Jun 242011
 

In the interest of making the wait easier (or harder, I guess, depending on your point of view), here’s the first chapter of Black Night, to be released July 26th:

CHAPTER ONE

I stood in the alley between Damen and Wolcott in the recently trendy neighborhood of Wicker Park. There was a parking lot filled with cars directly across the alley from my position. It was bordered on the other three sides by four-story apartment buildings. Behind the wall that I leaned on the clubs, bars and restaurants of Division Street did a brisk trade in liquor and lust for the upscale singles that had purchased all the new condos in the area. The cold November night was no deterrent to business. After all, if you lived in Chicago then you understood that there are only two seasons – winter and construction. If you let a little cold slow you down then you should probably move somewhere else.
I shifted a little, flexing my toes inside my boots in a vain effort to keep them warm. When I had died and been reborn a month ago, my human heart had been replaced by an angel’s heartstone. As a result, I was usually a little warmer on average than ordinary human beings, since angels’ hearts are made of the sun. But a half-angel’s body is still no match for the Windy City.
My gargoyle Beezle poked his head out of the lapel of my wool peacoat. He’s the color of stone, about the size of an overweight guinea pig and he’s got little wings, the better to flap around my head and annoy me with.
Before we had left the house he had trimmed a child-size scarf for his own use. He had a small strip of rainbow-colored wool wrapped around each horn and a longer piece wound several times around his lower face. The edge of his beak poked through the material. He mumbled something through the cloth and I glared at him.
“I can’t understand you when your mouth is buried like that,” I said.
Beezle narrowed his cats’ eyes at me and commenced unwinding his muffler. He huffed melodramatically before speaking. “I said, have you got anything to eat?”
“How can you possibly be hungry? You ate a whole bowl of popcorn before we left the house.”
“But I am. And I’m cold. And I want a doughnut,” he whined.
“Stop wriggling. We’re supposed to be undercover here. In point of fact, you’re not supposed to be here at all. You’re supposed to be at home, being a home guardian, like all the other gargoyles.”
“Do you think I would trust your life to him?” Beezle snapped.
“He can hear you, gargoyle,” Gabriel said drily.
My tenant and bodyguard, Gabriel, had been so quiet I’d almost forgotten he was there. Almost. He’s a little difficult to overlook – 6 foot plus, dark hair, dark eyes, the face of an angel. I mean that literally. Gabriel was half-angel.
Have I mentioned that I am in love with him and he with me, and that our love is doomed, in a really melodramatic we-will-both-be-killed-if-ever-act-on-our-feelings sort of way?
I’m a half angel, too. My father is Azazel, a fallen angel and a chief of the Grigori, a right-hand man of Lucifer himself. I’d discovered this tidbit only recently, having spent most of my life believing my father to be an ordinary deadbeat (or possibly dead) human dad.
Beezle had been a little unreasonable about my safety ever since I’d had my human heart torn out by a nephilim – long story – and now refused to let me leave the house without him. You’d think the fact that I’d managed to come back from the dead would count in my favor.
Azazel’s orders stated that Gabriel was not supposed to leave my side when I was out of the house. I had spent the last month with a beautiful bodyguard at my elbow and an overweight gargoyle hanging off me like a baby orangutan. It was making my job a little difficult – very difficult, in fact. It’s not easy being unobtrusive with those two around.
When I’m not Azazel’s daughter and Beezle’s doughnut enabler, I’m an Agent of death. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Every week I get a list of names, places and times. I go to the appointed place at the appointed time, pick up the soul and bring it to the Door. At the Door the soul chooses whether to pass on to whatever is behind the Door (don’t ask me, I’m not allowed to know) or to stay and haunt the earth forever.
Most of the time my job is as straightforward as it sounds. I’m kind of like a UPS delivery guy. I don’t know what’s in the boxes and I don’t care. It’s just my job to deliver them on time and to the correct location. I also have to file paperwork – lots and lots of paperwork, and the forms are annoying and redundant. Being an Agent of Death isn’t such a great gig, really, but it’s an inherited job (I got mine when my mom died) and one that doesn’t go away until you take the trip to the Door yourself.
So there I was, a week before Thanksgiving, shivering in 30-degree weather and thinking longingly of my crocheted blankets and a cup of hot chocolate, and waiting to pick up a soul who was scheduled to die at 1:27am somewhere in this alley.
Beezle carefully rewrapped his scarf around his chubby neck. It draped over his wings in the back.
“I hope that this isn’t one of those disgusting alley murders,” he said conversationally. “The last one put me off my feed.”
“Is that even possible?” Gabriel murmured for my ears only, and I smiled. Then I straightened a little, pushing away from the wall. Gabriel came to attention beside me. “What is it?”
“I don’t think you have to worry about hacked-up body parts this time, Beezle,” I said.
“Why not?”
“Because I can see the vampire.” I nodded at the innocuous-looking man making his way across the parking lot.
He looked like any moderately successful single guy out on a Saturday night. His hair was blonde and stylishly cut, his clothes were good without being flashy, and his face was sort of ordinary-handsome. You wouldn’t know he was a vampire, which is good for their kind. The most successful hunters are the ones with the best camouflage.
He crossed out of the lot and into the alley, his footsteps slowing as he approached us. We were tucked unobtrusively in a little four-foot depression in the building, one of those architectural oddities that seem to have no explanation. The building went straight across and then it dipped in, like someone had planned to put a closet there, and then resumed its normal course. It was just enough to keep us from being seen by anyone who passed by.
The vampire stopped dead, a few feet away. I saw his nostrils flare.
“I know you’re there, Agent,” he said.
I stepped out of the depression and into the light of the one yellow streetlamp that hung over the parking lot. Gabriel followed and stood behind my shoulder. I said nothing. The vampire’s eyes widened a little when his saw Gabriel.
He smirked. “You must be the famous Madeline Black, the only Agent with a guard dog.”
If the vampire thought he could make a little sport for himself by getting rise out of Gabriel he had another think coming. Gabriel is the type that burns slow – so slow, I wonder sometimes if he’s got a pulse.
“What is your business, vampire?” I asked.
“If you are here, then you know my business,” he said. He raised an eyebrow at me. “You will not interfere?”
“You know I am bound against it,” I said, and there was a little shivering of magic as I said it, as if the source of my power was affirming the truth of that statement.
That was one of the suck things about being an Agent. I saw a lot of death, and most of those deaths would break my heart if I let them. Stupid accidents, horrific murders, deaths of children and young mothers and college kids before their time. But it was not for me to judge which lives should be saved. If their name was on my list, then their death was fated and I was bound not to interfere. I’d learned early on to adopt a circle-of-life attitude for my own sanity. It didn’t mean that I liked it.
The vampire sidled a little closer to me, and I could almost feel Gabriel’s hackles rise. He loves me, he can’t have me, but he does not like other men coming near me. If Gabriel had his way there would be a 36-inch man-free radius around me at all times.
“I have heard stories of your beauty,” the vampire purred. His nostrils flared again. “I see that they are not exaggerated.”
I crossed my arms. My beauty is so not legendary. “Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck? Get lost. I’m not the helpless victim you’re looking for.”
I saw a glint of fang as he stepped closer. He seemed hypnotized by some scent. “But the blood of angels…I have always wanted…and you are Lucifer’s own…”
I opened my palm in front of me, extended my will, and a little ball of blue flame about the size of a baseball hovered above my hand. “I understand that fire is unpleasant for vampires.”
The vampire hissed and backed away several feet. He shook his head, seeming to come out of a trance. For a moment I thought he would try again, but then he appeared to think better of it.
“Perhaps you are right,” he said, regaining his composure. “There must be easy prey awaiting me if you are here.”
I closed my fist and the ball of nightfire disappeared, leaving behind a lingering trace of sulfur. I flicked my fingers at the vampire. “Move along, then.”
He gave me a sarcastic bow and continued past us. Gabriel stared stonily at the vampire’s back as he went by. A few feet past us, the vampire stopped. I couldn’t see his face but I was sure he was scenting the air. I felt the thrum of magic that told me a soul was approaching that was marked for death. A moment later a too-skinny blonde came tottering into the alley on four-inch heels.
I sighed and slipped back into the shadows. I didn’t need to see what happened next. I just had to be there to pick up the pieces, like always.

About an hour later I was flying home. Gabriel met me in the air about half a mile away from the Door. For reasons that we don’t understand, Gabriel can’t come within a certain radius of the Door. This tends to make him annoyed, since he is charged with keeping me safe at all times. However, other non-Agents seem to be bound by the same restriction. None of my enemies have been able to cross the invisible line that keeps Gabriel from the Door. I know because I have seen some of them try.
We were about ten minutes from home when I saw it. A flash of green light somewhere on the city streets below, a pulse so large I was surprised that it didn’t wake up everyone in a four-block radius. Then the shockwave hit us.
Gabriel and I were thrown upward by a wave of energy that emanated from the pulse. I let it pass through me instead of struggling against it. As I relaxed, the magical energy inside the shockwave spread through me, and I cried out. There was malice in that magic, a sense of wrongness that chilled my heart.
The wave passed through me, but I was frozen by fear. I had felt something like this before, when Ramuell the nephilim had been released from his prison to hunt and kill me. It was a sense that the natural order had been upended, that death stalked without plan or mercy.
But Ramuell was dead. I had killed him myself. How could this be happening again?
I thought all of this in an instant, but an instant of immobility in the air can kill you. I heard Gabriel’s anguished voice calling my name. I shook my head, realized that I was free falling, my face turned towards the sky. I tried to flap my wings, to turn over and right myself, but my wings had disappeared. They do that, so that I can look like a normal human most of the time. They only appear when I need them for a magical reason, like when I’m carrying out my Agent duties.
But the shockwave had temporarily knocked out my magic, like an electrical surge will cause a fuse to blow. I tried to stay calm, to concentrate on the power inside me, but I was gathering speed. I could see Gabriel’s face, white and strained, as he arrowed towards me in the air, but I was falling too fast. He wasn’t going to make it. I closed my eyes.
And then I was plucked from the air by a pair of strong arms, and I heard a grunt as my speed was arrested. I opened my eyes to see a pair of bright green ones flashing at me through wire-rimmed glasses.
“Next time you might want to try a parachute,” J.B. said as he fluttered us slowly to the ground.
I opened my mouth to speak, to thank him, and was horrified to feel tears pricking my eyes.
“Hey,” J.B. said, and cuddled me closer. “Hey, it’s OK.”
I decided it was easier to cry it out than try to talk through suppressed tears. I buried my face in his t-shirt. He said nothing, only held me there until I lifted my face and sniffled.
“Better?” he asked.
I nodded.
“You can put her down now,” Gabriel said, and his voice had a note of steel.
I looked in the direction of his voice and saw him standing a few feet away, arms locked against his sides as if he were keeping himself from pummeling J.B.
J.B’s arms tightened around me. “Finders keepers. I didn’t see you keeping her from turning into scrambled eggs.”
Gabriel stepped forward. I could see stars blazing in his dark eyes, always a sign of trouble. Like I said, Gabriel is a slow burn. But when he explodes you’d better get the hell out of the way.
“Put her down, human. You’re squashing my ear,” a muffled voice said from inside my coat.
“Beezle!” I gasped. “I forgot he was in there.”
J.B. reluctantly released me, his hands lingering just a moment too long at my back. I would be flattered except that I knew at least part of the reason he did it was to piss off Gabriel.
A few months ago J.B. was my boss, and we didn’t get along. At all. But J.B. had helped Gabriel and I get though a demon attack on the Agency, and in the process we’d developed a kind of friendship. The attack had taken out a lot of the upper management and J.B. had been promoted by virtue of being one of the few supervisors left standing. Demon encounters plus the promotion seemed to have removed the stick that had formerly been lodged up his ass. He was a lot nicer these days.
He’d also shocked me by asking me out on a date. I’d refused, but he’d taken my refusal with surprising grace. It’s not that I wasn’t attracted to J.B. – I was, anything human would be – it was just that my confusing relationship with Gabriel seemed to preclude the possibility of having a confusing relationship with J.B.
Beezle poked his head out, looking distinctly disgruntled. “What in the name of the four hells happened? What’s J.B. doing here? Why aren’t we at home?”
“You didn’t feel that electro-pulse thingy?” I asked. “You didn’t feel us falling out of the sky?”
“I was napping,” Beezle said.
“Napping,” J.B. said in disbelief.
“You can just keep that disrespectful tone out of your voice, Jacob Benjamin. I’m an old gargoyle. And what is that horrible smell?”
Now that Beezle mentioned it, I did notice a distinctly malodorous scent lingering in the alley. And something else. A trace of cinnamon.
“Something angelic was here,” I said.
“How do you know?” J.B. asked.
“Whenever something of an angelic bloodline uses its powers I always smell a trace of cinnamon.”
I started to move cautiously in Gabriel’s direction. It seemed the smell was coming from just beyond him. J.B. followed.
“And there was something else, when the pulse happened. Did you feel it?” I looked questioningly at Gabriel, who was still giving J.B. the hairy eyeball. I saw him take a deep breath and refocus his attention on me.
“Yes. A sense of evil. It felt like…”
“…Ramuell,” I said at the same time.
I felt J.B. start next to me. “Ramuell? That nephilim that you killed?”
Gabriel nodded. “I do not know how it could be. Another nephilim could not have broken free from the Forbidden Lands. Lucifer persuaded all of the Fallen to give some of their power to redouble the creatures’ bindings. It would take more than the power of a single angel or demon to free even one of them. Even I could not do it now, despite my bloodline.”
“And it can’t be Ramuell. He’s dead.”
“Are you sure?” J.B. asked.
I thought of Ramuell burning molecule by molecule, dissolving before my eyes until the last of his essence was gone and the souls that were bound within him were released.
“I’m sure,” I replied grimly.
We crept carefully through the alley. I wasn’t sure where we were – Chicago looks pretty much the same when all you see are dumpsters and the backsides of brick buildings. We had been flying over the north side but the fall had disoriented me.
“Where were you coming from, J.B.?” I whispered as we crept closer to the source of the smell. The odor had to be amazingly powerful to cut through the cold air.
“Dropoff, same as you,” he replied.
“I thought that a regional supervisor would get to delegate the scut work,” I teased.
J.B. shrugged. “The new Midwestern supervisor wants us to do field work. He wants us to stay in touch with our roots or something. Anyway, I saw you flying back and was trying to catch up when that…thing happened. How come you fell out of the sky? What happened to your wings?”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “It was like that pulse kind of short-circuited my magic, and when that happened my wings disappeared.”
“That is dangerous,” said Gabriel. “If your enemies were to learn that such a thing could disable your abilities, even temporarily…”
He trailed off. I didn’t need him to elaborate. My enemies, which are many and mostly inherited from conflicts that my father Azazel and grandfather Lucifer created, would turn me into Korean barbecue in the blink of an eye if they thought I had a weakness.
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” I said brightly, trying not to think of my half-brother Antares and his personal vendetta against me. Antares would be more than delighted to short-circuit my powers.
The alley came to a T-junction just as we passed out of the light of a streetlamp. It was pitch black in both directions, the only light coming from the streets beyond. I wondered what happened to the rest of the streetlights.
The smell was nearly overwhelming now. It was something rotted and metallic, and there was a distinct scent of burned fur. Underneath it all was a trace of scorched cinnamon and sulfur – the smell that I associated with Ramuell.
I opened my palm and tried to create the same blue ball of flame that had scared away the vampire earlier. All that came out were a few blue sparks.
“I guess I’m still broken,” I said, and tried not to panic. I had no idea if the effects of the pulse were permanent. “Gabriel, can you?”
A moment later the alley was illuminated by nightfire. Gabriel is a more skilled practitioner than I, and so was able to send the ball of flame ahead of him instead of holding it in his hand. The light danced along down the right turn of the T-junction until I gasped. Gabriel raised the light up higher and turned up the illumination with a murmured word. J.B. covered his mouth beside me and made a retching noise.
It was difficult to make sense of what my eyes were seeing. There was blood – lots of blood, more blood than I thought could possibly be inside one human. And there were parts that were recognizable was human – a tibia, an ulna, a femur – all skinned but with small bits of flesh clinging to the bone. There was a torso that looked as though it had been through a shredder, and some scraps of cloth that might have been a flannel shirt.
But there was no head. And there was a hand that looked almost completely human save the fact that it was covered in fur.
“It’s a werewolf,” I said, trying not to gag.
“What could have done that to a werewolf?” Beezle asked.
“Another wolf?” J.B. said, speaking through his hand.
I shook my head. “There’s not usually that much disparity in wolf strength. Sure, the alpha and his lieutenants will be stronger than the other wolves, but not so much that one wolf could tear apart another like this. And where is the head?”
“More importantly, where is the Agent? This death wasn’t in my paperwork for the week,” J.B. said.
The implications were clear. If the death was not on file, then it was not meant to be. It was a death outside the natural order. And the last time there had been a death outside the natural order was when Ramuell had cut a swath through the innocent of this city.
“It can’t be,” I said as Gabriel stared at me. “It can’t. I killed him. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I killed Ramuell. Lucifer’s been dangling it over my head ever since.”
“Then it must be another nephilim,” Gabriel said slowly.
“You just said that couldn’t happen,” J.B. said.
“Do you have another explanation, Agent?”
“No, but I’m not the one calling Maddy a liar.”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. “I did not call Madeline a liar.”
“You implied it,” J.B. fired back.
“You’d better do something before this turns into a scene from a high school romcom,” Beezle muttered.
I stepped forward, intending to get between them and push them apart – they were practically nose-to-nose – when I heard somebody groaning. I froze, trying to determine the location of the noise but I couldn’t pick it out over the sound of bickering.
“Shut up,” I snapped, and both of them turned to stare at me. “Somebody else is here.”
I heard the groaning again, very faint, further along the alley and closer to the street. I started forward and Gabriel gripped my arm.
“Wait. It may be a trap,” Gabriel said. “Stay behind me.”
“Because I’m small and helpless?” I asked, annoyed.
“Because your powers do not seem to be functioning normally right now,” he answered reasonably.
I supposed I couldn’t argue with that even if it did make me feel useless.
J.B. took up a position behind me and we proceeded slowly toward the sound, picking our way carefully through the remains of the werewolf. I felt things squishing beneath my boots and tried not to think about what I was doing. My body thrummed with tension. What was waiting for us? Another of this creature’s victims, or the creature itself?
Gabriel directed the ball of nightfire toward the sound. There were white feathers splashed with red scattered around just past the gore from the werewolf. A bloodied hand came into view, then an arm, then a gigantic pair of white wings covering a body lying prone on the ground. A golden-haired head was just visible.
“It’s an angel,” I said.
“Or something that looks like one,” Gabriel agreed. “Gargoyle?”
Beezle squinted, his clawed hands gripping the lapel of my coat, and I knew that he was looking through the layers of reality to find the creature’s essence.
“It’s an angel.” Beezle nudged me with a sharp little elbow. “See, I’m handy to have around.”
“Sometimes,” I agreed.
Gabriel signaled to me to stay behind and J.B. put his hand on my shoulder to make sure that I understood. I shrugged off his touch, resenting their high-handedness. I wasn’t stupid. I knew that I wasn’t up to tangling with anything supernatural at the moment.
My bodyguard approached the body carefully, knelt beside the angel and rolled the creature to its back. The angel’s face was splattered with blood and there was a large and ugly gash across his bare chest.
Gabriel beckoned the ball of hellfire closer to him. “It’s Baraqiel.”
“What’s he doing here?” asked Beezle, surprise evident in his voice.
“Who’s Baraqiel?” J.B. and I asked together.
“Lucifer’s personal messenger,” Beezle said.
I wondered what Lucifer was up to now. Why was his personal messenger lying wounded in an alley only a few feet away from the mangled corpse of a werewolf? Had Baraqiel just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was he the werewolf’s killer?
Gabriel laid his hands on the wound and the alley grew brighter as the light of the sun came from his palms. The air filled with scent of apple pie baking – a smell that was unique to Gabriel.
Baraqiel gasped for air and his eyes flew open as Gabriel lifted his hands away from the angel’s chest. The wound was healed.
“Gabriel?” he asked, his gaze confused and frantic. “Where am I? Where is he?”
“Where is who?” I asked.
Baraqiel shook his head and sat up, staring at me. His eyes were a startling silver-blue that looked almost clear. Those eyes made me shiver. The effect of pale eyes against his blood-covered face was ghastly. He pushed up from the ground and wobbled as he attempted to stand.
Gabriel rose beside him and placed a steadying hand on Baraqiel’s shoulder. “Be at peace. You need to rest. You are still weak.”
Baraqiel shook his head, still staring at me. “There is no time. You are Azazel’s daughter?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You must go. Samiel is coming for you.”
A cave in an ash-burned land. A flash of green eyes, alight with hatred and madness.
“Samiel,” I breathed.
“Who’s he now?” J.B. asked, obviously bewildered.
A child of an angel and a nephilim. A child that would have every reason for vengeance against me. A child that I had nearly forgotten.
My voice was barely more than a whisper. “Ramuell’s son.”

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