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Authors: Robert Kroese

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BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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“The sword is worthless,” said Lucifer. “But this!” He held the gem between his thumb and forefinger, closing his left eye to regard it with his right. “This is a piece of...” He trailed off, examining the gem. “Shit!”

“What... what’s wrong?” Azrael gasped. His eyes were open and some of the color had returned to his face. Even inside a Balderhaz Field, angels healed quickly.

“It’s a fake!” Lucifer shrieked. “You son of a bitch! All that planning for nothing! The gem is a fake!” He hurled the gem through the bars of the cage, and it landed with a clatter somewhere in the cavern. He turned and picked up the sword, examining its length closely. “This isn’t even the real Sword of Eden!”

Malcazar’s shoulders began to quiver, and after a moment Lucifer realized the guard was laughing.

“What the hell is so funny?” Lucifer demanded. “They cheated you! Your sword is a fake!”

Gripping one of the bars, Malcazar slowly pulled himself to his feet, still chuckling to himself. “Of course it’s a fake, you blockhead,” he said. “You think the Senate would give me the real Sword of Eden, even if they had it? I’m a big deal, but I’m not
that
big a deal. Gosh, I guess it really is true what they say.”

“Oh,” said Lucifer coldly. “And what’s that?”

“The devil is in the details,” replied Malcazar with a smile. “Sorry, Lucifer. You and your pals are going to be here for a very, very long time.”

Chapter Six

Berkeley, California; October 12, 2016

 

Eddie breathed a sigh that expressed equal parts relief and resignation. His hunch was correct. “Mr. Curry” was his old friend Mercury.

“So it is you,” said Eddie, observing the impressive structure. “I should have known.”

“Are you the Twinkie guy?” Mercury asked, without looking up. “I need three hundred more to finish the top.”

“Sorry, Mercury,” said Eddie. “I don’t have any Twinkies.”

“Well, it’s going to be a pretty sad-looking ziggurat,” said Mercury, still not looking up. If he recognized Eddie, he showed no sign.

“Yeah, that’s too bad,” said Eddie. “So, I wanted to ask you about some stock that you—”

“I say it’s going to be a sad-looking ziggurat,” said Mercury.

“I heard you,” said Eddie. “Suzy is in the car outside. You remember Suzy, right? We tracked you down by—”

“Yep, pretty sad looking ziggurat.”

“Uh-huh. Seriously, Mercury, I know this is important, but Suzy and I have been working on—”

“You’re not going to ask me why it’s a sad-looking ziggurat?”

Eddie sighed. It was pretty clear he wasn’t going to get Mercury’s attention until he had paid appropriate homage to the Twinkie edifice. “Why is it a sad-looking ziggurat, Mercury?” he asked, and then winced in anticipation.

“Because it’s in tiers!” Mercury exclaimed. He grinned at Eddie. “Hey, do I know you?”

“Yeah, we’ve saved the world together a few times. Well, you did most of the work. I helped occasionally.”

“Cool, cool,” said Mercury. “You’re not one of those hubcab-wearing freaks, are you? I like this town, but what is it with the people wearing hubcaps on their heads? And the interminable puppet shows! I try to be accommodating to the mentally challenged, but I swear on this stack of Twinkies that if have to sit through another puppet show...” He made the house-blowing-up gesture.

“Are you seriously threatening to blow up this house because of a puppet show?”

“Blow up the house?” Mercury asked, examining his hands. “I thought I was threatening to make banana bread.”

“You might want to work on your hand signals. You’re frightening the natives.”

“Eh,” said Mercury. “Fuck those guys. Freeloaders, all of them.”

“Why do you keep them around then?”

“I’m terrified of being alone,” said Mercury.

“Really?”

“No, not really,” replied Mercury. “But somebody’s got to do the Twinkie shopping, don’t they? Also, between you and me—” His voice dropped to a whisper. “—I kind of like some of the puppet shows. I get bored sometimes.”

“So I hear,” said Eddie. “Ennui got you down again?”

Mercury shrugged. “You know how it is. The first seven thousand years are always the toughest. Hey, aren’t you that MOC guy?”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “Ederatz. Of course I haven’t had any contact with Heaven for a while. Or any other angels, really, since we thwarted Tiamat’s last plan for world domination.”

Mercury nodded. “Good times. I thought you looked familiar. What time is it?”

“Uh,” said Eddie. “Around eleven?”

“Okay, cool,” said Mercury. “Puppet show isn’t until one. Let’s get drunk.” He turned and went through another door. Eddie followed, and found himself in a much more luxuriously appointed room. Lush carpet covered the floor and burgundy leather armchairs sat around a glass coffee table. Mercury flopped into one of the chairs. “Rhonda!” He barked.

Eddie sat down across from him. A moment later, Rhonda appeared with a Sierra Nevada bottle in each hand.

“You read my mind, Rhonda,” said Mercury. “Have you met Eddie? He helped me save the world once.”

“Four times,” Eddie muttered. “Not that I’m counting.”

“That’s fantastic!” exclaimed Rhonda in a patronizing, pseudo-enthusiastic tone. “Do you know where I can get a live eel?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” said Mercury. “Where’s your hubcap?”

Rhonda put a hand to her head, reddened, and ran out of the room.

“So, what brings you to the neighborhood, Eddie?”

“An algorithm, actually,” said Eddie. “You remember Suzy Cilbrith?”

“Sure,” said Mercury. “Cute girl. Purple hair. A little extra padding where it counts. Programmer on the Brimstone project.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie, a bit nonplussed by Mercury’s comprehensive recall regarding Suzy. Eddie had known Mercury for literally thousands of years, and every time they met he had to re-introduce himself. “Anyway, I got to thinking, after the Brimstone thing, that maybe it would be a good idea to catalog all the angels and demons still on the Mundane Plane. I mean, Tiamat and Michelle seem to have gone underground, but I don’t want to get surprised again. If we can reestablish contact between the good angels, maybe we can forestall the next evil plot before it hatches.”

“Hmm,” said Mercury, taking a swig of his beer.

“Anyway, I asked Suzy if she could help me find the other angels. I figured that there had to be signs, ways of identifying patterns in a person’s behavior that would mark them as an angel.”

“Like what?”

“Well, I’ve been watching the news for miracles, but there’s so much ridiculous tabloid reporting these days that it’s almost impossible to tell when an actual miracle happens. Suzy’s been helping me narrow the results by cross-referencing news reports with other data. The problem is that other than miracles, the main sign is actually a
lack
of data, specifically no birth record and no death record. So we had to—”

“Gaaahhhh!” Mercury suddenly cried. “The crushing boredom has returned! Rhonda, beer!” He downed the rest of the bottle and set it down next to him. A moment later, Rhonda ran into the room with a hubcap on her head and a beer in her hand.

“Good girl, Rhonda,” said Mercury. “Take that hubcap off your head. It looks ridiculous.”

Rhonda nodded, removed the hubcap, and retreated from the room.

“The point is,” said Eddie, “it turns out to be incredibly difficult to find an angel unless he does something really out of the ordinary, and there’s some kind of paper trail. For example, if an individual somehow bought three hundred shares of a company in 1837 and still owns them.”

“The great thing about this story,” said Mercury, “is that just when you think it can’t get any more boring, it totally does.” He took a swig of beer.

Eddie went on, undeterred. “In 1837, a man named Marcus Uittenbroek bought three hundred shares of a company called Quicksilver Fabrication, which was later renamed to Hermeticorp. SEC records indicate that this Marcus Uittenbroek is still the owner of these shares, one hundred eight years later. Since the initial purchase, the stock has split sixteen times. Would you like to guess how much those shares are worth today?”

“Not unless you’re going to give them to me.”

“Mercury,” said Eddie, “you’re Marcus Uittenbroek.”

“I am?” asked Mercury, staring at his knees as if they held the key to his identity.

“I’m fairly certain,” said Eddie. “This is the address I found for Mr. Uittenbroek. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the name Uittenbroek is Dutch for ’out of his pants.’”

Mercury chuckled. “Yeah, I thought it would be funny to... hey, you’re right! I did use that name for a while! I
am
Marcus Uittenbroek!”

“Yes,” said Eddie. “And you’re rich.”

“How rich?” Mercury asked.

“800 million dollars, give or take,” said Eddie.

“Wow,” said Mercury. “I’m no monetologist, but that sounds like a lot.”

“It is,” said Eddie.

“Huh,” said Mercury. “I don’t even remember buying that stock.”

“Maybe you won it in a bet or something.”

Mercury nodded. “That sounds like me.”

“Anyway,” said Eddie, “I’m relieved to find it’s you. We figured Marcus Uittenbroek was an angel, but we didn’t know which one. Could have been Lucifer for all we knew.”

“Except he’s still in prison, right?” asked Mercury, unable to completely hide his concern with his facade of disinterest.

“As far as I know, yes,” said Eddie.

Mercury nodded and took another swig of beer. “Of course he is. He’ll never get out.” Mercury sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as reassure Eddie.

“I would think not,” said Eddie. “But Lucifer’s not the only demon to worry about. There’s Tiamat, for starters. And we don’t know what Michelle or Gabrielle are up to.”

Mercury shrugged.

“As I was saying,” Eddie continued, “We didn’t know who Marcus Uittenbroek was, but we knew he was an angel and that he had a lot of money. A sympathetic angel with a lot of money could be a great ally to us.”

“Hmm,” Mercury said again.

“Yes, well,” Eddie went on. “I realize you’re not really a team player, but your fortune could really help us in our efforts to locate the other angels on this plane. It’s just been me and Suzy for the past six months, and finding you is the first break we’ve had. I think if we could hire more people—researchers, investigators, programmers, et cetera—we’d have better luck. We’ve been working out of a tiny office in Baltimore, and the only way I can even afford that is by selling a gold brick every few weeks.”

“Transmogrification,” Mercury said. “The oldest trick in the angel book. They’ll catch up to you eventually, you know.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” said Eddie. “I’ve got no other way to make money. I mean, other than actually
making
money.”

“Counterfeiting is even worse,” said Mercury. “Governments hate competition.”

“So you see the problem. Your eight hundred million dollars would be a huge help. And since you don’t seem to be using it....”

“Why are you so interested in connecting with the other angels, Eddie? Why not just leave well enough alone?”

“I told you,” said Eddie. “Eventually Tiamat or Michelle or somebody is going to start getting ideas again. You know how these people are. We need to be ready.”

“To do what? Play the hero? Haven’t you had enough of that, Eddie? Has it occurred to you that these angels are less dangerous when they’re scattered all over the world with no way to contact each other? By reconnecting them, you might create the very conspiracy you’re trying to prevent.”

“I guess I’m not that cynical,” said Eddie. “Most angels are well-intentioned.”

“Ugh,” said Mercury. “The well-intentioned ones are the worst. Give me a power-hungry psychopath over a well-intentioned angel any day.”

“Well, take your pick,” said Eddie, who was starting to get irritated. “We’ve got one of each.”

Mercury sighed and glanced at Eddie. Mercury knew exactly what he was talking about: Tiamat, with her psychotic drive for world domination, was bad enough, but now Michelle had gotten it into her head that it was her destiny to be Earth’s benevolent despot. Michelle’s intentions were always good, but the end result was the same.

“I know you don’t want to think about it, Mercury,” said Eddie, “but if we don’t set up some kind of organization to thwart the next attempt at world domination, nobody is going to do it. You know how most angels are. They’re lost without direction.”

“Good point,” said Mercury, nodding. “And that’s exactly why this is a terrible idea.”

Chapter Seven

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; October 12, 2016

 

True to form, at the very moment Eddie was pleading for Mercury’s help, Tiamat was in a warehouse in Philadelphia, hatching her latest plan of world domination. If Eddie had known the nature of the plan or whom she was sharing it with, however, he might not have been so anxious to counter it.

“I’m going to buy up all this worthless land here,” Tiamat said, pointing at a highlighted area on a blurry photocopied map of California and Nevada. “The nukes will hit here and here. If we hit the fault line just right, the land to the west should fall into the ocean, and we’ll be sitting on a million acres of oceanfront property.”

Two men and a woman sat on crates around the discarded cable spool Tiamat was using as a table, studying the map with interest. As most of Tiamat’s minions had been apprehended by the federal authorities after the Brimstone Incident, she had never worked with these three before, so she was acutely aware of the need to impress them with the boldness of her plan. When she finished speaking, an awkward silence filled the vast, empty warehouse. The three glanced at each other uncertainly.

“Well,” said Tiamat at last. “What do you think?”

After another long silence, one of the men spoke up. He was a burly, swarthy-skinned man who wore an adhesive name tag that read:

 

Hello!

My name is

Zicandar

 

Tiamat had made them all wear nametags so she could keep them straight.

“Do you
have
two nuclear bombs?” he asked.

“Not yet,” said Tiamat. “We’re going to steal them.”

“From who?” the man labeled Zicandar asked.

Tiamat waved her hand dismissively. “Details,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s how fault lines work,” said the other man, a pale, lanky guy apparently called Iriblis. “California isn’t just, like, a sheet of ice floating on the ocean. If you detonate nukes on a fault line, California will still be there. You might move it an inch or two, I guess.”

“And aren’t you worried about fallout?” said the woman, who was labeled Mermera. Mermera was compactly built and had a stern face. Her shoulder-length black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail behind her head. “You can’t just detonate a couple of nuclear warheads and then build a five-star resort at ground zero. It’ll take hundreds of years for the radiation to get down to a tolerable level.”

Tiamat glared at them for a moment, but then allowed her visage to soften. “Very good!” she said. “That was just a test to see if you three had the smarts to execute the actual plan, which has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or fault lines at all. Congratulations, you all passed!”

The three shrugged and exchanged glances, clearly not appreciating the value of Tiamat’s praise. “So what’s the real plan?” asked Zicandar.

“Excellent question,” said Tiamat with a nod. “Very good. Right down to business. Let me ask you gentlemen a question: do you know anything about computers?”

The three stared at her. “You mean like programming?” asked Zicandar. “Or hardware engineering, or what?”

“I know some Javascript,” said Mermera.

Tiamat sighed and shook her head. “I can see I will need to start at the beginning.” She pulled a sheet of paper from a manila folder in front of her and placed it on top of the map. It was a sheet that appeared to have been torn from a very old book, perhaps an encyclopedia. Most of the page was taken up by a black and white photo of a young woman in go-go boots feeding a punchcard into a machine the size of an industrial freezer. “This, gentlemen,” Tiamat said, pausing for effect, “is a
computer
.”

The three exchanged nervous glances again, as if uncertain whether they were expected to laugh.

Tiamat went on, “You see, large corporations use computers to allocate funds to different accounts. In many cases, the amount being transferred can’t be expressed as an exact dollar value, so the computer has to round the value to the nearest penny. Nobody notices the rounding because the amount being added or subtracted is so small, but these transactions occur millions of times a day, and it adds up to a lot of money. So what we’re going to do is—”

“Program the computers to transfer all those fractions of a cent into an account that we control,” said Iriblis.

Zicandar nodded. “This is like the oldest scam ever. You’d never get away with it.”

“Also, it’s bullshit,” said Mermera. “I mean, maybe computers forty years ago didn’t have the capacity to store amounts beyond two decimal places, but these days it’s trivial. Hell, my phone can do it. You’d be shaving off billionths of a cent,
at most
. If you had root access to every computer used by every Fortune 500 company in the world, you might make a nickel a week. If you didn’t get caught, which you would.”

Tiamat stared daggers at Mermera. She was so angry she was shaking. But she forced herself to close her eyes for a moment and take a deep breath. “Very good,” she managed to mutter after some time. “That too was a test.”

“Why don’t you just tell us the actual plan?” said Zicandar. He and the others were clearly getting bored.

“Yes, yes,” said Tiamat. “The actual plan. I suppose the time for tests has passed. Very well. What we are going to do is create an entirely new continent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You see, all we have to do is locate a substance that causes matter to duplicate—”

“Out of curiosity,” said Iriblis, “Do you have any nefarious plans that
weren’t
stolen from Superman movies?”

“I haven’t a clue what you mean,” Tiamat sniffed.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” muttered Mermera.

There was a buzz from inside Zicandar’s jacket, and he held up his finger and pulled out a phone. Tiamat glared at him.

“Burton,” he said into the phone. “Yeah, she’s here, but I don’t think she’s... of course I’ve got the box. Take it easy, D’Angelo. I can follow orders. I’m just saying, unless you want a recap of
Superman Returns
, I don’t think she has anything to offer us... No, that’s
Man of Steel
. Brandon Routh. How the fuck should I know? Check Rotten Tomatoes for fuck’s sake. Amy Adams. Yeah, I’m with you. Cute as a button. All right, I should go, she’s getting pretty pissed. See you back at the office.” He slid the phone back into his jacket. When his hand appeared again it was holding a Glock nine millimeter semiautomatic pistol. With his other hand, he produced a wallet, flipping it open to show a badge that read: FBI. The other two men produced guns as well.

“Oh, how amusing,” said Tiamat, but she sounded more irritated than amused. “An FBI sting operation.”

“I’m Special Agent Taylor Burton,” said the man labeled
Zicandar
. “These are agents Chad Rogers and Kristin Dexter. You’re under arrest, Ms. Midford. Or whatever your name really is.”

Tiamat sighed. “I supposed I should have known posting a Craigslist ad for demonic henchmen would attract the wrong element. Are you guys even demons?”

“No,” said Burton. “The FBI doesn’t hire demons, to my knowledge.”

“Where did you get the names?”

Burton reached into his backpack, pulled out a dog-eared paperback book, and tossed it onto the table. The cover read:
Demonology for Total F***ing Imbeciles
.

“Should have known,” Tiamat muttered. “That damn book causes me more problems. It’s the only one on the market that actually has some solid information about demons.”

“Demons aren’t real,” said Burton. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Tiamat leaned back in her chair—and then remembered that her chair was actually a wooden crate. She caught herself before tumbling to the floor, and made an admirable though ineffective effort to pretend she had been stretching. When she had recovered her composure, she replied, “Oh, but they are, Special Agent Burton. And you’re also wrong to think I’m disappointed. Do you recall what the ad said would happen to non-demons who responded?”

“Of course,” said Burton. “The ad promised that any mortal beings who showed up would be—and I quote—‘turned inside out’. I assumed it was a figure of speech.”

“You assume too much,” replied Tiamat with a smile. “Turning people inside out is one of my favorite punishments. I never get tired of it. I’m just surprised that any human being would volunteer for the treatment.”

Burton shrugged. “Give it your best shot,” he said.

Tiamat smiled at him. “You know,” she said, “they say that pain is the best teacher. I’m going to make a believer out of you, Special Agent Burton.” She raised her right hand as if about to cast a spell. “For the ten seconds you have left on this planet, you’re going to know that demons are real.”

 

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