I thought I would show Núr back to her office, to be a gentleman, but I was wrong. Her office is where we ended up when we left Pentapolis Gym.
Or maybe it had been me. Something about getting a read on her helped put my mind back together, dragging me back from my broken subconscious or whatever psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo I was dealing with.
Núr Lucas wanted me to give up on the case. A case that, ultimately, she had started. According to Oliver’s notes, a case she’d lived her entire adult life investigating before handing it off to the late privateer. Hunting down angels, finding one missing. Then, sending Oliver to hunt Her down. And now he’d gone missing, terminally.
Despair. I realized Núr had given in to the angel she’d sent Oliver to find. And, in that moment, we were no longer in the science fiction gym of Pentapolis. We were back in her blank white and gray office in the Lucas Men’s Counseling Center, with the glass-and-steel desk and the plain gray laptop.
“So,” I opened, “about Despair.”
“Please, Officer Clay. I do not want you on this case.”
I needed to judo flip her, use the momentum of her resistance to get her to engage.
“If you convince me that Oliver investigating Despair’s disappearance was a bad idea, you might convince me that investigating Oliver’s disappearance is a bad idea.”
She chewed her lips, one after the other. The lips that Oliver had commented on three times in his notes. I was getting a closer read on her and her dead detective at once. I felt better already.
She sighed, breasts pressing against the blazer of her black pants suit. Oliver had commented on those breasts twice. What they told me is that she’d settled on some detail she felt would dissuade me.
“Charles Oliver found Despair. She was a sex-slave in Death’s dungeon.”
I wasn’t dissuaded. But I was surprised. “A sex-slave? Can angels do that?”
She settled into her chair behind the desk and opened the laptop. “They can do anything we do, and more, because They reflect us back at ourselves.”
“I don’t remember that in his notebook.” I didn’t let her know I still had it on me.
Those intense, brown eyes Oliver had mentioned four times settled on me. “He didn’t get a chance to take notes after the last time he went to Pressure.”
“You mean Pentapolis?”
She shook her head. Not in negation. In frustration.
“He also met Fear in Despair’s apartment. Are you ready to meet your fear?”
“The only thing we have to fear is Fear Himself?” Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quip. Dragging us back to the 1930s, Chuck’s celebrated Jazz Age. I was proud of myself for the jest.
Giving up, she glanced pointedly at the door and started clacking away at the laptop. Again, Oliver’s fedora felt heavy in my hand. I waved it to her and nodded.
She ignored me. I let myself out.
The guy at the desk was surprised. I guess because he hadn’t seen me come in.
“Mr. Clay,” he said, with raised blond brows.
“Mr. um…” I didn’t know his name. I raised my own blond brows.
He grinned and glanced slightly down. I realized he had looked at my chest. The bulge of pectorals under my shirt. In an instant, I got a read on how women felt during similar exchanges. I resolved to be flattered.
“Richard Bures,” he said. “No Mister. And my friends call me Dick.”
Ah, how convenient. I struggled to maintain my charitable resolve. “You replaced the DA here?”
He shrugged. “Ms. Lucas closed the place down for a while, but yeah. The DA moved on and I took her place.”
“Ms. Lucas closed the place down after Charles Oliver died, you mean.”
A thunderclap of mourning crossed his face, followed by the solemn echo of business. He had known the privateer. Fresh out of Hell, I was reading all these motherfuckers.
“Chuck was a good guy. You’re looking into his death?”
“I am.” I am. I was no longer channeling Death. I was channeling ha-Shem. An upgrade.
A voice came from behind me. “Joe?”
I turned. Detective Álvaro was sitting in one of the green plastic waiting room chairs, reading a copy of Cigar Aficionado. De Niro was on the cover.
“You talking to me?” I said. He didn’t get it. “What the hell are you doing here, Álvaro?”
He folded the magazine and shrugged. “Chief thinks I’m too jumpy. Preventative, I suppose.”
Over my shoulder I heard Dick’s phone buzz. Álvaro and I both looked at him. His blond brows leaned into each other as he read the text. He frowned and looked up at the detective.
“She’s not seeing anyone else today, sorry. Can I reschedule?”
Álvaro nodded and stood up. “Yeah, but I don’t know when. I’ll call back after I look at my week.”
I was feeling charitable. I smiled at Álvaro and waved Oliver’s hat toward the door. “Wanna get a cup?”
There was a little indie coffee shop two doors down from Núr’s place, on the other side of a Salvadoran restaurant. The front was just a series of arches, like maybe it had once been a Greek or Italian place. There were tables on the sidewalk, and we took one of them. When the coffees came, one of the cups was plain white porcelain while the other had a shockingly silver glaze.
I slid the silver cup toward Álvaro. “How are the guys?”
He shrugged and lifted the mug. “None too pleased about you getting handpicked by the chief and the DA. The favored son.”
“The chief’s not exactly a father figure, and the DA…” I left it hanging.
“Even so, the guys saw you in plainclothes, faded blue jeans, red shirt. All that color.” He laughed. “Living the dream, they’re saying, like the wheat separated from the chaff, the highest star in heaven.”
Never mind that detectives like him get to wear plainclothes every day. I was just a beat cop, yeah? No right to wear anything more colorful than uniform gray.
I took a sip of the coffee. Not good. “So, they’re trying to hate me to death with clichés.”
I switched up the capitalization in my head. They were hating me to Death. I couldn’t stop talking about Him. I needed to change the subject. “Anything new on the beat?”
He slurped his coffee like it was the nectar of the gods. “Two more homicides in Lobany Place. Or, at least one. The other might’ve been just a drunk girl who fucked up and fell off a roof. She hit one of those little cast iron fences they put around the trees on Almond and it took her head off.”
We shared a cop’s look. The most irregular shit made regular.
Álvaro took a deep, sad breath. “She was pretty. Nice tits. Law school honor student. If the tree had still been there, it mighta broke her fall.”
I took a second sip of coffee. It hadn’t gotten any better.
“But,” he said, “just a stump. The tree, I mean.”
I guess my nod wasn’t sympathetic enough. Álvaro put his elbows on the table.
“You alright, Joe? I was about to say the city’s falling apart, but you look like you are.”
It was my turn to shrug. “The case they put me on isn’t a day at court.” We just sat there, nodding like idiots.
“Maybe the city is falling apart, Álvaro. Maybe it’s all falling apart. Civilization, all of it. It’s all so fucking fragile. Everything we think is solid. It’s not.”
“Come on, Joe.” He chuckled a puff of air and looked at the people walking back and forth on the sidewalk. He was pushing his lip out with his tongue. He was trying to be tough, looking for comfort. I was not in a comforting mood.
Álvaro scanned the soft, middle-class zombies roaming Sutler Heights with their designer shirts and smart phones, seeking some social confirmation of his pollyanna certainty. His hand was resting on his own phone, rubbing it with one finger like a fetish. I stared at the faux-classic arches of the coffee shop. The kitschy imitation of stone in cheap wood and beige plaster.
Something inside my head snapped into place.
“Like, the first guy who ever made an arch didn’t know what he was doing, right? He couldn’t, it was the first try. So, he’s standing there under this thing he just threw together, admiring it and feeling good about himself and thinking how smart he is.”
Álvaro took my lead and stared at the coffee shop’s arched façade. His mouth hung open.
“Only, he fucked something up, who knows, like a loose stone or something because it’s the first one and the kinks haven’t been worked out. So, the whole thing comes down on his head.”
I took a sip of the nasty coffee, and so did he. I snared his gaze and glanced at his phone. So did he.
“That’s us with all this global communications and Internet, just looking up at this thing we threw up over our heads and grinning, so happy with ourselves. Only, some solar flare washes over us, or the Earth’s magnetic poles pull a U-turn, and it all comes down on our heads.”
He chuckled again. The same dismissive burst of his living breath. “Come on, Joe. Sure, it would be rough, but we’d make it through. Martial law for a while, maybe. You and me making sure the streets stay calm…”
Álvaro couldn’t think outside the box. Unless I pushed him out of it. “You’ve been watching too many disaster movies where the good guys always come through in the end.”
My voice sounded like Charles Oliver and his obsession with genre fiction. Fuck it. Maybe I needed to channel the privateer to get my head straight on his case.
“Think about it,” I said. “If the sun spits a big ball of magnetic fire at us, and it burns out all our electronics, how are you going to contact Central?”
His hand slipped away from the cell phone. “Huh. Shit.”
“Yeah. Five minutes into it, you and everyone else on the planet figure out the same thing at the same time. It ain’t just the Internet’s down, or the power’s out. It ain’t just you got no bars on your phone, no airplane mode, no GPS. The damn thing won’t even come on. Nothing will. No cars, no radios, nothing. A couple planes fall out of the sky nearby, and everyone gets the point. What’s your first thought then?”
He looked at the table. He looked at the silver mug. He looked into his own fears.
“Where’s my dad and sister?”
“Right. You think anybody will be taking directions from the cops then? You think the cops and the military are going to give a shit about keeping order when their families are miles away, there’s no way to talk to them, and they gotta walk maybe days to get to them? And, just hoping they’re okay and still there when they get there.”
“Shit.” I could see his mind breaking.
“Five minutes, Álvaro, and it’s all off the table. Clean sweep. Law, order, civilization. All of it. Every song, every movie you ever loved, gone. Everything you ever posted on social media. Every photo, every video you ever took of your sister and your dad? Lost forever. You gonna just trust in people’s good nature at that point?”
He chuckled a third time, but it was a chuckle of resignation.
“Damn, Joe. It is black as the devil in that head of yours, isn’t it?”
Sounded like he was quoting something. And Álvaro was not the literary type. “What?”
“Just something the DA said about you.”
“What the fuck?”
He grinned, but his lips were pale. “I think she’s in love with you.”
I laughed. “I don’t think she is. I’m not her sort.”
“Wait. Let me remember.” He chewed his lip into a blush. “Black as the devil, hot-headed, something, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”
Like I told you, not the literary type.
I shoved the mug across the table. “This sucks shit. I’m about ready to give up on ever tasting decent coffee again.”
Walking back home, on a hunch I looked up Eddie Fisher’s Count Your Blessings on my phone. No earbuds. Everyone on the sidewalk got a little sample of my father’s musical tastes. And, by the time I opened the door and rested my eyes on the familiar breadbox, the hunch was confirmed. There was no version of the song with Sinatra-esque brass like I heard in the cellar’s lounge.
It was all a trick of the angelic world, to synch my head to the mood of the Menorah Mafia. But, Who the Hell were They? I pulled Chuck’s crumpled notebook from my pants pocket and flipped through it.
The Seven Sins. Catholic jargon that hadn’t clicked in my head. I read the names Oliver had heard and recalled just enough Hebrew to make sense of the names the Menorah Mafia had told me.
Pretty boy Uriel, the Light of G-d, was Pride. The bartender Nathaniel, Given of G-d, was Greed. The rumple-suited Zephaniah, The LORD Lies in Wait, was Sloth.
Okay, so it didn’t exactly make sense. It was backward. Maybe They were trying to put Their best foot forward with me.
I lifted the breadbox door and caressed the fuzz of the stuffed Cow-Fish with my left hand while I flipped through the notebook from the Fisher of Men with my right hand. (Yeah, I knew that much Christian jargon, enough to make a spiritual pun.)
As I scanned through Chuck’s notes, I realized that his first mistake was not to investigate Despair’s place right away. He realized the same thing, but too late. Maybe that was my mistake too.
His second mistake was letting Curiosity go with him when he poked around the scene of the crime. And, just as Núr said, he met Fear there.
I looked at the old photos by the door. The smallest at the top, four sets of great-grandparents, including the last of the line to call themselves Kleinman. Reversing G-d’s work in Eden, at Ellis Island they’d made Clay out of a “little man.” Below them, a little larger, were both sets of grandparents, the American Clays and the German Schwartzes. Then, at the bottom of the genetic funnel, a single photo of Abba and Emma with me standing knee-high between them wearing a diaper, black baseball cap, and a goofy-looking pair of orange hippie sunglasses. It was the oldest photo of the three of us I had.
And, if my Zaydeh and Zaydee Schwartz hadn’t escaped Germany, all those people would never have funneled down to make me.
I closed my eyes and slid the breadbox door shut. My fingers traced the wheat carving in the wood, like I was reading Braille engraved by my grandparents’ friend. The man who, I had discovered, met Death at Słoneczny.
My first case. And I had failed to read my own Zaydeh and Zaydee. They knew the carpenter ended up in the death camp. For all I knew, my mom and dad had also known. Maybe that’s why they were so opposed to me digging into the past. Maybe I’d failed to read them, too. My closest family, and I couldn’t read them.
I felt my mind breaking.
Pentapolis gym was empty. No honey lion, no green hermaphrodite skulking in the shadows. The speaker system was tinkling a gentle, sad, and eerily familiar piano tune. I recognized it as a lounge jazz rendition of the opening riff of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters.
Always the fucking switch-arounds. I headed upstairs, following Chuck’s directions.
The walls of the corridor were blue-and-white stripes, the carpet a melange of white, blue, red, and purple. I knew from Oliver’s notes that one of these doors was Curiosity’s place.
I wondered if Her form from the lounge was the same tight, young body that had led Charles Oliver astray. I wondered if She was in Her apartment now, in that form. Maybe waiting for me.
A tussle with Her in the boxing ring of Her bed was … tempting. But, no more so than a glass of wine. Plus, I doubted She’d be in an friendly mood after the clocking I’d delivered in the lounge.
I stepped past Her place and located Despair’s apartment. I knocked on the door. No answer.
Curiosity hadn’t been the only angel with Chuck in Despair’s place. I knocked again and put my face next to the door.
“Hello? Fear? If You’re in there, my name is Joseph Clay. I’m a police officer and I’m not here to hurt anyone.” I adjusted my mind. “Or Anyone.”
There was no reply. Not sure the angel of Fear could be reassured, anyway.
The door facing was flush, very old-fashioned. Not very secure. I wondered, could it be opened with a card? I fished an ID from my wallet and slipped it into the gap. A few hard swipes, and the locked clicked. I felt like I was in some corny old movie.
You and me, Chuck. Living the past.
I stepped in and locked the door behind me. Damned futility. Leaning in the corner beside the door was a charcoal-finished Remington M-11 20-gauge shotgun. It had a pale gray evidence tag on it. Seattle Police Department. I immediately put two and two together.
Kurt fucking Cobain.
“Whatcha doing here, Joe?”
I spun to the voice. There was no gender ambiguity this time. His shoulders were squared off in a manly, woodland camouflage zoot suit, a Van Dyke of stubble on his chin and upper lip. He was sitting in a tattered gray chair, reading a tattered gray newspaper. In fact, the whole place was weirdly gray, like an old faded photograph.
And there were plenty of faded photographs strewn about the place. Cluttered magazines and books were stacked everywhere. It was a hoarder’s wet dream, except it was as dry as a corpse. A fire marshal’s nightmare. An antique dealer’s fantasy, every stack of ancient texts leaning on a priceless heirloom. An Edwardian table here. A Ming vase there. An Aztec statue in the corner. There was even a scroll rack against the far wall that looked like it’d been salvaged from the library of Alexandria.
I felt like Solomon from Miller’s The Price, in awe at the collection of choice, neglected relics. And, everything as colorless as one might expect of Despair.
But, the Asshole who was waiting for me was a shockingly green splotch in that grayscape.
“What are You doing here, Mister Fortune?” I snapped. He enjoyed the joke.
“Just reading up on the latest catastrophe.” That green grin. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
I decided to play it cool. I brushed some dust off a chaise longue and leaned into it with one elbow up. Might as well act out the noir cop film I was living. To match the antique mood, I almost wished I had a cigarette.
Misfortune locked eyes on me, finding some curious significance in the seating arrangement. He casually flipped the newspaper onto the table between us. I caught the date on the masthead: October 1959. The latest catastrophe, my ass. The headline story was about a trial for death camp guards. The Słoneczny Seven. The same camp where my grandparents’ carpenter friend had been murdered. Another coy coincidence of the angelic realm.
I scanned the paper while Misfortune pulled a bronze cigarette case from His jacket. The story’s deck line mentioned an eighth Nazi guard who was still on the run. Josef Stillman. Just like the Hanukkah menorah and the Sins, always an eighth fucking things up.
Misfortune was holding out the cigarette case to me. A lit brown stick, unfiltered of course, hung from His lip. My taste for hardboiled nostalgia was spent. I shook my head.
“My funeral.” He smiled at His own joke and tucked the cigarette case into His breast pocket. It took three tucks to drive it home.
“Not likely.” I took in the room again. “You just like reading through all the misfortunes collected here?”
“Sure. And I like sitting in Lýpe’s favorite chair.”
I shrugged and leaned into the chaise longue. “The couch is pretty comfy, too.”
“I bet it is.” He smirked. “For you.”
Having denied the nicotine, I suddenly wanted a pick-me-up. “You think She’s got some java somewhere?”
He puffed on the cigarette and nodded toward the back doorway. I stood up and stepped around Him into a gray kitchenette.
“Why not?” He was leaning in the doorway, studying me. He was still a bit shorter than me, and I’m not the tallest guy in flat shoes.
I found some ground coffee in a bag in the cabinet over the stove, but failed to locate a percolator or even a French press. After the sixth or seventh drawer, I muttered something blasphemous.
“Come on, Joe.” He tapped ashes into the sink. “You’ve seen enough old movies to know how this works.”
I channeled fanboy Chuck for a moment and the image of a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart heating up a pot of water popped into my head. I followed the crude recipe from my reverie.
Even the G-ddamn fire on the stove was gray.
“If You don’t mind me asking, what’s Your angle in this latest catastrophe?” Small talk for a small thug.
He grinned around the cigarette. “If you don’t mind Me paraphrasing Chuck’s Messiah, you and I have but one Father, our Father in Heaven.”
I wasn’t familiar with that particular Jesus quote, but I made an educated guess at it. Even so, I knew Misfortune wasn’t talking about ha-Shem. He was fucking with me and I didn’t like it.
I watched the pot. It boiled anyway. “Death’s children? You and me … and Núr alike?”
His carefully groomed brows jumped. The tip of His tongue lifted the corner of His mouth into a sly, feminine grin. “You’re not so dumb as you look. I almost wish I’d gone the other direction, this time, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what He meant. Somewhere deep in my reluctant gut, I almost wished the same thing. I’d passed Curiosity’s door without hesitation, but Misfortune was haunting me. I had read His innuendo as clearly as I’d read Núr’s despair and Dick Bures’s regret and Álvaro’s fragile, pollyanna worldview.
Eve to my Adam, Misfortune was playing Helpmeet.
Like the solution of ground beans simmering in front my belly, this fucked up case had turned my life into a weird mixture of misfortune and revelation. Sometimes the big reveal is itself a tragedy, like what I’d done with poor Álvaro at the café. He hadn’t deserved that. What kind of person would break someone’s spirit like that? For no good reason.
I grabbed a pewter spoon from the counter and stirred. As I studied the bubbling, swirling coffee, it turned from gray to a deep, rich brown. What the fuck?
When I looked up, the square angles of the zoot suit were gone. The Van Dyke was smoothed away by soft, olive cheeks. Misfortune leaned into the doorway seductively, a green swoosh of curves and long curls and plump lips. The forest green Chuck Taylor at the end of one camo-hosed leg traced its way up Her opposite calf.
I felt a … weakness. The same weakness I had once felt toward the fruit of the vine. I didn’t like it.
The front door shook; someone was trying to open it. Or, perhaps Someone. And they were pretty sure They wanted in.
Then, the shaking stopped. There was a knock. Then two more.
“We know you’re in there, Joe.”
It was Ury’s voice. The Don of the Menorah Mafia. That “We” meant the rest of Them were waiting for me in the hallway.
I glared at Misfortune. “You motherfucker.”
She giggled. “You knew My name, Joe.”
She had me there. I should’ve read something bad about to happen from Her very presence. Instead, She’d read me like a cheap newspaper.
I wanted to fling the boiling coffee on Her. I wanted to knock Her jaw out of place, like I had Curiosity’s. But, I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was kiss those lips and feel those emerald fingernails in my hair. My teeth ground against each other.
I stepped around Misfortune, elbow brushing Her breast, and stomped toward the door. I hadn’t brought my side-arm. The same mistake Chuck had made.
“Don’t worry. Despair is alright,” came another voice from the hallway. “She’s free and fine, Joe.” Was it Rehmy’s voice? I couldn’t read it, but He was offering me hope that Despair was no longer a sex-slave. The sort of thing Lust would know.
“And, Her daughter Fear is safe, too.” That was Enoch. Trying to calm me. Make me feel secure.
They were reading me. My mind was breaking again, and I had nowhere deeper to go. I stared at the knob, felt the anger rising.
“Joe.” Enoch’s voice again. Somewhere in the confusing No Man’s Land between pleading and encouragement. Of course. Enoch was the flip side of Rage. I could almost see His tough guy face resisting a smile.
Another voice from beyond the door: “We have a good deal with Death, now. Let’s not fuck that up.” That was the bartender, Nate. It was Greed talking.
Of course, of course. They’d moved the bar from upstairs into the heart of the Temple. Making business just outside the Holy of Holies.
Misfortune was at my side. I could feel a strangely cool heat from Her body. “My love, if you only knew a little more about Chuck’s Messiah you’d know what you’re about to—”
“Shut the fuck up!”
Chuck’s notebook had reeked with the tension between Death and the Sins. And the ironic flow of exploited souls through the cash cow of Pressure. Mortals tempted to sin, relieved of their coin, and drawn to Death. Drawn to Death through the Sins. And, through Death’s Daughter.
I turned a sour face to Misfortune. Her jade eyes were on me, more gorgeous than anything I had ever seen. With a grunt, I put my hand on Her throat and shoved Her back into Despair’s sitting room. She tumbled over the chaise longue and caught Herself before rolling into the floor. She was giggling. Like it was all a fucking game.
Beyond the door, I heard Enoch tell His Confederates: “He’s coming out.”
I scooped up the shotgun. I knew the model. I felt its weight. There were shells still in it.
“I have one condition,” I said. A quiet shuffling told me They were gathering together, leaning Their angelic ears toward me. Against the door of Despair. Exactly what I had thought They’d do.
I started pumping rounds into the door. Thunder came with clouds of smoke. Once the gray rectangle of wood was hanging from a hinge, I threw the gun aside, and shoved the door at Them with a foot.
Four of Them lay in the floor of the hallway, bleeding Their false, angelic blood. The door leaned against the far wall. Danny, Zeke, and Zeph stood to one side, eyes wide, pistols limp in Their hands.
Where the door touched it, the wall lost its blue-and-white stripes in a slow sweep of gray. The same gray crept slowly across the multi-colored carpet from the door facing.
Zeke’s brown face turned gray. “You dumb fuck.”
Danny grinned at His buddies, the gray washing up his suit. “That’s what We get.”
Zeph’s graying hand twitched around the pistol. He hesitated and glanced at the other Two for initiative.
All together, They lifted their gats and emptied them into me.