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A run-down, seedy strip club is an odd sort of place for an archangel to hang out—even for one as eccentric as Tobias.
I frown as I rummage in my pocket for the Post-it note, checking the address off against the dilapidated building on the opposite side of the street—Sinless, 77 The Promenade.
Sinless. Tobias certainly hasn’t lost his weird sense of humour over the years.
With a snort of derision, I stuff the paper back into my jeans and crack my knuckles. If it’s one thing I hate, it’s asking for favours, especially from smug asses like this guy. Unfortunately, this is necessary. Not least because I’ve grown rather fond of my life these past one hundred years.
The day is young. A golden sun sits low in a sky streaked with watery grey clouds, and behind me, a foamy sea pounds onto the sandy beach. I’ve never visited Blackpool before but I’m impressed by its miles of beautiful shoreline.
A cold wind whips the hair off my face as a tram rattles past on the promenade, the peace shattered by the shriek of metal grinding on metal.
Once the tram has passed, I shove hands into my pockets and cross the street to the club.
A man in a grubby green overcoat is slumped on the curb, his eyes rolling lazily in his head. He holds a hand up as I pass and on instinct, I reach out to take it.
He dodges my grip. “Got any booze on you?”
I study his lined face for a few moments before placing a palm on his blotchy red forehead, a fuzzy warmth coursing through me and into him. He blinks as his eyes focus.
“Reclaim your life, brother,” I murmur as my arm drops back to my side.
He nods. By tomorrow, he won’t remember me. But he’ll never touch a drop of alcohol again.
The strip club is even dingier close-up, an odour of fried food lingering from the shuttered-up burger joint next door. I push open the heavy glass door and step inside, surprised to find the gloomy hallway immaculately clean. Tobias must have been in residence for some time. The strippers probably put clothes on during their routines these days.
A narrow staircase leads off the long hallway and I jog up the steps two at a time, my Converse squeaking on the grey linoleum. On the first floor, I find several closed black-painted doors—most likely rooms used for private dances.
It’s only now that I hear the strains of classical music drifting along the corridor—Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Christ, Tobias never gets any less depressing. His penchant for human sorrow and tortured agony is second to none.
I head past the doors to another flight of stairs and begin to climb. As the music grows louder, a floral scent hits my nostrils, and at the top of the staircase I blink rapidly, as dazed as the drunk on the street. The room is filled with flowers—orchids in various hot shades of orange and red, lilies with heads as large as my own. The whole room is covered floor to ceiling with exotic plants, a rich riot of green. If I didn’t just walk in off the street, I’d think I’d slipped back in time to a Victorian hothouse.
“Tobias!” I yell.
The music cuts out with the wonky twang of a duff note being hit, and a voice as melodic as the music itself calls, “I’m in the back.”
I weave a path through the plants to the back where I duck through a door into small room.
The scene before me is nothing short of ridiculous. The room, which must have once served as an office if the old-school metal filing cabinets and shabby swivel chair are anything to go by, is dwarfed by the presence of a huge ebony piano. Tobias, his long blond hair pulled neatly into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, smiles. He looks so serene, I want to smack him in the face.
Although the guy has been around since the dawn of time, he doesn’t look a day over thirty. With piercing blue eyes and a square jaw, he could break a dozen hearts a day if he desired. He reminds me of the handsome version of Jesus you see in old paintings. Come to think of it, that’s probably the exact look he’s striving for.
He stands, motioning to the swivel chair in the corner. “Hadrian. I’ve been expecting you.”
That’s the other piss-annoying thing about archangels. They know everything.
“Really?” I say, raising a brow and pulling the chair from the corner. “Could you not have made yourself a little easier to find if that was the case?”
Tobias’s smile widens, as if I’ve cracked a killer joke. “I only saw you were coming this morning. You were already on the train by that time. Flirting with the woman pushing the drinks trolley if I remember correctly.”
I scoff, but don’t bother to deny it. That redhead had been all kinds of cute. “So, what’s the deal with you and the strip club?” I ask, dropping into the seat and casting a gaze around the faded room. “Don’t tell me the mighty hath fallen?”
Tobias chuckles, sinking back onto the piano stool. “I’m already fallen, Hadrian. I merely go where I’m needed.”
I narrow my eyes in suspicion. “Where’s the real owner?”
“Taking a well-earned rest. He won’t be back. Over time, the rest of the staff and regulars will move on too. This is what we do, remember?”
Unfortunately, I do. Archangels like Tobias love nothing more than to meddle in human affairs. They claim it’s for the greater good, but really, it’s because they can’t help but feel superior to every other living creature on earth. Myself included.
Tobias leans across the desk and tilts his head to the side. “You’re still angry, aren’t you? After all these years.”
Refusing to meet his gaze, I kick at a leg of the grand piano with the scuffed toe of my shoe. “I need a favour.”
If there was an air of smugness about Tobias before, it fills the whole room now. The scent of victory is as overpowering as his damn lilies. “I thought as much.”
I study him as he gazes at me. Despite his holier-than-thou, woe-is-me persona, an expensively tailored navy-blue suit hugs his lean frame, a crisp white shirt open at the collar revealing a tiny silver crucifix. On the outside, he resembles any other wealthy businessman, but take off the shirt and look at the space between his shoulder blades and you’d find two ridges as hard and calloused as horns. I’ve never seen him fully winged before, but if they’re anything like my father’s they would be a magnificent sight.
Like I said. Total smug ass.
I break his penetrating gaze, feigning interest in the polished grain of the piano. “It’s seems I’ve landed myself in some trouble.”
“Trouble?” Tobias says, his soft voice filled with amusement. “What kind of trouble?”
I exhale a short, sharp breath. “Vampire trouble.”
Tobias’s eyes darken. He’s not smiling now. “Vampires,” he repeats with a hostile tone. “How could a halfling like yourself possibly get mixed up with vampires?”
“I needed money,” I begin. “For a friend of mine. He’s dying and the only treatment that can save him is in the US—”
“A friend?” Tobias cuts in. “But you don’t have friends.”
“I do actually. Two good friends—Ruth and Archie—we’ve been friends for over fifty years.”
Tobias frowns. “How old are they?”
“Archie is seventy-four and Ruth is seventy-three. Archie has a tumour in his brain. The doctors say—”
“It’s his time, Hadrian,” he interrupts. “Surely you must know that?”
I shake my head vigorously, a familiar surge of anger rising inside me. “It’s not his time. Not yet. The doctor I’ve spoken to in New York says there are options. Ruth and Archie are over there now with the money I gave them.”
“The money you procured from a vampire?” Tobias says disapprovingly.
I clench my fists. “I had to do something.”
When I meet Tobias’s gaze this time, his eyes are filled with sympathy. Somehow, I think I preferred it when he was angry.
“Oh, Hadrian,” he mutters. “You remind me of your father in so many ways.” He pauses before asking, “Who’s the vampire?”
I slump further into my seat, rubbing the back of my neck. “Esme,” I murmur, hoping to hell the name holds no meaning for him.
His blue eyes widen. “Not the Esme? Vampire queen of New York City and most recent overlord of London?”
I crack a knuckle. “The one and same.”
Tobias mutters something beneath his breath that sounds suspiciously like a swear word. “Why didn’t you ask your father for money?”
“For the same reason as I’m not having this conversation with him right now. I don’t want him involved in my life.”
“Of course. After all, you’re doing such a fine job of taking care of things all by yourself. So, how much do you need?”
I squirm in the seat. The situation is a lot like one of those Russian dolls. As soon as one cracks, a new one takes its place. “I don’t owe her money. It wasn’t a loan in that sense.”
“Go on,” Tobias commands, his voice thick with trepidation.
I take a deep breath. Shit’s about to get gnarly. “I promised her a vial of angel tears.”
The office falls silent, the only sound the distant whine of a tram on the street below, the low buzz of lamps coming from the room next door.
“I must’ve misheard you,” he says finally, “because if you’ve promised her angel’s tears then she must know that there are still a few of us left here on earth.”
I jump up from my seat, holding my hands out in front of me. “Before you go batshit crazy, let me explain.”
I’m interrupted by a sudden wind, more biting than the one down on the seafront. It blasts through the office like an Arctic breeze, sending pages of sheet music skittering into the air like leaves in a tornado. The strip light in the ceiling flickers uncontrollably as Tobias glares at me with cold eyes. If looks could kill, I’d have been snuffed out about three and a half seconds ago.
When he speaks, his musical voice is a distant memory. He roars across the piano, “Give me a good reason not to kill you.”
For many years, I believed myself immune to fear, but lately, what with Archie sick and Esme on my case, all I ever seem to feel is afraid. A familiar helplessness creeps over me. My palms prickle with sweat. “She doesn’t know anything, I promise. Not about what I am, or about archangels. She thinks I’m a warlock.”
Tobias scoffs. “A warlock? What fantasy! How did you plan on giving her the tears without explaining where they came from?”
“She’s so desperate to get her hands on them, she doesn’t much care.”
The lights stop flickering and the loose pages float to the floor. Tobias straightens in his seat. “She wanted them for their healing properties I take it? Perhaps to use on the humans whose lives are accidentally stolen by her and her band of bloodsucking cronies?”
“Perhaps,” I say noncommittally. The truth is, I haven’t a clue what she wants with them.
“So, you mix with vampires now? After years of shunning your father and your own kind, you decide the offspring of demons is the way forward?”
I shrug. “I met Esme once or twice in New York in the sixties. I knew I couldn’t ask for a loan in the regular sense. Esme doesn’t work like that.”
“A delightful woman, I’m sure,” Tobias says, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“If you keep on the right side of her, she’s charming,” I mutter.
Tobias lifts his chin, blue eyes narrowed. “What, your own tears weren’t good enough for her? What is she? A bodily fluids connoisseur? Only the pure is considered fit for purpose.”
I clear my throat. “No. It isn’t that.”
“Then what?” he demands.
I exhale sharply. “I can’t cry.”
Tobias stares at me, confusion etched into the handsome lines of his face. It’s as if I’ve just announced I sacrifice newborn babies beneath a full moon every month. “Can’t or won’t?”
“Can’t. I haven’t cried in seventy years. I’ve been trying, but nothing happens, no matter what I do.”
“But your friend is dying,” Tobias points out. “Someone you love is leaving the physical realm. Surely that has an effect on you?”
I fiddle with the collar of my battered leather jacket. “Not in that way, unfortunately.”
The archangel shakes his head. “But there are songs, movies, the news. Have you never seen Titanic?”
“I guess I’m missing that essential part of my angel genetic makeup.”
“No, Hadrian,” he says soberly. “That part is human.”
“Can I have the tears or not?”
He studies me in silence for a few seconds. “What will Esme do if you don’t provide them?”
“I have until the end of next month before she comes for Ruth and Archie.” My voice cracks as a surge of emotion pulses through me.
“Followed by her coming for you, am I correct?”
I nod. As a halfling, I’m immortal in the sense that I can live forever without aging or dying of natural causes. I also heal fast from cuts or wounds. But stick a sword through my heart or a bullet in my brain and I’m as dead as the next man. We’re by far more fragile than vampires, who can only die from decapitation. Archangels like Tobias call it a blessing—that God is willing to welcome us home. Personally, I call it a major pain in the ass.
Tobias arches a brow. “Quite the fix.”
The archangel emits a low whistle through his teeth, and for an awful second, I think maybe that’s it—that he’s dismissed me with silence and is waiting for me to take the hint and leave. I’m contemplating snapping the heads off his stupid flowers on the way out when he says, “Hold up your hand, Hadrian.”
I clench my fists instinctively. “No way. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Do you want my help or not? If I agree to this, I need to know first that it’s your destiny for me to do so.”
Another talent angels have, or parlour trick depending on your point of view, is the ability to see a person’s destiny—a vision of their life path. I’ve never been keen on this side of the gift. While I’m happy to set the occasional human back on track, I’m not interested in digging around in people’s heads or telling them too much about their future.
“If you don’t give me your hand, I can’t help you,” he says.
In desperation, I rise from the seat and lean across the piano, holding out my hand. Tobias rises and presses his palm to mine, a fuzzy warmth flowing from my body into his. Though I’d never admit it to him in a thousand years, the contact is soothing.
Tobias inhales deeply before pulling away, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “I think I have the solution.” He motions to the swivel chair I’m hovering above. “Sit.”
I drop back into the seat, my heart pounding in anticipation. “Then you’ll help me?”
He nods slowly. “Yes. I’ll provide you with the tears.”
Relief floods me, making me giddy. “Thank you, Tobias, I can’t tell you how—”
“There’s a condition, however,” he cuts in. “I’ll need a favour in return.”
At this moment, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to be free from the burden of fear. “Anything. Name it.”
My heart plummets to my shoes. “A mission? No way. Messing with people’s lives is your forte not mine.”
Tobias shrugs. “No mission, no tears. I guess at least you can tell Ruth and Archie you tried.”
“What’s the mission?” I ask reluctantly.
The archangel’s eyes shine with victory. He has me right where he wants me—by the cojones. “A woman. One who’s strayed from the path of true love. She’s needs guidance to lead her to her soul mate.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. This is exactly the type of Hallmark shit I like to avoid. Still, these types of situations are usually simple. You get them in the same room, clear their heads of any emotional blockage, and let Mother Nature work her magic.
“Where is she, this woman?”
“Living in a village near London.”
“What about the soul mate?” The last word comes out laden with sarcasm. Because really, who is he trying to kid? If you’re lucky, you find a person you like and who likes you back and you live the rest of your days together. Dumb luck.
“She had a boyfriend she met in college—Fergus Deane. He’s a doctor now. I don’t have his exact location but you’ll be able to find him through her.”
I don’t bother asking how he stumbled across these people. That’s none of my business, and from the sounds of it, the mission will take a week tops. Two college sweethearts who’ve fallen out of touch find each other again and realise they’re still in love. Nothing could be easier.
“I’ll wipe her memory afterwards of course,” I say, rubbing my jaw.
Tobias lifts a brow. “Of course. It’s imperative that you do so. Humans can never know about what we do.”
I nod. “When should I come back for the tears? Tomorrow? I can get a hotel room close by.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll bring them to you myself on completion of the mission.”
My heart spasms. “But that could take weeks. Esme—”
“Said you have until the end of the month, so you’re perfectly safe.”
I screw up my face. “Don’t you trust me?”
He chuckles. “This has nothing to do with trust. Now, pass me that pad on top of that filing cabinet and I’ll write down her address.”
Muttering a curse under my breath, I reach for the notebook and toss it across the piano. He catches it one-handed, his eyes never leaving my face. Reaching into his suit pocket, he produces a gold pen and scribbles some words on the page. “Here you go,” he says, sliding the pad across the piano.
Without reading the name and address, I tear off the page and fold it in half. “I’ll see you in London,” I say, getting to my feet.
I’ve just turned my back to him when he says, “Hadrian?”
I glance back over my shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Be kind to yourself.”
I nod, strolling back through the jungle of plants and down the narrow staircase. By the time I make it to the bottom step, the Debussy music has started up again, picking up from the exact note it left off.
Out on the street, the wind has gained momentum. For an awful second, it whips the paper from my hand and tosses it high into the air. I leap after it, catching it with a forefinger and thumb, but before I stuff it into the pocket of my leather jacket, I unfold it to read the name.
Though it means nothing to me, I shiver, a sharp prickle creeping up my spine, a dreadful sense of foreboding setting my nerves on edge. I shake it off by stuffing the paper into my pocket and setting off in the direction of the train station.
If I hurry, I’ll make it back to London by late afternoon.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll see that redhead again.
End of Excerpt