“We had a plan.”
“Plans change. Don’t you get that?”
“No plan changes that much, you fucking moron.”
“Panicking won’t solve anything, now will it?”
“Have you got a plan?”
“We need to blend in. We’re on Earth right now, and we’re not going anywhere. Didn’t you say you knew a guy here?”
“Uh… in San Francisco, yeah. A forger. What’s it matter?”
“Forger, that’s right. That’s just what we need. We could get a royal pardon.”
“Huh… that’s not a terrible idea. It’s not going to be easy, though. There’ll be a hell of a price, and we don’t have much time.”
“How quick could it be? We get human skins, blend in, and get in and out.”
“A week, two tops. Skins will help, but not enough. The pardon’s our only shot.”
“C’mon, you worry too much.”
“You’re new at this. Let me tell you something. No matter how good you are, no matter how careful you are, they’ll catch up to you. You can’t run from angels.”
Thirty-five minutes late. Time was of the essence and it was already slipping away faster than they thought. Josh turned his gaze up to the cloudy sky and sighed. Rain came down fast, hard and cold. Josh felt more goosebumps on his arms prickle up, a nervous action he hadn’t bothered to curb. Precision was never Josh’s strong suit. While David had taken nearly a full day to stalk his target, Josh had pounced on the first human he’d seen. The human’s pupils didn’t even have time to widen before Josh shattered his neck. Some of the reflexes were still beyond Josh’s control, random spasms of the fingers or legs as though the human consciousness was still alive in some way, fighting for control. But it wasn’t. The rest of that human consciousness was smeared liberally across the wall of a backwoods alley somewhere. The thing that wore the dead human’s skin and name sighed again and tapped an aimless beat on the rain soaked concrete.
A door on the far side of the alley swung open with a slow creak. Josh looked up expectantly, taking a half step towards the door. David strode through the doorway, with the same scowl that seemed to be permanently etched on his face. When he saw Josh, his gray eyes narrowed.
“Your suit is covered in oil. You’ve had it for what, a day? You’ve already ruined it.”
“It’s not just oil,” Josh said, smiling coyly, “I’ve done a few things in this suit today. Would you like to hear a list?”
David sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t care. I really don’t care. I don’t have time for your shit.”
“Oh really? You said you’d be out at eleven thirty. It’s five past twelve. You keep whining at me to be on time, why don’t you take your own advice?”
“I wasn’t wasting time. I was discussing. It took a while, but I think we got the best price we’re going to get.”
“Alright then. What’s the damage?” Josh slouched back against the wall, grinning inanely.
David stared at him, eyes still narrowed. “A hundred thousand.”
“In total, or each?”
“You’re shitting me, right?” Josh’s smile dropped into a deep frown.
“You’re a terrible negotiator, David.”
“You wouldn’t do any better,” David said icily, starting to pace, “he’s a hardass, but he’ll get the job done. We just have to get him the cash and we’ll be set. We can go home.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in this guy. Not really like you. Isn’t he a human, anyway? What does he know about royal pardons?”
“I wouldn’t dismiss him offhand, Josh. He’s an ex-con, he ran with some of the best. He knows what he’s doing. You can’t afford to be picky. We can’t afford to be picky.”
“We can’t afford his price either.”
“Price gets results. We’re trying for a royal pardon here. We don’t have room to skimp out. It’s all or nothing right now.”
“Alright, alright. Whatever. While you were out negotiating, I got us a job.” Josh gloated, the triumphant smirk back on his face. David raised an eyebrow.
“Oh yeah? Payout?”
“Seventy-five grand.” Josh said smugly, spreading his hands. David’s eye twitched.
“That’s it? That’s the best you could get?”
“Oh, fuck off. It’s a start. You got any better ideas?”
“I guess not. What is it?”
“Just a hit. No problem. We can do it today. Hell, we could probably do it in our sleep. Then we’ve got the rest of the week to scrounge up what’s left. It’ll all work out.”
“We can hope. Who are we going after? May as well get started.”
“Well…” Josh started, his face falling for an instant.
“Fucking perfect. We haven’t started and there’s already some complication you’ve cooked up?”
“We just need to finalise the details first. Guy is based in this city, not far,” Josh said coolly. David strode across the narrow alley and grabbed Josh’s tie.
“Finalise? I thought you said you got a job! We don’t have time to fucking finalise anything!”
“Cool your jets,” Josh said, slapping David’s hand away, “we’ve got this in the bag. Every other candidate was a goddamn moron, I swear. We just need to meet with the boss in person and make sure everything’s all set. Okay?”
“Alright. Fine. We’ll go get this job. But if something goes wrong…”
“Yeah, it’s my fault. It’s always my fault. Because you’re so much better, you always know what to do…, I’m a massive idiot, waste of space… did I miss anything?”
“Don’t give me that. We both know who got us into this in the first place.”
“If we’re going to stew on how we got into this mess, why don’t we do it after we get out of it? Now hurry up. We’re late.”
The pair walked from the alley in silence. Despite near identical outfits of pressed black suits and matching ties, they could not be more different. Josh was short and thin, liberally splattered and stained with oil and blood. His hair was a wild tangle all over his face and head. David was taller but somehow skinnier. He was gaunt and pale enough to pass for a vampire. David walked to a pay phone and fumbled with the slot. Josh attempted to straighten his sodden hair, but gave up after a few seconds. David had managed to work the phone and was speaking into the earpiece.
“Yeah, hi. I need a taxi for two. We’re on 22nd Street. Yes. I know it’s raining. Thank you.” He hung up with a groan. “It’ll be five minutes. Funnily enough, there aren’t many people outside today.”
“The rain isn’t too bad, David. Lighten up.” Josh was leaning against a wall of an apartment block, playing with his tie. “You take everything too seriously.”
“Someone has to. If everything was up to you, we’d be rotting in prison. Or dead. Take your pick.”
“Yeah, probably. But come on, we’re killing time. It’s five minutes, for crying out loud. Surely you’re not so uptight that you can’t talk to me?”
“I talk to you more than enough.”
The taxi arrived fifteen minutes later, by then the pair were long soaked to the skin. David had stonily gotten into the passenger’s seat, Josh slid into the back. David sat, fuming, while Josh and the driver chatted. Mostly about the weather. It wasn’t long before they pulled up outside the Lucky Star casino. David flung a handful of notes at the driver and stormed out. He started to go inside before Josh caught the crook of his elbow.
“We’re not meeting them here.”
“Then why did you tell the driver to come here?” David’s voice was flat and quiet, biting back anger.
“Chill out. The place we’re meeting them isn’t far. They’re not a group that really want to show their face in public, you know.”
“Fine. Where are we going, then?”
“It’s just there, across the street.” Josh pointed to a long abandoned construction site, “…and a bit of a walk. Really, it’s not far. Just follow me.”
They stepped gingerly through the muddy water along the street. The rain still fell heavily, rippling the water that pooled around their ankles. The gate of the site was old and rusted, swinging and squeaking gently in the wind. Josh lead the way through the empty site, weaving through steel beams and abandoned machinery.
“Is this where you were earlier?” David asked, disgust painted on his face. “It explains a lot.”
“Yep. It was the best I could scrounge up on short notice. You insisted on the negotiation, yeah? And cash is cash.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.”
Josh clambered over a chain-link fence, offering David a hand up with a broad grin. David slapped it away and scowled again. Josh chuckled and continued, dipping through a series of alleys. He stopped at a door, whitewash standing out against the mouldy brick wall it was nestled in.
“Here. Let me do the talking. Just keep your mouth shut. Think you can manage that?”
“I’m sure I can.” David said stonily. Josh flashed him a grin and knocked on the door. Three times in rapid succession. He paused for a beat, and then tapped in a circle, sixteen knocks with varying pitch. A light scuffle of footsteps followed.
“What do you want?” A deep voice intoned through the door.
“It’s Joshua and David.” Josh said lightly. “We’re here to talk to the boss.” There was a moment’s pause.
“You’re late. The boss doesn’t like lateness in his workers.”
“I know, I’m terribly sorry. My better half,” Josh choked back a snicker, “was doing some talking and got all caught up. We’re still interested in doing the job.” The door opened slowly. The man glowered at them with one blue eye, and one that was milk white. “It’s not up to me to decide.” He snarled, revealing a mouth full of shattered teeth. “Don’t try shit, you hear?” Without waiting for a reply, he strode down the corridor. Josh gave David a thumbs up, David narrowed his eyes and smacked his hand away. “Don’t ruin this.” David whispered in Josh’s ear, bending down in the narrow passageway.
“I’d say the same to you.” Josh replied with a smirk.
They passed through into a wide, poorly lit room. The main light sputtered and flared, hanging from the whitewashed ceiling. It hung above a grimy desk and the three chairs scattered around it. In the flashing lights, the shadows of fifteen men loomed. They stood in the corners, leaned on the walls, their gazes locked to Josh and David. They made no attempt to conceal the guns and knives that rested in their grips. The boss sat on one of the chairs, dwarfing it. He was one of those men that was about the size of two people stuck together, covered liberally in tattoos of flaming skulls and roaring dragons. “You’re late.” He spat.
“Terribly sorry, sir.” Josh said, spreading his hands and giving a saccharine grin. “I can assure you, we won’t be late on anything else. Give us a deadline, and we’ll kill your target right down to the second.”
“Have a seat,” the boss said, gesturing with a hand that looked as though it could crush a man’s skull. Josh and David walked through the room. Josh looked forward, fake grin still plastered on his face. David glanced around, pale gray eyes darting from corner to corner. The thugs stared back at him coldly. Josh took a chair and slouched in it, David settled in rigidly and continued to peer around the room.
“I’ve heard a fair bit about you boys.” The boss said, leaning forward. David gave Josh a sideways glance and raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, I’m sure you have!” Josh said grandly, ignoring David’s questioning glare. “We’re well known all around. But we’ve only recently arrived in America. We were based in Sydney before, actually.”
“Why did you move?”
“Oh, you know. Cops started getting a bit hot on our tails, we thought it’d be safer just to jump a continent and wait for a few years. But I can assure you, hire us and we won’t get caught. We’re the best.”
“Mmhmm.” The boss surveyed them both, wild brown eyes near hidden under his bushy eyebrows. “Normally I don’t hire outsiders like you. But we’re a bit tied up at the moment. Isn’t that right, boys?” There was a chorus of muttered agreements.
“Well, that’s a shame. Just give us the word and we’ll get started, no muss, no fuss.”
“Your friend doesn’t talk much.” Josh looked at David’s scowling face and chuckled.
“Yeah, that’s true. But, I don’t pay him to talk, do I? And he knows how to do his job. He looks scrawnier than a noodle, but there’s no one better to have in a scrap.”
“Sure.” The mob boss reached into his vest and pulled out a thin envelope. Josh gingerly took it and plied open the seal. Inside were a few grainy pictures, a crudely drawn map and a handwritten note. “There’s your target. He’s the son of the boss of our rival gang. They’re encroaching on our turf, there’s a war brewing. I don’t want to get it started. Don’t make it obvious that he was murdered. I don’t want to get cops dragged up in this mess.” David expertly turned a chuckle into a cough, Josh flicked through the notes with feigned interest.
“Excellent. We’ll get it done as soon as possible. Now, just one more thing…”
“Yeah. The money. Cutter, get out here!” One of the goons lurking in the shadows stepped into the light, holding a briefcase in his left hand and a bloodstained machete in his right. The boss took the briefcase and flipped it open. There was a stack of notes inside, neatly tied in piles.
“That’s twenty-five grand, right there. A third upfront, and the rest when you get it done.”
“Great. Just one quick question. When can we expect the rest?”
“Does it matter? We’ll get it to you when it gets done.”
Josh sucked air in through his teeth and grimaced. “I’ll be perfectly straight with you. We’ve got a massive job in just a week. We’ll take the job, if and only if you can make sure you get the cash to us as soon as possible. I know the guy you want dead, I guarantee you, we can have it done by tonight. Otherwise, we can’t really fit it in with our schedule. Take it or leave it.” David’s face dropped. The mob boss and Josh stared at each other for a few moments in dead silence.
“Alright. Fine. If you’re backstabbing me though, I’ll find out. And you’ll get to find out what we do to liars. Do you hear?”
“Loud and clear.” Josh smiled and took the briefcase. David rose to his feet and gave another long look at the surroundings. The gangsters still watched in silence.
“Have a good day, sir.” Josh said with a mock bow. “Keep an eye out on the papers tomorrow.” The pair turned and walked back towards the narrow corridor.
“That went well.” Josh said. Then the ceiling exploded.
“Stay calm, humans.” A deep, booming voice intoned as its owner drifted from the giant hole in the roof, “I will not harm you.” The gangsters responded with a hail of bullets, the room coming alive with the sound of gunfire. But the winged figure that lowered itself slowly to the floor took no notice. It was covered head to toe in golden plate, its brilliant shine dulled by the raindrops that ran down its surface. Bullets bounced uselessly off the armour, ricocheting randomly through the concrete room.
“Get down, get down!” A few of the gangsters moved too slowly, and caught their own bullets. They collapsed to the ground, groaning and dying in growing pools of their own blood. The rest had hurled themselves down and stared at the newcomer in the middle of the room. It was certainly an impressive sight. Almost nine foot tall, with delicately feathered wings near as long as it was high. Its armour was undented, even with the onslaught of bullets it had just endured. The horned helmet turned slowly, until its eyeless gaze locked on Josh and David.
“What do we do, what do we do? One’s here!” Josh had stepped behind David, clutching onto his arm.
“I… don’t… I don’t know…” David spluttered. The golden figure raised a gauntleted hand and pointed.
“Be still. You two are wanted for investigation and interrogation. You stand accused of many charges, including theft, embezzlement, and arson. Do not resist. I have no desire to use force. Surrender.”
“David? What do we do? Didn’t we have a week?” David swallowed and took a step back.
“This is it, Josh.” He said. The angel stepped forward, hand still extended. “We’re completely, and royally, fucked.” Josh gave another glance at the slowly approaching figure and shook his head.
“Fuck that. Fuck all of it. I’m not going down here.”
“What’s the point?” David said, voice flat. “We can’t win this fight.”
“Listen to yourself, asshole!” Josh hissed into David’s ear. “What did we agree on before, huh? Never give up, no matter the fucking odds. What happens if we surrender? We get thrown in prison for god knows how long.” The angel was only a few meters away now, splaying its fingers wide. “We might die here, but goddamn, we’re not jailbirds. Now come fight with me, asshole, or stand there like an idiot.”
Josh rolled up his left sleeve and plunged his fingernails into his upper arm. Blood oozed up and coated his fingers, but he dug deeper and deeper. With a sharp tug, the skin on his arm came off with a sickening rip. Underneath, there wasn’t flesh and bone, or at least, none human. Muscles swelled and grew, dwarfing the human shoulder it was attached to. Pale blue scales bloomed on the raw flesh, coating it in a brilliant sheen.
“Fuck you!” Josh yelled and threw a punch at the angel. His clawed fist slammed into its helmeted head. It dropped its arms and paused.
“You have assaulted an official. Assault has been added to your list of formal charges. I will use force to subdue you.” Without warning, its head shot forward and slammed into Josh’s. He flew back across the room and shattered the concrete wall behind him.
“Ah… fuck.” He clawed out of the wreckage, just in time to see the golden figure streaking towards him. Its hand closed around his head, then it hurled him all the way across the room. He landed in the wall face first this time, shards burying in his head and neck, drawing streaks of blood. Josh pushed out of the wall and turned, this time narrowly dodging the angel’s charge. His arm, his actual arm, dragged along the ground, seven fingers all tipped with wicked sharp claws. He raised it and snarled at the angel. It had slowed its breakneck pace, striding forward purposefully. From the corner of his eye, Josh saw what was left of the gang running out of the corridor. Normally, he’d go for witnesses. There was no time to do anything now. David still stood at the end of the room, staring vacantly at the fight.
“Desist your resistance. It will only bring you pain.” Josh responded by grabbing his face with his still human right hand. He found one of the gashes caused by the concrete and tore at that. His vision was awash with blood for a moment, before his other eyes opened along his scaled face. Horns tore themselves from the raw flesh, curving long and backwards. A mouth of jagged teeth ripped out of his gums, old teeth falling to the ground with a rattle. The angel leapt forward while Josh was still shifting, gripping his wrist and twisting it behind his back. It shoved him bodily to the ground and slammed its boot onto his chest. Before Josh could free his arms, it leaned forward and cocked back a fist. The first punch landed with a heavy crunch, as did the next, and the next, and the next.
“Do you surrender?” The angel boomed between punches. “Do you surrender? Do you surrender?” Josh groaned and spat out a tooth.
“F…. fuck off… asshole…” He was rewarded with another punch, and another. His vision drowned in his own silver blood. Josh braced for the next punch, but it never came. The weight pinning him down came off without warning, followed by the sound of breaking concrete.
“Your resistance is futile, demon.” Came the next booming call. Josh looked up, wiping the blood away from his face. and a grin spread across his lips. David had curled himself around the angel’s chest, hissing and clawing. His body was long and thin, opalescent scales dulled by the falling rain. All eight of David’s limbs lashed against the angel, claws scrabbling uselessly on the golden plate. The angel twisted one of its arms free and clasped David’s head.
“Enough. You have demonstrated no will to come peacefully. I will administer your sentence here.” It hurled David across the room effortlessly, and raised its right hand into the air. Golden light swirled around its open palm, coalescing into a great, gleaming sword. Josh swore, spat out another tooth and grabbed at his collarbone. He dug a claw into his neck, snarling out a short incantation. After a moment, all of his false skin sloughed off in a single piece. As the angel hefted its sword, Josh felt his body return to its former glory. Wings tore themselves from his back, membrane stretching and forming between the folds. Muscle and flesh grew and swelled, bones stretched and widened, and a fresh sheen of scale covered his body. He looked up and snarled. The angel had David by the throat, hoisting him up into the air and raising its sword. David growled and hissed, coiling around the angel’s arm, but it was of no use.
“Your crimes are punishable by death.” It said, still in that emotionless tone. “Prepare for your sentence.” Josh hurled himself across the floor, claws ripping rents in the concrete.
“Let go of him!” Josh bellowed, latching onto the angel’s back and grabbing its sword arm. The angel gave a flap of its wings and soared into the air, higher and higher.
“Release me, demon.” The angel had cleared the hole in the ceiling, and rose up into the grey sky. It twisted its body, angling its back down to the ground. Angling Josh towards the ground. “This is your last warning.”
“Give it your best shot, fucker!” Josh snarled and clamped one of his hands around the angel’s face. David still twisted, but its iron grip held him tight.
“As you wish.” The feathered wings stilled, and they plummeted to the ground like a stone. Josh turned his head and swore. The concrete was rushing up like a blur. He let go and pushed away from the angel, twisting his own wings, trying to fly…
They smashed into the ground with a shower of concrete. Josh pulled himself from the wreckage first, followed by David. David clawed away from the crater that the angel had made, but the angel was already getting up.
“We’re dead, dickhead.” David wheezed. “We can’t beat this guy. I’m an idiot for listening to you. I can’t trust you… to do anything.” The angel stood and hefted its sword again. Its golden armour was unscratched.
“Maybe.” Josh hissed through razor sharp fangs. “Maybe not. I’ve got an idea.” The angel stepped towards the fallen demons, taking its gleaming sword in two hands and hoisting it up. David looked up at the angel and sighed.
“Ugh… I don’t have a choice. Go for it.”
“Distract it.” Josh said, watching the angel come closer and closer. “Right now. Please.”
“Your resistance is pointless.” It said flatly. “You cannot hope to slay me.” David gritted his teeth and hurled himself at the angel. It barely broke stride, whirling around and throwing him into one of the many craters in the wall. Josh skittered around to the side, tailing the angel’s slow, determined pace. David started to get up from the crater, but slumped.
“I’m done.” He groaned. “I’m done, we’re both done. Just get it over with, you asshole.” The angel raised its sword once more, cocking its arm back for the last stab. Josh gritted his teeth and leapt forward. The angel turned its head, and raised an arm to catch Josh. Too slowly. Josh latched onto its sword arm and with all his strength, twisted it back towards the angel. Its free hand clamped on Josh’s head, but it didn’t throw. It squeezed. Josh could feel his horns cracking, pressure building up and fissuring through his skull Josh grinned through the intense pain and gave a final push. There was a crunch of breaking metal, the pressure on his head fading instantly.
“What?” The angel said, its monotone broken for once. Josh stepped away and looked. It hadn’t watched its own sword. The wicked point had pierced through its armour effortlessly. The angel’s blood, black as an oil slick, leaked through its golden plate and stained the giant blade. Its giant form swayed and staggered back.
“You.” It said, eyeless gaze locked on Josh. “You have… inflicted fatal injuries on an official. Murder and… obstruction of justice has been added to the list of your charges.” It stared for a second more, then collapsed heavily on the ground with a clatter of metal.
“It’s dead.” David said flatly.
“Yeah,” Josh replied, staring at the body, “it is.” Josh walked slowly to the corpse and kicked it. David peeled himself from the crater, gasping for breath.
“Shit… Josh, you look awful.”
“Really? He did give me a bit of a beating, hey.” Josh put a hand up to his head and came away with a broken horn. “Fucking hell, I liked that one. Ugh, how am I going to get a girlfriend now?”
“Stop being an idiot,” David said, giving the angels corpse another look, “we’ve got bigger things to worry about. Any of the humans around?”
“There are some dead ones. The other ones got out, I’m pretty sure. Oh wait, that guy’s not dead.”
“You take him. You look terrible. I think you need it more right now.”
“I’m not sure if I should be insulted or not.” Josh loped across the room. One of the gangsters was laying in a slowly growing pool of blood, clutching his leg and breathing heavily. When he saw Josh, his eyes widened.
“What are you? You monster! Get the fuck away from me!”
“Shut up.” Josh said, putting a massive hand on the gangster’s head. “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt. At least for a few seconds. Then there’s excruciating pain. It’s a little like having all your bones get pushed out of your skin. Oh wait, it’s exactly that.” After a minute or two of screaming, the demon walked back towards David. The nervous tics had started back up again, his right arm was twisting and flailing around uncontrollably.
“You could at least try to put some effort into it.” David said. “I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re all sorts of fucked now, Josh.”
“Don’t call me that.” The demon said. “I’ve got a new name now, remember? Let me look.”
“I don’t care. I really don’t care. Just come with me. I’ve got to find myself a skin.”
Two men sat on the balcony of a hotel room. The sun was dipping below the horizon, the reds and orange streaks masked by the ever present grey cloud. Rain still fell, but it was lazy and light now. On the ground below, the streets were alive with sirens. Police cars and ambulances piled up outside on the street, the officers and medics looked like ants scurrying from the distance. One of the men sighed, slouching back into his chair.
“We should have just given up. You idiot. You fucking idiot. You murdered an angel. They’re hideously protective of their own.”
“I’d rather be here than in prison. Or dead.”
“We’re already dead, Josh.”
“Hey, I’m not Josh anymore, remember?. I’m… hang on a sec.” The figure flipped through its wallet. “I’m Peter now. Ugh. Terrible name. And who are you again?”
“Don’t complain. I’m Eustace Pennysworth.”
“Aw, that’s brilliant. So, what now? You always know what to do.”
“Jesus Christ man, I don’t know. I really don’t know. The forger won’t work with us now, he doesn’t deal with murder. Even if he did, the price would have quadrupled at least. They’re tracking us way faster than we thought. They found us, Peter. And they won’t come alone next time. We can’t fight, we can’t run. There’s nothing.”
“We’re still alive. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“We’re not alive. We’re just sitting on borrowed time. They’re going to find us, and kill us. If we’re lucky.”
“It could be worse.”
“How? How could it be worse? I literally cannot imagine a scenario worse than this.”
“You could be alone, you know.” The men sat in silence, watching the rain fall.
“What’s it matter? You’re a shitty friend.”
“Yeah, I’m a shitty friend. But you know what? I’m your shitty friend.” There was another short pause.
“Yeah. I guess you are.”