THE LAST ARCHANGEL

By

Jorge Caballero

"It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, Heaven or Hell."

Buddha

"Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle."

Psalms 144:1


for Mom.


Chapter 1.

"An Angel Without a Heaven."

I – 'Yesterday and today.'

It seems that it was only yesterday that my life was full of wonder and excitement, with heroic deeds to be done, a secret war to be fought and won, and glory to be conquered. Sure, there were terrible moments too; moments filled with fear, horror, and the bittersweet certainty of death, but considering everything, it was an incredible time to be alive.

Yesterday, there were miracles and danger. Love, friendship, and betrayal. Yesterday, I walked with an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other; they taught me who I was, helped me fulfill my destiny, and together, we saved the world.

But yesterday's gone, and so are they.

Today…well, today I'm about fifteen seconds away from losing my temper and, probably, my waiting job at Chickin'Licious: Family Restaurant, Bar and Grill.

"Remember that wrath is one of the seven deadly sins," the memory of Ariel whispers in my head.

"And how come stupidity isn't?" I protest as my fingers curl around the cash register in front of me, so tightly that the plastic shell of the touch screen starts to crack under the pressure.

The reflection of Ariel that lingers in my memory doesn't answer, but I don't expect her to anyway. The real her is long gone, leaving me to my own devices while she chases the only prey she'll never be able to catch.

The man responsible for my latest bout of frustration with the world, my existence, and whatnot, is wearing the ugliest Hawaiian shirt in the world and, judging by the girth of his belly and the folds of flesh gathering under his chin, only a few visits to places like Chickin'Licious away from a massive coronary stroke.

"Well?" he asks while flapping the restaurant's menu book at my face. "Where is it? I can't find it!"

I swallow and make an effort not to grind my teeth. It's my rotten luck that we're short on staff today and I've had to abandon my usual spot on the floor in order to tend the register.

I hate tending the register.

"I'm sorry, sir, but as I've already explained to you, there're no beef plates on the menu." I try to force a smile, but I'm sure the twist of my lips comes off closer to looking like I'm having a stroke. "That includes cheeseburgers and ribs, barbecued or otherwise."

He looks at me with that kind of incomprehension only the supremely arrogant and stupid can achieve and which grinds on my nerves like sandpaper.

"Look at that pathetic fatso," says that other voice that also refuses to leave me. Cass, as always, is full of scorn and has even less patience than I. "'Boo, boo, that's not what I'm entitled to! I want my candy!' For Hell's sake, is this the race we risked everything for? Are these the beings we fought so hard to save?"

I do my best to ignore her, to not think she might have a point. We did what we did because it was what had to be done, because it was the right thing to do, and because if we didn't do it, then no one else would have done it. On days like this, however, it's hard not to think that maybe it was all for nothing, and that we bled so much and sacrificed so many things for no valid reason and no worthy goal.

"But I want a burger!" Fat Guy protests, his gray matter apparently unable to understand the basic idea of a chicken restaurant.

I have no more patience for this. In the old times, I would be raining down fire on him already. Or toads and tadpoles, at least.

However, I have to remind myself that these are my times and not the old guard's. There are no more burning bushes and world-wide deluges. We can't go around turning people into salt statues or unleashing plagues of boils every other Thursday. It's not just because it's really impolite to go to those extremes anymore. We literally can't.

This is the Earthly plane, and angels like me no longer belong here.

So, if pride goeth before the fall, then frustration shall goeth before the snark.

"Look here, man," I interrupt his protest by using my most commanding repent, ye sinners voice and pointing my finger at the restaurant logo sewn onto the left breast of my red polo shirt. "What do you see?"

The logo is a crude plagiarism of Warner Brothers' Foghorn Leghorn making a thumbs-up in a circle formed by the words "It's Chickin'Licious!"

"Ehhh...some kind of bird?" he vacuously says, squinting as myopic eyes follow my pointing finger.

If I didn't know better, I would think that I was being tried. But I do. No one really cares anymore.

"Exactly, some kind of bird. A rooster, to be precise. Can you read this too?" I point at the front of my cap and the cursive golden letters embroidered in it. "I'll do it for you if it's too advanced for your level of reading. It says Chickin'Licious: Family Restaurant, Bar & Grill. Do you see a running theme here?"

"Well, maybe—"

"No, no 'maybe'. Chicken, man, chicken. That's what we do. Roast chicken, fried chicken, grilled chicken, chicken soup, chicken casserole, chicken salad, chicken wings, chicken breasts, chicken nuggets! Chicken with BBQ sauce, with hot sauce, or with our own secret, homemade sour sauce! Heck, if you ask nicely, I will get a chicken, put it in the frickin' blender and pour you a refreshing glass of chicken juice!"

My voice gets louder and deeper as I begin raising it to fire-and-brimstone levels. Fat Guy takes a step back from the counter and bumps into the customer standing behind him, almost causing a comical domino-effect in the line of people formed by his refusal to accept that you can't always get what you want.

He barely notices this, though. His skin is going a death-like gray, and he's starting to sweat enough to make a puddle on the floor. If when all this is over, anybody asks him to explain the reason behind this sudden bout of terror that is gripping him, he probably won't be able to do so. Humans can't see what we are whenever we're donning our mortal visages, at least not with their eyes.

But, what about that other eye they all have, but which few of them know about? What does he see with his inner third eye, the one of his soul, as I lean forward and spew my raging tirade at him? I know it's not the twenty-something kid that received him with a smile and a "What can I cluck for you, sir?"

What he actually sees that way; that I don't know. My own perception of reality is not always the same as the one of human beings. I can imagine he gets a glimpse of the other me, of the half of me that resides in the Otherside, wherever that might be. I just don't have the slightest idea of how he sees it.

Does he see an aura superimposed around me through the veil of reality? Or is it a large shadow looming behind me, glorious and terrifying?

What does he see of who I am inside? Does he see the gargantuan frame and the broad shoulders bursting out of my lean six-foot body like an enraged butterfly tearing the husk of a caterpillar? Have my dark blue eyes turned pale like arctic ice and have the shaggy locks of my red hair escaped from under the cap to become licking flames of living fire? Are there dark, intricate tattoos creeping up the pallor of the alabaster-like skin of my face? Does the shade of raven-black wings extend from my back ten good feet of length in both directions?

Or is it just that I'm screaming too loud for his comfort?

"I-I just want a b-burger..." he stutters, his mortal eyes unable to process what I truly am under the mortal mask I wear in this plane of existence.

"In that case," I roar as the rest of the people present, customers and co-workers alike, stop what they are doing and stare at me, "I suggest you get your fat ass out of my restaurant, walk across the parking lot, find the door with the huge golden M above it and then ask for a goddamn Big Mac! But whatever you do, stop wasting my time and let me tend to somebody who actually wants some frickin' chicken!"

No cheers come from the people standing in line behind Fat Guy. Nobody claps at my snarky put-down of his obnoxiousness. They mostly look and whisper at each other in amused but uncomfortable shock. A couple of them pull their phones out and seem annoyed that they weren't quick enough to get a good video to upload to YouTube.

I take a deep breath in and stand back, allowing my fingertips to relax their grasp on the cash register. The plastic case has cracked at some points, but it looks otherwise perfectly functional.

It's only now that I really look around myself. Most of my teenage coworkers are gawking at me in open-mouthed astonishment. Mr. Hollingsworth, the evening manager, is staring daggers at me. If the way he's angrily rotating his jaw leaves any doubts about the repercussions of my angry tirade, they are quickly dispelled when he points his thumb at the door labeled 'Manager' and growls, "Now."

Like I said, pride goeth. Now here cometh the fall.


II – 'Goodbye, Chickin'Licious.'

I don't bother arguing my case. It's simply not worth the effort and, if I'm honest, I had it coming. Fat Guy might be a moron, but it's not really his fault that I have zero patience, that I can't cope with my lot in life, or that I didn't read the fine print when they told me I had been chosen to save the world.

I've gone through worse than this. I've stared at the Devil in the eye and told him to suck it up. I've been to Hell and back, I've forsaken Heaven and given my middle finger to its King. It's nobody's fault but my own that an idiot—no matter how annoying—can get the best of me.

But all that was years ago, when I believed in good causes, in the existence of something worth fighting for. All that is gone, now. No righteous fury, no faith, no purpose. I'm an empty vessel that slowly fills up with the trickle of emotions pouring from others, and rarely with their better ones. Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. I guess that Fat Guy was just the drop that made the glass overflow.

So, I don't argue. I swallow my pride and withstand Mr. Hollingsworth's speech about how Chickin'Licious is a family restaurant, nodding my head stoically when he informs me that, sadly, I can't be allowed to keep my position given the circumstances. It's a sign of how little I can bring myself to care, that I don't even bother remarking that, seriously, the secret homemade sour sauce sucks.

While he gets the paperwork ready, I empty my locker. I put my stuff in a cardboard box but then I realize that, other than my bike helmet and my street clothes, I don't have anything worth taking home.

Oh well, to the trash it is. How appropriate.

I leave my working clothes on a wire hanger inside for whoever is my replacement, hoping that someone will wash them before that happens. I put on my long-sleeved Captain America: Secret Avenger T-shirt, leaving it untucked over my black jeans, and wish that some of the Sentinel of Liberty's best qualities would rub on me.

My well-worn Roland Sands Ronin black racing jacket makes me feel better as I sink my arms into its leather sleeves and accommodate it on my shoulders. I don't know if that feeling comes from it being a memento of a time when things were more dangerous, but way simpler, or just because it was a present from Cass for my sixteenth birthday.

What did Ariel give me on that day? Oh yes, a frickin' lesson. "You don't become a man at a certain age. You become a man the day you understand that in life there are things you can change and things you cannot change, but that you must always fight as if they were one and the same."

Yeah, I'm still trying to wrap my head around that. I think I like the jacket better, though.

After grabbing my helmet, all that I have left to do is say my goodbyes and see-you-around's to the few guys I've managed to get on a first name basis with while I've been working here, before Mr. Hollingsworth hands me my last paycheck and politely indicates me that it would be better for me to leave via the backdoor in the kitchen.

I could do that, but because swimming against the current is kinda my motto and I always keep my bike in the front, I politely flip him the bird—classy, I know—and walk to the restaurant's main entrance.

I get some nods and some 'aw, shucks' looks from other waiters that I'm not so familiar with, and that should be all for my working life at Chickin'Licious, but because I'm kind of a grandstanding jerk, I just can't leave it like that. So, at the last possible moment before reaching the main entrance door, I stop dead in my tracks, turn around while raising my arms, and dramatically exclaim for everyone to hear: "They may take our minimum-wage jobs, but they'll never take...our freedom!"

I don't start a revolution or make everyone stand on their tables in sign of support, but the few amused stares and chuckles that I elicit from waiters and customers alike are enough to make me feel a little better with myself. At a family table near the door, a couple of small kids laugh out loud while pointing their fingers at me and looking at their parents. "See what the crazy old guy did, Daddy? Wasn't that the weirdest?"

Ah, the laughter of children—the best remedy for any ailment.

I'm so getting drunk tonight.

I notice a slack-jawed Mr. Hollingsworth with a twitching left eyelid and turn around to get out in such a hurry that I bump face-first right into an incoming customer as he walks through the main doors.

"Oh, crap," I wince, almost dropping my box of junk and my helmet with the impact. "Sorry, man, I didn't see you."

"It's okay," the newcomer shrugs as he pulls back the hood of his yellow raincoat. His forehead is wide, his hairline receding, and his eyes are a dull, lifeless gray. "No harm done."

To be honest, I pay more attention to the dry state of his cheap plastic coat than I do to his features.

Oh joy, the night is not a complete disaster; I won't have to ride under a downpour.

The storefront building where Chickin'Licious is located is nothing but a collection of small businesses cobbled together in front of a small parking lot by the main entry road of the town, but for some reason that escapes me, people insist in referring to it as 'The Old Mall'. I presume the name comes from wanting to differentiate this area from the new mall, which is across town and a proper modern shopping center, but everybody calls that one 'The Stanford Mall', so what the heck do I know?

As I step outside, I remember that the garbage dumpsters are on the back of the building, so I groan loudly as I walk around to dispose of the cardboard box with my trash. Getting out via the kitchen would have saved me time; serves me right for being such a dick.

Manuel, one of the restaurant's cooks, is there enjoying a cigarette break by the half-open rear door. He's a middle-aged, heavy-set Hispanic man with the biggest moustache and the kindest eyes I've ever seen in my life. He grins at me, flashing slightly crooked but pearly white teeth under his thick Pancho Villa handlebar.

"Finally managed to get yourself fired, eh, chico?" he chuckles while exhaling gray-blue smoke. "You lasted about a week longer than I thought you would."

I have no idea how he manages to keep his teeth so white while smoking a pack of menthols a day, but they gleam in the dimness of evening. We're living out the last days of autumn, and the shadows are getting longer by the minute.

With a humorous shake of my head, I throw the box into the dumpster. "There was a pool, wasn't there?"

"Forty-five bucks," he grins. "Little Anastasia got it."

I can't help but to snort. Anastasia is a seventeen-year-old goth girl that wastes the totality of her wages on her useless glue-sniffing boyfriend. "See you around, Manuel."

"Vaya con Dios, Nick." He waves his hand at me in farewell. Go with God.

I might, if I knew where He is these days. I'd love to have a few words with Him.

All I have left to do now is walking around the building again to get back to my transportation and the heck out of here.

I know what people call you, Karma, and they're right.

"Ah, my faithful steed, don't you worry: your master is here at last," I smile at my white-and-blue Honda NSR250R sports bike. I don't get an answer because, you know, it's just a bike, not a horse. Pretending is fun sometimes, though. I'm very good at it.

My black plastic Casio wristwatch tells me it's well past six in the evening. Night is creeping up and, although most of the businesses are still open, the parking lot is already half empty. Most of the people shopping here live in the good neighborhoods up north and very few of those want to drive through Southbridge after nightfall. Not that I blame them.

As I straddle the Honda's seat and adjust my helmet on my head, I have a look at the interior of the McDonald's through its glass doors. Fat Guy is at the counter, flustered and shaking his hands at the wide-eyed, overwhelmed teen boy behind it. Demanding to know why he can't get a nice, juicy roast chicken, no doubt.

I could feel some kind of perverse pleasure, I guess, but vindication won't pay my rent, which by the way, is already a month behind.

The Honda comes to life without hesitation when I kick-start it. The bike is more than twenty years old, but Japanese tech won't fail you if you take good care of it. I rev the engine up a couple of times. The two-stroker makes a characteristic noise, helped by the aftermarket muffler with which I replaced the original one. It's like a super-angry mosquito out to sting somebody in the face.

I smack down the translucent visor of my helmet, fold back the kickstand, and speed out of the parking lot and into the main road.

When they built the building back in the seventies, they did it right outside the town limits to save on municipal taxes. It didn't work too well, because Town Hall managed to annex the whole area as soon as construction was complete. However, in the forty-plus years that have since passed, no one has bothered to move the town's welcoming sign to its new location. I'm still speeding up and starting to enjoy the ride when I pass by it.

Welcome to

HEAVEN'S BROOK

Paradise on Earth since 1787

Oh, the irony.


III – 'The Brook.'

Everybody calls it The Brook. I didn't grow up here. I have no idea where I was actually born, but I was raised in New York City until Dad died when I was twelve and in Mom's hometown in New Jersey until I was fifteen, when all hell broke loose in my life.

Like Peter Parker, I'll always be a boy from Queens.

After the war was over, I drifted around for a while. Going back to New York was out of the question. I didn't feel comfortable anymore in largely populated areas, and countryside communities where everybody knows everyone else's names and dirty little secrets just give me the creeps.

Heaven's Brook—The Brook—seemed like a good middle ground. Plus, I got a perverse kick out of being an actual angel living in a place with a name like that. Like picking at a scab, or wallowing in self-pity.

The joke's gotten old with time, though. Now I only think it's mildly amusing, a remembrance of a time when I had hope things would get better. You know, like watching The Simpsons nowadays.

Almost fifty-thousand souls call The Brook their home. It was settled in the eighteenth century to house and provide for the workers of a lumber mill and the fellers getting cedar and oak from the deep woods that push the town against the Pacific Ocean. They are so deep, in fact, that if it wasn't for the interstate going from north to south outside the town's eastern limits, it would be effectively cut off from the world.

Sometimes I think that it would only take a couple years of man not paying attention for nature to take over and for the woods to reclaim the ground where The Brook stands.

In any case, the lumber mill is more than a century-long gone, but the stream that gives the town its name—artificially broadened into a moderately-wide channel in order to transport logs—still stands. It's big enough to be navigable by personal yachts during the rainy season, and it slashes the town in two halves with surgeon-like precision.

Northbridge is the unofficial name for The Brook's northern half. It's the 'good' side, the rich side. It has all the nice residential areas and facilities, like the local hospital, the police precinct and the firefighting department. It has the fashionable main street restaurants and bars, the shiny new shopping center, the bank, the well-cared-for park where kids can play and the private elementary and high school where those same kids have to wear khakis and blazers to class. It has the modern R&D cybernetics facility that is the life and blood of the town these days. It even has a pretty nice beach and a small harbor.

Meanwhile, south of the two bridges that join both halves, the aptly nicknamed Southbridge gets the run-down tenements, the struggling businesses, and the empty locales with the 'For Rent' signs on the front door. Here as well are the unsavory bars with blacked out windows, the public school with its metal detectors, the dark corners with the too-young and the too-old selling their bodies for a living, the high crime rate, the old park where you only get to play if you have a syringe, and the always-trying, always-losing old fish factory and warehouses that supported lives and hopes in the years between the mill and the research center.

This is where I live, south of the river, among the desperate and the hopelessly hopeful, among the out-of-luck and the never-been-lucky. An angel without a Heaven.


IV – '7-Eleven Blues.'

The 7-Eleven's parking lot next to my apartment building is all but deserted, with an ancient Dodge van propped on concrete blocks the only thing standing. All its wheels and doors are missing, and it has been vandalized with a crapload of graffiti. Art on the run, Southbridge-style.

It's already full dark by the time I arrive, so I stop the Honda right in front of the locale's doors, where I can see it from the inside. The bike is my most precious possession—my only valuable one, actually—and I don't want any junkie getting smart about it.

A boy with a hoodie walks into the circle of light provided by the shop from the other side of the dismantled Dodge as soon as I dismount. He stops dead in his tracks as he notices me, hesitating.

Even in the poorly illuminated parking lot, and with his stained hood on, I can see he is about fifteen. Scrawny, pale, and with sunken eyes, he sniffs constantly like he has a runny nose. Glue will do that to you.

The boy looks at me while he tries to decide what to do. Fight or flight. Pull a knife, or beg for some spare change. I take off my helmet, zip down my jacket, and plainly ignore him as I walk into the store. He follows me inside a couple steps behind.

Jude, the night cashier, is behind the Plexiglas cover at the counter with his nose deep inside a school textbook. Seventeen, black, and handsome, he's a good kid working a thankless and sometimes dangerous job in order to help his family meet ends while studying hard to make something out of himself. I like the guy.

"Hey Juuude," I greet him, singing it like the Beatles. Well, not like the Beatles because I have the same musical talent as a chunk of rock.

The boy gives me the finger without lifting his eyes from his homework. I snort out a laugh as I walk past the transparent cage. What goes around comes around.

Hoodie Boy makes a beeline for the racks of magazines and pretends to check their covers with his hands in the pockets of his zipped-up sweater while continuously sniffing.

Still humming tunelessly, I give him a couple of minutes. I go to the refrigerator at the back and collect a six-pack of beer. The really good hard liquor is kept along with the cigarette packs and the cash safe behind the plastic cage. I'm so broke that I can't afford any of it, anyway, so it's Coors for me tonight. At least it's cold.

I slide my left forearm through the open hole of the helmet's visor so I can hold the beer with the same hand and other is free. I waste a bit more time trying to remember the whole lyrics of Hey Jude and make my way back to the front of the shop.

By the time I get back to the counter cage, Hoodie Boy has gathered the guts to make his move.

He's aiming at Jude with an ancient Smith & Wesson revolver. His hands are shaking so much that he makes the piles of discount cereals and brand-free soda stacked on both sides of the counter rattle along with him.

"C'mon!" He slams his left hand on the Plexiglas in frustration, while waving the gun gangsta-style in his right. "Just give me the damn money, man!"

This is not Jude's first rodeo, so he stays calm, keeps his hands in sight and speaks slowly and clearly. "I told you, I don't know the combination of the safe. I can't give you any money."

"I will shoot you in the face, I swear!"

"This cover is bulletproof, dude." The young cashier rolls his eyes. "And I've already activated the silent alarm. Just save yourself any more trouble and go away before the cops arrive."

I roll my eyes too, although for entirely different reasons.

As I get close enough to the counter, I stomp hard on the back of Hoodie Boy's left knee. The natural reaction of his body causes his right hand to go up and aim the revolver away from Jude's face, and his legs to bend asymmetrically. He gasps, his upper body falling back and towards me. I hold the back of his head with my free hand and slam his face against the cage.

He falls into a boneless heap on the floor as I place the six-pack on the counter. The revolver, free of Hoodie's grasp, lands next to it. I get a pack of strawberry-flavored Twizzlers and place it on top of the beer cans.

"I'll take this," I tell Jude as I rummage in the inside pocket of my jacket for my paycheck. "Hey, can I cash this with you?"

The cashier stares at me dumbfounded. "Nick, dude! What was that for?"

I arch my eyebrows, clueless. "What?"

He opens and closes his mouth, then gets on his toes and tries to have a look at the body on the floor, but the plastic cage and the countertop are in his line of sight. "Is he...is he dead or something?"

I kick Hoodie Boy's legs without looking at him. He groans. "Or something."

"Man! Why did you have to do that?" Jude shakes his hands at me, annoyed. "That was totally uncalled for, dude! I had everything under control!"

I sigh, then knock on the plastic panel. "If you think this is actual bulletproof, then you must believe your boss cares more about your safety than about his bottom line. And if you think cops are gonna rush to answer a call from Southbridge after dark, then I have some real estate in Louisiana that I would love for you to invest in. It's really nice, it has alligators and everything."

The boy purses his lips at me, unconvinced. "So now what? Do you leave him there and then he comes back tomorrow or the day after with a few pals to get even?"

Good point. I roll my eyes again, leave my helmet on the counter, get the revolver, and bend over to grab Hoodie by the scruff of his sweater jacket.

Pulling him up, I shake him back into full consciousness. He's a few inches shorter than me and about forty-something pounds lighter, little more than bones and fear under his loose, hanging clothes.

I pull the hood back from his head. His nose is twisted and broken from the blow, trickling blood over the front of his sweater. I guess I haven't exactly helped with his sniffing problem.

He's a miserable little thing, really, with scruffy blond hair shooting in every direction from his scalp, a silver ring on the corner of his left eyebrow, and huge bags under his eyes. Just another punk wannabe aimlessly roaming the streets and life itself.

Behind the sickly pale pallor of his skin, deep into the recesses of his soul, I can see the twisted thing lurking and clawing at the eroded walls of his humanity.

It's not like I'm surprised by this. He's a Cambion, the offspring of a human and a demon. I've known it since I laid eyes on him a few minutes ago in the parking lot, but it's in here, up close and personal, that I can see the details clearly.

The twisted, bull-like head, the bulging muscles, the horns, the endless thirst for the blood of the innocents. He's of Moloch's lineage, no doubt.

The poor idiot probably has no clue about it, of course. The demon half of his personality is still contained within the prison of his God-given soul. Sure, it speaks to him, whispers into his mind in the dark hours of the night with sweet words of rage and hatred and greed. But it can't fully control him, can't get itself free and on the wheel. His soul is weak, debilitated from so many sins, suffering, misery and bad life choices, and the demon can be heard loud and clear through its hair-thin walls. But it can't break through.

The human soul is an incredible thing. So delicate and yet so resilient. God's masterpiece, if there is one.

The only thing that could tear it open and give the demon inside of him full rein, would be the direct intervention of the Archdemon at the head of his lineage: Moloch himself.

No risk of that happening any time soon, on account of the old bull-head being dead and all. I know this because I was the one who beheaded him at the gates of Heaven.

"Hey, look at me, buddy." I snap my fingers in front of his face. "Pay attention here, all right?"

"Man, you bdoke my nose!" he groans in pain, taking his hands to his blood-covered face as I drag him towards the exit. "Ithhudts like thit!"

"A couple words of advice," I tell him patiently, like I'm talking to a small kid. "First of all, stay away from guns altogether, all right? I know having one makes you feel all macho and stuff, but if all you can afford is one of these Saturday Night Specials pieces of junk, you'll only succeed in blowing your fingers off. Or you'll eventually manage to come across some good-minded citizen exercising his right to bear arms that are better than yours, and then you'll end up a sad statistic with a line of chalk around your dead body."

We step outside. The night air is becoming chilly, but I don't really feel it. Hoodie's eyes widen in shock as I turn him to look straight at me. I pull out the revolver, flip the drum open and unload it before twisting it free off the frame in order to render the S&W effectively useless. I toss the pieces and the six .32 rounds into the waste bin outside the 7-Eleven.

I am stronger than your regular human being, but not by that much. The gun was just that bad. The boy doesn't need to know that, of course. His sunken eyes begin to bulge as he begins paying me real attention.

"Second thing," I reach for him. He flinches but doesn't dare to try getting away, like a deer caught in the headlights. I smooth and rearrange his clothes, making him a little bit more presentable. "If you, or any of your friends, have the bright idea of coming back to this place, if I hear that any of you have bothered my pal, if I ever catch a whiff of your stinking hide within a ten-block radius of here, I will drag your screaming carcass all the way to Hell and sink you in a hole so deep that the only light you'll see for the rest of eternity will be the burning embers you'll get shoved up your ass every single day. Got that?"

The boy looks at me like I'm crazy, some kind of religious nut. But I'm not talking to him, I'm talking to what lurks inside his soul. And then, so the both of them know how serious I am, I give the both of them a flash.

Strictly speaking, it's not allowed for us to reveal our true visages on Earth. But strictly speaking as well, it's not like Hoodie Boy is truly human. Furthermore, I've never been one to care that much for rules and regulations.

It's just a split second. A fraction of a heartbeat. Just a blink of the eye. But for that tiniest of moments, I tower over him, black wings extended, tattoos crawling up my bare alabaster chest, hair aflame, and sword dangling from my hip.

I am God's ire. I am God's mercy. I am punishment and salvation. I am the tenth and last Archangel.

And then I'm back to be a regular, if moderately-handsome, kid in an old leather jacket and knock-off low top red Converse All-Stars.

The effect on Hoodie Boy is strong, but on the demon inside of him it's devastating. The boy takes a step back, eyes wide and a silent curse on his lips. Like with a subliminal message, like a single photograph spliced into a longer roll of film, he has seen something, but he doesn't know what. The Molochian beast reels, screams, twists, and cowers. It becomes a tiny ball of hate and fear trying to run away but with nowhere to go.

"Go," I sneer. "Now."

Hoodie Boy turns heels and scrambles so fast that he almost leaves his clothes behind.

"And go back to school!" I shout after him as he gets lost in the darkness.

I feel old and jaded as I walk back into the 7-Eleven. Twenty-three and already fed up with the world. It's not fair, if you ask me.

Jude glares at me with arms crossed over his chest. I get the pack of Twizzlers, rip it open and start chewing on one long straw of strawberry licorice as I glare back at him and slide the paycheck from Chickin'Licious under the glass panel. "Happy now?"

The young cashier gets the check, gives it a glance, and starts pushing keys on his register after passing it back to me along with a ballpoint pen. "You're a jerk, y'know?"

"Yeah, it's a family trait." I cock my eyebrows as I sign the check and give it back.

I reach for the money but the boy pulls it back even before my fingertips can touch it. I look up and Jude is giving me this smart-assed grin. "I'm gonna need some kind of photo ID first."

Narrowing my eyes, I get my wallet from the back pocket of my jeans and place it open against the plastic panel so he can have a look at my driving license. "Who's the jerk now, buddy?"

Jude just keeps grinning at me as he looks at the ID. It says my name is Nicholas Stanley Lieber. It's a fake, but a good one.

After five years, I'm no longer sure that anyone is still looking for Nick Dempsey, and those who might be probably have more than enough resources to not be fooled by a fake ID, but I don't want to make it any easier for them. It wouldn't be fun if it wasn't a challenge, right?

"Your money, sir. Thank you for your business." He finally hands me the cash through the porthole at the bottom of the Plexiglas screen.

After paying for the beer and the candy, and subtracting the store's change commission, I have fifty-seven dollars left. There's another hundred in my emergency stash under a loose floorboard in my apartment. I owe two hundred to my landlady from last month's rent.

It's official: I'm broke.

"Hey, what do I tell the cops if they finally show up?" Jude shouts at my retreating back.

"Tell them your guardian angel saved your chops!" I shout back over my shoulder, helmet in one hand and beer in the other.

I'm so hilarious.

Outside, I put the beers on the small rear seat of the bike and secure them with the elastic, hooked cords I have for this kind of stuff. I'm about to kick the stand back when a flashy Mercedes-Benz sports coupe rolls into the parking lot at about three times faster than it should, heading straight at me.

My eyes widen and I hold my breath as the incoming car skids at the last possible moment, turns two-seventy degrees on screeching tires and, missing me and the bike by a hair's width, gets neatly parked backwards just a spot away from where I am standing.

I can't see the interior because of the deeply tinted windows, but whoever is driving the Mercedes forces its powerful V8 engine to roar like a behemoth a couple of times, making the whole neighborhood tremble, before finally killing it.

The gull-wing door on the driver's side opens up and a devastatingly handsome young man in a flamboyant silk suit gets out, enveloped by a thick cloud of white smoke. He flashes me a smile bright enough to light up the whole town.

My jaw goes slack and the Twizzler slips off my lips and to the ground.

"Nick, kiddo!" Satan greets me, taking a step towards me and enveloping me with his arms. "How's my favorite nephew?"

With the Devil's arms around me, the only thing that escapes my mouth is a loud and sound: "What the fuck?"

It is said that when the Devil knows your name, he also knows yours sins. I have more than one name and the list of my sins is endless, so, as my curse tears the dark night skies over Heaven's Brook apart and thunder and lightning shake the very foundations of the Earth, I can't help but wonder if the time to answer for them is finally at hand.

After all, nobody falls harder than an angel, right?

End of Chapter 1.