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Enigma Variation: Being the adventures of Calico Jack Rackham
Calico Jack Rackham was just leaving St Saviour’s church with an armful of stolen cassocks when the angel landed before him wreathed about in awe and majesty. She folded back her white wings, then opened fire with a cassette-fed rotary cannon. The luminescent white bolides of magnesium rounds chased Rackham back into the church. He dived to one side of the door and cowered behind a stone column as the miniature suns began demolishing the portico.
“Rackham! Get out here you puissant little weasel!” The angel’s voice was far from soothing; it carried promises of never-ending pain and distress. Rackham assumed she was upset.
“You’ve really upset Sarakiel.” A second voice, this one hinting of unknown raptures, confirmed his suspicion. It belonged to a second angel, this one bedecked in vestments of tight leather and even tighter rubber; chrome chains hung from her bodice. Her wings draped about her like cloth fashioned from sewn-together batwings. “And Sarakiel isn’t nice when she’s annoyed.”
The dark seraphim strolled toward Rackham; her high-heeled boots clicking on the worn flagstones, the sound conjuring visions of cloven hooves striking sparks from scorched rock. She raised an automatic pistol and pulled back the slide, chambering the first cartridge.
“We don’t have quite
such an impressive budget.” She said by way of explanation. “It’s either
pawnshops or theft.” She showed the pistol to Rackham; a burnished chrome
As she did so, Rackham
realised that it had gone very quiet outside. He opened his mouth to speak, but
the angel put a finger to her lips. She also raised the
Sarakiel stormed into the church, thunder written across her brow, the cannon held high.
“Rackham! Stand up and take it like a mortal!”
The dark angel shot her between the eyes; a small, neat round hole. Sarakiel looked startled at the turn of events. But only momentarily; then she dropped heavily to the ground, wings fluttering briefly as they settled about her.
The dark angel held out a hand and helped Rackham to his feet.
“You’re Jack Rackham; Calico Jack to your friends and your enemies. I’m Iblis.”
“What the Hell’s going on!”
Iblis tutted. “We of the infernal regions really don’t care for the ‘H’ word. So negative. It conjures up such drear Bosch visions. We prefer Inferno or Tartarus. Much more poetic!”
She gestured at the winged corpse sprawled upon the threshold. “That wouldn’t have worked on Gabriel. Never rushes in. ‘Sides, she’d probably get Michael or Uriel to do it for her.”
Rackham, dread subsiding into impatience, stamped his foot (then regretted it immediately when he realised the utter futility of the gesture) and shouted “Will you please tell me what’s going on!”
Iblis leant against a pew and took a draw on the cheroot that had just materialised in her left hand. She aimed blue smoke-rings at the vaulted ceiling.
“Don’t be coy, Jack. The celestials wouldn’t be after you just for sport. Not Sarakiel anyway. If it’s important to them, it’s important to us. Probably!”
She holstered the
“John Eustace Rackham; Calico Jack. Small time thief, hence the dodgy moniker. No convictions; either criminal or spiritual.” She strolled toward Rackham, stroking a finger along the backrest of the pew. Wood splintered, peeled up in strips beneath her nail. Rackham flinched as she stopped mere inches away. Flames danced in her pitch-black pupils; a promise of anguish in her gaze. “Talk to me, Jack, while I’m still in a buoyant mood.”
Rackham swallowed hard. Before he could utter a syllable, he saw Iblis’ delicate nose wrinkle in disgust. She took a step back.
“Jack, have you been
bathing in the
“Shut up, Jack, I’m thinking.” Sounds of nails being hammered into coffins.
Rackham’s bladder nearly gave way. He subsided into the silence of stark terror. Iblis began to pace back and forth, a fingernail tapping at her shiny white teeth.
High in a penthouse office on Water Street, in Manhattan Island‘s wealthy financial district, Michael sat behind his wide mahogany desk and fiddled disconsolately with a Rubik’s cube. Having failed to complete the puzzle for the eighteenth time in a row he hurled it across the room. The multi-coloured puzzle skittered to a halt by Gabriel’s Gucci-shod feet, where she sat on a wing-backed leather recliner.
Michael knew what was coming next, but he tried his best to distract Gabriel.
“What I really want is a
Cuban cigar, a glass of malt whisky and a sirloin steak the size of
“Shut up, Michael.”
Gabriel spoke quietly, but her voice filled Michael’s cavernous office. He was
instantly silent, his hand aborting its journey toward the
Gabriel lowered her wire-rimmed bifocals and peered, brow creased, at her compatriot. “Why is Sarakiel dead?” Michael suddenly took an extreme interest in the magnetic paper-clip sculpture beside his handcrafted desk-tidy.
“What are you up to, Michael?”
Michael fashioned his most sincere smile and unleashed it upon Gabriel.
Four floors below, Raphael was administering a severe reprimand to Zophiel and Ophaniel, two cherubs in on Michael’s plan.
“...And then you let Sarakiel sod-off on her own! Just how stupid are you pair?” Ophaniel raised her hand. Raphael’s eyes shone dangerously bright. “I wasn’t expecting an answer.”
Zophiel scuffed his winkle pickers against the pile of the pale blue Persian rug that stretched almost the full width of Raphael’s office. It wasn’t as impressive as Michael’s by any means; only being an angel, Raphael’s furnishing allowance was concomitantly less.
“It wasn’t our fault. The Grigori reported Rackham entering St Saviour’s and whoosh, Sarakiel was gone. By the time we caught up it was toe-tag and body bag. And an empty church! You know Sara’, an absolute head case. I mean, have you seen the state of that church?”
The anger dropped from Raphael and he flopped bonelessly back into his proportionally less expensive chair. “Bloody Michael and his power games. If Gabriel catches on we’re all toast!”
Iblis took Rackham to
the Arcana, a Goth nightclub housed in a deconsecrated church on
Mammon emptied the entire bag into the palm of one shovel-like hand and began unceremoniously stuffing them into his wide, wet mouth. His moist eyes only briefly focussed on Rackham.
By now Iblis was dressed in a tight leather bodice and knee-length skirt. Her wings had morphed into an ankle-length leather coat; in black, of course. Mammon was likewise garbed in a colour not too dissimilar from black; his attire consisting of a rivet-studded biker jacket and trousers. His size fourteen boots gave the clever impression of a pair of cloven hooves squeezed into bedroom slippers. The words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across his raw-boned knuckles came as no surprise to Rackham.
Iblis let two more songs pass; she showed no sign of even being aware of the music reverberating about the room. Despite himself, Rackham’s initial panic was ebbing away, buoyed up by the pounding rhythm and a cold pint of Murphys. Iblis raised one heavily pencilled eyebrow.
“For a hunted mortal you’re holding together quite well, all things considered. Salt ’n’ vinegar?” She proffered a green foil packet to Rackham.
He lowered his shoulders. “I guess after a certain threshold the actual level of fear is moot!”
Wearing an encouraging smile, Mammon patted Rackham on the back, a stunning blow given the size of the arch-demon’s hand. “Don’t sweat it. You’ll soon be dead anyway.”
At which point Rackham began to cry; long gasping sobs.
Iblis glared at Mammon. “You’re such an arse at times.”
Mammon put down his pint, froth beading his furry upper lip. “What I meant was... well... I mean they’re so short-lived. So what’s the point in getting upset.” He tenderly swatted Rackham’s shoulder, in the process nearly dislocating the limb and causing Rackham to bang his already bowed head against the table.
Iblis watched her Jack Daniels slop over the side of the glass.
Oblivious to Iblis’ withering look, Mammon attempted to rescue the situation. “As Nietzsche said...”
“Sod Nietzsche! He didn’t have the hosts of Heaven trying to kill him, did he?” Rackham emptied his nose into a slightly off-white handkerchief.
“True.” conceded Mammon, retreating into his half-empty pint of Caffreys.
Rackham had just about recovered when Iblis slammed her palm on the table; crisps, peanuts and alcohol danced at the impact. The music may have been loud but a lot of heads turned in their direction. Rackham stared at the cracks that patterned the formica around Iblis’ pale, delicate hand. Thunderclouds had gathered upon her brow.
“Bloody Michael! I bet he’s behind it!”
Mammon lowered his pint, sucking foam from his upper lip. “Well go and ask Nanael. She’s always been straight. She’ll know if Michael’s gettin’ up to his old tricks.”
It was the wrong side of
midnight when they arrived outside the four-storey Victorian building two
streets away from the
En route, Rackham had tried to get answers to some of the questions that had nagged him since the first compulsory lesson of Religious Education in his distant childhood.
“Is the Bible actually true then?”
Iblis, with the makeup around her eyes shading from black through blue to red, replied without breaking stride. “Mmmm... true? Well truth depends on your viewpoint. Bits of it are true and some bits are... fabricated is probably the best word. It depended on the mood we were in at the time.”
“What about dinosaurs then? Where do they fit in?”
Iblis stopped abruptly, turning to Rackham with her hands on her rubber-sheathed hips. Rackham didn’t like the look on her face.
“Dinosaurs! Bloody dinosaurs! Why is it always soddin’ dinosaurs? What about ‘are we alone in the universe’? Or are platypus really just a joke? Why is it always bloody dinosaurs? For God sakes pick another topic! You mortals have no imagination whatsoever! And anyway, whatever happened to taking things on faith?” She sighed theatrically and took the opportunity to swirl her coat behind her as she stalked off.
Chastened, Rackham trailed in her wake.
A faint light did its best to brighten the window of the Esoterika, but was tired from its journey past innumerable stacks of dust-laden tomes. It gave up entirely upon reaching the never-washed glass. Iblis mounted the two steps and pushed open the shop door. A small bell failed to ring, muffled by a rich green coat of verdigris. Rackham followed her in, once again mesmerised by the constant evolution of her clothing and, he had to admit, the length of her legs.
The bookshop was narrow but very deep, seemingly deeper than the building could possibly accommodate and the source of the faint illumination proved to be a single offertory candle standing on a wooden trestle table. The table stood beside an ancient chair, on which reclined a white-haired woman of indeterminate age. She looked over her bifocals as the pair approached, closing a cloth-bound first edition of Gulliver’s Travels.
“Iblis! And a mortal! You never were very good with rules.” She rose effortlessly from the chair and hugged the black-clad angel. “Why are you here?” There was no censure in her voice, just the soft warmth of a perfect maiden aunt. “Are you in trouble with Uriel again?”
Nanael stepped past
Iblis and glanced at Rackham. Iblis leant against the trestle table and began
playing with the candle flame. A strong smell of sulphur pervaded the air. She
arched one eyebrow at Rackham. “Nope. Haven’t seen Urine since
Nanael was on the verge of commenting on Iblis’ complete lack of common sense, when her nose wrinkled. She noticed Iblis was watching her.
“I smelt it too. Just after Sarakiel tried to smear him over the walls of a church.”
Nanael delicately touched a fingertip to Rackham’s cheek. The contact conjured memories of his mother, warm milk and Battenberg cake. The Celestial spoke over her shoulder to Iblis.
“Is this one of Lucifer’s little deceits?”
“Nope, he’s an all-natural, navel-equipped son of his Father.”
Rackham was rather taken aback. “I might not have many friends, but I cried at the end of Starman.”
Iblis waved a hand. “Shut up, Jack.” She walked over and rested her chin on Nanael’s shoulder. “You said ‘soulless’. Pretend I’m Ophaniel and explain it to me.”
Nanael returned to her seat. Adjusting the hem of her gown, she made herself comfortable, sitting silently long enough for Rackham to break out in a cold sweat. He knew he was in deep doo-doo. And it was beginning to look if the tide was coming in, rather than going out.
“I think I understand now why Michael called for another audit. Jophiel said there was a discrepancy in the last one; one body too many, one soul too few.” She pointed a finger at Rackham. “You sir, are the victim of an ecumenical error.”
“A what?” Dread returned to settle on Rackham’s shoulders, heavy and cloying, like a thick woollen blanket left out in the rain.
“Ecumenical error. It’s a bit like clerical error only without all the paperwork.” Nanael wondered how to delicately phrase the truth. Then she figured fast was probably best. “You aren’t actually alive. You never have been. You have no soul; that spark the Creator gave you to distinguish your species from the other animals. Sometimes I think Melchisedec is right when he suggests we re-classify humans as plants.”
She could see the bewildered expression slowly deforming Rackham’s face.
“Have you ever been ill? No! Ever had a girlfriend? For more than five minutes! And that’s ‘girlfriend’ defined as a female companion who doesn’t require payment for her services. How about dogs and cats? Do they lick your hand or try and bite you?”
Rackham slumped to the dusty floor. A stack of books toppled over. “But I thought God was infallible?”
Nanael rested her chin on her tented fingers. “Sorry to disappoint you, Jack, but the Creator hasn’t set foot on the shop floor in several millennia! It’s currently spending its time hiding the universe’s supply of Higg’s bosons. The Creator left Gabriel in charge, but her pet project is making sure that archaeological evidence fits with written history. She delegated responsibility for day-to-day running to Michael. Only he’s still holding a grudge and wants a re-match with Lucifer. Heaven gets more like purgatory every day!”
Nanael sat back in her chair. “Michael’s still miffed, although he’d never admit it. He doesn’t think the Fallen Hosts were punished enough for their rebellion. In fact he’s particularly mad that the Infernals are able to enjoy the pleasures of the World of Mankind; pleasures denied us Celestials because we’re ’elevated’. Which is somewhat ironic as Lucifer just wants to be let back in!”
Both angels laughed delicately. Rackham held up a shaky, questioning digit.
“You make it sound like Heaven’s some sort of a gentleman’s club.”
Nanael smiled at him. “That’s a little misogynistic of you, Jack. Actually we angels, of whatever rank or persuasion, are effectively genderless. Androgynes. Our nature defines our appearance, and here on Earth it becomes extreme.” She clasped her robe in both hands, holding the front open to show Rackham her breasts.
“They’re not real in the sense you understand.”
Rackham began choking. Iblis looked at the mortal gasping for breath. She turned to Nanael. “Mine have the same effect.”
Lucifer put down his mineral water, watching tiny bubbles forming around a slice of lemon where it floated in the tall glass. Unlike the majority of his fellow Infernals, Lucifer eschewed the darker hues, favouring the lurid palette of Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. Which some might consider inappropriate clothing for a church crypt. Lucifer, however, was well beyond the reach of mortal censure.
He sat with his back against one tomb and his sandaled feet wedged against another. In reverence for the deceased, his midi hi-fi system was turned down low. Wagner provided the backdrop to his conversation with Arioch, an Infernal angel Lucifer had made responsible for acts of vengeance.
It wasn’t a duty that sat well with Arioch. Despite looking like Clint Eastwood, with a dash of Charles Bronson and more than a hint of Bob Hoskins, his temperament was more suited to a concerned vet than a brimstone wreathed demon of vengeance. But that, as Lucifer was apt to remind him, was the hell of it!
Lucifer smiled. Arioch was tempted to run and hide.
“If Michael can do it, so can I!”
“Beg pardon?” Arioch had been lost in contemplation of just how depressing Gothic architecture really was.
“If Michael thinks he can sneak an angel into Hell, then I can sneak myself into Heaven the same way!” Lucifer clapped his hands together.
Arioch nodded his understanding; another in a vast catalogue of petty lies. In truth he rarely understood any of Lucifer’s stratagems. He wasn’t best equipped for cloak and dagger operations; he was scared of the dark and loud noises frightened him. But he did his best.
“So. I’m to kill this Rackham. And then you ride into Heaven in place of his soul. Which he doesn’t have.”
Lucifer raised an eyebrow; a smile fought the natural down-curl of his pale lips.
Raphael disliked being ordered to Michael’s office, he suspected the Cherubs were laughing behind his back. And recently every visit seemed to be the genesis of yet another of Michael’s increasingly desperate schemes in his game of one-upmanship with Lucifer.
As Raphael had feared,
Michael was pacing back and forth, a wicked gleam in his eye. The
Rackham shook his head. “I don’t get it. You reckon Michael’s plan is to sneak a soul into me at the moment of my death? Whether natural or otherwise.” Nanael and Iblis nodded in unison. “But how can Michael guarantee that the soul will be sent to Hell anyway? After all, aren’t you judged on your deeds? Surely a Celestial soul can only ever be sent to Heaven!”
Nanael pushed her spectacles back up her nose. “Well, yes, that is true. You are judged when you die. But Michael probably has some devious method of ensuring that even the holiest of Celestials will go in the direction he chooses.” She pursed her lips. “After all, the system isn’t foolproof.”
“Yeah, I’ll say.” interjected Iblis. “Lucifer had Vlad the Impaler sent to Heaven... only as a joke!”
Their conversation was interrupted as the doorbell once again failed to announce a visitor. In the half-light they watched a shadow flow along the wall toward them. It halted and slowly coalesced into an angel of medium build, whose face would have looked impressive were not creased into an expression of vague anxiety.
Iblis wrapped her
slender fingers around the grip of the
In a cellar beneath a
sub-basement beneath the plush atrium of a tower block in
Zophiel looked at Ophaniel. With a dawning sense of terror the pair looked at their shiny metal blades. Ophaniel excused herself to go to the toilet.
“Thanks very much.”
Arioch accepted the cup of
“...loody technology! Is it working? This is Michael. I’m not here right now. So leave your name and numb... Eeep!”
Gabriel put the handset down and turned her gaze upon Ophaniel. The lesser angel’s cheeks flushed a livid scarlet.
Gabriel smiled. She held the final page of the audit report before Ophaniel’s face; her voice was a whisper. “When did he leave and where has he gone?”
The four sat around talking, three of them drinking tea and eating digestives. Arioch had softened considerably; Clint fading, Charles dissolving, Bob coming to the fore. He delicately replaced the bone-china cup on its matching willow-patterned saucer.
“I know Lucifer’s the boss and he’s wiser than me, but I’m just not sure about this. After all, if I’m not mistaken, when Lucifer sets hoof in Heaven that means the ’rebellion’ is all over. And doesn’t that mean we all get elevated again? If that happens bang goes the tea and the treacle sponge and custard.”
Nanael found herself agreeing. “If you Infernals leave the world, they’ll be no need for us Celestials to be here. So we’ll be returning to Heaven and I’d have to leave the books behind.“ She ran a protective hand across the cover of a 1900 edition of Don Quixote.
Iblis pondered what she’d miss. Everything probably; the first smoky sunlight heralding dawn; the first fat raindrops of a thunderstorm; whiskers on kittens! Actually no, scrub that, she detested cats; the only good cat was a violin string. Anyway, the whole idea sucked. “The whole idea sucks!”
Melchisedec looked up from his desk as Gabriel slammed open his office door. He didn’t like the look that had taken up residence upon her face. He’d always thought her face was her best feature. But not at that moment. She stopped and rested her knuckles on his desk.
“I want to make use of your talents. I need something to stop Michael causing yet another rift in Heaven.”
The doorbell finally made the tough decision to retire permanently, spurred on no doubt by the arrival of the last four unsavoury looking customers. They filed in and took up station, blocking the doorway, shoulders wedged between dusty bookshelves.
Arioch had leapt to his feet and whipped out an M-16 assault rifle from under his coat. He and Uriel eyed each other venomously down the length of the shop. Iblis drew her Jericho and stood resolutely next to Lucifer‘s enforcer. Her skin had paled even more and her eyes had darkened to jet. She contemplated Michael and his assorted hench-celestials.
Nanael put down her book and ushered Rackham into the shelter of the downstairs toilet. Rackham sat on the wooden seat and ran a critical eye around the small closet. He just couldn’t see its potential as a safe zone; flimsy wooden door and plasterboard walls. He closed his eyes and waited for the gunfire to begin.
“Just hand over the mortal and no one gets hurt!”
“Except the mortal.”
“Oh, shut up, Iblis! They’re short-lived little maggots anyway.”
“And what genus of invertebrate do you consider yourself, Michael?”
Uriel and Arioch were still locked into their staring competition, probably the semi-finals. Nanael had glared Zophiel into submission; the lesser angel had just discovered a previously unknown interest in books on cookery and was working his way through Delia Smith‘s back catalogue. That just left Michael and Iblis to trade insults. What Michael gained in volume, Iblis won back in invention. The Esoterika was host to a somewhat untidy stand-off.
Trying to be intimidating, Michael unfurled his wings. Unfortunately he misjudged the width of the aisle, bringing down several dozen first editions with his primary flight feathers.
Gabriel’s arrival was abrupt; a puff of smoke and a thunderclap. The thunderclap wasn’t very loud, Gabriel was well aware of the bookshop’s acoustics and had no interest in deafening its occupants. However, she knew how to make an appearance; her wings were impressively spread, but only to the limits dictated by her surroundings.
As the smoke began to
clear Michael could just be glimpsed sprinting down the road toward Holborn
underground station. Uriel cast a glance at Michael’s retreating back, then
another at Gabriel. He shrugged once and left the shop; strolling toward the
bright lights of
Pushing the barrel of Arioch’s assault rifle to one side, Gabriel strolled nonchalantly over to Nanael, doing a passable impersonation of someone ignoring Iblis.
“Get him out of the toilet.”
Nanael opened the door and drew Rackham out into the silent shop. Gabriel beckoned him over. Putting a hand into an inside pocket, she produced a small medicine bottle with a patented child-proof lid. Effortlessly she opened the bottle and offered a white pill to Rackham.
“That, Jack, is your soul. It isn’t a real human soul; those are dispensed at the moment of conception and we don’t carry spares. But this is enough of a soul to stop Michael or Lucifer from playing childish games. You’re no longer worth the killing.”
“Gee thanks, you don’t know how good that makes me feel!” Iblis sniggered at the sarcasm in Rackham’s tone. He took the proffered tablet.
“It’s just an aspirin!”
“Doesn’t matter, Jack, it’s purely symbolic.” She tossed the now empty pill-bottle onto Nanael’s chair. “It’s an ersatz soul cobbled together from bits and pieces; mostly dog with a splash of goat. Just enough to prevent anyone from using you as a Trojan horse.”
“Don’t worry. There won’t be any physical side-effects.”
Rackham looked at the pill. He looked at Iblis, but she couldn’t offer him anymore than a smile of encouragement. He placed the pill on his tongue, closed his mouth and swallowed.
The angels dispersed from the Esoterika. Zophiel hitched a lift with Gabriel, radiating a certain restrained joy. Repressing a smile, Arioch went to tell Lucifer the bad news. Nanael busied herself replacing all of the books Zophiel had pulled from the shelves.
Iblis hung around until Rackham had gathered his wits, then she took him back to the Arcana, where Mammon was still munching dry-roasted nuts and chugging Caffreys.
As for Rackham? Well he found that Gabriel hadn‘t lied. There were no physical complications. Though, just occasionally, he caught himself staring at cats and trees with a new intensity.
Well done. A very entertaining read. A view of angels, I have never thought of. Kuddoos
That was amusing! I loved how so many of the angels obsessed over food. An interesting take on the theme. The only thing I didn't get is: if angels can die so easily, and the war's been going on so long, why are there any left? Or do they just go off to Heaven or Hell temporarily and then eventually come back? Unless I missed something, that part didn't exactly make sense. Otherwise, not bad.
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