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Alyssa had expected another dingy alley. Shady bars were always supposed to be adjacent to alleys with flickering lights and eerie atmospheres. There obviously wouldn’t be any flickering lights in the middle of the day, but there should still be a spot for the alley once darkness fell. This bar had apparently missed the memo.

The building looked relatively nice. A wood exterior, stained a rich amber, had an almost welcoming tone to it. The only thing Alyssa would identify as creepy would be the partitioned off area for the large trash bin. It had a locked fence to keep scavengers out and some leafless vines had been working their way up the metal links. But that was it.

Maybe that was good business. Alyssa really didn’t know the standard. Not being a socialite, she really hadn’t visited many bars, even after turning twenty-one. All of her high school friends had moved away or simply drifted apart by that point, so she hadn’t had anyone to go with. And she certainly hadn’t been about to go on her own. Thinking about it now, she was having trouble coming up with the name of a single bar. They just weren’t a major part of her lifestyle. In fact, she had probably visited more taverns on Nod than she had bars on Earth.

Or maybe her impressions of reality were just a bit too colored by Hollywood to be accurate to real life.

The bar was not the only building around, but it was pretty close. The other side of the road was nothing but overgrown grass. It might have been a field at one point, but it had clearly fallen into disuse. There was a restaurant a short parking lot away. A little mom-and-pop style diner. It looked quaint enough. Maybe Tenebrael could do something to let Alyssa eat there while talking things over with… the victim. Tenebrael’s description of the person had left out the name, something Alyssa only just realized.

She peeked in the window, just under the lit neon ‘Open’ sign. Was he already inside? There were a few people despite the relatively early hour. A trio of women, maybe only a few years younger than Alyssa, looked like they were celebrating something. A birthday maybe?

Whatever it was, none of them were the victims.

The bartender? He was pouring a drink for another customer… but it couldn’t be him. Tenebrael had said that the victim was a programmer. Unless he worked multiple jobs, it wouldn’t be him.

The man he was serving, on the other hand, looked the very picture of a programmer. At least, what Alyssa imagined when she heard the profession’s name. He was slouched forward with an extremely unhealthy arch in his back. But then his neck went straight up from that slumped posture. How did his spine even work? He had a set of thin-framed glasses on his head of the rectangular variety. Those… might be a problem for him depending on how blind he was without them. He would have to be careful. Getting new glasses in Nod would not be a simple task.

One other person sat alone at a table, eating a larger meal than Alyssa imagined they served at bars. He wore a leather jacket and had a gruff beard covering his rugged face. He probably owned the motorcycle that was parked in front of the window Alyssa was peering through. Not exactly programmer material, in Alyssa’s opinion. If he was, Alyssa would buy a hat and eat that for dinner.

She couldn’t see anyone else from the window, but a decent amount of the room was simply out of sight. Not to mention the kitchens and other back rooms.

Although, blinking, Alyssa scowled.

Right in the very center, at one of the empty tables, Tenebrael had taken a seat for herself. She smiled and waved as Alyssa caught sight of her. That wave turned to a beckoning gesture which then pointed to the chair next to her.

Alyssa glanced to the door. Wouldn’t the people inside notice it opening and closing? She might be invisible, but it definitely wasn’t. Then again, Tenebrael wouldn’t have waved her inside if it would have disrupted everything. Sighing, Alyssa opened the door.

The bell hung over the door didn’t make a sound. Nobody looked up or stared. The women laughed about a joke one of them had made. The biker had another buffalo wing up to his mouth. The bartender and the man seated across from him spoke softly as the former passed a glass to the latter.

Sighing, Alyssa walked up to the angel and dragged the chair across the ground. Even with the scraping noise it made, nobody offered her so much as a glance. Whatever perception filter Tenebrael had put on them clearly worked on anything they interacted with as well. She opened her mouth, about to ask just what they needed to do—Tenebrael hadn’t handed her a gun or anything so far—when she spotted him. Her voice caught in her throat.

He sat in a corner of the room. A blind spot of the window. The man, whose name she didn’t even know, who had tried to kill her was staring right at her. His eyes were dead. Void of life. Even though it had only been a week, he looked far worse than he had the last time she had seen him. His cheeks were gaunt, drawn tight around his skull. The scraggly scruff of greying beard made him look worse than Chris had the night she pulled him out of that alley.

Alyssa tore her eyes away, glaring at Tenebrael. “You could have warned me,” she grumbled. “I almost had a heart attack.”

“Ah. Try to avoid that if possible,” the angel said. When Alyssa didn’t respond, she just shrugged. “I’ve already made the false body. A much more convincing one, in my opinion. With more than a few minutes of notice, I had the opportunity to be a little more artistic in my work. As for the soul…” Holding out her hand, a diamond of a gemstone floated in the air. “Would you like to know his history?” she asked, letting the soul bob up and down. “Make sure he fits your criteria of who deserves a second death?”

Teeth ground together, Alyssa glared. “Just… He was evil, right?”

“A slaver, rapist, and murderer. If that’s what you mean.”

“Good. Then I don’t need to know anything else. I don’t want to know anything else.”

“If it helps,” Tenebrael said, sliding the gemstone back between her feathers. “The main event will happen in roughly fifteen minutes. We’re slightly early, but this will be a bit more complicated if we want to do it your way. There are other people around which means that I cannot just pull out the body and plop it down as I did last time.”

“You can’t stop time and do it then?”

“There are other angels on Earth. They will take note of something like that.”

“What about this perception filter you’ve got that keeps them from noticing us?”

“That is in the plan. But it must be a seamless transition. We don’t want people to notice the position of the body jumping six feet to the side before it gets shot. And you cannot hesitate like you did last time. If our fake starts clawing at his face or talking in strange languages, it is going to cause problems.”

“I trust you’ll be handling that? The transition part.” She could… No. She would pull the trigger when necessary. No hesitation. But Alyssa couldn’t imagine herself trying to shove a body into a position in the blink of an eye, so the question was probably unnecessary. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time that Tenebrael had suddenly sprung something on her.

“Indeed. However, you’ll need to be standing next to our deceased friend over there. Bullets travel fast enough and there is enough of a flash that nobody will notice you shooting from a few inches to one side, but the bullets do need to be traveling in the right direction.”

“So I am shooting again.” That was good. Relatively. She did not want to have to stab someone over and over again.

“You’ll need to strike in the neck,” Tenebrael said, tapping her throat just under her chin. “And one bullet should miss. Hit that television in the corner of the room.”

“Why do I need to hit the T.V. if you can harm non-human things?”

“Bits of plastic wind up embedded in the bartender’s skin. Not lethal, but not something I can do.”

Alyssa glanced over to find a flat-screen television showing a game of curling. United States versus Canada, it looked like. Nobody in the bar seemed to be paying much attention to it, though the bartender did glance up every few moments. The person who Alyssa assumed was the programmer did look at it as well, but every time he did, his gaze drifted over to the man in the corner of the room. He would stare for a moment before averting his eyes.

Was it recognition? Alyssa’s would-be murderer probably had his face in the news at this point. Despite her phone and its connection to the internet, she hadn’t been keeping up with current events on Earth. Still, if she remembered right, his son’s body had been found alongside hers. It wouldn’t be difficult for law enforcement to figure out who he was and find some photographs of him for public dissemination.

Looking around, Alyssa tried to figure out how everything went down. Surely the programmer didn’t go up to confront a known murderer. That would be… she wanted to say crazy, but… she had done something extremely similar with the Taker. Of course, the Taker had been after her. Here, the programmer surely wasn’t being actively hunted.

Still, with the way he looked over, he had to know something. Whatever he was planning would have gotten him killed in another reality. Now, it would just get him sent to Nod.

Which, based on his lanky stature, might be a death sentence for the man regardless. Poor guy. Maybe he could find a job as a scrivener. Or, if he could use magic like Alyssa could, maybe he could find a profession as a respectable arcanist. He might even be able to help work on getting back to Earth on a more permanent basis if he could use magic, though Alyssa doubted it. Having seen the nightmare that was angelic math, she doubted anyone could help.

With the possible exception of Irulon. Alyssa needed to find a way to bring Tenebrael’s lessons to Irulon. Unfortunately, Tenebrael had stolen her phone again. Memorizing that board would have been impossible. Drawing out the soul would be… difficult to replicate without Tenebrael’s help. Tenebrael had said that Alyssa would have to try it on her own at some point in the future, but it would still be difficult. And would probably end up killing Irulon.

Something to think on later.

“You haven’t handed me a gun this time,” Alyssa said, turning back to Tenebrael. Last time, she had the gun in hand before they had ventured to the… scene of the crime.

In response, Tenebrael reached back to her feathers again. This time, she withdrew a familiar pistol. “A duplicate,” she said, nodding toward the murderer. “He needs to be seen with one at the same time as you firing it.”

“And you’re sure nobody will notice? There aren’t security cameras in the room?” As she asked, Alyssa glanced around. She didn’t see any, but that didn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t any around.

“It should be fine.” Tenebrael slid the pistol across the table. “Already loaded and ready to go. I suggest heading over to that table. Things will be starting soon. I’ve got my own preparations to make.”

Alyssa couldn’t help the slight shudder as she glanced to the corner of the room. He was a murderer. A thief who had broken into a home and would have killed her had it not been for divine intervention, ironically enough. He would have killed another few people without her.

Would have. In reality, the guy was dead. Actually dead. There was no killing intent behind those eyes. Nothing at all. A puppet of Tenebrael. Little else. That honestly didn’t make her feel better at all. She wasn’t sure which she would have preferred sitting next to, the murderer or the puppet. Neither, really.

But, despite her misgivings, Alyssa complied with Tenebrael. She didn’t want the Astral Authority destroying any worlds in the near future. Or the far future.

Alyssa moved up just behind him, wrinkling her nose at the smell. It had probably been a month since he had a shower. She took a step back, fingering the safety of the pistol as she tried to get a little fresh air. Looking over to Tenebrael again, Alyssa started.

Another person was in the room now. Or rather. One person was in the room twice. Alyssa had guessed correctly. The glasses-wearing slouching man was indeed the programmer. She probably should have confirmed with Tenebrael, but seeing the limp body floating in front of the angel was confirmation enough.

Poor guy. With Chris, she had felt fairly confident in his ability to survive after being dropped into a strange world. He had a military background and had lived on the streets. Both of which would lead to survivalist tendencies. He had called her phone a hundred times after a few hours, but that was likely due to how alien everything was rather than an emergency need for food and shelter. In fact, since meeting with him, her phone hadn’t rung once.

Thinking about it, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Once she got back to Nod, she would check in with him first thing.

On the other hand, this programmer was probably one of those people who needed modern society as much as it needed him.

Just call me a prophet, Alyssa thought to herself as she watched the man stare at the corner again, because I foresee a significant increase in phone calls in my future.

Alyssa’s would-be murderer tensed up. It took her a moment to realize why. None of the people around the room had changed all that much. Certainly nobody was looking at him more now than they had before. But, listening, Alyssa could hear the faint sounds of a siren in the distance. The programmer, who had been looking increasingly sweaty and nervous over the past few minutes, let out a sigh of relief as he pocketed his phone.

He must have called the police. Or texted them? Was that standard protocol? To cruise to a known armed and dangerous murderer with sirens blaring? It seemed like it would… do exactly what it was doing. Maybe the sirens were for something else entirely, but neither of the men who heard them knew that.

The murderer abruptly stood. Seeing that, the programmer stood as well.

Alyssa wanted to head over and shout at him. What the hell did he think he was doing? He was going to get himself killed if he acted like that. In fact, it was the whole reason Alyssa was here. Because he did get himself killed in only a few minutes. Didn’t the news advise against approaching armed murderers?

If it did, it didn’t stop the programmer from putting himself right between the door and the murderer.

“You can’t leave… I-I can’t let you leave.” Despite putting himself in the path of the exit, the programmer refused to look up and meet anyone’s eyes. His eyes were glued to the murderer’s hand. “You k-killed that little girl.”

“Little girl? I’m twenty-five.”

He, obviously, didn’t hear Alyssa. Tenebrael did, if her little giggle was any indication.

“Get ready for my signal, Alyssa Meadows.”

“Right.” Heart hammering, she flicked off the safety and rested her finger on the trigger guard. It would be soon. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Probably not as hard as anyone else’s chests, but still. She could feel the sweat on her palms despite already knowing how everything was supposed to play out.

What if she messed something up? What if she fired too early and hit the real programmer? Or what if the bullet ricocheted off the wall behind the television and hit someone else? This wasn’t just a dark alley with a single target and no chance of failure. There were people around.

People who had taken notice of the situation. The trio of girls had fallen silent and buffalo wing biker had lowered a half-eaten wing to his plate. Even the bartender had stopped his work, moving to stand at a different part of the bar. A part directly beneath the television. The only real sound in the room came from the curling match, where the United States just scored.

“Get out of the way.”

Alyssa glanced back. The murderer’s voice sounded almost pleading. But it didn’t get through. The programmer shook his head, planting his feet firmly in place.

A chair scraped across the floor. The biker stood up.

The murderer whipped his head over, spotted the movement. As he turned back to the programmer, he pulled his pistol. “Get down,” he said, voice less pleading and more firm.

Instead of complying like any sensible man should have done, the programmer reached out. It was almost like he was trying to grab the gun, but he missed his mark. His wrist smacked into the gun and knocked it to the side.

The gun went off, startling Alyssa. But it missed, sending a cloud of building dust falling from the ceiling. One of the girls started screaming. The biker grabbed hold of the back of his chair, maybe to throw it or maybe to charge over and smash him over the head.

“Alyssa. Aim.”

She couldn’t watch the biker any more. Holding the pistol with both hands, she aimed right over the murderer’s shoulder at the programmer’s neck.

“Ready,” Tenebrael said. As the angel spoke, Alyssa watched almost in slow motion how the other pistol lowered from where it hit the ceiling to be aimed right alongside Alyssa’s line of fire.

“Aaaannnddd… Now!”

Alyssa could see it the moment Tenebrael spoke. The fear and worry behind the programmer’s glasses shifted to confusion. It was a nearly identical expression to what Chris’ duplicate had put on immediately before he started trying to tear off his face. He opened his mouth. Alyssa could see the scream on his lips.

She pulled the trigger.

Blood splattered around the room as a chunk of his neck vanished. He collapsed to the ground, rolling back and forth as he screamed. To anyone else, it might look like he was screaming because of the widening pool of blood spreading out behind his twisted form. All Alyssa could see was a man who had died once now suffering through a second death in a body not his own.

In her momentary shock, she almost missed the murderer shove past. He sprinted toward the door. Just before he reached it, he swung his gun arm back behind him.

“The television!” Tenebrael shouted.

Heart still hammering, Alyssa pivoted where she stood. She took a moment to aim.

And she pulled the trigger.

As soon as she felt the recoil in her hands, black feathers encompassed her.

The smoky scent of the bar vanished as the feathers obscured her vision.

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TowerCurator

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