You ever seen a dead body? Because I have. Not a ton, mind you, but enough. It never upset me or made me uncomfortable, but I still can’t get over just how surreal it is. It’s like looking at a fake person. A replica, left behind when the real thing was switched out. Everything that made them them is gone, instantly. All you’re left with is an empty husk. Kinda makes you question your own mortality and how the universe works. Or if we truly have souls and whether they are what define us and give us life beyond a functioning brain and organs. You know, nerdy shit like that.
I slurped on the straw of my iced mocha latte and dismissed such thoughts.
Why all the existentialism, you ask? Well, Isaiah and I were headed to a particular, peculiar job site. A funeral home that specialized in accommodating praeterhuman needs of… various sorts. Nice place, all things considered. Run by a nice Italian family for generations. But I never quite liked the atmosphere. Or the smell. But maybe that’s just me. Didn’t help that Gamble, our boss, was vague on the details of the job. Didn’t help that he usually was. The fat, sweaty prick.
Isaiah pulled into a parking spot and we exited his lame-ass Subaru, not thoroughly prepared for what the day might bring. But at least I had my latte.
Isaiah turned back toward the car. “Jace, should we bring any weapons?”
“Zay, it’s a funeral home. Why would we need guns?”
Isaiah sighed. “Fine. I just hope Guy isn’t pissed. We’re pretty late.”
“Late? We’re not late.” We just weren’t on time.
I pushed open the fancy oak doors and was greeted by the angry face of a slender, slick-haired, sharp-dressed man, complete with a pocket square. The current owner, Guy.
“I’ve been waiting two fucking hours.” He crossed his arms.
“My apologies, Guy.” Isaiah extended his hand. “Jace made us stop for coffee.”
Guy hesitated, looked at me and rolled his eyes, then shook Isaiah’s hand. I don’t give a fuck what he thinks. I love mocha lattes. And that Bengali girl at the coffee shop is adorable.
The nearby phone rang and Guy cursed under his breath, excusing himself for a moment while we stood in the foyer waiting. His fake politeness and eloquent speech were on full display as he assuaged the concerns of what I assumed was a customer. Don’t get me wrong, Guy was a cool dude, but he was quick to get frustrated and lose his shit. And in his case, it wasn’t just me that brought that side out.
While we waited, I wandered over and examined one of his business cards. “Guy Panicucci. Panicucci and Sons Funeral Home.” I couldn’t help but laugh every time I saw that name. You see, Guy was a homosexual… guy. And the irony of “panic” and “coochie” coming together to create the perfect surname was delightful to my juvenile sensibilities. So what if that’s immature? Fuck off. I didn’t make the name up, go look.
Guy was glaring at me as he hung up the phone and walked over. “I saw you giggling at my business cards over here like a fucking mongoloid. What is wrong with you?”
“I’m just a boy, standing in front of another boy, asking him to show me a strange corpse.” I leaned in and lowered my voice. “That’s why we’re here, right?”
“You’re an idiot. And ‘corpse’ is an understatement. Wait until you see her.”
“Her, you say? I’m down. But I have to ask…”
“Don’t do it.” Isaiah shook his head.
Guy looked at me with preemptive contempt. “What?”
“Is it ‘icky’ for you to have to prepare the bodies of naked ladies?”
“Jesus Christ. Did I already mention that you’re an idiot, Jace? I really don’t have time for your gay bashing today. Or any day, for that matter, but especially today.”
“Oh, come on. You know I’m not a homophobe. I love gays. If I were somehow hit by a spontaneous sexual orientation-reversal spell tomorrow morning yours would probably be the third dick I’d suck, for sure.”
Isaiah pressed his fist to his mouth, stifling a laugh.
Guy held up an oppressive finger. “Okay, first of all, keep your fucking voice down. Nana’s around today and she still doesn’t know about my lifestyle. Second, I’m going to assume that was meant as a compliment, but that was borderline offensive, not to mention an utterly horrifying mental picture. Third, that spell isn’t even a thing. And fourth… who’s your number two?”
“Obviously Isaiah.” I shrugged. “He is my best friend after all.”
Isaiah’s face soured with disgust as he gave me a sideways glance. “This… mother… fucker…” he whispered.
Guy arched an eyebrow. “Now you’ve really got me curious about number one…”
“Jensen Ackles.” I nodded.
“From that stupid show with the brothers who hunt demons and stuff?”
“Yeah. That man is dreamy. And ageless. His cheekbones are really something else.”
What? They are.
Guy narrowed his eyes at me. “That’s possibly the gayest thing I’ve heard this week and I had two Puerto Rican men inside me last night.”
Isaiah facepalmed and fought to hold back laughter once more.
Guy cocked an eyebrow at Isaiah. “What are you laughing at? You drive a bright red Subaru. That’s like the quintessential lesbian vehicle. Did it come with a complementary strap-on, I wonder?”
I snorted. “He’s got you there, Zay.”
Isaiah frowned at me. “Kiss my ass. It belonged to my auntie.”
“Whatever.” I shrugged. “All I’m saying is I don’t see how acknowledging and appreciating the undeniable attractiveness of a fellow, smoldering hunk is gay.”
Guy waved a manicured hand at me. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. And to be honest I’ve got little patience for your specific brand of autism today so let’s get on with this. Shall we?”
Guy led us downstairs and into a big, tile-floored room, full of tables and storage shelves, where they did all the weird stuff to the bodies. I wasn’t entirely keen on everything that went on there, but my understanding was that it received substantial funding from praeterhuman factions with “special needs.” And I wish I was talking about organ donations. No, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more “deposits” than “withdrawals” at this body bank. Gross.
At the end of the room was a body lying on a table, covered by a thick sheet. A faint glow filtered out from beneath it.
“Check this out.” Guy pulled the sheet away, revealing a woman with literal golden skin and broken wings. Her metallic body glistened under the fluorescent basement lights. Every curve and feature was perfect and statuesque. Divine, even. A once-living work of art. I’d never seen anything like it.
I reached out to touch her.
Guy slapped my hand. Bastard. “You’re not molesting an angel in my basement. So don’t even ask ‘how much would it cost me?’ I was raised Catholic. I don’t need that shit on my conscience.”
Damn. “Listen, I wasn’t going to molest anyone. She’s just so pretty. And shiny.”
“No shit. Why do you think I called Gamble? This isn’t something I usually see in this place. I’m not even sure what she is.”
“Where did you find her?” Isaiah scratched his goatee.
“Not far from here actually. My guys picked her up by a playground in the middle of the night. Just like you see here. Broken wings and all.”
“I dunno about this, Guy. This seems beyond us.” Isaiah laced his fingers behind his head and exhaled. “Why didn’t you just call CEPTR?”
“Because I have arrangements with a number of parties, like your boss, who… strongly prefer I call them first about stuff like this. Not a big fan of CEPTR anyway.”
CEPTR, or Covenant Enforcement and Praeterhuman Threat Response, was the organization that kept everyday life safe from otherworldly dangers and influences. It was formed ages ago as an alliance between the human inhabitants of Earth and generally benevolent beings from other universes—praeterhumans—that had ended up here. Some of these beings were simply stranded while others were the equivalent of extra-dimensional refugees. Regardless of why they came, CEPTR was formed to institute rules and order for everyone’s protection. Both theirs and ours.
But that’s where the “Men in Black” similarities ended. Take it from me, none of the CEPTR agents were half as cool or charismatic as Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones. And there were no memory-erasing gadgets. If you discovered this universe beneath the universe, you either signed a binding and exacting contract called the Covenant – in blood, so they could always find you – or you paid the immediate, harsh price. Not so PG-13, huh?
As I ogled the shiny naked lady on the table, a ruckus came from upstairs. Not a common, or well-boding, occurrence for a funeral home.
Isaiah looked at me, then at Guy. “Who else did you call about this body?”
Guy’s brow furrowed. “Nobody. Yet.”
We all stood with baited breath as heavy footsteps, at least two pairs, clomped along the floor above. I could hear muffled voices arguing. They sounded wrong. One was deep, deeper than human tone. The other raspy and unintelligible. Both were angry. Praeterhumans.
My eyes were drawn to the large black door on my left. A way out, perhaps?
I tapped Guy’s arm and kept my voice low. “Where does that door lead?”
“Out back. It’s how we bring the bodies in.”
“Awesome. Maybe we should go.” I took a long sip of my latte.
Guy sighed. “I’m not leaving my place of business over a few grumpy footsteps. Grow some balls, Jace.”
Isaiah put his hand on Guy’s shoulder. “Jace might have a point, unprecedented as that sounds. If you didn’t tell anyone but Gamble, and these guys are here anyway… maybe they’re the ones that are responsible for her.” He nodded to the golden girl on the slab.
“Maybe you’re right, Isaiah, but I’m not going anywhere. Plus Nana is still upstairs. There’s no way I’m leaving her.”
I scoffed. “And that’s why I’m not close with my family. Emotional attachments are a dangerous weakness.”
Isaiah sucked at his teeth. “Bullshit. You’re not close with them because you’re a selfish asshole.”
I shrugged. “Okay, you got me. But let’s put aside my questionable character for a moment and return to the matter at hand: what do we do?”
As if in response, loud, forceful steps made their way down to the basement. The stairs seemed to groan under the weight of whoever, or whatever, it was.
Isaiah and I exchanged glances and each took a step back, leaving Guy in the front to parley, or serve as human shield. Whichever was necessary.
The door swung open and the most hideous, rotund creature I’d ever seen struggled to fit through it. Like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and that insanely obese vampire from Blade. This thing must’ve weighed hundreds of pounds, and was swaddled in assorted black clothes, haphazardly stitched together just to fit its corpulent frame. Sections of pale, oily, sore-ridden flesh bulged through the holes and tears in its outfit. The door frame threatened to bust under the strain of its entry. It eventually got through, after some difficulty, and its eyes swept across the room. When its yellow-eyed gaze fell upon the dead angel, its repulsive face formed into a wide grin of dirty, black and green teeth.
And behind the fatty? A tall, slender entity in a dark cloak. Its foot talons clacked against the floor as it entered. It pulled back its hood with clawed hands to reveal a feathered face resembling one of those creepy-ass barn owls. Seriously, what’s with those things? It sized us up with black, beady, predatory eyes. Expressionless and emotionless, its face looked like a mask hiding something far more sinister beneath. It did one of those freaky head-tilts as it looked at me. Probably imaging I was a god damn tootsie pop. Fuck. This wasn’t what I signed up for. Nana be damned.
“You can’t be here.” Guy raised a shaky hand. “The two of you walking around like this in the daytime? That’s a major breach of the Covenant.”
The fat one waddled forward, wafting a rancid stench in our direction. “Fuck the Covenant.” He scowled. “We’ve got unfinished business with the Sephira. Get out of the way or you’re all dead.”
What the fuck was a Sephira?
“We should’ve brought the guns,” I whispered to Isaiah.
“Fuck you, asshole,” he replied, most tenderly.
Guy attempted to bar the butterball’s path, but the creature tossed him aside with ease and he slid across the floor. The closer it got, the more pungent the odor grew. It smelled like old diapers left in the hot sun. Next to a Taco Bell dumpster. As the monster lumbered toward the angel’s corpse, Isaiah and I stepped off to the side without incident. I wasn’t quite ready to give up the earthly delights this physical plane had to offer, and I imagine my partner shared my sentiment.
Fatty McSmellyslob stood over the golden girl, rubbing his hand along her leg and licking his lips. I had no idea what would come next, but I had no intention of watching. Probably. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
The door swung open again and there stood Nana brandishing a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. It’s not every day you see a senior citizen threatening to fill a couple of walking nightmares full of buckshot, but I was glad today was one of those days.
“Nana?” Guy’s face paled.
Fatty turned around to face her. “Put down the gun before you get hurt, you old bitch.”
“Ficcati una barca in culo con i remi aperti.” All I understood was “culo” but that’s all I needed to. Without missing a beat, Guy’s little Italian granny squeezed the trigger and Fatty’s right knee exploded in a spash of green Nickelodeon slime. The obese monstrosity screamed and stumbled backward, almost toppling, but held fast. It flashed a look of supreme hatred almost as malicious as its scent.
Nana pumped the shotgun, ejecting the empty shell, and aimed at bird-thing, but he was faster. The avian lunged with blinding speed and tore the weapon from her grasp, slashing her across the face with its talons. Nana yelped and crumpled to the floor holding her bloody cheek as the shotty slid across the floor into a corner.
I let a quiet “holy shit” slip out without even meaning to. The owl, body still facing Nana, rotated its head one-hundred-eighty degrees to stare at me with its soulless eyes. Fuuuuuuck that.
Fear took hold and I instinctively found myself next to the angel’s body. My intentions weren’t indecent, I assure you, I was just scared. I mean I’m not saying the thought didn’t cross my mind… Shhhh, don’t judge me.
Before I knew it, a warm, metal hand was gripping my wrist, and a beautiful song consumed my mind. A wave of calmness and peace washed over me. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. All the fear and doubt, gone in seconds. Even my, ahem, proclivity for self-preservation didn’t seem so necessary anymore. My description can’t do the sensation justice.
The “angel” leapt off the table, clearly unconcerned with modesty, and began to pulse with a brilliant light. Fatty turned to her, trembling, and there was no smile on that ugly face anymore. She placed her gleaming hands on either side of his head, almost gently, and looked into his piss-colored eyes. The light emanating from her grew with rapid intensity, and so did the volume of the music in my ears. The overweight abomination began to burn and sizzle as the song reached its crescendo, but never made a peep as she cooked it to an absolute crisp. The Sephira released the charred remnants and they fell to the ground, still smoking, and the music dissipated. The smell stung my nostrils but was a definite improvement, to say the least.
The Sephira set her sights on the bird-thing, striding toward him with confidence. The creature recoiled from her shining brilliance, raising an arm to cover its eyes and backing into a corner. But the Sephira ignored him and knelt beside Nana, placing her hand on the old woman’s injured face. Nana’s eyes lit up, figuratively in this case, as the gashes on her cheek closed. It was amazing. Even Isaiah’s jaw was hanging wide open.
The golden beauty rose and looked toward the black door that led outside, a sense of urgency on her face. A second later she was sprinting towards it and rammed through, knocking it clean off its hinges. She took a moment to bask in the sunlight and then vanished completely, leaving us to deal with the owl creature. Just excellent.
The bird-thing stalked toward Nana once more, eager to finish its earlier work. But it didn’t seem to notice Guy edging along the floor toward the displaced shotgun. That was when I decided it was time to step in and be a hero.
I threw my remaining half a latte at it. The top popped off on impact, covering the bird in delicious iced mocha goodness. Only he didn’t see it that way. Shit.
“Hey, Mr. Owl,” I said with as much false bravado as I could muster. “How many shells does it take to get to the center of a creepy fuck face?”
He let out an ear-splitting screech and jumped at me. I was a nanosecond away from shitting my pants until I heard the boom of the 12-gauge. Barely any pee came out.
The blast knocked him out of the air and Guy, bless his heart, continued to unload everything he had into that swivel-headed fuck. Shot after shot, until blood and feathers were everywhere and all you could hear was click, click, click.
Guy was panting and visibly shaken. “Nobody hurts my Nana. Piece of shit.”
We had done it. Well, me and Guy. And Nana. And the angel lady. Isaiah didn’t really pull his weight in this particular situation. But I wasn’t mad about it.
I put my arm around Guy’s shoulder. “Great assist there, paesano.”
If looks could kill his expression would’ve been OJ Simpson with a side of Robert Blake.
“Assist? You queens didn’t do shit. You didn’t even attempt to do shit.”
“Now hold on, I sacrificed a perfectly scrumptious latte to distract one of them and buy you time for a sneak attack.”
Guy’s eyes bulged and his face turned extra pink. “I swear to God, I’m going to kill you if I don’t walk away right now. I need to get Nana upstairs, and clean this place up, and have that door fixed, and call CEPTR. Fuck!” Guy stomped his expensive shoes on the tile. “Why does this shit only happen to me?” He was starting to get a bit whiny at that point, if we’re being honest.
“Um. So you want us to go or…?”
Guy balled his fist and took a deep breath. “Yes. Please. Get the fuck out of here and tell your boss he’s an asshole for ever hiring you. Both of you. Thanks. Goodbye.”
Isaiah and I walked out through the busted door to the back. It felt good to be out in the sun and fresh air, especially after being in that stuffy basement with that walking dumpster. It’s often the little things you take for granted, you know?
“Guy was kinda acting like a bitch at the end there, right?”
“I mean you’d think he’d be pumped after a win like that. I mean, damn, that was close. I don’t even understand how we made it out of that situation.”
“Well, shit. We had an angel watching out for us. Literally. Sort of. Up until she ditched us.”
“That’s true. But Nana… Nana was a badass. Straight-up G.”
Isaiah nodded. “She really was.”
“I guess that’s how they do it in the old country. That was some Tony Montana shit.”
Isaiah shook his head. “Man, Scarface was Cuban.”
“A political refugee, I remember. But Al Pacino is Italian. Correct?”
“Yeah, but Al Pacino doesn’t gun people down. That was Scarface. A fictional character. And he wasn’t Italian.”
“Whatever. Fuck you. We won. Let’s celebrate like men. Iced mocha lattes with extra whipped cream are on me.”
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