If she’d been asked what she was expecting, she wouldn’t have been able to put it into words. Whatever that vague idea she’d had though, this wasn’t it.
It was the same ice-cream shop they’d been at last night. It looked different by the light of day – ice-cream stores, like parks, were something that should only exist in bright daylight. By the light of morning, the colours of the paint, and the chalk illustrations were far cheerier, inviting customers in to experience all the homemade flavours.
The only thing that hampered the shop’s cheer was the police tape.
The blue-and-white tape sectioned off the area around the shop, cordoning off the section of footpath covered in broken glass and broken beer bottles. Hazard tape covered the window, warning people to stay away from the broken glass and splintered wood.
It was all wrong.
She couldn’t remember exactly what the damage had looked like. There had too much pain and fear to take in detail, and dying – or nearly dying, or whatever her dumb body had done – was more than enough to scramble what little she did remember.
But…this looked like someone had smashed their way in with a cricket bat, rather than throwing a bomb, or whatever had blasted out the shopfront.
She looked from the broken window to the footpath and the collection of garbage that hadn’t been there the night before, then finally looked up at Curt. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘explain.’
He nodded like she’d passed a test. ‘There’s a level of violence and destruction people expect,’ he said. ‘Two dickheads getting into a punch-up, normal, most people walk past that.’ He gave a lopsided grin. ‘I mean, you live in the Valley, that’s not known for being the most cordial part of the city.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, I suppose. I mean, I cross the street if two blokes are fighting, but it’s not something I think about.’
‘Okay, compare that with…the once a year or so when someone sees a gun in a public space. If you’re in the same city, the whole place basically goes into lockdown, office workers think twice about going out for lunch, and it’s all anyone can talk about. Not your city, someone in your group chat is going to mention it, or it’ll come up at dinner. Drunks smashing up a shop, normal. A terrorist chucking a grenade, not normal. Not normal is where we live, but it’s also what we try and shield civilians from.’
She pointed at the beer bottles. ‘So we stage crime scenes to make it look like a more expected type of crime?’
He nodded. ‘If there are no witnesses, we can usually put everything back how it was – here, it was too public, there were calls, so we’ve got to do set dressing. It’s the Agency prime directive to make everything seem normal, and hide the truth from people who would freak out. I’ll look around inside so you don’t have to bother talking to people if you want to look out here?’
She nodded, but with the cleanup and the broken glass, there probably wasn’t much hope.
The feathers could have been destroyed. They could have been stolen. They could have sensed their owners were about to die and melted into glitter and dust. But…but she had to look if only so she knew she’d done her best.
‘Come on, feet,’ she murmured and started to make a search grid, starting from the shop door to the gutter and back, checking each square centimetre, like investigators after a plane crash.
There was a cool breeze, strong enough to feel, but not strong enough to even roll one of the abandoned beer bottles around.
She looked for gold, for opal, for garnet, and found only broken glass and dirty paper.
‘I can help,’ a woman’s voice said.
In dreams, you got knowledge, things you needed to know to make the narrative of the dream flow right. You knew that the orange tree was supposed to be your brother, or that the dog following you around had been in your family for years. It was instant, and it was unquestioned.
Apparently, it could happen in real life as well.
The woman who had spoken wasn’t human, and she knew that like she knew her own name. The slight echo helped, but that was surface to the capital-K-Knowledge that had come with the first syllable hitting her ears.
She swallowed and turned towards the sound of the voice.
Death stood there – and like when she’d seen Death from a distance the previous night, the woman wore the long black robe that was the universal shorthand for “grim reaper”. Her face was shrouded by the robe’s hood, though what little was visible seemed human, rather than looking like a skull.
‘I feel like-’ she started. ‘Should I bow or something?’
Stef looked around – expecting that either people were getting the same instinctual knowledge that something magical was going on, or would be approaching with phones, wanting to get a picture of cool, random cosplay.
The world had stopped – but it wasn’t like some god had hit the pause button, it was almost like…
There wasn’t really a good comparison for what she saw – the colours of everything around her had desaturated, and the noise of the world had fallen away.
It wasn’t Silent Hill, there wasn’t fog everywhere – but somehow there was still the impression of everything being hazy. A photograph made blurry from exposure to the sun. Assets in a video gave just coming within draw distance range.
And it left the uncomfortable question if it was the world that had become less real, or if they’d-
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled.
She bowed, even though Death hadn’t said to, it just felt…right. This was even bigger than coming face-to-face with the phoenix, this was-
A hand held hers, and for a moment, there was something familiar about the touch. She looked up and saw Death smiling down at her. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ Death said. ‘Ryan stands on ceremony with me, it’s not a trait you need to inherit from him.’ Death squeezed her hand, and she straightened up. ‘I appreciate the courtesy, but it’s not required.’
It would be dumb to ask if Death remembered her, but surely-
‘Of course I do,’ Death said kindly. ‘I remember everyone. Sometimes though, there are those that stand out. Your angel never makes things easy on himself, so he…stands out. Not many are humble enough to bow and call me “Lady” while being bold enough to call on me.’
There is so much to unpack in that sentence.
For the briefest of seconds, there was the impression of a man in a suit walking behind Death – maybe thoughts in this space could manifest whatever you were thinking about and-
A shadow-of-haze-and-light passed her, formless and barely more than the movement of air. However, for a moment, it seemed to be a woman in a dress, but it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
‘This is the place where ghosts reside,’ Death said. ‘Those that do not manage to make it back from Limbo are here until the end of the world.’ The smile on her face was sad. ‘This-’
‘Is this where I would have come?’ she asked. ‘Ryan said- He said that I might have become a ghost.’
Death nodded. ‘If you had slipped away, you would have been an echo here, but you were both lucky, and that wasn’t your ending.’
I feel like I’m luckier than I deserve.
She stared down at her feet and tried to concentrate on what had brought her to this moment. To be standing in front of- In front of someone as powerful as the universe, who…was somehow not exuding the least drop of impatience, or sense that she was being a time-waster.
‘We, um, we got feathers last night. But-’ she indicated to the storefront. ‘This happened. And-’
Death pulled the two feathers from within her robe. ‘They were damaged,’ she said, ‘but some things are easily repaired.’
‘Th-thank you,’ she said, and gently took the feathers from Death’s hands. ‘I feel like- I don’t have anything but words to give.’
‘I can feel your gratitude,’ Death said, ‘and I didn’t ask for anything in return.’
‘Thank you,’ she said again, trying to put every good thought into the words.
Death nodded and faded as reality reasserted itself.
She hadn’t noticed the slip into the world of ghosts – concrete looked much the same in both places, but with her attention on the wider world, the transition was far more apparent.
Colour came back quickly, everything bright and hyper-real compared to the subdued reality of the last few moments. Sounds, though, seemed to slowly ramp up in volume, rather than breaking over her like a wave.
She quickly walked to the door and knocked on the frame – Curt looked up from talking to an owner or manager or some other important person, upset that their store had been the target of random violence.
Holding the feathers up would be weird and draw unnecessary attention from the owner; instead she smiled and hoped that he’d use his freakily good intuition to gather what she was trying to say.
She walked a few metres down from the shop, leaned against a patch of wall, wrapped Ryan’s feather in a piece velvet and slipped it into a required bag.
Her own feather, she stared at, happy and grateful to someone who-
She’d just talked to Death. That was big. That was huge. That was-
She looked down at the hand Death had held and slowly curled it into a fist, trying to hold onto the wisp of feeling and memory. It had been familiar, and that was weird.
It’s possible she held you when you were a child.
Ryan had described her death and the short trip into the grey world that was Limbo, and it made sense that this was how the memory was connected…
But it seemed to be stored in some other part of her brain. As disjointed as her memories of her first meeting with Ryan was, there was a particular web. The drowning, the colour blue, the impression of being held and safe, the flash of a suit, the echo of Ryan’s voice that had made it unmistakable upon hearing it again.
Nowhere in the web was someone holding her hand.
‘Opal? That’s October, right? What day?’
She looked up at curt, who was leaning against the same wall she was – she hadn’t noticed him arrive, or the probable multiple attempts he’d made to get her attention.
‘My friend Carmichael inherited a phoenix feather, it’s been in his family for generations, so he told me about them once. And given what I assume your background to be, that’s your birthstone, right?’ he held up his phone. ‘and Google says October. Do you celebrate? Agent Jones keeps a calendar of who does and who doesn’t, so people don’t get triggered if it’s not something they can deal with.’
She looked at the feather, then back to him. ‘Um. I dunno.’ She looked down at the footpath. ‘It’s a non-event I guess? Never really bothered to celebrate on my own.’
There was a look on his face, and she didn’t quite know what it meant – it was kind of sad, but it could have just been pity. ‘Well then expect a lot of random gifts delivered via Vox. Gifts are weird, Raz showed me everything he got last year. Because with requiring, you’re not limited by budget, so you don’t have to wait to get a new car or watch or whatever, a lot of gifts tend to be more…’ He seemed to search for a word. ‘It’ll be a playlist of music someone wants you to try, or the recreation of the best meal they ever had, or a bound collection of their favourite memes. It’s…’
‘Almost more like recommendations?’
He nodded. ‘Kind of, yeah, sometimes it’s sharing something that couldn’t be recreated in another way, sometimes it’s just sharing something the gift giver loves, in the hope that you will too.’
‘That’s kind of beautiful.’
‘Of course, you still get lazy people who just send a box of chocolates because it’s stuck in their head that that’s what you buy a coworker you don’t know that well.’
She stared at the feather, required another piece of velvet and tucked it away.
‘What would you be doing right now if I was normal?’
‘I’m gonna need you to reword that into something resembling a question I can understand.’
‘You- You’ve been patient- You did the soundboard, you get that I’m not normal.’ She stared at her shoes, each word harder than the last to say. ‘So I’m guessing you’re not running through your average “new recruit first-week” playbook. What would you be doing if I was normal?’
‘Should I ignore that you’re technically off today for injuries?’
‘I got shot twice,’ she said. ‘We just- We came to get ice-cream. Bomb. Blackout. All in all, kind of shit. The weird twins didn’t say anything about lasting damage. So- So I think that’s all you need to know.’
‘If you need to talk to someone, the Parkers can get you an appointment with a counsellor.’
That’s the first time he’s said an agent’s name without rank.
‘Do I- Are twin agents normal? One of them was…kind of intense.’
‘Two,’ Curt said. ‘Yeah, he- Was he at least wearing clothes?’
She lifted her head. ‘The fact that you have to ask that question makes me afraid.’
Curt clapped his hands. ‘Okay. First things first. If you were Joanne Average recruit, we’d probably be doing a patrol. Or…taking a drive around the city, pointing out landmarks that are important now that you’re wearing that suit, and getting you to learn how to think.’
‘Then let’s-’ she said as he stepped past her.
‘I guessed,’ he said, pointing at this little red sports car. ‘Get on in.’