Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 01
Dark Day, Bright Hour
by Julie Frost
Hitmen rarely die of old age, and I was no exception. The universe, however, has senses of both humor and irony, and the job didn’t kill me. I cashed in my chips committing a selfless act of attempted heroism.
The little silver sedan careened out of control down the street, almost running me over in a crosswalk. Horns honked, people screamed, and it headed heedlessly right for the bridge railing. The driver lolled unconscious in her seatbelt, and I had time to think “oh, shit” before the car smashed through the barrier and down into the river raging below.
Peeling out of my jacket and stripping off my tie, I chased it down and dove in. I missed the rocks, which I’d forgotten about, but the river didn’t care that I was trying to save a life and bounced me off a few anyway. I clenched my teeth and held my breath and kicked toward the car. It lay on its side, driver’s door facing up. The airbag had inflated, but the woman was still out cold–or dead. I couldn’t tell the difference at that point.
I grabbed the side mirror, but the river still tried to tear me away, so I braced a foot in the downstream wheel well. The door wouldn’t yield to my yank on the handle; the locks had held, much to my consternation. I pulled my Colt 1911 out of its shoulder holster and banged on the window until it broke. The river swept the shards away–
Which was when the tire turned, taking my leg with it and pinning my foot between the rim and the inner wheel well.
I nearly gasped before I remembered what a lousy decision that would be. The lady still lay unconscious, and I shook her shoulder, hard, before turning back to my own dilemma as my air busily ran out. I aimed my gun at the wheel, surprised when it fired and the tire deflated a little.
It didn’t actually help. Instead, the current now had enough leverage to shove my foot further into the suspension, so I was stuck worse than before. Cursing inwardly, lungs screeching for oxygen, I tried and failed to pull out of my shoe. Next time, I thought wildly, I’ll kick them off first.
Mocking laughter filled my head. I needed to breathe, needed it in the worst way, but if I did that I’d drow–
Autonomic functions were a bitch.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to wake up. Or, at least, if I did wake up, it would be in a nice comfy hospital bed with tubes and IVs and beeping machines.
Instead, I found myself at the end of a line of terrified people standing over broken and bubbling obsidian that stretched from here to eternity. Lava glowed red-hot through the cracks, and the stench of death and rotting eggs permeated the air while black stormclouds roiled overhead. Huge horned entities armed with pitchforks made sure we moved right along. They sported bat wings and needle teeth and looked exactly like you’d expect demons to look–goat legs and all.
I had to be dreaming. Or nightmaring. This couldn’t be real. It was way too Dante.
“Seriously?” The voice came from behind me, and the woman from the car popped into being.
Neither of us appeared to have just drowned. My black suit pants and white dress shirt were both pressed and dry, shoulder holster still strapped across my chest. The gun was missing, however, along with my jacket and tie.
Her hair fell in dark auburn waves down her back, and her hazel eyes were wide but not frightened. A dusting of freckles decorated a straight, no-nonsense nose, and her makeup was so understated as to be more of a touch-up job than anything else. She wore a pair of faded jeans and a blue checkered button-down, with a pair of multicolored running shoes protecting her feet from the lava boiling under us. No wedding band, but a Celtic knot ring on her right middle finger, a bracelet watch, and a pair of… were those pig earrings? They were, pink with googly eyes, nearly incongruous dangling from her ears in this place.
The voice wasn’t hers, however.
It belonged to the angel beside her. He, too, looked almost exactly like you’d expect, except for his clothing and the lack of a halo. He wore a tight-fitting black t-shirt that did nothing to hide impressive muscles, chocolate-chip fatigue pants, and desert combat boots. His gold-tipped white wings spread and bristled in an obvious threat display. A sword shone in his right hand, and a leather cord tied his long black hair back. Clear brown eyes surveyed the landscape and found it wanting.
“This is a mistake,” he said.
A demon loped over to us, and the angel put himself between the creature and the woman. “Why, Zeeviel,” the demon leered, brandishing a pitchfork. “What is one of the Host doing down here amongst the wicked?”
“Protecting my Charge from what appears to be a rather egregious clerical error, Babur,” the angel replied. His unwavering blade pointed at the demon’s throat. I had to admire his guts; he was surrounded by enemies and sassing them anyway. His head turned, and his gaze made me feel about two inches tall when it speared me.
“I remember you. You tried to save her.”
“I’m not sure it did me much good in the long run,” I said, cringing away from both him and the demon.
Zeeviel’s mouth twisted. “Well, Anthony, a decade and a half of unrepented murder will do that to a soul.”
“Those were business.” My default defense whenever anyone brought up how I made my living. It seemed pitifully inadequate in the face of… this.
“That doesn’t actually make it better.” He nodded at my hands, and I recoiled, realizing they were covered in dripping blood. The woman let out a little yelp and stepped back. Zeeviel tilted his head and frowned. “Well. How curious.”
“What?” I frantically wiped them on my pants, but all that did was smear it.
He waved his hand, and the blood disappeared. “None of that was innocent blood.”
“Well, no.” Color me relieved to have it gone. “I’m a hitman, not a monster. Was. A hitman. I had my principles.”
“And what were those, exactly?” the woman asked.
“No families. No women or kids. And they knew better than to ask me.” Not that it seemed to have helped, because here I was. Babur grinned and snapped his teeth at me.
But Zeeviel assumed a stance and glared. “I’m feeling protective toward this one. He did try to save Winifred.”
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“You were unconscious.” He sighed. “It was a particularly bad time for a diabetic coma. That being said, you are of the Redeemed and do not belong in this place.”
“We’ll see about that,” the demon said, and reached for her–
Only to yank his hand back as if she’d burned it. Zeeviel smiled, a malicious expression somewhat out of place on his angelic features. “You cannot touch her, Hellspawn. Even here.”
Babur growled. “Then I suppose you ought to go to the head of the line and get her gone. I can only imagine what sorts of shenanigans she’d get up to were she to stay.”
“Indeed. I’m glad we’re of one accord. Come, Winifred.”
She flinched, minutely. “Could you not call me that? My friends call me Freddi.”
“As you wish.” He turned an assessing gaze to me. “Anthony should accompany us as well.”
Babur lifted his pitchfork. “This one is ours, little brother, and well do you know it.”
Zeeviel made a thoughtful noise, tilting his head. “You are not wrong. And yet I want him along. He attempted to save my Charge and I’m kindly disposed toward him.” His chin came up, just a fraction. So did his sword. “Do you wish to dispute me?”
The demon snorted. “I will enjoy seeing your expression when you must leave him here in torment anyway.”
“I’m sure. Where do we go?”
“Lucifer’s Tower.” Babur pointed. “Beyond admissions in the center of the city.” He let out a shrill whistle that burned my bones. “You will require an escort to keep you from trouble. Or to keep trouble from you, as the case may be.”
He hadn’t been there, and then he was–a very human-looking being whom I knew instinctively was a demon, even though he was carefully coiffed and dressed in an Armani suit that cost as much as what I got paid in two months. His hair was slicked back, and a diamond gleamed in his left earlobe. Two tiny yellow horns stuck out of his forehead, and a calculated scruff decorated his chin. He offered us a smirk that combined used-car salesman with shark. All predator.
“Well, well, well. Not often one of the feathered set graces us with his presence.” His voice was bitter, astringent, and mocking. “Down slumming among the damned, Zeeviel?”