Black Wings Chapter 1

 

Chapter One

I hate it when a soul goes all stubborn on me. It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Most people understand that they’re dead and want to move on. Maybe it’s because they think heaven is waiting for them. Maybe it’s because they believe they’ll be reincarnated as the Princess of Monaco—does anybody want to be reincarnated as the Princess of Monaco anymore? Maybe it’s because they’re just tired of this world. When I show up to escort them to the Door, they know why I’m there and they’re ready to go. But sometimes, like today, a soul doesn’t want to leave its earthly body.

Mrs. Luccardi didn’t want to leave her cats—all fifteen of them. People get very attached to their pets. In fact, I’ve seen a fair number of people more attached to their pets than to their children. I understand that they feel like their little four-legged buddy is part of the family. What I have to make them understand is that they are dead, and can no longer feed, groom, or cuddle little Muffy, Flopsy, or Fido. It can be a delicate job, convincing the recently deceased of their new status.

Mrs. Luccardi, you’re dead,” I said. “You can’t take care of your cats anymore. Someone else will have to do that now.”

I fought the urge to cover my nose as I said this. Mrs. Luccardi was recently deceased and therefore immune to the reek of cat piss that permeated her doily-covered living room, but I was very much alive and getting tired of breathing through my mouth.

Aside from my burning need to breathe air unscented by eau de cat urine, I had two other pressing reasons for getting Mrs. Luccardi out of there. First, I had a potential tenant coming to look at the empty apartment in my building in twenty minutes, and I didn’t want to piss off a possible source of income by showing up late. Second, some of Mrs. Luccardi’s precious darlings were contemplating her cooling body with “buffet” in their eyes. I did not want Mrs. Luccardi to see her babies gnawing through her flowered housedress to flesh and bone. That kind of thing tends to traumatize the newly dead and prevents an Agent from an efficient escort to the Door.

If the soul doesn’t enter the Door, then it becomes a ghost. Agents don’t like ghosts. They’re untidy. The presence of a ghost means you can’t close your list, and if you can’t close your list, you have to file extra paperwork to explain why you can’t, and I absolutely hate doing any paperwork at all, period. So I really wanted Mrs. Luccardi to leave her carnivorous little fuzzballs and come with me, pronto.

I hadn’t even untethered her soul yet. Her incorporeal self floated above the body on the plastic-covered sofa, bound by a thin strand of ectoplasm. I was supposed to cut this strand with magic or my silver knife and release the soul. The knife, along with my Agent status, had been passed to me by my mother when she died.

In life and death, Mrs. Luccardi was a small, thin woman with a head of white curls—the kind of old lady my mother used to call a “Q-tip.” She glared at me through red plastic spectacles.

I don’t care if I’m dead, missy. I’m not leaving my babies,” she snapped. “Besides, look at you. I’m supposed to believe you’re an Agent of death? You’re covered in flour.”

I was in the middle of making a pear tart dotted with gorgonzola. You’re an unscheduled call. Besides,” I said, pointing to my back, “don’t you think the wings are a clue?”

She continued to eye me with suspicion. Okay, so a ten-foot wingspan of black feathers probably looked a little incongruous with my “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” apron and my fuzzy blue house slippers. Patrick was always telling me I would have less trouble if I presented a more imposing image, if I looked a little more Reaper-like. I always tell him that it’s pretty near impossible to be imposing when you’re only five feet tall and generally described by others as “cute as a button.”

Of course, if Patrick had shown up for his scheduled escort of Mrs. Luccardi, I wouldn’t be here at all. He’d called me fifteen minutes ago, said he had a “personal emergency” (read: a date with a hot guy), and begged me to take this pickup for him. I’d agreed because I owed Patrick a favor or two, but I couldn’t be held responsible for my appearance.

Listen, Mrs. Luccardi,” I said through gritted teeth. “You’re going to a better place. I’ll make sure that someone comes to take care of your . . . babies.”

Oh, no. Harold, my son, will come and have them all taken to shelters. I’m not going anywhere. I have to look out for them.” She crossed her arms, set her jaw and looked for all the world like she had no intention of moving in the next millennium. I wondered how, exactly, she expected to prevent Harold from having the cats taken away when she didn’t have a corporeal self.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to argue points of logic with the illogical dead. I glanced at my watch, a slender, silver-linked affair that had been a thirteenth birthday present from my mother. I really had to go. The potential tenant was scheduled to knock on my door in fifteen minutes. It would probably take me that long to fly home.

Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?” I asked.

No!”

Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?” I asked again.

I already told you, no!”

I felt the familiar buildup of pressure in my chest that accompanied a magical binding. It was what I imagined it would be like to drown. My lungs and heart felt as though iron bands squeezed my organs; my rib cage felt like it was collapsing. If I asked again and she refused, the binding was sealed. She would never be escorted to the Door, but would haunt this Earth forever.

Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?” I asked. The pressure increased and I gasped for breath.

For the last time, no!”

My heart and lungs reinflated; my ribs sprung back into place. A surge of power pushed out of my fingertips and snapped the tether holding Mrs. Luccardi to her body. A lot of Agents untethered agreeable souls using magic, but I didn’t like it. I don’t know what a binding felt like to anyone else but it made me feel like elephants had been tap-dancing on me. Give me a silver knife and a straightforward cut any day. Unfortunately, I could only use my knife on the cooperative. No one knew exactly why, but souls that refused the Door had to go through the rigmarole of a binding.

Polly Frances Luccardi, by your own words and of your own volition, your soul is bound to this earth for eternity,” I said, a little breathless.

Fine. My babies!” she cried, holding her incorporeal arms out to the cats that were now starting to nibble her corporeal body’s ankles.

Whatever. I got out of there before she realized that her little Snoogums was about to make her former shell into breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I had more time, I would have tried harder to convince her to go to the Door. Now I would have to file more paperwork, and Patrick would have to file more paperwork, and he would bitch about it and I would bitch about it and J.B., our supervisor, would be an annoying bastard about the whole thing because he’s very insistent on closed lists. But I’d deal with that later. First, I had to get home in time to show the apartment, and I had only a few minutes.

Death is just another bureaucracy, and in a bureaucracy so large, sometimes people fall through the cracks. There are plenty of reasons why people don’t get an Agented escort to the Door, and they don’t all have to do with kitty love. If a person suffers a violent death, they may leave their body involuntarily—snap the tether that binds them to their mortal self and flee in anguish and madness before an Agent arrives. Sometimes a soul will allow itself to be untethered, come along quietly and then break away from the Agent before they arrive at the Door, fearful of what lies behind it.

Sometimes an Agent is hurt or killed and that person’s list may lie dormant for an hour or two until replacements are notified. If that happens, the window of opportunity may close—souls might break their own tethers and wander free, or just refuse to be escorted, like Mrs. Luccardi.

Any of these possibilities creates ghosts, souls that will never pass through the Door. Ghosts have an annoying way of begetting other ghosts, showing up when an Agent is trying to work and convincing the confused deceased that they’re better off haunting this mortal coil than taking their chances with the Door.

The thing is, you can’t force a soul to be untethered and escorted. The soul has to choose the Door. Like so many mystical things, three is the key number. If the soul is asked three times and refuses the Door, then the Agent metaphorically wipes his hands and the soul becomes a ghost. The Agent is magically bound to leave them alone.

Of course, there are lots of ways around the “asking thrice” rule. You can tell people whatever they need to hear for as long as it takes to get them to agree to be escorted—like Heaven exists and that’s where they’re going, or they will join their beloved Ethel, or whatever.

I can’t attest to the veracity of any of that. All I know is that every Monday I get a plain white envelope in the mail. In that envelope is an ordinary piece of white paper with a typed list. The list has the names, locations and death times of people I’m supposed to escort. I go to the appointed place at the appointed time, take out my knife and untether the soul. Then I tell them something pretty and take them to the Door. I don’t even know what they see when they open the Door. My vision goes black as soon as they touch the doorknob, and returns when they’re inside. The only time I’ll get to see what’s behind the Door is when I get escorted there myself, and someday I will. Nobody outruns death. Not even death’s lackey.

I flew in the kitchen window eight minutes late. I own a brick two-flat in Chicago’s west Lakeview neighborhood and live on the top floor. My wings curled and shrank until they disappeared into my back. I don’t really understand where they go—I just know that they unfurl when I need them, and when I don’t there are only two long scars that bookend my spine. A good thing, too—it was hard enough trying to get through puberty as an Agent of death without having to explain my big flapping wings to everyone in my ninth-grade class.

The doorbell buzzed as I pulled my apron over my head and tossed it on the counter. The pears for the tart I had been making before Patrick’s call had turned brown and the crust was still rolled out on the cutting board, completely unusable now.

I strode through the kitchen and into the short hallway, then stepped into the dining room. The front door to my apartment opened into this room. I tapped the button on the intercom next to the door.

Yes?”

Gabriel Angeloscuro for Madeline Black.”

The potential tenant. Goody. “I’ll be right down.”

I grabbed the keys for the downstairs apartment off one of the hooks that hung next to the intercom. Just as I opened the door to head downstairs, I heard a thump behind me and turned.

A small stone gargoyle, about eight inches high, sat perched on one of the dining room windowsills. His face was extremely ugly in a cute sort of way—a kind of strange cross between a cat and a hawk. He had pointed feline ears, a large curved beak nearly as wide as it was long, and slitted cat’s eyes. Small bat wings arched from his back. His hands and feet were tipped with curved raptor claws. He crossed his arms over his adorable little Buddha belly and glared at me.

You look crankier than usual, Beezle,” I said.

Hmph.” His voice was two grindstones turning with no grain between them.

Did you get a look at the potential?”

Hmph,” he said again. He looked supremely pissed off.

What does ‘hmph’ mean, Beezle? Did you scope him for me or what?”

He opened his mouth, closed it again, then finally said, “He’s a handsome devil; I’ll give him that much.”

Oh, that’s real useful,” I grumbled, and headed downstairs, slamming the front door behind me.

I’d hoped that Beezle would get a sense of the potential tenant’s essence for me, so that I would know if he were good, bad or indifferent. Gargoyles can see the true natures of things, which is very handy in a portal guardian. It’s always nice to know if the thing that appears to be human standing on your doorstep is a serial killer, a vampire or just the UPS guy. And when you’re an extremely single woman living alone, you want to know if the person renting the apartment below you is on the up-and-up or the no-way-in-hell.

My last tenant, Jess, was a delightful widow who had rented the space for more than ten years. Five months earlier she had moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her grandchildren. I’d done some necessary updates on the apartment and then started advertising, but there had been no takers.

It was kind of weird, actually. Quite a few people had come to look at the place, gushed about the space, promised to bring back a deposit, but nobody returned. And after five rent-free months, I was pretty desperate for a tenant.

I pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the small foyer. Gabriel Angeloscuro stood on the porch with his back to the main door, a large pane of glass with oak trim. He looked about a foot taller than me, and trim underneath his long black coat. His dark hair was slightly damp from the light October drizzle and curled a little at his neck and ears.

The expensive shine of his shoes made the already shabby paint job of the porch look even worse. Flecks of red paint peeled up under his feet, and I worried that he might catch the fabric of his coat—which appeared to be wool, dry clean only, and sporting a designer label—on a jutting nail. The interior of the building looked pretty good, but it was hard for me to keep up with repairs on the outside—yet another compelling reason to get a tenant and some rent money ASAFP.

For a brief moment I wondered why a man so well dressed would need to rent an apartment at all, much less rent one in my middle-class neighborhood. A guy like that should be in a condo in the south Loop, or somewhere else where trendy people with money bought trendy property. He turned around and met my eyes through the door, and for the second time in the last hour I felt like all the breath had left my body.

Beezle was right. He was a handsome devil. Way beyond handsome, actually. More like the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. He looked like an Italian Renaissance painter’s ideal figure, from his broad forehead and carved cheekbones to the long, slightly arrogant Roman nose and the tiniest of clefts in his chin.

As jaw-dropping as was his face, it was his eyes that were most compelling. At first glance I thought they were brown. But as I looked, and looked, I realized they were closer to black, black like the ocean under the moon, an endless expanse of glinting waves reflecting the sky. There were stars in his eyes, stars and a hint of fire, a sun going supernova a million light-years away.

He didn’t move or say a word. I realized that he stood on one side of the door and I stood on the other, and that I held the apartment keys in my left hand and the doorknob in my right. For a second I wasn’t sure if I would turn the knob to let him in or hold it fast so that he could never enter. I felt like I was on the trembling edge of something, that if I allowed him to enter my home, my life would change irrevocably.

Then he smiled, the slightest upturn of the corners of his mouth. “Are you going to allow me in to view the apartment, Ms. Black?”

Blood rushed into my cheeks as he politely waited for me to turn the knob. I’d gaped at him like the class nerd panting after the quarterback. So what if he was good-looking? It didn’t excuse my rudeness. Off to a great start, I thought. At this rate I would never get a tenant.

I opened the door quickly and stepped back to allow him to crowd into the small foyer. He smelled spicy-sweet, like apple and cloves.

Sorry about that; please come in,” I said. I held out my hand for him to shake. “Madeline Black. I’ve been a little distracted today.”

His own hand was covered in buttery leather glove. He grasped my hand briefly, impersonally, and I wondered why I was disappointed. “Gabriel Angeloscuro.”

Well,” I said, trying to pull it together and remember why he was there. “Let’s take a look, shall we?”

He nodded and I turned to open the apartment. The two apartment doors sat side by side with the mailbox and a small security light in between. The right-hand door was for the first floor.

The door opened into a small nook before expanding into a long room divided by an archway. The layout was practically identical to my own apartment above.

As you can see,” I said, “this is the living room/dining room area. The floors are the original hardwood and they’ve recently been refinished.”

He walked to the large picture window that faced the street, seemingly not hearing a word I said. “How long have you owned this building, Ms. Black?”

Nineteen years.”

You seem awfully young to have owned this building for so long.”

I inherited the building from my mother.” After she was murdered.

I see.” He tapped one of his fingers idly against the glass. “I’m sorry for your loss. And your father?”

Not in the picture,” I said shortly. I had never met the man, never seen a photograph of him. His name wasn’t even on my birth certificate. Whoever he was, my mother hadn’t thought too much of him. She’d never spoken of him.

Again, I am sorry to hear that.”

This was not a line of questioning that I wanted to continue. It seemed much too personal for a tenant-landlord relationship. “Those windows were just installed four months ago. They’re a lot more energy efficient and they help keep the house warmer in the winter.”

He turned away from the window and touched the metal coils of the steam heater that sat directly below the window. He seemed to be refocusing himself, remembering why he was there. “This is an older heating system, yes?”

Yes, unfortunately, it’s much more expensive to replace. It’s also unnecessary, since the steam heat keeps the building very warm, even during a Chicago winter. But the kitchen and bathroom have been updated in the last year.”

I waved him toward the back of the house. He walked slowly through the empty rooms, his heels ringing on the floor.

This is one of the bedrooms,” I said. A very small room opened off the living room. “There’s a large storage space in the closet.”

He obligingly opened the closet door and looked inside. “Are those your apartment stairs above this space?”

Yes,” I said. “If you’ll come this way, I’ll show you the rest of the place.”

It must be difficult,” he said as he stood inside the closet and stared up at the diagonal ceiling.

What’s that?”

Living alone, with no family to help you.” He turned to face me and I again had the disquieting sense of falling into his eyes.

The bathroom is this way,” I said, ignoring his comment. I would not be drawn into a personal conversation with a stranger. It would be impossible to explain how Beezle and I had managed to dodge child services for years until I came of age, and it wasn’t Gabriel Angeloscuro’s business in any case. I’d lived by myself since I was thirteen years old. Yes, it was lonely with no one around except an overweight gargoyle, but I’d gotten used to it. I wasn’t used to hot guys prying into my private life.

Gabriel seemed to accept my change of subject and followed me through the rest of the apartment, nodding at the second bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen.

There’s a small yard out back and laundry downstairs,” I said. “You would share both with me. There’s also a storage space for this unit in the basement.”

He said nothing, only stared out the row of kitchen windows at the small porch, the patch of grass, my scraggly little vegetable garden. I almost hoped he wouldn’t want the apartment. There was something about Gabriel Angeloscuro—the familiar way he spoke to me, his disconcerting gaze—that made me deeply uncomfortable.

At the same time, could I afford to wait another five or six months for a better tenant? Probably not. Just because he was handsome and had some boundary issues wasn’t a good enough reason to turn him away. If he wanted the place, it would only make good business sense to give it to him—as long as his credit and references checked out, of course.

I believe I would like this apartment,” he said, and then he smiled, showing white, white teeth.

Since an Agent’s work is never really done, I had to head downtown immediately after Gabriel Angeloscuro’s departure. Paperwork—the bane of my existence—had to be filed in a timely manner or else I would be forced to listen to J.B. rant from now until kingdom come.

Beezle, I’m headed to the office,” I called.

There was a faint grunt from the mantelpiece. The gargoyle was in brood mode and hadn’t said a word to me since Gabriel had left. He had, however, seen fit to throw several black looks my way and to mutter imprecations under his breath.

Whatever,” I said. I stepped to the side window and thought about going to the Main Office. As I pictured the building—an unassuming brick nine-story in the Loop—my wings sprouted from my back. I swept out the window and into the morning air.

A handy side benefit of being an Agent is that no one other than the departed can see you when your wings are out. Well, almost no one. Many, many mentally ill people had caught sight of me over the years, as well as any number of folks using psychotropic drugs.

And children. Not all of them, although my mother told me that it used to be that she couldn’t pass by a single child without being noticed. If she had to fly by a school playground during recess, she’d cause a riot.

But not anymore. I think children today are desensitized to the possibility of magic and wonder. Most kids I see have their noses buried in a handheld video game or are whining for their parents to buy something for them. Those kids are already too emotionally detached to notice a woman with black wings flying by.

But there are a few still—the ones who read on the playground instead of playing kickball with the other kids, the ones who stare dreamily out the classroom windows during science class, the ones who pretend their closet is a spaceship and their bedroom is the rocky surface of Mars—those kids see me. Really see me, and know that I’m not a figment of their imagination.

It took me about ten minutes to get to the Main Office. My wings are a hell of a lot faster than the Brown Line. I landed on the roof of the building. It was one of Mayor Daley’s “green roofs,” so it was covered in late-season vegetation that was slowly dying off as winter crept in. There was a fire escape door at the back corner of the roof, just above the alley. I pulled out my key, opened the door and clattered down the stairs until I reached the ninth floor.

I pushed into the hallway, a standard office-building, white-walled, gray-carpeted affair. It bustled with Agents and office staff. Most people talked rapidly into cell phones or carried sheaves of paper under their arms. Like I said, death is pretty much a bureaucracy, with all of the attendant paper and bullshit that goes with it. My cubicle was on the fourth floor, so I waited at the bank of elevators with a crowd of other people and crammed in when the doors opened to go down.

When I reached the fourth floor, I stepped out of the elevator and then waited until a small crowd of people emerged so I could blend in. It was childish, but I was trying to sneak past J.B.’s office without him seeing me. He always knows when something is off, and if he saw me, he would ask about the ghost.

J. B. Bennett was the area supervisor for Chicago. Each major city and every rural area has a supervisor, and then there are regional supervisors who oversee several areas. Above the regional supervisors are three managers, and then the president of the Main Office, who answers to the North American Branch Office in Ottawa.

This building controlled the whole Midwest region, so J.B. was one of many smaller fish that longed for bigger things. He was convinced that he was destined for the president’s corner office. He was also convinced that if he micromanaged his Agents to death, then he would get where he wanted to be a lot faster.

Every time a soul did not choose the Door, he took it as a personal insult. He treated soul-collecting like a sales job. An Agent had to maintain a minimum percentage of “successes,” souls who chose the Door, or else she was forced to write up a biweekly report explaining why she hadn’t met her percentage minimum until she brought things up to scratch.

J.B. was also well-known for calling such Agents into his office for no apparent reason and wasting a lot of time haranguing them about their success rate. And he enjoyed assigning extra little tasks designed to irritate the crap out of them. J.B. couldn’t fire an Agent who didn’t meet his standards—being an Agent was a lifetime appointment—but he could certainly make your life miserable unless you gave him what he wanted.

If ever there were two people who epitomized the saying about oil and water, it was me and J.B. He wanted total submission, a line of orderly soldiers who did exactly as he asked. I wanted nothing more than to be free of him and this miserable job, but I was bound by fate and by magic to stay.

When an Agent dies, the next person in that Agent’s bloodline is activated to duty. There is no choice, and there is no escape. The magic in the blood that gives Agents their powers also binds them to the job, and the only alternative is death.

I’d never known an Agent who’d attempted to leave the service, but there were stories—legends, really—of those who had tried. They were hunted down by Retrievers, and when the Retrievers found the errant Agent, no choice was given to them. They were struck down where they were found. They did not enter the Door, nor did they become ghosts. Their names disappeared from the rolls in the Hall of Records. It was if they had never been.

I had never seen a Retriever. Rumor had it that they were planted among ordinary Agents, living double lives, or that they haunted the upper floors of the Ottawa office, seen only by the highest levels of management. Other Agents didn’t believe in them at all, and thought Retrievers were just imaginary bogeymen, stories told to keep Agents from leaving the service en masse.

I was something of an agnostic on the Retriever question. I didn’t necessarily believe, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance. I wanted to see my mother again someday, and getting vaporized by a Retriever did not seem the best way to do that.

I managed to get past J.B.’s office and into the main room. I had a cubicle tucked in a corner and I scurried past my fellow Agents, most of whom were laboring with their heads bent over forms that had to be filled out in triplicate by hand. Agents possessed some of the most powerful magic in the world, but our data-entry system still hadn’t entered the twenty-first century.

I had just settled in comfortably and started to fill out the form for Mrs. Luccardi when the phone on my desk rang. I could see the extension number and I rolled my eyes.

How does he know?” I asked as soon as I picked up the phone.

And a very good morning to you, too.” J.B.’s secretary, Lizzie, always seemed unruffled. “He wants to see you in his office.”

It was just turning out to be that kind of a day. I sighed. “Of course he does.”

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  2. […] when  I was invited to join this blog tour.  I had not read the first two books in the series, Black Wings and Black Night.  But I was curious enough about the premise, that I decided to give the series a […]