The Retired Angel of Death

by Jamie Lackey

Brittany stood over a crumpled corpse in a dark room. “Is it done?” her handler said, his voice familiar in her ear.

“Yes.” Brittany said the word out loud, not bothering to subvocalize. There was no one here to overhear her now, no need for silence.

“The cleanup crew is inbound. Do you need extraction?”

Brittany clipped a thin black rope to her harness. “I’ll go out the same way I came in.” A moment later, she was climbing up the outside of the steel and glass monolith. The air was sweet, even this high up–the planet had been terraformed into a mountaineer’s paradise.

“Good job tonight,” her handler said.

“Thanks.”

“What’s your ETA?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“Good. I’ve got a present for you.”

Fifteen minutes later, Brittany accepted a box wrapped in simple blue paper. She opened it slowly, peeling the tape back carefully and unfolding the paper.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

A strange, blocky object rested inside the box. “What is it?” she asked.

“A camera.”

It was heavier than she expected. After careful examination, she found a tiny window and looked through it. “I can’t see anything.”

Her handler pulled something off of the other end, and the world sprang into view. “This cap protects the glass lens.”

It was like looking through a rifle scope. She pulled back and looked it over again. “Does it have an infrared or night vision setting?”

He shook his head. “It’s just a camera. Just for taking pictures.”

“Why give me this? Do you think I should retire?” she asked.

“I do. You’re 21 now. You’ve been at this for well over a decade and earned your retirement–you should take it.”

“And do what? Become a photographer?”

“You can do whatever you want. Your stipend will cover nearly anything you can dream of. Your new identity is ready to go. Just say the word.”

Brittany didn’t know how to live another way. The thought scared her more than scaling a 400 story building or dealing with a whole team of professional body guards – she knew how to do both of those things. They’d never given her any training in a normal life.

But what would it be like to never have to kill again? Never see the light go out a target’s eyes, never hear another last breath.

“It would mean no more dawn workouts. You’d be able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. And sleep in every day.”

She’d always hated dawn workouts. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

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Brittany chose the most non-descript outfit provided for her new identity and went out for dinner. She checked for exits and requested a booth in a dark corner, both purely out of habit. Without a specific target to watch, she found herself watching everyone.

All around her, people sat in groups. Chatting. Laughing. Taking pictures of each other with their meals, using normal phone cameras instead of the heavy antique that sat on her table with her sweating water glass.

“Can I take your order?” The waitress looked frazzled and tired, with gray showing at the roots of her bright orange hair.

“Does this place have a specialty?” Brittany asked.

The waitress forced a smile. “We have the best grilled eel in the sector.”

“I’ll try that. And a milkshake.” She’d always wanted to try a milkshake.

“What sort of milkshake?”

They came in types? “Which is best?”

The waitress’s smile was real this time. “Chocolate.”

“Perfect.”

Brittany took careful pictures of her food when it arrived, then ate it slowly, paying attention to the texture and flavor of each bite, giving her meal the attention she usually reserved for targets.

When she was done, she left the waitress a 200 percent tip and went back to her room to research the best food in the galaxy.

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She read food magazines and made plans with a specialized travel agency. She travelled the galaxy and she ate. The hard lines of her life softened at the edges. She slept till sunlight streamed in through her windows, never set an alarm. Tiny noises still woke her, she still analyzed possible assets and threats in every room, but she abandoned the exercise routine that had been a daily habit for almost longer than she could remember.

Her body was no longer a weapon. She delighted in her fat, in the fact that she’d never have to scale the outside of a building in a harness again.

It was little things that made her retirement worthwhile.

She sent her handler envelopes full of photographs. He suggested books and magazines on lighting and composition. She only stayed in each city, on each planet, long enough to try their most iconic foods, then moved on.

At first, men tried to join her at her table, their eyes sharp and voices smooth, but eventually, as she added pound after pound of padding, they stopped.

It was a relief.

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She emerged from an elevator to a magnificent view of a gas giant and its glittering rings. This colony perched on a moon in close orbit, and the restaurant’s walls and ceiling were crystal clear. The building itself was so tall that it protruded the moon’s thin atmosphere.

It was an architectural marvel. The hostess gave her a tiny smile. “Will anyone be joining you?”

“No, I have a reservation for a table for one.”

Her tiny table was right against the window, and she snapped a few pictures of the view before her waiter appeared. Touristy shots, but she liked them. “I’d like the chef’s specialty, along with an appetizer and dessert. Whatever’s best tonight.”

“As you wish, miss. Would you like anything to drink?”

“Ice water. No lemon.”

The appetizer was lovely, but bland. The main course was a local rodent, served whole with a heavy cream sauce and stuffed with truffles and something like chestnuts. Brittany rearranged the table four times before she thought she captured the grotesque twist of its face with just the right angle of shadow.

The dessert arrived with a tiny sugar rose perched on top of it, its petals fingernail-thin and tinted pale pink. She took pictures of it from every angle, trying to capture the crystal shimmer of the sugary surface.

It melted almost instantly on her tongue, and the sugar carried a faint floral hint.

Her next few stops each also included a tiny sugar sculpture, each more lovely than the last.

“It’s strange how these have caught on so widely,” she said to her latest waitress. “Especially since I haven’t seen them mentioned in any of the food magazines.”

The woman flushed and refused to meet Brittany’s eyes. “Oh, well, they’re just so– so pretty,” she said, and all of Brittany’s instincts kicked into high gear. There were no familiar faces in the dining room, but each sculpture had a similar look and care to its construction – it was certainly possible that each one had been crafted by the same artist.

But why? Why follow her around the galaxy feeding her random bits of beautiful sugar? Brittany leaned forward and placed a hand on the waitress’s wrist. “Who put the sculpture on my plate?”

The waitress tried to pull away, but Brittany held her, keeping her fingers gentle, for now. “Calm down. Don’t make a scene. Just tell me what you know, and no one will hurt you.”

“I– I’m sorry, I don’t know anything, I just got notes and the sugar flower, I never even met anyone.”

“How did you know where to put it?”

“They said a woman would come in. A young, fat girl with a camera, and she’d ask for the chef’s specialty and order dessert. I was to just put the sugar flower on top of it.”

Brittany released her. “When do you get paid?”

“They said the money would be waiting in my locker after you finished your dessert.”

“Thank you.”

The waitress scurried away, and Brittany pulled out her phone. She’d always had a team to research her targets, but she knew how to get into the hotel’s security system. She pulled up the cameras just in time to see a man in a raincoat, his hood pulled low, slipping out of the kitchen.

It was simple to track him back out of the restaurant, into a waiting taxi, and then to a seedy hotel.

Maybe too simple – it could be a trap.

Still, she had to know what was going on. His hotel room was on the second floor – climbing in through the window would have been simple, once. Now it seemed like entirely too much work. She went to the room and knocked.

The man cracked the door. The instant she saw that it wasn’t chained, Brittany shoved it back, hard, and the impact drove him into the room. He was alone, and the room was empty aside from a single battered backpack.

“Who are you?” he asked, scrambling for his bag.

Brittany kicked it away. “My name is Brittany. I’m the woman you’ve been following around with sugar sculptures. I want to know why.”

He looked around the room, looking for a place to run. Brittany saw at least three points of easy egress, but he clearly didn’t.

“Don’t try anything stupid,” she said. “I assume you’re the one who made the sculptures, and it would be a tragedy if I had to break your fingers.”

He held her eyes for a moment, then sagged onto the bed. “What are you going to do to me?”

“That depends. Answer my question.”

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I was just told to make sure you ate them.”

“What is in them? Are they poisoned?”

“No, I swear. I was given a different recipe for each one, but nothing in them is dangerous. I’m not a murderer.”

“I want the recipes.”

“I– I didn’t save them.”

“You didn’t save them.”

“They came on actual paper, and I threw them out.” He grabbed the trash can, and Brittany tensed, ready to disarm him, but he pulled out a crumpled slip of paper. “This is for the latest one.”

Brittany took it. “After this sculpture, what’s next?”

“That’s it. I’m done. I go home and get paid.”

Brittany rubbed her temples. She hated mysteries. “When do you report in?”

“When do I what?”

“Report in. Tell whoever is paying you that you’ve finished the job.”

“I don’t.”

“So from here you just go home and trust that you’ll get paid for your work.”

He nodded.

What sort of insane operation was she facing? Clearly, it was one without proper protocols. But it was also clear that this man didn’t know anything else – whoever it was did a good job of insulating him from any useful intel.

Brittany sighed. “If they do contact you, don’t mention that we talked. If you do, I will find out, and I will kill you. Do you understand?”

He nodded. Brittany noted his trembling fingers, clutched together in his lap.

“If you stay silent, I will have no reason to hurt you. Are we clear?”

He nodded.

“Good. Then we’ll never meet again.”

“Wait!”

Brittany paused in the doorway.

“You really thought they were good? The sculptures?” he asked.

“They were magnificent.”

hedgehog scene break

Brittany debated changing the schedule that her travel agency had set, but the next planet purportedly had the best sushi in the galaxy, and the planetary security was the strictest around. She’d had to apply for about twenty-five separate permits to get clearance to visit, and didn’t want to miss it.

And, she had to admit, she was curious.

She researched every ingredient on the list, and only found one that stood out. The recipe called for a tiny amount of a grated root that only grew on that world.

She pulled up any info should could find about the root. It wasn’t much.

She tried to put it out of her mind on the interplanetary transport.

She didn’t succeed.

hedgehog scene break

She checked into her hotel and changed for dinner. A few moments after she sat down, a middle-aged man joined her at the table. Everything about him screamed money, from his hand-stitched suit to his artisanal, highly-illegal-unless-you’re-rich real-leather shoes. He clearly took care of himself – he looked gym-fit – with manicured hands and carefully styled hair. “I hate to see a lovely woman eating alone,” he said with a smile.

Brittany sipped her water. “How can I help you?”

“Just your company–”

“Cut the bullshit. Are you behind the sugar sculptures?”

The smile slid off of his face. “Perhaps we should discuss this somewhere private.”

“I came a long way to enjoy this meal. I can meet you after dinner.”

His eyes narrowed – he clearly wasn’t used to not getting his way. After a long moment, he slid a keycard across the table. “I’m in the penthouse at the Hilton. If you don’t come, I’ll see you for dinner tomorrow.”

“You’ve piqued my curiosity. I’ll be there.”

The sushi was excellent, but Brittany hardly tasted it. She was almost tempted to skip dessert.

hedgehog scene break

Brittany slid the keycard into the door, and the lights flickered green. The sumptuous room was dark and smelled faintly of bleach.

That was never a good sign.

“You sure know how to make a girl feel welcome,” Brittany said, turning on the light.

Her dinner guest stood in front of her. He was holding a gun in his right hand, but it was pointed at the floor. They were alone in the room–no bodyguards. He hadn’t even bothered to stand on the other side of the bed.

“Let me tell you how things are going to go down,” he said.

Brittany took the gun away from him, stepped back, and pointed it square at his head. “I’m all ears.”

“I– what– ”

“Tell me how things are going to go down. Didn’t you have a speech prepped?”

“You clearly don’t know who I am,” he said. “Just put the gun down, and we can talk.”

“Talk, and I’ll think about putting the gun down.”

He didn’t crack under pressure – Brittany had to give him that. He sat down on the bed and managed to look almost relaxed. Brittany shot the cell phone that was resting on the nightstand. His silencer was top-of-the-line. This gun made a barely-audible hiss, and the phone shattered.

“Talk,” she said, “or you’re next.”

“There is a drug. A miracle drug. And my daughter is dying. The drug isn’t through testing, so I can’t get my hands on it. I’ve managed to find a man who can make it, but we can’t get all of the necessary chemicals here. They’re not legal to buy or sell, and are only found on certain worlds, in native plants.”

“And where do I come in?”

“You were the perfect mule. Predictable and free to travel anywhere. I don’t even have your security clearance. I bribed the travel agent to adjust your schedule, and I found a guy who made beautiful little sugar sculptures.”

“So you fed me and these chemicals and now you want to extract them?”

“Yes. There should be traces of them stored in your fat cells. Enough for my scientists to scan them and synthesize more.”

This wasn’t at all what Brittany was expecting. It had nothing to do with her past. She was just a hapless victim.

But then again, she really wasn’t. “No.” She turned to leave.

“Please, I’m begging you. My daughter – she’s just a little girl.”

Brittany remembered being a little girl. Before the surgery, before her work. She’d been scared and in constant pain. It had been terrible.

“I will meet her.”

“What?”

“I’ll meet your daughter, then decide if I will help her. I will not help you.”

“You can’t expect me to let you in the same room as my baby girl.”

“Is she a baby or a girl?” Brittany had no interest in babies.

“She’s seven.”

Only two years younger than Brittany had been when she’d completed her first mission. “I will see her.”

“You stupid fat bitch–”

“It would be very easy for me to kill you,” Brittany said. “It would be very easy for me to just walk out of this room, and all of your plotting and planning would be for nothing. Take me to the girl, or don’t.”

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The girl was in a private hospital, surrounded by a maze of machines, beeping and whirring and hissing. It was a wonder the child could sleep. “Leave us.”

“Why?”

“I want to talk to her. Alone. Then I can decide if I will help.”

His face twisted into a snarl. “The instant you let me out of your sight, I’ll be calling for help. You have to know that.”

“What you do doesn’t concern me. Just get out.”

He went.

The girl’s face was thin and delicate, like a butterfly wing, dull beneath the florescent lights. Brittany reached out and touched her pale cheek.

Her eyes fluttered open. “Are you the angel of death?” she asked.

“I used to be. I’m retired, now. Do you want to die?”

The girl shrugged, nudging thin shoulders up against her thick pillow. “It doesn’t matter what I want. My father wants me to live.”

“I don’t care what your father wants.”

“You should! He has a gun. He always gets what he wants.”

“I took his gun.” Brittany held it out where the girl could see it. “Do you want to die?”

“If I said yes, how would you do it?”

“I would smother you with your pillow. You are weak, it would be quick. And quiet.”

The girl was silent for a long moment. “And then the pain would be gone, right?”

Brittany shrugged. “I don’t know what happens when you die.”

“Thank you for the offer,” the girl said. “But I think I’ll live, if I can.”

“That’s very brave of you.”

“Is it?”

Brittany gave her a card. “If your father’s drug doesn’t help, they might be able to. But if you decide to call them, you must do it on your own. You cannot tell your father.”

“Will they take me away from him?” she asked.

“Yes.”

The girl took the card. “I hate him. I hate how he tries to control everything.”

“Would you like me to kill him?” Brittany asked.

“Could you?”

Brittany nodded.

“How?”

“I’d snap his neck.”

“He is my father. And I do think he loves me. So, I don’t want you to kill him. But thank you, again, for offering.”

“You’re welcome.” Brittany held out the gun. “Do you want this?”

“Yes.” She took it and held it between her skeletal fingers. “Thank you.”

“Good luck,” Brittany said.

“Good luck to you, too, retired angel of death.”

In the hall, the girl’s father paced back and forth, his face twisted with rage and fear. Brittany wondered how quickly his bodyguards would arrive.

“I will help her. What do you need?” Brittany asked.

hedgehog scene break

His tame doctor noticed some of the quirks in Brittany’s physiology, and from the way the woman’s face went white, Brittany guessed that she had at least some clue about what they meant. She trusted that meant that the doctor would be wise enough to not try anything stupid while she was in her care.

She sucked out twenty pounds of fat. Brittany was sad to see it go, but she trusted her body to supply more.

When it was over, she went back to her hotel and called her handler.

“Brittany! I’ve been getting your pictures. You’re getting really good at food photography.”

“I have a report,” Brittany said.

“Do you need cleanup?” he asked, his voice all business.

“No.”

After she told him what had happened, he was silent for a long moment. “Thank you for reporting this. We’ll look into the father’s illegal activities and monitor the girl.”

“Thank you.”

The silence stretched.

“Do you really think they’re good?” Brittany asked.

“What?”

“The pictures. You like them?”

“They’re magnificent.”

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Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 120 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, and her science fiction novella, Moving Forward, are available on Amazon.com. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods, will be available from Hadley Rille Books in July 2016. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

“The Retired Angel of Death” (© Jamie Lackey) was published in Issue 4 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.