Now at this point, I was tempted to question my sanity. Come on, Joe, are you really shouldering your way through the realm of angels, where even your Qabbalist mother feared to tread? Or are you having a heat-stroke, rolling around a Sutler Heights sidewalk, raving in a hallucination with a crowd of strangers gawking down at you?
I was still staring at the elevator door. I had backed into a room without giving it a look-over. Not my style. I could hear the late, great Eddie Fisher crooning Count Your Blessings behind me over a heavy brass section. For a crazy moment, I wondered if I’d turn and see him singing it live. Or whatever passes for live when you’re dead.
Fisher was my dad’s favorite singer. And, one of his biggest hits was Oh! My Pa-Pa. And he was himself the Pa-Pa of Carrie Fisher, famous for playing the princess in Chuck Oliver’s beloved Star Wars. Too many coincidences, just like a dream.
“Count your blessings, instead of sheep,” Fisher sang.
I got a quick read on myself. No way had I backed into a room without checking it out. No way I had just confessed things I’d never told a living soul. No way I’d just confessed them to a sexually ambiguous stranger who’d creamed His or Her green jeans at the thought of my misfortune.
No, not green jeans. A green suit. Why had I thought green jeans?
My dad used to watch Captain Kangaroo with me when I was a kid. My favorite character on that show was Mr. Green Jeans. I shook my head, closed my eyes.
I felt my mind coming back together. Keep it up, Joe.
No way a sweaty hot summer day had turned into a rainstorm in the blink of an eye. No way I’d stumbled into a Star Trek gym and pummeled a honey-haired kid to the mat. The music started to crackle all around me like a scratched record. Or a bad cell connection. In my head. I lifted my hands up to my face and my eyes jerked open at the touch.
I still had the MMA gloves on. There was a black spider in the palm of my left hand. But with furry antennae and a furry tail. Staring up at me with a creepy constellation of eyes. The hiss-and-crackle smothered the music in a long, breathy “Yessssss…”
My hand jerked, and I shook the thing off. I did a little dance to see if it had jumped on me somewhere.
There was blood on my elbow. Blood from the Kid’s mouth. I could still see it oozing down His slack cheek. Just below those empty eyes.
My hands were shaking. Fuck, my whole body was shaking. No. The comforting thing to think was I hadn’t just killed Someone by accident. That would be the dream.
Fisher’s voice rang out clear and strong again.
I slowly turned my head to check out the room I had backed into. It was shaped like a football, or an almond. The elevator doors were at one tip of the almond, another set of double doors at the other end. Along the sides were single doors, maybe a dozen, with brass numbers screwed into the wood. Potted plants glowed like gold between the doors. There was no stage, and no Eddie Fisher’s ghost. The music was from some unseen sound system. There were tables here and there, like a lounge, and a round bar in the middle with baskets of bread. There were little X’s baked on top of the buns.
The blueprint of this room must look like a big eye.
Seven angels in brightly colored three-piece suits were lined up along the bar like a row of crayons—or candles, I suddenly thought—leaning casually on their elbows against the brass trim and dark wood. Some of Them were strapped. I saw the tell-tale shadows, little creases of cloth near the armpits. With the crooner music playing, they came off like the Rat Pack. If the Rat Pack got run through a Skittles factory.
The angel in the middle–a Pretty Boy decked out in gold threads and a familiar-looking black fedora—lifted His martini to me.
“You look like you recognize Us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You look like a fucking menorah. If the Mafia made menorahs. Who’s Your costume designer?”
They looked at each other and laughed. I guess They liked my joke. Fuck it. I walked over to Them.
A sly-looking Thug wearing an orange vest over a silk, lemon-yellow shirt nodded at me and stepped around the bar, leaving His jacket draped over the stool. “Name your poison, officer.”
My stride broke on that, but I pressed through it and kept walking. How had He guessed I was a cop? Angel’s privilege, I guess.
“Ginger ale for me.”
Again, They passed a laugh around. I was the life of the party. I grabbed a chair from a nearby table, spun it around. For a moment I considered sitting in it backward in that stereotypical, Cop-Getting-Serious way. But, to Hell with the stereotypes. I eased in front of it and leaned back on it with my elbow, so I could keep myself at Their level.
“Rehmy, give the man his ginger ale.” The yellow-suited angel slid the glass across the bar to a redhead in a cherry suit and white shirt. There was a gold, heart-shaped pin on his lapel. He looked like a Valentine’s Day card.
“Thank you, Nate.” He scooped up the glass and held it out for me. I had two names.
A Tough in a burgundy suit turned to Pretty Boy. “He’s counting names, Boss. Maybe introductions are in order.”
As my gloved hand took the drink from Rehmy, He shot a glance at the Tough. “Be nice. He didn’t do his homework.”
My homework. They knew about Chuck’s notebook, too? I felt the damp wad of paper in my pants pocket. It probably had a tell-tale crease just like the pistol in the Tough’s armpit. I lifted the ginger ale and took a sip. There was hint of something more than ginger ale.
“My name is Uriel,” the Pretty Boy Boss said. “But you can call me Ury. And my two Deputies are Rehmy, Whom you’ve met, and Enoch.” That was the Tough.
“Behind the bar is Nathanael.” Yellow Shirt slid around the bar to retake His stool. “And the remaining three are Danny, Zeke, and Zeph.”
A lot of Hebrew names, huh. I lifted my glass to Zephaniah—I suppose—Who was decked out in a gray suit and buff shirt. His shoes could’ve used a shining. Can angels be lazy?
“You like your ginger ale?” He smirked. I glanced at my drink and doubted its purity again. Zeph lifted His eyebrow and met my toast. “All things in moderation, right, tough guy?”
So, the lazy angel was a temperance advocate. Alright, Joe, that makes sense. They were making it too easy, I realized. Why bother trying to get a read on creatures who were defined by archetype? I needed to focus on my job. The investigation the DA had set me on.
“He’s out of sorts,” Zeke grunted, slipping a brown hand up to the bronze horn pinned to the lapel of His ruddy brown jacket. He turned to Nate. “Maybe You should’ve mixed his drink a little stronger.”
Fuckers. I glared into my glass and rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, tasting for alcohol.
Danny leaned in, silver scales-of-justice pin glistening on his lapel. I guess He was the lawyer of the bunch. “Let the man talk, Fellas.”
I set the glass on the table behind me, keeping my eyes on Nate the Bartender. He grinned back at me, but it was a hollow grin. I had showed resolve, and He was trying to figure out how He felt about it.
“Nice place you’ve got here, Fellas,” I said. Maybe I should start with what I had learned from Oliver’s notebook. “I heard that the club was upstairs.”
“For some it is,” Rehmy said. There was a hint of a smirk at the corner of his G-ddamn mouth. He thought He’d read me. Fuck Him. I wanted to slam my elbow into that smirk. The same G-ddamn impulse that made me murder the honey lion.
“For you,” Enoch added, with obnoxious certainty, “a different temptation was called for.”
His gaze was intense, like an open fire. I gritted my teeth and struggled not to look down at the MMA gloves still wrapped around my fists. A gym was just a gym. A bout was just a bout. Don’t let the heat rattle you. Keep your read on Them, Joe. If these Bastards had guessed my crime, They would have pounced on it like jackals. No way They could know I had killed the Kid. I cleared my throat and resolved to keep my eyes dead even.
As dead even as that Kid’s just before He vanished in a fatal swirl of starlight.
I swallowed, hard. To hell with it. I peeled off the gloves. The velcro sounded like the world being ripped from its foundations. I crumpled them together and set them behind me next to the glass.
“The door at the other end,” I nodded toward the far point of the almond-shaped lounge. I was improvising, rambling to keep the conversation in my favor. “Another elevator, I’m guessing? Down to the Lowly of Lowlies?”
Again, They shared a look. No laughter, but a sevenfold smile at my expense.
Boss Ury sipped His martini empty and let His golden tongue reach down to taste the olive. He lifted the olive into His mouth, pressed it between His teeth, and set the glass behind Him on the bar.
“Not an elevator,” He chewed. “The Likeness lives there.” At the mention of the Name, the rest of the Mafia shifted in Their stools. The mirth was gone. They scrunched Their faces at the Boss, but He refused to meet Their eyes.
I’d touched a sore spot and resolved to exploit it. Maybe drive a wedge between Them. “The Likeness?”
Enoch drained His drink and set it solidly on the bar beside Uriel’s empty. “There’s a ladder down to Their place. One of Them’s always coming up.”
A ladder, not an elevator. I hurdled over that distraction and hooked into the shift in pronouns. Angels seemed to like fucking around with pronouns. “They come up the ladder?”
Rehmy drained His drink, and lightly set the empty glass with the two already on the bar. “One of Them’s always coming up, and the Other going down. Around and around, like a pair of wheels.”
“Between Them,” Ury said, glancing back-and-forth at His Deputies, “is the Voice.”
More distracting bullshit. I heard my mother lecturing me about the fiery wheels of the divine chariot of Qabbalah. Around and around. The Voice, my ass. They were echoing my mother’s voice to me, and avoiding my point about pronouns. Nice try, Fellas.
I set my ass on the back of the chair and let my bare hands rest on the angled lap I managed to create. “So, is it He or They?”
Boss Ury ran a finger along the brim of the fedora. “The Likeness is a couple, and We don’t really like to talk about Her.”
Ah, now They were a She. A briar-patch of bullshit. I wasn’t about to get caught in the brambles like the privateer had. Fuck it. I decide to dive straight into my investigation.
“I’m looking for information about a private dick, a guy named Charles Roland Oliver.”
The angel in the burgundy suit, Enoch, lowered His eyes on mine. It was like an oven had been opened on my face. A storm of fire and brimstone poured onto me. My eyes dried out, then started watering. The tears evaporated to columns of salt on my cheeks.
“Chuck was looking for Yeusha,” He said, with a voice like a blast furnace.
My eyes closed against my will. The heat was unbearable. Yeusha was a clumsy feminization of a Hebrew word I knew well. A Sephardi rabbi used it when he saw me wearing a yarmulke with my Korean ex-wife, who I guess he assumed was a shiksa. “There is no hope,” he quoted the prophet Jeremiah, “for I love a foreigner and after her I will go.”
Despair. I had seen that, capitalized, in Oliver’s notebook. The angel Who had brought him to his death. To Death, I heard my own voice correcting my capitalization. Death, my old buddy.
I forced my lids open against Enoch’s heat. “Yes, yes. Who is Despair?”
Enoch looked around the Boss at the other deputy, Rehmy. I felt the heat fade away. “You’re right. Joe hasn’t done any homework since Hebrew school.”
Rehmy shook His red curls at Enoch, then turned to me. “Despair is Our Sister,” He stuttered. “Sorta.”
The rest of the Menorah Mafia were suddenly interested in everything but the conversation. Drinks, cuffs, pants creases. The Three in the middle had closed ranks, but the Four on the edges were still torn. They hadn’t liked talking about the Likeness and They didn’t like talking about Despair, either. Again, I was getting a read on these Assholes. I needed a moment to take this in, so I pounded home Rehmy’s awkward revelation.
“Sorta kinda,” I said, with as much smug confidence as a mortal could muster among the Hosts of Heaven. I let my tongue rest on my bottom teeth to push out my lower lip in that bullshit, hard-ass expression Detective Sergeant Álvaro liked to use. If this is how he felt while doing it, I understood why he did it so often.
They passed looks back-and-forth, but without the arrogant laughter. Eight of Them, and One still missing. As I enjoyed Their divine discomfort, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, lecturing me about the ancient Temple. About the artifacts of the Holy of Holies. About her disdain for the Hanukkah menorah, which she insisted was an adulteration of the original seven-stemmed Temple menorah.
I felt a sudden certainty and found myself meeting Enoch’s gaze without the fierce heat. He gave me what felt oddly like a collegial grin.
“Eight’s not proper for a menorah,” I said.
Danny the Lawyer seemed buoyed by this. He sat up straight and touched the silver scales pinned to His lapel. He nodded at Nate the Bartender, who scooped up His orange jacket and stepped back around the bar.
“Good boy,” Danny said to me. “Despair’s not really One of Us. She’s a shadow.”
“No,” Enoch insisted. “A reflection.”
“A mirror,” Rehmy offered.
Nate had cleaned out the three glasses on the bar and was refilling them when I heard the elevator open behind me. I turned.
Misfortune in His or Her green suit was not there. Stepping through the double doors was a Girl. Unambiguous. Hips rocking as She navigated around the tables toward the bar. Dress tight around Her waist, pushing Her breasts into teacup perfection. Her lips were painted blood red and yellow curls bounced around Her shoulders as She grinned at me.
“Joe,” I heard Zeke’s gruff voice over my shoulder. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Girl. “This is My Daughter, Curiosity.”
His Daughter? Zeke was as black as whatever simile was no longer offensive, while Curiosity was as white as a saltine.
I said, “I don’t see the family resemblance.”
“You wouldn’t,” Nate said from behind the bar.
A tense chuckle got passed around as Curiosity stepped up to Zeke and gave Him a kiss on the cheek. She turned to me, slid backward into the stool Nate had vacated, lifted Her thighs and spun to aim Her chest at the bar without taking Her eyes off me.
She grinned, over-the-shoulder, with the tip of Her tongue in the corner of that blood-red mouth. “How’d you like the gym, Joe?”
I bet I looked dumbstruck, because I felt it. I tried to swallow and screwed it up. Had She been hiding in some corner of the gym? Did She see what I’d done?
She whipped Her face away and took the drink Nate was offering Her. “You brought your gloves down, I see.”
“Shadow boxing.” It wasn’t much of a lie, but it was all I had.
Laughs all around the Menorah Mafia. “I bet,” Danny said.
Curiosity made a half-turn and handed fresh drinks to the Three in the middle. Something about Her blonde hair. Her smirking, flirty confidence. Should could’ve been the twin Sister of the angel I’d murdered upstairs.
I felt a tightness in my gut. Something was happening, something very wrong, and I had no read on it.
“Watch out for this one, Fellas.” Curiosity giggled. “He’s got a hell of a left. When I first saw him—older guy, a little slow—I thought I’d eat him alive.”
Her tongue pushed at the right corner of Her mouth, smudging the blood-red lipstick toward Her cheek. I glanced at my elbow. The blood was gone. In its place was a red kiss-mark.
My legs shook. My ass came off the back of the chair and I fell backward. My elbow hit the table. The legs of the chair and table barked against the floor. My elbow slid into the ginger ale. It clinked and sloshed behind me. Ice clattered wetly on wood.
My left foot stomped into place. I found my balance and stood up.
Zeke chuckled at me. “From the eater, something to eat.”
Behind the bar, Nate held up a sifter of brandy. “Out of the strong, something sweet.”
Curiosity blew me a kiss with those blood-red lips and smiled a sip from Her drink.
They were fucking with me. This was the same angel I had killed. But still alive. And stripped of a Y chromosome. I had no read on Them at all. I hadn’t done my homework. And, They had known the whole time. They’d sensed my anguish and milked me for it. Just like that Fucker Misfortune in the elevator.
Just audible under the laughter, Eddie Fisher was singing “You Can’t Be True, Dear.” I felt my fists close, fingernails digging into my palms.
A door creaked to my right and the room went dead quiet. Even the sound system cut off. I turned. Before the door had swung too far, I noted what looked like a brass number 1 screwed onto it.
Núr Lucas stepped out of an impenetrable darkness, dressed in a black pants suit and a black hijáb. Her soft brown eyes settled on me. She turned to look at the door as she closed it. When she saw the number, her shoulders slumped.
She pointed toward the elevator. “Let us go.”
I felt my teeth close over my upper lip. My jaw was shaking. I jerked it toward Curiosity. “I thought I killed Him. Her.”
Núr shook her head. There was sympathy in her brow. She held out a hand and walked toward me. There was none of Curiosity’s cocky shimmy in her hips as she moved around the lounge tables. The cool brown skin of her hand beckoned me. “You only killed Her jasad. Her material form. It just sends them home and they come right back. Let us go.”
I absorbed this new information, but it wasn’t really new. It only confirmed what Curiosity’s survival told me. I had read Them all wrong. I felt the rage rising in me.
“Shoulda done your homework, Joe.” Enoch collected my gaze, and we shared a long look. I didn’t feel His heat on my face this time. I felt it in my chest. I felt it in my arms, in my fists. I felt it in my legs as my left foot took a step forward.
“Let’s go,” Núr repeated. I looked her way. Her face was all worry, now. My fists were pumping at my sides.
The Menorah Mafia were grinning at me, amused at my fury. Curiosity traced her jawline. “Not even a bruise, big boy.”
Núr eased up beside me. She let her hand touch my elbow. “Do not be an ass,” she said to Curiosity.
The fist contacted flesh before I realized it had left my side. I felt that delicate jaw come loose under my knuckles. Curiosity bounced into the bar and slid to the floor. One and done, just like upstairs.
The Menorah Mafia were wide-eyed. Everything slowed, like a dream. My dream to read, this time. They’d had their fat sevenfold laugh at my expense. Now, They were cattle for the thinning, wheat for the reaping.
Enoch reached into His burgundy jacket. Glowing heat like a magma chamber poured from the inside. I grabbed His wrist as it came out, put the knuckles of my other hand into His throat. As He fell backward, my hand around His wrist slipped up over the pistol and relieved Him of it. It was quite cool, but it felt thick and heavy in my palm.
After that, a mindless swirl of activity. I was a tornado, dealing violence in all directions. A black hole of spinning destruction, erasing all of the bullshit and nonsense around me.
I opened the Pretty Boy’s neck with my first squeeze. Red poured over His gold suit like a waterfall. My next two bullets collapsed Enoch and Rehmy in a cross at my feet. In the quiet of my mind, I noted the ironic similarity to the X’s baked into the little buns on the bar.
Danny the Lawyer caught an ankle in His stool and slammed face-first into the floor. I stepped over Ury where he was clutching His throat and emptied another round into His chest. Zeke took a slug right through that horn pin in His lapel. Zeph took a round to the face without budging. Danny held out a hand, but my bullet went right through the meat of His palm and into His heart.
Nate was rushing around the bar at me, holding a knife, but I stopped that short with the last slug in the clip.
The eightfold crack of gunfire registered in my ears only after the killing was done. I heard my mother’s voice in my head. Eight is not proper for a menorah. Boss Ury had taken Despair’s extra slug.
I tossed the gun onto Enoch’s back. There was a tremor in the room. The fallen angels erupted in a rainbow of shivering light. Curiosity’s honey-curled weave was painfully familiar. As the angels melted away like dying stars, the tattered black fedora fell from Ury’s head and spun to a stop like a coin.
I bent and picked up the hat. I recognized it from Oliver’s evidence box. Only it looked a lot less ratty. No idea how Ury had gotten it and buffed it up.
With a flip of my wrist, I tossed it onto my skull.
The sound system came on again. Eddie Fisher singing “Spanish Ladies.” My face fell dead. That was a sea shanty from the 1600s. Age of Sail, not Age of Jazz. Fisher had never recorded it, as far as I knew. And, my father had been obsessed with Fisher. He had recorded a jazz tune called “Lady of Spain.” But, never the sailor song.
The logic of dreams. Who could read ’em?
Núr was standing there, eyes and mouth open, the chest of her black pants suit heaving. It was my turn to take her elbow.
“You were saying something about leaving?”
Her dark eyes flashed to the fedora, then locked on mine. Her mouth closed hard. I heard her teeth clack against each other.
“So, the first land we made,” Fisher crooned over a goofy accordion, “it is called the Dead Man.”
Núr lifted her eyes, noting the lyrics. Reading my dream. There was sadness in her face. The corners of her full lips gave in to gravity.
“You did not really kill Them, Joe.” My name was an intentional afterthought. I caught her gathering herself mid-sentence. She was using my name as a handling tactic. She was reading me, I was reading her.
I decided to be nice. I took off Chuck’s hat. Be nice to the dead, too, Joe. I pressed lightly on Núr’s elbow, and we started walking side-by-side toward the elevator.
“I know that now, Ms. Lucas.” I used my best calming, peace officer tone. “I just wanted to show Them I don’t like being fucked with.”
As we reached the elevator, I felt her body stiffen. I let her elbow go and punched the call button with my newly freed hand.
She took a deep breath. “That is the end of your investigation. You cannot come back here.”
The double brass doors of the elevator vanished in an electronic crackle. The green-walled chamber inside was empty. I stepped in and Núr followed. The magic screen flickered into existence and I touched the glowing slab for the ground floor.
“That’s what you think,” I said. “And, hopefully what They think. I’m going to finish reading Oliver’s notebook. And finish the job.”
She sighed as the elevator doors sizzled back into being. I could see her breasts strain the black suit jacket in the corner of my vision. Yeah, Chuck Oliver had been infatuated with this chick. Maybe that was confusion that lead him to Death. No woman was going to break my mind.
“Did you see the number on the door?” she asked.
“Número Uno.” I held out the “ú” as if I were going to say her first name. Turn that handling tactic back on her.
She rolled her eyes. “You do not know Hebrew?”
My backed straightened. It wasn’t a 1. It was a Váv, a ו, the Hebrew letter for V and the number 6. In my defense, in the font on the door, it looked a lot like the number 1.
“Váv brings all things together, in Hebrew and Arabic.” She closed her eyes. Her brows showed me she was giving up on something. She opened her eyes. “You were treated badly on the force…”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. “No.”
“…so the DA gave you this case instead.”
“No,” I said. I looked down at my plainclothes costume. Fuck it. “Yes. Okay, yes.” To both.
“Joe.” She touched my elbow, right where Curiosity’s kiss had been. I could feel the warmth of her hand. I could feel her leaning body radiating heat against my chest.
I suddenly felt like I was back in the kitchen, with the weeping kids and the social worker. With Álvaro imposing his selfish bravado on a personal moment. Demanding to know why I was calling shots for the angel of Death.
Only I was the Álvaro now, selfishly imposing my agenda on people I barely knew.
I didn’t really know Chuck Oliver. His hat felt heavy in my hand. I hadn’t even bothered to read all of his notebook. The notebook he’d lost his life writing. I didn’t know this woman standing in front me. This woman who’d found G-d after her privateer lost his life on her account. A woman who had inadvertently guided a man to his death.
To Death, I correct myself.
Who the fuck was I? The angel of Death? Just following the DA’s orders? The same DA who’d brought Catholic Oliver and Muslim Lucas together in the first place, when she was just a receptionist.
I had no read on this bad dream I found myself wrapped up in.
“Joe,” Núr spoke softly. “This is not a case to me. This is my life. And I do not want you here.”