Beautiful Poison in Pastel
Pastel is beautiful against black. I cannot tell you where I first saw a flash of mint green, or where I’d heard of the word
The Fool of God, on a mission from Heaven, moved up the Timestream passing through portals from one world to the next. In the second century of the Caliphate of Mercy, a period others call the eighth century AD, he emerged from a portal in Alexandria, smiled the slack off-center smile that looked a bit half-witted and batted the breeze with the crew as he sailed across the Mediterranean on a fast markab to a portal in Marseille that would carry him hundreds of years further Upstream.
Closing in on his destination, the Fool taxied across a St. Petersburg ruled by the mad Czarina Anastasia, sat in a sled wrapped in bearskin rugs as a six-horse team bore him to a Buddhist monastery whose portal gave him passage to a world where the monastery buildings housed a station of the Great China Railway. He negotiated centuries and continents to reach a backwater of the Timestream and a certain world in which it was June 1960.
That date was a safe distance Downstream from both the Singularity and the Last Judgment. A wedding was scheduled for eleven-thirty on a Saturday, which its planners had reason to know would be sunny. Late that morning, attendees assembled at the Church of the Holy Redeemer, a well-to-do suburban Roman Catholic parish in the Eastern United States for the marriage of Aiden Brown to Maria Quinn.
All would seem ordinary unless you were one who could see that the two ushers standing in front of the church in morning coats, starched white shirts, ties with glittering studs, polished shoes and striped pants were minor demons in human form.
The demons’ names in this time and place were Bill and Bob. Both were over six feet and brawny but different enough so as not be identical (which often attracts unnecessary attention). Bob was blond with the beginning of a receding hairline; Bill was darker, with a slightly bent nose.
An older couple, nicely dressed, parked a ‘60 Pontiac Catalina sedan and approached. The man seemed slightly startled at the sight of the two, the woman smiled and refused Bob’s offer of a helping hand on the church stairs.
When the couple had passed, Bill murmured. “I’m starting to wonder when the big guns are going to show.”
A family group: mother, father and four kids ranging in age from a girl of maybe six to a boy around twelve piled out of a Chevy Nomad station wagon. The others passed by with scarcely a glance. But the little girl stared at them wide eyed.
When the family was up the stairs, Bill said, “They’re from the bride’s side, is my guess. A few years up the Stream and that kid’s going to get recruited by the enemy or us. Nothing we do here is undercover. Hell versus Heaven’s a sporting event.”
Bob said, “One day they pull you forty years Downstream to this world with variations you never saw before and expect you to blend in like piss on a yellow rug.”
“And we do it and we don’t ask why,” said Bill.
“It’s the minor tweaks that get you,” Bob said, “the little things—that Denver 2020 where they drove on the left.”
“We lived to tell about it which not everyone there got to do,” Bill reminded him.
A red Jaguar convertible pulled into the parking lot, and a large figure with wide shoulders, sunglasses and a tuxedo got out.
“Oh, my. It’s the Defiler,” Bob muttered.
“Major reinforcement on the groom’s side,” said Bill.
The Defiler didn’t so much walk as roll as if he were on treads to the passenger door. He opened it, bowed slightly, and offered his hand to a lovely dark-haired lady who looked to be in her early thirties. She wore a picture hat, stiletto heels, a little black dress and a string of pearls.
“And here’s the Fiend!” said Bob. The two straightened up and stood, each with his hands clasped at the small of his back.
The couple came toward them with the Defiler on the woman’s left and about three paces behind, his face blank, a fighting machine on medium alert. The Fiend looked right at them.
“Door demons, at ease,” she murmured when she was a short distance away, “Anything?” she asked Bill.
“Civilians: eighty-four so far,” he said softly, “Theirs and ours. About even. The heavenly host—the bride and half a dozen bridesmaids—are inside.”
“We got a roof demon on top of the church. And woods demons covering…” Bob started to tell her.
Without breaking stride, the Fiend looked around and, for an instant, flames brighter than the sun leaped up wherever she looked. They appeared on the grass, the walk, the front of the church, on the two door demons who now wore hairless green skin and glowing red eyes.
It lasted only a moment and then all was as before, except for just a hint of sulfur in the air. As the Fiend passed the two, she reached out and, faster than a human eye could follow, slipped her hand halfway into Bob’s chest and then drew it back.
Guests approaching blinked at the flash of pyrotechnics. Their noses crinkled slightly at the smell. Most thought it was all their imaginations.
When the Fiend, the Defiler and the wedding guests had gone up the steps Bill said quietly, “If the Fiend wants to know, She asks.”
“She didn’t need to do that,” said Bob. His words were slurred. “She touched my heart and her hand is sharp and cold like an ice pick.”
“Sometimes I think you got called up by the wrong side,” Bill muttered. “You’re lucky she didn’t sic the Defiler on you.”
Inside, the organist warmed up by running through a fugue. A bridesmaid poked her head out the door and looked around as if she expected someone.
“So far, nothing new from their side,” said Bill. “I don’t get it.”
The Great Fool was more or less in formal clothes when he got off the commuter train in a nearby town and hailed a taxi. He got the driver to cruise slowly toward the Church of the Holy Redeemer.
Driving up in the cab, the Fool reached out mentally and scanned the assembly. He recognized the barely human outline of the Defiler, smiled the off-center smile and wondered once again where Satan had gotten his reputation for subtlety. He found the Fiend, realized he recognized her, and frowned.
When the cab pulled up at the church, he was startled and fumbled for his money. The two ushers watched intently as he got out, stocky and kind-of dumpy, looking as if he hadn’t combed his hair. His morning coat seemed too big; the cummerbund was unbuttoned and the tie undone. One shoe was untied.
“Holy shit,” mumbled Bob, “This is even bigger than I thought!”
“Door demons!” said the Fool, “underlings of evil! Are your names still Nick and Nock?”
“Not locally,” said the Demon called Bill.
The Great Fool looked at Bob and asked, “Nothing to say to me Nicky? You talked a lot back in Denver 2020. And as usual, so did I. We discussed my boss and your boss quite freely. You did a lot of screaming. Many souls got saved in Denver. Do you recall that?”
Bob tried to speak, but, instead, gulped. The Fool said, “I had to travel further Upstream after that. You both know the kinds of security they have in the mid twenty-first century. One of the things I got asked before they’d let me on a plane was whether my teeth were all my own, and I said, ‘Do you think I rent them? Of course they’re mine—some I grew, some I had installed at my own personal expense.’“
The Fool of God laughed as the demons started to edge back.
“Of course I could have said they were all just a gift from the Creator,” said the Fool. He smiled as he spoke and his teeth flashed brighter than gold in the sunlight.
The two flinched, blinded, and the Fool, moving even faster than the Fiend, put his hands on Bill’s and Bob’s chests. He didn’t have to touch them to see their souls, but there was no sense in having that known.
He looked inside and saw the dark knots and bonds with which their hearts, brains and souls were bound to Lucifer.
In a twinkling, he plucked a few strings and there was an image in the air of a ray of sunlight piercing dark clouds. Both of them staggered.
“Fine talking to you Chip and Dale,” said the Fool of God and sloped up the stairs with his untied shoe flapping.
The one called Bill looked more than a bit dazed. He said, “We need to tell Her,” and he turned toward the church.
Bob stopped him. “If She wants to know, She’ll ask. Just like you said.”
* * *
On the other side of the door, the waiting bridesmaid genuflected, rose, took the Fool’s arm and said, “My name is Anna.”
“An angel fair in maiden guise,” he said.
“You’re too kind, sir,” Anna replied.
A quick glance showed him the golden knots with which she was bound to the Creator. She was as far below the heavenly variety of angel as a school crossing guard is to the director of Interpol. But the heavenly hosts, the Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominations and the rest never stirred out of paradise. They found humans, endowed them with special abilities and sent them to do the work.
Like the Fool, Anna had been recruited from one of the thousands of worlds along the Stream. In the hierarchy to which they both belonged, the Fool thought of himself as a kind of street cop in the mold of various family members.
She led him to a side chapel where there waited what outwardly seemed an ordinary bridal party. The Fool, of course, saw wings and halos amid the flurry of activity, as the bridesmaids worked to pull him together. And soon he stood laced, zipped, combed and with a fresh white carnation in his boutonnière.
All in white, the bride Maria Quinn—Chief Guardian Angel of this part of this world—watched and said, “I’m honored that you’re here. I hope your presence means I have Heaven’s blessing.”
Silently for once, the Fool drew her aside, and glanced into her soul, caught her memories. She exhibited all the expected signs: a heavenly vision at a very young age, a call from above to become a divine recruit, a fast rise in the heavenly ranks to a supervisory position. To his surprise, there was no evidence she’d been tampered with by satanic powers.
“I was called to the Gates of Heaven, which are all light and music and glory beyond envisioning,” he said. “That meant an assignment of great importance. I received instructions from beings of an order of grace one can hardly even imagine, who told me to come here and see what this was all about—an angel marrying a slave of Satan. I broke all rules and records getting here.”
She said, “I insisted that the wedding be in the church. And Aiden agreed.”
“That’s the devil’s name?”
“Aiden Brown is his name. However, it may seem to some, what we’re doing is our own idea. We love and understand each other. This is a backwater world. But here the representatives of Heaven and Hell go about their business a lot more openly than in any other world I’ve seen or heard of.
“I love the work,” she said, “the occasional miracle, making things a bit easier for the poor and the oppressed for me having being here. During an exorcism, I met Aiden who was there to take custody of a demon that had been expelled from the body of a child. Aiden was the enemy, but he apologized for this having been done to a kid. The demon in question had gotten out of control.
“What he does isn’t that different from what I do. He tries to make things bearable for those in despair, cuts corners, brings a bit of color to their misery.”
The Fool thought of heresies and cults and of what happened to those, so sadly misguided, who formulated or joined them.
“Fairly quickly,” he said, “you got engaged to a representative of the Dark Powers in this boondocks. You’ve caused ripples up and down the Timestream, all the way to Heaven and, I have reason to believe, Hell. I don’t think I have to explain to you why this has gotten attention.”
“I’d heard tales about the Fool of God,” she said, looking him right in the eye, “How you blunder through worlds seeming to talk without point but always managing to have things come true and right at the end.
“We all know what happens a few generations up the Timestream—humanity disappears. What a few of us are doing here might be an answer to that. I’ll accept all the blame if I’m wrong. But I thought you might be more understanding.”
The Fool contemplated the amazing twists and turns that people used to justify their wrongful deeds. He thought of the ones similar to Maria Quinn that he’d encountered along the Timelanes and how he’d never met one he didn’t like.
But the Fool also knew it was more than possible he’d have to crush her plans—and maybe her. He remembered his last teacher, an ancient operative of Heaven who lived in a stone house in the mountains on a world from which Satan was totally excluded. The Old Fool as he was known, had often told him, “Sometimes we must do a little bad in order to do a great good.”
So he smiled and said, “Some people have an interior editor, a stern gentleman or a dour lady, who shuts them down at the first sign of thoughtlessness or indiscretion with the admonition, ‘Have a care, you thoughtless cad!’
“Mine’s a wispy little fellow who, when he says, ‘Don’t you think you might tone it down?’ gets told by me, ‘Stick it where the sun won’t shine you sniveling sodomite,’ and who then mumbles, ‘Very well, as you think best.’
“So you see there’s no point in taking me seriously,” said the Fool. He had become aware of something going on in the main church and excused himself from the chapel for a moment.
* * *
When he stepped through the doorway, time hardly moved around him. The crowd in the church moved so slowly he had to look closely to see it happen. Even a kid in velvet shorts, bouncing up and down with excitement, seemed suspended in mid-air. It felt like he, himself, were inside a bowl and his own movements as fast and fluid as a fish.
It’s known to all that Satan plays tricks with time. Reflecting on that, the Fool became huge and clad in chain mail. The sword he drew shone with a blinding white light as he turned to face the one figure in the church that moved as fast as he did.
With a small smile, the Fiend approached him. The fact she hadn’t brought that blunt object, the Defiler, let him understand they were under a flag of truce. He allowed his eyes to open wide in surprise and said, “Daina Zukor! It’s you who’s done all this?”
“Can it, O’Malley,” she replied, “And put away the sword and iron pants. You turned a couple of my demons silly on your way in and you knew I was here. I dropped the Lithuanian name when I signed up and left Southie. It’s now Diana and I’m Chief Fiend of this sector of the Timestream. I understand misdirection and confusion are your specialties but we’re old friends, and with me you can give them a rest.”
“Diana, then!” The sword and armor faded away, “You’ve come a long way down a very wrong path from South Boston. The nuns at St. Peter’s, in their various lives on any iteration of that world, would be so saddened to hear you’re playing for the other side.”
She shook her head impatiently. “Half the people on Hell’s payroll went to school with nuns or brothers. They’re like recruiting sergeants.”
He was amused. “I remember you well, walking me to school every day. It always seemed to be raining back then.”
“Fifty-cents a week, your mother gave me to walk you to St. Pete’s and back again,” she said. “I was nine and in the fourth grade. Big money and responsibility: it made me feel like an adult.”
She flashed an image of Timmy O’Malley, in a certain 1950, wearing a yellow raincoat, boots and hat, all somehow too big or too small for him, holding her hand tight.
He showed her his memory of a tall (to a five-year-old) thin and determined girl, crossing what seemed an endless playground toward an impossibly distant church and school.
“Not many people in the D Street Housing Projects were like you and your parents,” she said.
“We had a fire in the building where we’d been living. My old man flew for the army in the war and D Street was built for the returning G.I.s so that’s where we ended up.
“They were failed actors, left-wing Catholics. The local public school wasn’t good or wasn’t near or maybe wasn’t strange enough so they found St. Peter’s. Lots of kids from Lithuania learning English, and classes were in both languages. My parents thought that was amusing.”
She grinned at her memories. “The nuns loved the way you talked, stories you made up. And you looked so innocent and silly with your shirt tails half-out of your pants. Once at recess, a kid, Peter Ozols I think his name was, teased you and you kicked him hard in the nuts.
“When the nuns arrived you apologized, cried, begged his forgiveness and got off scot-free. Not long afterwards, you were gone. The next time I heard of Timothy O’Malley, he was God’s Fool and roving enforcer.”
He looked the crowd over. “You’ve got the place rigged for mischief,” he said, “Demons three deep around the church, Devils all over the groom’s side of the nave. And I see an Imp of the Perverse in velvet shorts.”
She followed his gaze. “That’s the ring-bearer, a kid with more talent than either of us had at his age. What? You think if you hadn’t shown up we’d have run a black mass? We don’t do that anymore. Like your side doesn’t burn witches now: at least not literally.”
From long experience, the Fool suspected that some form of mayhem would have taken place if he hadn’t arrived. But Satan, as he knew, will always do the unexpected, so the Fool just beamed at his old baby sitter.
He had noticed the slow approach of a young man in formal clothes. On the Fiend’s command, this figure was suddenly inside the bubble of still-time she had created. The man bowed slightly to the Fiend who told the Fool, “You must meet Aiden Brown, the groom.”
The Fool thought this one looked deceptively presentable and bright enough in the way of the Devil’s people. He pegged him as a Security Devil: a young man who could keep secrets and find out secrets.
Aiden shook hands gingerly and the Fool glanced into him. Like all Devils’ souls, his was a bare and barren place with the black bonds of Satan everywhere.
“The bride says you two met in the line of duty,” said the Fool, “And decided to go further.”
“Sir, I never thought I’d end up wanting to get hitched to an angel, but then I met Maria. I grew up on this world. My family are church people. They aren’t all happy with the way I went, but they live with it and I respect them.
“Our two sides balance each other out. We need to stop fighting and see if we can’t prevent this place getting destroyed.”
“Your side provides a balance against truth, against mercy. Do we need that?” the Fool asked, but he smiled as he did so.
“Back to your post, Brown,” the Fiend said. “We’re about to begin.” The groom took a few steps and melded into the crowd.
“Bride and groom are well-coached,” said the Fool.
The Fiend looked disappointed, “Don’t you think two childhood friends like us getting assigned here means the ones we work for want us to co-operate? Without people’s souls to fight over, what’s the point of Heaven and Hell? Humanity is all we have.
“I’ve never seen any place like this. Khrushchev and Eisenhower just signed a mutual non-aggression pact. The Cold War turned a dozen other worlds to ash. Here it’s over.”
She indicated the church. “My instructions are to make this wedding happen. What are your boss’s orders?
“I’ve never seen Him,” the Fool heard himself say. “I’ve been to the Heavenly Gates but never beyond them. I can’t even focus on the ones who summon me. The Cherubim at the gates are these huge glowing presences. Their faces are far too far above me; I can’t see them. They told me to investigate this situation and determine what to do.”
He couldn’t believe he’d told her this. Where was the interior editor when he needed one?
She seemed sympathetic, “I’ve never seen my boss either. Devils and fiends, the ones that date back to the beginning of the Great Feud, sit around administering, meditating. Long ago, they started hiring people like me to do the dirty work.
“As a kid, I envied people who lived in the Projects. D Street got bad very fast. Eventually they tore it down. But at the start the heat worked, the windows weren’t broken. We lived in a walk up. My old man drank. My mother had war refugee relatives who stayed in our living room. One cousin was a few years older than me and a predator.
“Satan’s people were sharp. His emissary was a nurse at the neighborhood clinic. I was ten and ready. I was taught and had all manner of abilities implanted in me. Same story on your side?”
She waited for a response and when the Fool remained silent her smile went away.
“Maybe I was wrong in thinking you’d understand, O’Malley. But the wedding’s going forward. Don’t get in the way. Doing this is the reason we two were created.”
As she spoke, flames sprouted from the floor and walls and encircled the Fool.
He recalled governments destroyed, cities devastated for flouting divine will. His reply was a lightning bolt smashing open the roof of the church, a frigid wind bearing a fist of ice that flattened the flames.
In seconds all this was gone. The Fiend turned away, gestured and the organ sounded, the people moved freely. Perhaps some had caught a hint of brimstone, a fleeting chill.
* * *
Minutes later the Fool stepped out of the chapel, prepared to walk up the aisle with Marie on his arm. She’d told him that when he gave her away, it would be as Henry Quinn, her supposed uncle. It bothered him that he found this appealing.
The Fool remembered being little Timmy O’Malley in the D Street Project, playing on the sidewalk one day with a bunch of other kids. He had a wooden rifle that he’d gotten for Christmas. He was a cowboy or maybe an Indian with his sneaker laces flapping and a runny nose.
Suddenly, out of nowhere came the older brother of the kid he’d kicked the week before. He was looking for Tim. The brother was eight, maybe nine, almost an adult to a six-year-old. Tim hated the Projects, the fights, the school where everybody spoke another language.
He didn’t think, didn’t hesitate. He swung his rifle butt, maybe like someone he’d seen on television, and caught the brother on the forehead. The kid staggered backwards. Blood trickled from his forehead. He turned and ran down the street, howling.
On the corner he passed Timmy’s mother who hadn’t seen what happened. She was horrified, grabbed Timmy and hustled him up to the apartment before some dreadful harm could happen to him. That night she told his father. “It was awful: a little boy with blood streaming down his face.”
Never did it occur to her that her kid might have done it, and he never told her. When they moved shortly afterwards to a leafy neighborhood where they had a backyard, Timothy saw that incident as a miracle staged just for him.
Then the organ struck up The Bridal March from Lohengrin and the Fool started up the aisle. He saw the feathers and halos on members of the congregation, on the bride, the bridesmaids and even the little flower girl. He knew Marie was searching his face for clues as to what would happen.
In fact, his instructions were confused. At the Gates of Heaven, the Cherubim had told him to investigate thoroughly and to halt the ceremony if he felt it was blasphemous. But then Seraphim (who outranked them) took the Fool aside and told him to let the ceremony proceed if he was sure it wasn’t a trick.
Both Cherubim and Seraphim said he was to remain until all was settled. He knew that if he allowed the marriage to come to pass he could be here for years waiting to see if this experiment would work. If he stopped the ceremony, he’d have to stay and deal with the consequences.
A long life was one of the perks (or one the curses) of his job. He could well be here until humankind disappeared. Or until it survived.
The beings who had sent him on this mission stood so tall their faces were in the clouds. He wondered what secrets they had concealed; recalled rumors the Creator hadn’t been seen even by the highest circles of Heaven for eons. This could mean his mission originated with some cabal among the Heavenly Host.
On the groom’s side could be seen a plentitude of horns and glowing red eyes. The Fiend sat with the Defiler on the center aisle. She avoided meeting his eyes, was obviously tense waiting for the possible life or death of this experiment. The Defiler’s dead eyes were on him, poised for battle. The Fool could handle whatever threats they posed.
He could turn at that moment and take Marie against her will away from the altar and out of the church. He could level the building. Instead, he kept walking.
The bridal party approached the groom, his best man, a fellow Devil in morning clothes, and the sharp-eyed little ring bearer with a forked tail who waited at the foot of the altar. Officiating was a monsignor, a genial time-server with a rich parish who saw none of this and had no idea what was happening.
Old St. Peter’s in South Boston with its Lithuanian and its English masses was where The Fool first had a statue meet his stare and follow him with its eyes. It was there that he saw angels at the consecration and thought it meant he had a vocation to be a priest.
A few years later, an angel visited him in his sleep and hinted that as an agent of heaven he was meant for bigger things. In his teens, he began discovering his powers. One day, all he knew about peoples’ souls was what the nuns had told him. The next morning, he could look right inside and see them.
He had thought it a miracle, a revelation. Now he saw it as something implanted, saw himself, the Fiend, Marie, Aiden, angels and door demons as subjects in an experiment.
The Fool remembered the planet where he’d been groomed for his current position. On that world any trace of Satan had been eradicated. The people were pious, simple, and eventually bored.
The Old Fool lived in a large stone house in the mountains. With a beard down to his knees and a taste for orchids, cigars and chocolate, he was a source of insight once or twice a day and a font of confusion the rest of the time. He didn’t have as many bells and whistles installed in him as did his young pupil. But he once told the Fool, “The works of humankind may become as strong as God or Satan but perhaps not stronger than God and Satan.”
Doubtless, that world, too, had been an experiment, one that had failed. Technology crept in. By the late twenty-first century, it was a wasteland just like a thousand other worlds where the Deity picked up his marbles and summoned the Apocalypse. On the far side of those dead planets, was said to be the Singularity, devoid of humanity, God and Satan.
This ceremony today was part of an experiment to see if the Old Fool was right.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game for one like him. But the Fool wondered if versions of his family and himself—a kid in his teens—might be alive on this world and what the Fiend could tell him about them.
It was within his power to bring all this to an end. Instead, the Great Fool moved forward to give the bride away. He recited the words, took Marie’s hand and Aiden’s in his.
Then he stepped back and as the ceremony proceeded, as the pair recited their vows, he decided to rain down flowers, fat cigars and Hershey bars on the congregation as Mendelssohn played. It would honor his old teacher and ease tensions.
Later there would always be time for devastation and ruin if they turned out to be advisable. Or perhaps he would find a stone house in the mountains somewhere and ride this planet toward survival or destruction.
Pastel is beautiful against black. I cannot tell you where I first saw a flash of mint green, or where I’d heard of the word
It’s sad to think that casting blame on the airline may have caused her ultimate undoing. The moment corporate profits were in jeopardy, the debate
My heart pumps Four-Hour Surge through hellfire veins to combat the car’s lulling vibrations. My fists grip the steering wheel. Instead of squeezing, I push.