“Gabe!” I’m so happy to see a familiar face, I almost leap over the counter to greet my old pal. Sometimes he’s still confused—thinks we work on opposite sides of the cosmic forces—but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I keep trying to convince him that I can’t help what I do. Whether folks go to Heaven or Hell, I’m just doing my job.
“When did you arrive?” he asks, taking his wings off and folding them in half so they’ll fit into my dry-cleaning machines.
“A few weeks ago. Got called in by the Big Guy. You know, Celestial Throne, lightening flashes from on high, that one.” I say this to remind Gabe that we’re kindred spirits. Yeah, I might have to moonlight occasionally. Hang out with shady characters. But that’s the nature of my job.
“Still not sure what’s coming down, Gabe.”
I make a point of boring my eyes into Gabriel’s, hoping he’ll do his job and reveal something, but he looks away and picks fuzz off his white robe. He always does that—pretends not to hear, then acts shocked when things get nasty and I have to get to work separating souls from bodies. Sending them along the path to whatever eternity, good or bad, the scales of sin and redemption have weighed for them.
I try another tactic. “Sure could use a vacation.” That comes out as a whine with a dramatic sigh tossed in at the end. “All this Angel of Death stuff. Wears me down sometimes.”
Gabe’s eyes bulge. “Azzy, you can’t leave Zagreb now!”
The moment I see his reaction, I know something’s up, but I have to stop speaking to Gabe; a mortal has entered the room. “Welcome to H.T.H. Dry Cleaning,” I say to Mrs. Mavichek. “How may I hell you?”
She’s bringing in her husband’s shirts, and I figure he has to be the fattest man on the planet. Each shirt could hold four mortals, or one angel, easily. Though she can’t possibly see him, Gabriel moves to the side and waits politely for her to waddle out the door before he attempts to pick up our conversation where we had left it off. But before he gets a word out, the bell over the door jingles again.
Sebastian this time, coming in with a nasty looking shirt. As usual, my mouth goes into action before my brain. “Ah, Jesus Christ, what a day.” Gabe and Sebastian throw their hands over their ears, squish their eyes shut.
“Forgive him,” Gabe whispers, opening his eyes toward heaven.
“Sorry. A habit of mine,” I say. “Look, from now on, when I want to swear, I’ll yell Beelzebub, instead. How’s that?” Sebastian’s muscles visibly relax, but Gabriel’s whole body is still tight as a corkscrew, hands still pressed against his ears. His standards are higher.
“The Bub won’t mind,” I say. “In fact, I think he’ll get a kick out of it. And this may get me out of my ‘Jesus Christ’ habit.” From the corner of my eye, I see Sebastian’s hands fly up again, so I decide to change the subject, and reach for his shirt. “Holy Beelzebub, what happened to this?” I hold it up to the window and see light peeking through several bloodstained holes. “You okay, man?”
Sebastian rolls his eyes, and once again, I feel like an idiot. How could a guy martyred by arrows feel okay? I begin to wonder though…what’s up with this? Gabriel and Sebastian here at the same time. Is there some sort of Conference From on High taking place in Zagreb? A gathering of saints and martyrs, complete with guest speakers, a salad bar, and workshops on how to save souls before I get into town?
Gabe glances out the window. “Uh oh.” He grabs Sebastian by the arm and pulls him to the side. The door swings open.
The man’s face beams with a toothy smile. “Azrael! Glad you’re open today.”
My favorite customer. The cleaning contract for the monastery around the corner keeps me in business. Father Gregor slams the door shut with his rear end. Balanced in his arms is a mountain of brown robes. Without thinking, Sebastian and Gabriel—ever invisible to mortals—move forward to assist him, but my nervous cough stops them. I feel bad; the poor guy looks so weighed down. But what could I do?
I reach over the counter, pull several robes off the top of the pile. Then I wonder. Why can all these mortals see me, but not my colleagues? Do I have some sort of special connection with humans? A link stronger than that of the other angels and saints? If so, what does that say about the human condition? I ponder these thoughts—which I consider rather deep—while grunting “uh huh” to Father Gregor’s usual monastery gossip. These guys who’ve taken a vow of silence tend to go a bit crazy when let loose in the real world. But I have to get rid of him fast. I see Michael stomping up the sidewalk, wings tucked under one arm, folded neatly like Gabriel’s. All right, something’s up for sure.
I escort Father Gregor out the door. “You need to slow down,” he tells me. “All this rush, rush. Bad for the heart.”
“Not too good for the soul, either, huh?” I laugh at the irony—Angel of Death, and all and that stuff. But he doesn’t get it. Thinks of me as just another mortal, albeit, one with parents who let their warped sense of humor get in the way when selecting a name for their newborn. He shakes his head and wanders off.
Michael doesn’t bother opening the door—just barges his spirit through the glass, nods to Gabriel and Sebastian, and dumps his wings on the counter. “When can these be ready?”
“Fine, thank you. And you?” I toss his dusty wings into the white canvas bin behind me. “Let me ask my assistant. Hey, Luce,” I yell, twisting my head around a hundred and eighty degrees to freak Michael out. “Lucifer! My friend here wants to know when his wings can be ready. Apparently he’s itchin’ for some action.”
Michael may be my biggest competition. His Army of God, Patron Saint of Knights, stuff really ticks me off, but I’m not about to let him know. I feel a weight on me now. As though all the forces of good and evil are here to partake in a battle that I haven’t been invited to. But I’ve seen the signs. Restaurant windows, X’ed out with masking tape to keep glass from shattering. Sandbag barricades on street corners. Occasional gunshots in the distance. My thoughts are interrupted by a loud thud. Mister Let’s-do-battle-against-Satan has tossed his breastplate on the counter. That’s it; he’s making a direct challenge to me, even though I keep telling everyone I’m caught in the middle. Like them, I take my orders from the Big Guy.
“We don’t do leather,” I hiss at Michael. “You’ll have to take this raunchy thing to a tanner or something.
“Holy doo-doo,” I yell, trying to contain my usual propensity toward verbal faux pas.
Outside the window Zagreb’s going up in smoke. The final hour is surely arriving for some of the souls out there and I have work to do! “Luce,” I shout, “you’ll have to close up shop today. I’m outta here!”
Gabe, Sebastian, and Michael try to squish through the door together, but it isn’t working. “This is stupid,” Michael says. He shoves the others aside, straps his leather breastplate on, and shows off by stomping through the wall without altering one brick.
I grab my ledger—the one with gold letters saying, Names of the Living—tuck a few erasers into the pocket of my white robe, and head out the door to show Michael that I’m the one no mortal escapes. In the end, it’s me these people have an appointment with.