[The neo-pulp verbal torture continues.]
God’s Right Hand Man
St. Christopher’s Cathedral in downtown Baton Rouge seemed to sprout from the concrete of the city streets. The cathedral was the oldest, most historic church in the area, but it wasn’t the most attractive. The town grew up around it, and left the church with little space of its own. A bank built a skyscraper next door to the church. Bums congregated in the park across the street. Violent crimes were sometimes committed right outside the doors of the church, and drugs were often to be blamed. Urban expansion swallowed St. Christopher’s neighborhood over the years, but the church refused to disappear.
The church evolved with the times, and responded to the urban problems of drug abuse and homelessness with community outreach services. Nobody in the church believed that drug abuse or homelessness could be alleviated, but they hoped that by confronting the issues the severity of the problems could be reduced. St. Christopher’s Community Outreach Center focused on providing support, information and access to services. The program helped a lot of people who didn’t have much to feel hopeful about, and word of the program spread to the city’s poverty stricken and disenfranchised.
Father Michael Flannery managed and directed St. Christopher’s Community Outreach services. Michael was the child of Irish immigrants, and he showed his ancestry. He was a very big man. He looked almost like a giant, even when he was with other large Irish men. He was 6’5”, and he weighed 275 pounds. Somewhere in his family tree there must have been a proud Scotsman, because Michael’s hair was a remarkable golden red. He had penetrating blue eyes, and his sober intelligence never lurked far beneath their surface.
At an early age Michael dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate. For a decade he ran a waterfront mission for the poor in New Orleans, and he spent two years ministering to victims of Hansen’s Disease in Carrvile, Louisiana. After Father Flannery transferred to Baton Rouge he became familiar with the work at the Outreach Center, and in no time he decided to make the work his own special project.
The Outreach Center opened its doors to the public at eight o’clock every morning. It offered hot coffee and doughnuts to the poor, and there was usually a line to get in. Father Flannery instituted a lot of positive changes at the center. He added mail service for the homeless, and installed public access phones. The front desk also took incoming calls and recorded messages. Some of the homeless were merely down on their luck, and something as simple as receiving a phone call for a job offer could turn someone’s life around.
After Father Flannery took over the Outreach Center, he put a stop to people lounging around or spending the day there. Father Flannery believed that providing people with a place to waste time only worsened their problems. He insisted that the primary focus of the center should be helping people to work. That shift in focus was very unpopular with the diehard stew bums, but it helped a lot of the people who were ashamed of their lives and wanted to change.
Father Flannery worked sixteen hours a day at the center. He began his day at four o’clock in the morning, with prayers and meditation. He didn’t return to his quarters until eight o’clock at night. Everybody who knew him considered him to be one of the most diligent, hard working people they had ever known. The Diocese constantly sought to parade him at social gatherings and dinners for the purpose of raising money. Donations to the center increased two hundred percent after Father Flannery took over. People didn’t mind contributing to an effort to get the bums working, and believed in the priest’s work because of the example he led.
In July of 2005, Father Flannery returned to his living quarters in the clergy apartments behind St. Christopher’s at the end of a long day. The apartment contained nothing but a bed, a chair, a table, a bathroom and a small kitchenette. Father Flannery didn’t even have a television set, as he believed television ruined good minds. There was a picture of the Holy Mother in a garden on one wall, and a crucifix above the bed. An apartment could not get much more ascetic.
Closing the door of the apartment behind him, Father Flannery crossed to the bed and kneeled down to say his nighttime prayers. The priest was so preoccupied he didn’t notice the man standing in the bathroom doorway. The man was white, and looked completely normal. The man appeared to be middle aged. He was wearing an LSU shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He watched father Flannery pray for a minute. When the pries raised his hands to the sky, the man spoke up.
“You probably don’t know the greater significance of raising your arms to the sky, but not many people do. It’s an ancient gesture used in the opening of dimensional portals. Only God knows who incorporated the move into Christian worship. It actually predates Christianity by about 200,000 years,” the man in the doorway said in an informative tone.
Father Flannery gasped and leapt to his feet. He shouted at the stranger, “Who are you, and how did you get in here?”
“You spend your entire life in worship to our lord, yet when one of his messengers comes you do not know him. Fear not, Michael Brennan Flannery, for you and I are of the same beliefs. My name is Peter, and I arrived by a means of travel you would not understand.”
“Listen, sir. If you leave now I’ll forget all about this. I won’t call the police. If you give me any problem, however, you will find yourself in a world of trouble,” Father Flannery warned him.
“They told me that things had changed here on Earth. I found it hard to believe that a priest wouldn’t recognize an angel, and quite a famous angel at that. Things really have changed, more than I ever thought possible,” Peter observed with sadness.
“Look, son, we’ll get you some professional help,” Father Flannery said gently.
The priest stepped over to Peter to escort him out. Peter held out his hand to Father Flannery, as if to be led away. When the priest took Peter’s hand the air in the room became charged with positive ions, and time slowed to a standstill. Something passed from Peter’s hand into Michael’s, though it wasn’t something that could be seen with the eyes. Father Flannery staggered back a few steps with shock in his eyes, and then he fell down on his knees before Peter and humbled himself.
“Oh, forgive me. There was no way I could know you were telling the truth. I’ve always been told that angels don’t visit the land of humans anymore. You must know that I have done my best to live by the laws that God set down, and after all these years to treat an agent of the Lord so rudely… How can I atone for my carelessness?”
“Relax, Michael. I’m not upset. It has been over a hundred years since the last angel visited the earth, and I don’t think too many people heard about that. There was no way for you to know. I tell you what. If you make me some coffee, then we’ll forget about how you thought I was a crazy homeless person.”
“Yes, Michael. Coffee. People do still grow coffee, I assume. I mean it hasn’t been that long.”
“Yes, certainly. I’m just caught off guard by this whole thing. An angel has come to visit me, and he wants coffee. I’ll get right on it,” said Father Flannery. He rose and stepped over to the kitchenette to boil some water. He thanked his lucky stars that he still drank coffee, even though he felt guilty about it sometimes.
Peter sat down in the room’s only chair. He looked admiringly at the priest. Peter knew everything about Michael Flannery. Few men displayed the uncorrupted piety of Father Flannery. Peter figured that was why God chose the man. Peter mused at how fortunate it was that the Irish priest happened to be a resident of Baton Rouge, but then he thought about Yahweh. Yahweh never left anything to chance.
Peter didn’t say anything while Michael prepared the coffee. When the brew was ready, Father Flannery asked, “Do you take sugar, Peter?”
“No, thank you. Just give it to me black,” the angel replied cheerfully. Michael handed him the cup of coffee, and Peter took a little sip. “My goodness. That’s even better than I remember it. Of course it’s been two hundred years since I had any.”
Father Flannery stood with his hands clasped in front of him, waiting for the angel to speak. The silence may have seemed awkward among normal human beings, but Peter’s presence filled the room with a great and tangible tranquillity. Michael Flannery had never before felt so at peace.
After a few enjoyable sips, Peter set the cup down on the table and turned to the task of telling the priest his life on earth was over. Peter cringed from the task at hand, but he knew that it had to be done. God had willed it.
“Michael, I know how faithful you have been. You’re the most devout man in the state of Louisiana, not that that means too much,” Peter laughed silently at his own joke and continued, “and that’s what makes this so hard. God has chosen you for a terrible and difficult assignment. If you accept God’s charge, then you will never see this place again. You will die in the commission of your duty, but you will earn greater rewards in heaven than you could ever imagine.”
“What sort of assignment?”
“God wants you to go to a terrible place, a place filled with death and evil. You should know that even though God has chosen you, it is still your decision. Do you accept the burden of doing God’s will?”
“Of course,” Father Flannery, and even though he spoke to an angel a touch if indignation crept into his voice.
“That was only a formality. God made the rules; I just follow them. You might want to make yourself comfortable. This could take a while,” Peter mentioned while he picked up the coffee cup and took another sip. Father Flannery sat down anxiously on the edge of the bed.
“I can’t follow you where you are going, so I have to give you all the details before I send you on your way. Some of the things I am about to tell you may seem far-fetched, but every word is true. You have seen my true identity. You know that I could not deceive you.
“Every god that ever lived still lives. All of the old gods combined don’t come close to having the kind of power Yahweh holds, but they still live. Yahweh assumed control over the heavens and the earth, but the old gods could not be destroyed. The old gods still live, and they pass their time with hundreds of demons and devils. Their favorite hobby is to pit humans against each other, and watch the outcome from the safety of the astral plane.
“God won’t let immortals interfere directly in human affairs here on Earth. God placed extreme limitations on their power in this dimension. Notice I said dimension. This entire business is about another dimension. God gave the old gods a playground, but it’s a little bigger than the playgrounds you’re familiar with. He gave them an entire dimension. The residents call it Discordia, others call it the warfare dimension. A few people call it the hell dimension, because life is harsh there, and ghastly things take place. Are you with me so far?”
“I think so. You say the old gods are still alive, and in league with demons and devils. They have their own dimension, called Discordia,” Michael summed up for him.
“That’s close, but the old gods and devils aren’t in league with each other; they just hang out together. And Discordia doesn’t belong to the immortals. They use Discordia for their entertainment, but they don’t own it or control it. All the gods and devils have certain powers and influence. They aren’t allowed to initiate contact with people, but that rule is sort of a joke, since huge numbers of people contact the immortals, gods and devils, on a daily basis. The immortals influence the people of Discordia through those communications.”
“That must be horrible. You said that some people call it the warfare dimension and others call it the hell dimension. Why is that?” asked the priest.
“A few people call it the hell dimension for a number of reasons. Life cannot be conceived there. There are women in Discordia, but they can’t get pregnant. God made it that way. It would have been unfair to the innocents to open their eyes in such a place.
“Also, a lot of people feel abandoned by God there. Most of the people who go there have evil in their hearts. The good people, and the people who turn to goodness once they are there, are constantly reminded of the evil in that place. With so much darkness around them, some people liken it to hell. It isn’t hell, though. Not by a long shot.
“Another thing about Discordia is that no one ages there. There are no deaths from natural causes. That may sound fantastic, unless you have seen the gruesome ways people die there. Death by violence is the one and only cause of death. That’s the main reason the place is usually called the warfare dimension. Constant, savage combat perpetually takes place there, and gods and devils wager on the action.”
“Are there a lot of people in Discordia, Peter?”
“There aren’t nearly as many people on Discordia as on Earth, Michael, but there are still millions of people there.”
“If people are still alive there, then it’s not part of an afterlife. How do all the people get there?” Michael asked with keen insight.
“I warned you this would be complicated. Not everybody on Discordia is still alive, at least not in the way you think of life. The vast majority of people there actually died on Earth, but they still have living bodies when they are transported to the warfare dimension. Those people usually died during the commission of acts of extreme violence. They are visited by a vision that offers them one last chance on Discordia. They don’t stand any chance of returning to Earth, but they still have a chance to change the fate of their eternal soul.
“The opportunity isn’t offered to everyone, or Discordia would be more populated than Earth. That chance is only given to people who straddle the line between good and evil. God thinks the call is too close to make, so He gives them one more life. It’s not the same as a life on Earth, with good reason. Most of them blow their final opportunity and turn evil. So in some ways Discordia is like a pit stop on the way to hell.
“A very small number of people go to Discordia at the behest of Yahweh. Now and then through the millennia, God calls upon a brave soul to act as a missionary to the violent dimension. He only does that in exceptional circumstances, when the fate of large numbers of souls hangs in the balance. That is why He asked you, Michael. Your assistance there could determine the fate of the entire dimension.
“A tiny number of people discover the scientific method for dimensional travel. The easiest way to get there is by magic, but the place exists in scientific and mathematical reality. The dimensional gap can be bridged through scientific research. A number of gifted minds discovered the way, but only a couple of them actually crossed over. Once on the other side they were trapped. Only one of them ever survived long enough to find a way back, but by the time he could return he didn’t want to. He had succumbed to the temptations of evil.
“A good number of people accidentally open the dimensional portal while hallucinating, through the use of mind altering chemicals such as LSD and mescaline. There are people walking around in Discordia who still think they are having a bad trip. Those people, if they ever recover their sanity, generally seek out the forces of goodness and law. Drug use doesn’t make someone evil, just stupid.
“There are people who arrived in Discordia involuntarily. It’s a terrible truth that demon and devil worshippers exist on Earth, and sometimes they offer living sacrifices to evil. In such cases the victim usually winds up in Discordia, because demons and devils can’t take someone directly to hell against their will. Those evil entities delight in the pain and misery of innocent victims, though, and so deliver them into the hands of brutal, sadistic people on Discordia. Most of those victims taken against their will die in captivity.
“Some idiots wind up there through agreements with gods or devils, though those people usually don’t know the nature of the place they will arrive in. The number of people who contact old gods and devils always amazes me. Once they have contacted a deity or a devil, the door is wide open to trickery. God allows the old gods and devils to send humans to Discordia. God figures the people who get tricked into it deserve it, for their stupidity. He sacrificed His only son, and they make deals with goats. That’s not respectful.
“There are major differences between the hell dimension and Hell proper. Discordia is like Disneyland compared to Hell. Nobody leaves Hell, ever, but people sometimes make it out of Discordia. The hell dimension reminds me of a bad housing project, except there aren’t any babies in Discordia,” Peter chuckled, but Michael must not have caught the humor. Michael looked gravely serious.
“How do people make it out of Discordia?” asked Michael.
“Lots of good people wind up there. Good people make mistakes, just like evil people do. Yahweh loves His children. He always seems to give them a second chance, even if they don’t deserve it. Some people achieve redemption there. They either return here or go directly to heaven, depending on their circumstances.”
“There are people here on earth who have been to Discordia? Why hasn’t anything ever been said on the subject?”
“Their memories are erased, Michael. The hell dimension does things to a person’s mind. Nobody could return from there and retain sanity, unless their memories were erased. If they achieve redemption, which is not easy, then they deserve peace of mind. I might as well tell you, you won’t remember most of this conversation, only the pertinent facts. There’s no reason to shake your sanity with such disturbing details. The knowledge of Discordia’s existence alone would rock the foundations of all modern religions. I don’t think you need to know everything,” Peter told him kindly.
“I’m afraid I was daydreaming. What were we talking about. I almost feel as though something has slipped my mind. Do you mind if I get a cup of coffee?” Michael asked, totally unaware that the angel had just altered his memories.
“It’s your coffee, Michael. There’s no need to ask me if you can have some. And you haven’t lost your mind. You’re experiencing the kind of thing Job went through, and that can test anyone’s faith, in their own sanity or even in God.”
“My faith remains strong, but your story sounds like something out of a cheap novel,” Father Flannery observed suspiciously. He looked all around the room, as if he expected to spot a hidden camera. He didn’t see anything. He arched his eyebrows at the angel, and squinted his eyes. Nothing happened. He poured his cup of coffee and returned to his seat on the bed.
“Where was I? Now a lot of people in Discordia either fail to achieve redemption, or don’t bother to try. God judges the unredeemed on a case by case basis when they die, in another display of His love. Some good souls are saved from damnation that way, but most of the unredeemed souls do go to Hell.
“There is one group of people in Discordia I forgot to mention. Since nobody dies of natural causes there, it’s technically possible to live forever. There are people in Discordia who have survived thousands of years (time moves faster there than it does here, but that’s not the point). Can you imagine surviving thousands of years of warfare? There are people in Discordia who have done just that. Their level of combat skill must be phenomenal. I have heard tales about the warlords of Discordia, though I have never seen one. You’ll need to avoid those people at all costs.
“I’m afraid I haven’t given you all the bad news yet, Michael. Magic exists in Discordia. Anybody can use magic there, although it takes decades to know how to use it properly. The odds are stacked against newcomers in Discordia. Newcomers have to face magic, but they can’t use it themselves. Like most things in Discordia, it’s just not fair,” Peter finished his coffee and put the cup back on the table. He looked at Father Flannery sympathetically.
“I think I already know more about the place than I want to. Provided I’m not hallucinating this and I’m on my way to Discordia, what does God expect me to do when I get there?” Michael’s hands were shaking, and he set his cup of coffee down. Most of it remained in the cup.
“As I’ve said, the old gods and devils wager on the outcome of events in Discordia. They call these events ‘games.’ The stage is set for the largest game to take place in Discordia in hundreds of years. A huge crowd of gods and devils has assembled to witness the action. They have pitted one young man against the warmongers of an entire dimension. He faces incredible adversity. He needs all the help he can get, and God has chosen you to be the young man’s spiritual advisor,” Peter told him matter-of-factly.
“According to everything I have heard, one young man doesn’t stand a chance. Why has this ‘game’ drawn the attention of so many gods and devils?” Michael asked. The sound of his question struck him as strange. He cleared his throat a number of times after asking it.
“The young man’s name is Louis. He doesn’t know it, but magic runs in his blood. If he can survive long enough to unlock the potential inside him, then nobody on the planet will be a match for him. Also, the gods have enlisted the services of one of the most lethal men in Discordia to assist him, a contract killer named Jesus Mendoza. Should Louis survive, and the odds are about even, then he faces a greater danger. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Louis contains more power inside him than the strongest warlord of Discordia does. The challenge will be to prevent him from becoming evil. That’s where you come in,” Peter punctuated his statement by clasping his hands in front of him, as if in prayer.
“Did this young man, Louis, ask to go to the hell dimension?”
“Absolutely not. The old gods and the devils set him up at every turn. The old gods arranged to have his parents murdered. The devils whispered in the ears of all Louis’ friends and acquaintances. Louis made some terrible decisions, but he suffered a lot of indirect coaxing from the forces of evil. He finally killed himself, on schedule and according to evil’s plan.
“I find it difficult to explain to you how these things work, but all of the gods, Yahweh included, have known how the situation would play out for hundreds of years. Evil won a great victory when Louis succumbed to drug addiction, but God wouldn’t let it end that way. He decided to give Louis a chance in Discordia. Instead of dying, Louis crossed through a dimensional portal. The game is set to begin.
“Actually, I’ve been telling you this story all wrong. From my perspective, all of those things have already taken place. Here in your time, though, Louis hasn’t crossed over into Discordia yet. We decided to send you through in advance of his arrival, to welcome him,” Peter revealed with a flourish, as if everything would make sense to the priest after that last statement.
“For heaven’s sake, why don’t you just let me go save his life right now then?”
“Time travel was never my field of expertise. I can tell you that had Louis not already injected a lethal quantity of heroin, then you and I would not be talking. There is no changing it.”
“My head hurts. God decided to send me to a savage dimension to help a junkie, a magical junkie. I’m supposed to keep him on the straight and narrow while he finds himself. Everybody in Discordia will be out to kill us, but we’ll be protected by a very skilled murderer. Is there anything else?”
“Oh, the murderer has a prostitute with him named Lena. Look on the bright side, Padre. Your salvation has already been guaranteed. The evil people of Discordia could torture you and kill you a thousand times, and you would still go to heaven,” said Peter with a great big smile. Michael put his face in his hands.
“How will I find Louis? Will I need to take anything with me? Why me?” Stress oozed from Father Flannery’s voice. He liked the plan less and less.
“Louis’ will be sent to you. You won’t need to take anything with you. I told you that there are good people in Discordia. Some of them will help you when you cross over. As for your last question, God chose you because you are the right person for the job. Now, are you ready?”
“I can’t say that I am, but I gave my word. The sooner you send me to Discordia the better,” Michael said with resignation.
Peter stood up and lifted his arms to the heavens. A big glowing circle appeared large enough for a man to pass through appeared in the air before him. Peter turned to Michael proudly, but Michael looked more frightened than impressed.
“Just so you know, opening that portal usually takes a lot longer, and involves a lot more concentration. God gave angels special power over dimensional travel, because we’re always coming and going from heaven. I can open and close the portal effortlessly,” Peter remarked triumphantly. Michael didn’t seem to hear him, and Peter’s pride was slightly injured.
The Irishman walked over to the portal and stepped through. He felt slightly nauseous when he came out the other side, but not terribly so. He looked around him, and instantly recognized the location. He crossed over to Discordia exactly on the spot where Huey P. Long erected the State Capital, but the skyscraper wasn’t there. In its place a concrete fortress the size of a large high school rose five stories from the ground. The walls of the fortress intersected at irregular angles, and Michael wondered what it looked like from the air. A twenty-foot high stone wall surrounded the fort. Michael made a mental note to investigate Discordia’s construction industry.
A number of men manning the top of the wall called down to him. Michael waved back at them. He noticed they directed him to a large gate, and he set off to enter the fortress. He looked up at the sky, and noticed the sun looked slightly more orange than it did at home, though how he could tell was beyond him.
Before he passed through the gate he turned his attention to what vegetation he could make out. Everything looked the same. The landscape was just as lush as the Louisiana he knew. The priest expected the environment to look alien, but it did not. He loved plants and trees. At times when he felt whimsical he prayed for the plants in the cathedral courtyard. He wondered if the plants of Discordia had committed sins to be there, and the thought made him chuckle. It was silly to think such things.
As soon as Michael passed through the gate in the wall, a man ran up to meet him. The man was armed with a holstered pistol on one side of his belt and a sword in a scabbard on the other side. The man saluted and said, “You must be the Holy Father. Welcome to Discordia, sir. The High Priest of the Order told us you were coming. Please follow me.”
The man conducted Michael through a grassy area inside the wall. Michael had faith in God and the angel Peter, so he humbly allowed himself to be led. The sights inside the stockade made Michael sad for humanity. Men and women trained in all aspects of combat, and with a variety of weapons, in every visible corner. They stabbed, speared and slashed dummies mounted on poles. A few practiced their aim with guns, shooting into a backboard that allowed them to recover the lead. There was even martial arts training beside the massive iron front door of the fortress. Father Flannery had seen all of the evidence he needed to see. He really had entered a world of savage warfare.