Chapter 21 - Limits
The nice thing about being friends with someone who just became ridiculously wealthy is a decision such as “let’s go to Jerusalem” is easily turned into a phone call to dispatch some assistant into booking flights, hotel, and ride to the airport.
You then get to sit back, enjoy a cup of tea (or coffee), and wait for details of the itinerary to magically appear.
Okay, so Isaiah stayed on the line so he could approve the hotel and also relay the required information from my passport. Delegation was never really his strong-point.
Thinking about things, I realized I needed to make a phone call of my own and sneaked back to my room to use the one in there, dialing the number from - what else? - memory.
The Director’s assistant, once she heard who I was, quickly got the man himself on the line.
“This is Goodman.” Despite the early hour, he sounded fully focused.
“Good morning! How ya doin?” The tea must have been working as I too sounded perky.
“Jordan. You didn’t stay long at the Los Angeles socialite event last night.”
“Ha. You had agents following. Never mind, of course you did.”
“Did something happen to cut the evening short?”
“Yeah, but not there. The real action was elsewhere.”
He paused. “Mexico?”
Huh, good guess. “I can neither confirm nor deny.”
“There are reports of a bright anomaly in the sky outside their capital. Satellite images have come back all static.”
“Yeah, well, it was a real blast.”
“Are you able tell me about it?”
That was a good question. “I was there as someone’s guest, so no. But even that was only a precursor.”
“I’ll say this much and then better shut up: for now I don’t think the gods and powers will be attacking Egypt.”
“The gods and…I see.”
“Are you sure?”
“Someone may have threatened them a little if they did.”
He figured it out as under his breath he muttered, “Jesus.”
“Nope, not him! Though that’s an amusing segue into why I called.”
“Given the circumstances, I am terrified to ask what the conversational connection could possibly be.”
Oh. Oops! I snickered. “Sorry, no, nothing like that. It’s just that me and Isaiah - we’re going to Jerusalem. Today. I wanted to let you know.”
“To give you a heads-up? Being friendly here.”
“No, why go to Israel? More specifically: why are the first and fourth Horsemen - apologies, Horse-people - of the Apocalypse suddenly departing to the Holy Land? Is this it? Are you two going to start the war at the End of Days?”
“Uh, wow. No. At least, I hope not!”
“Then why?” The man’s voice, normally so perfectly controlled, cracked. The poor guy, the stress of all of this must really be taking a toll.
“Well, we need to eat donuts at a restaurant there tomorrow night.”
“Yep. Sufganiyot, fried in oil. They’re like jelly donuts. It’s a Hanukkah tradition.”
“That…that’s absurd. Just say you aren’t going to tell me. Don’t make up ridiculous stories.”
“Dude, I’m giving it to you straight! I’ve been told that we need to be at a specific restaurant tomorrow night and to be sure to try the pastries. I don’t know why. But I absolutely trust the source. And before you ask, yes they’re angelic.”
“If you truly don’t know, then anything could happen. And I mean anything.”
“They’re trying to help me find the Book of Raziel. Remember the book that had everyone scrambling in Aleppo? Camael had it before he followed me to Hell. I’m trying to figure out what he did with it.”
“And donuts are going to help?”
“Donuts help everything! Sorry - couldn’t resist. Look, just like you’re frustrated that I can’t tell you details all the time, so is my source with regards to what they can and can’t tell me. That’s all I’ve got: a location and a time window. I don’t dare miss it.” I paused then added, “Even if I have to pick Isaiah up and fly him there myself, we’re going. But first class sounds a lot more pleasant and is likely to be much less noticeable than if I cause sonic booms across the Atlantic every time I need to slow down to consult a compass.”
I gave him a moment to contemplate my traversing NATO airspace at high speed and low altitude. After all, I’d have to fly low so Isaiah could breathe. Just like a radar-evading missile.
Even then I wasn’t expecting his next statement.
“How can the U.S. Government be of assistance?”
“Uhm, that depends on how much plausible deniability you want - you know, should things get messy. With my track record of epic disaster I’m not naive enough to think it can’t happen.”
“What ID will you be using?”
“The passport for Jane Baghdadi blew up when I did, so I had to use the one for Jordan Emrys to get on the flight. Which is now full.” Danielle had carried my passport with her when she and Erica had flown out to Egypt. I really had a hard time holding on to such things, huh. But then again, with how confusing my identity has been of late that was somewhat poetic.
“That may be just as well. Israeli Intelligence is likely monitoring for Baghdadi due to the events in Syria.”
“Here, I’ll give you the number of our embassy in Tel Aviv and the Consulate in Jerusalem. The Consulate is just south of the Old City in Arnona. If you need anything - and I mean anything - call them. Tell the receptionist you’re declaring a Hezekiah scenario. They’ll get someone cleared to help you on the line as quickly as they can.”
“Hezekiah? You’ve been reading the Old Testament.”
“With what’s been happening how could I not?”
“Good point. And thank you, Director. I hope I won’t need to call.”
“That makes two of us.”
“By the way, is there any news on the shooter? The debris reveal anything?”
“No. We’ve got subpoenas in the works for all security cameras in the area. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“If the jerk used a portal to get to their perch they’ll have never needed to be on the street or even ride the elevator. Whose office space was it?”
“An accountant. They’ve been in Chicago for the past two weeks on business.”
“Huh. Who would have known it’d be empty?”
“Everyone in their firm and everyone who’d have seen him at the convention. And his wife posted about the trip on social media. She has many online friends; all together it’s a long list.”
“Joy. Good luck.”
“You learn anything in Israel - give me a call.” The man had hesitated in the middle of the statement, as if he’d almost inserted the word ‘please’ but then thought better of it.
“If I get anything I think you need to know, I’ll pass it on.”
Goodman grunted. I don’t think he was entirely happy with that response. Tough.
As promised he then relayed the two phone numbers and bid us safe flights before hanging up. One of these days I’d remember to ask him how his two kitties were doing. Maybe if we ever had a conversation that didn’t potentially encompass the fate of the entire world.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
“Dammit, this is crap.”
With a groan I ripped another yellow sheet of legal-sized paper from its pad. Crumpling it up, the ball of rejected verbiage joined its cousins in the seat-back pocket awaiting the next rounds of the flight attendant carrying a trash bag. Tapping the safer end of the ballpoint against my forehead, I again tried to figure out how to even begin this stupid essay.
Arrival to the airport had gone smoothly enough. We’d bid our goodbyes to Jim, and to our surprise Director Goodman had even dispatched an agent to smooth our way through security. Unfortunately that’s as far as his influence went and with us being a last-minute booking on an otherwise full flight to New York, Isaiah had gotten the last available first class seat and I was stuck in the back with all the other herded livestock.
Don’t blame Isaiah. He tried to offer me the better seat, but after pointing out how much older his comparably ancient and decrepit body was he’d given one of his flat disapproving looks and accepted the more luxurious accommodations.
Of course I’d forgotten how much longer my legs were than they’d used to be, something I was reminded of every time the kneecaps whacked the seat-back in front whenever needing to shift how I sat. Which I kept having to do as the middle-aged suit-and-tie guy in the seat between me and the aisle had these massively broad shoulders stretching far over the slender divider arm-rest between us. Not his fault, the dude clearly put in effort at the gym, but yeah getting comfortable had been tricky.
At least I had the view. There was a storm on its way across the country which our flight maneuvered around, so we were treated to sights of massive thunderhead cotton-balls stretching horizon to horizon. There was even the occasional flash of lightning.
Without phone, laptop, or even a book, my choices for this six hour stretch were to either stare wistfully at the sky or make repeated attempts to put thoughts to paper using handwriting skills which had instantly atrophied as soon as computer word-processing had taken over. All because the march of technology had removed all the in-flight screens on planes because naturally every passenger would have their own tablet or phone to connect to the airline’s wifi.
If I didn’t think I’d lose track of the plane were I to slip outside using the recently-learned trick I so would have.
Suit-and-tie guy’s stomach had been rumbling dangerously for a few minutes and the man shifted in his seat. Doing my best to pretend not to have noticed I started scribbling yet another introductory paragraph.
As his belly gurgled again he gave a grunt of obvious discomfort. With a third gastronomical acoustic emanation the man hastily popped his seatbelt free and booked it towards the nearest lavatory. I hoped he didn’t need fresh underwear, as that last round really didn’t sound too good.
And we hadn’t even been served any dubious airline food yet.
Right. The essay. Needed to focus.
After scratching off two more awkward sentences that then joined their crumpled comrades, I suppressed the urge to toss the entire pad of paper over the heads of the other passengers.
I hadn’t heard her approach. Or had even sensed her presence. She was just suddenly sitting there, legs longer than mine crossed under a platinum skirt perfectly matching the long hair flowing as if she’d just stepped out of the highest class beauty parlor to share with the world a face that any starlet would kill for. But she only existed to mundane senses - in spirit she was a disturbing void in human shape.
It was all I could do to not leap out of the seat, and as I had dutifully buckled the belt that would have caused all kinds of damage.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “School assignment. No idea what to write.”
Her laugh was like windchimes made from crystals and razor blades. “School? Are you still wasting your time with that?”
“Passes the days. And I’ve got a partner on this essay I don’t want to let down.”
She pushed the button on the armrest and leaned the seat back. A guy a couple rows up caught a glimpse of her and was now openly staring back down the aisle over a pair of reading glasses. With the low cut top accentuating her curves she was a wet-dream on steroids, cheekbones cutting lines both innocent and absolutely seductive. I’d been told I was beautiful, but Alal took it to another level entirely. A dangerous one.
But that’s an Archon of Chaos for you.
Perfectly gleaming teeth that had never needed brushing smiled broadly. “And what educational topic could you possibly be so ridiculously struggling over?”
“The Ethics of Justice for Transcendent Beings. I don’t even know where to begin.”
Surprisingly she didn’t laugh at the topic. Instead she waved a perfectly manicured hand dismissively. “The answer is obvious: there is no such thing.”
Pale irises reminiscent of vast frozen tundras stared into mine. “Examine the definitions of the terms. Start with justice. At its basis justice is a form of social control. Groups must have cohesion to continue working together, and they do so by creating rules in the service of the whole. The notion of justice is a mechanism for restoring social balance should a member upset the apple-cart. If someone steals from another, well then they must make restitution commensurate with what was taken to appease the group. This allows everyone to resume their version of normality.
“But,” she continued as a coldness slowly crept up my spine, “take a murderer who killed a child. There is no possible restitution to repair the damage they have done. The child’s soul will never experience the life that had once stretched before it, and their family will suffer the wound of the loss for the rest of their days. So what is justice then? Putting the murderer to death or forcing life-long imprisonment will never bring balance for their actions; punishment in this instance is to prevent recurrence and act as deterrent to other potential transgressors. Or it simply placates the rage and blood-hunger of those still alive whom they transgressed against. The entirety of the concept is dependent upon the perceptions of the group. A perceived injustice threatens the group’s coherency and if levied punishments no longer fit the accepted narrative of balance the society falls apart.”
She blew a kiss to the bespectacled man whose eyes went wide as he quickly spun back to pretend to focus on his laptop.
“The last term of your topic is much more interesting,” she went on without missing a beat. “Tell me, what do you think ‘transcendent’ means?”
This was something that had been giving me trouble, as I wasn’t sure I agreed with Cassius’ assessment. “Well, being beyond human is the standard usage I think. So I guess someone not stuck within the limits of natural law in the physical world?”
“Pah.” The icy landscapes rolled as she shook her head. “You’re thinking too small.”
“Don’t angels qualify?”
“No. They are bound even more tightly than the pathetic humans on this plane.”
I wasn’t sure if she’d meant this airplane or the entire material ‘plane’. Plainly either way worked though, pun absolutely intended. “What about archangels?” I asked. “They connect straight to the Source, right?”
“From the perspective of those whipped up in the Despot’s mixing bowl, they might qualify. For such as you and me? They fall short.”
She placed a hand on mine. To manifested perceptions her fingers were cool but soft.
My other senses however freaked the heck out.
Imagine touching utter emptiness and infinite possibility all at the same time. The duality tore at my spirit, the light both pulling away yet also aching to rush forth to fill the void that was not a void.
Everything and nothing, all incomprehensibly at once. Like standing at the precipice over a vast canyon waiting to be filled by whatever you wished to fill it with. And I do mean whatever. A blank check against an account with no ceiling.
It should have terrified me. I should have been screaming and feeling lost, a tiny speck against a scope and scale beyond rationality.
Except I wasn’t.
Burning within was a certainty I had never felt before.
Or had I?
Flinching, I yanked the hand back. Had the light pulsed? Had Isaiah noticed? I quickly looked towards the front of the airplane, but his spirit was still near the cockpit. The attention of Azrael had not redirected towards us.
Alal caught where my gaze had gone. “Have you realized what he is?”
Her voice cracked with sharp frozen splinters. “He is Limitation. He is the enemy.”
“He’s my friend.”
“Our father thought so once. And has ever paid the price.” Interlacing fingers she stretched out arms forward until all knuckles cracked. “This assignment of yours is meaningless - even if the human Plato tried to argue otherwise with that ring hypothetical of his. A transcendent entity exists outside all petty definition. Which includes the concept of justice and any quaint notions of good and evil. We who stand on our own within the Primal Chaos need not accept the judgment of any other as only we few are truly real. All others are but phantoms.” She then patted a knee. “Remember this, sister mine, when the moment comes. For you are one of us.”
“You’re saying I’m an Archon of Chaos?”
“Of course. You crossed through and voila! Intact and from all appearances relatively sane.” She showed her teeth again with a grin both amused and predatory.
“Did you help?”
“Help? No. Watch? Oh yes. Though the popcorn could have used more butter. But isn’t that always the case?”
“I don’t remember it.”
She shrugged. “That sounds like a personal issue.”
I frowned, too many questions fighting for attention to make sense of them all. “Why are you here? I mean, this is the third time you’ve visited me. What do you hope to achieve?”
“Hope? I don’t hope. I exist, I observe, I act.”
“And I’m a part of your plans?”
“Only if you want to be.” This time she blew the kiss to me. “You aren’t there yet. But there is still time.”
“When Beliel went crazy you instigated the mob against Michael. You armed warriors for Samael’s rebellion. Do you really think I’ll stand with you against Heaven?”
“Hmm.” She stood, stepping out into the aisle before leaning forward under the carry-on bins to meet my eyes one more time. Platinum earrings dangled close, each a hanging slender dagger whose tip converged upon a single small ruby. “Heaven and its Host are irrelevant. A truth you’ll soon perceive. Enjoy Jerusalem - maybe it’ll clarify your little essay. After all, that city is ripe with the savage history of so-called justice. Take in the sights and ask yourself whether any of it has anything at all to do with you.” With a smile and “toodle-oo” wave of those long fingers she sauntered down the aisle, leaving me sitting there unsure of what else I should have said.
The businessman a couple rows up leaned out to fixate on her amazingly alluring posterior after she walked past. When Alal vanished between our cabin and the next, he startled and actually jumped out of his seat which caused the glasses to fall off his face and hit the aisle floor. After scooping them up he then threw a confused look back towards me which I pretended not to have seen.
I instead was staring again at the legal pad filled with yellow pages even emptier than before.
Chapter 22 - Fitting
We landed at JFK with a few hours to spare before boarding the much longer flight to Israel. With only fifteen minutes before the main bistro in the terminal closed we grabbed a table and ordered sandwiches. The last time Isaiah and I had eaten together at a restaurant he’d made me order for him as a test of who I was, but this time the man selected his own food.
Although he had to repeat his order three times ("Grilled chicken sandwich, and be sure the bread has no rosemary!") because our waiter couldn’t pull his attention away from staring at me like a dumbstruck stoner, one who wasn’t sure if I was real or an awesome hallucination due to tainted weed. His shaggy brown hair and permanent slouch did little to fight that impression.
The poor kid even stumbled over an empty chair when walking away as he kept glancing back. Chuckling at the rawness of his teenage embarrassment while he hustled off, I stretched and looked back to Isaiah expecting him to share the amusement.
Except he wasn’t.
“It doesn’t bother you?” he asked, his expression doing that lawyerly hiding of all emotions thing again.
“What? That kid’s harmless.”
“All of it.” He gestured towards me. “Being female.”
I shrugged. “Got used to it.”
“Looks like you’ve done more than that.”
“Hey, it’s not like I had a choice.”
He slid the napkin-wrapped silverware out of the way of where a plate would hopefully soon arrive. “You sure about that?”
After a quick shake of the head he looked away toward the bistro’s bar area where a pair of businessmen were arguing over the crazy prices for the alcohol on their bill. “Never mind.”
“Dude, don’t give me that. What the heck did you mean?”
With an annoyed sigh, he turned back. “You can create clothes out of thin air. And cross to and from spirit. Have you tried manifesting as your old self? To be Justin again?”
“I…well no, guess I haven’t. Didn’t think to try.”
“Do you even want to?”
Did I? Good grief, that was a loaded question. Did I want to go back to being Justin Thorne and rejoin the ranks of middle-aged geeks? Sure it’d stop having guys stare at my chest and butt all the time, and if the DPA could resurrect him from the dead all my old credentials would be restored. No need for being at school and who knows - maybe I could get my house back too.
So why did the idea cause skin to crawl?
Isaiah closely watched my reaction and didn’t say anything.
Crossing arms under a protruding chest that I was suddenly extremely self-conscious about, I stared back. “And what if I don’t? Why do I get the feeling that bothers you.”
“Just how much of Justin is still in there?”
Oh for the love of…hmm. God? Elohim? Dangit, cursing had gotten complex. “I’m still him,” I growled. “Just been through a lot, okay?” I frowned as another thought clicked into place. “Wait, this isn’t really about me, is it.”
His eyes squinted dangerously behind the glasses. “Of course it is.”
“Some is sure, fine. Not all though. And what can I say, I’m comfortable as a girl. Maybe even more so than when I was Justin if forced to admit it. It’s, I dunno, hard to describe. Yeah there are things that are annoying - like when men get all dismissive or slobber over themselves because gee, she’s got boobs. And yeah, I’ve had some really freaking scary moments as a result.” I exhaled slowly. “Yet of all the insane changes that have happened, it may be crazy but I think becoming a girl has bothered me the least. Though I’m not the only one at this table who’s had some serious challenges to who we think we are.”
He pointed at me. “I haven’t been through anything as dramatic.”
I laughed. “That’s just it, the whole gender-flip is only a minor note. And you won’t have to worry about that kind of thing; Azrael would likely be just fine wearing your face. It’s not like anyone gets to see it anyway, what with how often he hides under that hood of his.”
At the mention of Azrael, Isaiah stiffened. He didn’t respond as our waiter showed up with our beverages: iced tea for me, and pomegranate juice (no ice) for my friend.
The server made it back to the kitchen without tripping this time too.
Once the hormonal teenager was out of ear-shot, Isaiah rubbed his face. “I don’t think I could handle it. Being a girl.”
“And you’re wondering how I can?”
“I suppose so.”
“It…it works, okay? It was shocking at first, sure. But you noticed it too after the change. Being able to smile easier, like I was more free. Maybe some of Justin’s melancholy was due to things not quite fitting. You know, inside.”
“He had reason to be depressed.”
I shook my head. “Even before losing Caroline there was an inner sadness. She just made it bearable. C’mon, can you truly say I was entirely stable and balanced when we met? I was on a permanent soul-seeking quest - and pushed you mercilessly to run the harshest scenarios in our games and stories. All to delve deep out of a crazed and desperate need to find some sort of internal balance or center. It was nuts.”
A smile peeked out from under the otherwise glowering expression. “You really did. Those all-nighters were brutal.”
“Yep. And you delivered. Which meant a dorky software nerd was better equipped for when destiny exploded in his - and then her - face. I owe you for those.”
He took a ridiculously long drink of his juice. “You made me run so many scenarios without any prep. Over and over again.”
I grinned. “I knew you could do it. You were brilliant.”
Putting the glass down he slowly spun it around. “Was I? I’ve wondered about that.”
“How so? Those stories were amazing.”
“I opened my mouth - and words came out. I never knew how you’d get out of the insane situations your characters got dumped into. At times I was but a witness.” He released the glass and looked at me. “It could have been a setup.”
“Uh, how so?”
“How much was me…and how much was him? Azrael could have been using me.”
“Dude. He is you. As you are him.”
“I’m just a-”
“Just a what? A mask? Listen for a minute, alright?”
Despite his annoyance at being cut-off he waved for me to continue.
So I did. “I’ve been thinking, and maybe our perspective on this whole spirit versus incarnate ego thing is messed up. The spirit is the abstract - deeper than even the subconscious, but bear with me here. You’re this identity as built up by the memories of this human life sure, except that’s still all piled on top of that deeper core. We’ve both had angelic memories kick our butts - heck, that keeps happening to me all the time. If yours are anything like mine you experience them as if you were standing right there reliving those moments. Not as a witness - to steal your term - but right there in the mindset of whichever coalesced identity was driving the spirit core around at the time. You see Azrael as this all-wise powerful being separate from yourself. Except I bet you’re staring at the angelic mask and mistaking it for the true spirit.”
“You’re also him. And I think the spirit underlying the aspects needs the wisdom both bring to the table - a need which already happened, remember? You’re a layer of ego for the true abstract - and so is he. From that position you’re entirely his equal.”
He stayed quiet and rotated the glass again.
“Don’t undersell yourself or your perspective.” After a sip of tea I casually added, “Oh, and before I forget to mention it - Alal popped in during the flight.” As his eyes widened I added, “She was also there in Egypt; she helped me get to the hotel where I found Kami’s team. You remember me telling you about her, right?”
“I know who she is.”
“Hmm. The way you said that sounds like there’s more there than just my descriptions. Azrael knows her too, doesn’t he.”
Now that was interesting. “We should share notes. Other than being a platinum-haired goddess with womanly proportions that make mine seem like a plain-Jane, I’ve learned some disturbing things about her. She surfs the Chaos and has aided anti-Heaven mayhem. And yet she’s helped me.”
“When Lucifer forged the fundament upon which Heaven was built, Azrael acted.” My friend’s tone had shifted, and his eyes had drifted far away. If I’d only been taking video, it’d have been perfect evidence for everything I’d been trying to tell him.
Examining old memories he continued. “With his sword did Azrael slice the Light into Known and Unknown, with the Unknowable beyond. Out of that cut across the chest of the First did two drops fall. From one did Gabriel emerge, the dream held by the Light made manifest.”
He turned that ancient penetrating gaze back at me. “The blood of the other fled unto Chaos. Gabriel’s twin, she joined the denizens who live outside Creation to become the Archon known as Alal.”
If he was going to say more neither of us got to find out as Isaiah’s phone rang from inside his jacket. Talk about annoying timing. Shaking off the mindset of an archangel, Isaiah fished it out and answered.
“Hello? Yes…good…wait for me there.” He hung up and my friend blinked. “Stay here and watch my carry-on; I need to go get something outside security.”
Without explanation he stood and hurried off through the terminal. Naturally that’s when our sandwiches arrived.
“Here you go,” said the stoner-like dude as he deposited the two plates. “And uhm, also here’s this. We’re closing up so if you don’t mind…?” He put the printed bill on the table next to my meal. I had to squirm a bit to get fingers into the stupidly-tight jeans pocket holding my credit card but finally succeeded - not that the waiter hadn’t enjoyed watching the attempt.
While chewing the Italian sandwich (salami, capicola, cheese, lettuce, and tomato) thoughts kept mulling over Isaiah’s obvious struggle with what kept happening to him. He was worried about losing himself - heck, he could even now be freaking out that he’d just changed modes in the moment without realizing it and be wondering if who he was before this mess started had already slipped away.
That prospect could be scarier than the more abrupt shift I’d gone through. He might be waking up every day asking whether he was still himself. Whereas I was me, and while the whole “higher self” angelic version had at times been distinct and separate, the shifting thought patterns had never been jarring.
If anything they were weirdly smooth.
Was it really the same for Isaiah? Would he tell me if I asked? The conversation with Tracy about not talking to others came to mind. Which reminded that I was guilty of the same.
Eventually (way after my own sandwich had mysteriously disappeared) Isaiah returned. Dangling from a hand was a backpack - and not just any backpack. It was mine, complete with the Academy’s logo stitched over the side pockets and some specifically located mud stains from having been carelessly dropped during wet weather.
“Here,” he said, handing it over.
“Dude!” Feeling the weight, I pulled it onto my lap to unzip the various pouches and smiled at what I found. “My laptop! And phone!” There were a number of other items wedged in there as well - like my makeup kit, extra hair-ties, feminine products which I didn’t really need, and even a small purse. “And uh, girly stuff! How’d you get this?”
Isaiah smiled as he sat back down in front of his now-cold sandwich. “I put in a couple calls right after takeoff once we were able to use the airline phones. It was a race between the courier service driving down from Whateley and our flight. We won, but not by much. There’s also a checked bag for you with clothes from your cottage. Mrs. Cantrel did the packing.”
Headphones, chargers, and even a couple of books: the one by Aryeh Kaplan on Kabbalah where each paragraph required at least five readings, and another by Jack L. Chalker - The Identity Matrix. Mrs. Cantrel probably thought she was being funny with that selection - though I was impressed she’d found a copy. It was seriously out of print.
Isaiah nodded with one of his self-satisfied smirks. Okay, he’d earned this one. Pointing at the backpack he said, “If you didn’t have any bags that’d have been a red flag at customs in Israel. A teenage girl without phone and accessories would have them thinking I’d kidnapped you.”
My head tilted in thought. “Speaking of which, how are you planning on explaining our relationship when asked? You gonna be my uncle?” I grinned as we both knew that older men traveling with “nieces” usually meant an entirely different relationship.
He coughed. “That would hardly be appropriate. No, we are on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for the soul of the recently departed: my ward and your best friend at school.” In a softer tone he added, “And I fully intend to do so.”
Swallowing the smile, I pulled out everything I’d stuffed into the stupidly tight pants and added them to the purple purse. After staring at the small pouch for awhile I hesitantly said, “Isaiah?”
“Yrmm?” His mouth was full, he’d just taken another bite of his sandwich.
“Eh, it’s nothing. Eat your food.” The guy needed to fill his stomach. After all, we were about to be stuck on an overnight flight - they may not feed us for many hours after takeoff.
Despite giving an odd look, he kept on munching
Chapter 23 - Jerusalem
We landed at Ben Gurion airport as planned which meant we emerged from security to collect our luggage right before six in the evening, local time. Getting through customs was interesting as they spent awhile grilling the two of us for why we were there, what we hoped to visit, all that kind of thing. Most of those questions Isaiah was able to answer readily enough, but when they realized we weren’t actually related they switched to focusing more intently on me.
If I hadn’t had the angelic perfect memory to relay almost verbatim the fake background the DPA had created for Jordan Emrys I could have been in trouble. Though there was no need to fake mourning for Danielle or any guile in letting my voice tremble when mentioning the loss of my parents.
I missed them too.
Unlike anywhere else they asked if I wanted my passport stamped or if they should issue a separately stamped piece of paper - one that would have to remain with the passport until I left the country. This was due to the Arab countries refusing to admit anyone whose passport had been stamped by Israel.
Since I had no clue where I might have to go I took the piece of paper. It was always possible I’d need to get into Egypt and visit the pyramid where Zap and Erica were holed up.
The airport itself was nice, very modern in its design with tall open spaces held up by large and grey crenelated pillars, and the outside areas were spotted with simple benches and tables framed by palm trees. Being evening-time during Hanukkah it wasn’t very busy, and the shops that were open had little menorahs shining at the entrances.
Isaiah’s firm’s travel arranger had arranged for a luxury sedan to be waiting for us. The driver (whose name was Ari) was a somewhat short guy in his mid-fifties, wearing the standard chauffeur business suit and gloves along with a black leather flat cap covering the obvious bald spot nestled between wispy silvering hair. He seemed friendly and spoke good but accented English, and Isaiah engaged the guy in conversation. My friend at least had gotten solid sleep during the transcontinental flight, requiring nudges now and then whenever his snoring started to disturb the other passengers.
As for me I had stayed awake the entire twelve hours out of worry I might flicker off to elsewhere again. Tracy’s ghost offered to wake me up should it be needed, but I hadn’t wanted to fall out of the plane if her attempt didn’t go that smooth.
You know, like last time at the hotel. That would have been one heck of a rude awakening over the mid-Atlantic.
“Tourists, yes?” Ari asked. “What sites are you most interested in visiting?”
“The Western Wall. And the Temple Mount itself.”
“Ah. My advice would be to see the Temple Mount early in the morning. Non-Muslim visitors are allowed only from seven-thirty to ten-thirty, and again from twelve-thirty to one-thirty. That’s all. Similar advice for the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter - while you can go in any time from before dawn until sunset, the crowds are thick once the sun has risen above the old city.”
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was over the ground (Golgotha) where it was believed that Jesus had died on the cross; it being a crowded spot for visitors wasn’t surprising. It also held his empty tomb - hence the name of the church.
In between chatting up Isaiah, Ari spent the drive cursing at other drivers in Hebrew ("Hel’at ha-min ha-enoshi!" - "Scum of the human race!"). At one point Isaiah joined in after a truck had performed an entirely rude forced lane change in front of us and muttered, “Ya ben zona.” ("You son of a bitch.") Upon realizing Isaiah spoke Hebrew our driver got even more excited.
For the rest of the trip those two ranted about politics both American and Israeli, argued whether being a lawyer was a better profession these days for children to go into than medicine, and even compared Kugel recipes. Upon learning that Isaiah was unmarried, Ari practically went postal - and immediately began listing his own single female relatives in an attempt at match-making. (”Okay, yes she’s divorced - but she’s a good woman! She’s always wanted to go to the U.S…”)
Fortunately as I was pretending to be under eighteen I was mostly left out of such considerations. Though I was informed he had a cousin who went to UCLA ("he is studying to be a dentist - a solid career prospect!") whom I should give a call once I graduated high school.
When the two of them began debating military history I tuned them out to stare past the window as the freeway slipped beyond surroundings not unlike Southern California and headed instead towards low rolling hills covered by many more trees than the dry chaparral back home could ever manage.
The topic of war filling the background was probably not the best thing to be listening to when I drifted off in spite of myself.
But dangit, I was tired.
Across the fields of Creation the rebel army was in retreat.
Line after line of angels with wings that shimmered the entire spectrum from violet through red and beyond stood along the border formed between the original realms of the rebellious archangels and the rest of that which is. Through layer after layer, realm after realm, and cosmos after cosmos, the battalions of Elohim had forced the attackers back, leaving trails of red-stained wings and shattered bone. The warriors of the Host succeeded not by superior strategy or tactics - as the Generals on both sides of the conflict refused to make mistakes - but by the rules of attrition alone. For when a rebel’s word was destroyed and forever lost no reinforcements could ever take their place.
Whereas through the Light as channeled into Elohim new angels were continually forged, each imbued with the manifest will of the Throne. Under Michael’s command these infinite new legions had swept across existence as unstoppable tempests of fury and sword.
Even Samael with all his might could not hold against their endless march, as each newborn brethren came to life with weapon and shield in hand, ready to throw themselves without hesitation against even the blades of Chaos wielded by the Chief Rebel’s most fearsome captains.
At the forefront of the Host of Heaven stood Gabriel, her silver spear afire with a white light almost matching the glorious shine of he who stood besides her. Other Archangels flew to their sides: Camael with his two-handed blade and matching wings all dripping crimson fire, Beliel in blackened armor with towering mace darker still, Azrael whose wings of night cast shadows even against the glare of the Lightbringer, and Michael whose brilliant shield and golden sword gleamed as perfectly as the day they first had appeared in his mighty grip.
“They run,” she breathed, as if unsure of what she was seeing. “Is this madness finally finished? Have we won?”
“No.” Harsh light spilling from Lucifer’s wings sharpened as his blazing eyes examined countless battlefields. “Our task continues. For their crimes they must be cleansed from Creation, root and branch burned and the remaining embers swept unto the Abyss. Lest they corrupt more with the falseness their tongues spit with each and every breath.”
Michael, flaxen hair curling in the wind between worlds, looked upon their First. “Upon their own soil they have advantage. Our losses would be incalculable.”
“Yet in the fullness of time we shall prevail.” Camael nodded gravely to the leader of his House of Light. “The Powers stand ready, give the order.”
Beliel’s brown eyes grew troubled behind the helm of obsidian. “How many of us will survive such carnage? The numbers of our brethren whom the Source brought directly into being grow thin. Soon only Elohim’s fashioned soldiers will remain. Creation requires more than obedient fighters of war to thrive - I did not lend shoulder to the firmament for this! We dreamed not of a fortress lined with spears but a garden!”
His words troubled the Lightbringer and his shining glory flickered before steadying. “Those of peace and plenty will fill all the realms, my brother, when the threat is no more. New words shall unfold to carry out the Plan.”
The obsidian armored knight turned to face his white-robed brother. “Is a plan requiring such sacrifice worthy? How much can be borne before Purpose is lost entire?”
That ache within Gabriel’s chest which had grown with each passing eon of war pounded in her ears. “What if they surrender? Must there be such slaughter?”
Lucifer returned burning eyes to those who fled towards realms pushed against the edges of all things. “The time for surrender is past. Go home, Gabriel. Go. While we do what must be done.” Bitter were the words on lips thin yet resolute.
Gabriel’s eyes flashed but before she could offer retort another voice spoke.
“There is another way.” Azrael, standing shorter than all except Gabriel, unsheathed a long yet slender double-edged sword - one that had seen much use as a scalpel against the foes of Heaven.
A hand of light motioned for Azrael to continue. “Tell us.”
“Burn not the root and branch.” Azrael held out the blade. “Cut them free.”
Gabriel’s inner pain and turmoil crested as the full horror of the suggestion unraveled into comprehension. “To do such a thing…“
But the others of the War Council nodded agreement. Spreading wings with feathers gleaming like the sharpest of knives, Lucifer gave the command.
“Let it be done.”
Isaiah was shaking a shoulder. “We’re here. Wake up.”
Blinking eyes clear of yet another of Gabriel’s painful memories, I looked up only to see our driver who had opened my door. He offered a gloved hand which helped steady my step onto the grey stonework. The paved stones rested underneath the beige-pink limestone arching overhead and surrounding the single dark wood and glass revolving-door entrance to the King David Hotel. Once I was solidly again in the here-and-now, Ari let go and moved around to get our bags out of the trunk as Isaiah had hopped out of the car on his own.
“Let’s get checked in,” Isaiah said and motioned for me to go on through the spinning doors and into the lobby.
Once in I had to stop and gawk at everything like the dorky American tourist I was.
Before me lay a literal red carpet just wider than the cylindrical entrance, its deep rose intertwined with purple to form a decorative pattern of many broad squares. The room had a high ceiling of green rectangle sections lined with these bronze circular shields all held aloft by walls and square columns colored in a softer white. The check-in counter with its equally dark decorated wooden front sat underneath an interior balcony overlooking the wider lobby that was filled with plush couches, wooden tables, and wide upholstered chairs. Lavender curtains framed windows as well as exits, and the walls past the counter were a two-tone pattern of large lighter beige tiles to contrast with a reflective floor of grey and medium-brown marbling.
It was a lot to take in.
People were chatting and laughing as they sat or walked about, the room echoing with the sound but not too loudly as if each conversation was an island unto itself. There was also this sultry yet flowery scent lingering in the air, more than the several round planters of lilies and orchids could account for.
The entire effect was both opulent and stately without being overdone. And after Isaiah got us all squared away with the front desk (and Ari had turned our bags over to the lobby boy) we walked down a short hallway where our feet stepped on a strip of white-tile all trimmed with gold that went straight down the center of the hall and across the lobby itself. The tile had been decorated with the many signatures of various dignitaries who had stayed at the hotel.
Among these included the unreadable scrawls of several American Presidents and many kings. Underneath in smaller print of both English and Hebrew was the legible name and year of their stay.
Up a few floors using the “Lift” and then down equally ornate hallways of lush vermilion and yellow-brown carpeting we arrived at another door made of that same lovely mahogany which accented every wall and corner.
“This is ours,” Isaiah said as he inserted the room’s key-card and pushed down the golden-bronze handle.
“Ours? We’re sharing a room?”
He made a show of opening the door, gesturing grandly for me to enter. “Not a room. A two-bedroom suite.”
With arched windows above the french doors leading to a long balcony, lush carpeting under equally posh living room furniture, and two entirely separate bedrooms complete with more mahogany paneling and even deeper red velvet lined headboards above the king-sized beds, the suite put most apartments I’d visited to shame.
But what caused me to go “oh, wow” was the early evening view from the expansive balcony. Overlooking first the immaculately trimmed hedges and flowers surrounding the rather well-lit pool and outdoor dining or lounging areas, what lay beyond to one side was a clear and unobstructed view of what had to have been the Old City of Jerusalem - the stone fortifications of the outer walls peeking upwards over the local greenery. The sun had already set, but the full dark of night had yet to fall which lent the entire scene an even more magic feel.
Okay, in all fairness the balcony’s two weirdly suspended half-eggshell chairs that faced the sights seemed suspiciously uncomfortable, but the regular pool-side lounge chairs next to them would likely be just fine.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Isaiah, after tipping the bell-boy for our luggage, had walked up to the railing and was nodding in satisfaction.
“I don’t want to know how much you’re paying per night for this, do I?”
He chuckled. “Probably not.”
“You ever been to Israel before?” I was pretty sure of the answer, but who knows. I’d met Isaiah while we were in college so maybe his folks could have taken him when he was young.
“No. It’s been a dream of mine. Never had the time and the money together before to make it happen.”
I smiled and was ready to let him simply take in the scene but he turned away.
“We should get going to this cafe of yours. Do we need a cab?”
“Nah, from what I looked up while you were snoozing on the plane we can walk. You don’t want to change out of your suit first?”
He shook his head. “We don’t know what time we’re supposed to be there. You’re a teenager so jeans and t-shirt isn’t out of place even if the old geezer you’re with is better attired.”
Making our way back to the lobby we exited through the rotating doors and walked down the curved stone driveway to the street - which was named King David Street, because why not. Somehow that impressed on me more that hey, we were traipsing down a road just outside the walls of a city straight out of not just history but the bible itself. As we passed more palm trees and reached blocks of short white buildings the juxtaposition of cars on the one-way street with its tasteful modern architecture all nestled nearby the ancient battlements off to our right was rather surreal.
Of course maybe that was more due to my having grown up in Los Angeles where any building over fifty years old was deemed a “classic”.
Many businesses were closed due to the hour, but the quiet twilight was still illuminated by lit menorahs decorating their store fronts. Unlike the garishness of Christmas decorations the effect of the multi-night holiday was more subdued, even with the occasional strings of tiny white lights added here and there.
Though that wasn’t the only thing I noticed.
After making our way left onto our destination’s street I paused to bend down and re-tie a sneaker. Isaiah took the opportunity to take more pictures with his phone - capturing the various shops, street signs, and also me rolling eyes at him.
“Hey, guess what?” I said as I stood back up and we continued our stroll.
“Hmm?” He was scrolling through the pictures he’d just captured on the phone’s display.
“We’re being followed.”
“Dude, don’t look! They’ll realize we know.”
Holding up the phone he swiped the screen into selfie mode, pretending to take a picture of yet another street sign. “How can you be sure?”
“The guy in the light grey sport coat, two blocks back. He got up as we went past in the lobby and when I paused to futz with my shoe so did he.”
“Not exactly incriminating evidence.”
“I’ll bet you dinner I’m right.”
“I was going to pay anyway. So what’s the plan?”
“If he’s smart he’ll talk before I have to get violent.”
Isaiah looked askance at me. “You’re going to threaten him?”
I growled. “He could be another assassin gunning for you. Or a scout for one. You seriously think I’m going to just let him follow us?”
“What part of ‘someone is trying to kill you’ are you not comprehending?”
He shook his head. “Make a scene here and authorities will show. Then we won’t be able to properly follow your friend’s instructions.”
“Oh. The donuts.”
“Dammit. Fine. We go on.”
Air currents shifted against a cheek as a spirit popped into perception and flew past on golden-armored wings. “Did you just send Tracy to check him out?”
“Yes. She may learn something.”
We reached another street whose signs were both in Hebrew and English as we had to wait for the light to change I asked a question. “Say, where does she go when she’s not, you know, hovering about?”
“She’s with me. Though exactly ‘where’ is hard to describe.”
“I’m surprised the Seal hasn’t sent her on to her next incarnation.”
“It’s a constant pull. But according to her as long as she’s near me she’s got an override.”
“Keep walking. Let’s see if he notices her presence.”
If the guy did have enough spirit sense to spot the angel walking beside him he didn’t show it. Considering Tracy was again in full armor with sword and shield at the ready either he had the spirit-sense of a random brick or he ought to be immediately recruited by Hollywood for an Oscar-worthy performance.
After another block Isaiah pointed. “There’s the cafe.”
Set in the middle of a white building spanning the block that hosted a handful of stores, the Kadosh Cafe was a small restaurant with indoor dining and also a number of green-topped round tables out on the sidewalk all surrounded by wooden chairs made more comfortable by knitted green and creme-colored padding. Lining the left wall inside was a long counter display covered with pastries of the kind I had never seen before and a bunch I had, and even taking a cozy seat outside (at Isaiah’s suggestion) the freshly baked smells wafting past the open door gave tantalizing hints of fruited and sugary temptation.
In fact the counter couldn’t contain it all so they had added two more laden tables tucked under its ledge. Behind those was an inset refrigerator containing yet even more desserts alongside shelves holding a coffee maker, a soft-serve ice cream machine, and rows of liquor bottles interspersed with jars full of nuts. The green-tiled kitchen was behind the far wall with its own counter through which cooked food was being portaled in, chefs busy sauteing away over many pans visible behind. A good crowd of patrons sat around the wood-topped tables filling the rest of the single room, all enjoying various dinner selections or diet-busting delights along with beverages of choice and conversations loud and animated but joyful.
It took a few minutes before a college-age waitress in a long-sleeved white shirt and brown apron finally noticed us to take our order which we both stated in Hebrew: falafel and side salad for Isaiah and a dinner salad for me - a “salade halumi” made of chicken, onion, peppers, and lettuce. After the waitress went back to the kitchen with our selections, Isaiah commented, “The language trick is useful, isn’t it?”
I grinned. “Yeah. But didn’t you learn Hebrew as a kid for your Bar-Mitzvah?”
He shrugged. “I memorized enough at the time. Then forgot it all from disuse. What’s written in the Torah is also different from modern Hebrew - not surprising when you consider that the Torah only has about eight-thousand different words. Modern Hebrew has over a hundred-thousand. The language was greatly expanded when it was resurrected.”
“Sounds like you’ve been studying up a lot more recently.”
He gave a dead-pan look over glasses before pushing them back up his nose. “Considering the circumstances that shouldn’t be a surprise.”
“Who said I was surprised? And hey, did Tracy report any details on our stalker? The jerk crossed the street and is lurking suspiciously past that round corner keeping us in view.” Having marked the guy’s spirit it was easy enough to keep him in focus. Another road curved about to intersect with this one, yielding an oddly shaped intersection and the guy was hovering just around the curved front of the only building marking that corner. With Tracy’s own powerful spirit standing over him he was rather hard to miss regardless of the cover he’d chosen.
“He’s been reporting our activities over a radio; he’s got an ear-piece and throat mike.”
“Really? Dammit, you should have said something. Those are typically short range.” Making a show of rubbing both eyes to cover any flashes, I opened up a bit more to see what else popped into view. “Well crap. We’ve rated our own undercover surveillance van parked the other direction. Four men. Our follower is on an open circuit with them. I don’t like this.”
“You can see all that?”
“Sure,” I said while blinking eyes clear again. “It’s like everything is an open book, the bitch of it is every square yard is a library unto itself. Not getting lost in it all is the challenge.”
“Aradia had difficulties controlling what she saw.” He’d meant to say it neutrally, but a deeper sadness seeped through anyway.
“She looked not just to the present but also the future. I’ve only done that deliberately when fighting - and always kept the focus on the immediate.” Unwrapping silverware from a cloth napkin, I tapped the table with the tip of the knife. “You stopped me from going all-in on the perceptions of the present during that dragon duel. Even now I’m tempted to go for it again, despite knowing how stupid that would be. If I tried for the future too I’m not sure what would happen.”
“Best not to experiment while on Earth.”
His coffee and my tea arrived, both steaming hot. His was immediately doctored with cream and sugar, and he then offered the containers to me. “Want some?”
Pulling my cup protectively close to the chest I said, “Heck no.”
“Then some things haven’t changed.” He smirked.
“You dork.” I threw him a fake glare which just widened his smile. “Seriously, though. Think they could be setting up a heavier attack? As far as they know they’ve got us outnumbered. And sitting out here we’re wide open.” My back had begun to itch, right between where wings were anxious to pop out.
“If they have any concept of who you are they’ll realize the odds are stacked against them. Enjoy dinner, have dessert, and see what happens.”
“Meh. I suppose if we hang around long enough they’ll either attack or die of boredom. Though I reserve the right to kick their asses after we’ve had some sufganiyot. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
He raised a finger. “Remember that we aren’t in the U.S. The DPA is not going to cover up any of your escapades.” Using the finger to hook around the cup’s handle, he took a sip of the light-brown coffee. “With everything you can do, are they really a threat?”
That earned him a glare. “A bullet through your head will still kill you. I haven’t powered up - I might be too slow to stop it.”
“Tracy will warn of any snipers.”
Scowling I blew across the top of the tea. It was still too hot to drink. Smelled good, though. My friend however was still smiling at me - enough so that it was becoming irritating. “What?”
“Just thinking. In all our games this was usually the other way around - the players were the ones doing the stake-outs.”
“Yeah and usually we’d get attacked anyway.”
“See? Even more evidence to sit and be patient. Otherwise you’d be the villain in the scenario.”
Looking down at the plain and boringly white t-shirt and jeans comporting my attire I couldn’t help but snort. “If I was I’d have a much sexier outfit.”
“Truth.” He nodded solemnly. “Maybe we should get you one.”
My friend then suggested numerous outrageous attire possibilities one after the other (”Shredded black lace like Morgain wore in that one scene with Arthur?” “I’m so not wearing that!”) until our food arrived. While chowing down on the remarkably tasty offerings we proceeded to debate which stories from the past had the best femme fatale antagonists. With the improved recall capabilities I had the advantage considering most of our games had happened over twenty years ago.
This led to general reminiscing and discussion of the friends (and not-so-friends) we’d once gamed with, and soon we’d had not just one sufganiyah each but quite a few rounds of other tempting desserts.
As for the famed donuts themselves, being jelly-filled I wasn’t a huge fan as I’ve never much cared for such fillings. Isaiah however practically moaned in delight with each sugar-coated nibble, even licking his fingers clean with satisfaction when done. Whereas over the next couple hours I gleefully devoured everything that had cinnamon or chocolate.
I had the advantage here too - I didn’t need to worry about it all packing onto my thighs and butt.
Taking a long swallow of yet another cream-and-sugar filled cup of coffee, Isaiah commented, “Tracy says our friends have stayed put.”
I nodded. “Good.” I’d kept scanning every so often, but rubbing eyes or resting my face against an arm to hide the flares had gotten old. The crowd in the restaurant had thinned out as the evening wore on, and the night’s temperature dropped enough that those who remained outside kept their fingers wrapped around their hot cups or in their pockets. Eventually we were the only ones sitting at a sidewalk table as everyone else had taken refuge inside.
Traffic along the one-way street had also diminished, though there was still a fairly steady stream of cars. A light-green sedan grabbed an open parking spot along the curb a few businesses up from the restaurant, backing skillfully into the tight space. Honestly from where I sat I didn’t think the guy was going to make it, but he did.
When he got out of the car I did my best not to stare. “Heads-up, things just got interesting.”
Isaiah, who had moved his chair to sit at my right so he wouldn’t have his back to the street, also took a look and blinked. “Coincidence?”
The driver was walking quickly towards us so I didn’t have time to answer before the guy was in earshot. The man had traded the black cap for a leather one in brown and the black suit for a beige sweater over khaki pants but he was still easily recognizable as our driver from the airport. He also had a blue-tooth earpiece, one with those stubby microphone extensions sticking out.
Pausing at our table, the man had the temerity to feign happy surprise at seeing us. “My friends! Shalom!”
“Hello Ari,” I said with admittedly a not-entirely-glad-to-see-you pursing of lips. Isaiah echoed the “Shalom” and put down his coffee cup.
“I trust you both are enjoying your evening? You’ve certainly chosen a fine establishment!”
Tilting my head towards the restaurant’s entrance I asked, “Let me guess, you’re here for the donuts too?”
“The sufganiyot, yes. Traditions should be honored when possible, do you not agree?”
“You eating here or getting some to-go?”
“Both. I simply do not have the willpower to resist a cup of coffee and a tasty sampling before driving home.”
I gestured to the empty chairs around us. “In that case, pull up a seat. You can answer some questions for us.”
“Questions? I am no tour guide, but am happy to help.”
Smiling, I picked up the tea with both hands before blowing across the top again as it had just been refilled. “How about you tell us who you and your friends in the van work for?”
While Ari’s own smile did not falter, his eyes flickered with a particular hardness even if just for a moment. “Van? I am sorry, I do not understand.”
“They’re on the same frequency as your headset. As is the guy across the street who has pretended to wait for a bus for over an hour.”
The friendly expression on Ari’s face fell into an echo of Isaiah’s own reserved and wary demeanor. “Is this some American jest? From one of your movies? If so, it is not one I have seen.”
I let the light pour into my eyes. “No joke, Ari. Someone tried to kill my friend here only yesterday. I’m taking that kinda personal.”
He didn’t flinch but stared right into the glow. If he saw anything within the light, he didn’t let it show. “Please, there is no threat here. Call it protective curiosity.”
“I’ll ask again: who are you people?” I had a budding suspicion but I wanted to hear it.
“We are concerned with the security of this nation and its people.”
“The last security agent I met - out of concern for his domain, mind you - pulled a gun on me. In the middle of a hospital.”
“I am unarmed.”
“Your friends in the van cannot make that claim. Each is packing a Micro-Tavor and a sidearm. The pair of MAPATS certainly indicates a high level of seriousness.” MAPATS stands for “MAn-Portable-Anti-Tank System” complete with night vision support. In addition to being designed to take out tanks they’re the sort of weapon that could be used against a slow-moving aerial target. Like, say, a hovering angel.
Their mention even raised Isaiah’s thick eyebrows. I hadn’t told him about those.
Ari exhaled sharply. “An abundance of caution was recommended. Especially when considering your last two visits to the region.”
Hmm, okay. The guy had a point.
Isaiah spoke up. “Jordan isn’t here to cause trouble. At least not that we are aware of.”
“Forgive, but I cannot take that at face value.”
Pointing an insistent finger at the contents of Isaiah’s plate I said, “Look. This is why we are here.”
“Donuts. It’s all about the blessed donuts. You’re not gonna believe me, but we’re supposed to eat them. Here. Tonight. Beyond that your guess is as good as mine as to what we’re gonna be doing.”
The security agent (Mossad? Aman? My money was on Shin Bet.) frowned causing wrinkles to show more clearly at the corners of his eyes. “The sufganiyot? Because of Hanukkah?”
Isaiah shrugged and held up the last bite from the latest round. “Messages from On High are not always clear. Perhaps we were supposed to meet you.”
“But Elohim specifically told you to be here?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “And eat pastries. Isaiah has even judged them tasty and good.” Okay, technically God hadn’t sent the message, August had. But hey - August was an angel too so close enough, right?
Ari shook his head. “Returning to Egypt due to the unrest at the pyramids I could understand. But why come to Jerusalem? What do you plan to do at the Wall and Temple Mount?”
To this Isaiah answered immediately. “Pray. I plan to pray.”
I glanced down the sidewalk towards the old city where the holiest sites of three religions gathered behind an ancient wall - and things suddenly became clear. “Guys, I think I know why we were sent.” Standing, I waved to the man shuffling in our direction with one hand holding down a fedora against the sudden breeze that played with the tzitzit tassels sticking out from under his coat. “Rabbi! Over here!”
Adjusting thick glasses to better see us, the man smiled. And while there was no physical glow, light and joy beamed from his face nevertheless.
Because with a shout Rabbi Kirov heartily returned my wave.
Chapter 24 - Directives
“The importance of Hanukkah,” Rabbi Immanuel Kirov was saying as he took another bite of falafel, “is not to memorialize the victory against the Seleucid monarchy.”
After shaking hands with Isaiah and then with Ari (who was introduced only as “the guy who drove us from the airport”), Kirov had hustled inside to pick up his food which he’d called ahead to order. Adding a hot tea he then joined our table outside, diving into the to-go container’s contents with gusto.
“As important as it was to win and reclaim our Temple,” he continued, “it is the miracle that happened after which we honor with remembrance: that a single surviving vial of sacred oil lasted for eight days, keeping the holy fire of our faith lit while waiting for more of appropriate purity to arrive.” The rabbi, bits of falafel already adorning his thick white beard, pointed a fork at me. “While for some such a thing may seem mundane compared to wonders witnessed of late, it is the message behind the miracle that has carried across the centuries to be celebrated with lights.” Always the teacher, he looked at the rest of us from behind the thick glasses and posed his question: “And what might that message have been, hmm?”
Isaiah’s mouth opened to answer but Ari beat him to it. “That as we maintain faith with Hashem, so does Hashem maintain faith with us.”
“Yes!” Kirov waved the fork for emphasis. “Hanukkah is about the little light that sheds a greater one, and so do we advertise the miracle granted us by Hashem. This does not trivialize the achievement of the rebel Matityah or his son Yehuda HaMakabi in the success of their campaign - but while many battles are fought and won, true miracles are of a higher order. By these may a people rediscover the sacred. Even by the smallest of lights may hope be rekindled.”
At the naming of the chief Jewish rebel and his son, Isaiah flinched as if struck by a hammer and almost dropped the coffee cup as its hot contents spilled over his glove. He quickly dabbed the leather dry with a wad of napkins - he was lucky he’d kept the gloves on. “Sorry,” he said. “Muscle spasm.”
I don’t think any of us bought the excuse, but none of us were going to push it right then. Later, however, would be a different matter entirely.
Ari, who I was pretty sure already knew who Kirov was and also our connection with him, took the moment to ask anyway. “I take it this was a coincidental encounter? How do you all know each other?”
The rabbi’s intelligent eyes narrowed before resuming their usual cheer. “Ms. Emrys is one of my students. Though I am rather shocked to see her here.” He turned to me. “Are your exams for the semester already completed?”
“Other than your essay, yeah.”
“And how is that proceeding?”
I didn’t bother to hide the scowl. “Just peachy.”
With amusement he said, “I trust you will endeavor to not leave it all for young Cassius to complete. Or are you - hmm.” He shot a quick glance at Ari. “Are you involved in a substantive journey of some kind?”
Yeah, the Israeli agent focused intently again - all while trying to pretend otherwise.
Deciding I really didn’t feel like dealing with more subterfuge, I moved to simplify the conversation. “You can be open about things, Rabbi. Ari here is an Israeli agent - if I had to put money on it I’d venture he’s with Shin Bet.”
Ari stayed silent. You know, neither confirming nor denying my statement.
The rabbi however blinked with surprise at the man. “Oh! Has something happened? Are you helping them - or are they helping you?”
I laughed. “Don’t know yet. We’re here celebrating Hanukkah - and I’ve heard that this place was where we absolutely had to go.” Looking meaningfully at the rabbi I added, “Tonight especially.”
Kirov’s impressive eyebrows furrowed in befuddlement. “Tonight?”
“Rabbi,” I said gently, “You left campus rather suddenly and we weren’t told where you’d gone. Yet we found you here.”
A range of reactions quickly flickered across the older man’s face: surprise followed by awe replaced with a sorrow-filled hope which settled - with a slow exhale of breath - on acceptance.
We all waited for him to speak though he first used two hands to take a measured sip of tea. Placing the cup back on the table he cleared his throat. “A good man, a friend of many years, is in the hospital. Attacked from behind by ruffians seeking to pilfer his home - though they achieved such little plunder for so terrible a deed.”
The depths of Kirov’s emotions got to me, and I reached out a hand towards his before remembering that touch between genders was avoided by the Orthodox.
Out of respect I pulled back which earned a gentle smile as he said, “If you are here because of me - then it must be him who has need of you.”
Somehow I kept myself from throwing a look at Isaiah. Because a different notion had just flitted across my thoughts: if Kirov’s friend was in the hospital, maybe it wasn’t me he needed. Maybe he needed an angel of death.
And I just happened to be sitting next to one.
At Kirov’s insistence we bustled off to deliver sufganiyot to his friend. At my insistence Ari was recruited to drive us there since if he was going to follow us anyway this would simply be easier for everyone and more likely to get us to the hospital before the end of visiting hours - which was quickly approaching.
My threatening to disable both his car and the parked van around the corner to force them all to walk if he didn’t take us may not have sat well with the agent but in the end he’d acquiesced. Being told what to do by a seemingly teenage girl obviously bothered the man (even if he knew who I was), but I suspected his official orders may have included instructions to not antagonize me unless absolutely necessary.
If the instructions hadn’t, they’d have been wiser to do so. And besides, it really was a short drive from the cafe.
Of course he wasn’t entirely happy when as we approached the hospital’s blue-painted metal gates (leading to what was best described as a fortified courtyard in front of another old stone building that would have made an impressive medieval keep if it hadn’t been for all the equally blue-painted tall windows) the rabbi then remembered that only two visitors were allowed at a time so both the agent and Isaiah would have to wait in the yard alongside the willow tree and surrounding palms.
Too bad. Maybe he and Isaiah could continue discussing marriage prospects or something.
Inside Kirov and I received visitor badges and in so doing I’d caught the name of the rabbi’s friend: Father Anthony Moreno.
After being led down a high-ceilinged hallway whose walls were covered with the countless coats of arms of various crusaders each labeled in Latin, the naming of the hospital after Saint Louis of France fit into place. Through doors of burnt orange and down another hallway we arrived at a small room with a single occupant. A skinny elderly gentleman was propped up by the wheeled hospital bed and reading a leather-bound book by virtue of a floor-standing lamp which leaned in to illuminate the manuscript. Turning a page with annoyance from having to use a middle finger due to his forefinger being clamped by one of those heartbeat and oxygen monitors, the older man wearing light blue long-sleeve pajamas snorted when he noticed our entrance. He was mostly bald except for a few stray wisps of circling white which was interrupted by the thick bandage placed at the back of the head, and dangling from his neck was a beaded rosary - one of those a few inches in height with the full adorned details of his savior as nailed to the cross. His advanced age was clearly apparent from the crinkling of skin that had seen many years of sunshine and its multitude of liver spots which only lent further character.
Though the tint of the skin was a bit too yellow to be healthy.
“Did you get lost Immanuel? Surely the cafe had the order ready when you arrived. Or did you forget to call ahead again?” His voice was raspy yet steady, and his spoken Hebrew had a Castilian flair to the accent.
“I ran into some friends which delayed my departure,” Kirov said as he deposited the brown paper bag of donuts on the bedside tray. “I do hope in your infinite capacity that you will forgive my tardiness?” The rabbi smiled broadly as he settled into the wide-but-cushioned and only chair in the room.
“Forgiveness is the domain of the Lord - it is not mine to give out willy-nilly, you must ask Him first.” The priest paused before also smiling back at Kirov in the shared joke that must have lived for decades. “And are you going to introduce this young lady that you’ve brought with you?” he asked before shaking his head and adding, “Ah Immanuel, I am too old and decrepit to stray from my vows with one so young. Couldn’t you have found a widow with wider hips to tempt me with?” The man in the bed threw me a wink - though behind his eyes an intelligence sparked which was examining my reactions.
Crossing arms with feigned effrontery, I replied before the rabbi could toss out his own retort. “This lady is older than you’d think - so if you’re actually looking for a girl without the naivety to blindly believe all the fables you might tell her, well I could indeed be a proper candidate.” Giving a deliberate look up and down the hospital bed and at the monitors I then shrugged. “Though in your current condition I doubt you could keep up.”
The man’s smile widened further and after a laugh that had the unfortunate side effect of causing him to cough and wince, he wheezed, “You are undoubtedly correct; alas my vigorous years are lost to time. I am Father Moreno, but please call me Anthony. How do you know Immanuel? And does his wife know he’s running about with such an attractive young woman?”
Kirov frowned with puzzlement. “How could Raisa know that? I haven’t yet called her. As to how Jordan knows me, she’s my student. The one I told you about last summer.”
If I’d been expecting a large reaction to that revelation I’d have been disappointed. For a moment though I wondered how little the rabbi had told the priest for him to simply continue to stare nonplussed, but Anthony then said, “Yes she is, isn’t she. Such a light and such an honor.” So saying, the priest bowed his head.
The sudden shift from jovial to reverence left me standing awkwardly unsure of how to respond. “Uh, likewise?”
Sitting up, the rabbi clasped hands together. “Anthony - she is here. She could be here to help you. She could-”
Anthony held up a hand. “My friend, stop there.”
“No. You have it backwards. She is here for me to help her.”
Wringing thick fingers one against the other, Kirov leaned forward. “You…to help Jordan?”
I was equally confused. “Help me with what?”
“Your holy and most sacred quest. Open your eyes, angel of light. For we have met before.”
With a prompting like that I had to. He met the brilliance that shone forth with calm beatitude - knowing precisely what I would find.
Because underneath the bruises from the attack to the back of his head and subsequent fall which had fractured a hip lay tumors. There were masses on his liver, and sadder still - upon his brain.
Yet it was what I saw past even these which caused my gasp. For behind the old and sick yet not defeated priest stood a warrior in silver and gold holding aloft a flaming white blade.
With great surprise I said, “You’re Kalka’il.”
The angel Kalka’il, one of the Powers. Under a clear blue sky above the empty desert outside Aleppo he had fought off Kokabiel in her mind-controlled assault, buying me enough time to save a fire-flinging soldier from crossing over before his time.
Kalka’il had also impaled Kokabiel at the moment I’d cut her free from Azazel’s influence, for she was fallen and therefore - according to him - beyond all hope.
A belief that a little girl’s loving heart had proven false.
Ignoring the rabbi’s thunderstruck expression at hearing his friend’s true name, I asked the obvious next question.
“I’m so sorry.”
“There is no need to be,” said the angel incarnate. “I have lived a long and good life.”
Kirov, whose words had always been so calm and steady, now stuttered in confusion. “But if you’re…and she’s here…certainly…”
Again the priest held up a kindly hand. “Immanuel, this sickness of mine is not of the spirit. For her to force a healing would impinge upon my earthly fate.”
Shaking his head, the rabbi said, “Hashem has performed many miracles of the physical; she herself is such miracle made manifest - cannot she even try?”
The raw heartbreak in the rabbi’s voice ached across my chest. “I’m not Raphael, Rabbi,” I said sadly. “And he isn’t afflicted with a corruption against the light. I wouldn’t know how to safely begin.”
Looking at Kirov, Anthony smiled sadly. “Ah my friend. You are still the same boy who ran full tilt into me in the market all those years ago - still lost amidst the holy city and unsure where to go to receive your next lessons.”
Hearing this, Kirov sighed. “Is it so wrong to hold onto such hope?”
“You would harm your own spirit were you to do otherwise.”
“I trust you had good reason to not tell me that you too were of the Bene-Elohim?”
The priest had the grace to look embarrassed. “That only became clear over the past few months as the dreams gained clarity. Such is not a claim to be made lightly. And now I must ask of you one thing - though I promise to tell you all the details. Just later.”
“You wish to speak with Jordan alone.”
The rabbi stood though slowly. “I will hold you to that promise.” With a pat on my arm as he went by Kirov exited the room, though his shoulders slumped more than when we’d come in.
After the door fully shut Anthony placed the book from his lap on the tray besides the donuts bag. “I indeed witnessed,” he said with a tired smile, “our encounter in a vision, one that left me quite exhausted. This old frame has seen much better days. I understand that Kokabiel survived?”
“She did. She sleeps now within her incarnate self. And her name has been restored to shine as it once did.”
“Magnificent. Truly magnificent.” His eyes grew distant for a moment then refocused. “What set your feet upon the path to encounter the rabbi here in Jerusalem?”
“I asked someone for help and they sent me here. I’m looking for a book.”
“Was it Camael who sent you?”
“No. He’s stuck in Hell. We didn’t have a lot of time to chat before I, uhm, slipped out.”
He chuckled. “One does not simply ‘slip’ out of the realms below.”
I crossed arms. “Yeah well, I did. Got yoinked into the Chaos and next thing I knew I was being pulled out to a rooftop in Boston. I want the book to try and remember how that happened. It feels important. You’re of the Powers, so I’m going to come right out and ask: before he went to Hell, did Camael give you Raziel’s Book of Secrets?”
A smile crinkled the old man’s face. “He did.”
Elation surged only to crash back to reality. “Except you were robbed.”
“By thugs who have already been arrested. They hit two other apartments in the complex before the night they caught me from behind. Police say they’ve recovered most of my items which will be returned when no longer needed as evidence.”
“So they didn’t take the book?”
“It was not in the list of articles provided by the officers. And as I have been stuck in this bed ever since I have not had opportunity to check the safe. The x-rays of bruises revealed much more than any of us expected, you see.”
Oh god. “You didn’t know you had cancer?”
He shook his head. “I did not. Yet even not knowing this did I argue with Camael to leave the volume in a younger man’s hands. He insisted.”
“He say why?”
“No. Stubborn old fool as I am, I still found myself unable to go against my Captain’s wishes.”
I thought quickly. “You didn’t leave the book out in the open. You hid it.”
“It was placed behind wards to keep the safe concealed from the wrong eyes. Look behind the painting of Gabriel and the Annunciation of our Lord upon this earth.” His smile widened, the wrinkles of his face fanning out from his eyes. “Though the artist did not capture Gabriel’s true beauty and grace. I admit freely that the memories I have gained of her are of the most treasured.”
“You’ll let me retrieve it?” I chewed a lip. “If it’s even still there.”
“I was holding it for you. Alas, I believe Immanuel had been instructed rather stringently to not tell anyone - no matter who - that you had returned. I had to badger him as is simply to hear of your…disappearance…in Egypt. Camael had faith that you would find me - and here you are.”
Remembering how Isaiah and I had yelled at the rabbi for once sharing information about me, I mentally cursed. Dangit!
“Speaking of Immanuel however,” the priest added, “I do have one request.”
“When you get the book, do not let him view its contents. Even I did not dare set eyes upon its sacred pages. The secrets of the Lord are not for the unintended to perceive. I fear the contents would be too much for the rabbi to bear.”
“Wouldn’t he only see the truth?”
“Truth rarely aligns with Mercy. And some truths are not for mortal minds to comprehend, unless they are chosen as Adam and Noah were.”
I’d already seen an angelic spirit be caught in the web thrown by reading but a fragment of a book of power. While August was happy with the changes, I could only imagine the damage possible to an unprepared human soul. “Done.”
“Thank you. Now let me ask you also one other thing.”
“Discovering what happened while in the Chaos may indeed be important. Yet is this truly what you seek?”
That caught me. Certainly I was hoping this Book would reveal and make some sense out of that entire experience. But was I hoping it would do more?
Well, duh. Of course I was.
“There are so many damned mysteries,” I said after a moment’s thinking. “Fundamental to it all is a single question burning in the back of my head.”
“What am I supposed to be doing?” Moving over to the chair I collapsed onto it, pulling one knee up so the heel of the shoe rested on the front of the cushion. “I mean, I’m told I could be a threat to Heaven. Heck, I just got asked to become a goddess and stand with a bunch of deities against the Host! And how would that even work? Aren’t I an angel?”
“By the heritage of your spirit’s mother you also have ties to another mythos. Tales of Aradia are still published; they could be used to pave the way into joining Olympus. It would mean taking on a different aspect, one bound to the structure of their pantheon.” He chuckled wearily. “Though as a priest of the Holy Mother Church I should offer warning against following false idols.”
“Artemis warned me against Zeus too. After our talk I’m not too keen on having to call him ‘Boss’. Or even ally.”
“I shall lie here relieved to hear such.” His eyes twinkled.
While massaging sore temples I groaned as thoughts kept churning in confusion. “I keep wondering if maybe it was safer for me to be in Hell than to be loose up here. All I do is bounce from event to event, always reacting to weird threats and situations without having a clue going in.” I sighed, shaking my head. “Do you know the angel Nathanael?”
“Not in this lifetime; only in memories from what came before. His is a strong yet wise spirit, a true gift to have at one’s side.”
“Well, he found me in Hell - and I miss him terribly. He always knew just the right questions to guide my thinking, though a lot of the time I’m pretty sure he was simply testing to see what I’d do. Anyway, he once tried to explain to our team the differences between tactics, strategy, and grand strategy - and as far as I can tell I’m perpetually dealing with things only on a tactical level. Which means I’m missing the bigger picture and that’s going to be deadly some day.”
“And you hope the Book can fill that in?”
“Yes. Well, maybe.”
“As a foolish and dying old man, let me offer this: no book can tell you what to do. But where there is evil, fight it! Where there is wrongness, right it. What you hear within your heart of hearts is the need from God singing true. No more, no less. Where there is darkness, dearest Amariel, let shine the light as only you can.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Father Anthony coughed again, eyes closing with obvious tiredness and pain.
I stood up. “Can I get you anything?”
“What have I need of? I have donuts.” He patted the bag. “Take Immanuel and go to my apartment. I insisted he stay there - it’d be silly for him to pay for a hotel when I’m not using it - so he can let you in. Tell him to come visit tomorrow and report back what you find. The wards on the safe will cause you no difficulties, and the combination is as follows.” He rattled off the numbers which I then repeated back to him.
“You know,” I said, “you could have asked him to check your safe before this.”
With a weary chortle he shook his head. “Though he hides it well, Immanuel has the same endearing flaw as both his brothers. They all suffer from insatiable curiosity. How many seconds would it have taken before he’d have peeked inside the Book?”
I couldn’t help but laugh in agreement. “Okay, you’ve got a point. It was nice meeting you, Anthony.”
Despite exhaustion, his eyes still sparkled. “A pleasure, Jordan. I would say ‘God be with you’, but it is clear that He already is.”
Not wanting to start a debate on that, I bowed my head and left the room in search of wherever Kirov had wandered. Everyone kept having so much faith in me - but I had met enough angels to be fully cognizant that they too could fail.
And cause so much horrible damage when they did.
Father Anthony’s small apartment was not far from the hospital, in fact with the complexities of the one-way streets it may have been faster to walk than to again cajole Ari into being our driver. His undercover assignment in picking us up at the airport was definitely requiring more chauffeuring than he’d intended.
As the poor priest had been assaulted from behind after already unlocking the door there was no damage to the lock, which Kirov promptly opened.
“To think such an artifact was sitting so close,” mumbled the rabbi as we all shuffled in, “and here I’ve slept for over a week right next to it without even knowing!”
As places went it was cramped yet tidy. The living room contained an old brown leather couch and reading recliner, both brushing up against walls covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves laden with volumes both hard and soft piled atop each other in ways that would have made a Tetris master proud. Where an old CRT television had once sat was just dust resting in the empty alcove surrounded by more books, the cables having been ripped out of the wall in the thieves’ hurry to grab valuables and run. Kirov had obviously cleaned up so it wasn’t obvious what else they might have taken, though there were other empty spots on the shelves where small items had once sat.
And there were a lot of shelves. They had been hand-built to fill every corner available and served to frame the two feet by three painting of a red-haired angel with gleaming wings of white hovering over a maiden in reds and blues: Gabriel delivering the news to Mary that she would give birth to the son of God. Anthony had been right: as lovely as the painting was, Gabriel’s nose was a tad wide and her cheeks too plump.
Though now that I considered it, wow - poor Mary in such a situation. No pressure or anything, geeze.
Before I could start wondering about Jesus and what he might think about everything going on, I let sight shift to take in the wards that Anthony had mentioned and looked beyond the painting to the safe behind it.
Except there weren’t any wards.
“Shit.” I pulled the picture off the wall and shoved it into the hands of a confused Isaiah. “Dammit dammit dammit!”
“What is it?” he asked.
Quickly punching in the code on the small keypad, I swung open the wall safe and stepped aside so all could see.
As feared it was entirely empty.