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Sera held her head in one hand, elbow resting on the bar, her fingers entwined in her short flaxen hair, almost as if she were about to pull it out. Her eyes spoke of a weary ferocity, all the more striking with her aquiline features. She liked this bar. It was quiet and hardly anyone came in unless they were a regular or someone just asking for directions. The fingers of her other hand grasped a glass that was running on empty, so she called to the bartender.
The bartender was a gruff, wrinkled sort, but had that look of having once, in his prime, been quite a formidable presence. Wiping out a mug, he glanced over.
Sera tapped her glass with one finger, then held up two.
The bar was somewhat drab, but the area behind the bar was riddled with ribbons, medals and certificates. Honorable discharge. Distinguished service. Legion of Merit. Purple heart. Max displayed them proudly and was partial to telling lots of stories. Tonight, though, he could tell that Sera was not in the mood.
The only others present were two older men sitting in a booth and a middle-aged woman hunched over a table, as if trying to keep it from escaping.
Sera had no idea how Max stayed in business, but as long as he did, she felt like she had a second home.
A bell rang from the front of the bar as three tall, imposing men entered. Clad all in black, right down to the shiny patent leather shoes and black fedora hats. Rainwater dripped from their clothes forming pools near the door and Max walked down to the end of the bar to greet the new arrivals.
"What can I get you gentlemen?"
Without even acknowledging Max, they continued down the bar and came to a stop right behind Sera. They folded their tightly-gloved hands in front of them and formed a dark wall behind her. Sera stopped, her glass halfway to her anxious lips, frowned, rolled her eyes, then shook her head and drank anyway.
Without a word, the two elderly men in the booth quietly rose from their seats and made their way out the front door, rousing the woman at the table and leading her out with them.
Max stalked down the bar, a stern look on his face and spoke to the men again, this time dour and intense. "Listen, whatever problem you guys have, I suggest you take it elsewhere. Nobody brings trouble into my bar." He then reached under the bar and produced a Remington 12-gauge. "Nobody."
At that, one of the men, face seemingly carved into a poker stare, stepped up to the bar and, in a calm, unassuming voice, said to Max, "Someone is trying to steal your car."
As if a gust of dry desert wind had just blown through his head and dried up his anger, Max's eyes went blank and he slowly walked out the back door of the bar with his gun.
The tallest of the men, face twisted up in what seemed a permanent grimace, stepped closer to Sera and asked, "Did you really think he'd just forget about you? You think it's that easy?"
Outside, a shotgun blast echoed down the streets and in between the buildings. Soon, the lights of a police car could be seen, reflected intermittently through the rain-streaked window at the front of the bar.
Sera shook her head, reached over the bar and helped herself to a bottle of scotch, twisted off the top and took a long swig. "You clowns come all the way down here to do magic tricks?"
The third man, ostensibly younger than the other two, chimed in with a light, juvenile tone. "You know why we're here. You can't just walk away. It doesn't work like that."
"Really?" snapped Sera. "Judging by the fact I'm still here, and the fact he had to send you three with such polite invitations, it seems like I can do whatever the Hell I want."
"Boss wants you to come home," the tall one commanded.
"For what? A spanking? A time-out in the corner?"
Poker-face just muttered, "We're not going back without you."
Sera took another long pull from the bottle of scotch, eyes fixed straight ahead and simply answered, "Then, I guess you're not going back either."
After a moment that seemed to stretch out a mile long, the three men just turned and walked out the front door.
Sera finally broke her thousand-yard stare and glanced around the empty bar, then got up and walked to the front window to look out.
They were gone.
As Sera strode across the street, rain still drawing glistening lines from the street lights to the pavement below, two police officers were wrestling with Max in the parking lot next to the bar. One cop had Max's rifle, the other was trying to shove him into the back of squad car. "I'm telling you, there was a guy trying to break into my car! He was RIGHT THERE!" Max shouted, jerking his head toward a car whose windshield had been blasted into a splatter of shiny glass shards.
Sorry, Max, Sera thought. My old co-workers are dicks.
The next morning, Sera woke in her cheap motel room with a start. Without looking, she reached over to her nightstand, grabbed the bottle of scotch she had borrowed from the bar the night before and finished its contents. Finally, she decided that she was going to have to talk to someone.
Sera strode warily into the cathedral. There was no service in progress, but those present turned to look at her. Short blonde hair, tattoos up both arms. To say she stuck out a bit would be an understatement. She made her way to the confession booth, looked around, sighed, then stepped inside and closed the door behind her.
She looked down at the prie-dieu style kneeler which would activate a light outside the booth, alerting a priest that someone was in the booth.
You have to be kidding, she thought, at first. Finally, awkwardly, she knelt next to the lattice in the wall of the booth.
It was some time before she heard a priest enter the other side of the confessional. Perhaps there had been a debate over who would do the honors. The wooden slat separating her from the priest slid open.
"Bless me, father, for I have sinned," she said almost curtly.
"Tell me your sins, child."
Sera rolled her eyes. "I...I've never really done this before. I don't know where to start," she stammered.
"Try the beginning, child. You sound very troubled. What's wrong?"
"I took a job. I didn't want it, but...let's just say I have a very persistent boss."
The priest on the other side of the lattice paused before answering. "And this 'job." Did he ask you to do something you felt to be wrong?"
"No. My job was protection. I saved a man's life."
"I'm confused, child. Saving the life of another is a laudable, commendable deed. If you succeeded in protecting this person, what makes you so troubled?"
"I don't get to pick my jobs, father. My boss tells me to do something and I have to do it. He doesn't take 'no' for an answer. It's frustrating."
"I see," said the priest. "Maybe you should find another job. Maybe you should work for someone else."
Sera couldn't help but stifle a laugh. "Believe me, father, if I could, I would. I was trained for this job. I was made for this job. It's all I know how to do, only...now that job is not what I was led to believe."
"Why don't you tell me a little more about this job you did. What happened?"
Sera walked head down, hands shoved far into her pockets against the bitter winter wind. It was a sidewalk in the city and it was the middle of the night. She'd walked the same path a dozen times before she finally found what she had sought. Around the corner, in an alley off the sidewalk, three big guys were giving a fourth the once-over. Two had him pinned to a wall near a dumpster while the third was yelling and punctuating his statements with punches to the helpless man's stomach.
This was the part of a job that Sera always liked.
She walked slowly down the alley towards the altercation, rolling her head and popping her neck at the same time.
"Hey, guys. Mind if I get in on this action?" she said with a wicked smile spreading across her face.
The ruffian with his hands free turned, looked Sera up and down then smiled. "Get lost, sweetheart, before you get yourself hurt."
"Really?" asked Sera. "What if I say that this guy's mine and that you're poaching my territory?"
The thick-necked, bald guy stopped punching the man in the stomach and turned to face Sera. "I'd say you're about to get an attitude adjustment."
"Funny," Sera said, still smiling. "I was just about to say the same to you."
In a flash, the guy pulled a gun from his jacket. He started to point it at Sera, but before he could get a bead on her, Sera's hands flew out in a blur, grabbed his gun, pulled the slide and, before the astonished eyes of everyone present, turned the gun back on the thick-necked guy. Sera turned the gun to the side, gangster-style. "You see? Attitude COMPLETELY adjusted. Now, why don't you and the other two stooges here take a hike before I start perforating skulls?"
Glances were exchanged between the three assailants, while their victim, a youngish-looking guy with tousled brown hair hanging down in front of his eye looked around at everyone like a caged animal.
The guys holding the man against the wall released him.
Thick-neck spoke up first. "You got no idea what you're messin' with here, little girl."
Out of the corner of her eye, Sera saw one of the other two reach behind him. She sniffed, rolled her eyes and then squeezed off one round from the pistol, putting a hole in the wall behind the guy's head. A trickle of blood started to drip from where the bullet had apparently grazed his ear on its way to the wall. He brought his hand back around in front of him, empty. Sera had the gun pointed back at Thick-neck's head before the smoke from the wall had even dissipated.
"Try me," Sera said, now grinning.
Thick-neck looked at the other two guys, jerked his head and, as they started to walk away, just pointed a finger at Sera and in a few seconds they were gone.
Sera looked at the guy who'd just been roughed up. He was panting and bent over.
"You okay?" Sera asked, still glancing down the alley at the street.
"Never better, lady. I just got my ass handed to me and I've gone without a fix for so long I'm detoxing like crazy," he said, raising his head slightly. It was only then that Sera could see the gauntness, the lines and the sunken eyes behind his tousled hair.
She shoved the gun into the waist of her pants and just muttered, "Great."
The junkie sneezed, wiped dripping snot from his nose and then wiped it under his arms. "What?"
Sera turned away from him, looked up and plaintively groaned to herself, "I can't believe he assigned me to a junkie." Then, she put her hand to her head and looked down at the wet, mucky, littered pavement.
"Okay. Okay, fine, what-" she started, turning around just in time to see the junkie throw up.
Sera decided to take the initiative. "You're fine. It's detox. It'll pass."
"I need a fix," the disgustingly charming junkie sputtered, wiping his mouth.
"No. You really don't. I was sent to protect you."
"By who?" he asked incredulously.
Sera paused, then said simply, "By someone that wants you alive. My boss sent me here and, lucky me, that's my job."
"Tito. It was Tito, wasn't it? I owe him even more money, of course he wants me alive...for now," he cried.
"No. It wasn't Tito. Look, you're just going to have to get through this."
Sera glanced around again. "Yes you can," she almost whispered and, in a heartbeat, clocked the junkie with a right cross, knocking him out cold.
When the junkie finally came to, he was in some cheap motel room on a twin-size bed with Sera sitting in a chair nearby, staring at him.
"Feeling better?" Sera asked glibly. "What's your name?"
"You don't know?" the junkie sat up, wiping sweat from his brow. "Justin," he muttered meekly, rubbing his sore jaw.
"I'm Sera. I was sent to protect you. To keep you alive...somehow. Such as it is, anyway."
"I have no idea, really. I just do what he tells me to do."
"Sounds like a crappy job."
"It is. But, it's all I got," Sera admitted.
Justin propped himself up from the bed, sweating and delirious. "I have a headache."
"Yeah, that's because I clocked you good. But, it's been three days, how's the detox?"
"Better...I think," Justin said, holding a hand to his head.
Sera leaned over and picked up a syringe from the nightstand next to Justin's bed. She held it up in front of Justin's face and he shut his eyes against it.
"This...this stuff is going to get you killed. I saved your life back in that alley, but if you don't quit this stuff, you're going to die either from the junk or the people you get it from. Understand?"
Justin sighed, hung his head and muttered, "I know. I'm going back home to Indiana. My mother still lives there. She'd let me stay with her if I check into rehab."
"Good," Sera said, then threw the needle into a trashcan next to the bed. Then, she turned and went to the door and opened it.
"Hey. Wait," Justin said, shakily getting to his feet. "You're just going to leave?"
Sera turned. "Yeah, job's done, kid. I did what I was told to do. Now I need to get back home. Take care."
Sera walked out of the apartment and shut the door behind her.
"And did he? Return home?" the priest queried hopefully.
Sera sighed then leaned her head against the lattice partition of the confession booth. "No. He was caught breaking into someone's house, trying to steal stuff he could sell to buy more dope. One of the family, an eight-year old girl, came downstairs and saw him. Screamed. I guess he was high. He panicked. Used a knife he carried. Killed the little girl, her older brother and both parents. The police caught him on his way out with the stuff."
"God have mercy," the priest gasped, crossing himself.
"If he did have mercy that day, he decided no to show it," Sera said through gritted teeth.
"My child," then there was a palpable pause. "You must understand that it is not upon us to save people. It is only to give them a second chance. You...you don't know that?"
Only silence met the priest's words.
For the first time she could think of, tears were rolling down Sera's cheeks. "But they always make the wrong choice!" she almost yelled at the priest.
There was only silence between them for a time.
"Child, we are not here to make their decisions for them," the priest said with what seemed such absolute finality.
Sera cried. The tears burned her cheeks. Pain. Such pain. "No," Sera wept. "It's my fault. I saved him...and the family died because of it."
"Child, please. Listen to me. Whatever your job is, whatever you do in this world...it still depends upon the will of imperfect people."
"Then why didn't He make them better than they are?!" Sera shouted through the booth.
"He tried, my child. He tried. But they were willful...and wanted more. Always...wanting more."
Sera inhaled, exhaled, then words began to form. "It's always been their fault?"
There were long seconds, minutes, hours of silence, then, the priest answered, "Yes."
Sera felt like a deer in the headlights. She hurt. She ached.
"Don't take their choices upon yourself, child. Not even the Lord himself chose to do such a thing. They live. They choose. Enough."
"Maybe He didn't try hard enough."
The priest felt a pound in his stomach. He had never felt such a weight upon his soul. He needed to answer this question. "It..." he coughed. "It is not in our burden to make such things clear and apparent right now, child. Do you think he created this world without first knowing what would happen? He has known all along. He must let men be what they will be."
"Even a horror, father?"
In spite of his restraint, the priest blurted out, "Stop, child. It is not our lot to decide the fate of Man for ourselves."
"Man? You say it like it is a holy word, father. Why?"
"Oh I see," Sera pressed. "I have hit a nerve, father."
"Child you must not try to carry this burden. It was never yours to hold."
"I hate my boss, father."
"You shouldn't hate him, Sera. After all of this, he has never hated you."
Sera stopped crying, wiping her cheeks with the back of one hand. "How could you know my boss? How do you even know my name?"
"I know who you are, Sera. I know what you are."
"What?" Sera laughed. "How could you possibly know all that?"
"We work for the same boss, child. He sent me to give you this message. I am sorry, but that is all I was instructed to do. I can only hope that it is...enough."
"Who are you?" Sera insisted.
Then, the priest exited the confessional. Confused, Sera followed suit. To her shock, she could finally see that the priest was no priest at all and she knew him. "Gabriel?" Sera gasped, bewildered.
There, stood a man, not more than thirty years old, wearing the outfit of a priest but the bearing of royalty.
"So," Sera said in amazement. "He still wants me back, huh? After all I've said and done?"
A moment pregnant with meaning passed between them.
"He hopes that you understand that it wasn't your fault, Sera. He wants you to understand that there are limitations even to what He can do to control, interfere. All of this?" Gabriel said, turning his eyes all around him. It was set into motion long before even you and I were created and we have to trust that somehow, someday, even a world such as this can be better, but it must do it for itself. Otherwise, there's no point. Nothing learned. Nothing truly gained, then."
For the first time Sera could remember, she almost started a genuine smile. "So it's back to work?"
"Back to work," the priest grinned and patted Sera on the shoulder and said, "There's still a lot to be done and we're going to need your help."
They turned and started to walk down the aisle of the cathedral together. Gabriel quipped, "God knows there's no rest for the wicked."
Sera burst into laughter.
Then, just as they neared the front doors of the cathedral, they were gone.