SDS Envy: “Envy the Dead” by Perry Broxson

If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.

Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.

The fifth set of stories cover the sin of Envy. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.

Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:

Dear readers,
Envy the Dead is the fifth installment of a serialized novella and continues from the end of Liar,Liar which followed Greed Is Good which followed  Punishment for Glutton which followed The Hunt for Lust. I feel that it’s only fair that I spend a hundred words explaining the setup for the stories. Here’s a simplistic synopsis. Thank you for your indulgence.
Ralph Chamberlain is a 60-year-old grandfather. He retired in Carbino, Mexico, having spent 38 years in Military Special Forces and Bounty Hunting. Unbeknownst to him, he’s also an angel. 
Ralph is killed protecting Hanna (daughter) and Mirabelle (granddaughter) from Hanna’s junkie partner, Barton Slivic. Having dispatched Ralph, Barton then kills Hanna. 
From an astral plane, Mr. Jordan, the liaison between angels and Our Betters (pantheon of gods), explains the situation to Ralph. He reveals that Barton has sold Mirabelle to a dubious Child Placement Agency. 
Ralph is given his wings, an amulet, and a sword (Fidel), with the mission of apprehending the Seven Deadly Sins that have escaped from the Ark of the Covenant. He has been given one year to complete the mission.
If he fails, his daughter will remain murdered, and his granddaughter will be victimized by a pedophile sex ring on an island in the Caribbean.
Ralph accepts the mission, with caveats. In each installment, Ralph confronts one of the sins.
I know – lighthearted beach reading material, right?
Enjoy,
Perry
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Envy the Dead

Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(10,130  words – approx. reading time: about 38 minutes based on 265 WPM)

Gabe Deangelo, the Fire Chief of FDNY, Ladder 22, pushed the gurney into the ambulance and climbed in.

The paramedic pulled back the glass that separated the wagon from the cab and told the driver. “Guy’s a goner. Lights, but no need for speed.”

“I’m ridin’ with this guy,” Gabe Deangelo barked.

“Why?” the paramedic asked. “We got ‘im. What’s left of ‘im, anyway.”

Gabe pushed passed the paramedic. “He’s my friend . . . any more questions?”

“No, Chief,” the paramedic replied. “I’m sorry. Poor guy is a mess . . . I mean . . . look at him. What a fuckin’ mess.”

Gabe grabbed the medic by his blue collared shirt, pulled him chin to chin, and growled, “Get out.”

“What?”

“Get out of the ambulance.”

“But,” the paramedic stammered. “But, but, it’s my job.”

Gabe balled his gloved fist. “Get out or I throw you out.”

The paramedic, outweighed by sixty pounds of smutty muscle, bounded out of the ambulance.

Gabe jerked the doors closed and then pounded on the glass to the cab. “Step on it!”

The driver slid the glass laterally and asked, “Where’s Barry?

“Got sick,” Gabe said. “The smell. Said he’d catch up. It’s all good. I’m EMT certified. Quit jawin’ and stomp that pedal.”

“Copy,” the driver said. Gagging, he pulled the glass back to its closed position.

Gabe Deangelo removed his gloves and helmet. He pulled back the water-jel blanket that he’d wrapped around the victim.

“Our Betters bedamned!” he cursed. “It is you, Raphael. The rumors are true. You assumed the avatar of an old man. Why in the Celestial Realm would you put yourself at such a disadvantage as a Hunter?”

Ralph groaned and coils of smoke rose from his mouth and nose.

Gabe shook his head. “Good thing I caught you before you jumped. Your wings are shot. You’d have eaten the earth, Raphael. Cratered.”

Ralph coughed a clot of tar. He tried to smile, but the soft tissue of his lips had been seared. Instead, he held up the stump of a sooty thumb.

Gabe notice his clenched hand. Then the other. “What ya got, Raphael? Is it what I think it is?”

Ralph grunted affirmatively.

“Want me to take the goods? The nurses in the burn unit at Saint Pat’s will take it if I don’t.”

Ralph’s dry eyes fixed on the Fire Chief’s eyes. He held the gaze, conveying eons of trust and comradery. Pain and adrenaline sparked his shoddy memory. Realizing he had no other options, he grunted and released his twin fists.

The Fire Chief accepted the treasures with great respect. Carefully, he placed the dentures and ash into separate evidence bags. “This one . . .” he said, sniffing the ashes . . . “smells like Wrath. Am I right? Did you incinerate Wrath?”

Ralph’s blue eyes brightened slightly, conveying his answer.

“You were always the best,” Gabriel said. “But the rumor mill says that you’re way behind on this Cycle. That’s why the Administrator – what do you call him? Jordan? That’s why Mr. Jordan sent me.”

Ralph squeezed his old friend’s hand, signaling gratitude.

Gabriel checked his watch. “Here’s the deal, Raphael: When we reach Saint Michael’s Hospital, I’m a ghost. Gone. Poof. I’ll take this booty with me. Your boy, Jordan, scoured the fine print of the Capture and Cage Charter. Seems there’s no provision prohibiting angelic assistance . . . sooooo, he’s willing to argue for a clean C and C if I deliver the goods. He must really like you, Raphael. The Administrator never stuck his neck out like that for me.”

A single sooty tear slid out of Ralph’s eye as the ambulance skidded around a corner.

“I must’ve scared the driver,” Gabe laughed. “He’s running every light in Manhattan. Looks like we’re almost there, Raphael. Saint Michael’s has the best burn unit in New York City. They’ll take good care of you. If not, they’ll have the wrath of Gabriel the Ark Angel to deal with.”

Ralph groaned as the ambulance rocked.

“There’s a catch,” Gabriel said. “If you don’t visit the Administrator – you know, Jordan – then you don’t get intel on the next Jumper. It’s a devil’s bargain, to be sure.”

Ralph squeezed his old friend’s hand again, pleading with his eyes.

Gabriel looked left, right, high, low. Then he leaned down and whispered a phrase, using the dead language of angels – a linguistic, it was rumored, that not even Our Betters could interpret. Gabriel said: “What profit it a man.”

As he spoke, smoke billowed from the water-jel blanket, like steam from a hot tamale. Ralph clamped his jaw and screamed behind his black teeth.

Gabriel tipped his friend onto his side for an inspection. “Before I go, let me check your wings.” He pealed back the flaps of the water-jel blanket and grimaced, “Our Betters bedamned! Your wings are worse than I thought, Raphael. Nothing left but a couple of crumpled stumps.”

Ralph’s face became a mask of ashen misery.

“This must be the primary reason Jordan sent me,” Gabriel said. “Tell me,

Raphael, have you given any feathers to humans?”

Ralph tried to speak but could not.

“Squeeze my hand once for yes, twice for no.”

Ralph squeezed once.

“How many feathers?” Gabriel asked.

Ralph squeezed twice.

“I knew it,” Gabriel said. “The Administrator – Jordan – is quite the strategist. Here, I can give you a feather for each that you have given. It is in the Celestial Code. My hope is that they will serve as a graft – that my hale feathers will rejuvenate your infirm feathers.”

The ambulance slammed to a stop. The driver slapped the glass and shouted through the closed glass: “We’re here!”

Gabriel put the two sealed bags into his pocket. Then he reached behind his neck, inside the collar of his fire coat. With a magician’s flourish, he produced two white feathers. “Not much time,” he said. Then he stabbed the two quills into Raphael’s respective wounds.

Raphael tried to scream, but his hoarse throat only rattled and wheezed.

“Hurts,” Gabriel said. “And I’m sorry about that. But I need you to concentrate, Raphael. I need you to retract your wings – what’s left of them. If you do it right, it should absorb these grafts. Do it now, or the jigs up.”

Raphael tried and failed. Tried and failed. He shook his head and wept. “Can’t,” he protested, “pain.”

The ambulance driver slapped the glass again. Gabriel heard attendants scuttling outside the ambulance doors. Heard the latch being turned.

Like a Victorian dueler, he struck Raphael’s face with his unhanded glove. “This is no time to play human! To submit to pain! To sob and grovel! You are Raphael, Commander of the Ark Angels. Suck it up.”

The ambulance doors flung open. Two cops and an Emergency burn team fell back, flinching from the stench, gagging and coughing.

“Where’s the paramedic?” a strawberry blond ER resident finally asked.

Meanwhile, the driver of the ambulance had gotten out of the cab and met the team at the open doors. He pointed into the wagon and explained, “I swear, the Fire Chief was with the victim – a big guy, named Gabe Deangelo. He said Barry had to bail. The smell was too much for him.”

The ER resident stepped into the quiet wagon, looked at Ralph, then back at the driver, the burn team, and the cops. “So where is this Gabe guy? Nobody here but a dead man.”

***

            The same strawberry-blond resident that had pronounced Ralph dead, found a pulse. Her name was Brie Hendrix. “Brie,” she typically introduced herself, “like the cheese.” Twelve hours after the ambulance arrived at Saint Michael’s Hospital, she leaned over Ralph Chamberlain and said exactly that.

“Not sure if it rises to the level of child abuse,” she continued. “But to name a girl after a stinky French curd . . . let’s just say, it did me no favors in high school.”

Ralph wanted to laugh, even tried, but the tube in his throat blocked all vocalization.

“I can see you’re agitated” . . . she looked at the chart . . . “Mr. Ralph Chamberlain, certified Bail Bondsman out of New Mexico.”

Ralph would have corrected her if able. He’d retired from the bounty biz in NM, and had subsequently moved to Mexico. He doubted if he’d have told her why . . . that was a story best suited for intimate friends over a bottle of tequila.

“I thought you were dead, Mr. Ralph,” she whispered. “I’m sorry – I even pronounced it in front of my Attending, Doctor Mooney. He must think I’m an idiot. I don’t think this is working out. I should probably go home to Pennsylvania and sell Nissans at my father’s dealership in Scranton. I’m thirty-three, in debt up to my nipples, no boyfriend, no life outside of Saint Pat’s. Doctor Mooney thinks I talk too much and” –

Ralph pulled the tube out of his throat, hacked up black phlegm, and said: “Please . . . shut up.”

Shocked, she stared at the man she’d pronounced dead. Quickly, her training kicked in. She reached for the big red button to alert the nurses’ station, but Ralph intercepted her wrist with his charred grip. “Please don’t push that,” he whispered, “I need to speak with you . . . alone.”

“Me?” pulling her hand free.

Ralph nodded, and the crispy skin under his chin fissured and oozed.

“I don’t even know how you’re talking,” Brie said. “You must be in so much pain. Here, let me increase the morphine.” She reached to adjust the flow from the bag.

“No,” he said. “No more drugs. I need to concentrate. I need to heal.”

“Of course you do,” Brie said. “That’s why you’re here at Saint Mike’s. I’ll call the nurses and we’ll apply a numbing agent and some antibiotic cream . . . then we’ll bandage you and” –

“Please,” he repeated, “shut up. I need you to listen . . . Brie . . . like the cheese.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll zip it.” She mimed the zipping of her lips, then tossed away an imaginary key.

Ralph grinned and his lips split, showing his black, shattered teeth. “Thank you, Brie. Here’s what I need from you.”

***

             “I can’t,” Brie said.

“You must,” Ralph said.

“It’s dangerous – it could kill you,” she countered. “I take that back: it will kill you.”

“Again?” he joked.

“Yes, but for real this time, Mr. Chamberlain. I can’t just wheel you down to the Chapel. You’re in critical condition. This is the ICU burn unit.”

“If I’m to heal,” Ralph said, “it must be in a sacred place – a consecrated dwelling. I just need a day. A full cycle of the sun and moon. Twenty-four hours.”

Brie pushed her glasses up, into the nest of her strawberry-blond hair. “Let me get this straight, Mr. Chamberlain, you want me to spirit you through the ward, down the elevator to the ground floor, and lock you in the Chapel for . . . for a whole day?”

“Yes,” Ralph said. “I know it sounds” –

“Insane?” she finished. “Yes, it sounds insane because it is insane. We have another ward for that malady, Mr. Chamberlain. It’s called the Psyche Ward.”

“You’re funny,” Ralph said, trying not to laugh. “Tell me, Brie Hendrix from Scranton, are you a believer?”

“In?”

He looked at the wall where a grizzly crucifix of a tortured Palestinian rabbi hung.

“I’m Catholic,” she said, “if that’s what you mean.”

Ralph cleared his throat, hoping his voice would resonate. “Do you believe in angels?”

She laughed. “I’m a practitioner of science, Mr. Chamberlain. I don’t give much credence to such things.”

“You did,” he said.

“Pardon.”

Ralph put his pointer finger to his temple and said, “When you were nine years old, you did.”

Brie stepped back and asked, “What are you talking about?”

Ralph closed his eyes and spoke softly. “You were walking home from school. A man in a Pittsburg Pirates’ jersey stopped you and asked if you’d seen his lost dog.”

“Ginger,” she mouthed, hypnotized.

“He asked if you’d help him find Ginger. You said yes. He took your hand and led you to storage shed. He chained you to the engine block of a ’69 Plymouth Barracuda.”

“Slant six,” she said, “3.7 liter. 145 horsepower.”

“He said if you screamed, he’d kill you and your parents. He tried to rape you, but could not achieve an erection.”

Brie began to weep.

“He left you there,” Ralph said. “He said he’d be back . . . in the morning . . . and he’d be ready for you.”

Brie wiped her eyes and said, “I was so afraid. I prayed so hard.”

“You fell asleep,” Ralph said, “and you dreamed.”

“Yes,” she said, “of an angel . . . my guardian angel.”

“The chains,” he said. “What happened to the chains?”

She looked at her wrists as if it had all just happened. “They fell away. They fell away. It was like a dream – they just fell away.”

He looked directly at her, and she peered into his blue eyes. “It was you,” she suddenly knew. “My guardian angel. You broke the chains.”

Ralph turned his torso, showing the cratered wounds of his wings. “I need to heal. I need time . . . and I need a consecrated dwelling. And I need to be alone. Can you help me, Brie like the cheese?”

***

            Brie pushed a laundry hamper through the hallway of the ICU burn unit. It was heaped with towels and sheets and gowns. When the admin nurse in full habit looked up, Brie Hendrix said, “Can you believe Mooney has me doing laundry? I knew I was on his poop list, but this is ridiculous.” The admin nurse shook her head in sympathy and went back to her data entry.

Brie pushed the ground button on the freight elevator. When the doors closed, she said, “I lied. I’m going to go to Hell. I lied to Sister Sarah – the nicest nurse at Saint Michael’s.”

“No one goes to hell for lying,” Ralph said, peeking out from the pile of laundry. “But then again . . . I could be lying.”

“Not funny,” Brie said. “My heart is pounding like a jackhammer.”

“It’s going to be all right,” Ralph said. “Just get me to the Chapel and I’ll do the rest.”

The elevator opened. Brie gasped at the sight of her nemesis, Doctor Sebastian Mooney, the Attending Physician. He was flipping through a patient’s chart, chewing on a ballpoint pen. “Miss Hendrix,” he said, looking up.

“Yes, Doctor Mooney,” she said, arranging sheets to cover Ralph’s black foot.

“That burn patient – Chamberlain – what’s his status?”

She stepped in front of the hamper to block the doctor’s view. “Good,” she burped. “Not like go-to-the-county-fair-and-bob-for-apples good . . . but you know, the alive kind of good.”

“Alive kind of good,” Mooney repeated. “That’s your medical assessment?”

“Sorry,” she said, adjusting her brain. “The patient is in stable, but critical condition with 3rd degree burns covering 75% of his body. Prognosis . . . dire.”

“Dire,” Mooney repeated, satisfied. “Keep an eye on him. The police want to interview him the second he wakes up.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, pushing the hamper hurriedly.

As she was turning the corner, Mooney called out: “And one more thing, Miss Hendrix . . .”

“Yes,” she gulped.

“The laundry room is that way.” He pointed to the opposite hall.

The building layout was a circular square, she knew. Mooney’s route would get her to the laundry room, then to the Chapel. It was a longer route, but she took it anyway. “Thanks, Doctor,” she said, as she rolled the hamper. “Just helping the staff . . . was on my down anyway, so I grabbed the hamper.”

Mooney shook his head, sighed, and turned his attention to his clipboard.

***

            Brie got lucky. The Chapel was empty. She shut the door, then fiddled with the handle. “There’s no lock,” she said. She looked desperately around the small room, realizing it was the first time she’d visited the chapel. She needed something heavy to block the door. She pushed a giant white bible off a mahogany altar and dragged it in front of the door.

“Of course not,” Ralph said, climbing out of the hamper. “It’s the House of Gods. All are welcome here.”

“Gods?” she asked. “There’s more than one?”

He pitched himself over, onto the tiled, mosaic floor, and was caught by the outstretched hands of a beatific Madonna. For Brie, the sight was surreal and ghastly. She had to turn away. She wretched, thinking he looked like a stygian creature from the horror movie Hell Raiser – a blackened beast forged from fire and brimstone.

“You can leave now,” Ralph said, lying on his back, staring at the stained glass grotto that depicted the Transfiguration – the scene in which Jesus becomes a radiant spirit and ascends to Heaven.

“Go?” she asked. “You need me. You’ll die if I leave you here. You need fluids. Creams. Bandages. Antibiotics. And grafts.”

“I need you to leave,” he said, pulling himself to a semi-seated position – wrenching the burnt stalks of his legs into a lotus pose. “I require silence and privacy.”

“To do what? Pray?” Brie took out her phone and snapped a photo of him. “Here. Look at yourself. You have 3rd degree burns over 75% of your body. Not to mention the internal damage. You won’t last an hour without medical care. You’ll die. And I’ll get fired. I’ll be kicked out of medicine, six months from finishing my residency. Actually, I’ll be lucky if I don’t go to fucking prison!”

Ralph pushed the phone away. “I look like a Cajun-fried turd.”

Brie slapped her forehead with her palm. “This was a bad idea, bad idea. Brie, you’re stupid. So stupid! So stupid!”

“Stop it,” Ralph said. “You’re not stupid. But you are harshing my mellow.”

She stopped hitting herself and gawked at him. “What did you say?”

“Harshing . . . my mellow. You, with your histrionics.”

She started laughing. She couldn’t stop. She doubled over. She threw her head back, unleashing the clip in her strawberry-blond hair. She leaned on a pew and grabbed her side. She laughed maniacally, hacking, bordering on a breakdown.

“Brie,” Ralph said. “You’ve got to get control. You’ve got to finish your shift. And you’ve got to keep people out of the Chapel while I” –

“While you die?” she barked, still laughing.

He pulled a strip of seared skin from his face, revealing the new, pink layer. “No, while I heal,” he said. “All I need is a day. Twenty-four hours. A full cycle of the sun and the moon. Can you do that for me, Brie?”

She stopped laughing. Her lip quivered as tears welled. “I’ll try. Maybe I can do it . . . maybe. I’ll put some orange cones outside the door. A sign – I’ll make a sign saying the Chapel is, is, is closed? Closed for what?”

“Asbestos,” Ralph suggested. “Say it’s being inspected for asbestos.”

“Okay,” she said, wiping her tears. “I’ll do it. I’ll be back in twenty-four hours, Mr. Chamberlain. I hope that you’re not dead. I pray that you’re not.”

Ralph smiled and his lips cracked. Rivulets of maroon blood, like lava, drizzled down his charred chin. “If I’m gone,” he said, “look to the Hebrews.”

“What?”

“Please go now,” he said, peeling carbon bark from his arm. “The healing has begun.”

***

            Twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes later, Brie knocked on the Chapel door. “It’s me. Brie. Can I come in?”

“Not yet,” Ralph said, his voice detached and dreamy. “I need to finish the cycle.”

“But it’s important,” she said. “The police are looking for you. This is the only place they haven’t looked. Doctor Mooney is bringing them to the Chapel, Mr. Ralph. He checked on the asbestos thing and realized it wasn’t true. He’s bringing the cops.”

“I’ll deal with it,” Ralph said. “Don’t forget the Hebrews.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” she said. “Wait, they’re coming.”

Ralph heard a short commotion behind the Chapel door.

Suddenly, the room boomed as heavy hands battered the door. “Chamberlain,” Doctor Mooney shouted, “we know you’re in there. I’ve got two homicide detectives that would like to speak with you. We’re coming in.”

Ralph activated Fidel. The blade sprang from his palm and penetrated the door knob. He twisted the steel and jammed the latchbolt into the cavity of the strike plate – locking the chapel door.

“Five minutes,” Ralph said.

The knob jangled and the jamb shook. “Mr. Chamberlain, my name is Jernigan. I’m with NYPD Homicide. I’m not asking and I’m not waiting. Clear away from the door. We’re coming in.”

Brie shouted from the other side of the door: “They’ve got a ram!”

Ralph heard Mooney scold Brie. Heard Jernigan order his partner to “bust it down.”

“I tried, Mr. Ralph! I’m so sorry,” he heard Brie say, her voice brittle with guilt.

Detective Jernigan’s partner rammed the Chapel door. Ralph heard hinges jiggle and wood creak. The ram struck again, causing the door molding to buckle and the crucifix to fall off the wall.

“One, two, three,” Jernigan said, and his partner battered the warped door once again.

Ralph called out, “This is a hospital. A Chapel, for Christ’s sake! A sacred place. Have you no decency?”

Mooney agreed. “Gentlemen, please. There must be a better way. You’re wrecking my hospital.”

“One, two, three,” Jernigan counted.

“Wait,” Ralph shouted. “I’ll come out. I just need to finish my prayers.”

“We don’t negotiate with murder suspects,” the partner said.

“I didn’t murder anyone,” Ralph replied. “Yeah, I killed a lot of people, but they had it coming. Do you guys remember that old Lynard Skynard song? Gimme Back My Bullets? Well, that’s all I did. I gave ‘em back their bullets.”

“Doctor Mooney,” Jernigan asked, “is this guy cuckoo?”

“I can hear you, Detective Jernigan,” Ralph said, adding: “One flew east, one flew west. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

“One, two, three,” Jernigan counted. His partner obliged, battering the chapel door into yellow splinters.

The three men stepped over the felled door, two with their guns drawn. As the men searched the empty chapel, Brie noticed the giant bible she’d knocked over the previous day. It had been placed on the mahogany altar. On its white leather bounding were smudges – fingerprints, stamped in black ash.

“There’s nobody in here,” Jernigan’s partner said.

“Then who the fuck were we talking to for five fucking minutes?” Detective Jernigan shouted.

Doctor Mooney felt glass crackle under his shoe. He looked up at the stained glass grotto. “Gentlemen,” he said, pointing up.

All three of the men gawked at the human-sized hole in the parabolic glass. Meanwhile, Brie Hendrix leafed through the giant white bible. The gold-trim pages gave way to marker, splitting the book at the two-thirds juncture.

“Hebrews,” she whispered, reading the title of the Pauline letter in the New Testament. She lifted the marker that Ralph Chamberlain had inserted. Under it was another ashen thumb smudge. It marked the fourteenth verse of the first chapter. She read it silently. Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

She placed the white feather into the pocket of her lab coat, knowing that whatever Mooney and detectives did to her, she was at peace with it. She was saved.

***

            Wearing only a hospital gown, Ralph flew through Central Park, weaving between the trees, scouting shelter and clothing and food. In no time, he smelled buttery popcorn and sugary treats. Tracking the aromas, he heard the trumpet of an elephant, the caws of parrots, and the chatter of chimpanzees.

“It’s a gods-damned zoo,” he said to himself. “Right here in the middle of Central Park. Who knew?”

He advanced, darting from exhibit to exhibit, habitat to habitat, trying not to draw the attention of spectators or staff. He snatched a half-chewed hotdog from a trash bin. He slurped water from a fountain. Using superhuman agility, he zigged and zagged, ducking and hiding, seeking shelter. Finally, he saw an ivy-laced habitat that seemed to be empty. He bounded over the barrier and secured himself inside a man-made cave. He needed sleep; and this cool, dark setting was just the place to get some. He ensconced himself in the hammock of his rejuvenated wings and quickly drifted off.

“Hey, mister,” a sweet but simple voice said. “You’re not allowed in here.”

Ralph awoke to see the pale moony face of a very large man. “What? Where am I?”

“You’re in the lions’ den, mister. I’m here to feed Leo and Leah . . . and you’re not s’posed to be here. It’s dangerous, for fudge sake.”

Ralph, suddenly aware of his wings, retracted them. “New-fangled sleeping bag – pops out and folds up. What they won’t think of next.”

“Looked like wings to me,” the man wearing scat-stained coveralls said. “Are you an angel?”

Ralph stood and looked at the man. Despite his enormity, he was more boy than man, more child than adult. His features were hulking, the lines of his contour broad and soft. His crossed eyes and slack jaw offered additional insight – the lad was cognitively impaired.

“Yes,” Ralph confessed. “I am an angel. I’m called Raphael. But you can call me Ralph. Who are you?”

“Jack,” the lad said. “Some of the keepers call me Simple Jack. It’s mean, but I don’t mind it ‘cuz it makes ‘em laugh.”

Ralph extended his hand. The boy wiped his grimy paw on his overalls and then shook. Strong, Ralph thought. Strong as an ox.

“Well, golly-dang,” Jack said. “What’s an angel doin’ at Central Park Zoo? Are you like some new exhibit?”

“No,” Ralph laughed. “I needed to rest. Just flew in from Heaven and boy are my wings tired.”

The lad did not laugh. “’Course they are. You hungry? I’ve got a two shanks of goat meat in the sack.”

“Raw?” Ralph asked.

“Raw . . . and not a little rotten,” Jack offered. “But it’s yours if you want it.”

Ralph waved it off. “No thanks, Jack. What I could really use is some clothes. Do you happen to have an extra set of coveralls and boots?”

The boy thought about for such a long time that Ralph thought he’d forgotten the question. Then the boy beamed. “We do, we do! In the locker room. See, we change clothes when we get here. They don’t let us wear this fancy uniform unless we’re workin’.” Jack pointed to his embroidered name on his coveralls.

“Can you take me to the locker room, Jack? I’d be eternally grateful.”

Jack paused for a spell, then said: “Sure. Anything for my new friend, the angel man.”

***

            Dressed in oversized coveralls and work boots, Ralph bid his pal farewell. “I want you to take this feather,” he said to Jack. “Keep it with you – especially while feeding the lions. There will come a day when old Leo goes rogue. Do you know what that means?”

Jack thought and thought. “Think so. Like when the other Keepers are mean to me for no reason?”

“Yes,” Ralph said. “There will be a day when Leo wants to hurt you – be mean to you. But you’ll stop him.”

“How, Mr. Angel Man?”

“You’ll show him this feather, Jack. You’ll hold it up and say, ‘Be nice.’”

“Be nice,” Jack rehearsed. “Be nice. Be nice.”

“Yes,” Ralph said. “It works on mean Keepers, too. Just hold it up and say, ‘Be nice.’”

Jack held the feather between his thumb and pointer finger. He spun it slowly, in awe of its pristine beauty. “You’re very nice, Mr. Angel Man,” he said. “Here, I have something for you.”

The little boy in the big man’s body reached to the top shelf of his locker. He grinned when his hand found purchase. “Here, Raphael,” he said, handing the Ark Angel a Baby Ruth candy bar. “It’s a long way to California from New York. You need this more than I do.” The words were spoken with such clarity and gravitas that Ralph assumed the lad had been possessed. Not to mention, Jack had called him Raphael.

Of course Ralph questioned the helpful but simple zoo keeper named Jack. Of course his interrogation was fruitless. California? Why California? The more he questioned Jack, the simpler he got. Exasperated, Ralph said farewell and flew from the Central Park Zoo – flew West, following the sun, toward the Pacific Ocean, toward California. Despite his erratic amnesia, he knew to accept gifts from the Gods. In this case, the gifts manifested in the guise of a chocolate, peanut, and nougat candy bar . . . as well as the approximate whereabouts of his next Jumper, a Sin called Envy.

***

            Ralph followed the sun, occasionally skimming sips of water from clear lakes and pure ponds. He glided on thermal climes when his rejuvenated wings threatened to seize. He tacked, like a sail, taking advantage of fitful wind streams. The trip exhausted him. When he landed in Sacramento, it occurred to him that he was old.

It also occurred to him that he needed help. He hadn’t been in California for ten years. The only person he knew and trusted in Cally was a woman. Her name was Virginia DeVine. She’d kept secrets. Kept confidences.

However, he was reluctant to look her up. Her beauty, he was certain, would remind him of a low point in his mortal life. It would remind him of the one time he’d cheated on his wife, Olivia.

In the foyer of a deluxe Sacramento apartment complex, he pushed the faded gray button with the number 666 on it. “Virginia, it’s me, Ralph Chamberlain,” he said into the intercom. I can never forget her apartment number, he thought, even if I tried.

“You old hound,” the intercom crackled. “I knew you’d come crawling back. Give me ten minutes to freshen up. Take the elevator to the sixth floor and” –

“It’s not like that, Virginia,” he said sternly.

“What’s it like, Ralph? Tell me. If you’re here chasing another goddamn car thief or wife beater or kiddie diddler, I’ve got no time for you. If you’re here to catch up on old times . . . well, that’s different. Sixth floor. Room 66. Ten minutes.”

“Ten,” he said. “We’ll talk.”

In nine minutes he knocked. She took the orphaned minute to linger, making him fidget in the hallway.

As he stared at the door and jived from foot to foot, he promised himself not to react when she appeared. He failed. The visage of her platinum hair and sculpted cheekbones gut-punched him. He had to catch his breath to say hello.

“Backatcha,” she said sassily. “Wanna come in? I won’t bite.”

His laugh was uncool, bordering on a titter.

She grabbed his left hand – the hand still banded to Olivia, with a gold ring – and pulled him inside apartment 666.

Ralph had sex with Virginia DeVine. He resisted until he didn’t. Virginia was just as persuasive today as she’d been a decade ago. At one point he called out Olivia’s name. To Virginia’s credit, she did not remonstrate.

“You’re not bad,” Virginia said, smoking a cigarette of her namesake.

“Well, I’m a bit out of practice, but” –

She interrupted. “No, Ralph. You’re lousy in bed. But you’re not bad. You’re a good man with a good heart that made one mistake.”

“You,” he grinned lopsidedly, “are my one mistake.”

She blew a smoke ring and sang, “I’m your perfect mistake.”

They made love again. Afterward, she cooked him pan-seared salmon, buttery asparagus, roasted parmesan potatoes; served on a bed of cilantro lime rice. They ate lustily and told their stories, filling in the gap of ten ruthless years.

“You left out the last few months,” she said. “Is that why you’re here? Back in the bounty business?”

“It is.”

“Who exactly are you looking for?”

Ralph sighed and stroked his ark amulet. “That’s just it . . . I don’t know.”

***

Over the next two days, Virginia bought Ralph clothes and incidentals. He was overjoyed when she returned from a military surplus outlet with an uncanny replica of his navy blue pea coat. “It’s not really cold enough in Sacramento to wear this wooly old thing, but I know you dig that salty style.”

“I do dig it,” he said. “And I dig you. Thanks, Virginia. You’re a great friend.”

“Friend,” she said sharply. “So now I’m in the ‘friend zone’.”

Ralph shook his bald head. “I don’t even know what that means.”

“You’re such a southwesty,” she jabbed playfully. “A fly-over bumpkin.”

He knuckled her ribs and countered, “Said the bubble-headed bleach blond. The sunbaked socialite snob.”

She squirmed and giggled and wrestled with him. It excited him. It also reminded him of the way he and Olivia horse-played – always grab-assing in the narrow hallways of their New Mexico home. “I’ll have to go soon,” he said, ruining the mood.

“Go where?”

He shook his head and averted his blue eyes.

She wriggled free of his grip and flopped onto the couch. She was silent and upset. She stabbed buttons on the TV remote, settling on a cable news station.

“It’s not like I want to go,” he said. “It’s just that” –

“Quiet,” she snapped. “I love this guy.” She leaned into the screen, drinking in the broadcast colors and a central character.

Ralph turned his attention to the 65-inch screen, happy for the distraction. In living color, he observed the largest, most muscular man he’d ever seen, ranting wildly about the “nanny state” and the “immigrant infestation” at a gaggle of reporters.

“Who the hell is that guy?” he asked.

Virginia turned to him. “You been living under a rock? That’s Hoss Proffit, the former UFC heavy weight champion.”

“Hoss Proffit,” he echoed, recalling Gabriel’s cryptic message: What does it profit a man? “Why’s he on cable news talking politics?”

“Duh,” she said. “He’s running for Governor of California. We’ve got a recall election in a week.”

“But he’s a cage-fighter,” Ralph said. “A guy that takes punches to the head. Why would anyone vote for him to run the world’s fifth largest economy?”

She fingered the remote, jacking up the volume. “Shush. Just listen.”

The giant man on the giant screen grabbed the mic away from the pale reporter and said: “Why are we depending on firefighters – these American heroes – to risk their lives when we have an untapped labor reserve. California has a homeless crisis – homeless hobos that *bleep* in the street and harass taxpayers for cash. I say give ‘em a hose and an axe and send them to the fire line. They’ll either put it out or fry tryin’.”

Ralph rubbed the chill bumps on his arms. “Did he say ‘fry trying’?”

Virginia laughed. “He’s a riot, this guy! Tells it like it is. And he’s easy on the eyes, if you know what I mean.”

“Water,” Hoss Proffit continued, “it literally falls from the *bleep* sky. It’s God-given. There’s a whole ocean of it ten miles west . . . and Governor Sissy Britches is telling Californians that we’re in a drought! That we have to conserve. That we can’t water our lawns. Can’t wash our cars. Can’t fill our pools. Guess what: The Saudis have been desalinating water for sixty *bleep* years. You’re telling me that we aren’t as smart as a bunch of camel-humping ragheads?”

Ralph removed his hands from Virginia’s shoulders as she shook with laughter. “This guy’s a bigot,” he said.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “but he has a point.”

“Crime,” Hoss Proffit ranted, “is a huge problem. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Los Angeles. City of *bleep* angels! Well, you ain’t no angels . . . you’re a bunch of gang rats and drug thugs. Be warned: when I’m elected Governor of California, I’m comin’ for ya.”

“He’s gonna do it!” Virginia squealed, flapping her hand at the screen.

“Do what?” Ralph asked.

“The thing,” she said, “the thing he does.”

Hoss Proffit glared menacingly into the news camera, shook his fist and shouted his catch phrase: “Want some?” He then ripped off his shirt, exposing his massive tanned and shaven pectorals, which he flexed in contrapuntal sequence.

Virginia slapped her bare knees and threw back her head. “Yes, yes, yes – I want some, Hoss!” she shouted, laughing wildly. “I want some!”

As Ralph was about to reprove her, his amulet juddered under his shirt.

“Watch this,” Virginia shouted, pointing to the shirtless candidate.

Ralph watched a fox-faced man in a dark green suit deftly buckle a gold-plated championship belt around Hoss Proffit’s waist. The camera zoomed in, revealing the inscription. Ralph’s ark amulet jumped out of his collar as he read the words: “Come get some!”

A reporter from a rival network shouted a question: “Mr. Proffit, you’ve been accused of sexual misconduct by a dozen women, and battery by as many men. What do you have to say about these allegations?”

Hoss Proffit casually handed the mic to the fox-faced man that had buckled his belt. Then, with his open hand, he slapped the reporter hard enough to drop him to his fours. “Want some more?” Hoss shouted, as the reporter attempted to crawl away.

As Virginia reveled in the violence, Ralph had a vision. He saw Hoss Proffit being sworn into public office, not as the Governor of California; rather, as the President . . . President of . . . .

“He’s going to win,” Ralph muttered.

“Damn right he’s going to win,” Virginia rallied. “He’s exactly the kind of man California needs. Exactly the kind of man America needs!”

Ralph snapped out of his fugue and said abruptly: “I’ve got to go.” With that, he turned and left apartment 666 and its sole tenant, Virginia DeVine.

***

 Ralph checked into a cheap hotel. He tried to nap, tried to think, tried to devise a plan for Capturing and Caging the next Jumper – Envy.

After several hours of restlessness and agitation, he realized that what he needed was a cleansing shower. The noxious nature of Hoss Proffit’s polemics and Virginia’s libidinous reaction had somehow sullied him. The sky, he hoped, would purify him. He pointed himself at a raincloud and bounded. In seconds, he was ensconced in the chilly dampness of cumulonimbus clouds. He scoured himself with the icy particles, soaked himself in the crystalline water droplets. Once bathed and baptized, he flew above the crashing clouds and exposed himself to the unadulterated sun, drying his clothes and wings and warming his rejuvenated body.

He took time to reflect, to meditate, to grasp the magnitude of his mission. If he failed to Capture and Cage the three remaining Cardinals – Envy, Pride, and Sloth – within the next seven days, all life on earth would be exterminated by Our Betters. Game over; start over. The casualty body-count would, of course, include Mirabelle. It would also preclude any chance of reuniting with his daughter, Hannah, and wife, Olivia.

He took several deep breaths, sucking in the thin sips of cold air. He’d never before felt the pang of loneliness to this degree. It gave him a new appreciation of humans – of their capacity to suffer with stolid resolve.

It had happened before, he intuited. The annihilation. It was not so much a memory as it was a deduction. As a child, he’d been taught the global flood account in the Book of Genesis. Even as a child he thought it preposterous, as well as appalling, that God would regret his Creation and destroy it. But now, having inhabited his human avatar for some six decades, having been killed, having been self-revealed as an angel . . . it all made sense. A twisted and sadistic and surreal sense, but sense still the same.

They’ll do it, he knew. Our Betters will not hesitate to tip over the table, smash the pieces, end the game, and start over.

He looked down at the city of Sacramento and sighed. All those people, living their tidy little lives, oblivious to their instable fates, oblivious to the stealthy peril that crouched, in waiting, preparing to pounce and devour. The man that was Ralph Chamberlain, wept – unworthy and ill-equipped for the responsibility foisted upon him. The angel that was Raphael wept with perfect, parallel empathy – fearful that the man was correct in his dreadful assessment.

***

It was the cheering that snapped Ralph out of his dark introspection. He heard humans, loud and boisterous, lifting up their voices in unbridled approbation. He dipped below the clouds and observed a natural amphitheater filled with raucous humans, cheering a man on a redwood stage. As he descended from the heavens, it became apparent: The man they cheered was none other than Hoss Proffit.

Ralph lighted behind a pillar of hewn sandstone. He’d seen the Beatles in their latter days, observed the Stones and Zeppelin and suffered through the insanity of Britney and Bieber, but he’d never witnessed such a high-pitched, licentious adulation as this. The female congregants tore their blouses and jiggled their tits; bent and presented their twerking asses, and bawled full-throated at the celebrity campaigner. The men, as passionate as their women, fired guns into the air, unconcerned with Newton’s Law of gravity and its perilous repercussions.

Ralph decided that he need not be so secretive. The mob had maddened beyond wariness, into blindness, and dived headlong into delirium. So he simply walked into their midst, raising his fist and shouting guttural peons in the direction of their dear leader.

The man called Hoss presented the palms of his hands, and the crowd hushed. He adjusted the microphone stand to accommodate his inordinate height.

“You people came out tonight,” he shouted, “came out for one reason and one reason only. Wanna tell me why that is? Was it to see the Hoss Hotties?”

Six busty ladies burst onto stage, dancing lustily in boots, daisy-duke cutoffs, and half-shirts with HH emblazoned over their breasts.

“Noooooo,” the crowd responded.

Hoss pointed to the fox-faced man in the shadows. “Did you come out to see Dwayne – my twin brother?”

“Noooooo!”

Hoss made a comical, quizzical face. “Wanna tell ol’ Hoss Proffit why you came out then?” He cupped his hand to his ear and bent toward the masses. “You came out because you . . .”

“WANT SOME!” the crowd, a singular beast, bellowed.

Hoss let the fever break, then gripped the buckle of his championship belt as if it were a codpiece. “Well, come get some!” he responded, smiling brightly from his spray-tanned face.

Ralph cheered, although his timing was off. He was not in harmony with the call and response – could not find the robotic rhythm.

As the mammoth man prepared to speak, Ralph viewed the grandeur of the amphitheater. It held, he estimated, some 20,000 people. All of which viewed the lofted stage from a cratered basin – a natural, cavernous recess – from which bleachers had been chiseled from iron-rich bedrock, and the stage crafted from old local redwood trees. Behind the performer, was a 40-foot LED screen, which featured the magnified visage of Hoss Proffit. On the west side of the stage, Ralph observed, was a ramp. The only other oddity that caught Ralph’s attention, was the fox-faced man he’d seen on Virginia DeVine’s TV – the man that had obsequiously buckled Hoss’ belt. Had Hoss called him Dwayne? His twin?

The racket and riotous energy rattled Ralph’s senses. He watched as the fox-faced man stood there, in his dark green suit, on the edge of the east wing of the stage, as silent as a shadow . . . standing, standing, as if waiting to serve his master. Ralph stroked the ark amulet under his shirt, calming the currents of agitated energy.

Weird, he thought, I’m here to Capture and Cage the Sin called Envy.

The sequence could not deviate: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Pride, and Sloth. The Sevens were hierarchical, numerical, as fixed as the planets – the order was integral to the Cycle and must not be deranged or upended. And yet, he sensed no hint of envy from the musclebound luminary – the celebrity campaigner called Hoss Proffit.

“They think we’re stupid,” Hoss shouted, pointing at his people. “They think we’re a bunch of fucking rubes and retards!”

The crowd howled, loving him impolitic brashness.

“Here’s the thing,” Hoss said, lowering his voice, “the dirty little secret is . . . rubes and retards vote. Rubes and retards are sick and fucking tired of political correctness, cancel culture, critical race theory, Green New Deals, welfare, taxes, illegals, atheists, and licking dick-spittle from the cocks of foreign leaders from foreign countries.”

The crowd erupted. The women pulled their hair and screamed; the men hooted and fired their weapons at the sun.

“Speaking of foreign countries,” Hoss said, teasing his people. “When you elect me Governor of California, my very first official act will be to secede from the United Snakes of America.” Over the roar, he continued. “I’ll declare the Golden State a sovereign country. If ol’ Pope Pedophile can do it, so can Hoss Proffit!”

Ralph couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He touched the amulet, suddenly aware that it was supercharged.

“As your duly elected governor of the great state of California – the fifth wealthiest kingdom on planet fucking earth – the third largest exporter of oil – the largest exporter of agriculture – home to a thousand Fortune 500 companies – home to thirty-two military bases and twenty-thousand nukes – home to Silicon Valley, the cradle of innovation, inspiration, and domination. I swear on my Granny’s droopy tits . . . on day one . . . day fucking one . . . I will declare war on all shithole countries, to include the United Snakes of America!”

In the thrash of humanity, a middle-aged woman in a peasant dress slammed into Ralph, bounced off, and tumbled to the hard earth. He reached to help her up, but she had other plans. She pulled him down, atop her, forcing him into the valley of her spread legs.

He hoisted himself off her. “No, ma’am,” he said. “No, no, no . . . not gonna happen.”

“Don’t be a fag,” she shrieked. “I want some.”

He did not stick around and argue. He bolted, carving his way through the mindless hive. This is like some medieval orgy, he thought. A bacchanalia. Torn from the canvas of a Hironimus Bosch painting.

Hoss Proffit pointed to a fat man with a braided beard. “You got a truck, chief?”

“Bet your sister’s tight hymen I do,” the man shouted. “Ford F-150, dually, 8.7 liter Hemi.”

Ralph immediately tagged the guy for a plant. Too quick and clever to be a garden variety retard.

Hoss laughed and pointed at the ramp attached to the west wing of the stage. “Go fetch it. Drive it right on up here . . . on stage. I got a little trick up my sleeve.”

The man waved his red cap and took off, shambling through the crowd.

“Who remembers when I broke Stanislav Crouchy’s back?” Hoss asked, pointing at random, howling fans. “They called him the Bulgarian Beast. Said he was fattened on wolf’s milk. Said he wrestled bears. Said he ate grown goats – horns, hoofs, and teeth. Said he was the quickest, strongest, meanest man alive. Said he was unbeatable.”

The crowd booed at the mention of Hoss’ old nemesis.

“March of 2010, his manager called me,” Hoss said, talking to his thumb, knuckles, and pinky. “I asked him why he called. Know what he said?”

The crowd quieted, allowing the necessary comedic beats for Hoss to finish.

“He said, ‘My boy, Stanislav, has a message for you, Hoss. The Bulgarian Beast says he’s ready to fight you in the octagon. He says he wants some’.”

The crowd barked and brayed like animals trapped in a tar pit.

“Who remembers what happened two-minutes and twelve-seconds into the third round?”

More roars, more bays, more lows.

Hoss Proffit strutted to the east wing of the stage, grabbed the fox-face man, and hoisted him over his head. “I picked him up,” Hoss grunted, “like this. And I told him to make his peace with his maker. Then I chucked him out of the cage.” Hoss tossed the fox-faced man into the mosh pit. “And I broke his fucking back.”

The crowd climaxed in perfect synchronicity, all eyes on Hoss Proffit.

Ralph’s eyes, however, were on the fox-faced man. He watched the gaggle catch the man and stand him up, patting wrinkles from his dark green suit. He watched the fox-faced man straighten his tie and finger-comb his hair, then work his way back onto stage, via the eastern ingress.

“Stanislav wanted some,” Hoss called. “I told him to come get some. He tried. Lord knows that man tried. But I bet he wishes he hadn’t tried. Know why?”

“Whyyyyy?”

“Because,” Hoss reported, “today . . . this very day . . . Stanislav Crouchy, the Bulgarian Beast, lives in a shitty nursing home in Plovdiv, sits in a shitty wheelchair, sips shitty gruel through a shitty straw . . . paralyzed from his earlobes down. That’s why.”

The crowd leapt and punched the sky, cheering their champion.

The man in the Ford F-150 honked his horn and the western section of the crowd parted, giving him a path. He did as Hoss commanded. He drove the huge truck onto stage, parking it next to Hoss Proffit.

“Kill the engine,” Hoss ordered. “You can stay inside if you want . . . but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

The man with the braided beard hopped out. The fox-faced man ushered him away, behind a curtain.

“So why did I tell you that sad story about Stanislav Crouchy?” Hoss asked.

It was a tough question. The crowd had no lock-n-load response.

“I’ll tell ya why,” Hoss said. “Because, when I become the President of the Neonatal Nation of California, there’s going to be a whole gang of Stanislavs out there. Every leader of every shithole country will want some. Prime Ministers, Ayatollahs, Kings, Emirs, Chancellors, Czars, Presidents . . . and, yes, even Pope Pedophile . . . will want some.”

The crowd started a low moan, intoning half-chants. It sounded like um-et-um.

“Mr. Pope,” Hoss said to his pantomime hand-phone, “come get some.”

Um-et-um! Um-et-um! Um-et-um!

“Mr. Ayatollah Camel-humper,” he said, “come get some.”

Volume increased with intensity. Um-et-um! Um-et-um! Um-et-um!

            “Mr. President of the United Snakes, come get some!”

As the swell of voices reached a crescendo, Hoss bounded to the front end of the truck and gripped the bumper below the steel grill. Effortlessly, he hefted the engine-end of the Ford F-150, standing the vehicle on its four hind tires. The crowd stopped breathing as he leveraged his way across the undercarriage of the truck, his hands finding and gripping the front axle.

“Not bad,” he grunted, “for a washed up cage-fighter. Do ya think Governor Sissy Britches could do this?”

“Nooooooooooo!”

Hoss lowered the truck slightly, sliding his hands, matching the flat plane between his shoulders to the flat plane of fuel tank. “He ain’t like me,” Hoss said, breathing in short, bovine bursts. “He’s soft. He’s weak. He won’t fight for you. Won’t carry your burdens – won’t . . .” He grabbed the chassis and then the rear axle, shifting the weight so that the gravity of the mass was centered on his back.

Ten thousand men gasped and ten thousand women screamed.

“. . . won’t . . . won’t lift you up,” he finished, as the truck teetered on his shoulders, six-feet above the redwood stage.

Ralph looked up, sharing the awe of throng. He wondered if he could heft that load – he, an appointed Angle of the Order of Ark. “That’s incredible,” he said to himself, even as he searched for concealed cables or hidden hoists.

“He ain’t done yet,” a man in bike leathers said to Ralph. “Not by a long shot.”

Ralph watched Hoss flex his knees and calculate his grip. Under the shadow of the undercarriage, he angled to position himself as the freight’s fulcrum.

“Get in,” Hoss called. “No fatties – just hotties.”

All six of Hoss’ Hotties sprang forward, their chests heaving from frantic dancing. The fox-faced man magically produced two A-frame stepladders. Two Hotties crawled into the cab and four Hotties scrambled up and into the bed, gyrating to the song Cherry Pie by Warrant. Hoss Proffit did not flinch. In fact, Ralph observed, he seemed to be reveling in the added weight.

The man in bike leathers slapped Ralph’s shoulder. “Toldja, toldja. Now watch this.”

Ralph did watch. How could he not?

Hoss Proffit was not content with simply bearing the weight of a 5,000 pound truck and its sexy payload, he now prepared to complete the snatch, clean, and jerk portion of the show. In one Atlasian motion, he lunged, throwing the freight above his head, then catching the opposing axles with his outstretched hands. He then locked his knees and elbows and jaw and spine – holding the truck above his head like a trophy.

Ralph was truly amazed. He wondered if he’d ever encountered a Jumper this strong. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d not elected to receive the Ash of Amnesia.

The crowd lost its already misplaced mind. Ralph stuck his thumbs in his ears, the noise so loud, so disorientating. All he could think was, That’s not Envy up there. That can’t be Envy.

In a feat equally remarkable, Hoss lowered the Ford and its cargo with finesse – damaging neither the truck nor the Hotties.

Hoss Proffit, the ultimate strongman and showman, ripped off his shirt and roared at the crowd. They returned his roars, and the call-reponse continued until Hoss was handed a mic by the fox-faced man. “Thank you,” Hoss said to the crowd, and then nodded to the Hotties. “Give the ladies a hand,” he said, then mumbled salaciously, “or at least a couple of fingers.” Naughty laughter burbled throughout the crowd.

“And,” Hoss said, turning to the fox-faced man, “I want to thank my brother, Dwayne Proffit.” The man in the dark green suit took a half-step forward, never breaching the border of the shadows. “Dwayne,” Hoss continued, “is my twin brother. Or, as I lovely refer to him as . . . my afterbirth.”

Dwayne bowed as the crowd guffawed.

“As you can see,” Hoss continued, “there’s not a lot of there there. He’s so scrawny that Daddy once told me that Dwayne was conceived when Momma accidently sat on some spunk he’d left on the toilet seat.”

The crowd roiled, pointing at the runt, laughing to the point of retching.

“I know, I know,” Hoss continued, “when Dwayne was born, Momma wasn’t sure if she’d dropped a deuce or dislodged a tampon.”

Hoss waited for the decibels to drop, then got sincere. “I kid. I kid. In all seriousness, folks. I love this little squirt. He’s the brains of this campaign. I wouldn’t be half the man I am today without my little brother, Dwayne. Although, without me, he wouldn’t be half the man he is . . . which is, coincidentally, only half of a man.”

Pause. (Laughter)

“In one week,” Hoss said, “when you mark your ballot for Hoss Proffit, Governor of California, I want you to know that you’re getting double dividends on your investment – what I call double the Proffits. You get me – half man, half Hulk, half God – capable of lifting each and every one of you out of debt, out of despair, out of the doldrums from your hum-drum lives. And, like the prize in your Cracker Jacks, you get Dwayne. He’ll handle the queep. He’ll attend to the dirty details of this dirty business. He’ll extort heads of state. Blackmail the Pentagon, the Kremlin, and the Vatican. Pay off drug lords and warlords. Bury the bodies of the bureaucrats that dare defy me . . . that sort of thing.”

Hoss looked back at his brother and grinned. “It’s getting a little chilly, Dwayne.” He hugged his tanned torso with his over-muscled arms. “I’m so weary . . . so cold and weary.”

The man in the bike leathers slapped Ralph again. “Watch this. Watch this.”

The PA crackled and an old James Brown song called Funky President blasted the crowd. Ralph watched as twenty-thousand white people attempted to get their funk on.

Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey
I got to say it again
We got to get together and buy some land
Raise our food just like the man
Save our money, do like the mob
Put up your fight and own the job
We got to get over before we go under
C’mon, let’s do it, oh Lord!

Country do you know just what I meant?
We just changed, got a brand new funky president

I need to be the mayor
So I could change a few things around here
I need to be the governor
I need to be the governor
I need to be the governor

Hoss Proffit took a knee and bowed his head, feigning exhaustion. On cue, Dwayne Proffit stepped from the arc of darkness, into the spotlight, behind his larger-than-life brother. A red cape draped Dwayne’s thin arms. He lifted the red cape, spread it, and fanned it like a matador.

This was a rehearsed sketch, Ralph saw, a shameless rip-off of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

The DJ slowed things down with “California Dreamin’,” by the Mamas and the Papas. Dwayne draped the cape over Hoss’ broad shoulders, lovingly covering his brother’s muscles.

“It’s just that,” Hoss said, his voice cracking with emotion, “I love California. And I love you guys. I’m tired of us being a laughing stock. Tired of us being mocked and ridiculed. Tired of us being a fucking punchline.”

The crowd moaned reverently.

“I have a dream,” Hoss said, as the Mamas and the Papas hit the chorus. “Know what I’m dreamin’ about?”

Mmmmmmmm, the crowd lowed.

“I’m dreamin’ about a California that stands alone on the world stage, independent of the welfare states and the nanny states. I’m dreamin’ of a California that feeds it people from its fertile earth, a California that drinks deeply from its desalinated seas, a California that protects its borders with troops and nukes; a California that taxes the parasites that benefit from our innovation, and not the residents of its lands. I’m dreamin’ of a California” –

A gunshot rang out. Twenty-thousand people recoiled. Ralph looked around. There were so many guns, so many gunmen – it could have come from anywhere.

Hoss Proffit pitched forward, his face smashing into the redwood stage, his twitching body draped in the red cape his twin brother had cloaked him in.

Ralph looked up. His two eyes joined the mobs forty-thousand eyes. They all saw it . . . all saw Dwayne, the fox-faced man in the dark green suit . . . standing over Hoss Proffit with a smoking gun in his hand.

“It’s him,” Ralph said to no one. “It’s Envy.”

The DJ’s record scratched and stopped. The crowd awakened to the crime, awakened to their collective outrage. Men and women stormed the stage. Men and women wept and ripped their garments. Men and women knelt and prayed that the bullet hole would heal and the blood would stop and that Hoss Proffit’s brain would stop scuttling across the stage like a legless octopus.

Ralph could only watch as a junta of vigilantes crested the redwood rails and boarded the platform. They will tear him apart, Ralph thought. They will use their teeth and nails and shred Dwayne Proffit, the fox-faced man that committed the twin crimes of fratricide and regicide.

Ralph committed to saving the assassin. It was the only course of action that would afford him the opportunity to capture the Cardinal Sin and remand him to the Ark of the Covenant. In the fog of chaos, he loosed his wings and prepared himself to swoop in and snatch the man from the encroaching killers. He leapt and took flight, milliseconds ahead of the would-be executioners. As he reached out to grasp the fox-faced man, Envy disappeared, falling happily down a trapdoor built into the redwood stage.

(NOT) The End

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Here are the links to the other two stories:

Two Tales of Envy <<link
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 2,160 words – approx. reading time: about 8 minutes based on 265 WPM

Twinvy <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 4,335  words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM

If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:

The SDS Challenge — Envy Voting <<link

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.

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