The battered, graffitied door and the cracked lamp overhead didn’t exactly scream high-class establishment. The light that raked the bouncer not only hid his face but cemented the impression that he was more geographical feature than man. The mountain of bone and muscle wrapped in a tight shirt and even tighter pants, folded his arms across his chest. He leveled his best skeptical glare at Gilly. At first, she thought he was just pretending he could take the measure of her soul and trying way too hard. She thought about leaving. Life without Macro was boring but at least it was comprehensible. Then her heart raced, her lungs froze, and the man knew whatever he wanted to about her.
This man with the shaved head and no neck was not a bouncer. Anyone who could actually measure souls could work a better class of bar. Anyone who could measure her soul could name their price to work wherever they wanted. It still lay in shards and the world would be made of suspicious glares, stale cigarette smoke, and out of tune pianos until it healed. The lifetime that would need wasn’t over yet, but he had taken the measure of her soul anyway. His own glittered in near crystalline perfection. A mere sliver could vault an addict into heaven for days before she crashed again. Not that she stole any souls or did any vaulting these days.
Rather than etched on the surface where even the soul blind could sense them, the oaths the man had sworn and the trust others had marked on him lay deep within the labyrinth of his soul. She recognized the patterns of oaths and chains of trust. By the time she’d made Denny, though, he’d noticed her measuring him in turn. His gaze softened and he nodded slowly.
Denny raised his face into light and spread his palms. “You got me.” His voice was soft and sweet. “But I got you, too. Few measure souls as well as you, Gilly.”
She could feel Denny draw the net of another one of Macro’s plans tight around her. Even when she and Macro were dating, Macro never let her know what she was in for until it was too late. In that case, Macro and Denny should both expect what she’d do next.
“What’s so valuable in there that Macro needs a buff, undercover angel to guard the door?”
Denny’s gaze narrowed. His body swelled with every deep, measured breath.
“Don’t call me that.” His voice became impossibly quiet. “We’re as fallible as you are.”
“Don’t call you what?” She smiled. “Buff? Undercover?”
She hoped that his soul would shudder, that Macro’s partner would envelop her with some subtle piece of soulcraft and she’d be changed. Or, alternatively, for once, she’d get one of them to admit they were what everyone else called them. Instead, the angel just let his arms fall to his side. Anyone who could keep their own soul that pure wouldn’t be goaded.
“Macro hasn’t told you? Just like old times.” Denny pursed his lips.
“For all I know, if you are guarding the door, it must be the way back to paradise.” She shrugged. “That’s hard to refuse. Macro’s hard to refuse, even though Macro never trusted me.”
“We rarely mark our trust on anyone who isn’t a colleague. It’s not personal.” He showed his palms again. “None of you accept the offer anyway. Too heavy a burden, I guess.”
“I would have.” Perhaps her mistake had been to ask for the mark of Macro’s trust.
In retrospect, maybe trafficking souls for the raw material to disguise her own was the mistake, as though Macro had refused her because her soul was too impure and a pure one, or a purer seeming one, anyway, would have changed Macro’s mind. It was possible to want something, or someone, too much. And it all went to hell from there.
“What?” Gilly decided Denny really needed to stop finding ways to make her heart race and her lungs freeze.
“What’s so valuable in there is your soul.”
Denny opened the door. Light spilled onto the street. Washes of brass and bass mixed with the static of conversation. One hand at the door, the other behind his back, the angel nodded as Gilly walked into the bar.
Peeling wallpaper covered the walls and chipped Formica covered the tables of paradise, or maybe just the emerald city. Customers sat around the tables in mismatched chairs with unequal legs that clicked and clacked against the vinyl tile floor. The brass and bass played on a platform at the far side of the room with the woodwinds and a lone violin. The platform sagged in the middle and shuddered to the beat. A singer sipped something brown from a clear tumbler that sat in a plastic chair next to the mike stand, and began to sing. A rough and ragged “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” tore through the air, more defiant than free and easy. Gilly would have done it better once, but it’d be a lifetime before she’d do it even this well again.
Someone else might have been taken in by decor, fooled by customers in their shabby T-shirts and jeans. Not Gilly. Their clothing was tailored. T-shirts tapered to the waist. Sweat stains formed artful shapes on the sleeves. Jeans fit precisely at the hip, waist, and thigh. Holes at the knee looked cut then frayed rather than worn.
Gilly measured their souls and found what she’d expected. They’d all spent part of their vast wealth to abrade away how they earned their vast wealth. Like their clothes, their souls were disguises. They’d been scraped clean, then crushed into something unnaturally simple and regular, too simple for soulcraft, but she doubted any of them had ever been capable of that. They were all more lattices than labyrinths. Well, all except one.
Macro’s soul had been annealed more times than Gilly wanted to count. It suffused the angel with facets joined in complicated patterns that were almost, but not quite, regular. Its patterns grew more complex, its impurities burnt away by good works. Any customer in the room could afford at most a sliver, if a trafficker were ingenious enough to steal it. However, one didn’t mess with angels, even when they weren’t built like a mountain range.
Unlike Denny, Macro didn’t present with any particular gender. E was slim with muscle bunched on the torso, arms and legs that barely blunted an otherwise angular body. As always, eir hair was buzzed tight to the scalp and eir nails glinted with perfectly applied clear nail polish. E was a little fuller, rounder than Gilly remembered. A dancer who’d just retired, maybe, rather than one still dancing eight shows a week. Someone who was finally showing eir age, if only a little.
“Pricing every soul in the room, Gilly?” Macro had the sort of voice that might be right for Aeneas in Les Troyens and yet be just as right for Dido in Dido and Aeneas. It made eir every accusation sound impossibly innocent. “Still in the business?”
“Habit.” Gilly sat across from Macro. The cracked plastic chair squeaked as it took her weight. “Not in the business any more.”
“I know.” Macro fished a vial out of a hidden pocket in eir t-shirt and set it on the table between them. The crystalline liquid inside caught the room’s flickering light then threw it across Macro’s face in broken reds and blues. “Otherwise, your soul wouldn’t have healed this well. We wouldn’t be returning it to you.”
It wouldn’t fetch what Macro’s or Denny’s would on the market. Impurities trapped in the crystal were pretty but messed with the high. You returned from heaven your conscience crushed by crimes you never committed, or worse, you went through hell instead. It wasn’t beyond redemption though. A trafficker who knew what she was doing could bleach out the impurities before she sold it and the next time she ordered a burger, she could splurge for the fries. A small city’s worth of fries.
“Return it to me?” Disbelief bled through the wonder in her voice. “Don’t you guys have a formal process for this? You have a formal process for sneezing.”
Macro sighed. “Yes, normally, Denny would courier it to you, forms would be signed, and he would re-ensoul you. However, I need a favor.”
Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. The wall of muscle, Denny, at the door. His check that she could still measure souls much better than most. The dive that wasn’t really a dive. Her own soul in convenient, inhalable form, suitable for purification.
“You want me to literally sell my own soul? The one I’ve spent years to re-earn? So you can nab some junkie?”
It said something about how much Gilly still loved Macro that she hadn’t simply snatched the vial then walked away. It was her soul, after all. Then again, Denny was also still at the door.
“Of course it sounds unreasonable when you put it like that. But it’s all set up. They’ll be here soon and we’ll arrest them before they actually take possession.” Macro took a deep breath then blew it out. “It’s not enough just to catch them in the act. They’re no ordinary junkies. They’re my colleagues.”
A waiter set two tumblers on the table, one in front of Macro and the other in front Gilly. Whiskey. It wasn’t until he set down the third and sat down that Gilly realized that he wasn’t a waiter. He was Denny. Put him in tent-sized button-down shirt and he no longer looked like something rock climbers would drive to New Hampshire to ascend on a Saturday morning.
“The agitation in Gilly’s soul could open the eyes of the soul blind.” Denny was exaggerating, of course, but sensing the state of any soul, much less her nascent one, from a distance was beyond even most angels. “I figured you’d need this. At least I do. I mean, an erstwhile trafficker and junkie whose soul has never left Macro’s inspection is our only hope.”
He toasted them, downed the whiskey in one large gulp, and slammed his tumbler on the table. Gilly stifled a laugh. It was a bit much. Denny only presented as tough and imposing when he wasn’t trying to, apparently.
“So there’s a schism in Heaven?” Gilly couldn’t help baiting the both of them. Maybe the metaphor was literal and that was why bringing it up made most of them grumpy. “What am I supposed to do about it?”
Denny glared. Macro smiled.
“Well, you can take your soul and go. I suspect you can re-ensoul yourself although Denny can do it if you want.” Macro nudged the vial towards Gilly. “Or you can pose as a trafficker, measure my corrupt colleagues who’d use your soul to disguise their own, testify, then put them away.”
Macro didn’t measure well enough to pierce through a good disguise. Otherwise, e’d have realized Gilly was trafficking sooner than e actually had. Denny, on the other hand…
“My word isn’t good enough against some of my own.” Folding his arms, Denny slouched into his chair. His face hardened. “We need someone on the outside to corroborate. Maybe I’m the corrupt one in disguise.”
Denny rolled his eyes at his own words. He knew the state of his own soul.
“And, of course, everyone will believe me.” She sipped the whiskey. “After all, when I break an oath, everyone will see my soul fracture, right?”
Practically no one could see her soul at all. The utter lack was damning.
Macro simply tapped the vial next to the tumbler Gilly had set down. The vial shimmered in reds and blues through the brown of the whiskey. Of course. Soon, she’d have a soul that anyone but the soul blind could see again. If it wasn’t pure, it was pure enough. The pretty impurities wouldn’t hide a broken oath.
“Why me? I’ve been out of the business for years now.”
Denny sat up with a start. He held out his palms as if he could push Gilly’s words away.
“No, don’t ask Macro that.”
“Why you, Gilly?” Macro stared as though e could see through her. “You truly want to know?”
Gilly said “Yes” as Denny said “No.”
“Because I was wrong not to trust you. Once you’ve been re-ensouled, I will mark my trust on you.”
Trying to get em to mark eir trust on her had left her empty. Now that she’d given up on what she still wanted, e offered. If Macro wasn’t above using this to eir advantage, e also wouldn’t pretend it was true. Not when the cost was that Gilly’s every transgression would also crack eir own soul.
Gilly grimaced. Sometimes, one no longer had any choice. Well, technically she did, but she wanted to defile Macro’s soul even less.
“No one ever listens to me. I tried to warn you.” Denny lifted his tumbler, disappointed that it hadn’t somehow refilled itself. “So that’s a yes?”
Gilly nodded. The weight of Macro’s trust kept her in her seat.
“I’m sorry.” Denny awkwardly patted her shoulder. “Hopefully, they’ll decide you’re just a mule. We’ll be near.”
He downed Macro’s whiskey. The two angels filled her in on the details of the job, nodded their goodbyes then made themselves scarce, leaving her alone to wait. Gilly didn’t catch where they’d disappeared to.
The singer seemed to stroll through the Harold Arlen songbook. “A Sleepin’ Bee”, “Come Rain, Come Shine”, and “Right as the Rain” wafted through the bar one after the other. The shabby chic laughed at “I Never Has Seen Snow.” Maybe it was because the air outside was already crisp, freighted again with the threat of closed roads and downed power lines. Maybe it was because they had no taste.
One verse into “I Wonder What Became of Me”, the man who would buy Gilly’s soul strutted through the door. She and the man made each other the instant they met each other’s gaze.
The stocky, blond man strode to her table then sat down. A broad smile lit his face.
At first, she saw nothing special about his soul. More complicated than the laundered ones here, but also more impure. Not any more than typical, but angels this impure would have found themselves drummed out and their souls simplified to make soulcraft impossible. Then again, this was also how an angel would disguise their soul for a sting. No trafficker would sell to someone who was purer than the merchandise. She needed to peer deeper.
“You’re not who I expected.” His gaze fell onto the vial, now in Gilly’s hands.
“Do you have the money?” She set the vial on the table.
He nodded then pushed a thick envelope from his jacket towards her. She slid the vial towards him. Reds and blues spattered across his face as he thumbed the vial. She fanned the cash in the envelope, pretending to count the bills as she measured him.
Beneath the grime, the man had nothing on Macro or Denny. Gilly could see the scattered impurities that few else could. Still, he had a big, complex soul with a near regular structure developed over decades of good works and soulcraft. Not all that pure for an angel was still much purer than anyone else, still something that could send an addict to heaven for long enough. It bore no marks of trust or oaths that identified him as an angel. Of course, any angel actually out to bust a trafficker would have hidden those.
The man’s brow furrowed. He’d sensed her measuring him. His hands gripped her wrists. Pain arced up her arm. The grime sloughed off. The oaths of duty and marks of trust that proved he was an angel slid to the surface.
“We both know you’re not who we want.” His voice was as soft as his grip was hard. “Give up who you’re working for and I’ll let you slide. You’ve started to heal. You don’t want to ruin that by being arrested again.”
This couldn’t be a real bust. Gilly refused to believe Macro would set her up. Or at least not again and not like this. She hadn’t actually been trafficking this time. Macro wouldn’t tease her with her own soul only to snatch it away again. The man’s angelic soul had to be another disguise.
“No.” She tried to pull her arm away, but his grip was too strong. “I’m working for myself.”
“Of course you are.” He frowned in what seemed like genuine regret. “You can always change your mind after we take you in.”
Scattered people from around the bar stood. They strolled towards Gilly, forming a shrinking circle around her and the man. At the edge of her senses, their souls grew more complex. Their oaths emerged onto the surface. Macro and Denny walked with them, no sign on their face that Gilly was anything more than a trafficker who got caught.
Conversation thrummed on without a pause. The singer kept singing. Maybe two customers turned to look.
The complexity of his soul dazed her. Every facet reflected every other like an infinite hall of mirrors. She couldn’t see any fissures but she could see how they might be hidden. Jags, radiating like branches, interrupted the nearly regular pattern of facets like wet streaks across a plane of glass. They couldn’t be part of the natural variation of the nearly unblemished soul he presented. Not unless Macro was wrong about him being a junkie.
His soul shuddered. It entangled hers, and she found herself wanting to leave the bar with him. For now, the urge seemed more a suggestion than a compulsion. She had only the tattered shim of soul. To compel her, he’d have to haul out the serious soulcraft, restructure her, change who she was. She’d still be arrested and, worse, become someone else. What was in the vial wouldn’t be hers anymore. It might send her to heaven for a while, but it wouldn’t take.
She resisted, gripping the edge of her seat. No junkie was going to do anything to her. The cracked plastic dug into her hands. The urge to leave grew into a stab between the shoulder blades. She hooked her feet around the chair’s legs. Pain shot through her calves and thighs. Her body wanted to stand. She wanted to sit. The man leaned back into his chair, his smile now a self-assured smirk. Only his measured breaths, the slow rise and fall of his chest, betrayed any effort.
The air grew thick and the world grew dark around her. The need to do what he wanted squeezed her head, pressed against her lungs. She forced herself to breath out of sync with the man. Tears welled in her eyes as spikes seemed to crack her skull.
The man’s gaze narrowed. Sweat beaded then dripped down his face. Just finding Gilly’s soul was hard enough for most. His soul transformed, shifting from one complex pattern to another. Your actions changed your soul just as your soul changed your actions. To restructure her’s, he’d inevitably change his own.
Her chair swayed in gentle circles. Conflicting desires locked her lungs. They were slabs of stone that could barely take air at all. She’d lose consciousness if she kept resisting, then they could just carry her away.
His soul convulsed. The jags that radiated across it collapsed, revealing the fissures that had been there all along. Purified souls had spackled the fissures shut and now they seeped out like blood from wounds. Restructuring a soul he could barely sense would have stretched the one he seemed to have. The one he did have broke. His jaw clenched. His hands tightened and his nails dug into the table.
Darkness closed around Gilly. The world was a small globe centered on the man. As she lost consciousness, the spray of blues and greens as his soul shattered filled her mind’s eye.
When she woke again, sunlight splayed across her face. A firm mattress lay under her. A thin comforter lay over her. Her head rested on a too thin pillow that made her neck hurt. The room was exceptionally tidy. Not a speck of dust anywhere. Books lined shelves in neat rows. The hardwood floor gleamed. A folding chair sat next to the bed.
Posters of opera productions were tacked on the walls, productions where she’d sung Pamina in The Magic Flute, Clara in Porgy and Bess. Those rectangles of color popped against the bland wallpaper. She was in Macro’s bedroom. It’d never occurred to her that Macro would leave the posters up.
“You’re awake.” Denny walked in looking uncharacteristically rumpled for an angel. “Macro should be back soon. When you arrest some of your own, the process is even more formal and involved than usual. We decided it’d be safest to have me keep an eye on you for a while.”
“You two set me up to be busted, didn’t you?” She pushed herself up to a sit. “You and Macro are the renegades in the war over Heaven.”
Denny’s gaze narrowed at that last word. He didn’t actually do anything else though beside loom.
“Macro and I wouldn’t have let you actually be processed for arrest.”
“Well, I’m so relieved that I was never in any danger. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Either he missed the sarcasm or chose to ignore it. “You. You are hardcore. Anyone else would have been satisfied just to recognize how he’d disguised himself. We picked up some converts last night thanks to you. Good work. May I mark my trust onto your soul?”
“You?” Gilly decided his habit of making her heart race and lungs freeze was annoying. “No, I don’t need the responsibility.”
“My husband doesn’t want me marking my trust on him either. I’m a courier of souls. That’s already a big enough burden on his life.” He sat and the folding chair squeaked under his weight. “You know, now that you have your soul back, it’s going to be much harder to stay clean, stay out of the soul trade.”
Her jaw hung. She turned her senses inward. Her soul now caged her, smothering her like thick coat in a winter storm. Bright impurities obscured its crystalline structure.
“You re-ensouled me while I was sleeping?”
“Did you want to be awake while I jammed your soul back into you?”
“Well, no. A head’s up would have been nice though.”
“Apologies.” He fished the now empty vial out of his pant pocket then tossed it to her. “Here, a memento. Forms are all taken care of. Don’t do anything with your soul I wouldn’t do.”
“Is there something you wouldn’t do? You were the one who extracted my soul in the first place.”
“Plenty of things. I’m unwilling and only the unwilling should mess around with people’s souls.” He hunched forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “The colleagues who’ve fractured themselves, on the other hand, are not unwilling, by definition. They’re a menace and as tempted as I am to just drop them, I can’t, not unless I want to fracture myself too. We could use your help locking them up.”
“That trick only worked because I had practically no soul. It’d be different now.”
“That trick’s not working again no matter who tries it.” He shrugged. “However, you got two things going for you: more skill with souls than you’ll ever admit to me and my trust, even if you won’t take it. How about it?”
An angel just admitted he needed her. Any more of that and she might believe in miracles. Still, the wrong angel and in the wrong way.
“Macro. Does e love me?” She saw his soul tighten. It folded backed into itself in an infinite regress. “You know, don’t you…”
Denny leaned back into the chair. He folded his arms across his chest. It bunched up his torso, making him look top heavy, as though he’d tip over at any moment.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Try me.” Gilly smirked. “You say you trust me, right?”
Denny pursed his lips. His gaze fell to the floor before he let it met Gilly’s again.
“E trusts you with eir soul.”
“That’s not what I asked, angel.”
“No, e doesn’t.” Denny deflated. His arms fell to his side. “But you’d come if e asked.”
The absurd urge to laugh bubbled through her. She fought it down. E had said he trusted her, not that e loved her. So much for nothing.
Gilly’s gaze brushed the posters on the walls. “Maybe it works out better that e doesn’t.”
She pushed herself out of bed. Denny stood, his expression a cross between puzzled and stunned.
“You believe me?” His gaze narrowed. His mouth set in a determined line.
“Had to happen once.” She shrugged. “Guess I’ve always known how Macro felt. Good luck with Heaven. I’ll be rooting for you.”
Denny reached the open door before she did. He wasn’t stopping her from leaving, but he made a convincing wall even when he wasn’t trying. Light through the doorway framed him in a halo.
“You can do a little more than root.”
“Yeah, I could.” She peered around Denny into the living room. Immaculate, as always. Nothing blocked the door out of the apartment. “And maybe, one day, I will.”
She pushed past Denny. He didn’t follow her out. He didn’t need to. No matter where she went, Denny and Macro would find her once they needed to badly enough.
Denny was right, of course. Staying out of the soul trade was much simpler back when she couldn’t muster the soulcraft to even touch a soul. She turned the vial over and over in her hand. Things were different now, not better, just different.
She hummed to herself as she waited in the hallway for the elevator, Arlen’s “I Had Myself a True Love.” For the first time in forever, her soul resonated in response. Her body shook. Blood rushed to her head. Involuntarily, her hands clinched into fists. The tune stumbled for a beat. She’d learned how to sing without a soul. She’d learn how to sing with one again.
The elevator doors opened. Empty. Part of her had expected Macro to stare back at her. The rest of her sighed in relief. She stepped into the elevator. The doors slid shut and the elevator hummed its way down to the ground floor.
John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine and Tor.com. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.