“Dead to Rights”
Angel was always a portrait of composure. The type of composure that made people uneasy. The type of uneasy that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It was impossible to be near Angel and not feel the uncanny force of his presence, which seemed to engender its own weight, its own gravity, like a black hole that warped the space and time around it and moved about within its own concave fracture in the universe. Light did funny things around him, too. Bent at weird angles, like a cloud of broken glass viewed through a kaleidoscope. Spooky.
Like now, for example. Staring down the maw of Cosmo’s dyspeptic Mossberg, which I fully expect any second to discharge a brimstone belch into Angel’s face, Angel doesn’t even break a sweat. Doesn’t twitch. Doesn’t even breathe. He’s a monolith of calm. The air around him seems to balloon and dance with atomic chaff, amplifying and then drawing together the collective frequency of everyone’s anxiety. And although the greasy pall of afternoon urban heat now settling over the Upper West Side is doing its best to render us all down into disfigured lumps of clay, everyone (except Angel) is sprouting goose bumps because we can all sense that Death is tuned in and standing by with someone’s funeral rites.
“Alright Mr. Zen Affect, the time for goodwill hunting is at an end and so is my patience.” Cosmo levels his bloodshot eyes down the top barrel of the sawed-off over-under shotgun, which looks like a pair of hollow black frankfurters folded into a walnut bun, and waits for a reaction. The mirrored aviator lenses that cover Angel’s eyes stretch and distort the proportions of the squat weapon, making it appear as if Angel is staring into the chasm of a howitzer. “I want my fucking soul back.”
We’re standing in the middle of the intersection of Amsterdam and W. 112th, literally a hundred feet from our destination, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where we have an agent waiting in the ambulatory to receive an important and long-overdue package, which, upon delivery, will entitle Cosmo to a one-way, first-class ticket aboard the Cocytus Express.
The intersection is strewn with bits of glass, metal, and fiberglass, most of which belong to our car. Not five minutes before, as we were turning onto Amsterdam, a pair of yellow taxis slammed into us, one from the front and one from the back, hard enough to deploy our airbags and pop out our windows but not hard enough to damage the reliquary containing Cosmo’s precious cargo. Cosmo had somehow divined the time and place of our drop-off. Not surprising. Angel and I had expected him to turn up. We just didn’t think he’d be so brazen about it.
Focused as I was on seeing what Angel’s reaction would be, it took me a moment to realize the crimson Rorschach test on the white bladder of the airbag had been caused by my nose, which had taken the brunt of the impact. Somehow Angel had silently exited the vehicle, although his door was still closed, and he was standing next to the car, adjusting his cufflinks, cool as a cucumber. Not a wrinkle, not a scratch. I wiped the back of my hand across my busted nose and cursed my mortality.
Before I can ask the obvious question, “What the hell just happened?” I’m ushered out of the vehicle by a ski-masked gentleman who smells like a delicatessen on the tenth day of a power outage. It’s a sordid bouquet of vomit, bad Roquefort and spoiled salami that would soon captivate every fly within a quarter mile, and it’s a stench I recognize all too well: revenant.
We’re being hijacked by god damn zombies.
My undead captor is waving a shiny chrome pistol in my face and capering about like he has ants in his pants, grunting and twitching in that trademark fashion of the newly dead, his body percolating and shaking out the last decaying bits of life. The other meat puppet, a fun-sized character who reminds me of Warwick Davis from Willow, is perched atop the yellow hood of a Crown Victoria that rear-ended us and has a drum-loaded street sweeper tucked up under his right arm pit aimed in my direction. I’m assuming he wasn’t the driver.
Cosmo probably has another hour or so before all that’s left of these two are corpuscular puddles of mush, and while their nervous systems are deteriorating by the second so are my nerves. Even from twenty feet away, a hiccup or a muscle spasm from Mr. Baggins will turn my chest cavity into the Grand Canyon. I’m suddenly regretting asking for that extra shot in my latte.
The musty exhalation of the cathedral’s nave is seeping down the front steps of the cathedral, coming from the great west doors. We’re close enough to make out the many engraved details in the cathedral’s gothic façade, which are crowned in a patina of pigeon shit.
I just want to find a nice quite spot behind one of the chapels and take a nap. We’ve spent far too much of the past two months on this job and the better part of today day in Acheron filling out paperwork to procure the aforementioned “fucking soul” that Cosmo has so kindly asked for. I’m sure Cosmo would rather avoid an eternity of stygian gelidity, although apparently not bad enough to settle his outstanding debts and effectuate the terms of service agreed upon during his purgatorial arraignment. The said terms would have required him to inveigle a more wholesome brand of hocus pocus, but cearly, Cosmo had no intention of coming over from the dark side.
And now he has run out of options.
Hence the lead-slinger and the shake-and-bake revenants, the latter crime being the very thing that first earned him damnation and then a reprieve. You see, Cosmo possesses a very eclectic skill set that makes him universally dangerous and invaluable to all of the powers-that-be. And when I say all, I mean all. Strictly speaking, Cosmo is a diabolist who specializes in necromancy, but he is also a former priest whose bloodline can be traced directly back nearly 2000 years to Lazarus of Bethany. Yes, the Lazarus, as in ‘the guy Jesus raised from the dead.’
There is actually a fine line between resurrection and necromancy since both essentially involve the rehabilitation of souls, just for different purposes, the former for good, the latter for the not-so-good. Cosmo’s sentence was quite simple: work for the Man to help recover lost souls and earn himself parole in Purgatory or go straight to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The sentence basically amounted to a bail bond (euphemistically referred to in our line of work as a ‘hell bond’), a conditional form of parole, that must be worked off under the supervision of a bondsman (i.e. Angel). I’m the special agent, the mortal middleman if you will, who was lucky enough to be assigned to Cosmo’s special case.
Unfortunately, the recidivism rate for the dark arts, from the most troglodytic occultism to the most refined sorcery, is very high, so Angel and I stay very busy doing God’s dirty work by collecting the bounties on fallen angels, spiritual reprobates, and, in Cosmo’s case, bail jumpers.
Diabolists draw much of their power from the dynamos of their corrupt souls, but once that soul was taken from Cosmo, if he wanted to perpetrate any dark deeds, he would have to go old school. Books, tarot cards, crystals, chicken blood, that type of shit. With his knowledge and skills he would have been able to help the arch diocese with resurrections, exorcisms, blessings. But it’s hard to get someone addicted to junk food to become a vegetarian, even when their everlasting soul is on the line. Put down the Twinkie and eat your broccoli like a good boy. Easier said than done.
It’s now clear, however, from our present circumstances that deceit was always the underwriter for Cosmo’s hell bond, something borne out of a robust conceit in his ability to wizard his way out of his debt and steal his soul back. He never had any intention of paying back that bond. This is the kind of shit that makes my job difficult. It is also now clear that Cosmo has come to the sickening realization that even if you possess a prodigious amount of magical prowess, when you’re liable to both heaven and hell, you’re going to pay one way or the other.
We have contingencies for that sort of thing.
But then again, some contingencies work themselves out. Maybe I’ll have time for that nap after all.
“Bail Jumping, Malicious Conjuring, Assaulting a Divine Messenger, Terroristic Threatening . . . congratulations Cosmo, I think you’ve graduated from the Seventh to the Ninth Circle.” Angel’s voice doesn’t obey the laws the physics and is less a thing of sound than it is of awareness, something you feel rather than hear. Cosmo’s eyes widen slightly as pulls the gun into his shoulder, his stubbled cheek pressed tightly into the steel receiver. He shuffles closer and splays his feet a little wider. This is it, I think. All Hell is about the break loose.
About a dozen pedestrians are sporadically hunkered down behind cars, trees and lamp posts, afraid to move lest Cosmo make good on his promise to drop the hammer on anyone who moves. Sirens can be heard in the distance, and I know the boys in blue are going to be here any minute, so we need to get this wrapped up quickly. This scene isn’t something you can explain to a judge, at least not here in the physical world.
The barrels of the shotgun are now almost kissing Angel’s cheek and Cosmo is growling now. “Hand over what rightfully belongs to me and I’ll reconsider turning your head into a wiffle ball.”
What happens next is something that the human eye can’t properly register. The closest thing I can equate it to is a film that skips frames, where the sequence of a series of actions is interrupted so that three or four seconds are abbreviated into one. This is what it looks like when Angel grabs the barrel of the shotgun and presses it to his own forehead. And Presto! Cosmo is a magician, a powerful one at that, but the look on his face right now is the kind that drunk tourists give to guys like David Blaine and JB Benn when they have their puerile imaginations fleeced on the Vegas strip or in Times Square.
“How do you feel right now?” Angel’s lips don’t even move now. This is a secure line, but I’ve been given certain privileges, so I’m in on the conference call. Cosmo’s grip over the revenants loosens, so ski mask and Mini-Me have gone slack like a couple of marionettes, their weapons clattering on the pavement. They just stand there making Pollack paintings in the pavement with their drool.
The mirrored lenses magnify Cosmo’s mixture of confusion and indignation. “Let me tell you. You’re angry. A raw, unpretentious emotion anger is. Pure, simple.” Cosmo is rapt now. He’s waiting to see what the magician Angel has done with the card he’s chosen.
“But anger is primitive, axiological, instinctive. All creatures have the capacity to feel anger. To protect, to hunt, to feed, anger is a necessity. But . . .” Angel let the word hang in the air a moment before his continued. “. . . to murder. Well, that takes a little something extra now, doesn’t it Cosmo?”
The tension in Cosmo that had held the shotgun bolted to Angel’s face has relaxed, but Angel keeps his forehead pressed to the twin barrels. Clearly he is trying to make a point.
“Yes, you’re searching for it right now, aren’t you? That ‘something’ that’s going to put the weight behind your trigger finger, the push that’s going to give your anger motion, meaning.”
The word slices through the tension with the precision of a scalpel. “Malice.”
“Hatred. Malignance. Loathing. Spite.” The air around Angel positively crackles now with the force of feeling. “Oh, but I can see it in your face, Cosmo. You’re slowly coming to realize your mistake, why no matter how hard you try, you just. Can’t. Pull. The. Trigger.”
Tears are streaming down Cosmo’s face, and the sobs wracking his body are surely enough to produce contact between index finger and hair trigger. But nothing happens.
Angel pulls himself erect, gently removes the shotgun from Cosmo’s hands and places his own hands on the magician’s shoulders. There is a tenderness to the gesture that induces an autumnal change to the air that a moment ago felt like it was on fire. I begin walking toward Angel but something tells me to maintain my distance.
Angel pulls Cosmo closer so that their foreheads meet. I’m still in on the conference call.
“So much potential, but you squandered it, didn’t you? What was it, Cosmo? Perhaps a touch of Jonah Complex? A dram of vitaphobia? Because even the most petty tricksters and the lowest satanists know that killing per se isn’t an act that requires will.” Angel has pulled Cosmo into an embrace now and is speaking audibly into his ear.
“And where does will come from, Cosmo? Tell me, Cosmo, from where does the power of life and death stem?”
The word slips between Cosmo’s lips like a dying breath. “Soul.” Cosmo buries his face into the shoulder of Angel’s shark skin suit and a new round of sobbing ripples through his limp frame.
“Yes, that awful truth. Murder, as one of the ultimate expressions of evil, requires a soul, and it seems you are short, Cosmo.” He pulls apart from Cosmo and pats him on the shoulder as Cosmo wipes his eyes. “You should have read the fine print, my friend.”
Angel gestures me over as Cosmo pulls himself together. When I reach them I hand Angel the shoebox-sized package that contains the reliquary that houses Cosmo’s soul. Angel hands the package to Cosmo, who looks up at Angel with an expression that contains too many emotions to list here.
“Are you ready?” Angel nods at the cathedral.
Cosmo inhales deeply and blows out hard as if he’s preparing to take a very deep plunge, then nods once and turns toward the cathedral. He holds the box in front of him submissively, reverently.
“I’ll walk you in.” Angel slips a hand under Cosmo’s arm and the two make their way up the steps and toward the great west doors of the cathedral.
Jeremiah Boydstun 8/31/13
Word Count 2382