A Bit of Funny: After reading this "Surviving Retail" strip, I was reminded of tech support making you go through all the steps you've already gone through. That reminded me of this humor bit about an evil genius calling tech support about his death ray.
On a More Personal Note: With the end of the novel in sight, I'm planning to take a rest while I plot my next literary move, but I don't want to let the creative mojo dry up. I thought of getting involved with an online writing community to try to keep my head in a creative space. I used to participate in the misc.writing newsgroup back in the 90s when I was just out of school, and it helped keep the creative juices flowing.
Now it seems like there are a zillion forums and it feels like I'm looking up bars in the Yellow Pages to try to find one where I'd want to hang out. Since I know I have some writers among my readers, I thought I'd ask for recommendations. Which sites/forums for writers do you find yourself frequenting to be among likeminded people and talk shop? Feel free to e-mail me if you don't want to publicly announce it in the comments.
Getting Back to the Story: The boys snuck into Heaven only to find someone shouting George's name the moment they got out of the arrival hall...
Hell on Five Dollars a Day
A Novel By Greg Bulmash
Copyright © MMVIII - Greg Bulmash - All Rights Reserved
A group of people who know they're somewhere they shouldn't be are a bit like herd animals. If one takes off running, there is an instinctive urge in the others to follow. Not wanting to be quite as conspicuous, the three of them walked quickly toward the corner of the building, the two angels following Kurt's lead. George disappeared around the corner and they followed him about 30 seconds later.
The woman who had waved at them was in George's arms, swept up in a bear hug as George twirled her around. Duke and Nybras watched the scene in bewilderment. Eventually, George put the woman down and walked her over to Kurt and the angels. "Kurt," George said, so joyful he paused and leaned in to kiss the woman's cheek, "this is Aunt Marie... Alain's wife."
Marie extended a hand, "Junior has spoken about you."
Kurt took her hand. "Junior?"
Marie smiled. "He is in my care. You will see him soon."
Kurt pulled her into a hug. "Thank you," he said quietly.
Marie returned the hug. "You are welcome." As the hug broke, she stepped back. "And who are your friends," she asked, eyeing Duke and Nybras, who stood a few paces behind Kurt, looking uncomfortable.
Kurt turned and introduced the two as Marie walked up and shook their hands. "This is Duke, an assistant angel we met in Purgatory. And this is Nybras..."
Before Kurt could tell the lie he'd come up with for how Nybras joined the group, Marie jerked her hand away from Nybras like he was on fire. "One of the fallen," she exclaimed, recoiling. "How did he... how did you... what is he..."
Nybras bowed deeply. "My lady, I am but a humble angel who has been given a second chance by this miraculous being," he said, remaining bowed. He slowly raised his head, though he remained bent over. "Please believe that I am not the demon I once was. I am reborn from kindness and love." His eyes seemed to mist up and he launched into a falsetto rendition of "Amazing Grace".
Duke stepped up and cupped a hand over Nybras's mouth while helping him to straighten up. "Easy there," Duke chided Nybras. He turned to Marie. "I may only be an assistant angel, but I know a miracle when I see one, and I saw Kurt redeem this demon. Believe me, you have nothing to fear."
Marie looked them over. "Come with me," she said, seeming to have made her decision. "We can't stand here talking all day. It is not safe."
Deuce had been true to his word. He took Alain on the scenic route to the hotel tower, detouring to an outside path between two minor towers. As they walked the path he quietly told Alain "this is where you run away."
Alain was pretty sure there'd be a video camera somewhere and he didn't want to cause any more trouble for Deuce than the angel was already causing for himself, so he resisted the urge to shake Deuce's hand before he took off running. He could hear Deuce behind him, making feeble sounds of protest at his "escape."
Although Deuce had told Alain what to expect, he was still surprised to see three shipping containers sitting unguarded and open in the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The security was so sloppy it made Alain a bit suspicious. It was almost this easy to find the dungeons and Vinnie had been waiting for them with a reception committee.
They couldn't just kill Alain in his hospital bed, he thought. Well, they could, but it wouldn't be kosher. But killing him while he tried to escape would be another matter entirely. He'd never thought to ask to see Deuce's wings or halo. He'd had Deuce prove he wasn't a demon in disguise, but never had him prove he was an angel. Maybe Deuce was a vampire, or a black mage, or some other business associate of Hell that would have allowed him to prove himself not to be a demon.
But Alain was at a loss for options. The portal to Purgatory was outside Pandaemonium's walls, and they were too high for him to scale. He'd have to find a way outside the walls, then find the portal before he was caught. It was nearly impossible. But as he looked at the cargo container, the biggest vibe he got was that he was walking into a giant roach motel.
Stop it he shouted in his head. If he'd wanted to think this through, the time was before he ran away from Deuce. Now that he was off on his own, he was an escapee, and instead of doing something to preserve his life and freedom, he was crouched by the curve of a tower, frozen in indecision.
Slowly he crept toward the cargo container. Various alarms in his head screamed at him that this was a bad idea, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Deuce really was an angel. There was obviously something going on that was bigger than him. He was a guaranteed soul for Hell, George was 50/50, and Kurt was out of Hell's reach. That meant that the bet Satan took was basically even odds. There was no house advantage. Satan wouldn't — or at least shouldn't — have taken an even-odds bet. There had to be some higher stakes on the line. And if there were, it might make sense for Heaven to be taking an interest.
Alain entered the cargo container. As promised, there was a quad bike, gas cans, and a number of crates. The closest crates contained Kalashnikov assault rifles. Alain didn't have time to read the rest. He pulled the container doors closed, manipulating the locking mechanism from within, creating a deep darkness within the crate. A few stray cracks let in enough light that his vampire-enhanced vision could make out shapes and outlines, He went, sat on the quad bike, and waited.
Even the back alleys of Heaven were nice. They reminded Kurt of the narrow streets of old Italian mountain towns you saw in the movies. Marie led them along a twisting route, avoiding major thoroughfares.
Eventually, they came to the back gate of a small walled garden surrounding a two-story townhouse. When Marie opened it without a key, Kurt was initially shocked, but then he realized that if there was any place you should be able to leave things unlocked, it would be Heaven. Marie ushered them through the gate and into the house, leading them into the kitchen.
The kitchen was like something out of a magazine. It was not only large and well appointed, but it had a nook with a table that could seat six. It was just large enough to be impressive, but still small enough to give off a sense of comfort. The range top was in a central island, and a cook at the island could feed people sitting on stools at the other side, or it was just a handful of steps to deliver a dish over to the nook.
Marie waved the group over to the table and dashed out of the kitchen to go elsewhere in the house. George set his pack down against the far wall of the nook and then sat down in the chair closest to it. Kurt set his pack down next to George's and took the chair at the head/foot of the table, just around the table's corner from George. In the center of the far wall of the nook was a recessed window with a view of the walled garden and a bench below it. The two angels opted to sit on the bench.
Marie returned, walking quickly into the kitchen. "Are any of you hungry," she asked, not waiting for a reply before opening a cupboard and starting to pick ingredients.
"Won't we be condemned to stay if we eat the food of the afterlife," Kurt inquired.
Marie paused in thought. "I don't know." She began picking ingredients again. "But I must cook. It's what I do when I'm nervous."
George smiled. "It's true," he said. "I gained 3 pounds the week before her IRS audit."
Kurt could understand why she was nervous, but what he didn't understand was... "what are we waiting for while you cook?"
"Friends," Marie said, pausing in her kitchen bustling.
"And what are these friends going to do?"
"I don't know," Marie said. She walked over to the table, remembered the open cupboard, jogged over to close it, then crossed back to the table and sat down.
"Things are -- how should I say it? -- bizarre around here. Heaven is not so heavenly. God has not been seen in centuries and there is some sort of junta of angels that has taken over to rule in his place. Everything looks heavenly on the surface, but that is just the surface. There used to be troupes of musicians and performers who roamed the streets and occupied corners of the parks. There were salons, choirs... I never saw any of this, but the people who were here before speak of it in hushed whispers."
"Heaven was a celebration. But celebration is prohibited now. There is no song, no art, no grand displays of joy. The angels think it is too messy, too disorderly. Everything is organized, controlled, and subdued. And those who complain openly have been known to disappear."
Kurt felt his face flush as panic began to set in. "God isn't here? What do you mean God isn't here?"
He got up from his chair, beginning to pace. "How could God not be here? This is Heaven! He has to be here!" He turned to Marie and grabbed her arm. "God has to be here!"
George stood and put a hand on Kurt's arm, pulling him loose from Marie. "Kurt, you need to settle down."
Kurt shrugged off the hand. "Settle down? How can I settle down? God is not in His Heaven! He's an absentee landlord! We bet everything!" He grabbed George's shirt and shook him. "God! Is! Not! HERE!"
Kurt pulled on George's shirt as he stumbled backwards. "I can't breathe," Kurt protested, his breath coming in short gasps. He let go of George's shirt and stumbled to a half-seated position on one of the stools at the island. Hunching over, he began short, quick breaths.
"He's hyperventilating," George yelled. "Crap! I need a paper bag!"
Calmly, Nybras walked over to Kurt and passed his hand over Kurt's eyes. Kurt stiffened, then slumped and fell forwards, George catching him before he fell off the stool. "I'm sorry," Nybras said, "but he might have hurt himself if he kept going that way. It should only last a couple of hours."
When Kurt woke, he was in a familiar place: white buildings, empty windows, and Jack sitting next to him on the sidewalk.
"Nybras slipped you an angelic mickey," Jack smiled. "He was right. You were going to hurt yourself. Now, that's the second time someone's had to knock you out in 24 hours. You doing okay?"
Kurt remembered the rant he'd been on before losing consciousness. Oddly, he had a hard time getting worked up over it now. "God's not there," he said very matter-of-factly. "We're going to lose the bet."
Jack stood up. "Walk with me," he said, heading off toward the sidewalk's end. Kurt got up and followed.
About 20 feet before the end of the walk, Jack stopped and turned toward the wall, pointing to a small box. Kurt looked at it and saw a big red button inside a box with an "in case of emergency, break glass" message written on it.
"There's one like this next to God's throne in the Celestial Palace. If you push it, He will show up."
"But there's this junta of angels, and Heaven's on lockdown... How am I going to get in there? It would take a miracle."
Jack smiled again. "Says the guy who turned a demon back into an angel."
Kurt sat down on the curb, putting his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. "But I don't know how I did that. I've got no idea how any of this works. It's like the force is strong with me, but I have no Obi Wan." Kurt lifted his head. "I'm Luke, right? I'm not gonna turn into Darth Vader am I?"
Jack chuckled. "You're not going over to the dark side any time soon."
Kurt's look of despair brightened and was replaced by an inspiration. "You seem to know what's going on. Could you train me?"
"Noooo," Jack cut him off, waving a hand in the air. "Not the right place, not the right guy. But you've met your teacher already. Gentleman by the name of Michael Barlow wrote a short story about a man who got to be God for a week and had to learn how to use God's powers. Story wasn't that great. He never submitted it anywhere. But, oddly enough, his insights into the nature of holiness and how to focus it to create miracles... deadly accurate."
"So he's in Heaven? I can find him?"
"No and yes."
Kurt leaned back and lay on the sidewalk, staring up. "A straight answer! My kingdom for a straight answer!"
"You know him better by his nickname, Mick."
Kurt sat up.
"The way you find him is you use that pinky in your pocket to bring him to you."
"From a little acorn, a mighty oak grows."
"Your friends are waking you up."
Alain had been waiting for the door to open and a cadre of demon guards to storm in, but it never happened. He sat quietly in the dark for about an hour, then felt the cargo container move with a hard jerk, and then it felt like it was swaying slightly, accelerating upward in regular, rhythmic motions, as if being lifted through the air by a great winged beast.
The flight had been going maybe 25 minutes when he started to hear bullets pinging off of the cargo container. The forward progress halted and the container bounced slowly up and down as if the great winged beast that carried it was hovering. There was a great roar and then a huge whooshing sound. Screams came from far below and then the forward progress began again. After another half hour, the container began lowering, setting down with a thud. There was some muffled talking and then another thud as something large butted up against the far end of the container and shoved it forward, the metal grinding against the ground. Alain had no idea how far it was shoved, but it happened about 10 times and then stopped, leaving only the residual sound of the two other containers being shoved in on either side of his.
There was some more muffled talking, another beastly roar, then a rush of air, as if the winged beasts had launched back into flight. At the far end of the container, Alain heard clanking as the door was opened. He hopped off the quad bike and took a runner's crouch so he could bolt out and have the advantage of surprise. But when the door opened and he saw the figure in the doorway, the plan to run past turned into an impromptu tackle.
Alain got his knees on the man's arms and sat down on his haunches looking down at the owner of the shipment. "How ya doin', Albert?"
Despite being on his back, his arms pinned, Albert tried to muster joy. "Alain," he exclaimed. "You survived. Thank the heavens!"
Alain heard the men approaching behind them, clumsy oafs who plodded so heavily it was like drumbeats to his sensitive ears. He preferred to focus on Albert, though, and did nothing as three rifle barrels were pressed up against his head. "Heavens indeed," Alain said quietly.
"What do you want we should do with him," a gunman asked in a voice Alain instantly recognized as Kolya's.
Albert looked up at Alain questioningly. "Alain?"
The gun blasts to his head might not kill him. The barrels were aimed too high. If you wanted to kill a vampire with a gun, you needed a 12 gauge shotgun blast, using size 2 or 3 bird shot, from about three or four feet away so you had the best chance of cutting through the neck and severing the head. But three automatic rifle shots to the head would slow him down.
Alain raised his hands and slowly got up off of Albert as the three men behind him shifted to keep the barrels of their guns against his head. Albert got to his feet and stood before Alain. "You know, I really am glad to see you."
"You have an odd way of showing it."
Albert's eyebrows raised. "You showed up uninvited and pinned me to the ground in front of associates who don't know you. What did you expect?" He waved a hand at the men behind Alain. "Put the guns down. This is all making me feel like I'm a bad guy in a James Bond movie. Kolya, open the crate on the left... no, your other left... There should be a styrofoam cooler in there. Grab it and meet us in my lab."
Albert turned and started walking. He looked back at Alain, "you coming?"
[To Be Continued March 30th, 2009]
Hell on $5 a Day is a work of fiction, serialized by its author on Brainhandles.com. Excerpts may be used for blog posts or articles about the novel. The length limit on excerpts is 4 paragraphs. Any more extensive usage requires permission.