As if there weren't enough problems on his plate, Mondriel had to go and stumble upon the biggest secret ever, didn't he? The kind of secret that would turn the natural order of things on its head if it was leaked to a wider public. It was a betrayal of trust, a goddamn lie, a punch in the stomach. He was beginning to question everything he'd ever done.
Pretty big, then. He'd have preferred not to find out, to be honest. It wasn't going to do him any good, and it was the sort of knowledge that could get him pushed out of his cushy job in the Service, lickety-split. He'd seen some of those fallen angels, talked to a couple of them even – from a safe distance – and it wasn't pretty. Nope. He liked his job, and he intended to keep it, lie or no lie.
'What's eatin' ya, babe?' Lindy-Lou asked him that evening. 'Your feathers are kinda ruffled, and my oh my, your wing muscles feel mighty tight. That pretty face of yours looks less than radiant too. More moon than sun.'
There was no hiding his angelic features from Lindy-Lou. Some of his colleagues pretended to be ordinary people as they satisfied their carnal desires amongst the denizens of Earth, adding deception to the list of sins they were already committing. He didn't see the point. Heck, part of the attraction for a girl like Lindy-Lou was that she was being humped by an angel, a real angel with wings an' all. If he was going to fill a member of the Baton Rouge Marquette Street Anabaptist Church with the Holy Spirit then he might as well fill her true and proper, ramming the message home with all his unabashed angelic might, not as the pale shadow of an impersonated pastor or wandering priest, which is how most of his fellows dressed up. The conviction in a message from God is less what you have to say, more the way you say it. Or thrust it, in Lindy-Lou's case.
Of course, that led to problems. The Angelic Service, Earth Division, did not like its servants to have sexual intercourse with its clients, particularly not when you had been assigned as that customer's Guardian Angel. There were strict parameters with strict punishments if you were caught. Letting Lindy-Lou grasp your feathers in ecstasy was nice only if she kept her mouth shut afterward. It was a risk Mondriel had decided to take, and it was paying off handsomely, almost every night this month. No one suspected a thing, not in the Service, not in the church, not even Lindy-Lou's husband who slept on the couch in the living room of their trailer home while his wife was in the bedroom "trying to get some sleep away from your snorin', honey."
The revelation of his extra-curricular sex had been his biggest worry until the discovery of the big secret. Now it seemed a minor misdemeanor, a glowing ember next to a rumbling volcano.
Mondriel twitched his supracoracoideus muscles. His wings opened, a couple of feathers detached themselves and floated away in a cloud of dust illuminated by Lindy-Lou's table light. She was right, he was stiff from all the anxiety.
'Nervous, I guess. Been worrying about what we've been doing. If it were to get out that I've been consorting with a customer… I mean, a follower, there would be some serious shit.' He took a draw from her joint and passed it back to her, blowing a halo of smoke around one of his still descending feathers.
'Swearin' don't become ya, Mondy. Ah won't stand it from my purer than pure angel.' She drew her fingers down the side of his face. 'Besides, who in heaven is goin' ta find out? I ain't blabbin'. If I did tell anyone they'd praise me for being full o' His Lord's holy words. That or clap me in a mental institution. If ol' Mr. Higgs next door' – she was referring to her husband on the couch – 'were to stumble in upon me receiving His word, you'd just light up like you do and blind him with angelic majesty. He'd be so overwhelmed he'd be the next recruit for the Anabaptist church, quicker 'n you can say "Fear not". Might do him some good, the lazy, Godless critter.'
Mondriel hadn't made his mind up whether Lindy-Lou really believed she was receiving the Lord's testament from a holy messenger, or whether she just liked the attention. Self-delusion was as common as fantasy amongst humans. She was stupid, but she was a believer. No. She was stupid and she was a believer. Faith has a lot to answer for, he sighed to himself.
He looked down at her naked form. 'Do you want to receive some more holy messages?' he asked.
'Oh Mondy, you sure have a lot 'o love to give me. Ol' Mr. Higgs rolls over and goes to sleep when we're done. That's when his snorin' starts. Come to me my angel, in the name o' the Lord! I do believe you could shine upon me all night, my heavenly body…'
For an office in the Firmament, it was a dull place. Row upon row of grey desks with outdated telephones that were no longer used, computers that still ran on Windows 95, and swivel chairs whose blue fabric had been worn to the foam. And the dust. You would not believe how much dust is thrown up by the constant whirring of a hundred pairs of angel wings, untroubled by any form of hoovering or cleaning. A hundred angels put out a considerable light, blinding to an ordinary person and making the dullness of the office furniture irrelevant. But when you are an angel, accustomed to that volume of lux, it becomes the norm, no brighter than an average neon strip-light. Like a cinema after the film is switched off and you have only the emergency exits as a light source.
Mondriel was the lowest of the low. His ID badge stated he was "Angel, Second Class." Fit to do the photocopying, be entrusted with the most basic of messages for the worldly faithful, and make tea and biscuits for his superiors. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, he was ambitious. He wanted to make Angel, First Class within twenty years, and Archangel within a hundred. Archangel (grade 8) was where the fun really started. There were only three in Earth Division, and they got to do exciting things like scare shepherds, impregnate women and carry news to humans that would resonate for millennia. After that, well, why not? He had his eye on the prime job, Principality (grade 7.) At some point. The head honcho of the Earth Division who got to mix with Powers (grade 6), Thrones (grade 3) and even the most wondrous of all: Cherubim (grade 2) and Seraphim (grade 1). Beings who glowed brighter than stars, who wielded ineffable power across the universe and who reported directly to God. Thinking about becoming one made Mondriel weak at the knees, and not a little forlorn at being stuck in a backwater like Earth Division.
It was his tea-making, however, that would be his downfall.
'Angel Mondriel?' a voice enquired. Gabriel had been an archangel for over two thousand years, ever since that incident with the Son of God thing had gone a little wrong. He'd given his message ok to the family, and to some kings and common folk, but he'd forgotten to tell the people in charge. Lots of trouble afterward, including Romans slaying little children and Christians eaten by lions in amphitheaters. Gabriel had been lucky to keep his job, and now he bore all the rancor and jealousy of somebody who was going nowhere, ever. 'Come with me. You're to see the Principality.'
'Uh-oh,' thought Mondriel, as he stubbed out his cigarette. 'Something's up. You don't get hauled to old Azrael's office for no reason. Have they found out about Lindy-Lou?'
He knew straight away it was not about Lindy-Lou when from the corridor he saw a bright light seeping from under the door. A light that, even for an angel, was near-blinding when that door was opened. Two Thrones, no less, in golden-wrapped splendor, platinum-winged. He would have been over-awed if he had not been serving these creatures tea and biscuits at a conference a few days before, where there had also been a couple of Cherubim. Still, he felt a little awe, and a good deal of nervousness.
'Angel Mondriel,' the Throne called Gadiziel stated. 'Yes, I do recall you. Fear not!' – angels liked to say "Fear not!", it was a standard opener – 'we have a few questions for you.'
'Y… yes, your Mightiness,' Mondriel replied.
'You were serving at the Plenary last week, here in the Earth Division conference halls?'
'Y… yes, your Mightiness. I was a last-minute replacement for Fabrael who had pulled a wing muscle.'
'Indeed. And when the order came to clear the room for our High Council discussion, where were you?'
'I was by the hot water dispenser, your Mightiness.'
'What were your next actions?'
'I picked up a tray of dirty cups and followed the others out of the room.'
'All the way to the kitchens?'
'Y… yes, your Mightiness. All the way. We had a lot of washing up to do.'
'Hmm. You had no reason to loiter in the vicinity of the conference room?'
'N… no. We were straight to the sinks. I remember there being a lack of hot water, so we had to wait for ten minutes while somebody switched the immersion heater on. We stood in a circle and prayed, to pass the time.'
'The leader of this prayer was…?'
'Angel, First Class, Tomael.'
'Tomael, indeed. Do you recall what you prayed about?'
'Quite clearly, your Mightiness. We prayed for peace on Earth and goodwill to Men, as is usual.'
'Hmm. Gabriel here, who was in charge of security, does not recall you at this prayer meeting. He had a sense of missing, of a lack of wholeness, shall we say. Ever since he was sent to kill the inhabitants of Jerusalem and he missed a few,' – here there was a reproving look from the Throne, one that Gabriel had no doubt been on the receiving end of for thousands of years – 'our Gabriel has been very sensitive to the totality of things. If he tells us there was a servant missing, we tend to believe him.'
'Not me, your Mightiness. I was there all the time.' Mondriel, being an angel, was unable to sweat. If he had been, he'd have been drenched by now. All he could do was keep his best angelic face towards the glow coming from the Thrones, hoping they would believe him. For Mondriel had most certainly not been washing up, nor had he been standing in prayer, nor had he been anywhere near the kitchen at that time. He had been eavesdropping, and now he heartily wished he had not. He knew that they knew he knew. And he hoped they had no proof.
The Throne stared at him for some time. 'Very well, Angel Mondriel. I have a task for you. Archangel Gabriel will give you the details. You may report back to him, he will pass me the outcome in due course. You are free to go back to your desk. Go with God, Angel Mondriel, may the splendor of His words sustain you for always.'
Mondriel bowed and reversed using a half wing-beat, as was respectful in exiting the presence of one so great as Gadiziel. Besides, he wanted to keep an eye on their faces. As if they could betray their inner thoughts. Who was he kidding?
At the wrong end of Louisiana Avenue, Baton Rouge, a sultry darkness had overwhelmed the city. Mondriel picked his way through the garbage and the potholes, the roar of Highway 110 in his ears. Being an angel, he wasn't afraid of anything here, merely disgusted at the state of things. I mean, Lindy-Lou's place was tacky, squalid even, but this place was infested with teenage gangs, unloved babies screaming for their spice-addicted mothers and prostitutes pimped by their fathers on their own front porches, the kind of trash that God so loved. He'd been here many a time with enlightening messages that more often than not their recipients ascribed to the side-effects of drug-taking.
He was here to give yet another message to yet another scumbag. Why an eminent angel such as Gadiziel should be so interested in one of Earth's lowlifes was beyond him. Especially if God… well, no, he wasn't to think about that. The consequences of that secret were making him more and more nervous.
Here it was. Number 7100. It was a squat, run-down house set back from the road with its own yard full of rusting engine parts and chicken wire. A verandah ran along the front of it, and on the verandah was a swinging chair, squeaking with the lazy rhythm of a man rocking it to and fro. The man didn't look up, merely saying: 'They sent you, didn't they?'
'Damn,' thought Mondriel, immediately recognizing this man for what he was. It was no sinful human waiting for divine instruction. This was somebody who once had been in his position, with his attributes, and his powers. This was a fallen angel, like the ones he'd spoken to before. All of a sudden he felt afraid, a tingling in his spine, a proxy bead of impossible sweat on his brow.
'F… fear not!' Mondriel said. 'I come with glad tidings…'
'Can it, babyface. You know who you're talking to here. Get to the point.'
'The point? I don't know what you mean. The point is that I was sent here with a message for you from on high.'
'A message about love, redemption, and hope?'
'Well, er… yes.'
'One that begins "God gave his only son so that you might live?"'
'You've heard it before then?' Mondriel asked, stupidly.
'Heard it? Shit, babyface, I used to give it.'
'I… I was afraid you might have. If I'm right in thinking, there's no point in me giving it to you, either. Once fallen, fallen forever, right?'
'Ironic, ain't it? Everything in God's words is about forgiveness, compassion, charity. "Repent then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord" – Acts chapter 3, verse 19 – see, I remember all that stuff, despite being without grace for three hundred years. It's all a lie, babyface, all a lie, when once you were blessed and then you are not. There ain't no way back for the likes of me.'
'Then why am I here? Why has Gadiziel sent me to preach to a fallen angel?'
'Gadiziel, huh? You must've been messing with some serious shit, brother. He don't get involved in Earth stuff for no reason. What you done that's so bad? That face o' yours is so wholesome it could curdle a wet turd.'
Mondriel looked blank.
'Oh, I see why. You found somethin' out, din'tcha? Juss like I did all them years ago. He's sent you for a lesson, babyface. Course you may not believe me, it's the curse of every fallen angel never to be believed. Like ol' Cassandra back in the Trojan wars. Makes sense if you think about it. Folk believe anything you angels say 'cos you're on a mission from God, so it's a just punishment to have that taken away from you. Trouble is, babyface, there ain't no God, is there?'
Mondriel twitched his wings, letting out a glimpse of splendor from under his cloak, which he had donned to hide his true nature that night. It shone briefly on the… man? Is that what he should be called now? An angel of darkness, without light, without wings, without credence. Mondriel had never been so close to one. It raised in him all sorts of hitherto unexplored emotions: disgust, pity, loathing, fear.
'Well, I'll do Gadiziel's work for him, without him even askin' me. Seein' as how he wants you to learn a lesson, and seein' how much you are horrified by poor little me. I always was a curious type, not well suited to bein' an angel if ya come to think about it. Juss couldn't do as I was bidden, which is what angels is all about, really. I snuck up to the higher Firmament one day. Took me a ride to where those Cherubim and Seraphim hang out, allegedly at the feet of God himself. Surprisingly easy, it were, to get in. They thought I was some servant.
There's this big ol' chair where God is supposed to reside surrounded by all his saints an' angels an' holy spirits. Big ol' empty chair, that's all it is. Never has been a God, never will be. All this time, religion and faith and creed, all juss one big construct of the Angelic Service, so they can keep control o' the masses. Yup, all them messages, all them literary works. They's all made up by the Service, to keep theyselves in a job.
Remarkable, ain't it, how folk on this Earth and elsewhere are happy to believe stuff, because it come from on high?'
It was hard for Mondriel to process this. He couldn't believe what was being said, nor could he deny what he had heard for himself in the conference room: the Seraphim joking about the business cards they'd had printed for God to make him look real to their suppliers, the Cherubim practicing their God voices for when they had to speak from burning bushes or clouds. The absence of a real God rendered his purpose meaningless; he had been living and promulgating, one big lie.
Or did it? Did it actually matter if there was someone in charge? Wasn't that the meaning of faith, that you didn't have to question their existence, you just believed in what they stood for? No matter where the message or the morality came from, supreme being or a trumped-up civil service, it was still a force for good. If you ignored the slain children, or the wars of religion, or the suicide bombers, or the...
Suddenly it clicked. Seeing this miserable, fallen creature wasn't just a warning from Gadiziel: "Don't spread the rumor about there being no God, or you'll end up like this." Like a severed horse's head in a bed. No, it was way more than that. It was intended to re-set him, to reinforce his belief in what he was doing. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes, it's what you do about it that shapes your existence.
Mondriel knew then that he had re-found his wavering faith. Hallelujah, he had seen the darkness! (to paraphrase what Lindy-Lou might have said.) All of a sudden he felt renewed hope in being what an angel should be. He would give up smoking. He would put more effort into his messages. He would pay more attention to his guardian duties, rather than seeing them as killing time. He wouldn't even see Lindy-Lou again. At least not in a carnal sense. He would fill her with holy words as God's appointed angel should, no matter that God was a figment. God or no God, he had a divine purpose.
He threw off his cloak, the hovel filling with his splendor. It was strange to see the former angel shrink away from it, shading his eyes. Once you had got used to darkness, it was painful to be shrouded in light. He turned, twitched his wings, and made for the door.
As he flew away, he heard a mad cackling behind him, then the fallen angel screaming: 'See! I said you wouldn't believe me! You's no better 'n the rest of 'em, fool babyface. Go back ta your lies and deceit. Holy, my ass!'
'Bless you, foul creature,' Mondriel thought, 'even if you're too far gone for blessings to count.' And as his wings beat against the night sky, the sun crept over the distant horizon onto Baton Rouge.