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In the Service of God
HE STEPPED off the trolley not at
“Forgive me, Lord,” he murmured, “but your bus routes are a little out of date.”
He felt an amused warmth gather in his solar plexus and knew he had been heard. He took in a big lungful of cold air and strode without hurrying under the enclosure where the soda and candy dispensers were, and looked for his bus. The drizzle had thickened to light rain.
“Yo, homes, wassup?”
He turned to look. A young gangbanger in an oversized navy down coat approached in the goofy manner that gangbangers walk. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen. His brown hair was short and spiked, his cheeks freckled and pale. A long gold earring hung from his left ear.
He knew in that instant that this was a mugging, that the kid had come up behind him so that he’d turn around, leaving himself exposed for his friends to attack from behind.
He looked the kid in his eyes and smiled.
The kid stopped short and backed up. “Whoa, what the fuck—?”
When he was a mortal, scenarios like this used to scare the crap out of him. He’d go as far as standing in pouring rain just so he could be next to other people, or even pulling his cell phone out and dialing 9-1-1 and yelling for help, as he did on at least three occasions. Trolley stops in San Diego were very far from safe, especially at night; and he wondered what would happen if, coming back as an angel, he was confronted with just such a situation.
The boy wheeled about and sprinted madly out of sight.
He turned to face the three looming quietly up behind him. One, with a wild afro, glared at him with a mix of confusion and anger. A short bit of pipe was in his fist.
Making it to the other side of death has distinct advantages. One of the biggest is that fear loses much of its grip, at least in situations like these. Calliel taught him that his strength was now a hundredfold what it was when he was a mortal. Much of it came as a result of the loss of mortal fear. If fear had a place in an angel’s life, Calliel told him, it belonged as a spur always to do the right thing, even if the right thing wasn’t known at the time.
And so he didn’t feel fear’s grip as he had as a mortal. What replaced it was the direct knowledge of death, which he had experienced and which felt now like unshakeable confidence. It didn’t feel foreign, as he expected it to; in fact it felt more like him than he had ever felt during his life.
He smiled. “You gentleman look like you need money. Tell you what. Hand me your weapons and I’ll give you some. Deal?”
He gazed at them one by one. It was clear they wanted to run away; and indeed, the leftmost kid did. Without a word the kid backed hastily up and tore out of sight along the sightless trolley tracks. The others, wide-eyed, looked indecisive but frozen.
“Your weapons, gentlemen.”
The thug who had been in the middle, a clean-faced black boy with short-cropped hair, lifted a snub pistol out of his pocket. Instead of handing it to him, he set it on the ground and kicked it over. The afro-wearing kid dropped his pipe with a loud clang, then he too kicked it over.
He bent and picked them up, one by one, and studied them. He felt anger, but he also felt something that Calliel told him would come to him in place of the old fear, and which had been virtually unknown when he was mortal: compassion.
He put the pistol in his left suit pocket and the pipe in his right, straightened himself fully and unbuttoned the bottom button of his blazer. They watched his every move with horrified fascination.
“All right. Let’s talk money. How much can I do you for?”
He reached for his wallet. The thugs jumped.
He noted their fear and brought the wallet out slowly, but did not open it.
He gazed into the afro kid’s eyes.
Crossing the unknowable barrier of death has other advantages. One is the ability to see clearly the essence of mortal beings. And so, seeing the kid’s essence, he said:
“Your mother is in prison and your father is a drunk who shows up twice a week and then takes off again. Your older sister, Charla, is a good soul. She works as a nurse’s assistant, but it isn’t enough. She loves you but knows she’s going to bury you if you, as she puts it, ‘don’t get your shit together.’ She wants you to graduate from the GED program and get a good job, maybe even try for college. She knows you’re out right now making trouble. She’s short two hundred dollars on rent, now a week overdue, and is afraid she’s going to be evicted, which means, of course, that you will be too.”
An angel’s faith is stronger than matter, Calliel told him. An angel’s faith is the master of matter. In the service of God, it is invincible.
He therefore had no doubts that whatever was in his wallet would be enough to take care of whoever needed it, including himself.
The other kid looked like he was going to be sick.
He smiled at him.
The boy took a shaky step back.
“I want you to understand something,” he said. He shifted his wallet to his left hand and extended his right. “Please.”
The kid stared at his hand like it was covered in the plague. He reached for it only after a good ten seconds had passed. His eyes widened with mortal terror when the grip tightened, and then closed.
The trick was to concentrate. He recalled Calliel wiping out an entire gang. That’s what he wanted the kid to see.
He released the boy’s hand. The kid, gasping, opened his eyes and glanced at his compatriot, who seemed too terrified to move.
“You have a choice, gentlemen. What’ll it be?”
“I … I just wanted money to …”
The afro kid nodded meekly.
“And you, Christopher?” He gazed at his clean-cut friend.
Christopher’s face reflected shock at hearing his name. “I … don’t want to …”
“You don’t want to die.”
Christopher’s mouth hung loose.
“You’re going to. Both of you. Meaninglessly. Or … not. Now here is the test question with the big points: which one is it going to be?”
He opened his wallet. From it he pulled out five hundred dollars and handed it to the afro kid, who at first looked like he wanted no part of it. He finally took the bills, though with a large measure of shame and by reaching very delicately for them.
“That’s rent. Give four hundred of it to your sister. Tell her an angel gave it to you. She won’t believe you. In fact, get ready for a real cursing out. But she’ll believe you tomorrow morning. She won’t tell you, and she’ll be even more terrified of the bad choices you keep making, and she’ll really be getting on you after that. She’ll know who will be coming for you if you don’t start flying right.”
The kid looked like he was close to puking.
“Keep the rest of the money for yourself, and treat yourself at Carl’s, like you wanted to. If you do what you should with the change—and you know what that is, Donnell—the money will come back to you a hundredfold, enough to save you and your sister. If you do neither … well, Christopher will tell you what’ll happen, won’t you, Christopher?”
Christopher swallowed hard and nodded vigorously.
“Here,” he said, and reached into his wallet once more. He pulled out another hundred and handed it to him.
“I don’t want it,” said Christopher, holding his hands up and shaking his head emphatically.
“You do. You’re going to take it where it belongs, and you’re going to apologize to her, and you’re going to man up and answer for your actions. Or …”
He raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t smiling.
“Okay, okay …” said Christopher, taking the money with just his fingertips, being very careful not to touch him.
He closed his wallet and stuffed it into his suit pocket. “My bus is here, gentlemen,” he said, looking past them at the bus pulling into the parking lot. He glanced at them one more time. The slow nod he gave them they clearly understood.
He walked between them. They scooted quickly out of the way as he approached. One of them gasped, “Holy shit!”
When he turned to look, they were gone.
The home wasn’t as he remembered it. Not its interior, anyway. It had changed. Calliel told him it would.
“It’ll change to suit you.”
“I take it the home isn’t entirely earthly?”
Calliel smiled. “It’s earthly enough.”
“I’m curious. Can mortals see it?”
“A few can, I suppose,” said Calliel, rubbing his chin.
“Why not a mansion in some swanky neighborhood? Why does it have to be a tract home at the edge of suburbia? I’d think falling out of an exploding airliner or walking the gallows would grant that.”
Calliel chuckled. So did he. He wasn’t complaining, and he wasn’t being serious. Well, not completely.
The living room had rearranged itself. Opposite the television was a nice, plush, dark brown leather reclining chair and ottoman. The sofa straddled the corner and was also brown; the one Calliel used had been replaced with a loveseat and very tasteful lamps already shedding pleasant, cozy yellow light.
The carpeting had changed color to match the new décor. It was plush and soft, which he noticed after he sat on the loveseat and pulled his new, black Tyler Bros boots off.
He stood and went on with his inspection.
The artwork had changed. The paintings were Van Gogh and particular favorites; there was a large framed Renaissance map of the world over the loveseat and tasteful, glimmering brass pieces—a key and an engraved picture of a tall ship on a five-foot-square thin slab—that hung perfectly next to one another.
He smiled and went to the hallway, which used to lead to the study (on the left) and Calliel’s bedroom (on the right).
They had switched places. The study, now on the right, was much fancier and came with a small library, which, he noticed after stepping in, contained books mostly not on mathematics, but many hard-bound copies of fantasy stories he loved as a child and teen. The math texts were largely historical in scope; the only contemporary ones were abstracts of papers written by him and his friend, Al Snow. There was plenty of space for more books; he found himself thinking of possible candidates as he spied the laptop computer on the desk, which was no longer a covered model but a slightly wider cherrywood one with a reading lamp already on. He noted all of this with approval, then went to his bedroom.
His bed was queen-sized and covered in a fluffy red-plaid comforter. An afghan that looked like his favorite as a boy was folded neatly and lay across the bottom; and a chest sat at the bed’s foot. A large window, covered in white drapes, looked out (ostensibly) onto the front yard. He went to them, opened them, and looked, then laughed in surprise. The view wasn’t of the barren front yard of this earthly home, but offered the exact same view his bedroom in Heaven did!
Like here, it was nighttime there. There were no street lights in Heaven—at least, not where he lived—and so the view was almost totally dark. He could just see the trees of his heavenly front yard and the fence just beyond.
Heaven was just the thickness of a pane of glass away. He felt certain that if he opened this window he’d smell the exquisite smells of his front yard and the fields beyond, and that, if he wanted, he could crawl through and be there once more.
He smiled warmly and pulled the drapes closed. He had work to do, and he needed to focus.
He didn’t think of the home he lived in as a mortal—Chateau Chaos. For the man who had occupied it was dead.
The bathroom was no longer between the bedroom and study, as it had been for Calliel, but adjacent to the bedroom. He sat on the toilet for a bit, then disrobed and climbed into the shower and soaked. He found his robe, which was conveniently hooked on the bathroom door, and put it on after drying off. After hanging up his suit (all of his clothes from Heaven were here), he went back to the study and booted up the computer.
Before sitting, he went to the kitchen, which, he noted with a satisfied nod, looked identical to Calliel’s. There was leftover pot roast in the fridge (as there was in his home in Heaven), and several bottles of Fat Tire, one of his favorite beers. He wasn’t a beer drinker while mortal, but Calliel (and Jeg, to be sure), changed that irrevocably once he got to Heaven. He popped the top on one, snitched a small chunk of roast, and shuffled back to the study. The computer was ready for him to log in, which he did—RAVENRAY, of course.Heavenly Google was waiting for him. He typed in a single name and waited for the results to come back. The name was: