The face watching Matt Daniels made him freeze mid-step. Its vaguely familiar features were contorted into an unnatural, inhuman shape. After a split second Matt realised he was looking at a wall display, a head of a goat made to resemble a hunting trophy. Two things made Matt distinctly uncomfortable: one, the head was mounted on a shield with a large pentagram surrounding it; and two; it bore a clear resemblance to Charles Darwin.
Slowly, Matt started taking in the rest of his surroundings. He was standing on the doorstep of a large room with dark red walls and a black ceiling. The floor was painted in various shades of yellow and orange. The bottom two feet of the walls were painted with a flame effect. Lining the walls were pictures, most prominent of which was a copy of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. Around the room were several tables, some occupied, and to the left was a bar, with a woman standing behind it. The head that arrested Matt as he walked in was on a wall directly opposite the door; to its right was an object that once again made him flinch. It was an ornate wooden booth with latticed windows, and black curtains drawn across the windows from the inside. From the door of the room to the bar led a path made of small paving stones, many of which bore inscriptions. Matt crouched to look closer; some of the inscriptions were barely legible, but others were quite clear. He read a few:
‘I will give money to charity. I should give something, after all, I’ve been collecting for them for two years ‘
‘I’ll stop running after women. A brisk walk scares them less’
‘I’ll talk more to my wife. Sod the restraining order’
He stood up, hesitated for a moment, looked around again then slowly walked towards the bar. The barmaid seeing his uncertainty smiled encouragingly and moved behind the counter towards him. She was in her late thirties, with dark wavy hair, fairly regular features and warm dark eyes. As he approached and gingerly put his rucksack down, she spoke:
‘I can see you haven’t been here before. As you might have guessed, the road here is paved with good intentions. Which of course wear off pretty quickly, that’s why only a few are still legible. Or at least’ she sighed, ‘that was the plan. Only you can’t get this mob here to write a straight good intention. They have to try to be clever, or worse still, funny. Anyway, what would you like to drink?’
‘Right, I’d… I’ll have a… ehm, orange juice, please.’
‘Right you are.’
While she served the drink, Matt looked at the other customers. Three or four tables were occupied, nothing about the patrons struck him as especially unusual or sinister. He turned back to the counter.
‘We’re not overly busy right now, as you can see,’ said the barmaid. ‘It can get a lot busier, with our regulars, some curious tourists and the odd student. You a student?’
‘What are you studying?’ she asked.
‘I… well… Theology’
‘Oh? Well, welcome to the dark side! The more fallen angels, the merrier.’
‘Well, I’m not exactly…’
‘Not there yet? Still on the side of the angels? I guess you must have come to witness the weeping and gnashing of teeth then. I must admit that it does happen occasionally, especially after a pint or two too many, but in general it’s not that kind of establishment. Sorry to disappoint.’
‘No, I didn’t mean… That is…’
‘Oh, come on, relax. It’s just me being flippant.’ She laughed, not unsympathetically, watching his discomfort. ‘Sometimes I just can’t help it. You see, you’re more than welcome to watch us squirm in the fire and brimstone to your heart’s content. The only thing we don’t take kindly to is being pulled back up by the scorched stumps of our wings.’
Suddenly Matt’s apparent discomfort took on a whole new level. The barmaid stopped laughing and looked at him with concern.
‘Oh dear, don’t tell me you want to shepherd us back onto the straight and narrow. That would be dreadful. I couldn’t bear the thought of you succeeding. It must be terribly boring to be all good and righteous. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense there are so many demons. Any right minded angel would chuck the choir rehearsals, white laundry and nursing sanctimonious old biddies and go for some fun. I bet your old man has some serious recruitment issues.’
She fell silent for a moment, looking at Matt thoughtfully. Then she resumed:
‘But I’ll tell you what: you look like a nice young man, not some bible bashing monster. If you really want to have a go at saving our dirty souls, I’d be happy to let you loose on some of our resident Leviathans. It would be fun watching you try to convert them. If you could manage that, then blessed art thou, for thou shalt inherit the earth. What do you say?’ Before Matt had a chance to respond, she turned towards the room and called: ‘Fungus! Sunshine!’
From the nearest table two men rose and approached the bar.
‘Let me perform some introductions. Oh sorry, dear,’ she addressed Matt ‘I don’t know your name?’
‘I’m Thea. These two gentlemen apparently also have names, but with all due respect their parents missed a trick or two when calling them something as mundane as your regular Christian names. But then they had no way of knowing what their pride and joy would grow up into. Therefore, without further ado, this’ she indicated towards the shorter of the men ‘is Fungus’
Matt scrutinized the man called Fungus. He was middle height, thin, sinewy even, with greying hair, short grey beard and lively blue eyes. He was wearing a cyclist’s outfit; behind on his table lay a bicycle helmet. Thea continued:
‘We call him that because he loves every beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth; so presumably fungi too. And yet, he’s a staunch believer in nature red in tooth and claw, the survival of the fittest and every other kind of pestilence plaguing the garden of creation.’
‘Thanks ever so kindly for such a colourful introduction. I’m looking forward to your next one’ said the man called Fungus. They all turned towards the second man. He was much taller, about six foot three; his weight, some nineteen stone, seemed a testament to numerous multi pint sessions in many a bar. His mid-length hair was unkempt and greasy, face adorned with thin stubble; he was wearing a worn T-shirt and a faded corduroy jacket.
‘This is our resident Professor Temeritus of Suicidology.’ Thea paused as if waiting for a reply, and after a moment Matt felt compelled to ask:
‘Professor Emeritus of what?’ Thea promptly picked up, as if this were the question she had been expecting:
‘Suicidology, the ancient and glorious art of voluntarily kicking the bucket. Except, it’s Professor Temeritus, not Emeritus; we call him that because it takes a lot of guts to actually top oneself, guts which we reckon our friend here hasn’t got. You see, he’s writing a book called Death: a Lifestyle Choice and he’s got to face the dilemma: either publish the book and stay in this vale of tears, which would rob the book of any credibility; or publish it and then practice what he preaches, which would rob him of any fruit of his labour. We are all waiting with bated breath.’ She flashed him a brilliant smile.
‘Cheers, me dears.’ he mumbled.
‘Oh, and do forgive me, I haven’t done the actual introduction bit: with all that in mind what else could we call him but Little Miss Sunshine?’
‘What indeed?’ growled the man, allowing his face to drop into a picture of utmost dejection and misery.
‘Now: our young friend here, Matt,’ Thea was addressing the two older men ‘is a passionate and devout student of Theology, defender of faith, scourge of the infidel, who’s come here to right our paths and mend our wicked ways.’ She turned to Matt. ‘I’m sure that by the end of your sermon we will abandon our wickedness, eschew the Prince of This World and step on the path of righteousness. Verily I say unto thee, thy faith shall bear good fruit and we shall be thine flock. We beseech thee, forgive us our trespasses and deliver us from evil. Commence.’
The three of them looked intently at Matt who stood there speechless and motionless for a second. Then he bent down, picked up his rucksack and ran to the door and out onto the street. He kept running until he came to a stop in front of an imposing church building. He walked slowly in, looked around at the practically deserted interior, and strolled to a side chapel, where he knelt and started praying, more and more fervently.
‘Lord, give me strength to stay calm in the face of those who offend you. They are hateful, hateful! Why do you allow them to defile your word, to blaspheme so viciously? How can they be allowed to trample on everything that is sacred? And just because it amuses them! They revel in their profanity! How dare they?’
He paused for a moment, tried to compose himself and then continued.
‘Lord, you don’t forgive those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and their punishment is ready for them. But I know that you’ve chosen me to spread your word and silence your enemies. Lord, it’s not an easy path; please give me the wisdom to know what to say to stop them from spreading their hatred of you, their corruption. Even if their souls are beyond redemption, they must be stopped from infecting countless others with their disease.’
He reached into his rucksack and took out a large metal crucifix with rounded arms, the body of Christ a low relief on the surface. He pressed the cross against his chest.
‘Lord, I will pray day and night for your guidance. If they can’t be stopped with words, lead me to do what has to be done. For didn’t you say: “who shall offend one of the little ones who believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”? They spoke about choosing death. If death is what they want…’
He gripped the post of the crucifix either side of the crosspiece and pulled. The lower part of the post slid down to reveal the long thin blade it sheathed.
‘Then die they will.’