YOU SHOULD HEAR THE FUNERAL CHOIR
They murdered one of the Seraphim tonight.
Gabriel streaked across the heavens like a tumbling meteor, his corpse a fireball of sublimated perfection. He had been a creature of peerless majesty, but now the throes of his death etched the firmament.
His wings, all six, shed embers of incandescent grace as he skidded across the night sky. And when he opened his mouths to scream, the Earth could do naught but shudder. The roar of his lion’s visage registered a 5.2 on the Richter, six hundred miles east of Kyoto. The bellow of his ox’s muzzle roused a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The shriek of his eagle aspect crumbled chimneys in Seattle. The inaudible cry from his human face left people from Melbourne to Perth weeping in troubled slumber, dreaming of colors that no longer existed and sounds that hadn’t been heard since the Earth was just magma and poison. Meanwhile, turbulence roiled a cloud of dark matter sleeting through the solar system.
But that was Gabriel for you. Platonically perfect, blindingly beautiful. He wasn’t just lovely, he was the kind of lovely that could make a bishop stomp his miter and curse a long blue streak on Easter Sunday.
Don’t believe me? I saw him do it once. On a bet.
Fun guy, Gabby.
Gabriel had been there when the sun emitted its first feeble glow, flapping his wings like a bellows to fan the coals of Creation. After the planets congealed from hot primordial soot, Gabriel’s gentle breath cooled the Earth’s crust. And when the onion-skin atmosphere needed protection, it was Gabriel who stirred the Earth’s molten core with his flaming sword to impel the dynamo that would deflect the ravaging solar wind. He’d serenaded the cyanobacteria that pumped oxygen into the primeval atmosphere and sang a dirge for the dinosaurs.
He had a real fondness for this place. And he never begrudged the monkeys.
Yet for all that, if any of the monkeys had bothered to notice, Gabriel’s death would have looked to them like fragments of space junk entering the atmosphere. Yeah. That’s how they perceive the violent death of an immortal being: unremarkable junk. Was he a spent rocket booster skimming through the ionosphere? Or maybe the shredded remains of a kinetic harpoon cleaving the aurora?
But nobody looks up anymore. That stopped soon after the last satellites died. In the minds of most monkeys, thirty years of meteor showers was weak tea compared to the loss of decent long-term weather forecasts. Hard to blame them. This joint could have used some decent climate monitoring.
A chill wind whipped the Bass Strait into a froth, driving the weight of melted ice shelves to thunder against the floodwalls a few miles to my south. I tightened the collar of my overcoat, pulled the fedora lower over my brow, and retreated into the meager shelter of a laneway. A trio of Australasian businessmen shuffled past me, their guilty downcast eyes reflecting the neon glow from a topless bar. (Looked like real neon, too. Don’t see that much anymore. It’s been all OLEDs for decades.) None of these men was the poor sap I’d come to find, so I lit another pill and watched the light show overhead.
The heat of unbeing, the friction of conflicting Magisteria, crumbled Gabriel’s wings to ash. The ash sparkled on the way down like a rain of silver moondust.
It became snow.
The flakes sparkled in the dim, inconstant light of the laneway. And wasn’t that fitting: his wings, those glorious divine pinions, eternally aglow with the echoes of Creation—more luminous than sunrise on burnished platinum, more delicate than starlight washing against a dewy cobweb—reduced in their final moments to parroting the epileptic flicker of antique signs advertising fifty-dollar joy girls.
Some might shrug and say, that’s the monkeys for you. That there’s nothing so sublime they can’t find a way to defile it. But I prefer to think they just don’t know any better. So did Gabriel.
I caught a whiff of rose attar and old books. That was his scent. One of them. It was clear and sharp for a second, but then it mixed with the odor of overflowing rubbish from the dim sum place across the lane. The garbage won. Gabriel was fading.
Wind muffled the double ding of a street tram. The rattle and buzz of the tram dopplered up the laneway while overhead the disintegration of Gabriel’s halo momentarily outshone the full moon. The noise receded with the tram and resolved into the staccato clatter of footsteps.
Time was running short. I studied the newcomers: a mugg with a bit of high-class fluff on his arm.
Ink on his neck, and his heavy coat swayed against the wind. Something solid in his pocket. Was he rodded? Maybe the twist at his elbow liked the thrill of running with a wrong gee.
As for her … She stood a thumb shorter than he in high-heeled boots, a tall thin statue wrapped in a wasp-waisted black coat that might have been cashmere. When the wind whipped the hem of her coat, I glimpsed smooth leather hugging her calves. Nice gams. Curls like brushed copper fluttered beneath the brim of her cloche. Her stride was firm and purposeful, like that of a CEO or dominatrix, moving without hesitation on the slick snow-dusted paving stones. She walked like the world was made of red carpet.
They headed for a gin mill across the street and a few paces down from my alcove. He grabbed the door. She paused, tugged his elbow, turned a porcelain face to the sliver of night above the lane.
“Hey, look,” she said. “Up there.”
Okay. Almost nobody looks up anymore.
He took all of two seconds to glance at the sky and witness an angel’s murder. “It’s just junk.”
See what I mean?
“No…” A flicker of doubt tugged her brows together. “This is different. Can’t you see?”
“C’mon. It’s cold out here, Moll.”
Moll? Go figure. Another gust swirled ash into my eye. I flicked my cigarette aside and reassessed the flametop.
Her eyes were a little too close together, but they sparkled in the light of Gabriel’s death. Her lips parted in a posture of wonder. It wasn’t junk. She didn’t know what she was seeing—no human could—but she knew damn well it wasn’t junk.
She was no good for me. There was something going on behind her eyes. But her steady … now he had promise. His lack of initiative gave me high hopes.
The wind had extinguished my cigarette before it hit the ground. I fished out another. Overhead, Gabriel’s debris tore the night. I approached the couple. Slowly.
“Got a light, Jack?” The mugg frowned. I gestured with the unlit pill in my hand. “The damn wind, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said. He dug into his free pocket, the one without the iron. The twist released his arm and gave me a quick once-over, eyes narrowed with a suspicion she probably reserved for unwelcome suitors and hard-luck swells. She retreated into the laneway for a better view of the light show above. When she turned her face to the sky, her neck assumed the pale graceful curve of a swan’s back. A burgundy scarf fluttered against a pendant sheltered in the hollow of her throat. Red ice sparkled on her ears and neck. It matched the scarf. She knew how to put herself together. Gabby would have liked her.
I put the pill to my lips, leaned into the flame of his lighter. The sharp smell of butane briefly washed away the smells of rotting dim sum and dying angel. I puffed, wondering if the dame could smell the latter.
“Thanks,” I said, and made fleeting eye contact. Nothing provocative. Didn’t want him to think I was sly on him. Didn’t want him to ape out, either, especially with the iron he carried. I hate getting shot, and tonight of all nights I was plenty low already. But I wanted to read him, and get a sense of the human behind those eyes. I kept my glamour dialed down—what I had left of it, anyway—so as not to send him into a wing-ding. I needed him lucid. Couldn’t have him drooling on the fluff. Up close, that coat did look like cashmere.
Now the fixers, the sharp shooters with the industrial-grade glamours—like Gabriel, Rafael, Uriel, and the rest—they could lobotomize a monkey with less than a wink. Which is one reason they don’t come down here much anymore. Too messy. (That, and on account of Gabby’s being dead.) In addition, I think they tired of spawning a new religion every time they took a stroll on Earth no matter how carefully they soft-footed the natives. It got stale.
The tension went out of the mugg’s shoulders. A low frown creased his face, but it was loose and slack like a diaper tied by a drunken bachelor uncle. Then he shook his head, realized he still held the lighter, and clicked it shut. The whole thing was over before his girl deigned to look at us again.
I got what I needed. I was looking for somebody who wouldn’t rock the boat in a time of crisis. Somebody inclined to go with the flow, who wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. A dull little trooper, in other words. Such were my marching orders. This guy was perfect. He wasn’t burning with curiosity about anything.
Not that I had a lot of precedent to guide me. Nobody had ever done this before, far as I knew.
So that was me. Good old Bayliss: charting new ground. And none too thrilled about it. I’d been strong-armed into a dirty job and couldn’t wait to leave it behind. I’d pretend tonight never happened, pretend Gabriel was still up there carving graffiti into the celestial spheres.
So I settled on the loogan. Yeah. He’d do. He’d do just fine, the poor sap. Also, I didn’t have much choice. Gabriel was just about gone.
“What’s got you so worked up, sister? Sky falling?”
Wanted to keep her distracted for a few seconds while her steady shook off the last of the glamour. Even a low-rent shine like yours truly can take a moment to wear off if the receiving end has had a snootful of something strong. And he had. I could smell the hooch on his breath. The pug was tight. And, judging from the veins in his eyes, no stranger to it. Probably on his way to being a full-blown hard case. I was doing him a favor.
Now it was the twist’s turn to frown at me. It was colder than the snowflakes tangled in her hair, that frown, slim and sharp as a letter opener. It was meant for cutting, and honed from frequent use. Brother, what a dish.
Her voice matched the frown so perfectly they might have come as a set from a high-end store. A real tony place. I pointed up.
“See something swell?”
Looking straight at me, she said, “No. No I don’t.”
Ouch. Maybe Gabby and I weren’t the only ones having a bad night. They seemed down in the mouth, so I let it slide. What a pair of mopes. Under other circumstances I might have hung out a sympathetic ear. But it was moot. We had bigger concerns.
“C’mon, Moll,” he said. “It’s cold out here.”
I bowed. “Thanks, pal. See ya around.”
They went into the gin mill.
I stayed outside, drawing smoke into my lungs until the final cinders of shattered Seraphim faded from the junkyard sky. I finished my cigarette while Gabriel’s final echoes dissipated. The light of a distant quasar twinkled with chromatic aberration as the fine-structure constant gave him a farewell salute from the twenty-first decimal place.
Everything fell silent for an instant. Even the wind. The world hiccuped, like a phonograph needle skipping its track. The lights flickered. So did the distribution of prime numbers. The Pleroma had come unbalanced. My clock was ticking.
The snow came down harder. Big, thick flakes that fluttered like tufts of cotton. I reached for a falling snowflake and put a silver feather in my pocket. Figured I could hock it for a bit of the folding stuff. And besides. Gabby didn’t need it anymore, did he?
I tipped my hat at the sky, stamped out the pill, and followed the pair inside. I’d been here before, otherwise I might have been surprised that it wasn’t the low-rent dive suggested by the establishments across the way. It was the kind of place where hard drinkers came to wrestle their demons while fallen angels drank alone in dark smoky corners. All it needed was a whisky-voiced chanteuse and maybe a piano with thumbtacks in the hammers.
I liked the music in this joint. They played old stuff here. Louis Armstrong tooted away on his horn while I weighted down my usual stool. When that man got going, he could make you forget the world, forget everything but his horn. Nobody danced, though. Dancing to the old stuff is a forgotten skill.
They knew me here. The bartender was a former professor of English. Long story starring a gimlet-eyed coed. Sometimes bartenders need a sympathetic ear, too; amazing, the things you can learn. And there are worse things in life than the gratitude of a good tapster. He nodded and slid a shot glass to me, but I wasn’t in the market for a belt of rye. I bought the bottle.
The couple sat in a corner booth visible from my spot at the bar. Couldn’t see too well through the haze, but they were sitting close and having an urgent conversation. She was doing more of the talking than her steady. He listened, slowly nodding his head. Whether that was agreement or the hooch I couldn’t say. Turns out he wasn’t rodded. The heavy thing in his pocket was a bottle. What a cheapskate, stiffing the joint on its corkage fee. He served himself from it, but his girl refused. I made a note to find an overcoat with deeper pockets.
Armstrong packed it in for the night. A trio of penitentes, two joes and a jane, took the floor and started writhing to the beat of century-old trip-hop. Their shirts had long slashes across the back, revealing the high-end cosmetic surgery and scarification that put antiseptically sculpted wounds on their shoulder blades. Still fresh, still bleeding. They even had little tufts of downy feathers matted in the gore. I suppose it made them look, to somebody who didn’t know any better, like angels who’d just had their wings sheared off.
The shorn-wing look was big this year. Don’t ask me why. Few years back, it was fake stigmata. I preferred that. The wing thing made me think of Gabby. But the penitentes never got the wing placement right. The Seraphim have wings, sure, but not on their shoulders. Nor did the monkeys ever go for more than two. Never could figure what those loonybirds were so penitent about, but I had yet to see one who knew his Aquinas. Or if they did, they never committed to the role. They’d been around for a while, but I’d never seen anything halfway correct.
You never saw a sexless penitente. (No. No matter what they did to themselves, it was never chaste when they wiggled on the dance floor.) Never saw one with six wings, or wearing only a pair of gossamer feathers to cup his nethers. Never saw one who’d opted for leathery bat wings, or had a couple extra limbs sewn on. Never saw one with a sheet of flame where her face should be.
But tonight of all nights I didn’t mind the penitentes. Nobody could tell if I was watching the couple in the booth or fascinated with all the grinding on the dance floor. Maybe it was a bit of both.
I drank to the memory of my murdered friend. And then I drank some more.
I got tight. Very tight.
Which might explain what happened next. But in my defense, it had been a lousy day. One for the record books.
So, while I got tight and the dancers got sweaty, the twist and the hard gee had a tiff in the corner. No screaming. No throwing. But she was flashing that frown like a rapier, and the grip on his arm turned her knuckles white. He sank further and further into himself. When he moved, he moved fast, but he didn’t reach for her. He reached for his bottle. He emptied it down his throat and barged past the dancers.
She grabbed her coat and followed. A sleeve flapped against her drink when she flung the cashmere over her shoulders. But she was already halfway to the door, and most eyes were on her or the penitentes, so only I witnessed how her glass toppled over the edge and summersaulted to a perfect landing on the floorboards, the cocktail inside still pristine as a nun’s knickers.
Entropy had just decided to take five, which meant the fabric of mortal reality was unraveling. It was time to move. I enjoyed one last swig and followed the show outside.
The sky was quiet. Back to the usual erratic flicker as pieces of aerospace debris hit the atmosphere. The celestial fireworks had run their course. Gabriel was gone.
Snow had fallen just long enough to put a chill on the evening. It felt like the air itself had knocked off for the night, leaving nothing between Earth and stars but the humans and me. The cold flooded my sinuses. I’d been floating on the lingering fumes of oak and fire, but one frigid breath doused the flames and packed my head with ice.
The snow put a hush on everything, as though the city knew it for a portent of unknown significance. Long time since it was cold enough for snow in these parts.
The hard boy zigzagged down the laneway. He slipped in the snow a couple of times. His frail followed just out of arm’s reach so that he didn’t pull her down with him. She was too graceful for that. But she didn’t leave him lying in the gutter. Some guys have all the luck.
Tricky thing, tailing somebody through the laneways. Get too cozy and your birds will fly. Stay too far back and you’ll lose ’em in the tangle of doglegs, alcoves, and unlit stairwells. Shadows fill the lanes day and night. They’re part pedestrian arcade, part flea market, part bodega, part chophouse, part disco. The paths twist through arches and under canopies, meander through the tables of sidewalk brasseries, shrug past card tables laid with gray-market goods. It’s the kind of place where Indonesian businessmen in three-piece duds hock Australian knockoffs of Chinese tech to gullible tourists. The kind of place where freshly dead snakes dangle from hooks in a café window. The kind of place where a marble bank lobby throbs with music from the S&M club hidden behind antique teller windows. The kind of place where on a busy night you can’t take five steps without brushing against somebody. The kind of place where eye contact is a social contract. The kind of place where well-heeled suburbanites come to get a dose of gritty urbanism, thrilling at the glitter and desperation, buying trinkets or a skewer of vat-grown vegetables grilled over a trash fire just to have tangible proof of their excursion, then leaving at the first sight of a penitente weeping blood. The kind of place where you keep one hand on your wallet and the other free to wave off the hucksters. The kind of place where each breath varnishes the back of your throat with the oilyslick cloy of patchouli or the reek of fermented cabbage.
And as I said, I was tight. Not at my best. But I managed to follow the pair toward the muted double ding of a tram stop. The couple headed in the general direction of the chimes. I stumbled after them.
Back in the day, my errand would have been trivial. Could have done it from a distance. But I’d been down here a spell. I was rusty. And anyway I wasn’t sure how this was supposed to work. Wasn’t like I could ask around for advice. I could figure the basics on my own, but I didn’t like the math. Maybe I wasn’t as big a fan of the monkeys as Gabriel had been, but I didn’t wish them ill. All I knew was the only thing worse than doing this job would have been not doing it. So I winged it. Figured the smart money was on physical contact. How was I to know?
I inched closer as the lane spilled into a more reputable thoroughfare. Here Gabriel’s debris had become a dirty slush beneath the tires of the traffic sliding past us. Cars like wheeled soap bubbles jockeyed for position around the accordion twists of serpentine electric trams. An elevated commuter train clattered overhead, ferrying a load of dead-eyes to third-shift jobs.
My mark leaned heavily on his girlfriend when they crossed to the tram stop. But flametop managed to get him through the gauntlet without incident. I slipped once or twice getting myself to the center island. Blame it on the snow. I do. The dame shot another frown in my direction when I finally made it under the plastic canopy. Maybe she recognized me from earlier.
Now, the thing about this part of town is that it’s a touristy area. And tourists will goggle at anything so long as it’s quaint. By “quaint” I mean that some of these interchanges are well over a century old. So the traffic lights at certain intersections—such as where the three of us shivered in the cold sea wind—are toggled by mechanical switches set by the tram conductors. Gotta hand it to human ingenuity. For something so primitive the system works well. Most of the time.
Trams run less frequently at night. Which gave me time to plan my move.
The lockbox controlling signals for trams coming in our direction stood on the far side of a five-way interchange about a hundred feet away. If I hadn’t been stuck down here so long maybe I could have done it better. Maybe things would have turned out differently. But I’d faded. Couldn’t flick the button. Not at that distance. All I had to go on was my glamour and my charming personality.
I waited until the tram stopped at the light. Stepping out to open the box put the conductor’s line of sight in my general direction. That’s when I cranked up the glamour and gave him all I had. At that distance, and given my deterioration, the show wasn’t worth a wooden nickel. But it distracted him just enough to make him forget his purpose. He got back on the tram without pressing the button. Without paying attention to what he was doing.
The cross-traffic had started moving again when the tram bulled through the intersection. Blaring horns shook my mark from his stupor. He and the twist gawked at the commotion.
A line of cars idled alongside the tracks adjacent to our stop, waiting to turn across the tram lines and opposing traffic. Everyone drove slowly on account of Gabriel’s snowfall. Meaning the hackie trying to keep his fare on the road despite the slush was intent on the traffic and not the tram illegally crossing the intersection. Tram had nearly clipped the taxi before the conductor came to his senses. Brakes screeched. Too late. The hackie panicked, threw his cab into reverse. The tram crunched the taxi with a glancing blow. Slick pavement sent the car spinning over the tracks and into our island.
The hard boy just watched it coming.
It was beautiful. I was ready right then and there to pack it in and start making dough in pool halls. What a combination. There are home runs and there are grand slams, but in comparison this was an unassisted triple play on the first day of the season. A work of art. All I had to do was leap over and try to pull the mark aside. I’d fail to save him of course, but the physical contact would tag him just before he died. And the Choir would do the rest: pick him up, dust him off, pat him on the head, and plug the hole left by Gabby’s demise.
So that was my plan. Not too shabby, right? I thought so, too. But it didn’t account for the flametop having the reflexes of a ferret jammed up on speed.
She was up and yanking him out of harm’s way before I was halfway there. He planted face on the pavement. The taxi spun through the bench and knocked it skew-whiff across the tram stop. Missed him by a good two feet. The girl teetered at the edge of the platform, and nearly fell into the path of the sliding tram. But she caught herself, took a step back, and turned around.
I tripped over her man and bowled straight into her.
That CEO/dominatrix/red-carpet stride failed her. She lost her footing in the snow for the first and only time since I’d started watching the two of them.
Over the years, I’d heard the occasional talk about how something seemed to unfold in slow motion. Always thought it was baloney. But it isn’t. Windmilling her arms in a desperate bid to keep her balance, she seemed to hover at the edge of the platform for a moment like a scrap of silk caught on the wind. But she wasn’t silk and she wasn’t a hummingbird. She went over backward, still flailing, still staring in surprise at me.
Which is how I came to be looking straight into her eyes when she went beneath the tram.
Copyright © 2013 by Ian Tregillis