Emmanuel waited at the bus stop with no intention of catching a bus. He was tall, with a thin frame that looked less powerful than it actually was. The tattoos that covered his arms were just barely visible over his dark skin. He stood in the rain, watching the people huddle under the stop, and tried to remember the last time he felt anything.
“You could have dressed for the occasion,” a silky voice said behind him.
Fighting a shudder, Emmanuel turned to see Martin Gase standing behind him. Martin wore a bright red suit over a black shirt and tie, and was the closest thing that Emmanuel had to a supervisor. If he was here, then something had gone tits up.
“I’m blending in,” Emmanuel said.
Martin raised an eyebrow at him before glancing at the crowded bus stop. “Of course you are. Standing out in the rain in a t-shirt and jeans, and yet you’re bone dry.”
“I’m not on the clock yet,” Emmanuel said with a quick look at his watch. “What I do on my own time is my business.”
“Walk with me,” Martin said, moving away before Emmanuel could respond.
They walked in silence for a bit, under the hum of fluorescent street lights. People pushed by them on the sidewalk, heads down. Martin smoothly weaved through the crowd, leaving Emmanuel to fight his way through behind him.
Finally, Martin ducked into an alley and Emmanuel followed him. It stunk of piss and garbage, and Martin smiled as he breathed in deeply. “Just like home,” he said with a sigh before reaching into his coat and pulling out a small manila envelope.
He handed it to Emmanuel and said, “You, my friend, have always been so exceptionally difficult. It really is fortunate for you that you’re also exceptionally talented. There’s been a change in the assignment.”
“A change?” Emmanuel asked. “I thought we weren’t in the business of change.”
“Oh no,” Martin chuckled, “some might even say it’s our specialty. It’s part of the job description.”
Emmanuel fought the urge to pummel Martin into a fine pulp and instead pulled the file from the envelope. Chester Warrington, age 45. A skinny man with a bad comb-over and a weak chin. “This is the same guy. What’s different?”
“You, of all people, should know to read the fine print,” Martin replied. “He had a change of heart, and we’re extending his contract.”
Emmanuel flipped through the pages, pictures of the same apartment. “Then why do you need me?”
“Last page,” Martin said with an audible sigh. “You really do take the fun out of all this. Where’s your sense of drama?”
Emmanuel flipped to the end of the file. A young boy, maybe seven or eight years old stared back up at him from under a mop of shaggy blonde hair. He had deep blue eyes and his smile carried the slight hint of mischief.
Flipping back and forth between the boy and Martin several times, Emmanuel shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m not doing it.”
Martin rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, you don’t get to say, ‘no’. This is how the system works: we give you the target, you collect. If you are unhappy with your job, I am certain we can find some other way to work off your debt.”
Emmanuel started to protest, but Martin was already walking back into the depths of the alley, the shadows spreading around him. “Just remember,” his words echoed off the walls, “a clean soul takes a lot more time off your ledger than a dirty one.”
Standing at the entrance to the alley, Emmanuel watched the people wander past. The rain had begun to let up. He adjusted his glamour, changing the t-shirt and jeans to a charcoal suit and a black turtleneck. They had only gone a few blocks, but Emmanuel already noticed a difference in the people on the streets.
He stepped out onto the sidewalk, narrowly missing a drunk man who stumbled out of a nearby building. The windows were slightly fogged and the neon signs called out to Emmanuel through the cold night air. He allowed himself one quick glance at the entrance. The drunk lit a cigarette, before turning up his collar. The smell of whiskey hung on him in the night air. Emmanuel stood on the sidewalk and breathed it in for a second.
“That shit’s what got you into this mess in the first place,” a small voice in the back of his head, added.
Shaking his head, Emmanuel turned his mind to the assignment. He found the apartment building easily enough. It was a gleaming modern-style monstrosity that was out of place in the surrounding neighborhood of brick walls and boarded up windows. A bored looking security guard waited at the front desk. With a quick gesture from Emmanuel, the man nodded off, his head drooping against his chest.
Three elevators lined the hall behind the security desk, but Emmanuel took his time on the stairs. He stopped on the eighth floor landing and stared down the hallway at the doors around him. The hall had a sterile, empty quality to it. Listening carefully, he could just make out the sounds of a television from behind one of the doors..
He stopped outside apartment 814, then muttered a few minor incantations accompanied by the necessary hand gestures. A faint blue glow emanated from the door before it slid open silently on its hinges. Glancing back down the hall, Emmanuel walked into the entry way of the apartment.
The first thing he noticed was the cleanliness of the place. The apartment appeared to be immaculate, and he would have been hard-pressed to believe anyone lived here at all if he hadn’t read the file. He rounded the corner into a large living room. A tall man with thinning blonde hair sat at a computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard. Every few seconds, his phone would buzz and he’d pause to check it before resuming his work.
“You’re late,” he said, not bothering to look up.
“I’m looking for Chester,” Emmanuel said, frowning slightly.
The man at the computer glanced back over his shoulder at Emmanuel and offered a thin smile. “In the flesh,” he said.
Emmanuel stared at him, and thought back to the file. The magical enhancements were obvious now, practically coming off him in waves. He looked younger, more powerful. But the glamour was fading. The thinning hair, a few extra wrinkles around the eyes, and a slight paunch around the stomach revealed the truth. Chester Warrington was running out of time.
“Where’s the boy?” Emmanuel asked, wanting to get this over with as quickly as possible.
“Huh?” Chester replied. “Oh, yeah, the kid. Fuck if I know. He’s around here somewhere. It’s not like he has places to be.”
Keeping an eye on Chester, Emmanuel moved slowly down the hall. Abstract art hung on the walls, the bright colors standing out in the stark white of the apartment. A door on the right opened on an immaculate bathroom, everything was washed and polished. At the end of the hall was a closed door, light leaking out through the bottom of it. Steeling himself, Emmanuel opened the door softly.
Henry sat in the corner of the room on his bed, flipping through the pages of a book. The room itself was mostly empty. There were clothes in a pile on the floor, and a half-empty book case sat against the wall. With a shake of his head, Emmanuel began to whisper the proper incantation. The boy was so focused on the book that he didn’t appear to notice him at all.
There had been another boy once, the voice in his head said. What was his name? Carter?
The world began to go red around the edges when Emmanuel stopped the incantation. He closed his eyes, trying not to remember the small body of his son. How impossibly light the child had been, his clothes still smoldering from the fire that had taken their home.
For a brief second, the smell of smoke filled the air, and Emmanuel remembered calling for help. Begging for someone to help save his son from the burns that covered his little body. He saw the boy now, standing in the middle of Henry’s room and staring at him with accusing eyes
Walking carefully across the room, Emmanuel sank down onto the mattress next to Henry with a sigh. Henry, finally noticing him, placed the book in his hands and curled up next to him. Blinking back tears, Emmanuel smiled and read the words.
“This is very touching, but not the assignment,” Martin said from the doorway.
Emmanuel continued to stare at the book, which looked so small in his own large hands. “Fuck the assignment,” he whispered.
“What do you think is going to happen here?” Martin asked. “Payment needs to be made.”
“Then take the father,” Emmanuel replied.
“Ah, yes, so we take the father and leave the child alone. That will certainly help him grow up into a respectable member of society.”
“Better than taking an innocent child. At least that way he has some kind of choice.”
Martin shook his head as the room grew warmer. “Taking him now would knock hundreds of years off your sentence. Otherwise, in ten years when you have to come back for him, you’ll get nothing and he still belongs to us.”
“You’re right,” Emmanuel said, getting to his feet.
He pushed past Martin into the hallway and down towards the living room. Martin trailed behind him, saying nothing as Emmanuel grabbed Chester by the throat, pulling him away from the computer. The thin man’s hands scrabbled against his wrists as Emmanuel tightened his grip. Chester’s eyes widened and Emmanuel began muttering the incantation.
“This was not the deal that was made,” Martin said with a sigh, making no effort to stop him.
Emmanuel’s eyes flared red, and Chester began to crumble in his hand. His limbs contorted inwards, the snapping of bones filled the air as his fingers and hands pulled in on themselves. His torso began to smolder as his legs and arms jerked in towards his body. Fire coursed through his veins, illuminating his circulatory system under paper thin flesh. His eyes burst, jelly running down his face. He tried to scream, but smoke billowed from his mouth, before his body collapsed into a pile of ash at Emmanuel’s feet.
Emmanuel stood, trying to catch his breath as his eyes returned to normal. Martin glanced down at the pile of ash, touching it lightly with a well-clad toe.
“Very impressive,” he said, clapping lightly. “Now the child.”
“It’s not your decision to make,” Martin replied. “Regardless of what happened to the father, the child’s soul is ours. Your job is to collect the souls, per the deal that you made.”
“I won’t damn that boy to a life in Hell,” Emmanuel said.
“Listen,” Martin said, rubbing his temple, “you’re already going to be in the shit because of the stunt you just pulled. Another few hundred years tacked on, at least. If you deliver the kid, then there’s something we can work with here.”
Emmanuel shook his head again
“Fine,” Martin said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He stalked off to the bedroom, and Emmanuel almost started after him. It was too late. Red light and the smell of sulfur filled the apartment, and he knew the child was gone. Martin walked out of the room with a look of distaste.
“I think,” he said, “that you need a little bit of time to process things. Think about what exactly it is that is expected of you. Maybe have a drink.”
Emmanuel flinched. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“Old habits die hard,” Martin said with a smirk, as he stepped lightly through the front door. “I strongly recommend you think about the contract you signed. I’d hate to have to send someone after you next.”
Emmanuel followed a few minutes later, leaving the building behind. He walked out onto the rain-soaked street, and stared at the neon lights of the bar. Taking a deep breath, he went inside and ordered a shot.
©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.