Story by Tim McKeever
Illustration by John Waltrip
I didn’t like the meeting place. The abandoned church hugged the corner like a needy starlet past her prime: weathered façade, broken features and rotten from the inside out. I’d circled the building discretely, eyeing different avenues of approach and retreat. In light of recent events, you could hardly blame my paranoia. The angels had started their war again, ignoring the cease-fire. Hard-working guys like me wound up in the crosshairs. I checked the .38 under my trench coat, cursed a nameless God and walked inside.
My eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom. The nave ran north-south, propped up by grand columns that supported their crumbling burden out of some misguided sense of duty. The paint that had flaked off years ago seemed to dance about in the pale, anemic light that crept through holes in the roof. Heavy white tarps, now turned yellow, covered the majority of the pews. I scanned the rows of empty seats until I saw someone up front. He’d pulled the tarp aside and sat with his head bowed in prayer.
My footsteps echoed dully as I walked the length of the aisle, the muffled sound as hollow and empty as my soul. My eyes darted everywhere, anxious for an ambush. I didn’t think the angels would defile one of their own sanctuaries — even a destitute place like this — but lately, they gave no quarter. They attacked those flying white flags, disregarded civilian casualties and tortured to get information on further targets. War crimes, all of them, but what did it matter? They marched under a holy banner. I’ve found that good and evil have more to do with affiliation than actual deeds.
I stopped at the head of the nave and looked down at my friend. It had been a long time since I’d last seen him. The old masters never quite captured his countenance. They always went for beauty, spinning fanciful images of a winged being that gazed benevolently at the world. The man before me looked nothing like that. He was a soldier: broad shoulders, square chin, sharp eyes, and a broken nose. His tangled wings bore more scars than feathers and a large red stain colored the golden sword at his hip.
He finished his worship and looked up at me. “Belial, I didn’t know if you’d come.”
I fished out a pack of cigarettes and shook loose a butt. I lit it with a thought, the end smoldering in an angry red glow. The smoke poured into my lungs and heated me, reminding me of the warm fires of my home. I blew it out in a circle that hovered over my head like a sooty halo, dispersing quickly in the closed air.
“It’s been a long time, Michael.”
He frowned at the cigarette. “New habit?”
“Let’s just say that I get cold easily.”
His hard features looked at my own rough face, seeing both more and less than what he’d remembered. “I’m sorry things worked out the way they did, Belial. You were never my enemy.”
“And you were never mine. I’m sorry about the nose.”
He shrugged. “I deserved it.”
We were silent for a moment, remembering old times and shared memories. I shook the mood and drew myself back to the present. “What’s this all about? Why drag me out here?”
“I’d like to hire your services.”
I laughed softly, a purring sound from the back of my throat. “You what?”
“You heard me. I’m not happy about it, so don’t make me say it again.”
He looked tense. I’d have to pull at that thread and see what I could unravel. All in due time. “You know my terms.”
“My soul belongs to another, Belial. It’s not mine to give.”
“That was your choice, pal. Some of us didn’t submit.”
“And how’s that working out for you?”
I flicked some ash to the floor. “Life is full of little disappointments.” I studied him for a moment. “Fortunately, I don’t need your soul. The boss isn’t picky. Any soul will do. Pluck one out of purgatory for all I care. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”
“It’s a filthy business you run,” Michael said with some disdain.
“Would you deny a starving man food? Or a thirsty man water?”
“It’s not the same.”
“And you would know that how, exactly?” I fixed him with a steely gaze. “You, the mighty archangel and the right hand of God. You understand what it means to be cast from heaven and forced to earn a living? I’d like to see you and your choir deal with the realities of survival in a faithless world.”
He put his hands up defensively, a gesture that came awkwardly to him. “It’s not that I’m unsympathetic, but I wouldn’t lower myself to such base practices. There are other ways to receive heaven’s blessing. You don’t need to steal it from unsuspecting mortals.”
“And what do you suggest, exactly? That I find a priest and confess my sins?”
“It would be a start.”
I snorted. “And what should I confess? ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I lost the war against heaven.’ I’d probably make the newsletter for that one. My only sin is that I fought for the losing side. If She had as much forgiveness as the marketing brochures claim, this could have ended a lot more amicably. Do you think I like slinking around in the shadows, whispering promises to halfwit mortals? You knew me. Before. Were we really that different?” The smoke from my cigarette hung in the air between us, a clouded mirror that reflected opposite sides of a celestial coin. I wondered if the world would ever see the coin, or just continue to wager over-heads and tails.
Michael held my eyes for a long time. “No,” he finally said with a sigh. “No, we weren’t. And maybe that scares me. I wish it could be different between us.”
“Really? Why don’t you stop slaughtering us, then?”
His jaw tightened. “I’m a soldier. I have my orders.”
“It’s a filthy business you run,” I said around my cigarette.
“You’ve made your point, Belial. Don’t think that I like the impositions put upon me any more than you like those put upon you.”
That’s the closest thing to an apology that you could expect from Michael. I wanted to hate him sometimes, but I didn’t. We disagreed, but family always does. “Fine,” I said. “Let me hear your case. We can talk about payment later. Why do you need a PI?”
“I need you to find someone for me. A girl.”
“Who’s the girl?”
Michael shuffled uncomfortably in the pew. “You won’t like it,” he said.
He knew me, alright. I didn’t like it. I’d bought Kerry’s soul last week, after nearly three months of legwork. I’d done everything by the books. Abaddon had been my witness, Kerry signed in blood, black candles, pentagram… the works. It was the last time I saw Abaddon. I still couldn’t believe it. One day a legend walks the earth, and the next he’s snuffed out by an angel’s deceit. “She’s mine,” I growled, angry at everything.
“I said you wouldn’t like it. She’s not yours anymore.”
I narrowed my eyes, “Says who? I’ve already paid. She wanted her stepfather to leave, so I had Lilith find him a new dame. Out he skipped. I’d collect his soul, too, but I left that as payment for Lilith. It’s a done deal.”
“There’s always one way out of your contracts. She repented. Genuine repentance, Belial. You’ve been played.”
I clamped down angrily on my cigarette, “Kerry never had the conviction for repentance. She barely has the conviction to keep living. To hell with that loophole.” I eyed up Michael, “What do you care, anyway?”
He leaned back in the pew, resignation heavy in his voice. “I’ve been assigned as her guardian angel. Word from on high is that she’s still a flight risk. Anyone that flips once can flip again.”
“Sure, maybe. But why tell me? Why don’t you go find her yourself?”
Michael reached into his leather jacket and produced a document. He handed it to me. I scanned it with the practiced ease of a partner in the devil’s own firm. Everything checked out. “A restraining order?”
Michael nodded, a little sheepishly. “I haven’t served as a guardian angel in centuries. The last time was Joan, and that was before everybody carried a damned camera in their pocket. Joan, I liked. Strong soldier, followed orders… it worked. Kerry’s a different kind of crazy, and we didn’t exactly hit it off.”
I nodded. “Kerry wouldn’t like some creep tailing her. So she went to the police. When was this?”
“Three days ago.”
“Three days. OK. So what happened? She ditch you?”
“Eventually, but not before she got herself into some trouble. She hangs out with a rough crowd. You know that, right?”
“Teenage girls sometimes do. She calls that rough crowd her friends.”
“People choose strange friends.”
I blew a bit of smoke into the air and looked at a boarded up window, the stained glass half knocked out. All that remained was a broken angel, shattered and worn by advancing years. “Some people do,” I said.
“In this case, her friends hurt her.”
“Oh?” I looked back at Michael, curious. Even if Kerry switched teams, I didn’t want her hurt. She had a sweet side, behind all the angst and self-loathing. People usually do. She might have turned out OK if she hadn’t met me. I didn’t like ruining lives, but then angst and self-loathing aren’t uniquely human feelings. “Why?”
“I don’t know why. I had to stay at least 100 yards away,” he indicated the paper in my hand. “I can tell you what I saw. She and her friends sat behind the bleachers after an evening football game, smoking. I suppose you got her started on that?”
“You’re her mother, now? She made her own choice. What happened?”
“Some sort of an argument started. She shouted at a dark haired guy. Big for his age.”
“Rory. He likes to be called Raven.”
“Cute,” Michael said, meaning the opposite.
“Says the man with the wings.”
Michael grew weary of my wit. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Yeah, yeah. Go on. So she argues with Raven.”
“That’s right, and he pulls a knife on her. Cuts her across the face. She screams and everyone runs.”
“What about Kerry?”
“She ran too. The cut didn’t look deep, but I couldn’t be sure from that distance.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? The restraining order…”
I shook my head in disgust. “OK, fine. Did you chase down any of the kids?”
“I tried,” he said sullenly. “But I don’t do well in modern cities. They lost me before I even knew what happened.”
“They all got away?”
“They all got away.”
I looked again at the restraining order. “This was issued three days ago. When did all of this happen?”
“Last night. I looked for her clear through the morning. Even snuck into her mom’s house. When I came up empty, I called you. You know her. You’d know where she might go to hide. I want you to find her and get her to a hospital.”
“There’s only one hospital in town.”
“Easy enough. Drop her off at the ER and we’ll call the job done.”
“There’s still the issue of payment.”
“I can’t give you a soul, Belial, but if you find her and get her to safety, I’ll let you talk to her. If you’re as good as everyone says, you’ve got a fair chance to win her back. That doesn’t make me much of a guardian angel, but I suppose I’ve already failed on that score. One more indiscretion won’t change much. And frankly, if you win her back I don’t have to keep up with this fool’s errand. Protecting people isn’t what I’m good at. Will you take the case?”
I pulled on my cigarette before answering. The smoke circled about me like storm clouds on the horizon. I kept my voice neutral. “No, of course not.”
“No? What do you mean, no?”
“I mean no.”
“Look,” Michael began, “If this is about your payment, I told you I can’t…”
“It’s not about the payment,” I interrupted.
“Do you know who I work for?”
“Of course I know who you work for,” Michael said. “All of heaven knows who you work for.”
“You know the name, but you don’t heed the warning. The boss goes by many titles. I think the most suiting is the Father of Lies.”
“I know a con when I see it,” I said coldly.
Michael shifted his weight. A small thing, but telling. “I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand? Human nature? That much is clear. I’ve been working on Kerry’s soul since August. She finally made up her mind last week. I made good on my end. She’s happy. She has no regrets. Her stepfather is gone, which means her mother isn’t getting beaten. Unlike your lot, I don’t see suffering as a virtue. I try to do some good where I can.”
“What’s this have to do with anything?”
“Kerry never flipped,” I said. “She couldn’t have. Genuine repentance isn’t a fleeting thought. It’s a deep conviction. Inmates can sit in prison their entire lives and never see the error of their ways. We’re all heroes in our own mind. It’s easy to cast blame: we were victims, we had no choice, we picked the wrong side or we just followed orders. Sound familiar? Responsibility is a heavy burden. Few of us have the strength for it.”
“You underestimate the girl.”
“Do I? Then let’s talk about you. There’s no way that you’d be chosen as a guardian angel. Not after what happened to Joan. You said yourself that protecting people isn’t what you’re good at. You’re a killer: people, demons, angels. You carry a sword, not a halo. Raven didn’t attack Kerry. You did.”
Michael shook his head. “I told you. I couldn’t get within 100 yards of her.”
“Ah, yes. The restraining order. Just how many maladjusted teenagers do you know that run to the cops with their problems? If you don’t have an answer, I do. The same number of police organizations and judicial bureaucracies that can get a restraining order issued in a day. Besides, when has an archangel ever paid heed to a mortal authority? You have a higher calling. This is a good forgery, but it’s a forgery.” I threw the paper at him and willed it to catch fire. It burned up in seconds and fell to the floor in a pile of ash.
“You took your sword to Kerry last night after the game. Raven may have had a knife, but he used it to protect her. Or tried. Teenagers take their problems to their friends, Michael, not the police.”
“You’re just guessing.”
“Am I? There’s still a stain on your sword. That’s not demon ichor. It’s red. It’s blood.”
Michael gave me his best frown. “Why would I do that?”
“Bait. This case isn’t about her; it’s about me. Your choir ambushed Abaddon two days after he helped me with Kerry’s contract. I know your tactics. You torture information from your victims before you allow them to die. Abaddon gave up Kerry and then me. You saw an opportunity. Wound the girl, scare her into hiding and then get me to find her. I take her to the only hospital in town. Which saint is this one named after? Mary, maybe? I bet the place is crawling with more angels than the Vatican gift shop.”
I looked down at Michael, a battered old eagle sitting in the ruins of his ancient aerie. “I won’t take your case. The girl will be with her aunt, but you already know that. The aunt’s the only good Catholic in the family.” I dropped my cigarette to the floor and ground it with my heel.
“For what it’s worth,” Michael said. “I told them it wouldn’t work. I told them you were good.”
I lowered my fedora and walked away, my footfalls a haunting presence that kept two friends apart. The case rankled me. I knew I had it right, but certain pieces fit awkwardly. It felt like I’d completed the puzzle, but the box showed a different picture. As a reached for the door, I stopped and looked back at Michael. He’d lowered his head and returned to prayer, probably reporting back.
“A soldier cleans his weapon,” I said loud enough to carry. “You made sure that I saw through your ruse.” I thought back to happier days, before the revolt and the war that pitted brother against brother. Michael and I had been inseparable. We’d chosen different sides, but family is family. Neither of us, even now, would wish the other dead. It was a comforting thought in a world with precious few. “Thanks, Mike,” I finally said.
“Take care of yourself, Bill.”
I walked out into the afternoon light, squinting uncomfortably under its holy glare.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Lazarus Riddle. By J.A. Prentice, Art by Tim Soekkah
Riddle me this…How does a self-proclaim messiah get shot point-blank in the chest in front of multiple witnesses, be pronounced dead by the medical examiner, and laid in-state, suddenly get over his death? Is Cavan Bishop really the Messiah resurrected? The woman who shot him swears she shot him “proper”, yet he’s appeared in flesh and blood once again. It was up to PC Tara Connor and the mysterious consultant Victoria Burton to crack the seemingly impossible case. Whatever you think the answer is, you won’t be right.