Moonlight and Sunscreen

This story takes place several months before the events of BLACK WINGS and BLACK NIGHT.

By Christina Henry

“I want to come with you on your pickup tonight,” Beezle, my gargoyle, announced during dinner.

“What?” I said, pausing with a forkful of spaghetti halfway to my mouth. “Why? You don’t usually like leaving the house unless it involves buying doughnuts.”

“I saw on your list that the death is supposed to be at Foster Beach a little before midnight,” Beezle said, stuffing a heavily buttered slice of Italian bread into his beak.

His stomach was splattered with spaghetti sauce. Having a gargoyle is kind of like having a toddler, except Beezle talks back more and doesn’t let me put him in time out when he misbehaves.

My name is Madeline Black, and I’m an Agent of Death. This sounds glamorous, but mostly it means that I have to witness a lot of horrible deaths and then escort souls to the Door.

After I do that I have to file paperwork. Since the Agency hasn’t quite caught up with the last half-century’s technological advances this paperwork is actually paper – triplicate forms, to be precise. And I have to use a pen. I’ve heard rumors that some of the upper management actually has offices with typewriters in them, but this is probably just crazy talk.

“So what if the soul is going to be at Foster Beach? The ice cream man does not come through at that hour, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said. “Your job is to stay home and be a home guardian like all the other gargoyles.”

“It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight,” Beezle said.

“And?” I spun my hand, indicating he should continue.

“I want to lay out on the beach,” he said, taking enough spaghetti from the bowl to feed three football players.

I stared at him long enough that he actually stopped eating.

“What?” he snapped. “I can’t have some leisure time?”

“Your whole life is leisure time,” I retorted.

“Who stands watch over the door and makes sure nothing creepy comes knocking?” Beezle asked.

“The creepiest thing to come up my steps in the last six months was a political canvasser, and you slept through the whole thing.”

“But something might show up,” Beezle insisted. “And I’m on 24-hour watch.”

“So when you’re in here eating all my emergency chocolate that qualifies as part of your 24-hour watch?”

“When did this turn into a discussion of my eating habits? I want to go with you, I’m going, that’s the end of it,” Beezle said, and crammed such a giant mass of spaghetti in his mouth that he couldn’t have responded to anything I said even if he wanted to.

So a few hours later Beezle and I were flying the short distance from our house on the north side of Chicago to the lakefront. It was a pretty typical August night in the city. It was hot, sticky and everything smelled like car exhaust. My curly hair was a frizzy halo. It was not a good look for me.

Beezle was perched on my shoulder, which was his favorite way to travel. He generally doesn’t exert any energy unless absolutely necessary.

I am invisible when my wings are out, which is good because Beezle is pretty conspicuous. That time of year it’s difficult to hide him – he usually goes in the pocket of my overcoat when he feels inclined to leave the house. I was wearing a tank top and shorts, and Beezle is way too fat to fit in my shorts pocket.

I landed in the sand near Foster Beach house, a small building that housed bathrooms and a snack shop. The beach was empty this time of night, although a few dedicated runners exercised under the streetlights that illuminated the lakefront path.

I wandered a little ways toward the lake. It rolled in gentle waves up to the sand. Lake Michigan looks a lot like the ocean from the shore. The size of it is hard to comprehend, especially when you say “lake” and most people think of a fishing pond. When I glanced out over the water all I could see was that endless expanse and the dark night above it, the lights from airplanes landing at O’Hare flashing in the black.

Beezle hopped off my shoulder and fluttered to a spot far enough away from the water that his claws wouldn’t get wet. He busily unfolded the kitchen towel that he’d used as a makeshift bag and smoothed it out on the sand. Inside the bag were a tiny pair of doll sunglasses and travel-sized bottle of sunscreen.

“You are aware of the fact that there is no sun out now, correct?” I asked.

Beezle ignored me and began rubbing sunscreen into his gray, elephant-like skin. “You are aware that the moon’s light is from the reflection of the sun’s rays, right?”

“I’m the one who had to sit through earth science class, not you,” I muttered.

“But I am the one who had to help you with your homework,” Beezle reminded me.

He pulled on his shades and lay back on the towel, arms behind his head.

I shook my head and turned away, looking down the beach. A couple was approaching, and they were having a pretty vehement argument. I knew with the certainty that comes from being an Agent of death that I was here for one of them. As I watched, the man hit the woman across the face and she fell to the sand.

Beezle raised his head and peeked over his glasses. “The boyfriend is going to kill the girlfriend because she cheated on him.”

“It’s not what you think,” I said, and waited for it to play out.

This is the horrible part about my job. I just collect the souls. I can’t intervene. I can’t do anything that might affect the ultimate outcome. Once that paperwork crosses my desk with the soul’s name on it that person is fated to die, and nothing can change that.

The woman stood, shouted at the man, shoved him in the chest. The man slapped her again. She unzipped her handbag, screaming, her hands shaking. The man seemed unaware of the danger he was in.

She pulled a gun from her bag, a tiny pistol, but I knew it would be deadly at that range. The man tried to back away, to apologize, but she shouted again and the shot rang out.

Beezle settled back on his towel and closed his eyes. “Wake me when you get back.”

“Try not to drift into the lake and get eaten by a giant sturgeon,” I said.

I trudged down the beach, where the woman was now frantically trying to figure out what to do with both the gun and the man’s body. It was no concern of mine. I was there for his soul, which had drifted up, ghostly and pale, from the still form in the sand.

I glanced back over my shoulder at Beezle. The moonlight fell on his tiny form, shiny with sunscreen, snoozing away on a summer night.

And I went forward to where the dead lie, like I always do.

© 2011 Christina Henry. All rights reserved.