Posted on January 26, 2011 by Flames
Flames Rising is pleased to present Black Angels, a story by Michael Jasper, which is part of the Gunning for the Buddha anthology. Gunning for the Buddha is available now at DriveThruHorror.com.
Author Michael Jasper has this to say about Black Angels:
“Black Angels” started with a picture and a memory, of a statue in an Iowa City graveyard. The rest came to me as I was daydreaming on my commute home from work one day. The statue from the story really does exist, in an Iowa City cemetery. Every freshman learns about it while attending the University of Iowa. The Black Angel is spooky. Especially at night…
Black Angels by Michael Jasper
He pulled the hood of his gray coat tighter around his head, hiding his unlined face. Tomorrow the workers would tear out the slab, all that remained of the obsolete cemetery. He stood in front of the statue’s base as the sun turned the cloudy sky red, then purple. All too well he knew the legends surrounding the statue that had once rested on this slab, but that had not kept him from returning for a final visit to the Black Angel.
In the center of the block of cracked concrete, three inches of blackened copper remained, in the shape of bare feet. There, on the outside of what had once been the left foot of the statue, were three tiny white marks. Fingerprints.
The ninety-seven-year-old man reached out and, for the second time in his life, he touched the Black Angel.
Tom Arneson was betting he could get Mercy to the cemetery by telling her the story of the Angel. And unlike his run of bad luck in the past two years, he was positive this bet would pay off for him.
“It came to Iowa City from France,” he said, his voice quivering from a mixture of excitement, nerves, and need. He handed Mercy a beer and stuffed three cans into his jacket. “Took a team of four horses to deliver it to Oakland Cemetery, back in 1911. And get this — the statue had started out white, but it turned black during its first Halloween in the cemetery.”
Mercy gave Tom a long look as she pulled on her leather jacket. Having met her only two days ago, Tom didn’t know her well enough to really understand what that look meant. And after tonight, he would never get another chance to learn its meaning.
“You want to go there,” Mercy said. It wasn’t a question. “Tonight.”
“You got it,” Tom grinned.
“I think I liked the metal-goth club you took me to last night better. Or do you always take girls to the graveyard on your second dates?”
“Ah, come on,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound like he was pleading. “It’ll be a blast,” he added.
They left his apartment and walked north. Tom finished one beer and started another, tossing the can onto a gravel driveway. Leaving campus behind, they walked past unlit houses and empty lots in the older part of town. A rusted-out Ford Escort puttered past, filling the air with the stink of burnt oil.
To keep Mercy from getting suspicious, and to keep himself from losing his nerve, Tom told stories about the Angel.
“Now, the base of the statue was supposedly cut from the same rock that they rolled from Jesus’ tomb Easter morning. And the Angel takes a flight every Christmas at midnight, returning before dawn — like Santa,” Tom added with a barking laugh.
“And you waited ‘til it was dark to show it to me?” A flash of anger showed in Mercy’s brown eyes like a hint of lightning. She shook her head, her curly blonde hair falling around her shoulders in a way that made Tom’s heart ache.
No, Tom thought, even as he leaned closer, inhaling Mercy’s smell of cloves and roses. I have to do this, repay my debts. Otherwise, I’m going down. Hard.
He hadn’t told Mercy about the Angel’s black eyes that would cry tears of rusted silver for lost souls, and most of all, the danger of touching the Angel if you were impure.
“Oxidation,” she said as they passed through the gate outside of Oakland Cemetery. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be smelling the crisp autumn air around them.
Tom closed the creaking gate with a wince. “Huh?”
“Copper oxidizes.” She opened her eyes and tapped on his chest, twice, and Tom felt like his heart had stopped. “That’s why the statue turned black.”
Tom looked at her as they walked down the path of uneven bricks embedded into the ground, passing blocks of grayish-white concrete on either side. Had she been able to see his eyes then, he knew he’d have his thoughts displayed in them like a neon sign. But his face was hidden by the darkness, and the Black Angel was just ahead of them.
A silver coin, almost hidden in the grass, sat right in front of Tom’s shoe, but he wasn’t looking down. He was looking up, at her, staring like a kid at wings he could barely make out against the night sky. He’d seen the statue before, of course, but she still stole the breath from his lungs. As he stared, he’d felt something drop in his gut, as if he’d just dropped ten floors in an elevator.
The Angel was taller than a human, and on her slab of concrete she loomed over Tom and Mercy like a nightmare. Her bare right arm was held up as if to ward off a blow from above, while the other arm reached out parallel to the ground as if for balance. Lifted up to the sky, the Angel’s starkly beautiful face was streaked with lines of gray rust, like tears.
But the realistic details of her face, the implicit threat of that upraised arm, and the imposing height weren’t what gave Tom the shivers. It was the massive, seven-foot-long wings — one nearly touching the ground, the other spread to the side like a feathered awning — that made his mouth go dry.
Falling, his mind whispered again, then he shook himself out of his reverie, sloshing beer onto his arm. I have to do this.
When he looked down at his shoes to make sure he wasn’t dropping through the earth, he saw the coin. A silver shekel, to be exact. He’d looked it up on the Internet, and this was one. Tom picked up the coin with his free hand, touching with his thumb the coin’s upraised eagle perched on the prow of a ship. Just as promised.
Tom looked away from the coin to find Mercy staring at him.
“Tom,” she said. “Where did that come from?”
HE shrugged and slid the coin into his pocket. It was rough-edged and surprisingly heavy. It had to be genuine.
Mercy’s face dropped, as if in disappointment. Then an explosion rocked the night.
The explosion was unlike anything Tom Arneson had ever felt in his life. There was no sound, only the numbing blast of wrongness. The shock wave knocked the half-empty can of beer from his hand and burst the two beers inside his jacket.
Dripping and shuddering with cold, Tom grabbed Mercy and pulled her to the ground behind the statue, almost touching the statue above them in the process. Panicking, he probed his wet shirt. He wasn’t bleeding, just out of beer.
“What was that?” Mercy spoke directly into his ear. “Tom?”
He swallowed, trying to get his ears to pop. Something hot and wet trickled from his left ear.
Concussion, he thought. Fuck.
Another explosion shook him, and Mercy lifted herself halfway up behind the statue before Tom could stop her. A second later, she slid back down next to him, eyes wide.
“What is it?” Tom peeked around the statue.
Mercy answered by pointing toward the brick path leading to the Black Angel.
Tom’s first reaction was to check to make sure he still had the coin in his pocket. But he suppressed the urge and stared hard at the dead grass and white crosses around him. As he squinted, he wondered at the warmth of Mercy’s hand in his left hand. She wasn’t even shaking.
“There,” she said into his ear, her whisper like a scream as his ears finally popped. “Catch it in the corner of your eye.”
Following her gaze, Tom again saw nothing. He tried to smile, but just as he was about to say something about it, a third explosion knocked him off-balance.
Three? Tom felt true panic overtaking him. The agreement had been for only two. Not three.
His upper body drenched in Old Milwaukee, he was shaking with cold when he saw the shadow of a two-foot-tall headstone move. The shadow lifted up, unfolding like a man rising from a crouch. It grew legs. Arms. A head.
Another explosion lacerated his ears, then another and another. Before he could blink, his eyes became unfocused with fear. In that instant of unfocusing, Tom saw inside the blackness of the moving shadow in front of them. He saw narrowed black eyes, a greasy, dog-like nose, and sharp yellow teeth in the depths of the moving shadow. As he stared, two other shadows pulled themselves together and flanked the first.
This, Tom Arneson wanted to scream as Mercy wriggled out of his grasp, was definitely not part of the agreement.
The agreement had been simple: thirty pieces of silver in exchange for Mercy.
Tom hadn’t known anything about the silver coins before two o’clock a.m. the previous night, immediately after he’d gotten home from his first date with Mercy. Ears throbbing from the music of the night club they’d just left, head spinning from Mercy’s kisses, he didn’t know until he’d closed and locked the door behind him that he had a visitor.
Standing behind Tom’s second-hand chair in his combination living room and bedroom was a short, thin man in a dusty gray overcoat. The man held a battered leather pouch, shiny with use. Before Tom could do or say anything, the brown-skinned man opened the pouch. Tom’s voice died at the sight of the coins inside.
“You and I need to talk,” the man said. “Have a seat.”
Completely unnerved by the man’s presence, with the taste Mercy’s lipstick still clinging to his lips, Tom did as he was told. He heard himself offering the man, who smelled of hemp and cheap wine, a cold beer in exchange for another look at the silver coins. The man refused the drink.
“We’ve been looking for a sturdy young man like you,” the man said, fingering a purplish scar that wound its way around his thin neck. He wouldn’t sit down, but kept pacing around the piles of laundry, beer cans, and empty fast food bags of Tom’s apartment. “My people have found someone they need to contact, someone that you seem to know. Call me the middleman. Just like you, my boy. We can both profit from these circumstances.”
Tom was still staring at the thick coins in the pouch next to him on the end table, thinking of how much they had to be worth, aching to touch one of them. The man stopped pacing.
“We know of your new friend,” he said. “We’ve been looking for her for quite some time, though she proven to be quite elusive. In exchange for one simple task, the Nephilim and I are willing to pay you with the contents of this pouch. My employers would have come here themselves, but their movements are a bit limited, and they tend to make slightly, ah, shall we say, dramatic entrances.”
“Right,” Tom said. He was still staring at the coins. “What the hell are these things, anyway?”
“These are silver shekels, boy, made in the coastal city of Tyre, the only coins accepted at the Jerusalem Temple. In such pristine condition as these, one of these shekels would be enough to pay off your debts. And I’m offering you more than one.”
“Who told you about my debts?” Tom tried to stand up, but he felt a weight on his chest, keeping him in place.
“I have my sources,” the man said, rattling the coins in the pouch. “Mr. Valerio is getting quite impatient, by the way. His boys are quite big, and they never get to see much action these days. There was mention of broken limbs to help speed up the loan repayment process. Broken limbs, plus interest.”
Tom stared up at the man standing over him. Gazing into the man’s dark eyes was like falling into lightless tunnel.
“What do I have to do?” Tom said.
The man nodded. “I knew,” he said with a faint smile, “that I’d found a kindred spirit in you.”
In the cemetery, behind the Black Angel, Tom Arneson was counting backwards.
There had been six of the silent explosions. Six.
“Tom,” Mercy said in a calm, almost resigned tone of voice. “Who the hell have you been talking to?”
He glanced at Mercy, her long hair in her face as she huddled closer to the statue. She was beautiful in almost distracted way that Tom had immediately noticed when he walked into the off-campus tavern where she was tending bar. He’d never been to the tavern before, but all of the bars on campus had refused to let him come back until he’d taken care of his stack of unpaid bar bills, so he’d come to the Half-Dollar Tavern. With his last bit of money, he’d bought twenty scratch-and-win lottery tickets from Mercy, convinced he’d get a winner.
When he’d scratched off an entire set of losers, Mercy had smiled at him and poured him a beer, and they began talking. At the end of the night, when all three of his credit cards came up invalid, she shrugged and paid for him, then went home with him.
Now, two nights later, Mercy stood next to him with her face cast into shadow, her eyes hardened with some emotion Tom couldn’t decipher. Anger? Fear? Resignation?
Tom looked away, and the shadows caught his eye again.
Inside the first shadow glimmered a man-sized beast made up almost entirely of yellowed, sharpened teeth. The teeth lined the mouth, as might be expected, but they also rippled up and down its shadowy arms and chest and legs. They moved, opening and closing up and down the creature’s body, as if it were covered in hungry mouths. Tom squeezed his eyes shut.
I have to do this, he told himself, touching the cold coin in his pocket. I need to do this.
When he opened his eyes again, the two other shadows had spread out, with the first in the middle. They moved as one toward the statue of the Black Angel. Two more shadows coalesced on the other side of the brick path.
He forced his eyes open and reached for Mercy. Her breathing was shallow and forced.
“Tom,” she hissed. “How did they know we were here?”
Wiping a line of blood from his face, Tom searched the gravestones and walkway for the sixth creature. If they brought three times their promised number, that must have meant they wanted both him and Mercy. Or they were expecting some kind of fight. Maybe Mercy was more powerful than Tom could’ve imagined.
“How did they know we were here?” Tom said, responding to her at last, his eyes still unfocused. “They know because I–”
Before he could explain how he’d told the shadow creatures to meet them there on that night, his words were drowned out by a sizzling burst of light, like lightning that eradicated the darkness for a few seconds of daylight brightness.
“They came,” Mercy said, loud enough for Tom to hear her. “I don’t believe it. It worked.”
Tom slid down to the ground, deafened once again as well as blinded. He rested his head against the base of the statue.
I’m a dead man.
Moments later, after his eyes and ears recovered, he saw that the cemetery was filled with a white, strobing light, accompanied by the roar of battle from all sides. Mercy stood up next to him, only partially shielded by the Black Angel’s wing.
Tom pulled her down out of the combat zone. Even when she was next to him, her face remained dazed, with a slight grin. The battle paused as voices shouted from the flickering shadows around them. The newcomers must have seen Mercy and pulled back. Spinning dots of light glinted in the starless sky above them, as angry, gutteral words assaulted Tom’s aching ears.
“What is that?” Tom hissed. “Greek? German?”
“Latin.” When she finally looked at him, her eyes were red-rimmed, on fire. “Surely you know Latin, don’t you, Tom?”
Above them, five figures of light dropped from the sky, followed by a sixth and seventh. While the shadows had pulled together to form the creatures made up of teeth, the creatures of white energy hovering above the cemetery seemed to suck the remaining light from the night and bring it into themselves. Their glowing faces were devoid of all detail. Standing in a semi-circle around the statue, the creatures of light outnumbered the shadow-and-teeth creatures by one.
“They came,” Mercy said again.
Tom touched the cold, heavy coin in his pocket one more time as arrows and spears of light began flashing past their hideout behind the Black Angel.
No coins are worth all of this, he thought. I should’ve known this deal was screwed when that skinny bastard tried to kiss me before he left the apartment.
Silent now, the surrounded shadow creatures formed a defensive circle, crouching back-to-back in front of the statue. They reached out and formed weapons from the shadows surrounding them. With a surge of mad screeching, they leapt up to attack the figures in white.
Tom realized they were screaming the same thing, over and over again.
“What are they saying?” he asked Mercy.
“Mine,” she said. “Like kids, fighting over a toy. Mine.”
Tom swallowed. “They’re protecting us?”
Mercy put a hand to her forehead, as if massaging a headache. Tom felt something shift inside of him, and his face grew hot with guilt. She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.
“You could look at it that way, I guess.”
I don’t know this girl, Tom thought. I’m just here for the silver, that’s all.
Battle raged around them as the creatures in white took to the air again, flinging their missiles of light at the shadow beasts. The air was filled with a horrible popping and grinding noise as light met dark, and the weaker of the two canceled out, sometimes dark, sometimes light.
Next to him, Mercy rose to her feet. She began walking toward the fighting creatures with her arms uplifted.
“Stop,” Tom heard her say. A shadow beast and a winged man fought not five feet from her. Tom couldn’t muster the strength to reach for her even as she reached out to the two fighters.
“Stop!” Mercy screamed again.
A heartbeat later, the night sky tore open. A winged man dropped to the earth like a falling star, directly in front of the two creatures. He held his hands at his side, as if for balance, and Tom was reminded of the Black Angel above him.
Who else was coming to this little soirée? he thought madly. Jesus? Moses?
The shadow beasts screamed and fell back into the darkened cemetery, melting once again into the shadows. The other creatures in white dropped onto their faces.
A name filled Tom’s mind. Not Jesus or Moses, but Saraquel.
“Oh, fuck,” he said.
In his mind was a vision of a stone being rolled from the front of an ancient tomb by a giant man with wings longer than Tom was tall. The same winged man stood in front of them, beckoning to Mercy. The hints of eyes and a nose were slowly coming into shape on the man’s white face, and his wings flapped gently, the sound like a huge bellows.
“Why did you come here, Mercedes?”
Tom touched his ear, but the blood was gone, along with the ringing. That voice was too beautiful not to hear clearly.
Standing again, Mercy shuddered in her thin white shirt. She had wriggled out of her leather jacket, and it sat next to Tom, forgotten.
“Did you not realize?” the winged man continued. “Did you want to be caught? They cannot touch you anywhere but here.”
“Maybe,” Mercy said, standing shakily and rubbing her bare arms. “I may have wanted that, Saraquel. The borders are weakest in cemeteries. And I know how much angels hate to lose.”
The man in white shook his head. He was so beautiful Tom wanted to cry, or dash his head on the stone in front of him.
“I saw you fall like lightning from Heaven, Mercedes. We know of your sin, of your compassion for the failings of mortal flesh. But Heaven needs its Angel. We shall take you back.”
“You’d do that? After I deserted you?” Mercy waved a hand at the destruction around her. “After I left you, for this?”
“We shall take you back into our fold. For rehabilitation.” He smiled. “For our Angel of Mercy, we can show you the same.”
She shuddered again, but stepped away from the statue without a look back at Tom. As she walked away from him, Tom felt a small part of himself die.
The creature in white took Mercy’s hand, and immediately the air was filled with the stink of burning flesh. Mercy’s blonde hair burst into a yellow-white flame at the creature’s touch, yet Mercy didn’t even flinch. Instead, she smiled.
The coin slipped from Tom’s nerveless fingers, hitting the cold earth without a sound.
“Nephilim!” shouted the angel holding Mercy. “There will be no rekullah tonight. Mercy is not a commodity to be bartered for and traded for among traitors and hellspawn such as you. Remember the Word and the judgment.”
The creatures of blackness screamed, their ragged voices like the sound of enormous chains, but they dared not pull themselves again from the sheltering shadows.
“Mercy?” Tom said, reeling.
“Tom,” Mercy said, her skin melting into light. Her face was fading and filling with light, as if she was being lit up from the inside. “Don’t question anymore. Heaven has rehab for Fallen like me. I’ll be safe there. In case you were worried.”
Mercy hugged herself, as the outline of a pair of wings took shape around her. “Though it won’t be much fun at first.”
They were gone in a flash of energy that left Tom blinded.
Blinking hard, Tom stood all alone next to the Black Angel, Mercy’s leather coat next to him like a crumpled bag. His sight was coming back to him, slowly. He grabbed the coat and held it close, trying to inhale the last traces of Mercy before her scent was gone forever.
His solitude lasted a few more seconds before the shadows began to reform again around him. Sharpened, jagged yellow teeth grinned at him as his eyes tried to adjust to the darkness.
“Nephilim! His voice broke as he repeated the name he’d first heard two nights ago. “Remember the deal!”
Harsh laughter answered him.
Tom tried not to let his eyes go out of focus, but they betrayed him. Two of the monstrous teeth men stood on his left, one on his right. The creature in the middle, the largest, approached him. The big one was limping from the pitched battle of short seconds ago. It gave Tom a wicked smile that spread across its monstrously long face. Before his eyes snapped back into focus, Tom could see the sharp yellow teeth covering the creature’s entire body. Those teeth looked hungry.
“Deal?” Its voice was the sound of chewing gravel. “The deal, our rekullah, just abandoned us and left with the fucking angels, dog-boy! With Saraquel,” it spat. “Saraquel the tomb-robber, the stone-mover, the dead-raiser, Saraquel-the-fucking-archangel!”
The shadow creatures pressed closer, and Tom stepped back, unable to breathe. The sound of rattling chains filled the air.
“The wandering Jew betrayed us all,” the creature said. “We should have hanged him when we had the chance.” It moved closer with a heavy rattle of metal and the chattering of teeth. “No, we came here for a soul, dog-boy. We won’t return empty-handed.”
With nowhere left to run, Tom reached up to the statue. With his fingers frozen to the Black Angel, he waited for the teeth.
Frustrated screams burst inside his head. Through his eyelids, another show of white light had erupted. As before, the light came from above. The same senses-shattering explosions that had started the night’s madness began, but in reverse, as if something was being sucked back into oblivion instead of being spat out from there.
After long seconds had passed, he opened his eyes. The biggest of the shadow creatures remained, though it shimmered and faded in and out of focus without Tom having to adjust his vision. It looked to Tom as if the creature was still there only through a sheer act of rage and willpower.
“You have a guardian,” the creature spat. It raised his shadowy, teeth-infested hand until its forefinger touched Tom’s chest. Something black and spiky was lodged in the teeth of that infernal hand, and Tom writhed like a worm on a hook.
“Tonight you will live,” the teeth-beast continued. “But not even she can protect you from my curse. My vengeance against you is this: you shall live forever. That way we won’t have to deal with your betraying soul in the underworld. Ever.”
The shadow beast disappeared with a sucking un-explosion. Tom fell back against the base of the glowing statue, which was already fading, its light losing its power.
“Live forever?” Tom asked the night sky when he was able to breathe again. He saw the flash of silver on the dead grass. “What kind of curse is that?”
A grating voice scratched its way into his mind. “You may change your mind in fifty years, boy. Ask your good friend Judas how it feels. Ask him if he ever tires of his wandering.”
Tom looked behind him at the Black Angel. Fresh tears of rust covered her cheeks, and the imprint of his handprint glowed on her left foot. He bent for the piece of silver, but the coin held the profile of John F. Kennedy now.
Fifty cents for Mercy’s life. Fifty cents to sell his soul.
Swearing under his breath, Tom grabbed Mercy’s leather jacket, and walked off into the night, determined to prove the shadow beast wrong.
The old man let go of what was left of the Black Angel statue, his ninety-seven-year-old hand still smooth despite the years since that night eight decades ago. The wind was turning cold, but he didn’t bother fastening his coat. He’d lived in countless small towns and villages around the world during the past eight decades, gambling away fortune after fortune. Always he was able to find money, somehow. He could not starve.
The old man was tired of the constant guilt that fed his loneliness since that night, the nightmares, the fear of shadows. He wished for rest.
Or at the very least, though he knew he did not deserve it, Tom Arneson wished for some kind of mercy.
“I am a fool,” he whispered to the four acres of land scraped clear around him. The people of this new era had beliefs Tom could barely understand. They saw land as too valuable for planting the dead; this cemetery would be a landing strip for the inter-city shuttle in half a year. The Black Angel was probably already melted down and awaiting new life in some nano-factory.
Tom stepped away from the base and froze. He thought he’d heard a familiar voice, calling his name.
“Mercy?” he said, his heart clenching. Was it her voice, he wondered, or the rattle of chains? “Is that you?”
He tried to form words of apology, but they lodged in his throat. He toppled forward, reaching for the base of the statue, but he missed it. The earth rushed up to meet him, pain convulsing him so quickly he had no time to cry out. He was dead before he hit the ground.
The only answer to his question was the sound of ancient, powerful wings.
* * *
Gunning for the Buddha is available now at DriveThruHorror.com.
This story for was provided and published with express permission from Michael Jasper and UnWrecked Press.