I knew I was in trouble when death walked into the bar with a big, shit-eating grin.
And boy do I mean that literally. Samael, the Archangel of Death, stepped into the bar like he knew exactly what was going to happen and that he was going to love every second of it. I’ll back up a bit by saying that Sam isn’t just the Archangel of Death, the sort-of designated sniper of the preternatural world, but he’s also on a special assignment as my guardian angel.
When I say that, most people would think I was crazy. It gets worse, believe me, because my guardian’s role is to protect my mortal soul and my physical body, and he’s of the mindset that the best defense is a really good offense. Most times that meant he settled for killing any humans or preternatural creatures that threatened me in imaginatively gruesome fashions.
But he would do that with a superior smirk, maybe even a jaunty grin.
I don’t know that I’d ever seen him this happy with himself. Except, just maybe one time, in a distant, dusty mountain range when a couple hundred insurgents had been trying to kill me.
This is bad, this is really bad, I thought to myself.
The first thing I did was look over at my partner. Special Investigator Amanda Ashburn was seated with the fence we were here in this particular crappy bar to meet. Under other circumstances, we would have some kind of backup, both of us working for Colorado’s El Paso County Sherriff’s Department.
Unfortunately, we weren’t here on official business. We had asked one of Amanda’s contacts in the Catholic Church to translate a list of names, they had asked us for a favor in return. Something had been stolen from a church and a middleman had arranged to get it back. The fence who had it was jumpy and the Church hadn’t wanted to set a precedent where they rewarded people for stealing from them, so they wanted us to acquire it and turn it over to them.
The fence in question had been looking for exits ever since Amanda sat down at the table with him. His nervous darting glances had grown more frequent and I’d already had a sinking feeling as this had dragged on longer than a simple transaction should have taken. Father Terrence, Amanda’s contact with the Church, had given us a substantial quantity of cash to buy the item back. He hadn’t been too specific on what it was, just a small box, possibly locked, that was the prize.
I hadn’t dared ask what might have happened if someone had already opened the box and taken whatever was inside. In just the past nine months, I’d seen all kinds of things that normal people would think were impossible. There might be nothing in the box, the box might be what was valuable, or what was inside might be incredibly dangerous, melt-your-face-off like the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movie. At the time, it had seemed like a simple favor to go and pick it up.
Now I was wondering just how badly I’d screwed up by not asking for more information.
The supposed fence didn’t look like the typical scum-of-the-earth criminal type I would have imagined. He was young, he wore trendy-looking sunglasses and designer jeans. He had a gray hoodie up over his head and the sunglasses hid his eyes. From this angle, I couldn’t get a good look at his face other than in profile in the shadows from his hoodie.
I scoped out the room, not really certain what I was looking for, but knowing that there was something I’d missed. The first thing I noticed was that the bartender’s entire demeanor was off. Not only was he ignoring several patrons, but his attention was in the direction of my partner and the fence, rather than anywhere else. No, not just there, but also on the far corner.
There was a group seated there, three men and two women. They hadn’t stood out the first time I scoped out the room. They looked similar enough to other bar patrons, except as I looked at them, their attention was focused anywhere and everywhere except on the table with my partner and the fence… or on me. One was one her phone, another was reading a beer list. The other three were ostensibly casually talking, but they all kept pausing as they talked, as if they weren’t keeping track of the conversation or weren’t focusing.
They were all remarkably fit and healthy for this sort of place, too. Up north in the Springs, they could have passed for military, maybe, except for the fact that they all sported facial tattoos, which wasn’t allowed. One of the women had some kind of spider web tattoo that ran up the side of her neck and onto her face with a remarkably life-like spider crawling up onto her cheek.
One of the men seemed to notice me looking at them and he said something in a low tone to the woman on her phone. She didn’t look up, but I saw her say something in return.
Samael, the Archangel of Death, walked calmly over and sat down across from me, partially blocking my view. “Ari.”
“Sam,” I tried to lean over to see around him, but in truly typical fashion, he managed to shift and block my view of the suspicious men and women without needing to move at all. Sam outwardly looked rather plain. He could have passed for my brother, if I wasn’t a family-less orphan, anyway. To me he appeared tall, lean, with olive skin, blue eyes, and raven-black hair. He looked to be dressed professionally, suit and tie, which should have stood out in a place like this.
I knew from experience that most people would be hard-pressed to realize there was someone at the table with me, and harder pressed to describe what that person looked like. I also knew that his presence, like most of what he termed the preternatural, would distort electronic recording devices like security cameras and cell phones.
And, when he wanted to, his physical form could shift, despite his apparent size and stature, to be bigger or smaller or, in this case, to block my view of potential threats, just because it amused him.
“You seem happy,” I couldn’t help but begrudge him that. The past few months had felt like everything and everyone were conspiring to irritate me.
“Some days I enjoy my job more than others,” Sam replied, just as I saw motion over by Amanda. I looked over to see her set a black canvas duffle bag on the table and the fence reached down below the table and pulled something out of a similar black duffel bag. His had a symbol of some kind on the side, it looked a bit like some kind of Japanese kanji, though I couldn’t see it well from where I sat.
It wasn’t a box. At least, it wasn’t like any box I had ever seen. It was some kind of big clay jar, about eighteen inches tall, maybe eight inches wide at the widest, and tapering at either end. The fence set it on the table and it seemed to have far more weight than any object that size should, thumping on the table with a echoing thud that penetrated the far corners of the bar.
All conversation ceased. The entire bar went still and I saw everyone’s attention had gone to the table. The fence noticed and he scooped the jar back off the table and slid his chair back in a squeak that echoed through the still bar. Amanda was looking at the jar in with confusion and curiosity.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I muttered.
Sam’s smile widened, “Sometimes, Ari, you can be remarkably perceptive.” He stood up from his chair, shrugged his shoulders a bit in a motion akin to a boxer preparing for a bout, and his next words made my stomach sink, “And here… we… go…”
Amanda reached out to try and stop the fence and then all hell broke loose.