Here’s an excerpt of Heaven’s Most Wanted, coming May 1st!
Heaven’s Most Wanted
Book 3 in the Angelhide Series
Aggie uttered the last of the incantation. She only recognized the final two words, since she didn’t remember any of the Latin she had once studied. “Teuri innocens!”
Protect the innocent.
With a white flash of light, the circle of chalk and strange arcane symbols drawn around Schwartz’s door lifted into a haze of dust and disappeared.
“Whoa.” Schwartz squatted on the concrete porch, dragging a finger where a circle of chalk had been caked thick just a second ago.
A wave of exhaustion threatened to drag Aggie to the ground with him. She summoned her last bit of willpower to roll her shoulders to ease the soreness in her back. Her wings fluttered ever so slightly. They’d appeared when she’d cast the spell.
She still didn’t know how to summon her divine mantle on purpose, or how to dismiss it. She’d have to stand here until they went away on their own.
“Angels and demons will no longer be able to enter your home,” she said. “You should be safe.”
“Thanks.” He jiggled the doorknob, though Aggie hadn’t touched that during the warding spell. “Cup of coffee before you go? My dad got me one of those fancy machines and over three hundred flavors. I’m only exaggerating by fifty per cent.”
“I’d love to, but I can’t.” She gestured toward her handiwork, which was now completely invisible. “I’m technically an angel, and all.”
Or rather, she was never not an angel. It was time to stop pretending.
Schwartz snapped his fingers with a grin. “Oh, right! I keep forgetting about that.”
“Must be your stalwart atheism.”
“I’ll have you know that my atheism is strong as ever. Your god is dead, your angel colleagues are assholes, and all the ‘supernatural’ stuff you can do will someday be explained by science.” He clapped his hands together as though that was all the answer he needed. “Who knows? Maybe your wings run on some sort of programming code and you’re actually a cyborg.”
Aggie looked horrified. “A cyborg? I always wanted to be an android.”
He grinned. “Care to debate the finer points of both over at Loaves N Fishes? I at least owe you a mocha-frappe-cciato-tte for your time.”
Coffee or nap? These were the hard choices. Then again, her motel was pretty uncomfortable and this was the last chance to see her friends for a while. Tomorrow, she was scheduled for transport back to Heaven. “Sure, that’d be great.”
“Cool. Just let me grab my wallet and we’ll be off. I’ll text Em, see if she can meet us there.” He ducked into the dim hallway with heavy footfalls.
“Great,” Aggie said, even though he couldn’t hear her. Maybe she could convince them to spend all day with her. She wouldn’t have to be alone. She wouldn’t have to think about Sam, and his suicide a few weeks ago.
You just started thinking about him, Aggie! Stop. You can’t break down right now. Schwartz doesn’t need a guardian angel gross-sobbing in his driveway.
She glanced down the street for a distraction—any thoughts would do. Eventually she’d need to deal with Sam’s passing and her own unexpected pregnancy, but now was not the day. Tomorrow wasn’t, either.
Late spring brought weeds up through the cracks in the sidewalks and dandelion buds to every lawn. This neighborhood was old but quiet. All these houses were full of people. Their lives were riddled with problems, too, and surely some of them needed a guardian angel.
Yeah, that was it. They all needed an Angel of Reconciliation to mend their broken relationships. Estranged fathers and sons. Long lost loves. Unforgiven sisters.
Aggie would help them all. She just had to have Heaven give her the assignment and make it official. I’ll be back for you, she promised. She pressed her senses out, as if by reaching out with her angelhide, she could nudge all the people who needed her. I’m going to find you and bring you together.
And in the meantime, Schwartz could keep her entertained with endless cheerful banter and obscure movie references. He was the perfect antidote to loneliness and grief, and maybe it was time to tell them about her baby—would they be the godparents? Of course they would. His footsteps echoed back through the hall, signaling his return. Awesome.
Just when she thought he’d pop into view, her stomach dropped. A tingling ache gripped her feet, grew upwards like a splash of freezing water.
Her heart jumped to her throat like it was trying to get away. No. Not yet. I’m not supposed to go till tomorrow!
The pain and numbness grew until it was all she could feel, see, and taste. And when she could bear it no longer, it disappeared, leaving her bones hollow.
Aggie was in Heaven.
Receiving looked a lot like the ER of a small, slow hospital. Aggie materialized without her wings in an open exam room, which looked out to the long, glass-walled counter. Two receptionists in pastel scrubs chatted on the other side.
A bald man wearing a shit-brown argyle sweater walked into the doorway. His thick glasses caught the reflection of the overhead lights, making him look dazed or at the very least, hazy. He beamed. “It’s so good to see you, Lamb.”
Aggie glanced around wildly for an escape. Two years ago this archangel had her murdered as part of an intricate plot to overthrow God. Her part as an unwitting pawn was to be resurrected as an angel so a demon could slaughter her again for her angelhide, which would then be used for the nefarious purpose of keeping God high as a kite for several weeks straight, long enough for the slow-turning cogs of bureaucracy to replace him.
Out of six angels with bright futures ahead of them, she was the only to survive.
Aggie’s entire being clenched with righteous anger and a healthy dose of fear. Raymond represented everything that was wrong with Heaven—angels were scheming, power-grubbing bastards who didn’t care about human life.
“You,” she growled. “What are you doing here?”
She should have led with ‘get out of my way’ and ‘get out of my sight, I never want to see you again.’
A soft golden glow filled the lower corners of her vision, and with it came a reassuring heat. She had unintentionally summoned her holy fire. That was okay—she would use it if she had to.
And if Raymond was here, then she definitely had to.
Five computers clicked and hummed, but Grace was plinking at the keyboard of the ancient brick of a laptop instead of her home-built towers. The air was stuffy and thick, and not even the dehumidifier running constantly could fix that. But she didn’t mind—this little unfinished corner of the basement was hers for work and play.
“I knew this thing would be slow, but it must be ready to kick the bucket.” She tapped her fingers against the edge of the cracking card table while the thinking dots danced on the screen. “Time to find a new tradition.”
But first, she needed some assurance she hadn’t gone crazy.
Meer’s quick feet padded down the stairs, her socks visible through the wooden supports. She tossed a towel into the hamper next to the machines and glanced at Grace. “What are you up to?”
“Just about to get a snack.” She needed to eat something, and maybe by the time she got back, this POS would have some answers.
Meer smiled and beckoned upstairs. She wore a pristine white jogging outfit with a matching headband, which she didn’t even need—her hair was stacked into three balls on top of her head, making her a foot taller. She had to duck when she went up or down the stairs. Served her right for ditching that blue weave. Those curls had been amazing.
“Come and celebrate,” Meer said. “I just got back from my last final.”
“That’s awesome.” Grace followed her up the creaking stairs and rounded the hairpin turn into the tiny kitchen.
Meer took two bowls of chili from the counter and put them on the table, which was shoved against the wall to make enough room to walk between it and the counters. “Sit down so I can get into the oven. The rolls should be about ready.”
Indirect sunlight streamed in through the window over the sink. Must have been lunchtime or close to it. Grace’s stomach agreed with a soft rumble.
The chili had huge chunks of peppers and a million beans. In other words, it was SC’s signature five-star vegan recipe. The chili was lukewarm, except for the habañeros that charred Grace’s tongue and made her break out in instant sweats. “Shit. He makes it this hot to fuck with us, doesn’t he?”
Meer pulled a tray of golden, puffy rolls from the oven and let the door screech itself shut. “Doubt it. You see how he packs it in. If it weren’t for us wimps, he’d make it even stronger.”
Grace couldn’t imagine what that was like. “He might accidentally put some chili in those peppers!”
Meer snorted. “Right?”
In the lull that followed, Grace swallowed as fast as she could and followed each bite with a moment of recovery.
Meer poured two tall glasses of milk. “So. When was the last time you slept?”
“I tried when you left. Woke up an hour later and couldn’t fall back asleep.”
“Did you take your meds?”
“I should have. Can’t now—not enough time before dinner tonight.”
SC’s mam was bringing out the grill for the first time that summer, with barbecue and roast veggies.
Meer looked like she might disagree, but she didn’t press the issue. Her voice was soft. “What woke you up? Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Grace blurted. Because she wasn’t. Stupid brain wouldn’t let her sleep.
Meer batted her excessive eyelashes at Grace and waited expectantly.
She could never resist those eyelashes. “I just… I started thinking about my sister again. No idea why, she just popped into my head and then I couldn’t fucking sleep.”
More specifically, she’d woken up to the sound of her sister’s voice echoing inside her skull, promising, I’ll be back for you. I’m going to find you…
Because that wasn’t crazy at all.
Meer sipped her milk. “You haven’t mentioned her in a while.”
“Yeah. I thought I was doing good.”
“You are.” Meer let her words hang as an encouragement not to argue.
“But… it’s been two years.” Two awesome years that would have been perfect without the recurring anxiety attacks and night sweats.
“Two years isn’t a long time. She was your sister. She was killed.”
Grace’s throat tightened against the thought that wanted to come out. “I hated her.”
It was an awful thing to say. She hated herself for it.
Meer nodded in complete acceptance. “She hurt you, Grace. There’s no shame in hating her for doing that to you, dead or not.”
“She can’t hurt me anymore,” Grace said to herself.
“But that doesn’t stop you from being afraid once in a while, and that’s okay.” Meer reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “Is that what you were doing downstairs?”
Busted. “Yeah. Sometimes I hack her old friends and see what they’re up to. Em had a hell of a time getting over her. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one suffering… even if we were suffering for different reasons.”
“Why don’t we go see what you found, then?”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“I know.” Meer smiled and put their dishes in the sink. “Then we’ll take it easy and you can quit playing the stalker, alright?”
“Deal.” Grace wrapped up the rolls so they could bring them to the barbecue.
They went downstairs and Grace woke up the screen saver. Profiler’s message box was loaded with Em Hendricks’s most recent history. Brute force hacking had done its job once again. That and Em had chosen passwords with her boyfriend’s name in them for the past two years.
Schwartz, said boyfriend, had said: Hey babe, you wanna get coffee with our angel friend one last time?
Five minutes later: NVM. Aggie must have already gone to Heaven. She vanished from our driveway.
Em responded, Bummer. I could have used a pick-me-up today. Hopefully she’ll give us a call when she gets back. She said it wouldn’t be long.
“I guess this means you’re the sane one,” Meer murmured from over Grace’s shoulder.
“This shit pisses me off,” Grace retorted, surprising herself with her anger. “Angels and heaven? That was Cheryl’s schtick.”
She clicked through to a message stream between Em and Aggie. This is my new email address, Aggie had written. firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.
Another message immediately followed that one. Oh and my number is 555-5977. Again, don’t hesitate. If you need me, I’ll come running, I promise.
Meer pressed her fingers into the sore muscles of Grace’s back. She always knew right where to find her weak spots. “So, are you satisfied that Cheryl isn’t back from the dead to torment you?”
“Yeah, but now I want to know who the fuck this person who think she’s an angel is.”
“I’m not going to stop you, but I am going to find a book to read.”
“But you’re done with school.”
“Which means I don’t have to dissect the pompous works of stuffy white dudes anymore.” Meer headed up the stairs. “I’ll be back with something fun.”
Grace jotted down the email address and number so she could shut down the old laptop for good. It always seemed appropriate to use her sister’s laptop for hacking and spying on family—Grace pictured Cheryl rolling in her grave over her stuff being used for—gasp, hiss—sin. But maybe it was time to move on.
Grace dumped the laptop into the garbage can. It didn’t fit, but it made a satisfying clunk or three.
They settled into companionable silence. Grace ran preliminary searches on her computer devoted to play, but she came up void. No such DNS, no such carrier.
That only made Grace want to try harder.
“Meer, would you proof read this?” Grace grabbed one of her anonymous, prepaid phones and typed a message to the mysterious angel Aggie. Hey, it’s Em. I put my phone through the wash again so here’s my new number. I can’t get Profiler to work, but I really need to talk to you. Could you download ScreenTime and help me? link.STdownload.me
Meer took the phone. “Looks okay to me. What’s the link?”
“Spy ware. If she’s stupid enough to click, I’ll be able to see all the messages she’s sending.”
“That’s pretty stupid.”
“Here’s hoping she doesn’t think twice, because it’s from her friend and she did offer to help, like twice. If not, no big—this phone can’t be traced back here.”
“Want me to hit send?”
“Go for it.” Grace fired up the spy ware dashboard while they waited for a response.
The phone vibrated and Meer frowned at the screen. “Wrong number, dumb-ass,” she read. “Dumb-ass is misspelled, by the way.”
It was worth a try.
Meer gave her an encouraging look. “Hey,” she said softly. “At least you can put your sister out of your mind.”
“Yeah,” Grace echoed. Now that she had another puzzle to fixate on—these people who called themselves angels—she could forget about Cheryl for another few months.
Raymond looked down at Aggie’s clenched, glowing fists. He chuckled and learned against the door. “You should probably hear what I have to say before you get violent.”
“No, actually, I’m not listening to a single word that comes out of your mouth. You’re full of lies and you’ve done nothing but hurt me. Get out of my way.” Aggie wasn’t normally this rude, but it felt right—given their history.
Raymond spread his hands in an open gesture. “Please?”
Aggie wasn’t expecting and she didn’t want ‘please.’ She just stared at him, because he wasn’t getting out of the doorway and she wasn’t getting close enough to touch him.
“I’ll take that as an ‘okay.'” He smiled like this wasn’t awkward at all. “So, I understand why you’re angry. I do. But here’s the thing: you and I are working together.”
She knew what all those words meant, but not coming from his voice or that smug, lying smile. How could he do this to her? “You were the one who summoned me here half a day early, weren’t you?”
He hung his head in mock sheepishness. “You got me. I was just so excited to see you, I couldn’t wait to embark on this exciting new chapter of our lives.”
The light encompassing Aggie’s hands flared. Excited to see her? Exciting new chapter of their lives? “Get out of my way.”
“Stop calling me that! Don’t ever call me that again.”
“I can see you’re upset—”
“Try furious and ready to hurt you.”
“That, too. And after everything I did to you, it’s a perfectly natural reaction.”
Aggie clenched her teeth and tamped the Essence burning at her fingertips to a steady, low glow. “Then why are you here, trapping me in this room?”
A room that was too small, too sterile, and smelled like antiseptic cleaner. What a great way to reintroduce someone to Heaven—by inducing claustrophobia.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Raymond beamed again and deserved to be punched on principle. “You’ll need to work through your emotions awfully quick. I’m asking a lot of you, but that’s because we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
“What are you talking about?” Aggie’s shoulders sagged as she gave up fighting the conversation. It was going to happen, apparently.
“Our giant project! Hazel has appointed you to my team. We’re going to overhaul the Heaven-Sent network… together!”
Aggie blinked. “What? No. I’m not doing that.”
Granted, Heaven-Sent needed an overhaul. But there was one little problem with Aggie doing the work—she had no training in IT. Or business management. Or anything, really.
“‘Fraid you are, L—Aggie.” He held out a clipboard with some paperwork but no pen. “The Right Hand of God herself wants you on the job. I got her authorization on Form 389-C: Interdepartmental Transfer.”
Aggie snatched the form so she could glare at it. Raymond’s handwriting was annoyingly perfect, with every line in the form filled out, even if it was an N/A or a TBD.
Agnes Halcomb was listed as the new acting supervisor for the special action committee Heaven-Sent project. At no point on this paper was there a spot for her to consent to this transfer. Hazel’s signature was on the bottom, dated same day, with a notary seal time-stamped about an hour ago.
She riffled through the other pages, which were supporting documents and project notes. “I never applied for this position.”
“Well,” Raymond said, “The beauty of special committees like these is that they’re appointed by the archangels. It’s less about sifting through applications and more about choosing the right person for this very critical job.”
He was so full of shit. She wanted to spit at him. And to think she put up with six months of that condescending tone and PR-bullshittery when she spent six months at Angel Academy, all the while thinking she was getting a favor.
“I don’t want it.”
He laughed. “What do you mean, you don’t want it?”
Aggie crossed her arms and stared at him. “I don’t want it. I reject this offer.”
“That’s now how it works, and besides, this is a great committee to be on. Good things are happening, and you can be a part of it.”
“I’m not working with you. Will you please get out of the doorway now?”
He didn’t. His too-happy expression never faltered. “But Aggie, this is the opportunity of a lifetime!”
“Is that before or after you killed me?”
“Would you just listen to me?”
“I did, actually. I heard what you had to say and then I said no.”
“I can’t believe you don’t want to this position!”
“And I can’t believe you’re still here after I’ve asked you like a million times to leave. Go away.” Aggie stood on her tiptoes and called out to the nearest receptionist. “Hey! I need help.”
The receptionist took great pains to pull a pore strip from a box, peel off the paper, drizzle it with drops from a water battle, and apply it to his nose before he answered. “This is Receiving. If you wish to leave again, you’ll need to utilize Departures.”
She said, “I need security to deal with this guy.”
The receptionist didn’t respond. Apparently, keeping time on his wristwatch was more important.
“I said I need help!” Aggie shouted. “Call security!”
Raymond said, “You might try toning it down.”
“You might try getting the fuck out of my way. If you think standing here is going to make me give in and accept your shitty job, you’re wrong. I won’t.”
“This is the part of the conversation you aren’t going to like.” He winced, an expression that lingered on his already sour face.
“I haven’t liked one word of it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over.”
That’s it. All I have to do is stop responding, stop letting him get to me… then he’ll get bored and leave me alone.
Raymond drew out his response, and for a moment she thought she might gain an upper hand. Then he said, “You don’t understand, Aggie. You’re on the committee. Once Hazel signed this form, it became official. You can’t undo that, you can’t just throw your hands in the air and say you’re not doing it. You are.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Aggie sputtered. “It’s just a form. Give me that.”
Raymond offered her the clipboard. “If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them.”
She pulled the form loose and let the board clatter on the tile. With a flair, she grabbed the paper at the top and ripped.
Well, she tried, anyway. This paper was tough. Resilient, even. No matter how hard she yanked, her fingers would rather give up than let that godforsaken form tear. Aggie grunted without meaning to and sounded rather like a wimp.
Seriously. She couldn’t even tear a piece of paper.
Raymond laughed at her. “Like I said, this isn’t something you can quit. That form is about as close as you can to a command direct from God.”
Aggie crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. The moment it left her hands, the paper smoothed itself and fluttered away. “God is dead.”
“His contracts still stand, as you can see.”
There was no use convincing Raymond. The person who could undo Form 389-C was Hazel, and it would be Aggie’s first action as Committee Supervisor was getting out of the contract.
She let her shoulders sag. She wasn’t good at lying, but she could at least act hopeless, because that’s how she felt. “Alright. Fine. Will you let me out of this room now?”
“Sure.” Raymond sidestepped and held out a badge with her picture and name on it. “First meeting is this afternoon. The tech house is hard to find, so I’ll swing by your apartment and pick you up in an hour.”
“Yeah. Okay. Sure.” Aggie walked to the receptionist, who was still wearing the nose pore strip. “Excuse me. I need to get to the Elders’ Area, please?”
He looked up from his wristwatch. “Sure,” he said slowly. “Go through that door over there. It’s like the second door on the right.”
“Really?” That was easy.
Raymond and the two receptionists snickered.
The guy with the pore strip flicked a map in her general direction. “Good luck with that.”
Aggie didn’t catch the map in time. It fell and she had to pick it up, because she needed it to find her way around Heaven. She’d only been in the Academy wings, which were probably a small part of Heaven.
The map was a photocopy—small, grainy, and impossible to read the labels. Great.
But if not the Elders’ Area, Aggie had no idea where to go. She hadn’t been here in eighteen months, and before that she was escorted around.
Oh, and she didn’t have a place to live.
“If you think you’re going to get Hazel to change her mind, you’re wrong.” Raymond stopped laughing long enough to speak. “But I’ll take you there so you can see for yourself.”
Aggie looked at the map again but her eyes started to cross. This was a joke. Useless. And she had no other option but to accept Raymond’s help—for now.
Pore strip pointed his white flag of a nose towards the double doors marked PERSONNEL ONLY. “I’ll beep you in to the Main Ward. Thank you for choosing Heaven-Sent.”
The problem with being the Demon of Manipulation was that no one ever believed the Demon of Manipulation. Especially not the clerk at Requisitions, a boy who was way too polite—not to mention calm—for a chubby eight-year-old. The moment he read her card, he leaned back as though he might get cooties by breathing in the same air. “Just a moment,” he said stiffly.
Beth toyed with the gold nameplate next to the clerk’s computer screen, which was emblazoned with the name Thaddeus in rubies the size of sand grains. Staring at them hurt, but really, everything in this part of Hell was posh to the point of trying-too-hard. Black sandstone floor was polished to obsidian shine, yet was soft to absorb sounds. Intricate silk tapestries rippled softly against the nudge of overhead palm fans. She heard a rumor that the counters were diamond panes, but that was from a student at Academy who probably resented Beth’s promotion from tortured soul to demon initiate.
Not that she actually was the Demon of Manipulation. Not yet. Lucifer refused to grant her a demonspine and title until she earned it on this special mission of soul-searching and discovery. She was, as he put it, to venture forth into the world and find her place in it.
And apparently, when her wisdom was gained and lessons learned and all that, she would simply ‘know,’ return to Hell, and accept Lucifer’s gracious promotion to Level Five demon.
Then came proving she was the only logical choice to become his next Left Hand, which Lucifer wouldn’t discuss until this task was complete.
Beth suspected it was all lies, anyways. What kind of self-respecting devil sent his servants on pilgrimages of soul-searching, truth-seeking and discovery?
But. The only way to win was to play, and Beth was determined to learn the long game.
Thaddeus returned with a short stack of books, stepping onto a little stool on his side of the counter so that he could see the screen without craning his head up. “There,” he said. “Sign here, here and here.”
“What am I signing for?” Beth squinted at the forms.
“That I filled your request.”
“Just let me double-check first, then.”
His face remained cold but his eyes seemed to harden. “Everything is here. I don’t make mistakes.”
This could be a test. What if Lucifer sent instructions to mess with her as part of her ‘request?’ But what was the right way to respond—distrust the bald kid or put him in his place?
She picked up the keys. The largest one—for the car, presumably—was plain and brandless, not the kind with security features built into the key or even a remote. “I want an import.”
“That is not in this request.” Thaddeus said as he typed softly on the keyboard. “If that will be all, please sign so that I may help the next client in line. As you can see, we’re quite busy.”
Beth was the only ‘client’ in the entire room. She sighed and glanced through her stuff—a journal with a cross on the cover and an orange ‘final clearance’ sticker over Jesus’s face. An abridged version of the Accord, with bonus appendix ‘Welcome to Demonhood 101.’ And perhaps most insulting, the phone on top had a cracked screen.
“Can I get another phone? One that isn’t already broken?”
The clerk tippy-toed to peer at it over his nose. “That is our only model Dash214 currently available for checkout.”
“Then find me another model.”
“Model Dash214 is specified here. I cannot deviate from the request. Standard Hell-Spawned policy,” he said. “Please sign so I can finalize your request.”
There was no winning this one. Maybe this was Lucifer’s idea—send her down to Earth with a crappy car and half-broken phone, make her start with nothing. She held out her hand. “Pen.”
As she handed back the signed forms, a slip of paper slid from an otherwise invisible slit in the diamond counter. With a bland, practiced smile straight from the bowels of retail, Thaddeus said, “This is a summary of your checkouts, complete with due dates and special instructions regarding this request. Thank you for choosing Hell-Spawned. Next?”
Beth crumpled the receipt, since that was the only thing she could take her frustration out on. Not near satisfying enough. She stomped out alone, only bothering to smooth out the receipt as an afterthought, to make sure she didn’t check in the materials late.
Due date: two years from now. Wow. Maybe that was Lucifer’s doing, too, inferring that she’d be stuck wandering on Earth for two years.
Below that date, a bold message was printed: “BTW, my two best assassins are following you down to Earth. Better move fast! Hugs, The Lord of Hell.”