God Rest Ye Merry, Newly Dead / 1

Like emergency-room doctors and Chinese restaurant waiters, angels don’t get holidays off.

That’s why, on the December 24th in question, instead of knocking back heavily spiked eggnog with the other regulars at the Compasses, I was standing next to the magazine rack in a Kaiser Hospital waiting room, gritting my teeth through the umpteenth rendition of “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” on the pumped-in music while pretending to read an old copy of Sports Illustrated. Outside on the streets, pretty much everyone else was still thrashing through the last-minute shopping crowds. I was waiting for an old man to die.

That’s my job, see. Well, that’s where my job begins, anyway. I’m an angel, a heavenly advocate, name of Doloriel, although down here on earth most people call me Bobby Dollar. I earn my living right after your heart stops and your monitors go flatline — yes, even on Christmas Eve.

And that was what had just happened to Petar Vesić, aged ninety-eight years, nine months, forty-three days, two hours, and sixteen minutes.

The moment I felt him slip the bonds of his mortal body, I hurried to the late Mr. Vesić’s room. We don’t like to leave the newly dead waiting too long — they get disoriented. When I got there, I opened one of the doorways out of time that we call a “Zipper” and stepped through. The other side of the Zipper was just the same as the real world in most ways, except for a couple of things: one, time wasn’t moving there and it wasn’t going to as long as I was present, and two, there were two human shapes, both named Vesić and both dead, but one of them was moving. One of them was the body, lying motionless in a web of tubes, the other was looking down on it dispassionately, as if it were nothing more than a broken-down old car he was abandoning — not real sentimental, is what I’m staying. His soul-form showed he had been fairly wiry for such an old guy, not much fat on him, still a little muscle. Lots of scars, too.

“Petar Vesić,” I said. “God loves you.”

He was bald, wrinkled, and leathery as a turtle without a shell. There was something faintly reptilian about his eyes, too, a detachment I’d seen a few times before, usually on men getting ready to die, but not so often after they had already accomplished it.

“Yes,” he said. “I thought they’d send someone.” A European undertone to his words, one I couldn’t immediately recognize. “Not like you, though.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d been caught off-guard by a client, but it was certainly one that sticks with me. “What do you mean, not like me?”

“Someone more frightening — at least better dressed.” The soul-image shook his head. “Or is something else going on? I never trusted the fucking priests, anyway.”

I recovered the thread. “My name is Doloriel. I am an angel, your advocate at judgment. I will speak for you.” I explained what was going to happen. His expression, which had never been cheerful, went completely lemon juice.

“Fuck!” he said. “I don’t want to hear it all again. I really don’t give a shit — I’m guilty of everything. Just let me talk to the judge. I want to make a bargain.”

“The…judge…isn’t really that kind of judge. I mean, after the trial he doesn’t go home, take off his tie, and dandle his grandchildren on his knee.”

Vesić squinted at me as if I was one of those grandchildren and I’d just pissed in someone’s lap. “Fuck me, I don’t care, angel. I did it all. I’m blood up to here. Just let me talk to the judge. That’s fair.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, mostly because I didn’t know anything about him, yet. I was waiting to hear from his guardian angel — that’s where we get the information on the souls of the recently dead — but the next thing that happened was the sudden and routinely magnificent appearance of Its Honor, Ambriel of the Third Sphere. Heavenly judges are from the highest rank of angels that preside over Earth; when they show up, it’s a bit like having a star go nova in your extreme celestial vicinity. Bright. Beautiful but indistinct. Like music straight into your eyes.

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