I was running late, which was no surprise. I always seemed to be in a rush “ there was a meeting with my editors halfway across town, I had a deposit to make before the end of the business day, my shoes were killing me, and I was so hungry I could have eaten the glass and metal desk I'd been allotted at my temp job at the Pitt Foundation in New York City.
I could handle most of those things “ I was nothing if not adaptable. People were used to the fact that I had a tendency to show up late “ the secretary over at MacSimmons Publishers was wise enough to schedule my appointments and then tell me they were half an hour earlier. It was a little game we played “ unfortunately since I now knew the rules I'd arrive an hour late, ruining her careful arrangements.
Tant pis. They could work around me “ I was reliable in all other matters. I'd never been late with a manuscript in my entire life, and my work was spotless, needing only minimal revision. They were lucky to have me, even if biblical murder mysteries weren't a big money-maker, particularly when written in a smart-ass tone. SOLOMON'S POISONER had done even better than the previous books, but of course, you had to put that in perspective. Agatha Christie I was not. But if they weren't making money they wouldn't be buying me, and I wasn't going to worry about it.
I had just enough time to make it to the bank, and I could even manage a small detour to grab a hot dog from one of the street vendors, but there wasn't a damned thing I could do about my stupid shoes.
Vanity, my uptight mother would have said, if she ever left the confines of her born-again Idaho fortress. Hildegarde Watson trusted nothing and no one, and she'd retreated to a compound filled with other fundamentalist loonies, where even her own sinful daughter wasn't welcome. Thank God, I thought. I didn't need my mother to tell me how shallow I was. I embraced it.
The four inch heels made my legs look fantastic, which I considered worth any amount of pain. On top of that it brought me up to a more imposing height than my measly five foot three, an advantage with obstreperous middle-aged male editors who liked to treat me like a cute little girl. A little extra height never came amiss.
However, the damned stilettos hurt like crazy and I hadn't been smart enough to leave a more comfortable pair at my temp job. I'd been hobbling around all day without even a band-aid to protect my poor wounded feet.
I'd feel sorry for myself if I hadn't done it on purpose. I'd learned early on that the best way to accomplish anything was to grit your teeth and fight your way through it with the best grace you could muster, and wearing those damned shoes, which had cost me almost a hundred and eighty dollars, discounted, was the only way I'd ever get comfortable in them. Besides, it was Friday “ I had every intention of spending the weekend with my feet up, working on my new book, this one entitled RUTH'S REVENGE. By Monday the blisters would have healed enough, and if I could just tough it out for two more days I'd be used to them. Beauty was worth the pain, no matter what my mother said.
Maybe someday I'd be able to support myself on my writings and not have to deal with temp jobs. Snarky mysteries set on debunking the Judeo-Christian Old Testament weren't high on the public's interest meter, even with Dan Brown raking in a fortune on Christian fairytales, and for now I had no choice but to supplement my meager income, making my weekends even more precious.
Shouldn't you be heading out, Allie? Elena, my overworked supervisor, glanced over at me. You won't have time to get to the bank if you don't leave now.
Crap. Two months and already Elena had pegged me as someone chronically late. I won't be back, I called out as I hobbled toward the elevator. Elena waved an absent hand goodbye, and moments later I was alone in the elevator, starting the sixty-three floor descent.
I could risk taking off my shoes, just for a few moments of blessed relief, but with my luck someone would immediately join me and I'd have shove them back on again. I leaned against the wall, trying to shift my weight from one foot to the other. Great legs, I reminded myself.
From the sixty-third floor the sun had been shining brightly. The moment I moved through the automatic door to the sidewalk I heard a loud crash of thunder, and I looked up to see dark clouds churning overhead. A storm seemed to come up out of nowhere.
It was a cool October afternoon, with Halloween only a few days off. The sidewalks were busy as usual, and the bank was across the street. I could always walk and eat a hot dog at the same time, I thought, heading over to the luncheon cart. I'd done it often enough.
With my luck there had to be a line. I bounced nervously, shifting my weight, and the man in front of me turned around.
I'd lived in New York long enough to make it a habit not to look at people on the street. Here in midtown most of the women were taller, thinner, and better dressed than I was, and I didn't like feeling inadequate. I certainly never made eye contact with anyone, not even with Harvey the Hot Dog man who'd served me daily for the last two months.
So why was I looking up, way up, into a pair of eyes that were god, what color were they? A strange shade between black and gray, shot with striations of light so that they almost looked silver. I was probably making a fool of myself, but I couldn't help it. Never in my life had I seen eyes that color, though that shouldn't surprise me since I avoided looking in the first place.
But even more astonishing, those eyes were watching me thoughtfully. Beautiful eyes in a beautiful face, I realized belatedly, uneasy, not used to that kind of attention. I didn't like men who were too attractive, and that term was mild when it came to the man looking down at me, despite my four inch heels.
He was almost angelically handsome, with his high cheekbones, aquiline nose, his streaked brown and golden hair. It was precisely the tawny shade I'd always tried to get my colorist to replicate, and she'd always fallen woefully short.
Who does your hair? I blurted out, trying to startle him out of his abstraction.
I am as God made me, he said, and his voice was as beautiful as his face. Low-pitched and musical, the kind of voice to seduce a saint. With a few modifications, he added, with a twist of dark humor I couldn't understand.
His gorgeous hair was too long “ I hated long hair on men. But on him it looked perfect, as did the dark leather jacket, the black jeans, the dark shirt.
Not proper city wear, I thought, trying to summon up disapproval and failing because he looked so damned good. Since you don't seem in any kind of hurry and I am, do you suppose you could let me go ahead of you?
There was another crash of thunder, loud and echoing through the cement and steel canyons of the city, and I flinched. Thunderstorms in the city made me nervous “ they seemed so there. It always seemed like I'd be an easier target with the lightning snaking down between the high buildings. The man didn't even blink. He glanced across the street, as if calculating something.
It's almost three o'clock, he said. If you want that deposit to go in today you'll need to skip the hot dog.
I froze. What deposit? I demanded, completely paranoid. God, what was I doing holding a conversation with a strange man? I should never paid any attention to him in the first place. I could have lived without that hotdog.
You're holding a bank deposit bag, he said mildly.
Oh. Yeah. I laughed nervously. I should be ashamed of my paranoia, but for some reason it hadn't even begun to dissipate. I allowed myself another furtive glance up at the stranger.
To hell with the hot dog “ my best bet was to get away from this too-attractive stranger, drop off the deposit and hope to god I could find a taxi to get me across town to my meeting. I was already ten minutes late.
He was still watching me. You're right, I said. Another crash of thunder, and the clouds opened up.
And I was wearing a red silk suit that I couldn't really afford, even on the clearance rack at Saks. Vanity again. Without a backwards glance I stepped out into the street which was momentarily free of traffic.
It happened in slow motion, in the blink of an eye. One of my high heels snapped, my ankle twisted, and the sudden rain was turning the garbage on the street into a river of filth. I slipped, going down on one knee, and I could feel my stockings shred, my skirt rip, my carefully arranged hair hanging limp and wet around my ears.
I didn't notice the bus until it was too late.
I looked up, and there it was, ready to smack into me. Another crack of thunder, the bright white sizzle of lightning, and everything went calm and still. Just for a moment.
And then it was a blur of noise and action. I could hear people screaming, and to my astonishment money was floating through the air like autumn leaves, swirling downward in the heavy rain. The bus had come to a stop, slanted across the street, and horns were honking, people were cursing, and in the distance I could hear the scream of sirens. Pretty damned fast response for a city like New York, I thought absently.
The man was standing beside me, the beautiful one from the hot dog stand. He was just finishing up a chili dog, entirely at ease, and I remembered I was famished. If I was going to get held up by a bus accident I might as well get a chili dog. But for some reason I didn't want to turn around.
What happened? I asked him. He was tall enough to see over the crowds of people clustered around the front of the bus. Did someone get hurt?
Yes, he said in that rich, luscious voice. Someone was killed.
I started to head for the crowd, curious, but he caught my arm. You don't want to go there, he said. There's no need to go through that.
Go through what, I thought, annoyed, staring at the crowd. I glanced back up at the stranger, and I had the odd feeling that he'd gotten taller. And then I suddenly realized my feet didn't hurt anymore, my arches weren't screaming, and I looked down. It was an odd, disorienting sensation. I was barefoot, and if I didn't know it was impossible, I would have said there was thick green grass beneath my feet.
I glanced back up at the rain-drenched accident scene in front of me, and time seemed to move in odd, erratic shifts. The ambulance had arrived, as well as the police, and people were being herded out of the way. I thought I caught a glimpse of the victim “ just the brief sight of my leg, wearing my shoe, the heel broken off.
No, said the man beside me, and he put a hand on my arm before I could move away.
The bright light was blinding, dazzling, and I was in a tunnel, light whizzing past me, the only sound the whoosh of space moving at dizzying speeds. Space Mountain, I thought for a moment, but this was no Disney ride.
It stopped as abruptly as it began, leaving me sick. I was disoriented and out of breath and I looked around me, trying to get my bearings.
The man still held my arm, loosely. I yanked it free, stumbling away from him. We were in the woods, in some sort of clearing, and it was already growing dark. The sick feeling in my stomach began to spread out to the rest of my body.
I took a deep breath. Everything felt odd, as if this were a movie set. Things looked right, but everything was artificial, and there was no smell, no touch. It was all illusion. It was wrong.
I wiggled my feet, then realized I was still barefoot. My hair was hanging down past my shoulders, which made no sense since I had short hair. I tugged at a strand, and saw that instead of its carefully streaked and striated color it was brown again, the plain, ordinary brown I'd spent a fortune trying to disguise, the same plain, ordinary brown as my eyes. My clothes were different as well, and the change wasn't for the better. Baggy, shapeless, colorless, they were as unprepossessing as a shroud.
I fought my way through the mists of confusion “ my mind felt as if it were filled with cotton candy. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
Don't struggle, the man beside me said in a remote voice. It only makes it worse. If you've lived a good life you have nothing to be afraid of.
I looked at him in horror. Lightning split the open sky, followed by thunder that shook the earth. The solid rock face in front of us began to groan, a deep, rending sound that echoed to the heavens. It started to crack apart, and I remembered something from Christian theology, about stones moving and Christ rising from the dead. The only problem was that I was Jewish, as my fundamentalist Christian mother had been for most of her life, and I was non-observant at that, and I really didn't think rising from the dead was what was going on here.
The bus, I said flatly. I got hit by the bus. I'm dead, aren't I?
I controlled my instinctive flinch. Clearly he didn't believe in cushioning blows. And who does that make you? Mr. Jordan?
He looked blank, and I stared at him. You're an angel, I clarified. One who's made a mistake. You know, like in the movie? I shouldn't be dead.
There is no mistake, he said, and took my arm again.
I sure as hell wasn't going quietly. Are you an angel? I demanded. He didn't feel like an angel. He felt like a man, a distinctly real man, and why the hell was I suddenly feeling alert, alive, aroused, when according to him I was dead?
His eyes were oblique, half-closed. Among other things.
Kicking him in the shins and running like hell seemed an excellent plan, but I was barefoot and my body wasn't feeling cooperative. As angry and desperate as I was, I still seemed to want him to touch me, even when I knew he had nothing good in mind. Angels didn't have sex, did they? They didn't even have sexual organs, according to Dogma, and I found myself glancing at his crotch, then quickly pulled my gaze away. What the hell was I doing checking out an angel's package when I was about to die?
Oh, yeah, I forgot, I was already dead. And all my will seemed to have vanished. He drew me toward the crack in the wall, and I knew with sudden clarity it would close up behind me like something out of a cheesy movie, leaving no trace that I'd ever lived. Once I went through it would all be over.
This is as far as I go, he said, his rich, warm voice like music.
With a gentle tug on my arm, he propelled me forward and pushed me into the chasm.
The woman was fighting me. I could feel resistance in her arm, something I couldn't remember feeling before in any of the countless people I had brought on this journey. She was strong, this one. But Uriel, the ruler of all the heavens, was infallible, or so he had managed to convince just about everyone, so this couldn't have been a mistake, no matter what it felt like.
She was just like so many others I had brought here. People stripped of their artifice, shocked and needy, and I herded them on to their next life like a shepherd of old, not wasting much thought on the entire process. These humans were simply moving through the stages of existence, and it was in their nature to fight it. Just as it was my job to ease their passage and see them on their way.
But this woman was different. I knew it, whether I wanted to admit it or not. She should have been anonymous, like all the others. Instead I stared down at her, trying to see what eluded me. She was nothing special. With her face stripped free of makeup and her hair down around her shoulders she looked like a thousand others. The baggy clothes she now wore hid her body, but it didn't matter. I didn't care about women, in particular human women. I'd sworn off them, for eternity or as long as Uriel was going to keep me alive. This one should have been as interesting to me as a goldfish.
Instead I was reacting to her, as if she somehow mattered. Perhaps Azazel was right, and swearing off women had been a bad idea. Celibacy was an unhealthy state for all creatures great and small, he'd said, trying to talk me out of it. I knew he was right. It was even worse for the Fallen. Our kind needed sex as much as we need blood, and I was intent on keeping away from both. And instead of things getting easier this woman was fighting, resisting, as no one ever had before.
She was strong, this one. I paid no attention to my hunger “ it had nothing to do with her, and I could ignore it as I'd been ignoring it for so long. But she was somehow able to fight back, when no one else could, and that was something I couldn't ignore.
There was no question “ Allegra Watson was supposed to be here. I had stood and waited as she stepped in front of the bus, moving in to scoop her up at the moment of death and not a second before.
I never lingered. There was no need for her to suffer “ her fate had been ordained and there were no last-minute reprieves. I had watched the bus smash into her, waiting just long enough to feel her life force flicker out. And then it was over.
Some of them argued when I brought them away. In general lawyers were the biggest pain in my ass, as well as stockbrokers. They cursed me, but then, they weren't heading where Allie Watson was heading. Lawyers and stockbrokers and politicians uniformly went to hell, and I never minded escorting them. I took them to the darkside, pushing them over the cliff without a moment's regret.
It always shocked them, those who were banished. First they couldn't believe they could actually die, and when hell loomed up they were astonished, indignant.
I don't believe in hell, many of them had said, and I always tried to resist the impulse to tell them that hell believed in them. Sometimes I even succeeded.
You're a goddamned angel, one had said, never realizing quite how accurate he was. Why are you sending me to hell?
I never bothered to give them the straight answer. That they deserved it, that their lives had been filled with despicable, unforgivable things. I didn't care enough.
God-damned angel, indeed. What else would a fallen angel be, a creature cursed by God and his administrator, the archangel Uriel? As man had developed and free will had come into play the supreme being had all but disappeared, abandoning those in heaven and hell and everywhere in between, leaving Uriel to carry out his orders, enforce his powerful will. Uriel, the last of the great archangels to resist temptation, pride and lust, the only one not to tumble to earth.
The curse on my kind had been clear. Eternal life accompanied by eternal damnation. And ye shall have no peace nor forgiveness of sin: and inasmuch as they delight themselves in their children, The murder of their beloved ones shall they see, and over the destruction of their children shall they lament, and shall make supplication unto eternity, but mercy and peace shall ye not attain.
I was past fighting it. We were the outcasts, the eaters of blood. After the first generation there were no children to watch die in agony, a small blessing. We were the Fallen, living our eternity by the rules laid out.
But there were the others, the Flesh Eaters, those who had fathered and lost children and been driven mad. The Nephilim, who tore human flesh and devoured it, were a horror unlike anything ever seen on the earth, and the sounds of their screams in the darkness rained terror on those left behind, those of us in the half-life.
We had taken the other half of the curse. To live forever while we watched our women die, and to become eaters of blood.
This had been our lot. Two of the oldest earthly taboos “ eating flesh and drinking blood. Neither could survive without it, though we had learned to regulate our fierce needs, as well as the other needs that drove us, had driven us from grace in the beginning, before time had been counted.
While the Nephilim knew hunger of the darkest kind, a hunger that could only be fed with death and terror.
In the end the Fallen had made peace with Uriel. In return for the task of collecting souls we were allowed at least a level of autonomy. Uriel had been determined to wipe the Fallen from the face of this earth, but the Supreme Being had, for once, intervened, staying our execution. And while there were no reversals of the curses already in place, there would be no new ones levied against us. For what little joy that brought us.
As long as we continued our job, the status quo would remain the same. The Nephilim would still hunt by night, rending, tearing, devouring.
The Fallen would live by day as well, fed by sex and blood, with those needs kept under fierce control.
And Allie Watson was just one more soul to be delivered to Uriel before I could return to our hidden place. The duties of a fallen angel were not onerous, and I had never failed. Never been tempted. Do the job and get back before too much time elapsed. There had even been a time when I rushed to get back to the woman I loved.
But there had been too many women. There would be no more. I had one reason and one reason alone to hurry back.
I couldn't stand humans.
This particular creature who was fighting me was no different, though I couldn't understand how she had the strength to resist my resolve, even the small amount of resistance I managed to feel beneath my grip. Her skin was soft, which was a distraction. I didn't want to think about her skin, or the unmistakable fear in her rich brown eyes. I could have reassured her, but I'd never been tempted to intervene before, and I wasn't about to make an exception for this woman. I wanted to, which bothered me. I wanted to do more than that. My hands shook with the need.
I looked down into her panicked face and I wanted to comfort, and I wanted to feed, and I wanted to fuck. And all of those needs were ones I kept locked away. She didn't need anything from me. If she did, she'd have to make do without.
But the stronger her panic, the stronger my hunger, and I gave in to the safest of my urges. Don't be afraid, I said, using the voice given to me to soothe frightened creatures. It will be fine. And I pulled her forward, spinning her out into the darkness and releasing her, stepping back, away from her.
It was only at the last minute I saw the flames. I heard her scream, and I grabbed for her without thinking, dragging her back. I felt the deadly fire sear my flesh, and I knew then what had been waiting for me, out there in the darkness. Fire was death to my kind, and the flame had leapt to my flesh like a hungry lover. I pulled the woman out of the dark and hungry maw that should have been what humans referred to as heaven, and I sealed my own trip to a hell that would have no end.
We went backwards, ending up on the ground with her soft body sprawled on top of mine, and I was instantly hard, my rebellious flesh overruling everything I'd been trying to tell it for decades, over-shadowing the pain for an all-too-brief moment, my self-control momentarily shattered as a pure, unspeakable lust flamed through me, only to be banished a moment later.
The inhuman howl of rage echoed up from the flames. A moment later the rocks slid closed again with a hideous grinding noise, and there was nothing but silence.
I couldn't move. The agony in my arm was unspeakable, wiping out my momentary reaction to the woman's soft body sprawled across mine, and I could almost be glad. The flames were out, but I knew what fire did to my kind. A slow, agonizing death.
It was one of the few things that could kill us, that and the traditional ways of disposing of blood-eaters. Beheading or a blow to the heart, be it with wood or metal, could kill us as surely as it would kill a human.
So would the minor burn on my arm.
If I'd only stopped to think I would have let her go. Who knew how she'd spent her short life, what crimes she'd committed, what misery she'd inflicted on others? It wasn't my place to judge, merely to transport. Why hadn't I remembered that and let her fall?
But even as I felt the pain leeching away any semblance of common sense I couldn't help but remember I'd brought any number of innocent souls to this very place, good people, cast them forth, assured that they were going to the place of peace they'd earned. Had it instead been hell, the same hell I'd taken the lawyers and bankers? Had I been dooming the innocent ones to eternal damnation, unknowing?
There was another place, in the bright sunlight, where a very few had been taken, though I was seldom the escort. And I instinctively knew that anyone who hadn't gone there had been banished to eternal flames.
The sin of pride, Uriel would have said placidly, with great sorrow. The cosmic hypocrite would shake his head over me and my many failings. To question the word of the Supreme Being and the emissary he'd chosen to enforce it was an act of paramount sacrilege. Who was I to question where he sent people?
In other words, do what you're told and don't ask questions. It was why we had fallen in the first place. And I had done more than question “ I had just contravened the word. And I was in deep shit.
Night was falling around us. The woman rolled off me, scrambling away as if I were Uriel himself. I tried to find my voice, to say something to her, reassure her, but the pain was too fierce. I tried to fight it, but the best I could do was grit my teeth to keep from screaming in agony.
She was halfway across the clearing, huddled on the ground, watching me in dawning disbelief and horror. And too late I realized my lips were drawn back in a silent scream, and she could see my elongated fangs.
What in God's name are you? Her voice was little more than a choked gasp of horror.
I ignored her question “ I had more important things to deal with. I had to gather my self-control or I was doomed. If I didn't I wouldn't be able to save myself at this point, and I couldn't save her either, not that I particularly cared. She had gotten me into this mess in the first place.
She was going to have to help get me out of it, whether she wanted to or not. I shuddered, forcing the agony back down my throat. In a few minutes I wouldn't be able to do even that much, In a few minutes longer I would be unconscious. By morning I would probably be dead.
Did I care? I wasn't sure it mattered one way or the other. But I didn't want to leave her behind, where the Nephilim could get her. I'd rather kill her myself before they tore her body into pieces while she screamed for help that would never come.
I sucked in a deep bite of air, steeling myself. Need to make a fire, I managed, but I could feel the dizziness pressing against my brain, feel the darkness closing in. I could hear them out in the night forest, the low, guttural growling of the Nephilim, the monsters. They would rip her apart in front of me, and I would be paralyzed, unable to do anything but listen to her screams as they ate her alive.
There was nothing I could do to save her. Things were beginning to fade, and the dream called to me, a siren song, a lure so tempting that I wanted to let go, to drift into that lovely place, the warm, sweet place where the pain stopped. I managed to look over at her “ she was curled in on herself, unmoving. Probably whimpering, I thought dizzily. Useless human, who probably belonged in hell anyway.
And then she lifted her head, staring at me, and I could read her thoughts easily. It seemed reasonable enough at the time “ only later would it take on an ominous tinge. She was going to make a run for it, and I couldn't blame her. She wouldn't last five minutes out there in the darkness, but with luck I'd be unconscious by the time they began ripping her flesh from her bones. I didn't want to hear the sounds of her screams as she died.
One more try, and then I'd let go. I tried to rise, to pull the last ounce of strength from my poisoned body, struggling to speak, to warn her. Do not I said. You need a fire to scare them away.
She rose, first to her knees, then to her bare feet, and I sank back, knowing there was nothing else I could do. She was frightened, and she would run.
And how am I supposed to start a fire? she said, her voice caustic, but by then I didn't care. I don't have any matches and I'm not exactly the camping type.
I could just manage to choke out the words. Leaves, I gasped. Twigs. Branches.
To my glazed surprise she did just that, gathering the fuel from nearby, and within a few minutes she had a neat little pile, with branches and logs on the side. The last of the twilight was slowly fading, darkness was closing in, and I could hear them beyond the clearing, the odd, shuffling noise they made, the terrible reek of decaying flesh and old blood.
She was looking at me, expectant, impatient. Fire? she prompted me.
I just managed to get the words out. My arm, I said in a choked voice. The last ounce of energy faded, and blessed darkness closed in. And my last thought was now it was up to her. I had done everything I could, as the night closed down around us.