

“MAN! Here! Help me!”

“Hold on!”

Tony reached for Baker, when a booming sound overtook. It was a sound like a gigantic umbrella opening followed by a loud swish as a red blur zoomed past them. Tony looked at Baker who was just losing his grip. He locked eyes with him—

Baker fell. Tony saw pure fear as the detective plummeted. The blur came again. This time right at Baker. Rose grabbed him in midair and flew him away from the chaos in the parking lot.

Bull crawled up beside Tony. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed. “Dack get over here.”

“Nope, I’m good. Got my corner and a puddle of piss to sit in. You guys enjoy the circus of fuckery. I’m checkin’ out.”

Bull looked over her shoulder at the old man. “Do something!” she begged.

He saw her imploring eyes, and relented. He moved toward the hole.

“Stop.”

It wasn’t a yell, but his voice exploded from all around. Hospital windows, car windows, all exploding with his voice, their alarms blaring to life.

Zee had Stu wrapped in a cyclone 50-feet above the ground when he heard his Father’s command. He obeyed. He released Stu, letting him slam into an awaiting minivan, and returned to his Father’s side, reforming into the shape of a man.

“Thank you for defending me, my son.”

Zee bowed his head.

And the old man was gone.

Bull looked toward the van below, at the broken body of her brother. Or at least, whom she thought was her brother. Tears filled her eyes. She saw the old man reappear, this time next to Stu. And Rose appeared, too. She looked down at the crumpled form of Stu. “It’s time to stop this crap, Brother. There is far more at work here than our petty grievances.”

“Petty grievances? Petty?” Stu yelled, still lying amid the wrecked minivan. “After all that transpired… Even after what you lost?”

Rose turned her head, trying to hide a slight cringe. “Yes, even after what I lost,” she whispered.

A loud creaking sound filled the afternoon air. Everyone on the ground looked at the hospital. Debris continued to fall from the wrecked building, a symphony of squeals and crackling emanated from it, when the floor of Stu’s room collapsed. Bull, just standing up, lost her balance, her arms pinwheeling as she tried to get her legs under her. She slid toward the ragged hole, made larger with the floor’s collapse, her limbs flailing desperately at nothing but air. She slipped over the crumbling edge of the hospital wall and plummeted down, down, down.

Stu watched in horror as Bull dropped through the air. His horror strengthened him, and he shot up off the van’s crushed roof and zoomed toward his sister. He sped toward her at lightning speed and reached out to catch her—

“NOOOOOOO!”

Stu screamed as Bull hit the sidewalk, back first, with a sickening squish. Her skull collapsed, her spine shattered along with her bones… She died instantly.

Stu landed, and staggered and dropped to his knees. At that moment, he hated Zee. That fight between them had made him too weak to reach Bull in time. And most of all, he hated his Father. HIS fault. His fault for everything. Stu moved toward Bull. Kneeling next to her, he cradled his dead sister. Then he raised his head and screamed. A mournful, piteous sound that shook the world around him.

Rose’s heart broke for her brother. Silent, she cried for him. For Bull.

His Father moved to stand next to Stu.

“Save her,” Stu said.

His Father. My Father.

Father of us all.

God.

“SAVE HER!”

God placed a hand on Stu’s shoulder. “I cannot.”

There was a rush of wind as Zee shot past everyone and toward the hospital. Tony dangled above from a steel rebar. They could see and hear Dack hanging from the hole, arm outstretched yelling to Tony: “Shit, man, hold on! Reach for me!”

Zee whooshed up the wall and wrapped his winds around Tony. “Let go,” he whispered. His voice circled Tony’s head, making him dizzy, but he let go. Zee slowly lowered him to the ground close to Bull’s motionless body.

Rose flew up and into the hospital room and grabbed Dack, placing him on the ground next to Tony.

Dack gaped at Rose. “Damn, woman. Thanks.”

But his wonder at Rose soon turned to his dead friend. He and Tony dropped to their knees next to her, and Stu still holding her. Tony rested a hand on her cheek. He looked forlornly toward Stu. Toward God. “Do something!” he begged.

Stu just looked up and squeezed his eyes shut.

God gave Tony a solemn look and said the same words he’d said to Stu: “I cannot.”

Dack lost it. “You’re God aren’t you? What do you mean you can’t? I mean, this is your shit, this is what you do. Miracles and crap…”

A low rumbling came from Stu, deep down from his chest. Then he exploded in laughter. He unclenched his eyes and looked at God. “Of course! You can’t because you’re weak.” Stu stood up, resting Bull on the ground. “Weak! You’re off your throne and probably have been for a while now. That means your power is fading.”

Stu laughed again, louder, causing more rumbling of everything around.

A team of medical staff came out of the hospital to assess the damage and offer help. A quick look around revealed Bull was the priority. They rushed to her and shooed Tony and Dack away, trying hard not to gawk at the glowing man and woman with massive…what…wings…coming out of their backs and a small, older man who also seemed to be glowing. “What, is it Fantasy Fest or something?” one medic said to the other. Dack chuckled at the comment through his grief, but as the medics moved around Bull’s body with swift precision, they came to the realization that everyone else already had… Bull was dead. They lifted her onto a gurney and rolled her away. Tony and Dack were at a loss. In the end, they followed the gurney. “We’ll see to Bull,” said Tony.

Stu nodded, grateful. He’d follow later, but for now, he had unfinished business with his Father.

God answered Stu. “Yes, I’m losing my power. Just as Gabriel knew when he banished me to this plane. He knew my power would eventually die off if I’m away from my throne. I have only enough power to make small jumps as I search for those of you who I left here after the war.”

“Abandoned, you mean,” Stu said coldly.

“Use whatever words you wish. But I knew one day I would need your help. So I placed you, all of my trustworthy Host, here in this plane until the time came to awaken you. Son.”

“And that time is now?”

“Quite so, I’m afraid,” answered God.

Stu arched, collapsing his wings into his back. “I want nothing to do with your new war. And I want nothing to do with you. Father.”

Rose stepped toward Stu. “Listen to Him. We need you.”

Stu couldn’t believe her words. “You… You of all people want me to join this insanity?”

“Please, Stu. I lost much in the last war, too. So much. But He offered me a chance to get it all back. Get…him back.”

Stu released another laugh, bitter and quiet this time. “Forever the romantic, aren’t you?”

Rose stood up to him. “Face it. We could have had it worse. Instead we were granted a thousand lives here. When I woke up I could remember them all. Tell me that wasn’t a gift.”

Stu turned away from her and God. “It was no gift. You’re fooling yourself. He hid us here for his own purposes. Didn’t you see how his little ‘gift’ played out for Daniel? How many more of us were driven insane in an attempt to cut away the fog and remember who we were and where we belong? Daniel carved up hundreds of innocent people in his quest to find his light. And I just lost one of the best humans I’ve known.” Stu winced at the memory of Bull’s fall. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sister to walk through the gates of Heaven. I’m assuming Peter is still up there, grumpy as ever. Fight your pathetic war without me.” Stu turned and headed toward the hospital.

“You can’t take her to Heaven,” God stated.

Stu moved with lightning speed. He stopped an inch from God and glared at him with seething anger. “Say she doesn’t belong in Heaven again. Go ahead.”

“I didn’t say she didn’t deserve Heaven. I said she can’t go there. Not right now.”

“Why?” Stu growled.

Rose intervened. “Seems Gabriel has closed down Heaven to human souls.”

“What? How can he do that?” Stu questioned. “That’s what Heaven is for.”

“Well, Gabriel is changing the rules, isn’t he?” quipped God.

“Where are they going?” Stu asked. “I mean all those souls… So many every day.”

“Purgatory,” Rose said. “It’s bursting at the seams. If Heaven isn’t reopened soon, Purgatory may come undone and all those souls will just disappear.”

“Lucifer is taking in souls willing to enter Hell,” added God.

Hell? Why would the souls go there?” asked Stu.

“Seems our estranged brother is giving Hell a facelift and a new marketing strategy. No more eternal torture. It runs just like a modern city on Earth.”

God sighed. “Very disconcerting.”

“So, you see,” Rose said, “if you want your sister to have eternal salvation and heavenly bliss, then help us get the Big Guy here back on His throne. We both know Lucifer’s plan is shit. Something devious. Evil. As for Gabriel, he is just a huge jerk.”

“True,” Stu agreed.

Rose looked deep into Stu’s eyes. “We need you, Brother.”

Stu met her gaze. “I will help. But it is for my sister.” He looked past Rose, to God. “I do not care about you or your throne.”

“Fair enough, my son.”

Stu resumed his walk toward the hospital. He headed toward Tony and Dack who were milling around the hospital entrance.

“Tony…” Stu extended his hand toward the man.

Tony, still shell-shocked, reached out and grasped Stu’s hand. “Uh, Stu.”

“You are a wonderful human and I cannot thank you enough for all you have done for me in this lifetime. Sadly, I must say goodbye. I’d tell you where I’m going, what I’m doing, just know it’s huge and I have a role to play in it.”

“Yeah, we heard some of it. Seriously, God has a throne?”

Stu smiled. “Listen, just say you’ll take care of Bull.”

“Absolutely.”

“She has a girlfriend. Go through her phone if you can or ask people at her bar. She may want to be involved.”

“So all that stuff: Heaven, Hell, angels and demons… It’s all real, huh?” Dack asked.

“Too real,” answered Stu.

“Guess I’d better get my shit together. Start livin’ right,” said Dack.

“Well, there’s an opening in Tony’s shop.”

Tony looked Dack over. “You any good with your hands? Know anything about the neon game?”

“I ran a meth lab out in the woods. Lots of tubes, glass, chemicals… Same thing.”

“Nice. Let’s go set Bull’s affairs in order. And get you some scrubs or something. You smell like piss, boy.”

Tony looked at Stu like a father sending his boy off to war. “Good luck, son.” Then he put Stu in a massive bear hug and held on for a few seconds. He let Stu go, turned and disappeared into the hospital leaving Dack standing there with Stu.

He offered his hand to Stu. “Good luck out there. I hope you find Bull in the afterlife and lead her to glory and all that.”

“I’ll do my best.” Stu nodded toward Tony. “Look after him. He’s a great man.”

Dack nodded and followed after Tony, thinking about Bull. About Stu. And how the hell he’d make neon lighting.

 

««—»»

 

Stu stood tall before God. Before Rosiel. He bent slightly, his skin rippling, rupturing around his spine. Stu stretched his wings, grand, glowing…glorious.

“Well, now what?”

 

– | – | –

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Dave Barnett lives on the outskirts of Orlando, FL with his goofy, rescue dog Dexter. During the day he works as a graphic designer for his Fat Cat Graphic Design company designing books for lots of small press publishers. He’s also known as DJ L.D. and runs an industrial / EBM / synthpop / electro podcast at dancemachine5000.com.

He has managed to run Necro Publications since 1993, publishing some of the best names in modern horror: Edward Lee, Brian Keene, Brian Hodge, Charlee Jacob, Gerard Houarner, Mehitobel Wilson, Jeffrey Thomas, Patrick Lestewka and dozens of others in various anthologies.

Dave has been published in a couple of the Shivers anthologies from Cemetery Dance Publications. He also has a story in the two-author chapbook The Baby along with Edward Lee. His collection, Dead Souls, came out from Shocklines Press in 2004 and at least a couple of people seemed to like it.

He released the novella Spying on Gods in 2014.

Tales of the Fallen: Book 1—Awakenings is the first in a series of books containing tales about angels and demons that will finally come together (fingers crossed) in one climatic battle for Heaven. Neon Wings is the second book in the series.

You can visit his official site at:

 

evilwriter.com


Neon Wings

HANK BAKER A hardened detective who’s seen just about every terrible thing one human can do to another. But the horrors found in an abandoned warehouse in a forgotten part of the city leave him shaken beyond belief. DACK A small-time meth dealer whose life just went up in smoke. He figures he has limited time on this Earth before his boss comes looking for a pound of flesh. So he runs to the one place he feels at home—a dive bar run by Bull. But Dack’s home away from home quickly turns into a downward spiral of murder and chaos. ZEE An otherworldly bounty hunter who shows up at Bull’s bar to collect his bounty, but finds something far more interesting… Bull and Dack suddenly find themselves on a road trip with the bounty hunter whose hunt leads them headfirst into a maelstrom of stunning revelations and utter destruction. Join the journey as David G. Barnett unravels another Tale of the Fallen.

  • ISBN: 9781944703172
  • Author: Necro Publications
  • Published: 2016-11-27 12:05:12
  • Words: 28964
Neon Wings Neon Wings