by Angie Smibert
His friends had no trouble finding him. He was perched upon a rock outcropping high above the New River during the Great Depression. The spot had been one of his favorite haunts down through the ages, and it was called Angels’ Rest. Lucas failed to appreciate the irony today. He was staring at a pink slip.
Hell is experiencing a deep restructuring to better serve our stockholders.
That’s how the memo stapled to the pink slip began. Damn Management’s perverse sense of humor, Lucas thought. And damn the stockholders.
“I see you got yours, too.” Rom crouched beside Lucas on the ledge and held out an identical notice. Rom’s tail wrapped around his cloven feet for balance.
Lucas looked over his other shoulder. Axiel flashed his own slip of pink paper.
“Nog got reduced to a pillar of ash before he even got his.” An involuntary shiver ran through Axiel's wings before he pulled them into his body and sat down beside Lucas.
“Management is taking this downsizing thing a little too literally.” Lucas brushed dirt off his jeans. He preferred a more modern incarnation than did either of his friends. Jeans, t-shirt, and boots let him blend into so many places.
Nog had been a particularly noxious (and stupid) demon who would’ve been hard pressed to find work elsewhere. Management probably thought it was doing Nog a favor. Lucas kept that opinion to himself, though.
Thankfully, Rom and Axiel weren’t feeling too talkative. Yet. Lucas had come here to think. The memo vexed him. Due to the success of several global initiatives, we are able to decrease contemporary labor costs significantly. Damn Management and its brilliant ideas.
Below Angel’s Rest, the river wore its way through ancient mountains. Railroad tracks ran along each side of the river. The trees were bare but it felt unnaturally warm for the time of year. Lucas could hear the high lonesome call of a train in the distance. At this time in this world, trains rumbled along the tracks every few hours to and from the nearby coal mines. Lucas had watched this spot, thousands of spots actually, all over the world, throughout the ages, but something drew him today to this time and place.
“Ah, smell that.” Rom inhaled deeply. The trains burned coal. So did the little white houses that dotted the valley. A faint whiff of sulfur lingered in the air.
“Smells like home.” Axiel covered his nose with a wing tip. “Not that you spent too much time there.” Axiel gave Lucas’ attire a withering look.
“My job is just as obsolete as yours.” Lucas stared at the river. He’d thought he’d have that job forever. He took a deep breath. The smell was soothing.
“I still don’t get it.” Rom didn’t get out much. His job had been reduced in recent years to what Lucas liked to call minimum-wage demonics. A little tormenting. A little security. An appearance here and there. A few people still believed in that sort of Halloween deviltry but it was, as Rom had just found out, easily outsourced. The dead work cheap.
“Evil is still rampant in our time.” Rom understood that much correctly.
“The stockholders have lost faith,” Axiel quoted the memo. He gently fanned himself with his wingtips as he spoke.
Poets had celebrated Axiel's particular form of incarnation for centuries. Hollywood had kept the idea alive in a few films and TV shows in recent years. However, though it was a great visual metaphor, few people really believed in the fallen angel anymore.
And, no one — except a few graphic novel geeks — even remembered what Lucas was, which ironically had made it easier to operate in the field. Management had been right about that much.
Another blessed silence. The train crawled closer.
Lucas cleared his throat.
“What are you guys going to do?”
The memo had announced a retraining and relocation assistance program for qualified applicants. The qualified part, though, had been heavily disclaimered with several lines of tiny, unreadable print.
“The Middle Ages is always hiring.” Rom sounded almost enthusiastic. Almost.
After the turn of the first millennium AD, Christians had dreamed up a lot of work for demonkind. Sin was big business. It had to be personified, persecuted, and punished. That required a vast feudal kingdom with a huge standing army in Hell.
“Well, if you want to join the Legion.” Axiel fluffed his wings. “And just be another grunt.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” Rom’s tail swished back and forth slapping Lucas' leg. “Good steady work.”
“Boring, though.” Axiel preened a couple of feathers. “You’ll never get a chance to get conjured or possess anybody or even personify a deadly sin.”
“Oh, I don’t know. He’d make a great Sloth.” Lucas managed a smile. Those positions, though, had a very low turnover rate. Rom had the right idea about the Legion.
“I’d just be happy to do a little fighting.” Rom peered over the edge but pulled himself back quickly. “On the ground.”
“What about you, Axiel?” Lucas felt his mood lifting a little.
“I want something creative. Maybe even non-Judeo-Christian.” Axiel shook out his wings as he talked. “I’m not that attached to this form.”
“Oh, come on.” Lucas couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “You’d never incarnate as an eight-headed buffalo thing or even a goat demon.”
Rom grunted in agreement.
Though Christians — and Jews and Muslims — were major stockholders, other cultures certainly had their personifications of evil. Shape-shifting foxes. Life-sucking amphibians. Gorgons with faces of twisted intestines. Roles a creative demon could really sink his or her teeth into. Lucas knew Axiel wasn’t that creative. Vain, yes. Creative, no.
“I can see you, though, dealing pestilence upon the land and then being mistaken for a minor god.” Lucas thought his friend had better stick with his own ilk or their predecessors. Early Hebrews borrowed some of their demons from their neighbors’ deities. Early Judaism also saw evil as merely the dark side of good. That made for an interesting payroll problem in those days.
“Maybe you’d rate a couple of goats here and there,” Lucas added.
Axiel's wings vibrated at the idea of sacrifices.
Lucas felt a little better about his friends’ prospects. However, now they were both looking at him expectantly.
“I applied for one of those new jobs,” he reluctantly admitted.
Hell had a few prized positions left. Humans still made groups or ideas into demons to control other people. It was a tricky, exhausting job with a high turnover rate.
“Ami got it.” She deserved it. Ami was very talented.
His friends murmured the appropriate deprecations of Ami’s character.
“I wouldn’t have liked it anyway,” Lucas added. “Too much lying.” The job just would not have been as satisfying as whispering seditious truths into people’s ears. He was certainly going to miss his old job. It caused so much trouble. Now humans no longer believed inspiration was the work of the devil or even God. Damn. He should've seen that coming.
Rom inhaled deeply again. The coal train was chugging along slowly up hill just below them. The engine labored under the load. A long line of open coal cars trailed behind it.
Axiel hovered off the ledge to take a better look.
“Are those people in the cars?” he called up.
Rom refused to look. Lucas didn’t need to. He’d been watching the men for a while. It had been his job up until a short while ago.
“Damn stockholders,” Rom muttered. He blindly lobbed a rock down in their general direction.
“It’s 1935,” Lucas chided. He peered over the ledge to see if the rock had hit anyone.
“Okay, it’s their great, great, great-grandchildren’s fault then.” Axiel flapped back up to his place on the rock. “Give or take a few greats.”
The memo had blamed the layoffs on the stockholders. Current positions were being dissolved due to the consensus of the stockholders. It was in the best interests of the corporation to globalize.
Lucas waited until Axiel had settled in beside him.
“It’s not entirely their fault.” Lucas had to get this off his chest.
Rom and Axiel looked at him blankly.
“A few whispers here and there to coax humanity down the path of civilization.” Lucas tried to gently lead up to the truth. “That’s what Management said we were doing.”
Still blank looks.
“Management said it would make it easier to operate if no one believed we existed.” He gave it a second. “If any of us existed.”
This global initiative had been wildly successful. Eventually. He hadn’t been the only Watcher assigned to the program, but he was good at his job. His numbers consistently put him near the top of the leader board every quarter.
“But, if no one believes in us...” Axiel trailed off.
Lucas nodded. “It backfired.”
The stockholders had indeed lost faith.
Rom was still mulling it over.
“Hon, there’s still this little thing called free will,” Axiel said finally. Humans were free to believe whatever the hell they wanted.
“Besides, you were just doing your job,” he added. He didn’t look as convinced as he sounded, though. Lucas knew what he was thinking. He’d thought it, too. Demons may not have free will, per se, but there is such a thing as doing your job too well.
However, Lucas had loved his job. He’d never had to lie. Fire was good. The world was round. The Earth was not the center of the universe. And humans were responsible for evil. (They were also responsible for good, but it wasn’t part of his job to tell them that.) He definitely should've seen it coming, though.
“Damn Management,” Rom muttered. He slapped Lucas on the back, nearly knocking him off the ledge.
Lucas knew Rom was just trying to make him feel better, and he appreciated that, but the big pointy-headed demon was more right than he could possibly know. That love tap must have cleared his head. He saw it now.
Management must have seen this coming. Damn Strategic Plan.
“Damn Management,” he agreed.
He balled up his pink slip and threw it over the edge. Rom and Axiel followed suit. Even Rom leaned over to watch them drop. At least one landed in an occupied coal car.
“That one there,” Lucas pointed to a man in his thirties in worn boots, flannel shirt, and jeans. He was reaching for the pink wad of paper but it burst into flames before he could touch it. “He lost his job at a mill in Pennsylvania. He’s got a wife and two girls at home. The other one lost his job loading freight in Richmond.” Another equally worn man dozed in the corner of the car.
He couldn’t blame them. They were looking for work, too. And they didn’t need devils to blame the world’s evil upon. And Management, well, maybe it wasn’t so shortsighted after all, at least as far as the stockholders were concerned. It just didn’t give a damn about its employees.
Lucas felt a bead of perspiration roll down his neck.
Management reserves the right to irrevocably terminate any and all employees no longer deemed necessary for the furtherance of its Strategic Plan.
Damn fine print.
Lucas burst into flames, as did his colleagues, leaving behind three pillars of ash on Angels’ Rest.
Copyright © 2008 by Angie Smibert