Gabriel, archangel of the most high Lord of Heaven, stepped into The Crazy Eight on Twenty-Second just past ten o’clock. He threaded his way through the dense Friday night crowd and eased into an opening at the rail. “A Manhattan,” he said.
A weary bartender stared at him with disgust. “We got shots and we got beers.”
Gabriel sighed. “Fine. Vodka, then. Neat.”
With the short drink in his hand, Gabriel half-turned to survey the crowd. Across the dim, shadowy room he saw a figure gesturing at him. The angel laid a fiver on the bar and walked over to the table.
“Az,” he said with a grin. “It’s been a long time.”
Asmodeus, festering lackey of the Dark One, gestured at an empty chair. “Not that long. You slummin’ tonight, Gabe?”
Gabriel shrugged. “Apparently.” He pulled the chair out, flipped it around and sat astride it.
The demon took a long gulp out of a bottle of Tecate and belched comfortably. “Man, I love Mexican beer. I guess we’re working the same job tonight.”
“It looks like it.” Gabriel glanced around at the sharp report of someone breaking a rack. A swell of cheers went up from the crowd gathered around a pool table. An excited woman in a mini-skirt jumped up and down.
Asmodeus watched the woman’s ample chest with appreciation for a moment. He picked up an open pack and shook out an unfiltered cigarette. “Mind if I—”
“No, go ahead. In fact, give me one.” The demon lit his own cigarette, then held the Bic out. Gabriel leaned into the glare of the flame and sat back exhaling smoke.
“Last time I saw you was at Waco,” Az said. “That was real charlie-foxtrot, if you don’t mind me sayin’. Hard to tell who was going where, up or down. That job was all kinds of messed up.”
Gabriel pointed out, “We were a lot busier than you that day.”
“You know how that game goes: We win some, you win some. You guys just got lucky.”
“I wouldn’t call it luck.”
Az took another drag off his cigarette. “You still like your job? You still like reporting to—”
Gabriel smiled. “To who?”
The demon grimaced. “You know who.”
“I know you can’t say His name.”
“Yes, I can,” Az protested, adding in a low voice, “if I want my guts ripped out my stinkin’ asshole by holy fire, that is. Anyway, you know who I mean. You still like working for him?”
“Sure. It’s a good gig, especially since He brought His son into the firm. A younger outlook, a lot less smiting of innocents…yeah, it’s an okay job.”
“That’s not what you were saying in 1349.”
Gabriel sipped at his drink and made a face. “Those were tough times, old friend. It was hard to tell whose side we were on. Times like that made all of us question our purpose.”
Az nodded. “Nothing like a little Black Death to screw with your head.” He held out his bottle and the angel clinked his glass against it. The demon leaned back and emptied his beer. “I wonder if we’ve got time for another. You want a fresh one?”
The angel shook his head. “I don’t like to drink on the run.”
Asmodeus sighed. “Me either.” The Nokia ringtone chimed gaily from his breast pocket and Az held up one long finger to his companion. “Hang on. This might be it.”
Gabriel tossed back the rest of his drink, watching as the demon read the incoming text. He was already stubbing out his cigarette when Az looked up and said, “It’s go time. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“Of course. He keeps me in the loop pretty good.” He couldn’t help adding, “And we don’t even need iPhones.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s always got his eye on you, up your butt like a popsicle stick. I guess if you like micromanagers…” Az trailed off with a smirk.
Angry shouts rang out from the center of the bar. The woman with the minimal skirt and maximum chest screamed. The gunshots that followed were earsplitting under the low, smoky ceiling, and then the screaming began in earnest. The bar dissolved into chaos as men and women stumbled over each other, trying to make their way to the door.
Az put his phone back in his pocket as he stood and held out the unfinished pack of cigarettes to Gabriel. “You want ‘em?”
“Thanks. We don’t have them up there.”
The demon and the angel slowly pushed through a frantic group of bar patrons and stopped beside two prostrate figures on the floor. Az knelt and reached out to touch one of the dead men. “I guess I’ll take mine and—”
Gabriel’s hand shot out and grabbed Az’s wrist. “You think you’re real smooth, don’t you?”
Az grinned and shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.” He moved over and touched the other dead man. “Be seein’ ya, Gabe. Tell your boss I said thanks for the Christmas card.”
“Blasphemer,” Gabriel chuckled. He knelt down and claimed the soul he’d been sent for. “Take care of yourself, Az. Don’t work too hard.”