It’s A Matter of Midlife and Death by Robyn Peterman

Chapter One

How to gofrom bad to hellish in a single beat of a heart. I couldn’t catch a break if it bit me in the butt.

Zadkiel had forgotten his throne but had brought along a few buddies to make up for it. They were faceless and terrifying. The air around them crackled with the promise of pain and agony. There were four of them wearing hooded purple robes that hid whatever horror was underneath. Gideon was on his feet so fast I didn’t see him move. I followed quickly behind. The friendly atmosphere disappeared and in its place was a tension-filled standoff.

Zadkiel, my de facto supervisor and gargantuan jackass, scanned the room. His eyes landed on the hourglass. “One more little test, Daisy, and you shall have earned your place as the Angel of Mercy.”

“Who else do I have to forgive?” I demanded as I realized my hands were sparking. That was new. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt. I was kind of done being beat up by my newly ever-emerging magic for the foreseeable future.

“Not forgive. Punish,” he replied cryptically, seating himself on my overstuffed chair like he was a welcome guest.

He was not.

“Unacceptable,” Charlie hissed. As the Immortal Enforcer, his hiss was freaking scary. Zadkiel wasn’t swayed. “The parameters were set when the task was given. No changes can be made.”

“Correct,” my father ground out as he approached Zadkiel with a look in his eyes that made me want to hide.

Zadkiel shrugged. “Fine. Take them.” He nodded to the faceless robed figures, then pointed to the Angels on the floor.

I was unsure if the strangers had feet. They glided across the room like they were ice skating. It was unnerving and strange. As they approached my Angelic siblings, a fury larger than I knew I possessed lit up inside me. Images of the violent beginnings of my sisters and brothers flashed in my head. I’d never seen the faces of the beings who had meted out the punishments, but I was pretty sure that the four in my home were somehow involved.

“NO,” I shouted as the abominations reached down to take the Angels. “Do not touch them.”

Zadkiel smiled. It was ugly. “You said you weren’t up for the mission. They are. I see no issue here.”

“I see an issue,” I ground out, crossing the room and standing between the Angels and their tormentors. “They’re mine. My responsibility.”

Zadkiel raised a brow. “You own them?”

Shoving my hands into the shallow pockets of my yoga pants, I willed myself not to blast the asshole. That was a move that was sure to end badly. Short-term wins could be long-term disasters.

“I don’t own them. No one does. Not you and not those things,” I said, nodding to the robed intruders. “Do you have any idea what was done to them? The criminal abuse?”

“Do you?” Zadkiel asked coldly.

I glared at him. I refused to drop my gaze. After what felt like an eternity, he was the first to lower his eyes.

“I do,” I said, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice and failing. “I saw it. They were damned to absorb the sins of humanity. Who in the hell thought that was a good plan? It was despicable and inhuman.”

“We are not human,” Zadkiel pointed out. “There are shades of gray around every corner. Nothing is black and white. Do not judge what you can’t understand.”

He was right and all kinds of wrong. Maybe it wasn’t my place to judge what had been done to my siblings, but I knew compassion from cruelty. The Angel might have thought he’d ended the journey before the journey ended him, but he was incorrect. There was very little to no humanity left in Zadkiel.

A choice was in front of me. I was certain it was going to suck. However, there was no way in hell the Angels were leaving with the robed abusers.

“I will punish them,” I said.

I heard Abby gasp. Prue began to cry. I wasn’t sure if it was because they were happy I wasn’t going to let Zadkiel have them or because they were upset I’d agreed to punish them.

“Do go on,” Zadkiel said. “Let me hear how you will punish the ones who sinned against the Heavens. If it is acceptable, the grains of sand will join the others. As you might have noticed, there are four granules left. One for each of your brothers and sisters.”

He made the words sound like curses. I wanted to make him eat them and choke.

The son of a bitch had put me on the spot. Physical harm was out of the question. They’d been through that, and it had warped them to the tipping point of no return. While forgiveness was divine, retribution seemed to be the way of the Immortals. If I was going to win this round, I had to lay out an acceptable plan.

“Help me,”I begged Gideon frantically in our silent communication. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What is it that you want the Angels to accomplish?”he asked.

“I want them to find their humanity.”

“I believe the answer may lie in the word human,”he replied.

My gaze shot to Gideon. A small smile pulled at his lips, followed by a loud sigh. I was pretty sure he had hoped the Angels would leave. That might not be the case.

“The punishment will be for a set period of time. Pravuil, Abathar, Raphael and Gabriel will become human—no powers, no magic. When they have discovered—truly discovered—their humanity, their Immortality will return.”

Prue continued to cry. Abby swore vitriolically under her breath. Rafe growled, and I was pretty sure I heard Gabe chuckle. I was tempted to drop a barrier around them. I didn’t need the celestial peanut gallery screwing up my plan to keep them from harm. Plus, the plan was good. If they were truly to serve humanity in a loving way, they needed to understand what it meant to be human.

“Rather mild,” Zadkiel said, getting bored.

“Hardly. An Immortal without power is not mild,” I countered. “What is the job of an Angel?”

“Read the bible,” he shot back.

“On my list. Answer my question.”

He sat silently and refused.

“Guidance, protection, proclamation, ministering care,” the Archangel Michael said, moving to stand next to me, his daughter—and in front of his other children, who were basically on trial for their lives.

My father might have said that the Angels were no children of his, but his actions spoke otherwise. For a scary badass, he could be a softie.

“Blah, blah, blah,” Zadkiel said with a disgusted eye roll.

Without any excess movement, the Archangel Michael approached the Angel Zadkiel and wrapped his hands around his neck. Lifting the huge man into the air, he leaned in close as Zadkiel struggled to breathe. “I was not finished.”

Zadkiel grimaced as my father tightened his grip. “My apologies,” he choked out.

Dropping Zadkiel to the ground, he turned and eyed the robed figures. If they had come for Zadkiel’s protection, they sucked. They hadn’t moved a single muscle to aid the Angel.

“As I was saying before I was interrupted,” my dad continued as if choking someone was normal. Hell, maybe in Angel-land it was. “Assurance of divine presence, comfort, enlightenment—these are some of the key duties of an Angel.”

“Then I win,” I said. “My siblings have never had the opportunity to truly be Angels. It was stolen from them. I want to give them a chance. Not all punishments have to be violent. Trust me,” I said, glancing over at the irate group on the floor. “It will not be pleasant or easy.”

Zadkiel shrugged indifferently. “Not my call to make.”

“I’m sorry. What?” I snapped, furious that he might take them anyway.

“Check the hourglass,” he said flatly. “If the sand has moved, then your punishment shall stand. If it hasn’t…”

“It has,” Charlie growled. “The four grains of sand have joined the others. The Angels shall be rendered powerless until the time they find their humanity.”

“Time,” Zadkiel said, standing up and joining his faceless posse. “Such an interesting concept. Isn’t it? The indefinite and continued progress of existence in the past, present and future.”

“Your point?” I asked, tired of the cryptic games.

“When one manipulates the hours, minutes and seconds, there is a price to pay.”

“The price?” I asked through clenched teeth. I was unsure if he meant the Angels or me. They had sent me back in time to change Clarissa’s outcome and give me the chance to forgive the one who had harmed me the most, but I’d requested that they do it.

Zadkiel shrugged. “It will become evident shortly. As far as the timeframe on your discipline methods go, or lack thereof… when the new Death Counselor takes her first breath, the experimental punishment of the Angels shall end. If they have not accomplished the task, they will be sent back from whence they came… never to leave again.”

That was eight and a half months, give or take a few days. Could centuries of abuse be replaced by compassion for humanity in that short a time?

“Is that negotiable?” I asked.

“It is not,” he replied.

“Fine,” I said.

“Daisy,” Candy interrupted.

I held up my hand. I didn’t need her to insult Zadkiel’s privates. “I’ve got this.”

“But—” she tried again.

“No buts,” I told her. “I accept the parameters.”

“As you wish,” Zadkiel said with a shrewd look in his eyes that made me uncomfortable. “They have one month… starting now.”

“Umm… clearly, you don’t know much about babies,” I said.

“Clearly, you don’t know much about the punishment for manipulating time,” he replied. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you—you know… that pesky small print. If the Angels do not accomplish the task, the first breath the new Death Counselor takes will also be her last.”

I screamed and wanted to destroy him. Looking down, my flat stomach was no longer flat. I was about eight months pregnant. The price for manipulating time was now evident. The only thing evident to me was that Zadkiel had to go… straight to Hell.

Gideon roared in agonized fury. His body burst into red flame, and he threw a blast of magic that took out the entire side of my house. My father dove for Zadkiel with a rage that knocked my house right off its foundation.

But none of it touched the Angel. The purple-robed bastards shielded his pathetic ass from the aggression, then they disappeared in a blinding flash of light.

The silence in the room was louder than an explosion. My mind raced, and my thoughts were jumbled and chaotic. Life just kept getting more difficult. Midlife was supposed to be a crisis, but this was a full-blown catastrophe.

“Why is he doing this?” I ground out through clenched teeth. Fury consumed me. “I played his stupid game.” I threw up my hands. “And I won. I forgave my worst enemy to become the Angel of Mercy, and still, that asshole is making me jump through more deadly hoops. I don’t understand.” I looked to Gideon and my father for answers. “You both have been around since Time was a toddler. Is this part of the application process? I thought I already had the fucking job.”

“He’s always been the worst kind of bastard,” Candy said, spitting on the ground as if warding off a curse.

Gram didn’t say a word about me dropping the f-bomb and just winced when Candy deposited saliva on my carpet. Everyone was getting a free pass right now.

My dad shook his head. “Zadkiel is a wily son of a bitch. I don’t know what he’s playing at, but as the original Angel of Mercy, it’s within his rights to challenge you. I’m sorry, Daisy. I’ll do what I can to help, but there might only be one way through this.” He cast a pithy glance at his four rotten apples.

I clenched my fists and consciously fought back the urge to blow up the house I loved so much into a pile of toothpicks. Granted, it already needed repairs since Gideon had exploded the wall and my dad had knocked it off its foundation. “Fanfreakingtastic.”

Gideon stepped behind me and put his arms around my waist, his hands resting on my basketball-sized belly. “I will beat the humanity into those four if that’s what it takes. Whatever needs to be done to make sure our child is born happy and healthy, I will do.” He kissed the top of my head.

“One month,” I said in a daze. I stared at the Angels on the floor. “Get up.”

Slowly they rose to their feet. Prue’s face was tear-stained, and her lips trembled. Abby’s eyes were narrowed to slits. Rafe wouldn’t even look at me. Only Gabe was open and accessible. He rocked back on his heels and clasped his hands in front of him patiently.

“They can babysit for me,” Candy Vargo said. “I got six foster kids coming to live with me next week. If caring for rug rats doesn’t knock some humanity into them, I’m not sure what will.”

As much as I wanted to express my shock at the news, I didn’t. Candy Vargo, for all her crazy, had a hell of a lot of love to give. The language was iffy, and the toothpicks were gross, but the heart was pure.

“I’ll give them jobs at the bookstore,” Missy volunteered.

“I’ll teach them to bake cookies,” June said.

“I’ll set up a P.O. Box for each of you so you can send letters and receive mail,” Tim announced. “I will also teach you disgusting knowledge. It’s a wonderful icebreaker at luncheons with the gals.”

The Angels looked alarmed. I wasn’t sure if it was because they had no clue what a P.O. Box was or if they feared Tim’s knowledge.

“I’ll teach them plumbing,” Jennifer offered as Heather made a face. Jennifer had destroyed the entire plumbing system in the building Heather had purchased to house her law firm. Jennifer had done it to save Heather a few bucks. It had cost Heather time and a whole lot of money to fix Jennifer’s fixes.

To my sister’s credit, she didn’t say a single word. She would happily pay plumbing bills till the cows came home if that’s what it took.

“I shall make sure that the proper authorities have been notified and will look into bringing charges against Zadkiel,” Charlie said. “I don’t care what Michael says about his rights as the first Angel of Mercy. The bastard has overstepped.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Gram said to Charlie as she zipped in circles around the Angels. “I’m gonna teach y’all some manners and how to make my famous chicken salad.”

“And I will be your stepmother,” my mother said, floating over to the shocked Angels. “Daisy is my daughter. You are her father’s children. I love Michael with everything I am. What is part of him automatically has my love.”

The Angels had no clue what to do with that. Not one made a sound.

“Can I get in on that?” Heather asked with a shy smile.

“Already think of you that way, child,” my mom told her. “And it thrills me.”

My father hadn’t stopped staring at the Angels since they’d stood up. He slowly approached them and stopped about a foot away. “I shall take you under my wing and teach you the true meaning of being an Angel.”

“And I will kill all of you with my bare hands if you fail,” Gideon added.

“Umm… that really doesn’t go with all the other stuff,” I pointed out.

“True,” Gideon agreed. “But that’s all I’ve got.”

“Roger that,” I said, then glanced over at the shellshocked Angels. “Are you in?”

“Do we have a choice?” Abby spat.

“No,” I said in an icy tone. “You don’t. I do not expect you to thank me for saving you from the faceless horrors. If you fail, those abominations will become your destiny.” I placed my hands on my rounded belly and felt my little peanut kick me. “Failure is not an option. Dad, can you remove their power?”

“I can,” he replied. “And I shall.”

Crystals rained down in every color of the rainbow, illuminating the room in a kaleidoscope of shimmering hues. The Angels jackknifed forward in agony as their magic was ripped away. I bit down on my lip, so I didn’t cry out. If they could be silent, so could I.

We had one hell of a journey ahead of us. Moving forward was necessary, so I didn’t curl into a ball and lose myself in the mother of all panic attacks. I would win. The life of Alana Catherine was on the line.

“Be nice,”a voice whispered in my head.

“Gideon?”I asked, confused.

“No, silly goose. I’m not Gideon,”it replied. “Listen closely. One will comply, one will lie, one will stand by and, sadly, one might die. You must determine the outcome.”

“Alana Catherine, is that you?”I asked as tears began to roll down my cheeks.

“I prefer Mini-Daisy Gideonia,”she replied with a giggle.

“We can speak to each other?”I was amazed, shocked, thrilled and terrified that I might lose her.

“Just this once,”she said. “Remember what I said, sweet Mommy, and tell Gideon not to kill them. That’s mean.”

“You call your dad Gideon?”I asked.

“Do you think he’ll mind?” she asked, sounding all kinds of naughty.

“No,”I told her, glancing at Gideon, who was watching me with interest. “I believe he will be fine with whatever you want to call him.”

“I’ll see you soon,” she said as her sweet little voice faded away.

I wanted to beg her to stay and talk. I wanted her to tell me how to make the Angels comply. But mostly, I wanted to hold her in my arms.

I would do whatever I had to do to make that happen.

“I will only say this once,” I told the newly mortal, powerless Angels in a harsh and painfully raw voice that seemed to be coming out of someone else’s mouth. “You will find your humanity, or I will find it for you. Trust me when I say it will be far more pleasant if you do it yourselves. The life of my child is on the line, and losing her is not on the table.”

Gideon and our very chatty child had lit up my midlife crisis in a profound and beautiful way. If the Angels didn’t get with the program immediately, I’d light up their asses.

The path wasn’t clear. The outcome was iffy. That didn’t work for me.

Let the crisis continue. May the best Angel win.

Zadkiel assumed it would be him.

I was about to prove him wrong.