an excerpt from the novella by S K Sutphen
The unexpected voice, deep and musical, makes Joseph Storch pause. His finger edges away from the trigger, as if reluctant to change course. The muzzle of the Glock slides from Storch’s temple where the rim leaves an impression on his skin, a tiny bull’s-eye. He opens his eyes, hesitant to turn in the direction of the speaker.
“Joseph, Joseph. The stage set is so routine … so common.” Sadness and disappointment etch the word common.
Storch glances around his study, the room his wife, Maria, spent hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, and two interior designers to furnish. Thick drapes, heavy mahogany furniture, Venetian plaster walls, the far one a peacock blue. OK, so my study seems like every other rich guy’s I’ve been in … but common? His gaze falls on the gun, and he stares at it as if he has no idea how it materialized in his hand. He drops the weapon onto the desk.
“You should atone for your sins, not spray blood and brain matter across the wainscoting and Tabriz carpet for someone else to clean up. But you’ve never been good at considering the way your actions affect others.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Storch asks aloud. He looks at the gun, wondering if he should pick it back up. “You can’t just show up and start criticizing me.”
“Of course I can.”
The blue wall ripples like a curtain the moment before the reveal. Storch checks the overhead lights. No movement. The vodka remains still in the bottle on the desk. No earthquake. The wall slides open as if through a cinematic special effect. Storch’s mouth drops open.
Across the room stands a beautiful—no other word works—man. Six feet, muscular but not overly so. Glossy-blond hair. Green eyes. And cheekbones. Like those his first wife spent over $50,000 in plastic surgery to get. The man is dressed in a perfect white suit. And … are those wings? Storch turns away, wipes at his temple, and checks his fingertips. No blood. His gaze drops to the vodka bottle, two-thirds gone.
“You’re not drunk, and you’re not dead. At least not yet. I’m Oriel, your Guardian Angel. Why the gun to your head? That’s not like you.”
As Storch stares, the man’s features rapidly change. His skin darkens to a deep brown, his hair blackens and curls, his face becomes more African. The angel’s skin lightens again, and the face and hair take on an Asian cast before reverting to the original look, as if trying on different forms to see which might work best for the situation. A gold nimbus surrounds the being and pulses in warm, gentle waves toward Storch, carrying the scent of … roses? Gardenias? Oranges? Chocolate? Cinnamon? His stomach rumbles. “What the fu—uh? Atone? I’m not sure what you mean.” He looks down, unable to tolerate the light for long. Would sunglasses be rude?
“In your case, making amends for doing wrong, for your sins.” The angel glides closer; his feathers rustle in a pleasant chime.
“I wasn’t thinking that.” Storch peeps through his eyelashes at the figure hovering within arm’s reach. He stretches out a hand, but Oriel avoids his touch. “I’ve got enough shi—uh, stuff, on my plate. I owe the IRS, my investors, my business partners, my clients, almost every-damn-body I know. Plus I’m looking at federal prison. I was thinking years in a fu—uh—friggin’ cage.” Storch sighs and runs a hand through his thinning hair. He rubs the top of his head where the most hair is missing, a gesture repeated many times a day, resulting in an ever-widening bald spot, like growth rings on a tree. “I don’t need you to pile on.”
The angel glides to a chair at the small round conference table placed at an angle to Storch’s desk and perches as though unused to sitting. “Death by your own hand is not atonement.”
“OK. So what is?”
“You must use your last week on earth to do something good. Something that makes a difference in someone else’s life. Something you would not normally do.” Oriel waves a hand, and the nimbus swirls with the movement.
“Last week on earth? Are you shittin’ me?” Storch stares at Oriel in consternation, one hand up to block some of the light. “Uh, sorry. But I’m dying in a week? How? Why?”
“The time and date of your death is fixed at birth. It cannot be changed.” The angel shakes his head, and the nimbus eddies, emphasizing the negative.
Storch mulls this over. “If I’m dead next week, they’ll all be splitting the life insurance policies and rejoicing.”
“Paltry sums compared to what is owed,” Oriel sniffs. “Not good enough.”
Storch blinks. Not good enough for what? He frowns, puzzled. Angels are messengers, I know that much, and he wants me to do something good. His face clears. “Are you here to save my immortal soul?”
Oriel looks pleased. The light softens to pastels of gold, pink, and purple.
Storch drops his hand. “Why me?”
“Your past is finished. Your future doesn’t exist beyond next week. God has granted you an opportunity to change the destiny of your soul. He doesn’t do this often, and I’ve been sent to assist.” The angel stands and glides to the fireplace, where he rests one hand on the mantel. The wood glows, as if each fiber is a single light.
“You asked. God answered your prayer.”
“Not me. I don’t pray.”
“True. But you did when you had the gun to your head.”
Storch thinks back. His eyes widen. “God help me,” he says slowly. “But … I don’t need a fucking angel. I need an investor with some damn deep pockets.”
Oriel ruffles his feathers, and a discordant sound fills the room. Golden notes fly into the air in irregular patterns before dying away.
Storch drops his gaze and stares at his hands. An angel when I need money. Like so many damn things in my life. He picks up the bottle of vodka, pours a healthy shot in his glass, then downs it. “This is a buncha bull crap. Here I am, arguing with a so-called heavenly being. You’re such a cliché.” Storch refills the glass and toasts.
“I am no more a cliché than you.” Oriel raises his hand and ticks off fingers. “Short, balding, divorced. Company imploding from greed, mismanagement, and the market crash. Blonde trophy wife number two having an affair with the pool boy.”
“What?” Storch half rises. “That bitch.” He sits heavily. “The f—uh, friggin’ pool boy?”
The angel nods. “Can’t get much more cliché than that.”
“I oughta kill ’em both.”
“That is not what God has in mind.”
“Yeah, well, he ain’t answering my prayer either. Go find someone else to harass.” Storch waves his glass at the angel.
“I can.” Oriel straightens, a benign expression on his face. “You still have one week.” He moves away from the fireplace toward the blue wall, then turns to face Storch again. “Gordon will be arrested tomorrow. Your business is laundering money for Saudi arms dealers.”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” Storch says in a tone filled with suspicion.
“Language.” Oriel waggles a disapproving finger like a metronome. The light around him intensifies, then abruptly goes out.
Storch walks to the wall, where he runs a hand over the Venetian plaster, cool and smooth to the touch. He shivers and moves to the fireplace. The mantel is also cool. Bereft. That’s the c-note word to describe what he feels. Storch says it out loud. “Bereft.” He slaps the mantel. “Fuck it. I’m not buying into this shit.”
He returns to the desk. “Joe, you gotta stop drinking so much.” The vodka bottle hits the trash can with a thud, landing on a stack of paper. Storch sorts through some of the paper on his desk, shoving several documents, along with the gun, into his briefcase. He slams the lid three times—“I am not dying in a week. I am not doing anything good. Gordon is not getting arrested tomorrow.” At last, the lid catches and holds.