God’s Eye, by AJ Scudiere
A demon . . .
Every soul he claims is another chance to advance.
Until he can walk among us, look like us, make us believe in him. The only thing holding him back is . . .
An angel. . .
The rules of the realm bind him from fighting on the demon’s terms. But this is his chance to steal something away from the demon, to steal the thing the demon wants most . . .
A woman who must choose . . .
A woman who has been chosen.
Katharine is suddenly a pawn in a game where the rules and the stakes are beyond her comprehension.
She must take a side even though she can’t tell angel from demon.
And in the end, they will all be judged.
He pushed his way through the synapse between the spaces. It required more energy than he possessed. It always did. Still he always made it. For now, he paused and inhaled the searing air deeply into new lungs, holding it in despite the pain. His teeth clenched and his hands grabbed for the edges even though they offered no purchase as he forced his way further through.
He stopped again to rest and wait . . . and feel. A small breeze from somewhere brushed his fingers. It didn’t matter where it came from, only that it touched him, and that the sensation produced a euphoria like a drug high. All sensations did. Taking another gulp of air, he exalted at how the fumes trailed into his lungs and produced a raw, not unpleasant scream in his tissues. He pushed further through the tear in reality he had fought so hard to create. It would last only as long as he needed it to, the fissure would seal itself behind him as he fell the last part of the way. But he wasn’t finished yet.
He inhaled again, taking in the acrid scent of his own burned flesh. He always forgot just how painful it was. The edges sparked tiny friction fires as he forced his way. Tracers of smoke and greasy lines of soot followed his path and marked his passage as he clawed his way into the abandoned subway station from somewhere most humans only imagined existed.
Zachary didn’t notice. He was too busy watching the changes in himself, and besides, he’d done this enough before. He knew about the black ash that would drift down and pile up where he came through, just as he knew that there was nothing he could do about it anyway.
As he altered, his eyes watched the human skin of his arms knitting into a smooth, pale color that made him smile despite the pain. The color showed just how far he had come. When he reached up and pulled a short lock of his hair forward for inspection, it, too, was light – a translucent honey color that went with the skin and the mind-altering agony. He would bet on his eyes being blue or green, again without the depth of darker tones. He took immense pride in having earned the pale features he would display on this visit.
With effort, he turned his newly minted brain back to the task at hand and gave the final shove, birthing himself into the human plane. He looked for all the world like he was of it. Appearances were often not just deceiving, but downright dishonest. He wondered what his boss would think of the thoughts in his head. He wondered if they were up to snuff. Then Zachary pushed that thought aside, too. His deeds would be what he was measured by. He needed to get to them.
~ ~ ~ ~
Katharine didn’t have a cat. And she wasn’t sure this was really a cat, either. So she doubted her sanity as she chased the sleek black creature on its dash into her bathroom.
Her bare feet padded softly, but the noise was ghastly when compared to the ethereal cat that made no sound whatsoever. Since that realization only added to Katharine’s disturbing conclusions, she chose to ignore it. She also refused to question why she was running after a creature that she wanted to believe wasn’t real. Without thought, her body followed.
Her long bare legs halted, toes digging into the plush carpeting for purchase as she came into the open doorway. The cat had darted in here. Katharine caught just a glimpse of the flick of a midnight tail as the creature slipped behind the toilet.
Her breathing stopped, her nose crinkled against the smell she did not want to identify as familiar. But her brain, usually so adept at pushing aside what she disliked, was hard-pressed to deny the odor that tickled at her senses.
Cautiously now, she stalked her way around the toilet. It was the latest in plumbing innovations, a sleek, low-volume-flush model that sat clear back against the wall. There was no room for the cat to duck out when she stepped around, no opening behind the bowl to dart through. She should have the cat trapped – but knew she didn’t. The smell told her what she’d see when she peered around to the once pristine carpeting on the concealed side of the toilet.
Still Katharine stepped across the expanse. Blinking slowly, she forced in a full breath to fortify herself, then immediately wished she hadn’t. The remnants of fire burned her lungs, but she pushed on.
As she had suspected – known – there was no cat. Katharine would have been grateful to chalk up the experience to a bad dream. But dreams ended when the dreamer woke. That was when hers had begun.
The small cat had been sweet, rubbing his unbelievably soft head against her hand, demanding the petting that was surely a cat’s due. Katharine had obliged. Half-asleep, her fingers had stroked silky ears and spine, all of it overwhelmingly real, even after she woke fully to the knowledge that she had no cat. That she had closed and locked all the doors and windows because she had feared something like this might happen. Because she had convinced herself that it had been her fault the last time it had happened. She must have left something open. Her fault meant her fix. So she had sealed the condo before bed.
Tonight when her brain had recognized the cat, she had sat bolt upright, her nose already detecting the faint scent of fire that accompanied her visitors. Her lungs had gasped for air with the final piece of knowledge that told her things were wrong. It was her movement as she had woken that had startled the cat into its mad flight.
Katharine blinked now. Her eyes might be deceiving her, but she had begun to doubt even her doubt.
Slashed across the bathroom carpet was a dark stain of soot. Wide enough for the creature, it was about a foot long, lighter at the end of the streak closer to her and thick enough near the wall that there was actually a tiny pile of burnt ash.
She didn’t want to touch it, but some part of her was compelled. For a while, she had believed she was hallucinating all of it until her maid had asked what created the black messes. Katharine didn’t know, and had therefore been of no help whatsoever in the art of stain removal. The maid, however, had been instrumental in notifying Katharine that she wasn’t the only one who saw it. It wasn’t her brain that needed soot removed, it was, in fact, the pale, deep carpeting.
That was more disturbing than the thought that she was going crazy had been. If the things she had seen were real, then she was playing a game where she had no idea of the rules or the stakes. ‘Real’ meant that the cat had not been within the confines of her definitions. That she could pet and stroke it meant it wasn’t merely a ghost cat, the likes of which she was pretty certain she could find a way to deal with. No, this was worse.
From what she had seen before, and the way she had deliberately cornered the cat behind the toilet tonight, she had to believe that the creatures could at least pass through the walls. That would mean the large black dog of two weeks ago had passed through her closet into her living room, then somehow escaped from there. But she hadn’t found him in her living room, or the common hallway. Nor had any of her neighbors complained. There had been just enough time between the last visit and this one to make her believe maybe it had simply ended. Clearly it hadn’t – the black ash on her floor now said otherwise.
If her previous ideas had been correct, then this cat had dropped through the bathroom floor into the unit below. The soot was a tracer as the beings went through – the carpet or wall or barrier remained unchanged once the mark was washed away. But she didn’t believe the dog had passed into the neighbors’ unit and she was certain the cat had not dropped down on the condo one floor down, which meant that she didn’t know where they went. Katharine didn’t want to know. Taking a deep breath, she let the smell be a reminder that she was no longer allowed that luxury. Her only recourse was to learn what she could. So she knelt down and stuck her finger into the soot.
~ ~ ~ ~
Allistair lay back against the comforter. The bed took up a good portion of the small room. Land out here wasn’t cheap. A salary at Light & Geryon paid well, but it didn’t buy space. In Los Angeles, he wasn’t sure if there even was a way to buy space. At least he had a yard. Or what passed for a yard in this town.
Still he had all the creature comforts he needed. And he loved his creature comforts just a little too much. His dinner had been line caught halibut he’d bought from the pier on his way home. He’d stopped in a bakery for hot French bread and had been enjoying putting his nose over the bag and inhaling the fragrance when he passed by a farmer’s market that had been folding up. He’d haggled a price for the last bundle of asparagus. No aspect of his dinner had gone unnoticed.
He had enjoyed the heat radiating from the stove top as he sautéed the vegetables and seared the fish. The bread knife sawed an easy rhythm through thick crust and soft center adding to the already luscious smells wafting around his tiny kitchen. He’d sat down to eat, laying out one setting of nice china that was smooth and cool to his fingertips. Then he loaded it up and sat down to eat, savoring every piece and letting it roll and melt on his tongue as though it had been millennia since he had tasted anything so divine.
After he was done, he sat for just a moment before getting up to clean. There was simplicity in washing the dishes, in the repetitive circles and the flow of the water. Grace in doing for himself. Satisfaction at completion.
Then Allistair had peeled down to his boxers and laid himself across the cool bed. The boxers were only still on as a nod to propriety. Not that there was anyone around to be polite to, but he figured he needed to fit in as best he could. He needed the practice with human niceties. So the boxers stayed on.
With a low thread count, the comforter wasn’t the luxury model he could have gotten. The fabric was a little rough, abrading his skin in the slightest way. Still he enjoyed the sensation. Spreading his arms wide and running his hands across the texture, he closed his eyes and merely was.
Thoughts tumbled low and long in his brain. There was only so much time to roll around enjoying the sheets. Tomorrow he needed to get more done. Today had been only the start. He couldn’t do too much too soon – he couldn’t afford to look suspicious. But he needed Katharine.
And he needed her before Zachary got to her.
~ ~ ~ ~
Allistair had given up early last night. Keeping form was difficult, the energy necessary to walk as a human was far too difficult to maintain, even for one as powerful as himself.
So he’d studied his shape in the mirror for a great length of time. When he came back he would have to come again as the ‘same’. Humans put too much stock in ‘same’, paid too much attention to the surface. The surface could be so easily altered, but that was what they read, so that was what he would repeat.
He studied his face first. His hair was medium length – he couldn’t go altering that, it would be suspicious to the people, even though it was everything else about him that should be suspicious.
Dark as midnight, the hair was a sign of where he’d come from. The color would be easy enough to replicate as it was now his ‘natural’ color – he could force another shade into his hair, his eyes, his skin. But, unless he made a concerted effort, the shades would naturally alter as he shifted levels, and he hadn’t messed with any of it on this trip. So he was dark – dark hair, deep, deep brown eyes and olive skin. He needed to remember to say he was of Italian descent, and southern Italian at that. It was what the people would easily believe, true or not.
Though the colors were a mark he took pride in, they weren’t what he needed to study. He needed to know the shape of his hands, the breadth of his shoulders, the line of his nose. Where did his cheekbones sit? His eyes? His mouth? Those were the other cues, right after the colors, that the people would depend on. They had to. They had not been granted any further senses. Stuck with a pitiful five, and the occasional sixth, they used what they could, and Allistair would have to work within those boundaries. So he turned his face side to side, and he looked and he memorized.
He wondered if he was good-looking. In the human world a lot more would come his way if he were. But, like most humans, he couldn’t tell. At least he knew he couldn’t, people all seemed mixed up about it, which made him think maybe it shouldn’t matter. But it did. Take Katharine: she walked like she owned the place – the world, in fact – but she didn’t know what she looked like, how others saw her. She missed or dismissed every sexual cue thrown her way. Allistair could smell the want on the men and a few of the women as they went by her, not as well as he could in his natural state, but he wasn’t quite human even when he looked it. And at the same time, many of the men in the office radiated jealousy. It was a bizarre combination, the want and dislike curling off them in discordant waves. Allistair wondered what it did to their insides to be so at odds within themselves.
Mostly the women were easier to read: jealousy, pure and simple. Some of it needful, some downright evil. Like tendrils, it reached out to Katharine everywhere she went, but she was oblivious to all of it.
Not all people were. Lisa just outside the office had a keen sense for attraction, she reacted to what he could smell from others. Every time. Not Katharine. And because of that he would need to change how he approached her.
Allistair smiled at his reflection, frowned, opened his mouth and peered inside. He studied every inch of his body, but concentrated on his face. If it didn’t pass, the rest didn’t matter.
When he’d done all he could, he closed the shades and lay back across the bed, this time completely naked. His last human thought was that Zachary was no stronger than he, and had likely given up his form for the night as well. They would both have to claw their way back in when the sun came up.
Taking a deep breath and holding the sweetness in his lungs, Allistair was loathe to give up the heightened five senses that humans so infrequently enjoyed. Though they were sad in number, there was nothing wrong with their limits, only that they were so rarely tested. And to make matters worse, they tended to look upon those who savored the tactile and sensorial as diseased. He made a mental note to try to appear disaffected the next day.
With that, he slid out of the plane.
In his true form he pulsed, felt all pieces of the life flowing within him. For a moment, he had watched through the veil into his own empty apartment, then slipped away. Moments later, in Katharine’s bedroom, he watched her, watched his own energy reach out to lick at her as she slept. She made soft mews and turned when it built past a certain point. So she did have some sense of him, even if it was only when she was asleep. Her auburn hair spread across the pillow, and even now he longed to feel his human fingers running through it. But that would not be.
His goal was to keep her from Zachary.
Zachary had plans for her, and Allistair’s only recourse, in fact the only way to maintain his position, was to win her soul himself – to follow his own plans. He’d written his own devil’s bargain on that one. He’d failed so many times before, they wouldn’t let him back if he failed again. He’d known that Zachary was after her, and had proposed stealing her away as his personal means of salvation. He just hadn’t counted on enjoying the process.
She rolled again, this time facing him, and he wondered if those hazel eyes opened would they see him through the night? He doubted it. Katharine was notoriously unaware. It was why they wanted her in the first place.
Her full lips moved against each other, pink tongue darting out to lick, and Allistair was hit with a bolt of need. Something so rarely felt in this form. Crap.
His feeling was a flare sent into the ether. Anyone on this plane would likely see the strange emotion. He could only pray they assumed it was a human in great want, although that was unlikely. Humans didn’t emote much – though they could.
Rather than send a tracer out to see where the spark had gone, he worked to reign it in. He had to stay here, had to keep Zachary from his prize. So Allistair watched and tried to make no comparisons to his own human form. Her long slim fingers to his own thicker ones. The cut of her features was ‘delicate’ in the English language, his were rougher, sturdier, stronger.
Eventually, morning came and he left. She would wake, and things would be far better if she never saw him as he was. He had things to do himself, in his human form, before he presented the dark man to her again as though he had not watched her sleep all night.
Once again over his own bed, Allistair began clawing at the veil. He worked talons into the fabric of the world until the tiny opening appeared. Pushing an arm through immediately, he managed to keep the hole from closing as quickly as it had been made. His fathomless eyes watched from the other side as the dark skin burned and formed. Ashes, falling by gravity, added to the pile from when he’d returned the night before. It was why he’d chosen this spot. Less clean-up.
He pushed the other hand through. Then a leg. Sensation, sharp and vicious, shot up his forming limbs him as he hurled himself into the gap. Like a live wire, a blue crackle of fire walked the edges, sending tendrils of hot smoke up into the air. As his head went through, the brain registered the feelings as pain and he clamped his mouth shut against the purely human scream that threatened to erupt.
Still his mouth opened, his lungs fighting for the oxygen he now required, and he gasped, sucking in great quantities of air. Luckily the scream could not get out while the air came in.
From the space above his bed, he fell naked onto the comforter, his skin still too raw to relish the textures and temperatures of the fabric and soot he had tumbled into. Muscles stretched and skin rippled as he flexed and curled the body. But there were more important things to do.
Trailing ash and leaving faint footprints as he went, Allistair dashed for the bathroom. He had to see if he’d done it. If he’d accomplished ‘same’. If not he’d have to go back and incorporate again, which would drain his energy further and interfere with his plans for this day.
As his feet carried him, his ears searched the sounds around him, grateful that he couldn’t distinguish the over-loud beeping that had occurred when he’d come into his new home for the first time yesterday. His passing had set off smoke detectors in three rooms, as surely burnt flesh should. He’d been grateful they weren’t attached to an alarm system, and that he wasn’t in an apartment building. He’d disabled them all, first thing.
The mirror spoke to him even as he approached.
He’d done it. Allistair today would pass through the human world identifiable as the man he’d been yesterday.
The mirror also told him that his brand new body needed a shower.
He turned back and gathered up the four corners of the comforter so as not to spill any more of the soot. With the blanket wadded up in his arms he stepped into the shower and turned on the spray. Water hit him, cold as ocean depths, almost painful to his skin, but pleasurable all the same.
The temperature changed as he held the comforter up, letting as much soot as possible run down the drain. He didn’t want to explain massive quantities of ash to a repairman. Wringing as much water as he could from the bulky blanket, Allistair then turned to the task of scrubbing himself.
~ ~ ~ ~
Katharine had a duty to fulfill. Certainly one required by her mother and father, and therefore, she wondered, maybe it was owed to Light & Geryon, too. As the only remaining Geryon heir, it was her job to marry and produce another heir, and preferably a spare as well – as clearly that had been an oversight on her parents’ parts. At thirty-two she wasn’t getting any younger in the baby department, and the knowledge that her family was waiting was a force breathing down her neck. Never mind that her mother hadn’t lived to see her first grandchild. The idea had been planted long ago, and Katharine was required to see it through.
The problem was, daughters were married off in their twenties to wealthy men from the right families. But Katharine wasn’t truly just a daughter – she was filling in as son, too, entrenched in the family business. Her mother had once huffed at her marital lack, arguing that Katharine’s father had surely accomplished what he had needed: he had run the Geryon side of the investment firm and found a wife and fathered a child. Katharine had held her tongue, not pointing out that they’d fallen a little short on number of children.
There were a lot of inherent problems with that comparison. No matter her place in the company, Katharine was stuck as a female. Short of a sex change operation, there wasn’t much she could do about that. And it completely changed the playing field. The men in high positions at the company had women draping themselves across the shoulders of their Armani suits and wrapping their silk ties in manicured fists. There was never a shortage of willing females and therefore opportunities. Katharine had no such problem.
Apparently she intimidated the hell out of most of the men she met. She out-earned them, and often out-ranked them. And the practically guaranteed Co-CEO position rankled. There seemed to be only two categories of men that were interested in her. The first were gold-diggers: male counterparts of the uber-blondes at high end bars. Only these men worked. Hard. Their work was to woo her, their goal was to build a future, a future resting on Katharine’s place at Light & Geryon. Endless money, non-existent responsibilities. The second type wanted her spot. Each figured if he married her, he would get the position at the firm – Katharine could stay home and make babies and run charity events. While she might have no ambition toward actually running the family company, the thought of being a main line housewife like her mother was enough to make her dig some up.
Her key was in the lock of her condo door before she was able to jump from the runaway train her brain had become and bring her focus back to the present. Which was a funny thing. She had a date with Zachary Andras tonight, and this morning she’d have willingly taken a bet that nothing would have budged her mind from that.
Now she boldly walked into her own apartment, determined to be unafraid of what she might find. Her nose sniffed at the air, checking for a singed smell, but detected nothing out of the ordinary. The last thing she needed was for Zachary to show up at her door and see a wide streak of soot in the middle of her carpet. Worse, she wouldn’t have a clue how to explain it. But she didn’t find anything. Hopefully that, in itself, was a good sign.
She changed clothes, noting that all her hangers were in the appropriate places. Her shoes stood in a sharp line across the floor of her closet, all in neat order. She re-hung her jacket, slipped her pumps back into the space they had vacated that morning and chose something suitable for a date with a man who could afford the corner unit in her building, and clearly wore a suit to work but went out to delis in khakis and light sweaters. Unconsciously, she emulated Zachary’s look, pulling a ‘date’ outfit from the behind the other clothes. Throwing on a pair of ‘fun’ shoes, she figured she could go anywhere except maybe on a hike.
Katharine picked pins from her hair and brushed it loose while she waited. Nervous about the date, she fidgeted around the apartment, checking her email and nibbling just a little. She couldn’t recall feeling this hyped up about something as stupid as a date before. Then again, she didn’t recall a date where she hadn’t already been close to certain which kind of predator the man was prior to the first course.
~ ~ ~ ~
She circled the apartment, checking locks on windows. She checked all three bolts on the front door. Made sure everything was locked down tight. It was the animals that occupied her thoughts, not the fact that she’d willingly fallen into bed with a near stranger on a first date. Somehow, that rang as perfectly normal – not as something she had never done before. But the possibility that the animals might come again scared her.
She lived on the tenth floor. If creatures got into her apartment up here, then it wasn’t through the windows. She’d seen two cats and a glimpse of a large black dog – none of which flew or scaled buildings. The animals, this fear, it was the one thing she hadn’t handed over to Zachary whole-heartedly. It hadn’t even occurred to her. The memories of the fear had receded in his presence and only returned when he was out of her sphere.
Still there wasn’t much she could do about it. It wasn’t like the animals were dangerous. They were more of a threat to the carpet than to her. There wasn’t anything she could do right now. And, after that encounter with Zachary, she was nearly dead on her feet. Her body cried out for sleep.
Slowly, in an attempt to calm herself, she straightened the bed covers and went through her routine. Methodically she brushed her teeth, washed her face and ran her comb through her hair. She pulled on a satin sleep shirt – her only concession to the possibility of night visitors, but she didn’t admit it even in her mind. Katharine checked her alarm, each morning she turned it off, then immediately re-set it for the next day. It was as it should be. Then she slipped beneath the covers, pulling them up tight beneath her chin, instantly drifting off.
Hours later, she woke, her eyes blinking in the darkness that didn’t seem to recede. Still, she knew exactly where her bathroom was and she headed that way. Half-asleep, she used the toilet, washed her hands and dried them on the towel next to the sink.
When she opened the door, the wave hit her full blast. Unused to the sensation, she stood there buffeted by the feelings that came at her and pushed through her. Fury. Overlaid with despair.
And they were radiating from the corner.
Her eyes drew a sharp focus in the very thin light coming through the curtains. The back half of her room was bathed in shadow. But something sat there. Large and fathoms deep, it broadcast its feelings to her, the anger permeating the room. Katharine, for some unknown reason, perhaps anger of her own, took a step toward the creature.
The rage disappeared. Instantly, she was drenched in artic cold, her quick gasp freezing in her lungs. Still she took another step forward, some part of her brain demanding that she see what had invaded her space this time.
One hand came out in front of it – the only part of it emerging from the darkness that somehow seemed to continue beyond the borders of her bedroom. The creature reached out toward her. Silver claws the size of kitchen blades unfurled at the ends of its long fingers.
Terror, this time her own, smashed into every cell, and the dark in her room became timeless, spinning. Her eyes wilted shut as her vision shot through with stars.
About the Author
It’s A.J.’s world. A strange place where patterns jump out and catch the eye, very little is missed, and most of it can be recalled with a deep breath, it’s different from the world the rest of us inhabit. But the rest of us can see it – when we read. In this world, the smell of Florida takes three weeks to fully leave the senses and the air in Dallas is so thick that the planes “sink” to the runways rather than actually landing.
For A.J., texture reigns supreme. Whether it’s air or blood or virus, it can be felt and smelled. School is a privilege and two science degrees (a BA and MS) are mere pats on the back compared to the prize of knowledge. Teaching is something done for fun (and the illusion of a regular paycheck) and is rewarding at all levels, grade school through college. No stranger to awards and national recognition for outstanding work as a teacher, trainer and curriculum writer, like most true teachers, the real joy for A.J. is in the “oh!” – the moment when the student sees the connection and it all makes sense.
A.J. has lived in Florida and Los Angeles among a handful of other places. Recent whims have brought the dark writer to Tennessee, where home is a deceptively normal looking neighborhood just outside Nashville.
For more on AJ, go to http://www.ajscudiere.com/
Follow Front Row Lit on Twitter @frontrowlit
Check out the latest from Front Row Monthly magazine at www.frontrowmonthly.com