Excerpted from THE BOOK OF, by Frank Peak, via APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL PRESS. Available now.
Part I – The Beast
Carl is off his meds.
Biting white fluorescents watch over his awkward progress through aisles lined by rows of candies whose shining labels flaunt baffling names and loud color schemes. He squints under that light’s gaze as a wide, amiable grin cuts a swath through his face where a slack mouth should be. A fist-sized bell hangs above the door but no chime comes as patrons enter or leave. The door is propped open with a warm case of cheap beer. It’s not quite morning.
A plastic clock on the counter pounds away the seconds as the needle hand wanders in circles. A radio sits next to it but plays only static. The man behind the counter is Dave something. He has more name but no one ever asks. The nametag he wears on his baby blue smock spells out the name Paco in lumps of black letters. It was picked at random. Anything less generic than Dave. He wears sunglasses so no one can see his eyes. He thinks of himself as tough but misunderstood. The kind of guy who might lead cops on a two hour car chase but will still wave at oncoming traffic the whole way. Not aggressive back and forth waves. Passive ones, fingers all together, palm still on the wheel. Casual. Wide, flat teeth gnaw on a stick of candy made from anything but sugar.
This is Dave. The baffling quote in tomorrow’s paper attributed to a witness at the scene will be straight from his slack mouth.
The coolers sweat. Carl squints at labels on water but they all say the same thing in different fonts. A giant beast of a man with acres of hairless head gapes at one cooler after another. Six feet easy. Six and a half. Maybe more. Carl catches sight of his hovering. The giant smiles like he knows a secret. A smell surrounds him like a halo. Thick, cloying. Something harsh but sweet, like flowers in a closet. He waits with unwavering patience while Carl stands with the cooler door open and stares blankly at the dozens of brands of bottled water. He grabs one at random and steps back. The giant grabs the door’s handle the breadth of a moment before it can close and wraps huge meaty fingers around a foreign bottle of bland carbonated water. Fascist.
Dave hasn’t moved, maybe hasn’t breathed. He could be in a coma. A taxidermied clerk. Carl sets down the water, lays at its side a crumpled note, flattening out the page with one smooth palm.
“Need a pick up.”
Dave leans forward to read the details of what may once have been a prescription. A doctor’s name screams across a line at the bottom in a maniac scrawl.
“Pharmacy doesn’t open for a couple hours.”
He gives an audible lick of whatever half-assed confection he’s wasting his time on as Carl looks past him at the library of pills beyond. A sigh and a shrug change nothing.
“Just the water, then.”
Change spreads on the counter. Carl digs out pennies first. Dave watches, or at least his glasses do. Three counts and never the same number. Heavy footfalls halt behind but there is no other sound. Dave takes up counting, going through the coins already counted as Carl pushes more across the counter just to fuck with him. Forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one. He counts again and Carl wipes hands on his shirt.
New footfalls. Nimble but not light.
“Do you have a pen?”
Dave glances up. His mouth goes on silently tasting numbers. Seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four. Carl looks over his shoulder. The giant bald beast stares at the rows of cigarettes behind the counter, line after line of delicious sin standing at parade rest. The man who spoke is diminutive in the shadow of that giant, the smaller man patting pockets and looking around as if a pen might be found on the floor, was there all along. His glasses are huge and crooked, his hair slicked but beginning to stand out in places, a wild glee displayed on pasty features. His suit is too big, bulging in places, hanging limp from his wiry frame. A lit cigarette dangles from a pouty lip. A maniac Buddy Holly breathing smoke and hovering in a baggy, moth-eaten suit. This newcomer winks at Carl and asks his question again to no one in particular.
“Can I get a pen?”
Dave counts with one hand and passes over a black ink pen with the other. A buck ten. A buck eleven. A buck twelve. The pen is nice, not cheap. Ballpoint with someone’s initials stamped in the side. Maybe someone loved this pen.
A lithe hand shoves the pen into an inner pocket of the oversized, comical suit. The hand moves fast, comes back with a snub thirty-eight held in a professional grip. An ugly little thing, chips in the finish where someone hit it against something hard in a struggle or when tossing it from a moving vehicle once or many times.
The man in the oversized suit puts the squat gun to that giant hairless skull. A look of realization appears and swells in the eyes of the beast. Realization and something else. A hate, deep and eternal. This well of emotion is unalterably erased in an explosion of violence as the thirty-eight goes off.
His voice jumps up and down as he talks, the man in the loose suit. His cigarette falls out of his mouth and falls to the floor, leaving a trail of gray soot as it rolls down his suit and comes to rest in against the giant sprawled leg of the body. Smoke leaks from the lip of the gun as he makes his case.
“It’s okay. He was an angel.”
Silence from the others. He elaborates.
“In a bad way.”
The fickle passage of time goes on. Dave leans over the counter and looks at the corpse. Gore drips from the ads that hang above the counter.
Dave goes back to his near comatose stance. He’s said his piece.
The man in the suit takes a backward step toward the door, then another.
“Don’t call the cops.”
He takes another step. Carl looks at the corpse. The heavy aroma of flowers blooms in the room. The face is a ruin. Blood pools like a gruesome pond. The body starts to move. Carl puts up a hand to contain his gasp. It gets out anyway.
The gun barks again. The corpse is once more a corpse.
“Sometimes they’re obstinate.”
The man takes another step back.
Carl puts up a hand. Hailing a cab.
“Can I come?”
The man’s eyes narrow. Suspicious. The thirty-eight comes up, not quite pointing at Carl and not quite not.
“Are you some kind of crazy?”
“Do you have a car?”
The gun lowers to the man’s side, hangs in a loose right hand. The left digs in one pocket after another until it comes up with the pen. This goes into clenched teeth as he digs again, this time finding a five dollar bill. He steps forward once more, a ginger step over the body to get to the counter. The left hand sets the bill on top of the piles of change and scribbles words across Lincoln’s unimpeachable face. Dave has lost count.
Fast scrawl of pen on paper ends in a flourish. He dots an imagined letter somewhere in the heart of the message left behind and looks around as he recaps the pen with one hand.
His exit is cavalier as he moves through the aisles. The way he snags a bag of candied peanuts, it’s like he’s been casually stealing all his life. He doesn’t look back as he rounds the corner and enters the world. Carl is only a step behind.
Half a dozen seconds pass before Dave begins to fumble unsteady hands over a telephone handset. He works the buttons with the awkwardness of an adolescent discovering the unique trap that is a bra latch for the first time. Hands freeze as eyes find the words plastered over the face of a dead president.
Sorry for the mess. Jesus saves.
The cab is probably stolen. Carl mutters something about having a license but doesn’t explain what kind. Driver’s license, cabbie’s license. He keeps both somewhere in his world. Both are long expired.
“I’m Gus, in case it comes up.”
The floppy suit hangs loose as he sinks deep into the worn fabric of the seat. He gestures a lazy hand this way or that when he wants Carl to turn. Most of his time is taken up chewing peanuts layered with a pink candy coating and talking through the mush in his gaping mouth.
“You probably have a lot of questions.”
Hand points left. Carl shrugs as he takes the turn.
Gus chews and grins and pretends he doesn’t hear.
“It’s usually demons. That’s what we’re about. Killing demons.”
His face scrunches up in an expression so earnest it must have taken years of practice to master. A child’s impression of sincerity.
“It’s the Lord’s work.”
The relaxed chewing returns on cue. A switch flipped.
“Angels are kind of a curiosity. We don’t get many because they’re, you know, usually good. And we’ve got three!”
A slender hand flashes out to fidget with the radio dial. He goes on chewing and never stays on any station for more than a few seconds. They pass a man on the sidewalk reading a wrinkled newspaper. His hair stands in hard tufts sculpted with gel or soap. Hand points left. Car follows hand.
“Angels, I mean. Three angels.”
He stops the dial on a droning ad for a lawyer who has fiery words about an imagined villain who needs to be sued.
“Do you know the difference between a fallen angel and a demon?”
Carl drives on. He says nothing. Gus chews and talks and an indifferent hand points left.
“Don’t worry about it. Not your problem. Not even my problem. It’s some middleman’s problem, and those guys couldn’t give fuck one about our concerns. They’ll cough in an envelope and send it to God, not bother explaining the question. Like He already knows. Sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, that old gag. It’s a brave new world. What were you saying?”
Carl says nothing. They take another left.
“Anyway, three angels.”
The bag is empty, the peanuts gone. They pass a man reading a wrinkled paper. He runs a hand through spiked hair, knocking loose strands of coarse black. A line of utility poles march off through every street passed. A watermark of civilization. This is the only recognizable landmark. The buildings are all withered, crumbling tenements from decades long dead. The streets are all cracked macadam, pockmarked lanes winding off to unknown futures, their hopes all scarred and ruined. Even the sky is a stranger in this place.
“Not nice ones. We’ve been calling them the Gang of Twenty-One. As a, like a, a tongue in cheek thing. The Three Sevens. Gang of Twenty-One. For Heaven. You get me.”
Gus looks out the window as they pass a man with spiked hair reading a wrinkled paper. His shoulders square in lingering brood.
“It’s a cute name, right?”
Carl shrugs and turns left.
Familiar power lines drape down from above, cinched to the world but to nothing else like the loose strings of a marionette untethered to the skillful hand of a knowing puppeteer. Atop pole after pole sit carrion birds, fat black lumps with feathers like oil and shrewd eyes that absorb the world below. Somewhere nearby, something is dead.
— Frank Peak is alive