"What would an angel say - the Devil wants to know."
--Fiona Apple, "Criminal"
Downtown Los Angeles hadn't changed all that much, post-Millennium. The same throngs crammed the full width of every sidewalk, from the graffiti-stained granite bases of glass office towers to the neverending gridlock on the streets. The same obstacles channeled the streams of pedestrian traffic, too: rickety wooden booths piled with telenovelas and sun-faded Asian swimsuit beauties, stacks of boxes full of last year's shoes, flimsy electronics and flyblown foodstuffs, all mixed up with the same makeshift cardboard housing that crowded every urban street, everywhere in America.
I was on my way back west, still on foot, after an arduous bus trip to this month's post-Rapture auto auction. This time it'd been at an impound lot way out Valley Boulevard, halfway to Rosemead. Plenty of decent vehicles had been listed in the Weekly, but by the time I got to the lot all that were left were the wrecks, cars that had taken serious damage after careening driverless off the freeways. Nothing worth taking over even at heavenly price discounts.
So I was still walking in the city where nobody walks, surrounded by thousands of pedestrians who'd never heard that song and wouldn't have cared if they had. Old downtown habits came back quickly; I kept one hand hovering near my wallet and the other in my jacket pocket, clutching the bus transfer that was rapidly turning to pulp in my sweaty palm. My precautions wouldn't stop a determined attacker but at least I'd know when I was being ripped off.
Then I tripped over the sprawled legs of a skeletal junkie, filthy gray coat wrapped tightly around him even in this late-summer heat. A clawed hand reached out and grabbed my ankle as he spoke in a phlegmy rattle.
"Hey! You! Ever talk to uh angel?"
Sick as he sounded, his grip was surprisingly strong. I couldn't pull away, at least not without kicking myself free. Startled as I was, I couldn't bring myself to do that to someone who looked and sounded so frail.
Besides, there was something familiar about his face.
The junkie's eyes leered up at me crazily from beneath matted blond locks. He let go of my ankle, sure he had me hooked, and his other hand swirled in the air, beckoning me to sit down on the pavement beside him. The crowds passing by never even slowed as I dropped down next to him.
"As a matter of fact, yeah, I-"
"I don't mean any of that fuckin' Angelspeake jive, man. Ain't no faked-up Weejee boards with fuckin' clouds on 'em here. I mean, you ever talk to a REAL angel? Lou?"
How the Hell did he know my name? I took a closer look at him as he shifted position, his coat rising around his shoulders like a dirty gray cape of... feathers. All at once I knew where I'd seen him before, blowing horn in a bar, up on stage with a hot jazz band, shortly after he'd decided to quit his day job as the Archangel responsible for signaling the start of Armageddon.
"Gabriel? Gabe! What happened to you? Where's Mike? Where's your horn?"
He chuckled thickly.
"Last one first, m'friend. Hocked the horn when I couldn't get me a job w'thout a GED or a union card. Ol' Beelzebub wouldn't hire me even if I'd work for his sorry ass anyway. He's had this town sewn up for years, even before-"
"Aah, he sucked as a drummer, man. Licks were okay but" Gabriel's tone got sarcastic "His High and Mightiness the Archangel Michael couldn't get his attitude wrapped around not being the frontman, so he went back to his old job. The sap."
"So the big man took him back?"
"Huh. Yeah. Took me back, too, after I found out how hard it is to make it as a musician in this town if you don't pay to play. Got to hand it to Him for that, the forgiveness bit ain't all just talk... but He still wouldn't let me get my horn out of hock as soon as I got back. Said I had to work it off first, as a lesson."
"So what are you doing here? You quit again?"
He started laughing. The laughter turned into a coughing fit that sat him up on the sidewalk. I moved to put my arm around him, to try to contain the tremors that racked him, but he waved me off. His wings billowed out involuntarily, almost knocking me over, as I scrambled a few feet down the sidewalk.
When he calmed down a little he wheezed something I was now too far away to hear.
He spoke up, and you could hear pure angelic tones in his voice even through the crackle of phlegm and the diction of the street.
"Naw, Lou, I didn't quit. I got downsized."
I figured that despite my own currently dire financial circumstances, I could stand to buy the ex-Archangel Gabriel lunch in return for an explanation. He led me to an old bento place nearby, hardly bigger than a phone booth, where the staff spoke only !Kung and the single plastic table guaranteed us privacy. Gabe spoke while digging through the greasy fried things in the box with his grimy fingers. His words created their own images in my mind, and I stopped sipping at my saki to watch the story unfold...
They'd been massed in Heaven's throne room as usual, thousands of angels and souls saved from perdition, all crowded together singing hosannahs. I'd never been able to see the point of the constant praise, myself, but they seemed to enjoy it. Gabriel was down near the front, resplendent in white samite, as befitted the prodigal returned. He held his hands at his sides, but they kept stirring restlessly, unsure what to do without the comfort of his horn.
Then the Pearly Gates opened with a resounding crash, and in they walked, brazen as only Hell could be. Satan came first, followed at discreet distances by a couple of archdemons, some bigwigs from Dis looking around like yokels come to the big city, and about a hundred lawyers, some of 'em still smoking from the Pit they'd just crawled up out of. Saint Peter scurried up behind them, wringing his hands.
"They have a writ, O Lord!" he cried. "I could not gainsay them entry."
Beelzebub did, in fact, carry a long piece of foolscap, a little scorched around the edges, impaled on one gory claw. He rattled it in front of Jehovah's face.
"That's right, suckers. I got more than that, too. I got THIS!"
An outraged Lord snatched the parchment from Satan's grip, holding it close to his face and scanning the microscopic print that seemed to go on for longer than the page, mumbling phrases here and there. "... leveraged buyout... hostile takeover... receivership... holding company incorporated.... new owners of Heaven EVIL, INC.?"
That last came out in the sort of roar of which only the Old Testament God was capable, silencing the rustling of the angels' wings and cowing the babble of Satan's minions. It even blasted the smirk off Beelzebub's own face, for a moment, before he recovered his composure. He did, after all, have the upper hand.
His Underness yawned, in fact, to show his unconcern. A noxious green cloud rolled out, wilting several of the nearest halos.
"I figured, why waste my time and risk my hide in an Armageddon you were supposedly so much of a lock to win, when I have so many other... tools... at my disposal?" he purred. The herd of attorneys at his back rustled appreciatively. Or perhaps it was apprehensively. "You've been bought out, you old goat. I'm your new boss. But not for long..."
Satan paused a beat.
"You're FIRED! Damn me, that felt good!"
Yahweh turned a purple that clashed horribly with the piping on his robes. But there was nothing he could do - he couldn't break the law, of course, and he had no armies of corporate attorneys at his disposal to counter the weight of carbonized jurisprudence amassed before him. Omniscient or not, in fact, Yahweh would be hard-pressed to find even one expert attorney among the dozen or so who'd been admitted to Heaven since the beginning of the profession... something about success in legal wrangling seemed to preclude the sort of uncompromising purity of heart God was so big on.
While Yahweh fumed, Satan went among the Heavenly Hosts, pointing and chuckling as he selected the relative few of the Elect he wanted to keep around. He made a stab at keeping some of the old guard for continuity's sake, but he seemed to prefer the younger ones, who hadn't been present for the original War and didn't know what that rebellion had cost. Some of the ones he wanted quit on their own, of course, but most didn't get the choice - most of Heaven's upper management got purged right there.
Gabe was among the ones who quit without bothering to find out if Satan had a place for them in the new organization. Lost all angelic restraint, in fact; flipped Satan the old two-handed bird and flew down to Earth without even cleaning out his old office on Pearly Way.
Hornless and now jobless, Gabriel went back to the only place he knew, to the Edenic climate and Hellish society of Southern California, but when he couldn't find work there he gradually let himself get sucked into the downward spiral of drugged degradation that led him to the street where he'd grabbed my ankle.
Gabriel's story explained a lot that had puzzled me, knowing Jehovah even as distantly as I had - explained why the monthly Raptures had started so suddenly, for instance, and why billboards with the slogan "In My House are many mansions - and even more affordable condos!" had started springing up all around the Basin, outnumbering even the Angelyne billboards.
"So," I asked, "where'd Jehovah go? Where COULD he go?"
Gabe chuckled at that.
"Believe it or not, he's the new CEO at Apple."
That explained one of the biggest mysteries of all - as well as why their new chief had been keeping such a low profile.
"And where's Mike now?"
All of a sudden Gabe seemed very nervous.
"Dunno. I mostly lost track of the old network pretty quick. Hey, thanks for the meal, man. I gotta see a man about a horse."
By the time I got my feet off the rail underneath the table, Gabriel was on his feet and halfway out the door.
I'd thrown a ten on the table for the tip and was standing up to follow Gabriel out, when he sat back down abruptly, a big hand on his shoulder pressing downward without apparent effort.
I looked up, and up...
Beaming down at me, looking incredibly well-fed and healthy, was the Archangel Michael. He was dressed in what I could tell was an expensive linen suit, dyed a pale green color - celadon? - that was probably supposed to be cutting edge but ended up clashing not-so-subtly with his ruddy face.
"Siddown, Gabe. Lou! Have a seat. Nice to see ya again. And you, Gabe, of course."
"Always a pleasure," Gabriel muttered sourly, bringing up his hand to rub his shoulder where Michael had gripped it, but doing as he was told. So did I, for that matter.
Michael commandeered the only other chair in the tiny bento shop and turned it around backward to sit at the table with us, leaning over the plastic back and making it bend alarmingly.
"Speak of the devil!" I said. "We were just talking about you."
"Aww, he's not so bad," Michael boomed. "Just takes a little getting used to."
I'd just meant that as a figure of speech.
"I figured I could do more good as part of the transition team, smoothing the takeover, than I could by making futile gestures like drugging myself to perdition."
Gabe didn't even look up at that gibe.
"And I feel appreciated, now; I hadn't felt like that with Yahweh for a long time, even before I joined up and then got kicked out of my friend's band..."
Gabriel glared balefully but didn't say anything. He seemed diminished in Michael's presence, more the junkie and less the angel than ever since he'd started telling me the story of the takeover.
Michael continued. "Look, guys, I'm glad I caught you both in one place. The Boss - the new Boss, that is - has decided that he wants you both in the fold, so to speak. You've got talents he can use to keep the troops in line, and he tells me he can't do it all himself anymore - the organization's just gotten too big since the merger. I'm prepared to make a very handsome offer... can't we talk?"
Gabe shoved his chair back from the table in disgust.
"How many times I gotta say I'm not interested, Mike? You always were an asshole, but you used to know when to shut up."
Michael ignored Gabriel's outrage, which quickly faded without further fuel. Gabe dithered for a minute or two, eyeing Michael's place between him and the door, before sitting back down.
"Lou? You haven't said anything. Want in?"
I didn't want to say anything. Working for my namesake hadn't been all I'd expected it to be, even in the days when I'd lost all hope. I wasn't going back, any more than Gabe could go in.
But I couldn't look Michael in the face. I couldn't let him see how part of me, despite everything, was tempted by the offer.
"Not interested," I mumbled, knowing that either way I was letting myself in for some trouble to come.
Michael sighed, a big man's sigh that strained the seams of his suit jacket. He gripped the back of the chair with both hands as he rose to his feet.
"Suit yourselves. But you're missing a ground-floor opportunity with the biggest-growing organization in the Afterlife... and the Boss may not be willing to take you back forever, you know."
Gabe and I shared a look. We knew.
"One more thing, before I go," Mike said casually. "Seen the kid around?"
I hadn't, but I watched Gabe tense up as he tried desperately to remain calm. No one had seen Jesus, as far as I knew, since his last appearance on Oprah six months ago. I found myself wondering what Gabriel knew, but now wasn't the time to pursue it.
"Nope," I said.
"Me neither," Gabe chimed in half-heartedly, wincing as he anticipated Mike's skepticism. But either Mike wasn't really expecting to find out anything from us, or else he'd become a much better actor than he'd used to be - as far as I could tell he hadn't even seen Gabriel's guilty reaction.
"Oh, well. Lemme know if he shows, okay? The Boss really wants to help him out. Now, gentlemen," Michael said, spreading his arms wide as if in benediction - as if he still had a right to bestow benediction - "I guess I'll be going. A headhunter's work is never done."
He turned the chair back around and stowed it under the table, then spun slowly, like a ship taking to the sea, and walked towards the door, his heavy tread rattling the window signs.
Gabe looked at me; I looked at Mike's back, where the expensive linen of his suit stretched across two long, narrow bumps on his broad shoulders.
They'd clipped his wings.
I knew then, even if I hadn't known before, that we'd both made the right choice. I stood up and held out my hand.
"C'mon, Gabe. I'm taking you home for a shower and change of clothes. You've been on the street too long."
Gabriel smiled at me - the smile of someone remembering he used to be an angel. I could ignore the missing teeth.
"I'm grateful. You don't know how grateful. Michael could have-"
"Shut up. Here's the bus."
I didn't feel any goodness in my heart, no Heavenly glow over my decision to try to rehabilitate Gabriel the former Archangel. It wasn't motivated by any sort of good fellowship - I just wanted to know what he knew about Kid Jesus.
Once we got back to my apartment in West Hollywood I bundled Gabriel into the shower and set about making some coffee. Gabe's shower lasted a long time, and although I was glad he was taking this opportunity seriously I began to get extremely bored. I was almost asleep, coffee or not, before Gabe stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in a black robe he'd thrown on over his wings, toweling off his hair.
He was almost back to an angelic state - blonde hair and blue eyes gleaming, his wings under the robe seeming larger and lighter than before, although it'd been impossible to get all the street grime off with just one shower. He even had a glint of his halo back. I was almost too intimidated to pump him for information, but the greedy way he latched onto his coffee cup told me I still had a chance of influencing him.
"C'mon. Spill," is all I said at first.
He had the nerve to try to look innocent.
"Spill what, Lou? This coffee? It's not that bad."
"Don't try that with me. You might be able to fool Michael, but he's still a sap no matter whom he's working for. I've got experience with falsehood. You know where Jesus is, so spit it out. Where is He, and what the Hell's he been doing since the old man got kicked out?"
"Well, he ain't workin' for Apple."
"Duh. Come on, sit down and tell me about it."
We sat at opposite ends of the old green couch like adversaries, not friends, and nursed our cups of coffee. Gabe was tentative, although somehow I got the feeling that this was the whole reason he'd grabbed my leg on the street to begin with.
He started to speak, then stopped. Squared his shoulders, and slumped again. Then he stood up, putting his untasted coffee down on the table.
"I've got a better idea. Let me show you."
I'd known Gabriel knew where Jesus was, but I still wasn't prepared for what he looked like when we found him, after yet another long bus ride to Wilshire and then east towards downtown again. Clean-cut and short-haired, wearing a suit (even if it did come from one of the cheaper blocks of the Garment District) and sporting a pair of those new glow-in-the-dark red contact lenses, the Son of God looked just like any other aspiring marketing major or legal aide.
He came around the desk to shake my hand. It was a long way - the desk was huge, a gleaming expanse of what looked like teak.
"Nice desk," I said after Gabriel performed the introductions.
"Thanks. I made it myself."
"Really? Beautiful workmanship."
"Yes," he sighed, "I love woodworking, always have, even with the tools we had to use back home while I was growing up. One thing about this age, they've got some really nice tools. Sometimes I wish I'd just apprenticed myself to Joseph and put off all that Son of God crap for another eternity, the way he wanted me to.
"I still don't have much time for carpentry, though, what with the lawsuit."
"The lawsuit? Huh. First I've heard of it, guy. Why don't you tell me about that?"
"Sure. Sit down, sit down."
I plopped down in a nice leather chair and Gabe took a seat a few feet away on a matching couch, while Jesus took his seat behind that lovely desk. He leaned forward and clasped his hands, staring at me intently. I could feel the force of those eyes - it was no wonder the disciples followed him. He had charisma flowing from every pore.
He'd need it, too, going up against the Prince of Lies.
Gabe looked at me kind of funny, but I ignored him. I really wanted to know what Jesus thought he could do against that contract - Gabe might think it was ironclad, and Yahweh might not've figured out an angle, but I wasn't so sure. If Jesus had an idea that would work, I wanted in... I was starting to think that my old boss wasn't expecting me back after all.
Once we'd settled in, I thought Jesus was going to start the pitch. But instead he pulled a battered paperback with a lurid purple cover out of the top drawer of his desk, turning it over in his hands so I could see the title and the cover painting. I could see him going for the angel, but the three near-naked chicks - the titular (heh) Sirens of Titan, I guess - didn't seem to be his style.
Wouldn't be the first time I'd been surprised by one of the Host, though.
"Ever read any Vonnegut, Lou?" Jesus asked.
"I - we don't read much, where I come from. Watch a lot of talk shows, but that's all part of the job..."
"Listen to this: 'There's no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.'"
Jesus laughed sharply, once, but then went on grimly.
"We weren't organized at all. Oh, we had the military discipline, I suppose - we were pinning everything on Armageddon, after all... but there were no contingency plans. When you're omniscient I guess you never get into the habit of planning for the unexpected - Dad never noticed when the future changed on him.
"We're organized now, though. Not like the Maf - they have a fine organization but it's not what I needed. I've got something better... something guaranteed to work. Something that'll save us all."
"Yeah?" I found myself getting interested in spite of my self. Damn, he was good!
"Yes. I'm going to sell salvation to humans directly, using multilevel marketing."
Shit. He'd had me, then he lost me, just like that. You wouldn't BELIEVE the number of damned souls we got from pyramid schemes... they had a whole level in Hell (several levels, in fact, arranged in a wheel, with each one thinking it was the one at the top of the pyramid) even back when I was working there. Sisyphus had nothing on these idiots... they just kept selling to each other, over and over, owing more and more money until there wasn't a computer in Hell that could even represent the most significant digits of their debts... then they'd crash and start all over again. Satan had tried to adapt the model to rake in other sorts of soul for damnation, but even he had never been able to make it work - not enough computing power in the whole Underworld to figure out just how damned everybody was all the time.
Jesus was still talking, though.
"...but it's not a scam, not like your Ponzi schemes - this is multi-level marketing. We're selling something real: the hope of salvation, and there's an infinite supply of that. We really can pull everybody into the pyramid, because the bottom level gets exactly the same reward as the top - eternal life in Heaven!"
"But..." I had to admit he had something, but there was still a flaw. "But you don't have Heaven anymore."
"We will, though. I had some teams of the still-righteous go over those takeover plans with combs fine-toothed enough to groom angel hair... and we found something."
"Breach of contract - it took awhile to find it, but the takeover bid had language declaring all existing salvations null and void. That'd never hold up in an honest court, which means that Satan'll have to honor them - and there's no way he can manage that, even if it weren't for the backlog in souls that's built up since he took over and started building golden condos.
"We're applying for class action status in our suit against Evil, Inc. We've got enough people already who think their hope of eternal life was crushed when Satan took over to force at least a settlement, if we can get a righteous judge."
"I see. But aren't judges just ex-lawyers?"
Gabe chimed in, "And we know who has all the lawyers now - present company excepted, of course."
Jesus remained unperturbed.
"Yes, judges start out as lawyers. Funny thing, though; when they start having to make the decisions themselves, a lot of 'em seem to come back to Pop's side - they helped us a lot with the contract search, once they got together. I don't think we'll have much trouble finding a living judge who'll be honestly sympathetic to our case."
One by one, Jesus answered our objections. He was very persuasive. Of course, he'd had millennia of experience persuading people. In the end, I had only one request.
"Okay, I'm with you, big guy, you and your pop. Just one thing, though."
Jesus raised an eyebrow.
"I get to serve Beelzebub with the papers."
The Son of God broke into a broad grin. His teeth were wide and even. Given the state of dentistry in first-century Bethlehem I suspected divine intervention there... either that, or there was an L.A. dentist with even more of a star client than usual.
"You got it," he said, and shook my hand and Gabriel's.
That was when Mike burst through the door.
Ex-Archangel Michael was still wearing the light-green suit he'd been in when he'd found us at the bento place in downtown. It was a lot sweatier, though. I think he'd been following us on the bus, and Mike wasn't used to any vehicle that didn't have air conditioning and a wet bar in the back anymore. I knew how my old boss treated the ones he'd wanted to impress.
He was talking as he came through the door...
"...never heard of taxis, for Heaven's sake? I hadda... Jesus."
Mike skidded to a halt in the center of the office. Jesus was still standing; he leaned way over the desk and held out his hand.
"Hi, Michael. Good to see you."
Mike tried to maintain control but I could see he was rattled. Gabe looked as if he were enjoying this. I wasn't so sure... this could get ugly very quickly, if Mike decided to play the irresistible force and Kid Jesus the immovable body. I was kind of glad that the Kid had made his desk so wide and solid.
I should have known better, though. Mike was hanging his head and shuffling his feet as if he'd been called on the carpet by an angry principal.
"Thought - thought you might want to come work for..."
"No, Michael," Jesus said gently. "You know I'd never do that, don't you? That's not really why you came."
Mike's lower lip pooched out like a little kid's. I heard Gabe stifle a snicker, but it didn't seem to disturb the tableau in front of me. Jesus went on.
"In fact, Michael, I have a counter-offer for you. Want to come back and work with me?"
Hope and damnation warred in Mike's face.
"I couldn't... not after - he said -"
"Said what, Michael?"
"Said I'd never..." His voice trailed off in a mumble I couldn't make out.
"What, Michael? You can tell me."
The wail that burst out of him would've been even more pathetic if it hadn't been so angelically loud and deep in tone.
"He said I'd never get my wings back if I didn't play along!"
Jesus made a tch'ing sound deep in his throat, a mother confronted with her son's scraped knee.
"Oh, Michael. He lied. He does that. Come here."
Michael stumbled around the desk, blubbering, and Jesus put out his arms to embrace him. I saw Jesus' hands come up and caress the ridged bumps in Mike's suit where the wings' scars were. They held each other for long moments before separating, Jesus to the office window and Michael turning towards us.
A savage ripping echoed through the room as Michael's wings burst through his linen suit. Glowing white and pristine, they reached from wall to wall of the office as he stretched them. The look of amazement on his face was worth every second of the apprehension I'd felt before.
Beside him, Gabriel's own wings spread, all of the remaining damage from his months on the street erased by the same benediction. The Archangels stood side by side, glowing with renewed health. A roaring as of lions and cataracts filled the room as they shouted hosannahs to the Most High.
Me? I think my horns shrank a little... Jesus' power over me isn't quite as direct, after all. I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, at the end of the line for that hell-bound train... but even though I didn't show much outside I still knew, and was glad, that this time - for once - I'd picked the winning side.
And that, my fine little halo-toting friends, is how I got in on the ground floor of Operation Salvation, the first truly efficient force for good in the whole sorry history of humankind. We saved your asses in spite of yourselves - and when we got done with Planet Earth we started in on Hell. The day ten billion of the newly Elect marched through the empty, echoing halls of the City of Dis, singing hosannahs every step of the way to Beelzebub's palace in the lowest circle, not to destroy him but rather to take his hand and lead him up to his old place in Heaven, at the left hand of the Father... 'twas a great day, indeed.
Maybe I'll tell you all about that sometime - after all, we've got Eternity. But now... now it's my day of rest.
Good night, and God bless you.
NOTE: This story is a loose sequel to "The Day Begins at Midnight," originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup talk.bizarre on January 13, 1996.
©1998, 1999 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated December 11, 2000.