Four friends met on a beautiful morning in the dining room of an opulent hotel in Washington, D.C. They gathered to give thanks to themselves for a year of promises kept and dreams realized, of enemies humiliated and opponents crushed. They crowded around a small table, as chummy as pups in a litter in the luminous modern environs of the eatery, surrounded by the susurrous scrape of silverware. Around them, the world was awash in ivory radiance; white tablecloths, white napkins, white walls, soft white recessed lighting. Their voices had the low, relaxed tones of powerful men at ease among confederates but eager not to be overheard by outsiders.
“Brethren,” began the Reverend Cremello, “it is a prodigious pleasure to be here with you all on this fine day. You’re here, as I am, to rejoice in the steady advance of our aspirations. Regard the sumptuous repast that lies prone before our eager forks.” Here, Cremello gestured at the poached eggs that stared up at him with twin yolks from his plate, gelatinous and goggle-eyed. “Just so does the fate of this great nation wait for us to dig in. Would you be so kind as to start us off, Pastor Cortez?”
A stout man with the thick neck and ill-favored face of a gargoyle cleared his throat with a sound like a chuckling drain pipe. “Good morning – and it is a grand morning for freedom. Our Colossians 3:22 law and obedience agenda continues to gain ground in statehouses nationwide. Our private sector incarceration solutions have two, ah, primary benefits; first, that they are low-cost and efficient, and second, the inmates in our care are subject to robust Christian influences. After we bring their, ah, physical bodies into compliance with a highly structured regimen, their souls follow suit.” Cortez’s ample lips twisted into a sneer. “We’ve cut the food budget as far as it can, ah, feasibly go at this point. The bologna we serve has a distinctly viridescent sheen. And they’re even engaged in economically productive activity! Our new partnership with Free Spirit women’s apparel is an, ah, perfect example. We’ve put hardened thugs to work learning the textile trade while we provide salutary sermons through the facility’s loudspeakers at a volume that experience has taught us yields the maximum effect. Guards wearing ear protection are always on hand to provide firm, ah, correction whenever necessary. Brothers, you should see how much they’ve benefitted from it! We’re conquering miscreant souls – laying claim to spiritual territory at a rate that the Communists – those godless Reds – could only have dreamed of.”
“Outstanding,” replied Cremello happily through a mouthful of masticated fruit salad. He turned to another of their number, this one a lean, hard-faced fellow with a crewcut the color of steel wool and eyes as blue as a dead desert sky. “Chaplain Sabre?”
“Well, Reverend,” said Sabre, “I’d first like to praise the good Pastor for his hard fight. The war on the criminal class is a holy struggle indeed. We can also be proud, gentlemen — proud of what I’ve been up to as well. It is with great pleasure that I can announce the successful completion of the Crusader missile system, now to be deployed in a theater of conflict, the whereabouts of which I am unfortunately not at liberty to divulge. The war on terror is a spiritual war, and the Crusader represents an exciting new chapter in that war.” Sabre paused and swallowed black coffee in a convulsive swig. “Lives, gentlemen. American – Christian – lives saved, and terrorist lives eradicated. Woman, child, grandparent, or jihadi, the Crusader makes no distinction within its blast radius. Think of Sodom, gentlemen. Think of the Midianites.” His eyes sparkled, betraying life for an instant. “The wrath of God, gentlemen. And what’s more, it carries a nice, juicy profit margin, and all the contracts are no-bid.”
Cremello, beaming, slid the Chaplain a plate of triumphal sausages. “Exemplary. God bless you, sir. I’ve long maintained that a brisk, vigorous new Crusade is hundreds of years overdue. Reverend Gold – I believe that brings us to you, my friend?”
Across the table, a towering jellyfish of a man with round, glistening eyes and a face as flat as a shovel shoveled a great double forkful of gravy-dripping biscuit into his maw and thought for a moment, chewing and smacking as he did so. “My beloveds, my bosom friends,” he quavered eventually, his tone obsequious as greased silk. “First let me state what an immense pleasure it has been to listen to your reports – to intangibly dine of the spiritually fleshy fruit that your efforts have borne. What a treat. And I’ve brought you a treat as well. Like manna from the Almighty, lo, have I gathered the final Senate votes. In a week’s time, the Loaves and Fishes Act will be law. It’ll be so long socialism, farewell food stamps, goodbye to the failed and fraudulent cult of the hand-out! 2 Thessalonians 3:10, beloveds; ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ Mark my words; you’re not going to see any bums, moochers, or mongrels with a physique like mine anymore.” At this last jest, Reverend Gold gave a high, shivering laugh that set his chins to jiggling like a plate of uncooked oysters.
“Very well done.” Cremello extended a pale hand and affectionately squeezed one of Gold’s doughy mitts. “Most well done, all of you. My own efforts have likewise been richly rewarded; ten more states in this great nation have adopted our cast-the-first-stone language into law. Now, in a majority of these United States, any citizen – ahem, excuse me, let me rephrase. Any patriot who fears for his own life or his property is free to defend himself with resoundingly deadly force.” He shifted, adjusting his waistband around the metallic bulge of his concealed weapon. “I myself suggest that when our countrymen are in the market for such force, they look no further than Cremello Pistols. Our ‘Pale Rider’ model, in particular, has much to offer the discerning warrior, but I suppose the man of the house might consider gifting the little lady something with less oomph; maybe a sweet, compliant little .22 or the like.”
Cremello’s long, cadaverous face bore an expression of smug contentment. “Oh, brethren. Rejoice – rejoice! We have forged a mighty politics for our mighty God and His mighty followers; a true dominion that will, I trust, stand unsullied and glorious until Hell freezes over.”
“Actually, the coldest parts of Hell have been frozen for countless eons. Since long before the Son of the Morning fell and first laid eyes on them.” A voice rang out, sliding through the murmur of the breakfast crowd like a glass dagger through tissue paper. “For example, take the shores of Gaily-Laugh. The mud there is frozen as hard as a jailer’s heart.”
The thing that addressed them did not shimmer ethereally into existence. It did not spring forth with a pop!, absent one moment and present the next – nothing so simple. Instead, it seemed that the tall shape on the horse had been there the entire time, bearing witness silently. Indeed, with unforgiving clarity, the assembled Reverends and other assorted humans suddenly noticed a great many leering and watching things that had been there all along, sub Superficiem. Gone was the sweet sleep that bred dreams of reason and order; with a chorus of screams, all the restaurant’s patrons were jolted into the bitter morning light of madness. The entrance to Hell had been around them all along. In their human arrogance and the paucity of their senses, they simply hadn’t noticed – until something shifted at the same moment that the voice rang out, tearing aside mundanity’s perfumed veil to uncover the rotting meat-face of the incredible.
How was it possible that the holy men had not noticed the creature that now addressed them? How had they not marveled; his sapphire armor and lion’s-head helm painfully ablaze with light, the cruel and beautiful hooks of his ruby weapons, his gaunt and colorless steed? Perhaps they would have debated the details later – regrouped once they had fled the restaurant and compared their versions of the experience. But no. The thing’s words had pinned them in place with cruel, invisible needles. Now, as shrieking waitstaff and panicked breakfasters scrambled out the front door in a terrified flood, the four preachers sat trembling, fixed as firmly as if they were entomological specimens pinned in a display box. Within moments, it was just the four Reverends, the resplendent horseman, and a shifting tapestry of slithering, scuttling subordinates. “Who…?” was all that Reverend Cremello could manage through nerveless lips – that, and a watery shriek as something with dozens of scaly, clicking legs began to climb the inside of his paralyzed thigh.
“I am Sab Nac,” the tall interloper replied. “Although you shall call me Great Marquis.” His steed silently picked its way around the wreckage of overturned tables. It bore him to the edge of the restaurant, where he dismounted and removed his helmet to peer out the window, into what – judging by the clamor that now filtered into the deserted dining room – was bedlam. “So,” said Sab Nac after a moment. “The jolly Bag-Man has done it, has he? Pulled the string, so to speak, and now the unraveling shall commence. Oh, what fun!”
He turned to face the frozen holy men. He had the fierce face of a king, with dark olive skin and a coffee-black beard and curls, both knit into tight braids. “And what are we going to do with you, o quartermasters of order? We know your deeds, a little. What have you to say, in summary of your mortal sojourn?” And with a snap of his fingers, Sab Nac unfastened the preachers’ tongues. All four began to babble at once, and each talked over his fellow in his eagerness to be heard.
“Mighty King,” wept the Reverend Cortez, “Great Marquis, be merciful! Your power leaves me awestruck – these charlatans seated with me, however, have boasted often of their power to expel demons and cast out fallen spirits. They think themselves your conquerors!” “Lies! Lies!” screamed Chaplain Sabre. A vein stood out on his lean forehead, pulsing like a pierced and squirming worm. “You’re a soldier, Great Marquis, I can see that by your kit!! You and I are obviously men of glory and war! These others are soft, despicable! Weak”
“Yes, weak, o King!” sniveled the Reverend Gold. “I bear you no ill will, Great Marquis, and I certainly pose you no threat! A contemptible little snail such as myself is surely beneath you! Let me go and I will flee – yes, flee! These others are the ones you need to worry about!” “Oh, a fine thing to brag about, Gold, you great shaking suet!” the Reverend Cremello thundered. “Great Marquis, you need earthly lieutenants – strong ones, ready to take up your banner! I’m the leader here – I’m the kind of man you need! Allow me to join forces with you, splendid one!”
“Be silent,” said Sab Nac tenderly, and their tongues were stilled once more. “Shall we indeed dally here, I wonder? Or shall I show you my home? The endless ringing crystal chamber pots and stained golden commodes of the Lavatorynth… Butcher blossoms in full bloom in the Meat Garden…” Sab Nac drew a long, scintillating sword made of nacre from the bundle of weapons on his back and swung it carefully before him, testing its weight.
“There’s a feast there that the four of you may find diverting. You see, some of my guests have palates so dulled to anything but the most refined of delicacies that they crave one dainty above all others. No gourmand could dream of a meat better suited to his tastes than their own, could they? Yes – and just so do they dine! Vivisected and open to probing fork and carving knife, they cook and eat their own secret savories right there, at my splendid dining table. Would you like to see?”
Silence greeted his inquiry; silence, and four miserable, upturned faces. “No,” Sab Nac finally said. “No, I think not. I think you are unworthy of the grinding splendor of our home. Go back to the kingdom you have wrought here, on Earth, but be warned: once you do, if you look around and are displeased with your creation, do not dare to call it Hell. The Hell I know is merciless and extravagant, a place of brutal beauty and absolutely unforgiving freedom. Your works…” Sab Nac spat. The floor where his sputum landed began to smolder. “You are mean, petty men, in search of petty power. There is no grandeur in you.”
Sab Nac lifted a pale hand, and the Reverends found that their leaden limbs were once again under their command. Immediately, Cremello leapt to his feet, drew his pistol, and fired wildly at the Great Marquis, while Cortez, Gold, and Sabre scrambled madly for the exit. Once on the other side of the door, the three fleeing Reverends beheld pandemonium. Sirens screamed and cars careened madly into one another as Washington became the violent playground of a dazzling variety of Hell’s denizens. Tall, short, spiny-tailed or as smooth as slugs, clad in kaleidoscopic finery or as naked as hot stone, they filled the air with their shrieks and gibberish – air that was growing ripe with smoke and the smell of blood.
Sabre was set upon immediately by a gang of leathery-skinned, green-eyed things wielding long pruning hooks. Chaplain duties notwithstanding he had never been in battle, and, as it turned out, he was not particularly adept at combat. His screams sent the Reverend Gold – already unnerved – into a blind panic. Gold blundered, blubbering, into the street, where he was struck dead by a car whose screaming driver was distracted by the jointed claws and needle teeth of the thing eating her face.
The Reverend Cortez kept his head down and hustled frantically for his life, cursing as he did so. He ducked nimbly out of reach of a naked eight-foot-tall demon with a leering pig’s face, skirted an intersection full of flaming wreckage, and made it to his car. Pedal floored and luck evidently on his side, Cortez left Washington, DC — and the ministry – in his rearview mirror and never looked back.
In the restaurant where the Reverends’ day began, Cremello stood and clutched his smoking pistol helplessly. Sab Nac – who had absorbed the fusillade with as much concern as a stone in the rain – regarded him. “So,” he said at length, “there’s a little spark in you, at least. You will come with me. Not as my guest, but as my good and faithful servant. Come, silly man. We have habits to break you of and new habits to teach you. I shall tear down the walls of your mind and build a splendid new city there, teeming with beautiful madness.”
A great many beings came to Washington, DC from Hell that day – and one man, of mortal flesh and blood, was taken in the other direction; deep down and away to the fiefdom of the Great Marquis and servitude in his palace of gangrenous pleasures, where he remains to this day.
Let us give thanks.