It was raining. While the city of Baltimore did receive rain on a regular basis, up to about a third of the days in total, to Booker it only ever really rained before a dramatic confrontation between hero and villain, or in one very specific example, between an FBI agent and a cannibalistic serial killer. Now, as he stood across the street from the brightly-lit interior of the horribly named Baltimore Book Club, fat beads of rainwater clattering down onto the canopy of his black umbrella, a foreboding fluttering of butterflies arose inside his abdomen. Something didn't feel right, and the rain only made it seem even worse. The noises it made almost formed a coherent pattern, and if he closed his eyes, he could place each slightly different sound on to a musical scale.
He blinked, and realised that it was Felix's ringtone buzzing off in his pocket, and he removed the phone that Cress had given them from a trouser pocket, finding the word "Arty" on the screen. Frowning, he swiped to pick it up and held it to his ear. "You ready?"
"Just don't stray too far in," Espalda said. "I'll need a clear line of sight."
"I thought you didn't want to shoot him?"
"If your time travel shit was real, maybe the angel stuff is real too. I'm not taking any chances."
"Good point. I'm going in."
Booker tapped the button to hang up, and slipped the phone back into his trousers. The shop wouldn't be closed for a few more hours, and he was sure as hell going to make the most of that, as terrible an idea it seemed right now. He took a deep breath, and shaking his umbrella alittle to release some of the trapped water, Booker started across the street, his boots splashing in the thin layer of precipitation that had built up on the surface of the road. As he got closer, the layout of the store came into focus, with a counter way off to the left side right up by the window, and the bookshelves in systematic rows along the rest of the shop's width. Another row was present along the back wall, as well as a small section near the front windows that was segregated into the area for a small cafe. The most distinctive feature of the store by far, however, that it shared with many other bookstores in this century, was that it was basically empty.
Booker stepped up to the sliding doors, the sensor above them registering him, turning red for a second, and the doors slid open. A wave of cool air conditioned wind blasted his face, and he stepped inside, wiping his shoes on the mat provided and folding the umbrella closed before shaking excess water into the very same mat.
"Can I help you?" the man with greying hair behind the counter asked, smiling.
He stepped up to the counter eyes flicking across the wall behind the cashier. Two doors, both painted with the same white,presumably one up and one down. "I'm looking for a quite unusual book."
The man raised his eyebrows. "Do you have a title in mind?"
"I don't remember it word for word, but it was by a woman called Frances Parabel?" He smirked.
The smile disappeared in an instant. "Didn't take you for the straightforward type, Mr. Warrington."
Booker grit his teeth. "If you know who I am, then you know what i'm willing to do."
"For the text?" the cashier asked. "Or for the girl?"
He swallowed. "I have what you want." Booker reached into his jacket and produced the blood vial, labeled with Emilie's name. "You give me the textbook, and this is all yours. No strings attached."
The cashier peered at it. "And how would we know that's not a fake sample?"
"I've heard about Puriel. I don't doubt that he could identify it." He shook the vial. "If he sees it he'll know. It won't be long till the proteins denature, so...speed might be of the essence."
The cashier drew a key on a lanyard from under the counter, and turned to one of the doors. "He's down stairs."
Booker took the opportunity to edge towards the window, so he could just see the glint in the scope of his sniper rifle. He gave a quick thumbs up, and skipped sideways, a good distance from the windows. Espalda would probably shout at him later, but sometimes sacrifices had to be made. Not that it was like that was the whole plan anyway, just a contingency in case things went wrong, and it was hardly a requirement for the detective to know that part.
The door was open, and and stepped through it, descending the stairs that broke right, and then right again, opening into the dimly lit basement.
On a large, circular wooden table in the centre of the basement, below the single bulb of light that drooped from the ceiling, were piles upon piles of papers, some containing texts, others containing diagram of hands, arms and finger movements. A few had sigils too, covering what someone would have to carve into their flesh in order to perform bloodmancy. At the opposite curvature of the table from the stairs was the textbook, Parabel's name glistening in dull silver at the bottom of its cover.
Booker stalked around the table, eyes turning to the floor before each step and back up after, in the event of a trap. Each footfall was weighed carefully, each swing of his arms, light and nimble to catch anything, but alas, there was nothing. There were no tripwires, no pressure-activated panels, no emitters for light sensors, and definitely no nerve gases in the air. He reached the book with no problem, and just as his hand was about to make contact, it shot out from under him, dragging itself across the paper with such intensity that the loose leaves around it went flying, momentarily obscuring Booker's view of the basement room.
When the maelstrom of paper died down, he was left staring at the cashier on the other side of the table, the tome in his hands and some manner of amber-coloured lights flickering softly across his fingers.
Booker put his hands on his hips. "How many times did you practise that?"
"Give me the blood sample, Mr. Warrington."
Booker grinned. "Or what? You're going to spread the texts online? I'd be surprised if you haven't already. I really would be."
The man furrowed his brow. "The book is irrelevant. We both know it isn't why you're here."
Booker crossed his arms. "It's Puriel, correct?"
"I expected you to figure it sooner."
"Yes, and it made me wonder what you would do." He tapped under his left eye. "So let's cut the shit." Booker pointed at the photocopied documents in the desk. "This is a lot of pages. I don't even see repeats, so this must be a ton of material. So much, that I'd say it's from ore than one book." He clasped his hands behind his back. "This week isn't the first time you've broken into Emilie's storage unit. You've been doing it for a while and also replaced the volumes every single time. Maybe even paid off the camera guy. So the real question is, how did they catch you this time?"
Puriel indicated him. "Please, continue. I know you know why."
"This time, you let them catch you," Booker breathed. "You knew Emilie would start investigating, and that she'd run into me and tell me. Because I'm the one you want, and you knew I was going to be here." He started around the table. "What are you, anyway? Everything points to a Thoughtform, but you're not one of them. I'd know."
Puriel nodded. "I am two things, one of which they created." He began circling in the same direction, keeping them on opposite sides of the table. "Have you by any chance encountered my infernal siblings?"
"More like fifth cousins thrice removed," Booker said. "And they told me the Silver City was gone. Destroyed by your own hand."
"How did you survive?"
"A fluke," Puriel said. "The machine was never going to work. Michael convinced us all otherwise, and we paid dearly for it."
He held up a finger. "Actually, I haven't gotten that far yet."
Puriel paused in his tracks. "Wait, really?"
Booker shrugged. "I've no idea how or why Heaven is gone, and I definitely didn't know what your people were like, so...a little bit of exposition, please?"
Puriel made a face. "How have you not found the clues I've left for you? Did you never go back to that storage unit just in case there was something else there?"
"I was busy!" Booker protested. "There's a guy wearing a basket on his head who wants to torture the location of a musical device out of me and some other dude in red armour trying to kill and old friend of mine. I didn't have time. Also your plan sucks balls. I straight up got the detective to trace you through the number you used to call the morgue. Like, I'm actually expecting you to say you made it rain too because this sounds like the kind of showdown you're gunning for."
Puriel leered at him. "Fuck you."
"Yeah, I bet you'd like to. Look, just give me the book. Clearly you and your acolytes are too incompetent to cause any trouble so I'll just leave you be. Nobody else has to get hurt." He held a hand out.
"No," he spat, tossing the text aside into the corner of the room. "I'll have the blood now, please."
Booker tossed his umbrella aside held the vial up to the light. "If you still want that, you'll have to make an effort. Come and get it, bitch."
Puriel proved to be much more spry than someone currently going through their rather late midlife crisis, springing onto the table with the grace of a gymnast. The air around him shimmered, and before Booker could throw a sarcastic compliment, a pair of amber-coloured constructs unfurled in the shape of wings behind him. Slowly, bit by bit, a fire blazed over Puriel, until he was encased in a shiny suit of medieval-style armour, complete with flaming sword in one hand.
He barely had time to duck when the sword came towards him, slicing past his face and straight into the back wall of the basement. Booker pushed himself out of the way, hands fumbling for the vial slipping out of his fingers.
The sword eased itself out of the wall, and Puriel stepped around the table, slowly advancing towards him. "Give it to me," he demanded in a deep, booming voice through the helmet.
Booker rolled the vial onto the floor beside him, and poised his elbow above it. "Come on then! One more step and I break it!"
"Then I'll fly up to that ship and get more myself." He raised the blade.
"Worth a try!" he squeaked, nudging the vial away from himself and rolling under the table. From where he was, he could clearly see the weapon cleave the ground, sending sparks flying, and leaving behind scorch marks reminiscent of hundreds upon hundreds of degrees centigrade of thermal power.
Which meant the table would provide absolutely no resistance against it and it was an awful idea to roll under it in the first place.
He kicked the pedestal in the middle of the table, launching himself just out from under it and avoiding the slash that burned through the wood. Booker scrambled to his feet, and ran for the stairs, skipping three steps at a time and making it out of the basement and into the empty bookstore...and straight into the barrel of Espalda's pistol.
Espalda instinctively flung him aside. "Fuck!"
Booker landed hard on one shoulder, but he was already reaching for his mobile phone. "That gun isn't gonna do shit! We have to go!"
Espalda held the pistol at the door, as an amber light filtered up the steps in the stairwell. "What the hell is it?"
"Archangel!" He tapped the last letters of the word "Extraction" into the phone, and pushed himself to his feet. "Come on!"
Espalda stared at the doorway, and in that moment, the tip of the flaming sword swung into view at the very end. He lowered his gun, and ran after Booker out into the rain. Even over the raindrops, there was the sound of rotors approaching, the transport they'd used circling in to let them board.
Booker glanced back at the entrance of the store, and Puriel stood there, his angelic weapons gone, staring at him from across the street. He had what he wanted, and in broad daylight, the Stateship would come raining down on him.
Espalda raised his run, pointing it straight at the man, his grip trembling.
Booker pushed the barrel down. "I need him alive," he said quietly. "Whatever he's trying, it's not complete. I can't stop him until I know what it is."
"The hell is he!?" Espalda hissed through his teeth.
"Nothing good. He can't hurt us. Not yet, anyway." He climbed into the side of the rotor aircraft.
The detective slid the gun back into hiship holster, took one last look at Puriel, and climbed into the ship.
He was afraid, Booker knew. Everyone was afraid of what they didn't know, and that was human nature. But the worst part, the part he didn't want to think about was that he himself, too, was afraid. For the first time in a long time, he had no idea what to expect. There are no angels, the Infernals had told him. Not anymore.
Someone was going to have to answer for that mistake, whether they liked it or not.