/ Language: English / Genre:sf_action / Series: The Apocalypse

The Forsaken

G Taylor


The Forsaken

G. Wells Taylor

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1 – Assassin

An Angel was going to die. The idea caused the man on the road to smile-a rare smile cruelly cut into hard, pitiless features. The Angel would die quickly. It was a pity that it had to be so fast. But surprise was necessary. It was essential. He knew he was lucky to have that much of an edge and speed was the only way to maintain it. Their supernatural abilities allowed no margin for error. But the idea of killing one slowly appealed to him-to kill an Angel and take his time doing it. He smiled again thinking about what it would be like to get a knife and take one apart. See what all the fuss was about.

Miles to the west, his car was parked permanently on the soft shoulder. The Pontiac’s twenty-year-old engine had cracked in two. He had taken one look under the hood and grabbed his packs to start the long walk to the City. There was nothing he could do about it. He was not that kind of mechanic.

But an Angel was going to die. That was something. Two hours had passed, and the idea had kept him focused on the march. Fuck the car. It was common for people to drive them into the ground only to purchase another rebuilt junker when it was necessary. He’d done it more times than he could remember. Automotive parts designed to last in the old counting could not keep up to people who did not age in a time of endless rain and decay.

Money wasn’t a problem. He carried enough in pocket to buy a new vehicle right off the lot. But why bother? They all fell apart eventually. It didn’t matter how much money you spent. Time got them in the end, like it got everything.

But he wouldn’t buy another vehicle just yet. There were too many variables to justify the expense. He had only trusted his abandoned car because it drew little attention. But this was now and the future was then. He was close enough to the City of Light to walk, so he’d walk. And once there, who knew? Cars were more common than strangers buying them. Until he completed his contract anonymity was his greatest ally.

Don’t let them see you coming. That was the first rule of the business he was in. The second was to have a backup plan and backup plans cost money. Beneath his Kevlar vest was a nylon money belt containing forty thousand in cash and about the same in gems for special purchases. Printed money wouldn’t always buy you what you wanted in the circles he traveled. And it seemed that people with apparently ageless bodies identified with the permanence of diamonds and gems- he did.

The belt held enough for bribes, transport and emergencies. He had plenty more, but with the chaos that yawned around what was left of humanity, the traveler knew that a place you left might not be there when you returned. The remains of civilization were on the verge of riot and dissolution. Occasionally fear would manifest and burn one of the dying cities or towns that remained. The man on the road didn’t care about the social costs; he just understood that his many money stashes could be consumed by the madness; so carrying a small fortune had become a habit. And he was the safest bank he knew.

He snarled up at the rumbling overcast as he marched along the road-then stumbled. The broken pavement beneath his boots had heaved in places torn by cycles of frost, and undercut by incessant rain. Scowling, he dropped back into his steady, rhythmic pace. The black canvas bags were heavy hanging across his muscular shoulders, but they did not impede him. The mild annoyance of the gun barrels and ammunition thudding against his kidneys did more to reassure than irritate.

The City was not far off. He’d get there by sundown. The last hill he crested had given him a bleak view of its monolithic skyline and the Eastern Sea beyond. The distance did not concern him, since he welcomed any sort of physical challenge. In his Spartan philosophy he could never be hard or strong enough. Besides, if he grew bored with the walk, he could flag down a passing motorist and either hitch a ride or buy the vehicle outright with a bullet-there were still travelers despite the rigors of the road. In fact, the latter mode of transportation would allow him to enter the slow tempest of the City without making a ripple. And he wouldn’t have to make conversation.

But the walk would do for now. It allowed him to step outside his life for a time and do something simple-it was the closest he ever got to carefree, and he could never be carefree. There was no rush. Again the distant thunder made him look up at the clouds. He shrugged knowing he’d packed an overcoat in the smaller of the two bags.

Rattle! His boots scuffed against the pavement, almost muffled the sound. And then: Click!

The traveler threw his bags and dropped to a knee. A. 9 mm automatic jumped lightly in his sinewy hand; its muzzle scanned the dark brush at the side of the road. Dim light from the overcast showed ugly gray weeds-the brittle shafts quivering, rattling sporadically as the gun ran over their varied surfaces searching a target.

Then the traveler hissed with disgust, turned the pistol up and slipped it away. A woman’s hand twitched and convulsed its way out of the dead brush. The skin was torn off it from the severed wrist all the way up the broken thumb-worms or beetles crawled in the swollen red meat on its palm. The knuckles clicked hollowly as it moved.

The man walked to his bags, hefted them, and resumed his trek without another glance at the hideous thing that scuttled farther onto the road behind him. The traveler let his mind move onto more prosaic concerns. He could reach the City inside two hours-if he didn’t buy a car first.

And an Angel would die soon after.

2 – Dawn at Night

The forever child had a hard time following orders though the reckless bravado that started her current adventure had long ago departed. Swagger was fine to get things going but tended to dissolve the farther she got from safety. That left behind was a small and trembling child of over a hundred years, but a child at heart with a child’s store of emotion and anxiety and imagination. She looked to be five years of age, no more-pixie-like, cute with curly brown hair and big round chestnut eyes that peeked over soft and downy cheeks. Dawn was terrified and she was in deep shit.

Her grownup friend Mr. Jay wanted her to stay in the hideout while he was away on business. But she took his concern as a command, and rebelled against it. The first few minutes of her escape were thrilling-she usually had to go about disguised or hidden-but it was dark, and the neighborhood was shadowy and quiet enough for her to take the chance.

Almost all forever children like her had been rounded up in the first fifty years following the Change. Authority insisted it was for their own protection but rumors spoke a grimmer tale of science experiments and worse. Other kids that escaped the government were caught by evil men who made them do evil and grownup things-still others in the cities lived a life in hiding: always running in a world that was after them. So sprinting through the shadowed puddles in a mist of rain-droplets spattering her bare calves-was exhilarating in its first few innocent moments, before the truth hit home.

She moved quickly through the trash-strewn alley re-tracing her steps, fully aware of the danger. Her child’s body held too few defenses to justify wandering the streets of the City of Light at night-especially on its lowest level, Zero. A quick scan of the familiar damp walls told her that she was close to safety but Dawn was too frightened to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.

A scream rang along the alley and the forever girl froze in her tracks. Her loose fitting jumper hung close and damp about her shoulders. The night was wet as they all were. She cast her head left and right. Preternaturally youthful ears scanned along the rain soaked bricks seeking the source of the noise.

“Dawn,” she whispered in a voice that far exceeded her youthful looks. “Now you’re fucked!

Another scream echoed through the night. Her perceptions focused on a dark alley that cut across the one she traveled.

“None of your business, this…” Her voice’s tone was deep with experience. “Get back to the hideout-NOW!”

But she ignored the warning and ran in the direction of the sound. Her small form wriggled inside her jumper alternately stooping at the shoulders, hands clasping worriedly over her round belly. Quietly she cautioned repetitively breathing, “No.” Head lowered she dropped into the mouth of the alley as a scream echoed again. “Mr. Jay…” Her voice changed momentarily now-had become dewy, nascent. “You’re going to kill me.” She ran breathlessly-all forty pounds of her flitted through the shadows like a dream.

Dawn made no noise as she skidded to a stop in the puddles. Her approach and abrupt halt made no impact on the three people silhouetted ahead of her. In the dim light of a dying streetlight she saw they struggled with a fourth person.

“Come on, bitch!” A gruff voice crossed the distance. “It’s over quick! Well, first times are…” There was the sound of a slap. “At least with them bastards. Me, I’m hard to satisfy. I’m a real lover!” All three men laughed.

A woman screamed again. The fuzzy hairs on Dawn’s limbs stood on end. The men were Rapers for sure. And Mr. Jay had always told her that the worst in the world were Rapers because they killed without killing. She couldn’t quite understand how they did that, but she trusted Mr. Jay. With her friend firmly in mind, she crouched behind a pile of rubbish, working her fingers into the conglomerate muck and stone. The woman’s shriek was followed by a harsh impact like she’d been hit.

Dawn studied the men. All three looked the way she thought Rapers would but these ones also were sick and worse. The biggest had yellowish skin on his round fat belly that was blotchy with purple marks. His companions were thin and wasted enough to be dead men. Their hollow-featured heads looked like skulls. Quickly she guessed she could outrun all of them. Her youthful eyes looked for the woman now-hidden in shadow and covered by the body of a thin man. There was another scream. Rapers are the worst. She’d seen pictures and books. But her retarded sexuality did not understand the true horror that they represented. Dawn was sure that getting stuck in the body with a knife or a spear or a bullet would be much worse. Rapers kill without killing.

She clawed a hard jumble of stone from the refuse, stood and flung the missile at the biggest man, Yellowskin, who stood thirty feet from her.

A muffled thump. “Augh! What the fuck!” Yellowskin’s voice was loud and angry. Dawn crouched low in the shadow of a crumpled garbage can.

“What happen, Jimmy?” A different man’s voice-hollow and wheezing.

“Something fucking hit me!” Dawn heard feet scuff the wet ground. “Over there.” More scuffling. “No you hold the bitch. Maybe she got a friend over there.”

Dawn’s heart was pounding. She clasped a hand over it to quell the sound; with the other she lifted a stone.

“Forget it! Fucking city’s crumbling. Came from up there…” The other skinny man growled from the darkness. “Hurry or I poke the bitch first.”

“Yeah, hold on,” snarled Yellowskin. “I do her first.” More scuffling feet and the woman screamed again.

Dawn rose quickly, arm cocked to let the missile fly but one of the thin men had crept close during the talk, stood a yard away, leering.

“There you are!” he hissed then ducked, and yelped as the rock bounced off his shoulder blade. Dawn leapt over a tumble of refuse, but slipped on something soft. Hard, rough hands were on her. One clamped around her arm, the other pinched high up her leg.

“I got it, Jimmy!” Dawn was lifted kicking and snarling. “Look!” Every muscle in her body flashed and struck. “Fucking monkey!”

“Oh, shit! Harry, hold that bitch. Knock her down for Christ sake,” Yellowskin barked at the man who held the woman. Dawn bit at the hand that gripped her arm, but it twisted away from her teeth. She felt the fingers slip from her leg and wrap around her other arm. Her captor pulled her wrists back until she screamed.

“What this?” Yellowskin squatted in front of Dawn. His penis was out and its mottled purple head almost touched the ground. “She look like a midget, but she no midget!”

“Know what I think?” her captor speculated. “Don’t laugh or nothing, but I think she one of them forever kids. They say there’s no more, but look at the skin!”

“Well she’s no fucking elf.” Yellowskin wiped a grimy hand across his forehead. It came away bloody. “Look what you done now, you bad itsy bitchy. Hit old Jimmy with rock. And he only out to grill up a fun piece of pussy over there.” He laughed as Dawn struggled. “Now, you been bad, itsy bitch. We got to teach you lesson…”

“Maybe she worth money. Think Authority want her? Maybe Prime?” The thin man squeezed her arms. “If she one of them kiddies then she rare as gold. Feel the skin!”

“I figure she be worth money if we careful how we teach her.” Yellowskin laughed sickly then slid a big calloused hand over Dawn’s ribs. “And she well fed too… plump and firm.” He looked back down the alley to where the other thin man struggled with the woman. “Hold that bitch, Harry!” Dawn heard a muffled affirmative. Then Yellowskin turned back to her, both of his hands came together between his legs with fingers wriggling. “Maybe we double the fun…”

“That’s enough!” The order rolled up the alleyway. Yellowskin turned quickly rising.

“Shit!” he bellowed. “This fucking alley is busy!” He took a step or two forward. Dawn tried to see past him. “What you want?”

“Let her go!”

Dawn recognized the voice.

“Mr. Jay!” she screamed. A dirty hand slapped over her mouth. Dawn bit down on the thumb. Heavy fluid sprayed into her mouth. The thin man shrieked, released his grip. Her feet hit the ground flashing. Yellowskin threw two big arms out to catch her, but youthful nerves and muscle easily dodged them. In seconds she was wrapped around Mr. Jay’s denim-covered leg. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes; but his gaze stayed steady on Yellowskin. Then her friend turned to the shadow where the third man struggled with the woman on the ground.

“You too.” Mr. Jay’s voice was even and calm. “Let her go.”

“Fuck off!” the prostrate form grunted.

Mr. Jay slipped a finger under Dawn’s chin. His green eyes stared intensely into her face. The brim of his top hat framed his head like a halo. “Go now!” Seeing her inner hesitation, Mr. Jay shook his head. His eyes burned toward Dawn’s attackers before he repeated. “The way you came, Dawn. Now!”

Dawn started backing away. She could see Yellowskin approaching from the darkness of the alley. His large hands were folded into heavy fists; his round blotchy belly was thrust out like a battering ram. “So that your little piece of pie? Take her and fuck off. We understand. We all need some from time to time fur or no.” Dawn turned. After ten steps she heard Mr. Jay speak-his tone was even and calm.

“I’m sick of people like you…”

The forever child ran back toward the hideout. As darkness closed around her something like lightning banged against the bricks.

3 – The City of Light

Perpetual cloud obscuring the City of Light’s upper reaches discharged constant oily gray drizzle from its leaden interior. The rain frothed darkly as it struck the oblique asphalt Skyway ramps before rushing down them in a dirty black torrent. A roar echoed up from the shadowed streets far, far below. Since the Change the rain had been almost constant. The City’s face was scrubbed raw.

So tireless was its onslaught that the City’s inhabitants had come to predict their daily lives based solely on the type of rain that would fall. During a three-week period in October, Ocean rains boiled in from old Atlantic, the Eastern Sea. Orange and yellow dust suspended in sheets of ugly, red-veined cloud that flashed lightning identified these. Where they originated and of what they were comprised none knew. But for their duration, bullets of highly acidic, slightly radioactive rain sheered through the days, the drops as hard as granite.

Unpredictable Winter rains howled in from the north rarely, but when they wanted entered unopposed. Harsh, cold winds splashed a black slush onto the myriad streets and thundered against the high-rise glass. Accompanying rapid freezing and thawing crumbled the City’s bricks and streets to ruin. Because of this it was said that the Winter rain was harder on the City than on those who lived within its walls.

The same could not be said for what the spring brought. On occasion Killing rains would come. Terrifying storms screamed up from the south driving tidal waves before them. Hurricane force winds turned the Eastern Sea to froth and mist as the sky roared like apocalypse. People died during the Killing rains-the lowest sections of the City from Zero to Two flooded in areas despite the seawalls, and the ocean snatched people from the sidewalks.

Of the varieties of rain that fell upon the City, two were most common. The first came in on a wind from the west. Desert rain from the wilderness collected over the City in thin gray clouds. They would shed some drizzle, and sporadic sprinkles constantly. The Desert rain accounted for those rare days when no rain came at all. The second was the most common of the City’s precipitation. Nine times out of ten Standing rain was what fell from the sky. It needed no season and bore no special vehemence. Clouds collected heavily over the metropolis, all wind would cease, and a steady, endless rain descended on the cityscape like a dark curtain.

This was the first day of a Standing rain that fell on the heels of three blissful days of Desert. The cloud cover was low, wrapping the tallest buildings in darkness where they protruded from the Carapace-a mammoth patchwork of waterproof materials inlaid with intricate channels and reservoirs. It was added decades before to funnel the tons of water that fell each day and to protect construction workers who coaxed the city skyward. It was dark and gleamed dully with moisture. Humped in places, massive sections of convex graphite and plastic were interconnected by cables and constantly winched upward to keep pace with the City’s growth. It offered poor protection, being tattered in places by savage winds, and was under constant repair. It looked like the broken shell of an ancient monster.

Life in the City was hidden. At first glance, the City of Light’s name appeared to be a misnomer since the glass skins of its many skyscrapers reflected weak gray in the daytime and flickering streetlight at night. At second, having gauged the spirits of its inhabitants, the name would be exposed as a marketing ploy and little more. Perhaps there had been a time when light of a physical or metaphysical nature existed there; but no more.

Beneath the Carapace, the City contained within its soaring gothic arches the very best and last of what humanity had to offer the world after the Change. True there were other cities, other living strongholds in what remained of Europe, Asia, Africa and others; but none could challenge the grandeur that the City boasted. The last of the best resided there, as safe as any could be in the madness that life had become. Most believed that the end had arrived-that human history had halted, others thought some new and terrible age free of human domination was upon them all. Only the insane, faithful and foolish still believed that the Change heralded a new beginning. But the Change had come, and in time so had the City.

The City of Light was the offspring of the dead island-city that now protruded from the Eastern Sea some few miles from shore. This had been flooded out by the storms that followed the Change, and never recovered. Global Warming accelerated not long after the Millennium turned, when the clouds had rolled in, the rain began to fall, and the waters of the earth rose up to permanently drown the world’s coastal cities.

The City of Light had its humble beginning as a mainland borough of the metropolis now submerged. The jagged corpse of its parent could still be seen rising above the water. Though it was impossible to lay the blame on the ocean alone. The early days had seen a valiant stand made by its citizens-massive dikes were built that held. But then came the terror of the rising dead, the horror of the true believers and the violence of the everlasting Jihad. And the fear set fires, and what remained burned before it flooded. The ruins were still inhabited some said, but none who went there returned to say by whom.

The City of Light’s enormous perimeter was guarded by fifty-foot cyclopean walls on the north, west and south, and claimed the sea as its guardian to the east. In its early years, the City had grown outward for many miles, spreading up and down the coast, and marching inland unchecked until its edges scraped terrifyingly against the vast wilderness that was growing there. Something primal happened then, as though the denial that any growth represented could not overpower the truth of what the mainland had become. So much had changed in the world, that the City’s designers were possessed of no valiant response, only the gut reaction of throwing up the walls.

With a perimeter defined by fear, the City of Light had nowhere to go but up. Its early leaders easily covered their cowardice with triumphant words and phrases. “Now marks the ascent of humanity.” Decades after the Change the City’s fathers had laid claim to all the land that once had been North America, and since its population was now disorganized or dead, there were none to argue against the outright exploitation of its vast resources. So the inland cities and states were used as raw material and the City climbed into the sky.

The City of Light grew rapidly. After the disenfranchised millions had salvaged what they could, they abandoned their sinking island city and flocked to the shores to set about constructing new homes for themselves-building on and expanding what they found there. Following the raising of the walls, some twenty years after the Change, ground level had grown dangerously overpopulated and construction began on another level that arched over it on massive legs of steel and concrete. New structures were built upon this, casting ground level into darkness-but electrical power was plentiful then, and city people were acclimated to artificial light.

Survivors kept coming from all points of the compass, and soon this first level was filling to claustrophobic proportions. A second level was constructed, and more buildings launched into the sky on top of this. Another twenty years and then fifty more passed. Level after level was added as the inland population traveled to the coast for sanctuary-their smaller towns and cities dying under the onslaught of the Change.

Years later, long after high prices and scarcity had dimmed reliable electric light for any but the wealthy, the City’s original landscape on its lowest levels was lost. Where its first streets and neighborhoods had been now lurked trackless shadowy paths-ground level had been renamed “Zero.” The oldest buildings had become massive foundations for the terrifying towers built upon them. The City of Light continued its charge upward at the endless gray. Construction was unabated, no sooner would a tower be finished and incorporated into the Carapace, than its designers would begin the blueprints for its expansion.

Such constant, rampant physical delineation and disparity encouraged a social twin. The poor were relegated to the City’s lowest levels: Zero, One and Two. Three and Four were for the middle class. The highest from five to seven were reserved for the rich and powerful. Over the dark shrouded streets alternately hugging the upper levels and swooping down to the streets below were built the arching Skyways, flying ribbons of concrete and asphalt that kept the City’s sky-dwelling citizens from having to lower themselves to the levels and populace that dwelled below. And so skyscraper was built on skyscraper, and tower upon tower. Ever upward the City flung itself, as though its populace feared the very earth that had birthed it.

4 – The Power of Pain

The assassin was not a religious man. Stroking out his final hundred pushups he focused on the primal forces that kept him alive. Metaphysical muttering did nothing to augment his formidable survival skills. There was more truth in the pools of sweat that had formed around his straining hands than could be found between the covers of the Bible or other religious work. And so spare was his existence, so dependant upon the unobstructed view was he that anything that did not directly assist him in staying alive was rejected outright.

Instead he honed his mind and body like a knife-whetting its edge on any obstacle life threw at him. He had to be the perfect machine to interact with other tools-the weapons of his trade. And he was the integral part-the engine for the killing systems he had designed. Religion and philosophy encouraged irrational thinking, and he had no use for it. The closest he possessed to a spiritual life was his knowledge of pain.

He was exposed to its power before he could talk, and had since depended upon it as his sole employer and greatest teacher. He didn’t consider himself able to possess faith in anything else. The assassin had moved through his life with hard actions in an environment too strenuous for anything metaphysical to survive. He was a contract killer. He killed, and tried to stay alive in the process. Childhood had hardened him to viciousness, and from it he had learned to give and receive violence while gaining a tangible thrill from both activities. That was the power of pain. It punished and it rewarded. There was something reassuring in the assertion of his dominance. It was a pleasure killing people who would kill him and he received great gratification from the blows he absorbed in return. Pain was life.

The assassin used the pain he absorbed rather than shun it. Early on, he understood the importance of making himself one with reality. His survival depended on that. Life was pain. He never tried to convince himself that as he dealt out violence he dealt out knowledge. The power of pain was different. His was a business that was unforgiving to men who flinched. He had to be prepared to take a hit if he wanted to survive long enough to kill his target. A heavy caliber bullet snapping against a Kevlar vest and breaking the ribs beneath hurt, but if he was not prepared to accept the pain-he might miss his own shot, and his prey in turn would get the advantage and he would die. That was the essential equation of his life. Pain punished cowardice and rewarded conviction.

Distantly he could remember the face of his father-the high priest of pain-howling with fury as he administered this arcane knowledge with fists. But those earliest glimpses of the power were so entwined with ancient anger and emotion that they were dangerous, and so discarded. Regardless, the exquisite purity of the pain inherent in those harsh lessons was an integral part of the man he had become. It had survived his transition from the old life to the new-from the world before the Change, into the world that came after.

Before the Change he had made his money killing wayward husbands and wives, faithless gangsters and faithful policemen and politicians. The money was good in those bygone days, and kills more gratifying. There was satisfaction in a hunt that took skill and risk that finished with a corpse that stayed dead. The power of pain made sense then and he had luxuriated in its might. But the Change had altered that. With the rising of the dead had come a change in business, and a loss of control. Since he could no longer earn money killing as a punishment or for silence he found that he could not exploit his talent to the fullest and he sank slowly into a depression that his darkest violence could not break.

He tried to pull himself from it. His killing became more extravagant, more vicious and bloody with little spiritual impact. A target could be silenced, but the process would better suit a butcher than a professional gun. The Change seemed to be more powerful than pain. And for a time he tried to combat this growing impotence by taking greater chances with his work. Finally, he was forced to peer into the dim recesses of himself-to try to unlock the mystery of this power-this power that had seemingly deserted him.

It was through this contemplative approach that he had found the light-or it was the opposite of light-though even that was a misnomer for it was not darkness either. His brain simply lacked the sensory apparatus to explain or categorize what he found. He responded with ambiguous descriptions that fell far short of the truth. It was a black illumination-a full emptiness. It was everywhere and nowhere. Finally, it was invisible until seen from the darkest place in his soul-a place where there was no language. Then, even as he applied his first inept words to the paradox, he realized with some alarm that it had discovered him.

A force that transcended the power of pain-and yet harmonized with it-pounced upon him and altered what he was. Something changed inside his mind below the basement of him where nightmares lurked in a dark eternal undercurrent. It was obvious and anonymous, but something changed.

Its very intangible qualities made if difficult to know how or where the alterations took place, but sometimes the very lack of evidence proved they had occurred. Despite this alien influence, his essential character had remained unchanged, though it now had a direction. With the new power had come a knowledge that he could not understand but felt instinctively-a knowledge that the world now worked in paradoxes that resisted explanation. The truth was different from his belief. Life was pain. Pain was life. But only to the living-only to his race, the Second-born of the earth. And this realization had taken him to the place in which he now resided.

His old life-much like his old name-became outmoded, small and petty in comparison. He did not take pride in what he now did; he was too old for that. But he knew that his talents took him down a road that gave him greater rewards than mere money. His job description had changed with the seeing of the dark light. The power of pain held its greatest potency in its relationship to divinity. He simply had to seek a better prey-something worthy of the pain he could inflict.

The assassin climbed to his feet; sweat running in rivulets over his swollen muscles. He looked at his reflection in the mirror atop the dresser-took silent approval from his expressionless face and emotionless eyes. He grabbed a towel from the bed, slipped it around his taut waist. The sinews in his chest and shoulders flexed powerfully under a skin crosshatched with silver scars.

The walk into the City had done him good. Felon had arrived just after sundown. Over a century of coming and going had given him complete knowledge of all the City’s dark ways and entry points. And he exploited its weaknesses to the fullest avoiding the main gates by traveling through the Maze, a damp and echoing labyrinth of ancient sewers and waterways that ran at odd directions under the walls. They belonged to the mainland cities and towns on whose bones the City now grew and grew. A ready knowledge of them put him onto Zero, the City’s most anonymous level without dampening a shoe. Soon after he had hailed a cab that took him along the Third Skyway upward to Level Three before depositing him on the sidewalk in front of the towering Coastview Hotel.

The building’s design had its roots in a happier, sunnier world and looked ridiculously optimistic where its upper reaches poked through the Carapace and loomed against the permanent gray cloud cover. The hotel was two blocks west of the ocean, climbing some forty stories. He booked a room on its thirtieth floor-just high enough that his balcony hung over the black shape of the Carapace where it sloped toward the ocean from the City’s Level Six. The protective materials undulated below as it careened downward in a terrifying ellipse to the distant beaches. Its eaves and ductwork channeled runoff to massive hydroelectric plants dotting the shore. He could see the lights of cars on the Skyway interchanges flickering through its semi-transparent surfaces.

He had left instructions at the desk that he not be disturbed then rode the elevator skyward. After a hot shower and a shave-he dropped to the carpet to augment the day’s exertions with a near endless series of pushups. He was as sharp and lethal as a bayonet. The assassin snatched his cigarettes and lighter then walked out onto the balcony. A mist of rain sent a chill over his flesh.

Lights as red as hellfire glared in the neighboring buildings, and below him sirens howled like the damned. Felon’s lips twisted with spite as he lit a cigarette. How he hated these regular experiments in sameness-these boring constructs of humanity. Law made the streets straight but did not make them safe. Instead, they created dark corners full of the unknown. He hated it. The set of his full lips said as much where they tangled beneath high cheekbones round and hard as beef-joints. His eyes were black with flecks of silver-reflections of the blurred cityscape around him. Jet-black hair fell to his shoulders from a high brow and curled at the corded nape of his neck.

The city skyline stretched endlessly to north and south but was lost to his vision in light pollution and the upper Level Seven still under construction. The actual size of the monstrous metropolis was hidden behind massive sheets of concrete and steel. Through a tangled maze of supports and other load bearing structures he could see to the south, jagged spires covered with constellations of dim, winking lights. To the east, buried in the hoary grayness of the rough sea he knew an old and sunken city foundered, its walls shooting hundreds of feet above the waves. At night it was invisible like the past-the monoliths obscured by dark and cloud. But Felon knew they marched like ancient mysteries into the distance. It was a dead place of the long ago. He had not been there in years.

Some grim humor flickered behind his features, and drew his lips back in an apocalyptic snarl. At least he had a purpose. Unlike the teeming maggots in the skyscraper holes around him, he had a reason for being. And this purpose had brought him here. The City of Light was a festering sore, a gray running boil on the backside of human history. But Felon had found cause for mirth.

5 – Mr. Jay

Dawn was in her cubbyhole. Mr. Jay had picked an abandoned apartment building on Zero for their hideout. Most of the ancient structure had been filled with concrete and stone to form a pillar for the City’s upper levels but a few of its rooms were still accessible. Her cubbyhole was inside an old chimney. For her protection Mr. Jay had fashioned a door for it that she could lock from the inside. She remembered him gleefully showing her how the peephole worked-he was handy with tools. There was a little mattress, snacks and bottled water in it in case she had to stay there a while. When Mr. Jay was away, she was just supposed to stay inside the building, and never stray from their hideout-if she ever heard someone coming she was to return to her cubbyhole. She had been so terrified by the trouble in the alley that she ran all the way back to the old building and hid herself-lying there covered up in her quilt-all her muscles quivering.

As the footsteps approached, she knew from their sound that it was Mr. Jay. She had listened so many times for him that she recognized his step as easily as his voice. This time though, she did not run out to greet him. Her heart still ached with guilt and fear.

“Dawn?” Mr. Jay’s voice was warm in the darkness. The hideout was just a big brick room about twelve feet on a side where they kept a little table, some cards and their possessions. The sound of Mr. Jay’s movements drew near, urgent now. Tears started to leak from her eyes.

The secret door jiggled, but did not open. She had locked it. “Dawn.” Relief filled Mr. Jay’s voice. “So you’re here.” She heard him slide down the wall and settle to the right of the door. “Would you come out please?”

She pushed the quilt aside-her clothes still damp from running through the rain-and unlatched the door. She slid it open a crack, and saw Mr. Jay in the orange flame of a candle he was lighting. His eyes turned. He grinned weakly then blew out the match and set the candle on the floor. “Come out. Please.”

Dawn pushed the door open a little further, and then opened it wide. Her chin drooped as she stepped out of the darkness and crouched on the sill of her cubbyhole. Mr. Jay regarded her in the half-light. The creases around his eyes and over his forehead were wrinkled with concern. His bearded lips were pursed in a frown. A purple lump distorted his left eyebrow.

“Are you all right?” His voice was even and calm, just as it had been in the alley.

Dawn could not control her lips when she was sad. The lower one curled out and down. Her cheeks were damp from tears. She nodded.

Mr. Jay smiled a weary smile. “Good.”

Her lips were quivering again; Dawn fought the urge to cry but was having difficulty.

Mr. Jay smiled again, and then waved with his long slim hand. “Please come out, Dawn.”

She slid herself out of the darkness an inch or two more, saw Mr. Jay frown, and then inched out until she was bathed in the candlelight. Mr. Jay’s dark green eyes flitted over her body-concern melting to relief.

“They didn’t hurt you?” His voice was relaxing.

Dawn shook her head.

“That’s good.” He nodded and put a hand on her shoulder. “Your shirt’s soaked!” He reached past her and pulled her quilt out and wrapped it over her shoulders. “Dawn…” His voice was tired. He shook his head.

Dawn clenched her jaws, her voice exploding past pursed lips. “I’m sorry!” She looked at the welt over his eye. “Did they hurt you?” Her lip trembled again.

“No,” Mr. Jay whispered, his white teeth flashing through his short whiskers.

“I’m sorry I…” she said quickly-too quickly for tears to escape.

“Dawn, we talked about this.” He shook his head. “It’s very dangerous for you…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jay!” Tears burst past her eyelashes and poured down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I just thought I could go out and get something for us. Like the pocketknife, and the other things I found before. I didn’t think…” She was shaken by sobs.

“Dawn,” he sighed, setting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s too dangerous…”

“Oh please, Mr. Jay. Don’t be angry. Please, don’t be angry. I’ll be good.” Dawn was terrified. She saw the dismay in his features-the thick emotion that made him stern. “Please, I’ll never do it again. I just know I’m more than a little girl! That’s all. I am and sometimes I think I can do things I shouldn’t. But I’m sorry.”

“Dawn.” He rubbed her shoulder.

“Please, Mr. Jay. I’m sorry. I don’t want you to go away. I’m sorry! I just wanted to help!” His hand squeezed her shoulder. Through a blur of tears she watched his eyes grow moist.

“Oh, Dawn.” He pulled her over, wrapped her quilt tight around her-held her to his chest. “Don’t do that to me again.” Mr. Jay’s voice broke with emotion. “I came back here, and you were gone.” He hugged her tighter. “I thought you were gone.”

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’ll never do it again.”

“It’s okay, Dawn. You’re here now. And you’re all right.” Dawn felt a hot tear strike her cheek. “You shouldn’t be sorry. It’s not your fault we live in a world like this. Where a little girl isn’t safe. Not even a little girl who’s big inside.” She felt his hand stroke her hair. “I’m glad I found you.”

“I’m glad too, Mr. Jay. I was so scared.” Dawn was caught up in a steady stream of sobs. All the while, Mr. Jay stroked her hair and held her.

“It’s okay, Dawn. You’re here.” He kissed her cheek. “I shouldn’t have brought you to the City. It isn’t safe.” Mr. Jay pushed her away so that she was perched on his thighs blinking at him. “But we won’t be here long, I promise. Then I’ll take you somewhere safe.”

“Would you really, Mr. Jay? Back to the Nurserywood? I really miss it so much, and I don’t like it here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Her little brown cheeks were soaked. Mr. Jay swabbed at them with a corner of her quilt. “I’m more than just a little girl, you know. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“I know.” He hugged her again. “I promise you we won’t stay here long.” She felt his whiskers prickle her scalp as he kissed her. “Will you promise me you’ll be careful while we’re here.”

“I promise. Cross my heart!” Dawn’s voice was sore and coarse. “I won’t ever do that again.”

“We’ll get out when it’s daylight.” He chuckled then, and tickled her under the arm. She couldn’t repress a giggle of relief. “Then everyone can see how pretty you are!”

Dawn pressed two hands against his chest and pushed away. She focused her eyes on his. “Do you think so?” She frowned. “Because I don’t know what pretty means. I’ve read books and books and books about it. And I only guess it means pretty like a flower or cute sort of, like a bunny.”

Mr. Jay laughed, “That’s it! Cute as a bunny.”

“With the chubby cheeks.” She pressed two fingers up against her lips like buck teeth and blew her cheeks out. Mr. Jay exploded with laughter again, a nice rich sound full of relief.

“Come on now. Change out of those wet clothes.” He picked her up and set her on her feet, then climbed wearily to his own. She followed him wrapped in her quilt. He said over his shoulder, “I don’t suppose you found us any supper out there on your little jaunt.” Mr. Jay turned and caught her lips quivering. “Dawn, it’s okay-I’m joking. I brought some things that we can eat. Some bread, and some sort of fishy stuff that spreads on…”

“Fishy stuff…” Dawn took her index finger and pretended to make herself vomit.

Mr. Jay laughed.

6 – Archangel Tower

The City of Light was the safest place in Westprime and its reputation drew survivors from what remained of civilized North America and the safe-towns on the southern continent. For the first decades following the Change as the City took its initial steps skyward, its inhabitants clung to the past out of fear. A world of Change with different ground rules was unfolding, and none knew how long it would last. Even though the first years revolved around the resurrection of the dead, walking and talking corpses suggested redemption over damnation. There was hope then. More so when these walking dead demanded employment, equal rights and answers. Science had no explanations for them and where science cannot speak, religion will.

But times change and the decades staggered passed. As the City grew skyward this defiance of the dead took on threatening proportions. There were clashes and riots so municipal government restricted the dead to the City’s lowest levels. Isolated in darkness, they wandered through memories of what they had been-hopeless; awaiting a doom they had not escaped in death.

For the living, it became apparent that the Change allowed them to enjoy virtual immortality with their natural aging arrested or slowed to count years as months. Since time no longer took them, they ran a higher risk of a violent death. And as fear grew in the living populace, defensive and retributive violence became a way of life. But the dead did not care. The prejudice was irrelevant for a much crueler fate awaited them. Time and dehydration would reduce their bodies to lumps of hardened leather. Cries for equality would be twisted into the howls of the damned.

But the City of Light lived on. The powerful, the wealthy, and the popular all made it their home for the dead were kept out of sight here, and it had become a place of Angels. Those Divine messengers of God were rumored to fly from the highest spans of concrete on the City’s tallest structures-where the sun still set on the day.

Archangel Tower was the City’s centerpiece. It rose a half again higher than the tallest building, slicing through the metropolis’ highest Levels. The Tower was built as a meeting place for the world’s religions. The vast monetary holdings of Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam had underwritten its construction. The Change had initially caused a polarization of the religions but as decades passed the larger and more powerful among them focused on the similarities in their beliefs.

The Tower’s many-windowed surface was polished marble, and its design combined the best and loftiest aspirations of the many religions represented within its walls.

Its massive main entrance was found on Level Three. Many argued that the Tower should be accessible to all Levels, while others-influential investors and powerful municipal decision-makers-suggested it be approachable only from the highest. Its architects compromised, placing the main entrance on Three: just high enough to avoid the great unwashed on the lower levels, while retaining a respectable declination in elevation that looked like humility. Later compromises included entrances on Levels Five and Six; but these deferments to class and wealth were masked as additions for the purpose of fire safety.

The main gates on Level Three were formidable, rising forty feet at the apex of their spear-point design. Before them were the Tower Grounds. An enormous disk of concrete and steel constructed and suspended from the Tower’s megalithic body encompassing four square miles of property. The Tower Grounds’ perimeter included manicured gardens and a lake for baptisms and meditation. All around this ran the Tower Wall built of marble thirty feet high. A single gate, a scaled down version of the Tower’s entrance, allowed the pilgrims in and kept the unbelievers out.

The Tower burst through all the City’s levels, before puncturing the Carapace, charging into the constant overcast and flying skyward. Its upper reaches were obscured by cloud and accessible by invite only. The two hundredth floor was honeycombed with luxurious offices. One of these belonged to the Reverend Able Stoneworthy.

He was a man of slight but sturdy frame approaching six feet in height. A loose fitting black suit hung on his angular body like a blanket. Its all-encompassing darkness hid his true dimensions. His head was large and round-ill-fitting partner to the thin neck that propped it up. The eyebrows that squirreled restlessly on his forehead were dense and darker than the thick curly hair on his head. They scurried about over bright blue eyes-pausing only to squeeze the penetrating orbs for some finer discernment. His nose, like his body, was thin and straight. It traced a long practical line to a thick-lipped mouth that hung down at the corners-the frown caused more by gravity than sentiment.

Stoneworthy pulled his fingers from the depressions they had made in the thick synthetic leather covering the arms of his chair. Awkwardly, he uncrossed his long legs, pulled them from under his desk. Leaning back, he drew in a breath, and then wiped a hand across his brow. By degrees his heart stopped racing. The air still stirred from his visitor’s departure.

Reverend Stoneworthy spoke with Angels infrequently. He had before the Change, but never then did they occupy his office with such Divine presence. Nor did their wings flex and stretch to the ceiling, their feathery tips brushing the fresco there. Of course, he hadn’t had such a beautiful office in the days before the Change. Then, he made do with what he could find: a rented tent, a local gymnasium or in the sun behind the open doors of his van. He had done the Lord’s work with fervor and hard work, knowing that the Word was the thing.

But like the rest of humanity, the coming of the Change had devastated him. As its wider ranging effects were felt, his Faith was put to a test that he failed. When Stoneworthy realized that both good and evil had inherited the earth, he began to doubt. He saw himself as a fool and hypocrite. The minister remembered well his fall from grace, hitting bottom, and being reborn. He thought of it daily to act as penance.

One night, he entered the home of a young prostitute, paying for her services with monies collected by his ministry. He engaged in all manner of immoral acts with the woman in an attempt to earn the damnation he had received. Myrah, a tired-looking woman of short stature, had full breasts, swollen belly and thighs. Stoneworthy picked Easter to meet with her that final time. Drunk on whisky, he played out all the acts the Devil whispered to him-then he slept.

But an Angel appeared. At first Stoneworthy thought he was dreaming, until he thoroughly clawed the sleep from his eyes. The quiet musical breeze from the Angel’s wings caressed him into belief where he lay in sweaty sheets. Filled with shame, Stoneworthy burst into tears and fell forward on the floor.

“Forgive me!” he had cried, rubbing his forehead on the tiles. There was silence for several heartbeats.

“You have sinned against the Lord,” the Angel said. Its voice was a clean wind that still blew in the minister’s mind.

“Forgive…” Stoneworthy wailed. “No. Judge me!”

“And yet…” the Angel said, “I see that though you have forgotten to speak the Word, you have not lost its meaning.” Stoneworthy’s mind began to clear then. “The Word is but a word. It is a container, as you are. And though the Word may be used in vain, its meaning will not be blemished.”

“I was afraid!” the minister bleated, peering upward at the flashing eyes.

“You did not fear. You doubted your God.” The Angel’s countenance was sharply contrasted by the radiant light from its halo. The being was like carved marble, great flowing robes dropping to its feet from broad white shoulders. A gleaming golden sword hung from the Angel’s waist on a shining belt. “Such doubt is sin. To doubt your faith is a pain carried inside your temple body, to doubt your God is a pain that shall last all eternity, for it resides in your soul.”

“What shall I do?” Stoneworthy had covered his face with his hands, weeping. “I have offended Him!”

“Offense?” questioned the Angel. “You offend him now, with such vanity. The Lord shall tend his flock, the obedient he will love. Those who will not heed his Word are free to wander the wilderlands with the Wolf. The Lord understands that you serve yourself with the Word; you do not serve him. And yet, you adore him by serving that part of him that lives in you.” The Angel gestured toward the bed. “Is this how you serve your Lord?”

Stoneworthy looked at the bed, and there was Myrah, still asleep. Her eyes were like a skull’s cast into dark shadows by the Angel’s light.

“No! No! I am so sorry! Slay me, Angel. Strike me blind! Punish me!” Stoneworthy struck his own breast, sputtering through his sadness.

“How shall I punish what should be punished by the Lord God inside you, and by he who is in Heaven above.” The Angel had surprised Stoneworthy then by cupping the minister’s chin with a long warm finger and drawing him to his feet. “ See that you do not do that. I am a fellow servant who worships God with you.” Stoneworthy rose, naked before the Angel.

“Do not despair. You have served the Lord in Heaven when the rest of mankind reveled in sin. And only when the end of the world came, did you doubt. For that the Lord is thankful. A man’s faith must not need proof and you had none before the Dark Days began. Greatness comes from a man’s ability to believe without proof. Pharaoh asked Moses for proof of the Lord’s existence. Was he great? The empire of Egypt is no more, and Pharaoh no more. For even with proof, they did not believe. Your greatest sin, Stoneworthy is your misapprehension of the signs. This Change as you call the Dark Days, is the first step to Salvation for you all. You must recapture your Faith, and learn to serve God as you have.”

The Angel rose to its full height-its great pinions spread, and from it burned a fire that scorched the minister’s soul. Stoneworthy howled, his body convulsing with pain. “Go. Now! As you are. As Adam and Eve were once cast out! And for a time, eat not of the world. For seven days go into the wilderness that you have courted. Then return to this City, and gather the holy men of earth. The truth of your mission will be made known to you if you find the truth of yourself in the wilderness-for there lies Faith. Go! Now!”

And as the Angel faded from his sight Stoneworthy ran naked from Myrah’s apartment. He ran through the streets joyfully bearing the humiliation, rejoicing in the terror of salvation. He left the City on bleeding feet and ran until his heart was ready to burst. Only when he could climb to the top of a tree-covered hill did he end his labor. He stayed in the wilderness for seven days, eating nothing, tasting nothing but the familiar sweetness of deprivation, terror and the Divine knowledge of his essential self. His fear taught him much, for few wandered the wilderness without it. After the Change, animals lost their fear of man, and no longer recognized his dominion.

The rain of the Changed world washed him-scoured away his sin, threatened the life of his body with cold and death. But he wrapped himself in a protective cloak of faith and rejoiced. When he returned, Stoneworthy set to work gathering together the priests, ministers and officials of the major religions that had already gravitated to the City. Through conferences and discussions, he began the process of joining together those that loved God, and devoted their lives to his work. They would form a beacon for the world to see, and this city of survivors would become the City of Light. With his fellow faithful he would create an altar worthy of God. For decades he labored, and it was done.

Stoneworthy felt the pang of his ancient guilt rearing up to check his pride. Faith had done the work. He reached out to stroke the office wall. The Tower had been built. Through great sacrifice and determination, it slowly rose above the midnight world of the Change. But that, like his transgression, was all so long ago. Even this lofty accomplishment could not overshadow his guilt. His conscience would not let him forget that. Yet he had been given a new mission and though he did not feel worthy, being chosen he would make himself so. He was so deeply stained that he relished all opportunities for ablution.

He could still smell the cinnamon in the air. The windowed doors that led to his balcony were open. Wind toyed with the filmy drapes that hung over them. A dim orange glow from sunset sky illuminated the carpet. The adrenaline began to leave his system.

He rejoiced. That God had sent a being of such power to visit him and for a sinner like himself to be entrusted with such a task. This new mission promised things far more important than the gathering of the Holy or the building of the Tower. To redeem a fallen Angel.

7 – St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Felon sneered at the idea that romance had survived the Change. At the conclusion of the last Millennium, Valentine’s Day had degenerated into another commercial undertaking at a time when the true fabric of human relationships had frayed to a thin veil of separation, confusion and suspicion. He growled at the thought of it.

The assassin pulled up to the curb in his stolen car. The Davedi Club was located in a narrow three-story building. It had been spared the indignity of being used as a support column for Level Four that formed a heavy darkness overhead. The Club’s front entrance was of antique design. Its large rectangular window was painted black, with a clear circle framing a neon sign that spoke the club’s name. Beside it was a heavy steel door.

The assassin paused to light a cigarette, rolled the smoke around his tongue, and then spat it out. Felon had a fully automatic M-16 to do the job. He would carry it into the building slung across his back concealed under his black overcoat. The weapon had a heavy smell of oil and old gunpowder. It was an antique by military standards, but Felon found the new M-99’s to be slower to load, and prone to jamming. When you throw ninety bullets in a volley, the chances for a misfire were many and like most things created after the Change, the M-99 was flawed. Felon disdained such overkill anyway. It encouraged sloppiness and waste.

His M-16 was built somewhere overseas, a knockoff produced by the Kalashnikov people using the original pre-Change designs. He’d bought it on the black market twenty years before and maintained it with rebuilt and salvaged parts. It could be set for semi or full automatic. The choice allowed the assassin an option that might save his life-and it gave him adaptability. He thrust four full magazines into the pockets of his ammo vest and hauled himself from the car. Polka music filtered out of the building as he pulled his coat over his weapons. He snarled convulsively, glaring at the building. The Davedi Club was holding their annual Valentine’s Day Dance.

Felon could sense the people inside. Their crowded presence was like a pressure in the air. He snatched the cigarette from his lips, flicked it to the ground and pulverized it with a twist of his foot. The assassin climbed the single stair and pulled the door open. The close atmosphere of the room enveloped him immediately-stillness filled the space. A crowd of people faced away from him; their focus on a stage and an ancient-looking man with an accordion who stood there. He stood smiling between a black guitarist and an older Asian woman with a clarinet. Applause flew up into the dusty air. The ceiling was two stories above their heads. Most of the second floor had been cut away to form a walkway and balcony over the dance floor. Cheers rang out, laughter followed, and the crowd closed to form many tight circles of revelers. The principle color of the decor was red, and the clothing was a dazzling array of scarlet silk. Faces in the crowd were twisted into mad humor and inebriated joy. The air stank of perfume and alcohol.

“Thank you,” chortled the old man with the accordion. “I thank you, and the Beer Barrel Trio thanks you.” Again, applause. Felon made his way along the right side of the room past a man of middle-aged appearance snoring uncomfortably in a wooden chair.

“We have always enjoyed playing at the Davedi Club. And we would never miss the Valentine’s Dance. The air is full of love. The people are full of love. I am full of love!” The crowd responded with a profusion of kissing and laughter. “We make this annual dance the cornerstone of our performing year. I am not getting any younger, as my wife can tell you.” Chuckles echoed through the audience. “But I am made young by this wondrous occasion. The love is what makes us young forever. And we know at least that Love will not change! As always we would like to perform the music that moves us all along the current of life, the dance that inspires romance in us all. We give you now the melody that commands the passion in our hearts and the sky above us.” He turned, nodded to his companions, the lights faded to twilight blue and the small band moved into a cramped rendition of “Moon River.” The old man croaked the words out.

Felon studied a huge cloud of purple helium balloons that crowded over the stage and dance floor. If the Cherubs were feeding, the assassin knew that would be the perfect blind for them. Raw human emotion would be radiating upward like heat. It was natural that their kind would be attracted to a Valentine’s Day dance. They flocked to them like fat flies to shit, feeding off the veiled lust of the dancers; but even Cherubs had rules and followed the covenant of Angels and so could not directly intervene in human affairs, or be in close visual proximity. Among Angels, they went most often in their true physical forms, primarily because of their connection with sensuality, lust and love. Cherubs were historically and mythically thought to be responsible for love, love at first sight, and rekindled love. Felon thought of them as parasites, feeding off an emotion they could not produce themselves.

Felon hated Cherubs the most. He found their rotund little forms and their predilection for romantic love and mischief a perversion. They were the naughty children of some two thousand years. He hated the way they looked, their disproportionate wings flickering obscenely over raw dough buttocks. Felon knew their sweet cinnamon smell, and their idle, eternal child voices-caricatures, really. They were the least impressive Angels, gaining their powers from idle sentimentality and romanticism. He was disgusted by the ugly ambiguity they formed, feeding on the irrational human desire to justify lust. And these sexually barren, golden locked, flying Cupie dolls were nothing more than a pedophile’s dream-they had little to do with love, or the sexuality it thinly disguised.

He slid the M-16 on its strap until it hung under his arm and then gave it a reassuring pat through his coat. Felon squinted into the darkness watching the balloons. There was a steady column of heat rising from the dancers that caused the mass of rubber to undulate, so Felon waited for any telling motion. A man reeking of scotch brushed into him. Felon’s arm did not yield and his stance did not sway. The man, a pre-Change fifty, scowled beneath iron gray eyebrows.

“Damn it…” He rubbed his chest where Felon’s elbow had scraped a furrow in it. “Watch your…”

Felon tore his gaze momentarily from the balloons. He glared into the stranger’s bleary eyes. Something in the look penetrated the man’s drunken haze. His lips trembled and held still. He turned to stagger away.

Then Felon caught a motion out of his right eye. It was a wing, a small, down-covered wing with round-tipped feathers. He whipped open his coat and pulled the M-16 up with both hands, firing into the cloud of balloons. They started breaking with the burping roar of his gun. He fired until the gun was empty, then pulled the magazine out, and jammed another home. The assassin opened up again-the blue tongue of death licked upward.

The crowd moved in a screaming wave away from the sound and flame of violence. He raked the cloud of balloons. They vanished in violent banging echoes, revealing a pair of fat but amazingly fast forms. Two Cherubs flew free of the flying debris. The leader wore a white silk robe and the other flew naked. The Angel in the rear showed streaks of blood on his dimpled skin, and his wings beat more slowly than the other’s.

Felon let up on the trigger, and concentrated his fire at the first Angel that was fast approaching a second story window. Five bullets punched holes in the soft chest, and it hurtled downward with a flutter of wings and robe. He watched it fall as he swung the barrel of the gun on the second Cherub. Its wings flapped hysterically-its golden head clicked from side to side looking for escape, but Felon severed its left wing with a burst of lead. Screaming musically, it landed hard in the center of the dance floor.

The assassin spun to where the other Cherub had dropped. The white robed creature had staggered to its feet, and was limping quickly toward the rear of the hall. Felon miscued his fire and line of sight-bullets removed the back of its head, and the front of the sleeping man’s. He spun again. A pair of men had frozen at the door like terrified rabbits. Everyone else was gone. A motion of his gun barrel broke them from their paralysis and sent them running.

Felon pulled out the second magazine, and jammed a third into the body of the M-16 as he approached the Cherub on the dance floor. A pool of blood had formed around it-dark red like human blood but with the peculiar property of evaporating slowly at room temperature. Keeping his weapon trained on the dying Angel, Felon drew a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. He looked down on the Cherub, thrilled by the risk he was taking.

Its chubby buttocks jiggled against its attempt to rise; its fat belly was slick with blood. The stump of its wing pumped a hot red jet.

“You’re dying today,” Felon said, watching the Angel as adrenaline thrilled along his nerves. These creatures had Powers. Still, he had the trigger pulled three-quarters back, and he could quickly terminate any spell the Angel tried to utter. Besides, this was part of the contract-earned him a big bonus. At the sound of his voice, the Cherub ceased struggling. With enormous effort, it flipped itself over, and then lay still-its fat chest smeared with crimson rising tortuously. The short arms and legs were splayed at all angles.

“Why?” it asked in a voice of bells and chimes.

“Cleerfindel?” Felon hissed a cloud of gray smoke. He remembered the image his client had shown him.

“I am.” Its dazzling blue eyes met Felon’s dark orbs. Fear crossed its features. “I cannot see you…”

“A Demon hired me to kill you. You caused the woman he loved to love another-a human. He killed them both and has hated you ever since.” Felon took another drag from his cigarette and threw it away. He lowered the mouth of the gun to Cleerfindel’s head.

“I do not remember…who? I do not control love… that is the heart.” Cleerfindel tried to raise himself on an elbow. Felon pushed him back with the gun. “The Demon lies!”

“ You lie. Azokal is his name. He wanted you to know that as you died.”

“Azokal…” Cleerfindel’s voice was fading. “Ah, Azokal.”

Felon felt the killing power rising up in him again.

“How human… I cannot see you?” Blood trickled from the corner of its mouth.

“Azokal spits on you.” Felon raised the gun, the sentence fulfilling his contract.

“Human, no.” A ragged gasp shook the Cherub-its eyes went wide with terror. “ Yahweh!”

Felon fired at the Cherub’s body until the gun smoked and burned in his hands. He left Cleerfindel in a dissolving pile of gore and checked the greasy smear that was all that remained of the other Angel. Felon walked out of the building and traveled three blocks before taking a public stairway down to Level Two where he caught a cab on the Skyway.

8 – The Entertainers

Mr. Jay lit a candle so they could prepare. It was early. Dawn watched him from her snug tangle of blankets. He hummed cheerfully to himself before turning to her.

“Get up sleepy!” he said, his teeth sparkling in the candlelight. “If you’re waiting for the sun to rise I might as well go without you.” He laughed. “It doesn’t come up in the City of Light.” His face became quizzical as he hovered close. “Which has to make you wonder why they call it that.” Mr. Jay kissed her forehead where she lay by the cubbyhole.

He walked to the table humming and started making breakfast. Dawn rubbed sleep from her eyes and crawled to her feet. Her belly grumbled.

“Maybe they mean the food!” she said, suddenly ravenous. “I’ve never felt so thin and airy and light.”

“That’s because,” Mr. Jay said over his shoulder, “you didn’t eat your supper, or much of it.”

“I’m sick of fish.” She pulled her socks on, and looked in a pack for her shoes. Since the Change, animal flesh did not stay dead, so people ate various exotic mixtures and pastes of plankton and fish.

“Imagine how the fish feel!” Mr. Jay laughed and scooped some sort of mucky substance into a bowl. “Oatmeal this morning.” He pointed to the pack beside her. “Sugar, please.”

Dawn dug into the pack and grabbed a plastic container. She carried it over to Mr. Jay while she kicked and wedged and shoved her foot into her right shoe.

“They go on easier if you untie them.” Mr. Jay took the sugar and sprinkled some on her oatmeal before handing it to her. “It’s cold but I soaked it overnight. You’ll have to use your imagination to enjoy it.”

But Dawn was too hungry to care about a thing like that, and soon dug into the porridge, enjoying the sugary sweetness on top. As she ate, Mr. Jay crossed the room, found his top hat and put it on.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” She asked looking at his hat. It was worn and patched, and had a frayed edge along the back that Mr. Jay hid by wetting his fingers and twirling the fringe around the wire frame.

“What?” Mr. Jay glanced over, pulling his coat on. It was a ragged shambles of a thing, but matched the hat just fine. “Oh, food.” He shook his head and pulled the coat tails out behind him. “I’m not much of a breakfast eater, dear. You know that! Wakey wakey!”

Dawn giggled as Mr. Jay waggled his head, and mimicked what he had told her were fine and gentlemanly ways, with his shoulders and legs stiff, and his elbows bent. He walked across the room and twirled, then twisted the end of his moustache.

“You look the fine figure of a man, Mr. Jay!” Dawn said with a giggle.

“It’s only fitting…” he said. “That I wear this to conjure up notions of the things that were. It’s all in the subconscious.” He slipped his gloves on and bowed with great flourish. “They may not even know it, but it’s there. Teaching them to see it is the hard part. And, as entertainers my dear, we’re obligated to employ all the trappings of our profession to accomplish that. A few loose threads will never overpower the imagination.”

“Conjurer” was what he sometimes called himself, but Dawn had seen people in books dressed like him who were called “Magicians.”

“I answer to either,” he once said with a laugh, “but I don’t pull rabbits out of hats.”

For now, they were “Entertainers.” Dawn had heard it referred to as busking, but what they did was go to street corners where Mr. Jay would do magic and entertain. People would gather around to watch and give them money. Mr. Jay often said it was a hard way to make a buck but that it beat working for a living.

Mr. Jay turned to her from where he was putting some food in a smaller pack. “I could do with some coffee though. When you are through, little princess. So chop chop! You still have to get into your costume!” He held up the fake beard.

As a forever child and being a rare and wonderful thing, as Mr. Jay called her, Dawn was forever in peril of capture. It wasn’t that people hated forever children, but the government still caught any they found and kept them in orphanages for their own protection. Dawn heard rumors of it from other forever children at the Nurserywood. Some said they had escaped from the government, and if they spoke about it at all, it was in hushed tones, with fear on their faces.

So to go out in public, Dawn had to go disguised as a midget. She held the collection basket for Mr. Jay and took great pride in her part of the ruse, because she had learned to disguise her voice and otherwise carry off the charade without discovery.

“Avoid real midgets.” Mr. Jay had warned her. “Most people are afraid to look at a little person for more than a glance, but a midget or a dwarf, he’ll see you eye to eye and know.”

Her costume was a multicolored patchwork of bright materials that covered her body completely. Mr. Jay called it “motley.” It came with its own broad padded shoulders and potbelly sewn into place. The boots she wore rose to her knees and curled up at the toe. Each toe was graced with a small bell-just as her cap bore on each of its five points. To complete the illusion, Mr. Jay would painstakingly affix the dark brown beard to her cheeks and chin. She hated the glue he used to stick it on with, mostly because it stank and partly because he called it “spirit gum.” Dawn could never bring herself to ask what that meant.

She finished her porridge and then turned in her chair for Mr. Jay to apply the beard and make up her face. He continued to hum as he did so, smiling occasionally at the faces she made.

Though they were meager earnings she gathered in her collection basket, they were able to afford the essentials. And Dawn really loved being an entertainer, costume or not. It allowed her to go out in the streets with people and dance and carry on like she was normal. Otherwise, she spent her days in the shadows. Years ago, she had started coming up with her own tricks. Her body though a child’s was as nimble as a cat’s and decades of living in it had made her dexterous beyond compare.

While Dawn handled the acrobatic part of their act-mainly to keep the crowd’s interest and guard the collection basket-Mr. Jay would prepare for his next bit of magic. He always did that with great flourish, his whole body taking on a rigid, sticklike stance, and his face going flat, eyes looking inward. Dawn was never sure how Mr. Jay actually did his tricks but he had told her that it was a fine art that relied on misdirection as much as it did magic. Regardless, he would come out of his “Gypsy trance” as he called it, and go about the crowd mystifying them with tricks like guessing a person’s name, and their parents’ or friend’s, or he would do other more exotic things. It depended on the crowd; some were easier to please than others.

The pair had traveled a long way with their entertaining, and had performed now so many times that Dawn found herself improvising effortlessly-Mr. Jay had said that this was simply her subconscious having fun with it.

“You don’t want to get bored with entertaining, Dawn. What would be left?”

And she rarely ever felt butterflies in her stomach anymore. As long as Mr. Jay was nearby, she felt that she could do anything.

Today was a little different. This was their first full day in the City of Light. He wouldn’t tell her why they had come to the City, but he assured her that the money would be good if they could get the prime locations. Mr. Jay had already scouted out locations to work.

“And I might even find some old friends,” he said cheerfully.

Dawn didn’t care about any old friends as she struggled into her costume. She had already seen enough of the City. True, the size of it was awesome as you approached it, but when you were in it, the levels above weighed heavily and the only breezes blew off cars and buses or came up from sewers. There was a constant feeling of crowding.

She could not shake the nagging sense that her run in with Yellow-skin and the thin men was just a shadow of worse things to come. And the streets in the City were so big and numerous, and there were so many people, there were just too many places a forever child could get lost. She knew she’d be worried about losing Mr. Jay the whole time.

“Come along, Dawn. You wrinkle that forehead of yours any more and you’ll look like a road map.” Mr. Jay chuckled and twisted her nose. He looked her over. “And how are you today Mojo?” That was the name of the midget she played.

She patted her forehead with the back of her hand nonplussed.

The action made Mr. Jay laugh out loud. “Forever child or not, Dawn. There’s a woman in there somewhere.”

“Stop it!” she scolded, hoping to end the teasing right away.

“Yes, of course.” He smiled and regarded her with such a loving gaze that she immediately cheered up. “Now, will you be warm enough? These February winds can chill you through and through. A Winter rain’s expected…”

“Of course I’ll be warm enough.” She almost stamped a foot but remembered that Mr. Jay only said those things out of habit. “But thank you anyway.”

Mr. Jay picked up his walking stick, and shouldered his bag of props. He always carried extra things with him-packs of cards, bottles and string and cups-anything he might use in one of his tricks. And he always had some packets of mixed nuts and a stick of bread that never seemed to run out. “We’ll have to hurry. I found an excellent corner last night but it’s quite a distance uptown.”

They made their way out of the hideout and then along a rickety stair that took them to the exit of the abandoned building. A dirty mist hung in the air over the street. “I hope you don’t mind, but we may have to ride a bus to get there while the pickings are still good.” She looked up at his face as he talked, but its expression was hidden by the gloom. “We want to catch the workers at their first coffee break-and there’s a good collection of hotels and office buildings nearby that we can work until they’re back on the streets at lunch.” The fog blew into Dawn’s face and left droplets in her beard. She shrugged at her friend’s face.

A mixture of excitement and apprehension ran through her as they made their way to the bus stop. Other shadowy shapes joined them on the dark sidewalks: heads down, collars pulled up, with shock on their faces when Dawn stepped out of the gloom. The idea of performing in front of a whole new bunch of people was as exciting as it was frightening. She gripped the first two fingers of Mr. Jay’s right hand. As long as she kept her hold on him, she would be all right.

9 – Nun

Able Stoneworthy’s footsteps receded. Sister Karen Cawood waited on her knees, sliding each rosary bead over the plump flesh of her lower lip-her mouth unconsciously forming words that were not uttered. Jesus, whom thou didst joyfully conceive. Her shoulder still bore the warm impress of Able’s hand where he had gripped her reassuringly as she dropped to her knees in prayer. His voice had grown thick before he hurried from the room. The minister, her friend of many decades, respected her privacy more than she did. Jesus, whom thou didst joyfully carry to Elizabeth. At the sound of the outer office door latching, she climbed slowly to her feet, knees aching.

She muttered, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” She pinched her thumb where the crucifix in her grip had bitten into it. Moving to her desk she dropped into her seat with a fragile sigh then pushed her coif back to rub her temples. Sometimes she wished they still wore the elaborate, heavily starched head covering that was once synonymous with nuns. It would have been better for hiding her bleary bloodshot eyes and pale skin than the modern headband and small veil that was now in use.

It was too early in the morning for Able’s earnest nature, too early for a woman who had consumed as many shooters as she had the night before. She couldn’t even remember leaving the bar she’d staggered out of, Casey’s or Carson’s on Level Four or Five, her wounded memory let the information go. Dragging herself in to work had required Olympian effort, and when she had looked up over her hot black coffee to see Able Stoneworthy standing there, fear disintegrated the last veils of her morning-after numbness.

Mortal. Venial. The difference in sins was a few thousand years in purgatory give or take. That was nothing. True purgatory was having a job that wouldn’t let her recognize her own G-spot. A guilty grin appeared on her face but was wiped away by a painful throb in her temples.

Then Able started in about an Angel visiting him. Smiling idiotically about it had come easily to her. That was the worst part of loving him; the lies were coming so easily to her. The irony was his trust hurt her more than his discovering the truth ever would. She set her rosary and crucifix aside, then leaned back in her chair pressing the backs of her hands to her aching eyes. “Oh, Able.” O kind and good Mother, whose own soul was pierced by the sword of sorrow, look upon us while, in our sickness…

The deceit had not been so easy when Able first brought her into his mission. Then, she had been deep in the cups of her own penance, and his religious fervor had been an easy crutch to grab onto.

She had traveled from South Africa to the New York on her 23rd birthday for a United Nations New Millennium conference on feeding the poor in developing countries. All so long ago now, but she had special interest in the topic since her country had been in dire need of such assistance. The new regimes that followed Apartheid were behaving no better than the worst of Africa’s despots. That on top of years of inequity had left her country grossly out of balance. Most of her black countrymen remained poor and were now being joined by thousands of whites. Competition for oil company revenues fueled the pirate governments and the distance between rich and poor had grown to almost insurmountable proportions.

How young she had been then, how idealistic. Then she said aloud: “How naive.” Everyone involved was naive. When the news hit about the pedophiles in the church and Rome’s complicity in their crimes there had been a mass exodus among parishioners. And Cawood’s faith had started to die.

An unnerving thunderstorm en route to New York City had filled her with dread. The pilot announced over the intercom that their landing might be delayed. Rainwater flew from the wings in spraying torrents as they landed at JFK International. She waited an hour for the ride she had been promised, and finally hired a taxi to take her into the city.

She could still remember the vehemence with which the rain fell, how it tore at the pavement around the car. Its froth formed a violent film on the windows reducing the entire world to a flat gray wall. Pedestrians moved past like shadows, flitting from blurred doorway to blurred doorway.

The Change came while she was wrestling her bags through the door of the Venture Inn. The television in the lobby asked people to standby for a report from the U.S. Department of Defense. A crowd of guests and New Yorkers sheltering from the rain gathered on the snowy blue rug in front of it. Cawood joined them, watching. The screen flickered from gray, to snow, to black and then projected the image of a news anchorman. He fixed his steady gaze on the viewers.

“A weather system is forming at a speed and magnitude unprecedented in recorded history.” The newscaster seemed anxious. “The Department of Defense and the National Weather Service have issued this joint release: ‘All citizens of the continental United States are advised to remain indoors pending further notification.’” Electric tension jumped through the people around Cawood. The statement was punctuated with satellite pictures of the earth’s surface covered with whirling tempests of black and white and gray. It had all begun three hours before, the report said. Military and civilian satellites recorded the phenomena. What at first appeared to be several hurricane formations had taken on a more destructive tone.

Global weather stations confirmed the growth of a contiguous worldwide atmospheric disturbance. The picture of the growing cloud cover intensified during the broadcast, with a time-lapse effect, until the once blue globe darkened to a uniform shadow. Soon after, the satellite picture broke up and was lost. The news anchor’s image returned, flickered and was gone forever.

Cawood paused in her reverie.

Beads of sweat stood out on her pallid forehead as the moment returned to her in full. The lights in the lobby died. A man bellowed repeatedly into his cell phone until he charged out of the building screaming his children’s names. A woman shrieked, then apologized in embarrassment. The crowd hurried across the lobby to the desk, to a line of dead pay phones on one wall. There was a loud harsh clap of thunder, and the Change had arrived.

“Damn!” she cursed. All this was behind her, but Able had a way of stirring things up. Coming into her office so early in the day babbling about Angels and salvation and a new mission. “There’s no fucking mission,” she said to the empty room.

The first days of the Change were crisp in her memory. The group at the Venture Inn had dispersed quickly: huddled, cautious shapes going into a hissing gray nothing that smelled like autumn. Cawood was taken to a room by a busboy with a flashlight: taste of salt from the back of her hand as tears came upon her in the dark. She slept uncomfortably listening to sirens and awoke next day to the rain: smell of cleansers, the dry reconditioned air on her tongue. Cloud cover kept New York in perpetual twilight: searching for her underwear on the floor, the dusty curtain made her sneeze.

Rain thundered down for weeks without end. The riots started in week two, close on the heels of the looting. There was a slow realization setting in that things had changed permanently. As communications returned at the end of the first week-radio and television signals were inconsistent and distorted-digital signals were lost, replaced by analog. American meteorologists blamed the ozone and greenhouse gases, European scientists suggested an undetected meteorite impact. Few ocean-going vessels returned from the wild maelstroms the seas had become. The melting ice caps threatened to drown coastal cities. Estimates had 85% of all aircraft aloft at the time of the Change were crashed or missing.

Electrical systems went wild, city lights and telephones flickered and died, computers crashed and subways ground to a terrifying halt deep in their dark black burrows. Factories fell silent and millions died. No one was unaffected. Presidents and Prime Ministers made reassuring statements that could not hide their ignorance. Leaders religious and political wanted calm.

Calm. The absurdity still provoked a sarcastic smile in her. Their world was dying and they asked for calm.

Her first steps off the high road came when she sought her sisters and brothers in the rapidly sinking city. They had nothing for her. There were riddles in the text and that’s all they had: the text. The Revelation of St. John had been a long contested part of the Testament, but this Change was different. And the Bishop was missing. No one had heard word from the Vatican. It was silent, but most had grown used to its methodical responses to crises in the past. From her search for guidance she came away confused.

And there was the water to worry about. It was rising every day, and New York City was so big. Twice she was drafted into the ranks of millions who built dykes against the flood. She worked beside strangers with the rain pooling about her ankles. A slight increase in wind pushed the waves up and over, collapsing the hastily constructed barriers, flooding neighborhoods. Pull back; build new dykes.

The military was brought in to build dykes but became a police force and fire brigade. The world had Changed. On the radio all reports were the same. Coastal cities the world over were drowning. There was a Federal state of emergency instituted as panic set in. Buildings were burning throughout New York, the sound of gunshots and explosions rolled up every street. And as the rain continued, people left the city.

Cawood heard about the Vatican while riding on an army transport moving refugees to the mainland. Dying witnesses swore they had seen a mushroom cloud. That pushed her into a general trance of terror and disbelief. It wasn’t until later that she found out about the nuclear exchanges in the Middle East, India and Pakistan, China and Russia. To her a simple question: if the Vatican could be vaporized, then what value the cities of man and where was God?

Science, the last refuge of the faithful, could not answer many questions. Meteorologists were baffled by the worldwide weather system that set in and stayed. Some theorized that whatever had caused the new weather patterns was so catastrophic that the atmosphere reacted by creating a suspension-an equilibrium of itself-seemingly sucking up the moisture as the North and South Poles melted. Scientists at MIT announced their initial findings: the majority of species of bacteria had died off in a mass extinction of unprecedented proportions.

Lost for a time, Cawood felt no urge to pray. It was as though heaven itself had been destroyed with St. Peter’s. Still, she could hang onto something, the basic lessons of Catholicism. Yet even as she rallied, another blow fell as the second month passed. All pregnant mammals spontaneously aborted their fetuses. And it proved in the years that followed that humanity could not conceive again. The voice of childhood had been silenced. Cawood almost joined the suicides she tended though events soon made death a crueler fate than life. No sooner was science trying to explain the great stillbirth than the dead rose up from their graves.

Raise them up to live forever with all Your saints in the glory of the Resurrection.

Each country claimed to have had the first to rise. Clambering out of mortuary drawers, coffins and medical research facilities the dead came awake, but they were not alive. Bodies continued to dehydrate, but with the extinction of most bacteria, they did not rot. And this new revivifying affect, whatever gave them life, was not for whole bodies alone, severed parts were charged with some atrocious nervous activity, mindless, but lifelike. The dead retained the characters of the people they had been in life, so long as some portion of their brain remained.

Karen swiveled her chair around to gaze out the window at the cloud tops. She never felt guilty for having Sunsight offices high up in Archangel Tower. Never regretted a single sunset she got to watch while the populace below muddled through endless days of rain. She’d helped build it after all.

10 – Dealing with the Devil

Felon sat on his bed at the Coastview Hotel. He had set his guns on a rubber sheet: the rebuilt M-16, his Smith amp; Wesson. 9 mm automatic, a. 44 Magnum Colt Anaconda, and a Ranger. 45 Colt Derringer. He started disassembling, cleaning and oiling the weapons one by one. In his business the machinery had to work perfectly. One misfire and the wrath of Heaven or Hell would be on him. Throughout the operation, he kept a loaded Taurus. 38 close at hand.

He had dropped Azokal’s check in a Level Two Branch of the First City Bank then caught a cab to the hotel. Felon usually demanded cash or valuables up front, but his reputation was growing and he knew the Demon feared his gifts too much to chance insufficient funds.

Felon knew that the old adage, “never deal with the Devil” was absolutely true. Fallen Angels claimed to be the wealthiest deities of Hell, but were an untrustworthy lot so the assassin took their boasting with a grain of salt. Typically, they were compulsively organized-like psychopathic lawyers inextricably bound to unfathomable laws of self-protection and a celestial legal system that ruled them.

Every deal was suspect the moment bloody quill was set to parchment. It was their nature to want to get the upper hand. They thought it was their right so Felon knew he could take nothing for granted. If something was missing from a contract, they knew it. Rarely, did any of them talk about bartering souls. If they had that power Felon had never seen evidence of it. Apparently, souls were a commodity that had depreciated over the last thousand years.

As Fallen they strove to emulate the Divine order in Heaven with a system of their own. Their hierarchy awarded advancement to those who won advantage over humans or over others of their own kind. Felon was never given a clear description of how it worked. And he didn’t care enough to pursue it.

He preferred dealing with Demons. They were more dangerous, but their contracts more lucrative. Almost indistinguishable from Fallen in human folklore and religion, Felon had learned that they were a completely different species. This had prompted him to make a study of each. Ignorance was lethal in his business.

Fallen had only contempt for Demons and their parallel Infernal system. Comparisons prompted indignation if not outrage. Demons were unimpressed by their own hierarchy-Felon learned it was a chaotic system of feudal anarchy. Instead the majority expended enormous wealth and power in the advancement of their own passions. Demons were ruled by revenge. They were prodigal with their riches, and most seemed willing to part with a fortune to entertain some petty personal vendetta. The money was good and the employment steady-though at times a messy and degenerate affair.

Demons hated goodness far more than their Fallen counterparts. Fallen viewed the human graces as weaknesses to be exploited. Otherwise, they worked with or around goodness, as an intrinsic matter of business. Without it, they would have no more purpose than the madness of the Demon horde.

The Demons who had contracted Felon over the years appeared to resent goodness. He chalked that up to a feeling of inadequacy born of being shut out of Fallen Hierarchy; and the envy that must have caused, combined with the precipitous drop their position took in relation to the Divine Ranks in Heaven. They hated the Angelic host just slightly more than they did Fallen.

But Demons paid handsomely and since they were often employed as minions by Fallen, they maintained a better relationship with their own servants. If the job was done well, they paid and got on about their business. Regardless, Demons were dangerous. They were a put upon species, and quick to see an insult whether intended or not.

Regarding Heaven, Hell and the Pit, Felon had never received a satisfactory answer. They existed, that was obvious. But such intricacies were lost to the assassin. He didn’t care if they came from Ohio or Denmark or Limbo, as long as they paid. Felon hated them all. They were a powerful and anarchic waste of power. He claimed no allegiance with any one. Playing the center served him best.

But Felon hated Angels most of all. He had worked for them only once before switching to more lucrative business partnerships. The Celestial Choir had wealth to share, but they were not generous with it. Their holier than thou attitude made it very easy for them to cheat at business, apparently adding an unwritten clause into every contract: “No payment necessary if said services can be considered to contain educational or redemptive value.”

Felon had experienced only one such arrangement. It had happened only months after his epiphany of pain, when an Angel approached him to whack an abusive father. The assassin’s new knowledge allowed him to believe the creature’s claim without proof. He could smell the Angel-cinnamon, sickly. The target was terrorizing his wife and child with sexual abuse and violence. Nathaniel was a Guardian Angel who appeared to Felon as a kindly old grandfather with twinkling eyes and round red nose. He was four feet tall dressed in wool sweater and slacks. A steady warm glow emanated from his halo. He wanted Felon to intervene on his behalf.

Much later, Felon learned that Angels came in all shapes and sizes. There were guardians, protectors, and messengers-though at the end of the Millennium most were regarded by humanity as little more than good luck charms. Guardians were given clients to look after without directly intervening. Intervention was the purview of God and no one else.

But Angels could bend the rules a little. They could insinuate, make helpful suggestions and minor protections. The Divine Compact kept them from doing anything else. It declared that Angels could not make themselves known to human eyes without the permission of God.

In this case, Nathaniel was at the end of his rope. The father of his client failed to learn from his mistakes, or see the light of truth through introspection. Nathaniel’s charge was a girl, 11 pre-Change years of age. She was taking the brunt of the abuse.

Nathaniel offered Felon a lost Reuben’s painting captured from a Japanese collector whose mansion had been located on the seashore near Hiroshima. The Angel picked it up moments before the atomic bomb dropped. Apparently in the seconds before a cataclysm of human wrought or natural origin the Cosmic rules were relaxed. Devils, Demons and Angels were drawn to such places by the impending doom and the screams of souls foretasting death. Angels and their fallen brethren arrived for the recovery of the works of man. Demons attended for Chaos and Hellfire.

Nathaniel offered Felon the Reuben’s work, worth a respectable fortune on the black market, since it was considered lost. He was suspicious about the transaction from the start since it was a lot of money for capping a nobody. Felon accepted and signed the contract. He shot the abusive father through the eyes two days later, removed his head and burned it.

When it came time to collect, Nathaniel balked. “Think you, that you had a hand on the pulse of God’s great plan-surely the wealth of that experience is found in your acceleration of the powers of good. Look inside, Felon,” the Angel had said in his grandfather’s voice, “and see there a light far brighter than the illusion of gold.” Felon remembered looking inside, and finding only a blaze of anger.

He had acted impetuously then. Gun flicking out, he shot the Angel four times in the face. The old man persona had melted away as the body evaporated, the flesh dissolved quickly to expose the alien skeleton beneath. Felon had only a moment to view the smoking bones, thinner and longer than human, with wings rapidly burning up in death. In a little under ten minutes an oily mark was all that remained. Felon had taken a huge chance, and he scolded himself for it later-the open face of hatred was too much like faith-too certain and self-assured. He had acted on an impulse that could have killed him.

His had been a life of simmering hatred where he was content to nurse ancient grudges-boil them like molten metal to form weapons. Only a controlled repugnance of all things gave him superiority. Such unfocused anger left him blind to the world. And he had not known at the time that Angels could be killed. Much later, he learned that Angels and Demons in physical form were vulnerable to all the ills, calamities and mortal injuries that humans were. Human beings didn’t know this, because few would offer them injury. They also had a degree of omniscience that made them impossible to surprise.

This first Angel kill made Felon aware of his gift. He was immune to their Divine perceptions. They couldn’t read his mind, so he could surprise them. He later learned he could surprise Fallen and Demons, which secured and endangered his relationships with those beings. He came to depend upon this ability. It was his livelihood and chief defense.

He drifted back from his reverie to finish oiling and assembling the. 44 magnum. He liked its weight. The assassin contemplated nothing. It was still early. A note at the front desk the night before told him he had an appointment with a Demon and former employer. They were to meet at noon. Killing the Cherubs had left the assassin restless. He needed sleep but had been too keen with adrenaline to get much the night before. He wouldn’t nap; instead Felon let his mind go numb until nothing flickered there. He was too old to drift through his memories. There was too much in his head for that.

11 – Spy in the Ointment

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Mr. Jay was standing in front of a tall wrought iron fence that completely enclosed the grounds of the St. Albert Hotel. The fence’s uprights were set in a concrete curb about three feet high. Dawn and Mr. Jay had incorporated the construction into their act with the forever child climbing to the highest rung before swan diving into her partner’s arms. At the moment, Mr. Jay clasped the fence lightly with one hand and braced himself against the concrete curb with a foot while the other dangled. Dawn climbed to a safe height, and clung there.

A crowd of fifteen people, men and women had gathered, most wearing the drab and formless business suits that were the fashion of the day. They looked just like the heavy stone and steel of the Level that pressed down on the building tops above. She thought that without faces, they’d look like lumps of the same material. Water spattered the pavement, dripping from a million leaks in the levels above.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Mr. Jay shouted over the echoing storm of traffic on the Skyway. He snatched off his top hat and swung it upside down at the crowd, gesturing to the collection basket at the curb. “I would like to ask if there is one among you who would be kind enough to assist me in this next feat of mystical prestidigitation.” He swept his hat back onto his head and then leapt lightly to the sidewalk. “You there, sir!”

Mr. Jay pointed to a man of middle pre-Change years who was leaning against one of the posts that held up the hotel’s dirty yellow awning. Startled at the suggestion, the stranger almost swallowed his cigarette. He coughed on a mouthful of smoke shaking his head. He stooped to pick up a heavy briefcase but Mr. Jay was already upon him.

“Don’t leave us just yet, Mr. Legate.” The magician held out his hand and grasped the stranger’s whose eyes had gone wide with surprise. “That is your name isn’t it? Or can I call you, Oscar?” He turned the fellow around to face the gathering.

“Oscar…” The man wore a flummoxed smile. “Oscar Legate.”

Mr. Jay smiled as a weak pattering of applause traveled through the audience. “Oscar I assure you that your hesitation while justifiable remains patently unnecessary. Your participation in today’s experiment is as safe as walking across the street. In fact…” The magician looked up at Dawn and gestured toward her. She dropped to the sidewalk, skipped forward and bowed. “I performed the same trick just the other day with the help of my good friend Mojo.” Mr. Jay smoothed the material over Oscar’s shoulders. “Of course, Mojo was a little taller than you at the start of it…”

Oscar’s eyes went wide with astonishment, and the gathered throng laughed.

Mr. Jay mimicked the man’s expression before continuing, “No, Oscar, I’m just pulling your legs of course. What I would like is to have your participation in a magical conjuration that comes down to us through the ages. A trick so profound that it is rarely taught outside of Egypt, a trick so spellbinding that the old gypsy woman who taught it to me did so only after extricating a promise that I never perform it while she lived.” He scowled then smiled. “So I killed her!”

The audience laughed as they closed the performers in a half-circle. The movement frightened Dawn a little. She skipped back to the iron bars and climbed until she was well above the group.

“Hold now. Come no closer!” Mr. Jay held a hand up. “We will need plenty of room for the magic to work.” The people moved to obey. “But not too far. You must watch closely. Behold…”

Mr. Jay left Oscar and walked over beneath Dawn’s perch where he had set his backpack. From it he slowly slid his walking stick. He whipped around too quickly for Dawn to register any of her concern with him. She didn’t like this trick and her nerves were already frayed by the presence of so any strangers.

The magician walked over to Oscar, twirling the cane as he did so. “Now Oscar!” He flashed the walking stick before him, and then gently held it out for his new assistant to inspect. “Please inform the audience of what your close inspection reveals about my walking stick.” He gestured with the cane. “Go on. Take it.”

Oscar took the walking stick, twisted its black enameled length in his hands, sighted along it like it a gun barrel, and pulled on its silver ends.

“And what have you found, Oscar?” Mr. Jay bowed.

“It’s steel with black paint on it. And the ends are tin.” Oscar smiled.

Mr. Jay’s head whipped up and he frowned. “Tin!” He snatched the walking stick away from him. “Silver-genuine silver! The very same taken from the Aztec ruins by the conquistadors.” Mr. Jay frowned at the man in mock seriousness. “Thank you, Oscar, that will be all.” The gathering laughed but quickly fell silent as Mr. Jay held the walking stick by one end. He flipped its dark length toward the sky, and held it out, his arm parallel to the ground.

“Since ancient times…” he began. Dawn inched herself a little higher. “Men of little faith have needed proof to convince their eyes of what their hearts could not see, but suspected.” Mr. Jay stepped forward. Slowly he walked around the short half-circle in front of the audience. “And so the priests of old were given the task of discovering methods for convincing doubters.” He laughed, and rolled his eyes-shooting mysterious glances at individuals in the group. “And so, I tell you now that by the same arcane magic do I come to you today to mystify…” He started to take slow circling steps. The upper tip of the walking stick began to follow his gyrating movements. “I come to amaze…” Mr. Jay stepped closer to the wrought iron fence. “And I come to terrify!”

With that he dashed the walking stick on the ground and a cobra ten feet in length appeared. It reared and hissed, at the crowd. They cried out as it took two slow lunges at them. The people retreated further. Dawn could see the black scales speckling the creature’s back; she could hear its belly rasp the wet concrete as it slithered.

Mr. Jay bellowed. “Behold!” He raised an arm, and the cobra turned toward him. The audience held its ground. “True. I come to mystify.” The snake inched forward. “To amaze and terrify…” The snake’s hood spread wide and black, its body coiled to spring. “But I come here to entertain!” On the last word, the cobra struck at Mr. Jay’s open hand. And it was gone!

The magician twirled his walking stick with his fingers. The crowd exploded with applause and cheers.

Dawn’s heart was thumping in her chest. It always looked so real! But her inner voice wouldn’t allow her the time to worry. Now! Hide in the applause. GO TO WORK! She leapt down from her perch and landed beside Mr. Jay. She clapped her little hands as hard as she could, and barked out “Bravo!” in Mojo’s gravelly voice. She skipped over and picked up the collection basket, and moved quickly from person to person. Caught up in the excitement, hands threw approving coins and bills.

“Thank you!” Mr. Jay bellowed over the noise. “Thank you good people of the City of Light!” Dawn was just starting back toward him when his eyes went wide. He rapidly scanned the faces of the gathering. Dawn danced over to him. A worried look crossed his face as he whispered, “Fifteen, now fourteen. A face is missing. Time to go.”

She thought the trick might have scared someone away, but Mr. Jay’s grim glance silenced her. He raised his hands again, smiling. “Thank you. Thank you! But we must leave now. Look for us though. Look for us…” A worried expression clenched his features when his eyes focused on something.

At just over three feet tall, Dawn could not see what Mr. Jay was looking at. He hurried to his pack and slung it over his shoulder. Dawn was at his side in a flash.

“What is it, Mr. Jay?” In her agitated state, she forgot to use Mojo’s voice.

“The man who left is bringing friends,” he said, shouldering his pack and turning to the gathering. They were just starting to break up, some making hand gestures like striking snakes. Then Dawn saw through their legs that three people in dark overcoats were crossing the street toward them.

Mr. Jay’s lips were at her ear. “Run with me, Dawn!” He pushed her ahead and she sprinted as fast as she could. The magician loped easily at her side. Behind them, a man shouted.

The St. Albert’s Hotel stood on a corner where Oceanside Boulevard met Landsrun Street-many blocks onward, she could see where the road swept up to fuse with the Third Skyway. Mr. Jay pelted headlong up the sidewalk. Dawn was keeping up to Mr. Jay on the short sprint. Ahead she could only see one long city block. The street was crowded with cars, and the sidewalk with pedestrians going to lunch. They struggled ahead. Luckily their pursuers met the same resistance.

Run! Said the grownup voice inside her head. Run girl run! Her hat and little boots jingled ridiculously.

“Stop!” a man shouted.

“There!” Mr. Jay motioned to her. On the left was a ramp that led down into a large dark underground parking garage. Dawn did not hesitate. The air was cold and wet on the ramp and her feet slipped on the damp asphalt, but she was nimble and took extra care. They scrambled through the darkness with fluorescent lights flickering overhead. Behind them echoed the sounds of pursuit.

Mr. Jay pointed to a red door. Dawn followed him to it, and ran through as he shoved it aside. They scrambled up some stairs turning round and round. The door opened below them, heavy footfalls pounded. The entertainers ran.

Dawn didn’t think. Her mind just chanted, “ Run, run, run!” Heart laboring she sprinted. As the stairs switched back on themselves, there were doors. Finally, Mr. Jay flung one wide and she followed. They were in a hallway. Thick carpet covered the floor.

“Hotel!” Mr. Jay had slowed to a jog. “Give me those.” He snatched off Dawn’s hat, and stuffed it in his pack, then motioned for her shoes. “Quickly.” He shoved the jingling shoes away. “That will help.” He looked up the hall. A smile burst across his face. “Perfect!”

Dawn followed him to a pair of steel doors. An elevator? Behind them the door to the stairs swung open with a bang. Mr. Jay swung his walking stick and stabbed the buttons on a steel panel between the doors. The bottom button lit up.

“Come on, now! Don’t make me a liar,” he said to the doors, biting his lip and flashing his eyes back the way they had come. “I just said you were perfect.”

Dawn panted, her legs were trembling, but adrenaline surged through her when she heard a voice call down the hall. “This way…”

“Don’t worry about them, Dawn.” Mr. Jay had noticed her eyes growing moist as she looked back the way they had come. “We simply need the elevator. Whatever our pursuers will do, they’ll do, if the elevator does not get to us in time. However, that is only a possible future. Be optimistic.” He smiled weakly.

Dawn could not pry her mind from the sound of heavy footfalls approaching. Then a quiet chime rang and the doors started sliding apart. Mr. Jay shoved her through and squeezed in before they finished opening. He pushed a button set in a steel panel. It had the number one on it. Then he started jabbing another button that said, “Close Door.”

Their pursuers sprinted along the hall toward them. She could feel the vibrations of their approach through her bare feet.

Then the doors ground shut. She heard another voice. “Stop!” There was a hard thud as something hit the closing door. Dawn grabbed Mr. Jay’s hand when she sensed elevator dropping.

A huge grin spread across her friend’s cheeks and his eyebrows arched.

Dawn squeaked when the elevator shuddered to a stop. Mr. Jay grabbed her hand. “Don’t worry so much.” He straightened his top hat. “We will leave in grand style.”

The doors opened. With half-closed eyes, Dawn saw an old couple standing there hand in hand. The man wore a pair of thick glasses, and the woman had a giant hat. Startled, they stepped back to let the strange pair out of the elevator.

Dawn held tight to her friend’s hand as they crossed a red-carpeted lobby. There was a desk clerk and a couple of old men reading newspapers by a fireplace. Mr. Jay led her down three short steps to the sidewalk. He took her to a taxi that waited at the curb.

“Six blocks west, please,” Mr. Jay said to the driver as the taxi pulled away from the curb. Dawn squeezed his hand until he looked down at her.

“That was exciting!” he whispered.

12 – Lots

Sister Cawood’s tongue snaked over the brown skin at the nape of the Mormon representative’s neck. The Mormon did not return the favor, opting instead to kiss the pale flesh between her breasts. Sister Juanita Powell was an attractive woman of pre-Change thirty years. Her long black hair, threaded through with silver fell in ringlets, perfectly framing intense brown eyes. The couple had become close friends fifty years into the Change when Karen had attended the San Sebesta Inter-faith Christian retreat near the rim of the New Mexican Crater. They’d become lovers three decades later when Powell was assigned to administrative duties in the Archangel Tower Mormon Offices. The affair was a close-kept secret-and the orgasms more intense because of it.

Powell was in love with Cawood so overlooked the nun’s interest in men. Cawood loved Powell, but lacked the courage to tell her the full extent of her interest. Powell was a lesbian. Cawood’s tastes had yet to be fully defined. There was no agreement between them, but Cawood knew from their late night talks that too much information would crush the Mormon. So she lied every time they met.

But she depended on Juanita’s insights, and found the Mormon’s beautiful body responsive to her every touch. Able’s visit and Cawood’s hangover left her useless for work-half an hour of staring at her coffee cup said as much. At ten she’d taken an elevator to the Mormon’s office to talk. Able had dredged up the past, and Cawood needed a distraction. But Juanita smiled impishly and started kissing her the moment she entered. A passionate exchange brought them back to the Mormon’s apartment and they had been making love for an hour. Cawood was distracted all right. The physical tastes and sensations pressed in on her. She dove so deep into her lust that she almost snarled when Juanita stopped her.

“Hey!” Juanita blurted, closing her thighs over the sister’s neck. “Let me catch my breath.”

Cawood looked up, her vision foggy; then she smiled. Straining, crawling upward, she pressed Juanita’s lips and their tongues met. They rolled over the bed, giggling in a pink embrace.

“You aren’t feeling guilty are you?” Juanita said, still sporting the traces of a Spanish accent. She rolled a fingertip around the sister’s hard and rubbery nipple.

“No. Never-anymore.” Cawood lied. “I’m sorry-I got caught up. You’re so beautiful.” Her hands slid over the Mormon’s full hips-dallied a second between her legs. A wave of passion rolled over them. “It’s Able, he came in with another crazy scheme.”

A hot emotion flitted behind Juanita’s eyes. “What now? He wants to put on an addition?” They both laughed. Building the Tower had consumed the lives of everyone involved. “A carport?”

“No,” she giggled. “Able loves the tower.” Cawood’s mind rolled over the notion. “So do I. It’s not that.” The sister remembered Able’s earnest face. She realized how important this was to him. How important their spiritual intimacy was. He trusted Cawood. “He’s just getting revved up again.” Juanita’s body went rigid. The Mormon’s hand clasped on Cawood’s wrist.

“Can’t he bother someone else?” She shook her head. “I like Able, don’t mistake me. I do. But always he goes to you.” She kissed Cawood again, her body softened. “What does he want now?”

“I can’t tell you.” Cawood sighed. She ran her hands over Juanita’s soft shoulders. “I want to. I do. But, he trusts me so much.” And he shouldn’t!

“Don’t you trust me?” Juanita’s eyes glimmered. “I won’t tell.” She patted the bed sheets, slid her hand over Cawood’s vulva. “You trust me with this.”

“I know, Juanita. I do.” Her breath caught, and she closed her eyes. This was what it was all about-relationships: the sharing of trust, of intimacy, giving and receiving access to the soul. But it was God’s. It was the Holy Mother’s. I’m so fucking bad. A desperate part of her mind searched her memory of Juanita’s apartment. Liquor, there had to be liquor. “Able won’t trust just anyone. And he trusts me.” Why not tell? Her mind snickered. The whole thing’s a joke!

“I like that about you.” Juanita’s warm spirit returned and they shared a kiss. “I guess he does too.”

Cawood remembered first meeting Able. She had been on a personal revival of sorts, after falling far from grace fifteen years after the Change. She had tried to blame the difficulties with her vow of chastity on the fact that the Change apparently halted her aging process, leaving her in the body of a young woman for far longer than any nun ever had before. Before long she stopped blaming anything at all, and dove into the erotic world of human sexuality. Vows and chastity were thrown to the wind, and she had cavorted with any interested man or woman.

God had left her behind with the sinners, so she would sin. But, she hit bottom after going on a drunken binge with two men she met at a Catholic sponsored conference on Poverty in the World of Change. She woke up naked in a hotel bathtub. As she hurried to leave, she discovered one of the men was dead from an overdose of barbiturates. Cawood was already struggling with the new realities of dying and the thought of becoming one of the walking dead was too terrifying. And for a time, she was scared straight. For a time, the fear brought her back to her faith.

She took this new passion for life to the lost souls in the streets of the City. They would shuffle out of their despondency long enough to listen to her loving words about God and faith, and while salvation was rare, she spoke the Word of God, and speaking it gave her the strength to remember her vows.

She spent the following years praying with ragtag groups of the lost and homeless, and revived her Bible studies. She worked at mission houses and shelters. Cawood even began to think that the Word held the answer for the Change-a reply to its dark challenge. Trials defined a person’s faith. And understanding the trials became her passion.

While working at a methadone clinic on Level Two she stopped on the street one day to speak to a group of forever-teen addicts who hung around looking for handouts. They’d given her the predictable guff, but she had hope for one of them who had hesitated before walking away. As she bent to retrieve her bag, a man stepped up to her. He was tall, blue-eyed and wore a deeply creased frown on his face. “You have Faith, Sister! Hallelujah!” Then he blushed. “I hope you don’t mind. I overheard what you said to those poor unfortunates.” He continued to blush. “Inspiring.”

“Thank you, sir.” She had studied his demeanor. His head was large, his visage somewhat wasted. “God’s love is the answer.” She gave him a longer glance. “You’ve accepted this, brother?”

“I have, and share the message with all His world. And I shall ever strive to do so. This darkness assails us from the outside and we must not allow it into our hearts. The sun no longer shines on us from above so those of us who remember it must remind our brothers and sisters who have forgotten. For the Light remains!” His thick lips moved expertly around the words.

“Sometimes they only see the clouds that cover it,” she had said, the man’s gaze was open and honest.

“That is why my mission is to building a shining beacon for all the world to see. A Lighthouse of Hope so the storm gripping the world will claim no more of our brothers and sisters on the rocks of despair. We must light the way.” He reached out a hand, and she clasped the warm flesh in hers. “I have seen the passion with which you speak. And you speak while so many are silent. That tells me there is a will to live inside of you, and a will to live is evidence of hope. I need that hope if I am to accomplish what I struggle so long to do alone. Sister, let me tell you of my mission for it comes Heaven sent, and I can carry this only so far alone. I think you will agree that there is but one choice for us.”

And Reverend Stoneworthy had told the sister of his mission. All of it: his fall from grace, the Angel and the Tower. He had already done much work, and the plans for the Tower construction were being drawn. But resistance among the gathered faiths slowed things. With her help he could expedite this mission. So compelling was the light in his eyes, so seductive was the passion of his revelation that Cawood saw this as a penance for all, and so she committed herself to the difficult task ahead.

She dove into the work like a heaven sent shower and scrubbed herself clean with endless meetings and protocol. Together, with the help of like-minded people of God from the four-corners of the earth, they labored to raise the funds to build Archangel Tower, and in its construction-they believed-the introduction to the manifesto for salvation.

And they succeeded. Combining their passion for God had made them unstoppable in their ability to influence and innervate. Gradually, the Tower grew slowly at first, growing in speed with each passing year-as its magnificence was understood. For as the structure grew, so also did its image as a beacon of hope. Stoneworthy’s mission became the mission for all. Within Archangel’s thousands of rooms would be headquarters for the world’s religions. Theologians would be called there to study the Change, to divine its meaning. Archangel Tower reached out to God.

Dark waves of guilt buffeted Cawood’s mind. Rest Your weary ones. Bless Your dying ones. Soothe Your suffering ones. Pity Your afflicted ones.

“Hello?” Juanita’s face moved close; a smile played at the smooth corners of her mouth. “I hate to interrupt.”

“I’m sorry.” Cawood smoothed her hair. “Just thinking.” Damn it, Able.

“Well, you just snuggle in here.” Juanita’s lithe body pressed hot and close. “I’ll try to get your full attention.”

Cawood felt a tingle run through her body from the base of her spine to her breasts. “You’re so sweet.” Her nipples rubbed the Mormon’s. “I’ve just had an idea.”

“What could that be, Sister Cawood?” Juanita’s hands explored her belly. “Oh, dear, I must thank Able. It is pleasant being your distraction.”

And as they embraced, Cawood fled from her lies and her faithlessness. She immersed herself in sin until it felt like drowning.

13 – Employer from Hell

Felon hated the cold. The chill wind that tore at him rode the crest of a Winter rain. The frigid weather system was plowing through the day like a glacier, dire and destructive. Its impact diminished or increased in relation to your location in the City. The City population created heat and certain elevations in the Levels trapped it. The metropolis had its own environment, and it all revolved around humidity and the dispersal of water dropped by incessant rains. The middle Levels were warmest, the upper Levels, ironically, the driest and the lowest, were the coldest. The damp air flowed downhill.

The assassin pulled his overcoat tight around his chest and spat a curse. Of all the sensations, cold was worst. He hated the cold because he couldn’t prepare for it. They could forecast the temperature, but they’d never be able to tell him how cold it would feel. And the Change made it entirely unpredictable. He couldn’t even count on seasons. His business depended on speed and sensation. He couldn’t afford to be constricted by thermal underwear and wool suits. Gloves were out of the question.

Felon clenched and unclenched his bare hands like he was strangling the air. The fingers were numb; but the gripping action moved the blood and kept them supple enough to work the. 9 mm automatic in the large front pocket of his overcoat. He was on his way to meet a Demon. Instead of his client’s luxurious Level Five office, he’d been given instructions to meet in the basement of a six-story parking garage on Level One-which had to be one of the coldest places in the City.

He parked his rental car two floors up, and descended the rest of the way on foot. He’d be an easy target in a car within the cramped confines of a parking garage. A pedestrian couldn’t be parked in and gunned down.

Felon took no chances. His client had exceptional taste, followed the rules of the Unholy Compact, and dealt fairly in the past. But he was a Demon, and by his nature unable to easily accept restrictions. The Unholy Compact was a book of laws that balanced off the equation of the Bible.

Fallen followed the letter of the Compact like jailhouse lawyers, convicts who studied law to force their own release. Knowledge and command of all the loopholes in Cosmic law was a driving force in their Infernal lives.

Demons were ungoverned twists of passion, and subordinate to Fallen for that very reason. They paid lip service to the Compact, but were not bound by it. They adopted affectations of sophistication to counter the perception that they were subordinate. A Demon once explained that they were powerful beings that predated human civilization. They evolved alongside humanity from dim dark beginnings and were around before the Egyptians, the Romans, or the Stone Age Britons invented their complicated religions. Ancient humans actually begged them to play God. The association corrupted them all eventually. The arrival of the One God created a psychological self-destruction felt by all.

This God and his followers called Demons evil, and cast them in the Pit. But something must have happened to the One God, because the Change came and ended their long period of bondage. The Angels had returned, and Fallen walked the earth in little disguise. But the Unholy Compact remained as an ancient agreement that all feared breaking in case that brought the One God’s return.

Felon was meeting with Baron Balg, a powerful Demon who claimed to be three thousand years old. He paid well. Balg’s personal assistant, Senji Shaiko had set up the meeting and its location.

Felon uncurled his hands and nonchalantly dropped them into his coat pockets as he walked down the ramp. His numb fingers rested on his gun.

A figure stood at the far end of the parking garage, shadowy in the dim overhead light. Balg wore a black broad-brimmed pimp’s hat with a long scarlet trench coat. Red and white wingtips protruded from beneath dark purple trousers. A calfskin glove covered the hand that twirled an obsidian walking stick. Long curved ram’s horns arced through the brim of the Demon’s hat. His eyes had an amber glow that flared a deeper red when he caught Felon’s gaze.

“My dear, Felon.” His voice was harsh and gravely. His face though human, had bestial qualities: broad nose and wide mouth full of sharp tiger’s teeth. A fringe of dark hair followed the underside of his jaw. “Sorry for the short notice!” Neither of them wasted time on a handshake.

Felon nodded. Demons liked to intimidate. Since Balg could take any shape, the assassin knew he had left his horns on for a reason.

“Felon…” The Demon’s features fell as the assassin approached. “You look exceptionally grim today.”

Felon twisted his lips, hating the small talk.

“Cold?” Balg gestured with his cane and a ring of foot-tall flames grew up around them, colored them with passionate red light.

Felon snarled. It was foolish to make an obvious show of force when their meeting place had been chosen for secrecy.

“The City is bothering you, no?” Balg’s features twisted with concern.

“Irrelevant.” The assassin fished in his coat pockets for a cigarette. He lit one.

“Relevance is relative,” Balg said. A cigar appeared in his hand, lit and smoking. He took a deep pull on it. “A revelation for you, perhaps?” He laughed low and coarsely.

Felon’s back warmed from the ring of flame.

“Oh, can’t we drop this sad back and forth? We’re friends. Let’s talk like friends!” Balg smiled fiercely.

Felon said nothing. His face was stone.

Balg’s features dropped as he studied the assassin’s face, and then broke into a toothy grin. “You are a fucking snake. I offered the sign of friendship. Please feel free to take me up on it at your leisure.” Balg straightened, both hands resting on his cane. “You have worked for me before and completed each task with your painstaking professionalism. You’re the best in the business.” The Demon stepped smoothly forward, reached out to slip a hand under Felon’s elbow and then thought better of it, drawing him on with a nod of his head. “Of course, you’re the only one in the business.” The ring of flames broke before them as they walked, the fire now tracing a path on either side. They crossed the slush-covered garage floor.

Felon drew in on his cigarette.

“And normally, the objects of my disaffection are of the human or…” He smiled and pointed upward with his cane. “ Other variety. But, I have a special job I would like you to take care of that involves a competing organization.”

Fallen. Felon thought. Whacking Fallen was dangerous. They had no allegiance with their own kind and had little to do with each other. Put Fallen out of the way: wash a partner out of the firm. Bump someone off that occupies space in the chain above you, or someone who is busily climbing below-the ends justified the means every time. Business was harsh in the Infernal world, and few would seek revenge for a dead competitor. But, all Divine creatures felt the transgression of a mortal stepping beyond his place. And like it or not, they were Fallen, and had fought the Great War against Heaven. Felon would be a fool to think that there were no quiet alliances, and no chance of revenge. It was big money.

Balg’s massive brow wrinkled. “I didn’t quite catch that. You must forgive me but you were thinking about something there, and I almost caught it.” He chortled. “ You force me to read body language!”

Felon’s stomach tightened. Balg was testing him.

The Demon chuckled. “Mirgeth, a Fallen of some power, has taken it upon himself to fall rather lustfully for a certain young human woman, with whom I have similar intentions. Unlike myself, he tries to win her affections with lust. He has for some time been sending her an Incubus to tend to her physical needs in her sleep. Such attentions are dangerous to a mortal, for there is no satiation for the Incubus. He will always please her, for he himself will never be pleased.”

“Who does Mirgeth run with?” Felon shook his head.

“A freelancer formerly with Lucifer,” Balg said and smiled with yellowed carnivore teeth. “Don’t misunderstand me, my wolf. Mirgeth isn’t the target. This is family business. I want you to hit the Incubus who has been rather successfully foiling my attempts to woo the young maiden. With him prodding her every fucking night, why send flowers?”

Woo. Felon knew what that meant. The Incubus was interfering with Balg’s attempt at manipulation or outright possession. Incubi and their female counterparts, Succubae, were Demons. They were a subclass of that Infernal type, much like Cherubs were of Angels.

He nodded. Felon knew that Incubi were dangerous creatures that could use sexuality as a weapon. Not Fallen, but killing them wasn’t easy.

“I’ll need access to her home. And there’s the chance she will see me. I don’t like that and if she’s yours, I can’t put a bullet in her.”

“Of course not, Felon. No. No. No bullet’s in her-please! Remove the Incubus. I understand there is a great deal of risk. But like anything,” Balg said with a chuckle, “you will have a price, Felon. Do not worry about access to her bedchambers; I have a copy of her house key for you. And I know her habits and patterns. I watch her,” he said huskily, a string of saliva suddenly running past his fangs. “I shall tell you exactly when you can enter her home.”

“ You whack him,” Felon growled. “Family. You’ve got the right.”

“Actually, Felon he is family.” Balg’s eyes glowed along with his cigar. “Stahn is a relative of mine. I suppose a nephew in your terms. I would be uncomfortable punishing him personally.”

“Price,” Felon started, before any more information was imparted. The assassin didn’t want to know the rest until his price was accepted.

“Of course.” Balg’s smile resembled a snarl. “Fifty thousand dollars in lost Incan gold. That is the ore value, some of the artifacts are worth twice that, should you endeavor to sell them as is .”

“Eighty grand in ingots,” Felon said. He wasn’t interested in fencing antiques. “Forty up front delivered to the Coastview Hotel by six tonight.” He lit another cigarette, turning to conceal the shiver that ran through his hands.

Eighty grand and you take the starch out of that little prick.” Smiling, Balg drew a tube of rolled parchment from his coat. “The customary contract.” He handed it to Felon.

Moving under the flickering fluorescent, Felon unrolled the parchment. He scanned it while searching an inner pocket for his magnifying glass. The assassin had bargained for information about such an item with another employer. A special film on the lens showed any magic script. He went over the contract with the treated glass. Balg’s invisible seal was there, a disemboweled ram crucified on jagged swords, but that was customary. He put the glass away.

“Pen.” The Demon reached around him. Felon took the steel quill from the heavy hand, and punctured the fleshy part of his thumb with it. Dark blood seeped up the length of the nib. He signed and handed the quill to Balg who drew some of his own blood and signed.

“Very well, Felon.” Balg put the contract away, before giving him an envelope. “The address, her habits, and the key I mentioned are inside.”

Felon shook the envelope.

“It’s a pity you can’t kill him slowly,” Balg said, bloodlust bringing more saliva from his fangs. “But I understand the limitations of your abilities.”

“I will remember your interest in my limitations.” Felon slid the envelope into his coat. “When?”

“Kill Stahn tonight.” The Demon’s lips drew back in a grotesque grin. “You may have to leave town soon. Everyone’s talking about the Cherubs. Paid for one and he whacks the other for fun.” He showed his canines. “Contact my office uptown for the rest of your fee.”

Balg faded out of sight. The magical fires flickered and were gone. The assassin shivered on his way up to the car. Felon got in, started the engine, and turned the heat up to full. He would look in the envelope when he saw the gold.

14 – Distraction

Mr. Jay had a thing for women. That’s what he called it: a thing! Dawn regretted asking him about it. “Look at them, Dawn. How can I love just one?”

Well what was that supposed to mean? Dawn didn’t understand his wandering eye so it frightened her and being permanently prepubescent left her little to work with.

“You won’t understand,” he explained whenever the subject came up. “You aren’t built for it-and you may never be. The whole business must be alien to you-picture books or not. Understanding why is irrelevant.” A spider of his fingers ran through her hair. “They are honey to me. And I’m a bee.”

Well what was that supposed to mean? Dawn liked honey too and loved finding it on their travels in broken hives and abandoned houses. But she didn’t think she was a bee. She loved honey, but knew it could be trouble. Dawn warned, “Too much will give you a sore belly.”

“If only, darling,” Mr. Jay moaned wistfully. “If only.”

It was because of his thing for women that she still didn’t know why the men were chasing them. In her heart of hearts the forever girl knew that his thing for women would never harm her; but it filled her with dread just the same. She just didn’t understand it. So she was sometimes overwhelmed by a fear that Mr. Jay would one day prefer the company of women to hers. Dawn felt queasy just thinking of the things women could do. She’d heard enough from some of the older kids at the Nurserywood. And a bad one Kevin once showed her a magazine. Yuck!

Dawn’s inner voice suggested that Mr. Jay might meet a nice woman who would like Dawn-perhaps a woman like her mother. But the forever girl hesitated to accept that. She just couldn’t take the chance.

Dawn contemplated these notions where she hid under the stairs that led up to this new woman’s apartment. Waiting was okay; she did a lot of waiting. And hiding too, there was lots of that. Mr. Jay was her only friend, and she knew he cared about her-in fact he went out of his way for her. His thing was beyond her and she had to learn to let it go.

This woman had caught Mr. Jay’s wandering eye not long after the taxicab dropped them off. She was dark-haired and of a pre-Change twenty or so-though Dawn was never good at guessing grownup ages. This woman showed off her bumpy woman’s body in tight black clothing and wore sunglasses. Sunglasses? The forever girl couldn’t believe it. The sun hadn’t broken cloud in a hundred years.

It was Dawn who first caught the woman’s eye-dressed as she was as a dark-bearded midget.

“How sweet!” the woman trilled from the doorway of a coffeehouse. “Such a cute little man.” She dropped to her knees so quickly that it startled Dawn-her nerves still blazing from the chase.

“Forgive me, little friend!” The woman gasped, shocked by the speed with which Dawn had moved. The forever girl watched her from behind Mr. Jay’s knees. “I just wanted to see your face!” The woman rose to her full height, eyes locking on Mr. Jay’s before exclaiming, “Your little friend is shy!”

“Wouldn’t you be?” The magician looked her up and down replying. “Frankly, the world has become a frightening place for me!”

The woman regarded him quickly before replying, “For me also.” Her features softened as she smiled down at Dawn’s bearded features. “I’m so sorry.”

Dawn only managed a suspicious half-smile and growled assent before Mr. Jay began, “We’re entertainers…”

His voice took on a tone that Dawn knew all too well. He had a voice for entertaining on the sidewalks and one for talking to Dawn, and another voice for talking to women. After a few minutes discussion, Dawn discovered that the woman’s name was Carmen, was marooned in the City after the Change so long ago, and still didn’t know if her parents in Paris were alive or dead.

This whole exchange had taken place in the awkward space between a low brick wall and a wooden fence that ran out to the street in front of the coffeehouse. As people made their way in and out of the door, Dawn had to keep herself as small as possible.

The whole time that Carmen had talked, Mr. Jay listened and nodded and spoke and before long she invited him back to her apartment. Mr. Jay said it was on their way anyway so why not.

As she sat under the stairs and waited for the grownups to finish their thing in the rooms above, Dawn remembered the first time she had recognized a change in Mr. Jay’s voice when he spoke to women. She rarely spoke to other people, so her knowledge of Mr. Jay’s voice was intimate. It was the third or fourth time that he had used this voice that she asked him about it. He smiled.

“You’ve got to give me something,” Mr. Jay said blushing. He picked at the ragged hem of his coat and twirled his dirty top hat. “I’m not much more than a beggar without it… And as much as I trust these women’s hearts-their eyes, well they are another matter.”

Dawn pressed the issue: “Is it a trick?”

Again Mr. Jay blessed her with his secret smile. “Not like a card trick or some sort of illusion that confuses the senses. It’s really just listening.” Her friend pondered the point for a little. “In fact, it’s mostly listening. You have to hear past the words to feel the emotion behind them.” Then he laughed. “And there might be more to the process. It’s hard to tell; but who would blame me if there were. I was too duty bound in my former life.” He squinted in a villainous way. “But, I’ve always had a thing for women.”

The forever girl drifted back to where she hid under the stairs like a troll. Carmen was nice to her during their walk to the apartment, but upon their arrival Mr. Jay had insisted that his friend, Mojo wait for them on the main floor-somewhere out of the way. He pointed with his walking stick. “My associate has had a terrible time learning a certain few card tricks. I must implore him to use the time practicing. We shan’t be long, Mojo.” He handed Dawn his pack, and the pair walked up the stairs to Carmen’s apartment. The building was very old, like it was built just after the Change. Stairs at the end of the hall leading down suggested that the building protruded through the Level they were on. It was an old structure so Dawn had no trouble finding a place to hide behind some trashcans under the stairs.

While she scooted around for comfort, Dawn wondered what was going on up there. She remembered Kevin’s magazine and felt like puking about what that crazy boy said. But she was curious just the same.

Mr. Jay’s descriptions of what actually took place were vague and misleading. “We had tea…” Was the one he tried at first, until he realized that Dawn could have tea too, so he added quickly, “And talked about things that grown ups have to talk about. Adult communication, Dawn.”

Dawn brooded on her backpack chair and picked at her sticky beard. Mr. Jay would soon come skipping and whistling his way down the stairs very soon, but she couldn’t shake the anxious thoughts just the same. She knew it was sex up there or something like it, but she couldn’t understand its attraction. Usually after these adult communications, Mr. Jay would call her out of hiding, and the pair of them would make their way back to wherever their hideout was. As she stewed, her mind turned to dark imaginings.

What if Mr. Jay stayed up there all night? Or worse, what if Mr. Jay fell in love with this Carmen. Real love, not just the love he felt for them all. Dawn knew that sex and love were sometimes talked about like they were the same thing, but she didn’t know what either was really. And as always it was while keeping these sad obsessive thoughts from her mind that she most had to fight the urge that inevitably sprang into being. I have to go get Mr. Jay! Make sure he’s okay!

Only once, not long after she had first taken up with Mr. Jay, had she found that urge impossible to resist. That time, she was hiding in a backyard garden shed while Mr. Jay was busy having adult communications in the house with a big breasted woman who had really liked their act. They entertained that night at an inn Mr. Jay described as something from Henry Fielding but with rain. An old gas station he said less imaginatively, later.

Dawn only knew that it was in one of the dirty little villages that had cropped up after the Change-at a crossroads in the wild lands far to the north and west of any of the bigger cities and the highways. But as Dawn hid herself in this garden shed she struggled with this fear and the urge. What if Mr. Jay was tired of her company? It was only two years since her mother disappeared and a year since she found Mr. Jay.

The fear became too much, and leaping from her hiding place she ran into the woman’s house-hot tears pouring over her round cheeks. Dawn felt terrible replaying that particular memory, but the shame always kept her dangerous urge at bay. She wasn’t embarrassed surprising Mr. Jay naked in bed on top of the yellow-haired woman-also naked-not then, and not now. It was what Mr. Jay said after that made her cheeks flush red.

He had followed her back out to the shed when she ran. A light rain gave the grass a shushing sound as his boots slipped through it. Orange light from a lamp jumped in front of him. At first she had thought she would be punished, but even then, she couldn’t imagine Mr. Jay punishing her. Instead of that, when he found her cowering on some tarps in the far corner of the shed, he had gently called her out. Dawn could remember the look on his face, he was sad not angry.

And he said: “I am sorry that things have to be the way they are, but they do. The open world is not safe for you, and yet I must live my life too. I will not deny it. Dawn, all I want you to do is trust me, have faith in me. I will never lie to you.”

And he never had, as far as she could tell. But the memory always calmed her down, made waiting more fruitful than fearful. Mr. Jay would return, he always did. Hugging that hope to her chest she started dozing. But a thought brought her back. Why did those men chase them?

15 – Night Creature

Sister Cawood climbed out of the taxi. The driver stared in the rearview as she threw one, then another leg out the door. His eyes flashed wide when her spandex miniskirt rolled up her thighs. Outside the cab she paused to wriggle it back into place. Feeling his eyes staring at her every action caused pleasurable impulses to ripple over her skin. She bent at the window to pay him. His face held a look of passionate disbelief and desire.

“What?” She threw money in his lap. “You never see a girl without her panties before.” Cawood didn’t wait for an answer. A succulent and abhorrent realization tugged at the corners of her mouth as she wondered what he would have thought had he known she was a nun.

Orgasmic tremors ran down her legs at the thought. To look at her that way, had he known-especially if he was Catholic. The notion sent a pulse of pleasure over her abdomen and up her spine. She turned from the cab, pulling the purple and pink miniskirt over her butt. In addition to this provocative gear she wore a lavender plastic jacket and white cotton tube top. She had bound her hair on top of her head with a pink scarf. Purple pumps and matching rubber hoop earrings completed the picture. From a small belt purse she pulled a compact and cosmetics clutch. She touched up the bright lipstick without catching her gaze in the mirror.

Mary, Mother of God we confidently undertake to repulse the attacks and deceits of the devil.

The music pounded out of time to the rhythmic flicker of the neon sign. The sound, like all sound in the City came out distorted and strange as it bounced first off the buildings around and across from it, then as it returned from its echo off the solid Level above. Hissing car noises came from everywhere, echoing and reverberating among the City’s many facets. A light mist fell on a dark and noisome breeze. The pavement sparkled with the same pink as the neon sign across from her.

The bar was called “Carthage.” A stylized elephant was worked into the polished steel sign over the door. The name and image briefly conjured ancient memories from history lessons almost forgotten-brought vague references to Hannibal crossing the Alps.

“When in Rome,” she heard her voice say. It was a different voice from the one she used in Archangel Tower. This was deep and resonant. It was throaty and free. She snapped her belt purse shut and strutted across the street toward the entrance.

There was a lineup. Forty people from all walks milled behind a barricade. There were no telltale distinctions of class, just the type of thing you could find at a Level Four nightclub. It was a low enough Level to be exciting but high enough to be respectable without being too public-an example of the complicated end of the world social ethic. The rich tried to fuck the poor and the poor tried to fuck the rich. Nothing new, just more extreme-there were few illegal drugs anymore and most of them were sold at the counter alongside over proof alcohol.

As Sister Cawood jogged out of the way of a retro-Beetle van a number of Bully Boys in line started crowing. Bully Boys ran in gangs. She’d heard enough about them in talks with clients at the Relief Center to be wary of them. They promoted a sadomasochistic lifestyle with the onus on omnisexual behavior. Gang members could be identified by their habit of staining parts of their anatomies-usually bright neon reds, oranges or blues. They dyed the flesh around their eyes, ears and orifices. Their clothing was rubber and leather, with chrome and steel accessories.

She was thrilled and repulsed by their lewd suggestions and their graphic appreciation of her body. She could not resist smiling at their taunts or feeling guilty at her response. The catcalls she received caused her abdomen to pulse with pleasure. Her face flushed. For the moment, she felt safe from them, since they were stuck close to the front of a growing line behind a barricade, and would be unlikely to break ranks just to hassle her. Still, she imagined what would happen if a gang of them ever got her alone-really got their hands on her. Her nipples tingled.

Their vocal approval turned to roars of indignation as she walked past the lineup and approached the two bouncers who stood like stonework before the door.

“Back of the line.” A blond man with a spider tattooed over his left eye gestured with his chin. He wore leather pants and a T-shirt.

“Oh fuck off!” she said, moving closer, running a fingertip up his arm to a steroid-enhanced biceps. “I’m freezing.” She dropped her gaze knowing the bouncer’s eyes would follow, and with two fingers slowly lifted her skirt a few inches exposing more pale skin. “You don’t want me to freeze…”

The Bullyboys howled at that one, booing and hissing her performance. A big one in the lead wearing rubber bib overalls pushed his dark welding glasses up.

“You bitch!” he yelled. She saw that his lips and strong cheeks were smeared a dark red. “You Brazil-waxing bitch! I’m on the highway to hell too!” This was followed by howls of laughter from his companions. “Shake your ass for them, Cherry!” they yelled. More laughter.

The other bouncer laughed along with them. “Yeah, you go in baby. You’re a peach.” The bald man had a Mohawk of bolts piercing the skin across the top of his skull. One of his hands squeezed her left buttock.

Cawood snarled and smiled at him, then moved through the door they held open. She made sure her buttocks ground against the bouncer’s groin. A grunt of pleasure and she moved past. She walked through darkness in a short hallway past a smoke-filled coat-check then the music caught her. A throbbing electronic beat hooked on something deep inside her body and drew her in. The vibrating air ran invisible pulsing fingers over her skin. Passion and shame colored her cheeks as she pulled a cigarette out and lit it. She watched out of the corner of her eye as men along the bar devoured her with looks. Sodomy. Sin . Purgatory. Whore. Cawood felt a tingle rush over her pelvis as they whispered approval to each other.

She took a deep drag from her cigarette and walked over to the bar purposefully choosing a point between two large groups of youngish looking men. She thought “youngish” because she knew that everyone had suffered the effects of the Change and were a century older than they looked. But she sidled in between a couple of tall men one black and one white, purposefully ignoring their gazes. She had noticed a pair of women eyeing her seriously but fresh from Juanita, she was not in the mood for more cunnilingus. She felt like a man.

“Vodka and seven!” she shouted at the bartender.

A pale redheaded man with serious lines around his mouth nodded and made the drink.

“Hey sister!” a man said to her left.

Cawood froze, fear coursing through her.

“Hey sweetheart,” a voice said on her right. She turned slowly. He was tall and muscular. His skin was as black as coal and shone with a blue light. “Can we buy you a drink?”

Her fear drained away as she looked at the man’s solid chest. “Yes, you can.”

“I’m Dave.” He smiled, the black light turning his teeth sun bright. “That’s my buddy Raul.”

Cawood turned to his friend. He had long sandy hair, was shorter than the black man, and of a smaller build.

“We’re waiting for our bro’ Sam.” Dave called her attention back by tugging at a loose locket of her hair. “We’re gonna trip.”

“Trip?” Cawood took a long sip of her drink, turning her back to the bar so she could see both men. “Where are you going?”

“Ah fuck,” Raul said, his eyes wide and pupils dilated. “Trains already left baby.”

“Hey sister.” Dave grabbed Cawood’s free hand. “What’s your name?”

“Call me Karrie.” Cawood smelled his cologne as she shouted her name.

“Here’s your ticket. Karrie.” He placed a small colored capsule in her hand.

Cawood looked at it, then up into Dave’s dark eyes. “What is it?”

“Fucking Salvation Baby.” He laughed showing all of his teeth.

“Salvation.” She held the capsule up in the weird light. “I need Salvation!” Cawood tipped her head back and dropped the capsule in. It tasted like nothing, but she washed it down with a splash of her drink. She looked at her companions. They slapped each other’s palms laughing. “Salvation!” Cawood felt Raul’s hand slide over her hips and pause over her tailbone.

“You’re fucking beautiful, Karrie,” he said, his breath garlicky with chemical traces.

“You’re not!” She laughed, and then kissed him wetly.

Raul looked up at Dave and the pair shared a secret smile. Cawood watched the writhing bodies on the dance floor as she waited for the drug to kick in.

16 – The Hit

Balg’s key opened the apartment door without a sound. Felon moved in quickly, quietly locked the door behind him. He hurried cautiously through the living room. It was late 20th Century female. The walls were pink, the carpets red. Victorian era remake chairs and chesterfield gathered around a maple wood coffee table on a dark Indian throw rug. Magazines fanned out across the table’s shiny surface. Plaque-mounted prints hung on the walls. Felon hated it at first glance. Fucking women.

His eyes scanned for and found the fire escape’s black iron silhouette at the end of a hallway that brought him to the bedroom and bath. A feathered spirit catcher hung in the window that opened onto it. To his left, he passed a small kitchenette with tiny breakfast nook, stove and fridge. The apartment was small, well maintained, and intended for a single occupant.

He opened the bedroom door on silent hinges. The bed had a floral-patterned comforter in place and a pair of pillows in lace-trimmed covers. He closed the door behind him. Balg’s envelope had contained a photo of the woman: a redhead, five-foot-six, athletic build and chestnut eyes. The photo had been snapped as she climbed from a car, unaware. Chrissy Morgan had a candid carnal look that vaguely stirred something in Felon. The combination of apparent youthful innocence and sexuality started to explain the Demon’s interest in her. The bio completed it.

Age: 27 (Pre-Change), Occupation: Secretary for City Phone Company. She worked from 8:30 to 4:30. Arrived home after a workout at Silver’s Gym at approximately 7:45 p.m. if she didn’t eat out with friends, 9:30 if she did. The file said she was meeting someone from work at the gym at seven-thirty. She’d be home after that.

Morgan was a member of the New Life Group-an organization that sprang up fifty years after the Change promoting a New Life in a New Age through temperance, nutrition and exercise. Its founders believed the regimen encouraged the growth of latent powers in the mind. Felon thought it was a waste of discipline. Chrissy went to bed early and got up early. She was Demon bait.

The assassin glanced at his watch: nine o’clock. It was early, but success depended on the element of surprise. He looked around the bedroom and walked to the closet. Folding lattice doors: perfect. Felon could set up his hunter’s blind behind them. He stretched, took a deep breath to relax his body before entering, and then pulled the closet doors shut after him. He settled himself cross-legged behind perfumed dresses and suits. He pulled his gun from its holster, checked the silencer and laid it in his lap. He waited.

The Incubus would be dangerous. The assassin had long ago learned to shape innate fears into reflexive defenses-so much so that he had almost lost the ability to flinch or be surprised. And his life, his individuality became irrelevant when he started killing. The storm of concentrated fury protected him like razor wire.

Felon heard the door click. A muffled voice followed, a woman’s humming a formless tune. There were thumps and bangs of a briefcase dropping and shoes being kicked off. Then he heard the quiet rustling of a nylon rain jacket falling to the floor or over a chair. Felon lost sound of her, until he heard clicking, a beep, and then garbled monotones as she listened to her phone messages. He’d seen the ancient reel-to-reel by the door. A long beep, and more clicks. There followed a rushing of water and more humming. Then the bedroom door opened. A dim light flicked on. Felon’s hand reflexively tightened its grip on the gun. He watched her through the slats, moving rapidly toward the closet. She flung the doors wide.

The assassin was hidden behind the long dresses and coats. His pulse raced when he smelled her perfume, and the breeze from her movements touched the hair on the back of his hands. She was dressed in a pair of tight black leggings and tunic. He couldn’t see her face, but he had glimpsed it as she approached the closet. It was Morgan.

With quick motions her tunic was a tangle on the carpet and her tights were down and off. Felon’s position allowed a detailed view of her taut buttocks as she walked away; but he blinked his eyes mechanically, the thought of killing more important than arousal. She slipped into her bathrobe and left the bedroom. Faintly, he could smell the woman’s scent rising from the tangle of clothes on the floor an arm’s reach from him. He raked the gun across his ribs to keep his focus.

When the Incubus was engaged, Felon would stand and fire. He had four clips in his coat pockets, two in easy reach thrust through his belt. Felon’s heartbeat surged at the thought of the kill. Stahn might have any number of tricks up his sleeves, but a low-level Demon like an Incubus was unlikely to waste energy transubstantiating a weapon from the Infernal places. Balg said it took too much power.

Felon looked up as the woman re-entered the room in her bathrobe. She hooked it on the back of the bedroom door and strode naked to her bed, lit the lamp beside it before returning to the entrance and turning off the overhead light. When she walked into the bathroom, Felon studied the kill zone. The Demon would appear somewhere near the bed. That was the only certainty. The assassin’s blind had a clear line of sight. He would wait for Stahn to begin his work.

Morgan returned wiping her lips with a towel.

“I’ve got to sleep tonight,” she muttered, dropping onto the bed while lifting an electric alarm clock to set it. Distantly, Felon smelled peppermint. The woman chuckled, threw back the covers and climbed under them. Her pale hand reached out, and clicked off the lamp. Darkness settled. Out in the living room a light had been left on causing a rectangular slash of dim yellow to cut a section from her bedroom carpet.

Felon focused on his gun. He felt its weight, its shape. He studied the dimpled surface of its grip. The assassin located each of its clips with his mind, weighed them, measured them, imagined the precise hand actions required to eject and load. He imagined these mechanical actions until the gun oil was strong in his nostrils. Minutes passed uncounted.

Felon was brought from his meditative state by a gasp-slight, instantaneous-the sudden intake of air a person makes touching a toe to cold water. He opened his eyes. The bed covers, top sheet and all, had floated up toward the ceiling. Chrissy Morgan’s well-exercised body lay asleep, naked and exposed. She reacted to the chill by turning on her side and drawing both knees to her chest. Worried little sounds came from her.

The covers were suspended in the air as if invisible wires held all four corners. They hovered a second before spinning away to land in a heap by the door. Felon heard snuffling, lapping noises now, wet and bestial. But in the half-light from the doorway, he could not see any physical reason for it.

Stahn was still intangible, but he was beginning his work. Morgan’s legs suddenly flexed outward as though stretching, and then faintly, Felon saw the outline of a hand like it was drawn in chalk on an invisible screen. A large human-like hand slid out of the darkness, and then another. Both were sketched at first, but grew in detail. Each hand grabbed an ankle, and pulled the legs apart. The darkness between her thighs was thrust upward as her hips turned.

Felon quietly got to his knees.

Morgan moaned as the snuffling and lapping noises continued, and now the vague shape of a massive man was appearing on the bed. He was bent over between her outstretched legs. The sleeping woman moaned and her breath drew in more sharply. She twisted her hips against the shadow head that grew steadily more visible. Felon could make out a small pair of curved horns atop the large naked skull. But he could not distinguish a silhouette or profile. Its face was obscured pressing against the sleeping woman’s groin. As Morgan made small laughing noises, she began to buck her hips more powerfully against the Incubi’s slowly resolving face. With each counter thrust, the guttural sounds she made increased-spasmodic gulps of air exploded-and the Demon took shape.

It was more than eight feet in height, and powerfully muscled. The Demon’s dark flesh was like carved granite. The muscles flexed impossibly-black blood churned through distended veins. The Incubus slipped one large hand under the woman’s buttocks and easily lifted her lower trunk and hips upward toward his foot long tongue. Morgan moaned with pleasure as the Incubus lavished her with monstrous kisses, his tongue flicking, darting in and out, his yellow fangs nibbling.

Felon lifted his gun as the creature lowered the woman on the bed. Stahn straightened now, arching his powerful back. The Demon’s penis stretched over the woman. It was two feet in length and looked as thick as Felon’s arm. Stahn gathered Morgan’s ankles with one clawed hand and pushed them back to her ears. He grinned, muttered “ficus” to himself, and then looming over her exposed genitalia he thrust. The woman screamed.

Felon stepped out of the closet, gun level with his eyes. The Incubus swung its head as he fired. The hiss of the silencer drew Morgan from her trance. She screamed again. Impaled, she was dragged over the mattress as the Demon turned. Felon moved slowly toward Stahn, looking at nothing but his head. He fired into the skull, again and again, while his free hand positioned the next clip. Stahn’s head flexed and changed with the first few bullets as he attempted to disappear, but too late, for the impact of the bullets pulled him back into physical form. Each strike punched more solidity into his dissolving head. Roaring the Demon was drawn back to the physical world.

Felon had the other clip poised beneath his gun, now ready: discharge clip, reload. Fire! The automatic thumped with each shot. The Demon howled, then shrieked as one of its horns shattered. The bullets fully reversed the earlier process and began to chew a great hole of ragged nothingness in its face. “NO!” it roared-the mirrors in the apartment burst into fragments. Felon slammed in the next clip, opened up

“NO!” The top of Stahn’s head exploded in a great eruption of black and gray. Hot red streaks flew from the gaping skull and steamed smokily on the dresser and wall. The Demon’s body could no longer resist the impact of the bullets, and was flung to the floor on the far side of the bed. The assassin leapt after it firing.

He shifted his aim onto its muscular chest until a ragged fist-sized hole was punched. Discharge clip, reload. Fire. Stahn stopped moving. Felon continued to fire. Discharge clip, reload. He stopped; then grimaced. The gun steamed in his hand. Morgan was out of her mind, screaming-her white thighs streaked with Demon blood. She threw herself on the floor and crawled into the closet sobbing. Then Stahn’s body began to smoke. Wisps of silky white thread like solid steam curled upwards. His head was missing from the top lip up-a wide pool of blood filled the crater in its chest. The rising mist was sour.

Felon turned away.

“Assassin…” The voice was deep and terrible; the words wet with blood. “Assassin…”

Felon froze, gritted his teeth, and turned. He swung his gun, stepped near. Miraculously, even as its body was dissolving, the mouth moved. Jawbones slid beneath torn flesh. “I see you,” the corpse moaned. Felon looked at its mangled head. The eyes went in the first volley.

Felon checked his peripheral vision, caught on the dresser: a white orb. The eye trailed its long gray optic nerve through a pile of gore. The slit pupil dilated. Felon raised his gun and fired. The eye burst into a glob of moisture that painted the wall behind it. The Demon’s body moaned a final time, limbs flailing weakly as it turned to smoke.

Felon wanted to kill the woman in the closet but Balg wanted her alive. He walked out of the bedroom scowling.

17 – Bedtime Story

“What do you think happened to my mother?” Dawn asked from the darkness where she laid on her little mattress by the cubbyhole. Mr. Jay was over at their small table. He used a wooden packing crate as a chair. After returning to their hideout, they had eaten dinner and shared a little chat about the day. Mr. Jay did not tell her anything about what happened at Carmen’s apartment except to say she had pictures of cats. Dawn didn’t think that was any biggy. Since the animals went crazy after the Change, pet lovers had to make do with pictures and stuffed animals.

She asked him about the men who chased them. And he finally explained that he’d been around a long time, and it could have had something to do with old debts. Though he promised her that he had done nothing wrong or illegal.

“I was just avoiding trouble, Dawn,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the best you can do.”

While that explanation didn’t reassure her much, she was still upset about the situation with Carmen, so she let it stand. Before her curiosity got the best of them, Mr. Jay sidestepped more questions by telling her he wanted to make an early start the next day. She should get to bed early and he’d go too after he’d given a couple of his books a quick glance.

Dawn dozed off but woke back up to find her friend still reading in dim candlelight.

“Go to sleep.” Mr. Jay turned his green eyes to her. From their faraway look, Dawn could tell that he had been deep in thought.

“What do you think happened to her?” She pushed herself up on one little elbow. Her nose still twitched at the chemical they had used to remove her beard.

Mr. Jay sighed, turned all the way around on his makeshift chair. He set his hands on his knees and leaned forward. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve talked about that before.”

Dawn nodded. “But I was just thinking about it.”

“Well, you’ll have a lot of nights like that.” He smiled warmly. “At least until you know more or get used to not knowing.”

“You think that will happen, Mr. Jay?” she asked.

He chuckled, “I doubt it.”

“And you don’t know…” She struggled with conflicting urges. Dawn had moments of obsession on the topic but she was sure that Mr. Jay was tired of it. Momentarily, she pondered returning to sleep.

“No I don’t.” Mr. Jay leaned back with one elbow on his table. “But I remember the stories about the riot. It was a bad one by all accounts.” His head drooped forward; his brown beard dusted his chest. “What I heard was that there was a big group of living people in a town called Severance. Now that’s a long way north and west of here as you know, and when I heard the story I happened to be traveling north of it.

“But I heard a group of living people were trying to get rid of all the dead people in the town. They asked them nicely at first, but the dead people had no place to go, and they had a right to stay in Severance, since most had lived there when they were alive. But the story goes that the living people believed the walking dead caused Change. That really wasn’t fair since they rose after it. It was just a matter of time before something bad happened.”

Dawn’s mother had brought her to Severance. The town was just a main street that you could see to both ends of with no buildings taller than three stories. It used to be a bigger place her mother said, but pointed to burned ruins as the cause of its shrinking. The forever child could still feel the thrill as her mother led her by the hand over the street’s cracked asphalt. It was so different from Nurserywood-she corrected herself-it wasn’t called Nurserywood in those days. People were just starting to come there to hide and had built a little village around old campgrounds. And they didn’t even have a giant yet.

She had heard about towns and cities in stories, but seeing one and hearing about them were two different things. She couldn’t remember anything before Nurserywood. Her mom told her sometimes the first years of a child’s life were like that. Nurserywood was like Severance since it had people and buildings-though in the forest, there were old cabins and rough shelters of woven branches, cloth and plastic. And there were no paved roads only paths. So her first sight of the town was surprising. In those early days, forever children were still numerous enough that they were still accepted as children. They hadn’t started to really scare anyone at that point and everyone was more worried about the dead.

Dawn saw her first walking dead man in Severance. It terrified her-and her mother too. Part of the reason they had traveled to Nurserywood was to stay clear of the Change and the dangers it brought. They weren’t in Severance five minutes before a dead man stepped right out of the rain.

They were taking shelter from a downpour by the eaves of an old building. People still got out of the rain back then, because they thought it might stop. But the building had boards where its windows should be. Her mother said that was not the way things were when she had visited a year before on a trading mission. They were snuggling under her mother’s long woolen cloak when the dead man appeared.

He hurried in with his collar pulled around his ears. One of his eyes was missing-just a hole of twisted flesh instead, and there was a great piece of skin hanging down from one cheek that exposed the teeth on that side. His clothes were like rags. He stood there looking terrible and awkward before staggering into the rain again and he was gone.

“So,” Mr. Jay continued, “the living people decided one day to chase the dead people away. And they did. They formed a big group, with the sheriff and the police helping, and they ordered every dead person out of town. The dead people didn’t know what to think; they were surprised by the action. Never imagined their neighbors could do this. So they left, and the living people celebrated.” Her friend chuckled sadly. “But that was a mistake. The dead people went harmlessly enough. It all looked fine and the people of Severance tried to return to their lives like nothing had happened. But the dead gathered just outside of town. They were angry-outraged being thrown out of their homes. And they decided to fight for what was theirs.” He rubbed his knees. “You see the living made a mistake. It turned out that they had the most to lose in a fight.”

Dawn’s mother managed to get a job cooking for a restaurant on the main street-she had coaxed the owner with the spices and recipes she brought from the fields near Nurserywood. For about two weeks Dawn helped at the restaurant. She could not remember the name of the place but remembered the owner was a black man who smoked too much. Dawn was happy at that time, if she did feel a little exposed and over-pinched. All the women in Severance loved her dark curls and her big brown eyes. They squeezed and pinched her every day.

But she could remember the man who owned the restaurant chasing dead people away, even if they just wanted a glass of water, and he pushed them from the sidewalk out front. She remembered him taking a big gun and going with the others to send the dead people away.

“One night, the dead decided that the time had come,” Mr. Jay said in hushed tones. “They had lived their lives in Severance, and they were not about to lose it in death.” The magician’s features flickered in the eerie candlelight. “So they marched into town. The living suspected such a thing might happen, and had kept a watch. So the dead people met a blockade of living people at the edge of town.” Genuine sadness softened his features.

“One story said a living man threw the first punch, and the other said the dead started it. But it didn’t matter it was going to happen anyway.” Mr. Jay pulled at his beard. “You’ve got to remember, this was fifteen years after the Change and these people were terrified-all of them. And things just exploded!”

Dawn could remember the night. She was napping in the little room the restaurant owner had lent them-her mother was still finishing up the last of the dishes. But Dawn came out of a dream into a nightmare. There were explosions and screams-the light that usually burned yellow outside their little room was gone. In its place was a blue-white flickering-like broken wires or lightning. More screaming followed, and the loud bang, bang, bang of guns. Then her mother screamed. Dawn ran out of the little room and into the strange blue-white light, her eyes blurry with sleep. She ran along the hallway that led to the kitchen. There was another scream and then a big crash of glass.

She hurried into the dining area and dove for cover behind the counter. There was a great dark group of people filling up the whole building. The air was musty and smelled of smoke. She didn’t recognize the people. Dawn remembered most that they were monsters in the eerie light-faces white and round-eyed and their hands were more like claws than fingers. There were loud sounds: snapping and cracking, struggling grunting, glass breaking and crunching under foot, and screaming and screaming.

When she finally gathered her courage to look up again-the restaurant was empty. Both of the big windows were broken; chairs were thrown around and tables upset. She had a stark memory of a man’s leg lying under a table looking strange, it sock and shoe twitching. There was nothing else. “Mommy?” was all she could say.

“And so the story goes that the whole town burned that night.” Mr. Jay grew more somber with the telling. His eyes were sad. “And when authorities finally got there to help, there was no one left. There were a few dead people limping and crawling, too badly damaged to go wherever the others went or tell what happened-but I never heard more than what I’ve told you. No one else was ever found.”

“But, so.” Dawn’s eyes felt heavy with the memory. “What do you think happened?”

“Nobody knows, Dawn.” Mr. Jay moved over, knelt beside her and rested a hand on her forehead. “Nothing good.”

The forever girl couldn’t remember much more. She could remember a terrible feeling, little more and she could conjure up images of blood and destruction-and loneliness for days and days. And she remembered trying to find Nurserywood and hiding and eating garbage and sneaking into old buildings to get cans of food. She didn’t know how long she wandered. But wherever her spirit had gone for that time, she remembered it first coming back when she heard Mr. Jay singing by a campfire.

18 – Morning After

Sister Karen Cawood woke with the smell of liquor and cigarettes hot and suffocating around her face. Her stomach lurched and she gasped, gulping for air. Above her, flickering fluorescent light burned through her eyelids. She pushed at the sheets with numb hands, wrestled them off her body. Kicking, she rolled over. A man grumbled. Pressed to her right side was a thick muscled back, skin as black as soot. She squirmed, turned the other way: another man. This one was white, completely covered with tattoos. An orange moustache drooped away from his lips.

He smiled blearily and growled, “Hey baby!”

She pushed away dizzy, vomit rising in her throat. Head lifted, waves of sickness buffeted her. Naked, she wobbled to her knees. The tattooed man pulled at her forearm-snarling and nauseous she slapped at him. He laughed.

The black man rolled over, his face gray. “Chill out, baby.” A long fingered hand reached out to steady her. “It’s late. You’re at my place…”

“Don’t touch me!” She pulled away, pressing her hands to her face; their sour smell turned her stomach.

“It’s just me,” said the black man. He turned his harsh gaze at the other man. “What the fuck you do to her, Sam?”

“Nothing man! I crashed just like you and now she’s going all- fuck!” The tattooed man pushed himself up on his elbows. “She’s just coming down man, freaking out.” He scratched at his pierced genitals, and Cawood slapped a hand over her mouth, barely catching the vomit.

We drive you from us, unclean spirits all satanic powers, all infernal invaders, all wicked legions, assemblies and sects.

“Oh, fuck baby!” The black man frowned. She knew his name, but couldn’t find it. “Shit, man she sicked up in the bed!”

“Not my fault.” The tattooed man lit a cigarette. “Anyways, she wasn’t sick earlier.”

“Sorry…” Cawood muttered from behind her slimy hands, and then tumbled off the bed. Her breasts and belly slapped the cold tiles. A beer bottle rolled noisily away.

“You’re right man!” the black man said and laughed, distracted from his own hangover. Cawood crawled away. “Maybe she eat too much.”

“Yeah, sister ate lots!” Sam chuckled. “Fuck, that’s a sweet ass!”

Cawood vomited harshly, noisily.

“She drank too much,” Sam murmured. “Drank me dry anyway.” They both laughed. “Fuck man, what time is it?”

Half blind, her vision and mind jumping, she pushed at a pile of clothing on the floor looking for her own.

“Fucking late…not even morning,” the black man groaned, watching Cawood. “Don’t make a mess, baby. Fuck!”

Cawood’s chest was constricted by dry heaves and darkness. Emotional sickness welled up from her consciousness. She wiped at a string of spittle. There was another. Where was the other man? Her mind replayed a sick image-the other man on top of her-and a man below, the black man-Dave. The other, the white man with sandy hair-her abdomen ached. Her whole body ached. Where was the other?

“Just remember shooting that fucking shit was your idea, Princess,” Dave snarled and pointed. “ Your idea.”

Cawood found her miniskirt and jacket-the material was cold and damp to the touch but it covered her. She barely heard the words. “What did you give me? The drug…RUFI’S?” There were fingernail scratches on her stomach. “What did you say? Shooting what? Drugs?”

“Oh shit,” Dave said, and Sam started laughing. “I knew that was going to happen. But we got you on film saying it was your idea…don’t get all holy roller on us now, sister.”

A tremor of panic started below the level of her pain and worked upward, rising slowly at first then increasing in speed as realization sunk in. “ Filmed it?” The throbbing pain in her brain disappeared with the thought. “Filmed what?”

“Your idea, we just was gonna fuck.” Dave found the energy to sit up now. “You wanted us to film it while the three of us fucked you blue.” He elbowed Sam and they laughed.

The other man grinned. “And we said, what the fuck. Let’s give the bitch what she wants.” He laughed. “Turned out, you fucked us blue!”

“You can’t.” Realization paralyzed her. No. No. No. Snapping out of it, she searched the pile of clothes for her stockings and shoes. “You’ve got to give the film to me.”

“Can’t.” Dave paled. “Raul took his camera home with him.”

“No.” A fresh wave of nausea rose and she vomited again. The men laughed. “You can’t do this.”

“Sick up in the can, baby,” Sam said. “You’re getting that all over!”

The drugs and alcohol were still distorting Cawood’s senses, still shielding her from the full realization of events. No big deal. Not as bad as it looks! She fumbled into her shoes and pushed her hair from her eyes. I can handle this. Her mind spun away from the scene.

“You one hungry pussy, baby,” Dave said, a carnal wave washed over his features. He fished his penis out of his boxers. “What about me and Sammie do you one more time. They say it cures a hangover.”

Choking back bile, Cawood turned from them and hurried shakily down the hallway away from them. Their catcalls chased her. Her numb fingers barely worked the lock on the door. Then she was in a hall outside, careening, spinning into doorjambs and walls. She could think of nothing. Her legs were wet now as liquids spilled from her body. The thought doubled her over with dry heaves.

She had to get home, had to get to her apartment before her neighbors woke up. Terrified, she lurched down two flights of stairs and was in the street. Cawood didn’t recognize the neighborhood. Casting around, she didn’t know the Level. It was deep though. A dead man staggered along the sidewalk toward her and passed. His round eyes were wide with interest or terror.

The dead on the street. At most Level Two if she was lucky. She had no watch, no idea of the time. Headlights cut along the road. The nun waved at the cab. It slowed. She dove into the back seat without looking at the driver. She kept her face shielded with her hand. Voice, harsh and bitter she grated out her address. As the taxi sped from the curb, Cawood sank into her terrified thoughts.

19 – Sunken City

The Sunken City was a perfect place for Demons to make their terrestrial lair. Their Infernal residence was the Pit, but traveling to and from the nether regions required considerable energy. By setting up shop in the Sunken City they could make better use of their powers while easily deciding who would come and go.

After the hit on Stahn, Felon had returned to his hotel where he received word that Baron Balg would make final payment aboard his yacht the following morning. The minor change in plan raised internal alarms, but the assassin always expected a double cross. If Balg did anything stupid Felon would make it more expensive than a bit of gold. That was why betrayal was so unlikely. Demons enjoyed nice long lives in the world after the Change, and it was only money. Meeting in the Sunken City was yet a quirk of the Demon’s massive ego.

The Coastview desk clerk told him to join Mr. Wurn at pier 22 no later than 9 a.m. Felon took a cab to the harbor and found the pier among the battered hulks of freighters.

He watched Mr. Wurn where he worked the trawler’s controls. Balg’s servant looked like something that belonged under a bridge. He had lurched out of the morning fog and motioned for the assassin to follow. The troll’s features were human, but distorted and grossly over-sized. His nose was easily a foot in length, which stood out, because Wurn was three and a half feet tall. He had thick, powerful arms that he had to keep bent while walking or let his knuckles drag. Something supernatural had made him. Wurn had obvious native strength, but the simple activities of life were a chore for him. His breath came in ragged gasps, and sweat poured from him continuously. His eyes were tiny and red, though they held quick, if tormented, intelligence. Wurn wore greasy coveralls, and smelled like vomit.

He had led Felon to an old fishing trawler, and quickly set course for the Sunken City. Some twenty minutes into the journey, Felon moved to the bow to stay clear of the troll’s stench. It was a struggle to keep a cigarette lit in the damp, misty air.

They followed an indirect route away from the ancient bridges-collapsed and eroded now. There was too much wreckage around the crumbled buttresses to be safely navigated. Looking at the destruction, Felon remembered the fires and riots in the early Change.

Felon didn’t waste words on Wurn. He knew that Demons had control over their own body shapes, and could change them with little effort. And he knew that they, like Angels, could manipulate matter to create whatever they needed from raw materials around them. Looking at the troll, it seemed they could work their magic on living flesh as well. It amazed him that Wurn was sent to get him. The Demons were growing powerful, or foolhardy to allow something like the troll so close to people. Wurn was no genetic screw up. Felon had always suspected that down deep Demons feared humans and their position in the Divine hierarchy. But Wurn was an open challenge. The Demons thumbed their noses at humanity, Fallen and the Angels. They were putting the City of Light on notice.

“Master Balg expects you.” Wurn’s guttural syllables flopped across the deck like fish. He had left the small wheelhouse and approached. His lips were the size of cucumbers, swollen beyond useful communication.

Felon glared.

“Master Balg says you are a great man!” Wurn smiled revealing large broken teeth.

“Shut your fucking mouth!” Felon snarled and drew on his cigarette.

Wurn scratched the thin fur on his sparsely covered head, and returned to the wheelhouse. The troll’s face appeared in the small window, weighing the assassin with nervous glances. He mumbled worriedly to himself.

Felon wondered why the Demon wasted flattery on a hired gun. Balg had neither the need nor the inclination. Demons rarely threw compliments around, and if they did, it was always for a reason. Why? Was it sugar coating to coax him into recklessness? Was it an attempt to flatter him into thinking he was something he was not? Was Balg trying to lull him into a false sense of security or were the words delivered to buy the assassin’s favor? Did it suggest that Balg was afraid? He had just proven yet again that he could kill Demons-that he possessed the ability to surprise members of the Infernal host.

Or, was that question proof of his first proposition at work? Felon knew that he should never underestimate a Demon, and here he was actually thinking that a one might fear him. Perhaps that was why Wurn had been instructed to flatter him-if there was a reason. Already, Felon’s thoughts had turned inward, decreasing his reaction time a degree. The assassin knew that it only took a second to die. The compliment had already cost him a minute.

He shook his damp locks, pulled the collar of his overcoat tight about his neck and fumbled with a cigarette. Minutes later the troll drove the boat into a suffocating fog bank. The chill air ate into Felon’s bones. His fingers fumbled and his nose ran freely. He sucked a stream of acrid smoke into his nostrils hoping it would dry and warm the sinus cavity. The assassin allowed himself a scarf, and warm socks, but no gloves. Felon almost died once because of gloves. They kept his fingers warm but a gun has a definite shape, and required precision to fire. He could not feel a trigger properly through gloves, and fabric reacted differently to other materials. Damp leather could catch on a wool coat or cotton jacket. Human skin, damp or cold, could distinguish the outline of a gun a lot better than a layer of fabric.

The Sunken City loomed suddenly out of a rolling fog. Monoliths of salt-stained brick and stone appeared. The ocean ground slowly, noisily through cramped streets, pounding its outer neighborhoods with waves. The walls of the narrow canyons were enormous sheets of concrete and steel rising in the distance. The dead and abandoned buildings reared out of the water at disturbing angles, many ready to collapse. Those closest to the boat disappeared in the low cloud cover. The fog swirled and churned around the trawler, as they pitched over broken houses while hollow thunder boomed, sending adrenaline surging in his veins. A gust of wind and the fogbank parted-the boat slipped into the protection of a narrow city street that opened along a steep divide. Echoes of water and wind rumbled. The Sunken City’s voice had nothing good to say.

Wurn slowed the trawler to a crawl. The water around them was black. Felon knew that the outer rim of buildings was a formidable barrier to any approaching ships. Tons of twisted steel and shattered rubble made a reef of destruction that few could navigate. Wurn steered down the flooded street, toward the inner neighborhoods where Felon knew lights were kept burning with coal and gas. That was where the Demon’s lived.

There was a splash to his left. Swimmers! A number of them converged on Wurn’s trawler when it slowed to navigate the dark streets. They swam silently with the boat, occasionally tilting a gray eye at its occupants. Swimmers were preserved by the Change and the high concentrations of salt in the water. The Demons allowed them to populate the streets as a deterrent to visitors. Little was known about them. Since their bodies could not long withstand the rigors of life out of the water, they posed little threat. Nobody who swam with the Swimmers lived to tell the tale.

“Hey there’s Swimmers!” Wurn exclaimed redundantly with dismay in his features. “Stay out of the water!”

Swimmers were dead people-drowned, murdered or dumped. The Change preserved them with the extinction of most forms of bacteria. Small fish nibbled the swimming corpses, large fish took the odd bite, but those that remained intact toughened in the salt water, their skins taking on a gray, sharkskin look. The dead on land had to worry about dehydration; the dead in the sea had to worry about dissolving. If the skin was intact, a Swimmer could go on, growing more durable with each passing year. But, if the skin was broken, that was the beginning of the end. Little fish and the nibbling parasites got in. In time, the afflicted Swimmer would become more and more ragged, more bloated and distended. In late stages they resembled a tangle of floating bones and rotting meat.

The creatures traveled the sunken streets alone or in packs. Swimmers didn’t speak. They were cunning, but unlike the dead on land they behaved like animals-more apt to flee than fight. Felon didn’t care what they were, or what they thought, he only knew that they didn’t like bullets. In the dark water their long-limbed bodies resembled toads’.

Felon growled, touching his holster as he eyed the boatman. The trawler picked up speed.

The broad sunken avenues gaped to either side of them as they passed over drowned intersections. At places where traffic of ocean currents converged, small maelstroms were created, their impetus pulling at the boat. The powerful engine rumbled and sent them surging on. One hundred years of rain and pounding surf had worn away at the Sunken City’s skyline. Skyscrapers had tumbled and apartment blocks had collapsed into dangerous mazes of corroded steel and mountains of reinforced concrete. The structures at the eastern edge of the Sunken City took the worst of it; they were pounded by Old Atlantic and torn by its winds. What remained had formed a break wall-a complicated shallows that absorbed the energy of the waves, protected the buildings deeper in.

Millions had once lived in the now shattered buildings, driven its flooded streets, and worked in its crumbled factories and for a moment a nagging pre-Change recollection tugged at Felon’s thoughts. He imagined most were dead now and wondered how many of them still moved along its streets as Swimmers.

A horrible cry cut through the gathering gloom. It started guttural and gravely high above them, and wound upward in pitch and ferocity, until it became a screaming whip stroke of sound that undulated and fell on the delicate tissues of the brain like broken glass. Felon’s gun was out and pointed at the shadows above.

“Watcher!” he hissed.

“Watchers watch!” the troll whimpered, glancing into the shadows above them before gesturing with an over-sized hand. “There! Master Balg’s boat-on the Street of Walls!” He swung his arms along a broad corridor lined with enormous stone buildings.

The overcast left everything in gloom. Felon ripped his eyes away from the empty window frames above. He could see the shape of a large ship a half-mile away. Lights blazed out of its many windows and with it came haunting musical strains. The sounds echoed toward them, distorted by the distance.

“Light!” He paced to the wheelhouse.

Wurn reached under the boat’s dashboard and grabbed a spotlight. Felon snatched it away and played its harsh beam first along the regular surfaces of the buildings towering over them. Shadows swung about the black interiors of the dead monoliths. Nothing. Then Felon turned the spot, and sent its powerful light across the water. Balg’s ship was growing in size as they approached. Perhaps one hundred-fifty feet in length, it rose from the waterline thirty feet to its top deck.

Felon pierced the surface of the flooded street and stroked the corroded pavement forty feet below with the angled beam. It flashed over barnacle-encrusted vehicles, a corroded bench, a toppled light post then fell on the first of the Swimmers. A great, distended blob, with bloated legs and head, it bucked and thrashed away from the light like it was on fire. There was a mob of them, floating and paddling around in the dark. The moment the light passed near they dove and swam into the recesses of submerged doorways and sunken subway entrances. He shone the spotlight toward the yacht, and caught a few more gray eyes disappearing in a splash. He let the light slide up the anchor chain.

Felon glared at Wurn.

“Swimmers don’t take no Baron Balg. They takes Eyesores, and we watch. They take us but we watch!” Wurn ran his large palms over his thick thighs, and then rubbed them together. Felon slipped his gun away, watching the powerful muscles bunch beneath the creature’s yellow-gray skin. He slid the pistol in and out of the holster, left it unfastened, and turned to watch the yacht.

20 – The Mission

The magician waited while Dawn finished with her little woman’s moment. Years before she started dawdling while getting ready for breakfast. She claimed she spent those minutes in her cubbyhole applying finishing touches. A little dab of scavenged rouge perhaps, a final flourish for her thick dark hair-Mr. Jay could never tell what wonders she worked. Her forever girl’s condition had her brimming with youthful beauty at all times.

He curled cross-legged on the sill of the boarded-up window. The magician had returned some forty minutes before Dawn awoke. Mr. Jay loved and hated his time away from her. He enjoyed it because he had a very isolated life before he’d met her. Not lonely, just isolated and he had adapted to solitude. And now, he was uncomfortable with time alone, because it meant being away from Dawn. He’d known her all these years and still could not predict her actions. So he worried.

Mr. Jay blamed the fact that she’d never gone through puberty. She couldn’t recognize the dangers of the world. For her, a danger passed was passed and life took her onto the next thing. He checked that line of reasoning because it wasn’t true. She learned, and she was wiser than she let on. She played dumb from time to time. He knew that was because if she could take care of herself, she was afraid he’d leave.

Mr. Jay stretched himself out of his moody brooding and settled against the bricks. The exertions of the night had little effect upon him. He rarely needed more than a couple of hours sleep. It gave him great opportunity for study and meditation.

What he found would make it impossible to sleep anyway. He would try to rest later after he figured out whether his mission was complete. It wasn’t a success. But it was unlikely he could take it farther with Dawn in tow. The incident with the Prime’s spies worried him. They had to be using Powers to locate him so quickly.

It was a decade since his last visit to the City of Light and it had grown more oppressive and degenerate in the intervening years. He realized the City might have been among his primary reasons for his extended period in the wilderness. It was more than that; but the City repulsed him. The worst part was that its inhabitants were forgetting that something was wrong-or that there had ever been a right.

Complacency was turning them all into the walking dead. The metropolis’ soaring, bulging, hanging bulk pressed down on the spirit. Each level perched on the bones of another monstrous city below it combining to make a leviathan under a tarry shell. The citizens burrowed through its guts like roundworms.

But that they could forget why the City was the way it was. He hated and loved people for their ability to adapt to anything. History books told him what he needed to know about human tenacity, and experience had shown him their terrifying survival instincts unleashed.

He was appalled, not surprised, by the conditions he’d found while moving under cover of night through the City’s lowest and oldest level. The poor and the dead were forced to exist in the damp shadows where the first streets had been built upon and forgotten. The poor propped up hopeless lives with meaningless work. The meaning diminished by the drudgery of the tasks they were forced to accept in a society that rewarded wealth and punished poverty. And with the Change robbing them of the simple pleasures of child rearing and real death, what more then? Work. Get enough to eat, and cavort, for there was no start or end or meaning to life.

And the contrasts were extreme. High above their reach, immortal billionaires raced along the elevated Skyways from one tower to the next, gobbling up wealth and monopolizing economic power with a staggering disregard for those who eked out existence in the levels far below.

Mr. Jay shook his head at such notions. It was always the way. These ideas awaited him in every city he’d ever visited. The City of Light just took it to incredible extremes. Black winged limousines flying over the stinking bodies of the homeless. The beggar is free to work his way to the top; he’s free to die in the streets if he wants. He’s free!

There was nothing left for the poor. And they couldn’t even rest in death. Their neighbors, the dead, scurried, limped and dragged themselves through the darkness on errands of some arcane sort or other-or outright competed for the same jobs. Many of the dead retained their memories in part or whole, and these tried to mimic the semblance of lives that were gone forever.

Mr. Jay had traveled across the lowest Level Zero without incident. It was simple enough. There were few restrictions on the activities of the living. And all obstacles he found were designed to impede the actions of individuals moving up to the levels above. He found massive gates permanently blocking ancient side streets that wound upward. City Authorities patrolled all vantage points but concentrated on the large manned access areas. They were easy for the magician to evade.

Throughout his excursion he had reminded himself that there was a curfew on the denizens of the lower levels, not a state of war. Many living men and women from below worked on the City’s upper levels, and these were allowed to come and go as their employment demanded-though they were scrutinized at Authority checkpoints. They were issued work permits and travel documents. As in other cities, Mr. Jay found that the living did not fear the dead as much as the rich feared the poor.

He moved secretly around Zero and elsewhere in the City because of the Prime’s interest in him. Obviously, a watch had been set. Mr. Jay could smell Powers in the air.

Listening to Dawn hum her little morning song, Mr. Jay was revisited by the faces of the newly dead, collected and deposited in neighborhoods just past the gates on Zero. They scurried around near panic, still terrified of the dead whom they had spurned but now joined. They clung to any elevated position in the dark labyrinth of the City’s cellar because there was nowhere else to go. They were dead . But the world after the Change would not let them rest. Many, desperate, huddled about the doorways of the Relief Centers and Missions, gathering there as though some treatment might change their position in the City. They were a pitiful lot.

He had to console himself with admiration for the living workers who tried so hard to comfort the sad torment of the dead. Mr. Jay avoided them all the same. He had business under night-and no time to dally.

After traveling the dark ways for an hour or more, he came to the base of Archangel Tower. Because of its massive weight, the Tower was separate from the arching stone and steel buttresses that suspended the rest of the City’s levels. It was built on bedrock, and its mammoth shape thrust upward through the metropolis’ layers until it burst free of all encumbrance a twelve-hundred feet or more from its foundation-there to swoop another eight-hundred feet skyward. It was not free of all association, and had been built upon and conscripted as reinforcement for the ascending layers around it.

But around the Tower’s footing was a clear space of cracked and broken concrete slabs forming a shadow-strewn valley. Fifty yards at its widest, this clearing paced the distance from the smooth foundation outward to the crumbled facades of long forgotten buildings, most now incorporated into the cyclopean footing of the upper City’s support structures. Massive concrete and steel arches roared upward into the darkness like giants. So deep was Mr. Jay that the City’s busy Skyway traffic far above fell mute. He heard greasy rustling noises.

Light fell from the City’s upper reaches as a dim blue mist. Peering through this he saw that the stony valley was rippling with movement. In and through this clearing a sea of the dead undulated, many thousands drawn by some invisible force into a swirling tempest of flesh. Dead creatures-many worn to remnants-of various shapes and decrepitude lunged, crawled and wriggled their way inward on a slow somber clockwise vortex, hideously struggling against the undead tide for contact with the mammoth blocks that formed the Tower’s foundation.

Silently-with only a whispered hiss of movement-this awful circuit was repeated-many of its participants so long engaged as to have eroded dead elbows, knees or hips flat. At first he thought they were the Lost. Those were dead who started turning up after the first fifty, completely devoid of higher brain function and who had reverted to animal and aggressive behavior.

But a dead woman draped in colorful rags lagged along the outer edge of the march. She was pitiful and strange to look upon, dressed in the remnants of a uniform as though coming off her shift of serving coffee and doughnuts. There was no doubt that she was dead, her skin was the color of chalk, but when he looked at her, a dead eye caught his and reflected awareness-some weak evidence that she had only recently joined this macabre cycle. Her wrists told a sad story through slit mouths.

“Where are you going?” he had asked her, his voice echoing over the shambling, horrifying parade. Her dead eyes flickered, conjuring something like warmth or appreciation from her hard plastic features.

“It is the singing. The music! Can’t you hear it?” The dead woman staggered past before Mr. Jay could answer. He only heard the slithering hiss of the ugly march. Nothing more. He might know the music, if he knew the singer, so he gently pushed his way through the hideous tide of death-sidled up to the body of the Tower, he set his hand against it to speak…

“What do you think, Mr. Jay?” Dawn popped out of her cubbyhole and Mr. Jay’s mind snapped back to the present. A chill went through him as the transition from memory chafed.

Her dark eyes were wide and beautiful-the light in them bright and ancient. She had put on his thick woolen sweater, and knotted it about her waist with a string. Her hair was brushed back and tied to form a dark brown bloom.

“As always my dear…” The magician climbed from his place of reverie. “You are a feast for the eyes.” Her downy cheeks bulged around her smile. “But a feast best appreciated on a full stomach.” He bent low, tweaked her button nose. “I am starved!”

“Did I take too long?” Her face dropped in a child’s wide-eyed expectation of trouble.

“Of course not.” He gestured to their little table, and the meager place settings. “If you would take the time to sniff the air, you’ll notice that our little stew is only now ready.” He moved toward the small propane stove he used for cooking, stirred the contents of the pot that rested there. “Please butter the rolls.”

As Dawn clambered into her seat, he pushed down the memories of Zero. Little Dawn was in too much danger here. He had underestimated the Prime’s abilities, and the other powers that lurked. He could never tell Dawn why he had come to the City. It was not her battle. It was not her mission, and if he would never make such sacrifices again, he could not ask her to. He paused a second over the cooking pot and made his decision. He’d replenish their supplies and they’d head north. He’d take her back to Nurserywood. If the world burned in the process, so be it. They’d already taken enough from him.

21 – Day at the Office

Sister Cawood hurried back from the washroom. Her guts still boiled and burned. She had almost vomited twice in the elevator coming up-barely made it to the bathroom. Sour digestive juices still scorched her esophagus and her whole body ached. Her reproductive organs stung, throbbed with the slightest vibration or pressure. Chastity! Every atom of her wanted to go home-pull the curtains, climb back into the bed and pray she’d wake up later from the nightmare. Obedience.

She was going on autopilot now-true, she had to think. But being in the office kept people from wondering, even forming a question about her. People trusted her. If the film ever surface they’d believe her if she said it was a fake. A sick cramp rippled through her bowels and she almost headed back to the washroom. We implore the aid of Your tender mercy, that being restored to bodily health; she may give thanks to You in Your Church.

She had to stop. Had to. It was suicidal. She had no idea what drug she had taken or whether she had taken others. Not the slightest idea how much alcohol she’d mixed with it. Chastity. And what of venereal disease? Oh Virgin preserve me! She had to make an appointment with a doctor. What Doctor? Memory of the night at the bar had degenerated into red-tinted snapshots of hell: snippets of faces, laughter, hard probing kisses and smoke and bodies. Each image brought regret and nausea. Blessed Mother!

She flushed when her mind slipped back to the hazy evening’s end. Obedience. The men she’d awakened with-a surge of shame sickened her-they’d told her that the other man, Raul, had a camera. Maybe they were kidding her. Trying to freak her out.

Then she realized the choice for stopping herself might have been taken out of her hands. A dark depressing chasm opened under her with the thought. It’s over! Cawood paused beside her secretary’s door. Jane was too perky, too Scottish to see now.

The nun doubted she could hide her shame in front of Jane. And if she spotted Cawood, Jane would bring her a thick armload of files-something-chatting-she’d want to talk about the Church and God. Cawood couldn’t take that now. She paused outside Jane’s door listening. She had to get past and into her own office. Once inside, she could close and lock her door: claim she was meditating. God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me. Jane respected that.

Then she could spend the morning napping as her body detoxified. Again the thought of Raul and the camera flickered obscenely through her mind. “After,” she promised herself, believing that rest would prepare her for dealing with what had happened. Whore! She could contemplate her doom. A part of her relished the notion. No more hiding. Bless me Father for I have sinned.

Temples throbbing, she listened at Jane’s door. The old manual typewriter clattered away, ring, and a rough metallic grind as the carriage slid back into position. Technology didn’t work well after the Change. The church had embraced the devolution. Cawood held her breath then hurried past, praying that Jane would be focused on her margins.

“Sister Cawood!” Jane’s voice still held a distant Scottish brogue. “Reverend Stoneworthy…”

But Cawood was into her office, and had shut the door behind her before Jane could finish. Able Stoneworthy sat across from her desk. He looked up from a book and smiled. Then his eyes squinted and he sat bolt upright.

“Karen! What happened?”

“Oh…” Cawood patted down the front of her black dress. Straightened her sweater. “I have a touch of something.” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, was distressed by its heat. It would be red with shame. Holy Father.

“You look terrible!” Able hurried to her side. A warm hand wrapped around her upper arm. “You should sit down. You’re flushed.”

“I feel like I’ve been flushed.” She tried to distract him with levity.

He nodded. “Well, you shouldn’t be here if you’re not well.”

Cawood wondered why she had bothered. If she missed more work there’d be more questions.

“Women’s stuff too,” she muttered as she was led to her desk. Mention of women’s stuff always put the minister off.

“Oh.” Able gently steadied her in her chair. “That-well-yes…if you’re not well.”

“I’ll be fine.” She stuffed a peppermint into her mouth and was rewarded with a wave of nausea. It usually settled her stomach and covered any left over scent of detox. I have sinned…Generosity. She offered one to Able. Chastity. He smirked, took a mint and popped it into his mouth.

“You have to take better care of yourself.” Able settled himself on the edge of her desk.

“I’m fine.” She struggled weakly with her chair, sat forward.

“You’re not.” He crossed his arms. “I’ve been seeing a general, what shall I say. Decline?”

“ Decline. You sure know how to talk to a girl.” A whore!

“You haven’t been taking care of yourself.” Able’s furry brows combined. He raised his hand against her protest. “No. No. You haven’t and it’s time you did.” The minister rose and paced away alternately sucking on his candy and talking.

“It is common.” He chewed.

“I saw it in college,” he said, lips sucking, “and throughout my career.” The minister paused a second to try to break the hard candy with a single bite, demurred. “That individuals of a philosophical or religious frame of mind tend to neglect the body.” He worried at his candy gazing out the window at the cloud tops. “And, such scathing is typical of ancient religious practitioners and mystics… In an attempt to release oneself from the demands of the body, excoriation of this kind, abnegation and denial-can give a person a keener view.” He turned back to her. “And I admire it. I admire that kind of conviction.” He approached her desk again. “But you’re going too far. You’re unwell. You’ve lost weight and I’ll say it, you look like hell!”

Able reached over to pat the back of her clammy hand. “You must keep life in the body for your spiritual explorations to continue.” He smiled warmly. “Do it for me, would you?”

Cawood couldn’t believe her ears. Killing me with kindness… She sighed. Her self-destruction might never stop if people kept loving her. They believed in her and that drove her farther into it. Unless she fought. And for a moment, she felt an old part of herself clamor forward. It yearned for her to talk, to confess. Bless me Father for I have sinned. Looking into Able’s dark, sincere eyes now she knew he would not damn her, she knew he would help. All she had to do was tell him she was a whore and a drug abuser and worse. And then it would be over. She just had to live beyond her shame.

“Able,” she started, warmed by her friend’s attentive stance. “I…” She looked away, shame momentarily overwhelming her. “I just want to thank you for being my friend.” Cawood smiled up at him. Deep emotion brought moisture to her eyes. The minister rested a hand on her cheek. She grabbed his wrist and pressed her cheek against his palm. “I’ll take better care of myself.”

“As you reminded me.” He flashed his teeth. “We’ve been through too much together for you to have to say that.” Able stroked her cheek. “I need you alive, my dear. You inspire me to greater works.” Then in his slightly self-conscious way he joked. “And you know the rules about the dead. You turn yourself into a corpse and I’ll have to take the elevator to visit you on Zero.”

Though it was grim humor, she found enough energy to smile. “Why are you here?”

Able looked puzzled. “Why? Oh, here in your office? I just wanted to see if you will be prepared regarding tomorrow morning’s enterprise .”

Cawood briefly thought back on their last conversation. Able’s Angel… “Oh, yes. When did you want to do that?”

“I was told he would be expecting us at eleven.” A gleam sparkled in the minister’s eye.

“He?” Cawood’s muddled head could not make the leap. “The Angel?”

“Yes.” Stoneworthy patted the back of her hand. “He is expecting us then.”

“Well.” She didn’t know what to say. “Tomorrow morning, then.” Stoneworthy was too buoyed by his own excitement to see her doubt.

“Can you imagine the responsibility put upon us here my friend?” His whole body grew rigid with excitement. “A minister waits his whole life to redeem the lowliest soul, while always remembering that in each heart, regardless of the size or station, including his own, resides a soul-flawed, yet cherished by our Father in Heaven. We are born forgiven, we need only ask. And to be chosen now for such a work, to redeem one such as this.” He could not restrain his mirth and chuckled. “How wonderful the works of heaven.” Able held his hands out smiling. “Look at me, I’m shaking.”

“Yes.” Cawood grappled with another bout of nausea. “Wonders.” She levered herself forward. “Are you sure about this, Able?”

“Ah, yes, you catch me at it even now.” He shrugged his lean shoulders. “And I have asked myself if my excitement is a form of pride.” His eyes welled up with tears. “But I assure you, if I shake, it is my fear that I will fail. I have faith in the strength of God. And if He chooses me, I cannot fail. Yet, it is the way of a wise man, to doubt his own abilities that he might be better prepared should he be called upon to use them.”

“Okay.” Cawood slid back in her chair. “Tomorrow morning, then.”

“Yes, I’ll stop in at nine…” Able’s eyes shone before a stern look settled his eyebrows. “Eat and get some rest.”

“Thanks, Able.” Cawood returned the handclasp. “I will.”

“I’m going to the chapel,” Stoneworthy said, and almost danced out of the room.

The nun watched him leave, the door shut slowly. Angels! She didn’t think that she could take it if Able lost his mind. Her thoughts felt crowded with sin and haze. She closed her eyes, and leaned back in her chair, letting the cool synthetic leather brush her cheek. The door opened. Purgatory.

“Sister Cawood.” It was Jane’s honest voice.

Cawood sat up, saw the secretary’s head and shoulder peeking in the door. “Yes Jane. Good morning.”

“Begging your pardon, Sister.” Jane inched in a little further. “But I’ve been negligent with some of my office duties, and have missed you on occasions past when I would have had you sign some papers and other such work. Would it bother you now, to sign some few of importance? I would appreciate the kindness.”

Pulling herself into a sitting position, Cawood nodded and gestured. “Yes. Jane, I’m sorry. And it’s my duty to keep on top of things, come in, come in, please.”

Jane smiled and entered. The nun’s heart sank. Her secretary held at least twenty pounds worth of signing. She covered her sigh with a smile.

22 – The Boat

Wurn cut the engine. The trawler glided up to the yacht. Its plastic bumpers thumped gently against the fiberglass hull. The Eyesore hissed at the sound, and pressed a sausage finger over his lips. He rolled his worried eyes then set to work. A hurried flick of the troll’s arms cast the bow rope and then the stern to an ugly pair of his brethren who looked down from the yacht’s high rail. They secured the ropes and lowered an aluminum ramp to the water. Wurn scrambled onto this before turning to steady his boat with splayed hands. Anxiety clutched the oversized features that hung inches over the darkness.

Felon was in no hurry. He studied the other Eyesores. Deformed like Wurn they went about their duties with strength and precision. He watched the interplay of hard muscle and bone and stored the information for future reference. They’d be dangerous in a fight. He glared at the aluminum platform. Its tight lattice of aluminum strips gave the impression of safety. Oily water churned inches below it. The assassin stepped out of the boat, foot touching the platform for a second, and then climbed the ladder. He slipped over the rail onto the deck. Wurn hurried after. The troll’s anxiety overwhelmed him at the last second and he fell on his face

The Eyesores laughed coarsely at Wurn’s antics and hauled the docking ramp free of the water. They grunted against the strain. Felon watched. For a second he thought he saw bone white fingers slide free of the aluminum lattice and sink back into the murk.

The other Eyesores were like Wurn in size, but had unique deformities. The creature with the bowline had a red beard growing from a baby’s face. Crooked teeth glistened through a constant lather of drool. Its body resembled a dwarf’s. The other creature had no lower jaw, which turned its mouth into a puckering hole from which a snake-like tongue wriggled. Its hands had two powerful fingers and thumbs on each, and its feet were pig’s hooves. Both of the Eyesores wore drab gray coveralls and were trussed with tool belts. They busied themselves securing Wurn’s boat while the troll struggled to regain what composure he possessed.

He looked up at Felon. “I will take you to Master Balg.” His eyes glinted in the light from the windows. Felon caught a shape reflected in the oversized pupils. He whipped around. 9 mm in hand. A tall thin man was standing there. The stranger froze-focused on the gun.

Felon glared. The man stood well over six feet. His body had a long, stretched quality that reeked of the supernatural. He was dressed in a loose white suit, and his hair tumbled between his black eyes in a spiraling white lock. Behind him the fiberglass upper deck loomed. There appeared to be no doors in the ship’s superstructure, and the light from the windows gave the entire ship a ghostly glow.

“Mind your station, Wurn!” the stranger snapped, and the troll hurried to aid his brethren. He offered the assassin a long thin hand. “I hope I did not startle you, Mr. Felon. It is always disconcerting to be surprised.” His voice was deep and throaty.

Felon slipped his gun away and stared at the welcoming hand until its long fingers dropped away quivering.

“Do forgive my rudeness, Mr. Felon. We do not get many visitors to the yacht from the mainland. As you are aware, we normally receive all guests at Master Balg’s offices in the City. My name is Passport, assistant to the Demon. Master Balg’s previous assistant Senji Shaiko met with a rather unfortunate demise when a dispute over petty cash caused our employer to lose his temper.”

Felon knew Shaiko. He was a medium-sized Asian man with pencil-thin mustache-a professional who wouldn’t waste time gloating.

The assassin looked past the thin man.

“A most unfortunate incident.” Passport’s eyes gleamed with growing embarrassment.

Felon studied Passport’s face. The Demon’s servant looked human enough, but something reptilian lurked behind the nacreous white skin.

Felon snarled and started searching for his cigarettes. He kept an eye on Passport.

The thin man’s head followed the arch of his eyebrow to his full height. “Master Balg has been taken away on business, but will return shortly. He has instructed me to see to your comfort until then. Would you follow me, please?” The gangly form spun effortlessly on his heel and led Felon along the deck toward the stern. “Master Balg has a number of yachts in his fleet, but counts this one his favorite. The Kennedy, he calls it, after a long dead family whose dealings with him led to their dooms. I believe he has always been an admirer of the cautionary tale.” Passport laughed.

Thirty feet from the docking ramp he stepped through an arch into a short hall that ran between two facing doors. “He enjoys the yacht’s comforts, which are numerous and you will find obvious, but most of all he desires the ship’s mobility. As you can imagine, with the number of competing family businesses at work within the Sunken City, one cannot be too careful. He retains his offices in the City of Light for business functions with the mortals, but has on this occasion allowed you access to The Kennedy to reward your proven loyalty.” Poised at the door to the right, Passport bowed to Felon.

“Master Balg has instructed me to inform you that he is most pleased with your work. Further, he apologizes for changing the mode of payment. The remainder of the ingots is here, with a bonus I might add. Master Balg has further employment opportunities that he would like to discuss with you in person.” He opened the door gesturing to the lighted hall beyond. “After you.”

Felon scowled and twitched his chin at the door.

Passport smiled, pointing at his own chest. “After me. As you wish.”

The assassin followed the angular form through the door and down a curving stairway. Music floated wraithlike from below. At the bottom of the stair Passport paused by a set of massive gilt doors. “My Master’s Games Room.” And he swung the doors wide. “Offered for your comfort.”

Felon was hit with a wave of hot air that reeked of cigarette smoke, body odor and brimstone. The music, haunting before, became discordant. It was lost, and commingled with mad laughter and screams, and a distant chorus of human voices moaning. The sounds pealed and swung between terror and glee.

The Games Room ran away from him some forty feet. The floor was covered in an enormous Persian carpet; its surface depicted Judgment Day. Against one wall, a fifteen-foot wide Jacuzzi steamed. In it, bodies writhed. Six people-men and women-thrashed and howled in water that rolled and steamed like it was boiling. Any of the bathers who could blindly thrash his way to the side was bullwhipped back under the surface by one of four deformed Eyesores that guarded the perimeter.

Opposite this were three steel crosses. A man in black leather cowl was crucified upon each, fastened in place with barbed wire. Felon watched as four naked women tore at their flesh with pincers, taunted them, and applied hot iron staves to blistered parts of their anatomy. The assassin felt Passport’s gaze upon him. He growled.

His guide led him across the room. Further along were six tables upon which an equal number of men and women were strapped. They screamed and wept as Eyesores performed sexual and violent tortures upon them. The trolls gleefully raped, and thumb-screwed their victims, flat eyes shining with liberating malice.

Felon followed Passport to a long bar that ran the width of the ship. A topless woman stood behind it. Both of her breasts were pierced with long shards of rusted iron and her midriff was run through with a pair of gardening shears. She was in obvious pain, and moving slowly about her tasks. When she reached Felon and Passport she asked matter-of-factly, “What will you have?”

“Club soda,” Felon said, tossing his dead cigarette into an ashtray. Passport gave her a dismissive nod. His face had burst into an excited smile upon entering the Games Room, and he now turned this smile upon Felon.

“Threats?” Felon asked over the moans, lighting a new cigarette.

Passport’s smile widened. “Threats? Mr. Felon, what could you mean?” He followed the assassin’s gaze to the scenes of torture. His eyes brightened, comprehending. “Our guests! Oh, I understand. Mr. Felon, you misinterpret the activities. Each and every one of these guests has paid to be here. They enjoy this kind of thing, and we provide a service. Those you see here are extremely important clients of Master Balg’s. They just desire the luxury of surviving their particular kind of entertainment.”

“Threats don’t work on me.” Felon puffed a cloud of smoke, snarling at the Games Room.

“Most certainly, it has never been the desire of Master Balg to give such an impression. You must remember that all points of view are not equal. To my Master this gaming room is nothing more. Pleasure. Pain. Pain. Pleasure. It is just the firing of nerve endings. Had I brought you to the Room of Concubines, I’m certain you would think we were attempting to bribe you with pleasure-if you’ll forgive me the jest.” Passport looked away from Felon’s scowl. “I assure you these people want to be here.”

The bartender returned with Felon’s drink. He sipped from the glass, but found the acrid background stench unpalatable. The assassin put the drink down.

“You would prefer something else?” Passport had produced a long thin cigarette of his own, and gestured toward Felon’s glass with it.

“Fucking cowards.” Felon felt the distant power of a killing rage growing in him.

“Cowards?” Passport echoed, genuinely amused.

The assassin grunted at the violations being visited upon the bound people in front of him.

Passport smiled, nodding his head rapidly. “I see. I see. And you would like to show them? You would like to educate them about-how shall I say- real pain.”

Felon sneered around the room, and then started toward the door. “I’ll wait on deck.”

Passport cleared his throat. Felon turned to him, but saw that the Demon’s servant no longer occupied the space by the bar. A voice behind him spun the assassin around.

“I’m sorry.” Passport stood there now. “I didn’t mean to startle you. But it would be best to stay below decks where it is more secure. We lost a pair of Eyesores to the Swimmers last night. I’m certain you’ll understand that Master Balg considers you too important a guest to risk topside.” He wrapped both arms about his thin midsection and grinned. A little mischief crossed his features and his eyes rolled. “If you’ll follow me to Master Balg’s office, please? He has just returned.”

Passport walked back toward the entrance. Felon ground his cigarette on the rug. A voice came from his right-begging. Terror was in the woman’s eyes. She was tied to a table. An Eyesore was working his deformed member in and out of her. Felon bared his teeth with disgust and followed Passport.

23 – Powers

“No fun today,” Mr. Jay had told Dawn as he gave her a list of duties he wanted her to complete while he was away.

“But I thought we came to the City to entertain,” the forever child stamped a foot. She’d been laying out her costume when he gave her the bad news.

“Yes,” the conjuror said, smiling weakly. “But that was before I understood how much the City has changed. It’s grown too dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Dawn had thrown her things onto the floor. Mr. Jay could tell she was performing, going through the motions of being upset. He knew that she was secretly pleased at his decision. “How will we earn money?”

“Yes,” Mr. Jay said, putting his list down and motioning her to the table. “I mentioned having friends here, well it is my intention to contact one that owes me a considerable sum of money. That should provide us enough to head north.”

“To Nurserywood!” Dawn had exclaimed and leapt into his arms.

“Yes,” Mr. Jay returned the hug. “But I’ll have to go out in the day, and quietly-so I can’t have Mojo along.” Dawn pulled away looking sad. “So I’ll depend on you to follow the rules and wait for me here.”

Dawn nodded dejectedly. “I wish I could help.”

“You can,” he said, chucking her chin, “as soon as we get out of the City. And you will be helping me now by letting me to go about my errands without worrying.”

“All right,” Dawn had sighed, and then frowned at the list. A chubby index finger whipped out. “Clean the cooking pots!” Her eyebrows formed serious line. “Without water!”

“We have leftover drinking, and scouring pads,” Mr. Jay said, rising to his feet. “And cleanser and rags.” He had crossed to his pack, threw it over his shoulder. “And that’s just one of the chores, my dear.” The conjuror knelt in front of her. “So please try to have them completed when I return so we can get away quickly.” He gripped her shoulder then. “And DO NOT leave the hideout.”

“I promise, Mr. Jay. Never. Never. Never!” Dawn had said, little tears suddenly appearing in her eyes. And he had hugged her then.

Almost two hours had passed since he had left her. He took public transit up one Level. The City’s Skyways were roaring with traffic and the sidewalks crammed with people as he exited the bus. Moving cautiously, Mr. Jay had kept a wary eye for anyone following him, and for any sign of a trap ahead.

If the Prime were using Powers, he’d be certain now that the magician was in the city. Any delay just increased the danger for Dawn.

Mr. Jay hated leaving her in the hideout, but he couldn’t risk getting her out of the City during the day and they would need supplies. His intention was to visit a bank on Level Three and make a withdrawal. He didn’t have an account there, but he had a few tricks for just such a financial transaction. It was easier to create a bank account than cash-on demand. He chose Level Three because that was a couple Levels away from Dawn, if this trick didn’t work and he had to make a run for it again.

He chuckled to himself, entertained by the vagaries of fate. A bank robber now! What next? But his humor disappeared when a chill ran through him. It was like the air had changed, became suddenly harder, colder. Powers! There were conflicting energies emanating from different sources in the City. It had been a dull background radiation throughout his stay. The Change was going into its final act. He paused in the street and opened himself to the sensations. Old enemies were at work. Always old enemies. And the conflict was coming, sooner than later.

He thought about his plan of abandoning the City and taking Dawn to the safety of Nurserywood. A wave of guilt ran over him.

How can you give up on them now?

“Fuck that argument,” Mr. Jay said aloud. A man walking past him heard the comment and frowned. The magician smiled and told said, “I’m not fighting your battles anymore.” He started moving with the crowd. No more. The bastards took everything before and learned nothing. Watched it, participated. And learned nothing. That wasn’t going to happen again. Already, in the limited time he’d spent among them he’d been forced to draw upon his darker purpose, his own energies. If people did not attract violence and harm, they created it. And then looked for someone else to clean it up. This time the responsibility is theirs.

And Mr. Jay suddenly cried out. Almost stumbled. A sudden searing pain had shot up his leg, through his right foot-felt like it tore his kneecap off. He gasped, bent over as the pain subsided. People slowed on the sidewalk around him but did not stop.

The magician looked up. The day was so dark streetlights were on. So what?

Then he heard it. Quiet at first, but it was there: a chant. Was it from behind? He turned to look, saw a steady stream of citizens walking. They wore suits; they wore skirts. They carried umbrellas against the drips and drizzle from the drains and cracks in the Level above. He looked up. And turned, senses open, listening. The chanting. There. Toward the City center. The Tower? By the curious looks he was getting, he knew no one else could hear it.

Chanting. Deep and sonorous. Gregorian? No, just…

Another lighting bolt of pain shot up his legs. He screamed, staggering back, bumping into a man who let him fall.

A shiver ran through him as he lay on the sidewalk. The chanting was stronger now. It was familiar: an old language from an old world. Tears started rising in his eyes. No! A fire ran into his side. Pain burned his ribs and set flame to his hands and feet. “Fuck!” Mr. Jay rolled onto his back. His walking stick clattered out of his hand.

A man was kneeling by him. “You okay?” he asked, and then saw Mr. Jay’s tears and he frowned.

“No.” Again a blade of pain twisted in his ribs. “NO!” And now he sobbed, rolled into a ball. He couldn’t take this. What was this? Where was everyone? Where are the others?

“Hey buddy,” the man beside him said, “it ain’t that bad.”

Mr. Jay’s eyes glared blearily at him. He touched the stranger’s arm and a jolt of pain ripped his palm. “No!” And he collapsed in on himself, the day disappeared, the street, the stranger. And he saw a dark room. And on the floor was a pentacle drawn in blood. A circle of naked men and women knelt around it. Their voices chanted-sang. In the pentangle center, a dark-robed figure knelt. He was broad and bulky. In his hands, he held a crucifix. And the pentangle pulsed lambent red in time to the chanting. And the pulses echoed outward through the dark. Through the City. Thumped against the sidewalk under him. Burned along his nerves and out, to push forward.

He opened his eyes, and sat up. The stranger was standing away from him now, looking worried and frightened.

The chanting was growing quiet. The pulsations of power diminished. Mr. Jay pressed his palms against the sidewalk, followed the energy on hands and knees. There it was, a stain…a mark. Gone! People stopped to watch him.

Power had been unleashed. He cast around the sidewalk, snatched up his walking stick. Dark and dangerous things had been set loose in the City. He’d only felt their passing. Quickly they were burning through the City’s levels toward Dawn!

24 – Disclosure

“I called you last night.”

Karen broke from her afternoon nap at the sound of Juanita’s voice. She leaned forward in her seat, almost lost her balance-steadied herself. Her mouth tasted of ashes. Juanita stood across from her at the door.

“Are you okay?”

Sister Cawood pushed sleep from her eyes smiling weakly. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“You look like shit.” Juanita closed the door behind her and leaned there.

“Oh.” It took her a moment to get her bearings. “I was working with Jane. I haven’t been feeling well. And I took a little catnap.” She smirked trying to insert a little humor. “Don’t tell her I’m awake. She’ll have me signing papers again.” She feigned a sore wrist rubbing it. Juanita’s dark eyes remained sad. Cawood sat up gesturing at the chair across from her. “Come in, what is it?” Juanita crossed the carpet, her shoulders slumped and her expression unreadable.

She was wearing a white blouse, light blue jacket and skirt. Her hair, normally buoyant and full hung loose at her shoulders. Then Karen saw the dark rings under her eyes.

“You look tired.” Cawood leaned forward as Juanita dropped into the chair.

“Of course I’m tired! I didn’t sleep a wink.” The Mormon’s white teeth flashed angrily.

“What’s wrong?”

“I went by your place last night.” Juanita crossed her legs and arms angrily. “And called until two.”

“Oh, I was out late.” She saw the Mormon’s eyes glare. “At the office. Here.”

“Stop lying.” Juanita’s accent grew with her anger. “You were not here either. I live in the Tower too, remember?”

“I-did you come by here?” Cawood looked around the room, rose weakly to her feet. “You must have missed me.”

“And did security miss you too?” Juanita’s voice grew louder. “Just stop lying to me, Karen.” Her anger softened momentarily. “Are you in trouble?”

“No.” Sister Cawood moved shakily around her desk to lean in front of the Mormon. “No. I’m not in trouble. Are you okay?”

“ Am I okay? I wait up all night worried about you, and that’s all you have to say!”

“Well.” Cawood cautiously moved forward, her peripheral vision on the door. “I want to know.”

“Yes, I’m okay.” Juanita looked up at her, by her posture Cawood knew she wanted to be held. “Whatever that means to you. I guess you’re in love.”

“In love?” Cawood’s head spun- vertigo! She wrestled with nausea. “I thought we talked about…”

“Not with me.” Juanita stood up now and moved close. “With someone else.”

“What?” The nun lowered her voice, and hoped Juanita would do the same. “In love?” she whispered, shaking her head.

“Whoever you spent last night with.” Juanita’s eyes flashed. “And who you’re lying for now!”

Cawood struggled to maintain her composure as memories of the night before convulsed in her. The floor felt flimsy beneath her-she steadied herself against the desk.

“I’m not in love.” She recognized Juanita’s crestfallen look. “With anyone else.” Then under her breath she said, “But I shouldn’t, we shouldn’t have to report to each other.”

“But if we are friends first, then what could it hurt.” Juanita’s look was penetrating. “You’re blushing. I knew it!”

Cawood stepped in closer. Part of her was becoming insanely, obscenely aroused by Juanita’s perfume. It was the hangover-all those toxins cleansing out…and Juanita smelling, being so fresh and close. She whispered into the Mormon’s ear. “We stopped being friends first when we started being lovers.”

Immediately, Juanita’s voice softened. “Then what is it that you cannot tell a lover? We always speak from the heart. That is…” She looked to the door and whispered, “Why I love you.”

Cawood shrugged. She knew it would look like reluctance to Juanita, but it was guilt crushing her down. “I’ll tell you then. But only because of what we have.” She clasped Juanita’s soft hand and dropped it. “I was with Able.”

Juanita scowled. “With?” Then the idea became ridiculous to her. But the implausibility of a physical liaison with the minister did not diminish her jealousy. “What then, what were you up all night with Able for?”

“He-you have to swear you won’t speak of this.” Cawood felt more guilt twist her guts as Juanita nodded innocently and crossed her heart. “Able saw another Angel.”

“Another Angel?” Juanita’s lips almost broke into a smile. “Oh no.”

Cawood knew that everyone in the Tower knew of Able’s first vision of an Angel and resulting redemption. The revelation had inspired the building of Archangel after all. But everyone Cawood knew had taken the vision as a psychological occurrence-a vision inspired by the minister’s potent but guilty mind. No one thought it was an actual visitation.

“Why would he see an Angel?” The Mormon was puzzled. “What has he done this time?”

“Oh, this one. I don’t know. He claims the Angel came to him with a new mission.” Cawood felt unsteady and needed the support of her desk again.

“What mission?” Juanita stepped forward yearning for closeness. “A mission from- God?”

“That’s what I took it to be.” Now that they were so close Cawood yearned for the comfort of the Mormon’s embrace. For a second she wanted to confess the truth. I’m a whore! But their connection was a sin already-the new filth was tantalizing.

“What mission?” Juanita was struggling with some inner joke.

“He said. Well…” She reached out to caress the Mormon’s shoulder. “It was something about redeeming an Angel.”

“Redeeming an Angel.” Juanita frowned now, though humor still twinkled in her eyes. “A fallen Angel?”

Cawood shrugged and nodded, hesitant to take further part in this betrayal of confidence.

“Not Satan?” Juanita closed her lips and then let go with a great ring of laughter. She bent over, resting her hands on Cawood’s shoulders. “Satan?” She laughed again, this time Cawood couldn’t resist. Such a weight of guilt was upon her that the absurdity of Able’s concerns grew ludicrous.

“Redeem the Devil himself…” Juanita’s smile was wide. “Oh, that Able he does fancy himself a handy servant of God All Mighty.”

Chuckling, the nun pressed a hand over Juanita’s lips. “Hush…don’t say Satan!” They both giggled.

“Well who else would it be, Karen? The good Lord wouldn’t waste Able Stoneworthy’s time with anything less.”

Again the pair of them curled over with laughter. Tears of shame burning in her eyes, Cawood broke into giggles. “Tomorrow morning!”

They both started laughing uncontrollably again.

“Around eleven…”

They were overwhelmed and collapsed into each other’s arms. They continued like this for some time, Cawood immersing herself in the release.

A quiet knocking on the office door interrupted them. The nun straightened up. “Yes. Come in please.”

Jane’s broad-cheeked face came in the opening door. She smiled apologetically then stepped into the room smoothing her tasteful skirt and jacket. “Excuse the interruption, Sister.”

Cawood wiped at her eyes nodding. “That’s fine Jane, how can I help you?”

“Excuse me, Sister Powell. I didn’t hear you enter.” She looked politely back to Sister Cawood. “I didn’t like the look of Sister Cawood this morning, and with her having to nap earlier on…and with the sounds in here, I thought she might have taken a turn for the worse.” She smiled hesitantly.

“Thanks Jane.” Cawood walked away from Juanita and back to her chair. “I feel much better from my nap. Sister Powell and I were reliving our times at the mission at the Mexican Crater.”

“Oh.” Jane smiled at Juanita. “It is nice to have friendship when the spirits are low,” she said now directly to Juanita, “Our Sister Cawood has not been herself lately.”

The Mormon smiled at Cawood and then joined Jane at the door. “Don’t you worry.” She slid a reassuring hand over the secretary’s shoulder. “We’ll both keep a close eye on her.” She looked back at Karen. “She’s doing important work! All that divinity is wearing on a mortal.” Juanita winked and smiled. Cawood’s guilt was now firmly back in place and held there by Jane’s Catholic concern.

“I’ll drop into your office later.” The nun smiled in a knowing way and nodded.

“You will.” Juanita nodded slowly and then smiled at the secretary before leaving.

Cawood looked at Jane and tried to cover her shame with words. “I want to thank you for looking out for me also. I’ve been involved in a project of some importance.”

“With Reverend Stoneworthy!” Passion leapt into Jane’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“I knew it.” Jane took two steps in. It was now that Cawood noticed her secretary held an envelope in her hands. “I can always tell.” Jane looked to the ceiling, color coming into her cheeks. “Reverend Stoneworthy is such a passionate fellow.” She hugged her hands to her bosom as she entertained a secret notion. “He is such an inspiring man; don’t you think he would have made a great Catholic?”

“He is a great friend to us,” Cawood said and nodded.

“I like to watch him. When I can. His face. I imagine, it’s the way, well forgive me, but it’s a saintly face.” Jane’s eyes moistened with sorrow or lust. “And I like to watch what goes on behind it. He’s such a godly man. Seeing him I know there is hope for us.”

“Of course there is.” Cawood dropped into her seat. “While there are people like Able around.”

“Indeed. And your own good work, Sister,” Jane said. “Though he’s working you to death with his project I’d say…” Then she lifted the envelope in her hand. “Oh, I’d almost forgotten.” She walked toward the desk. “I’m unfamiliar with the return address but a courier dropped it by just moments ago. I didn’t want to disturb you with it, since you were poorly.” She squinted her eyes at the writing on the envelope as she paused before Cawood’s desk. “I don’t know it. The address. And the name…” She slid her glasses on and held it close. “Brother Raul, it says.” Jane’s expression was thoughtful. “Dear, do you suppose he’s a man of the cloth?”

Blood rushed in Cawood’s ears. Distantly she heard Jane say, “My goodness! Oh, you look terrible I’ll go get water.”

Cawood gasped for breath against the rising tide of darkness.

25 – Special Arrangement

Balg kept a lot of skulls in his office, and the majority of them were human. There were horned and fanged versions of exotic or otherworldly shape, but there was no doubt that human skulls were the Demon’s favorite. Skulls decorated the ends of table legs, served as decanters for liquor, and crowned the backs of the large wide chairs that sat on either side of the desk. Smoke issued from the eyes of a particularly large cranium that Balg used as an ashtray. A long brown Cuban cigar was thrust like a spear through a ragged hole in the temple.

The Demon grinned at Felon with carnivore teeth. Moments before, Passport led the assassin up the stairs they had used to reach the Games Room and over an open companionway to a door facing the stern. The Demon’s assistant held it open for him, and then left. Balg was waiting.

The Demon was dressed in a dark purple silk tuxedo. His horns were more pronounced than on the last occasion they met, and his nose seemed wider, more goat-like. The room itself was alternately shadowed and lit by numerous thick candles, giving it a murky quality that made discernment of the actual decor difficult. As the candles flickered, shapes would appear from the gloom: an ancient bust of a long dead Roman senator, and the face on a forgotten Rembrandt emerged from the deep dark shadow. The desk itself was massive, carved from a single chunk of some extinct species of tight-grained black wood.

“Felon.” The Demon rose, flexing inhumanly broad shoulders. “Sorry I’m late. Success sucks. I’m always fucking working.” His eyes glowed momentarily. “Let me start by complimenting you on the professional job you worked on Stahn.” He clapped his taloned hands. “You are an artist. Honestly. A fucking artist. Please, please! Sit down.” The Demon gestured to the chair opposite his.

Felon took the seat, half-turned, keeping his peripheral vision on the door.

The Demon pointed to a large leather sack on the floor beside his desk. “Your payment and a bonus too, for carrying out your orders so fucking perfectly.” When Felon’s expression failed to change, or carry anything, Balg’s face drooped, and then flashed again into a hungry smile.

“I’m sorry I’m doing things this way. I know you don’t like surprises.” Balg dropped back into his chair.

Felon’s mind worked on a theme. Both Balg and Passport were using the word ‘surprise’ with a frequency worth notice. Something was up.

The Demon continued, “I have something I would like to discuss with you, and since you are not in the habit of expressing gratitude with a friendly visit, I thought it would be wise to entice you to drop in by other means. I want to talk to you about killing an Angel.”

Felon scowled, his eyes shifting to the shadowed corners of the room.

“I just got back from a big meeting that I engineered myself, and claim full credit…” The Demon smiled wickedly across the desk, his pleasure evident. “As you know, the world has slowly divided into camps since the Change began. Groups of powerful beings, and families, organizations acting in cooperation with groups of influential humans: this that, it’s complicated. Deals are being made anyway.” His face fell into mock pathos. “And the killing, Felon-the killing…it has got to stop.” Balg’s eyes twinkled with crocodile tears.

Felon eyed the Demon.

Balg’s face flushed suddenly. “Like that fucker Stahn!” The Demon grimaced. “I guess that’s funny now that he ain’t fucking no more. But Stahn didn’t follow the rules. We had a deal, me and Stahn. What did he do?” The Demon laughed. “But I didn’t bring you here to talk about family.” Balg snatched up his cigar, snapped it between his teeth and dropped back into his chair. He puffed away, glowing eyes studying the assassin. Mirth and anger flickered about his bestial features.

Felon watched the Demon in turn. He had long ago stopped trying to read their inner workings by their expressions. His greatest defense came from careful study of their body language and posture.

Again, a tiger’s smile crossed the Demon’s face. His eyes glimmered with power. He laughed, powerful fingers pantomiming a piano in front of him. “You are a joy to watch, dear Felon- inscrutable Felon. You are buried fucking deep, and yet you give yourself away at times. Control fellow. Control. You hate too hard!” Balg straightened his muscular form and took a long pull on his cigar.

“Now, where was I? As you know, there have been warring factions in the world, certainly the power center seems to be the City, but the wars have gone on long enough. Especially, the Angel conflict that has been going on over two thousand years-good versus evil, all that.” The Demon chuckled maniacally. “And only since the Change has the war been able to leak across onto the earth. And we Demons have been caught in the middle from time to time-for no fault of our own, of course. And as you know we are considered different by both of the Divine factions.

“I have just now come from a meeting with very influential Fallen. They also have difficulty with the constant conflict that goes on between the three groups-I mean four counting mankind.” Balg chuckled as he stubbed his cigar out. “Now, Fallen they break into three big families. One directed by the former world champion Lucifer. There’s a rumor that he hit bottom-just lost it. Anyway, his old gang is strictly into turf control. They just want out of the scrapping. I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. And I don’t care, because they recognize turf… Do you understand that Felon? Turf?” Balg pounded his desk.

Felon glared.

“So, Lucifer and his boys are running a skid row deal down in the sewers under the City, if you can believe that. Repenting some say, but I don’t believe it! Someone told me he gave his fortune away to charity. I think he drank it.” Balg’s eyes glowed. “So, those guys are right into the Holy Compact thing and repentance and all that. You know the deal they got with Heaven.”

Balg continued. “So they made their own Bible if you can believe that, and they go by it. Let’s call it Epistle Envy. Whatever, the other two gangs of Fallen not directly under the control of Saint Lucifer are still bound by the Compact and don’t want to piss off the Dark Prince, who still commands the majority at least you know, he’s a figurehead. And everyone’s a bit twitchy about the whole wrath of God thing, which is supposed to happen if the Compact is subverted.

“Us Demons, we have latitude when it comes to the Compact. Hell, some of us are Catholics…but we have latitude since we pre-date the whole Christian thing. So, some of these Fallen have watched how Demons work, and they like what they see.” Balg chuckled. “I have my own superiors to answer to just like you. But they’re very easy to buy, if they notice this shit at all. Demons are different. You know that.” He cleared his throat. “We have a hierarchy of advancement, once you get made, you can go up the chain. There’s a King of Demons but you know he’s really more interested in his take and getting some poontang… I know the guy, he’s nuts for pussy. All he thinks about!”

Balg shifted in his chair. A grin spread across his powerful cheeks. “Myself, I want advancement. I’m a Baron, but I’ve been a Baron for about four hundred years. It’s time to move up.” He chuckled at the irony. “Well, upward-so to speak. But, there are two Fallen with a great deal of power running the other gangs I mentioned. And it came to me that perhaps we could work a deal. Talks began three decades ago. And I just got back from a meeting now.” He took a breath. “I understand you have worked for Fallen in the past? One named Kest hired you to whack one of his boys.”

“Liars,” Felon hissed. “Cheats.” Kest had deducted a Voided Soul-Procurement Clause Tax. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t in the agreement. Of course, as Kest pointed out, it wasn’t out of it either-unless Felon wanted to reactivate the clause.

“Hey, you ever eat out with them. It’s like perdition. They take so fucking long figuring out tips…I just whip out the wad and pay it, you know. It’s embarrassing. But they are powerful. I will be the first to admit it. And they are made of the same stuff as…” Balg set the clawed fingers of one hand against his lips and pointed upward. “So I couldn’t ignore the possibilities of what might come up from an alliance with them. Fallen I spoke to, know of you, and understand our relationship. So I decided to offer them a gift of good faith.”

“Faith!” Felon spat; already his reluctance to deal with Fallen was rising.

“For a sum that you can pick, I want you to do a number on a certain Angel from the Celestial Choir. Now, he is of minor importance in Heaven-barely more than a fucking cherub, okay? And his behavior is hardly worthy of an Angel-the hypocritical bastards. But it is possible that a certain group of his contemporaries up there is not in direct opposition to the thoughts, feelings and aspirations of all Fallen. They are all brothers. You know, it’s family. It’s a family fucking deal.

“This particular Angel is privy to some of the dealings and discussions that have gone on. Some of which meetings I’ve already mentioned. So he is a guardian Angel gone bad who’s having an affair with a human woman. He fell in love-supposedly.” Balg’s eyes flashed white rings of disbelief. “If he were to get whacked in a compromising situation then any testimony that he has given or could have given will be suspect. And his mouth will be shut. My friends within the Fallen ranks, and their friends among the Divine, will have an annoyance out of the way, and will have acquired trust and good faith with the Demons under my command. Which is good for me. And, in the long run, good for you.”

Felon sipped his drink. Killing Angels was dangerous work-this deal sounded complicated-might be a swan song. He wouldn’t want to push his luck after it.

“Deposit $3 million in cash in an account of my choosing,” Felon said. “Put $2 million in gold ingots in a safety deposit box upon completion of the job.” He contemplated asking for Infernal protection after the hit; but knew that no one could be trusted.

Balg laughed long and loud, stroking his horns as he howled. “Felon! I thought you were getting soft.” The Demon pounded the desk. “Done!” He reached out to Felon; the assassin stood, reluctantly took his hand. “Passport got the papers drawn up-we’ll just fill in the blanks and arrange the finances before you leave.”

“When do you want it done?” Felon turned to go.

“Tomorrow morning, at eleven!” Balg raised his hand. “I’m sorry for the specific timeframe, but we know he’ll be at his girlfriend’s and his guard will be down. Fuck he won’t see it coming and then me and my associates can go to the next stage in our plans. The easiest money you’re ever going to make.”

Felon almost protested. Twenty-three hours made it dangerous. No time to plan. He’d set it up. If things weren’t safe, he could abort. No one would complain. And it was worth taking his time. He knew that once this job was out of the way, he’d have to disappear for a while-maybe retire. He’d be too hot to do anything else.

“Wurn will take you back to the mainland.” Balg’s face was a mask of joyous teeth. The door opened, Passport entered. “See to the paperwork first.”

Passport nodded, made a sweeping gesture with his hand. Felon waited for the gangly secretary to leave and followed him from the office.

26 – Tea Party

Dawn was playing quietly with some plastic cups and saucers she’d found while exploring their hideout. They were tucked away in a box with other junk from the old days. She jumped at the chance to have a tea party, but had quickly grown bored with it. Mr. Jay always encouraged her to play because he said that the happiest people he knew were young at heart. And, he would add, somebody had to remember how to be a real kid, in case real kids ever returned and needed to know. So, her mind was bouncing from childish notion to adult idea-and getting excited about Nurserywood and real tea parties when she heard something rattle and click in the hall outside.

She blew out the candle that sputtered on the table, and hurried to her cubbyhole, slid the door into place and flipped the slat to lock it. She sat in the dark, terror clutching at her heart as the doorknob to the hallway rattled and then roughly turned. The squeaking of old hinges followed. Then there were little creaks and knocking noises-as something entered, and whispery sounds like dry leaves rattling in the wind. Her breath was coming in rapid little bites and big gulps and she started to feel a little dizzy. Calm down. The grownup voice in her head warned. Slow your breathing. One. Two. Three…

She had pulled her quilt over her and was just doing what the voice had suggested, when the door to her cubbyhole started rattling and banging against the wall. Oh, Mr. Jay! Panic flashed through Dawn. The fine hair on her arms stood on end. The door rattled and banged again and then fell into a silent and quiet state that was far more terrifying.

“Hey kid,” a youthful voice said finally-it was childlike but had a raspy edge of weariness. “Kid. Come on out. We won’t hurt you, and we don’t have time for this.”

Dawn’s breath caught in her throat. Her heart thumped in her ears.

“Come on,” the whisper continued after a few silent seconds. “We ain’t got time for chitty chats or pitty pats or patty cakes!”

Dawn was startled when a quiet chorus of whispered laughter followed-that ran louder until a shushing sound silenced it.

“We ain’t got time,” the voice insisted, followed by much mechanical clicking and rattling that sounded like machinery. “We’re here to help you.” There was more whispering, and the hushing sound. “Kid. We’re just like you so don’t be worried. We know you’re spooked, but you don’t have to fill your diaper.”

“Diaper!” Dawn blurted, before clapping a hand over her mouth. She heard giggling outside and then harsh whispered words.

“Enough!” the voice hissed as the door to the cubbyhole shook briefly and was still. “Look out at least if you can.” Then the voice went quiet. “Here, give a sec…”

Dawn cautiously approached the door. With small fingers she slid the little wooden flap aside that hid her peephole. There was only darkness. Dim gray lines showed the edges of the boarded up windows-but the gloom was heavy and trended to black shadows. Suddenly, a match flared blindingly. It swooped up through the air, illuminating a hand, a set of rough clothes on a small body, the shoulders bulky, the arms and legs knobby with padding. The match’s orange yellow light traveled upward until it hovered in front of a small face-a forever child, a girl with freckles and curly hair and big round eyes. She was perhaps pre-Change nine but still about Dawn’s height and weight. The flame suddenly flared as the girl lit a cigarette. She pulled it out of her mouth with her free hand and then smiled.

“There! You see? I’m a kid too!” And then: “Shit!” the girl cried out as the match burned down to her fingers and she threw it to the ground where it went out. There was giggling and then a string of angry curses as the girl scolded. There was a sudden multitude of wooden scratching sounds, this time echoing all about the hideout as six new flames sparked to life and traveled up to reveal as many other forever children.

There were an equal number of boys and girls. Their ages ranged from six to something near eleven or twelve the biggest: one broad shouldered boy in handmade armor and padding wearing a wide metal hat. Across from him to the right of the girl with curly hair was a little boy, the smallest. He was wearing a brass helmet like some kind of museum piece-its fluted edges curled down over his narrow shoulders and swept up over his covered forehead. A welded grid of flat metal straps like a basket hid his face. His left hand looked monstrous like some lethal flower. Its five sharp petals were shiny knife blades almost as long as the boy’s arm. The small fist that held them was covered with a padded hockey glove and well bound up with heavy layers of duct tape and wire.

All the other kids held cutting weapons too, and from straps and belts hung guns of various sizes and shapes.

“Come on, we have to go,” the girl with the curly hair insisted. She blew a stream of smoke into the darkness overhead. “Toffers and Sheps are coming.” The girl read Dawn’s unspoken question. “Truant Officers and Shepherds-their dog-things have picked up your scent.”

Dawn’s hands reached out of their own accord and pulled the latch free to unlock her door. She pushed it aside and stepped out.

The kids’ eyes went wide and round and swept over her form.

“She’s got no weapons,” a tall girl in helmet and pigtails said.

“She’s dressed like a kid,” said the big boy with the wide steel hat. “A real fucking Squeaker!”

Dawn found the scrutiny unnerving. Her hands self-consciously smoothed the material of her little jumpsuit as she searched for something to say. A few wooden matches suddenly flickered to the floor as new ones were struck to life. A second later, the remaining matches were doused and replaced.

“My name is Dawn,” she said finally. Her voice sounded soft and childlike compared to these rough characters.

“I’m Liz,” the curly haired girl growled, flicking her cigarette to the ground. “We got to get you out of here.” She looked nervously at the door. They’d closed it after entering. “The Toffers are coming and they got Sheps, meaning they’ll get right on you. Last we saw them-they weren’t none of them wearing their people skins.”

Dawn shook her head. She didn’t know what a Toffer was or a Shep, and she sure wasn’t going to just leave Mr. Jay because some girl told her too, no matter how rough and tumble she looked.

“I can’t leave,” she said, finally. “I’m waiting for Mr. Jay.” Then an idea struck her. “Maybe he can help you.”

“ Maybe he can help you!” the other kids parroted, making their voices sound silly and childish. A chorus of quiet giggling followed.

“Shut up!” Liz hissed angrily. “The Creature said she was different…”

But she fell silent as something went through the group. Some kind of shared sense traveled over their bodies that even Dawn felt: like a cold chill on a damp morning.

Then the little boy with the murderous hand crouched, his head click side to side, and his tiny shape flitted across the hideout toward the door.

“Conan careful!” Liz hissed after him. “They’re here.”

And Dawn’s breath went out as the kids extinguished their matches and plunged the room into total darkness. She took a terrified step backward, but stopped when a small hand, Liz’s, grabbed onto her arm. She tried to speak-but another hand cupped her mouth and pointed her head toward the door.

A red glow had appeared in the hall outside, tracing the door’s edges with sickly light. Dawn watched as a brighter focus of light grew and searched at the lower edge of the door, slid its febrile glow on the floorboards there. Then it drew away, and plunged the room into darkness again.

The fingers gripping Dawn’s arm dug into the flesh until she wanted to scream, but her fear silenced her.

Suddenly the door split up the middle and splintered inward. Dawn was pulled against the wall as gunfire erupted from the corners-sent a flashing hail of bullets at the impossibly tall men who charged in.

They wore heavy armor, bulky over chest and shoulders-their legs were hidden by hanging sheets of thick material that seemed to sweep up from the ground to large collars that hid their faces. Black-visored caps sat atop their bullet-shaped heads. The first one in fell on his face-the bright flashes apparently eating into his silhouette as he dropped. But more of them entered, charging over his falling body.

Liz’s eyes were wild in the violent flickering light. She held Dawn’s arm tightly in one hand and fired a pistol with the other. She dragged the forever girl along the wall away from the intruders. The air crackled around them, hissed with hot gunfire and roared with pain and anger.

Dawn watched the little boy, Conan, rush at the invaders’ legs, slashing and jabbing with his curious weapon-chopping at the thick forest of legs around him. His little black shape moved too quickly to see.

Then the tall men, screaming and crying in pain, fell back-dropped into the hallway.

Liz’s fingers dug into her, seemed to have reached bone as the room fell silent and dark. There was a muffled thump, then blinding explosion.

Green lights jazzed her vision. She stumbled. Her ears were ringing. She felt cold hands suddenly on her: biting nails, rough skin ripping over her own. She opened her eyes to red light. Strange men without faces loomed. And something panted near her ear-stank of dogs and blood. Faraway she heard the sound of gunfire-then there was only darkness.

27 – Reckoning

Cawood’s breath came in hot gulps-her heart raced… deliver the souls in Purgatory, especially those for whom we now pray… She could barely stand; her legs trembled so. Distantly she wondered if a person could die of shame. Her face and head throbbed like sunstroke-and her shoulders hung from a brittle spine. Cawood stood by the window in her Sunsight office. A still photo from the movie was in her hand. Processed quickly, the black and white image was unmistakable. The nun quickly saw that Raul had chosen the most damning of frames. It wouldn’t matter if the rest of the exchange were captured or not. The picture in her hand was the end of her life here. It showed her in relative close up, talking and smiling-it looked like she was talking. She had no idea what she had said but on either side of her face, throbbing and repulsive, was a male erection: one white, one black.

When she realized what she was looking at, it had been enough; the sick guilt drove her to the heavy-paned window-and since she had contemplated the worst… Was she prepared for Mortal sin? It would make her an enemy of God for eternity. No atonement. Was she ready to up the stakes of her self-destruction? Make it permanent.

There were other offices that had balconies. There were service hatches. The fall would kill her, and what came out of Blacktime would be utter damnation.

Or had she developed an unquenchable thirst for shame? It wasn’t self-preservation that stayed her had. Were the masochistic possibilities of disclosure so attractive? Punish me! Burn me at the stake! It didn’t matter what she was saying in the movie. Whatever profundity the blurred eyes attempted to expound was lost by the abject obscenity of the act. Her arms went slack, swung down, the picture staining the constant black of her dress.

What was she saying? Hurt me? Whatever the words were, she knew that the gist was: look at me. Hate me. Despise the whore. I am not worthy of the office I hold. Kill me! Let me go! Her stomach lurched. It was clear to her that regardless of the movie’s length, her life ended with the frame in her hand. Anything else was just dirt on her grave.

Was this proof of a split personality? She’d contemplated it before. Insane. She must be insane. She couldn’t be possessed. She didn’t share Able’s craving for action heroes. Her behavior suggested two personalities and that was mental illness. But could she claim such separation, for hadn’t she taken great pleasure from the lust in men’s eyes as they coveted her? When she thought of Juanita earlier-did she not wish to take the Mormon’s clothes off and lavish her body with kisses? It was too easy to blame a separate part of herself for sinning. As though someone else had enjoyed the night.

For her memories of the men, despite the depravity, gave her hot and carnal sensations- even now? Those men might have put something in her drink, but why was she there? Was she hoping someone would?

It was true she had left the church spiritually-but last night, the movie, that was something wrong. That was a sickness and the drugs. And if it was not drugs, then the film was not pornography so much as it was confession. Could it be that even in her sickest state, she had recognized her illness, and this movie was a cry for help? Run from sin!

That’s too easy! She wanted to rage. Her immortal soul was not something out of a psychology textbook! Her sins were not the cry for help that fit so comfortably in a sociological viewpoint. She had sinned! Damn it! And now, she had destroyed her life! Cawood looked at the sky-pellucid blue and promising. She raised a fist and hissed, “Why did you do this to me?” As the words left her, tears welled up in her eyes and she sank against the glass.

“Why did you leave me?” She mumbled, sliding down to gather in a heap beside the window. “I loved you…” And tears dripped from her eyes. “I gave my life to you.”

And the note with the picture said what? The men she’d sinned with knew she was the Sister-the other Tower Builder. She and Able had been minor celebrities near the end of its construction. She must have made that clear to them or they had recognized her. They wanted money for silence. The mere notion made her want to vomit again. Money? But she knew that whatever was paid would never be enough. It would start with the amount they quoted then increase. And she knew that ultimately, the movie would surface. It would be worth more to the newspapers and the media. And the kind of betrayal in it provoked revulsion even in the meanest of criminals. Such powerful hypocrisy would be hard to contain. That was the depth of her sin. Even criminal minds would find her abhorrent.

She and Able occasionally dealt with the press. They were called upon to attend charity functions, and speak at gatherings-they continued to raise money for the Tower, for the great works it underwrote. When would Sister Karen Cawood be brought down?

She began to wonder whether suicide was truly the greater sin. Her life was over anyway. How could she minimize the damage? She would have to leave. Maybe that was it. There was the mission at the New Mexican crater. She could talk to her superiors before this became public. That way it would diminish the impact. It wouldn’t hurt so many at the Tower if she were gone. She got to her feet.

With your bright and open heart forgive me for showing darkness to the light.

Cawood took two steps and froze. It was over, and somewhere inside her; she felt sadness but resolution. At least she wouldn’t hurt her friends anymore. Not after this last great convulsion she’d cause them. Then there’d be no more. She moved to her desk, opened the top drawer, put the picture in and shut it away. She didn’t bother with the key. Her hypocrisy needed stronger locks than that. It was too late.

She walked toward her office door, paused there a moment. Her nausea was gone. She no longer felt dizzy. The nun had been schooled in resignation if nothing else. The church had taught her how to take a beating. She would tell Able after she had contacted her superiors. She wouldn’t bother showing them the picture. There was no point to that. That would just be masochism, forcing herself to squirm while some church Father or Mother Superior viewed her sins. Then she relented. They’d have to see it. Better by her own hand. By now, she had traveled so far away from self-preservation that she didn’t care about the thoughts of peers she’d leave behind. I have sinned against you…

Worst was the problem with Able. How could she tell him? Cawood glanced at her watch. The day had slipped by as she faded in and out of her cloud of guilt. Able would still be in the Tower. He’d have to wait. She’d be better prepared for him later, after she had talked to her superiors. But tonight, at the latest, so she could avoid his ridiculous mission. She had to tell him the truth.

28 – The Hunt

Felon sat in a rental car up the street from 232 Towerview Terrace, Level Four. The car was a wreck. He had paid a large cash deposit and used forged driver’s license and identification to drive it off the Level One lot. It was an old Ford, a rusty Pinto from a pre-Change seventies fad that had struck the City in the post-Change sixties. Felon knew that it was worth considerably less than the down payment but with the extra green, the dealership would be less inclined to miss it and might not even look for the heap if it didn’t return. And he’d always found that if you paid well people rarely asked probing questions. He didn’t quibble about the money, it was the cost of doing business, and this job was going to make him wealthy.

The afternoon was dark-it was always dark in the City. He wanted to get a feel for the neighborhood, get a glimpse of his prey.

From his hunter’s blind he had watched people come and go. It had rained off and on all day, beyond the layers of concrete, asphalt and steel that made up the levels above. At its highest point, the City was six layers thick and was well into adding its seventh. There didn’t seem to be any plan to construction. The City just added neighborhoods when they were needed. There was still a constant influx of refugees from the failing inland cities and states, and the wealthy from around the world had begun to make the trip, paying enormous sums of money for Sunsight apartments in the upper reaches. It wasn’t progress. Felon knew it was decay. The City was an expensive refugee camp for the survivors of all that was left of North America. There were similar cities on the other continents-fancy catch basins. They didn’t know they were fucked.

The assassin sneered and looked out at a fine mist that hung in the air. Runoff and any rain that got through the Carapace poured down road, building and Skyway gutters to collect in vastly inadequate and aging sewer systems on successive levels. These were originally designed to channel the descending torrents of water to the sewers that ran beneath the City-from there out to the sea. But, the sewers weren’t designed for such growth, and were incapable of keeping up with the vast quantities of precipitation that fell. So the water seeped through cracks and holes in this overtaxed system to form a dirtier and rustier rain that fell on the level below where the process was repeated.

It added a steely gray dampness to the cold air and darkened the street in puddles. The chill leached up through the tires, the car frame and into Felon’s bones. He resisted the urge to run the heater-exhaust was like a smoke signal-and he was already running a risk with a cigarette. His prey was partly omniscient so any activity was dangerous. 232 Towerview Terrace was about one hundred feet up the block from him. This Level Four neighborhood would consider itself upscale. He imagined there was a time that you could see the Tower from the street. Now it was completely obscured by buildings and massive supports for Level Five. The monolith punched through Level Five about thirty blocks to the south. The view was gone now but must have been impressive before the upper level was clamped into place.

People trudged past through sporadic drizzle. It was rare to see anyone hurry through the perpetual wet anymore. It was going to get you sometime. Umbrellas and hat brims sagged against the onslaught. Raincoats glistened like polished steel.

The assassin hated the people who passed. He took grim pleasure wishing each one dead. They were losers, every one-unredeemable. Divine and Infernal creatures were right to view them with contempt. The human race had been was destroying the planet before the Change came, gearing up for a manmade apocalypse. The assassin hated that part of the Change; by robbing humanity of the responsibility for its own destruction it let the hypocrites off the hook. He shrugged his hatred away, useless hate. If the situation developed fast, he’d have to be free of emotion. Hating people was like a shunt for his passions. He had to be clean of feeling-sometimes if he hated hard enough, he needed a cigarette after.

He tossed his cigarette out the window. Even its sizzle in the damp street concerned him. But with the pedestrians and the raucous traffic he doubted his quarry could stand being so finely attuned. Setting a hand on his gun, he lit a fresh cigarette, bared his teeth through the smoke.

Felon turned to the papers on the seat beside him. Margaret Travers. Age (Pre-Change): 37. Height: 5’ 8”, Weight: 130 lbs., Hair: Brown, Eyes: Green. Felon pulled her picture out. Pale, a few freckles around the nose. Full lips. Slight overbite. She was employed as a paralegal for Divine amp; Fair Law, a firm that represented the Jehovah’s Witness offices in Archangel Tower. Travers had worked with them off and on for forty years, and acted as temp secretary for offices of other world religions in the Tower.

The assassin imagined her Angel boyfriend putting the moves on her there. A little cinnamon smell to the air-a sprinkling of cologne. No woman would be able to resist a Divine creature’s powers.

He looked up from the papers, glared at the buildings. Travers owned one of the unimaginative condominiums that lined both sides of the street. Hers had seven green steps that led up to the two-story brick structure. The number and mailbox were brass, as was an ornate knocker on the dark wooden door and railing that followed the steps up to it. The file said she worked until 5 p.m., sometimes ate at Daniel’s Cafe but most often made dinner for herself at home. She was punctual person with a penchant for rock climbing and bicycling.

Felon set a cautionary note next to the rock climbing. Since death was no longer permanent with the Change, most people avoided thrill seeking, since living death was everyone’s worst nightmare, especially a death by massive trauma-like a fall from a cliff. After Blacktime, the unconscious period between life and living death, bones and contusions did not heal. There were surgical and repair techniques that could fix broken bones and skeletal injuries, but few people took the chance of dying lightly. Travers was a risk taker and she could be dangerous. He’d he cap her fast.

Felon set the file down. Most likely, Travers didn’t know her boyfriend was an Angel. When one of the Divine or Infernal host walked the earth, he did so as a mortal for the duration of his stay. Powerful-but mortal. And mortality bred cowardice among the immortal. While they walked the earth, they could catch colds, sprain an ankle or be seriously compromised by a high caliber bullet. They retained a large percentage of their Divine powers of perception, and they had immense strength. If they had the time to shift into their Divine forms they were invincible.

Felon looked back to Travers’ file. Passport had delivered it and a notarized document for the 3 million dollar cash deposit in the assassin’s account. A quick call to the bank confirmed it. The file saved him having to do the backgrounder himself and he was short of time. Using the Demon’s research presented some risks, but the Baron had a legion of Demon soldiers he commanded if he wanted Felon out of the way. There was no need for the ruse.

Just before three-thirty, the assassin watched a bus pull up to the curb across the street about seventy-five yards south of him. That was her bus. She’d be on it at six. A figure bundled in a wine-colored trench coat got out and walked along the block toward the Travers’ condo. As he watched, Felon struggled with his suspicions. He didn’t want to trust Balg and hated more the fact that by proxy he had put his faith in a Fallen. But the money was delivered. And they knew who they were dealing with.

Felon looked away when he realized the approaching figure was a woman. He’d found that women could sense a stare. He had no scientific proof, but they seemed to know when someone’s full attention was on them. Even if he was well hidden women could tell when they were being watched.

Men were easier to surprise. For the majority, if they had no reason to suspect a trap, it didn’t enter their minds. Probably had something to do with the fact that men were not preyed on as often. So for women, the assassin had cultivated the sideways glance. He watched as she hurried against the gusting wind and rain with one hand holding the brim of her dark fedora and the other clenching a briefcase to her chest. The woman glanced at the car, looked away and glanced again. Felon dropped further down in his seat when she got close. The Angel would be attuned to living things. Might even scan the street through other eyes. The assassin had parked far enough away, but he knew too much about Angels to take any extra risk. The woman relaxed her grip on the brim of her hat as she walked past Travers’ home.

Felon made a mental note to park farther from the bus stop next time. He took a deep breath and let his mind shift back to the hunt. The hit had to be fast. An Angel took about a second to shift to his immortal form, and the only way to delay that was with heavy damage. High-powered handguns would be best. Automatics, so he could chew a big hole quick.

Felon felt adrenaline rush through him as he inventoried his armament. He would have his. 9 mm in one armpit, and the. 44 magnum in a handmade holster across his belly-three speed-loaders for that. He’d sling his Derringer in a holster between his shoulder blades. He’d stick a. 38 revolver in his right boot and a 12-inch bayonet in his left. He counted extra clips and speed-loaders for all the guns. Beneath his black suit and overcoat he would wear lightweight Kevlar body armor and padding. All he needed was that second delay.

He started the car and pulled away from the curb. He’d drive a big loop and park farther down so he could watch Travers when she got off work at five. Balg’s file showed her off tomorrow, which would be a good time for her Angel boyfriend to stop by for some earthly delights.

Felon would kill everything in the house.

29 – Ardor

He sensed the commotion too late to do anything about it. He couldn’t move as quickly as the unleashed Powers, so he knew he’d never make it back to the hideout in time. The City of Light’s transit system was overcrowded and prone to delay, and it was at such times that he regretted his disinterest in automobiles. They were expensive and wasteful and they’d done irreparable damage to the planet, but they would come in handy during moments of crisis. Especially when it concerned Dawn’s safety.

He growled impatiently and swore at passing taxis, and then paced at each subway station, running between transfer points-only to see the time saved consumed by dawdling travelers and delays at stops. Most of his cavalry charge was set to the music of silent cursing.

Mr. Jay ran the last few blocks to the hideout. He charged into the building, heedless of the danger signs he smelled everywhere. If something happened to Dawn he’d burn the City!

A shudder ran through him at the top of the stairs. Bullets and violence pockmarked the wall opposite the hideout door. Dull light shone through holes around the doorframe. Holding his walking stick like a club, he vaulted up the last steps and leapt over the ruins in the doorway.

One quick look showed him that the gunfire had come from inside the room-still not good but better. He studied the scattered debris. Bullet casings clinked underfoot. He took a deep breath and knelt at Dawn’s cubbyhole. The door was open. He thrust his head into it. A light perfume of candy and children’s soaps momentarily raised his hopes and brought tears to his eyes.

Dawn was gone.

His fingers closed in the soft material of her quilt. He dragged it out and clutched it to his chest as he surveyed the damage. The shattered remains of a pink plastic teapot wrung his heart.

The Powers had entered. He looked around the collected dust and detritus on the floor. And more little ones! He stooped to study small footprints that displayed in bits and pieces from beneath the clutter of wreckage. That should be good. Should be because forever children were unique creatures in his experience. He had no idea what a group of them would do. But they weren’t known for violence against each other. If there were murderous elements among them, their anger was usually directed at the adult population.

But Dawn wasn’t like them-forever children in a city like this. They were toughened by a life on the run. He studied the shell casings: all of them from small caliber weapons fire. So the kids had the guns. Good. He couldn’t resist a small grin. That’s a topsy-turvy statement for a topsy-turvy world. Their small bodies couldn’t counterbalance big weapons.

He turned his attention to the violence at the door. Under powdered plaster and splintered wood, he saw faint outlines, stains of spilled fluids. And then his spirits fell. He recognized the pattern: Ardor, the blood of Demonkind or Fallen. A sudden wave of panic shook him, threatened to sweep him away. Dawn!

The chances of forever children repelling an attack by Demons were small, and now that he had identified the Ardor, he sniffed the air for its potency. There was always residue-always a hint to the amount that had been spilled. The kids must have been well armed to spill so much. He kept the quilt clutched to his chest and picked up his chair from the pile of wreckage. He sat on it.

Neither Demons nor Fallen liked to have their blood spilled, especially by mortal means. If that was the case, the attackers either had a powerful personal motivation or they were being compelled by great force. It had to be the Prime. He remembered his vision of the pentangle.

He sniffed the air, but caught no hint of human blood. He opened himself- no some there and there, only drops. Flesh wounds perhaps, nothing more. That was good.

He shook off a wave of despair and got to his feet. There was no telling where to start looking if Dawn was in the hands of Demons-and Fallen were no better. Anxiety lashed him until he pushed the thoughts of Dawn’s capture aside.

The small amount of human blood suggested the forever children had survived the battle. If they were lucky, they might have had some Powers of their own, and managed to spirit Dawn away. And if they had failed to defend her they were either on her trail or would have information that he could use to get her back. He had to get her back.

Mr. Jay surveyed the room and then set about collecting unopened cans of food and other undamaged supplies he’d need on the hunt. These he put into his pack onto the neatly folded shape of Dawn’s quilt.

30 – Human Error

Stoneworthy drove onto Towerview Avenue with about twenty minutes to spare. The greasy rain smeared the windshield with each stroke of the tattered wipers and forced him to slow. Able was never a man to worry about the little things in life: that guaranteed his apartment was out of coffee, his nose hairs needed trimming and his car was in need of new windshield wipers for over a year. The details were overshadowed by the larger spiritual matters that usually consumed his waking life. There was an occasion where he wore only one sock to the office. When Karen asked him about it, he explained that it was the only clean one he could find.

But when a man actually meets an Angel his perspective changes. The little things will never look the same again. Of course he had to be sure he didn’t expect too much from others who hadn’t shared the experience. They were allowed to doubt. That was why he was reluctant to tell Karen that the Angel was expecting them-such a thing sounded ridiculous. And she already had too much on her plate.

But he knew an Angel expected them at eleven-thirty and he was terrified that he’d be late. It sounded unbelievable to him and he’d actually looked an Angel in the face. He didn’t want to push his luck with too much talk of the visitation. She’d come this far on his word alone and he valued the trust.

He knew he should talk to Karen about what was bothering her, but this wasn’t the right time for it. He wasn’t focused, and while her problems warranted attention, his mission took precedence this once. They needed to find the right time to talk. He was very worried about her.

But he couldn’t stop thinking how thrilled he was that the Angel had chosen him. His work on Archangel Tower had made him a minor celebrity among the City of Light’s populace, but for such a thing to gain him the trust of an Angel? What was he to God’s Firstborn children? A handful of clay-a pinch pot with eyes.

He hoped his humility would be enough to gain the trust of the Divine sinner. And that was the approach he’d decided to take. Sin is sin, and we’re all God’s children. Who better to guide one out of the wilderness than another who was lost?

He coughed, and then politely waved at the accumulating smoke. Poor Karen had been chain smoking for the entire drive and had only opened her window a crack. The environmental disaster she created was beginning to wear on the minister’s patience-especially when he watched her use the lit end of the last cigarette to ignite the next.

Stoneworthy realized he was being selfish. Karen looked horrible. Worse than she did the day before. It was obvious that his words of caution had fallen on deaf ears. Looking at her now, it was as though she had found a way to multiply the actions that resulted in her deathlike pallor and overall sickly appearance.

He rolled down his window all the way. His left shoulder was already quite damp. The minister leaned in toward her about to speak-but her appearance silenced him again. It was more than nervousness that made her face so severe. Then he realized what might be the cause. He cleared his throat quietly and glanced over.

She looked at him, her eyes trying to express something that was transformed into another puff of smoke. She looked away. He repeated the noise, louder-snuffling on the stuffy air. She gave a quick look at him, almost desperate, then turned. Slowly, her eyes came back to him.

“Is it the mission?” Stoneworthy asked finally.

“What mission?” Cawood’s look was genuinely bewildered.

“This! This mission, Karen.”

“Oh. What about it?” She threw her cigarette butt out the window, and dug into her pack for another.

“Is this mission bothering you?” He smiled warmly, turned back to the road. “It is unusual.”

“Oh. No, Able.” She smiled when he looked at her. “I haven’t given it much thought.”

“You haven’t given it…” His fingers gripped the steering wheel. He hurried to hide his alarm.

“Well. No. I mean, I’ve thought about it.” She touched his forearm.

“Because I would think, Karen.” Stoneworthy searched for understanding. “I was going to say that our mission. It’s okay if you’re nervous about the Angel. I’m nervous too.”

“Actually, I’m looking forward to the diversion.” Her voice fell flat.

“A diversion from what?” Stoneworthy couldn’t hide his chagrin. “You need to talk to me.” Karen turned away to light a cigarette, he grabbed the lighter from her hand.

They shared an intense, almost angry look before his heart fluttered at her obvious pain. He gave the lighter back.

“I’m sorry. Please, just open the window farther-please-if you’re going to smoke the whole pack now.” He tried to smile at her, saw her features waxy and indistinct. “Look…” He took the lighter and lit the cigarette that dangled lifelessly from her lips. “Let’s not get sidetracked. I want you to talk to me about what’s bothering you.”

“Able, I was going to call you last night,” she started, her cigarette flared.

“What for?”

“Oh, to talk about this mission and things,” she said, smiling weakly. “Do you think we do any good?”

“Good” His eyebrows lifted. “What? Why of course!”

“Really?” She watched the smoke curl off her cigarette. “Sometimes I’m not sure we can help, with the Change.”

“The unknown is nothing new. We can help people with that, Karen.” Stoneworthy slowed the car, turned to watch his friend as long as he could. A glance at his watch told him there was no time for this.

“I just.” She studied the dashboard, eyes blank. “Do you think there’s forgiveness for all of us? Can it, can we, as humans forgive everything?”

“Oh. You mean with our mission today? I contemplated the very thing.” He nodded absently. “Righteousness, the word of God in us, gives us the right to forgive, and the duty to do so.”

“Yes, today, but for everything, too?” She looked at him thoughtfully. “For anything…”

“If you’re concerned about this Angel’s sin.” Stoneworthy smirked. “ That we will have to determine. But, a sin is a sin, in the eyes of the Lord. We are bound to forgive in His name.” Then he smiled. “And a man of good conscience will always offer the hand of forgiveness. It is the key to repentance. We must.”

“So you’d…so we have to forgive everything, every sin?” Her eyes were pleading.

“Of course, Karen.” Stoneworthy pulled up to a stoplight. “It is not always easy to do. The sin could be abhorrent. Could run contrary to what we believe-may even repulse us. But everyone gets a chance to repent. Everyone deserves forgiveness.”

She nodded quietly to herself, and puffed her cigarette.

“That doesn’t mean we have to lik e the sinner,” he added, starting ahead when the lights changed. “We are obligated to love our fellow man, but we needn’t like him.” Stoneworthy stared at her until she turned. “Why so much doubt, my friend. Is there something you wish to tell me?”

He’d said, it. He opened the door to her.

“Oh, it’s just the mission,” she said with a weak grin. “I suppose I doubt the reality of Angels…”

“Don’t doubt yourself because of it,” he laughed, eyes penetrating. “Believe me, I want you along because I am also not beyond doubt. I am aware that people must roll their eyes at me. Don’t let my story cause you to doubt. I hope it will reaffirm both of our faiths. And I want you here to hold me up in this.”

“Yeah.” She sat silently watching the condominiums pass.

Stoneworthy turned his attention to the road. The buildings were all alike-and finding the address would require his full attention. He had been told that the Angel was expecting him at 232 Towerview Terrace. His heart raced. The minister was suddenly gladdened by Karen’s introspective nature. That’s what made them work so well together. She asked the questions he sometimes forgot to ask himself-and it made him feel competent for what lay ahead. He glanced at her smiling.

She caught his gaze and looked away. Stoneworthy was glad he wasn’t alone. Karen distracted him from his own doubt.

“There it is.” He pointed to the brass numbers on brick and then started looking along the curb for a place to park. “Okay, there we are.” Stoneworthy glanced at his friend’s face as he pulled in behind a pickup truck. Her face had paled again, accented with distinct redness about her ears. “Karen, are you going to be all right?”

“Yes.” She nodded dully, conjured up a weak smile. “I’m sorry. But we should talk later.” She reached a hand over and patted Able’s. “I’m sorry for talking like this right now…this is more important.”

“Karen, talk to me anytime about anything.” This time he couldn’t hold it in. His eyes watered as he continued, “You’re my friend. And if you have a problem we’ll get through it.” He patted her hand in return. “Regarding this mission. I have faith in you and need of you. We can do this.” Stoneworthy held her gaze. “Regarding all other things. I have faith in you.”

“What…” she started and let it go. Her eyes ran over his face, studying, searching. Then she smiled. “Yeah,” she said, as she pushed her door open, “Thank you.”

Stoneworthy climbed out, a leather-bound bible under his arm. Karen waited for him on the sidewalk. Again, her face was awash with emotion. This time she grabbed his forearm and drew him close.

“You…so we’re actually going into that house, and talking to an Angel!”

Able looked at her, then laughed. “Oh, Karen!” He threw his arms around her. “I haven’t lost my mind.” The minister kissed her cool cheek. “Not yet, anyway. But I understand your doubts. I have them myself. Revelation is difficult to share.” He clasped her fingers. “But come with me now and you will witness something that will get you through all that is to come.”

Karen hesitated, fingers playing at her lips.

“After this,” he said, “we’ll talk. I know what’s really bothering you.”

She smiled weakly, somewhat puzzled, as he led her by the hand toward to the stair.

The door opened when they reached the third step. A man pushed his way out, leaning heavily on the doorframe. His face was haggard, his features ringed with strange vaporous smoke. The man’s dark eyes were wild with rage or realization as they turned to the minister. One of his muscular shoulders was seeping blood. He snarled, the gun in his right hand whipped up.

Stoneworthy smiled as the first two bullets punched him hard in the chest. He flew backward with sheets of fire tearing through his mind. Bullets continued to punch into him until he hit the sidewalk with a shuddering impact. Numbness quenched the fires. There was no time for panic. Vision fading, Stoneworthy watched Karen’s eyes wide with horror. He smiled through tears. She took a step toward him and then turned to the gunman. Stoneworthy’s mouth filled with blood-heavy, coppery, suffocating. He saw the gun come up, point at Karen’s head. The minister drifted into darkness. No Heaven waited.

****

PART TWO

****

31 – The Wild Bunch

The man stood on the porch of an old farmhouse in the middle of a muddy gray desert. His suit and tie refused to fit in with the surroundings but he always wore them. It had just stopped raining which made the hot day humid. The house behind him was never built for the rain. The crazy old farmer must have been patching the roof for a hundred years right up until this man and his friends arrived and killed him.

Six months back, the law in Greasetown was closing in so they headed for the desert-a ferry across the Mississippi Sea, then a long drive south. The trio stopped to buy ammunition and supplies in Imperial-an oil town before the wells dried up, it was a cracked main street of empty buildings now. The desert around it had grown green and gray and heavy with all the rain.

After re-supplying they stumbled on the farmhouse. The old man was as crazy as a red rug -as Driver put it. He was a decent enough sort at first, until he introduced them to his wife. She had been dead for about fifty years and was wrinkled into a knot of reanimated, greasy leather that moaned. Bloody was moved by their story, so he killed the farmer and burned the pair of them on a pile of fence posts.

Tiny had just hung up the phone. He had forwarded his new number to a gangster friend in Vicetown in case anyone he could trust came looking. Tiny and the boys had been out of work for almost a year and he had to get something going. He was on the porch gearing up for the tough sale ahead.

Driver would be an easy sale. The Texan was ready to lock and load. But Bloody was getting worse. The big gunman spent his days, whisky bottle in one hand,. 45 Colt in the other. He had an old cassette player and a warbling tape of Roy Orbison’s songs. He’d hide out with a big box of ammunition in the driving shed out beside the ruins of a barn. “Crying” and gunfire haunted their nights.

Tiny sold television advertising before the Change. He was good at it. People could call him a no good son of a bitch and tell him to get the hell out, but he would only smile and sell them whatever he wanted.

One night-a good five months before the Change-his life had started over when he first met Driver and Bloody at a bar in Houston. Driver was a fast talking Texan of average height and build with dazzling blue eyes. Bloody was a tall flat-faced man who joked in a cynical way, until the booze made him dark.

Neither of them was very drunk when they met, but for whatever reason- fate -Bloody had said, they sidled up beside Tiny and began drinking with him. That bar led them to another, and another, until they ended the day, or began the next at an all night strip joint. About fifteen other men following similar empty hallways of life sat around the stage. Tiny didn’t remember much of what led up to his new life. He just remembered Bloody crying.

“What is it, brother?” Tiny asked. They had all become brothers after the sixteenth drink.

“Look,” Bloody had said, pointing to the stripper looming over them. The small Latino woman ground her naked pelvis in their direction. “I can’t take it!”

“Yeah, beautiful…” Tiny replied. “What, you want some?”

Driver jumped in then. “Hey! Hey! Whoa there! Hey there! Tiny, brother. Bloody’s just feelin’ a little down.” Then the Texan put his bearded face close to Bloody’s. He whispered something into his friend’s ear where his forehead rested against the bar. Bloody grunted. Then, Driver stepped back shaking his head.

“Shit!” The Texan cursed, wiping a hairy knuckled hand over his bristly scalp. “Bloody’s feelin’ bad for the girl.” He slid a chrome-plated pistol with a six-inch barrel out of his coat and handed it to Tiny.

“There may be some shootin’. You fire that little darlin’ with both hands. Both, you hear? Hey!” Driver pushed it under Tiny’s coat. “Keep it down now. What you’ve got there is a. 357 magnum with enough killin’ power to drop a goddamn Texas steer. You see the barrel, that extra length and those ribs? That’s to keep her cool for lots of shootin’. She’s a som’ bitch!” Driver whispered with a wink.

Without warning, Bloody lurched to his feet. He glared at the dancer through his sunglasses.

“You poor bitch!” he growled. “Who’s doing this to you?” Tears slid effortlessly down his flat cheeks.

The stripper stopped, her hand instinctively covering her abdomen. A few shouts came from behind the trio as other revelers called for the show. Bloody turned.

“So.” His eyes squinted behind black lenses. “ You’re making her do it.” With speed that belied his drunkenness, Bloody pulled a gun from his jacket. It looked like Tiny’s but was jet black, and its barrel was longer.

“Careful, brother!” Driver yelled at Tiny, as he pulled a pair of guns from shoulder holsters.

The dark room had erupted in flashing gunfire and noise. Tiny remembered few particular actions, just Bloody firing into the crowd before spinning to shoot the stripper between the eyes. Driver fired rapidly with twin. 9 mm automatics-chewing an escape route through the screaming patrons.

Tiny’s strongest memory was the feeling of power warming his hand through the chunk of forged steel. It was something he had never felt before. And his new brothers shared it freely with him. So his life changed. Married to the gun and his talent, no one would ever rake this salesman over the coals again.

Bloody wept in the rear seat of the car as they tore away from the scene. He didn’t explain his actions. Neither did Driver. The Texan worked the wheel of the big black Chevelle with his hot guns in his lap.

Tiny didn’t want an explanation either. They screamed across the state throwing lead. The law was just rounding on them, when the Change came. The boys managed to lose themselves during a storm where tornadoes corkscrewed across the landscape. The sirens of pursuit faded; the law was needed elsewhere. Liberated by the Change, Tiny and his brothers drove, scored and killed. And Tiny never lost another sale.

He calmly considered the sale he had ahead of him. He had just received a call from history. It was like the phone had rung across two decades. It was a job, but there were sticky elements to it. Tiny was a salesman, and he knew his product: Money. It was good timing. They were dipping into the last of their savings. But it would be sticky.

“Shit!” Tiny said, as he walked into the house, across the kitchen and to the bathroom mirror. He pulled the door shut.

“You handsome Devil.” He smiled at himself with twin rows of bottom teeth-like a shark’s. His blue eyes twinkled from beneath a small forehead on either side of a large nose. His bony hands retied his tie, and then straightened his jacket. He primped a little styling mousse into his hair, just to tame the curl, and then felt his thin cleft chin for stubble.

He walked to the base of the stairs and yelled: “Driver!” The Texan slept during the early part of the day, partly because he liked late nights and tequila, but mainly because that was how they did things in Texas.

“Do I need my guns?” came Driver’s calming tenor.

“Yes. I’ve got to talk to Bloody!”

“Well, shit, he’s okay. Just the other day he didn’t shoot nothin’.” A pause. “You got work?” Cowboy boots thumped on the floor. “I heard the phone.”

“Yeah, and Bloody may not like it.” Tiny lit a cigarette.

Driver appeared at the top of the stairs. His black hair and goatee were wild as he walked down. He wore denims over a pair of tattered pink long johns. “Why? Bloody’s okay.” He flicked twin index fingers at Tiny’s chest. “‘Besides, any problem? You can talk him into it.”

“I know, brother.” Tiny held out his cigarettes. Driver took one. “But this is a tough sale.”

“Why?” Driver stared through the cigarette smoke. “Who we workin’ for?” The Texan smoothed his wiry hair and beard. He was tired of spending more than he was making. “A big job?”

“Big money.” Tiny walked over to the sink, drained off the last of his coffee. “Providing protection.”

Driver helped himself to a piece of bread and then paused for his ritual morning toast of tequila-to break the tension.

“Who?” Driver mumbled, digging his palms into his eyes.

“The heat’s on a guy so we’ll earn our money. We got to keep him and a girl safe.” Tiny knew that money and girls mentioned in the same breath always sold Driver.

“ Girl?” Driver picked at the edge of his goatee. “Hell, Tiny I don’t mind earnin’ my keep.”

“I know.” Tiny flicked ash down the drain. “But we need Bloody.”

“Hey, a job will get Bloody out of them Orbison blues.” Driver straddled a kitchen chair like it was a horse. “Who’s hirin’ us on?”

“He just called.” Tiny leveled his gaze at the Texan.

“Who?”

“Him and you got on well in the day.” Tiny dropped into a seat across from him. “Felon.”

“Felon?” Driver’s face dropped.

“Said he’s in shit.” Tiny watched Driver’s face. “He’ll pay us a hundred grand each to cover him.”

“Whoa!” Driver breathed, “A hundred grand!”

“He’s going to need protection, about a month. We might have to move around.” Tiny stood up. “Would be good to have Bloody along.”

Driver shook his head. “That’s sticky.”

“Think I don’t know?” Tiny released a little pressurized ire.

“Som’ bitch.” The Texan squeezed his forehead with thick fingers. “Poor old Bloody.”

“It was Bloody’s fault!” Tiny hissed. He knew they might have to take the gunman out, and they had a long history.

“Yep. Bloody never did know better.” Driver reached for another cigarette, got up and walked to the window. “We ain’t his nursemaids. Let’s go tell him. If he don’t want to come in with us, he can go to hell. I’m gettin’ tired of his shootin’ and cryin’ and that damn old tape… This Change just screwed everythin’ up, otherwise we’d be droppin’ flowers at his grave.” A whimsical look passed over his face. “You know, we’d have got him a nice piece of marble or some such, could’a carved somethin’ sweet on it about tiptoeing through them tulips like we done after Killer got blowed to smithereens.”

“Yep.” Tiny checked the action of his gun. It was the same one that Driver had given him a century before. Much of it had worn away and been replaced, but the body of it belonged in a museum. “Do you know what they were fighting about when it happened?”

“I believe it was a squabble over a gun,” Driver sighed, and looked out toward the driving shed. “Felon was always a straight shooter. I just wished he hadn’t pumped eight bullets into old Bloody.” He looked at Tiny. “Didn’t need eight.”

“If you were killing Bloody, wouldn’t you put eight into him?” Tiny joined him at the window. “Felon was always an overachiever though. He was the best because of it. Eight’s a lot to you and me and Bloody, of course; but to a guy like Felon it’s just doing business the right way.”

“Still, one bullet and we could’a sold Bloody on it bein’ a crime of passion.” Driver studied his nails. “ Eight is just plain mean.”

“You got to be mean in this business.” Tiny smirked, studying the round stones of the barn’s foundation.

“Let’s tell him.” Driver’s face was dark. His eyes flashed like cash registers.

“Let’s tell him in the desert. We got to meet Felon in the City of Light in two days.” Tiny grabbed the first hint of a sales plan.

“Two days? With them bad roads, and only one rusty ferry to cross the Mississippi Sea!” Driver frowned. “That’s quite a drive.”

“That’s why we call you Driver.” Tiny laughed.

32 – The Captive

No one was guarding the dark blue door as the Prime approached. There were guards, but the thing needed more than Authority Enforcers to keep it captive. Learning a way to bind it had taken years-and gave him an education written in blood. But the Prime had to increase his Powers, and those of his allies to fix the final locks and set an invisible watch upon the prison.

The somber Central Operative walking beside him was silent. He hadn’t uttered a word in the elevator as they had dropped to the Tower’s lowest level. The leader of the western world did not make a habit of inviting mere soldiers to his inner sanctum, but he had long encouraged a campaign of disinformation to keep his military arm dubious to the realities of his other research. He had no wish to share his true might with them.

The Prime had a section of Central Operations devoted to Powers research and trained its members as adepts. His Operatives collected information about Powers but were encouraged to doubt them. The Prime felt the blind necessary for two reasons: It was none of their fucking business. And secondly, they were less likely to abuse information they discovered if they didn’t think it was real. Some of his adepts were beginning to suspect that there was more than scientific research going on, but those could be dispatched, as others had.

The Prime could name two that had just participated in his Sending who were one mistake away from being ground up and fed to the Tower gardens.

He came to a halt at the end of the hallway. What would look to the Operative to be eight yards of gray polished tiles was actually a mini-biosphere of Infernal creatures. The Prime had painted the protection symbols himself. They were the culmination of fifty years of top-secret investigations combined with Powers loaned him by his allies. He would not trust his adepts to do the spells. There were arcane symbols painted in the Ardor of Fallen. Knowledge of those symbols meant knowledge of the Powers upon which the Prime based his ambitions. With the symbols in place, he could maintain his grip on the Divine plan. He wouldn’t even imagine what would happen, should they be broken.

It was simple for him to walk across the tiles without alerting any of the invisible defenses. The path was ingrained in memory. He was obsessed with it. Sometimes on his sleepless nights he would traverse the corridor to gaze upon his prized possession. He was the only human being who could do that. Since the Prime had laid the symbols, he was able to move by them without disturbing the Powers they contained. They were drawn to keep Divine and Infernal Powers away.

God help any man or woman that tried to walk them. The invisible creatures turned the color of blood as they fed upon the unwary. In a moment of indulgence, the Prime had tested the protective spells on an unwitting functionary from the mayor’s office. His empty husk was burned in the Tower incinerator.

Today, with his companion, he’d have to be sure that none of the symbols were disturbed. This Operative had to survive the meeting because he needed to know the truth of magic, so he could investigate the events of the last two days. He turned to the man’s impassive black face. “Place your feet where I set mine.”

The Prime then gingerly, energetically danced his way past the symbols and to a broad step before the dark blue door. His business suit constricted his actions, and he pined for the freedom of his Sending robes. It was still impressive. How a man of his bulk could move with such energy was a mystery; but none knew of his Powers or his Union.

The Operative waited. The Prime watched his features, waited for the first sign of mockery. But there was nothing of the kind, the Operative followed, mimicking the movements exactly until he stood breathlessly beside his superior.

The Prime had already explained the symbols to the Operative. He accepted the information with a shrug. An Operative might think the Prime had gone insane but would never say it. The Prime turned to the door. He waved a hand across its unmarked surface-and it answered the gesture with the grate of brass on steel-a deep boom, and the door slid into a recess in the wall. Before them was a foot-thick window of polycarbonate that covered the doorframe from floor to sill and was blemished with three small holes half way up its face.

Beyond the covering was darkness. The Prime was pleased that some small cloud of apprehension had appeared on the Operative’s features.

“You!” The Prime tapped the plastic barrier. “I command you to speak!” He paused to drink in the wonderful moment of anticipation. He noticed sweat on the Operative’s brow.

As always there was never a sign of life behind the wall. The black was complete. This darkness held a moment longer, its opacity reflecting their images on the plastic. Then the Prime felt it-a presence in the black, as absolutely powerful as the darkness that imprisoned it. The leader of Westprime tapped the barrier again. He knew that a being was inside watching him. He could feel its hatred. So many years had he kept it in darkness, he wondered from time to time if it had gone insane. Perhaps time was different to it.

“You will do as I command you.” The Prime matter-of-factly studied his nails, a show of bravado for the Operative. These things hated insolence.

The air around him changed, it grew chilly-the Operative looked at him uncomprehending. The Prime knew it was an attempt by the captive to Send Power. The damned thing always tried something. He could see that the Operative was unprepared-the Power had rocked him on his heels and he’d taken a step back. The Prime broke the spell.

“Stop or go to Limbo!” His voice echoed into his face. “Do as I say.” He paused a moment to let the Operative see he had control. “Now!”

“Your time is running out!” a voice whispered through the holes in the acrylic. Its tone held husky secrets. “You do not understand this Prime.”

“Silence! I didn’t ask you to speak.” The Prime’s cheeks flushed scarlet. Threaten me in front of the help?

“And yet, I speak,” the voice carried on.

“Silence!” The Prime had a second of doubt. If he lost control, if someone had tampered with his protections!

“I taste your doubt!” Urgency had crept into the voice, a hint of passion.

The Prime turned his back on the blackness. He had to prove his power. It seemed that something was changing. And the thing had said that his time was running out! But that could be taken many ways. He had too long relied on the prescience of the Infernal and the Divine to distrust it now, and yet, it could be an attempt to unhinge him-they were all capable of lying. It was a vain attempt to win advantage over him. A lie! It had to be punished. If he no longer controlled it, he was about to find out.

“You doubt, Prime,” the voice said.

“Doubt this!” The Prime lifted his hands as he spoke the words. With one he stroked an invisible symbol on the left side of the door, with his right, he touched a mark opposite it. “I command you to obey, by the Power of the Lake of Fire!”

A tortured scream answered from in the black-a terrible sound that started low like breaking rocks, then swept upward toward a screech of pain that threatened to shatter the acrylic-then nothing.

“Now!” The Prime stood so close to the wall that his belly touched it. Glancing to his right he saw that the Operative was shaken. “You will obey my commands and speak only when I allow it.” His voice turned to acid. “Do you hear me?”

The darkness was broken by the gray suggestion of a weary man’s shoulders-then the voice. Weak now, it whimpered, “I hear.”

“You hear-what?” The Prime felt pride swell his body and stiffen his cocks.

“I hear, Master.” The voice was beaten, its passion muted. “I shall hear your command and comply.”

“This Operative must be given the power of spiritual silence. No one among your kind or among your enemies must be able to read his thoughts.” The Prime pushed his face, livid with unborn curses, against the plastic. “Now!”

“I comply, and yet, it is imperfect, for there is no perfection,” it hissed quickly, as though its abjection had driven it to loathe the sound of its own voice.

The Prime hesitated, his hands unconsciously rising toward the symbols of pain that were etched invisibly on the wall around the door. How he enjoyed overpowering this creature. He had tested its endurance before. On more than one night, the Prime had dropped the many floors to approach the thing in its cage and test it. It was a servant-a slave. The Prime had been impressed by its ability to take punishment. At night he dreamt of fucking it.

“It is done,” the creature whispered past the plastic.

The Operative spoke, “I feel a strange sensation, Sir-light-headed.”

“Do not be concerned.” The Prime turned away from the Operative, looked into the darkness again. “You have kept your bargain, and I will bring you no more pain.” He stepped back. And that’s all I’m bringing you. The Prime continued grimly, “Your information about the First-mother was correct. We have her,” he glared. “What of her guardian?”

The voice said: “Unknown. His power is great.”

“His appearance?” the Prime growled back his doubts.

“Like all men,” the voice breathed wearily. “And his mind is closed.”

“Well open your mind to his,” the Prime ordered quietly. “Do what you have to do and tell me when you know.”

“I will search,” the voice said. The gray shadow shape behind the plastic faded.

The Prime cursed his luck. If only there were another way to keep the thing. He would love to watch its face as the door closed. The Prime shrugged his shoulders and spoke to the Operative, “Follow me as before.” A different flex of his arm, and the door closed.

“You have been given a great power,” the Prime told the Operative, and then a quick reprimand. “But you must never step away from one of them.”

“Where should I begin?” the Operative’s voice held a note of self-recrimination.

“You have the file.” The Prime began to pick his way across the hall. He paused to be sure the Operative was following. “Investigate it as you would any murder.”

As they walked toward the elevator, the Prime thought to ask his ally if there was any progress on the God-wife. He still wasn’t sure who he was fated to know exactly, but by all accounts he’d soon have a world all his own to repopulate.

33 – The Burning Bags

“I am here!” the voice said from the darkness. It seemed to come from all sides and inside. It echoed in the mind, at once clear, at once garbled with throbbing power. “Rise and Behold!”

The words held and hugged him, stifled and liberated. He could not breathe. The absent hammer of his heart reverberated in his skull. The once perfect darkness swirled about him a moment longer-tried to drag him back into it; but the voice overpowered the whirlpool of welcome black.

“I am here! Arise!” The words pulled him up. An electric charge of energy flashed through his body. He convulsed around a ragged breath of air, and another. His chest rose and fell, yet he did not feel the coolness of the air, he tasted no revivifying moisture in it. He tried again, and was answered with a wet crackle and a hiss of escaping gas. He was lying in an awkward position-perhaps that was it. His eyes began to see again-the images that struck him were blurry.

He struggled upward with slippery hands covered in purple blood. They snatched and scrabbled numbly over the slick skins of garbage bags. A heat pressed against his face threatening to push him back, but he grabbed a large handful of cardboard and electrical wire-pulled himself forward.

Once standing he saw that corroded iron walls hemmed him in at all sides. His shoes were buried in the greasy remains of rotting garbage bags and refuse. With cold fingers he grabbed the side of the Dumpster and hauled himself up and over-again he heard the crackle and hiss. As he swung himself over he struggled, lost his hold. His feet could not find purchase and he fell. He landed with a sickening thud-a heavy clatter of bones and cartilage. Again there was the crackle and hiss.

“I am here!” The voice came from behind him. He turned. A pile of garbage bags twenty feet tall was heaped against the red brick of an ancient building. Its green and black plastic patchwork was on fire. White, orange and yellow flames burned its edges, but it was not consumed.

“I am here!”

He got to his hands and knees, incredulous, and then raised his head.

“Forgive me!” he said, voice crackling like cellophane.

“Your trials are before you!” the burning garbage said. “And you will pass again into night before it is over.”

“Forgive me, I am unworthy.” The man watched rivulets of purple and brown fluid trickle slowly out of his shirt cuffs. “I failed.”

“I shall judge.” The flames leapt up.

“We were to save him and we did not.” The man rested his head on the pavement. Dizziness pulled his forehead toward the ground, plucked at his consciousness.

“You were betrayed. I was betrayed.” The fire burned white hot now. “Vengeance is Mine!”

“Command me!” His mind reeled against the revelation.

“I command thee. You have lost a friend, and so you must redeem her.” The fire licked at the air overhead. He could feel the heat of the flames like a pulse. “And the road before you is winding.”

“Command me!” He fought the dizziness now, getting one shaky foot under him, rising.

“I command thee to find a man named Updike. He is one of the worthy. As with the building of the Tower, so will this labor be hard. He commands an army, and with this army shall you strike at the heart of Evil. Only then shall you find salvation for yourself, salvation for your friend.” The fire burned upward like a pillar flying to Heaven. “Go now to the place of flight and deliver a message that will be known to you then. I have spoken.” With two great roars of power and flame, the pulsing gout of fire blasted skywards, and was gone.

The man stood at the airport remembering his first moments of Afterdeath. He was bereft. After the vision his head had become heavy; his thoughts were jumbled. He looked at his shoes. A rainbow sheen of oil made them magical. The grime collected as the man walked to the airport. Such a long way, it had been a day or more since he set out.

Slowly, fearfully he let his hands explore his chest again. His attention was constantly drawn there by the strange crackle and hiss. His hands were still very numb, yet they registered shapes and textures, still gave some hint of hot and cold. He clenched his eyes in pain and realization when he found a ruin of flesh and cloth. Numerous holes oozing slippery fluid pierced his ribcage. His fingers felt the shards of shattered bone. He breathed in, still unable to look at himself, and was answered with the crackle and hiss. His chest was smashed like a wicker basket. His organs were crushed and pulped like rotten fruit.

He was dead. But he had a mission. And the Lord in Heaven himself had commanded it. He looked up as people passed, their faces registering disgust at his condition. Somehow Reverend Able Stoneworthy found a part of his soul that could smile.

34 – Captain Jack Updike

Captain Jack Updike could hear Angels. When he was lying awake at night listening to the voices he often came to the conclusion that he was crazy. But his religious training got him to recant every time. You never know-perhaps that was the way it worked for visionaries or people like Joan of Arc. The messages came garbled at first, in various languages, from a multitude of voices. It was the sound of discussion, debate and dialogue-heard through a wall, the words muffled, the tone carrying the emotion or intent. Rarely did they speak directly to him. Occasionally, he was called “eavesdropper” and at other times, he was encouraged to love and spread peace. He supposed that as long as they weren’t telling him to kill anybody, it was a madness that could be his little secret.

And then one told him to raise an army of the dead.

He first heard the Angels before the Change. After, the reception improved, and he soon received word of his mission.

His behavior during the Gulf War ended his stint as chaplain in the United States Army. He had killed a man who was under his spiritual care. Updike was summoned to a trauma unit to comfort Private Randolph Gauthier, out of Louisiana. He had been mortally wounded. With the soldier’s teary eyes looking on, Updike added a lethal dose of morphine to the I.V. drip. Since the boy had not been expected to live, that would have been the end of it, but for the Angels. They reminded him that confession was good for the soul.

Updike confessed, and was arrested. He endured a long period of incarceration leading up to the trial. Updike maintained that what he had done was God’s to judge, not a military tribunal. His superiors felt the growing media scrutiny was damaging so an army psychologist diagnosed Updike with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Criminal charges were dropped, and Updike was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

He spent the next few years before the Change looking for a new religion since Catholicism had abandoned him during his trial. Updike sampled many churches, but none suited him. In time he came to consider himself an untethered Christian minister. He believed the Old Testament was the unadulterated truth and he would preach it in his own way. “ The Bible, capital ‘T,’ capital ‘B.’ The Old Testament brought down to earth by God’s own voice: The Bible with an angry God-the God who killed a man for gathering wood on the Sabbath. That One.”

Updike kept his military rank without the affiliation. If asked, he would tell people that he was a Captain in the Army of God.

Then the Change came. He had little recollection of the first months. The debate in his head had grown to deafening proportion just before it happened-loud voices shouted in ancient tongues, only some of which he understood. They referred to the “Scroll” and to the “Lamb.”

The debate was accompanied by a headache that grew worse with the volume of the voices. The combination made the preacher distracted, and concentration impossible. So acting on impulse, he took a backpacking trip into the hills of Kentucky seeking some solace from the beauty of nature. The debate in his head raged on and his head pounded, but codeine pills kept it bearable. The rain would not let up, but he attributed it to some spawn of Global Warming.

Updike discovered the Change by accident. Passing a church cemetery one afternoon he took shelter under the eaves of a crumbling mausoleum. He was propped up against its ancient door and lighting a pipe when a man came up out of the ground. He was dead-gray and hideous, he clambered up out of the wet earth like a mud guppy, finally pulling himself free by gripping the sides of his rust-colored headstone.

The corpse lay on the ground for a time, his shrunken eyes peering up into the downpour. His suit was all of one color-mud-and his hair was pasted to his head and face. The rain poured down, scoured the dirt from the fellow’s features. The dead man’s lips and jaws moved like they were made of wood. Now certain he was insane, Updike watched this reborn creature bathing in the rain.

“Alive?” it had asked the heavens in a papery voice. It raised an arm.

Updike stepped forward. “Dead.” He looked the man over. “Not for long.”

The dead man’s face contorted with surprise. “What?”

“Dead.” Updike expected this apparition to disappear with the admission. “You just crawled out of your grave.” Updike almost swooned then, but came out of it when the dead man clutched his overcoat. He grabbed the cold hand.

“Easy, my son,” he said, and paused. The words echoed in his head. The debate had stopped. He heard his own voice, none other-and felt no pain.

The dead man sat up, looked around at the headstones-gray lumps in the downpour. His lips drew back slowly in a hideous grin, then the hands clamped over his eyes. “Dead.” The man’s lungs crackled horribly as he wept. He turned to the preacher. “Is this Heaven?”

Updike pondered that. “Not unless I am dead too. I was not buried, and my flesh is warm and my heart is beating.” The preacher set a hand against the dead man’s chest. There was no movement within. “Or I am mad. Finally.” He started weeping then, and fell into the cold embrace of the dead man. The pair of them sobbed a long time.

They had been together ever since. The dead man’s name was Oliver Purdue. He had been a civil servant in life-working for the Department of Agriculture.

They traveled to the next town and discovered that the world had changed. Newspapers and radios proclaimed it loudly. The sun had disappeared behind an endless cloud, and dead people had begun to rise.

One night, they were camped under the eaves of an old farmhouse-a hotel owner had refused to serve them due to Oliver’s state. The farmer allowed them hot water for tea and washing up, then quartered a loaf of bread and hunk of cheese for them.

“Captain, what about the others?” Oliver’s voice was weak. He soon discovered that gargling with cooking oil improved its strength. He also had to remember to inhale before he talked. “Will they get out?”

“Interesting question, Oliver,” Updike had said over the fire. “Some will.”

“But the others.” His eyes were dull as he looked into the glowing embers. “When I woke up in my coffin, I didn’t feel alone. At first I wasn’t sure what it was. But there was thumping, and a sort of roar-like a hundred voices screaming in the dark.”

Updike had shuddered at the appalling idea.

“I was lucky.” Oliver’s face rose in the firelight. “Someone buried me with an old hunting knife. I could hack my way through the lid of my coffin. But what about the others?”

“Tragic.” Updike dreaded what he had to do but he remembered the Angel whispering that he must raise an army of the dead-and the meeting seemed more than coincidence. They returned to Oliver’s cemetery pushing a wheelbarrow full of tools. They dug at the freshest gravesite. By evening they had pulled Muriel Thorn from the ground. She was in an awful state-being the victim of a car accident, but Updike was so overjoyed by her release that he welcomed her back with a hug.

The next day, they exhumed two more-blinking, mouths open in mute horror-the corpses were pulled from their graves. And it continued from there, the reborn helping with the next exhumation. Updike’s workforce grew each day.

Some dead left to reclaim their old lives and as time progressed terrible stories of rejection trickled back. Updike’s force multiplied. With Oliver as his right hand man, he worked his way across the state, and soon began sending exhumation forces ahead into neighboring states. Soon others, many living, took up the cause.

The exhumed were a dedicated and grateful workforce, who existed on olive oil and little else. They could eat, though there were no digestive processes. Some of the exhumed were too frail to work or were dismembered. But these pitched in as they could with anything from accounting to raising funds.

That was all so long ago, and his mission had seen him build an army of workers that grew with each dig. He felt great pity for those that rose without body or head, or who had been killed by massive trauma, yet still retained some awareness. In those cases he offered a choice. They could try to make the best of it or they could be destroyed utterly by fire. Updike was surprised by the number that chose a living death. The dead had lost their faith in death.

In some cases the dismembered could be stitched and glued back together, and the reattached parts would function without much difficulty. Why? Updike soon stopped asking why. He knew only that the world was a changed place, and so long as there were needy dead people he would do what he could for them.

He soon ran into trouble with the Authorities. In those days, governments and their functioning bodies were in transition, and so he didn’t worry overmuch about red tape. But, he did have to account for dismembered body parts, and brainless dead. These, the Authorities suggested, should be relocated to special Internment Facilities. Updike suggested mass cremation, since even dismembered parts were reanimated, but the Authorities balked at such a final solution.

And with the extinction of earth’s bacteria that fed on dead flesh, the problem grew to ghastly proportions. The Internment Facilities were soon crawling with dead bodies and twitching body parts. Sadly, there were many such facilities operating by the time the problem was recognized. The end result was that the living shunned the countryside. The idea of camping and having your tent knocked over by a headless corpse was too much for most.

Optimistically, Updike reassured himself that the wilderness had been forsaken anyway. God’s word giving man dominion over the animals had been revoked. The first days were horrible. Animals both domesticated and wild attacked their former masters. Pets were caged or destroyed. Others were released or escaped. Farming became very dangerous.

As he worked, Updike watched the evolution of a terrified culture. There were power struggles just short of civil war, and realignment of alliances, often times with the public wondering who was in charge. The living were barricading themselves in walled cities. The dead within were treated sympathetically at first but were finally restricted to special areas.

By the time Authority evolved into the interconnected world giant it now was, it was too late to stop Updike or his followers. When they turned to him the preacher was the leader of a vast army. Digs had already been started under his direction on the other continents. Updike said they would carry on with their mission, but an Angel warned him.

“Disperse,” it said, and he immediately saw the truth. Such a massive army of dead would terrify the living into action. “Accidents” had already happened with Authority Regulators destroying the dead.

Updike broke his army into smaller groups. These moved to towns and villages that had been abandoned by the living. He continued, taking his movement down into Mexico and South America.

His mission unfolded over decades. The first step was the gathering of his force. Whispered among the leaders of the dead were promises of a new world unfolding for all. Updike awaited a sign.

He was in Peru when it came. The preacher was experimenting with a new technique for softening the ancient bodies of dead Incas.

The Angels whispered three words: It is time. Soon after Updike received an invitation to a conference in The City of Light. He was invited to talk about his work. The theme was The Rebirth of the Earth Religions and the Death of Science.

Updike boarded the plane. That was the way the Lord worked. There were no coincidences.

35 – Guardian

The Creature told him to keep grownups away from the Nightcare, and that’s what he did. The little boy with the lethal fist left Liz and the others to do their wah-wah-wah, sorry Creature-boss but we lost the Squeaker. What’s her name, the real-kid-kid, was too stupid to listen to us fighters and run so the Toffers got her.

Conan flexed his shoulders. They were still tight from all the fighting, and there were little prickly burns on his cheeks where the Toffers’ boom-bomb sent off its sparks and got into his helmet. That threw him off, like it did all the fighters-and there were little green lights in front of their eyes “like fairies” the girls said-and that let the Toffers get away.

Conan and Big Henry did their best to keep up to them and the Sheps but they moved fast once they all peeled their skins. Even Conan couldn’t keep up, and he was the fastest fighter in the Nightcare. So they hurried back and did their reporting and boohooing but he couldn’t stand it so off he went just so. Got some grub and a bit of whisky on his stings and then ran and ran for the edge of it all.

He didn’t wait around while the others did their head scratching and wondering and sniffling. Conan didn’t have patience for that kind of yak yak and standing around not-yakking just made his head think over the olden days. And thinking of that just made him want to go out in the tunnels and make chili sauce out of grownups. All those bad guys walking around asking for trouble, and keeping boys in cages and doing the Devil work on them.

The thought alone had him swinging his die-flower around, scratching it on the stones in the tunnel. The fist-kill was an idea he got from some old crazy movie about another evil grownup who got burned up and killed but came back in dreams to hunt the forever teens while they were fuckity-fucking, as Big Henry called it. But he had a glove on his hand full of knives and Conan liked the idea so much he made one. He didn’t have a name for it yet, and everybody called it something different. But there was a wooden grip he held onto inside a hockey glove, and the whole thing was wired, and taped and screw-nailed together.

There were five sharp blades now, from eight to twelve inches long. There used to be six but that was too many for the size of his fist and the length of his arm. He’d almost cut off his nuts with the downswing one time so he had to trim the lethal blossom.

But he liked taking the slash-fingers and chopping them around in a grownup’s belly, or running them up his legs into the crotch where all the bad business they did on Conan came from. That was real fine and joyful cause they screamed and screamed like the other boys screamed in the Bad house long ago. Conan didn’t scream then. He hadn’t said a word since they first got him and fucked him up.

But seeing the Toffers trying to hurt forever kids just got Conan’s blood up and he’d already run to the edge of the tunnels where he had hidey places, and flop-joints for snoozing and spent the last two nights keeping a ear open for a tap-tap code from the Nightcare or the big-step of a grownup blundering close.

That morning he got lucky and did some wicked cut-work on a bad guy who was walking around below ground with his pecker out pissing. He wouldn’t have that trouble no more. Conan danced in on him before he blinked his eyes, and he slashed his guts until the spaghetti came pouring out. Then he stepped in while the gray-hair was crying and gathering his guts into his lap, and did a few wicked thrusts into the nuts until there was only blood pouring out around hamburger.

Conan froze when he heard a sound. It was a light thrumming noise like a big boot moving quietly over the metal-grated walkways that ran the length of this section of tunnel. Like someone was trying to be funny or sneaky like but made a mistake.

And Conan was moving. His light running shoes barely touched the grating underfoot as he flickered through the darkness. There were always background sounds to hide the little things, but Conan prided himself on being quieter still.

His senses were on high alert, all radar and magnifying glasses, because where he was, many miles in from the fight with that drunk guy, was too close to the Nightcare to allow any monkey business. He thought it might be Toffers, since they’d seen some only a day or so back; but he thought he’d investigate before he sounded the tap-tap alarm.

It was pitch dark. The tunnels were sporadically lit by dim odd and even lights overhead, where they hadn’t burned out. Dark is how he liked it. If he needed the spark and dazzle, he knew where the other fighters in the Nightcare hid glow sticks all over the place in tunnels and sewers.

But Conan knew the dark spots well. That way he could get in close, and see what he needed to see, or do what he needed to do-just peek and sneak or slash and trash and gone! And the dark spots always led up to the light ones, and that was good because that was where most invaders waited and watched and worried and blinked their eyes and peed their pants. It never took more than a second for Conan to fly out of the darkness and do his work-cut and scream and bye.

This section of tunnels was old maintenance ways and stairs for a giant factory on Zero long ago knocked down and built on. They’d left the tunnels though, and these linked up to the sewers that ran all under the City of Light, some new and some stinking old from the times before the Change. But these were perfect places to hide the Nightcare, and even better places to protect it.

Conan froze. Ahead of him in the dim light, he saw a man. The man was tall and pretty thin. He wore a long coat and some kind of weird high hat that had tattered bits hanging down the back. Conan could see him at the crossing of two tunnels and at the foot of a metal ladder that would lead up to a basement on Zero.

Conan ran ahead. The fist-kill swung back. He was out of the shadow and slashing. The long blades rang once, twice and a third time. Parried and turned by a metal stick held in the man’s hand. Conan did not wait or pause or think. He continued running, took two leaps up the rungs in the brick and flipped himself over backward, this time launched at the stranger’s head. The die-flower flashed again, this time almost catching the man’s bearded face, but ringing again once, twice and a third time on the metal stick.

Conan let himself fall into the shadow, rolled and then charged forward again hugging the edge of darkness until he could burst out murder-hand poised and whipping upward.

This time the blades were turned on the first slash, they slipped past the stick on the second, and chopped into the man’s calf on the third.

The stranger cried out, but whipped his metal stick around and fended off Conan’s new attack. All three sweeps of the fist-kill missed, and the stranger suddenly shouted strange words. The metal stick in his hand burst into white flames, and it was all Conan could do to avoid the eye-fire.

As it was, his peepers went covered in blazing lights and starry and blinded. He tumbled and then ran into the wall, head thumping. The man shouted something, but Conan scurried blindly toward the tunnel of shadows he knew so well, and was soon pelting away into the darkness.

He could barely contain a smile as his vision came blinking back and as he heard the man follow limping now and breathing harshly.

Conan would lead him a little farther. He knew where he wanted to catch the man. There was a very dark crossroads ahead where a sewer pipe hung over the tunnel. Conan would get up there and wait, and then slash the man’s face and throat with the die-flower and that would be that would be that.

Still the man followed-the big stupid-stupid. A quick glance back showed the light from the man’s stick. That was good too, because Conan knew the stranger’s eyes would lean on the light, and would go weak and wobbly in the shadow.

When he got to the crossroads, Conan easily shinnied up a broken pipe and rolled onto the top of the sewer. He laid flat and waited as the man’s footsteps approached ringing hollow on the iron slats.

But the grownup must have paused or stopped before entering the crossroads, because the light did not come further. Conan could not see the man directly, but he could tell the glowy eye-burn waited inside the tunnel and out of reach. And then the worst thing happened.

“Max?” the man asked the darkness. “I’m not like the others.”

And terror gripped Conan because the stranger had just used his mommy-only name and not his fighter name that he got from a movie. Nobody knew the mommy-only name but one or two in all the Nightcare and they knew better than to say it.

“Max?” the man continued. “Those men were evil. What they did to you in the Bad house was wrong.”

And a wild idea ran through Conan’s head. Did this stranger know his mommy? Was it possible that she sent him? He had not seen her since the Change, but Conan remembered her beautiful blue eyes and her big white smile and curly golden halo hair. She was lost with the old world. And the men in the Bad house caught him before he could help her.

“Max?” the man said softly. “I’m here to help you.”

Now Conan tensed his body. He noticed the man had stepped into the crossroads a pace or two. Just the way we like it, here we go…

“What those men did,” the stranger’s voice filled with emotion, “ they deserved death for it.”

Conan prepared himself. The man had taken another step. And his yakking was getting a lot of bad not-yakking going in the forever boy’s head.

“But not all men are evil,” the man whispered. “Not all. And it is not right to kill those who did you no wrong.” He kept talking. “You’ve killed too many. Their blood stains you.”

Conan leapt through the air. The man must have guessed his position because he quickly caught the death-petal blades on his stick and slid past. Conan landed on the ground panting.

The man turned to him. The metal stick in his hands glowed brightly. “Your mother loves you,” he said, his eyes wide and feeling.

Conan slashed the air with his lethal fist.

“And she will always love you,” the man suddenly spread his arms and the metal stick fell to the grating with a clang. “ I love you, Max.”

And Conan roared and ran at the stranger, the kill-flower open and slashing. He swung at the man who raised a hand defensively, and Conan saw streaks of blood appear.

But the man kept watching, tears in his eyes now. “You’re just a little boy!”

And Conan slashed again-eyes blurring-saw the blade rip the man’s uninjured leg. This time the stranger let out a shout of pain and dropped to his knees.

Conan stood in front of him. The man’s face was awash with sadness. He was weeping. But it was like he didn’t feel the cuts, like instead he saw the cuts in Conan-and they made him cry. He looked right at the deep down ones that the Bad house put in there. The stranger showed him Max in the shadows. And Conan felt his own eyes start to fill with tears.

“Your mother loves you, Max,” the man said, crying openly. “Please let me help you. You’re just a boy.” He spread his arms. “I’m so sorry that these things happened to you.”

And Conan ran at him, fist-kill ready but fell against the stranger’s breast and was awash with sorrow. He wept until his little spirit felt clean.

36 – Sacrifice

The Prime read the report. It was straightforward enough. His Operative, Vanguard, had compiled his preliminary findings and sent them up by armed courier. It was times like that the leader of the western world missed fax machines and Internet the most. A combination of persistent cloud cover and the strange anomalies that had affected electricity rendered the satellite system of the pre-Change world inoperative. Signals that were beamed through them were distorted beyond usefulness. Authority communications technicians had been troubleshooting the problem for almost a century. Nothing electrical worked worth a damn. Even phones on landlines had good days and bad.

The Prime blamed the extinction of real children for humanity’s inability to figure out the technical problems plaguing the world- real children in the sense that they were conceived and grew to maturity. Linked to that was the loss of childhood invention and problem solving, and creativity was dealt a blow from which it could not recover.

The Prime theorized that invention depended upon successive generations of scientists and technicians. Out with the old, in with the new. New ideas relied on new viewpoints. He had read volumes about the Change that described the death of creativity as a response to the more philosophical aspects of the phenomena. Since science could not explain the Change, it was considered untrustworthy, and so doubt had eroded the scientific community’s faith in its own dogma. Stagnation occurred. But the Prime felt the answer was not so esoteric. He preferred taking a little from column ‘A’ and a little from column ‘B.’ The pre-Change view of the world was too narrow and now people struggled to catch up. However, since everyone had been born pre-Change, preconceptions were hardwired.

The loss of invention permeated the World of Change. Art, literature and music were repetition based on old forms. The same went for social policy. The majority of politicians looked for the future in the past.

A sense of confusion went along with it. The Prime believed that humanity had never properly grieved for the generation stillborn. It had not wanted to accept what the inconceivable loss of children meant to their futures. The end needed no more description than that, and there were no more children. The end.

The Prime had never loved or hated children, so he didn’t miss real ones. He lusted after them, and that was how the forever children phenomena worked in his favor. Babies alive when the Change came grew to their relative fifth year. Any children older than that, and teens as well, remained so without physical aging or maturing.

It took much of the guilt away when exercising his passions to know that the soul in the child’s body he desired was inconceivably old. Oh he missed the wide-eyed terror of innocence, but the upside was that the World of Change liberated all of his inhibitions. He was free to experiment.

Adults aged, but they did so at a rate that made it almost invisible. For a moment he marveled at the amount of time it would take him to look old-and he wanted to find out. He was thirty-seven at the time of the Change, and now one hundred years had passed.

But there wouldn’t be a future if he didn’t decipher his Operative’s message. It bore an origin code for the Central Authority offices at Archangel Tower. It was sent an hour ago. He had been in seclusion at the time chanting over a bloody pentangle. The report read:

Eyes Only: Prime

Reporting: Vanguard

– 232 Towerview Terrace to be examined.

– City Authority Enforcement cooperative.

The Prime scanned the sheet. Two City Enforcement inspectors were called to 232 Towerview Terrace, the afternoon of February 17, 107 New Age. The Prime’s enhanced abilities allowed him to quickly absorb the report. The gist of it was simple enough.

Neighbors heard gunshots and called City Authority. Inspectors arrived at approximately 12:45 p.m. They found large a quantity of blood on the steps. (It was later typed to two individuals.) Inspectors called in reinforcements. They entered the house, reported heat damage to door and interior. They found the body of Margaret Travers, cause of death: large caliber bullet wound to brain. (Unreliable to Question.) Corpse repeats: “An angel. An angel.” Central Authority lab techs want to examine the body. Might be more playback in time.

– 10:40 a.m. One witness, Najat Sunjab, 235 Towerview Terrace, saw a man approach the home of Margaret Travers: temp secretary for the Tower offices, who was employed by the Divine and Fair Law Firm. The witness speculated it was Ms. Travers’ boyfriend who had been seen on a number of occasions.

– 10:40 a.m. Second witness, Ivan Wheatley, 1070 Seaside Apartments, saw a man in black approach the house. This witness is a telephone repairman rewiring the house of Nathan and Susan Bradley, 228 Towerview Terrace.

– 10:55 a.m. The same witness (Ivan Wheatley) saw a man and a woman pull up in a green car. Witness thought nothing of it. Later commented that both wore black.

– 11:00 a.m. A third witness called Authority. Muriel Drane, 234 Towerview Terrace, heard 4-5 shots fired. Ran to front window saw man in black placing something large in the trunk of green mid-sized car.

– Fourth witness, Alexander Washington, 231 Towerview Terrace, shared west wall of Travers’ residence heard ten or twelve shots fired. A loud sound followed-roar was heard. Other shots, perhaps 6 were heard outside. Witness was too frightened to investigate.

– Home sharing east wall with Travers’ (232 Towerview Terrace) was unoccupied. Tenants do shift-work at City International Publishing. Did not return home until 10:30 p.m.

– Door to door canvas of area turned up various witnesses who heard noises but saw nothing.

– Fifth Witness, Bernie Ohls marketing director for New Age Diet Drinks, 248 Towerview Terrace, saw green mid-sized Pontiac or Chevy pull up to black car parked in front of 244 Towerview Terrace. Man in black retrieved bag from trunk and something from glove compartment, then drove away in green car. Black ‘79 Pontiac Deluxe Cruiser impounded by City Authority. Dusting and search of rental car yielded nothing.

– Rental agent, Barry Stevens, described man. Caucasian male, pre-Change 40, dark hair, heavy build, quiet. Paid cash. Authority sketch artists working on composite.

– February 18, 10:20 a.m. Received call from Judy Gordon 412 5th Ave. West. Secretary for Catholic offices at Archangel Tower saw report on news about Towerview shooting. She confirmed Sister Karen Cawood might have been at the scene. Cawood mentioned visit to Towerview Terrace address in the company of Rev. Able Stoneworthy. Cawood has not reported for work. She could not be contacted at home. Report of green mid-sized Pontiac matched description of Reverend Able Stoneworthy’s vehicle.

– Reverend Able Stoneworthy’s office contacted. Stoneworthy has not reported to work for two days. He could not be contacted at home. Local City Authority treating the disappearance as possible foul play. Returning to 232 Towerview Terrace to investigate scene.

The Prime’s mind was alive with conspiracy. The Travers woman talked of an Angel, and the Tower Builders were involved somehow. Intriguing. Certainly suggested Divine interference of some kind. He couldn’t have such interference in his plans. That wouldn’t do. He’d have to pump his Infernal friends for information. If families were making moves, he had to know it. This was not a game that rewarded second best. And he would do anything to win.

The Prime wondered how much humanity was willing to give up for salvation. He took great pride in his self-knowledge and understood that despite his power and wealth he was still a human being. How far would he go? He would sacrifice every soul in the City if it came to that.

In order to be ready to make such a sacrifice, he had to keep on top of things. To be on top of things he had to use his resources. And his resources were many. He commanded the vast Defense system of Westprime. On his order he could muster thousands of troops and unleash terrible military machinery. He controlled the nuclear arsenal of the defunct United States of America. But he couldn’t do anything, yet.

There were other Primes in the world, and other Cities. Other arsenals too, so the Prime had to be cautious about using so overt an action before his knowledge of Divine and Infernal Powers was complete. It was too dangerous.

He would make a move soon enough; but for the time being, he wanted to know just how dangerous the threat was from above. The Prime had made an intensive study of the Bible in his century since the Change. His Demon Ally had assured him that the One God sleeps, but the Prime was not about to trust that information.

True, looking back on the history of man since biblical times it did indeed look as though God was quiescent, perhaps content to await the Judgment Day foretold in the Revelations he gave to John. For the time being-barring Divine intervention-the Prime would continue to form a plan that would guarantee his survival.

He had his bomb shelter. It was deep in the bedrock below the level of his captive’s cell. Engineers had assured the Prime that the shelter, along with the City’s mass would protect him from any nuclear or conventional weapon in the world. And there was his escape tunnel. An electric car would take him fifty miles inland to a waiting shelter-also underground.

He had tortured his captive again. It hadn’t found the First-mother’s guardian yet, and the Prime suspected collusion. The creature was reluctant, to say more, but the Prime broke it. After all that screaming the creature’s voice was soft as a breeze. “The rebellion approaches Apocalypse.”

The Prime reviewed his options and found them bland and pale. After Vanguard’s report he occupied himself by looking for clues in the many messages his office received. Europrime was posturing. The British Isles of the Dead had burned-why would the Princess burn them? Eastprime was laying low.

Afriprime sent a conciliatory note. His ally had been eaten by Westprime’s, and that left the former witch doctor with his back against the thatch. That continent was steaming for rebellion. A well-situated Demonic possession could tip the balance. The Prime tore through the pile of papers and notes and threw them aside, then entered the armored tomb behind his office to rest. If Apocalypse was approaching, the Prime hated to think it might start without him.

37 – Orphans

The hard bruising arms and grunting, groaning song rolled on and on, and the chanting, droning music pulsed to the jarring rhythm of movement. It brought her screaming out of a nightmare with dog stink still in her face.

She sat bolt upright, eyes flashing open onto a glaring overhead light. Everything around her fell to shadow. She was in a bed with a coarse wool blanket tucked around. The light had the down on her arms glinting golden, and caused her skin to glow; but it created a contrast that dropped the bedclothes into inky blackness. She wore a nightshirt of thick white flannel the same color as her sheets.

Dawn peered into the darkness, squinting her face up against the glare of light and was met by a sudden childish tittering. Giggles rolled around her bed like a wave. She squinted harder and leaned forward, and this only caused another wave of laughter to pass.

“She looks like a grampus squidging his eyes at Nursie’s bum!” a boy’s voice said and laughter followed.

Now Dawn put a hand flat over her eyebrows, hoping the shade would let her see.

More giggling followed. “Now,” laughed another voice. “Now she’s an old Indian scout looking for buffalo!” The giggles grew in intensity until another voice started hushing them.

Dawn’s eyes continued to adjust, and she was soon able to make out movement and forms in the gloom beyond the light.

“Shush,” continued a girl’s voice, it was a little coarse, but it was high-pitched like her own. “You had your laugh, now stop it. It ain’t easy when you first pop your eyes open here, if you remember?” And at that someone moved forward out of the darkness.

Dawn shifted back against her pillows and quickly realized the head of her bed was against the wall. “Wait!” she said, too terrified to think of anything else. The grownup voice in her head didn’t say anything. Sometimes it just watched and listened.

A small girl materialized out of the shadow. She was shorter than Dawn and her body and limbs were thinner. She did have chubby cheeks, but Dawn realized that might have been her heritage, since she was clearly from the Far East or “Old China” as Mr. Jay would have called it.

The girl smiled and said, “I am Meg.” She laughed, there was not a trace of an accent.

“I’m Dawn,” said the forever girl. Her grownup voice suddenly chimed in. You don’t need to say more. NO MORE! “Where am I?” she asked; Meg’s eyes sparkled, and then Dawn blurted: “Where’s Mr. Jay?”

Meg shrugged. “You are in the Prime’s Orphanage.” She gestured left and right. “Dormitory Five. The Toffers brought you.”

“But…” Dawn started, and tears burst from her eyes. “He’s my only friend in the whole world!” She pulled her covers up. “I’ve got to go find him!” Weeping, she pushed her blankets down and started to climb out of the bed. Meg put her hands out to stop her, and it was then that Dawn could see that other forever kids were standing back in the shadows, lots of them. They were dressed the same as she, but were of all shapes and sizes. There were so many, she suddenly recoiled from Meg’s touch and pulled herself back under the blankets.

“Go away!” she cried, and whipped the blanket over her head.

“Go away!” a childish voice mocked and was hushed.

“What a Squeaker!” said another voice, this one a girl’s. “Squeak! Squeak!”

“It’s okay,” Meg kept talking. “Stay under the blankets and listen. You’re not the first to do it.”

Dawn only shivered. Her face was soaked with tears.

“You’re in the Prime’s Orphanage,” Meg explained, “But we mostly call it only ‘Orphanage.’” The girl paused. “And you were brought in on your lonesome by a group of Toffers that looked worse for wear, like there’d been a fight.” She laughed then. “Which all of us were happy to see, since most of us had trouble with them in the past.” A few other forever kids chuckled.

And suddenly Dawn remembered Liz and the other kids with guns and the fight. Mr. Jay must have returned to the hideout and found her missing. At first she wanted to cry even harder, but the grownup voice in her head reassured her. Mr. Jay will look for you.

“The Orphanage is where the Prime keeps us,” Meg said. “And where he teaches us, and tests us, and even makes some of us his daughters.” Her eyes rolled toward the floor and flush colored her cheeks. “Or his wives…”

Dawn lowered her blanket a little and peered out.

Now her eyes could see the others around her bed, the reflected light diffused. There were boys and girls, black, yellow, white, red and brown. And they were tall and short and fat and thin, and all wearing flannel nightshirts against the chill. Some of the kids had scars like knife marks on their faces and arms, and others had shiny bits of skin and ribbons of it on their flesh. And some of the kids looked happy, and some looked sad.

Dawn shook her head and said: “I want Mr. Jay!”

A couple of kids laughed, but most of their faces echoed her sadness. Meg just patted the blanket on her bed. “Unless he’s a friend of the Prime, that ain’t going to happen.” Dawn looked down at the back of Meg’s hand. It was crisscrossed with silver scars. “The Orphanage ain’t a place people like us are allowed to leave.”

Dawn tried to stifle another weepy yawn. “But I want Mr. Jay!”

A couple of the other kids started to tear up. Then a solid looking black boy stepped up close and stuck a finger into Dawn’s face. His cheeks were scarred and he was missing an ear.

“Just shut up you stupid squeaker! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!” he shouted. “Squeaker’s making everybody sad!”

“That’s enough, Larry!” Meg said, “She’s scared.”

“Who cares,” the boy said, “We’re all fucking scared.” Then he slapped at Meg’s hand as she attempted to quiet him. “Don’t shush me!” He swung back to Dawn. “Nobody gets out of the Orphanage. Ever! Unless you go with Nursie. So get used to it!”

The boy punched the blanket when Dawn curled herself under it. She could hear Meg scolding him, and then other kids’ voices were raised in anger. Someone was crying. There were sounds of a struggle.

Dawn just tried to focus on her friend’s face, and she cried for the many years they’d spent together. She tried to remember Nurserywood, and old Arthur, and she wondered what he would do to get out.

“Oh Mr. Jay,” she sobbed into the blanket. “Where are you?”

38 – Nightcare

The man looked different from what the Creature expected. Then she checked herself. He felt different. The physical impressions she’d received over the decades were of the man who stood in front of her. Yes. He was just six feet, his beard, flecked with gray, shoulder-length hair, top hat and coat tails were familiar. Broad cheeks, straight nose and the eyes were right. What was different?

Then she decided perhaps it was the set of his features. There were marks of violence on his clothing: bloody tears in his pants. But that wasn’t the cause. She sensed anger, which had never been in her visions, and he radiated a sour feeling of reluctance. He didn’t want to be here. That was different from what she expected.

She sensed something different in Conan too. His little fighter’s body stood beside the stranger, the guest, she corrected herself; but Conan’s figure, usually a tight twist of muscle, rage and armor, was unusually calm. Something had happened between them. He was calm, and he smelled of tears.

“The Creature welcomes the man to the Nightcare,” the Creature said. The word “welcome” was echoed in a chorus from child to child as the other forever children had gathered in a great semicircle behind her. It was their way, the echo-the chorus-of sharing power.

The phenomenon was not lost to the visitor. He smiled, and let his eyes follow the echo among the children. Then he removed his hat and bowed at the waist.

“The Creature trusts,” the Creature started. “And the Nightcare trusts.”

“Trust,” echoed among the children.

“The Creature thinks you were injured by friend, Conan,” she continued. The Creature sat, as was her way at the center of a great circular floor comprised of treaded iron plating. There were holes and vents in the floor that admitted the sounds of distant rushing water far below. The Creature’s seat was raised on a pile of extra plates neatly piled. The flooring made for a noisy addition, but the proximity to the lower levels of the Maze made the meeting place perfect for the Nightcare. There were many, many ways of escape, and they always had to be careful of the Toffers and the Sheps.

“No,” the stranger said, remarkably reaching down and squeezing Conan’s shoulder. “My friend only showed me his bravery, and led me here.”

A moment of dismay passed. The Creature knew of Conan’s history and his torment in the Bad house. For a stranger, a ma n especially, to be able to lay hands on him was indeed remarkable. It was as her visions foretold.

“The Creature thinks that is well,” the Creature said. “It is not our way to harm, but it is the way of others to encourage inhospitality.” She nodded, and the stranger nodded back as the word “inhospitality” circled the enclosure on children’s tongues.

The stranger’s eyes glistened momentarily, and he rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand. The Creature saw a new scar on the skin of his palm. This caused her to lurch upright in her seat, but the stranger was dismissive.

“It’s okay,” he said, looking at his palm and rubbing it, “I heal quickly.”

The word “heal” was transferred around the room. This was something of note to the Creature. The Nightcare rarely echoed the words of strangers.

“The Creature saw your need, and sent fighters to help your friend-the girl,” the Creature said smiling, as the word “friend” echoed from child to child. “But they were unable to extricate her in time.”

The word “extricate” started around the room in garbled fashion at first, finally becoming a mishmash of syllables and giggles. The Creature gave them a sobering look and they quieted.

“The Creature sees the Toffers captured her.” She shook her head sadly, voice lowering. “Had they not Sheps with them, the Creature’s fighters would have succeeded.”

“What are Toffers?” the stranger asked, noticing there was no echo of that word. “And Sheps?”

“The Creature knows that Toffers are Truant Officers employed by the Prime for his orphanage,” the Creature explained, the forever children around her were silent. One of them started crying. An actual echo followed her words. “And they use Shepherds like dogs to sniff out the children. But they are not dogs.”

The stranger looked downcast a moment, then he raised his gaze. “You know what they really are?”

“The Creature sees the Demonkind,” the Creature said quietly. A palpable shiver ran through the collection of children. Many of them came from the Orphanage, and most had seen the Toffers. “They are controlled by the Prime as hunters and collectors. They used to go about in the skins of men and animals, but their power must be growing for they do not hide their shapes as they once did.”

“I was afraid of that.” The stranger nodded anxiously. He looked at his hands and then straightened his shoulders. “Forgive me, please, but I have overlooked introductions.” He cleared his throat. “I am called, Mr. Jay, a magician from the north. I came to the City in the company of a girl named, Dawn. She is under my protection.”

Giggles suddenly started in the ranks of the collected children, but these were silenced by a look from the Creature.

“It’s okay.” The stranger appreciated the irony, raising his hands. “I know.” He shrugged and squeezing Conan’s shoulder again said, “Had she Conan for a protector, I’m sure things would have been different.”

The word “different” echoed among the forever children.

“The Creature says that she is called the Creature by friends of the Nightcare,” the Creature said this, standing up in front of her chair, allowing her patched and worn dress and ivory cloak to flow to her ankles. “The Nightcare children have asked the Creature to lead them in these dark times, and she does so gladly.” She lifted her palms, and the word “Creature” ran through their ranks, echoing off the steel deck plating. She was moved to hear such feeling in their voices. Tears formed in her eyes and passed.

“As such, the Creature is entrusted with their care,” she smiled and stepped down from her chair to the plated floor. She moved toward the man. The Creature was twelve and a half when the Change came and had been locked for a century in a body that was not a child and that was not an adult. She believed this suspension between realities was what gave her the gift of sight. “But she has long awaited your coming, as have they. You are a dubious guest, Mr. Jay, for her visions say you offer the end of something and the beginning of something.” She smiled and let her hands fall at her sides. “But the Creature sees that this is life.”

Mr. Jay shook his head and opened his arms. The Creature felt a troubled mood cloud his mind. “I am not responsible for the way the wind blows. I just have to get Dawn back and get the hell out of the City.” He looked around saying, “If you’re smart, you’ll do the same.”

“The Creature understands and sees that,” the Creature said, drawing near and looking up. She was just under five feet tall. “But she did not foresee it.” The word “foresee” echoed around the circular room. “Which is disturbing to her.”

“I’m finished with the City once I get Dawn,” the magician said and shrugged. “You know the weight of responsibility.” The word “responsibility” echoed, his eyes looked up nervously. “It was a great weight I carried at another time.” He looked down at his hands. “And I will not carry more than Dawn.”

“Indeed,” the Creature said, pausing to meet Conan’s armored gaze up close. So calm my young friend, she smiled at him. Your tears smell like freedom, little brother. And tears entered her eyes again. Taking Mr. Jay’s hand she drew him to the center of the circular floor by her chair.

“The Creature sees that this is the truth you hope to realize,” she said to the magician, looking up and smiling before continuing. “But as one who has carried responsibility, you know our hopes rarely match reality.”

“Hope,” echoed among the children.

“And we tend to forget fate at such times,” she whispered, dropping her guest’s hand and bowing. “How can we help you, Mr. Jay?”

His face had gone ashen at the word “fate,” but he quickly regained his composure. “I need to know about the Orphanage. I have to get Dawn out of there.”

The word “Dawn” followed the gathered circle of children. The Creature smiled as she looked into the ageless faces.

39 – The Marquis

Tiny watched Bloody through the dripping golden arms of a candelabra and he shook his head disgusted. Ever since his murder, the gunman was impossible to live with.

Bloody’s skin was waxy and gray. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of scarred and scratched sunglasses. The hair that grew to his collar was greasy-now matted with dirt, straw and what looked like shards of red brick. Tiny glared across the table at Driver. The Texan had promised to tidy Bloody up for the meeting with the Marquis. But it was obvious that he’d only brushed the dust off him.

“Now, Tiny…” Driver smiled nervously over the rim of his wineglass, and smirked when his naturally carefree demeanor kicked in. “Don’t go givin’ me your looks!” He set his glass down, lit a cigarette. “Let’s don’t spoil it. I ain’t buckled up to a feed like this in years!”

Tiny looked down the length of the table. The setting was splendid. It reminded them of the all-you-can eat buffet days before the Change.

The Marquis’ home was a big brick mansion circled with a tall wrought iron fence in one of the gated neighborhoods on Level Four of the City of Light. The ride there had taken some dizzying turns on the Skyway, but Driver’s Nova SS easily handled the soaring strips of blacktop. These Skyways swept the City’s population from place to place hugging the underbelly of the Level above only to swoop down at reckless speeds to the Level below. There were hair-raising turnpikes and overpasses that dropped a hundred feet on each side of a double lane. Driver loved it.

They parked around back then entered through the building’s brass double doors. They knew the mansion’s layout, had enjoyed its comforts in times past. There were mirrors everywhere, and all the furnishings were either antique or replicas of 18th Century designs. Every pillar, every cornice carried carved grapevines and angels. The butler showed them to the dining room, told them to refresh themselves and await the Marquis.

“Don’t worry, Tex.” Tiny picked up his pale glass of Chardonnay, sipped it. “I won’t spoil your fun. But look at him.” He gestured to Bloody’s startling face. “You said you’d spruce him up-looks like you dug him up.”

“Well, I just started gettin’ the creeps…” Driver’s blue eyes sparkled-his dark eyebrows forming an arc of dismay. He looked over at the dead man. “Bloody, you got to get into the swing of things. You can’t sit there starin’ like a goddamn zombie, askin’ us to wait on every hand and foot.” Driver turned to Tiny and whispered. “Well did you expect I was goin’ to put curlers in his hair? I ran a brush over his head. I ain’t no hairstylist nor any sweetheart dustin’ off his clothes.” The Texan’s eyes flashed with grim humor. “Goddamn it Tiny, I noticed you weren’t linin’ up to lend a hand.” He grabbed a formed fish-turkey leg off his plate, loaded it with chili peppers and tore a strip off it with his teeth. “You a bossy som’bitch.”

“Rude.” Bloody’s voice suddenly creaked like dry leather.

His companions looked at him, startled, then at each other.

“Rude?” Driver masked his surprise with a liberal mouthwash of wine.

“Talking.” Bloody’s purple-gray lips were granite.

“Oh, you’re right, Bloody. It isn’t polite to talk with you sitting there,” Tiny said, eyeing the gunman. “Course you could get involved in the conversation and stop acting like a bag of rotten bones.”

“Damn you son of a bitch.” Driver leaned forward, pointed. “Sittin’ there listening like the C-fucking-I-fucking-A. You got nerve!” The Texan dropped his fish-turkey leg. “Here I am thinkin’ you’re dead and gone, and you’re sitting there eavesdroppin’. And me in the car combing your goddamned hair!” He angrily lit another cigarette. “You must’a had a hoot!”

“You should know better, Bloody.” Tiny piped up now. “You and your self-pity make me sick. You’re out in the driving shed drinking and crying like a baby while Driver and me rack our brains for a way to make a living. We ain’t crying for you.” Tiny caught Driver’s surprised expression. “You got yourself killed, and you’re wallowing in pig shit and whisky.”

“Christ yes, Bloody.” Driver’s fingers clenched near his armpits where his guns nestled. They always twitched like that when his temper was up. “Take a bath. Get a new jacket. Christ you smell. You said once that the sorriest piece of shit on the planet was a man who lived in the past. Well you’re a sorry piece of shit.”

“Amen, brother.” Tiny toasted Driver.

Bloody’s frame convulsed, his lips pursed, and then his neck bulged like he was going to vomit. He said-his voice a seizure, “Forgive Felon.”

“That’s fine. I’m glad you got religion.” Tiny looked over at Driver. The Texan was digging into his food again.

Bloody’s forgiving Felon could mean anything. The gunman’s temper usually followed on the heels of his feelings. In the years they had known him, Bloody had forgiven a lot of people, in a way that earned him his nickname.

When they had first told him where they were going, he stood there staring through his sunglasses. Driver had picked the location, on the highway north about four hours out from the farmhouse. It was still hours to catch a ferry across the Mississippi Sea. The long straight stretch of highway took them along the west coast of the cold haunted body of water.

The Texan had pulled off the road and drove about a quarter of a mile over prairie grass. They got out, and motioned for Bloody to follow. Tiny kept his hand on his gun the whole time. The dead gunman moved automatically without any sign of caring. He came to a halt finally, listing to one side, about twenty yards from the car. Driver, dressed in tough black military pants, shirt, boots and trench coat, took ten paces to the northwest and Tiny, in gray, took ten to the southwest. The Texan turned and stood with the casual pose of a gunman. His twin automatics poked out of their shoulder holsters. His hands were crossed at his waist.

“Bloody, you’ve had a hard go.” The wind had snatched at Tiny’s voice. “But, it’s time we get back to work. We want you to ride with us. But we’re not sure about you.”

The dead gunman’s head had tilted forward. The wind tore at his filthy hair. Both of his friends recognized the stance. Bloody paused like that before he started killing. He relaxed both shoulders for the draw, and giant bullets would start blowing things apart.

At the motion, Tiny took his stance-legs relaxed, one hand in the front pocket of his overcoat. He’d tilt the gun barrel up instead of drawing it. A smaller weapon with a lighter grain of bullet would have done the job. But Tiny was nostalgic. A. 357 magnum fired at that angle with a single hand could snap his wrist. But the salesman had a trick. He’d do a drop dive, if it came to shooting-kick both legs forward and hit the ground firing over his knee. He had to get the gun up to take most of its kick along his elbow. Dangerous, but the situation was a sticky one. Driver nodded when he caught his eye.

“Bloody!” Tiny shouted. They both knew Bloody was a straight shot, and being dead, was impossible to kill. The. 45 Colt didn’t have to be all that accurate. Those big bullets could take an arm off. “We’ve got a job with Felon!” He waited a second, watched the dead man for any hint of recognition. “He can make us rich if we ride with him. Driver and me want to do it. Are you in?”

Bloody didn’t move. Tiny focused his energy along his thigh muscles and down into his calves. He had learned the technique forty years before from a karate teacher. The salesman kept himself in excellent shape, and in the years he’d spent after the Change he had learned to discipline both body and mind. He had to be hard and fast to survive. Bloody was a shining example of what happened if you got slack.

“What’s it goin’ to be?” Driver had bellowed, the wind plucking at his words.

“Forgive,” Bloody croaked.

“What?” Tiny shouted back.

“Forgive Felon.” Bloody’s voice was a broken thing to listen to.

Tiny and Driver had looked at each other then, and decided to go with it. Guns would have blazed if Bloody was against working for Felon. They got back in the Nova, drove to the ferry and went east from there. Bloody lapsed back into silence. Tiny had instructed Driver to take them to the Marquis’ La Maison du Porc where they were expected.

“So you’re goin’ to forgive him?” Driver asked as he dug into a pile of potatoes. “Don’t get yourself killed again.” Tiny and Driver knew Bloody’s trigger finger. And he killed when he started feeling too much. But Felon could take care of himself.

“Hush now.” Tiny raised his glass. “Someone’s coming.”

The ornate doors at the end of the dining room swung open and away from them. A dwarf in red silk knickers, stockings and waistcoat rushed in with powder flying from his wig. He held a long brass trumpet. Pressing it to his lips he blew once then barked: “Rise! Rise for the Marquis de la ville de la lumiere! La dame de la maison du porc!”

And the Marquis entered. He dressed as an eighteenth century French noblewoman. His gown was a richly embroidered and lacy bell embossed with glistening jewels. Upon his head was a tall powdered wig of curls, graced at the top with an arching tiara of diamonds. His face was powdered sugar white scarcely disguising his booze-veined nose. The Marquis’ cheeks and eyes were similarly highlighted in brilliant rouge and garish peacock. His ancient chest was powdered and puffed, and poked like a broken fence over the dress’s plunging neckline. His withered throat was accented with a strip of purple silk that exactly matched his dress’s embroidery. He batted his rheumy eyes. They were flat and pale. The old transvestite fluttered a golden fan under his nose.

“Bonjour mes amis!” the Marquis trumpeted as he fanned his corded throat. “How wonderful to have you gentlemen for entertainment.”

Tiny rose after his glass. Driver did the same-Bloody lapsed into corpse-like stillness. “A toast gentlemen!” Tiny smiled with all his might. “To the lovely Marquis.”

The Texan hoisted his glass and murmured, “Charmed.”

“Tiny!” The Marquis used a fake French accent. “You are the consummate roue as always!” He fluttered forward in silk slippers. Tiny took his hand and kissed the wrinkled knuckles.

“As beautiful as always, Marquis.” Tiny knew the man’s moods. Inside he felt an overwhelming urge to shoot the old pervert but the Marquis was one of the City’s most powerful and dangerous gangsters. “You make it worth the trip.”

“Thank you, Tiny.” He flashed his eyes over his open fan. “I was twice your age and more before the Change. And yet, the times have not changed so much that flattery has ceased to work upon a lady.” He looked over at Driver.

Tiny knew that Driver’s Republican soul had some trouble with the Marquis’ exotic affectations. But Driver had always been a gentleman. The Texan smiled, his eyes glowing pink with alcohol and strain. “Lord, but you’re a dam buster! There’ll be many a lonely and jealous girl down in the haymow this year!”

The Marquis giggled. “Monsieur Driver, you are such a scamp!” And then he turned his old eyes upon Bloody. “Unlike certain individuals who will eat my food but will not favor a lady’s entrance by rising.”

Bloody sat like the dead man he was. The face was slack leather-his sunglasses two chipped dark holes. His large hands lay on the table before him as hard and lifeless as rakes. The Marquis moved around the table, his old face a wrinkle of petulance, his dress a storm of rustling silks.

“Oh, so! Vous bete ignorante!” the Marquis started, and stopped. His eyes were focused on a glistening tear that rolled down Bloody’s cheek. “My gracious. My…”

Tiny watched the proceedings move rapidly past him. “You’ll have to forgive Bloody, Marquis. He hasn’t been the same since he got killed.”

The Marquis gasped. His whole body shook beneath his dress. “Oh my dear Bloody! Mon cher homme.” He sat beside the gunman. Tiny tensed watching the scene. He had no idea how Bloody would react to the transvestite sputtering sympathy. The Marquis reached out and drew the gunman’s head to his brittle breast. “Oh my dear fellow.” His bejeweled and gnarled fingers cupped Bloody’s cheek. The Marquis glared angrily at Tiny and Driver. “Gentlemen with a lady you may be, but you are beasts to your friend!”

“Marquis. We just spent two days in a car with him,” Tiny said. “So we’ve done our part. We’re kind of anxious to talk to Felon.”

“Oh. He’s here.” The Marquis rose. He left Bloody bent over dead as a doornail. “For hours…” The old courtier’s nose wrinkled. “He’s been watching you since you arrived.”

40 – Call to Arms

During his flight to the City, the Angels whispered again. A dead brother bears the word. This contact surprised Updike. The Angels had never been so direct with him before. Past messages arrived-sometimes garbled-usually forming one or two words or short phrases: heal, fortitude, patience, speak the word-little more. He was quite pleased with this new communication. Nothing was left to interpretation. He had lots of time to think about it. With connections, transfers and delays the trip to the City took over twenty hours.

After the big twin-prop DC-10000 landed, he moved quickly through customs, his notoriety smoothing the way for him. When he traveled he often met living or dead people who felt they owed him a debt-he had freed a wife, a brother, a friend. Liberating the dead had caused many problems, but it had also mended many fences. The truth was, the dead generally accepted their lot. They had to. In order to enjoy any meaningful afterlife: death and the dead status of the body had to be embraced.

Otherwise, a person came apart, and the mind with it. For this reason, Updike compared the dead to Lepers-individuals whose existence depended upon a stark realization of one’s disease. Death, like leprosy, was never going to go away. Updike was sure that the dead kept to themselves for this reason. Too much association with the living, made the dead forget.

A limousine was waiting for him. He gathered his luggage at the carousel, and waited by the front right fender as a tall man of Arabian origin loaded the baggage into the trunk. Updike paced a few yards along the loading area watching people come and go. They retained the pre-Change expressions of travelers and Updike felt a genuine affection for them. Humans were so adaptable. He knew they were unable to accept their own defeat despite all the signs. He had to admire that foolish optimism. And he understood why the Lord called them “favorite.” The preacher felt anxious, wondering whether they could adapt to the change he was going to bring.

A man approached. He was a mess and quite dead, it was obvious from his horrific injuries. His appearance left no doubt that the movement from life to death had been recent and violent. He wore a black suit over a long lean frame. His arms were angled awkwardly out to the side like a tightrope walker’s. The front of his shirt and priest’s collar were torn and stained a dark crimson. Updike’s stomach churned as he studied the extent of the wounds.

Bone protruded from holes in the shirt just above the sternum, and flesh around the punctures splayed outward like the petals of some hellish flower. A coppery odor hung in the air and it was everything the preacher could do to keep from stepping away from the man’s sour aura. But empathy softened Updike’s dismay at last and he allowed his feelings to touch the sorrow of this dead man-it was terrible.

The limousine driver walked threateningly toward the dead stranger. “Go on! Get!”

The stranger did not yield at the big man’s approach. Updike needed no more evidence to the fellow’s recent demise, for the dead, once adjusted to their new existence were a fidgety and nervous lot-especially if the there was a threat of violence.

“Wait driver!” Updike interjected remembering the Angelic message. “This brother is here for me.” He moved past the driver toward the walking corpse, steadying himself against the instinctive repulsion he felt.

“My poor brother. How terrible has been this change for you!” Updike spread his arms to accept the corpse’s horrific embrace. He looked into the sad, wise face as he approached-at the gray skin and yellowed eyes. And there was a tug of recognition. Updike recognized something of the living man remaining in the lifeless gaze. A great knowledge lurked there, like the promise of food in the husk of a seed.

“My way is long, brother.” The dead man’s voice was thin and reedy.

“The road is long.” Updike admired the man’s spirit. He was speaking to one of his own-a shepherd.

“I have heard the word of the Lord. And with the word was a command that the righteous should hear.” Again, Updike felt great sympathy for the man. He could hear the deep current of passion that throbbed behind the sad face of death.

“ Hallelujah!” Updike squeezed the hard dead shoulders. “Speak this command to me and I shall bear the burden come what may, even in death.” The flesh beneath his fingers was plastic, but pliant-it stayed the way his hands kneaded it.

“I heard the Lord’s voice just moments after my…” he said and paused, for a second of acceptance or emotion, “translation.” The dead man’s eyes were bright and rheumy. Blinking mechanically, he continued, “I knew not what the message was upon my learning of it, but as I look upon you, the words crowd my tongue, and so I shall speak it.” With that, a power entered the dead man’s voice-an echo of life, and he said:

“Corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘let us go and serve other gods,’ gods whom you have not known, then you shall inquire, search out, and ask diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination was committed among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword-utterly destroying it, all that is in it and its livestock, with the edge of the sword. And you shall gather all its plunder into the middle of the street, and completely burn with fire the city and all its plunder, for the Lord your God; and it shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. So none of the accursed things shall remain in your hand, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of His anger and show you mercy, have compassion on you and multiply you, just as He swore to your fathers. Do what is right in the eyes of your Lord.”

Updike knew the words, Deuteronomy 13:13-17. He had pondered their power in the past. So fierce was the God of Moses’ time-so decisive. So exacting in His worship. The words were spoken long ago when the time of Holy War was upon them-and to hear them spoken again when the final war foretold in the Bible approached. The preacher had both feared and relished the day when the bugles would sound.

“My brother!” Updike drew the dead man close. “Just as it has been foretold. We shall muster a holy army unknown in all our history.”

“The flesh is corrupt,” the dead man said. Updike was uncertain if he was speaking of the flesh in the human context, or if he meant his own so he addressed both.

“We shall cleanse the flesh when we liberate the soul!” Updike held the dead man at arm’s length. “But first my brother, we must prepare you for the mission that lies ahead, for all of His fine ministers must be duly anointed and cleansed. You have been translated my brother, and now we must help you shed the unclean burdens of your former life.” Updike led the dead man toward the waiting limousine. The driver seemed nonplussed, hesitating a moment before opening the door.

“Make way!” proclaimed Updike. “You are in the company of God’s messenger.”

“But sir!” The driver seemed embarrassed. “I’ll have to pay for-damages.” His dark eyes roved over the dead man’s spattered attire.

“I understand,” Updike hesitated. He turned to the dead man. “Your name, brother?”

The dead man’s face hung slack a moment, his eyes glazed over looking inward. He seemed reluctant to pronounce the name, as though his state would be made real with its utterance. Finally, he said, “Able Stoneworthy.”

Updike’s mouth dropped open. “Able Stoneworthy?” Almost unrecognizable under the stains and marks of death, but it was him. “ The Tower Builder?” He pushed his teeth together. “Of course.” The former recognition came home to him. They had met in the past, on several occasions, but briefly. In those days Stoneworthy’s passions were focused on the Tower, and the future it represented. He had been dismissive of Updike then, but not unkind. The preacher knew that his preoccupation with the past ran contrary to the minister’s.

“Yes,” the dead man mumbled-his strength was on the wane. “I am Stoneworthy.”

“Then,” Updike shouted, slipped an arm around the dead man’s shoulders and gestured to the driver with the other. “Get a car blanket-get something, so that this fine Tower Builder can travel in a manner that befits his stature.”

The driver opened the trunk of the limousine, moved Updike’s luggage, and brought out a gray quilted blanket. He spread this over the leather seat, and then held the door aside as his passengers entered-concern a cloud on his dark features. Updike set the dead man into a comfortable position, gently placing his limbs before him.

“Rebirth Foundation,” the Captain ordered, as he rubbed Stoneworthy’s cold hand. The airport dropped quickly behind them as the limousine sped down a ramp and onto the Skyway. The City’s jagged skyline loomed over them. Central to it, Archangel Tower pointed at Heaven like a gleaming sword.

“You must be proud of your work, Reverend.” Updike watched the dead man.

“We have sinned,” Stoneworthy said in reply.

“Humanity has strayed from the Word of God. Like an errant child, humanity must not be spared the rod.” The preacher allowed himself that admission of punishment. His dead companion said nothing. “You spoke to the Lord your God?” he asked, finally.

“ He spoke to me. He gave me the message.” There was a mild injection of emotion in the dead man’s voice, but it was not pride. “Because you are chosen.”

“ Hallelujah! We must remind the world of the Lord’s wrath.” Updike watched the Skyway pass. “For there is sin in the City, and for the world to come under the watchful eye of our Lord again, it must change utterly. We must clean the works of man!”

The dead man nodded. Updike watched him for signs of passion or feeling, but his wounded humanity had slipped below the surface. Putting himself in the dead Reverend’s shoes, Updike knew that there was a great test going on in the minister. Men of God did not lightly speak of war.

“We shall triumph!” he reassured Stoneworthy. “We shall put the sinners to the sword. And the hilt of our sword shall be a holy cross. Hallelujah! But first, we must offer the Lord’s pity. Only when that is refused shall all our actions be righteous.”

The dead man nodded-relieved, his eyes blinking slowly, as though he were falling asleep. His dead face wrinkled in a grimace. Pain or acceptance worked molten inside his skull.

“My poor brother.” Updike stroked the dead man’s stained cheek. “Poor brother.”

41 – The Silo

The armored Authority Transport roared off the road spraying tall wet tails from its six solid rubber tires. It catapulted through the twenty-foot steel gate and rumbled up a stone path toward the central complex. The wall around the compound measured fifteen feet in height with spools of razor wire on top. The protected area was roughly square, one mile on each side. In the center was a brick office building beside a massive concrete pad. Twenty-four steel hatches, thirty feet in diameter, evenly divided the pad’s length. There was a well-armored machine gun nest on top of the brick building and soldiers patrolled the grounds. Most of the complex was hidden a half-mile underground, protected by rock and blast-proof doors.

The security measures were overkill, considering the setting, but essential. Since the Change, few people traveled off major highways, and fewer still knew or cared about the Westprime Air Defense Missile Station City One. War was unheard of in a world where nature herself had turned on humanity. And most thought that the Middle Eastern Nuclear Holocaust, and the Asian War that followed on the heels of the Change was lesson enough for all. So, few could dream such a defensive measure would be necessary. Station One was situated twenty miles to the south of the City, and formed the lower part of a triangle of such facilities. Station Two described the inland point and Three occupied the northernmost location.

Despite this misconception, the Prime knew the security was essential. If anything could entice malcontents or terrorists to cross the Landfill, tangle with undead bandits and feral animals; it would be the chance to capture intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Prime collected them. There was something familiar and even comforting about the old-fashioned form of annihilation. True, the computerized versions were rendered obsolete by the Change, but the world’s first versions of atomic nightmares were developed in a simple cable and explosive technological world. So, recreating their own arsenals post-Change had been the first order of business for the surviving countries as their populations teetered toward civil war and chaos.

Before the advance of an interconnected governing Authority, these vestiges of civilizations considered themselves vulnerable to external attack. And as those surviving enclaves evolved into New Age countries with governments similar to Westprime’s the smart ones had secretly elected to work on their own weapons of mass destruction. The raw materials were there. They just had to be retrofitted to a useable post-Change form.

Prime found the devices comforting because they were a link to a time when death was dished out by human hands, when Infernal and Divine interference was hidden or negligible.

The Prime’s transport kicked up more mud as it hurtled toward the central building. The Prime had ordered a face-to-face with General Franklin Topp. He was in charge of the base and the Prime owned his ass.

The General went for a bargain basement price too. He was easily handled, purchased and wrapped. A large paycheck, a Sunsight apartment in the Tower, and a lifetime supply of young prostitutes kept him happy and loyal, if a little tired. The Prime bugged the rooms and offices of all his subordinates and kept round-the-clock surveillance on them. He’d taken great interest in the General’s bedroom at the missile base after a review of the photographs showed the military man killing one of the prostitutes in his care, and paralyzing another with a bayonet. The Landfill had come in handy in both cases.

But the Prime knew the man’s passions were his undoing, and he purchased the General’s mortal soul outright.

Vibrations from the wheels made their way through the transport’s solid body and awakened the Prime’s second penis where it coiled uncomfortably under his leg. He gasped and shifted in his seat. Lincoln Carter, his aide, smiled in a good-natured way and asked if the Prime was well.

“No problem, Mr. Carter. These damned transports are so uncomfortable,” he grumbled. Carter raised his eyebrows before mopping the heavy sweat from his brow.

The second penis was a gift from one of his Demon allies, or a symptom of the Union. It grew into place weeks after the deal was inked, but had only recently begun to exhibit a life of its own. His penis looked old and tired where it hid behind the curve of his enormous belly. The extra penis looked human, though it was as black as night and of gigantic proportions.

“We’re here, Prime.” His aide brought him from his reverie with the snap closure of his suitcase. He handed the Prime a sealed leather folder.

“Thank you, Lincoln.” The Prime shifted into business mode. “And remember our deal.” The transport had stopped at the building’s main entrance. Carter held an umbrella in place as the Prime climbed out of the transport. The leader of the western world did not return the salute offered to him by the guards at the doors.

Minutes later, the Prime left Carter in the hall and walked into the General’s office. He looked around at the decorations. A few pictures-long dead soldiers and patriots-a tattered flag from the world before the Change. The General’s desk was gray metal with a rubbery black top. On it were a clock, a pen set, and a picture of the General with his wife.

The Prime threw the dossier onto the desk, and then dropped into Topp’s hardwood chair. He opened the desk’s lower left drawer and pulled out a bottle of Scotch whisky. There were four small glasses. The Prime took two, filled both. Just as he tipped his glass, General Topp came in. He offered him a drink as he refilled his own.

“Scotch, Topp?” It sounded like a question but it was a command to drink.

“Yes, Sir.” The General shook hands before taking it.

The Prime studied his property. Topp was about a pre-Change sixty years old, but wore it well. His body was in good shape, under six feet, and a little thick in the middle. He wore a white peaked cap over a gray scrub brush of hair. His eyes were old, and red rimmed. The bags under them, and the scarlet veins that squirreled over his nose spoke of many late nights, too many for a man pushing 163.

“General, I want you to remember one thing!” The Prime injected enough strength to menace Topp. “You’re comfortable here because I own you. I don’t mind cleaning up your minor indiscretions-we’re both men of the world. I know how it is. I know this International peace can feel confining. A wolf surrounded by lambs. I am even acquainted with the urge that drives some of us to tie a prostitute to our bed and beat her to death with a hammer. But I will not suffer incompetence!” Having drained the second drink, the Prime slammed his glass down.

“Prime?” The General was uncomfortable with his own evil. The Prime enjoyed his lackey’s look of dismay.

“You’re pushing your luck.” The Prime rose and stalked around the desk. He glared at Topp. “Do you know what I see when I look at you?”

“No, sir.” Topp’s eyes rolled. He leaned away from the Prime’s bulk.

“I see a worthless sex-starved drunk,” the Prime snarled. “You have to be sharp. Do you know how dangerous it is to work for me? I want obedience. The moment I see otherwise, I’ll shoot you myself.” He paused, rubbed fat knuckles across the edge of the desk. “I want you sharp.” The Prime’s nose brushed the General’s. “So quit fucking around with the prostitutes!”

“Yes, sir.” The General had assumed attention. Sweat trickled from his brow.

The Prime hissed, “I will not write this order down. I will give it verbally, and I expect it to be carried out without hesitation.” The Prime smelled booze from his General. “You will program twelve of our missiles for coordinates that are marked ‘A’ group and another twelve targeted for coordinates marked ‘B’ group.” The Prime gestured toward the dossier on the desk. “You will comply,” he growled.

The General broke the seals on the dossier, opened it. Inside were a list of attack coordinates and a targeting map. Topp scanned the numbers, looked at the map-double-checked them-then looked up.

“Prime, ‘A’ group indicates targets inside Westprime territory.” A look of disbelief washed across his face. He compared the coordinates and map again. “Christ, they’re pointed right at the City!”

“An acceptable risk, Topp.” The Prime allowed a shade of a threat to color his tone. “Do you have a problem with the orders?” He looked Topp up and down for signs of weakness. When the first came, a minor twitch of the left eye, the Prime resisted the urge to break out laughing.

“I can’t do this!” The General shrank from the Prime’s exposed canines.

Topp was a jaded old vulture indeed. The missiles targeted a heavily populated city he was paid to protect and all he could think of was his own culpability. Where was the outrage at the proposal?

“You’ll follow my orders.” The Prime pushed his bulk toward Topp. “I am responsible. You will obey any orders that are issued, unfailingly. Any hesitation and I’ll make you wish you were strapped to one of the fucking things.”

“Why?” The General dropped his head to hide the dismay that was bound to come. It was one thing to work out his hungers on defenseless women, another to attack whole populations.

“I will not negotiate with terrorists.” The Prime gave the General his politician’s smile. “And I have evidence suggesting political groups inside the City are about to stage a coup.” He walked behind Topp and started pacing. “I will not surrender the freedoms of the good people of the City of Light to any invading force.” He gestured to the coordinates. “ This is the ultimate response to an aggressor. By this we will be saying: Do not fight us, because we would rather die than live as slaves.” The Prime cleared his throat. “Also, I have reason to believe that Eastprime and Afriprime are considering a first strike option. They fear our strength and so the coordinates in ‘B’ group.” The Prime flipped the sheets in the dossier to show another list of targets.

“You expect invasion?” Topp was mildly relieved by the new coordinates.

“I expect Apocalypse,” the Prime snapped at him. “Do you think I would make such a terrible decision for anything less!”

“Who?” Topp looked at the map, as though a study of it would reveal lurking enemies. “I see targets in Eastprime, Afriprime…”

“The military mind perceives the threat. I judge them. And the threat I see, I judge worthy of this form of brinkmanship.” He continued to pace, glancing casually at the flag from the pre-Change world. Stars and stripes forever -the Prime stifled a smile. “Let us hope it does not come to that, but you will launch on my command. Do you understand?”

“Do we evacuate?” Topp’s face was like a child’s.

“Hardly a threat then… I must be able to trust you to follow my order.” The Prime moved his bulk close to the General’s back.

Topp snapped to attention. “I can. I will”

“Topp-I order this base to full alert effective immediately. Central Operatives have informed me that events will unfold quickly.” He neglected to mention that most of the information came from his supernatural operatives. “I will keep you apprised of all developments.” He began to walk to the doors. “Program them yourself. I’ll leave my man, Lincoln Carter, here to assist.”

“We’ll be ready, Prime.” The General’s head did not turn. His shoulders drooped at mention of Carter.

“Be ready!” The Prime couldn’t resist the urge to bully. He opened the door. The leader of Westprime walked out pleased with the process, pausing only to wink at Carter. He had arranged for the possession of his aide by a Demon who would not scruple about marking millions of people for death, or who never hesitate to kill Topp at the first sign of insubordination.

42 – Sister

Karen Cawood sat up. Her head still hurt to the touch, but it stopped aching. She saw the same small sparsely furnished room. The walls were papered with a busy pink and yellow floral pattern. There was a bed, a small desk and a lamp. There was a door across from her, but it was locked. A narrow barred window was set high in the wall. The murderer brought her here the night before.

He left her blindfolded and tied to the steering wheel while he got out of the car. When he returned, he led her across an open space and down a spiral of steps into a damp, musty smelling place. She was pushed through cool air ahead of him and shoved into a room where she was ordered to take her blindfold off. The door closed.

And here she was, awake again with nothing to do but wait. Her memories jumped over the last days.

Able was shot. She was knocked unconscious. Then she woke up in the backseat of a car. Her vision was blurry. Her head pounded. The engine was idling. She heard and felt the trunk close. “ Run!” Her mind screamed at her, but her body was overcome with dizziness. The man might have fractured her skull. He got back in the car and she lost consciousness.

Next came a harsh whisper. “Get up.” The voice was cold. A powerful hand gripped her shoulder. She started to fake unconsciousness, but the hand slapped her face until her skull ached.

“Okay!” Cawood cried, raising her arms to fend him off. She crawled to a sitting position. The murderer stared at her from the front seat of Able’s car. His eyes were black.

“Pupils weren’t moving,” he said, his voice flat. His arm was draped casually over the seat. “Breathing was normal. No sleep. No coma. Try that again and I’ll kill you.” He shifted his position; the strange light cut dangerous crescents on his cheeks. The man was wounded and tired. “Up here. Over the seat.”

She remembered it was dark. Light came from the dashboard’s neon green glow. Karen straightened her clothes. She patted her hair, couldn’t find her coif.

“You telegraph, Sister,” the man said. “Pregnant pauses.” She saw the cold glint on a gun barrel gesture. “ Over the seat.”

As she climbed over, the man talked. Sweat beaded his brow.

“Fake emotion. None is best.” He grabbed one of her ankles as she climbed to keep her heel away from his face. Did his fingers linger on the inside of her calf? “Blank face is a gun. Don’t know if it’s loaded.” He sneered, “You’re full of guilt.”

Cawood dropped into the seat beside him-head throbbing-her eyes searching for his in the gloom. They were green tinted and wet rimmed. The strain made him harder.

“Where’s Reverend Stoneworthy?” Her words cracked.

“With God.” There was no emotion in his face. “Try to escape or disobey-I will punish you the first time. The second, you’ll die.” His unshaven lips gleamed in the greenish light. “You’re only worth something to me if you’re controllable.” He glanced down at his wounded shoulder and then up. His eyes fixed on something through the window past her head. Sister Cawood turned to look and something hit the back of her head. She dropped into blackness.

Then he was ordering her to get up. Her head hurt worse than before.

She looked across the front seat of the car; saw him behind the wheel. It was still dark, but the sky had lightened to a gloomy gray. They were out of the City parked under a thick stand of pines. He wore a black cotton pullover. Rain dripped on the car.

“Eat,” he ordered. She took the sandwich from his muscular hand.

“Where are we…” she started, but he slapped her on the temple. Light sparked across her vision.

“Shut up.” He bit into his own sandwich. “Now ask,” he growled. The murderer snatched a can of cola from the floor, threw it at her, and opened one for himself.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, handling her sandwich like it was a dead toad.

“To get even,” he hissed. “Want to know why you set me up. And why you’d set up one of your own.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She placed her sandwich on the dashboard. “Able and I were there on business.”

“Wasn’t asking.” He looked away, opened the door. The man climbed out, clutching the remnants of his sandwich. She saw a dark stain at the top of the driver’s seat. The murderer moved around the car and opened the trunk. He started pulling things out of it. Taking that moment of distraction, Cawood visually searched the car. The keys were gone. She tried to open the glove compartment. It was locked. She reached under her seat, and the driver’s-nothing. The nun looked into the back seat-nothing. The only positive note was the growing light. Somewhere behind the perpetual cloud the sun was rising.

He walked to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. “Out.” His voice was heavy with threat. Karen got out.

“Perhaps,” she started, her mind was racing. “You should know my name. I’m Karen Cawood.”

“Don’t care.” He moved to the rear of the car. She saw that he had piled his bloody clothes-her coif was tangled there as well-about ten feet from the bumper. A two-gallon gas tank stood beside them. He had set a dark blue duffel bag, about four feet long, at the rear wheel of the car. The trunk was open. Nausea twisted her stomach when she saw the pool of blood inside. Able!

“These trees are nice.” She looked around at the tall pines. Her heart hammered with terror, fearful she would set him off. The trees were especially ugly against the brooding sky. The smell of their sap was strong. “We had a type of pine near my home. That was South Africa-where I grew up. Menlo Park. I had a pet lizard.”

The murderer watched her. The smell of gasoline was slowly overpowering the pine.

“Not a serial killer.” He lit a match and dropped it on the clothes. They burst into flames. “Worse.” Gouts of black smoke flew across the damp forest floor like ghosts.

He walked over, his face set and grim. Karen retreated toward the car, fear hammering in her chest. The butt of a pistol protruded from his belt. A void filled his bony eye sockets. He stared at her. Sinew bunched at his jaw like he was about to pronounce judgment. Something colored his features. He bent, lifted his duffel bag, and pointed at the forest path.

“Go.” He gestured with the bag.

Karen shifted on the bed-remembering. The light from the barred window was gray. She could remember the next part clearly. She reached for her crucifix, but was glad it was gone.

They had walked to the highway. Its surface was cracked and pitted. He swung the bag over his shoulder and started marching north. In the distance she could see the City gleam. Lights burned on its massive spine and soaked the overcast sky with pale light.

Cawood followed mutely, sorting through her thoughts. She knew this man would kill her. The fact that she remained alive meant something though. Oh Sacred Mother! Was this punishment for her sins?

The murderer would keep her alive if she cooperated. If she could stay alive, she might find a way to bring this man to justice. She’d do anything to atone for the disgrace she’d brought on the church. By now her superiors must have received a copy of the film. Holy Mother! And poor Able was dead.

Why did the murderer think she set him up? She barely believed Able’s reason for going to the house.

So if the murderer was keeping her alive, was it as a hostage? Did he need a bargaining chip if Authority tracked him down? If he believed that there was a conspiracy at work against him, and he saw her as part of it, he might believe he could hide behind her living body or trade it for his freedom. But how could she bargain with him?

A car approached from the north. It moved slowly never wandering more than a few inches from the yellow line.

“Come!” the man ordered, slipping his shirt over the gun in his belt. They crossed the road to the southbound lane. “Wave,” the murderer hissed as he started waving. “Now.”

Cawood waved her arms. Perhaps God had sent the car to tip the odds in her favor. “Holy Mother! Preserve me!” she whispered.

The car slowed. It was old, a Ford with busy chromium grill that was part of a retro-fifties fad decades after Change. It was a light metallic red in color and in good repair. Perhaps the traveler could read her expression. He might go for help.

The murderer walked casually to the passenger window, the driver was rolling it down. “Hello.” He leaned over, a smile on his face.

“Hey there.” The man had homely comical features. His eyes were blue and close set, marked with a serious dark line of eyebrow. “Got trouble?”

The murderer casually pointed down the road with his right hand, while his left came out from under his shirt with a gun.

“Out! Leave the keys,” he growled.

“Damn!” the driver grumbled climbing out. His face shifted to angry surprise. He scanned the highway for help. He looked at Cawood.

“Hands where I can see them!” the murderer spat.

“God damn it!” the driver shouted. “Just take the car. Go on.”

“Move,” the murderer growled, gesturing to the ditch at the side of the road. Beyond that Cawood saw a wooded area.

“We’ve got the car!” she cried, her nerves firing wildly. “Please!”

The murderer pushed the driver toward the ditch.

“Just take the car,” the traveler said as he slid down the loose stone and gravel at the road’s edge. “Take it.”

“Let’s take the car!” Karen screamed.

“Yeah, take it. It’s just…” The driver’s voice was cut off by a shot. A plume of red appeared on the far side of his head. He toppled.

“No!” Karen ran at her captor. “You can’t do that! No!”

The murderer spun toward her with gun raised. The barrel rammed her face, clinked off her teeth. She lurched back.

“Get in the car!” the murderer hissed. “Now!”

For a second, Karen tried to find the martyr in her soul. But death was meaningless to this man. “Evil!” she screamed at him, pointing at his face. “Evil!”

“Now!” the murderer barked, starting toward her. He slapped her hand aside. “In the car!”

He pushed her with his free hand. She fell to a knee. He gripped her arm, lifted and threw her against the car. “Get in!” He pulled the passenger door open, shoved her. She kicked at his crotch but he turned and her heel glanced off his hip. He leapt on her, pushed her face violently against the seat. His fingers dug into her neck like steel spikes. He punched her behind the ear, and she screamed.

Cawood heard his breath close, and she swung her head up. There was a thump as it connected with his forehead

He cursed and hit her with the gun.

She felt him arch his back, press his hips into her buttocks. She pushed back into him, screaming. He was aroused. She heard the jangle of his belt buckle.

The murderer spat a curse and slapped the back of her head. Pain shot through her temples as he made a hissing noise and pulled her skirt up, ripped her pantyhose and underwear aside. And he entered her. The gun barrel scraped against the back of her skull as he thrust into her, growling like a mad dog. And she pushed back against him, suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of vicious desire. And he grunted, and thrust harder. He pressed her face against the seat; the gun barrel cut the side of her face.

As he climaxed, so did she. But her heart beat with grotesque satisfaction. Her abdomen quivered and her thighs shook. Maybe that was why she was here. She was as sick as he was. The murderer cursed and snarled and pushed himself off her. He grabbed her wrists and shoved them painfully against the dashboard. Karen turned her head as he lashed her hands to the steering wheel with his belt. The leather bit into her flesh as he pulled on the knot with all his strength.

“Didn’t hurt you,” he spat at her. “You’re a nun?”

Cawood smiled back at him with carnal desire, for the first time, feeling some power. She wanted him to hurt her. Emotion wrinkled the corner of the man’s eye.

He hissed into her ear-intimately familiar. “Wait.” Her cheek burned from his stubble. He pulled the car keys free, then climbed out. She heard him scramble down the sandy embankment.

He came back and freed her hands-pushed her into her seat. As he turned the car north, he spoke. “I don’t kill without a reason. You don’t enjoy rape without one.”

“You didn’t have to kill him!” Karen’s voice broke.

“A sacrifice,” he growled.

“To who?” she screamed.

“Me.” The killer smirked. “Who were you sacrificing to?”

Sitting on the bed, Karen Cawood remembered their only conversation. Afterward, his manner had hardened to something mechanical. This killer was powerful. And he was remorseless. But he wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the rape.

43 – Shootout at the Pig’s House

Felon watched the dining room through a two-way mirror studying his old companions for signs of strength. The assassin always searched for strength first. Successful human hunters did not look for weakness alone. Weaknesses were obvious. Vulnerabilities drew a predator like a magnet. Since Felon trusted his instincts his intellect was free to focus on potential dangers. So as in the case of the group before him, he looked for the strongest. That’s the one he had to worry about.

They were former Regulators, once paid by nascent Authority in the early days of the Change to deal with the uncooperative dead. Regulators would be sent in to quash riots and settle disputes. That was usually done with heavy caliber machine guns, machetes and bulldozers. When the political price of Regulators grew too high, they were “deputized” into the growing Authority forces, or declared “undesirables” and hunted down like criminals. Felon freelanced with Regulators but never considered himself one of them. The legal vacuum they represented was often a convenient place to hide a hit. But the majority of them were amateurs.

This trio wanted nothing to do with Authority ranks so formed a larger group of criminals with similar tastes that they called the Wild Bunch. Felon had known the trio, and others from their gang for decades.

But looking at them now, he felt nothing. They’d worked together over the years, off and on, Felon bringing them on as hired guns. The whole thing had almost blown apart on a northern lake five decades after the Change. They had been a tough well-organized team of outlaws at the time, hired to help him track down an informant who was in the protection of some lowlife detective trying to make a name for himself wearing clown makeup. The informant was an Authority Operative who could prove the Prime was going to manipulate election results to get into power.

The pressure was on and time was short so Felon needed lots of extra bodies to track them down. He farmed out some of the work to independent contractors. That was a mistake. Amateurs and hangers-on were brought. The detective got wise and Felon almost got killed. The clown had unexpected allies. Felon killed him, but the informant got back to the City of Light. News of his existence brought a whistleblower out of the political woodwork, and that had slowed the Prime’s takeover for a decade. Felon didn’t get paid, and rightly so. He’d made the mistake of letting his feelings get involved. He underestimated the detective.

But these gunmen had proven themselves over the intervening years. Tiny was the brains of the operation, sharing leadership with the Texan, Driver. Felon appreciated Driver’s comprehensive knowledge of the art of killing, and had on many occasions discussed the finer points of it. He was a daring and experienced getaway man as well and so his name. Tiny, on the other hand, still carried some of his pre-Change bourgeois attitudes. He still believed a man’s measure came in how much cash was folded in his pocket. Felon did not trust him as much when it came to action.

Bloody was a problem. He was a big reckless murderer who hid behind a thin visage of education. Felon knew that education was easy. Wisdom was something else. He’d proven that when Bloody turned a stupid argument over guns into a reason for Felon to kill him. Eight years before, Felon got to a job early and Bloody was the only one there. He was drunk and aggressive. He started into an argument over whether his weapon, a. 45 magnum Colt, was better than a. 9 mm automatic because of its killing power.

Felon held that accuracy was everything. The big gunman insisted that fear won a gunfight, and the bigger the gun, the greater the fear. Felon wasn’t afraid of anything. A gun was just a machine. You had to fear the man holding it.

Bloody took that as an insult and reached for his. 45. It got caught in his belt, which was another criticism Felon had offered about its antique shape versus the. 9 mm’s sleek design. The assassin drew his. 9 mm and shot the gunman eight times.

The assassin had left then, and did not return. There was a good chance that Bloody’s friends would want revenge. He’d prefer talking to them at a distance, after tempers cooled.

But they hadn’t talked since. Looking at Bloody now, Felon could see that the dead gunman had allowed himself to dehydrate and grow stiff. His movements spoke to that. The fool wouldn’t be much in a gunfight, but Felon didn’t think he’d pose much of a threat to him either.

“Well,” Felon heard Driver’s voice through the hidden microphones. “Where in hell is he?”

But Felon was already moving. He slipped out the pocket door behind him and stepped into the hall that ran parallel to the dining room. There were two men with guns approaching. That wasn’t part of the plan.

The black man on the left was tall. He reached for an Uzi on a sling under his arm. That was his mistake. Felon’s suspicions immediately crystallized.

The heavyset man on the right was average height and build. He had an automatic with extended clip in his hand.

They weren’t supposed to be here. The assassin knew that. And they knew that. They were behind schedule. If the black man hadn’t touched his Uzi they would have had him.

With one hand on the doorknob, Felon flicked his right into his coat, came up with the. 9 mm. The silencer was on, so the kills would be quiet. He took his time as the two gunmen lifted their weapons. The tall black man took a bullet to the face. The other man took three to the heart. They dropped.

Something caught the corner of Felon’s vision-movement to the left. He spun and fired a couple more bullets. These caught a dwarf in ridiculous Victorian livery. The top of his head blew out from under the powdered wig.

Felon replaced the clip and hurried over to the dwarf. There was something wrong about him. It resembled the Marquis’ servant but the legs were too thick and the arms long. The assassin flipped the body over and recognized the distended and twisted features of an Eyesore. A stench of vomit and urine rose from the body. Wurn had smelled like that.

Felon turned and ran toward the dining room.

Gunfire suddenly erupted in the hall ahead. The assassin threw himself against the wall. He listened, counted weapons. Driver’s automatics were clattering. Tiny’s. 357 boomed, so did Bloody’s. 45.

He also recognized. 38 caliber gunfire, rapid maybe automatic, followed by the unmistakable monster howl of autoshotguns. Authority?

It was a trap! The Marquis was in on it. But why attack them openly? He quickly saw the plan: gun Felon down in the observation booth and murder the others while they were distracted at the table-it was stupid, amateur-and it almost worked. Its sheer simplicity might have been the key. Felon was expecting something malignant and premeditated. Or whoever made the decision didn’t care if it worked. Was it played out to delay or distract them? A jolt of adrenaline caught his breath.

Footsteps, running, coming from the direction of the dining room were followed by the clatter of a machine weapons. Then a squat heavy-limbed shape lurched into view. Like a dwarf with cow’s hooves for feet, and long frog-like hands, the Eyesore moved with incredible agility. Its face expressed human surprise as Felon put a bullet in its eye. The thing dropped like a bag of gravel.

The assassin hurried forward into a haze of gun smoke. He could see ahead that the hall turned toward the dining room. There was another Eyesore and a man crouched, taking shelter. The wall opposite the entrance was peppered with bullet holes.

Felon shot the Eyesore twice. The plume of brains and skull bone alerted the man who heaved his autoshotgun around, but the wall behind him exploded, was ripped to pieces by the heavy caliber weapons inside. The man’s ribcage blew open and outward and he hit the carpet seconds after his guts.

Felon moved forward just as Bloody stepped into hall. The big gunman had a couple of ragged furrows cut into his left temple by bullets. He turned his sunglasses to Felon but his expression was unreadable. He swung the. 45 at him. The assassin did not hesitate. He lifted his gun, hoping it would be strong enough to drop the gunman-blind him, hoping his Kevlar vest would stop the big bullets because Bloody fired twice.

And missed. Felon had dropped to a crouch and was ready to fire, when something heavy hit the ground behind him. He rolled across the carpet-gun still centered on Bloody’s face, and got an angle where he could see two dead Eyesores. They’d come out of one of the Marquis’ damn pocket doors. It was open behind them. Their heads were ruined messes.

Felon looked at Bloody who watched him reload.

“The woman!” Felon allowed some emotion into his voice. He ran toward the basement. Bloody followed reloading.

44 – Orientation

It was late afternoon and the other forever kids were away at lessons. Dawn wondered why they hadn’t taken her along, but there was so much to get used to-there was no point getting worked up over that too. She’d spent the time napping. The angry boy, Larry, had really given her a scare so she barely got any sleep her first night.

She did find other kids who were nice and even apologetic for Larry. While it was good to know that she might have friends in the Orphanage, Dawn had no intention of staying. The friendly kids had asked where she came from and who Mr. Jay was, but the grownup voice in her head took charge and told her to keep quiet about all that for now. Luckily, Meg shooed the inquisitive children away; saying Dawn needed time to adjust.

She was just wondering where Mr. Jay might be, when one of the dead childcare workers came over to her. There were lots of the workers in the Dormitory, and even though they were kind, the forever girl was unnerved to discover that they spent the whole night sitting quietly in chairs along the Dormitory walls.

“I am Frances,” the woman said. She was tall with straight brown hair, wore a print dress and flat-soled shoes. “The Principal wants to see you in his office.”

Dawn felt queerly out of step, looking down at her simple nightshirt and slippers. It was all any of them had to wear. She shrugged and followed the dead woman between the rows of beds, through the Dormitory doors and into the hall. The worker turned to the left and led Dawn past two junctions where halls overlapped.

The floors were cement, and like the walls had a dirty look to them; though there were clear paths worn in the grime where the children walked. Overhead fluorescent lights flickered. Many were burned out or had gone dim. There were double doors leading off the hall left and right and on occasion, Dawn heard forever children singing or reciting stories.

At the end of the hall, Frances paused by a door with “Principal” painted on the inset window. Dawn glanced at the dead woman, a sudden shiver of fear curled her toes and then she remembered what Mr. Jay would say: “Worry about what happens, not what might happen,”

And with that small boost to her courage she left Frances in the hall, pushed past the door and into an open office space. There was a big desk with an older dead woman behind it. She was tapping on an ancient iron machine with paper rolling out the back. The woman looked up from her work and nodded to another door inside that was half open. Dawn made her way hesitantly across the room. She slowed long enough to peek to her right. There were only two long couches there, and a wastebasket.

She stopped at the door and took another big breath. “ Be careful ,” said her inner voice. “Remember how to get out of in.”

And she pushed the door aside.

There was a desk on a brown carpet. There was a chair on her side of the desk. There was a book on the desk. There was a man in a chair on the far side of the desk. There was an empty bookcase behind him. There was a picture of a man on one wall. There was a large map on the other. The man at the desk looked up, pen in hand and smiled over his notes. He had glasses and a long head, jaw and nose. His hair was combed flat over his skull. He wore a neat brown suit and was long-limbed. He half-rose from his seat and nodded at the chair across from him. He smiled, sat and watched her sit. When she was settled, he looked her up and down and then he cleared his throat.

“I am the Principal. Welcome,” the Principal said with flat even tones. “I wanted to see you, Dawn, after the other children had finished their lessons. Your lack of knowledge regarding our system here might have caused a disruption. And that wouldn’t be fair.”

He cleared his throat and opened a file in front of him. “Dawn. You say you haven’t got a last name. And you say your pre-Change age is six.” He looked over the rim of his glasses and smirked. “You’re visiting the City of Light for the first time. Have had no formal education and you were on Zero having wandered there from the wilderness and some town called, Severance, where you say there are other survivors.”

Dawn nodded silently, remembering the questionnaire given to her by a dead childcare worker.

“Now, Dawn, I think it’s important for you to know that you’ve been brought to Archangel Tower and are going to be cared for in the Prime’s Orphanage for a period of time determined by myself, and the Prime. He is interested in the welfare of all citizens of Westprime, especially those who cannot care for themselves.” He smiled. “You will have health care, and be provided the basics, as well as education. I’ll be in charge of that.” He dragged the book on the desk over and folded his hands on it.

“After some testing you’ll be assigned to an appropriate grade where you’ll be taught the three ‘R’s’ by a handpicked staff of dead teachers in the Prime’s employ.” The Principal frowned at Dawn’s worried look. “Other lessons will be in municipal politics. There will also be a period set aside each day for social readjustment.” He smiled reassuringly. “The Change has left so many of us adrift, the Prime feels obligated to teach orphans and other foundlings the true history of Westprime and its leader.”

“You have to let me go,” Dawn pleaded, leaning forward in her chair. Her toes barely touched the ground. “I didn’t do anything to you.”

“But what have you done for yourself?” the Principal countered. “Wandering the lands, hiding in dangerous places, with no direction. No sense of purpose. Very little in the way of resources, like vermin living off the country’s wealth, and open to molestation from any number of criminal organizations.” He shook his head. “We had to help you.”

“But you didn’t help!” Dawn’s hands curled into fists. “Those things, those Toffers and their dogs attacked us.”

“ Us?” the Principal sniffed as he adjusted his glasses. “Do you mean to tell me, you count yourself one of that ragtag group of delinquents?” He stood suddenly, sliding a handkerchief out of his pocket. His right hand still clutched the old book. He clamped it in his left armpit as he unfolded the cloth. The man’s head almost touched the ceiling. His jacket was dark with perspiration.

“The air conditioning broke down,” he said self-consciously. “Always the budget cuts in education.” The Principal walked over to the framed picture of a fat man. The painted hair was brown and white and the eyes were piercing. He wore a moustache over a serious smile.

“Anything for the Prime,” the Principal chanted quietly, and dusted the lower portion of the picture frame with his handkerchief. “He protects us.”

“I have someone to protect me,” Dawn blurted out and then regretted it when a gleam appeared in the Principal’s eye.

“ Someone?” he breathed the word, nodding. “And who is this someone?”

“I mean, nobody,” Dawn struggled to recover. “I mean the kids.”

“That!” the Principal shouted, pointing a sharp finger at her, “is exactly why a child must have education.” He lashed the air with the finger and then paced toward his desk, eyes burning at the forever girl.

“Truth! Facts! Justice! The Prime!” He leaned forward. The veins stood out on his hands. “You enter his house. You accept the Prime’s generosity! And you lie?” He shook his head and stormed around the desk, leaning in sharply. Dawn could see the muscles bunching at his jaws, saw the heavy enamel of his teeth, and noticed a stench of coal and smoke on his breath.

“I won’t have it. This school won’t have it! The Prime won’t have it!” He slapped his thighs and leaned in deeper. “You tell the truth here!”

Dawn was crowded back in her chair. Her inner voice was a constant cry of: Run! Run! Run! But the Principal’s anger was hypnotic. His eyes were gold where everyone else’s was white. And the pupils were stiff black lines.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking away into her lap. “I’m scared.”

And the Principal’s attitude shifted and drooped, forced him down on a knee in front of her. “Well, that’s the truth, isn’t it, my dear?” He stroked her chin with a long-fingered hand. It was hot. “So much is different.”

“Yes sir,” she mumbled, kneading her fingers. “I only got scared.”

“Understandable,” he chuckled and stroked her knees. “So much has changed since you started traveling with your friend… Uh, what was his name again, dear?”

“Gregory,” Dawn said, eyes down in her lap. “ Gregory. A hunter.”

The Principal’s breath blew out in a steady quiet stream before he stood up. Then he watched Dawn for a few seconds before turning on a heel and walking back to his desk. There was a small box on it. He flicked a switch and said to Dawn: “What was the name of the worker who brought you here?” The Principal saw her confused look. “From the Dormitory.”

Dawn was frightened by his expression, but she couldn’t decide what was best to do-no time to think. “Um,” she breathed, “Frances?”

The Principal smiled: “Not Gregory?” And then grinning, he spoke into the box. “Mrs. Camp, could you please send Frances in?”

He stood up and leaned against the desk, his long legs out in front of him. He watched the door. Moments later the knob rattled and it swung open. Frances entered. Her dead features were composed.

“Ah, Frances,” the Principal clapped his hands. “Please come here.”

The dead woman walked over to him, her shoulders rounded and head hanging as Dawn had seen the other dead workers move.

“How’ve things been going, Frances?” he asked, reaching out a large hand and patting her shoulder.

“Very well…” Frances started but her voice was stopped when the Principal’s throttling hand closed on her throat. She made a garbled noise and clasped the man’s wrists.

He smiled, stood straight and held his arms out. His eyes never left Dawn. Frances continued to struggle weakly, but didn’t have the strength to break free. The Principal drew in a big breath and set a big foot across the toes of the dead woman’s shoes. With a wrench and a twist and a crunching noise, he pulled Frances’ head off.

The dead woman’s body continued to slap at his wrists, but he easily nudged it away with an elbow. The Principal hunched forward, his large nose and face pointed upward. The bones of his skull jutted out against the gray skin. His dark eyes suddenly all pupils, looked away with occasional reptilian glimpses at Dawn and Frances’ flailing body.

Dawn’s mind was blank with terror as the Principal carried Frances’ head over and dropped it in her lap. She reacted reflexively when the dead woman’s eyes blinked at her. Dawn wriggled away from it. The head rolled onto the floor and under her chair.

The Principal hissed. “You get out of my office and think about what you’ve done. I’ll ask you next time who you traveled with, and if you lie, it will be one of your friends in the Dormitory who suffers Frances’ fate.”

Dawn clapped her hands over her eyes. There was a noisy breaking sound as Frances’ body stumbled into a cabinet and knocked over a pitcher of water. The Principal sighed and walked back to his desk.

“I will need someone from maintenance for clean up,” he said into the box. “And, Mrs. Camp, please summon a worker from Dormitory Five to escort Dawn back to her quarters.” While he spoke he produced a notepad and wrote something on it.

Frances’ body staggered close to him, and he politely pushed past it, like she was just a strange woman in a crowded room.

“Think about what you’ve done.” He pulled Dawn off her chair. Her little slippers slid over Frances’ forehead. Her stomach turned.

“You have an appointment with the Doctor tomorrow,” he said folding the note and handing it to her. “Give him this.” He nodded his chin at the door. “Wait outside for your escort.”

Dawn’s ears were roaring as she hurried from the room. She passed the outer office and Mrs. Camp who was working there. She sat in a chair by the door. The forever girl opened the fold of paper with shaking hands and read a single letter, the number “1.”

45 – Double Cross

Felon raced away from Bloody, pistol in one hand full clip in the other. He still didn’t know how important the nun was. She might be the best clue to identifying who betrayed him. He needed the leverage.

He dropped on his face when he caught a movement at the top of the stair. An Eyesore with a single eye and a beak like an owl glanced out, with an AK-47 in hand. The gun burped into life, tearing at the space Felon had occupied a second before. The assassin fired five bullets into the thing’s face before he hit the carpet. Its head exploded in a cloud of gore.

One bullet left in the chamber. Felon ejected the clip, slipped it into his pocket-pushed another home. The Eyesore’s body wedged the oak-paneled door open. Beyond, there was a set of fourteen steps circling clockwise to the basement. A door to the driveway opened off of them. There was a large wine cellar at the bottom. He had locked the woman in a room up against the stone foundation about forty feet past tall wine racks and piled kegs. The cellar ran away from the stair the entire length of the basement. A hard sprint with a wary eye should take him through.

Gun in hand; Felon crept to the top of the stairs, crawled over the Eyesore’s body. The stench was incredible and made it impossible to detect any of the creatures waiting below. The floor squeaked behind him. His peripheral vision had shown him Bloody advancing, making a big target of his upright body.

He looked up at the dead man and put a finger over his lips.

The stairs were dark. The wooden steps had creaked when he used them before so he slid his shoes along the trim that edged them and started down silently. Distantly, he heard the sound of muffled voices. He hoped the sporadic gunfire behind him would cover any sounds he might make.

When he reached the fourth step he heard a metallic click. He’d forgotten a beam crossed over the stairs, bracing the floors above. It created a little alcove that held cleaning fluids and tools. Now it held a small Eyesore, maybe two feet tall. It held a sawed off shotgun in its oversized hands. Its misshapen face showed brown teeth.

Felon jumped down five stairs, glancing heavily off the banister, then dove outward with all his strength. He landed hard on the stone floor. The breath went out of him. Dizzy, he tried to roll. There was a flash of gunfire up the stairs. Bloody’s gun roared and something squealed.

A big, clawed hand hooked his waist and flipped him over. Felon looked into the face of a huge Eyesore. It was four feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds-a walking tree stump. Its mouth was big enough to hold a football, was lined with long sharp teeth. The two large eyes glared with animal intelligence. Short squat hippo legs propelled it over him, while long muscular arms whipped his chest.

His gun was knocked away and the thing was on him. Felon drove a fist into its left eye, but the lid and muscle around it contracted around his wrist-started sucking at his forearm. He pulled but could not free it. The Eyesore pummeled him with both fists, thumping with a caliper motion at Felon’s ribs, knocking his breath out.

The assassin tightened his shoulders, and twisted. He used all his strength to keep its snapping teeth away from his abdomen-already the fangs had slashed his shirt. Drool poured out of the toothy maw and soaked him. Felon was an expert at several martial arts. But those skills were designed for fighting human-or at least human-shaped opponents.

It pounded on his chest and stamped on his ribs, pushing upward-turning against Felon’s strength.

The assassin couldn’t find a weak spot, and there was no sign of genitalia to pulverize. Burning yellow mucus seeped out of the thing’s eye socket where it gripped his hand, but instead of lubricating his escape, it caught the wrist like glue. Felon’s stomach twisted with revulsion as the Eyesore’s lips pulled back revealing ripping teeth and black gums. The jaws slid forward as they opened-inching out toward his face.

Felon’s Derringer was wedged against the floor in its holster between his shoulders-if he could brace the thing’s teeth a way from him with his knees.

An explosion and flash detonated in the confined cellar space. The Eyesore’s eyes flipped wide in astonishment. Another explosion and the top of its head sprayed a plume of dark red and bone. Felon’s hand came free of its eye socket with a pop!

He shoved the thing off of him and rolled, completing the action by pulling his Derringer free. He came up with the gun pointed directly at Bloody. The dead gunman stood on the bottom stair. Smoke or steam wafted up from his dead head. Sunglasses still covered his eyes. Small rips and wounds peppered his cheeks. He turned his head from the dead Eyesore toward Felon. The stench of burned meat filled the air.

Felon wiped the mucous from his red and blistered hand and grabbed his. 9 mm where it laid at the base of the closest wine rack. He pocketed the Derringer and shook his head, every muscle aching. “Cover me!”

Felon ran to the door. Light etched its perimeter. The bedroom inside was small. Bloody was ten feet behind him, giant pistol up and cocked. The assassin raised a finger to his lips. Voices.

The Marquis said: “Hurry and be gone. This is not the plan.”

Felon raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t upset yourself,” said another voice. “The fighting has stopped. We must hurry if the assassin is to die.”

“He wanted the God-wife Cawood. That was the plan,” the Marquis whined.

“Stop your crying! Give her to me and slay Felon.”

“But…” The Marquis choked on tears.

“You are his superior.” There was a pause. “You fought in the war. Give her now!”

“But she is my only protection!” the Marquis wailed.

“Give her!” the second voice insisted.

Felon looked at Bloody, stepped back and kicked the door open.

Inside, the Marquis stood against the bed. Tears had dragged the mascara down his powdered face. In his thin old arms he held the nun. She was unconscious. Felon’s lips drew back. The other voice belonged to Balg’s assistant. Passport’s long-fingered hand was wrapped around the sleeping nun’s wrist. He flashed long teeth.

Felon raised his gun. The Marquis pointed a finger at Passport. “He was kidnapping her!”

“Shut up!” Felon barked. He glanced. She was breathing.

“A sleep charm.” Passport noticed his look. He released the nun, dropped his thin hand to his side. The Marquis struggled to hold the sleeping woman.

The Demon’s assistant then crouched against the far wall beneath the barred window. He hissed and faded into the stone.

Felon grabbed the woman’s arm, pulled her from the Marquis’ grasp and flung her onto the bed.

Felon glared into the Marquis’ faded blue eyes. “Talk.”

“Felon, you must understand, it’s not how it looks.” The assassin grabbed a fist full of the dandy’s lacy collar. “Please. Think of all the times I’ve helped you out.”

“I am.” Felon spat on the floor. “You sold me out!” He was still tense from all the action-he wanted violence. Felon pounded the old Marquis against the wall.

“Whoa! Hey there!” Felon glanced to see Driver and Tiny join Bloody at the bedroom door. The Texan made a calming gesture. “He won’t be able to explain nothin’ if you tear his throat out.”

Felon pulled the Marquis closer. He pressed the mouth of his gun against the gangster’s blue-veined temple. “Talk!”

“This yer girl, then?” Driver muttered. “Good looker. I don’t mean to criticize, but I ain’t a fan of all that black.”

“A nun.” Felon rasped, pushing the Marquis against the doorframe.

“Shit. Well there you are.” The Texan checked the action on his gun. He pointed it at the Marquis.

“Felon.” The Marquis patted the assassin’s chest with his wrinkled hands. “You must understand the whole story.”

“You betrayed me!” Felon pulled the trigger half way.

“No!” the Marquis shrieked.

“You fought in the war,” Felon spat. “You’re one of them!”

“What war?” Driver pointed his other gun at the Marquis’ belly.

“In Heaven,” Felon snarled at the old face.

“What?” Tiny gestured back along the wine rack toward the dead Eyesore. “Is he one of those things?”

“Different.” Felon felt his killing rage slipping away.

“Entirely different, Felon.” The Marquis’ face suddenly took on an intangible sturdiness, as though some power was feeding him.

“Don’t try to slip away.” Felon could feel the old flesh shiver beneath his grip. That’s how they did it. “Can’t surprise me.”

“Oh I wouldn’t think of it.” The Marquis was recovering his dignity. His voice had changed slightly, losing some of its lilting tones. “ You are in charge.”

“Slip away?” Driver growled. “He got a whole firin’ squad on him”

“Tell him.” Felon flicked his head toward Driver.

“The Compact prohibits…” An imperious tone entered the Marquis’ voice.

Felon snarled at the old face. He wanted to kill.

The Marquis’ voice gasped.

“Felon?” Driver piped up. “Any fool can see he’s an old faggot in women’s clothes.” He looked seriously at the Tiny. “I thought we was playin’ that part down, but if the gloves are off, a horse is a horse.”

“He’s an Angel,” Felon snarled the unbelievable words. “He hid it well.”

“An Angel? Come on!” Driver laughed. “ He ain’t no Angel I ever heard of back at Catholic school.”

“The scent.” Felon felt a killing rage growing in him again. “Don’t know what side he’s on.”

“What scent? I can’t never smell nothin’ around him, except all that toilet water he soaks in.” Driver turned to Tiny, shrugged.

“They stink of cinnamon.” Felon slipped his arm across the Marquis’ throat and started to choke him.

46 – Sophie

Conan was placing packs around the open manhole when the hair stood up on the back of his neck like one of those spinner spiders had creep and sneaked into his helmet. The prickly sensation made him spin on his heel, the blades of the death-flower blooming glimmer-sharp.

A slim form in black stood there, leaning into the shadow, in filmy dress and slip-on shoes doing a spook show in the grim. Unmoving, she floated in the shadow-stuffed entrance to a tunnel that led to the sleep and yawn chambers. A white face framed by long black hair hung on the breeze like a spirit. The face was plastic, a mask of a little girl’s smile: the lips pink, the cheeks red, with thin arching eyebrows. The head tilted left then right asking questions. It was Sophie.

Conan looked out at her from his own mask, though his was of metal and looked like the grill of an old-time motorcar, something the older boys found and threw down some stairs to make it cling-clang-bang. But the little fighter had the finger on it ever since. Just the same he got his point across to her quick with a shift and shake of his head. No, Sophie!

But Sophie shook her mask back at him like she was a mirror, and pointed at her chest as if she knew better. The skin on her bare arms and calves was as white as her mask or the snow the kid-books yakked about.

Conan just shook his head again and twitched the sharp fingers on his murder-glove. Why couldn’t she understand? Mr. Jay didn’t want a creepy dead girl on a mission as important as this one. As it was he picked Conan, the Quinlan boys and Liz, the girl who led the first mission to save the stupid-Squeaker. There would be no place for a spook-with “no” all in capital letters.

But Sophie stepped lightly, cautiously forward. She nodded and pointed at herself again. One of the eyes on her mask was taped shut and gray. A dark brown eye gleamed and glared from the other.

Conan just shook his head like it was all he had to do and even tisk-tisked like the gramps in the old movies did. Then he made a go-get-the-fuck-off-it gesture with his hands. It wasn’t that he had a problem with Sophie; he liked her, in fact-but not in a kissing-hug-me-baby kind of way because he was done with that.

But on more than one occasion he’d watched her hush-hush secretly when he found her quietly dancing in a glimmer-beam of light that somehow made it through Zero into the Maze. And at other times he’d seen her sitting stooped, nodding her head and moving her hands like she was talking to a crowd of people with questions and microphones. That was okay with Conan, since he liked the gentle moves she made as she danced. In some way it reminded him of his mom and even got his sniffer sniffling.

But most of all he liked her because he’d heard her story many, many times told at chirp-slurp and supper and at night as the sleep and nightmares came on, or at other times with other boys on watch who knew the yak, and told it to keep their peepers open and wide.

It was a story that ran neck and neck with his own. A crazy boy escaped the Prime’s Orphanage and told the fighters before he ran away and never came back. Conan heard that the Prime caught Sophie after the Change and put her in his Orphanage. He heard that the Prime had to kill Sophie’s mother to catch her. He heard that the Prime was taking the girls for himself, and letting his friends do the Bad thing to them. And Conan heard that the Prime took the prettiest and made them prettier and married them, and wanted to keep them for babies when the Change started changing.

Sophie drew Conan’s attention when she took another cautious-hush step toward the bags. Her eye watched him, and she pointed at herself and nodded her fake and plaster face. The little fighter heard that the Prime chose Sophie for a wife, and married her and made her do the Bad thing, and worse. And Conan heard Sophie was alone in a room after it happened, and he heard that she took the Prime’s gun and shot herself in the head.

So Conan heard that the bullet killed her all right, and but mostly it killed her face-and the Change wouldn’t let her stay dead in hell no more. Conan heard poor Sophie woke up out of Blacktime without her life, or her childhood or her smile. The Prime found her zombie-dead- walking and ugly so he threw her out in the street, and that was where the Creature said the fighters could find her.

Conan didn’t go that time, the Creature wouldn’t let him, but one of the fighters took pity on Sophie and stole her the mask from an abandoned old playhouse on Zero. She wore it ever since.

Conan knew she was a strong spirit-spook to keep going-going-pink-bunny-gone. And he knew that she would be good in a fight, especially when she couldn’t get killed even by bullets or knives or stones. But the other fighters didn’t think she could do an order when she got one, and up until now, she’d didn’t care a yawn or yak about what they were doing.

The little fighter stood by the bags as Sophie came up to him, her head tilting silently left and right-more questions by chin and wag. She reached out and stroked the blades on his fist-kill with her dead fingers and he smiled inside his mask. Then he shrugged because he was no King-and-Queen and couldn’t say, so he nodded up the corridor when sounds came echoing toward them. Sophie turned rigidly and melted into the shadows. Conan watched her go, some weird feelings in his chest and eyes that only started after he hugged that Mr. Jay.

The Creature led the way out of the tunnel. Behind her came the Quinlan boys, wiry muscled twins about ten years old who were great fighters and friends of Conan and Liz. All the fighters wore their armor and padding and carried weapons of all kinds for blasting and cutting and killing.

The Creature looked down into Conan’s mask with the new look she’d given him earlier. It tickled inside his chest again and his eyes twitched as he nodded.

Mr. Jay’s face was prune-pinched with concern when he looked around at his little troop with watery eyes. “Doesn’t seem right,” he yakked shaking his head. “I know you’re all older than me, but I can’t shake how you look.”

“And how do we look?” The Quinlan boys asked, raising their shoulders and stepping stiff-legged forward. Short swords hung at their waists opposite small caliber pistols. Their faces were grim as bone breaks and tight underwear.

Mr. Jay only looked worried a second before the twins released the tension with a same-time laugh.

“Sorry,” Mr. Jay groaned, found his pack and slung it over his shoulder.

“The Creature says Liz and the Quinlans know the way into the Tower,” the Creature said quickly. “They’ve been in before.” She cleared her voice. “The Creature thinks you must not be captured. The Prime does his Devil work in the Orphanage and the Creature has seen his friends. Do not fight, we think, unless you must.” She set a hand on one of the Quinlan’s shoulders and then his brother’s. “It will take a day and more by the secret ways unseen. There is a place, and a friend and a rest before you get there. The Quinlans know this also.”

Mr. Jay had his metal stick in one hand as he helped Liz into her pack. She puffed on a cigarette and groan-cursed at the straps.

Then the Creature knelt by Conan and whispered, “I love you Max. Go with caution and return with care.” And the little fighter felt his chest tighten up and his throat thicken like hot soup was stuck in there. She’d said something like this before, but now it felt different. He glared at the Quinlan boys, and then hugged Creature with all his strength, taking great care with the blades on his die-flower. He stepped away quickly, and gave a menacing face to the twins who just shrugged, but were too smart to smile or make a wink. Dirty Squeakers.

The Creature nodded and then smiled into Sophie’s shadows before she rose. She turned to Mr. Jay, acknowledged the concern in his face.

“The Creature thinks that already your responsibilities grow, Mr. Jay.” And she laughed before saying, “We are glad you understand the precious nature of this company.”

The Quinlan boys slipped into their packs and then slid down the ladder to the sewers. Slip. Splash! Liz followed grunt-grumble, and Mr. Jay went after. Conan gave the Creature a quick bow and followed the other fighters into the dark. Squint-peek! They gathered in the dim light at the bottom of the ladder, and in seconds the Quinlan boys had hurried away to scour their path for danger. Mr. Jay walked beside Liz. He quick used up his smoking-bad-girl-good stories and asked for one to puff and chew.

Conan was pleased that he was given the dangerous position of protecting the rear-bums and backsides; but it wasn’t long before he knew that he wasn’t alone back there.

47 – Danger Pay

Driver had never seen an Angel, but he had higher hopes than the broken down old transvestite he was looking at. The word usually conjured up the image of a tall beauty in clingy robes-maybe with a spangled G-string showing through-and definitely no bra. She’d have long hair, blue eyes, and a halo of gold or silver, and maybe tote a horn or one of them harps. But not this fruit. The Texan looked the Marquis up and down then he turned to Felon.

“What in Hell are you talkin’ about?” He kept his gun on the old man. “He’s a queen, not a Angel.”

“Disguise.” The assassin studied the Marquis’ face.

Driver looked over at Tiny, raised an eyebrow. The salesman wore a look of disbelief, but bright-eyed enthusiasm bubbled underneath. Tiny liked surprises of a non-lethal variety, and this was one of them. Now he was looking at it for angles-guess the right time to step in.

“Hogwash!” Driver barked. “Angels?”

“Driver, doesn’t matter if we believe it or not,” Tiny blurted. “Something isn’t right here, you agree? Them weird little guys with the guns, and that thing.” He gestured to the body of the big freak on the floor. “And Felon’s the boss.” Tiny flipped his gun into his belt. “If he says the Marquis is an Angel. He’s an Angel.”

“Oh.” Driver smiled and nodded. “I hear you, brother.” He looked at Felon. “But I would like to know more about this Angel business.”

“Tell us!” Felon pushed his gun into the Marquis’ face.

“Mind you.” Driver scratched at his scalp. “Aren’t Angels supposed to be girls with wings up there in Heaven? Shit, we known the Marquis for seventy years and more. He’s a gangster!”

“Angel,” Felon hissed, as he pushed the Marquis along the wall away from the bedroom and into a crouching position in the corner.

“Easy Driver. You been out on the range too long,” the Texan whispered to himself before looking over at Tiny. “We been drinkin’ bad mescal? Ain’t supposed to be true is it?”

“You got to remember.” Tiny smiled one of his sharp-toothed smiles then poked his chin at the big gunman. “Bloody is dead.”

Driver nodded. “Course.”

“And walking around.” Tiny’s voice was a reassuring drone. “And that isn’t supposed to happen, is it?”

Driver nodded again. “True.”

“Well, it seems to me that something strange has already been going on.” He stepped toward Driver, slapped him on the arm. “In a way Angels might explain some this Change.”

“So we’re all dead?” Driver ran a hand over his goatee. “Shit, that would explain even more.” He enjoyed the fact that he had leapt to the conclusion, even if it was a depressing one.

“Not dead,” Felon rasped. “ They changed the world.”

“So we ain’t dead, but Bloody is.” Driver walked toward the Marquis, both guns out and pointed at the brittle old chest. “Tell me then, Angel. What did you do?” The Marquis looked at the guns and rolled his eyes pleadingly toward Felon.

“Later.” Felon’s dark eyes flashed at the Texan.

“Okay.” Driver stepped back, thought a moment, and then stepped forward again. He waved a gun at the corpse by the stairs. “What the hell is that goddamn thing?”

“Eyesores.” Felon unwound a bit, but his gun never strayed from the Marquis’ head. “Demon servants.”

“Demons too?” Driver turned his head toward Tiny and then swung around to Bloody. “Demons he said. Demons.” He turned back to Felon. “We’re talkin’ Demons now?”

“Yes Demons!” The Marquis bellowed, his voice suddenly full of power. “From the Pit. Crude imitations of the Firstborn. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in barbarity.”

Driver shrugged at Felon. “I ain’t complainin’ about the work, but you could’a mentioned Demons.”

“I work for Balg, a Demon. His servant, Passport, was here. Told this Angel to kill me. He disappeared. A group Balg represented hired me to whack a low-level Angel before he could blow the whistle on them.” Felon jammed his face close to the Marquis’ old cheek. “It was a different Angel-almost killed me.” Felon snarled into the old face.

“Oh, that’s better.” Driver gritted his teeth. “That fills in the blanks.” He was beginning to think that Felon’s ammo was wet. The Texan threw a quick glance at Tiny. The salesman’s eyes were wide, his mouth half-open. He was taking it all in, already trying to work an angle.

“Who set me up?” The assassin heaved the Marquis to his feet and pistol-whipped him. The transvestite shrieked and clutched his cheek. “My target met me at the door, but he wasn’t expecting me.”

“Stop!” The Marquis’ voice had returned. “You must not betray the Divine Compact. You don’t understand the forces involved here.”

“Talk!” Felon raised his gun again.

“Don’t!” The old drag queen started weeping. “It was an old debt, nothing more. Felon, you’ve got to believe me. I owed Balg a favor. But he promised me you would not be hurt.”

“Bullshit!” The assassin’s expression was black.

“He wanted the nun-the God-wife.” The Marquis twisted fingers in his lace collar. “I had to call him if I saw you. He said you had his property! Honestly!”

“Fucking Angels!” Felon spat on the Marquis’ dress

“I am sorry.” The Marquis raised his hands to set them against the assassin’s chest but they were swept away by the gun.

“Truth!” Felon pressed the gun barrel against the Angel’s temple.

The Marquis’ whole frame trembled. “I’m telling you the truth!” he sobbed. “Please Felon, I am sorry. I should have told you about Balg, but he said he only wanted the God-wife.”

“Why?” Felon’s teeth were locked.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” The Marquis flung an arm over his forehead. “Please don’t kill me!”

“I figure the old pansie’s tellin’ the truth!” Driver added suddenly. He had stepped back to study the interrogation. “If he’d sell us out, he’d sell this Balg guy out just as quick.” He looked toward Tiny, who winked at him. Then, Driver was truly puzzled. “Tell me though, Felon. If the Marquis is an Angel, how come you can stand around pokin’ his face with a 9 mm. Why don’t he just use his magic and-pffft!” Driver made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Disappear.”

“Mortal on earth.” Felon’s gaze burned on the Marquis. “ Can be killed but they know what you’re going to do. Hard to catch them.”

“This don’t explain what, Felon? You got this Angel nailed to the wall with your gun. He don’t know that yet?” Driver asked, still puzzled.

“Felon has an edge.” Tiny piped up now, smiling at the assassin. “Don’t you, Felon?” The salesman had a hand on his own gun.

“I can kill them. You can too.” Felon flexed his shoulders. “They run when there’s trouble. Turn to energy, but if you hurt them bad before they’ve turned, you make them solid again-no Powers. They can be killed.”

“Okay, so what are we going to do, Felon?” Tiny seemed nervous. He started pacing. Driver knew his friend’s moods. The salesman wanted to know how to work this deal. “Is he worth anything to us?”

“Yes!” Felon snapped over his shoulder. “Demons, Angels, and I think Fallen are involved.” He shook his dark locks. “Balg is up to something.”

“Felon,” Tiny pressed his palms against his temples. “If I understand this. You’re on the run from Heaven and Hell.” He pointed at the nun. “ And City Authority.” Tiny swung his face at Driver, a reckless grin on his face. “You offer us a hundred thousand each?” The salesman hung his head. “That isn’t near enough.”

“Go.” Felon snarled. His red-rimmed eyes burned.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Tiny shook his head and made calming gestures with his hands. “Where would we go? If all this stuff is true, we’re probably marked men already. No.” Tiny began to pace. “No. We stand a better chance with someone who has an edge. And, we need the money.” He muttered almost to himself. Then, he flicked his shrewd blue eyes at Felon and the Marquis. “Now, be careful how you answer this, and don’t be flip.” He stopped pacing. “Doesn’t God have to be involved in this?”

“Angel,” Felon barked at the Marquis, “is he involved?”

“He is always involved, but we Angels are his ministers, and of course the faithful among the Second-born, the humans, act as his servants.” The Marquis sniffed nervously.

Driver had a growing realization in him. Ministers? “This all reminds me of the time the Castiglioni brothers went up against the Papedakos, clan out in Old Vegas just after the Change.” He looked at Bloody and laughed. “It’s gangs!” Then Driver realized the ridiculous nature of the whole situation. “Oh Christ! I’m startin’ to believe this shit.”

“Gangs.” Felon nodded over at Tiny. “Balg said two groups of Fallen Angels were involved. There are three. The third group is the majority.”

“What group is that?” Driver adjusted his grip on his guns.

Felon grabbed the old transvestite by the shoulders. “Take us to Lucifer!”

Driver noticed a wild look in the assassin’s eyes. The Texan looked over at Tiny, and then around at Bloody. Both wore blank looks.

“Second-born,” the Marquis said haughtily, “you ask too much.”

“Take us to Lucifer,” Felon smiled wolfishly. “Or you’ll be Elan .”

Panic registered on the Marquis’ face. His lips traced the word “no.”

“ Elan.” The assassin gripped the Angel’s throat. “I’ll paint this place with your blood.” Felon glared. “Take us to him, and I’ll let you go.”

“Lucifer?” Driver felt like someone cut his break lines.

“Why?” Tears started from the Marquis. “We are ruled by the Bible, and they by the Unholy Compact. None but the Fallen can tread those damned paths lightly.”

“Bullshit.” Felon sneered. “You’re Firstborn. You’ll survive.”

“I must have your word that you will not harm him,” the Marquis insisted, hands out and begging. “You cannot even try.”

“I swear it,” Felon said quickly, left hand over his heart.

“Then I will take you,” the Marquis whispered, brushing at his dress, eyes on Felon’s gun. “It is not far, and few protections lie between.”

“You’re going to see Lucifer?” Tiny asked, his eyes wide. “The Devil.”

“I can trust him.” Felon stared.

“We’ve got to talk danger pay,” Tiny said.

“Don’t come.” Felon grabbed the Marquis’ arm. “Fifty thousand extra if you do. Or go-now.” The assassin smiled painfully. “Lucifer might be your only chance. You’re marked men.”

“I didn’t expect the Devil too,” Driver said sideways to Bloody. “Wish we’d brought some bigger guns.”

48 – Whistles’ Bar

“Come on, Jughead!” said the Quinlan twin in the lead with a laugh and giggle. He swung a brick-covered panel out of the way to expose an opening in the foundation. Inside the building, dim light and a wooden floor waited. Muffled music jumped in volume and vibration when the hatch opened.

“Shut up, Pearface!” snapped the other, who flicked a look behind.

“That’s enough,” hissed Mr. Jay, “would you both please…God! Give it a rest.” He crawled into the cramped space with grumble and headshakes. Conan just snickered in the rear since he knew the nasty-verb was how the Quinlans worked in the dim dark and around war. Great friends of friends, but everybody else-watch out!

Conan thought it giggly that as remarkable as the strange new man-the magician-was he suffered the same red-face impatience as all grownups. Didn’t he know you just punch boys in the arm to shut them up or love them?

The Quinlan twins couldn’t believe it you could see and all that laugh-yak was coming strong on because of it. Why waste chitchat on the lip zip? But they’re looking and wondering where’s the punch-punch-punch enough already lads.

The Creature told the Nightcare fighters to take Mr. Jay to Whistles’ Bar. That was a place where a friend-in-need to the Nightcare’s cause and sniffle lived.

Conan knew the place and the fake grownup midget-type in charge. In fact, he knew more than anybody guessed. But, he only visited the place once in a long while, and kept his distance like he’d been told. The dangers were too great for such easy tea parties. Forever kids took trouble wherever they went.

But Conan knew that Whistles was not a dwarf like he pretended and everyone thought. Whistles was a forever girl about pre-Change ten with a gift for disguise under moustache, makeup and padding. Visitors to the bar came up with the nickname after the “dwarf” tried to kick a ten cigar a day habit by chewing a plastic whistle. Whistles picked the whistle up drinking, and couldn’t put it down. The little “man” never blew on it-just spit and chew.

Because of Whistles’ secret, she was a friend to Squeakers and Nightcare fighters, and had helped forever kids when she could. Especially if it came to hiding from Toffers and Sheps and scumbags that fucked forever kids.

The Quinlan boys were supposed to take Mr. Jay quick to Whistles because it was close to the Tower, and because if there was trouble, it was the closest place that might help on the long road home. Wah! Wah!

So they hurried up curving tunnels, shimmied through sewers and waded in gunk until the path led upward through a series of City maintenance ramps and stairs and gangways to the hidden door that opened onto Whistle’s basement. It was all uphill from here.

At first Mr. Jay grumbled about delays, but got it shortly later, thinking Whistles had to know they were around and might need help. A minute shuffled by on its knees and they were hidden behind some big beer kegs. Liz hurried up a pile of boxes and through a trapdoor that opened into Whistles’ office. Conan, like most fighters, knew the system. Get into the office and wait until Whistles comes in. Never be seen!

So they waited, the three Nightcare fighters in a dangerous wedge around the magician. Conan spent the time flying his murder-bloom through the air. About twenty minutes glided by on blades and Liz dropped through the trapdoor nodding and winking upward.

Weapons got sharp and dangerous when a door opened at the top of the stairs. Music came thumping down and the fighters got ready for war. But the throb of music sank with a bang and everybody phewed like there was no tomorrow. Mr. Jay craned to see the top of the stairs and boots came tromping down.

Whistles’ hair was black and stuffed up under a bowler hat of the same coal color. A bushy caterpillar moustache covered his chin, and the eyebrows were thick as a wrist. His shoulders cranked out wide and his belly was marshmallow puffy. He carried a big wooden box, and a red plastic whistle hung from his thin neck on a crackerjack chain.

“Liz!” the short man whispered in a deep voice. Conan was always spooked by the hidden-girl’s man-impression and had to breathe fast or wah wah start cutting-the voice was gravelly and deep.

“Here!” whispered Liz, who stood and motioned for the others to follow.

Mr. Jay stepped forward, and Whistles tipped his head back to extend the hand of howdy-do.

“I’m a friend of the Creature,” Mr. Jay hissed. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“You too,” Whistles grumbled, frowned and then popped the whistle into his mouth. “Joints still hopping upstairs and it’s midnight. Nobody can hear you.” He tapped his foot and looked Mr. Jay up and down. “Not often Creature trusts anybody your height. You a Nightcare worker?”

Conan knew that the Creature allowed some trusted grownups to help protect the Nightcare: sawbones and teachers and others who could go on the open Levels and get information or money. Conan kept his distance.

“No,” Liz blurted. “He’s traveling with a girl we’re trying to help.”

“All right,” Whistles grumbled, then smiled at the little fighter. “Conan, it’s been a long time.”

And Conan couldn’t contain himself. The magician had sprung something true enough, he was bubbling up all over. The little fighter leapt forward and carefully hugged the barkeep. Whistles’ eyes softened with surprise-keeping a close watch on the fighter’s death-bloom.

Whistles couldn’t hide a smile though, and hugged him back. The fighter with the murderous fist snarled at the Quinlans and took his place at Mr. Jay’s side. He caught Whistles’ look though, and saw the tear.

“Well,” the barkeep cleared his throat. “How can I help you?”

“We had to let you know we were close,” the magician said. “And we need to eat and rest.”

“I’ll do anything I can,” Whistles tapped the brim of his hat.

“Hopefully, you’ll never see me again,” Mr. Jay said removing his pack.

“Okay,” the bartender mumbled, looking confused. “And the buses?”

“Buses?” Mr. Jay shook his head.

“Yeah,” Whistles said, nodding. “The Creature contacted me three weeks ago. Wanted seven buses fueled and ready.” He shook his head. “I’ve got them-they’re junkers but they run. The Workers she sent to drive have been sleeping in them. They’ve got a couple trucks too.”

Mr. Jay looked at Liz. She shook her head. The Quinlan boys shrugged. Conan shook his helmet and twitched his murder-mitt.

“You don’t know about it?” Whistles asked looking up at Mr. Jay and then back to Conan. “It cost me a pretty penny too.” Then he leaned in whispering, “I was hoping you could tell me what they’re for.”

49 – The Nova SS

“His lair is in the lowest part of the Maze,” the Marquis said, aware that the assassin’s gun followed his every move. “Under Zero-the sewers.”

Tiny covered the transvestite with his. 357 magnum. He noticed with a laugh that Driver had both automatics pointed too.

They took the door beside the stairs to the basement where Felon said it opened on the driveway. The Marquis’ hands fluttered lifting his dress clear of the golden bows on his slippers.

They’d already agreed to take Driver’s car.

“It’s the fastest thing in this city,” the Texan said with calm certainty. “And I drive it fast.”

“You do,” Tiny had agreed, glancing back at Bloody. The dead gunman was carrying the nun. The Marquis had promised that her “spell” would wear off soon but the salesman was getting tired of the Marquis’ soon. He’d already delayed their departure by about six dangerous hours. They’d spent the time huddled in the basement taking turns covering the “Angel” while Driver popped out to gas and oil the car. The Marquis said he required time to create the necessary doorway past Lucifer’s defenses and salutations were essential. He’d spent the hours cross-legged on the bed doing a quiet inward chant, eyes rolled up; but that had just put Felon more on edge, if that was possible, expecting another double cross.

Tiny couldn’t believe his luck. Lucifer! If this crazy shit was true then the salesman was on his way to meet the father of all salesmen. Felon grunted “dangerous” and nothing else. That left Tiny to discuss it with his partners and they weren’t religious scholars by any stretch. He wanted to pick the Marquis’ brain on the subject but that was still a sticky idea.

He just didn’t want to blow this opportunity on a cold call.

The slowing drizzle and mist from Level Five overhead suggested that the rain had let up. That high up in the City, leaks and bleeds from sewers and runoff were more likely. Tiny looked at it optimistically: since it hadn’t percolated through quite as much human misery, what fell on his suit was cleaner.

They crossed the driveway and made their way to the side of an oversized garage where the Marquis kept several limousines. Driver had parked his car in the shadow there.

“A classic Nova SS-that’s 375 real horse!” Driver whispered proudly as he climbed in. “Metallic black, steel fenders and mags. If the engine weren’t so damned heavy I could put her up on her back wheels and dance.” The Nova was the child of another nostalgic wave that passed through the comfort seeking imaginations of the doomed, this one a re-design of the pre-Change seventies muscle car. Driver loved the Nova because it was roomy inside and its souped-up suspension was rugged enough to take the broken down roads of the Change.

They scanned the courtyard for signs of trouble as they piled in the passenger door. Felon hissed and snarled, still climbing the walls about a trap. Tiny didn’t bother reminding him he was about to cross the City in a car full of gunmen with enough outstanding warrants to choke a whale.

There was a sudden rumble of power and then a harsh rev that brought a girlish sigh from the Marquis. The Nova’s throbbing muffler echoed giving its monstrous voice. The wide muscular vehicle rumbled, its tailpipe making hot, wet noises.

Driver rolled his tinted window down. “Let’s go.”

The Angel was manhandled into a rough spot in the back seat between the angry handguns of Felon and Bloody. Tiny slid the sleepwalking nun onto the front seat beside Driver and climbed in. She was waking up but was blinking and still a little dull like she’d been smoking cheap Mexican weed.

Driver pointed the car down the drive and the Nova rumbled smoothly into life, quickly gliding onto the street and flying down the avenue toward the guard post for the gated neighborhood. The Marquis played along real nicely and just flirted with the guard and talked about going “clubbing.”

The Nova passed the gate and hit Currency Boulevard. That took them south to the main Skyway ramp. There were a lot of cars out, but that was to be expected. Day and night meant little in the covered city. Some cars bore the designs of other nostalgic waves, but about half had the squat shapes of Skyway riders. These were small vehicles with wide set tires and powerful engines designed for the challenging angles and precipitous drops presented by the Skyway designers.

Driver pulled the car up to an intersection. The Skyway ramps looped down from the east and west. Felon hissed in the back seat. Across from them, Tiny spotted the Authority Cruiser too. There were two uniformed Enforcers in it looking right at the Nova.

“The car!” Felon grumbled.

“I reckon she caught their eye,” Driver said patting the dashboard.

“Drawing attention,” Felon growled.

They watched the Enforcers lift a radio-telephone.

A spotlight burned out of the cruiser, slid over the car.

“Reading the plates.” Felon’s ire was growing.

“I ain’t got none,” Driver chuckled.

“AUTHORITY!” boomed a mechanical voice. “Turn your engine off and exit the car.”

“Do you think I’d draw attention to myself?” Driver glared into the rearview mirror. “If I couldn’t do somethin’ about it.” The Texan hit the gas and the Nova’s tires screamed.

The acceleration pressed Tiny into his seat as the car burned through the intersection sliding under the rusted rear corner of a flatbed. They flew toward the Level Five Skyway ramp. Sirens came to life behind them.

“Down to Zero!” Felon shouted.

“I figured a scenic route!” Driver chuckled as he worked the gearshift. The car’s engine roared and the tires squawked as they caught on the slippery asphalt. The Skyway incline rose rapidly to forty-five degrees.

“The Nova ain’t one of them elevator cars,” the Texan drawled. “She’s stylish, and she’ll run straight up a tree.”

Sirens wailed behind them as Driver shoved the Nova up the ramp with both hands, weaving in and out of slower traffic-really pouring it on as they crested the top. The engine howled at the wide lanes ahead and Driver opened the Nova up to merge.

Because there was no night and day in the City the Skyways were always crowded. The Nova tore into the thick traffic with ease-still squawking through gears as Tiny watched the speedometer hover at eighty.

Skyway 4 North ran twelve lanes across, depending on cables and struts some forty feet below Level 5. It was a distracting place with tons of traffic and lights and signs warning of turnoffs and rest stations, turnpikes and merging lanes and advertising coffee and hotels and Formalin. Tiny read somewhere that designing the Skyway system to move the City’s 150 million people around was considered a feat greater than building the wall of old China. And he could believe it too. The roads swung and looped and crossed. There were multilane and multilevel sections too-and the traffic was relentless.

Driver wove and dodged keeping to the two center lanes. The noise of traffic was overbearing-echoed and magnified by the proximity of Level 5’s heavy bulk overhead.

“See,” Driver said searching the rearview for Felon’s eyes. “I could paint her red with silver stars and leave them fuckers in the dirt!”

Crunch! The Nova suddenly bucked to the right. Driver glared out his window. A heavy sedan had made its way through the traffic. Inside fedoras were backlit by headlights.

“Plainclothes!” Tiny shouted, reaching for his gun. The nun shrieked.

“Well, all right,’ Driver drawled.

The sedan slammed into the Nova again. Metal shrieked.

“My paintjob!” the Texan growled, touching the wheel and tromping on the gas. The Nova lurched powerfully to the left and locked fenders, shoved the other vehicle across a lane until the plainclothes had to brake and do some fancy steering or hit a truck from behind.

Driver swung the Nova back to the center lanes.

“There!” Felon snapped and pointed over the seat at a sign: Level 4 down ramp – six miles.

The Nova rocketed forward. Traffic flew past the windows.

Tiny was watching the plainclothes car keeping pace two lanes over and burning to catch them. Then he spotted the marked car’s lights dodging through traffic behind them. He swung his head to the other side. Felon was watching a long black car with a dash light coming up that side.

“Fuck, Driver they’re all over our ass!”

Driver’s eyes squinted into the rearview mirror, and he tilted his head and quickly turned to make the count.

Glaring red taillights suddenly filled the windshield. Driver braked. There was a loud bang and scraping sound as the Nova slid right under the solid steel bumper of an Authority Transport. Its big armored backside was blue with a thick yellow stripe.

“Nice!” Tiny braced himself against the dash. “They dropped back to seal us in.”

“You’d think so!” Driver bellowed. “Whoa now!” He slammed on the brakes and revved the Nova’s engine tight, started jumping traffic to the left. “We got to make that down ramp pronto.” He watched the transport’s massive body slide across Tiny’s window. Its driver suddenly poured on the fuel; its engine howled keeping pace with the Nova.

“Fucker’s fast,” Driver said wistfully. “Be fun to drive.”

Suddenly the rear window made a snapping sound-and crackled.

“Gunfire!” Felon shouted.

“Bullet proof!” Driver winced, putting the gas to the Nova. Tiny felt the car’s acceleration as they topped a hundred miles an hour. The Nova shot across six lanes of traffic toward the down ramp. Other cars were passing and moving that way too.

The transport sped up as they passed its nose and just brushed the trunk with its high front bumper. Then it opened up with a nose-mounted machine gun. The Nova’s fenders rattled and sparked with the onslaught.

“Kevlar fenders!” Driver reassured his passengers. “They gotta try harder than that.”

There was a deafening boom and the Nova rocked forward. The vehicle lurched like its back wheels were airborne. Driver momentarily lost control and rear-ended a van but he wrestled the car into trim. It was rocking like a spring was broken. Driver glared into the rearview.

“Cannon!” Felon barked.

“You win!” Driver accelerated across the final two lanes. He wove and swerved, ready for more cannon fire.

And Tiny felt his stomach jump as the down ramp collector lane suddenly dropped away to many street lit miles of Skyway ramp. To either side of the ribbon of blacktop the City’s lights burned. Interesting, yes, but the biggest thrill was the traffic. Four lanes of cars and trucks hurtled down the forty-degree downgrade.

“It’s like we’re falling!” Tiny said to himself and smiled.

“Them too,” Driver hissed at the rearview.

The transport was recklessly matching their speed hurtling downward-on either side of it, Authority cruisers. Tiny knew the sedans would be back there somewhere too.

“Plan?” he yelled. There were more cars to either side.

The Nova continued to weave. “I was rememberin’ a dirty stock car driver!” Driver shouted. “See-I thought it was dirty at the time-cars had bunched up to win a race and one fella got creative.”

The Nova squawked and lurched between a pair of slower moving cars ahead. Driver floored it and shot down the ramp toward a knot of cars past them. He gunned the Nova up to a sedan and hooked his chrome bumper in the car’s rear left wheel well. He hit the brakes and then tramped on the gas.

Tires squealed as the sedan fishtailed to the left into a van. That van rammed the car ahead of it-which hit another. The van continued to slide, rubber and engine screaming. But the incline was too much and the vehicle shuddered and rolled. It started over sideways-but its front bumper hooked another car that careened to the left, and the first sedan suddenly went end over end, sparks flying.

Driver gunned the Nova, breaking and alternately gassing the engine. Tiny grit his teeth as the Nova roared through an opening. A van flipped into another car that lurched across two lanes and almost hit the Nova’s tail before it lodged under the transport’s front wheels. A flame of sparks started. The transport was three tons of armor on tall wheels. It tipped nose down and couldn’t steer. The front tires turned wildly and one broke off.

Tiny watched through the rear window as the transport started to tumble. Cars behind it flipped, and rolled, were crushed by the mammoth vehicle or knocked off the ramp.

The salesman clapped Driver on the back as the behemoth rolled over cars ahead and then slid and bucked over the cruisers. Lights were flashing; sparks flew. Heavy metal slammed. The Skyway shuddered under the Nova’s wheels.

Driver gunned the engine and the car whipped to the bottom of the hill away from the carnage rolling, smashing and burning behind them. The Nova’s tires squawked and the undercarriage thumped at the bottom of the incline.

Driver eyed the wreckage behind him before turning the Nova toward Skyway 3 down ramp.

“See that worked well,” he drawled, throwing a smile at his companions.

50 – Moneylenders

No one would ever convince Able Stoneworthy that this wasn’t an army. The fact that the force consisted for the most part of walking dead somehow increased its potential for violence. It was terrifying to behold.

Captain Jack Updike stood beside him beaming joyfully at the ranks of dead soldiers. They had come from the villages and towns where they’d awaited this call to arms. For decades, rumors had circulated about settlements for the dead, and the coming conflict and thousands came from all over Westprime to see if it were true. They carried weapons of every make and antiquity, with the addition of relics like sword and spear that gave the dead army a look of gothic terror and epic undertaking.

Stoneworthy was still getting his bearings. He and Updike had just returned from their visit with the mayor of The City of Light. A little more than twenty hours had passed since they first met.

Their trip from the airport had been uneventful. While the limousine threaded its way over the busy Skyways, Updike radioed ahead. They exited the City and some ninety miles into the countryside they reached the glass towers of the Rebirth Foundation. Updike left him in the care of doctors with the assurance that he would return for him. The living and dead physicians began Stoneworthy’s treatment immediately.

He soaked in chemical baths while being probed with questions by technicians before being transferred to an operating theatre. A repair team set to work. Broken ribs were inspected, trimmed and screwed into place on a plastic sternum; his skin was cleaned; the wound site was filled with a flesh-colored caulking and heated; and the ragged edges were heat-sealed with a flesh-toned plastic. After four hours under the knife his chest looked “healed” despite some discoloration.

Stoneworthy was awake during the procedure but felt no anxiety. His pain-free state allowed him clarity of thought and calm that he had yearned for his entire life. He was not displeased with the “afterlife” he still had in him.

After the treatment, Stoneworthy experienced tremors of sensation ranging from a mild tickling at the small of his back to prickly heat over his left arm. He felt strangely energized. A doctor assured him that the sensations would vary randomly until his body got used to its new state.

“Afterlife requires no sleep, for reasons we do not yet understand. We do recommend an enforced period of relaxation. Your mind will not wear out, but your body will.” He also reassured Stoneworthy that the psychiatric tests performed indicated that he had lost none of his higher brain function.

Updike had arrived in his room after midnight. The man’s big frame and powerful features were electric with purpose. He wore a tight-fitting uniform of military cut with clerical collar: it was dark green, with brown boots and a peaked hat over his stiff gray brush cut.

“My brother,” he said. “You look better.”

“Thank you,” Stoneworthy had replied. “I’m ready to serve the Lord.”

“And you shall.” Updike grinned. “In fact, I need you this night. Do you feel up to ministering? It is late, but time moves past us. We must make our declaration of purpose to the evil that controls this city. Now, is the time that the meek shall inherit the earth.”

“I am ready.” Stoneworthy took his hand.

A black suit was brought to him, with clerical collar and shirt. They took an elevator down to the waiting limousine, this one bearing the Rebirth Foundation logo on its doors. A dead man dressed in blue held the door for them. They were soon speeding toward the City.

Stoneworthy knew that Mayor Gregory Barnstable had ruled the City uncontested for fifty years. He was an employee of the International Credit Co., as was the rest of City Council after they determined it was insensible to waste valuable resources on the electoral process. A company would be foolhardy to invest millions in a candidate and then throw the entire selection process to the unstable whim of the voters. A state of undeclared martial law had been effect for years.

International Credit Co. held mortgages on the City of Light and most of the populated property left in Westprime. The man who held the office of Prime, Oscar Del, was the company’s Chief Executive Officer and owner. Politicians, local Authority Enforcement Services and the Westprime Defense Command were his property. The Prime had appointed Mayor Barnstable many decades before.

“The City donated money toward the construction of Archangel Tower.” Stoneworthy pointed out. “Not all things are corrupt.”

“The City bought a piece of the Tower.” Updike frowned. “And I fear that Archangel has been poisoned by drinking from such a wellspring. Does not the Prime use many Sunsight floors?”

“How shall we strike at the heart of this evil?” Stoneworthy’s mood had darkened.

“By striking where it lives.” A vein bulged on the preacher’s forehead. “What is more evil than loaning the poor money, only to charge interest on it? What is more evil than the rich controlling what is God’s to control?”

“The moneylenders,” Stoneworthy replied.

“Indeed.” Updike’s face had become dark with passion. “Gold is a God they will worship no more. They can’t refuse!”

“Is it too late, brother,” Stoneworthy wondered, realizing the time.

“We’re expected.” Updike smiled. “I have an amicable relationship with the moneylenders. They know whose interests I represent and fear them. The mayor awaits.”

They took the Skyway to Level Four and arrived at City Hall at three. Updike pushed past the security guards sent to deflect his purpose. “Away! God’s word needs no invitation. The mayor expects me!”

Stoneworthy hurried in his wake, noticing the reaction of living people to his state. The technicians and doctors at the Rebirth Foundation were used to the dead through constant exposure-many of them were dead as well. But Stoneworthy was appalled. His repaired body was in good enough condition to be mistaken for the living at first glance. When they realized he was dead, people turned away in disgust.

It was a recurring theme in all of earth’s Babylons. People dismissed charity and compassion as weaknesses as they strove for individual fulfillment. With passion building in his heart, he followed Updike through a heavy oak door into the mayor’s office.

Mayor Gregory Barnstable looked up from his massive desk. A quick emotion of petulance flitted behind his features before a cunning smile of greeting appeared. He got to his feet. Barnstable stood about average height, and was very wide in the shoulder and waist. He wore a pinstripe suit of purple and gray. His smile sat on a face creased and lined by expression. There was dark skin around shifting eyes that twinkled when they met Stoneworthy’s.

“Gentlemen, I am glad I could break my engagement to meet with you.” His voice was practiced, expressions deliberate. “What can I do for you at this late hour?” He held out a welcoming hand that Updike ignored.

“We come for the Lord.” Updike’s voice boomed in the spacious office. “The day of reckoning approaches.”

“Reckoning?” The mayor’s mind whirred beneath feigned humor. “But taxes aren’t due for another two months.” He laughed.

“Hold your tongue.” Updike glared over the desk. “We’re here to deliver a message.”

The mayor’s facade cracked when his eyes focused on the dead minister. “You’re Able Stoneworthy! Christ!” He looked Stoneworthy up and down. “They’re looking for you!”

“Do not speak the Lord’s name in vain!” Stoneworthy said with as much strength as he could muster. The politician was dismayed.

“Forgive me. I was surprised to see you,” Barnstable said quietly. “Gentlemen, I am writing a speech that I will be delivering tomorrow to the City Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps we could…”

“Commerce?” Updike barked. “Chamber of Horrors! Do you meet to discuss the redistribution of wealth?” He slammed a fist on the desk.

“Seriously, gentlemen.” The mayor sat back in his chair, crossed his legs and toyed absently with the heel of a shoe. “I object to your method.” He cleared his throat. “We at City Hall pride ourselves on the relationship we have nurtured with Archangel Tower and those who use it. The City contributed many millions to its construction.”

“Oh that I could tear each brick from it that was purchased with the profits of this usury!” Updike turned to look at Stoneworthy. Something apologetic passed across his eyes.

The mayor sighed and shifted in his chair. “Could we do without the fire and brimstone?”

“Your moneylenders will be stopped.” Updike’s face was a snarl.

“Gentlemen, no disrespect, but you’re just telling me what to do.” He smirked. “I can’t negotiate from there.”

“We are not negotiating.” Updike’s voice dropped an octave. “God’s commands must be obeyed.”

“Commands?” Barnstable frowned. “I prefer a discussion.”

“We do not have time to discuss anything with an overseer. Speak to your master the Prime, and tell him this: The Lord thy God knows thee Pharaoh in whatever disguise you wear. Tell the moneylenders, that all their wealth and power must be transferred to Archangel Tower Ministries Accounts to be divided amongst the religions of the world. A new age is upon us, and a new theocracy must be formed that will support the flock. This will be accomplished without negotiation before twenty-four hours have passed. If you do not comply the Wrath of God shall fall upon the City, and upon the mansions of the rich and idolaters!”

“Gentlemen, be reasonable, I didn’t even know you were upset.” Barnstable spoke quickly. “I don’t think it’s possible, what you’re asking, even if I had a reason to comply.”

“The fire that starts shall burn the world. The same fire that smote Sodom and Gomorrah.” Updike’s face was a passionate tangle of red. “This is the beginning for the Lord has spoken, and those who bear His sword shall live in Heaven. Those who oppose His will shall join the fallen in Hellfire.”

“Gentlemen,” Barnstable said after a thoughtful moment, “if you have a proposal in hand, I’d happily present it to committee.” He made a dismissive gesture with his fingers. “I don’t have the power to do what you’re asking.” He stood up, his shoulders broad and impressive. “I am just the mayor of the City of Light and answer to a higher authority.”

“Higher than God’s?” Stoneworthy bellowed. “How truly blind is the moneylender? How committed you are to your false god.” He turned on his heel and strode out of the office clutching Stoneworthy’s arm.

That meeting had taken place eight hours before. Updike dragged Stoneworthy from City Hall into the waiting limousine and ordered the driver to take them to the Rebirth Foundation Compound. Stoneworthy was intrigued. He had heard about the Compound, located some thirty miles to the west of the Foundation proper. The facility housed the dead, and ran a commune of sorts. But this scattered knowledge of it left him unprepared for what he saw.

The compound was hidden in forested mountains, and at first glance, looked more like a military base than a hospice. A tent city of gargantuan proportion filled the valley for many miles. It was an army!

Tents and simple barracks stretched out over the hilly terrain as far as he could see. The soldiers were spread out on the wide parade ground trampled into a four-mile wide circle of grass at the end of the valley.

Though they were of all nationalities and races, they were dead and so equal in every way save one: some appeared so freshly deceased that they were barely recognizable as such; others were so far gone, that they had to be supported by comrades or had been augmented by the Foundation’s teams of miracle workers.

It was his second exposure to others who shared his dead state. His first reaction was sadness, followed by mute horror at the realization that he was one of them. But then the sympathy in their looks moved him to tears.

The limousine had dropped Stoneworthy and Updike by a central building with a small platform in front. They climbed the steps and were greeted by cheers from the assembled dead. Stoneworthy was astonished to see that Oliver Purdue himself-Updike’s first recovery -awaited them. The dead man embraced him, his eyes a blur of milky tears.

“Welcome brother,” he breathed. “I grieve. I rejoice.”

Stoneworthy looked into Purdue’s eyes and knew what he meant. To lose his life was the worst of all possible outcomes, and yet, he had to feel great happiness at being welcomed to these ranks of the dead-for it was where all men must go.

51 – Time for Action

“Tell that grave-digging son of a bitch to fuck himself!” the Prime thundered into the phone. Some ambient energy in the atmosphere gave the connection an annoying hum. “And none of your pandering! There is no voting block to consider, no sympathetic public conscience that you have to suck up to. You answer to me! ”

The Prime rubbed a fat-fingered hand across his brow. Mayor Barnstable called to deliver an ultimatum from that lunatic Captain Jack Updike about redistributing Westprime’s wealth. Easy to do when it isn’t your money! It would be laughable if the corpse-hugger didn’t carry a sizeable supply of public goodwill to underwrite it. All those families reunited: all those fresh-cheeked zombies. Insanity !

But he knew enough about Updike to understand that the disgraced army chaplain would not make a demand like that unless he could back it up. Redistribute wealth? Give me a fucking break.

“Prime, sir.” Barnstable’s voice continued clear and firm. The Prime had bullied any sycophantic qualities out of him long ago. “Of course, Updike’s ultimatum is ridiculous. I am simply stating that local Enforcement Division has kept an eye on Updike’s Rebirth Foundation. He has close to a half million followers that we know of-with the vast majority of them dead!”

“So what?” The Prime drew a reassuring breath into his heavy chest and an electric thrill ran up his spine. His Demon Ally was right then: An army of dead will start the final war. All of this fit the captive’s prophecy too, that the First-mother would one day be his: With the loss of her guardian the world would begin again. And his terrestrial and Infernal agents were working on the second part: When you know the God-wife Cawood before me, all the world will tremble. Then the bitch disappeared.

Trusting his intuition had paid off. Wait until those bastards see how far I’m willing to go. And if they win they’ll see that I’m redefining the phrase: take no prisoners.

“Barnstable, you make me sick. I am aware of the numbers at the Foundation. I ordered the investigation into his organization! It’s called taking the initiative. You keep getting caught down memory lane-glad-handing the population, and they haven’t had a fair vote in decades. I told City Authority to keep tabs on all those dead bastards. I’ve been watching them for years. And Operatives recently reported an exodus of the dead from Zero and One. They’re all headed into the countryside.”

He held the phone away to chuckle. “What did you think, Barnstable? They were just going to disappear? They have their own towns and militias for Christ’s sakes! I’ve got Operatives everywhere, and I know Updike’s forces are digging up any artifact, commandeering any vehicle, and siphoning every drop of gasoline from every abandoned gas station they can find. Do you know what he plans to do?” The Prime let his tirade hang in the air a moment. “Start giving out ultimatums!”

“Sir!” Barnstable blurted.

“And he’s got a bigger force gathering south of us, and one to the west. While Updike built this army you sat on your hands. I can tell you their locations and numbers. They tried to hide by breaking their forces into smaller groups to settle different abandoned towns like they were just poor old dead folk. But my Operatives have collected enough information to prove that they’re quite capable of attacking the City!” The Prime smiled inwardly. The Rebirth Foundation was on the list of targets that he’d given to General Topp.

“Prime, sir.” Barnstable’s voice was shaken. “How should I respond?”

“Tell him we don’t negotiate with terrorists!” The Prime’s anger blew out of him like steam.

“Won’t that provoke him?” Barnstable’s voice shook.

“That’s the idea.” The Prime threw his bulk out of his chair. “I want a war with them. This kind of insurrection is the last thing the City needs. There are other powers in the world with weapons pointed at us-and we have to worry about civil war? Believe me, our enemies abroad are watching how we handle our enemies at home. We have to show them we’re willing to make the hard choices. I want every potential enemy on this godforsaken planet to wet his pants remembering what I do to Updike’s army of the dead.” The office suddenly seemed cramped and confined to the leader of Westprime. The ceiling weighed down on him.

“And the beauty is, they’re already dead.” He chuckled. “The bleeding hearts will balk but it will be token criticism-what dead couples do you invite over for dinner?” He twisted the phone cord around his thick knuckles. “If Updike’s forces show any indication of trying to make his threat real, we’ll do whatever it takes.”

“But…” A high-pitched quaver entered Barnstable’s voice.

“This is an opportunity for us to show the world we won’t be pushed around- and we’re willing to put the dead problem into perspective.” He nodded to himself. The Prime clenched his thick fingers around Updike’s imaginary throat. “The world is watching.”

“How will we?” Barnstable cherry-picked one.

“Don’t concern yourself,” the Prime said. “I pay you to run the City. I’ve got the country’s back.”

“So I await your orders?” the mayor asked.

“Call Updike now! Don’t let the clock run out,” he chortled. “And don’t worry about the media. I’ll gag the Big Three.” He owned the major media stations and distribution hubs.

The line buzzed and crackled. He could hear the mayor’s faint breathing as the fool puzzled his way through the ramifications.

“I can see your logic.” Barnstable said. “It is extreme, but I can’t see the public-the living-being upset about it for long. Studies have shown that most living people are uncomfortable with the dead. As long as we’re ready for the backlash-if there is one.”

A fucking study! The Prime’s shoulders sagged as he thought that over. There won’t be anyone left for a backlash… Rage seethed in him momentarily. He pushed a pile of papers off his desk.

“Listen, Barnstable. You are beginning to worry me. I’m afraid I didn’t get to you in time. Forget democracy! You work for International Credit Co. The public will be fine. Just shake hands and smile for the camera.”

“Should we give Updike an ultimatum?” Barnstable was thinking; that gave the Prime a little more confidence.

“Just tell him we do not negotiate with terrorists.” He crossed to the office window that overlooked the oceanfront. Cloud and heavy mist covered the distant Sunken City. “We have to draw the line.”

“Very well, sir.” The mayor paused. “I would appreciate updates as the situation progresses.”

The Prime’s mind went blank with rage. His Demon organ uncurled and pushed against the inside of his trousers. Barnstable? Really? He shook his head in silent communion with the damned member. First time for everything…

The mayor grew uncomfortable with the silence. “Thank you, Prime. I will report to you after I contact Updike.”

The Prime dropped the receiver into its cradle. All this talk of war and power agreed with his second penis. He wanted a girl child-badly…but remembered his Ally’s caution. The girl children did not respond well to his intentions, and they rarely survived-and there was the chance that one of them was the First-mother. He needed the girl children for the new age that would come. After the Change, he planned to repopulate the planet in his own image and he’d already been a glutton with the girls at the Orphanage.

Then he thought of the First-mother. If he had her-if he had her! The sending had brought some girls in that matched the Ally’s description…one even had a guardian. The Prime’s special servants would soon divine the truth.

After coming to full power he no longer felt it necessary to keep his game face when it came to the forever children. For years he’d allowed social workers and Children’s Aid representatives access and limited participation in his Orphanage’s programs. But his desires caused him indiscretions and the use of Powers required certain unexplainable disappearances that undermined the ruse. So the participation of interested parties was reduced and eventually stopped. Any legal argument was tied up in court for decades and if anyone pushed too hard, he was likely to disappear or suffer some violent end in the unpredictable World of Change: either at the hands of the Prime’s agents outright-charges of sexual interference on a child were easy to arrange, or the Prime’s other Powers could come to bear and the children’s advocate would be devoured by a Demon.

The thought of enjoying the First-mother caused his Demon organ to grow rigid with violence. He’d have to make do with a secretary. Or better, he’d interview someone from the temp pool of pre-Change twenty-something women-someone with youthful looks-yes…

As he dug into his desk for the personnel file the Prime enjoyed the waves of pleasure rippling through his augmented body. He would answer Updike’s challenge. Apocalypse was being invoked and it would go badly for anyone who hesitated. He smiled at the notion of burning thousands of walking corpses. Then he found the personnel file and opened it. A resume fell out. Gods had to be willing to make sacrifices too.

52 – Battle Cry

Updike returned from the central building. He’d stepped in to speak with Oliver Purdue before taking a forwarded call. He had spoken on the phone. It took the army an hour or more to gather its ranks and arrange itself in the wide valley. Their numbers weighed on Stoneworthy’s mind. They were dead, but he could see life in their eyes, excitement as Updike approached the center of the stage. The rain had slowed to a drizzle.

“Let us pray,” Updike said over the microphone before taking it from the stand and dropping to his knee. Stoneworthy knelt by him. Thousands of dead did the same. A great rustling of dried and brittle bodies filled the air with sound as the army knelt in supplication-echoed by the rattle and clink of armament multiplied many times. It came in a noisy tide of sound. Those desiccated to inflexibility that could not kneel, bowed their heads, or were helped to their knees by their dead brethren. “Our Father Who art in Heaven…” Updike began, the speakers echoed.

And Stoneworthy felt his thoughts fly outward, whisking before him to join the collective soul of the army. There was a great silence, overshadowed slightly by the fibrous clicking actions of dead lips mouthing words of prayer. Stoneworthy felt the first surge of power. Somewhere deep inside his soul he understood that the multitude before him looked to Updike and to him for guidance. It was intoxicating.

As each of Updike’s words was echoed, Stoneworthy felt his own chest expand with the collected breath of their followers. He understood the forlorn reality of the dead, and yet, even in that finality, he did not need rest. The Reverend did not need it, as the others did not, for there could be no rest until righteousness had won out. This final injustice would be resisted, and recompense delivered. But how he craved it. He could feel the unwelcome deadness of his body, could feel the stiffening of his joints and flesh. Soon, he hoped, the end.

He was as dead as humanity’s aspirations-as wanting of life as its best intentions. Humanity had used death as the great escape for far too long. God took that away from man so he could understand there is no rest in death. Stoneworthy whispered: “Atonement.”

“Amen!” Updike breathed into the microphone and stood. The time of reckoning had come. There followed a rising tide of sound as the gathering climbed to its feet. Updike allowed them a moment to collect themselves. And then he began to speak:

“Brothers and sisters, friends, Apocalypse approaches. Come get with me. A New World is here unfolding, and the light that causes this blossoming comes from the blazing righteousness in your souls. Come get with me. Before this flower can come full bloom, there has been a winter. And this winter has been the World of Change. You have been with me.” In the crowd, Stoneworthy heard spirited “ Amen’s ” rise up. Updike seemed to grow in size upon the stage.

“You have walked through the valley of the shadow of death like no others in human history. Come get with me. You walk past the crumbling truths of the Old World: Profit! Greed! Idolatry! Lust! Come get with me. Yet we have not stopped the sins and so have sinned. You have been with me.” He raised his arms, and the gathering groaned.

“And because we are sinners, we are punished. God knows our hearts. He has watched us. He has seen the righteous struggle. Seen the martyrs die. But He has stayed His mighty hand. He watches us tempted by the Devil, sees us fall-and yet He waits. He waits in grace and patience. He waits because He loves us. Come get with me!”

The Army of the Dead roared its approval. “ Hallelujah’s ” rang across the valley. Updike waited a moment, looked at Stoneworthy and made a sign of encouragement before continuing.

“The Lord chased us from the Garden of Eden, and gave us this world to call our own. For generations we listened to the words of God handed down to us through Moses. When we wandered in the wilderness, God led us. The Lord did not abandon us. And how have we shown our gratitude? Instead of working hard for our souls we worked hard for gold. We abandoned Him!” Updike paused scowling. His eyes burned.

“Still, the Lord was patient.” The preacher raised his hands, fingers splayed. “He offered us ten Commandments out of love to protect us from ourselves and from evil. Simple rules, like any parent would give his child. Come get with me. And yet we did not follow the ten. Not nine, or six or four… And as we strayed from our Father, as we broke each commandment, we wandered ever closer to the Devil. Come get with me.” The gathering shouted its encouragement.

“‘Do not do these ten things!’ is all He asked. Yet, we did not obey. And then, as an ever-loving father might, he did not punish us. Instead he gave us His only son to teach us, hoping that we could learn from His example. We listened to the words of Jesus, and we watched His miracles. And we accepted His gifts. And how did we repay Him? How did we show our love?” Stoneworthy heard weeping in the audience, interspersed with sad ‘Hallelujahs.’

“We nailed His son to a cross. Come get with me!” Updike’s voice was husky; his eyes flowed tears. Silence gripped the shallow valley. “Even then, the dear Lord showed us the depth of His love for instead of shedding our blood He shed His only son’s.”

Moans echoed as Updike took a pitcher from a small wooden table, and poured himself a drink of water. He took another, as he sadly watched the waiting crowd. Head lowered, he continued:

“He gave us His Son, and we gave nothing in return. How He kept His patience I do not know. Humanity perverted every gift that the Lord our God gave us. ‘ Freedom!’ some said. ‘It was our Democratic right.’” Updike looked sternly through the crowd. “Democratic right to disobey our Father in Heaven? Democratic right to embrace the Devil?” Updike leaned into the microphone. “Well the Lord has lost His patience. Come get with me! Judgment Day is here!”

The gathering roared ‘ Amen.’

Updike wrapped his arms over his chest. “Judgment Day is upon us, and the Lord’s Wrath leaps up like a great Lion! His Wrath and Judgment comes upon us now as Apocalypse!” Some yelled in the crowd, others cried for mercy.

“Who shall stand by our God? Come get with Him! We shall not turn from Him again. We shall pick up the righteous sword of our Faith, and stand with the Lion as He roars? We must throw down the idols. The moneylenders have been Kings of the Earth too long. They are Kings set there by the Prince of Darkness. It will stop!”

The gathering was growing anxious. Stoneworthy could hear harsh and bitter words floating toward the stage. Weapons clashed in anticipation. Updike let it build and build, until the minister could feel the anguished fear wash over him.

“Righteousness!” they cried, “Redemption!”

Updike gazed out over this growing power for another minute then raised his hands for silence. It came slowly. He continued:

“Even now, you ask yourself. Why me?” He scanned the army, his head turning slowly from east to west. “Why am I called to aid the Lord while others rest? Well I shall tell you. The Lord chose you to die, and He chose you to rise up, so come get with Him!” Updike’s smile stretched wide.

“Why are you allowed to walk the World of Change when so many departed to join the Lord in Heaven? He needs an army. He needs an army that understands its mission. Your deaths are not in vain! Come get with Him. You were not called from your sleep to fight a war of human folly-you fight for God’s Apocalypse! The Lord wants the world to end, and by God it shall end! The final Change begins so come get with it!” There was a clashing roar, and it took a few minutes for the gathering to quiet. Updike held his arms overhead and nodded for calm.

“I spoke to you of a blossoming. Such an unfolding flower awaits in the seed of our purpose. You are the farmers of the New World who will bury that seed that it should grow. But such a bountiful crop that awaits us can only grow when we turn over the soil of the old. We have this chance to make the world an Eden again. But we must fight for it! We must struggle. We must sacrifice. We must raze the cities, the mansions of the moneylenders and the Idolaters. We must break the churches that worship the Gods of Science and Gold. We must turn over this soil. We must prepare the ground for the Garden! Come get with Me!”

The soldiers roared as Updike bellowed. Stoneworthy had never felt such concentrated feeling-it ran electric over his nerves. He did not know if it was his new dead status, or whether even in death, human emotion had the ability to move and join people. Was not human emotion a conduit for God’s love? He found himself on his feet wildly clapping his numb hands. Oliver Purdue threw an arm around his shoulder and whispered:

“Brother Stoneworthy! We shall till a new garden.” They embraced, Stoneworthy entranced by the tactile nature of the action. He felt alive-vibrant!

“But where do we take this great army!” Stoneworthy asked.

“To meet the others, and on to Apocalypse.” Purdue smiled.

“Others?” The minister’s eyes fixed on Purdue’s.

“Even now, two armies of the dead move toward The City: one from the south with the farthest to travel and another from the southwest.” Joy sparkled in Purdue’s eyes. “We will turn the City’s soil!”

Fear leapt across Stoneworthy’s mind. He knew many good people within the City, but he corrected himself. That had been in life, and he was dead. His life had a meaning, but he had to follow the course that his death had taken-a road to Heaven on Earth! His actions could save them all from walking death. Purdue looked toward Updike.

“I must speak now!” he said, and moved to the stage. The preacher gave him a warm embrace. With Updike’s big hands on his shoulders he began:

“Go now!” Purdue’s voice rang over the speakers. “Go my brothers and sisters and prepare. We have spent years training for this moment, and now the Lord has asked us to move. Go now, and pray. Remove all doubt from your hearts for we take up the banner of the Lord at dawn! All Hail His Apocalypse!”

A roar rang up from the crowd that made Stoneworthy think of lions. The dead produced the sound of life with their passion. So great was the storm of feeling that crashed against him, Stoneworthy was moved to tears. His mind was keen and fresh-newborn in a world that was about to die. Something dark passed by the depths of his consciousness that drew his lips down momentarily. Dismissing his hesitation, Stoneworthy drew Updike’s full cheek close to his and kissed it. He left the stage with the preacher and Purdue arm in arm, wondering at the new garden that awaited them on the morrow.

53 – Vengeful God

The Prime enjoyed the whirling hot tub jets pounding against his kidneys. With the urgency of the job interview over-again-he found himself in a state of total physical relaxation. Mentally, he was close to joyful panic. All of his plans were coming together. The prophecy was true. He would rule the world.

He had started the job interview hours before, when news came of Barnstable’s refusal of the preacher’s ultimatum and Updike’s treasonous speech-a declaration of war.

His Operatives within the dead army had radioed that Updike had called for a jihad. Absolute perfection! Further, Reverend Able Stoneworthy was with the Captain-the Tower Builder dead now. He had bullied Barnstable too much to hear that news earlier. The minister’s whereabouts had been a question for the last two days, and was an annoying reference in Vanguard’s reports. Reappearing dead and in cahoots with traitors gave the Prime authority to assume complete control of Archangel Tower. Absolutely, and inarguably perfect!

Better yet, Operatives monitoring the other arms of the undead army reported they were on the move. South and southwest by many, many miles they presented big, slow targets. Perfect! Perfect! Perfect! The Prime had just got off the phone with General Topp. He had set the time for the first strike. An air defense fighter would radio updated coordinates when required.

His Operatives from all quarters gave troop strength of some three hundred thousand in the south with the bare minimum of weaponry and mechanical support-and the majority of that was of an old and undependable variety. Southwest of that was a force twice that size with little in the way of heavy weaponry or artillery. The northern army and closest was the best equipped but it had not started moving yet.

Updike’s threat was empty-a zombie army up against the most powerful fighting air force and army in the world? The Prime was pleased. He would put on a show that would have his enemies shaking.

And any Divine or Infernal Powers that thought they could take over the world would see how far the Prime was willing to go to see that they didn’t. Updike thought his mission was of Divine origin, but there was still no sign that he had any actual support from that quarter. The Prime had already planned to question his captive about that after the job interview. Updike’s army must be the first move in the bigger game.

That was all he needed to fill him with explosions of happiness. Until today, he had been operating in the dark in a pentagram drawn of blood. His Demon Ally and captive gave him signs and riddles. Though he was pleased to see that his intuition was proving correct, such extravagant risks were difficult for him. Intuition had helped him to climb to the top, but it was a terrifying way to maintain the position.

The Prime had revealed his backup plan to Topp with some reluctance. Throwing his cards out there for a lackey to see left him anxious. But he had a Demon watching the General for signs of reluctance. Time. He needed time for the game to unfold. And he had little patience. It was all too much, and he was afraid that obsessing about it would micromanage it into the ground.

To distract himself he had continued with the job interview:

“ Do you have hot tubs in all the offices, Prime?” the pretty brunette joked, and crossed her legs. He couldn’t believe it, but he was actually drooling. That’s throwing her off. Wait till she has a look at my…

Her body floated a few feet away from him. The round lumps of her buttocks protruded from the frothing water. Even her death had not stemmed his passion. He and the Demon organ had taken her three times since. He didn’t mind the oily feel of her blood against his skin.

“ Get in the tub and I’ll pay you well,” he said and when she shook her head, he grabbed her legs and pulled her screaming toward the water. Raping her with the Demon organ was good; raping her with the Demon organ and his own had been… Heavenly.

His mind played to the events at 232 Towerview Terrace. His Operatives had nothing new to report. He tried to use his sated calm certainty to draw upon his intuitive resources. The evidence at the crime scene suggested something big had transpired there: unexplainable elements that encouraged the Prime to suspect an Infernal or Divine link. He checked himself, reined in his suspicions. The unknown still existed, after all. No sense being paranoid. But events were happening too quickly for the unexplained. An instinctive part of him knew that nothing was happening by chance now. Damn Vanguard give me facts!

The Prime looked at the wall clock, saw that 18 hours remained until a demonstration of power would be dropped on the southern army. The Prime made fists of his hands, punched them whistling into the swirling red water then: Ka-boom! A surprising tingle and heaviness returned to his groin. He looked at the woman’s body.

Something nudged his knee. Over the pale hump of his belly he saw that a jet of water had pushed her hand into him-he imagined making a circle of the lifeless fingers and… The Prime casually kicked her away.

He remembered the scene: at first her terror-screaming. That got both of him harder. Down she went into the tub and he was on her. Then she was screaming in pain. The Prime knew that since he had joined the Demon in Union, that something vital had changed about him. Not only had he been altered physically, something changed inside. Because the Union had added a second penis, it was easy to overlook the mental changes. But where he liked dominating people before he loved killing them now.

Before the woman died he discovered that the second penis behaved like a prehensile limb-impossible to control as his dark passions were released. It tore at her insides like an iron rake until something broke-answering his sexual grunts with a fount of dark blood. Amazed at first, but sated, the Prime had allowed her to slowly sink beneath the water, before resuming his bath.

It was unfortunate because she was pretty. And yet, who knew, after Blacktime she might be more open to his desires? If he truly believed he could become a god, he had to dismiss the sentimentality of ethics-he shouldn’t worry about loss or beauty. As he watched his secretary’s body a weight throbbed that needed release. He gasped- I’m a monster -tearing at his lower lip with his teeth. The Prime reached for the corpse. Perfect!

54 – The Doctor’s Office

The doctor had a round head with very little hair on it and an oval body. He wore a soiled tie and yellowed dress shirt. His short thick legs protruded from black pants and stained lab coat. He wore scuffed leather shoes. They stuck out to the side of his desk at an uncomfortable angle. A tarnished watchband played at the edge of his sleeve. He was lost in thought, looking over a pile of papers as Dawn was shown in. He tapped a pencil on the desk with thick dirty fingers.

“Scruples,” he whispered. “Scruples.”

The floor squeaked and he snapped out of his personal reflection, turned his face to the door.

Dawn was terrified. Her experience with the Principal left her wits scattered. Her new childcare worker, a tall dead man named Tony, was a nice fellow but she was afraid to even look at him. She didn’t want to accidentally involve him in anything horrible like poor Frances. The dead man seemed unaware of her feelings or any events surrounding her visit to the Principal and simply announced her arrival in a lifeless voice. He handed her a file and left.

She barely remembered the day, with her mind still caught up with Frances. Dawn was not yet allowed into lessons with the other kids, so she spent the time answering questionnaires that were set out at a little desk by the Dormitory doors. Just as the other kids were lining up for supper, Tony had walked up and…

The Doctor took some time composing himself, spending a good five minutes shuffling and then re-piling the stack of papers and files on the desk in front of him. Throughout, his eyes kept flicking over at her, enormous, blinking through thick glasses. He wore a stethoscope around his neck that he played with after pushing the files untidily away from him.

The walls behind him were covered with charts and dark wooden bookcases. The paint that showed at intervals was a murky cream color. Cracks ran from the corners of the room outward, weaving their way behind furniture and displays.

Great sheets of painted plaster bulged, ready to collapse onto the floor. There were other things on other shelves, beakers and bottles, medical instruments of brass and metal. Other things too, containers with pickled organs or animals floating in each. And plastic things too, models of bones and skeletons. File folders were piled and crumpled one atop the other. Dawn saw that a good number had fallen in heaps on the floor.

Finally, the Doctor reached out, eyes staring at the folder in her hands, and he snapped his fingers peevishly until Dawn handed it to him. He took it, flipped it open on the desk and hung his chin over it, his chair sideways to the forever girl. The note from the Principal was paper clipped on the inside of the folder. The Doctor took an unusually long time to read it.

“Dawn,” he said finally, and then asked: “Do you have a last name?”

The forever girl just shook her head solemnly. Mr. Jay had always told her to say as little as possible if something like this ever happened. He also said that he’d come running at such a time, but she couldn’t imagine how he could help her now.

The Doctor sighed, threw the file away from him. “Nobody does any more.” He cleared his throat. “Nobody admits it. A tie to the past-that has passed.” Then he looked the forever girl up and down.

“Well, Dawn, we have rules here,” he said and then cleared his throat until his eyes turned red. “Forgive me, yes.” He coughed. “Rules, that are simple.”

Dawn stood by a chair beside the Doctor’s desk. She kept her hands folded behind her back and her chin pointed to the floor. She had not been told to sit, and she wouldn’t.

“Follow the rules,” he murmured, nodded, and then slapped around on the desk for her file. He dragged it onto his lap. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll do exactly as Nursie says. She’s my -medical assistant-and I don’t suppose it would hurt you to know that she’s not right up here.”

He shook his head and pointed at it. “Not at all, but she assists with you children and answers only to the Prime. And for that matter, you’d do well to obey the Principal. He’s been known to lose his temper.” The Doctor threw the file back on the desk. “And I’ve had to treat the results of such displays of emotion.” He stood up then, and walked behind his desk.

Dawn felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. The Doctor’s eyes flashed and his chin dipped. “Don’t-don’t be, or rather you’d be wise to do as I say also. Because, I’ll, I’ll give you an operation or something-hmm? How would you like that?” He tapped his knuckles on the desk and smiled when Dawn shivered. “I didn’t think you would.”

The Doctor chuckled to himself, but the humor sounded strained and broken. He looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Now, why…why would I say that? I shouldn’t say that!” He held his hands in front of his face-mystified.

“I wasn’t always like this.” He looked up. “He…” The Doctor lowered his voice. “ He made me this way. To die-with, by the Prime’s friends-worse, much worse than these cankers on my soul.”

Then he flipped the file open and snatched his pencil off the desk. He started writing as he spoke, “I will schedule a physical examination for you.” He flipped the file folder closed, and then wrote something on a small pad of white paper before tearing a sheet off and handing it to her.

“Come on now!” he said, when he saw her hesitate. “I don’t bite.”

Dawn hurried nimbly forward, snatched the note and jumped away.

“You give that to Nursie when she’s does her rounds. She’ll know what to do.” The Doctor’s eyes then started to slide over Dawn’s body, lingering on her little brown ankles. A look appeared on his face that made her want to run, but he broke the spell by snatching his glasses off his face and returning to his chair.

He said over his shoulder, “Go back to your Dormitory. Your worker will take you.” He turned to look at her long and hard and a strangely sympathetic expression filled his features.

“Look it’s not so bad. I have heard that it has been foretold-predicted-that the Prime by his Powers and Divine guidance will come into the possession of the First-mother. He intends to survive the end of the Change and at such a point the legend has it that life will start anew. He will then need many concubines to repopulate the earth with his seed. If you do not turn out to be the First-mother, you might at least find yourself lucky enough to be one of those and bear him many children.” The Doctor shrugged. “So, cheer up, there’s hope!”

Dawn hurried out of the room and closed the door behind her. Outside, the dead worker motioned for her to follow and she did. A shiver went through her when she peeked at the slip of paper the Doctor had given her.

It was blank.

55 – Bloody

Bloody stood beside Driver. He had been brought from his walking coma by the danger and speed. He was trying to sink into darkness again, but he was aware of things and there was a ringing in his ears that he hated. He just wanted quiet.

They got lost for the better part of a day searching Zero-eventually taking turns napping and covering the Angel. Even Felon slept eventually, shivering and crying out in a sick slumber. The Marquis only knew that Lucifer could be found under Zero. But that was all. They’d spent hours driving alternately searching and hiding from Authority. And Zero was huge. The Angel said it was Lucifer’s defenses at work. He didn’t want company, and he wouldn’t be found by accident.

Everyone in the car was ready to kill the Marquis when the Angel suddenly called out a series of directions that took them close to the waterfront. A short time later, Driver drove through the boarded up entrance of an underground parking garage. After six dizzying revolutions on a spiral ramp, Driver drove the Nova up to a wide broken grate set in the foundation. The Marquis said it was an air intake for the garage’s ventilation system. It opened on an old sewer and the Maze.

Felon had one hand twisted in the Marquis’ lacy collar. The other kept the. 9 mm pointed at his face. The assassin had immediately barked orders.

“You,” he had gestured at Bloody, “and you,” he nodded at Driver. “Stay with the nun. Tiny you come with me to cover him.” He shook the Marquis’ collar.

Tiny had winked at Driver but didn’t even glance at Bloody. This was something that the dead gunman had brought on himself, he understood. But since Felon killed him he’d been unable to control the feelings that once made him a merchant of death. Whiskey somehow quieted the feelings of helplessness, and firing his gun had kept him grounded.

The nun was sitting in the Nova blinking. They were watching as the silhouettes of Felon, Tiny and the Marquis shrank into the distance. Their footsteps echoed back. The vaulted brickwork distorted their shadows, thrown by a single flashlight.

Bloody followed a roaring vacuum inside his head that was heavy with space and silence. A long echo filled him, like a gong the size of the earth had been struck at the beginning of time, and it still rang in his ears. It was distracting and it got worse every time he came close to his old self. The vibration would grow in volume.

But drifting wasn’t much better. Faces would appear on waves of shadow-familiar and strange. When he tried to identify them, they shattered with a sound similar to that gong, so he stopped trying. Shocked, empty and alone, the gunman became a void with eyes.

Then his friends’ muffled voices would bang and thump into his peace. And all those syllables would rattle images and memories from the dark places-draw his awareness to the forefront and the gong would ring again. In time he realized the gong was what he was, or what he used to be. And the sound of it was the shape of him. But he was all through with that.

Here was a face in front of him. It spoke a name, a word, and a sound over and over again. It was an oval face with receding hair and a bushy black Devil’s goatee. Motion. His mind drifted toward it. Impact. His dead body responded slowly, cautiously identifying the detonation of misfiring neurons. The face had pushed him. The touch of the living drew him back. Ringing, his soul identified the words.

“Bloody!” Driver glared at him. “Goddamn! Pay attention. We got to talk.”

Talk. Walk. Wander. The dead muscles in his face contracted in a horrible smile.

“There y’are!” The Texan, his friend, lit a cigarette. “Christ! I don’t expect underground is a happy place to bring a dead man!” Driver’s eyes searched his face with something like worry.

Worry?

“We got to talk.” Driver grabbed his arm, led him toward the front of the Nova. Clang!

Pressure. Touch. Pressure. His dead mind cascaded with electric strands of feeling. His eyes filled with tears. Driver looked up at him.

“Damn it! Don’t!” His friend leaned him against the hood, handed him his cigarette and lit another.

Smoke. Burn. Ring!

“I don’t like all this shit. I don’t like it at all.” The Texan blew a thin stream of smoke out. It caught Bloody’s attention. He watched it drift upward like smoke from a chimney. From a cottage, a house, a burning building. A building full of orphans without futures . Lives filled with hate.

He lifted an arm. It pulled away from his side like a twist of hardened leather. The cigarette was wet with Driver’s saliva. Bloody drank it in. Clang!

“What the fuck are we doing here?” Driver started pacing. “This Angel and Demon stuff, Bloody. They’re fucking with our minds.” Driver nervously checked his armpits for his guns, dropped his hands again, and plucked the cigarette from his mouth. “Like them Eyesores wasn’t real…illusions. I read about that shit.”

“Real.” The word dropped out of Bloody’s mouth like a broken tooth.

Driver scrutinized him momentarily, and then continued, “That Felon’s goin’ to get us all killed. Fuck!” Driver took a deep breath of the damp air. “We already got a mark on us, you bet. I gotta keep my cool. This ain’t the end of the world. Jesus! Did you see him? Fucking Felon walks off with old Tiny and the Angel to have a chitchat with the Devil, Lucifer or whatever the Hell he’s talking about!”

“Hell.” Bloody’s mouth controlled the shape of the word. It was softer than the first.

“That’s right: Help.” Driver misheard him and laughed. “Goddamn it, Bloody. We gonna need it.” The Texan shook his head then smiled up at him. “But you ain’t never been a worrier.”

Worried. Worried only once when he walked up the stairs to the bathroom. Mom had told him to stay downstairs in his room when men visited, but he walked up fearing each creaky step. And he got to the top and saw the bathroom door open. And mom was there on the floor with her throat cut. Gong!

“So, off goes Tiny.” Driver’s hands shook on his cigarette. “Smilin’ like a bobcat with a mouth full of mouse. Did he tell you what he was goin’ to ask Lucifer?”

More tears leaked past his rotting memories. “Blood.” His voice was a croak to his dead ears.

“For Christ’s sake, blood? What in Hell would he be askin’ about that for?” Driver’s blue eyes turned to slits. “I guess maybe you ain’t all there yet.” He scratched the stubble atop his head.

Bloody’s mind had opened up like a subterranean stream. Thoughts and memories sluiced into the blackness.

“And her,” Driver whispered, peering in at the nun. She was watching them. “What we brung her along for? I ain’t a religious man, but that got to be bad luck!”

Gong! Bang! Gong! Bang! Guns blazed in Bloody’s mind. Flesh burst with the impact of lead. Blood filled him as a boy died with a bullet in his heart, as a woman screamed pierced between her ribs and legs, as a carload of seniors burned by the side of the road. Tiny’s face was flushed with rape and murder. Driver’s eyes were full of blood. His own face tingled where the teen scratched while he raped her.

“Bloody!” Driver’s face was near to his. The Texan’s breath was rank with fear.

“Crime.” Bloody’s dead mouth spat the word.

“Yeah, we’re in deep this time.” Driver squinted into the tunnel.

Ring. Tunnel. Clang. Mind the gap. A woman was near the edge of the platform, her back arched over tight buttocks in denim. A horn blew. She fell into the path of the subway without a sound. Gong. A touch of the hand. Bitch!

Driver’s face softened looking up at him. “Do you know, I expect this Goddamned place has made me antsy. I don’t like ridin’ unknown range, I’ll tell you. I got to remember there’s a shit load of money waitin’ for us at the end of the trail.” Driver dropped his head, shook it. “Tiny needs us.”

Us. Gong. Driver and Tiny and Bloody. Ring! They’re drinking. A woman is dead in the alley with a knife in her. They’re carrying on. A guy tries to pistol whip Driver. Bloody’s cannon takes his head off.

“Shit,” Driver hissed, looking at his boots. “Now I’m gettin’ gloomy.”

“Gloomy.” Bloody’s voice was a papery rustle.

“You too huh?” Driver looked him over. “Why not with all this Devil-Angel shit…”

Clang. Bloody snapped his head forward, looking around the parking lot. Driver was busy with a new cigarette, couldn’t see him. Ghost. The gunman rode the gong waves back into himself-away from himself. If they brought him back again it might be too much. He could not resist so many ghosts.

56 – The March

Updike pressed the broad heel of his left hand to his left eye. Immediately following his speech, a hot stiletto of pain had begun slowly inserting itself through the pupil, driving toward his brain. For the better part of an hour it probed and pried-digging for the center of his being. Before it found its mark, he was able to pass it off as the result of too many days of travel and stress. Since the Angelic argument had ended so long ago, he seldom got headaches, and was unconcerned about this one, until an hour had passed and the burning needle sunk home. The pain came on him like a possession-memories disappeared, sensation blurred, numbed and winked out. He started a desperate search for painkillers.

Luckily, the army counted a division of the living among their number, so the dead medics had added various analgesics to their kits.

The bulk of the meds resembled hardware supplies. Treating injuries of the dead was relatively simple. A broken bone was glued and screw-nailed back together, a chest wound required some fiberglass and resin. But the alienation felt by the dead was not exclusively theirs. For years, disaffected living converts had joined the cause. Good intentions, sympathy for the dead and their care may have provoked many of the living to join. But word of the Apocalypse held incendiary meaning to some. Many wanted to join the ranks of the dead for the final battle-literally.

Sparks flared across his vision in the offending eye when he pushed against it. The technique caused a minor cessation of the pain, and created a synaptic disorientation that took his mind off of the worst of it. The painkillers he’d taken had done little for his discomfort.

Stoneworthy could tell that something was wrong, but he respectfully accepted Updike’s assurances that the minor annoyance would soon pass. So the dead minister spent his time moving among the troops, spreading the word, keeping the faith firm. The difficulty of their goal could not diminish its glory. Updike had walked with him for the first four hours of the march, but the pain had forced him to climb into one of the dozens of jeeps that his forces had acquired.

The army consisted of infantry, for the most part and was spread out over several miles. They had managed to find, and scrounge a large number of trucks and other off road vehicles to carry supplies and armament. Many of the antiques predated the Change, but were constructed before the computer age and so could be fixed with wrenches and solder. He had discussed the difficulties of moving such a large force on foot, but his military commanders were not concerned. Their pragmatism said that the availability of fuel would have been a problem-so eliminate the dependence before it begins. As it was, with the four hundred or so trucks and vehicles, they would have enough difficulty.

Moving an army of some 150,000 on transports would consume the available supply of fuel in a day. Fuel became scarcer with every mile you traveled from the City of Light. Besides, they joked, his army was dead on their feet already, and wouldn’t be tired out by the march. Updike had been around the military mind enough to know its inner workings. Such black humor was a way of making sane men accept insane things.

He had climbed into the jeep that carried General Bolton. The soldier claimed he had been killed during the dead uprising of ‘11. His battalion then was sent in by the failing U.S. government to quiet a loosely organized rebellion of the dead. Some four thousand of them had run amok in Old Chicago after the local city council had erected its umpteenth “dead only” sign. Like many among the living in those days, Bolton had underestimated the strength and determination of the walking corpses.

Bolton had laughed. “Jesus did we get it bad. Turns out that dead men do dry out, yes. Given time. But not all dead men come apart easy. See, it was still the early days and lots we didn’t know. If a dead man soaks himself in oil or some other preservative, well, his skin and muscle turns as tough as rawhide. And are they strong! My group ran into about fifty of these chaps in a blind alley. They butchered us. I must have been in Blacktime when the truck ran over me.”

Despite his constant exposure to the dead, Updike’s first meeting with the dead general was distracting. Most of the man’s hair was gone and the skull was crisscrossed with rawhide stitches, reminding the preacher of a baseball. His entire skeleton was severely damaged because his face turned on a left incline of some forty-five degrees and his right shoulder and arm was eight inches lower than the left.

“I don’t hold a grudge though,” General Bolton had said swelling with pride. “It was the same guys who cut me up that put me back together.”

The General rode in the back of the jeep beside Updike, studying a laminated topographical map. Occasionally he would grumble to himself and jot a note in a pad. Bolton smelled of shoe polish. Many of the dead soldiers drank it, claiming it had revivifying properties. Updike suspected it just kept the body tissues from drying out. Bolton’s lips and teeth were black because of the habit.

The preacher pressed on his throbbing eye-sparks flew across his memory. With his free hand he dropped two tablets in his mouth and swallowed them with a drink from his canteen. He retreated from his headache into the past twenty-four hours. It was a whirlwind of activity: packing up, preparing the long march, planning the route, and assigning officers. With food and water required for only a small percentage of the force, the army was able to get underway without delay. Always Updike was impressed by Stoneworthy. The dead minister was charged with the light of Heaven, never pausing, moving tirelessly among the dead army encouraging and helping.

He was a great support after Updike’s call to Mayor Barnstable. The preacher had pressed the mayor for compliance. He was committed to razing the City, but he was still a man of God and feared the death his army would cause if the City ignored the Divine edict.

Barnstable had said, “Captain Updike. A warrant has been issued for your arrest. The City of Light does not negotiate with terrorists. I am authorized to tell you that any action by your followers, overt or otherwise would be considered an act of war. The Westprime Defense Forces are on high alert and await orders. You have twenty-four hours to turn yourself in to Central Authority.”

Updike had reached out to his first recovery for support. Updike loved Oliver Purdue deeply, and had come to respect him like no other. Like many of the dead, Oliver had looked into his former life and found the doors closed. But instead of sinking into despair, Purdue had determined to make his death a new beginning. He didn’t speak about his past and Updike didn’t press him. The result was that Oliver was a mystery. Updike had often mused that were he not crazy, he would find the dead man’s dark eyes a terrifying thing to look upon. Instead, Oliver’s charity and compassion buoyed him up.

Updike remembered passing through a small town late that morning. It was deserted as most were. The preacher gave the order to call a halt a mile past the town in a small forest of dead maples. Stoneworthy had approached him with obvious reluctance in his thin-legged stride, and asked why they wouldn’t stop in the town. It had started raining, and many buildings there were sound enough to provide protection from the elements.

“My friend,” Updike had said. “Did you see the arena as we passed? It is a structure of steel and aluminum. The type of building designed by the soulless architects at the end of the Millennium before the Change.”

“Yes,” Stoneworthy had said. “Between that, and others I saw, we could easily take shelter as we rest. There are the living troops to think about, and some of our people need to apply oils and treatments to their bodies.”

“I know,” Updike had sighed. “But there is a greater erosion that I fear those buildings will bring, far worse than any rain. It is an erosion that our cause cannot afford.

“Passing through the town was bad enough. Just passing through I’m sure has taken a toll. I would have avoided it all together, except that the farmland around it has turned to swamp in the decades of rain. What do you think we will find if we make our camp in the arena, or in the city hall?” Stoneworthy had shrugged, his face a mask of perplexity. “We will find remains. Not of the town’s inhabitants, not bodies no. Those would have risen and walked away or been dragged off by animals. No. We would have found the remains of a world that is gone.

“Imagine the foyer of the arena. Would there not be pictures of hockey players and of figure skaters? And would they not be the fresh sweet faces of children? There would be trophies, and plaques and awards-with names engraved, names of teams and of children, and long ago dates: Fastest Sprinter, 1988.” Updike watched Stoneworthy’s face smooth over with understanding. “I would not wish this army to see that. I would not want their purpose darkened with loss or revenge. We must have an army of righteousness to serve our God-to serve His Apocalypse. We cannot have an army of despair.”

The jeep took a sudden lunge and jerk to the left, jarring Updike out of his reverie by banging his head against the roll bar. Pain lit fire in his mind, but the painkillers must have been working for it quickly dulled. He hoped he had been entirely truthful with the minister. Updike had given him the logical, tactical argument, but he wondered if he truly doubted the faith of his troops so much. These people had handled more than that. They had died and returned to an existence of numbness. And still they had faith.

The gray noon sky lit up on the southern horizon like a sunrise.

“Jumping Jesus!” Bolton shrieked, moving stiffly forward in his seat. “Driver, get Lorenzo on the radio. Try to raise Carstairs.” General Lorenzo was leading the southernmost contingent of the army of dead. Carstairs led the southwestern arm. The driver fumbled with the jeep’s handset. He shouted a few things into it, turned the knobs-twisted dials-static and electric noise.

“Sorry, General! Interference.”

Updike knew that things had just taken a drastic turn but the pain in his head kept him from realizing its full impact. He retreated from the ache by thinking back to the town they had passed. He remembered seeing something in the coarse tangle of grasses by the faded remnants of a picket fence. Lying on its back-bleached corpse white by eternal rain and time, a chubby little arm and shoulder, beside it the round and pitted head of a plastic doll.

57 – New Deal

The Prime was a creature in the grips of dynamic opposition. The forces that worked upon him tugged at his mind, threatening to tear it apart. One moment, he was ecstatic. When the mood took him he moved his bulky body along the hall to his office as though he were about to take flight. Triumph! Triumph! Fucking Triumph! The tactical nuclear strike had reduced some eighty thousand corpses to burning dust-those farther from ground zero caught fire and spread the flames through the ranks-turned it into a holocaust.

During the moment of ecstasy the Prime allowed himself to imagine the hobbled army of renegades, tramping north through the wilderness, holing up in abandoned towns, doing whatever it was dead people did, and the next minute, a rocket whistling toward them, then a bright light turns them to vapor.

The Prime giggled. He nickered like a newborn mare. It was just a pity that the process was so quick! Drop and roll. Drop and roll. He would have enjoyed drawing out their molecular unbinding. Nonetheless, the Prime was caught up in the desire to do it again immediately. And thus the oscillation began.

The moment he thought of doing it again, he was gripped with killing anger. When that mood took him his movements condensed to the weight of a black hole, and his features darkened, as though the concentrated hatred that boiled in his veins would cause him to implode and drag the rest of the Tower to Limbo with him. That bastard Updike had forced him to show his hand. He was willing to use nuclear weapons.

It was a good and bad thing.

In the grips of a mood swing to dark, he stormed past his secretary’s pleading look without so much as a snarl. The Prime crashed through the door to his office. He plowed across the room, rage making clubs of his hands, and spun his large chair to sit in it.

A man sat there.

The Prime leapt away. “What the…”

The intruder stood. Smiled. The Prime was astounded by the man’s height. He was almost seven feet tall.

“Forgive my unannounced arrival,” he said, the Prime now noticed the lack of pigment in his skin. This gave his black eyes the appearance of holes. He was dressed in white cotton; he wore a wide-brimmed Panama hat. “But I couldn’t risk the regular channels.”

“Get the FUCK out of my office!” The Prime was already moving away. All of his weapons were in the desk. The leader of Westprime was dumbfounded. How the Hell?

“Before you consider calling your security, I wish to inform you that the people I work for have full knowledge of the Union.” Long yellow teeth leaned out of a smile.

The Union? The Prime’s mind raced with the idea of being burned at the stake while an ignorant mob howled like apes. No one knew about the Union.

“Who are you?” Knowledge of the Union could undo all of his work. Then he realized using of the nuke was already flushing competitors out of the woodwork. Fucking Updike!

“I am Passport, assistant to the Demon.” The white man bent at the waste like a wet bread stick.

“Demon?” The Prime’s thoughts raced. His Ally had never mentioned having servants?

“Oh, I see where your thoughts are running,” Passport said matter-of-factly. “The Demon for whom I work is invested with a magnitude of Powers far above that of your Ally’s.”

More powerful than my Ally? The Prime knew that there were other Demons. He suspected there’d be a confrontation like this one day. But he wasn’t ready-or was he?

“And, who is this Demon?” The Prime needed information. He took a step toward his desk.

“I work for Baron Balg. He resides in the Sunken City.” Passport moved his hands on many jointed arms. They bent every which way. “He offers you something.”

“Offer?” The Prime’s insulted ego growled, “I’m the leader of Westprime. I don’t need gifts.”

Mischief played at Passport’s strange, thin lips. “Of course, Prime. You have no need of gifts. Neither do you need suggestions. This is simply an offering.” He smiled. “You’re acquainted with offerings?”

“Offerings?” The Prime glared into the interloper’s eyes. As he remembered the Sending Room: the pentangle of blood, the weeping sacrifice. Dark father hear me!

“Great leaders achieve their prowess with two things chiefly: wisdom and strength. Your strength, like my master’s, is great. And yet, it may now be time to apply wisdom to its use.” Passport pursed his lips. He moved across the room toward the window. The sunlight burned on his white skin.

“What are you talking about?” The Prime had moved closer to the desk and the guns in its drawers.

Passport turned to him. “I am speaking of those who will lead.” He took a couple of steps. “ You are the leader of the New Age.”

The Prime was ready for that. He had even fantasized about such an offer. His Ally had informed him of a vast hierarchy in the Pit that consisted of thousands of Dukes, and Barons and Princes. In reality, the Prime had always expected a visit from Lucifer himself.

“There are hundreds of Barons!” the Prime said finally. “Is Balg the best you can do?”

The intruder smiled. He tilted his head as though thinking or listening. “It is the Baron’s assurance that he will be King of Demons on Earth. He has need of an ally among the humans.”

So that was it. The Apocalypse was here. The Demons were going to war. Let’s do it!

“And I’d be his puppet?” The Prime knew the Demons had been banished to the Pit with the coming of the One God-they wanted out.

“Balg is too practical to think that either of you could share power outright.” Passport wrung his long-fingered hands together. “And yet, the world is changing.” The stranger smoothed his pants leg with the back of a hand. “And as the world changes, it moves farther from what you know.” He paused. “The Baron wishes to rule his Demons on earth, and you rule your humans.”

“Rule.” The Prime’s Demon organ slid between his legs, writhing like a snake.

“There are forces converging on the City of Light that will plunge it into darkness.” Passport sauntered toward the desk, dragged fingertips along its edge. “These forces must be stopped.”

“You think I’m afraid of a pack of corpses?” the Prime growled. “I just cremated a bunch of them.”

“Indeed you have. And yet, is this a style of warfare that is safe for the people that you hope to govern?” False concern colored his voice. “Your power would be decreased with too reckless an application of these devices of yours, would it not?” Passport reached up, removed his hat. “Power is meaningless without adoration.”

The Prime didn’t speak; he was thinking feverishly. That was a good point. He’d always imagined some survivors. He’d need slaves. And it was more exciting to control the unwilling. Maybe he’d just take out the other Primes. Then he shook off the line of thought. That was his plan. His Final Solution was in place just in case the worst happened.

“It is Baron Balg’s wish to assist you in the repulsion of this band of rabble. He offers troops. It is my master’s belief that your City would be better defended with such aid.” Again the assistant to the Demon showed teeth. “It has been foreseen that your ground forces will be no match for the dead and their allies. The dead bear the memories of the old world with them, and they wear the faces of those who are gone. It will terrify the living forces under your command. And the dead are hardy, for they need nothing, nor do they fear death. Your forces will fail without the help of Balg.” He smiled. “And the dead have allies-those who would come to whom both Demons and humans pay homage.”

Angels? Fallen? If the Divine and Infernal ranks were coming, humanity and Demonkind both had everything to lose. And if he didn’t accept the Demon’s help, then he’d have another army attacking his flank. Perhaps his captive could shed some light.

“What does Baron Balg want in return?” The Prime had to know his options.

“He wants to share the earth when the battle is over. You will rule yours, and he will rule his. Together you can repel the One God’s forces.” Passport straightened his shoulders. “Demons and humans evolved on this planet together before the coming of the one.”

“I need to think,” the Prime started but Passport cut him off.

“You don’t have time,” the Demon’s servant said. “Your show of strength has forced all hands. Powers greater than the Army of the Dead are on the move.”

The Prime knew his Final Solution could still rule the day. Topp had the coordinates and the weaponry to burn it all if there was a double cross. “If I accept this premise in theory I have a question. My forces are unlikely to see the inclusion of a Demonic horde as a good thing.” The Prime thought this over. “Is it possible for the Baron’s soldiers to approach in some other form or fashion, either separate from mine, or in an appearance that would not provoke a negative reaction in my people.” The Prime enjoyed the phrase my people. He was too realistic to believe the line, but it had a ring to it that appealed to his messianic egotism. What if the Prime could lead humanity to a better place? So long as they obeyed him, what did he care? And, what about the other Primes? With a Demon army behind him, he could bomb them all back to the Stone Age, or better, relocate the Demons to lands now occupied by his enemies.

“Demons are consummate shape shifters, and darkness has always been their ally.” Passport replaced his hat. “But there is little time for debate. The Army of the Dead moves toward its first victory.”

“Not that I buy one word of what you’re saying.” The Prime slid along the wall toward the window. “But let’s just look at it in theory. This theory that you propose, I will need time to study its ramifications.”

“Very well.” Passport straightened. Passport began to walk toward the door; he paused and turned. “I will contact you in twelve hours. Perhaps by then, events will have demonstrated what I have tried to convince you of in words. Good day, Prime.” Passport pulled the door open, froze there a moment and walked out.

The Prime was across the floor in a flash. He swept the door aside. His secretary looked up at him. “Yes, Prime?” The leader of Westprime looked up the long hallway that led to an elevator. It was empty. He looked to either side of the door.

“Miss-” The Prime could not remember her name. “Whatever… Has there been anyone here to see me, today?”

“No, Prime.” The secretary’s round blue eyes reflected the overhead light and glinted like sadness. “Is there someone I should…”

“No, nothing!” the Prime said and pulled the door shut after him. His office was empty. Of course, if Passport were a Demon’s assistant, then he would have knowledge of Infernal powers-if he wasn’t a Demon himself. Suddenly, the Prime became aware of the dampness on the back of his jacket. He had sweated it right through.

58 – Stowaway

Conan lagged behind far enough that he could barely hear the Quinlan twins yakking about taking the lead. The little fighter knew he had to do something about the spooky dead girl that was still following them and it was starting to twist his underwear. He’d heard her off and on, and saw her move like a silent shadow before he crawled through the hole in the foundation of Whistles’ Bar. Sophie was not a real fighter, and he thought she might do something creepy to fuck up the Squeaker rescue. And if he could hear her, other things could listen too. So he backtracked to catch her and say: Sneak-and-peek-go-home.

After a few hours wink and snore, they left Whistles’ and dove back into the darkness. They were now deep in the crisscross-curly-spiral crust of concrete and rebar, maintenance and drainage tunnels that made up Level Three. Conan knew that the ventilation shafts were close. They gave the fighters doors into the Tower in the past. He quietly-secretly cross-finger-hoped the last information gathering sneakers had not been seen and the way was still open arms wide. Once they were into the main body of the Tower, the shafts would take them anywhere they wanted to go and peek: even the Orphanage. Kids that got away didn’t remember much about the place except that bad things happened, and they didn’t know the way out with panic screaming in their ears.

But most people were yakking that the Orphanage and the science place could be found near the bottom of the Tower.

He didn’t have to backtrack far-and was screech putting on the brakes when a sudden quiet thump brought Conan’s die-flower up and ready to carve and kill. Ahead, the vent-lined tunnel took a jog to the left around a new support structure for the upper levels. Just past the corner, the dim yellow maintenance lights could not see into the shadow.

He scurried forward and stopped. The little fighter took a quick view around into the dark. His breath caught. They were both surprised-with throat-lumps and ghaks! Sophie was there. Her mask, hands and legs seemed scare-show floating against a velvet curtain. She fast pressed herself against the wall, obscured by a heavy cable.

Conan hurried up to her shaking his head, and pointing the way they had come. Go on go! Sophie just lifted a cold white hand and pointed at her chest. Then she shook her head and with a tilt of her mask made it clear that she was coming with them. No you go on fuck off, Conan!

Frustration shook the forever boy, and he slashed the air with his blade-petal. Go-the-fuck-off-home yourself! He growled without words, then he grabbed Sophie’s arm and pointed into the shadows shaking his head. On an impulse he nudged his visor up so she could see his face mouth the words for her to go. Go. Go. No! Still Sophie shook her head.

A voice came from behind him.

“We’ve got a stowaway…” Mr. Jay said with a chuckle, “So to speak.”

Conan snapped his visor down and turned, a chill running up his spine. He pointed back into the shadows and shook his head.

“You don’t think she should come,” the man whispered and stepped close to Sophie. She looked up at him through her single eyehole. The dead girl shook her head like an angry old gummer. Mr. Jay laughed, “And she’s quite certain she should.”

Conan made fists of both his hands and shook the air with them. Too spooky. He stamped a few paces away from Sophie and turned to watch. He didn’t know what to do. Sophie couldn’t come. She was too dangerous, and nobody knew what she would do.

But Mr. Jay didn’t understand. He smiled in a sad way and then reached out to stroke the dead girl’s mask.

“You won’t tell me why you want to come,” he said, without expecting an answer. “And so I can only guess.” He nodded, but Sophie shook her head and moved toward the wall. Go on! Go home Sophie! “It is important to me that I not fail.” The magician’s face was grim. “I must rescue Dawn and leave the City.”

Sophie took a gentle step forward, one long finger crossing her heart.

“You promise you will not interfere with my mission?” Mr. Jay asked. Stupid. Damn. Grownup! Sophie shook her head vigorously, until Conan thought her mask would fall off. The little fighter was so angry he could shit kittens, but what could he do? Go home please!

“Come with us then,” Mr. Jay said and turned, his eyes resting momentarily on Conan’s visor before he started jogging back toward the Tower. “I am sure my little friend here will keep an eye on you for any sign of mischief.”

Conan’s chest pumped up with pride waiting until Sophie started after Mr. Jay. Now that she was not sneaking after them, the little fighter realized with some gosh-blush respect that Sophie ran very quickly for a dead girl-for any stupid girl.

And they were both fighters in their own way. Before long Conan was running at his top speed, doing his best to keep up to the dead girl’s easy stride. Out of the gloom, the Quinlan boys appeared. Their faces were sour lemons, and it was clear from their stances that they were blocking the way. We’re fuckity-fucked!

“The vent’s welded shut,” said the twin on the left.

“Can’t get in that way,” said the twin on the right with Liz stepping out from behind them. She was just about to light a cigarette when she saw Sophie. Liz scowled and the dead girl shifted behind Mr. Jay.

“What’s Sophie doing here?” said the forever girl, lighting her cigarette.

“She followed us,” Mr. Jay said, Conan looked up at the man and nodded his agreement. Stupid-stupid-spook! “And I told her to come with us.”

Liz groaned through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Well, she won’t come far, the ventilation shaft is welded tighter than a choirboy’s ass.” The Quinlan boys chuckled. So did Conan.

Mr. Jay shook his head, and then looked down at the metal stick in his hands. He raised it, sighting along its length. “I can get through, but didn’t want to draw attention yet.”

Conan saw the metal begin to glow and he smiled. He reflexively stroked the air with his kill-fist, being salt and pepper for a dust up. All that sneaking around was feeling like fingers over the lips and tiptoes and such, and nothing a young fighter would want to do.

But Sophie was moving, she stepped out in front of Mr. Jay shaking her head from side to side like a grandma and laid her long fingers across the back of his hand.

“What is it, Sophie?” Mr. Jay leaned over her, and Conan felt the battle cry in his mind going raspberry when the dead girl started to move the fingers of that hand like they were legs walking up a flight of stairs. Then she pointed to where the shadowy tunnel branched to the right. Sophie made a grunting noise and then pretended she was opening a door.

“There’s another way?” Mr. Jay’s voice was disbelieving. Conan was shaking his head now, catching the man’s gaze and wanting to go: See! See! Here’s the trouble. He frowned. “How do you know?”

But Sophie just nodded her head until her hair jumped around like spaghetti strings. Conan crossed his arms angrily. He was afraid the spook would do something like this and here she was bending the show over a stump.

“She might know,” Liz said, scratching her chin through a cloud of smoke, which drew a bunch of head nodding and hand flapping from the dead girl. She started pointing up the tunnel again as Liz continued, “Sophie escaped from the Tower, makes sense she might know a thing or two about getting back in. And, we didn’t find her right away. She spent years haunting these tunnels.”

“All right then,” Mr. Jay said, turning to Sophie. “Lead the way.”

And Sophie was so happy and nodded her head so much that her spirit even broke through Conan’s angry mood, and he could feel her smile behind that mask. He wondered if she could feel his.

59 – Smelly Nick

Felon stayed back in the shadows. Tiny covered the Marquis. The assassin wanted to be ready for Lucifer. He was bound to resent the intrusion. The Marquis led them a half mile through the sewer to a group of derelicts gathered around a fire.

They were in bad shape, living or dead wearing rags and tattered, either by body damage or boils and sores. Bottles moved from dirty hand to dirty hand. They whistled and made catcalls at the old transvestite. The Marquis fanned his cheeks like a southern belle. Felon shut them up by waving his gun.

The Marquis asked for Smelly Nick. They all pointed along the tunnel.

“He stays down by the main collection basin,” said a dead man, his missing lower lip replaced by a thin curtain of drool. “Likes the sound of runnin’ water!”

They walked into the shadows. Tiny kept a hand wrapped around the Marquis’ left arm and his gun pointed at the center of the powdered wig. The salesman had not stopped talking since they first set out.

“I got to talk to Lucifer,” he whispered excitedly over his shoulder.

“No promises,” Felon hissed. “Cover the Marquis.” The assassin watched for anyone following them. Felon’s troubles could become a lethal distraction if he wasn’t careful. He had to purge the noise in his head before he met Lucifer.

Balg wanted him dead. The Demon had tricked Felon into killing a powerful Angel.

Balg wanted the nun and he had coerced the Marquis, into kidnapping her.

All City of Light Authority was looking for her. He recognized her name, Karen Cawood: the Tower Builder. And the priest Felon killed she called Reverend Stoneworthy: the other Tower Builder. The Authority vehicles chasing them on the Skyway weren’t doing it for their health. The assassin couldn’t have kicked a bigger hornet’s nest.

He had hired three mercenaries to protect him. They were loyal as far as you could pay them-no farther. They were the type of dog that easily turned on its master.

So Felon had one road open to him. He had been reckless to keep killing Divine and Infernal creatures. But he liked it. That emotion blinded him to the danger. It was just a matter of time before he was in over his head. Killing them gave him a false sense of security.

Since Lucifer led a neutral gang, he might want to hire Felon’s gun and abilities. Staying neutral with all these competing interests sometimes required gunfire.

“Ahead,” the Marquis said in fluting tones.

The damp asphalt underfoot gave way to a slope of poured concrete. They moved up it. Felon’s senses scanned ahead. An echoing trickle gave the impression of a big body of water. But the smell said it wasn’t water.

“Tiny will kill you at my command,” Felon hissed in the Marquis’ ear. He snarled, “Predict that!”

Their footsteps echoed on the incline. Tiny played the flashlight over a wide space ahead dimly lit by lantern light. Four tunnels opened on a concrete platform that edged a body of water about thirty feet on a side. Seven pipes of varied diameter opened on the liquid and dripped or disgorged waste at intervals. The air was horrible. The Marquis pressed his scented hanky over his face and moaned.

At the far side of this pool was a ragged figure beside a shopping cart full of bulging plastic bags. The lantern hung from its handle.

The assassin had his gun out.

“Stay here,” he whispered to Tiny and then paced around the concrete platform. The derelict’s lantern made him a silhouette. The man was humming to himself, but suddenly stiffened. Clutching a plastic bag to his chest he turned.

“No!” he cried. “They’re mine!” He had a great mass of frizzy salt and pepper hair. The giant beard covering his gaunt cheeks was stained with wine and food. The man’s dark eyes crossed on the pistol-barrel, then slid up Felon’s arm to his face. A second of bewilderment followed, and then he lifted his eyebrows.

“Ah! It’s you. I heard about you.” He chuckled and dragged a round metal tin out of the bag, started to work at its plastic lid. “I thought you were going to rob me.” He chuckled as he struggled with the lid. “You’re that Quickdraw McGraw fellow…”

Felon glared.

“Quickdraw? Like a cowboy!” The Devil flicked a dirty hand in the air index finger out like a gun barrel. “Fast on the draw…” His eyes flashed around. Lucifer smiled. “Everybody talks about you.”

“Who?” Felon kept his gun up.

“Friends, Felon. Acquaintances…business people…” He laughed. “Them what’s scared of ya, as your cowpoke friend might say…” The Devil flicked his chin back down the tunnel. Then his eyes went serious. “Don’t let’s play stupid.”

“Why the pretense?” Felon looked Lucifer’s hobo costume over-he even had the fingers cut off his gloves.

“And you brought Kepheral!” He waved at the Marquis who nodded. He dug dirty nails under the lid, opened it and then picked a long flattened cigarette butt from the collection within. Lucifer leaned in close to Felon. “Pissed in his own bathwater this time.” He gestured with the can, offering him one.

The assassin shook his head.

“Yes, pretense-no reason for pomp.” Lucifer pinched the hand-rolled cigarette between his fingertips. “Sorry if I disappoint but things have changed?” He shook his head. “You can’t corrupt these people anymore. Declaration of Independence got things rolling…didn’t need any more than that…uh, I guess science had some impact, and Capitalism… The cult of the individual broke the tribes up… spirituality fell out of favor in the west, the real stuff. Just crystals and mood rings now.” He started coughing. The sound was wet and full of phlegm. He lit his cigarette with a wooden match, smiled around the smoke. “Fads and celebrities…people already put themselves before their brother and god. So…what’s the Devil to do?” He squinted his eyes in the lantern light. “But you didn’t come here for this.”

“Just an act.” Felon’s arm swept at Lucifer’s shabby clothes. He bared his teeth like a dog.

“Your certainty reminds me of faith,” Lucifer took another long drag on his cigarette. The smoke smelled like burning manure. “Would make me proud if I believed in pride any more.” He suddenly stood straighter. His posture slumped and he started laughing. “What do you want?”

Felon gauged the Devil. It was hard to read anything behind the full beard and rags. “Who set me up?”

“You haven’t figured that out?” Lucifer spit out bits of tobacco.

“No, lies.” The assassin shook his head. He gestured to the sewer walls and Lucifer’s shopping cart. “You command legions.”

“Command?” Lucifer smirked.

“Thousands,” Felon growled.

“And where would I lead them?” Lucifer asked with a grin. “My last little outing was not a screaming success.”

“You’re their leader,” Felon hissed.

The Devil looked at him sideways. His dark eyes gleamed. “You don’t get it.” He smiled. “It’s confusing, I know. That fucker John was out of his depth describing the revelation.” Lucifer shuffled over-his feet were wrapped in rope, old shoe and dirty cloth. His body odor was overpowering. “See, it was like a dream I guess, and he mixed the past events with the future.”

Felon turned his nose up, and Lucifer smiled. “Felon, I commanded legions in the Great Rebellion, but we lost. All of my loyal followers were damned for it.” He shrugged. “That kicked the shit out of my approval rating. I won’t lie to you, I have power-but I couldn’t get volunteers for a pussy eating contest.” Lucifer leveled his gaze. “I got them damned, Felon.”

“But you’ve continued your rebellion,” the assassin snarled.

“Here on earth?” the Devil asked. “Sure, in small ways but you know this isn’t Heaven, and tempting you Second-born into evil is too easy for someone of my skills. First thousand years or so, I really took it out on you. But, as your fear of religion faded, so did the fun of fucking with your immortal souls. People stopped talking about God and you can’t fall from grace if you don’t know what grace is… I can’t broke what ain’t fixed!” His eyes did an inward turn and then he smiled. “I had some good times during the Inquisition.”

“This?” Felon gestured to the Devil’s rotten clothing.

“I’m the King of Rebels, remember?” Lucifer said matter-of-factly. “And tempting horny housewives to blow the pool boy is a step or two beneath my station.” He shrugged. “Here’s a bit of that divine awareness, for you: My contempt for you people resulted in a contempt for their tormentor, moi!”

Felon turned away, his mind racing. He whipped back. “You’re not involved?”

“No more than any rat on a sinking ship!” Lucifer smiled and said, “Of course, I can be a spectator and enjoy the irony. Michael always had a taste for you Nodlings.” He shook his head. “He loved bouncing little Nephilim on his knee. I knew it would get him in the end.”

“Nephilim?” Felon stabbed his face at Lucifer. “Michael?”

“Nephilim are human-Angel hybrids. We’re forbidden to create that way.” Lucifer started gathering his bags together. “But that’s what you need to find out: who had the most to gain from the fall of Archangel Michael?” He turned, a puzzled look on his face as he studied Felon’s expression. “Wait.” He pointed a tattered glove. “You didn’t know?” He punched one fist into the other and laughed. “Ah kid you’re in the big leagues and you didn’t even know.”

Felon’s mind traveled back to the scene. He had walked up to Travers’ condominium. He knew something was wrong the moment his mark let him in like he was expected, but it was too late to break off the attack. The big man was well over six feet, with good skin but was otherwise unremarkable. He asked: “What twist of clay dares scold me? Damn them for making me meet you.” The man had stepped up to Felon and whispered, “Love is not for humanity alone.”

Felon drew and fired into his face. The man changed with the first hit. As the bullets struck, his body reformed. An Angel nine feet tall stood there-his wings spanning twenty feet. He was wrapped in golden armor and swinging a flaming sword. The being roared-and the house shook. Felon emptied the clip into his face but the Angel completed his swing. The low roof caught most of the force. Only the tip of the blade pierced the assassin’s shoulder. Felon reloaded and fired into the Angel’s head while drawing a big. 44 magnum. The Angel howled again. Felon’s blood caught fire, and flame shot back down the sword. The Angel burst into a white blaze. After the thing evaporated the assassin checked the kitchen. The woman was dead. A stray bullet took her head off.

“You figure out who wanted Michael dead,” the Devil said, pulling him from reverie, “and you’ve got your man, or Angel, or Demon.

“Balg?” Felon’s spirit burned with anger.

“He’s powerful.” Lucifer nodded. “From the old Pantheon and ambitious enough.”

“Working with the Marquis,” Felon murmured.

“Also ambitious,” the Devil agreed. “And one of Michael’s.”

“Two families,” Felon said with a sigh. “Where’s God in all of this?”

“We don’t keep in touch.” Lucifer finished repacking his shopping cart. He pushed it toward the far tunnel, its wheels rattled.

Felon’s mind was ablaze with betrayal.

“I can’t say much more without putting myself in the path of those guns of yours some day.” Lucifer studied Felon. “I’d be dead already if I was connected. It’s possible Michael was a dry run. They’re afraid of what would happen if I got whacked.” He smoothed his rags and looked upward. “His favorite and all.”

Felon shrugged.

Lucifer pushed his possessions deeper into the tunnel when he paused.

“Salesman!” he shouted to Tiny. “Barter what you have!” Then he turned back to Felon. “ He’s ambitious too.” As he pushed his cart past he said, “A bunch of us play chess down at the waterfront.”

60 – Skirmish

The rough terrain northwest of the City of Light made travel slow and painful. It was three o’clock. The army had been marching for twenty-three hours and made excellent progress. A force that did not tire assured it, but rolling hills and winding roads were taking their toll. They had traveled sixty miles and would soon reach the terrain that would give them their first sight of the sprawling City.

The army was crawling through a valley south of the wide expanse they had just crossed. The region was hilly, and though the shortcut brought them back to the highway, detouring around tall chunks of rock was wearing on all those feet. Dead skin was as tough as leather once it dried, and could take the wear and tear, but a forced march on asphalt was damaging. The minister had met several in the ranks with feet worn right to the bone. They claimed it gave them a better grip.

Stoneworthy sat on a chunk of granite to examine his feet. Thoughts of erosion had begun to plague him. His hands would wear through in time. Already, the palms felt flat, and were clearly etched with drying ligaments and bone. Heaven preserve me! He made a mental note to get gloves and to pay special attention to his feet. Being newly dead was an experience that could leave permanent damage during the adjustment period. His thoughts drifted over the march.

The track had been arduous and the pace punishing. They had to make room in supply trucks for dead whose lower extremities had splintered or disintegrated. Still able to make a contribution to the effort, Updike was unwilling to leave them behind. But how long would that last? Stoneworthy shuddered at the thought of leaving any of his dead comrades behind.

“War is extreme.” Updike had told him in an effort to rouse his courage. “And we cannot flinch.” In conversations with Oliver Purdue, Stoneworthy had determined that their military leaders had built in contingency plans for the eventuality that would force them to abandon soldiers. “We’ll leave them with enough oil and water to stay hydrated, and return if we can.”

But Stoneworthy understood the plan’s flaw. The area they traveled was home to wild animals, and pets abandoned after the Change. After domesticated animals turned on people, humanity was forced to destroy those they could. But the numbers of feral pets was staggering, as the wilderness grew. The result was a landscape that teamed with roving packs of wolf-like dogs, bloodthirsty cats and murderous bears. The Change had reversed man’s dominion over the animals.

Attacks had been reported. Four hours into the march, a dead soldier plummeted to his destruction when harried by flock of birds. Shortly after, a dead medic was dragged into the woods and dismembered by unidentified animals-her head was never found. Two hours before, advance scouts ran afoul of a group of wild pigs. Three soldiers were lost before their firepower could be brought to bear.

“Extremity breeds courage,” Updike had said, “Brother, we will do what we can, but this war, win or lose will end it all.”

Those difficulties aside, Stoneworthy struggled with their greater losses. The southernmost army had been decimated and scattered by the Prime’s nuclear weapon. Tens of thousands perished in the blast and thousands more in the firestorm. The high temperatures ignited oil-soaked corpses far from ground zero. General Lorenzo was trying to rally his forces.

General Carstairs and the southwestern force were downwind of the blast. They were digging up Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels. Stoneworthy felt the weight of doom overhead as they marched in the open. City Defense reconnaissance aircraft sent waves of panic when they passed.

General Bolton and his officers insisted that the City Defense force’s use of nuclear weapons this close to home was doomed to fail. A random wind, mixed with the Change’s incessant rainfall would leave the City open to eventual self-contamination-and it was the last City in Westprime. Bolton said that was the reason for building the Army of God this close to the City in the first place. A forced march would put them on their doorstep before they considered sustained use of nuclear weapons.

The force that marched from the south was at risk because of its greater distance. Though the loss was horrible it proved the point. The City was reluctant to bring nukes into operation. Bolton assured Updike that the blast was a warning. And he insisted nuclear weapons were the least of their problems. A wide variety of conventional weapons could cause as much and more damage.

Whatever the tactical message of the blast, Stoneworthy felt it too deeply to ever pass it off as less than holocaust. As thousands of his brothers were vaporized, a deep pain ripped through him. He had never felt so violated. It seemed that the rest of the force had experienced it-a shared terror as the dead were consumed by nuclear fire. He’d never forget the moments that followed the flash. There was a lull in movement-a palpable loss of all direction. A hush fell over the army as the realization sank in.

Dead eyes had looked desperately around then rose to the heavens. A quiet rustling filled the night that grew in pitch until it fell in upon the listener like an avalanche. A howling sound rose up from thousands of dead throats. Desiccated mouths dropped open, ragged lips drew back, and a deep, horrible cry rose up against the leaden sky. Stoneworthy felt it, shared it with the other dead. The power of its sounding would have torn his heart in two had it been a living organ.

After it, Updike had retreated to his jeep. He sat there, his round face white, his eyes hollow, as though the sound, and the vision of so many thousand dead men and women howling were too much even for his powerful faith. He wore a look of confusion, of frustration that was distorting his thoughts to apocalyptic proportions. His hands were fists.

As the howls’ reverberations died to a terrible background radiation of its own, Stoneworthy had crossed the camp to talk to his friend. Updike was there, holding his hand over his left eye, his skin was gray, his open eye streaked with red. He struggled to smile, produced a crippled grin. The preacher forced himself upright, climbed out of the jeep.

“Captain Updike?” Stoneworthy’s voice echoed in his head. The passing of the howl had left his senses buzzing. “Are you well?”

Updike dropped his hands, smirked and cleared his throat. He brushed his forehead with the back of his sleeve. It came away dark with perspiration. “Yes, Reverend Stoneworthy. I am well.”

Stoneworthy insisted that Updike follow him to the medical tent. The Captain refused. He tried to understand Updike’s refusal. Something was wrong, it was clear, and the condition was getting the better of him. The minister decided to consult the medics on his own. He would suggest they talk to their leader. The army needed Updike’s vitality…

An explosion sounded to the east pulling him from his reverie. Then, repetitive popping sounds. Stoneworthy leapt to his feet. Boot in hand, he hurried through a tangle of grass at the side of the highway. A line of trees in the distance was coming alive with smoke and flashes of light. Cold fog obscured his view. Ambush!

A high-pitched whistling sound was followed by the eruption of a supply truck. It exploded in a ball of fire. The concussion sent a wave of force that flipped a jeep over and tossed soldiers in the air. More snapping sounds. Gunfire!

Another explosion.

Stoneworthy ran across the slippery slope toward Updike’s jeep. He saw the preacher lying in the ditch beside the road. His face was a twist of misery. Stoneworthy laid a hand on his shoulder. The whistling sound of an incoming shell forced them both to bury their faces in the dirt. The earth heaved up and hit Stoneworthy’s face. Another truck was burning.

“The City had to be warned!” Updike screamed, wincing with pain. “To be fair. We had to give them a chance.” He pushed aside his discomfort and doubt for a moment to look around. A soldier was there. “Where’s Bolton?”

The man’s face had been torn by a piece of flying debris. His lower jaw showed bony white.

“He ran along the convoy!” He struggled to push his face back together. “To lead an attack!”

“Oh God!” Updike’s face was gray.

“Captain? You must not doubt. As you told me about this war, the realities are extreme.” Stoneworthy ducked. New snapping, popping sounds rose up from the line of trees. He wanted to look, but his stomach twisted at the notion. “You cannot doubt yourself now.”

He took a quick glance-snapped his head up and over the side of the ditch. In the distance, he saw a long line of dead soldiers moving slowly, methodically toward the line of trees. Their guns were popping now-throwing plumes of smoke at the forest. Angry lead tore at the cover of leaves. A long line of flame lashed out from a copse of cedar and splashed across a section of the advancing force. Soldiers danced like burning puppets.

“You cannot doubt this.” Stoneworthy pressed his dead lips close to Updike’s ear. This is what we came to do. “We must not let anything stand in the way of the Lord!” He clambered to his knees. “By the hand of God are we commanded, and by His word we shall not fail!” Stoneworthy gained his feet. Further down the line another truck burst into flames. He saw that the dead soldiers had risen. Bullets whizzed among them, mangled, dismembered, but they were thousands, many thousands. And bullets no longer wounded, no longer killed.

Stoneworthy raised his arms to the Army of the Dead. “My brothers and sisters.” He pointed toward the line of trees. “There lies the path of Righteousness.” It was two hundred yards to the trees. Stoneworthy marched, and as he marched forty thousand marched with him. The air hissed and buzzed with bullets, a long section of the trees were already a flaming ruin. But they marched. The Army of the Dead was too large to fill so small a section of highway, and as he moved forward, Stoneworthy saw the dead following-hurrying down the road to join in the battle. They limped, scurried and ran.

“For God!” Stoneworthy bellowed. “For God!”

A dead soldier beside him was torn in two by a large round. Stoneworthy was gratified to see the gory remains of the man following, crawling, inching his way toward the battle. “For God!” Stoneworthy ran thirty yards and paused at the remains of another soldier. His body was a cruel twist of ripped tissue and exposed ganglion, but his eyes moved. They looked at the Reverend and over to a rifle gripped in a severed hand in the grass.

“Peace brother.” Stoneworthy whispered.

Picking up the rifle, he fired a shot into the air. “Now, my brothers and sisters!” Those near him smiled and raised their weapons. Even as he spoke an enemy bullet tore the arm off a woman. She picked up her weapon with the other. “Destroy the moneylenders! For God!”

Another howl went up through the army, an echo of the despairing sound of the day before but somehow the opposite. Instead of isolation and pain, it rang with solidarity and vengeance. Holding his own weapon high, Stoneworthy charged with his soldiers into the murderous hailstorm of bullets.

****

PART THREE

****

61 – Nursie

“It’s for Nursie,” Dawn whispered, showing Meg the blank slip of paper with a shrug. They sat side by side on Meg’s bed. The other forever children were milling in groups playing games or off by themselves reading ridiculous children’s books or napping.

“It’s for Nursie,” Meg looked at the paper but wouldn’t touch it. She glanced at the clock over the door. “That note means she’ll be coming…”

“Is she a nurse?” Dawn patted her friend’s shoulder.

“Sort of.” Meg looked back, fear in her eyes. The forever girl shook her head. “She’s like the Principal: different inside.”

“What do you mean?” Dawn whispered.

“Nothing,” Meg said soberly. “She gives checkups and takes temperatures.”

Suddenly the speaker over the door buzzed.

“And so…” said a voice over the loud speaker. It was female by gravelly and huge. “All being dem slechte kinderen for slaap.” The loud speaker let out an electronic shriek and was silent. “Naptime!”

All of the kids ran to their beds.

“It’s her.” Meg pushed Dawn toward her bed and started smoothing out her own covers and sheets. “Do the same!” she cried, and then sat on the edge of the mattress with ankles crossed and hands folded in her lap.

Dawn saw that all the kids were doing the same, straightening their beds and sitting as Meg had done. The dead childcare workers scurried to take up their positions in chairs along the walls.

The dormitory’s double doors banged, and then jiggled on their hinges. Then a massive woman pushed the doors wide, took a step forward and stopped. Her body was so heavy and wide that it wedged firmly into place in the doorframe. The woman frowned bashfully and then set two large hands to either side of the doorframe. She kicked once, twice and heaved herself into the room.

Dawn had never seen a grownup that big before. She even looked taller than Arthur at the Nurserywood and he was a giant.

Nursie wore a huge white uniform-skirt and nurse’s hat. Her wide, fat legs were covered in tight white silk and looked like fat uncooked sausages. Her feet were big and chubby, stuffed into rubber-soled shoes. The buttons running up the front of her dress were close to popping.

“Nightynacht,” she sang in a voice like a female foghorn. She paused inside the door, with palms pressed together, fingers pointed downward, and elbows out with all of her weight on one foot. “Dem good children!”

Nursie had a mop of bleached hair that hung down over her collar in fuzzy strands. This cut across her brow under a red-trimmed nurse’s hat, and over deep-set eyes. Her face was like an ogre’s: splayed nostrils, heavy cheekbones and lopsided chin. Thick rouge festered under her cavernous eye sockets. The eyeliner shone metallic blue in the shadow, and bounced a hint of glimmer on the dark eyes. Her lips were cucumber-sized and stood out from her powdered face like welts. Many layers of gloss traveled two inches past the edges of her lips. The red on her powdered skin looked like blood. Large yellow teeth gnashed in her wide mouth.

“Sugar plums and feen and rest,” she croaked. Nursie clasped her hands under her chin and stepped farther into the room, breath rumbling in her chest. “Sogni dolci.”

The woman then bent over the closest bed and ran a long-fingered hand over the child sitting there. She smiled and chirped something, and patted the little head before moving to the next child. Nursie’s movements were very feminine despite her massive shape. The whole while, Dawn noticed Nursie’s eye kept wandering to her.

When the woman got to Dawn’s bed, she stopped. A large smile spread over the masculine features, and a gleam appeared in her eyes.

Dawn held up the Doctor’s slip.

Nursie peered at it and then gave a massive shake of her head. She drew a foot-long flat box out of a large pocket on the front of her dress. She set it on the bed and flipped it open. There was a white dress, leotards, shoes and veil inside.

“You no need nursing, no,” said Nursie, her enormous lips blurred with lurid red lipstick. “De Prime he say you special girl.” The woman looked Dawn over. She shook her massive head and a light shower of powder rained down. Her carefully waxed eyebrows lurched out of sight under the dirty blonde bang.

“No, little chienne.” Nursie laid a thick-nailed hand on Dawn’s head and ruffled the curly hair. “De Doctor hem say no. Hem say, this one, I no touch…” Nursie brought her face in close. Her sour damp breath made the forever girl’s skin crawl. Nursie pressed her large nose to Dawn’s head and neck and started snuffling like a dog. “Nuff,” she snuffled, and then to Dawn’s utter amazement, the woman licked the back of her neck, starting right at the nape and licking upward, the big wet tongue pushed her hair forward.

“No touch, hem say, for Nursie-no touch!” Nursie shook her head, lips smacking, and then her eyes caught Meg in the next bed. She grabbed for the girl. “Ou les viandes douces…”

Meg let out a squeak and tried to leap out of the way but Nursie lifted her up by the left wrist. The monstrous woman started snuffling and licking Meg under the arm. Then to Dawn’s utter embarrassment, the woman blew Meg’s nightshirt aside with a puff of breath and snuffled at her friend’s legs and crotch, bouncing the girl on her oversized mouth and nose. Then Nursie dropped Meg absentmindedly onto the bed. She turned back to Dawn, licking her lips.

“Nein…” Nurse said; her dark eyes lost in mascara and shadow. “Same. The same. Not First-mother no.” Then a bright gleam entered the woman’s eyes. “Mayhap your scent tells Nursie, why.” The enormous woman shifting her enormous shoulders and head forward to bend forward at the waist. She braced her great weight against her knees. Her nose was snuffling; the nostrils gleamed with mucous. Her gigantic tongue flicked out, smeared her lipstick farther onto her cheeks. She inched forward. “La primera madre?”

Dawn inched toward her headboard, disgust like a tight wire running up her spine. Nursie reached out, but fell forward and caught her weight on the bed. The other kids started chanting Dawn’s name, and were now standing on their beds watching the spectacle. Meg crawled off her bed and stumbled away. Tears covered the forever girl’s cheeks, and the sight filled Dawn with anger.

“To taste,” Nursie moaned, drool hanging from her chin. “First Moeder!”

“ Run!” said the grownup voice in Dawn’s head but something stronger held her in place. Instead, she smacked Nursie on her big round nose. The impact sent a fine cloud of powder drifting onto the bed. Nursie froze, amazement on her face and the room went quiet.

Dawn moved away now, slid to the side of her bed and off as the first quiver and tremble ran up the horrible woman’s arms. Her massive shoulders began to shake. Her skin was turning purple. Nursie’s eyes suddenly burned red from beneath the bleached bang and her lips curled away from her teeth.

“Whore!” Nursie hissed. Dawn saw now that something was changing in the woman. The skin on her face began to shift and shimmer, grow thin, and stretch back over bone. And as it did this, Dawn saw the first hint of something under there. Nursie’s enormous breasts, barely covered by the taut fabric of her dress, like the material began to thin, began to shift toward translucent.

“Slut!” the woman bellowed and pushed herself back onto her legs, but Dawn could see that those were changing too. Gone were the thick calves and fat feet jammed into shoes. In their place were gnarled, fingerlike toes on broad muscular paws. The legs were hairless and bowed outward from a long female gash of scarlet flesh. As Nursie’s shape flickered back and forth, Dawn saw glimpses of the long and weasel-like body beneath. The heavy torso sprang up to thin arms with catching claws. Spaced up the front of the long abdomen at intervals were thick purple nipples leaking yellow milk or pus. And flickering back to her barely human over-make-upped face, Nursie shifted again, and the features beneath were monstrous. Long teeth, ravenous red eyes in a head that tapered to a thick neck covered in bright red muscle. She shifted back to human form and back to monster.

The forever children, shocked first into silence, now screamed and leapt off their beds, running and clambering away from Nursie, as the monster-thing took two hesitant steps toward Dawn.

“La primera madre.” The thing swung its head, and Dawn felt saliva and drool fleck her bare legs as she cowered against the wall.

“De First-whore!” Nursie flickered back to her human form and back to monster as she took a slavering step forward. The mammoth tongue dropped out, dribbling saliva and Nursie snapped her long teeth. “Nursie mangia la prostituta!”

And the head coiled back on the long neck and flicked forward like a serpent strike. Dawn barely rolled out of the way in time. She came up under Meg’s bed, and then pushed herself toward the wall. Drool pooled on the tiles as Dawn’s heart pounded in her chest. Nursie’s enormous alien feet stamped toward the bed.

“Hem say Nursie no bother girl!” Nursie’s voice had changed too. It was bestial and her oversized teeth tore the words. “Nursie say much bother!” A long-taloned hand whipped down and seized the side of the bed.

Dawn screamed as it was flung away and Nursie loomed over her. Saliva dribbled down in streams, Dawn shrank from its hot touch.

“Nursie take little bite!” the monster said and smiled.

“NURSIE!” a voice shouted over the din of screaming forever children.

The monster turned quickly, already Dawn could see its shape sliding and flickering back to its human form.

The Doctor was storming up the aisle between the beds. He was carrying his black bag and was wearing a blood-spattered medical robe.

“Nursie!” he repeated as he came near. His eyes were wild with terror. “The Prime said the First-mother must not be touched.”

Nursie’s body was shifting and shrinking in size. Her head, now human and hideously make-upped, was bowed. Her long blonde locks fell forward.

“Nursie worried-poor girl,” the large woman whined, gestured to Dawn. The forever girl watched with horror as the woman’s dress knitted up the side, replacing hideous skin with cotton whiteness.

“Do as you’re told!” the Doctor barked, marching up and seizing Dawn’s arm. He yanked her to her feet. She was trembling. Her skin crawled under the man’s touch.

“You,” Nursie hissed, face wrinkling as she spoke. She moved her oversized features close to the Doctor’s face. “You no tell Nursie what she do.” Nursie shook her massive head. “Prime, hem Boss of Nursie.”

And the gigantic woman turned on her heel. She stamped across the room pausing for a moment by a group of cowering children. “Oh!” she exclaimed, looking down at the gathering. They were backed against a wall. “Naughty kids!” she crowed and caught a pair of boys with her large hands. They screamed as she pulled them close. “Bathe de dirty boys.” She snuffled at their chests and licked their faces, then carried them screaming from the room.

“See what you’ve done?” the Doctor scolded shaking Dawn by the arm as the doors closed behind Nursie.

The forever girl’s face was wet with tears. “I didn’t…”

“You did!” The Doctor bent over and glared into her face. “You were lucky this time! Those boys weren’t. Forget them!” He squeezed until her arm throbbed around his fingertips. “Nursie was too curious about you!”

Dawn tried to pull free of the man. She saw the other children were shaking off their terror and moving away from the tight groups they’d formed. When the Doctor let go Dawn ran to her bed. She threw herself on it sobbing.

He yelled something and stormed out. Two dead workers started straightening up Nursie’s mess with mop and pail.

There was a tug at her sleeve. She looked up to see Meg’s tear-stained face. The little girl climbed into bed with her and hugged her.

“Don’t worry,” Meg whispered, “it wasn’t your fault.”

62 – Aftermath

Stoneworthy looked at his hands. Christ went to Hell for us, cannot I? They were numb from shock and concussion. They were red with blood. He stumbled on a ragged limb, a leg. He couldn’t react. His face had already frozen into a mask of horror. All around him bodies laid, those who were dead before the battle maintained a semblance of life. Moving, twitching shapes intertwined with contortions of pain that transcended the physical. He had thrown his gun away. It ran out of bullets by the time the armies met. The minister was forced to use it as a club. He jerked free of a tangle of clutching body parts. Moaning filled the air. His own mouth quivered with broken words. The new death he had experienced did not spare him the smell of burnt flesh.

… man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusts always contrary to the Spirit…

He slapped at his clothing, tried to tear a swatch of fabric from his coat to tie over his nose; but his hands did not have the strength or dexterity. Stoneworthy’s eyes were heavy, but his tears were spent. He looked to the Heavens, raised a fist at the growing gloom. The battle had lasted to nightfall. The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

“Father!” he growled, his lips too dry for speech. “God!” His feet slipped on blood-spattered grass, tipping him down a slope. Stoneworthy rolled until a thicket of young apple trees stopped him. On his back, the minister glared at the sky. Anger clenched his heart like a vice. His dead lungs crackled and burned. “I call upon you, Father!” The horror of his zeal tried to drag him back into the abyss of fury. He threw an arm over his eyes to push the feeling away. No more. “ I cannot turn and prepare myself, by my own natural strength and good works…”

He remembered a living young man, a defender of the City-perhaps pre-Change twenty. Stoneworthy knew that the Change made the truth of it a mystery. But he looked so young, so frightened, when the Army of the Dead clambered through the burning hail of bullets. The dead overwhelmed him. His machine gun hung in his hands, a useless thing-as horror paralyzed him. He screamed when he saw Stoneworthy’s lifeless rage, screamed when Stoneworthy beat him with his rifle. Screamed when he died.

“It’s not me!” the minister wept to the Heavens. “I cannot do this!” But he knew that was a lie, and it dragged him down.

… the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation .

Hours later they found Stoneworthy. A special detachment of soldiers had been assigned to check through the bodies for him. He was just regaining consciousness when they stumbled upon him. The relieved men took him to the command center set up in the shadow of Updike’s transport.

The Army of the Dead had won the battle. There were considerable losses for both sides, and the ranks of the untested troops had broken down in the end, and become despairing mobs-weeping as they killed. General Bolton was busy reforming his troops into effective fighting units. Captain Updike still walked among the survivors holding his temple. Pain constricted his features and made them smaller, less extravagant-less believable. There was a fire burning to the north. That was where the casualties had gone, those that had been dismembered or pulverized and could no longer find it in themselves to go on. Watching the gray smear of smoke rising, Stoneworthy prayed for the souls as the bodies were consumed. Did Heaven or Hell await them? The Change had altered everything. He was an example of that.

By the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives…

Me