1. A Taste Sensation
Gershom spins into Ely's office without bothering to slip into his body. His green rings gyrate and spark, throwing off spears of light. Plague squints to keep his eyes from being seared out of his head.
"Found one," Gershom says. "Outside of Santa Fe."
Ely stands up, reaches into the whirling rings and extracts a map.
"Don't like this at all, Ely."
"I know, angel, but it has to be done."
"Gotta get back to Phae. Don't wanna leave her alone too long."
Before his last words are fully formed, Gershom spins out of the office and is gone.
Plague blinks away Gershom's purple afterimage. "He's not happy, I take it," he says.
"No," Ely says. He unfolds the map and spreads it flat on his desk. "I'm not happy about it either."
"But it has to be done."
"If we knew more about the demon in charge or what the point of all this is ..."
"No one ever mentioned a plan to me. I didn't even know the others existed."
"We need to take this one alive, then."
"And if it won't talk? Or doesn't know?"
"There are three others."
Plague shifts uncomfortably in his chair and looks towards the door.
Ely looks up from deciphering Gershom's nearly incomprehensible marks on the map. "It's not impossible," he says.
"Glad you think so."
"Have faith, Plague."
"I'm still not sure I know what that means."
"I think you do."
Plague decides not to argue. He thinks he would probably lose that argument, and he doesn't want to admit that Ely is right. Not yet. He's not ready for that. "Which one is it?" he asks.
"Famine," Ely says. "Are you ready?"
"Let's get it over with."
* * *
Neil Coburn woke up exhausted. He wasn't surprised. He had been unusually fatigued the night before, and his throat had been sore. Now he felt like he was swallowing dull razor blades. Chills oozed over his skin as soon as he tossed his blankets aside. He pulled them up again and curled into a fetal position. His hands were typically too cold for him to judge a fever by touch, but his forehead felt like a branding iron.
He blinked at his alarm clock. Seven AM. The clinic wouldn't open until eight. There was nothing they could do for him anyway. He knew what he had.
He closed his eyes for a few minutes and concentrated on trying not to swallow, He could only fight the reflex for a little while, and he shuddered at the sensation of his throat being pulled apart one blood vessel at a time.
When the pain died down, Neil crawled out of bed and dragged himself to the bathroom. He could see how swollen his throat was in his reflection. He looked like a python trying to gulp down his meal whole. He leaned closer to the mirror and opened his mouth. Even without the aid of a flashlight, he could see the angry red of his throat and the white flecks that meant -- not the strep infection Kyle had been insisting he had for three weeks -- mononucleosis.
Neil dropped his head and supported his weight with his hands on the sides of the sink. He tried to say "fuck," but it hurt to talk. He ran through various steps of treatment -- acetaminophen for pain and fever, fluids, decongestants and cough suppressants for the inevitable congestion he could already feel gathering in his sinuses, food if he could get any down, which he doubted, so in that case, more fluids, and rest. The only thing that would make him better was time.
Gingerly, he tried to swallow. His throat squirmed. He put his hands against the sides of his neck. The back of his throat tickled as if his uvula were spasming. His throat pressed against his hands like something was crawling under his hot skin. He opened his mouth and leaned closer to the mirror again.
The white spots were writhing. He fought with a gag reflex, tried to tell himself he was imagining it, watched a spot lengthen then bunch then drop to the back of his tongue. The gag reflex won. He bent over the toilet, dry heaving, coughing and spitting tiny white maggots into the toilet bowl.
* * *
Plague bides his time waiting for Famine in a small Mexican restaurant that reminds him of the one he had frequented with his brother-in-law. In some ways, it could be the same place. The color scheme is the same. The neon beer advertisements are the same. Even the employees seem to be replicas from the restaurant back home. It isn't, though, and Plague wonders if his perceptions have somehow been stalled by his suicide. No living person knows what happens when the body ceases to exist. Is it possible that people simply stop experiencing new things because all the senses have been shut off? Every Mexican restaurant will be the one he was most familiar with. Every car he ever drives will be a white Mustang. Every salsa he ever tastes will taste just like what he remembers from the last time he had lunch with Jeff.
That can't be the case. The salsa in front of him now is nothing like the salsa he remembers from his life. This salsa is so good that Plague would drink it straight out of its dish if he thought he could get away with it. It's fresh, smooth and spicy enough to sting his tongue and make his hangnails throb. It's so perfect that not even the vaguely stale, floury tortilla chips that were served with it can ruin it.
Plague glances around the restaurant. There are a handful of people, including the wait staff and the bartender, on the opposite side of the restaurant from where Plague is sitting. He can hear them chatting and laughing over the crowd noise of the soccer game on the TV. In the far corner of the side where Plague is, a couple of young men are sitting. He wonders if they're on a date. The way they look at each other is suspiciously tender, but he can't hear their hushed conversation. The important thing is, though, that they're looking at each other and not at him.
He picks up the dish of salsa and brings it to his lips. He sips it slowly, savoring it like a fine wine. It burns his lips and his throat. His eyes water. He doesn't care.
Then the salsa goes rotten. It tastes like blood, rust, mildewed soil and dirty motor oil. Plague drops the dish. Salsa splatters across the table and onto his lap. He coughs and spits as he scrambles for napkins. He rubs the dead salsa off his lips and then gulps down mouthfuls of water that now tastes like it's been used to wash dirty diapers. He gags, but somehow manages to keep from adding his own offal to the mess. He sits back, sputtering into the napkins he holds in front of his mouth, and surveys the mess. The two young men at the back are staring at him, but no one from the bar comes to see what the commotion is.
Plague stands up. There's salsa and water everywhere, including on him, and he's drawn attention to himself. "Rat shit in the salsa," he says to the men. Horrified, they look down at their own salsa.
He thinks Famine must be close, and he doesn't want the confrontation to be public. He tosses a ten dollar bill on the table and stalks out of the restaurant.
He starts to cross the street. He barely gets one stride when a car screeches towards him. He leaps back onto the sidewalk, but the car careens at him, tires hopping up over the curb. He dives out of the way, but there's nowhere to go. The car strikes him flush against his left side as he's in mid lunge. He flies like a rag doll several feet into the air and then arcs down, almost gracefully, hitting the street with a thud that rattles a nearby manhole cover. He rolls a few more feet until his momentum dissipates. He lies on his back, starting up at the spinning sky. He hears the car rumble up beside him. He turns his head and finds himself staring at the grille of a black Mustang.
2. Black Horse, Black Rider
"Are you squeamish?" the nurse asked.
"Not about blood," Neil said.
"Good." She smiled, and Neil watched as she prepped his arm, applying the tourniquet, tapping the vein to make it stand out, wiping the site down with an alcohol pad. She seemed almost happy to be taking his blood after her own squeamishness doing the throat culture. He wondered if she had seen the maggots he hadn't mentioned or if she'd just been having a sympathetic gag reflex.
"Ready?" she asked.
Neil nodded. Squeamish or not, he normally looked away from needles being poked into his veins, but for some reason, he watched this time.
The needle slipped easily into his skin. He felt almost nothing, just a tiny pinch. Then the needle pierced its target vein. Hot, dark blood jetted into the syringe. Neil felt cold and lightheaded, as if he had just donated a pint of blood on an empty stomach. He could feel his blood rushing out of his body. He could feel the virus hijacking his cells. He closed his eyes and turned his head.
"You okay?" the nurse asked.
"Yeah," he said.
He wasn't, though. He didn't know if his odd reaction was because he was sick, because he had watched the needle or if it was something else.
What else could it be?
Nothing. Like the maggots in his throat, it was nothing. Just the illness. He could blame the fever, but the fever was nowhere near high enough to cause hallucinations.
He pressed a square of gauze over the tiny hole in his arm while the nurse capped the needle and got a bandage. His arm tickled. He ignored the sensation, watching the nurse's latex sheathed fingers instead. Something pushed against the gauze under his fingers. He started to pull his hand away from the wound, but the nurse chose that moment to apply the bandage. If anything had tried to crawl out of the collection site, he didn't see it. As soon as the bandage was in place, the sensation was gone.
* * *
For what seems like a very long time, Plague is aware of nothing but the slow throb of pain down the left side of his body. He can't tell how badly he's injured. That's probably a good thing. He also isn't sure how much time is passing, and that bothers him.
Plague opens his eyes slowly. Light seeps into his vision and makes his head throb. He wants to close his eyes again and not move, but that wouldn't be a very wise decision. He blinks at the sky. It's still spinning a little, but it's the same sky that he saw right after getting run down. He hasn't moved, or been moved, from the spot where he landed.
A dark shape leans across him. "Are you awake now?" a woman's voice asks.
Plague blinks again. He tries to focus on the figure leaning over him, but the effort hurts his head.
She laughs at him. "Aw, poor little Plaguey-poo! I played a little too rough, and I broke him." Her laugh is like that of a demented child.
Plague forces himself to sit up and try to crawl away from her, but he doesn't get very far. She grabs the collar of his shirt and yanks him back down. Pain shivers up his back and bursts from his lips in one word. "Fuck!" he says.
She giggles. "Watch your tongue, Plaguey-poo. Angels aren't supposed to use bad words like that." She snakes her arms under his and hauls him to his feet. He tries to get out of her hold, but she's got a tight grip on him. She whirls around and tosses him towards the side of her car. He stumbles on the way and manages to catch most of the impact on his chin. She grabs his shoulder, turns him to face her and pins him against the car with one hand in the middle of his chest.
He gets a good look at her for the first time. She's huge. She's taller than he is, and he's over six feet. She probably weighs well over two hundred pounds, and every bit of it is muscle. Her clothes are black. Her skin is black. Her eyes are black. Her teeth, though, are bleached, pearly white and perfectly straight, and she's grinning at him as if the whole situation is the world's funniest joke ever and she's the only one who gets it.
He puts his hands around her wrist and tries to shove her back. He can't move her at all. She laughs at him, and he wonders where Gershom is.
"Let's go for a ride," Famine says. She opens the car door and tosses him in. He doesn't bother to try to escape. He won't get anywhere, and so far, even though he's not very comfortable with it, everything is going according to plan.
* * *
"Are you gonna eat that?" Phaedra asked.
Neil looked up from the limp salad as if just noticing that his sister was sitting across from him. He shook his head and pushed the plate away. He wasn't sure what had possessed him to get a salad in the dining hall. The stuff was never fresh by the time he got there, and he didn't even like half the toppings he had put on it.
"You don't look well."
"I've got mono."
Phaedra giggled. "Who gave it to you?"
"Kyle. He got sick a few weeks ago, wasn't strep like he thought, but he refused the blood test."
"You kissed your roommate?"
"We shared a bottle of wine."
"That was stupid."
"I think I'm gonna go now."
"Okay. Need me to bring you anything?"
"No. I'm just gonna sleep."
Neil stood up too quickly. Vertigo swept over him, greying his vision and churning up nausea. He started to sit down again and couldn't find the chair. He groped for it or the table or anything to keep himself from falling. He couldn't tell if he was falling, but he felt like he should.
"Neil?" Phaedra stood up and leaned over the table to grab his arm.
He tried to tell her he was okay, but he was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he would vomit. He put his hand over his mouth as his stomach and throat contracted. His stomach was empty, though, and nothing came out.
The nausea passed. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, his hand still over his mouth for fear of another attack. No further attack came, but he was exhausted. He opened his eyes. "I'm okay," he said.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded and glanced down at the salad. The lettuce was grey, the carrots and tomatoes and mushrooms all shriveled and black, and oozing through the dark reddish orange of the Russian dressing were hundreds of tiny white maggots.
* * *
Plague closes his eyes while Famine drives. He doesn't need to see where she's taking him. It doesn't matter. What matters is how he can fight her. Physically, there isn't a damn thing he can do. Even if he had any combat skill, he wouldn't be able to overcome her sheer bulk. So he tries to visualize the cells of her body and the ways his viruses can break her down.
He's surprised when his viruses appear so clearly in his mind. He had never been able to see them before, had never really had control over them. Now he can command them like ranks of loyal soldiers. He wonders if he always had that ability or if it's a result of being an angel. He thinks it's most likely because of his redemption. It never crosses his mind that it could be something he had while he was alive.
He chooses his agents and waits.
Famine pulls her Mustang into a dirt parking lot in front of an abandoned lumber mill. She slams her hand into the center of Plague's chest, grabs a handful of his shirt and yanks him out through the driver's side door after her. She flings him to the ground. "Well, here we are," she says.
Plague spits dust out of his mouth and stands up. Famine clamps her hand around his throat.
"This was too easy," Famine says. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were up to something. But you were never that strong, were you?"
"Fuck you," Plague says.
She shows her teeth and backhands him, splitting open his bottom lip.
"Don't make me do that again," Famine says. "Boss wants you alive. He'll be upset if I end up having to kill you."
Plague tastes blood and sucks at the gash in his lip. He smirks and spits blood and saliva at Famine's eyes.
"Son of a bitch!" she shrieks. She lets go of him and paws at her eyes.
Plague scrambles away from her towards the building. He hides in a ruined office just inside the front door. She'll find him easily enough once she's cleaned his blood and saliva out of her eyes, but that's all right. That's what he wants. His first virus has infected her, and the second one is ready.
To be continued ...