By Jennifer Haskin
“I am special. I am loved. I am worth it.” Milo repeated the words from his self-help podcast, and absently straightened his suit coat.
There were a few tiny clouds dotting the sky and the bright sun beat down on his head as he ambled along the sidewalk. People bumped him as they moved en masse like a herd of cattle. He stared at the back of the man in front of him, briefly wondering about the strangers around him. Were any of the rest of them going to a job interview? Did their lives depend on getting this job?
Suddenly, the building next to them appeared to explode, making a large hole in the side. Debris rained down on the commuters and the structure erupted into flames. Out of the hole, a man ran onto the sidewalk, tripping on the rubble and plowed into Milo. The man looked tired, his eyes rimmed with purple and his clothing ragged, his black shirt was sliced open to show a bleeding wound, and his black pants were covered in dust and filth. The man nearly knocked him over, putting his hands on Milo’s shoulders. He grabbed Milo’s burlap messenger bag and fell to the ground.
“Somebody call 911!” A woman next to him screamed for help as the strange man lay motionless. Milo picked up his bag.
Another woman, in strange black clothing that nearly covered every inch of her skin ran up to them and knelt before the supine man. She ran her hands over his body, stopping at his neck for a pulse.
“Damn,” she said to herself. Then she addressed the crowd, “Did anyone see anything? Did he say anything?”
People murmured in the negative. She looked at Milo, who had stepped back with the mass of people circling them. It felt as though she could see right through him, and Milo couldn’t have been more embarrassed unless he was naked on the street. It sure felt like he was, she knew something. He could see it in the narrowing of her eyes. This was a woman with secrets.
“He, he, didn’t say anything.” Milo spread his hands helplessly.
Sirens called in the distance and the woman looked up. Her eyes and mouth were open in a look of panic and desperation. She glanced at the surrounding group of onlookers.
“Damn,” she said again and stood. Her hands perched on her hips as she looked over the people to the street. The sirens increased in volume… and then she ran.
Milo wanted to go after her. He didn’t know why. Maybe because it was the most interesting thing to happen to him since his days of irresponsible teenage partying. She was on a mission and he was jealous. His life was all about scraping to pay bills and watching television with his cat, Tip. A white cat with just the tip of his tail black.
Routine was key to Milo. Grape Nuts for breakfast, ham sandwich for lunch, coffee in the afternoon, tv at night. And right now, he was late for an interview. Not waiting to watch the police take the man away in an ambulance, he rushed down the sidewalk, now scattered with rock and papers from the hole blown open in the building. The cluster of onlookers was growing, and Milo had to push his way through.
“Excuse me. Excuse… Pardon me. Excuse me.” He tried not to notice the frowns and groans he engendered with his head down, pressing forward.
Milo’s palms were sweating as he entered the large, glass-covered building, right in the middle of downtown Chicago. He rode the elevator up to the fourteenth floor and exited to see an open waiting area, governed by a young receptionist at a shiny black desk.
“Hello. How can I help you?” she asked.
“Hi. I’m Milo Young, here to see Mr. Grundy.” Milo smiled a nervous, twitchy grin that he was sure would probably scare her.
Maybe she was used to applicants, because she didn’t notice. “Have a seat, he’ll be right with you.”
“Mr. Young.” A large-framed man stepped into the room and seemed to fill the space. He held his hand out to Milo as he walked.
Milo took his hand and gave it a firm shake. “Thank you for meeting me, sir.”
Mr. Grundy ushered Milo into his office. The large room was covered in wooden paneling, thin strips of cherry wood intricately decorated his built-in shelves, and plush chairs colored a deep wine.
“Have a seat.” Mr. Grundy sat and steepled his hands on the desk. “How bad do you want this job, son?”
“Oh. Well, I really need this job. I lived with my grandma after my parents died, and now she’s gone… I’m sorry.” Milo cleared his throat.
“Go on.” Mr. Grundy smiled and gave a nod.
“Well, I found an apartment, but it’s…It’s not ideal. Even the exterminator won’t go into the building. My second job helps, but it’s not enough.” Milo knew he was turning red, so he looked down.
“What training do you have that will help you with this job?” Mr. Grundy seemed to be a fatherly figure and reminded Milo of a jovial elf- except huge.
Milo struggled with the words. “I had some training in college. I worked in the dorm mailroom, and I volunteered in the school library with shelving. Does that help?”
“For a mailroom position, yes. Do you have any skill with computers?”
“Mostly video gaming, but I know how to make a Word document.” Milo’s tone went up at the end as if he were asking a question.
Mr. Grundy sat back in his chair with his hands in prayer pose and rested his chin on his fingertips. “Do you have any experience with managing teams of people?”
“I work alone at the video gaming pawn shop, and with two other girls at the drug store, but I’ve never been a manager before.”
“I’d like to help you, kid. I really would. It seems like you could use a break, but I can’t use you here. Maybe try the mailroom?” Mr. Grundy rose, but Milo stared at his hands in his lap.
How could this happen again? He’d lost his entire family and now he couldn’t even keep himself out of the gutter. The bank repossessed his grandma’s house, and her savings had just covered her funeral expenses. He sighed. Better go home and start over. He’d do this again tomorrow, the interview was already lined up for ten thirty am. Milo rose, shook Mr. Grundy’s hand and showed himself out.
Once at home, Milo threw his bag in the kitchen chair and opened the fridge. There was a half carton of eggs, a jar of pickles, a bottle of ketchup, and some baby carrots. He groaned and shut the fridge, resting his forehead against the cool metal.
He settled for a peanut butter sandwich and some ice water. Carrying both to the table, he pushed the bag out of his seat with his foot. When it hit the ground, it fell over and papers slid out, but there was a clank on the linoleum. Milo looked down and saw a sheathed dagger. The sheath was silver with a golden trim and was inlaid with intricate designs in pearl. He picked it up in awe and turned it over in his hand. Both sides were equally beautiful. Unsheathing the blade made a slight ringing sound as the polished silver came into the light. It was beautiful.
The thing might as well have been singing with all the admiration he had for it. It was like something in his brain turned on when he looked at it. He wanted to own it, possess it, hide it. How did it get in his bag in the first place? It must have been that man from the building. Milo knew it had to be something special, but what would he do with it?
His first thought was to take it to the pawn shop to get money for groceries. Not tonight, though. He was tired after the long day. He had worked a double shift yesterday in order to take this afternoon off for the interview. He should have read more than the salary. Stupid, stupid, Milo.
“No,” he said to his empty apartment, “I am special, I am loved, and I am worth it.”
Milo took the dagger into his bedroom and slipped it behind his headboard, then went to brush his teeth. He watched television in bed until he fell asleep, then mindlessly clicked the remote, while turning over. He was asleep in seconds and entered the land of nonsensical dreams. He was wildly famous and wealthy…
Milo was jolted awake by a sound in his apartment. It was probably Tip, spooking around on a late-night excursion. He liked to slip out the kitchen window onto the fire escape and go hunting, so Milo left the window open just enough for the cat to come and go as he pleased. He was about to roll over and go back to sleep when Milo heard the unmistakable squeak of a shoe on his kitchen linoleum. Suddenly wide awake, he couldn’t string a thought together in his panic. If someone was sneaking around his apartment, he was in danger…
Before he could formulate a plan or hide, the light flipped on in his room, blinding him momentarily. He shielded his eyes with his hand and saw three men filing into his bedroom.
“Where is it?” The shortest man asked.
“What?” Milo wasn’t following.
“We know it’s here. I can smell it.” The man nodded to the other two large men who grabbed Milo by his arms and hauled him into the tiny kitchen. Milo saw everything clearly. His senses were heightened, and he could smell the litterbox. It made him want to gag. The yellowed linoleum was curling where it had cracked in many places on the floor.
The men sat him down in a kitchen chair pulled into what was considered Milo’s living room, really just a nook between the front door and the dingy kitchen. They tied his hands behind his back with zip ties and secured his feet to the chair.
“What are you looking for?” he asked them.
“I’ll ask the questions here,” the short man said in a gruff voice. His hair was black and greasy, and it hung in limp locks around his shoulders. It was crimped where a ponytail used to be. “Where’s the dagger?”
Ooooh. He finally understood. But if these goons were after it, there must be a reason it was hidden. He decided not to give in. Besides, he needed that dagger for food money. No way was he giving it up if it was this important. Maybe the rightful owner would give him a reward if he put an ad in the newspaper…
Smack! The man struck Milo’s cheek with his beefy hand. It stung. “I asked you a question.”
Milo’s resolve was shaky. He didn’t like pain. In fact, he spent his life avoiding painful situations, but they found him anyway.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he shouted.
“You lie! Give it to me!” The man’s spittle flew in Milo’s face. “I tracked it here. You have to have it.” The man looked unsure for a moment, then told the other men. “Find it.”
The men began rummaging through Milo’s kitchen drawers, throwing everything on the floor.
“Hey! That’s my stuff!” Milo wasn’t the cleanest person in the world, but he’d have to pick all this up later and it ignited his temper. “I told you, it’s not here.”
Milo could hear one of them in his bedroom, pulling out drawers and dropping them on the floor. He heard his mattress sliding off the frame and thudding onto the floor. His downstairs neighbor banged on the ceiling. “Keep it down up there, goddangitt! It’s the middle of the night!”
Milo opened his mouth to yell for help, but the short man covered it with his hand. He tore a piece off the bottom of his t-shirt and gagged Milo. The binding chafed the sides of his mouth and he growled his anger.
When the men came back empty-handed, the leader was incensed. Sweat beaded on his forehead and rolled down his temples. He wiped his face with his own t-shirt and straightened it. Milo could see tattoos riddling the man’s belly, sprinkled with black hair. The man grabbed Milo by the shoulder, digging his fingers into his neck. Milo sat in only his boxers and shook from the breeze wafting through the fully open window, and now clenching in pain from the vice on his neck.
The man put his face in front of Milo’s and said in a deadly voice, “I want that dagger. You are going to give it to me, or I will cut off anything that dangles from your body.”
One of the men picked up Milo’s hands behind him and pulled on his index finger. “This one, boss.”
Milo yelled out as the short man circled behind him. He tried to talk, but they weren’t listening. The man pulled out his digit, and he could feel the blade pressing against the tender webbing between his fingers. The knife cut into the skin and Milo felt hot blood running down his palm. He was about to pass out from his terror. When the knife hit bone, it stopped, and the man sawed the teeth back and forth to no avail. Milo screamed.
“You idiot. Get a sharper knife,” the short man told one of the others.
He emerged from the kitchen with a knock-off Ginsu knife and Milo’s head felt hot and cold at the same time. His stomach dropped. The man walked behind him and picked up his hand again. The knife was laid next to his finger again and bit into his skin.
Bang! The window shattered as a slim figure burst through and landed on the floor in a crouch. It was the woman from this morning. They stared at each other wide-eyed for a brief moment and then she was busy punching, dodging, and rolling away from the two thugs. The short man watched, both his hands now clamping around Milo’s neck.
Milo tried to call out and thrashed his head around, but the man’s grip was too tight. He was too far away to headbutt. Milo’s brain was lost for any solutions. He hoped the girl would be okay as he listened to the grunts and slaps of fist meeting skin. The men growled in anger at her and Milo lost consciousness.
When he came to, he was still tied to the chair, but lay on the floor on his side. He could hear the girl fighting the short man. An arm lay on the floor in his field of vision, so he assumed she had incapacitated the big men. He listened to them fighting and heard the ringing of swords clashing behind him. He tried to look that direction. They were talking, but it wasn’t a language Milo knew. It flowed and sounded like water bubbling in a brook, a whispering kind of speech that Milo found extremely interesting. Their fight reached fever pitch and then there was the heavy thud of a body hitting the floor.
Milo had no idea who won. He began to shake again. He didn’t want to lose any body parts. His finger hurt and he could feel his hand holding a significant amount of blood. The warm pool in his hand flowed into the threadbare carpet. The anticipation was killing him. Someone sighed behind him.
The girl crouched before his chair with a look of exasperation. She untied his mouth.
“Thank you.” He smiled. She didn’t.
“So, where’s the dagger?”
“What dagger?” he asked.
“Don’t bother playing stupid with me. They tracked it here and I tracked them. They are never wrong. So, where is it?”
“First, let me up,” he said.
“I don’t make deals.”
“If you let me up, I’ll give it to you.”
“How do I know you will?” She squinted one eye and he thought she was cute, with her brown hair in a ponytail and dirt smudged next to her tiny nose. Or was that blood?
“How do I know you are any better than those guys?” He smiled again.
This time she cracked a bit of her cold exterior and gave him a small smile. “I’m with… the good guys.” She picked him up, chair and all, and pointed to the three men laying on the floor. “Those are the bad guys. Got it?”
“Yeah, but what’s the big deal with this dagger?” He could feel her cutting through the zip ties by the pull and release of his bonds.
She made a noise in her throat of exasperation. “I don’t have time for this. You need to give me that dagger and get out of here. You don’t want to be here when they come back. Or when the police find dead bodies in your apartment.”
“But I don’t have anywhere to go.” He panicked; his eyes wide.
“Don’t you have friends? Family?” She stood in front of him unaffected, folding a knife and putting it back in her pocket.
“If I did, you think I’d be living here?”
“Good point. But I can’t help you. So, where’s the dagger?”
“Where am I supposed to go?” He stood, rubbing one wrist, then the other.
“Look,” she said, touching her thumb and index finger to her forehead briefly, “I don’t care. What I need is the dagger. And quick because I don’t know if they were alone. I doubt it. I need to go.”
“Where are you going?”
“I can’t- I’m going- I can’t tell you that.” She grimaced.
“Take me with you and I’ll give you the dagger.” Proud of himself for his stellar negotiating skills, he crossed his arms and smiled at her.
In the same second it took him to cross his arms, she drew the knife from her pocket, flipped it open, and had it at his neck, with her other hand full of his shirt. “Listen here you little shit. I don’t have time for this. Give me the dagger now, or I’ll carve your fingers off myself. Do not think I won’t.”
He absolutely believed her. “I- I’ll go g-get it for you.”
“Thank you.” She smiled sweetly at him as she fixed his t-shirt across his chest.
He stood there just a moment too long. With an internal shake he went to the bedroom, thankful the men hadn’t found it. The room was more than askew. It was a disaster that he wouldn’t have cleaned up for days. The dagger was right where he left it, wedged between the headboard and the wall. He took it out and admired it. He heard her walking around in his kitchen picking things up and looking at them. Hoping to change her mind one more time, he threw on his clothes and packed a bag quickly.
She stood in the doorway to his bedroom. It was like a dream he’d once had, and it turned him on the way she had her hip cocked out and her elbow leaning on the door jam. Stupid, stupid Milo.
No. He was… he wasn’t.
She held out her hand and he gave her the dagger.
“Take me with you. Please?”
Instead of answering him, she said, “This is what you would call a ‘magic’ dagger. The only reason I’m telling you this is because you got involved. This dagger can only belong to its owner. The previous owner has to release it to the new owner. So, my partner must have released it when he gave it to you. If they tracked you here,” she said and pointed to the dead bodies. “That means the dagger’s power still works. So, I need you to release it to me now.”
The dagger belonged to him? He was its owner? If it was really magic, what did it do? He didn’t want to release it. He wanted her to take him with her. Leverage. He had her. And she knew it.
He smiled and she frowned.
“When you have me somewhere safe and tell me what’s going on, I’ll release it to you. Look, I’m already packed.”
“Damn it.” She turned around and strode toward his front door. Halfway there, she called over her shoulder, “If you think I’m waiting on you, you’re going to get left behind.”
Milo hurried after her as she walked out the door and strode down the stairs. They emerged into a dark alley and she held her arm out, holding him back as she looked both ways. She turned to the right and ran toward the back of the building and he followed. He hadn’t run since gym class in high school and he was more than out of shape. They ran from alley to alley and emerged onto a well-lit street. She slowed down to a fast walk and Milo breathed with a hand on his side. His calves were cramping so he limped behind her, the streets nearly empty this time of night.
She slowed down and looked at him, frowning. She stopped and waited for him to catch up.
“Your name,” he panted.
“What?” Her brow squeezed in annoyance.
“You never told me your name.”
She smiled. “I didn’t, did I?”
“I’m Milo.” He stuck out his hand.
She looked at it with disdain. “I don’t care.”
“Ah, come on. If we’re gonna be partners—”
She interrupted him, “We are not going to be partners.”
“Well, unless you want me to call you ‘girl’ you’d better tell me your name.” He smiled, attempting to lighten her mood.
She turned and started to walk down the sidewalk again. He matched her pace and they walked in silence for awhile.
“Maira.” She looked at him. “My name is Maira. I’m kind of prickly, I guess. I lost my partner today, and I’m blaming you, even though it’s not fair.”
“No problem. It’s the most excitement I’ve ever had. And I’m sorry about your partner. Are you like, in undercover work?” He had so many questions to ask her.
“You could say that.” She chuckled to herself.
It just made him want to know more. “So, the police know about magic? And how do you know the dagger’s magic, what does it do?”
They were entering a dark, residential area that he wasn’t familiar with. How had they gotten here? She looked like she was weighing what she would say. “I didn’t say I was with the police. And I said you would call it magic.”
“I’m so confused,” he said.
They were walking along a wrought iron fence and she reached out to hit each pole. “All in good time, Martin.”
“That’s what I meant.” She turned to an ornate wrought iron gate on their right. He hadn’t looked at the house before, but it was palatial. All dark wood and brass, it peaked in the middle over a set of double doors flanked by a set of brick stairs.
“This is where we’re going? Do you live here?” Milo was staring open mouthed as she passed through the gate and jogged up the walk to the stairs. He followed her past the light sconces, and she held the door open for him.
“I live here with a bunch of other agents.”
“I’m still stuck on the whole agent thing. What’s your agency? What do you do?” Milo looked around the softly lit foyer decorated with a long, thin oriental rug and a polished mahogany table supporting a stained-glass lamp and a vase of huge-bloomed peonies.
Maira ignored him and walked down one of four hallways branching from the foyer. The balcony for the second level overlooked the entryway and a couple who were talking stopped and looked at him. Milo waved at them, but when they continued to stare, he ducked down the hallway after Maira. The halls were dark, but it was the middle of the night. No wonder those people were staring at a stranger coming into their house at this hour. He passed the occasional dim lamp on the wall, making the wood paneling shine and spotlighting either a painting or a table with a vase of flowers.
He’d lost sight of her and was starting to panic, when she stepped out into the hall about two or three doors down. “In here,” she said.
The room was an office with double sliding doors and plush furniture surrounding a massive desk. The man sitting behind it had obviously been woken up. He wore a robe and his graying hair stuck out in strange angles. Even given his state of disrepair, the man commanded attention and respect. His steel gray eyes took in everything and his posture showed he may be tired, but he was in control. And when the man smiled at Milo, he felt a deep admiration for him, though he didn’t know why. Milo sat in the chair the man motioned to and put his hands in his lap.
“I hear you are the new owner of something that belongs to us. Maira tells me that you require answers to your questions before you will relinquish it.” He waited for Milo to speak.
It sounded so stupid now. Why didn’t he just give it back? Oh yeah, he had nowhere to go. “These guys crashed my apartment and Maira told me I had to leave, but I don’t have anywhere to go. So, I sort of conned her into taking me along.”
The man roared with laughter. “You conned Maira?” He continued to laugh until a tear fell from his eye.
Maira rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “I can be a little difficult sometimes.”
“I’m Raguel. I run this academy. What would you like to know?”
“My name’s Milo, and if I’m the owner of the dagger, I’d like to know what it does. And Maira said she was undercover, but is this a school?” The window showed the first streaks of light permeating the darkness outside. He really wanted to go to sleep. He needed to be at the gaming store by nine.
Raguel watched him closely and said in a gentle voice, “Do you really need to know now, or would you like to rest in one of our guestrooms? We can wake you if needed. Don’t worry, we’ll talk later.”
Milo wondered about how Raguel could know how much he needed it, but he was so overcome from his crash of adrenaline he didn’t care. “Yes, I’d love to sleep until eight, if I can.”
Raguel smiled and nodded. “Maira.” He nodded at her as well, but she rose and turned to Milo.
Maira walked back to the foyer and up a curved staircase to the second level. The couple was gone and there were four hallways, identical to the ones below. He followed her to a room halfway down the hall and she opened the door for him.
As he passed her, she said, “Good night, Mike.”
He turned to correct her, but she was shutting the door. It closed with a click. He wondered if he’d been locked in, but then decided he didn’t care. What kept him in would keep others out. He walked to the bed that dominated the room, covered in a thick, cream-colored down comforter. Throwing his t-shirt and jeans in the lone chair, he climbed into the downy softness and fell instantly asleep.
The next thing Milo knew was a bright light. In his dream, he squeezed his eyes shut, but then he was shaking. He woke to Maira pushing his arm. “Hey. Wake up. You said eight, right?” The brightness came from the window that had been covered in heavy drapes.
“Yeah, I’ve got to go to work. Can you answer my questions tonight?”
“What do you think this is? A hotel? You can come and go as you please?”
“I just thought—”
“Well, there’s your problem.” She put her hands on her hips.
“What is your deal?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“We really need that dagger.”
“You have it,” he said.
“We can’t use it because we don’t own it right now.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to go to work.” He stood up, she’d already seen him in his boxers last night, and she didn’t seem like a person who would care. He started putting on his clothes.
“Is it a busy place?”
“The store? No. Most days we only get a handful of people all day. I work alone because the owner can’t afford anyone else. Sometimes I think if I got sick, he’d run out of business…” He realized he was rambling and stopped talking. “Why?”
“I’m going with you. I’ll answer your questions and then you’ll release the dagger to me. Got it?”
It was the only deal he was going to get so he nodded.
“Let’s go,” she said, leading him into the hall.
They hailed a taxi and took it to Arnold Video where Milo unlocked the door and held it for Maira. The small store was in a strip mall and had cases of video games and playing equipment. He flipped on the lights and ran through the motions of starting up the work day.
“Do you want some coffee?” he called from the back.
“Sure,” she answered while leaning over a case to look at the games.
He started the machine and brewed a pot, pouring the coffee into two mismatched mugs. “How do you take it?”
“With a splash of cream, if you’ve got it,” she called.
He fixed up their drinks and walked back to the showroom. Maira took the mug he offered and inhaled the steam. “Mmmm.”
Milo got behind the counter and leaned over the case. “Okay, shoot. I want to know everything.”
Maira inhaled, her brow squeezed together, and she frowned. “You are going to find a lot of this hard to believe. But I assure you it’s all true.”
She waited for his nod of confirmation and continued, “We are part of a training center called Academy Caelesti. We fight evil.”
“Like murderers and rapists and stuff?”
“Like all evil. This is not the only dimension. In the spirit realm, there is a constant battle taking place between good and evil.”
“So, what are you, like an angel, or something?”
Maira smiled and started to shimmer. Light radiated from her skin and she transformed before him into a stunningly elegant creature in flowing clothes. Obviously not human by the oblong shape of her face and long slender nose. Her luminous eyes were not a color he knew possible. The closest he could compare it to was a hologram.
Strapped to her back was a long sword. He could see the golden handle peeking above her shoulder. He recognized the hilt of the dagger poking out of her pocket. She wasn’t completely corporeal, but he couldn’t see right through her and he gasped in astonishment when she passed her hand through the glass case.
“Is this more like what you had in mind?” Her voice rushed like a thousand waters, but he heard every word. “I speak in every language at once. You only understand your own.”
“Can you read my mind, too?” He suddenly felt quite vulnerable.
She laughed, “Only God can read your mind.”
He was dumbstruck for a moment and Maira shifted back to her previous self.
“So, you fight literal evil.” He was grasping at straws trying to remember all the things he had just wanted to ask her.
“Yes. Both here and other dimensions.”
Milo was imagining her fighting with the huge sword when the bell rang over the front door. As it opened, a man came in.
“Hi. How can I help you?” Milo smiled at the man. He felt buoyant inside from his excitement about the angel academy.
“Just lookin’,” the man said gruffly. Following the cases to the other side of the room. He was nondescript, average height, brown hair, plaid shirt.
Milo leaned over the counter and motioned to Maira, who leaned over her side of the case to hear him. “Do you look different in all dimensions?” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered back. “The others are all spirit realms; I only look like this in the human one.”
They were almost close enough to kiss and Milo was not accustomed to being so close to a pretty girl. He paid no attention to the man walking around the store or walking up behind Maira and pulling the hilt from her pocket. Instantaneously, Maira whirled around and the man pointed the blade at her.
“Release it to me.” It wasn’t a question.
Maira, already in a fighter’s stance, said, “Only if you live to make it out of the store.”
He slashed at her and she hit his arm away, as she bent to the side. She leaned back and kicked him in the side. He grunted and swung again. It nicked her sleeve and she growled.
“I like this shirt, dirtbag.”
“Just release it to me. What do you care if we have it? Your swordsman makes thousands of them.”
What? Milo wondered what was so special about it. He saw her glance his way from the corner of her eye.
“You know why.” She punched him solidly in the nose and his head snapped back. She reached for the dagger, but he pulled it back and drove it into her hand. She cried out in pain and narrowed her eyes. Milo hoped he never pissed her off that much. But what did the dagger do? He resigned not to let it go until he knew why they wanted it. He wanted time to slow so he could follow their fight, they moved so fast, punching and kicking each other.
Suddenly, they were moving in slow motion. Maira turned to him, her eyes huge, slowly blocking the blade coming toward her. “What are you doing?” She spoke slowly, but the frustration was evident.
“I’m not doing anything,” he cried.
The man’s eyes opened wide. “He owns the dagger.”
Maira pushed his hand away as he dug into his pocket. Milo watched in fascination, terrified that he was causing it. The man pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at Milo. Maira yelled as she dove for his gun. The trigger had just engaged when Milo thought he’d better move and let go of the slow-motion. At once, the bullet shot from the gun, Maira knocked it to the ground and fell into the knife. Both Maira and Milo fell to the ground. The man ran from the store.
“He shot me.” Milo was dumbfounded. He’d never imagined he’d be shot in a million years. Well, given where he lived, it was always a possibility, but he didn’t think he would ever be involved. Milo sat up and touched his right shoulder. His finger fit the bullet hole that passed right through his body and into the drywall. Milo moaned, then realized he couldn’t hear Maira.
He crawled around the counter and saw her through the glass case. She lay on her side in a pool of blood.
“Maira,” he called.
She groaned and said something too quietly for him to hear. He rushed over to her. The blade had caught her under the rib cage by the rip in her shirt and the blood soaking through.
“What do I do?” he asked.
“I have to get home,” she whispered. “Get my phone.”
He reached behind her and took her phone out of her pocket as she curled up on herself, putting pressure on the wound.
“Call Raguel. Just type in his name…” Her head dropped to the floor and her arm lay limply next to her.
“Oh Geez.” Milo scrolled through her contacts and hit the one next a picture of Raguel laughing, his eyes crinkled up. It was a good photo. The phone rang.
“Hello? Raguel speaking.”
“Hi, um. Hi, it’s Milo. I ah, well, Maira needs your help.”
“Where are you and what happened?” Raguel was at instant attention.
“We’re at Arnold Video. It’s where I work; and this guy came in. He took the dagger and stabbed Maira with it.”
Raguel sounded panicked, but he spoke very slowly. “She was struck with the dagger. Now, Milo, this is very important. Was anything else supernatural going on when it happened?”
“Yeah, it’s funny. Time like, slowed down. It was the weirdest thing…”
“I mean that’s not the weirdest thing. It was when she looked at me and asked what I was doing…”
“Milo.” Raguel repeated louder.
“Like, how could I be doing anything?”
“Milo!” Raguel shouted.
“The dagger gives it’s owner the ability to manipulate time. It gives the user the strength of a thousand men, and it kills the soul. Because you were slowing down time, the dagger was active and gave the man super-strength, but it also put Maira in serious jeopardy.”
“I don’t understand.” Milo would have liked to know that bit earlier, what else could he do to hurt her without knowing?
“If a normal knife kills you, your body dies, but your soul lives on and goes to a new body in the spirit realm. But if you are struck with a dagger of Heaven, and it kills you, your soul ceases to exist. Poof. No more spirit body. It’s used for killing demons. But in the wrong hands, it can make certain men undefeatable, providing them with supernatural power.”
“Why did he try to kill me then?”
“If a mortal owns a heavenly dagger, it will be released upon their death. Milo? I need you to keep pressure on that wound. I’ve sent a driver for you.”
“Okay. I’ll get a towel from the back.”
“I’ll see you soon, Milo.”
“Bye.” Milo ran to the back and threw open the cabinets under the sink. He grabbed the stack of freshly washed towels and took them to Maira. She was still out, her face pale and perspiring. He pressed the towels to her body, and she moaned softly, rocking gently back and forth.
“Milo?” She struggled to speak.
“I’m here. I’m sorry. I didn’t know—”
“Shhh. I know,” she whispered. “Tell Raguel, if I don’t make it…”
“You will. Someone is already on the way. You’ll be fine.” He nodded his head, attempting to force her agreement.
“I’m burning on the inside. I’ve never felt my soul ripping away before, but it hurts. I wonder if this is why people are afraid to die? I don’t want to die, Milo.”
“You won’t. I won’t let you. You still have to answer all my questions about the universe.” A tear slipped from the corner of his eye.
She chuckled weakly and collapsed again.
Milo tried to speed time up, but nothing happened. He wondered if he needed the dagger to perform the magic, or whatever it was.
Not long after, the front door opened, and Milo wasn’t expecting what he saw. An older woman in her 60s strode in, complete with a silvery bob. She was thin and tiny. How was she supposed to help?
“I see that look on your face, son. Don’t judge by appearances, for they are often deceiving,” she said.
“I’m learning that. Where should I take her?”
“I’ve got her. You lock up and come with me. You aren’t safe here now. They know all they must do is kill you to release the dagger’s power to its current possessor. And I don’t have the man-power right now to watch you and help Maira.” The woman leaned down and scooped up Maira like she was a small child.
Milo held the door for her and locked it behind them. He would have to text his boss later and explain. How was he going to explain this? He looked through the window to the large blood stain on the floor. The carpet would have to be replaced. He probably just lost his job.
He got into a shiny black car as Maira was laid in the back seat. The woman hopped behind the wheel.
“You’d better buckle your seatbelt.” She smiled. Before he had a chance to click the belt, they were careening down the street. He held on to the door handle and the arm rest, his fingers curling into the leather. She chuckled. “My name’s Filia.”
“Nice to meet you.” Her tires squealed as they turned the corner. “How do you know Maira?”
“We met yesterday. She and her partner came crashing out of a building and ran into me.”
“Wow. You’ve had an exciting twenty-four hours then, haven’t you?” She grinned, never taking her eyes from the road. Milo was feeling carsick. They weaved through lanes of cars and didn’t quite make a red light. “I realize that was red. But Maira’s more important right now.”
Milo agreed. He liked Filia. She was so happy and peppy.
She smiled. “You like her, huh?”
“What?” He didn’t like being put on the spot. “I don’t like, like her. We just met. I mean, you can’t like someone you just met, can you? It’s silly. I mean, she doesn’t like me anyway, so it doesn’t matter, does it?” He realized he was over-sharing and stopped; looking nervously at his hands in his lap.
She just kept smiling. Yeah, he liked Filia. Maybe he liked Maira a bit, too, but not like Filia thought. She’d only been nice to him for a total of twenty minutes, anyway.
They pulled through a huge wrought iron gate and drove up to the house. Filia honked the horn and people began pouring out the side door. One opened Maira’s door, and another carried her away. Milo sat there, not knowing what to do, except stay out of the way. Everyone crowded around the man holding Maira and they filed into the school leaving him alone. Milo sighed. His adrenaline was crashing again.
Filia rapped on his window. “You comin’ or what?” She smiled.
He wasn’t alone after all. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
They walked into a kitchen, bright and warm, and heavy with the scent of baking bread. Milo inhaled and his stomach growled loudly. Filia stopped. “Let’s have some lunch, Milo. They will be awhile with Maira.”
Milo gratefully sat at a long wooden table, worn smooth by the passage of so many hands. He rubbed the shiny surface with his thumb. The room was large, and he watched two cooks in aprons stirring pots on the giant stove while Filia rummaged in the fridge. She approached him with two armloads of food. Dropping onto the table, ham, cheese, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a loaf of fresh bread. They made sandwiches and cleaned up their mess.
Filia went to a closet and brought out a black leather bag. She pulled out gauze and antiseptic, then poured the liquid on a cloth. Gently, she moved his shirt out of the way to dab his bullet wound. It had stopped bleeding but had soaked his shirt.
“Will you be here long?” Filia asked him.
“I have no idea.” He sucked air in through his teeth as the antiseptic burned his tender flesh.
“Maybe you should stick around. We do have humans on our side. And I’m sure you’ve noticed there are powerful weapons that help. They are just always after them for some bad reason or another.” She smeared some ointment on the wound and covered it with a bandage.
Could he stay? He hadn’t thought of it, and yet he’d been wishing for it all this time. Was it fate that chose him yesterday? Or something more? It’s not like he had anything to go back to. Maybe Raguel could find him a job to do? His situation looked hopeful and he smiled. “Maybe I will.”
“Did you see the place last night?” Filia asked. When Milo shook his head, she said, “Come on. I’ll give you the grand tour.”
She walked him down a hallway, past the official dining room. “That’s where we eat dinner. Breakfast and lunch, you’re on your own, but dinner is at six thirty every night.” She looked him up and down. “You’ll do with a clean shirt. Just don’t come in from a mission without cleaning up.”
They went through a commons area with two televisions, a pool table, bean bags by a set of bookshelves flanking the floor-to-ceiling windows. There were couches situated like a maze interspersed with coffee tables. Soft music played from down the hall.
They passed a music room where someone was playing a piano with a violinist. Then they came to the foyer. “I remember this place.” Milo looked up at the balcony expecting to see the couple, but people were milling about from hall to hall.
Filia led him down a new hall and they came to a control room. They entered the darkened space where people sat at monitors with headsets. None of them turned to look at the newcomer, they continued to talk to whomever they were talking to. A wall of screens showed thousands of different rooms in varying states of upkeep. Some were obviously well-decorated and clean, while others were glass and pewter, and some looked like his squalid apartment.
“What is all this?” Milo motioned to the wall of screens.
Filia led him to a switchboard. She flipped a lever and a hologram of the United Sates appeared. It looked purple, but as Filia magnified the map to just Chicago, he could see it was covered with little red and blue dots. “We are the blue. They are red. We keep track of our operatives and agents here. This is where we watch the activity for mass groupings or if we’re looking for someone, or something. If I type in what we’re looking for…” She made an entry using the keyboard. “Aha. Look for the golden dot.”
“I don’t see it.” Milo thought he was missing something.
“It won’t be easy to find. They may be attempting to cloak it, but our tech beats theirs. I thought you might want to do some searching to pass the time.” Filia laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” he said. He appreciated her thinking of him. “Can you let me know when Maira’s okay?”
She smiled. “Someone will notify you. I’ll let Raguel know where you are. Bye, Milo.”
“It was nice to meet you.” He waved back at her as she left the room and went to work, magnifying and zooming out, over and over, looking for the damned gold dot. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. He didn’t even know their regular hangouts. Not that it would matter.
A few hours later, Milo felt like he was getting to know some of their meeting places, but he hadn’t found the golden dot. He hung his head and stretched his neck, then rolled his head back and flexed his shoulders. He was stiff. It must be at least four o’clock. Oh yeah, there was a clock on his screen. It was five minutes after four when the door opened, and Milo turned to see who had entered.
Raguel walked over to him and smiled. “She’ll be fine.”
Milo relaxed muscles he didn’t notice he was tensing. Relief flooded him. He had felt responsible for her near-existential-wipeout. If he hadn’t activated the dagger, the man couldn’t have hurt her being a human; but Milo had to slow down time, giving the man added strength and almost cleaving Maira’s soul. He smiled. “I’m glad. Is she very mad at me?”
Raguel laughed. “No, she’s not mad. She’s pretty happy to be alive.”
“You didn’t know. We took a chance by not telling you sooner, and we failed. No reason to dwell on it now.” Raguel put a hand on his shoulder and his body felt better, lighter. “Why don’t you get out of here and stretch your legs. Go right and there’s a door at the end of the hall that leads to the gardens.”
Milo’s favorite place in the world had been his grandma’s vegetable garden. He wasn’t entirely sure Raguel couldn’t read his mind, but the idea of the garden thrilled him. He thanked Raguel and found his way outside.
There was a courtyard with a fountain. A beautiful woman stood in the middle, caught in stone, forever pouring a bucket of water into the pool below. Eight-foot-tall hedges lined the area and left four or five pathways branching from it like rays from the sun. He followed the nearest path and it wound around a small pond; the ground covered in wood chips. The next pathway led to a gazebo where two women sat talking, so he left them alone and went back to follow the other paths. One led to a vegetable garden, and the other was the beginning of a small labyrinth. Milo lost himself in the vegetable garden. He checked the tomatoes for ripeness and picked a few for the cook.
He found his way around to the side door from before, remembering it led to the kitchen. The cook was happy to have help with the vegetables and put Milo to work chopping them. The cook showed him where the tableware was stacked and told him to set the dining room table for twenty. He obeyed.
He had just finished the extraordinary chore when the cook began to lay the table with food. “Sit anywhere you want,” she told him.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to sit in anyone’s seat.” He wanted to make a good impression here, he wasn’t even sure why, but it felt important to him.
“I assure you no one here will take offense.” The cook returned to the kitchen for more dishes full of baked chicken, potatoes, a medley of cooked vegetables, along with fresh fruit, and rolls.
When she came back Milo asked, “Is there anything else I can help with? I feel silly sitting here watching you work.”
The cook smiled at him. She had a healthy plumpness that made her cheeks rosy from exertion. Her hair was tucked under a blue-and-white patterned head scarf, and a few curls had escaped near her neck. “I like you,” she said. “You can pour the water. I’ve got iced tea, too. Pour half the glasses water and half tea. Leave them on that side hutch for people to pick up on their way to their seats. Got it?”
“I’m on it.” He grinned at her. He hadn’t smiled so much in years. He’d had no reason to. Nothing in his life amounted to anything, he had never amounted to anything. He remembered his mother tucking him into bed and telling him all the different dreams she had for him. She had believed he was capable of anything. His father… never thought he’d amount to anything. He sighed and spoke to himself, “I guess I made one of them right.”
The cook entered with a basket of buttery rolls. “Who’s right?”
“My dad, I guess. He thought I’d grow up to be a loser.”
She gasped. “To tell a boy that! You tell that man he’s wrong. You are a lovely young man.”
“Thanks, but he’s gone. It’s too late. I guess I’m glad my mom never got to see how I turned out.”
She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “That’s a shame you lost both parents. But let me tell you this- your past has no bearing on your future. You can choose a new path at any time. It’s all in here…” She walked over and poked his chest right over his heart. “You don’t have to be anything. God sees your worth even when you’re covered in muck and full of self-pity. To Him, you are a beloved child and you have a purpose, whether you know it, or not.”
“How do I know what that purpose is? My mom said I’d know it, and I don’t. She believed in things she couldn’t see. She said it was ‘faith.’ Do you have to understand everything to have faith?” Milo scratched his cheek.
“No, child. You don’t have to know a thing to have faith.” She patted his shoulder. “Pray about it. It will become clear to you.”
“You don’t know what prayer is?” Her eyes widened.
Just then, the first of the dinner guests came in. “Hi Penny. Is this a new recruit? Hey, I’m Jack.” The man stuck his large hand out to envelope Milo’s.
“I’ve got to get back to work. You boys enjoy your dinner.” Penny patted Milo’s arm and disappeared.
“Milo. And I’m not sure what I am. Maybe a guest?”
The man cocked his head. He was wearing brown pants that looked corduroy and a button up shirt in crisp white. “Who are you a guest of?”
Milo was nervous. Would Maira be angry he told people he was with her? Better not chance it. “I’m with Raguel.”
“Ohhh. The big guy, huh? I bet you have an important mission, right?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Are you getting the new weapons? I’ve heard they have a suit that enables a mortal to pass through dimensions and gives them the power of an angel. Have you seen them?”
“No.” Milo’s eyes were wide. They could make him one of their own? What was he thinking? They wouldn’t let him join; he was a nobody. He had no talent for anything covert. They were all so friendly and strong…and cool. He didn’t belong. He needed to face that fact. It would hurt less when they tossed him back into his old life. This was merely a vacation and he needed to remember that. This whole place was a fantasy he would never be a part of.
“No problem.” Jack hit him in the arm and grinned. “I’m sure you will. Let’s sit.”
“Oh, I’ll be there in a minute, I’m helping the cook.” Milo went to the sideboard and poured the water and tea. He asked Jack which he wanted and brought over two iced teas. More people entered and sat. Milo and Jack filled their plates with food. It was delicious. While they ate, they chatted about the grounds.
“Have you seen the garage yet?”
Milo couldn’t understand why he’d want to see the garage. “Um, nope.”
Jack winked at him. “You will if you stay long.”
“What’s in there?” Milo was intrigued.
Jack’s eyes lit up. “They have…”
Raguel strode into the room and directly toward Milo. “She’s awake. Would you like to talk to her?”
He was instantly excited. Had she sent for him? Stupid, Milo. Of course she hadn’t. But he wanted to see her. He wanted to be a part of this. This fight against evil- he’d never given spirituality a second thought. His grandma had gone to church. But that was for old people, right, making amends with God before they died? Wasn’t that how it worked? You lived your life the way you wanted, and then repented for it so you could go to Heaven. That’s how it worked in the movies. He realized Raguel was patiently waiting for his answer. “Yes. I want to see her.”
“Who?” Jack tugged his sleeve.
“Maira,” he said quietly, but the people near him all stopped and stared. He felt like he was in the second grade on stage with the spotlight on him and he couldn’t remember his lines.
Was it so strange that he might be hanging out with a strong, beautiful, slightly prickly woman? Maybe it was. He noticed that he was still wearing his bloody clothes and he smelled like a hot sewer. He rose and asked Raguel, “Is there any way I could shower? I kinda look like…” He motioned to himself. “A mess.”
Raguel smiled. “Of course. You’ve had a long day. The bedroom you were in has an attached bathroom. You can shower there if you’d like. Do you remember how to find it?”
“I’m not sure.” Milo admitted.
“I’ll show you.”
Once they were standing at his door, Milo hung his head. “Um, Raguel? I don’t have any clean clothes.”
“Don’t worry. We can find something for you. Are you about a medium?” Raguel looked him up and down.
Milo let the water run over him, pelting his shoulders like a massage. It was cleansing to his body and mind. When he entered the bedroom, there were navy lounge pants and a t-shirt with an American flag on the front folded on his bed, along with a map of the building. His room and what he supposed was Maira’s room were marked in red. Feeling refreshed, he found his way to Maira’s room. Her name was next to her room number, so he knew he had it right.
Knocking gently, he pushed the door open to see her propped up on pillows in a huge bed that took up most of the room. She had a chair, covered in clothes, a desk and computer next to stacks of papers and notebooks, a bookcase full of books that were color-coded according to their spines, and a dresser with a television on top, playing a comedy. Maira started to laugh at the screen and grimaced in pain. She looked up and saw him.
A smile touched her lips. “Come in, Miles.” Her grin clued him in to her game. She liked messing up his name. Two could play that game.
“How are you, Mary?”
She frowned. Maybe she wasn’t joking? He was second-guessing even coming here, when she broke into a wide smile and tried not to chuckle. “You should see your face.”
“I don’t think it works that way. How do you feel?” he asked sincerely.
“Like I was hit by a Mack truck. But at least I’m alive. They must have figured out by now that you are alive, too. They’ll be looking for you.”
“What do I do?” He spread his hands.
She motioned for him to come sit on the bed and he sat next to her. “We need a plan. The only way to get it back is to track it and ambush them. We’ll get the dagger back, you can release it, then you’ll be free to go. Back to your regular life.”
Milo frowned. That didn’t seem like a plan to him. “When do we leave?”
“We? I meant my team and me. Not you.”
“You can’t leave me out. I can help. It belongs to me, so maybe I could help? You could tell me what to do, and…”
“And you could get us all killed. Remember last time?”
“Maira, please. I need to help. I want to be part of this.” He swung his arm out wide.
“You have to go back to your life,” she said.
“I can’t go back. I have no life. I have no friends or family–It’s perfect for this job.” He felt like he was begging, but he had no pride to lose.
She opened her mouth to speak, but they both heard from the doorway, “It’s not a bad idea, Maira.”
Raguel walked in and shut the door. He tossed a few articles of clothing off the chair and sat.
“What are you thinking? Could we use him in…” She narrowed her eyes in thought.
“A trap. He wants to help, and we never turn away help when fighting against evil.” Raguel looked at Milo. “So, you want to join us?”
Maira crossed her arms. “Hmmph.”
“I do,” Milo said. “I want to learn about it, and live here, and go on missions. My life has never been so exciting. I have never felt like I was doing the right thing, but here I know I’m doing what’s right. I can be the man my mother always wanted me to be. She wouldn’t be proud of where I am now.”
“I’m sorry,” Maira touched his arm with her fingertips.
“You loved her very much, and I know she loved you. Parent’s can’t help it.” Raguel said. “Your motive isn’t for worldly gain, so I don’t see a problem.”
“What?” Maira was not happy. “I trained for this job for a hundred years before I was considered. He’s been here a day and you’re offering him a job?”
“You know that it isn’t relative. Don’t be petty.”
“But he isn’t trained…”
“So, train him. You’re my best operative. You will challenge each other. It’s good growth for you both.” Raguel smiled at her.
“But—” she said, about to argue.
“Maira.” The one word came with a heavy authority. It was weighted and Milo felt it like a leaded blanket on his shoulders. It was like magic… He supposed a lot of what they did would seem like magic to him, even though it wasn’t.
“Yes Sir,” she said quietly.
Milo didn’t want to be the source of her unhappiness. “Maybe someone else would be better…?”
Raguel smiled at him but spoke with an authority Milo recognized, but couldn’t put his finger on, “Maira trains all the incoming agents. It’s a very personal process and she’s the best at finding people’s strengths.”
She looked exhausted. The purple under her eyes stood out like a splotch of color on white paper. Milo wanted to see her happy again, and he didn’t want to be the source of her frustration, but he had a feeling Raguel wasn’t about to back down for either of them.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be ready whenever she’s ready.”
“I’ll be ready before you are,” she said sourly.
Raguel rose. “We’ll make a plan. You two think about it and we’ll meet in the morning. We need to get that dagger back before they find a way to use it.”
“I thought they couldn’t,” Milo said.
“With a spiritual weapon, it doesn’t recognize what type of spirit is wielding it and will react to conflicting wishes. If they can short out its power with a disruptor, they may be able to use it. We can’t be sure. Goodnight kids, I’ll see you in my office at nine tomorrow morning.” With that, he strode out the door.
Maira was wilting. He propped her shoulder up with his own. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“What for?” She yawned and let her head roll back.
“For intruding. And frustrating you. And mostly for almost killing you.” He watched his hands as he picked his cuticles.
She surprised him by rolling her head onto his shoulder. “It’s okay. I should have told you what not to do, but I was wrapped up in my job. I forget about mortals sometimes and their need to have a purpose. For me, it’s an existence of being created for one thing, to defeat evil. Mortals are like fragile little clay jars until they find their spirit form and join the rest of the world. They think they’re the only ones here, because they are the only ones physically damaging the planet, but the rest of us are here, waiting for them to die and figure it out. Earth is the universe’s childcare for humanity. We try to protect them because they don’t know any better.”
“Wow. So, I’m just a child you’re trying to protect?” Milo felt defeated. He didn’t know why.
“No, Milo. You are a soul I want to protect.”
She chuckled. “I honestly don’t know.”
“So, what’s our plan? Since they want to kill me, I’d make good bait. I mean, as long as there’s a bunch of people who will storm in and rescue me before anything bad happens.” He nudged her head with his shoulder.
“No, I’m going to leave you there.” She looked at him and rolled her eyes. “Of course, we’ll be right behind you. You’re being very strong, Mark.”
He laughed long and loud.
They contrived the outline of a plan. It all hinged on finding the dagger with the holo screen and ambushing them. They’d place Milo at their favorite hang-out, Dirty Mike’s, and have him brag a bit about surviving a bullet to the shoulder. When they lured him out of the bar or back to their nest, the team would infiltrate and destroy them, taking back the dagger. Milo would play the unknowing fool who didn’t understand his connection to the dagger.
She fell asleep with her head on his shoulder, snoring softly and leaning against him. He sat there, enjoying the feeling of being a pillar for someone, being needed, useful, and wanted. He couldn’t tear himself away. As much as he knew he should go back to his own room, he couldn’t drag himself from her. He’d never been in this position before and he was drunk with it. He laid his head on top of hers and fell asleep.
He didn’t dream. Milo slept like the dead.
His body was shaking, and it woke him. “What are you doing here?” Maira was not happy.
Milo hopped up. “I’m sorry. We were talking and fell asleep.”
She grumbled something about how people shouldn’t be subjected to others in the morning. Milo looked at the clock in her windowless room. Seven. He had time to shower and brush his teeth before they met Raguel.
“I’m going to shower. I’ll meet you in Raguel’s office.” He darted from the room.
By the time he entered the first-floor office, he expected to be last, but no one was there. He entered and took a seat. He could hear people talking nearby. A door behind him opened and he could hear the people clearly. He turned to see Raguel enter from a conjoined conference room, complete with huge lacquered table set with coffee and water. Milo rose.
“We started earlier. Maira just beat you down here. Come on, Milo.”
He sat at the table, but he felt more like a child than he ever had. They spoke about tactics and weapons and covert operations that went so far above Milo’s head, if it was water, he would’ve drowned. He tried to follow and nodded when appropriate. He felt eyes on him. Some were kind and others glared at the incoming mortal. There was only one face he cared about upsetting. He glanced at Maira from the corner of his eye. She held a packet open on the table and chewed absently on the end of her pen, alternately chewing and tapping it on the table. She looked tired.
She looked right at him. He smiled. She rolled her eyes, but grinned slightly, shaking her head.
“Milo. I need to know you’re okay with this.” Raguel stood with his fingertips touching the table surface. Milo hadn’t heard a word they’d said. He wasn’t familiar with some of the terminology and he didn’t know what parts affected him directly and which didn’t.
He guessed that as long as they had all agreed it was a good plan and they were comfortable; they would make sure he was okay. There wasn’t much he could contribute to the conversation. “I’m fine with it, as long as someone can explain to me what I need to do and when.”
“You’ll have an earpiece and we’ll walk you through it.” Raguel bowed slightly toward him. “We’ve found the dagger’s location and we have reliable information telling us where they’ll be tonight. We will meet them there, you will lure them out, and we’ll attack. And if they get away, a second team will meet them back at their dwelling, hopefully surprise will give us the upper hand.”
Milo agreed and the meeting adjourned. He was free to do what he wished for the next twelve hours. He figured he’d go eat something. He was entering the foyer when Maira caught up with him.
“Hi,” he said.
“You’re doing a brave thing.”
“Am I?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “Aren’t you planning to protect me?”
She laughed. “I suppose I am. But I’m proud of you anyway.”
He smiled. It was nice to hear. “What should I do all day? What do you do? Go to classes or something?”
“We do have training courses. I teach two of them.” She winked at him. “One is a tactical course and one is a defense workshop where each student works at their own pace. I suppose you could sit in on one, if you want. Have you seen the library?”
“There’s a library? Does it have books about other dimensions?” Milo was suddenly excited at the opportunity to have so much time.
“Yes, they do. Let’s go eat and I’ll show you where it is.”
Milo found to his utter dismay that most of the books dealing with life in other dimensions was written in languages he didn’t think were mortal. He’d never seen those shapes before in Earth’s languages. But he was dedicated and spent hours rifling through books explaining Heaven’s political system, which was as confusing to him as reading his grandma’s Bible.
He sifted through books of Heavenly art and was captivated by the beauty of the place. The colors were richer and brighter, the depictions enchanting in their simplicity. He was pouring through one such book when a boy stuck his head in the door.
“Master Raguel said to tell you, to meet him, at the, the…” The boy tapped his chin. “Oh! In the garage.”
“Thanks.” Milo closed the book and put it on the shelf. “Hey, kid. Wait,” he called.
The boy reappeared. “Yeah?”
“How do I get to the garage?”
“Go out back. Through the kitchen. At the end of the drive. It’s huge. You can’t miss it. Are you goin’ on a mission?” The boy’s eyes were huge on his face. “With Master Raguel?”
“Yeah. I guess so.” He walked out the door and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Thanks, kid.”
The boy smiled at him. “I’m Cal.”
“Good to meet you.”
Milo walked to the garage. It was an enormous structure. Did they have a blimp in there? When he opened the door, he understood. A fleet of cars and motorcycles were parked in rows. There were a few boats and jet skis over to the side all parked on their own trailers. There were four semi-trucks and a private jet. He stood in the open door with his mouth slack. When they laughed, he noticed the group of people watching him.
Raguel stepped over to him. “We all have that expression the first time we see it. It’s kind of an initiation.”
“How is all this in Chicago?” How could this organization not be famous?
“We are supernaturally hidden, Milo.” Raguel smiled in a fatherly way, his head tiled slightly to the side.
“Gotcha.” He had no idea what that meant, but either he’d figure it out, or not.
Raguel sent them out in two pairs of cars. Milo and Maira’s was a broken-down Taurus, but the others took shiny black cars.
“Why are we in this one?” Milo wrinkled his nose.
“We’re going to a part of town where we don’t want to stand out…or get robbed. We’re on a mission,” she spoke monotone and clipped her words.
“Maira? Are you okay?” They were driving down the dark street of the residential area. She looked angry watching the light turn red.
“I want you to listen to every word I say tonight. Do you hear? Do everything I say. Do not deviate.”
“I will. I promise. What’s wrong?” he asked. She was making him nervous.
She sighed. “I just lost a partner, and now I’m on a mission with a mortal as bait. If I screw this up, you get hurt. Got it?”
He realized she was taking the blame for what happened with her partner. And she was afraid. He smiled at her. “Nothing is going to happen to me. I want to join the academy. I have my whole life ahead of me. I’m gonna be a super agent, you watch.”
She returned his smile tight-lipped. He could tell she still doubted herself. He would be extra careful and do everything they told him. He tested the volume on his hearing aid thing, and watched the neighborhoods increase in decay until they parked in front of Dirty Mike’s. It was a run-down place stuck between two other dark buildings with a red sign blinking Dirty Mike’s and Dollar Beer Mondays.
Milo got out of the car and waltzed into the bar. No one noticed him. He bought a beer and made his way over to the pool tables. He watched for awhile, listening to the conversation. They were talking about deals they’d made, wins they’d had. He laughed with them and a few men gave him the side-eye.
“Good,” Maira said in his ear. She was at the bar with her back to them and a hoodie covering most of her face. “Now try to join.”
When an opening came up, Milo stepped forward. He tossed back the rest of his beer and picked up the queue. He played a terrible first game and won a few people some money, so they began to talk to him.
“Where you from, rookie?” A bearded man asked him, placing a meaty hand on his shoulder.
For once Milo wasn’t ashamed of his neighborhood. He would fit right in. So, he told them. He also said he’d had a burglary the night before, might as well start dropping hints… A few men perked up.
“What are you doing?” Maira hissed. “I didn’t give you the cue yet.”
Milo had missed that part. He was ready to go into full brag mode, but he stopped himself. Then another heavy hand gripped his shoulder from behind and squeezed his bullet wound. When Milo cried out in pain, someone yelled, “It’s him! Get him!”
“Shit.” Maira muttered and spun into action. Milo watched her catapult from her bar stool, across two tables, land her hands on the third, push off and jump the last, to kick the closest guy in the back of his head.
Hands were all over Milo. Pressing him down and pulling him toward the door. “Maira!”
He saw glimpses of her swinging fists. “Get down, Milo.”
He did his best to go completely limp and they dropped him on the floor. He didn’t see what Maira had done, but the men all around her went down and a bar stool flew out the window. The men who were dragging him pulled his arms toward the door, but he lay on the floor making it as difficult as possible.
“Hang on, I’m coming.” Maira made the cutest grunting noises that he’d ever heard when she fought. In the movies they sounded so gruff and manly, but she sounded like she was enjoying her job. And occasionally she’d laugh.
Suddenly, his feet were picked up and he heard one man yell, “Go! Go! Go!”
As they exited the door, Milo heard gunshots. “Maira!”
She was still fighting. “I’m…okay…” But the way she panted assured him that she’d been hit.
He was shoved into a car and a bag was put over his head. He wasn’t sure why they weren’t killing him, but he thanked his lucky stars they hadn’t. It was starting to settle in that he was screwed, and Milo began to feel like he couldn’t breathe. There wasn’t enough oxygen inside the sack. He pawed at it, but other hands held his down and he felt the sharp bite of a zip tie around his wrists.
His heart pounded as they sped off. He heard muffled voices, but the one in his ear was the only one he cared about. She had finally gotten through the mob and was in her car. “I’m coming. Don’t worry. I’m on my way,” she said.
He wanted to answer but couldn’t.
“Cough if you’re okay, Milo,” she said quietly.
Milo coughed, though his throat was tight, and it sounded more like a gurgle.
“Okay, I think I see the car. There are still a lot of people out here. But not many speeding along with two guys in the front and three in the back. Is there a bag on your head?” Her voice was a balm to his cracked existence. He nodded his head in exaggerated fashion.
“Hey! What are you doin’?” He heard the voice as he received a blow to the head.
Maira growled in his ear.
He wasn’t as worried anymore. As they rode to their destination, he heard them talking on the phone.
“Yeah Boss. This is the guy… Okay… Sure.” Then to the men in the car, “We gotta take him to West.”
Then the radio clicked on and he couldn’t make out anything else until the car stopped and he was shoved out. “This is your lucky day.” He heard the voice next to his ear. They walked him up a few steps and into someplace dark, that was all he could tell.
He could hear Maira in his ear while she spoke to the rest of the team. She gave the coordinates and realized the kidnappers had deviated from the expected plan. They’d gone somewhere else and the team wasn’t here. Maira swore in colorful language and it made Milo want to laugh so hard. Unfortunately, he was still sporting a wide grin when his hood was ripped away. The men watching him all stepped back.
A bright light shone on Milo and he sheltered his eyes. The room around him looked like an empty warehouse. Men with guns trained on him stood at his sides, and he checked for the men behind him, as well. The area was covered in tarps and he sat on a table. The man in front of him was tall, blond, and the most handsome man he’d ever met. Milo was instantly charmed. The man slapped him. “Wipe that stupid smile off your face.”
“Ow,” Milo muttered.
“Milo? I’m here. There are just a lot of guys in there and Raguel wants me to wait for the team. I want to storm in there, but I have to wait. Okay? I’m sorry Milo. Hang on, we’re coming.” He clung to the knowledge that she was due to arrive at any moment.
The man gripped his chin. “I’m West, and you have something that belongs to me.”
“What’s that?” Milo attempted to stall the inevitable.
“Someone gave you ownership over a dagger that was mine, and now I am going to let you give it back to me.”
Milo shook. He didn’t want to die. For the first time in his life, he wanted to live. He wanted to know Maira, and work at the academy, he finally knew what he was meant to do.
“You don’t look frightened, my child.” The man’s voice was melodic. Tall, slim and graceful, he reminded Milo of… Maira, when she was transformed.
The man laughed gleefully. “Oh good.” He clapped. “You’ve figured it out, haven’t you? That I’m a deserter? Oh, I do love the look of horror on your faces when you realize what I am.”
“What are you?” Milo asked, his voice shaking.
The man spread his arms open wide and turned in a circle as he spoke. “Why, I am an archdemon.”
“Like an archangel?”
“Exactly.” West smiled at him. “I run this operation and I happen to know you are working with the academy.” He tipped up Milo’s chin with his fingertip and spoke with a syrupy voice. “I am going to let you in on a little secret. I am the ruler of this domain and I have a business plan. You get to live and be my double agent. You will feed me information and I will not hunt you. Got that?”
Smack! Milo’s head was snapped to the side with the hit and he turned back to glare at West.
“Excuse me, but you need to change your answer.”
“You heard me,” Milo said.
“Aaah. Now I understand. You think you are going to be saved… Let me tell you this. If there was a team to rescue you, they’d be here by now. Once you agree, which will happen soon, you will not be able to refuse me.” He pulled back his arm and punched Milo in the face. Milo felt warm liquid running over his lip and down his chin. He tasted copper on his tongue.
“You see?” West said. “No one’s coming. Not yet, so let’s speed this up.”
Milo spat the blood in his mouth at West’s purple shirt. West punched him in the stomach and Milo lost his breath. He worked to suck air in. Before he could fully inhale, West hit him in the mouth and his head dropped. The next blow sounded in his ear, a deafening pop.
A voice behind Milo said, “Ahem. Sir.”
“Yes?” West yelled.
“You asked me to remind you to stop killing them before they agree, sir.”
West stood up straight and smoothed back his hair. “Oh yes, Reeks. Thank you.”
West walked a circle around his defeated, slumped form.
“Milo? Can you hear me? He’s not going to stop. Just tell him whatever he wants to hear, and the team will be here shortly. They are five minutes away,” Maira said. “Hang on.”
Milo picked up his head to look at West. He could feel his eye swelling and both his cheeks were numb, blood dribbled down his chin and his stomach ached. He wasn’t cut out for this. He had just been a run of the mill wimp yesterday. If Maira said to tell West what he wanted to hear, she didn’t have to say it twice.
“Fine,” Milo said, spitting blood. “I’ll be your spy.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?” West’s voice was silky smooth. “Reeks, why don’t you go get it?”
Reeks passed before Milo and into the dark warehouse. Milo could see a barrel across the room, pulled away from a group of green-painted metal barrels. Flames shot from it, licking the sky with yellow tongues of fire. A long stick poked out of the flames, glowing red hot. Reeks put on a glove and pulled out a brand. It was a red-hot circle with a pair of parallel lines crossing through it.
“Get him ready,” West said. “Don’t worry, child. It only burns for months. Right guys?”
The men all laughed as they pulled him forward and bent him over the table he’d been sitting on. Men pulled his arms across the table and someone pulled his pants down to expose his hip. Milo thrashed.
“You don’t need to brand me!” he screamed, hoping Maira would bust down the door. Was she really going to let this happen and wait for the team? He was suddenly sweating, his head cold, and the voices around him fell away as he focused on the brand coming near him.
“Of course, I do.” West laughed. “It seals our pact. Once burned, you cannot be turned. You belong to me alone.”
Milo could feel the tingle of the supernatural on his skin, and heat emanating from the brand. He flexed his muscles and bucked against the table.
“I’d hold very still if I were you,” West said.
There was a sudden crash and glass rained down on them as Maira flew through the skylight and landed on the bench with a foot on either side of Milo. She kicked the brand away and it flew to hit the wall and rolled into an oil spot where it caught fire and flames spread. Milo yanked his hands away from the men and pulled out from under Maira. He kicked back and hit Reeks in the teeth. The man screamed and held his mouth. West merely stood back and watched with his arms crossed as Maira performed a fighter’s dance on the bench, spinning and kicking. She was pulled down from the bench but jumped to her feet and pulled out a sword, seemingly from nowhere. She sliced several men down.
West pulled his forearm across Milo’s throat from behind and spoke calmly in his ear. “We can finish the ceremony another time. Right now, you’re going to release the dagger to me.”
“I don’t know how.” Milo was glad he didn’t know, but the arm tightened.
“All you have to do is activate the dagger and say ‘Te solvo.’ Got it?”
“What’s that mean?” Milo was playing a dangerous game and he knew it, but he needed time.
“It means ‘I release you’ in Latin. Now, activate the dagger.” West growled the last words.
“I don’t know how.”
West pulled his arm tighter and Milo clawed at it as his airway buckled. He was seeing spots when West gave him some air. “I was told you activated it before.”
“It- It was an accident!” They both knew he was stalling for time.
West squeezed again and Maira saw him. She slashed some more. Several men had taken out knives and she was having a hard time keeping them away, when Milo noticed one of them was using the dagger. He tried to signal her, but she couldn’t understand. Milo squeezed his chin down and dug his teeth into West’s arm. As West howled and loosened his grip, Milo called out to Maira and pointed to the dagger.
Milo kicked behind him and heard West’s knee crunch. West howled in pain. He pushed Milo away and drew a sword of his own. “I’ll find another spy,” he said.
“Milo!” Maira threw the dagger across the room and he reached out to catch it. It bounced off his palm and flew behind West into the warehouse.
“Shit.” Milo dove for it, simultaneously missing a strike from west’s sword. Milo picked up the dagger and rolled. He stood up just as West’s sword hit the ground where his head had been. He held the dagger out and blocked the next strike. It wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. Oh yeah, the strength of a thousand men, huh? He pushed and West’s sword slipped. The opponents pressed together, their blades between them. West pushed against him and Milo flew back. They clashed weapons against one another, and Milo thought the reinforcements should arrive soon if he could stall the fight. Maira was getting close to wearing out, her moves were strained.
West threw a punch and Milo dodged it. Milo pulled back and punched West’s face with all his power. West’s head spun to the side and Milo plunged the dagger into his chest up to the hilt. West’s eyes went wide, and he gasped. He dropped his sword and staggered back. Milo grabbed the hilt and pulled as West fell to the ground. Milo ran to Maira and helped her subdue the rest of the men.
The reinforcements had just arrived and Maira was talking to them. Milo was going around and checking for pulses like one of the men had asked him to, when he noticed West standing up and pointing a gun at Maira.
Milo had no time to yell. As he heard the shot, he slowed time, running toward her. His heart was pounding in slow motion as he raced the bullet toward her. As he stepped between the bullet and her, he heard Maira scream. Time instantly sped up as the bullet pierced his heart and he flew into her, throwing them both against the wall.
The others rushed West and took him down. Maira smoothed Milo’s hair. “Oh, you stupid man,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“I messed up,” he said. “I just wanted to join you at the academy so bad.”
“Milo.” She shook her head and let it hang.
“Will it hurt?”
“What?” she whispered.
“Dying. Getting a new body.”
“I don’t know. You don’t remember much when you first wake up. Only what’s really important.” She held him to her as he coughed.
“Then I’ll remember you.” He touched her face.
“I’ll be there when you wake up,” she said, pushing his hair back. “I’ll be there. Partner.”
“Te solvo,” he replied and went limp in her arms.