The Second Coming

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Previous: Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Motion and Dance looked like it had gotten more care on the inside, but only just. The receptionist’s table, where Elise had once done most of the accounting for the business, had a guest book and an empty donation box on it. James’s knickknacks had been moved from the shelves to glass cases, which must not have been dusted in months; Elise had to swipe a hand over them to see familiar photos underneath.

These were photos of Elise and James as they had been, not as they were now. Pictures of them on vacation during their short-lived retirement. Holding wine glasses, performing at a competition to promote the studio, teaching a class of preschoolers. It was strange to see Elise’s original mortal form. Even now, she was not beautiful, but she had been ugly by comparison. Too much like Isaac Kavanagh.

James had never been ugly. Only some of that was attributable to his angel blood, and the rest good breeding. His parents hadn’t been paired to produce a weapon, as Elise’s parents had, but had been prestigious witches of an ancient coven. James was the equivalent of a purebred dog, whereas Elise was a fighting pit bull.

She had forgotten how handsome he used to be.

The only light in the room came from the buildings bordering this one. The bright-blue LED glow of streetlights began and ended a full block away so that the artifacts collected from Elise’s old life were painted in faint shades of orange and gray. Her old knives looked rusty on display. Someone had seen fit to display her sheaths too. After decades without oiling and constant use, the leather was cracking.

Elise came across another set of photographs. In all of them, Elise and James stood shoulder-to-shoulder, barely an inch between them. They had taken such care not to touch often, back in those days. She’d thought James found her unappealing. In reality, he’d been concealing what he felt for her.

But there was one photo where they were embracing. James had been so proud at Elise’s graduation, and an old friend of Elise’s had gotten a picture of him kissing her forehead. She was almost smiling in that one.

There was a piece of paper sticking out from under the photo. Elise snapped the lock off of the case in her hand and opened the glass cover. Dust puffed into the air.

The note was new. Not dusty, not worn.

A little girl needs a mother.

It was the same handwriting as the message she’d found with Isaac’s body.

Yet this message was more confusing than menacing. It didn’t come with a dead body, which was certainly a positive, and Elise had fewer negative associations with motherhood than fatherhood. Like her mother or not, Elise’s mom hadn’t been an aggressor, but a victim. And Elise was with her infant. James was the missing one.

She didn’t understand.

That was its own kind of menacing.

There were footsteps on the other side of the wall, out in the main dance hall.

Someone was here.

Elise would have instantly reacted to almost any potential enemy. Another of the shapeshifting demons, a whole army of fiends, angels, Melinda backed by an army—if she’d been certain that it was any of those entities on the other side of the wall, she would have run in, knives exposed, prepared to do whatever it took to get information.

But she wasn’t certain.

The Traveler had instructed her to have faith in James. And that was what Elise wanted to do.

Yet his track record was terrible.

And here she was, in Motion and Dance, the place where his betrayal had first become so obvious.

If James was on the other side of the wall, Elise didn’t want to know.

She drew a knife and eased the door open.

The big dance hall waited on the other side. Its wooden floors were dull, and the mirrors cracked. There was still so much ash from the demon apocalypse of 2009. Nobody had cleaned. The triadists had preserved everything about the room in honor of gods who didn’t care for their efforts.

A shadowy figure was trying to open the closet behind the piano. Elise knew it wasn’t James the instant she saw the graceless yanking on the doorknob, and her tension eased even as she sank into a crouch, prepared to spring.

Melinda heard her. She turned and gave a start. “You found me,” she said, back plastered against the door. “He said it was supposed to take longer than that.”

Elise eased around the edge of the room, knife held to her side. “He?”

Melinda shut her mouth, as if realizing she’d spoken too much.

“Jacques Offenbach,” Elise said quietly.

The half-angel backed away. She had to be half-blooded, at the most; angels were simply not born in forms so unimpressive. They all looked like living statues. Melinda looked like a woman, a bureaucrat—and one filled with fear at that.

She didn’t have any weapons, but Elise stayed back.

“Offenbach,” Elise said again.

“I don’t know who that is,” Melinda said.

Elise lifted the knife so that the woman could see it. “Try again.”

“I really don’t know!”

“He checked into your shelter after the bombing of Craven’s. He’s hiding from me. He’s in your memories, and I know that you know who I’m talking about.”

“But I don’t have anything to do with people who stay at the shelter,” Melinda said. “I only saw you because I was told to make you stay there.”

Elise felt the anger rising. It was a slow boil, crawling from her belly up her throat. “By who?”

Still, Melinda didn’t speak. She had backed herself into the corner by the piano with her fingers spread on the wall behind her. “I just follow orders that the angels send to me. I don’t have a choice. The choirs kill anyone who disobeys.”

If there was a concerted attempt at governance from angels, then that too was a change Elise hadn’t experienced.

If the governance was performed by James…

“Where was that memory?” Elise asked. “The dark, wet room. The doorway.”

Melinda licked her lips. Her eyes flicked to the door leading to the other dance hall.

There was a piece of paper nailed to the door between rooms. At that distance, Elise couldn’t read the message.

She took two steps that way.

Melinda lifted her arms, and light shimmered at her back. It resolved into the shape of arching wings. The neighborhood lights outside darkened, flickered. “You can’t go in there yet. It’s ahead of schedule.”

Whose schedule? Elise doubted she’d have gotten an answer if she asked.

She had greater concerns than that.

The shimmering wing-shaped light had refined into the form of enormous feathers and strong-boned arches sturdy enough to carry a human into flight. They became real. Not just an image, but wings, actual wings.

Down fluttered to the ground at Melinda’s feet. The neighboring houses lost power completely, and the light beyond the windows vanished.

“You’re Gray,” Elise said. Melinda must have been Gray. Elise knew all the full-blooded angels, since she’d carried Eve’s soul alongside hers for years. She had memorized their faces and the delicate lines of their bones and the way that all of them had smiled at their mother. This Melinda, with her tacky dyed hair and contacts, was not among Eve’s daughters.

But she had wings.

Even half-angel Gray shouldn’t have had wings, and there was never a person more than half-angel. Angels didn’t interbreed deliberately. Full blood didn’t reproduce with half-blood. Purity was key.

And yet.

Melinda flung a hand toward Elise, and energy shocked between them.

“You can’t go in there,” she said, and Elise felt hooks digging into her gray matter.

Memories surged.

Elise didn’t return to the dark room, or anywhere else in Melinda’s memories. She dipped into her own past. The life that had come before.

She tumbled into her old life.

Debora McIntyre sat in Elise’s lap. They were in a trailer, seated upon a couch broken by age and stained by cat piss, and the toddler leaned the full weight of her warm little body against Elise’s chest.

“Ba,” Debora said. She shoved a toy so close to Elise’s face that it was blurry.

At that distance, Elise couldn’t make out Debora’s face. She felt only the warmth. She felt the softness of her, and the toes digging into her thighs. She smelled the baby shampoo that failed to tame Debora’s jam-caked curls.

In the memory—back in that day, almost a century ago—Elise had plucked the toy out of her hand so that she could see it. It had been a gun’s magazine. Lucas McIntyre had not sheltered his children from guns. Debora had already been encouraged to handle the parts.

Yet that magazine, in the hand of a toddler, had been something other than a weapon. A ship on the ocean, an airplane. It had been an innocent dream.

The memory flipped.

Debora was dead at a train station in France. Her body was limp within a puddle of rapidly cooling blood.

Elise wasn’t sure if she was gripping her head in both hands in this day, in reality, or if she was imagining it.

She knew for a fact that she said, “No.”

Elise didn’t want to see Debora’s little broken body again. She’d left that era behind and reshaped the world during Genesis. All the dead members of the McIntyre family had long since rotted away, and there should have been nothing left.

Except in her memory. The only witness to their deaths.

“No!”

Elise tried to push Melinda away. She’d never been a witch, but Elise had cast some warlock and ethereal magic during her time as a demon, and she remembered how it felt to weigh her mind against the powers of others.

Melinda staggered backward, falling into the mirror. Her wings crumpled.

But then she pushed again. Harder.

Elise’s vision fuzzed as memory took over once more.

Betty.

There was a blond woman, a woman who was both tall and overweight because she was so good, so shining, so gregarious that she simply could not be contained within a smaller body. Betty had loved to drink. She had loved to eat. She had loved to love, and to seduce, and to make friends.

Betty had been a classmate of Elise’s. She had started college as an older student—like Elise—and singled Elise out for her friendship after a project together.

She was the first real friend Elise had ever made. A woman who had wanted nothing from Elise except her companionship.

And Betty had shown Elise so much. She’d shown her the good bars around town, the night life, the value of a life lived without killing. In exchange, she had asked Elise for a ride to an abortion clinic when her ex-husband impregnated her, and she had asked for a shoulder to cry upon after the procedure was done. Betty had been many things, but maternal wasn’t among them. Her tears had nothing to do with the abortion and everything to do with her ex.

Betty loved wildly. Her passion had infused everything.

The love Elise and Betty had shared was nothing like the love Elise and James shared. It was more than sororal, and less. It had been one that only ever made Elise feel better. Unburdened. Betty had accepted Elise’s weirdness and allowed her to feel as though she belonged.

For a moment, Melinda allowed Elise to bask in those memories, so long forgotten.

Washing cars with Betty with a garden hose in the summer heat.

Going to The Cheese Plate for sandwiches at midday and getting white girl wasted before their afternoon classes.

Renting a house together.

But Melinda yanked that away too, as she had yanked away memories of Debora. She forced Elise to remember what Betty had looked like dead. The hole in her forehead, the streak of blood down her temple, the vacant stare.

Betty had given Elise everything in exchange for nothing.

In return, she’d been murdered.

Nothing good stays.

Elise had fallen to her knees in the studio—now, in the present—and she couldn’t escape Melinda. She couldn’t do anything as the part-angel walked toward her with wings spread and hands extended and mental powers on the attack.

She couldn’t reject the memories of everyone she had lost.

The friends she no longer saw, like her half-sister Marion, and her ex-boyfriend Anthony, and Lincoln Marshall, and…

Everyone.

Elise was alone.

So alone.

Henry had asked if Elise made a baby so she wouldn’t be lonely. Had she felt compelled to answer, she would have said no. She made the baby for James. Her husband had wanted a family, and Elise had given it to him because she was a benevolent God.

She hadn’t feared loneliness.

But in the depths of her mind, and in her heart, where she had lost so many people…

Elise hurt.

Everything hurt.

She yanked the gun out of her belt. She couldn’t see what she was doing, so she operated on touch alone, which couldn’t be entirely stripped away by the angel’s assault on her senses.

When she lifted the gun, she felt as though she were aiming at Betty’s face, and at Debora McIntyre’s face, and…

She squeezed the trigger.

The walls of Elise’s mind slammed shut.

Melinda’s hands flew to cover her breast. At first, she only looked surprised, with eyes widened and lips parted and shoulders limp.

Then blood spurted from between her fingers.

Elise clawed to her feet.

Even though Melinda was out of her mind’s depths, she still felt the lingering shreds of an angel’s presence. She felt grief. Pain. Debora’s dead body was as vividly detailed in Elise’s soul as if she’d died all over again.

Her arms were so heavy when she lifted the gun again.

Melinda said, “Please don’t.” Or something like that.

This time, Elise shot her in the face, just as Betty had been shot in the face.

She shot again and again and again.

The gun clicked empty.

Elise’s vision cleared, and she found herself standing over Melinda’s body, gone limp on the parquet. Silver blood spread underneath her. The right wing was broken, snapped underneath the weight of her body, and the left arched gracelessly over her head.

The left wing twitched.

Stomping her heel on Melinda’s throat, Elise kneeled and sawed her head off with the knife.

Only then, when the dulled mirrors were splattered and the body was bisected, did she allow herself to back away on wavering legs.

“Fuck me,” Elise said through gritted teeth.

When she glanced at the piano again, she saw only Betty’s vacant eyes in the dim reflection of its black wooden flank.

No. No, no, no.

She staggered to the door where the note had been affixed with a thumb tack. A thumbprint made with silver blood smeared across its flat surface. The paper tore down the middle when she yanked it off the door.

A dead girl needs nothing.

Cold flooded her veins as she recalled the advancement of the messages.

“A little girl needs her father.”

“A little girl needs her mother.”

“A dead girl needs nothing.”

Elise shoved the door open.

The smaller of the dance halls was on the other side. It used to be a garage, so it was draftier than the rest of the studio. Gooseflesh rippled over her arms when she entered its unlit depths.

Even though it was dark, she could see that there was something—someone—at the far end of the room.

The shattered mirrors reflected Elise’s avatar in a million broken ways. She blinked and it flashed across the shards at subtly different angles, and her swinging braid looked like a serpent the color of hawk feathers in the smaller fragments.

On the far wall, bolts had been driven into wall behind the glass. Heavy chains draped over the dusty wood floors, which had streaking tracks where someone had been kicking his heels—surely in an attempt to break free. Drops of crimson blood led in a path up the center of the room. Bars of moonlight spilled over bare toes and ragged pants, leaving the man’s upper body in shadow.

Judging by his smell—and how shrunken his muscles appeared—this man had been chained in captivity for weeks, underfed, occasionally beaten, left to rot. He didn’t even have the strength to lift his head, though he attempted it.

Greasy, dusty hair was pasted to his forehead. A beard grew thick on his jaw. Blood caked one eye shut.

The other eye was blue.

It was James.

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