DEATH studied the figure lying sprawled across the bed. Sheets tangled around his ankles, shocking white against fine bronze skin. The steady rise and fall of his chest filled the room with the pleasant hum of gentle sleep. Almost musical. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed the pleasant note in others.
A memory rose from the depths of his mind, from a time long past. Like a dream that faded too quickly leaving only vague images and half remembered thoughts. He frowned and moved through the dark room to study the figure in more detail. Short brown hair accented the angles of his jaw, giving life to rather average features on a young, fresh face.
He stepped away, suddenly feeling like a voyeur watching something forbidden.
The young man stirred, stretching in his sleep. Muscles rippled with a grace Death hadn’t expected from a man. A cat-like beauty. Hard abs and skin so smooth, like fine clay.
He pulled his eyes away and shook his head. What was wrong with him? He shouldn’t even be standing here. Not yet. Not today.
Sighing heavily, he slipped from the dark bedroom, through the tiny apartment, and back out into the night air. The crisp scent of spring clung to the city and a light drizzle washed away the scent of cars and exhaust. Glowing streetlights reflected off the wet street leaving the night glittered with light.
How long had he been doing this? He couldn’t remember. Since before cars and streetlamps decorated such massive cities, during a time of horses and wagons, and far from this place. The dream-like memories he had long ago decided to forget.
His mind drifted to the sleeping man and he stopped to look behind him. The lights in the apartment flicked on to cast a yellow glow through plain curtains. Curiosity made him pause. What did the man do at this hour?
He shook his head and continued on his path to the bus stop. He had work to do. No time for wondering. A light drizzle coated his jacket as he stepped under the pavilion to wait for the bus. The pitter-patter of rain gave an uneven beat to the night.
He took a seat on the bench and waited. A bus roared past, oblivious to his presence, and he sighed. Some days he got lucky enough for the bus to stop when it let off passengers. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
The sound of footsteps caught his attention, and he turned to see the man from earlier racing from the apartment a few buildings down.
He moved with a steady grace, and every step glided over the wet sidewalk toward him. The light bouncing off the damp street made vivid blue eyes stand out. A bright smile filled his face, a nice contrast to the relaxed sleep Death had seen him in just a short time ago.
“Hi,” the man greeted and glanced around the bus stop.
Death looked behind him to be certain the man was speaking to him.
Surprised, he turned and studied the empty pavilion and still street again. No other person appeared to be in the area.
Death stared at the young man. His heart throbbed, torn between excitement and concern. Few ever saw him. The occasional mad-man or soothsayer, but never someone who seemed so… common. Death tried to avoid staring at him too much, but the task proved difficult. The man was talking to him, looking at him. The realization sent an excited thrill through his stomach.
“I’m Robert. I don’t remember seeing you at this stop before.”
“This is my first time at this particular stop. I’m usually much too busy to enjoy the scenery.”
Tall buildings stretched out along the dark street, spotted with the glow of streetlamps. Sturdy brick walls, glossy under the sheen of spring rains, and the light scent of washed pavement gave a clean feeling to the air.
Robert barked a laugh. “Scenery? You’re in the wrong city.”
“No, I’m in the right one. I’m never wrong about these things.”
“All right then.” Robert grinned.
The sound of the rain grew from a drizzle to a steady downfall as silence filled the space between them. Death wasn’t sure how to keep the conversation going. He ached, desperate for words after so many years of silence. Lost, he bit his lip, trying to think of something to say.
The wind picked up, spraying them with a fine mist. Ah, the weather. He could speak about that. He opened his mouth, but Robert spoke first.
“I think we missed the bus. Shit. I was hoping to get to work early today. Where are you headed?”
He thought a long moment. He knew direction mostly. Had to think about an actual destination. “Cream Dream. A club, yes?”
A sudden excitement rippled over Robert’s face. “The Cream Dream. It’s not too far, if you don’t mind the rain. I’m going there myself. We could walk together.”
Death turned down the street; the line of lights glowed in the distance. Weather didn’t bother him. “All right.”
Stepping out into the rain, they walked in no particular hurry toward the club. A pleasant rush spread through him.
To walk with someone. It seemed strange to do such a thing, but relaxing. Normal.
“I didn’t get your name,” Robert said.
Death blinked at the blue-eyed man. He couldn’t remember the last time someone asked him that question. His name… he’d had one at one time. A faint memory stirred but he couldn’t be certain where it came from.
“Simon,” Death said.
“Nice to meet you, Simon. Do you go to the club often?”
“I’ve never been there. I just have business there tonight.”
“Oh. I see.” The rain matted Robert’s hair and dark curls clung to his face. Drips of water beaded off his chin as his face fell a bit. “I work there. A dancer.”
“You have a dancer’s grace.” Death let his eyes linger over Robert’s frame, remembering the sweet contours of his body. He would love to see such a body in motion.
Robert’s smile returned, lighting up his face. “Thanks. Will you be there awhile? Maybe catch my show?”
“Yes,” he said before he could stop himself. “If there’s time.”
“What do you do? Businessman or something? You don’t see many businessmen walking in the rain.”
“No, I… deliver things.”
“Like the bike delivery people.”
“Yes, something like that.” Death smiled at his own joke. Messages and deliveries. He’d have to remember that one if he was ever in such a conversation again. Not that it was likely to happen.
Robert pointed. “There’s the club.”
Music poured from the squat black building on the corner and neon lights flickered overhead. The large sign would have been hard to miss, even if Robert hadn’t pointed it out. Bright purple and blue neon glared out into the night like a beacon.
Death stepped over a puddle as they walked the last of the way through to the parking lot. He was already missing the company that would leave him. He looked Robert over, longing to keep the normalcy of pleasant conversation going. He had the sudden urge to stop him from going inside. To prevent him from ever going into the club.
The tug of souls cried out to him, begging for his touch to take them. Not Robert, but others demanded his attention. He winced at their painful call and the urge passed.
“I gotta go around back. It was nice meeting you, Simon. I hope you stay for my show.”
Death started a bit at the sound of the name. Simon. That was him. He liked the sound of it. It had a nice ring coming from Robert’s lips.
“Yes. It was nice meeting you too. We’ll meet again soon, I think.”
Robert’s face glowed with pleasure. “I’d like that.”
Death watched him go, feeling suddenly obligated to see Robert again. The young man had clearly misunderstood his words.
He let out a slow deep breath and walked to the front of the club. He had work to do. A ritual he’d grown accustomed to.
A large bouncer appeared as he opened the door and stepped out of the rain. The man’s eyes peered through him, his expression confused as Death slipped past. Loud music and more neon flickered through the dark club. Small tables and booths filled the open space in front of the large stage. The mostly male crowd was in various dress from peacock flashy to casual. Couples and men looking for other men laughed and joked, waiting for the night’s show to begin. A small group of young men looked around, their nervous eyes and bashful stares showed them to be virgins to such places.
The stage flickered to life as a dancer came out dressed in cowboy gear, much to the delight of the crowd. Lights shone down on him in time to the music as he danced and flaunted for the audience.
Death walked through the crowd, pausing at a table of men near the stage. He touched three out of the four, their souls calling to him. He found another, a lonely man sitting by himself, and touched him as well, reaching in and unlocking the tether that bound his soul to the shell it inhabited.
He couldn’t recall visiting such a place before, but the beauty of such surroundings was refreshing. A dark memory flickered in the back of his mind. Simon. The name stirred an old memory and a strange mix of emotions. Joy and pain touched at his soul, but he shoved them away before they took root.
His attention was drawn to several others throughout the room as the call of souls grew more persistent and painful. They touched on every nerve—drawing him, calling to him, demanding to be taken away from this world. Six in all, before the buzzing pain stopped and let him rest.
The lingering ache began to subside, and he took a seat in a dark corner of the club. No one looked in his direction or came to take his order. A small group of men drifted his way as if to sit, but they moved on. Their eyes slid away and they moved past at a brisk pace until they were well on the other side of the club. Few people ever saw him. Fewer spoke to him, until the very end.
His eyes wandered to the stage. The dancer showing his unique flexibility only held his attention for a moment before his eyes were drawn upward to the spotlights overhead. The metal rigging over the stage bowed from the weight. A glimmer of worry rippled through him. He might not be here for Robert, but his time was due soon. The idea that he might suffer until his time came disturbed Death. He wasn’t sure why.
He remembered someone telling him that pain cleansed the soul and made the release more bearable. He couldn’t remember who. He couldn’t remember many things. After so long, memories had faded away.
Death watched the cowboy leave the stage, and a head popped out from behind curtains. Robert’s eyes glittered with pleasure as their gaze locked. His smile grew infectious, and Death felt his lips twitch in response. A moment later, Robert’s head disappeared back behind the thick velvet curtain. A hot glow swept through Death and he leaned forward in his seat. He found his attention focused to the stage in anxious anticipation.
A man stepped out a few minutes later, announcing the next dancer. “Give a warm welcome to Hot Rod McGee. And don’t forget to show him how much you like him.”
Death turned his eyes to the stage as the music started. The curtain parted and Robert came out in a ’20s mobster outfit, complete with hat, pinstripe suit, and a flower in his lapel. His body twisted and turned in time to the music, the movements so alluring they sent a surge of want through Death, a sensation he hadn’t felt in a long time. Robert’s eyes locked with his, and a smile rippled across Robert’s lips as he pulled the flower from his lapel. A second later the flower flew through the air.
Surprised, Death caught the flower and brought the white rose to his nose, inhaling the sweet aroma. He stared at the flower a moment, stunned to find a tingle of warmth pulsing through him. It was strange to feel such emotion… nice.
Shirt and tie came off next. Robert’s bronze skin glistened under bright lights and his hard abs were such a tempting sight. Death’s fingers twitched, imagining his hands lingering over the fine contours of his body.
A loud creak overhead interrupted the music. Death’s attention jerked back to the bowed lighting above. Robert glanced up too. The entire light system shook and groaned as the stressed metal started to give out. Death was moving before thought entered his mind. He launched across the room past startled men staring above the stage. His hand latched onto Robert’s shoulder, jerking him away as the lights crashed onto the floor. Another set of lights swung out over the crowd and collapsed on top of a small group of men as they scrambled to get away.
Shouts and screams filled the air. Electricity sparked and alcohol took to flame. The flicker of fire and smoke curled through the room. Panic swept over the crowd as they rushed for the door. People scrambled over each other to get away from the flames. The fresh air from the open doors added oxygen to the fire and the flames leaped.
He held Robert tight to him a moment, the heat of his body so comfortable against him. His distinct musk mingled with a pleasant spiced scent that invited attention. The firelight flickered just off stage, giving his skin a golden glow.
Death shook his head, releasing him. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what? You just saved me. Come on,” Robert said.
A firm grip clamped around Death’s hand as Robert pulled him from the chaos back stage. Panicked dancers shoved them out of the way and raced through the smoke. Dark fumes billowed around them, filling the air with a haze. Flashy costumes glittered under flickering lights as Robert led him through the tangle of props. Robert coughed and tripped as the smoke grew thicker. Death caught his arm, pulling him back up. His eyes scanned for an exit and fell on a glowing sign.
Death pushed the door open. A cool rush of fresh air billowed around them. The whine of fire trucks wailed in the distance. The panicked crowd gathered in the parking lot to watch as help arrived. Several dancers and emergency personnel bombarded Robert with questions, drawing him out of reach. Death studied the young dancer a moment, longing to be close to him again. He forced his eyes away as worry bubbled in his chest. His interference would not go unnoticed.
He winced and started back into the club. He had work to do. The consequences were something he could deal with later.
Stepping back inside the burning club, he opened his second sight to search for the souls he needed to take. The smoke didn’t exist, nor did fire or danger as he picked his way through the maze to find them. People cried out for help, but not to him. They weren’t his concern.
In the main room spirits rose from lifeless bodies, their still shells forgotten as they drifted toward him in semi-transparent forms. Some wept and some smiled as they glided through the flames, untouched by heat and sharp debris.
Without a word he raised his hand and concentrated, tapping the hidden door to the other side and drawing it forward. Slowly, he let one reality fall away as another took its place. A portal of swirling gray mass rose up, opening and widening. Faint, indistinguishable whispers rippled from within, beckoning the souls he’d taken.
The spirits glided into a line, the portal calling them. Death couldn’t understand the words, but the spirits did. Their faces lit up with joy, and a glow wrapped around them as they reached out for the gray whirlpool. One by one, they slipped away, disappearing through the swirling door, and they were gone.
He let the portal fall away as the entryway flickered like a reflection on water. Again, one reality replaced another. The gate quivered and was gone.
Firefighters burst through the door spraying water in every direction. Smoke and steam billowed thick around him. The frantic work to save the lost always left him feeling torn and uncertain. He couldn’t help but wonder if their efforts were futile. He often knew well in advance when a person’s time was coming, but did that mean the series of events were already in motion or was fate to blame?
He shook his head, ridding himself of the thoughts that plagued him more often these days.
Rescue workers carried on around him, oblivious to his presence. Electricity sparked and debris crashed as firefighters raced to the injured. Smoke filled the air, blinding victims and rescuers alike. Water speckled Death’s exposed skin, thick with dirt and ash as it tickled his cheeks. Around him several rescuers carried out injured people, and the last of the fire was doused. He left them to finish alone and stepped out the front doors.
Death scanned the crowd for Robert and found him across the parking lot being led away from the club with a bunch of others. Death slipped into the thick crowd and let himself get lost in the chaos.
“ARE you sure you’re okay?” Jerry asked.
Robert nodded and searched the crowd trying to find his rescuer. “Where’s Simon?”
People pressed close, eager to see the destruction and excitement, and cops shouted to push people away from the site. Lights flickered and loud voices filled the air.
Jerry was still dressed in his mock cowboy outfit. His assless chaps framing firm, golden cheeks that he was all too happy to flaunt at the passing rescue workers. Blond hair matted to his head from the drizzle and his make-up was smeared. If Jerry had only known what he looked like right now, he might have died of embarrassment instead of ogling the firefighters around them. “God, I love a man in uniform.”
Robert shook his head. Jerry was the biggest flirt on the planet. If it was male and human, he was all smiles.
“Jerry, pay attention for a second. The guy that pulled me out of the way of the lights. Where did he go?”
“Huh?” Jerry asked, forcing his eyes away from the firemen with some effort.
Robert bit back his annoyance. “The guy that saved me from the lights. He was just here.”
“There was a guy? Hmm, must not have been paying attention. Must be losing it to have missed that, then again, there are so many tempting treats around here. Was he hurt or something?”
Cops and firemen swarmed around them, asking questions, and someone threw a blanket over Robert’s shoulders. He scanned the crowd again for Simon and caught sight of him through the throng.
Straight brown hair and somber, chiseled face. He had such sad eyes, Robert wanted to reach out and wash it all away. He didn’t seem like a man who had seen much affection or kindness in a long time.
“Back up, please. Back up,” one of the cops said, waving the crowed farther away from the club.
People bumped and pushed their way behind the police line. Robert staggered and Jerry caught him before he fell into the masses. The surge of people pushed him farther from Simon before the crowd swallowed him up.
Sighing heavily, Robert turned back to the flock of cops and answered another round of questions. His bones ached, and predawn light was growing on the horizon before Jerry drove him home.
The memories of the lights crashing down on those men, the panicked screams and choking fire didn’t leave him. He tried to will away the images, but the scent of smoke clinging to his skin kept causing them to resurface. The cops hadn’t even said how many were killed, but more than one person had been lifted out of the rubble and into an ambulance, ominously silent as it pulled away.
Jerry stopped in front of his apartment a while later. Robert sat in the passenger seat for a long moment. Damn, what a night.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Jerry nodded, his eyes thoughtful as he stared off down the street.
The silence stretched out between them, and Robert forced himself to open the car door. The adrenaline crash hit him hard. Everything ached as exhaustion seeped into his bones. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
“Call me later, okay?”
Robert grunted and waved him away. Stepping into his cheap little apartment, he stripped out of his pants for a quick shower before he dropped onto the bed.
Lying in bed, his thoughts returned to the club chaos and his strong-armed hero, Simon. There was something so drawing about him. Robert couldn’t seem to get his mind off the quiet man. Hadn’t he asked him out again? It seemed like it, though now that wasn’t likely to happen. He’d hoped to give him his number after the show. The whole bit of chaos threw him off. Damn, it had been way too long since he’d had a proper date. The nightly propositions were getting old. He wanted something real. He’d spent too much of his life like Jerry, chasing whatever attractive man crossed his path. Jerry might be able to fuck anything that moved, but Robert was ready for more.
He was, well, lonely. The privacy he had adored when he got his apartment now seemed too quiet. Coming home to an empty bed was growing more depressing by the day. Too many nights had passed wondering if he’d ever find someone to share his life with and make it count. Make it really mean something, and not just be some passing fancy. Romantic notions to be sure, but maybe not impossible.
Sighing heavily, he closed his eyes and tried not to think about Simon and his lost chance with that particular Prince Charming.