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Judas Dilemma Excerpt

Chapter 1

Judas never expected he’d escape Hell.
Louisville autumn air hung damp and heavy over this run-down neighborhood. A chain-link fence surrounded the broken concrete and twisted metal of a razed building. Across the street, a three-story former school served as a homeless shelter.
Not the place one imagined finding a valuable antique coin.
Mitatron, the king of angels, gave him a fortnight to stop Kushiel, an angel of punishment, from getting the coin, and to look after Victoria Gregory, who had it in her possession. The archangel warned Kushiel would murder her if she refused to give it up.
Strange Mitatron requested he protect Victoria. Unless the rumors proved true, and it was the coin.
Below him, Kushiel leaned against a lamppost, mouth set in a tight line, attention focused on a small two-story red brick building. A thrift shop, according to the faded gilded letters on the front window.
Not like he relished a confrontation with Kushiel. Last time, it’d ended with him cursed and sentenced to eternity in Hell.
Judas had hoped the stater would remain hidden, lost in the Hinnom Valley near Jerusalem. Then again, who better to protect the coin than the one who’d received it as part of a deadly bribe?
Thirty coins drenched in his blood, one for each year of his life.
After ages of silence, the stater called to him, its reverberation a faint quiver, like a theremin. This close, his nerves tingled with electrical sparks, and adrenaline spiked through him.
Awakened from its slumber, the dragon inside him stirred, lured by the coin’s pull. Judas forced it back, lest Kushiel sense his presence. That would put both him and Victoria in jeopardy.
Did Victoria realize the danger awaiting her?
Judas leaned against the chimney on the slate roof of the abandoned Italianate house. Kushiel must be frustrated he could do nothing while Victoria’s co-worker
remained inside. The archangel wouldn’t kill with a witness present, not unless driven by desperation.
If Kushiel learned of his presence, the archangel would probably explode in an apoplectic fit and pile of black feathers.
He’d hoped to warn Victoria about Kushiel but arrived too late. Would she believe him? She worked in a neighborhood where homeless people, some mentally ill, wandered the streets, lost in their private worlds. Others tried to hustle a few dollars or bum smokes.
No one approached Kushiel.
If he rescued Victoria, what kind of reaction would it get? Most modern-day Christians despised him. Dante had immortalized him in The Inferno, delegating him to Hell’s lowest circle and the worst punishment imaginable.
Like Dante had any clue. Maybe living proved the best revenge, if not living well.
Metal scraped against concrete as the thrift store door opened.
Kushiel teleported atop the streetlamp.
Two women stepped outside. Judas sensed the coin on the one with long black hair. Judas glanced at Kushiel. The angel also focused his attention on her.
A cab pulled up. Judas prayed both women would get in. No luck. Only one climbed into the back passenger seat.
Not the one he wanted.
He drew a deep breath and readied himself for the inevitable encounter. His beast stirred again, eager to shed blood. He silently ordered it to calm down.
Human versus angel. If a gambler, odds would be on Kushiel.
He placed bets on Victoria.

Chapter 2

“Some guy’s watching us.” Helen stood at the thrift shop’s front window, grimy threadbare curtain pushed aside.
“Can you tell who?” Victoria asked.
“No. He’s keeping his face hidden.”
“Maybe he’s waiting for someone.”
“Maybe.” Helen sounded doubtful.
“We can’t call the police. He’s not doing anything illegal.”
“Except we don’t have a ‘no loitering’ sign. And if nobody loitered in this neighborhood, something would be wrong.”
“True.” Helen let the curtain fall back. “He’s gone. Weird.”
Victoria retrieved her denim jacket from a coat tree in the corner. “If you want to leave, I’ll lock up.”
“Will you be okay?”
“Sure. Want me to call you a taxi?”
Helen gave a relieved sigh and smiled. “Thanks. I hate these late shifts.”
After the dispatcher gave Victoria an estimated pickup time, she punched No Sale on the cash register. The drawer popped open, that day’s meager receipts and take in the tray. Satisfied both matched, Victoria printed out a final receipt, paper clipped it to the others and stowed the wad under the cash drawer. The store’s accountant would find the printouts in the morning.
Accounts reconciled, Victoria placed the cash and checks in a bank deposit envelope. She recorded the daily amount received in a battered ledger and signed off on the transaction.
She folded the envelope and stuffed it into the inner pocket of her jacket. Hopefully, their mysterious man would only ask for their purses, if he intended to rob them, and not discover the deposit.
Headlights reflected off the grimy windowpane.
“Cab’s here,” Helen said. She opened the door and waved to the taxi driver. “Come with me. It’s not safe for you to walk to the bus stop tonight, especially with a stranger lurking.”
Victoria stepped outside. “I’ll be fine. Besides, the bank’s two blocks away.” She looked around. “And I don’t see him. Do you?”
Before Helen could protest, Victoria shooed her into the cab. “See you tomorrow.” She closed the door and waved the driver off. The taxi pulled away.
Alone, she scanned the street a second time. Nothing.
Streetlamps came on.
Like the lights, Victoria’s senses switched to high alert. Complacency around here could get one killed. Drug dealers haunted the area and preyed on the mentally ill homeless men and women who lived in the shelter a block away. Police had stepped up patrols in the area until recent budget cuts curtailed routine surveillance.
Easy to let one’s imagination create scenarios worthy of those crime-centric TV shows.
The sooner she deposited the money, the better.
She returned inside and checked the back service door. Dead bolt secured, she set the alarm and stepped outside the front entrance. The metal door took two locks, a dead bolt, and a knob lock.
Apprehension filled Victoria as she walked down the deserted street. Where had he gone? Once a thriving industrial area, this neighborhood reflected the ravages of economic decline. Brick warehouses stood abandoned, broken windows blocked by iron bars or covered with graffiti-sprayed plywood, metal doors secured with rusty locks and chains.
Victoria shuddered. Maybe she should’ve gone with Helen. She’d walked this neighborhood several times before and nothing had happened. Why this sudden unease?
Strange. The area seemed too quiet. No cars or people. Victoria checked her watch. The shelter locked its doors in an hour. While most denizens would be inside, a few would bum a last-minute cigarette, or sneak a drink from a bottle concealed in a brown paper bag.
She turned the corner and started, chest tightening.
He stood under a streetlamp a few yards away. Long black hair fell over a tan trench coat opened to reveal an expensive-looking gray Italian suit.
Definitely not someone who lived in the neighborhood. Even an undercover vice or narcotics detective would know better than to stand out.
Hair rose on Victoria’s arms and icy fingers caressed her nape. Even from a distance, he exuded a negative vibe.
She closed her index finger and thumb over the silver coin hanging on a black cord around her neck, a recent gift mailed in a package with no return address. An unsigned typewritten note wished Victoria 21st birthday greetings.
Despite shaky legs, she forced herself to continue. No reason to be afraid. Keep walking. Act natural. Exude confidence.
A few steps and he appeared before her, his movements too fast for a normal human.
Victoria staggered back. She tried to yell for help. Cotton filled her mouth, and she could only emit a choked cry.
He held out his hand. “The coin.” His voice rumbled deep and cavernous, an authoritative tone.
“What?” Did he mean the silver coin? How did he know about it?
“It doesn’t belong to you. Hand it over.”
Heat prickled Victoria’s skin. Grandmother would’ve called it righteous indignation. “No. It’s mine, not yours.” Common sense advised she give him the coin. She’d no idea where it came from or why someone sent it to her. Now, she refused to play the victim. Why did he want it? It didn’t look valuable, probably a cheap mass-produced copy sold to unsuspecting tourists.
She debated running. No, he’d already shown an uncanny ability to move faster than her eyes could perceive.
If only a police cruiser would drive by.
“I see.” Glacial blue eyes showed no emotion. He unfurled massive black wings spanning at least twice his height. A long fiery whip appeared in his right hand.
The lash whistled through the air. Flames crackled along the leather. The tip snapped inches from where Victoria stood. She screamed and jumped back, arms raised in a protective gesture. The end pile-drove into the sidewalk like a jackhammer. Concrete shattered, and dust spattered her jeans.
She cringed. If his whip hit her... Heart pounding hard enough she feared it’d burst, she struggled to understand this strange attack. Angels were supposed to protect people, comfort them.
The angel–demon?–pulled his arm back. The leather cord sliced the air. Snap! The whip wrapped itself around an electrical pole and gouged a deep notch in the wood. He yanked the lash, and the pole groaned in protest as it crashed to the street, pulling wires in its wake.
Greenish smoke rose from the creosote, accompanied by the odor of burning tar. Wires popped and sizzled.
She had to escape, call 911. The phone lay at the bottom of her purse. Hopefully, someone from the shelter would notice the flames and call the fire department.
Would see the angel—however strange it appeared—chasing her and call the police.
She ran along the length of a hulking warehouse. Adrenaline spiked through Victoria as she scanned the brick façade for an entrance. The massive rusted iron doors remained secured with heavy-duty chains and padlocks. Plywood boards covered the first-story windows, and the other windows would take an ability to fly or leap a high distance. One look at the rusty drainage pipes discouraged any hope of a roof escape. A metal fire escape ladder taunted her, its bottom rung several feet above and out of reach.
Doubtful she could escape this angel, especially since he seemed intent on harming, even killing, her.
He coiled the whip, handle in one hand, leather cord in the other, oblivious to the flames. He said nothing as he advanced, polished black boots crunching gravel.
Victoria stepped back, shoe pressing against something round and smooth. She glanced down. A brown beer bottle rolled back and forth in a lazy half-circle.
She snatched the bottle and smashed the cylinder against the sidewalk, careful not to cut her hands or let the strange angel out of her sight. Jagged shards sprayed the grass and gravel.
Victoria aimed the improvised shiv at him.
“Back off,” she said, voice shaking. “Leave me alone.”
He curled his lip. She sensed a being confident in his ability, someone who never expected to lose.
As if a human could defeat an angel.
He uncoiled the whip and stretched the cord to its full length.
Crack! The rusty warehouse door chain broke in half.
She cried out as the tip stung her wrist, and the cord wrapped around her weapon. The angel yanked the whip. The bottle tore from her grasp and smashed against a brick wall.
“Help! Please, help me!” Victoria ran, not caring if a mugger or the Devil himself appeared. She ducked between two buildings, unsure what lay ahead, but positive what followed.
The angel appeared before her. His wings flapped back and forth, slowly, methodically. The predatory look in his eyes warned her he’d tired of this game.
Nowhere to run. The angel before her, and a chain-link fence behind her, blocked her escape. Even if she ran back to the street, no one could help her. He’d destroy them.
She clutched the coin, the glass locket warm from her body heat. “Someone, help. Please!” This angel would kill her, and they’d find her mangled body in the weeds. They’d never find her murderer.
“Why?” She prayed to see some conscience in his stony expression.
Instead, he narrowed his eyes at something behind her.
Curious, Victoria looked over her shoulder.
A man stood on the other side of the chain-link fence. Funny, she hadn’t heard him approach.
“You managed to escape.” The angel glared at the stranger, momentarily forgetting about her. “I see. This complicates matters.”
He vanished, but not before giving Victoria a warning look that pierced her soul. She’d the unnerving feeling he’d return.
“Thought he’d be up for a fight.”
Avenging angel forgotten, she turned to the newcomer. He pole-vaulted over the fence’s top metal bar, avoiding the curled barbed wire, and landed before her.
“Thank you.” Hand on her chest, she drew deep breaths, relieved she’d survived. How this rescuer had found them, she’d no idea. Even stranger, why did the angel appear agitated at his presence?
He crossed his arms and leaned against the fence. A black dragon tattoo, partially hidden by his blue T-shirt sleeve, wound around his left arm to his wrist.
“For what?”
She stared, confused. “For rescuing me.” Why else? A sudden horrid realization seized her. What if this newcomer hadn’t intended to help her? What if he saw her as an opportune target as well?
“I see.” He looked around. “Should you be walking in a neighborhood like this at night?”
“It’s a free country.” Maybe the cry for help and his appearance proved coincidence. “Are angels supposed to chase people while wielding burning whips?”
“Not normally, no.”
She started walking away. “What I thought.”
“Why did you call me?”
Victoria stopped, palms damp. “Call you?”
“Yes.” He stared at her throat. “Your necklace…”
She covered the coin with her hand. “Who are you? Why did the angel react like that?”
He gave a small bow. “Judas. Judas Iscariot."