“You know you’ve called a meeting with the right man when he brings profiles of suspects preemptively,” boasted Raphel.
“News travels fast in this department. This is this morning’s newest compilation of black souls” Jack said, handing the file to his superior. “Do you have the report on Pete? What the hell happened to a mid-level archangel? They aren’t easily off their game.”
“According to an anonymous tip, they had escaped separately but are traveling as a small group of seven. Pete was using an ambient indicator to track them when he was ambushed.”
“I thought ambient indicators were used by the living to detect the dead.”
“Pete had discovered that black souls give off a reading in the negative numbers. He had been following two of them, when the other five disarmed him, strapped him to a chair and ripped his wings from his spinal chord, leaving him for dead.”
At certain points in his career, Jack had envied the seraphim over his temporary immortality. For Pete, wings, no matter how cleverly disguised were a give away in this case. Jack was suddenly thankful for his mundane features and ability to blend in.
“There is speculation that the group are aware of the tracking ability of the ambient detector and have a defense against it. Pete should have detected seven, not two. Hence, don’t make that your primary tool in this investigation. You’re known for your way with informants and interviews. See if asking questions quietly can get you somewhere.
Since you will be undercover, Sarah can have no contact with you. That’s more for her safety than for yours. I will have a full report of where Pete left off by morning. You can leave then. Take the rest of the day to prepare.” Raphel paused and added, “Jack, once you’re sure you have the right suspects, this is an immediate termination assignment. Pete is more experienced in these elimination missions and they blindsided him. Be careful, Jack. Very careful.”
Smoke billowed out the door of the small, Chinese restaurant. When Jack entered through the glass door and past the red, velvet curtains, he had to cover his mouth to prevent himself from coughing. Patrons held chopsticks above their heads, clipping away tiny bites of smoke and popping them into their mouths. An elderly man sat at the back corner where the light was less intense and the smoke, more difficult to detect. A slender, young woman dressed in traditional silk offered Jack a pair of chopsticks as he gestured towards Mr. Kim. He took a seat in the cracked leather booth next to the man who gracefully pulled smoke into his mouth in long, smooth ribbons.
“Do you really think any of this helps, this feeding of the soul crap?” Jack asked bluntly.
“I don’t expect an atheist to understand” replied Kim, concentrating on the smoke, never taking his eyes from the cloud just above his head.
Jack, for fear of offending his friend, clicked the tips of his wooden chopsticks together, clumsily breaking up the smoke but never grabbing it long enough to make it into his mouth. His mouth gaped open, extending his tongue as he tried, clumsily to bring the smoke to his mouth. Within minutes, Kim was laughing in spite of himself. “I must hand it to you, Roman, you certainly don’t disappoint. Thank your stars that you are in heaven’s army because you are an idiot when it comes to saving your soul. You look like a giraffe.”
Jack set the chopsticks down in frustration. “I thought the Chinese were wise and above petty mockery.”
“I’m a lost cause and an exception to the rule. I fear not even my ancestors can save me for all of the trouble I’ve caused in this life.”
“Well do I have the opportunity for you. With your help, you may never have to slurp smoke out of the air again.” Kim set down his chopsticks to give Jack his full attention. “What have you heard?” Jack wonder how much information had leaked out into the streets.
Kim leaned closer to Jack but the two men were startled by a commotion of a someone knocking over a tea tray. They looked up. Jack moved his hand reflexively over his hip to the large knife he had sheathed. A Spreader had somehow quietly snuck his way into the restaurant undetected. Finding Jack and Kim at the back, in their dark corner seemed like the perfect opportunity for a little dinner of his own. Pulling pack his hood, pieces of the top layer of his skin attached themselves, oozing and ripped off his face because it had dried to the fabric. He bared his rotting teeth as he screamed. Patrons at the front of the house echoed in reply, throwing their chopsticks behind them in a mad rush to avoid his infection.
Spreaders did just as their name indicated. They spread the latest plague that preceded the Revelation. Their infected skin and rotting body parts spread the deadly viruses. Driven by a primal desire to eat, this particular Spreader was prone to live flesh. Harrison was frozen in fear. Jack quickly turned over their table, putting a large space between the virus carrying zombie and his informant. “Get out of here!,” yelled Jack. Kim ran for the back door.
The Spreader lunged. What he had in determination, he lacked in accuracy. Jack moved carefully, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and slowly drawing the zombie in. When he had taken it as far as he could out of the public area, he pulled his knife. He spun it in the air, tossing it from one hand to the other. It distracted his opponent. The Spreader swung at him, grasping with his bony fingers and yellowed nails. Jack ducked under the awkward wave of the monster’s arms and jumped up with the full force of his muscular thighs. Mid-air, he drove the hunting knife into the Spreaders skull. Infection, yellow and viscus ran out of the opening and down his face. For accuracy in confirming it dead, Jack twisted the knife as he landed on his feet. The skull cracked in two and its body collapsed to the floor. The Spreader jerked and writhed in the death throws. More puss soaked into the old red carpeting blanketing the floor.
When Jack looked up, he saw Mr. Kim peeking from behind the draped, red, velvet curtains leading to the hallway to the back door. “Call HazMat.”
“Already on their way, Roman,” said Kim sheepishly. His words were muffled as he drew the curtain cross his nose and mouth.
By the time Jack had wrapped the body in several garbage bags, the Hazardous Materials team had the restaurant locked down and in the fumigation process. Jack stood out the back, away from the chaos. Kim snarled and gripped his stomach. “Jack, you’re..you’re melting. Should I call your captain? Your wife? Your priest?”
“Melting?” Jack looked down to find his skin dripping in pieces from his hands to the concrete. It was as if all of his muscles were liquifying too. He looked around searching for it. Kim looked too, desperate to help but clueless as to what they were searching for. Running to the beam of sunlight, Jack dropped to his knees, spread out his arms and lifted his face to heaven. Kim watched as the soldier’s shadow resembled that of the hilt of a sword. The sunlight enrobed and engulfed Jack. It ripped away at him violently, blindingly and for a moment, Kim couldn’t decide if he should pull Jack back into the shadows or run down the street for fear of his own life. As Jack began to glow, he yelled something that Kim could not make out. Was it Latin? Greek? He wasn’t sure. When Jack had finished the last word, the sun left as quickly and silently as it had arrived.
Jack stood up and rounded his shoulders. He slowly made his way back to Kim. The old man blinked at the approaching restored man. He was more than restored. Jack looked bigger, stronger, more formidable than he had been an hour ago. Kim was suddenly afraid. The small man began to tremble for fear Jack might blame him for the Spreader.
“The Merchant of Souls,” Kim stuttered. “That’s who you need to see. He knows all about the ones who escaped. Some say the Merchant is the devil in disguise. Others say he is one of the ancient undead who lives off those who can’t stand the torture of waiting judgement. Only a few who have met him ever come out of his castle.” His hands trembled as he stuffed them into the pockets of his silk robe. Jack patted the little man on the shoulder roughly, making him step forward for fear of falling over.
“And you’re just the man to make the proper introductions.”
“Me?! Are you crazy? Did you not hear what I told you in there? I’m not ready to die! My ancestors won’t even help me. I go with you, I go straight to hell. No way.”
“You know what they say about moving to a new place. It’s location, location, location. If the Merchant of Souls is the devil, he sounds like an important man to know.”