"So, you're the Angel of Death, then?" It was more a statement than question, and the middle-aged man who said it did not, at this moment, appear concerned with its immediate implications.
"In a way, yes. I am a messenger about death." The robed man sighed. "Robert, I'm here to tell you that you are going to die, but if you choose not to die, things will go badly for you."
A grin crossed Robert's mouth. "You're saying I have a choice?"
"Yes, but if you don't die when you're supposed to, it will go badly for you."
"That doesn't sound like a choice."
Robert pointed to a paper on the wall. The robed man looked briefly at it. It looked official. "I can handle complex equations. When you say "goes badly for me," what are we talking about here? Why even tell me this?"
The robed man leaned on his staff. "Let me put it this way: you have a time appointed you by God, fate, or whatever you want to call it. Something, I'm not sure what yet, is seeking to unravel that appointment, to create alternate timelines for purposes unknown."
The young man nodded, absorbing the idea. "Alternate timelines is not, from my perspective, a problem--especially if they result in a longer, fuller life for me...."
As if completing his thought, the robed man continued, "...And so where's the hitch? you ask."
Almost simultaneously, but just a syllable behind, the young man finished his thought, "And so where's the hit...hey! How'd you do that?"
"It is a gift--and a curse--of my order, to be able to be a bit in the future, right up until our death. This is just a bit of a parlor trick to show you that I'm serious." He stood straight and pointed the simple wooden staff at his charge. "The hitch, as you call it, is that the life you live after your appointed death comes at a terrible price--everything you do is cursed to harm others."
"What, like I lead an old woman across the street and end up breaking her legs?"
"Or causing a car accident that kills others."
"Wouldn't that have happened if I didn't help her across the street?"
"Perhaps. But it will happen if you intervene."
Robert frowned. "So there are some philosophical hoops to jump through. That's hardly a steep price to pay. Is that all or is there something you're not telling me?"
The robed man suddenly looked pale and very old. "That's not all," he whispered, glancing at the floor of this highrise office suite. Looking the young man directly in his eyes, "It does something to your soul. Corrupts it somehow. Turns you evil as well, so that when you do die...I believe you call it hell."
Robert stared deep into the angel's brown eyes, looking for any sign of flinching. There was none. "You mean that we go to hell? I don't even believe in God. Hell? Hell, I don't even believe in YOU! what's your name?"
"They call me Jacques."
"What is 'French?'"
Robert blinked, fell back into his chair and let out a bellyful of laughs. The robed man stood, uncomfortably shifting his feet, not sure how to process this.
When at last his laughing subsided, Robert said, "Well, I think that confirms that you're not from Earth, at least. So...tell me more about yourself. Give me a reason to believe anything you say. For that matter, how can we even understand each other?"
"Fine. May I sit? My feet are killing me."
Robert motioned to a chair.
Jacques sat and recounted how, in all his travels, he had always been able to understand the language of those he met. It was miraculous. He couldn't explain it. It just was.
"Or something." Jacques didn't want to admit that he didn't know what 'polyglot' meant.
Robert leaned forward over his desk. "Can you be killed?"
Jacques gently laid his staff across his legs as he relieved his feet. "Yes, I am mortal. I, too, have a time appointed to die."
Robert grinned again, opening a desk drawer and suddenly he was pointing a revolver at Jacques's impassive face. "So what happens if I pull this trigger?"
Jacques closed his eyes, his muscles tightening in concentration. "I move my stick to intercept the bullet...you pull the trigger...the bullet hits my stick, shattering it...the bullet misses me but hits the window behind me, which cracks but seems to absorb the force...you go to fire a second shot, but the gun will not work...I believe a piece of my staff becomes lodged in the firing mechanism."
As he spoke, Robert fired--the stick was suddenly in the path, and shattered, splinters flying everywhere. He pulled the trigger again, and the hammer fell, but somehow jammed. As he turned the gun to examine the jam, thinking to himself that revolvers shouldn't jam, he saw the speck of wood lodged between the pin and the cylinder and heard Jacques's observation saying the same.
"That was amazing."
"As I said, I am a bit ahead of us."
Robert flipped open the cylinder and the piece of wood dropped out, onto his desk. "The unlikelihood of that happening...."
..."Defies description?" Yes. I don't fully understand it, myself, except to say that my God has appointed me this task and I cannot die until it is complete. I would really not recommend trying that again. And, in fact, I see that you won't."
Robert flipped the cylinder back into place, careful to turn it so the next round was in firing position. He held the weapon lightly in his hand, just in case.
"An angel of death who himself has yet to die. Interesting. Okay then, let's say I believe you. Why are you here? Robert paused, his astute brain forcing him to ask one last question: "...Now?"
Jacques rose, leaning on his staff for balance. "I think you've just figured out the second part of your question, Robert, which leads us to the first part. I'm here to make sure you die at your appointed time."
"This moment, yes. The measurement of time is rather arbitrary, but the events occur."
"When you say you're here to make sure I die...you're saying that I have a choice, and if I make the choice to live instead, you'll kill me?"
"As painlessly as possible."
"There's no animosity here. I'm trying to save your soul and the souls of others."
"Maybe I should have paid attention to my teachers in Sunday School."
"So...what happens now?"
"You want to know how you're going to die?"
"If it's supposed to happen at this moment, yes."
"Ah," said the robed man as the office door rudely opened and three security guards with guns drawn swarmed the room. They saw their boss, his gun in his hand, and this strangely robed man with a broken stick. One, a fresh recruit named Williams, sighted the robed man and as he did so, a bead of sweat dripped into his eye. He moved his free hand away from the gun, his aim wavering, and just as he wiped his eye, he heard his commander yell, "Shoot!" Instinct and training took over, and time slowed down as his finger gently eased the trigger back. The gun kicked as the bullet fired and missed the robed man. Robert Orwell, his boss's boss, fell sideways, a look of astonishment on his face as he dropped the revolver with a ridiculously loud clatter on his glass desk. For a heartbeat, there was no sound in Williams's head.
Then time sped back to normal and the guard commander was wrestling the gun out of trigger man's hands while another guard tried to tackle him to the ground. The last guard ran to Robert's side, trying to keep his weapon pointed generally at the man in the robe while ascertaining Robert's injuries.
"Man down! Call the ambulance!"
"I said "Don't shoot!" Williams! What the hell were you thinking?"
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!" was all Williams would say. Indeed, that was all he said until the police arrived.
"The boss is hit! GET AN AMBULANCE!"
"Control, this is Arguleta. Code Black. We need immediate medical attention in Mr. Orwell's office. I repeat, immediate medical in Orwell's office!"
The radios crackled and squealed with chatter as the security apparatus of the building sparked to sudden life.
Jacques moved swiftly to the dying man's side, laying aside his broken staff. The guard there, whose named tag said "Andrews" asked him to stand back. With a calm voice, Jacques said, "Andrews, I'm a healer. Let me see what I can do."
His own blood pounding through his head, Andrews, who had spent a tour of duty in Iraq, put his weapon back in its holster and helped Jacques rip off Robert's shirt, revealing a bloody mess--the bullet had punctured the inferior vena cava and the wound was bleeding heavily. Andrews muttered a profanity.
Robert, who's scared gaze suddenly calmed as his eyes met Jacques's asked, "This moment, Jacques?"
Jacques nodded silently.
"It only happened because you were here."
Jacques bowed his head. "The timelines are altered, Robert. It would have happened in some other way at this same time, and you would not have had a choice."
Robert coughed as Andrews applied pressure to the wound, unsure what else to do, but yelled over his shoulder, "I'm losing him!"
Then it all went black.
There was a tear in the blackness--something bright and growing brighter. Robert couldn't close his eyes--he had no eyes. It all seemed to be in his head. A voice spoke out of the brightness, quietly, "Come with me if you want to live."
"I'm supposed to die," Robert found himself saying, though he had no mouth.
The voice was louder, more insistent: "Do you want to live?"
"Of course I do," thought-spoke Robert.
"Then come with me," said the voice, more insistently.
Something about the voice, or maybe it was just what Jacques had said, made Robert hesitate. He asked, "Show yourself to me first."
The light through the tear grew brighter as the tear seemed to widen and a claw--Robert thought it looked exactly as a demon's claw should look--reached through for him. "Come to me NOW!" the voice said, and Robert clearly understand that the claw belonged to the voice.
"No," he said simply, and just that quickly, the tear was gone, the claw was gone, and only a disembodied thought of malevolent anger remained, a near-palpable taste in his mind.
He opened his eyes, the brightness of his office somewhat lessened by his recent vision. "Jacques?" he whispered, another cough racking his system.
"I'm here, Robert," came his reassuring voice, and a hand--a hot hand--brushed his cheek. Robert's eyes were so heavy, he couldn't keep them open.
"Did--cough--did you hear?"
Jacques's voice was close, his honey-scented breath right in Robert's ear: "What did you choose?"
Robert summoned what strength he had to raise a blood-soaked arm, which he thought Jacques caught, the universe suddenly extended only that far. "Death," he smiled weakly, and then was gone.
The paramedics found a nearly bloodless corpse by the time they made it up to Robert's office. The guards were busying themselves with performing CPR, applying pressure to the wound, trying in vain to keep Mr. Orwell alive. The paramedics took over, exchanging knowing glances. This one was a goner, but they did everything they could anyway until the ambulance arrived. As they escorted the body out of the office, Jacques went with the medics.
One of them, a a woman named "Lucero" by her name tag, asked, "Are you family?"
Jacques instinctively said yes. He wasn't familiar with this place's protocols, but it seemed the right thing to say.
"Are you hurt?" she asked, noting his blood-strained clothing.
"No. It's all his," he replied, and that seemed to suffice, as she turned away and focused on the dead man.
People gave them all a wide berth in the foyer, and as he left the building and made his way down the street toward the setting sun, he seemed to notice for the first time the strange manner of dress that these people had. Gone were the simple robes and in their place were buttons and latches and devices he'd never seen before. He looked at his bloodstained robe and sighed. It was hardly the first time he'd had to clean the robe, but in this place, in this age, there didn't appear to be any running water at all. Only tall, palatial buildings, finely leveled roads, and an occasional metal lid on something steaming and smelly below it all. It was a strange world, filled with people and he had a certain sense that he would be quite busy here for some time.