“So what are these things called again?”
“Headphones, Nate. You put the bits with the cushioning around your ears – go on, put them on.”
“Yeah, but swap them round. The one with the wire goes on your left ear. See the little ‘L’ and ‘R’ there?”
“Oh yeah – better?”
“Yeah. Now just listen.”
I waited. There was a faint crackle as Annie plugged something into the cable coming out of the headphones.
“Oh.” I wasn’t even going to ask. To be honest, not knowing all this stuff had made me slightly embarrassed each time I had to ask.
The guitar started to play. Quite fast, and electric, not acoustic. Someone started to sing, and soon after the drums joined in. My foot started to tap. This was good.
“What did you call this again?” I yelled. She laughed and pulled one of the headphones off my ear.
“Rock music, sweetie. And don’t shout, the headphones stop you from hearing how loud you’re speaking, and we have customers.”
She turned away from me to greet the group coming through the door, and I started drumming out the beat with my fingers on the edge of the table. I could feel this music pumping through my body. In Heaven, all we had were hymns – this was so much more exciting than that. It felt loud. Unstructured. Chaotic. It felt alive.
I sat back in my chair, in the same place I had been for ‘cake duty’ yesterday. Unfortunately, it turns out ‘cake duty’ is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence that can only happen when Annie’s ‘new cake inventory’ and ‘hurt friends/coworkers level’ both reach critically high levels. And while the later can rise quite quickly, the inventory takes time to restock. According to her, anyway. I believe in double-checking results for accuracy. Or triple checking, just to be safe. I sipped some of my diet coke – just because I couldn’t be on cake duty doesn’t mean I can’t try some new stuff. And this stuff isn’t so bad.
I almost spat it back out as I turned my head to look out of the window. There was a steady stream of people going past, moving through the slush in a rush for presents, cake and turkey. Lots of people had hats, lots of people had scarves – some even had balaclavas to ward off the cold. But this guy was different.
His face was… morphed. Distorted. Unclear. I couldn’t put my mind on what was wrong with it. I tried to focus harder on him as he walked along the side of the café and then around the corner, past the front door and away. I sat there confused for a moment, then sped across to Annie.
“Did you see that guy?”
“Which ‘that guy’?”
“That one outside. In the red trench coat.”
“Red trench coat? I don’t know anyone who would be caught dead in that… wait, maroon red or proper red?”
“Oooh yeah, not even Jake would try that. But sorry, I saw nothing. My bad, sweetie.”
“He came from where I was sitting, all the way round the front of the store, in a bright red trench coat, and you didn’t see him? Really?”
“Hey! I was serving a customer!”
“Were you also blind?”
My head still hurt from where Annie slapped it. I probably shouldn’t have been shouting at her (well, I raised my voice a little) but that guy with the weird face had spooked me. A lot. I knew I’d seen what his face looked like before, but I couldn’t place it. Not properly. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, using the remote to flick through the channels, looking for anything that would jog my memory. So far, nothing.
Annie came in from the café and collapsed down on the bed behind me. She let out a sound that I could only compare to something deflating combined with Annie putting down something that was above her strength to hold.
“Any luck with your weird search?”
“Nah, nothing yet.” I’d only been ‘down’ for a few days, but I’d already watched a bit of TV. To be honest, it isn’t the most exciting thing ever, but in this case it has its perks.
After hours of channel surfing, and Annie saying goodnight and going downstairs to make sure everything was locked up in the café, I finally found it.
“I found it! I FOUND IT! ANNIE! I FOUND IT! I FOUND IT!”
She came running, her feet pounding on the steps. I was practically bouncing up and down on the bed while still sitting by the time she arrived – I pointed at the TV and smiled.
“That’s it! That’s what his face was like!”
Annie sat down beside me and studied the screen. “You mean it was one of those guys? Your person looked like one of them?”
“No no no, not them. Him, in the background now. Wait for a close up – him! Him there!”
Annie frowned. Apparently I had stopped on a channel showing a police chase show, one that collected footage from real cop chases and put them all together. The guy I was pointing at was one of the speeding drivers that had been caught with a backseat full of drugs.
“Honey, his face is pixilated. You can’t see it properly.”
“I know, but that’s what his face was like! That’s why I couldn’t make out who it was! It was pixa... pixy... like that but also swirling about at the same time so it was impossible!”
“But that’s impossible. Nobody can do that to their own faces. It’s a computer effect, sweetie. They take the footage they get, showing peoples faces normally, like you can see mine, and then make it like that with some special program or technology or something. That can’t be what you saw.” She held the back of her hand up to my forehead. “You don’t feel feverish…”
I gently pushed her hand away. I’m not ill… and I know what I saw…”
“Well seeing as you don’t remember much I’d say you were pretty sick in some senses, even if you aren’t feverish. Get some rest, you’ll have forgotten about it by morning.”
But, of course, I couldn’t just forget about it. I didn’t understand it, and it started driving my nuts. I kept questioning Annie about it, but being wary of her limits – the painful lump on the back of my head was enough of a reminder to do that. I shuffled around all morning, clearing plates and cleaning tables with only half a mind. The other half was working relentlessly, but still coming up with no answers.
And then I didn’t have to remember his face anymore. Because there it was.
Walking the same route as yesterday, same red trench coat, and the same fuzzy face. I almost dropped what I was carrying out of shock. And then I did drop it, ripping off my apron, vaulting over the counter and running out the door. I could hear people shouting angrily and Annie shouting after me, but I was single minded now. I had to catch up with him.
I turned down the alley round the back of the café, and there he was. Standing there waiting, like he was expecting me. No, he was facing away – it was more like I had just blipped on his radar, and he was stopping to assess me.
Which was fine, because now I could assess him.
He turned to face me. His face was still a swirling mess, but I concentrated. I tried to pull features out of the madness – A nose, eyes, teeth. He titled his head sideways, and it occurred to him that he might be trying to do the same sort of thing to me. But I didn’t have a distorted face, did I?
I felt something crack. There was a shockwave, and we were thrown back into the slush. I smelt burning. I looked at my left arm, where the fabric of my shirt had been blown away, and light shone out of a symbol etched into my skin. I heard myself murmuring.
“Angel concealment protocols broken. Protection glyph number one broken – aura level one visible. Only visible to beings of a non-mortal plane. Reconstruction in progress… fourteen hours fifty minutes remaining…”
How did I know that? It felt like it wasn’t me talking, like a recorded message playing on a speaker, which was me.
“So you are an angel. Your sigils were tough to crack, for someone of your power…”
My head span round. Red-trench coat dude was talking to me, though something had changed. I felt myself murmuring again.
“Defense protocol one established. True sight unlocked.”
His face became clear. And what was beneath it. It stuck out like a bomb crater on a green hillside – how mortals didn’t react to such ugliness was beyond me.
“Bingo” he replied mockingly, and laughed.
I jackknifed to my feet and sprang forward.
He brained me with a bin lid.
When I started to come round I could feel myself being dragged through the slush. It wasn’t a nice feeling. I was whispering to myself.
“Defense protocol one decommissioned. True sight blocked. Reconstruction of sigils, fourteen hours forty minutes remaining…”
I heard a bell chime – the one hanging above the café door to warn Annie of new customers. I glanced to my left at the legs of the person hauling me around by the back of my shirt. Not a red waistcoat. Good. But that smell… canine?
I could hear Annie coming. “Welcome to… oh my god! Nate! What the hell did you do to him, you piece of-“
“Shut up, will you. This wasn’t me. But I need to talk to him – get everyone else to clear out.”
“Hell no! Who do you think you are, royalty?”
I swear I thought I heard my captor/rescuer chuckle. “Just get rid of them.”
My captor again. “Fine. I’ll just deal with him here then.”
I felt myself being hauled up, and then pushed down into a seat. My seat, by the window. Sharp fingers dug into my shoulder as I raised my head to look into the hybrid’s eyes.
“Well hello there.” A slight growl added menace to her voice. “We need to talk.”