Synopsis: Dover reveals her tragic past to Jon Bennett before an attack shakes her to the core.
Dover tried her level best to put the inappropriate thoughts of Hanael out of her mind as she continued with the rest of her day. By the time she pulled Embry’s red sedan into the driveway of Jon Bennett’s house, she had just about succeeded.
Circumstances being what they had been, Dover hadn’t had a decent look at the little suburban home the previous evening. As she pulled the sedan to a stop beside the battered old Dodge Embry had parked beside Jon’s coupe, Dover took a moment to simply look at her Charge’s place.
The yard out front appeared well trimmed, the grass freshly mown. A canopy covered the wide front porch, which held a couple of weathered rockers and a small table. Though the shutters could have used a fresh coat of paint, she could see the thin blue curtains hanging in each window. No matter how ‘Dude Clean’ she had considered the interior, it could not be denied that Jon took pride in his home.
Dover patted the hood of her old black truck as she passed, apologizing silently for having abandoned her the night before. Embry must have rescued the vehicle from her apartment when she made off with his Kia. At least they wouldn’t have to drive around in one another’s cars for a week since he’d met her at Jon’s.
The Guardian checked her weapons quickly as she approached the front door. A single blade in her left boot, a trusted Sig in her waistband would likely be she all she would need during the day. She’d paired her meager weaponry with a faded pair of jeans, a white tank, and a plaid shirt she recalled had once been Embry’s. Being less battle-weary might make talking with Jon a tad easier today.
At least she wasn’t bloody this time.
When she reached the steps, Dover heard the unmistakable rumble of Embry’s voice. A quick sample of the air, even without her angelic senses, brought her the tantalizing aroma of lamb stew. Dover groaned in olfactory lust, suddenly overcome with hunger and reminded she’d only had a really bad burger on her way home several hours ago.
With Em around, though, she and her Charge would be fed and liquored to their bellies’ content inside of an hour.
She knocked twice on the door, two quick raps that were the code between Dover and her old friend. Jon’s laughing voice called out for her to enter.
Dover pushed the door open, stepping inside with a shudder as Embry’s protection spells attempted to expel her from the residence. The newly-set charms allowed her to pass, only because her soul carried a trace of the divine. As a technicality, Guardians were considered undead, which made the various magical protections a little twitchy.
Still, if she’d been a minion of Hell’s Legions, Dover would have found her ass a hundred yards away with smoke coming out of her ears. She smiled as she closed the door behind her, wiping red Georgia clay from her boots on the carpet inside. The heady fragrance of Embry’s cooking saturated the house, mingled voices only barely audible over the local country station playing from the oversized stereo in the living room.
“I’m telling you, my friend, the key to a good stew is fresh ingredients and time. We got us a fresh bit of lamb here and simmering low for three hours, it’ll taste like a miracle.”
Dover allowed her eyes to roll as she stuffed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. She sauntered easily into the kitchen, noticing that Embry’s need to do something with his hands had likely cleaned Jon’s house for him. She could have eaten off of the floors, all evidence of ‘Dude Cleanliness’ had fled.
Jon sat on the counter in his spotless kitchen as Embry stirred a massive pot of good stew. Her friend held what appeared to be a cold beer in his free hand while Jon munched on a long sliver of carrot, his legs swinging carelessly against the cabinets.
They greeted the Guardian warmly as she sidled up to Embry for a hug. He smelled of good food and expensive cologne. Jon held his arms out when Embry released her, so she stepped into the circle of his arms, enjoying the camaraderie born from the saving of a life.
Good humor seemed to have replaced the chaos of demonic activity, not that Dover expected anything less. Embry’s cheer spread like fungus wherever he went, there could be no better ambassador for her than the friend she couldn’t live without.
They were both dressed down, in what might have been a Georgia-boy uniform of old jeans, battered boots, and ancient t-shirts. Dover took the offered beer from her Charge, sliding into a chair at the immaculate kitchen table, propping her feet in the opposite seat.
“What have you two boys been up to?”
Embry turned from the stove, a smile creasing his ginger beard.
“Jon’s a Bulldog, Dove. So, obviously, we’re besties now.”
“Oh, God.” The Guardian groaned. “I’m in for several more Saturdays from football Hell, aren’t I?”
“Obviously.” Jon chimed in, his bottle clinking with Embry’s. “He’s been telling me about Guardians and the Host.”
Dover arched an accusatory brow toward her friend. “Has he? And what’s he been saying?”
Jon had the grace to look somewhat uncomfortable, as though he’d been caught listening to gossip instead of acquiring information from the source. His gaze cut to Embry for support, as expected, the blue-eyed druid offered an encouraging smile. She’d always found Embry had a soothing effect on people, it proved difficult to dislike him.
“Well, I know that Guardians serve in large communities called garrisons, usually based in heavily populated cities. They come from all walks of life, all religions, even Atheists. Guardians serve for 15 years, you’re given angelic powers to help protect your Charges, and you require light to use those abilities.”
Impressed, Dover sat back, lifting her beer to her lips. She took a long pull, waiting for Jon to reach the point in his recitation that always sparked the most interest. Pertinent details were only fascinating at first glance. Charges never really focused on the idea of where Guardians came from or how they served.
The single requirement, however, always brought about a multitude of questions.
Her Charge took a long pull from his own drink, as though gathering the courage he needed to ask what he so desperately wanted to know. Dover remained in her place, sentinel-silent, as she mentally braced herself to answer.
“He mentioned that the only thing a person has to really do to become a Guardian is…”
Jon-no-h’s voice drifted away, as though he found the idea too horrifying to repeat. Dover polished off her beer with another gulp.
Though she agreed with Elise that all Charges needed to know her Guardian’s abilities and limitations, having this conversation had never been pleasant. Jon could not continue to ask, so Dover took mercy on him and replied in his stead.
“We have to die in the service of others, and be Judged worthy, before we can take a Guardianship.”
Embry shifted at the stove, adjusting the beer in his hand with his eyes flickering from Dover to Jon. She could read the concern in her friend’s gaze, as though gauging if Jon needed a sedative slipped into his beer.
“Relax, Jon.” Dover attempted to soothe her Charge. “It’s alright to ask. Death isn’t as terrifying once you’ve been through it, trust me.”
Jon’s voice had dropped to almost a whisper. “I didn’t want to ask, you know, how it happened.”
Thoughts of her death brought the memory racing to the surface. She could still feel the stifling Texas heat, smell the burned sugar of cotton candy on the air mingling with the sulfuric tang of gunpowder. Ricocheting gunfire rebounded in her head, drowning out the recollected screams of terror. If she were to allow it, the trauma of her death would take her over, drag her down under the symptoms of PTSD. The memory of a Guardian’s death helped shape their second life, and so it could never be purged. Dover swallowed thickly, gratefully taking a glass of whisky from Embry as he slid it into her hand.
She did not look at her friend or her Charge as she began to speak, her gaze faraway as she recalled with such awful clarity the night she died.
“I was a cop in this little town outside of Fort Worth.” Dover could still remember the whoop of joy she released upon graduating, the heavy weight of her shield as the instructor pinned it to her chest.
“I’d been on the force about six years. Nothing crazy, you know? Lots of traffic stops and bar fights. My husband, Adam, was a pediatrician just starting out. We were young, living well, and full of hope.”
“Wow.” Jon spoke as though he hadn’t intended to, the tone a breathy whisper. He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, attention fully on the Guardian lost in memory.
“It was August, some little summer festival had the town shut down. I was working security off duty with a few other officers. I heard something across the square. A few rapid pops. I figured a few kids were putting firecrackers in the garbage cans again. But then the dispatcher came over the radio. She sounded scared. I’d never heard Gina sound scared. All I could make out were two words. ‘Active shooter.’” Dover repeated the words, almost to herself, her eyes losing focus for a moment. “Active shooter.”
Her memory of that day remained perfectly clear. She could hear the pops of the rifle, the screaming of civilians as they ran for cover. The heat had been immense, so thick she could hardly breathe. The crowd broke into a run with panic, a massive flock startled to flight.
Embry surprised her by approaching the table, a bottle of Jameson in one hand. He filled the glass she couldn’t remember holding, his fingers brushing hers as though to remind her he hadn’t gone anywhere. Dover forced her mind to leave a bit of the past, to step back toward the present.
Thanking her friend with a small smile, Dover exhaled a shaky breath so she might continue her tale.
“500 people in that crowd and all of the sudden, they were moving in every direction possible. My Sergeant kept screaming into the radio, trying to get back up, get eyes on the shooter. I saw him first. He’d holed up by the Ferris Wheel, covered in camo and body armor. He had this massive AR-15 in his hands. Maybe it only looked huge. I don’t know. He used the control panel for cover, popping out, shooting, and diving for cover. He wasn’t shooting at random, he was trying to hit cops.
“I’d never drawn my weapon in the field. Six years carrying a badge, I’d never pulled it from the holster. It jumped into my hands. I don’t even remember reaching for it. My hand, God, my hand was shaking so bad, I didn’t know if I could even fire the damn thing.”
Dover paused to gather herself, swallowing over the lump of emotion that somehow wedged its way into her throat. The panic from that moment came to life in her chest, reminding her of those minutes that felt stretched into hours. She took a deep breath before continuing.
“Voss, my Sergeant, went down right in front of me. He’d been trying to approach, keep civilians out of the way, start talking with the guy. The radio had jammed with chatter. The guy kept shooting. Round after round. Pop. Pop-pop. Pop. Pop. I reached Voss, tried to stop the bleeding. Round caught him in the leg. I screamed for help, but…
“Shooter saw me. I had two options: leave Voss and take cover or face the shooter. I don’t remember even thinking about it. I stood up, stepped over Voss, and unloaded the fucking clip at him. ‘Course, he was wearing armor, but I got his attention.”
Dover took another swig of whisky before she continued. “He recovered and shot back. I was reloading. Four shots, center mass, went right through my vest. I fell to my knees, but I got the damn pistol reloaded, started firing. I managed to get one shot under the armor of his helmet, right below the chin, through the throat. He was dead before I hit the ground.”
The Guardian thought back to those moments, lying in the dirt and grass as her fellow officers secured the scene. She’d known, even then, that it would be too late for her. Voss kept screaming at her, trying to force her to stay with him, but the roar of blood in her head drowned out his familiar voice. The world slid into slow motion as she left her body, left the searing pain and panic that were her final moments.
“You saved the day.” Jon’s voice, thick with emotion, brought her out of the maudlin thoughts.
“I saved Voss. Saving the day wasn’t part of the plan.” Dover replied with a sheepish smile. Her Charge had a look of reverence on his face when she looked up. “Three officers died that day, including me, but I saved Voss. He has four kids now, eldest went off to Yale last year. He’s the chief of police in that little town.”
“What about your husband?” Jon asked quickly, as though he feared the question would cause her pain.
“Oh, he’s fine.” Dover replied, quickly rubbing at her eyes to dispel the itchiness gathering there. “He moved to St. Louis a few months after it happened. He got remarried, has a couple of kids, and a practice of his own. I’m so proud of him.”
Chuckling a little at the awe on her Charge’s face, Dover sat up and stretched a little. “Since I died to save someone else, I was offered a choice at Judgment. I could return to Earth to protect those sent to me as part of the Guardian Corps for 15 years, or I could go to Heaven. Protecting the innocent, saving lives? I couldn’t say no.”
Jon’s face had taken on a look at once astonished and terrified. Dover understood the churning emotions likely raging inside of her Charge. Death was, after all, humanity’s undefeatable foe, the end of existence as they knew it. Once a person had died, however, they became more intimately aware that death was not finite. Dover had felt that same fear Jon felt in those last moments of her mortal life, lying on that blood-soaked Texas earth.
The heavy silence broke when Jon spoke again, his tone low, reverent.
“And after 15 years? What happens then?”
“A choice.” Dover replied as she took another sip from her glass. “I can select any place on Earth with a new identity and live out a mundane human life. Once I die again, I’ll be sent back to be Judged.”
“That sounds like a decent deal,” Jon replied. “And the other option?” Dover grinned as she thought of the love and warmth awaiting her.
“Home.” She said simply. “When you finish your Guardianship in good standing with the Host, you can choose to continue on to Heaven. Most Guardians take the route. In about 2 years and 5 months, that’ll be my choice.”
“Why?” Jon asked, leaning forward as his interest piqued. “Why not take back some of the time that was stolen from you?”
“Because Guardians fight a war, day in and day out, for 15 years, J.” Embry broke in, clinking his glass against Dover’s. “And in most cases, they even died bloody. They’re ready for peace, for home.”
“I’m ready.” Dover continued as Embry stepped back toward the stove. “I was ready the first time around. I’d lived a good life. If I hadn’t had the option to become a Guardian, I’d have walked through those gates with no regrets. I don’t think there’s anything better than that.” Silence descended again as Jon processed this information. Dover could almost see him turning it over in his head, trying to understand this new world he suddenly found himself wrapped up in. After a long moment, he nodded, raising his glass to toast Dover across the kitchen.
“Well, in that case, thanks for saving my ass, guardian angel.” Her Charge beamed. “You did a damn good job.”
“Ooh, thank you, sir.” Dover laughed, giving her new friend a little bow in response to his praise. “I do what I can. Now, if Em over here feeds me, we can finish warding your house so I can grab some rack.” “She’s got a way with words,” Embry chuckled. “Alright, my lovelies, come and get stew so amazing you’ll both want to marry me.”
Dover rolled her eyes as Jon snorted a laugh into the remains of his whisky.
After leaving Jon Bennett’s place, full of lamb and whisky and laughter, Dover took her beloved truck into the heart of Atlanta, where she called a tiny two room apartment home.
Guardians weren’t capable of holding a regular human job, so the Arbor provided for those that chose to live outside of the mansion. Her little apartment, the beat up Dodge, and creature comforts came out of the generous salary provided by the Host. Dover couldn’t complain, she had everything she might need and the power of Heaven behind her.
Usually, the little place she kept in relatively good order, made her feel comforted, warm, at home. Tonight, though, she couldn’t shake an odd feeling that had crept up on her since pulling out of Jon’s driveway.
Though she couldn’t exactly name the odd sensation that followed her home, Dover might have likened it to feeling rather like a doe in the woods who could feel the hunter eyeing her through the foliage. She could not pinpoint the source, but Dover was sure she felt hunted.
As the Guardian toweled off and dressed, the peculiar feeling clung to her, settling in between her shoulder blades. More than once, she turned her head swiftly, seeing shadows move in the periphery of her vision. Perhaps the unusual quality of the attack at Jon’s place had her on edge, seeing shadows and imagining demons.
But the fine hairs at the base of her neck continued to stand at full attention.
Dover tried to shake the feeling away as she removed a blessed rosary from the box on her dresser, moving on socked feet to the edge of her bed. Guardians chose to pray, or not to pray, usually in the style they had in life. For Dover, her mother brought her up strictly Catholic and so she prayed as she’d been taught as a girl.
The angelic creature kneeled at the side of her bed, pressing her palms together and closing her eyes. She began the Our Father in a whisper, clutching the beads between her fingers. As she prayed, that cloak of peace fell about her shoulders, a reminder of why she’d agreed to become a Guardian in the first place.
Her mind relaxed under the power of Heaven, opening her Perception beyond what she needed for a typical day.
Under that blanket of peace came that same eerie feeling that someone nearby was watching her.
This time, Dover relied on her open Perception to bring her information, now certain she had not been jumping at shadows.
A beat before she might have homed in on whatever – or whomever – appeared to be watching her, Dover heard a distinct creak come from the living room. She knew that noise intimately since she heard it every time she crossed the threshold of her apartment.
The loose floorboard by her front door.
Dover jumped up from her knees, grabbing the Sig she kept under her mattress. She held it before her, the rosary beads still clutched in her hand, dangling below the butt of her pistol. Stepping through her bedroom door, Dover leaned around the corner until she could see the small foyer of her apartment.
The door stood wide open.
Dover moved immediately, racing for the door as the rustle of someone moving in the hotel-style hallway reached her ears. She threw herself through the front door, eyes adjusting to the brighter light as she searched for creature that had infiltrated her apartment.
The air filled with a familiar aroma, a hint of fresh-cut grass mingled with what might have been a man’s cologne. The creature moved several yards ahead of her, wrapped in a long black coat, a beanie cap pulled low over its head. It moved with a predator’s grace, bounding down the hall toward the elevator bank. With the staircase at the other end of the too-long corridor, the elevators were the only way for the creature to escape.
Dover had it essentially trapped.
Her Perception reached out again as it careened toward the elevator, bringing her the psyche of the creature. It was startled, it had not expected to be detected, and it was desperate to flee even as it seemed impressed. Though it wasn’t uncommon for demons to hold grudges, to follow Guardians and Charges home, Dover immediately recognized that this creature was not, in fact, demonic.
Her Perception had brought back the pure light and warmth of an angelic being.
The elevator dinged arrival and Dover increased her speed. The Perception she sent out to detect what creature now attempted escape brought her the consciousness of Mrs. Rushman, the kindly neighbor she often had coffee with on Sundays. Mrs. Rushman came bobbling out of the elevator, shopping bags on her arms, looking oblivious as the tall, menacing creature rushed by her.
“Get back!” The Guardian shouted, realizing her prey had not gone for the elevator.
It raced toward the large, uncovered window that boasted a beautiful view of the Atlanta skyline.
She might not have been the brightest of humans, but the frail old woman stepped back into the elevator. Dover, knowing she had mere moments before the angel escaped, raised her pistol.
“Stop!” The command in her voice was choral, drawing on the power of the Host. “In the name of the Creator, I command you to halt!”
The creature’s frantic run came to a sudden stop. Dover pulled up short, covering the elevator door with her body to protect poor Mrs. Rushman. Though she could not see the angel’s reflection in the glass of the window, she could hear the humor in its voice as it growled a response.
“You cannot command me, Guardian.”
Dover stood with her weapon drawn, staring at the creature’s back. Blood roared in her ears, her heartbeat so frenetic she felt light-headed. No angelic creature she had ever encountered could resist a Holy Command. Even the Powers that ruled over the Arbor were compelled to be still and silent, even if a Cherubim used such command.
What creature was this, able to swat away such power without a glance?
Dover’s mind now flipped the creature fully into “danger” mode. She squeezed the trigger of her trusty Sig, aiming for the body. The bullet might not have been fatal, but it ought to slow an angel down long enough for Dover to trap it.
That hope died as the angel turned toward her. One dark hand shot out from under the coat, swiping through the air as her grandmother might have to swat a fly away from the table. A gust of warm air shot Dover back down the corridor, flinging her into the wall with enough force that she left a sizable dent. Her head spun so wildly, Dover scarcely heard the glass of the window break. She looked up, focusing her eyes in time to see the creature take flight against the lights of Atlanta, ink-colored feathers nearly lost against a blue-black sky.
The Guardian swore violently, pressing her free hand against the head wound currently pumping blood all over her favorite pajamas.
Her mind buzzed with a thousand questions, all of them revolving around the ridiculous idea that an angel had broken into her home, that it lingered there, watching her as she went about her night. Had it only run because her prayers brought her more power from the Host? Did it know it would be discovered? Why had it come after her at all?
The questions came to a halt when Dover felt someone tentatively kick her foot. Dover looked up into the wrinkled face of her doddering old neighbor, surprised to find she looked more concerned than afraid.
“Dover, my girl? What’re you out here with a gun for?”
Dover frowned. “You didn’t see it?”
Mrs. Rushman took a long, slow look around, arching a brow when her gaze landed on Dover once more.
“All I seen was you, girl, runnin’ down the hall with a gun in your nightclothes. You alright, dear?”
The Guardian scrambled to her feet, pressing at her head wound as she did so with a hiss.
Whatever had attacked her hadn’t wanted to be seen, even in pursuit. Dover limped Mrs. Rushman back to her apartment.
An angel. An angel had attacked her.