“Seven hundred?” Thomas asked, clearly surprised. “Surely you jest.”
“Good sir, I never jest when it comes to matters of business. Nor do I boast lightly of my finest stock,” Clement answered curtly. “Just look at him. A fine young slave, strong and virile.” For emphasis, Clement tapped the shackled man across his bare chest with the tip of his cane, eliciting a grunt of pain. The frightened youth wisely kept his gaze down and did not protest. “And look at those teeth! You will find no finer servant this side of the State.”
“I will find no more willful servant perhaps,” Thomas countered. “He is too young, and I can clearly see the whip marks across him. This is a runner if I ever saw one.”
Clement looked away, scratching his thick beard thoughtfully. Up until then he had figured the sale was as good as made. “You have a discerning eye. I can go as low as six hundred, but not a penny less.”
From the rooftops a lone figure watched as the unsold slaves were herded back to the wagons. Unable to stand the sight any longer she straightened from her crouch, but as she turned to jump down into the quiet streets she caught sight of a man. He was watching her from a higher rooftop three houses downwind, and as no human should be able to see her she stopped mid-step. Even at this distance she could make out the familiar black eyes hidden under the heavy cotton hood he wore. Despite her foul mood she forced a smile while he slowly approached her, lithely bounding barefoot over the rooftops without so much as a creak or a shift of the roof boards to give away his presence to the unsuspecting populace below.
“Skulking on my rooftops again,” he said in a thick French accent as he landed beside her. He pulled back his hood to reveal a shaved head, dark skin and broad features. He made a show of bowing low. “Not very ladylike behavior.”
“Whereas spying is oft noted to be the noblest of gentleman’s pastimes,” she replied, smiling wider as she met his mocking bow with a graceful curtsy.
The seraph chuckled, his shoulders arching as he stretched his arms. “Ah, I have sorely missed your sharp wit these past few months.”
“I feel awful for not returning to your beautiful territory sooner Bernard,” the woman replied, her expression hidden by her bonnet as she idly toyed with the green gem around her neck. “I have been up north.”
“No need for apologies. I know this,” he paused, motioning his head towards the wagons rolling away in the distance, “this . . . practice . . . is difficult to acclimate to.”
“Practice?” The woman scoffed. “It is utterly detestable. I came to the New World to remake myself. Start over. And so far I have seen nothing but suffering and greed. I walk through the slaves’ quarters at night, listening to their prayers. It sickens me to see such unnecessary and easily remedied hardship. How is it that people can claim to be God fearing, yet so casually trade life as if it were some form of commodity?” The woman tore off her bonnet and ran a hand through her long hair, knowing she sounded sullen.
Bernard smiled patiently. “You are still young, and perhaps a bit naïve. The world is a far darker place than this, and I fear the more you search the more you will come to see this truth. Death may divide our kind from the woes of the living, but the price we pay is to see how truly blind to those woes we were in life. People have always, and forever will, feed off each other when it suits their needs.”
“Perhaps I am naïve, but then you are a cynic,” the woman replied neutrally. “I do not wish to see the world that way, and I will not. The world is beautiful as it is dark, and just as prone to surprising us.” She sighed then. “If I could only do more than watch and wait for a day it will change.”
“That is a noble ideal,” Bernard admitted, “and I hope it serves you well, for it did not do so for me when I was in chains.”
The woman’s newly composed expression faltered, and she found herself unable to speak for a long moment. “You were a slave?”
“Another land, another era. Another life,” Bernard answered almost casually, a trait the woman knew only came with many centuries of service. “You know, I have heard the whispers. You have been reprimanded by your Speaker more than once for stealing food and bringing it to the younglings in servitude.”
The woman looked away, embarrassment crossing her features.
“You misunderstand, I do not judge you young one,” Bernard continued. “It is a common and relatively harmless offense, one I have myself committed in my youth. You think me complacent, but I know how difficult it is to only watch. That is why for the last thirty years I have worn the guise of a slave. It is not for vanities sake—or even by preference. Rather, in my little way, it is my own rebellion. To crease the brows of the ‘masters’ when I choose to be seen, a ghost they chase but can never catch floating between the trees in the dead of night.”
“I had never thought someone of your sterling reputation to be of a rebellious nature,” The woman replied, cocking her head to the side. “Why bother, if you take such a dim view of humanity?”
“Perhaps there is hope for me yet.” Bernard chuckled. “Following our laws is necessary for what we do. This is known, and I would never suggest you not follow them. But no matter what you are told, never forget it is our indiscretions that serve as our strongest link to our humanity. We, like them, are fallible. It is the very reason we pose such a danger to them, and without it we would be lost. Thus I have found over my long service that little rebellions, so long as they do not cause lasting harm, are vital to our existence, and even in death they allow us to live with ourselves. You will make a good seraph—of this I have no doubt. So I hope, in time, you too will find your balance as I have.”
“I hope so too,” the woman answered, patting her friend on the shoulder. Then her vision was interrupted by a flood of images, and for a long moment she stared past him with a vacant expression. When her sight finally returned she straightened, bowing apologetically. “Thank you for humbling this young one so.”
Bernard nodded, standing just as the woman turned to leave. “Oh, and Dawn?”
“Yes?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Do try and make haste with your next visit. This old hermit is in sore need of the company.”
“Of course,” Dawn replied, throwing him a warm smile before she stepped off the rooftop.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Ivy said as Sebastian finished his leap, giving him an almost motherly shake of her head while he dusted himself off. “I also think we need to step up your training.”
“I’ll get the hang of it eventually,” he muttered, taking a seat next to her, “and Dawn said I wasn’t allowed in her territory until this all blew over. But, technically, it’s your territory while she’s on trial—so I figure her warning doesn’t count. Besides, you won’t snitch.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Ivy shrugged, sticking out her tongue when Sebastian raised his eyebrow incredulously. “It would be rather entertaining to watch. She’s a little vanilla flower, but you have to admit she makes the most delicious threats.”
“Careful now. Or I might just let slip to her what happened in Detroit.”
Ivy cringed. “Oh, that’s low.”
“Yeah, well.” Sebastian shrugged, nudging his cadre sister playfully. “I learnt from the best.”
Ivy giggled girlishly before looking down at the street from their rooftop perch above Greystone city. Even from twenty stories high they could easily follow the specs of movement below, picking out details as intricate as license plate numbers and the eye color of the drivers behind the wheel.
“Not the prettiest of cities, is it,” Ivy remarked dryly.
“It has some character,” Sebastian offered.
“That’s fine for a week or two, but for decades?” Ivy shook her head. “Considering she’s seen more of the world than any one of us except Alex, I don’t know what Dawn sees in this place that keeps her here.”
Sebastian chuckled. “You just don’t like the idea of home, or sitting still for more than twenty minutes.”
“True,” Ivy admitted, narrowly missing a grab at Sebastian to muss his hair. “When did you get so smart?”
Sebastian rolled his eyes, long accustomed to his sister patronizing him at any opportunity. “And they call me the child. Where is Alex anyway? He’s already missed two card games this week.”
“Hunting renegades, what else? It’s not like he has a social life or, you know, any kind of life. Don’t pardon the pun.”
“Why are you always giving him such a hard time? I mean, besides the fact that he’s about as engaging as an old lemon.”
Ivy bit back a laugh before she replied. “Because when he’s not being the most boring creature in existence, he’s giving me that judgmental stare. You know, the one—”
“—That looks like you just called his kid fat? Yeah, I’ve noticed. Still, he does keep us all safe. Surely he deserves a little slack for that.”
Ivy straightened. “Hey, spend eighty years with him, gain no understanding of him in that time, and then you can criticize me okay?”
“Just giving my one cent,” Sebastian replied indifferently. “So, are we finally going to talk about the elephant on the rooftop?”
“Yeah, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Ivy said, shaking her head. “Dawn revealing herself to a human. Who would’ve had that in the betting pool?”
“Ha, there’s another crazy idea. Dawn and a betting pool. Has she ever made a bet?”
“Once, at least that I’ve seen,” Ivy answered, sighing when Sebastian’s head perked up. “And yes, she won.”
“Pity I missed it.”
Ivy shrugged. “Well, at least when she finally did screw up it was entertaining. And he is rather pleasant to look at.”
“Of course you would notice that and not the . . . hmm, drive? Must’ve been quite the girl he lost to have that kind of dedication. Course, his sense of self-preservation is a little backwards.” Sebastian smiled. “Surrounded by seraphim, and of all things he’s worried about Dawn. Sees everything too—felt like the whole time he saw more than we did that night.”
Ivy looked at Sebastian for a long moment. “That was quite good. I wouldn’t have thought you could read a mortal so well.”
“I’m not that young. Kid sort of reminds me of myself when I was his age. The terrible luck and always getting into trouble part—not the stubbornly jumping headfirst into whatever cause he’s cooked up in his head thing he’s got going on. I was far too stoned for that.”
“Yeah, I heard they have a word for those now—lazy cowards.”
Sebastian shrugged. “We can’t all be action heroes. Someone needs to slip into a short skirt and pom-poms and cheer the real ones on from a comfortable distance.”
Ivy giggled. “I think this mortal is a good influence on Dawn though. If nothing else, at least she’ll have something to play with while she’s being little Miss Perfect. Who knows, she might even get distracted enough to let her hair down for once.”
“Okay now you’re just being a bitch.”
“But I wear it oh so well.”
“Aha,” Sebastian muttered sarcastically. “The suns up in an hour. Want to sneak in and take a dip in the sleazy lawyer’s hot tub on Seventh Street again before he wakes up?”
“Ooh.” Ivy beamed. “Can you turn on the bubbles again?”
Sebastian shook his head in dismay. “I know you’re old, but someday you’re really going to have to get over your fear of technology. It’s just a button, not a doomsday device.”
Ivy readied a sharp retort, but instead drew her lips into a devious smile as she stood. “I’ll race you.”
Sebastian grinned, hopping up. “Standard bet?”
Ivy nodded, and with a casual flick of her wrist she knocked Sebastian off the building.
She leaned over, waited for the soft thud of his body hitting the ground below and unhurriedly stretched as she watched him flail around. Only when Sebastian flipped her off from below did she break into a run, shaking her head. “When will he learn?”
“What are you still doing here?” Oliver asked as he walked into the station locker room. “Your shift ended three hours ago.”
Benjamin paused unlacing his boots to look up, his uniform wrinkled and eyes tired. “Put in for some extra overtime. Been finishing up paperwork on the meth lab bust on Wesker Avenue this morning.”
“Oh?” Oliver said as he walked to his locker. “Heard it was some serious shit. Five perps, half a crate of guns—three hundred thousand in product or something.”
“Damn.” Oliver whistled. “Wish I could’ve been there.”
“Me and you both,” Benjamin said, smiling when Oliver raised his eyebrow skeptically. “Putting up the tape and questioning neighbors isn’t ‘being there’. It’s following protocol and dotting I’s while the real cops do actual police work. Hell, working the beat is more productive than that.”
“Hadley—always trying to save all the kittens in the city from getting stuck in evil trees before lunch.” Oliver shook his head. “Relax man. You’re working too hard lately.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Besides, you’re the best of us here and we all know it,” Oliver continued, “no, don’t give me that look. I love this job man, but you were made for it. Everything just comes to you, like you have a sixth sense or something.”
Benjamin chuckled. “Okay now I know you’re full of shit.”
“Whatever. A couple years and you’ll get your big boy shield. After that, who knows? Press conferences, medals and big pay checks. You could even be chief one day.”
“Sounds good,” Benjamin replied, really trying not to roll his eyes, “especially about the pay checks. Claire will like that.”
“See, you should listen to me more often,” Oliver said, punching Benjamin playfully on the shoulder. “So how is the lady of the apartment? Still wearing the pants I presume?”
“Naturally, and they look better on her too. She’s good—spends half the night studying, but good. You should really get yourself a nice girl and settle down.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that one,” Oliver replied doubtfully. “I’m still young—no offense. And I don’t think I’m the settling down type.”
“You are. Just haven’t found the right kind of girl yet. But it will come. Then it’s all kids and barbeques in suburbia. I’m willing to bet on it.”
“I might just take that bet.” Oliver laughed, nodding to Sargent Pike when he walked past before he continued. “So what you working overtime for anyway? And more importantly, how did you get the okay with all the budget cuts this year?”
“It’s like you said—I’m some kind of ultra-cop or something. Don’t you know? I run this place.”
“Right,” Oliver muttered, drawing out the word sarcastically. “But seriously. You saving up for a vacation or something?”
Benjamin grinned, his eyes staring off past Oliver in a way that made him think Hadley’s mind was a thousand miles away. “Or something.”
“Fine, your business,” Oliver said with a shrug, taking a moment in front of the mirror to fix his hair before he headed towards the door, calling over his shoulder. “I’ll see you on the next shift. Get some sleep.”
“Sure,” Benjamin replied, and even though he knew Oliver couldn’t see it, he nodded in agreement.
Sleep sounded good. He resumed shrugging out of his uniform and into his street clothes, but once he had everything packed back in his locker and was ready to head home he hesitated, craning his head to either side to see if he was alone before he began his end of shift ritual. Reaching behind his cap he brought out a small black satin covered jewelry box. He stroked the lid with his thumb, taking a deep breath as he felt the smooth material under his skin. Holding it in his hands, imagining the moment he would have his heart in his throat as he slipped it onto her finger always brought him a sense of warmth and bubbly nervousness that made him feel like a teenager again.
“Or something,” he repeated under his breath before carefully putting the box back, smiling as he closed his locker.
“Remind me why I agreed to this again?” Ivy asked, artfully employing what Sebastian had taken to calling her “ultra-whiney” voice.
“It was Logan’s turn to decide how we spent the day,” Dawn replied without taking her gaze off the crowd. “We do not complain about your choices, so afford us the same courtesy.”
“That’s because my choices are good,” Ivy muttered glumly. “And I don’t pick the same thing year, after year, after year.”
“And what exactly is wrong with this?” Sebastian asked, motioning his hand across the cadre’s view of the Lucas Oil Stadium from their perch on the roof. “It’s big game Sunday and we’re right in the thick of it. You have the half time show, the organized chaos of thousands of people clumped together with alcohol—and a years’ anticipation built up into this one moment. Plus the Patriots are playing! What more could you ask for?”
“I don’t see the point,” Ivy replied, shrugging indifferently.
“Is it just me,” Logan said, “or is that a little ironic considering Ivy is the most competitive one here, by a very large margin?”
“Exactly,” Ivy answered. “From my perspective, this isn’t competition. I could beat both teams if they played together with just two fingers, and my eyes closed.”
Logan shook his head. “Alright, what about home pride? You’ve been a seraph in Massachusetts for decades. Surely you could suck it up long enough to support your proxy-team?”
“Hah, that’s an even more ridiculous notion. Why should someone support a team purely on the grounds of geography? Children are taught to support a team by their authority figures before they are old enough to form their own opinion, and that logic sticks with them. Why can’t I support the team whose style of play I like, or cheer for the underdog of the season?”
“As much as it pains me, I have to agree with her on that point,” Dawn said, “and both of you have laid money against your home teams before, so your argument is moot.”
Logan opened his mouth to protest, but Sebastian silenced him with a dismissive wave. “Let it go man. At least she isn’t picking teams based on the best looking players.”
“As good a criterion as any,” Ivy muttered.
“We’re all here together, and that’s the point of this at the end of the day,” Sebastian added, and out the corner of his eye he saw Dawn nod in approval. “Of course, when it’s my turn to plan the monthly cadre outing it will put all of your ideas to shame, but this is a good second choice.”
Ivy sighed melodramatically. “It won’t work.”
“Why not?” Sebastian asked defensively.
“Because even if you could somehow convince a seraph with the right authority to let you enter the region for such a stupid reason, which you won’t, how would you get there without leaping?”
“Is this the lion thing again?” Logan asked Dawn, and in answer her expression turned questioning as she cocked her head to the side.
“Someone around the Americas would’ve been there before. They could take us,” Sebastian answered.
“No, they won’t,” Ivy countered. “You’re far too young for anyone to owe you a favor. Do you have any idea what the distance to Africa is? I’m telling you right now I’m not swimming that far!”
“Yeah.” Logan nodded to himself. “It’s the lion thing.”
“Well then where else am I supposed to find a lion big enough to ride?” Sebastian whined.
“Have you tried the zoo?” Ivy offered sarcastically. “Because it’s the only way that idiotic fantasy is going to happen.”
“But that completely defeats the point,” Sebastian retorted, becoming flustered. “The only animals they keep at the zoo are overgrown mangy house cats more likely to roll over for a belly rub than try to take a nibble. I want the king of the jungle woman, pissed off and all teeth. It won’t be any fun otherwise.”
“Just let it go man,” Ivy said, perfectly imitating Sebastian’s earlier comment to Logan, right down to his resigned expression.
Sebastian grumbled unintelligibly. “Fine. Bears then. Big, nasty Grizzlies.”
“Oh come on,” Logan groaned suddenly, pulling everyone’s attention to him, “Let’s see some defense people!” His focus was back on the game, the transition so smooth no one picked up he was just trying to move the conversation along.
“My opinion of how pointless the act of watching sports is when you could be playing them notwithstanding, this is a particularly bad one for mortals,” Ivy added, sounding uncharacteristically empathetic.
“Seriously?” Sebastian complained loudly. “Now you’re just taking shots for the sake of being argumentative. I’m willing to bet you’ve never even cut a player’s cord to the living.”
“No,” Ivy begrudgingly admitted. “But Logan has.”
Surprised, Sebastian shot him a glance, but Logan’s eyes were fixed on the game so he turned back to Ivy. “Okay, sure the games rough, but you can’t blame a game the players chose to play, and get paid a lot to play. Besides, people can get injured just as badly by slipping on the sidewalk.”
“Walking is necessary,” Ivy responded. “This is not. Yes, they get paid well. But is that sum worth risking your very finite life to entertain others? And what about the kids in school who play in the hope they will one day get paid?”
“What would you know about getting paid,” Sebastian said with a derisive snort. “You’ve never worked until the day you died.”
“Hey, that’s sexist,” Ivy retorted defensively. “Housework is still work.”
“I know,” Sebastian answered. “Your staff must’ve been busy.”
“She has a point Sebastian,” Dawn said before Ivy could get a word in. “Studies are just now beginning to come in about the long term effects of concussions and severe head trauma. There have been cases where players that should not walk onto a field have been pushed through. And you cannot deny there is a large burden on players to perform. Their choice or not, that kind of pressure is difficult to ignore when their livelihood is at stake.”
“What is this, some kind of American pastime witch hunt?” Sebastian asked, exasperated. “And don’t take Ivy’s side. It’s creepy when you two agree on something.”
“I am merely stating my opinion,” Dawn answered. “Knowing what you know now, being what you are now, would you let your children play?”
Sebastian gaped unattractively for a long moment, struggling to form a coherent response and then shut his mouth. Finally, he sighed. “You two suck the fun right out of everything.”
Ivy grinned—clearly pleased she had won the argument, but Dawn cut her off before she could gloat. “Enough. It is not every day we have time together away from being Death, and I do not intend to waste it arguing.”
The cadre could not disagree with that, but as they turned back to the game Alex spoke from his spot in the corner. “A little naïve, don’t you think? This is one of our busiest days in the year.”
“Yes,” Dawn admitted. “But for now, we are all here. So I choose to focus on that rather than counting the seconds until I am inevitably called away.”
“And in the spirit of that naivety, I will make a prediction with no real knowledge of this game,” Ivy said, gesturing grandiosely over the field. “Your team won’t win.”
“Them’s fighting words,” Sebastian growled menacingly, causing both Logan and Ivy to laugh. Sebastian shook his head in frustration. “You know what the problem is? You’re all too old to have seen a big game commercial.”
“Yes, advertising is exactly what’s needed to change my opinion on a game that I’m older than,” Ivy muttered sarcastically.
“No really,” Sebastian explained, putting an unusual amount of effort into sounding serous. “I feel like there’s an impassable generational gap here. I died three times older than Dawn, and yet I’m the only one here who was alive in more than a hundred years. You miss half my pop culture references because they’re from movies or TV shows, none of you have seen an emoticon and as sad as it is you’re all still getting used to the concept of the internet. Hell, how can you claim to be healthy, balanced people if you’ve never even watched it’s a wonderful life! It’s like we’re from different planets. I thought life was supposed to be cruel, but being stuck with you all in death for eternity is starting to be a real pain in the ass.”
“Alright, pipe down. I take it back. Your team won’t lose,” Ivy groaned. “Now will you stop whining?”
“Good enough,” Sebastian replied, his air of nonchalance ruined by his self-satisfied smirk.
“Hells’ bells.” Ivy shook her head in dismay as she turned her gaze back to the game. “Is that how I sound when I go on?”
“Yes,” Dawn, Logan and Alex answered in perfect unison.