Chapter 6

BE OF GOOD CHEER;

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THEY MIGHT HAVE PUT A TREE UP YOUR BUM

The Archangel Raziel found, after some consideration, that he did not care for being run over by a Swedish automobile. As far as things «dirtside» went, he liked Snickers bars, barbecued pork ribs, and pinochle; he also enjoyed Spider-Man, Days of Our Lives, and Star Wars (although the concept of fictional film eluded the angel and he thought they were all documentaries); and you just couldn't beat raining fire on the Egyptians or smiting the bejeezus out of some Philistines with lightning bolts (Raziel was good with weather), but overall, he could do without missions to Earth, humans and their machines in general, and (now) Volvo station wagons in particular. His broken bones had knit nicely and the deep gouges in his skin were filling in even as he came upon the chapel, but all things considered, he could go a very long time not being run over by a Volvo again and feel just dandy about it.

He brushed at the all-weather radial tire print that ran up the front of his black duster and across his angelic face. Licking his lips, he tasted vulcanized rubber, thinking that it wouldn't be bad with hot sauce or perhaps chocolate sprinkles. (There is little variety of flavors in heaven, and an abundance of bland white cake has been served to the heavenly host over the eons, so Raziel had fallen in the habit of tasting things while dirtside, just for the contrast. Once, in the third century B.C., he had consumed the better part of a bucket of camel urine before his friend the Archangel Zoe slapped it out of his hand and informed him that it was, despite the piquant bouquet, nasty.)

This wasn't his first Nativity mission. No, in fact, he had been given the assignment of the very first Nativity mission, and due to having stopped on the way to play some pinochle, he'd shown up ten years late, announcing to the prepubescent Son himself that he "would find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Embarrassing? Well, yes. And now, some two thousand years later, he was on another Nativity mission, and he was sure now that he'd found the child, that this one was going to go much more smoothly (for one thing, there were no shepherds to frighten  -  he'd felt bad about that back then). No, come Christmas Eve the mission would be accomplished, he'd grab a plate of ribs and head back to heaven lickety-split.

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But first he needed to find the site for the miracle.

There were two sheriff's cruisers and an ambulance outside the Barker house when Theo arrived.

"Crowe, where the hell have you been?" the sheriff's deputy was yelling before Theo was even out of the Volvo. The deputy was the second-shift commander; Joe Metz was his name. He had a linebacker frame that he augmented with weight lifting and marathon beer drinking. Theo had encountered him a dozen times in as many years. Their relationship had gone from a mild disregard to an open disrespect  -  which was pretty much Theo's relationship with everyone in the San Junipero County Sheriff's Department.

"I saw the suspect and made pursuit. I lost him in the woods about a mile east of here." Theo decided he wasn't going to mention what he'd actually seen. His credibility was thin enough with the sheriff's department.

"Why didn't you call it in? We should have units all over the area."

"I did. You do."

"I didn't hear the call go in."

"I called it in on my cell. My radio's broken."

"Why don't I know about it?"

Theo raised his eyebrows as if to say, Perhaps because you're a big no-necked dumb-ass. At least that's what he hoped the gesture said.

Metz looked at the radio on his belt, then turned to disguise his action as he turned a switch. Immediately the voice of the dispatcher came on, calling out for the shift commander. Metz keyed the mike clipped to the epaulet of his uniform shirt and identified himself.

Theo stood by, trying not to smile as the dispatcher reported the entire situation again. Theo wasn't worried about the two units that were headed to the woods up by the chapel. He was sure they weren't going to find anyone. Whoever the guy in black was, he had a way of disappearing, and Theo didn't even want to think of the means by which he did it. Theo had gone back to the chapel, where he'd caught a glimpse of the blond man moving through the woods before he was gone again. Theo had called home to make sure that Molly was okay. She was.

"Can I talk to the kid?" Theo asked.

"When the EMTs are done looking at him," Metz said. "The mother's on the way. She was out to dinner with the boyfriend in San Junipero. Kid seems okay, just real shaken up, some bruises on his arms where the suspect picked him up, but no other injuries I could see. Kid couldn't say what the guy wanted. There's no property missing."

"You get a description?"

"The kid keeps giving us names of characters from video games for comparison. What do we know from 'Mung-fu, the Vanquished'? You get a good look at him?"

"Yeah," Theo said, forcing a lump out of his throat, "I'd say Mung-fu is pretty accurate."

"Don't fuck with me, Crowe."

"Caucasian, long blond hair, blue eyes, clean-shaven, six foot two, one-eighty, wearing a black duster that goes to the ground. I didn't see his shoes. Dispatch has it all." Theo kept thinking of the deep gouges in the blond guy's cheeks. He had started to think of him as the "ghost-bot." Video games  -  right.

Metz nodded. "Dispatch says he's on foot. How'd you lose him?"

"The woods are thick up there."

Metz was looking at Theo's belt. "Where's your weapon, Crowe?"

"I left it in the car. Didn't want to scare the kid."

Without a word, Metz stepped over to Theo's Volvo and opened the passenger-side door. "Where?"

"Pardon?"

"Where in your unlocked car is your weapon?"

Theo felt the last of his energy flow out of him. He just wasn't good at confrontation. "It's at my house."

Metz smiled now like the bartender had just announced pitchers all around, on the house. "You know, you might be the perfect guy to go after this suspect, Theo."

Theo hated it when the sheriffs called him by his first name. "Why's that, Joseph?"

"The kid said he thought the guy might be retarded."

"I don't get it," Theo said, trying not to grin.

Metz walked away shaking his head. He climbed into his cruiser, then as he was backing past Theo, the passenger window whirred down. "Write up a report, Crowe. And we need to get a description of this guy to the local schools."

"It's Christmas break."

"Dammit, Crowe, they'll be going back to school sometime, won't they?"

"So you don't think your guys will catch him, then?"

Without another word Metz whirred up the window and whipped the cruiser out of the driveway as if he'd just received an urgent call.

Theo smiled as he walked up to the house. Despite the excitement and terror and outright weirdness of evening, he suddenly felt good. Molly was safe, the kid was safe, the Christmas tree was up at the chapel, and there was just no rush that compared to safely and successfully fucking with a pompous cop. He paused on the top step and considered for a moment that perhaps, after fifteen years in law enforcement himself, he really should have matured past that particular pleasure.

Nah.

"Did you ever shoot anybody?" asked Joshua Barker. He was sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter. A man in a gray uniform was fussing medical over him.

"No, I'm an EMT," said the EMT. He ripped the blood-pressure cuff off Josh's arm. "We help people, we don't shoot them."

"Did you ever put that blood-pressure thing around someone's neck and pump it till their eyes bugged out?"

The EMT looked at Theophilus Crowe, who had just entered the Barkers' kitchen. Theo frowned appropriately. Josh turned his attention to the lanky constable, noting that he had a badge clipped to his belt but no gun.

"You ever shoot anybody?"

"Sure," Theo said.

Josh was impressed. He'd seen Theo around town, and his mom always said hi to him, but he never thought he actually did anything. Not anything cool, anyway. "None of these guys ever shot anyone." Josh gestured to the two deputies and the two EMTs stationed around the small kitchen, giving them a look that said the wussies! with the full disdain his soft seven-year-old features could muster.

"You kill the guy?" he asked Theo.

"Yep."

Josh didn't really know where to go now. If he stopped asking questions, he knew that Theo would start asking questions, just like the sheriffs had, and he didn't want to answer any more questions. The blond man had told him not to tell anyone. The sheriff said that the blond man couldn't hurt him, but the sheriff didn't know what Josh knew.

"Your mom is on the way, Josh," Theo said. "She'll be here in a few minutes."

"I know. I talked to her."

To the EMTs and deputies, Theo said, "Guys, can I talk to Josh alone a minute?"

"We're done here," the lead medic said, leaving immediately.

Both the deputies were young and eager to be asked to do something, even if it was to leave the room. "We'll be outside writing this up," said the last one out. "Sergeant Metz told us to stay until the mother got home."

"Thanks, guys," Theo said, surprised at their congeniality. They must not have been on the department long enough to learn to look down on him for being a town constable, an archaic and redundant job, if you asked most area cops.

Once they were gone he turned to Josh. "So tell me about the man who was here."

"I told those other police."

"I know. But you need to tell me. What happened. Even the weird stuff you didn't tell them."

Josh didn't like the way Theo seemed to be ready to believe anything. He wasn't being too nice, or talking baby talk like the others.

"There wasn't any weird stuff. I told them." Josh nodded as he spoke, hoping he'd look more convincing. "None of that bad touch stuff. I know about that. None of that."

"I don't mean that kind of stuff, Josh. I mean weird stuff you didn't tell them because it's unbelievable."

Josh really didn't know what to say now. He considered crying, did a test sniffle just to see if he could get things flowing. Theo reached out and took his chin, lifted it so Josh had to look him in the eye. Why did adults do that? Now he'd ask something that would be really hard to lie about.

"What was he doing here, Josh?" Josh shook his head, mostly to get out of Theo's grip, to get away from that adult lie-detector look. "I don't know. He just came in and grabbed me and then he left."

"Why did he leave?"

"I don't know, I don't know. I'm just a kid. Because he's crazy or something. Or maybe he's retarded. That's how he talks."

"I know," Theo said.

"You do?" He did?

Theo leaned in close. "I saw him, Josh. I talked to him. I know he wasn't like a normal guy."

Josh felt like he'd just taken his first deep breath since he left Sam's house. He didn't like keeping secrets  -  sneaking home and lying about it would have been enough, but witnessing the murder of Santa, and then that strange blond guy showing up. But if Theo already knew about the blond guy... "So, so, you saw him glow?"

"Glow? Shit!" Theo stood up and spun around as if he'd been hit in the forehead with a paintball. "He glowed, too? Shit!" The tall man was moving like a grasshopper locked in a running microwave. Not that Josh would know what that was like, because that would be a cruel thing to do and he would never do something like that, but, you know, someone told him about it once.

"So he glowed?" Theo asked, like he was trying to get this straight.

"No, I didn't mean that." Josh needed to back out of this. Theo was trippin'. He'd had enough of adults trippin' for one night. Soon his mom would come home to find a bunch of cops in her house and the trip to beat all trips would start. "I mean he was really mad. You know, like glowing mad."

"That's not what you meant."

"It isn't?"

"He really glowed, didn't he?"

"Well, not constantly. Like, for a little while. Then he just stared at me."

"Why did he leave, Josh?"

"He said he had what he needed now."

"What was that? What did he take?"

"I don't know." Josh was beginning to worry about the constable. He looked like he might hurl any second. "You're sure you want to go with the glowing thing, Constable Crowe? I could be wrong. I'm a kid. We make notoriously unreliable witnesses."

"Where'd you hear that?"

"CSI."

"Those guys know everything."

"They have the coolest stuff."

"Yeah," said Theo wistfully.

"You don't get to use cool cop stuff like that, huh?"

"Nope." Theo was sounding really sad now.

"But you shot a guy, right?" Josh said cheerfully, trying to raise Theo's spirits.

"I was lying. I'm sorry, Josh. I'd better go. Your mom will be home soon. You just tell her everything. She'll look out for you. The deputies will stay with you until she gets here. See ya, kiddo." Theo ruffled his hair and started out of the kitchen.

Josh didn't want to tell her. And he didn't want Theo to go. "There's something else."

Theo turned and looked back at him. "Okay, Josh, I'll stick around - »

"Someone killed Santa Claus tonight," Josh blurted out.

"Childhood ends too soon, doesn't it, son?" Theo said, putting his hand on Josh's shoulder.

If Josh had had a gun, he'd have shot him, but being an unarmed kid, he decided that of all of these adults, the goofy constable might just be the one who would believe what he had seen happen to Santa.

The two deputies had come into the house with Josh's mother, Emily Barker. Theo waited until she had hugged most of the breath out of her son, then reassured her that everything was okay and made a quick escape. As he came down the porch steps, he saw something yellow shining by the front tire of his Volvo. He looked back to make sure that neither of the deputies was looking out, then he crouched before the front tire and reached up into the wheel well and pulled out a hank of yellow hair that had caught in the black vinyl dent molding. He quickly shoved it into his shirt pocket and climbed into the car, feeling the hair throbbing against his chest like a living thing.

The Warrior Babe of the Outland admitted that she was powerless without her medication and that her life had become unmanageable. Molly checked off the step in Theo's little blue Narcotics Anonymous book.

"Powerless," she muttered to herself, remembering the time when mutants had chained her to a rock in the den of the behemo-badger in Outland Steel: Kendra's Revenge. If not for the intervention of Selkirk, the rogue sand pirate, her entrails would even now be curing on the salt stalagmites of the badger's cave.

"That would sting, huh?" said the Narrator.

"Shut up, that didn't really happen." Did it? She remembered it like it did.

The Narrator was a problem. The problem, really. If it had just been a little erratic behavior, she might have been able to wing it until the first of the month and go back on her meds without Theo noticing, but when the Narrator showed up, she knew she needed help. She turned to the Narcotics Anonymous book that had been Theo's constant companion when he was battling his pot habit. He talked about working the steps all the time, and how he couldn't have done it without them. She needed to do something to reinforce the rapidly blurring line between Molly Michon, party planner, cookie baker, the retired actress, and Kendra, mutant slayer, head breaker, the warrior temptress.

"'Step two, " she read. "'Come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. " She thought for a moment and looked out the front window of the cabin for the lights from Theo's car. She really hoped she could get through all twelve steps before he got home.

"Nigoth the Worm God shall be my higher power," she declared, snatching her broken broadsword from the coffee table and waving it in defiance at the Sony Wega TV that mocked her darkly from the corner. "In Nigoth's name shall I sally forth, and woe unto any mutant or sand pirate that crosses my path, for his life shall be sacrificed and his bloody balls shall decorate the totem tree of my lodge."

"And the wicked shall cower before the grandeur of your dirt-striped and well-shaped thighs," said the Narrator, with robust enthusiasm.

"Goes without saying," Molly said. "Okay, step three. 'Turn your life over to God as you understand Him. "

"Nigoth requires a sacrifice," cried the Narrator. "A limb! Cut it from your body and impale it still twitching upon the worm god's fiery purple horn."

Molly shook her head to rattle the Narrator around a little. "Dude," she said. Molly seldom «duded» anyone. Theo had picked up the word on his patrol of Pine Cove's skateboard park and now used it generally to express incredulity at the audacity of someone's statement or behavior  -  the correct inflection on the word would convey Doood, please, you've got to be joking or hallucinating, or both, to even suggest such a thing. (Lately Theo had been doing some testing on "Yo, dat's wack, yo." But Molly had forbade its use outside of the house, for, as she pointed out, there is little more off-putting than the sound of hip-hop vernacular coming out of the mouth of a white, fortysomething, goony bird of a man. "Albatross of a man, yo," Theo had corrected.)

Thusly duded, the Narrator bid devotion down. "A finger, then! The severed finger of a Warrior Babe  -  "

"Not a chance," Molly said.

'A lock of hair! Nigoth requires  -  "

"I was thinking I'd light a candle to symbolize that I'm turning myself over to my higher power." And to illustrate her sincerity, she took a disposable lighter off the coffee table and lit one of the scented candles she kept on a tray at the table's center.

"A snotty Kleenex, then!" tried the Narrator.

But Molly had moved on to step four in the book. "'Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself. I have no idea what that means."

"Well, I'll be fucked in the ear by a blind spider monkey if I get it," said the Narrator.

Molly decided not even to acknowledge the Narrator on that one. After all, if the steps worked like she hoped they would, the Narrator was not going to be around for much longer. She dug into the little blue book in search of clarification.

Upon further reading, it appeared that you were supposed to make a list of all the things wrong with your character.

"Put down that you're fucking nuts," said the Narrator.

"Got it," Molly said. Then she noticed that the book recommended making a list of resentments. She wasn't exactly sure what she was supposed to do with them, but in fifteen minutes she had filled three pages with all variety of resentments, including both parents, the IRS, algebra, premature ejaculators, good housekeepers, French automobiles, Italian luggage, lawyers, CD packaging, IQ tests, and the fucktard who wrote the "Caution, pastry may be hot when heated" warning on the Pop-Tarts box.

She paused for a breather and was reading ahead to step five when headlights swept across the yard and raked the front of the cabin. Theo was home.

" 'Step five, " Molly read. "'Confess to our higher power and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. "

As Theo came through the door, Molly, her broken broadsword in hand, spun from the cinnamon candle of Nigoth the Worm God and said, "I confess! I did not file taxes for the years ninety-five through two thousand, I have eaten the radioactive flesh of mutants, and I resent the hell out of you for not having to squat when you pee.

"Hi, honey," Theo said.

"Shut up, grommet," said the Warrior Babe.

"So I guess I'm not going to get my Volvo washed?"

"Quiet! I'm confessing over here, ingrate."

"That's the spirit!" said the Narrator.

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