Susan saw the rich asshole through a gap in the stage curtains. Rich was only a guess, but she thought a pretty good guess because he was wearing a very smart suit that was probably worth more than she made in a year. Not that that was difficult. The asshole part was a certainty. Only assholes came into The Cockpit, an ugly cinderblock strip club by the freeway with cheap beer, sticky floors and health-code-violation toilets.
The Cockpit’s usual customers were fat, sweaty truck drivers, all sour breath and grabby hands. Susan had bruises all the way up to her butt when she hadn’t moved fast enough.
Some of the truckers were watching the rich asshole as if he were an exhibit in a zoo. Most guys would have been intimidated by that, but not this one. Susan guessed he was a captain of industry, taking a break between power meetings and looking for a little fun. Maybe there was a wife somewhere in hot pursuit, because he was wearing a pair of wrap-around sunglasses that he probably thought were a disguise.
What Susan mainly saw was an opportunity. The truckers handed out tips like hens’ teeth. Sometimes she made less than twenty dollars a day. The rich asshole probably paid that for a fancy coffee.
She checked herself in the mirror. The hot pants and sequined bra were a little big – but they wouldn’t be on for long anyway. She’d lost all the baby weight and more after that. Sometimes she thought about writing to the teen magazines she used to read, saying how easy it was to lose weight. All you had to do was dance ten times a day for tips and be permanently hungry, and the weight just falls away.
Her face was still fresh and young, with only a trace of bitter cynicism around the eyes. Her mom would have said she had a few good years left in her yet, but that only raised the question that if stripping in The Cockpit for tips was the good years, what would the bad years look like?
She nodded at Willie in his booth. He breathed into the microphone, “The sexy, the sensational Crystal,” and ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ roared out of the speakers. She came out from behind the curtain as if she owned the room. She did a twirl, so everyone could see what they would be getting, strutted along the catwalk to the pole and used every trick she knew. She swung around the pole, climbed until she was touching the ceiling and then hung upside down by her ankles. The rich asshole looked like he was waiting for a bus. She rolled down to the catwalk and unbuttoned her top, button by button, and flung it behind her. Then the pants came off, inch by inch. The truckers were hooting and yelling now. The rich asshole could have been a waxwork. When only her G-string was left, she worked the moment, parading up and down, touching her toes, arching back until her hair touched the floor. The rich asshole looked bored. She ripped off the G-string in one fluid moment and danced the rest of the song naked in front of him. The other girls said this part would get easier. It wasn’t happening so far.
The song ended. No one applauded. The truckers threw a few dollar bills on the stage and watched her ass as she picked them up and ordered another beer. Nothing from the rich asshole.
She could have cried. Her big opportunity was toast. She picked up her clothes and used them to hide her nakedness. She turned to hide behind the curtains, and then the rich asshole produced a banknote that he spread out on the edge of the stage like a blanket. She walked over, bent down and picked up the note.
“Thanks,” she said briefly.
She hurried backstage. She put down the bundle of her clothes and counted how much she had made. It was then she saw the banknote the rich asshole had given her. It was a hundred-dollar bill. She checked the back. It wasn’t one of those fakes that the God squad left with a bible quote on the back. It was real money.
Maybe she had been wrong about him. She looked through the gap in the curtains. The rich maybe-asshole was still there. He seemed to be waiting.
She got dressed quickly, checked her hair and moved around to the customer floor before anyone else could claim him. She sat down next to him. He was very pale. His profile looked like a statue in a museum.
“Hi, my name’s Crystal.” She didn’t want anyone here to know her real name. She lived in fear that one day she’d see someone she knew.
He didn’t react for a moment, then he turned to her like a radar dish locating its target. She could see herself in his glasses as a small doll’s head surrounded by stars.
“Pleased to meet you.”
He sounded some sort of foreign, English maybe or French.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“My name?” He seemed surprised by the question, as if it had never been asked before. “You can call me Gabriel.”
Okay, it wasn’t the best fake name she’d ever been given, but it wasn’t the worst either.
“Do you want a private dance, Gabriel?” She nodded towards the curtained-off area that took up a corner. “You could have me all to yourself.”
She reached over to loosen his tie. It was oddly warm and felt like skin. He moved her hand away, but not before she noticed that the tie was part of the shirt. She looked closer and saw where his shirt became his jacket, as if it were something he’d grown. Weird.
“A private dance would be nice.” He held out his palm, and a neat pile of hundred-dollar bills appeared there. Okay, the guy was a magician. The weird jacket was part of his act. “Or here is five hundred dollars for a few minutes of your time.”
“I don’t do that sort of thing.” At least not yet. The other girls thought a few sweaty moments on a truck seat was just extra money, but she had always thought she was better than that. The only problem was that, every day, she could see the moment when she was desperate enough to do that getting unstoppably closer, like that giant boulder in the Indiana Jones film.
“Oh, there would be no touching.” He sounded faintly disgusted at the idea. “It’s just that I have been traveling for so long, it would be nice to talk to someone human.”
Over by the bar, Desiree was giving Susan an enthusiastic thumbs up. She was finally going to be one of the team. Gabriel looked like a nice guy, and she did have a can of mace. She also owed Jared two months’ rent, and he was making some crudely specific suggestions about how she could pay it.
“Just talking?” she finally asked.
“Okay. But lay one finger on me, and you’ll get a face full of mace.”
Susan’s home was a double-wide trailer behind The Cockpit with a leak that had wept rust stains down the wall and smelt of blocked toilet. The carpet had clearly defined paths between the kitchen area, the couch and the bedroom. The TV had an illegal cable hook-up. The windows were milky with age.
Susan started to pick up the scattered baby toys.
“Sorry about the mess. My kid’s not been feeling too good.”
Gabriel said flatly, “Molly is teething. Two teeth on the bottom and one on the top. The pain will pass. In a week, she will be fine.”
Susan stopped what she was doing and looked back at Gabriel so quickly her neck cracked.
“I didn’t tell you my kid’s name. How did you know? Are you some kind of stalker?”
Smoke began to billow around Gabriel. He took off his sunglasses, and Susan saw his eyes. They were as blank as cue balls.
Susan pressed herself against the wall until she felt it flex. She was suddenly freezing cold. Every hair on her arm was standing up.
Gabriel raised his arms out like wings and smiled.
“I am something you could never understand.”
Susan’s eyes were wide. Her mouth dropped open. “Are you an angel?” she asked.
Gabriel’s smile disappeared. He sighed and dropped his hands. If he’d had eyes, he would have rolled them.
“An angel!” he said, dismissively. “Angels are the things you see on the Hallmark Channel and in that terrible series with Della Reese. If you feel the need for a label, you can call me a second chance. For example, you think that Morgan ruined your life.”
“You know about him?”
Gabriel sighed. “It helps if you assume I know everything. You think Morgan ruined your life.”
“He did! I was just sixteen, and he got me pregnant. He said he’d stay with me and together we’d be a family. And then one day he’d gone. I love Molly more than anything, but I just couldn’t manage on my own.”
“And so you dropped out of school. But shall I tell you a secret that you already know? You ruined your life. You could have stayed in school. It would have been hard, but you were smart, you had the grades, you could have made it work. But instead, you wallowed in your pain. You let it drag you under when you could have started to swim.”
Susan felt great fat tears rolling down her face. She’d wondered if she could have carried on and dismissed the idea. But now Gabriel had shown her the truth. It was as if he’d pulled her heart out.
“And after you dropped out, there was a series of crappy jobs until you wound up here and finally got what you wanted: stripping for tips and living in a shithole with a blocked toilet and a leaking roof.”
“This isn’t what I wanted! It’s horrible and disgusting.”
“What you wanted was to be the wronged woman. You wanted to show everyone just how much you were hurting. You wanted no one to be able to think of Morgan without remembering how much he had hurt you. Shall I tell you what you’ve achieved with all your pain and rage? Morgan lives in Bakersfield where he has a wife and child. Sometimes he sees someone that reminds him of you, but he can’t quite remember your name. He thinks it might be Sarah or Stella, but it doesn’t bother him very much. You’ve ruined your life to hurt someone that doesn’t even remember your name.”
Susan screamed like a wounded animal. “Nooooooooooo!”
“Shall I tell you how this story ends? In ten years’ time, you die of a heroin overdose.”
Susan sobbed out. “I don’t do drugs.”
“Really?” Gabriel arched one perfect eyebrow. “So, the plastic bag in your underwear drawer is really full of talcum power? You start with heroin because it takes the sharp edges off life. But one day you get a hot load, and you die with a needle stuck in your arm. Molly is taken in by a children’s home. What happens to her there is as bad as it gets, and she runs away. At fourteen, she’s a street prostitute in LA with her own habit.”
“No! No! No! No! No!” Susan threw a cushion at Gabriel. It missed.
“When she’s sixteen, one of her clients panics when a police car passes by. He pushes Molly away. She falls, hits her head, and that’s the end of her story. The police arrest the client, and he hangs himself in his cell. His wife can’t handle the shock and guilt and goes swimming after drinking a bottle of vodka and drowns. The police call it an accident. Her children … Well, you see how it is. You fall, Molly falls, her client falls, his wife falls. Click click click. Just like dominos.”
Susan looked up at him. Her face was wet with tears, but there was sudden hope in her eyes. “And you’re here to change things!”
“Again with the angel fixation. You watch far too much TV. The only person that can change things is you. But here is a helping hand.” Gabriel held out a sheet of paper to Susan. She pulled away from it as if it were dangerously radioactive.
“It won’t bite.”
Susan took the sheet. Under a fancy company logo, she read:
‘After your recent interview, I am pleased to offer you the position of trainee assistant.’
There was more, but Susan read the first few words again.
‘After your recent interview… ‘
“I haven’t been for an interview.”
“Really? Because Mr Goldberg thought you interviewed very well. He knows you have a lot of ground to make up, but he thinks you will work hard.”
Gabriel trained that terrifyingly blank gaze on Susan.
“But I know you will work hard.”
Susan felt she was drowning and grasping at a lifebelt.
“I don’t have a car to get there. It’s been broken for weeks.”
“Are you sure? Because I think if you try it, you will find it’s working just fine.”
Gabriel gestured towards the door. Susan looked from door to Gabriel and back again.
“Please try it.”
Susan stumbled to the door. She looked back, and Gabriel smiled at her. She made her way to her crappy Ford, sat down behind the wheel and started it up.
The car ran like it had just left the showroom.
Susan collapsed over the steering wheel like a drowned corpse left by the tide. She had seen the rest of her life getting darker each day, and Gabriel had been right – a part of her had seen each small humiliation as somehow hurting Morgan. But Gabriel had changed all that. He had taken her hand like a scared, lost child and shown her the way back to sunlight. He had given her a chance that she was going to seize with both hands and never let go. She was going to be everything that she had ever dreamed.
She heard Molly crying, and the sound pulled her upright. Her daughter was alone with – whatever it was.
She ran back to her home. The living room was empty. Gabriel had gone. She opened the bedroom door. Molly was lying in her bed, kicking her arms and legs in the air. Susan picked her up and held Molly tight.
“It’s going to be okay, baby. It’s going to be okay.”
She walked Molly into the living room and saw her interview letter on the kitchen table. Next to it was a fan of fifty 100-dollar bills
“Oh, baby, everything is going to be different. I promise you, it’s going to be different.”
In a car twenty miles away, doing exactly the speed limit, Daniel thumped the steering wheel.
“You screwed up the timing! You missed out a whole speech. When you sent Susan out to check her car, I barely got the mechanic out in time.”
Martin stopped taking off his makeup and looked around.
“Seriously? You saw how quickly she went for ‘angelic visitation.’ She was looking for something so hard it hurt. The computer selected her because she was just what we wanted: young, smart and suddenly on hard times. The kid tipped her over the edge, and she ate up our story like candy. If I’d have started droning on that no man is an island, she’d have started to wonder what was really going on. I knew you’d be watching the feed from the camera in the jacket and would sort everything out.”
Martin peeled the contact lens from his right eye and then his left.
“Christ, these things hurt.”
“But with the dry ice they make a hell of an effect.”
Martin raised his palms and proclaimed, “I am the angel Gabriel, come to solve all your problems.”
“I was thinking more early-era David Bowie. He could have got two albums out of that image. Still would have sounded like someone screaming in an iron foundry, though.”
Martin shook his head. He’d known Daniel six months, and he’d been serious for almost none of that time.
Daniel continued, “But we got the job done. Without us, Susan would have spent her life on benefits, and her only contribution would have been to the drug dealers, crime figures and probably the prison population. But we—”
“Strongly motivated her towards a training course cunningly disguised as a job that will provide her with the qualifications, contacts and confidence to build a successful career in today’s fast-moving marketplace. I sat through the training videos as well. God, they were boring. From economic minus to economic plus in one easy move. But what about the rest like her? We can’t reach them all.”
“Then you should remember the lesson that Master Po taught me in the Shaolin Temple. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“That’s from Kung Fu.”
“Maybe. But the lesson still stands. You have to start somewhere. Ronald Reagan said we should measure welfare’s success by how many people leave welfare, but every year the bill gets bigger. But if you spend a tenth of that money on a once-in-a-lifetime mystical experience, then it gives them the get-up-and-go they’d never find on their own. And it works. Our short-term success rate is over ninety-five per cent; our long-term success rate is over seventy-five per cent. Only a handful of the cases we’ve dealt with over the last six months will fail. In five years’ time, Susan will probably be running her own business, and her daughter will grow up to be president of the world while finding a cure for cancer in her spare time. You see? Susan wins, her daughter wins, the taxpayer wins, and all it cost was a few hours of our time.”
“And some makeup.”
“And some makeup,” Daniel agreed.
Martin finished taking off the pale makeup and pulled over his head the one-piece jacket that screamed ‘weird’. He twisted around to put the jacket in the back seat, and it was at that exact point that an overtaking car pulled alongside them. The family in the other car looked in horror at the apparently naked man in the passenger seat, before the driver stood on the gas pedal and made the car disappear.
Daniel said, “Now there go some people with an interesting story to tell tonight.”
Martin popped up his middle finger in a gesture that could have been aimed at the other car or Daniel, but was probably both.
Martin pulled on a faded NYPD T-shirt and then a leather jacket.
“You know when I was assigned to this project, I thought it was a mistake. I’m a cop, I break up fights and arrest people, and this was some new-age bullshit. But the stupid thing is, your way works. I’ve spent my life pushing people, but the problem is – they push back. Then you come along and wake them up with a horror story and dangle a job, and they’ll walk all over you to get to it. Over the last six months, I’ve started to see that people are never as simple as they appear. Under their smooth, practised exterior, they are constantly being torn between the hopes that pull them on and the fears that hold them back.”
Daniel said warily, “Have you been smoking those strange herbal cigarettes the kids have?”
Martin popped up his middle finger.
“It’s that cops see people at their worst, and it’s easy to see them as scumbags or suspects with no shades of grey. But it’s never that simple.”
Daniel leaned forward and tapped the dashboard clock as if that would make the digital display show something other than the current time.
“Nope, still detecting worrying levels of liberal sensitivities. Next thing you know, you’ll be listening to smooth rock and voting Democrat.”
Martin looked at Daniel side-eyes. “Not going to happen.”
Daniel reached the edge of town and followed the signs to the centre.
“It’s a shame it’s all over,” Martin said. “We’ve done things in the last six months that I wouldn’t have believed, changed so many lives. We’ve done good.”
“And had some good times.”
“Except Dallas,” Martin added quickly. “I was so hungover the next morning doing my mystical apparition, the moment I sent the mark out to see his magically repaired car, I was sick in his bathroom.”
“I know,” Daniel said bitterly. “I was the one monitoring the feed from the camera in your jacket. But it’s time to move on. If we do our little show too many times in one area, then, eventually, two people will share their once-in-a-lifetime experience and then the whole thing falls down.”
Daniel parked by a fire hydrant across from the police station.
Martin paused with his hand on the door. “Will you be back here again?”
“That means no. But it’s been good working with you. I’m going to miss you.”
“You’re not thinking this is a hugging moment, are you?”
“You’re a weird guy, but you’re okay.”
“No, what’s weird is your continuing support for the Lakers. I keep saying you should support a team with a better defensive rebound, like the Ohio over-seventies league.”
Martin shook his head.
“But seriously, it’s been good working with you. Go with God or the nearest available deity.”
Martin sighed as they shook hands. Daniel waved and pulled away.
It was very quiet in the car. When it got dark enough that no one would notice, Daniel released the steering wheel and let the car drive itself. Daniel sat very still. He seemed to be waiting. The silence poured into the car like oil.
Eventually, the radio said, “Well?”
“Okay, okay, you were right.”
“Of course, I was right. Does the word ‘omniscient’ mean nothing to you? When we started this project, Martin had taken the first steps to being an angry, embittered man. In ten years, he’d have been a bad cop; his wife and children would have hated him. Eventually, they’d have left him, and he’d have put a gun in his mouth and blown his brains out. His wife and kids would have been sad and angry, and those they touched would have received a small increment of hate.”
“But now Martin is walking with a new spring in his step. He’s seeing the world in a better way.”
“And in ten years’ time, he’ll arrest a serial killer before his career is really started. Because of Martin, eight people will live. None of them will cure cancer or be president, but they’ll be good people, and that message will spread.”
“But what about freewill? You were very keen on that. Doesn’t this take that away?”
“Does it really affect freewill if I clear someone’s windshield so they can see the cliff edge they’re heading for? That’s all we’re doing. The opposition have uncounted ranks of temptations, but we have our own weapons too. The important thing is to approach each person in a way that makes sense to them. So, Susan saw a second chance. Martin saw a shadowy organisation using tough love to get people off benefits with the help of some really good mechanics.”
There was silence for a moment, the tyres hummed, lights passed like bright comets.
“And what did you see, Daniel?”
“You know, don’t you?”
“What part of omniscient is so confusing? You have been my strong right arm for so long, but I could see you losing your focus. All you could see was unremitting warfare without hope, without end. I thought you needed to see the fight on a smaller scale and remember why we fight. So, what did you see, Daniel?”
“I saw that humans are flowers constantly turning their faces to the sun, but they are wilful and perverse. Given two choices, they will find a third worst way. When success is in sight, they will shoot themselves in the foot so they never reach it. But there is a greatness and nobility in all of them. I saw that we won today, we will win tomorrow, there will be days when we lose, but, little by little, we are winning.”
“And you’d like to see more?”
“Then next is Toledo. It’s the standard redemption gig. Mainly.”
“The subject is FBI Natalie Wiles. She’s had bad experiences with men, so this time you will be a woman.”
Daniel’s body started to flow like wax.
“A woman! I hate being a woman. Human men are so grabby, and we’re either invisible or the only thing they can look at. Can I at least blast a few of them with a lightning bolt?”
“No lightning bolts! That sort of thing attracts attention. But maybe I’ll let you change a few individuals’ behaviour.”
“And that will be okay?”
“Of course. It’s part of the plan. Everything is part of the plan.”
BIO: Peter Bailey lives in England, although he normally has a slightly vacant look that indicates his mind is orbiting different planets. He is currently retired, and plans to stay that way because it’s the best thing ever, and much preferred to writing code and debugging why said code isn’t working. He is the author of several published short stories, and it’s at this exact point he realises that he really must create an author website so people can find them. His first book was Walk In The Flesh, a charming little work that starts with a broken neck and heads rapidly down hill from there. His most recent book is called Rats In Maze and will be published in September.