Malcolm knelt in the corner of his office before the little shrine he kept. Everyone kept one, in their homes and their offices, but he in particular was expected to. Needed to. The shrine to the Blessed. To the fucking cumsack who caused people like him to exist. He supposed he ought to be grateful, but it hadn’t done him all that much good. It was almost a curse, this awareness he had. Well, fuck it, do the ritual. Daily ritual, that was good. You had to do that. He reached inside, found his spiritual self, and manifested his wings. He burned the pinch of copal incense, head bowed. He was a sorry mess right now and he knew it. He’d won, he’d got his party into coalition with the fucking Tories, but that had been the start of his misery. He hadn’t been home, properly home, in days. He had been neglecting himself for the sake of the nation. Or at least what he thought was the good of the nation. The condition of his wings told another story. He was a fuck-up.
The door creaked open and his heart leapt into his throat. Hadn’t he locked it? Sam had gone home, hadn’t she?
“Malcolm, I’ve got an idea and-- oh my god.”
Malcolm slumped forward onto his hands. Fucking Nicola fucking Murray fuck fuck fuck. He’d kept his secret quiet from everyone but Sam for fucking years and one time – one fucking time-- he forgot to lock his door she found him.
Well, could have been worse. Could have been Reeder.
He waited for her reaction. How many seconds of gawping? What level of blindingly obvious commentary?
“You’re one of the Blessed.”
There it was. “Fucking amazing observation there.”
“What happened to your wings? They’re a mess! You’re a mess. Malcolm, were you injured? They’re not supposed to look like that.”
Suddenly she was behind him and he felt her hand on his back.
“Don’t fucking touch them!”
He shoved himself to his feet and spun around, hands raised to ward her off. He couldn’t abide them being touched by anyone but an intimate partner. The idea of Nicola touching them made him sick with anger. Fucking pilgrims, treating him like he was a relic.
“You need-- you need to preen them. Or get help preening them. My oldest has a cockatoo. I know how this works.” Nicola laughed and Malcolm held his head in his hands.
“Yeah. I’m a fucking cockatoo. Fuck you, Nicola. That’s not how it works.”
“No? Are you molting?”
“I’m not fucking molting. I’m fucking exhausted and malnourished and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in three years and my fucking wings are like Dorian Grey’s fucking portrait, got it? They’re me. Fucking spiritually. That’s how it fucking works. I run around mopping up the floods of piss you stream out on the nation and lose a fucking feather for every hack I threaten to garrote.”
“Malcolm, I–” Then Nicola stopped and seemed to look at him properly for the first time. “Malnourished?”
“Oh fucking fuck off, Nicola. I haven’t got time for this shite.”
“Yes, you do. There’s a Carluccio’s at Waterloo Station. We’re going. Put on your coat.”
There was steel in her voice, unexpected steel. Malcolm wanted to resist almost reflexively except for the shock of it. Then he said, “Fucking Carluccio’s?”
“It’s unassuming and it’s public and cheap. We can get a plate of pasta into you without anybody thinking the least of it.”
Malcolm tilted his head. It was the least stupid thing Nicola had ever said to him. She was an academic. Had been. There was a brain in there somewhere. And suddenly he longed for something that wasn’t this office, was a boring chain restaurant filled with people who weren’t politicians talking about things that weren’t about what he’d done to get his Party in power and what they’d done with it once they had it. Fucking twat Nicola, she was the least offensive of them. One of the few with a conscience, if not a brain.
“Yeah,” he said. “One condition. We don’t fucking talk about politics.”
Nicola smiled at him. “Done. Put your coat on.”
Malcolm spread his arms and closed his eyes and begged the things to hide themselves. He felt them shifting, shimmering out of manifestation, his body returning to normal. The sense of the other world was always with him, as it was with all the sad fucks afflicted with a manifestation, but it was dimmer now.
“That was-- that was almost beautiful. I’ve been with the Minister of Spirituality on an exorcism, but that’s the closest I’ve been to-- They say they’re all around us. Angels. I never realized.”
Malcolm made no reply to that, because the only things he could think to say were cruel and he found himself too weary to be cruel to Nicola. The woman was trying to feed him. The least he could do was be polite.
In the restaurant, he demanded a quiet table in the corner, where they could talk without being overheard by too many people. She would want to grill him, and he would have to answer, and the thought of it being public made him weary. He could imagine the headlines. The devil of Whitehall. The demon. Never mind that he was certified Blessed.
Nicola was prattling on at him, but he wasn’t paying the least attention. Where had his life gone so very wrong? He had won the election. He was losing his grace. He was a worthless sack of skin.
Nicola and the waiter were both looking at him. “What?”
“Malcolm, would you like to split a bottle of wine? White, I think.”
“Don’t drink,” he said, shortly. He wasn’t interested in going into it with Nicola Murray.
“Pellegrino, then,” she said to the waiter. “Big bottle.” And then she proceeded to order for the pair of them, showing more confidence in that exchange with wait staff than she’d ever displayed as a politician with the public. How had she ever managed to get elected? She must have given speeches with some sort of skill.
Malcolm played with his salad fork and re-evaluated Nicola Murray. Could there be something useful in there after all?
“So,” she said. “No politics.”
“Nice to get a break from the usual, yeah?”
“If either of us knows any other topics. I can’t exactly chit-chat about the football.”
“You’re not expected to.”
“No.” And there was a little bitterness in that. “I’m expected to talk about the kids. Or marriage. Or how I manage to juggle it all. No one ever asks the fathers those questions.”
“Precisely. So. You’re an angel, but you hide it.”
Malcolm winced. “Not my word for myself. The government’s word.”
“I know the classifications. I also know you’re rare.”
“The only ones rarer are the ones with the fucking halos.”
“Cure you with a touch. Britain’s got three. One of them refuses to talk to anybody from the government.” Malcolm couldn’t blame her. One too many attempts to strong-arm her into performing miracles on nauseating people. You couldn’t make a saint do anything they didn’t want to. You could kill them. People had. There were consequences, but people still did it every so often. Putin had tried it. That had worked out as well as ever.
“How many like you?”
Malcolm shrugged. “You can read the census if you care. It’s not like we’re useful. I look impressive when I’m in good condition. Scare the kids into good behavior.”
“Can you fly?”
“Yes, I can fucking fly. It does me sod-all good.”
The waiter reappeared with a basket of bread and a dish of olives. The bread smelled good despite his disdain. He took a piece, broke it, ate. It was good. The focaccia was warm and the olive oil decent. Malcolm found himself working steadily through all of it while Nicola watched him with a faint smile on her face.
“When’s the last time you ate?” Nicola said.
Malcolm stopped, tilted his head, considered. “Two nights ago? Sam brought me something. I forget what it was.” He’d been fasting. He’d forgotten why. Some transgression he’d wanted to make good on. Pointlessly. He’d eaten whatever Sam had brought him and forgotten it instantly. Some atonement it had been. He was a fuck-up.
Nicola nodded, and took an olive. “When did you find out? About your condition.”
“Puberty. Same as any other manifestation. Surprised everyone to see them. I think they expected bat wings and horns.”
“Your feathers are white normally?”
“Clear marker of blessedness.”
“Yeah. So they didn’t try to purge me. Sent me to the school instead.”
“Malcolm Tucker at a school for the Blessed, my my.”
“Yeah. Only fucking way to get ahead if you don’t have money, at least in Thatcher’s Britain.”
“Is running down Thatcher talking politics? Because I could do that all day if allowed.”
Malcolm grinned at her, nodded. Nicola smiled back and drank some fizzy water. Malcolm ate an olive. He was beginning to feel like he was almost human again, which was impossible given how long he’d been fasting.
Their food arrived, and Malcolm was now eager enough that he dug into his pasta. She’d ordered something safe for him, a lot of veg and cream sauce, and he ate without thinking. An act of kindness, of grace, given completely thoughtlessly and selflessly to one of the Blessed. This was meaningful. He wasn’t sure how yet. He looked up and saw her smiling at him gently over her water glass.
“Fuck,” he said. “Thanks. Nicola. Needed this.”
“You’re quite welcome.”
“Don’t think it’ll save you next time you’re colossally stupid on telly.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Eat your pasta.”
“Fuck off.” But he picked up his fork again anyway.
“Are they better now?”
“Your, um, wings.”
“Oh.” Malcolm reached into himself, examined his soul. To his surprise, the answer was yes. “Not great, but yeah. Yeah. Better. Fuck me.” And he smiled at her.
Malcolm wandered. He wanted a church. London was full of churches, of course, full of little incense-smoked houses of the holy, shrines to the Blessed who walked among them. London, littered with immanence. Not as much as Rome was, but they’d made a go of it, the English had. Statues to the mighty ones, the Blessed heroes who’d won the Empire. Mostly the dead Blessed. The living ones were inconveniences. Like him. A fucking inconvenience as a boy, an object of wonder for what he’d been cursed with, not who he’d been as a teenager. And now he was valued only for his capacity for terror.
Into the Tube at Westminster, out at Bank. He could get himself there in much less time, of course, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay away from his office for a few hours. Straighten out his head. If it was possible. St Paul’s was always tempting, because it was so pretty. But Christopher Wren had built other churches in London, and it was to one of these he went now.
He knew when he stepped onto sanctified ground. Had always known it, even before he’d manifested as a thirteen-year-old snot. It wasn’t always where ordinary humans intended it to be, but instead where they’d made it be, through their faith. One act of faith in a place was sometimes enough. Many acts, through the centuries, in a church this lovely? He knew it. This place was real. Felt it grow as he trudged up the steps. Felt the call to show himself as he stepped over the threshold, to be who he was.
He could control it if he wished to, could keep himself hidden. But instead he allowed himself to respond to the call, and revealed himself half-way. Wings, feathered wings, a huge span, shimmering with spiritual light, translucent in the sunlight because he had not allowed himself out fully. They were looking better since his meal with Nicola Murray. A few of his flight feathers had reappeared overnight. They were still gray, stained with black spots and what might have looked like dried blood if he’d dared look, but they had returned. He had done something right in that conversation, had pleased whatever power it was that had done this to him. The power humans gave many names to and built these shrines for.
What did it mean? He’d never understood. It wasn’t like with birds, as he’d so nastily told Nicola; it was something from that other world that nestled alongside theirs. He’d been snowy white on Tom’s election night, and he’d already said horrible things to worthless people. Been blind drunk before the night was out. Awakened with his head pounding, on the floor of his front hallway, vomit down the front of his boiled shirt, and still his wings had been unstained.
Malcolm stood on hallowed ground and spread his wings, still half-insubstantial, revealed himself as one of the Blessed.
If you caught him in an unguarded moment, he might admit that he liked the feeling of manifesting himself, of letting himself bask in the safety and sense of belonging that a church gave him. The bow the verger made as she came up to him and asked what they might do for His Grace. The title made him frown, as it always had. He’d done nothing to earn it. He had merely existed. But he politely asked if he might spend a few minutes at the altar. Of course he was welcome. This way, your grace, and the bow again, with a gesture in the right direction, though not a soul could miss the thing, bathed as it was in sunlight in the center of the church.
He paused at the votive rack to buy a candle. Light it with another candle. Burn a pinch of incense with it. Stand before the altar. Henry Moore, marble, with two huge candles set upon it, had caused a fuss at the time it had been dedicated. Nothing had ever been sacrificed here, no blood shed that was not merely symbolic. It was still a powerful place.
He laid a hand on the altar, let himself feel that power. The connection with the being that had made him. Felt what he’d feared he’d feel: Judgement. He was a fuck-up. He hadn’t managed to make good on anything he’d done. He could feel it resonating within, an angry buzz against his skin. A fuck-up first to last.
“I don’t know what you want,” he said. “You made me this, and I know I have to do something. But fucking what? How am I supposed to know?”
Malcolm manifested himself fully and spread his wings wide. Beat them once, twice. Watched the candle flames flicker and fight and flutter out. He closed his eyes, concentrated, and every candle in the church came alight again. He had a flaming sword. Or he could have one when he needed one. He never needed one.
He was a messenger. That was what angels were. You could entrust a message to him and he would deliver it as no other being could. The concepts were slippery but the principle held. He could write a speech like few could. He could tell a minister that he was sacked in exactly the way the PM wanted it said. He could vanish and move invisibly and inhumanly fast. He could fly. He made one hell of a communications director.
A communications director for a craven, greedy twat. Succor the poor. Wash their feet. Ha.
He folded his wings again, neatly against his back. He could see a man in a dog collar approaching, unremarkable otherwise, older, a little pudgy. The rector, then, come to fawn at the feet of the Blessed celebrity visitor. A boon to the church, which was already a minor tourist spot. People would come here if they thought one of the Blessed could be seen. Malcolm controlled his rage, his impatience. It was natural; they didn’t know he was a fuck-up. See the pretty angel with the pretty wings. Beg for a blessing.
“I apologize for disturbing you,” the rector said. “It’s rare we are graced with the open presence of an angel, and I-- well, I had to say a word.” He had a lovely voice, all Oxford plums and brandy, a nice soothing treat.
“Yeah, no bother. I come here often. You’ve got a beautiful church.”
“Oh! Oh. We hadn’t, that is, I haven’t seen you here or I’d have paid respects.”
“I don’t show myself, as a rule.” Malcolm gestured to his wings. His poor bedraggled wings, all gray and stained and broken. He spread them again, insolently wide, so that the rector might see and quail and shrink away and fuck off.
The man’s face changed; he stretched out a hand and stopped short of touching him. His fingers curled, and then he did touch Malcolm’s arm for an instant.
“Sir, has something terrible happened to you? I-- My goodness.”
Malcolm’s first impulse was to say something to set the man back on his heels, ensure he’d never speak to him again. Then he remembered Nicola looking at him with such guileless sympathy, pouring him a glass of fizzy water and simply talking to him, and he held onto the invective. Looked at the man again. Read him, saw that he was a sensitive. Born to the priesthood, then, not merely in it for the living.
Malcolm said, with real curiosity, “How do you know I didn’t do something terrible?”
The rector made a dismissive gesture and shook his head. “It was a sin. Whatever it was that was done to you.”
At that moment Malcolm understood it to be true. It was a sin for him to have even considered being horrible to a harmless old man. It was a sin to scream at unworthy politicians. But it was also a sin to demand that an angel scream. And Tom knew what he was; had sought him out because of what he was.
He looked at the great candles burning, at the incense plumes rising in the sunlight, and his blood turned to water in his veins. Tom. Tom. What had Tom said, when he’d recruited Malcolm? It was important now that he remember. A casual threat, a lighted cigarette, a bottle that Malcolm had been far too willing to drain. What had he said?
The rector was still talking. Malcolm shook himself back to attention.
“May I ask your grace’s name?”
“It’s Malcolm. Just Malcolm.”
He held out his hand, thinking to shake the rector’s, but was dismayed to see him take it and bow over it, kiss the air over his knuckles as if he were the Pope or the fucking Dalai Lama, one of the great mystical Blessed Ones who told the rest of the fucks how to live.
“I’ll pray for you, Malcolm,” the rector said.
Another act of kindness, this one done with awareness of its meaning, but still kindly offered from a kind man. Malcolm had always been able to be gracious in response to real human beings.
“Thank you. You’ve been helpful. You, yeah, there’ll always be at least one candle burning here from now on. Fucking, um, that one.” Malcolm pointed at the candle he’d lit. From now until he lost his grace utterly, at which time his stained, sodden miracles would be undone, but Malcolm wouldn’t go into that.
He moved then, inhumanly fast, before the rector could respond, and was out of the church. Spread his wings and leapt and was in the air, a blur, a rush of wind. To the dome of the church, to the gutter that rimmed it. He landed, crouched, wings out level at his sides. The City below him, the Bank of England, the men in pinstripes, cars droning below, pigeons cooing on the roof beside him. The spring breeze, the blue sky, the scudding clouds, the sunlight and shadows moving around him. An angel in full manifestation in the City in broad daylight. Would any of them look up to see? If he topped himself now would any of them notice?
He’d long since worked out how he’d do it. Craft the perfect message to send to Tom, to the press, and scribe it in his hallowed blood. Mail it. And then drive himself into the earth at Mach 10. One of his fellows had done that at Tunguska a century ago. Had made quite a noise. It would work, though. There were other ways. The missile approach would be noticed.
The only thing that kept him from it some days was his unwillingness to let the cunts win. If he gave up, they’d have the last laugh at him. No legacy, no children, no lovers, no life, no one to defend him after he was gone. A few political victories from when he’d been up north, which other men would take credit for. That was fine; he didn’t need his name to survive him.
Nothing kept him from it today. He didn’t even want to leave a message. He’d let the fuck do this to him. Tom had made him swear to serve him on pain of his grace. And yet he was to blame. He’d let himself slip, been open to it.
His pocket buzzed. The pattern meant it was Jamie. He took out his phone and thumbed it alive. “Yeah?”
“Did you know that Nicola Murray is on the radio right now and she doesn’t sound like a cunting moron?”
Malcolm smiled, actually smiled. “A fucking miracle,” he said.
“Shit, don’t tell me you did this.”
“By means of some choice edits to her original shite prep briefing.”
“Why the fuck did you do that? I thought you wanted her to turf.”
“Changed my fucking mind, didn’t I.”
Silence for a while. Odd noises in the background. Jamie had, he thought, called him from the bog. Malcolm grimaced. Jamie was incorrigible. He thought about bollocking him for it, then lost interest. There was no point bollocking anybody for anything any more.
“You okay, Malc?”
Silence for a moment. Malcolm watched a red bus stop below him, people get on and off. Little people. Humans. Not like him. “Not really.”
“Where are you?”
“On the roof of a fuckin’ church.”
Silence. Then, “Which church?”
“Fucking poncey taste you have. Malc.”
“Fuck you, too.”
“You’re due in a meeting with me and fucking Mannion in five minutes. He’s got some cunting advertisement scheme he wants to spend a few million quid on to support the council houses knock-down thing.”
“This isn’t helping,” Malcolm said, and then he fell silent. He’d just given the game away. Not that Jamie hadn’t understood already. He looked down at the street below. Not far enough to reliably kill him, probably. Fuck. He’d have to do the high-speed thing. Not here, though. He’d take out innocents if he did that. There were still innocents in the Square Mile, somewhere. One or two.
“Malc. You still there?”
“Yeah. Tell Mannion to fuck himself.”
“Yeah, I’ll handle it. Look. Shelly’s out at her mam’s with the kids tonight. Was going to do a fry-up but then I thought, I’ll get Malcolm to cook.”
“Is this how you’ll be doing it?”
“I’m going to handle Mannion then I’m going to come round your office and you’re going to be in it. And then we’ll go at it, Motherwell rules. And then when I’ve pummeled sense into your thick head you’ll take me to yours and cook something posh for the two of us. And that’s how I’ll be doing it.”
Malcolm scrubbed his hand over his face. Suddenly he was too tired to do anything, too tired to care, too tired even to think. “Can’t be arsed with the fighting.”
“Just get yerself over to the office. And stop making Sam anxious about you, yeah? She called me. Hate it when that happens.”
“See you do it.”
And then the call went dead. Malcolm slipped the phone into his breast pocket and stood. London, giddy busy London, below him. If he was here much longer someone would see him. Take photos of him. Angel spotted on church roof. Splattered over Instagram; liked on Facebook. Fuck that. He spread his wings and moved, invisibly, into the air. Used the gift that was his to use as he saw fit, the gift that had been entrusted to him, to slide silently and swiftly through London’s skies, from the seat of money to the seat of power, down, to the entrance of his offices.
Malcolm flew down, down to the pavement before the Whitehall building where his office was. He took a moment to settle himself, then he furled his wings, hid them away. He let himself be seen again. Just another be-suited fuck, ID card around his neck, heading into the corridors of worldly power, into the depths of political hell. The coalition government had rocketed him upward and into an office with the big boys, where he terrorized Tories and LibDems alike into compliance with the word of the moment.
Security checkpoint, through the metal detector, and inside. It wasn’t one building; it was many, a maze of corridors and tunnels and tasteful carpeting. His office was grand enough to have an office in front of it where his PA guarded him. He paused for a moment with his hand on the door. Sam would be inside. Sam, who like Jamie had always known what he was. Sam, whom he’d said drastic things to.
He opened the door, stepped in. Sam was at her desk, typing at her laptop, as ever. She looked up as he came in.
“Sam, yeah, what shite has been sprayed since I left?”
She merely shook her head and pointed at the corner of her desk. A muffin sat there, along with a pot of yogurt and a latte.
“What the fuck is this?” he said.
“You haven’t eaten today. Eat that. Now.”
“What makes you say that?”
Sam shook her head at him. She pressed the latte into his hand and he drank automatically. Elixir vitae, salvation, a tiny return of the will to live. He lowered the cup to find Sam staring at him. Her eyes were suspiciously red.
“What?” he said.
“Don’t be disingenuous with me. You said things this morning-- the way you said them. The way you ran out.”
Malcolm hid his face behind the latte cup for a moment to give himself a chance to work out what to say. He’d been in dire straits that morning when he’d read the briefings. When he’d read yet another position statement about cuts to NHS. About drone strikes in Iraq. About Syrian refugees flooding across Europe but not welcomed here. His party, doing this. His party. His job, to enforce the line, to bully the soft-hearted into compliance. He’d made it happen. He’d said the perfect things, swayed the uncertain, won a seat at the table for a sodding useless third-rate also-ran party.
It was on him, and he’d known it for the first time that morning.
Fuck it. Bluster his way out. “Don’t pay you to worry about my soul, Sam.”
“I don’t care what you pay me to do. I’m going to worry about you if I want to.”
“Fuck, Sam, I–”
Tears on her face. Malcolm couldn’t bear it. He set the cup down and went to her. He wrapped his arms around her and the wings followed. Hold her, envelop her, protect her, shelter her, share something of himself with her, that ineffable self. Purely instinctual, this urge, and normally something he fought against. But it was Sam, and her face was wet because he’d scared her, and it was only then occurring to him that he was about to hurt her even more deeply if he carried through with his plan. He flinched and shivered and tightened his embrace. He murmured to her. Comforting nonsense.
She sniffled and laid her head against his chest. “You don’t have to do this. I know how you hate it.”
“Yeah, I fucking do. Shut up. Take it.” Let it heal her. He could do that. That was a thing he could do. One of his gifts. He couldn’t save sick people, or he’d have saved his father, but he could heal people sick in their souls. He could inspire them. He could give purpose to them.
To everyone but himself.
Sam hugged him close for a moment. “Your wings. They’re amazing.”
“No, they’re not.”
“Yes they are, you liar. Haven’t you been held by one of the Blessed yourself?”
“No,” he said, shortly.
“It’s-- it’s-- don’t have words. They’re soft and not soft at once.”
“They’re a right mess. All broken.”
Sam ignored this. “It’s like being in church with a real priest, one of the ones who’s got the power, and you can feel the spirit come down onto the altar and flow everywhere and you know it’s real, it’s not just stories, it’s all true.”
“Oh,” Malcolm said, into her hair. “That.” He lived with that daily. Had since he’d been a kid; had been unable to escape it since manifesting. It was nothing to him.
She squeezed him tight around his waist for a moment then shifted away from him. Malcolm reluctantly let go. Holding her close had felt good for him, too, which was a hell of a thing to realize. She craned back and looked at his wings with an odd expression on her face.
“Malc. They’re different. Did you-- did you do something?”
Had he sinned again that morning? He couldn’t remember if he had. He shrugged and nervously twitched them out and then back again, afraid of knocking over everything in the damn office with his fidgeting.
“Let me look.”
She went around behind him and brushed a hand over his coverts. He shuddered. Too much, too close, too raw.
“Sorry, I know you don’t like them touched.”
“It’s okay, love. Go ahead.”
Her hand came to rest between his shoulder blades, which was safe. He breathed out and tried to relax. Spread his wings out a little so Sam could get a good look.
“The broken feathers are gone.”
That was surprising, but he’d been aware of it at a low level since last night. Something had happened when he’d been eating bread with Nicola. Some change. He’d accepted her gift of comfort and that had been the only good thing he’d done in ages. A selfish thing, but it had been a guiltless act.
Sam’s fingers ran along one of his primaries, right out to the tip. Malcolm controlled a shudder. It was too intimate; nobody touched him like this. Sam might be the only human being he’d have tolerated at all right now, but it was a close thing.
“They’re not gray any more. Not white, either. It’s like, it’s like they’re blood-stained.”
“Oh,” Malcolm said. Well, that was appropriate. Blood-stained. He deserved that. His soul was stained and bloody and ruined. He knew it and now it was obvious to everyone.
He couldn’t bear it any more, her touch, her hushed voice, the raw awareness he had of everything around him when he was manifested. He closed his eyes and shuttered himself away. Back to just Malcolm Tucker, a too-thin man in an ill-fitting suit. The other world was still with him, still looming over him disapproving, but it was hushed now.
“Sam, love,” he said, then had no idea how to go on.
Sam wiped at her face and then she also shifted, settled a mask over herself. He saw it happen. She was shuttered away now, too. Humans could do that; they had many selves.
She said, “Go, eat your lunch. I’ve filtered your email already to the things you need to read and there’s enough of that to keep you busy until Lord Nicholson comes by at two.”
“Thanks,” Malcolm said. He went into his office, muffin in hand, to hide and find a way to make shift.
Latte, muffin, yogurt. Breakfast at noon, food in his belly. Consolation for his spirit: the woman he paid to take care of him had done her job and provided her employer with the breakfast he had informed her he liked best. Malcolm’s conscience pricked him after that thought; Sam had done more than what someone paid to manage his office would do. She’d cried for him. Called Jamie about him. What the fucking fuck had he said to her? He’d been wild in that moment, when he’d flung himself out of his office, convinced that his soul would burn and the only hope for him was a quick death. Deaths on his conscience, blood on his hands. The photograph of that boy on the beach.
Oh. That was why his wings were bloody. His curse in action: the spiritual reified in his body. He deserved no less.
Syrian refugees. Nicola had been wittering on about it last night, about what a pity it had been that the government didn’t have the resources to help. Surely they could have found something, she’d said. Malcolm had felt his first twinge of warning in that moment. And then in the morning, all over the news, the photograph of the boy on the beach. Drowned. Email from the usual people-- Tom, David-- requesting that it be handled deftly and quietly. Some kind of respectful hushing. No discussion of the UK refugee policy. A tragedy. Purely a Turkish cock-up, however. Nothing to do with them. Months ago the stage had been set for this. Malcolm could have said the things that swayed the government to relent, to open their shores, to send boats instead of speeches about terrorism. He’d done what he’d been asked instead. Just following orders.
Nicola had broken bread with a worthless sack of skin. He’d come to the knowledge and it had broken him.
Email on the screen in front of him, more arriving as he stared past it. He didn’t care. He was done with it, one way or the other. That was the nice thing about deciding to top yourself: the trivial shite stopped mattering. It was almost peaceful, this feeling. He felt happy that Nicola had done well in the morning; indifferent to Tom’s blistering message complaining that he’d wanted Nicola’s proposals to fail; completely bored by Treasury’s faffing about over messaging to the public about the sell-off of NHS assets. It didn’t matter any more to him. He had sinned; he would pay. The world would move through the heavens without him, in supreme indifference.
Sam. He’d have to do something for Sam. He had a duty to her. Was fond of her. More than fond. He’d do something for Nicola as well, if he could. She’d been kind. Kindness should be rewarded.
He occupied himself revising a press release Nicola had sent him that floated an educational program for disadvantaged youth. The bones of it were sound; Nicola had merely layered flab and suet over them until they couldn’t be seen. All he need do is discover her message, the thing she truly wished to say, and expose it. Hold it up in the light. Tell everyone what Nicola wanted them to know. He could do that. He could do it and feel fulfilled because of it. Messenger. He was a messenger.
Like a fucking husky dog born to pull a sledge, was Malcolm Tucker born to speak the words of others.
At least these words were born of kindness not greed. It gave him a sharp satisfaction to know that the better he made this idea poll, the more discomfited David and Tom would be. That pair of devils in office, selling off the nation. Well, Cameron was selling it off; Tom was buying his third country place. His family had had only had the one back when he’d been disgorged from the maw of Cambridge into his first government post.
He sent the revisions off to Nicola and ignored the nearly immediate effusive message she sent him in reply. His phone was buzzing; he watched the names scroll past. None of them were Jamie or Sam. Dull indifference,
Another hour until Lord Ponceymort arrived. He bit the side of his thumb. He was merely marking time now. Get through this meeting, get through his evening with Jamie, then he would have his chance. Make his final peace and go.
He could do that now. Do his daily; ask if his feet were on the right path. Beg one last time for forgiveness that would never come. Might as well not piss off the Blessed Cumsack. They could make your life hell if you offended them. Just ask fucking Putin. Malcolm grinned with one corner of his mouth. Sow the blood of a saint; reap the whirl-fucking-wind.
Malcolm knelt before his office shrine. He laid his hands on his thighs and breathed in and out, deeply. Centered himself. Let himself be what he was: an angel among men, a being of feathered wings and fire, a slave of the Blessed Power.
Devout, they called him, the ones who didn’t know, and shook their heads because it made no sense. Not everyone had an office shrine. He knew. He was connected directly to it all. Anyone who was sensitive had the shrine, because they too knew, felt the presence of the spiritual, could not help but worship it. Nothing much, nothing ornate, just the holy symbol of his childhood faith-- any faith would do-- and a candle set before it in a bowl of sand. A pinch of incense burned in the candle flame. A prayer said, rote words, a few lines of lovely Elizabethan poetry from Coverdale, and he had fulfilled his daily duty.
That little ritual had survived since the Romans, because the Blessed Power liked it. Malcolm liked it too, if he were honest. It was soothing. He felt approval when he did it, a soothing satisfaction in the power running through him. A sweet smell before the Lord. Lords. Many in one. Ask him how he knew that.
Like this, eyes closed, manifested, wings outstretched, Malcolm was as aware of the other world as humans ever were. Power flowing, emotion, intention, the Word that was the wish of the power who set it all in motion. Beings existing in dimensions he could only barely comprehend. He, like his brethren Blessed, existed in a half-space between the two worlds. He had been born to it, born with the awareness, but They’d chosen him for more gifts. Why? No human knew. That was an burden he and his fellow Blessed bore. They’d been chosen. They had missions. What those missions were, they had to discover on their own, because the Blessed Power was a fucking useless gnomic wanker.
The missions were sometimes fucking miserable. Martyrdom. Unendurable pain. Nelson’s Column, a monument to a Blessed warrior who’d given his arm and his eye and his life to the cause of an empire that had enslaved and destroyed entire civilizations. But the man had had a calling that had earned him the statues, and Malcolm envied him that. His calling had been to write press releases for a politician who turned out to be willing to sell his soul for pots of money. As sins went it was completely fucking unoriginal. Fucking boring. Now if he’d written press releases for a monster instead of a craven crass public-school twat, that would have been interesting. He’d have topped himself with a certain satisfaction. Instead he’d fucking kill himself and feel grim disappointment in himself until the moment.
Did he feel disapproval? He felt something unpleasant in the energies flowing through him. Some kind of wrongness. His soul was still stained; he was still not in a state of grace. He might never be again. He’d sold himself. Sold himself. Bound himself to Tom. Done what no Blessed being ought. His father, all for his father. Malcolm Tucker, guilty son, bleeding for his father.
His father. Malcolm shifted uneasily where he knelt. His father had been a sensitive, or so he’d thought. It ran in families. No one had been surprised that Malcolm had been touched; they’d merely been surprised that such an angry boy had been so obviously born of light and not darkness. Malcolm had known he was different since he was first aware of himself as a boy. Sam had to be sensitive, too, or she wouldn’t have talked about knowing the difference between priests.
There were some people who were utterly insensitive. Tom was one. That pig-fucker Cameron, who led the nation while Tom pulled his strings, was another.
It was something that could be taken from you. That he knew. When they Purged the dark ones, all awareness was taken, or it was if they lived long enough to talk afterward. There were stories of Blessed ones who’d renounced their gifts. Most of them died in the process, but some lived on as ordinary humans. It could be done. He’d sworn to Tom on pain of that fate.
Tom, it seemed, knew Malcolm’s secret. Knew he’d declined government employment; knew he’d chosen to bury himself and his talents rather than serve his country; knew he’d chosen to stay hidden. Tom knew something else as well. His father, Tom said. His father had his own secret. His father was one of the dark ones, the ones who’d been touched by the other world but were marked by evil.
He laid documents on the table, gestured back to the being standing behind him. “One of your kind found him on a routine scan.”
“No fuckin’ chance,” Malcolm said. “I’d have known.”
“He’s been disguised,” Tom said, and his face was infinitely sympathetic. “Masked by a priest who’s gone over. You couldn’t have known.”
His father. His kind-hearted father, who loved pottering about with model trains, who loved a good hymn at church and had the voice for it, a dark one. Malcolm loved him. He drained his glass and couldn’t even feel it he was so numb. His father.
Tom was sympathetic. They could reveal him and purge him, or as a favor to Malcolm, Tom would arrange to put him on a government safe list, a shelter list. For special people, who’d done the government a favor. He’d be safe. One little request, nothing much in return, because Tom would be calling in a few favors to make this happen: Malcolm would need to do some work for Tom. Nothing improper, in fact right in line with Malcolm’s unique skills. A bit of a step up from journalism and local politics. He’d like the money, Tom said. Could take care of his parents with it.
Tom had had another being in the room with them, another being of power. Malcolm hadn’t been able to see it straight on. It, him, her, they-- the pronouns were slippery. It had been a being of light and shining transparency. Malcolm had no idea what it was when in human form, or what its gifts were. It might have been in disguise. What did it do for Tom? Malcolm had written a few speeches for him, consulted on the wording of some campaign advertisements, nothing more than what a politically-interested writer might do on the side. And now this: the LibDems, not so bad. Labour was Blair and the Clintonites, the neo-liberals. Tom was better than that, he thought.
Malcolm had let Tom refill his glass. Had drained it. Had made the bargain, A drunken fire-tongued angel, now in Tom’s service. Tom’s political fortunes had shifted.
His Da been so proud of wee Malc, once upon a time. Malcolm had loved him, loved him even after knowing what Tom had told him. He was the same man he’d always been, a stalwart husband, an indulgent father to Malcolm and his sister. Could he have truly been a monster? Malcolm’s blessing was a curse. Mayhap his father’s curse had been a blessing. Who the fuck knew? Malcolm had never talked to him about it, never dared mention it, just continued his visits north to family, brought the odd bottle to his old man and restrained himself when drinking with him. Rare moments of sobriety, those moments with his father.
His father had died a few years later, peacefully, in his sleep. He’d dried himself out for the funeral, stayed sober afterward for the sake of his grieving mother, gone back south clean. Stayed clean. Hadn’t mattered. He’d still been bound to Tom. Ensnared.
Tom. The thought of Tom was enough to rouse anger in him, real feeling. His wings shivered and he spread them out, beat them without thinking. The candle flame danced and then flared up again. Malcolm got himself back under control. He’d have to warn Jamie. Jamie wasn’t as valuable to Tom as Malcolm was, but he’d be in the running for Malcolm’s replacement. He had to get out. Go do dirty work for Sturgeon or Corbyn or someone worth the stains on the hands. Probably those little fancy nancy shiny prefect-politicians didn’t hire hatchet men. Probably they were above it or thought they were. That was why they weren’t in power, why they weren’t in Downing Street reaping the nation bare. Jamie would fix them up, get them in line.
Jamie. He’d told his secret to Jamie back in the day, at the newspaper, confessed it to him on a night when they’d both felt maudlin. A little drink, not enough to obliterate him-- would have been a sin to swill that whiskey until blind-- two days before Jamie’s wedding. Oh, that wedding–she was the reason Jamie wasn’t a priest, that woman he married, and she’d been the right choice for the wee madman. He was a different man when he was home with her. Jamie. Jamie would miss him. Jamie wouldn’t understand. Jamie would curse him.
He should tell Jamie enough of the story to scare him off. He owed his friend that. Rescue him from Tom before he ended it.
Malcolm breathed in the faint scent of incense in the air. The candle burned steadily before him, flame un-flickering. Malcolm felt communion with something and a stealthy certainty creeping over him, a sweet smell in the air beyond what the incense had carried. His feet were on the right path. He had yet to walk it, but he was set properly at last. The Blessed Power wanted him gone. Okay. He had confirmation. He would get through the day, pacify Jamie, and then do it in the night when they’d all left him at last.
A knock on the door: Malcolm startled, but it was Sam, poking her head in. “Malcolm, Lord Nicholson is here. I’ll send him in if you’re ready?”
He was, of course, not, and Sam was merely warning him to be ready. Malcolm closed his eyes, hid himself and his wings, and felt that moment of loss as his sense of that other world was damped. He pushed himself up from the floor and straightened his trousers. He’d spent enough time on his fucking knees, enough for the rest of his life. Last daily devotions. He’d make the next ones from hell.
“Show the old pervert in, yeah, Sam?”
He was at the door when Sam opened it again. A hand on Sam’s elbow, a touch, lingering so that she would know it wasn’t an accident, long enough to reassure himself that she was there. He felt strangely better to touch her, reminded that he was a human being inside. Sam, food and drink and little touches, stepping aside from the door, ushering in his two o’clock.
His two o’clock: Julius Nicholson, that blue-sky thinker. In Malcolm’s calculus of the human objects in motion in Whitehall, Nicholson was a fucking useless mass that was unlikely to collide with him any more, and therefore uninteresting. Therefore Malcolm could find it in himself to be almost effusive in his greetings. A hand out to shake, a friendly gesture toward the comfortable guest chair, and the biscuit tin set out for His Nibs. They were whatever Sam kept in stock for him, not anything Malcolm normally ate. But today he took one after Julius had filched two out, and bit in. Shortbread, sweet, probably went a treat with tea. Something about Julius always made him wish for his tea. Too early for tea, though. Malcolm did long for one last good cuppa. Maybe later, with Sam. A cup and a talk about something that wasn’t the government. Or politics. Or kids dead on a Turkish beach.
Nicholson brushed biscuit crumbs from his tie. Malcolm watched him carefully: there was that nose wriggle that preceded whatever it was he actually wanted to say. Another moment of temporizing, then Nicholson came out with it.
“An angel was spotted on the roof of St Stephen Walbrook this morning.”
His heart stopped and his stomach went strange for a second, then Malcolm recovered. He sneered and ate the rest of his biscuit. “Yeah?”
“You and I have exchanged pleasantries about that church in the past. I believe you said once it was one of your favorites.”
“Yeah, I like it. The light, you know? And that stone altar.”
“Moore, yes quite, and that unusual placement. Showy. I prefer St Martins in the Fields. For the acoustics, and a more traditional layout. We go quite often, my partner and I.”
Julius rolled his eyes. “As you say. But it is a bit surprising, an angel manifesting in London.”
“What was it up to?”
A shrug. “He. It was a man in a suit. Spoke with the rector, stood on the roof, and then was gone.”
“Seems fucking pointless.”
“I’m only interested because it connects with a rumor I’ve been chasing down recently.”
Malcolm licked his fingers. “A rumor about Christopher Wren? What, has he come alive and started shambling the streets of London giving critical commentary on the architecture? Seen the Gherkin, has he?”
Julius ignored this. “There’s a rumor about Tom and an angel. That he has one under his thumb, bound to him by some arcane pledge. And the poor thing does his bidding. Skulks about Whitehall, delivering his messages. Carrying his water.”
Well. Julius wasn’t in the inner circle, that much was now clear. If he were, it wouldn’t be a rumor to him. Not that Malcolm had taken him for a man Tom would trust. Tom only trusted men he’d been to school with. Or people he bound to his will, who perforce could not fucking betray him.
Aloud he said, “Seems far-fetched. How would you bind an angel?”
“The more powerful of the Blessed would be valuable allies, would they not? If one could get them to cooperate with any worldly scheme. One usually can’t. Not since the war.”
Malcolm grinned mirthlessly. “Learned their lesson in that one.”
“Certainly they are more noted for their refusal to cooperate than for their service to the nation in the last century.”
“More likely to lead a revolution than an army,” Malcolm murmured, thinking of something Gandhi was alleged to have said. Not that he’d said it.
“You are devout.”
Malcolm grimaced. No point saying anything in response to that, not sitting as they were with the little shrine against the wall, the scent of incense and candle wax still in the air.
Julius said, “Open devotion is rare. At least in this government.”
“It’s a secular government.”
“So why? Why the shrine in your office? You needn’t. It’s half a century out of fashion.”
“Because it fucking makes Them happy, that’s why. Because They are fucking here, around us, doing shite we can’t understand, like fucking allowing us to live. I have no idea how any of you ever dares not worship Them daily.”
“You’re a sensitive,” Julius murmured. “I always suspected as much.”
Malcolm folded his arms and rocked back in his chair. “Not fucking unusual.”
“No. And yet, we have few sensitives in the current government. I’ve always found that odd, given how useful they are. How carefully we pen them up in special schools as soon as we find them, train them to do the bidding of the mundane.”
“What the fuck is your fucking point? You here to propose a new policy about them? A kinder, gentler approach to the Cursed? No more disappearing them?” And then Malcolm regretted his choice of distraction, because all he could see was his father’s face, a mass of curling gray hair rising above it, his smile. His voice explaining how steam engines worked. His father. Cursed. Allegedly.
“I merely wonder why we do not attempt to recruit them into public service any more.”
“Said it yourself.”
“Public service in a Western democracy need not mean the military. Not in our lifetimes.”
Malcolm opened his mouth to explain, stopped himself. He took another biscuit and broke it in half. Secrecy. Tom had impressed upon him the need for secrecy, and he served Tom, or else he was forsworn and he would be punished. Or rather, punished more viciously than he was every single fucking day, knowing himself to be serving evil. Fucking damn his soul to hell, he was serving evil.
Julius was maundering on. “Very few sensitives in Tom’s staff. None in the cabinet. And even fewer in the inner circle, which is unusual. Even Corbyn has a Guardian in his coterie.”
Julius brushed crumbs from his trouser knee. “Churchill employed two. But where are the real Blessed? I mean the ones with real power. The Seers. The Swords. The Angels.”
“Only three Saints in all of Britain. And they fucking know better than to do what these cunts want.”
“And maybe fifteen angels? Where are they?”
Malcolm crumbled the last of the biscuit in his fingers and let the crumbs fall onto his desk. Another mess for somebody to clean up later. “Classified,” he said.
“I have the requisite clearances.”
Malcolm lifted his eyes then and looked at Julius. “You do?”
“I have had them for some time. I had occasion to request the files on known high-ranking Blessed last month. After this morning’s sighting I read them.”
Julius held his gaze. Malcolm waited for it, but Julius had apparently made his point. He did not insult Malcolm’s intelligence by underlining it. Thank Christ for small favors. Malcolm’s heart was racing anyway. Caught, twice in two days. He was fucking up. A decade of control, and now he’d lost the fucking plot and coughed up his secret to people he despised. Allegedly despised.
“What’s your blue-sky plan this time?” Malcolm said, eventually.
“It started as you surmised, with a question about schooling and its efficacy. It seems to me that we are wasting a national resource that other countries do better with. I was distracted by other matters, however. David asked me to look into relaxing certain banking regulations, and it has been a rather tricky bit of research and brainstorming. I rather enjoyed it, despite knowing it’ll cause another financial collapse.”
“Fucking 2008 all over again. Sweaty-faced pig-fucker Cameron. Why are we in a coalition with these elitist inbred twats anyway?”
“That’s how we have any power at all.”
“The pig-fucker will have the spot without Tom’s help if he calls an election now. We’ll be out.”
“Not entirely out.”
“They’ll have enough seats. We’ll be out.”
“I am given to understand that Tom has some kind of arrangement with the Prime Minister.” Julius’s face twisted momentarily on those words, and Malcolm had his first intimation that this man might not be evil either, despite the money and the poncing. “I imagine you would have a place in any new government, as would I.”
“I’m not a fucking Tory.”
“And yet here you are. Valuable.”
Malcolm bared his teeth. And yet, here he was. Not for long. “Why the fuck are you here, anyway? They’re bound to sniff you out for what you are.”
“I’m not in the closet, Malcolm.”
“I fucking know. Why are you helping people who despise you?”
“I have rather a lot of money and I am interested in keeping it.”
“These fucks want you vanished. You’re supposed to stay in the closet and hire rent boys in discreet clubs and never, ever be seen. Marry a beard, turkey-baster yourself an heir or two, leave your collection of Rothkos to the nation for them to fucking sell off so they can pocket the cash.”
Julius pursed his lips.
“You know I’m right. It’s just another tool for control for these hypocritical shit-eating psychos. They’re degenerates behind closed doors, but they’ll lock up the boys turning tricks to survive. Preferably after they’ve come up their underaged arses.”
Now Julius folded his arms and frowned at him.
“You know I’m fucking right about this. You know they want to turn the fucking clocks back. They can’t kill the queers any more, too fucking uncivilized, but they want you back in the closet and the door nailed shut.”
Julius rubbed the shiny top of his head. He was grimacing. “I cannot argue with you.”
“So why? Why the fuck are you doing it?”
“Why are you?”
“It’s a fucking long story and not a happy one.”
“The rumor is true, then.”
“I have no fucking comment about your fucking retarded rumor.”
Malcolm stood, scattering crumbs everywhere, and went and stood in front of little shrine. Fuck Baldymorte and whatever he thought about whether Malcolm was the angel standing behind Tom. Fuck everything. It was comforting to him to touch the icon, tap two fingers against it, cross himself. A simple wooden crucifix, the figure of a martyred Blessed One on it, the greatest of them all, killed by the Romans. He’d forgiven them as he died, or so the story went. Julius came up beside him.
“Malcolm–” Julius hesitated. “You’ve seemed a touch strained of late, if I may be allowed to make such an observation. I know we’re not intimates.”
“It may surprise you to know that I regret that. I should like to know you better. And yes, I know that you are uninterested in men sexually. I mean this as a gesture of friendship.”
“You know fuck-all about me.”
Julius smiled at him, all serene and unimpressed, and waved a hand as if to dismiss this objection. “As you say. I’d like to know more. I think we have something in common beyond the party we’re currently serving. Interests that ally us if we consider careers beyond the ones we’re in now.”
Malcolm flinched. He had no future. He deserved no future. He’d done it. He’d made it happen. He’d put them in power.
“What’s wrong?” Julius said. “Why were you on the roof of Walbrook?”
“The boy. This morning.” Shit, his voice. He couldn’t keep it out of his voice. The boy on the fucking beach. How many others hadn’t washed up, had just drowned and vanished without troubling anyone’s consciences at all?
“Ah.” Julius’s hand brushed his elbow, as if by accident, a moment of warm touch. Malcolm was aware of Julius as a human being for the first time, a warm-blooded man who did more than eat bhaji and make strained metaphors about them. A being with a soul. Not evil, no, and the poncing had nothing to do with it. Never had.
Malcolm said, “We’re killing kids.”
Julius’s hand was on his elbow still. “We are. We are monsters. You will follow this, this peace offering with an obscene remark about my sexual preferences, I know, but I feel it too. It is wrong.”
“But will you do anything?”
Julius’s hand fell away from Malcolm’s elbow. He thrust his hands into his pockets and gazed down at their feet. Malcolm looked down too. Four feet in leather shoes, all shiny and neat against a nice carpet. No salt water stains on these boots. No sand on them. No blood on their hands. A neat, clean, shiny, bloodless policy of non-interference. Close the borders, protect mother fucking England. Fuck the English. Fuck their imperialist greedy souls. Fuck them to perdition. It wasn’t a game, great or otherwise. Nothing was a game when the pieces on the board were human lives. Malcolm’s lip curled and his fingers twitched.
Julius spoke. “It’s a difficult problem to solve, the Syrian civil war is.”
Dry, distant, almost academic. Malcolm felt his rage spike. “Yeah, fucking tricky, is it?”
“Reducing it to the death of a single boy on a beach is effective message-crafting, but images like that are not the well-spring of, of effective policy.”
Malcolm’s hands were shaking he was so angry now. He held onto it, ground his teeth and held on and listened. Yes, Julius was insulting him. No, it didn’t mean he didn’t care.
“Water,” Julius said. “Water. It’s climate change at the heart. I trust you follow the connections. The land dries out; farmers migrate to the cities in search of new employment. It isn’t to be found. Unrest follows.”
Malcolm now saw where Julius was going. “A fuckin’ dictator feels his hold slipping. He cracks down, because it’s the only thing he knows how to do.”
“Civil war erupts. By the time the refugees climb into boats, the tragedy has been years in the making. The boat capsizing is the final scene.”
Malcolm’s mind was now engaged in the problem. Fucking too seductive for him, was politics, was the problem of getting people to organize themselves effectively en-masse. It had always been fascinating to him, and it was even now. He said, “Too late to fucking do anything about the oceans rising. The Chinese don’t seem to care. We won’t admit it’s even happening.”
Julius made an impatient gesture; Malcolm understood. There was no point rehashing that. No blue-sky scheming by a British politician would ever matter. “Meanwhile, Europe is destabilized.”
“A nice fucking bloodless word.”
“Destabilized. Destabilized dead kids.”
“I know. The point is how we cope.”
“We’re coping by making the story vanish. Or so my email has been ordering me to do today.”
“Ah. And have you made it vanish?”
“No,” Malcolm said, and he felt a pang inside, a ripple of fire that spread from the pit of his gut out to the tips of his wings. His oath, knocking on the door.
Julius paced away from him, to the door. He touched it, then noiselessly came back to stand beside Malcolm. “Perhaps you might consider doing something else. Not immediately effective, but eventually it might produce dividends worth considering.”
Malcolm eyed him sidelong. “Here he comes, with the politics, wanting favors. A little blow job in the loo. What the fuck do you want from me, Julius?”
“There is something,” Julius said. “It hardly matters, though.”
“It matters,” Malcolm said, and was surprised to hear himself say it.
“Nicola Murray. She has it in her to be a leader.”
“Nic’la?” Malcolm held the cursing that wanted to escape, reevaluated the woman who’d so guilelessly fed him dinner, who’d been fretting about the refugees long before somebody had a stunning photograph to pass around on the Internet.
“Yes, Nicola. She has no backing. No support. No wordsmith whispering in her ear what she ought to say to get her meaning across. She did quite well on the radio this morning when she’d had a little assistance. A taste of what our current leader gets.”
“I fucking hear your implication and I fucking resent it.”
“She wants the right things.”
“She can fucking want whatever she feels like.”
“You want what she wants. You know it’s a better idea. You know she’s capable. You know you can make her so.”
Malcolm stared, thought. He felt longing for this. So seductive. Help Nicola more, assuage his conscience. And then what would happen? “We’re too fucking small a party to do it. We need the Tories.”
“Or Labour,” Julius murmured, and Malcolm swayed on his feet with the audacity of it.
“Fuck,” he said. “Fucking fuck.” Clean it up, fix it, make it better somehow. If only. If only.
Julius was gazing at him sidelong, under his lashes. There was a little smile on his face: he saw victory and had allowed himself to enjoy it. He couldn’t. Malcolm couldn’t let him. The last of Malcolm’s hops drained from him as he let himself know this. The best he could do was not be present to be in the way. If he were dead, Tom could not use him against Nicola.
“No,” he said.
“Do you oppose the idea?”
“No. Fuckin’ no-- Fuck me. I can’t help you.”
“Malcolm, you underestimate yourself. You can do quite–”
“What’s that fucking rumor you heard? That rumor. I can’t. Won’t say anything, doesn’t go that deep, but I fucking can’t. I won’t try to stop you so fucking stop talking to me right now, okay? Shut it. Shut it and fuck off on out of here.”
“I see. That’s-- That’s unfortunate. I am sorry to hear it.”
“Not as sorry as I am.”
“I count on your discretion, of course.”
Julius’s eyebrows were doing alarming things. They ought to be. He’d just put Malcolm into a fucking annoying position. He ought to be able to keep his trap shut about it; his oath wasn’t a compulsion. But if Tom asked him directly, Malcolm would feel it. He didn’t expect to see Tom again. He’d seen Tom for the last time earlier in the week. That was-- well, that was a fucking relief. So many last experiences he was having. Last look at his favorite church; last biscuits filched by Nicholson. In a bit, last cup of tea with Sam, and then last dinner with Jamie.
“Yeah, don’t fucking fash yerself. There’s jizz all over your wicket but it isn’t as sticky as all that.”
“That’s a relief.”
Malcolm shrugged and turned away from Julius. No point talking any further. It was over. It did give him some kind of distant pleasure to think about Julius succeeding at this, whether or not he was around to see it. He put the lid back on the biscuit tin and shoved it into the desk drawer where it belonged.
“Look, Hugh-- my partner, you met him at the Christmas do-- Hugh and I are doing a bit of a dinner thing next week. We’d like you to join us.”
“Yeah, sure,” Malcolm said, easily, because next week was a thing that wouldn’t exist for him. Sweet relief, so easy to promise whatever to Julius, who seemed quite happy about it.
There was a sharp knock on his door, and Sam was poking her head in. Doing more than that, to Malcolm’s surprise: opening the door and standing aside. Malcolm caught her glance and she mouthed something at him that he guessed was an apology. He understood it a moment later, because Tom walked in, saying something over his shoulder to someone in the room behind him.
Tom, visiting him. Fuck. Nicola’s performance in the morning. Fuck everything.
“Tom,” murmured Julius, that Judas, that Brutus, knife in his hand, reaching out, cordially accepting Tom’s handshake.
A kiss in the garden, and yet Malcolm was there, lean and hungry at Brutus’s side, urging him on. He thought too much, read too much, and was dangerous. And yet he was fettered by his oath: he served this man, this slick sleek oiled man in a carefully rumpled bespoke suit. Smile, look pleased, look like he was as grateful as he ought to have been to the man who’d made his career, paid him a ridiculous salary, sheltered his father from the exorcists.
Julius was saying something fawning at Tom and the two men were laughing, and Tom was clapping him on the shoulder and guiding him out. Malcolm tasted metal in his mouth. He was dizzy. Fucking dizzy. Shit. He had to pull himself together. Fear. Fight. Flight. Neither: control himself.
Julius departed with Sam, and the door shut behind him. Malcolm was alone with Tom.
Malcolm was alone with Tom. Tom B—, the man who ran the nation. Not the prime minister, but his deputy. Leader of the LibDem party following a short sharp internecine power struggle that had ended with Nick Clegg on the street. Well, not on the street. None of these people would ever live on the street. Tom, Tom, the Tom. In his office, looking sleek and well-fed as ever, relaxed, pleased with himself, all resplendent in a blue bespoke suit and a tie with green stripes in a shade that made Malcolm grit his teeth. Tom had a little gray in his hair now, a little more weight around his middle, but he looked as hale as he had a decade ago when Malcolm had begun managing his media strategy. Back when he’d been a backbencher, a hollow inoffensive headpiece with hollow inoffensive policies. Older, harder, sharper, and somehow still hollow. Also in his office, looking around as if he owned it, which he did.
Malcolm’s stomach twisted. His captor, in his office. Why? Why was he smiling so jovially?
“Malcolm!” Tom said, and stretched out a hand to shake. Malcolm took it, pressed Tom’s cool palm for a moment.
“Tom! Bit of a surprise to see you here.”
Sam hovered. “Anything I can get you? Tea?”
Malcolm glanced at Tom then shook his head. “Thanks, darling, we’re lovely.”
He watched the door to close behind her. He gestured toward the visitor’s chair and waited for Tom to sit. He perched himself on the corner of his desk, ankles crossed, arms crossed, smile pasted on. “So what brings Mahomet down to the cave of the ex-journalists?”
“Several things. Was going to ring you, but then realized would be wiser to chat in person.”
Malcolm knew he was supposed to be flattered by this: he was important enough to the Deputy Prime Minister that he warranted a visit instead of a summons, but what he felt instead was fear. How discreet was Julius being? A revolt as a legitimate act in these days of fluid political alliances, a legitimate act, a legitimate fear. And now Malcolm was complicit. He had to hope the guilt wasn’t on his face. Thank fuck Tom wasn’t a sensitive.
Tom rubbed at his nose. “Did you hear that an angel was spotted on the roof of a church in the City this morning? Showed up on Instagram in a blurry shot. The rector was interviewed on Radio 2. Described somebody a bit like you, though without your trademark language.”
Malcolm felt himself relax. This was not the conversational gambit of a man who suspected him of plotting with Nicholson. This was a man who’d come to shoot the shit, the way he used to. He flapped his hand around apologetically. “Yeah, sorry, that was me.”
“A bit risky, yeah? Thought we agreed you’d stay hidden. Thought you preferred being hidden.”
Malcolm shrugged with palms up. “Need to get out every now and then. Stretch the wings. Get restless, you know?”
“Yeah, that’s the word. Need to fly. Sometimes I like to mess with them a bit. Make them wonder what the fuck is going on.”
The side of Tom’s mouth twitched up. Yes, he would like that kind of reason. But he wasn’t leaving it. He continued: “There’s something the rector said that interested me. Something about your wings. They were red, he said. Really?”
Malcolm said, “I need a holiday. They always get ragged when I’m due for a lie-down in Majorca.”
And with that, the air in the room went tight and hot. Tom’s voice had the force of an order. Malcolm felt it deep inside, at the indescribable place where soul joined body. Obey. He stood almost without thinking and stepped away from the desk to give himself room, and then got control of himself and breathed deeply. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it at his own pace.
Show himself. To Tom. He’d done this only a handful of times in front of Tom, though Tom liked it when he did, liked reminding himself of the power he had. Once he’d laughed and told Malcolm to take his tackle out. Malcolm had frozen and stared, unwilling to believe he’d heard the words. He’d had a moment of insight: this is what women felt like when men said those things to them. Ha ha, just a joke, all very funny, and so very demeaning. Tom had him under his thumb. Tom knew it. He was Tom’s bitch.
Show him. Show Tom his wings. Right. He would manifest himself for Tom.
Eyes closed, palms out, wings slowly shifting from the other plane to this one. Wings outstretched, then curled around himself slowly, protectively. Blood-red, dripping with blood that vanished in smoke before it hit the floor. He let the sword come into being in his hand: a long deadly thing, all silvered steel with flames rippling along it. It felt solid in his hands, heavy, balanced, the leather wrapped round the hilt cool against his palm. It felt real. It was nothing like what the Swords had, with their spinning scythes and broadswords as tall as they were, but it was a real thing. Deadly. Unnaturally sharp. It would cut the very fabric of space-time if he wanted it to. He left it hidden unless he truly needed to show it. Or somebody made him. They’d made him take it out and use it at the school, taught him all the things he could do it with it. Set it aflame. Stand guarding a passage with it spinning before him. Lend it to the worthy at moments of great need.
Somebody was always making him use his powers. Show himself here. Carry this message there. Inspire or terrorize that minister into doing what was wanted. He’d only ever done the one thing for himself.
The flames crackled in the quiet of his office. The thing was huge but no weight at all in his hands. He’d once tried to hand it to another student at the school for the Blessed, back when they were giggling idiots, before he’d learned the truth of his burden. The other student had wrinkled her nose and refused to touch it.
“There’s blood on it,” she’d said. She’d been a Seer, that girl. Precognition, dreams, clear visions of the past, murky glimpses of the future. Hardest of all to bind to service, the Seers. They vanished when they didn’t want you to find them.
Seers wouldn’t have fallen into Tom’s trap.
Malcolm held the sword upright before himself. There’s blood on it. Human blood? Blood on his hands. Metaphorical? Or a vision of a real future ahead of him? Blood. The sword was real. He could swing it and slay Tom, judge him, damn him, rend soul from body. Malcolm himself would also be damned before the first drop of blood hit the floor, for the sin of breaking his oath but Tom would be just as dead, just as damned. It was a breath of life in the hot, still room, hope flowing into him. Tom’s great web of influence would be shredded on the edge of his blade. The government would fall, Cameron would be unbound. Yes. It would be worth it.
Malcolm closed his eyes and tightened his hand on the hilt. Act–thrust. Kill him. Now.
He could not.
He opened his eyes. The other world flickered around him. He could see the pale flame of Tom’s soul within him. He was a pure human, untouched by the other world. He was what Malcolm was charged with serving. And he was Malcolm’s master. Chains on Malcolm’s wrists, heavy chains. Tom held them. The slave could not kill his master.
The slave could only turn the sword on himself.
Malcolm swayed on his feet with the audacity of this idea. Do it? Do it now?
Malcolm moved his hands just so, mimed sheathing the sword on his back, and it retreated into that other world. He curled his wings around himself. Smoke, blood dripping from red feathers. The stain on his soul was now evident for all to see. A fallen angel, bleeding out his guilt.
And then Tom laughed. “You’re the devil they say you are,” he said. There was no fear in his voice, none at all.
“Still an angel,” Malcolm said. “Still holy.”
A frown from Tom, as if he hadn’t wanted to hear that, and then, “Still mine?”
Malcolm inclined his head to Tom, a half-bow, a hand on his chest over his heart. No words, because he could not have spoken them. Yes, he was Tom’s. Tom’s bitch. Tom’s water-carrier. Tom’s messenger. Tom’s fallen angel. Craven. That was the only word for him. Fucking craven. He strutted around terrorizing minor civil servants and was a cringing, hand-wringing sycophant when he was before his liege-lord. The man he’d sworn to serve, the man who owned his soul. He remembered drinking. The dizziness, the warmth, the blessed unconsciousness. He’d given it up for his father’s sake. His father was dead. He could be drunk now, and it wouldn’t hurt like this.
Tom flicked his hand at him. “That’s enough of that. What was Nicholson here about?”
Malcolm hid himself again. He adjusted his tie and resettled his cuffs. Mere temporizing, because he could feel Tom’s gaze on him, unwavering. This was the real reason Tom had come. He looked up to meet his master’s eyes. “The usual blue-sky scheming. He was looking into schools for the Blessed for some fucking reason.”
“I asked him to.”
Tom made an easy gesture, a practiced gesture, the kind Malcolm drilled him in, one that said the answer was almost too obvious to say out loud. “You people are a resource this nation is extracting insufficient value from.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means that I am unclear why we kill ten percent of you at puberty and spend a rather large sum of money educating the other ninety percent and end up with a scant thirty percent of you in public service.”
“Do you propose to kill us all?”
“No.” Another pale smile. “I propose to educate more of you rather differently. Or perhaps I’ll propose that. Nicholson has yet to give me his thoughts about how many more of you we could turn into public assets with a more, shall we say, patriotic curriculum.”
“Sounds like the kind of thing you ought to do in all the schools.”
“The thought has occurred to me. David and I argue about it, the amount we spend on schools. He thinks it’s too much. I think otherwise. He tells me I might as well have formed a coalition with Labour.” Tom grimaced. “If Cameron has his way we’ll be a third-world nation before our children grow up. He really doesn’t belong in the office. PR man. No deep convictions.”
Tom’s face was now completely blank. No, not blank. It was cold. This was the face of the man who’d maneuvered Clegg into the end of his political career without blinking. The face of a man contemplating his next step toward the throne. And he would get there, Malcolm had no doubt. Things went the way Tom wanted them to go, in Malcolm’s experience. Somehow opponents retired, made dreadful mistakes, fell ill. Cameron would make a fatal political mistake soon.
Malcolm wondered, not for the first time, how many other Blessed Tom had managed to ensnare. He’d never seen another one in Downing Street, never felt the kinship one touched being felt for another. But that meant nothing. They might all be staying better-hidden than Malcolm was. There had been that sphere of light, the day Tom had extracted his oath from him, but Malcolm hadn’t seen it since. It had to still be there, helping Tom as much as Malcolm was. Willing, unwilling? It didn’t matter. Tom was using them all. Power. Tom would have it. The premiership. The government. If Malcolm did nothing, it would happen.
Would it be so bad?
Tom crossed his knees neatly. “What have you done about that refugee story?”
“Too big a problem even for me.” Malcolm shrugged. “Out of anybody’s control once that photograph went viral.”
Tom sighed. “A damned photogenic corpse. All over the Internet. I want it gone.”
“His name was Aylan Kurdi.”
Malcolm stood completely still and impassive under the sharp look Tom gave him.
“I know what his name was. I got the briefing. I’d like to make sure that his name doesn’t appear in speeches from that hack Corbyn. Make it vanish. Silence the family. They’ll shut up for the right price, no doubt.”
Malcolm felt his hands tremble. Rage, true rage, none of the feigning shite he did to frighten people. This idea had occurred to Tom. He thought it was possible to do such a thing, to silence grief with money. Blood money. Forty fucking pieces of silver. He thrust his hands into his pockets. Calm. Stay calm. Do not become the Angel of Death now.
And then he realized it didn’t matter. It was over for him. Tom could say whatever he wanted; he could hurt Malcolm no longer. Temporize. Make it through to the night.
So Malcolm shrugged again, and said, “Might be best to spew out some platitudes and let it die on its own. News cycle will find something else. I’ll feed it something fucking pointless.”
“I just want the Labour milksops to stop agitating for us to spend money on those people.”
Those people. Malcolm bared his teeth. “We could accept more refugees. We look like right cunts compared to the rest of the EU with our refusal–”
“It doesn’t matter what we look like to the EU. We have an election coming up we need to win. Matters far more how it plays in Leeds than in Munich. Right now David is playing to the anti-EU people anyway, with this talk of an exit referendum.” Tom brushed at his knee and smiled, and Malcolm understood how Cameron’s fall would be arranged. “Where is this coming from anyway, Tucker? All this sudden desire to spend tax dollars on Syrians?”
“It’s fucking easy to manage the press when we look good. When there’s nothing to spin.”
“You’ll just have to deal with it. And there’s sod-all to spin in the home counties, so long as you contain it. And contain that flaming pain in my arse, Helena Smith.”
“The Guardian writer? Yeah, can see why she would fash you. Aye, I’ll handle her.”
Sure, make promises he had no concept of keeping. He’d be gone. Gone. His hands were still trembling, whether from the residue of rage or from shock at the idea that had come to him earlier. Don’t think about it now. Keep his wits in the game with Tom now. Don’t give away anything. Fence, play chess, volley back the fucking tennis ball, whatever fucking game it was the Eton aristos played with each other. The fate of the world as side-stakes while they diced and back-bit each other for control of one run-down island.
He would play it now. For one afternoon more. It was a relief to think it, a relief to remind himself that he’d be ending it. And he knew exactly how, now.
“Brings me to my next topic: Nicola Murray. How the hell did she come off so well this morning?”
Malcolm grinned at that, actually grinned. “I briefed her. Sorted out her policy statement for her.”
“Why the hell did you do that?”
“She’s your minister. Your hand-picked LibDem among the Tory wolves. Want her to look good.”
“I don’t want her to look good. I want her to fail.”
“That wasn’t your plan for her–”
“The plan has changed.”
“You need to fuckin’ tell me these things,” Malcolm said. “I do best if I know what your real intent is.”
“Sorry, Tucker. That’s need to know right now. There are conspiracies afoot. Men who think they can win this election their own way.”
“Cameron? That fucking twat?”
Tom smiled at him but it was cold, so cold. “Apparently so.”
“Fucking faff-arsed pig-fucker. I’ll shred him.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that you’ll do exactly that when I ask you to do so. And not a moment before.”
Malcolm grinned, because that’s what he would have done before his awakening, before he knew himself. “Yeah.”
“If Nicholson mentions Cameron to you, I want to hear about it. Immediately, do you understand? Change into your inhuman form and come to me with it.”
“Meanwhile, Murray. Ruin her. Prove to me that you’re still mine.”
Nicola, sweet innocent guileless Nicola, to be ruined. Malcolm laid his hand on his heart and bowed for the second time in that short interview. “Consider her fucking ruined.”
“Good man. Knew you’d see it my way.”
“I always see it your way, if you fucking talk to me. I’m no’ a Dyson. I abhor a fucking vacuum, yeah?”
Tom stood up and studied him closely. “You’re an interesting tool, Malcolm. One of the best recruits I’ve made from you people. I wish I could trust them all as much as I trust you.”
Recruit. Fucking recruit. He’d been press-ganged. Malcolm smiled thinly, but said merely, “I live to serve. Speaking of which, don’t fucking wear that tie next you’re in public.”
Tom picked up the end and rubbed it between his fingers. “My mother-in-law gave it me. She wants to see it.”
“Only if you want to see yourself in a hundred memes. That green. No good on television. Wear it when you’re visiting on holiday. I’ve taught you this, I swear, you’re fucking hopeless. It’s like you and those loafers.”
Tom smiled at him easily and shrugged. “They were comfortable.”
And with that, the conversation was over. Tom turned from him and made his way out into the front office, where a couple of Malcolm’s press relations crew were loitering, hoping to be noticed. Tom spoke with them, all benevolence and ease, called them each by name, glad-handed them. Malcolm watched and kept the snarl on his face. And then he swept out, his assistant trailing after, on his way back to Downing Street, to the hollow corridors of power, where Cameron was leader in name only.
Malcolm watched him go with that sense of peace still with him. He would be dead by the morning. He knew how he’d do it now. Tom was no longer a threat. He was gone. Malcolm’s hope had left the building, and Malcolm’s spirit would soon follow.
Sam shooed the last of the flunkies off with errands to run, and came back to him rolling her eyes. “I swear, they’re like star-struck kids.”
Malcolm pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sam, have I got anything else today?”
“Nobody’s scheduled. Its just the recordings and a few pieces from the morning papers for your review.”
“The usual meaningless shite.”
Sam cocked her head and studied him. Malcolm tried to meet her eyes but found himself uncomfortable. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the floor instead.
She said, “Bit early for a cup, but you want me to make you one?”
“Aye. Make yourself one and come in, yeah?”
He regretted it the moment he turned away from her, because it hit him then, and his hands began to shake. He’d made it through the conversation without giving away Nicholson. Tom didn’t suspect Nicholson in the least. His attention was entirely on Cameron. He’d have to let Jamie know.
One last conversation to get through, then he’d be free.
He went over to his shrine and touched the cross, burned another pinch of incense, said the ritual words again. A third time that day, and he could not do it often enough to calm himself. It was a ritual twitch, like praying the rosary had been when he was a kid. He needed soothing. He was not going to ruin Nicola. He was not going to destroy a journalist who happened to write a story that Tom found inconvenient. He was not going to do these things because he was going to take his sword and use it on himself in the night. His sword. His sword could kill another Blessed being. He could fall upon it.
He could. He could. He could do it. He could do it now. No, not now. Not where Sam would be the one to find him. He had to see Jamie first. He had to warn Jamie.
He sat down on the floor beside the little shine and leaned his back against the wall. He let his head tip back. Wasn’t bad down here on the carpet. The scent of incense and candle wax was strongest here, and it was comforting. He had a different view of his office, his life. Messy sliding piles of DVDs with scrawled Sharpie on them, name of politician, name of television show, date. Stacks of books, lives of politicians, the ghostwritten books they published, in gaudy red and blue jackets. File folders. The locked cabinet with his blackmail notes. Newspapers on his desk, the laptop, the antiquated telephone. His haunt for the last few years. His last time seeing it all.
Unreal, yet such a relief.
An idea was coming to him now, a way to twist the knife. If his body was found, the body of an angel that had committed suicide, if it was clearly suicide, if he could tie it back to Tom somehow. Write a note, do it somewhere public. Under the dome of St Paul’s, maybe. Or in Westminster. Somewhere showy. Nowhere that would frighten any kids, but public enough that they couldn’t hide it.
The sense of peace settled on him again.
When Sam came in with tea, Malcolm was still there on the floor, legs stretched out before himself. Sam said nothing about it, just handed him down his cup and to his surprise, sat down next to him, her feet tucked under herself. There they sat, side by side on the floor of Malcolm’s office, with their backs against the wall underneath the shrine. Malcolm blew at his tea and sipped. He liked it sweet; Sam liked hers with only a little sugar and a lot of milk. Things they knew about each other, things they didn’t speak about. She’d been smoothing out his days for him for years now, long before they’d had any scent of real power, when Tom had been a back-bencher with little hope of enacting a bland and uninteresting middle-of-the-road agenda.
Malcolm hadn’t much given a damn about that agenda. It hadn’t angered him; it hadn’t thrilled him. Carrying Tom’s words to a wider audience had been fine. He swallowed his tea and said, “When did it all start going wrong?”
Sam tilted her head and scrunched up her nose. “When Tom pushed Nick out, I think. That’s when it all got strange.”
“Yeah, that was an inflection point. But I think it was sideways before that. Maybe as early as his move to London.”
“That was before my time. Christ, how long have I been with you? Six years?”
“Seven, I think. I haven’t been too fucking awful, have I?”
“Not to me, you haven’t. You gave me a scare today, though.”
“Sammy,” he said. He brushed hair away from her cheek. “Sorry about that.”
He bent and kissed her cheek, where his finger had just touched. It was no more than he’d done before at the yearly Christmas do, but this time he was saying goodbye.
“What’s wrong, Malc?” Sam said.
He sighed. “Tom wants me to get the international news to shut up about Syrian refugees. There’s a Guardian writer he wants to feel the wrath of Tucker.” Sam’s face changed. Malcolm said, “Yeah, I know. I’m not going to do anything about it until tomorrow at the earliest. Okay? If he asks you tomorrow what I planned to do, tell him that. I won’t be here.”
“Hey, hey, darling, it’s okay. This morning was a symptom, yeah? Going to take a day or two somewhere with a spy novel to read or something mindless. Back to face the fuck office once I can bear it.”
This lie hurt more than any of the lies he’d told that day. He could lie to Nicholson easily, but Sam? Fuck. There was more there than he’d known. Sam would understand after a while; she had to. After Jamie told her. He couldn’t do it himself. Too ashamed to confess it to her after these years of her keeping his secret, keeping all his secrets, arranging his days for him. He’d let himself be trapped. He’d knowingly done evil.
Distract, distract. He reached into himself and found the perfect words for her.
“His Baldyness wants me to come to dinner with his fuck toy some time next week. Make sure I’m free for it, would you? Don’t want to waste an opportunity to dig up more dirt on him.”
“Right, I’ll set that up for you.”
He tipped up his mug and drank down the last of his tea. A little sugar at the bottom. He set the mug on the carpet next to his thigh. Gray trousers, sharp crease, too baggy on him. He’d had to start wearing belts to cinch them in at the waist. He denied himself food more often than anything else. Well, companionship. He denied himself that. Penance. He’d known he was not right for years, since he’d stopped drinking, and he hadn’t figured out why until that morning. Tom wasn’t right. He wasn’t Cursed or anything like that. He wasn’t evil. He was after power and he stood for nothing other than the desire for power. Ministers and policies and governmental programs: game pieces on a board that either moved him closer to his goal or not. Nicola Murray had to go because she had suddenly shown signs of competence. While she’d been useless she’d been safe.
And he was the damned fool who’d encouraged her. Well. He’d find a way to salvage Nicola if he could. He’d put Jamie onto it. And he’d have Jamie take care of Sam, too.
Jamie. Christ, he’d have to tell Jamie everything.
There was tea in his belly now, a scrap of comfort, of will to act. Malcolm set himself to work with his laptop with what remained of the afternoon, his last day in the office. His time was running out and he had new energy in his blood, a sense of urgency he hadn’t felt in years. He had email messages to write, directives to craft, messages to set spinning into motion. Mostly to Nicola, though he shot a few off to Nicholson. Instructions, carefully worded under the cover of obscenity. Malcolm knew Julius would see past it, had to hope Julius would get Nicola in line. She wasn’t stupid, he knew that at last. She was merely painfully naive, painfully earnest, and painfully outclassed by the heartless people that surrounded her.
He had only a few hours left in which to set her feet on the path. And then he’d get Jamie walking that same path, and then he’d bow out. Forever. It was all planned; he would be at peace at last. It was easy, now, to do all these things.
He was still in the middle of it, typing out a hot tip for Angela Heaney that would, he hoped, end in her accidentally writing a hit piece on Cameron’s secret NHS agenda, when he heard Jamie’s voice in the outer office, bantering with Sam. Bantering, then dropping low so he knew they were talking but couldn’t hear what they were saying, Which meant they were talking about him.
Jamie strutted right up to Malcolm and sat his arse down on Malcom’s desk. He had his chin out. Same dark blue suit he always wore, same scuffed black shoes. Malcolm let himself grin with all his teeth.
“Jamie. Get the fuck off my desk.”
Jamie did not move. “How the fuck are you?”
“Never better. Why the fuck do you ask?”
Jamie slid off the desk at that and came around. He spun Malcolm’s chair around and hauled him out. “Why do I ask? You fucking knob. You massive bell-end. You know why I’m asking. You made Sam fuckin’ cry, you inconsiderate cunt. You unspeakable shit. How dare you.”
Jamie dug his hands into Malcolm’s shirt and shoved him against the desk, hard. Malcolm bounced off and staggered.
“Fuck, Jamie, I didn’t mean it.”
“You told her you were off to top yourself.”
Malcolm glared at him and shoved him back. “I meant I was going to go and chuck it in.”
“How’s that not topping yourself?”
Malcolm shrugged. He ought to have kept his gob shut with Sammy. Heat of the moment stupidity. Jamie was in his face again, a hand on his throat, but the anger had gone. Instead there was an intensity that made Malcolm want to shrink away, to hide his face from being read. Jamie was a sensitive, meant for the priesthood, He still had every bit of the sensitivity that had made them tap him aside and throttle him with a collar. He’d abandoned the seminary when the celibacy part had proved impossible for him, but the sensitivity would be with him always. Jamie could read Malcolm if he wanted. If he tried. And he was trying.
Why was Malcolm fighting it? Let the man read him. Let him feel it. Let him see his need for an end. He opened himself to Jamie, let him read. Let him read the despair.
Jamie eased his grip and shivered. “But why, Malcy? Why? What’s wrong?”
Malcolm tipped his head toward the door and grimaced. “Not fucking here. I have a mountain of things to tell you, but can’t fucking say anything here.”
Jamie peered at his face for a moment, intent, suspicious, then let go of him and backed away.
“Yours or mine?” he said.
“Mine,” said Malcolm, thinking of the rubbish in his cupboards that would need to be thrown out. “But you cook.”
“Fine, you lazy twat. Let’s go.”
They went. Malcolm took a moment on the way out to squeeze Sam’s shoulder, just a touch, but he wanted to leave her with something that let her know it wasn’t her, it would never have been her, she was one of the last good things in his life. And out, and through the maze, winding their way backwards. Reeder was there, in the last hallway, fat file folders under his arms. Malcolm had told Nicola to get rid of him in his series of messages to her in the afternoon, had pointed her toward some juniors with brains and the rudiments of competence. Probably she hadn’t had the nerve to tell Reeder himself yet. He’d have to remind Jamie to push her. Another item on the agenda for the night’s conversation.
Reeder said, “Malcolm, hey, hi, how’s it hanging? Assuming you have an it to hang. I hear Steve Fleming was on his way to neuter you.”
Malcolm stared at him and through him. Reeder no longer signified. He kept walking, fast enough that Jamie had to jog to keep up. Down the stairs, through the exit door to the left of the metal detectors, out, Jamie on his heels. Out of the building, into the street. Pavements wet from rain earlier, but the skies were clear and the breeze fresh. Malcolm breathed in deeply. A lovely night for the end of his life. He felt that profound peace wash over him again. He was going to do it at last.
A cab, and a silent ride, because none of the things they needed to discuss could be said in front of anybody else, and that included cabbies. Malcolm felt Jamie staring at him the whole time, silent and coiled for action.
“Christ, I could use a drink,” Jamie said at last, as the cab braked before Malcolm’s door.
Malcolm did not keep alcohol in his house any more. There was some in his office, a dusty bottle of what was probably good whisky, for tactical use on visitors. He’d tied a string around it to remind him if he was ever tempted. Not that he was, except that tonight he was with Jamie. He wished for something to make this conversation easier. No. He wasn’t going to do anything that might ruin his resolve. Sobriety and penance and apology tonight, and then blessed surcease.
He led the way into his kitchen and flipped on the lights. Went to the icebox and found a bottle of Irn Bru for Jamie, gassy water for himself.
“You know your way around,” Malcolm said, and he sat down at his kitchen table. Leaned his head on his hands. Waited.
Jamie cursed him under his breath, casually, then started rummaging, taking inventory of the cupboards and fridge. He seemed to find what he needed. Malcolm toyed with his glass, tracing patterns in the condensation. Watched his oldest friend cook. Was a dab hand at it now, father of two, plenty of practice cooking their tea when his wife was away. She was something big in publishing, editor for a best-selling stable of authors. Jamie was happy with her. Malcolm had stood by him at his wedding, had blessed the two of them in secret. Would that be undone on his death? No, blessings weren’t. Miracles would cease if they were ongoing, but blessings once given were given. The kitchen smelled good. Onions and spice and browning butter. Pots and pots sat on the stove, steaming away. Food. Last supper with Jamie, his best mate.
Jamie sat down, eyed the bottle of soda, and slugged it down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Spill it,” Jamie said. “Flap your tongue, or I use your own butcher’s knife on you.”
Malcolm rubbed the bridge of his nose. Here it came, the worst of it. He had to set things right with Jamie or he wouldn’t be right when he went to meet his maker. He said, “Did you ever wonder why I came down here? To work for Tom.”
Jamie frowned. “The money?”
“No. The money’s nice, but fuck me, journalism was okay. Had a book or two in me. No. It’s fucking-- I fucked up. I fucked up more massively than any shit-faced politician you’ve ever seen wobble out of Downing Street with a resignation letter shoved up his arse.”
Jamie said nothing, but continued watching him with darkness gathering in his face.
“Wasn’t the money. Tom-- Tom-- I needed a favor done. Tom did it. The price was–”
“Tom owns my fucking soul. I swore it over to him. I do his bidding on pain of damnation. S’truth.”
“You fuckin’ can’t–”
“You fucking can. I fucking did.”
“Had no fucking choice. Me da was dark but hidden, and if I didn’t swear to Tom he’d have been turned in. Tom pulled strings and hid him once he knew he had me. Once I’d put my blood on the paper.”
Jamie was shaking his head hard. “Fucking lies. Your da? He was a lovely man. I’d have known.”
Malcolm shrugged. “He was Cursed and lovely. I’m Blessed and a total fucking cunt. There’s no telling.”
“Yes, there fucking is. You can always fucking tell. I can do it it with bell, book, and candle, any Blessed cunt like you with some holy water. Did Tom fucking prove it to you? Did you ever prove it to yourself?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Never said a fucking word to him. Swore I wouldn’t, didn’t. Let him carry the secret to his grave.”
“You fucking moron, Malc, that’s not how it works. You can’t hide from government. They find you when you manifest.”
“It would have happened for him in the War. They might have missed him. They missed a lot during the War.”
“Maybe. But he spent his whole life in the open–”
“A sensitive like you, but a dark sensitive. Nothing to attract attention.”
“They don’t exorcise people like that, Malc. They fucking don’t. They put them on a list and ignore the list.” Quiet for a little, then Jamie said, “Were you drunk when Tom talked to you?”
Malcolm hung his head. “Yeah.”
He’d had one tied on before he walked into the room. Tom had poured more for him during the conversation, made sure he got drunker. The first of his great sins, though not the greatest, was those years of drinking.
“You stupid cunt,” Jamie said. “And now–”
“Now if Tom says kill the stories on Aylan Kurdi, I fucking kill the stories on Aylan Kurdi. Tom says make the public beg to kill the fuckin’ NHS, the thing that keeps them alive, I fucking make them beg. Next summer when Tom says make them vote to leave the EU, I’ll do it.”
“Shit. Everything we’ve fucking fought about, everything I’ve called you a fucking sell-out about–”
“You were right to be angry. Right to threaten to quit. But I couldna do anything different.”
Silence. Jamie got up and did things with pots and pans. Stirring things, transferring things. The kitchen smelled nice. Tomatoes and spices and onions in butter. Olive oil. Vegetables browning, some bit of meat Malcolm hadn’t realized had been in his fridge in the pan. Oh, right, he had a housekeeper. Food arrived whether he noticed it or not. Probably she took it all home to feed her own family after he’d refused to eat. He fasted so often, so very often these days, trying to atone for that which could not be atoned for with less than his blood.
His blood on an altar.
Jamie set sliced French bread in front of him, with a dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “Eat something,” he said. Malcolm took a chunk of bread, dipped it into oil, ate. Bread. Twice in two days he’d been given bread by a friend he didn’t deserve. Three times: Nicola, Sam, and Jamie.
Fuck him, Jamie. His oldest friend, from his days at the Herald. Young men, hair everywhere, shabby clothes, sharing a packet of fags and trading off buying pints of lager of an evening. Graduating to blended whisky in plastic cups later, when beer hadn’t been enough for Malcolm. They’d survived their childhoods, escaped Glasgow, escaped the traps laid for the Blessed, scraped out decent lives. Or Jamie had, anyway. Malcolm had made the jump to politics, urged Jamie to come down to London, back him up, he had a post, they’d be able to do all the things they’d talked about. He’d wanted a friend, a true friend, someone he could trust. Politics was full of conditional friends, sliding loyalties and slippery alliances. No true feeling lasted around the public school boys playing their games of betrayal. True friendship was a liability with the English cunts. True friendship. What sort of a friend had Malcolm been?
It hadn’t been all bad for Jamie. Surely not. He’d met his wife. Made a decent life. Malcolm watched him move around the kitchen in his shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled up. Heading on to middle age now.
Jamie put food on a plate in front of him: chicken and veg over rice in a lot of drippy sauce. It smelled good enough that Malcolm’s mouth watered. “Eat, you stupid cunt.”
Malcolm dug a fork into it and ate with more pleasure than he wanted to admit. The body still existed, still wanted things. Wanted to be held, wanted to eat, to drink. Wanted to find Sam and bury his face in her hair and feel her arms around him again. Wanted to hug Jamie, that stupid cunt, and hear him say it would be okay. Like he had when Malcolm had been shaking and sweating out the drink, before he made his way up to his father’s deathbed. Jamie. He’d written a will, some time ago, and his mother and Jamie were the beneficiaries. Take care of the bairns.
There was no reason for him to hold out any longer.
They ate. They drank water. Jamie gave him more bread. Malcolm ate it, and silently blessed the man, his friend, who was feeding him his last meal. Jamie cleared away the plates, refusing Malcolm’s attempt to do it for him. Malcolm sat and watched, hands folded on the table. Never reject an act of mercy, was all he could think. It didn’t matter for him, but it mattered for Jamie. Jamie would know afterward he’d done all he could.
Jamie pulled out a chair from the table and set it beside Malcolm. He sat and rolled down his sleeves, buttoned his cuffs. He was close enough that Malcolm could smell the washing-up soap on his hands, see the stubble on his chin, the bags under his eyes. He looked grim.
“I believed in you, Malc. Because of what you are.”
“I trusted you to lead me right.”
“I know.” This was another of his great sins: that he’d led Jamie into doing Tom’s will through his lies.
“I’m fucking angry but I want you alive so I can punch your nose. Can’t punch a dead man, Malc.”
Malcolm looked at his hands on the table. “It’s more than just you, Jamie. It’s the nation. It’s my soul.”
Malcolm clenched a hand into a fist. “Will you hear my confession?”
“I’m not a fuckin’ priest.”
“Nearest thing I’ve got to one down here, wi’ the fucking English and their watered-down rites. I need it done proper, and I need it to be you.”
Jamie looked away and groaned. “Never could say no to you, you and your silver tongue. Even after I found out what you are. Yeah, you can fucking confess to me and I’ll keep it secret and I’ll forgive you, you cunt.”
It wasn’t the forgiveness Malcolm was after, but he was too impatient to explain that. Jamie would understand afterward anyway. He stood and pushed his chair aside, knelt on the kitchen floor before Jamie. He pressed his hands together in the gesture of prayer. A familiar thing, almost comforting, something he hadn’t done since the day he’d been sent to the school for the Blessed. The Blessed didn’t confess. The Blessed were above that. Or so they said. He wasn’t above it, not today. Hands together in prayer. One more thing: He showed himself to Jamie, let himself be seen: magnificent wings, shining, stained deep red and dripping. Jamie gasped in horror and put out his hand to touch him, touched him, and Malcolm felt the shock of the touch all the way to his bones. Jamie still had all the power of a real priest in him dormant, holy, unspoiled.
Malcolm closed his eyes. He felt Jamie’s hands close around his but this touch was steadying. Jamie’s power was helping him now. Yes, this would work. Jamie would carry his message to the Blessed One. Jamie would get their attention.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s been thirty years since my last Confession. These are my sins.”
Jamie squeezed his hands. “Tell me, brother.”
“I sold my soul to a craven man for selfishness.”
“Wasn’t selfishness. Was love.”
Malcolm shook his head and set his jaw. “Selfishness. If my da was Dark, wasn’t right. Listen to me, Jamie. Hear me out.”
“Yeah-- yeah. Go on, brother.”
“I tried to kill Tom today. I couldna raise my hand against him. But I would have. I’d have taken human life and not regretted it.”
An intake of breath and a squeeze of his hands. Malcolm swallowed and went on.
“I lied to the entirety of Great Britain. Without my lies, the election would not have gone this way. Without my lies in the ears of the people who vote. I knew I was lying. I led my friends and followers into lying with me, against their better judgement.”
Jamie said, “Go on, brother.” His voice was hoarse.
“I’ve lied to make Tom’s will real. I’ve threatened violence and rape and fucking anything that came to mind to make his will real. I’ve terrorized everyone around me. I’ve screamed. I’ve used my gifts for cruelty. Fucking threats, Jamie, I threatened rape. I delighed in it. How could I fucking do that? And I did it. Over and over. Fuck me. That’s a sin.”
Jamie raised a hand and touched his forehead, traced a cross on it. The finger burned his skin. Malcolm closed his eyes and let himself feel it.
“Malcolm. Malc, brother. I can’t absolve you. I can’t take this burden away from you. It’s too great for the likes of me. You’ve always been too much for me.”
“Shut up and hear me out. My turn. You lot are not supposed to be easy to be near. You’re supposed to be reminders of what lies behind everything. Supposed to tell us how to live. Not peace but a sword.”
“Don’t want to bring my fucking sword.”
“You canna help it. It’s who you are. You’re a fucking winged messenger with a sword. You will move everyone around you to do what you need them to do no matter what you want. You raise your hand and somebody’s been fucking blessed. And you’ve fucked it. You’ve fucking led the nation the wrong way. Led me the wrong way, cunting fucking hell, Malc.”
“You’ve got to set it right. And me telling you to say a hundred Hail Marys won’t do it.”
“God help me, Malc, I don’t know what to do.”
“I do,” Malcolm said, calmly, to the face of his friend. He stretched out his hand and manifested his sword. Jamie flinched away and was right to. It was fire and death. The sword. He had the sword, and Jamie was right. “This can cut my wings off.”
“Jesus Mary and Joseph, Malc-- you can’t be serious.”
“I cut them off and I surrender my grace and it’s over. My oath is ended when I surrender my grace. I’m fucking losing it anyway so I may as well do it on my own terms.”
“You can’t stop me, Jamie. You can’t stop me doing anything.”
“I can fucking beg you not to. Don’t do it. There has to be another way.”
“It’s the only way to take it from us. It’s what they do to the devils when they exorcise them. Would you do it for me, Jamie? Would you?”
Jamie’s hands jerked away as if burned. “Jesus, Malcolm, don’t even talk like that. I’d burn in hell for eternity for the sin of maiming an angel.”
“They do it to us. They exorcise us. Every day they do it to one of us and call it right. Nothing more than that.”
“You’re not one of those. You’re holy. Fuck, Malc–”
“I’m begging you. Will you do it for me, Jamie?”
Jamie straightened and laid a hand on his chest. He bowed his head to Malcolm. “I will not. But I’ll stand by you when you do.”
“No. If I must do it myself, I’ll do it alone.”
“You’re gonna need me with you afterward, you stupid cunt.”
Malcolm would not be needing anything afterward. Not if every story he’d ever been told about giving up the gifts voluntarily were true. If you lived you were a shell. No one would touch you. But mostly you didn’t live. This was how he’d kill himself: no meteor strikes in remote wastelands. Instead he’d exorcise himself, cut the blessing away with his own bloody sword. And that would do do it. And with luck, his body would remain, the maimed body of an angel who’d killed itself. An unholy mess of a scandal that even Tom could not whitewash away.
“I need to do it some place public,” Malcolm said. “Some place Tom can’t hide. Downing Street, on his front step.”
“No, hey, Malcy, go do it proper. Sanctified ground. An altar. Pray first. Maybe They’ll-- I don’t fucking know. Maybe They’ll like it. In a church. Cathedral. St Paul’s.”
“That’s what you fucking say.”
“I know it.” Jamie’s eyes were wide, and half-frantic.
But it was a good idea. He would do it in a church, and not just any church. He’d do it in one of the beautiful ones, the famous ones, the holy ones. He’d do it at Walbrook. Leave his body on the floor of that church, let him bleed his life out on the altar, and no force on earth could contain that scandal.
“Okay,” Malcolm said. “We’re going to St Stephen’s.”
He got off his knees and stretched out his hand to Jamie and raised him up.
They took a cab to the City, gave the cabbie the address of a nearby club. Malcolm would have flown if he’d been on his own, taken one last turn around his adopted city, one last breath of night air. But Jamie insisted on being with him, on clinging to him, so Malcolm rode and then walked. Quiet streets but never empty, not here in London.
Malcolm stopped at the doors of the church, on the pavement, hovering between spaces profane and holy. This place was deeply holy. Two millennia of holy places here, longer. So many people worshipping the Blessed One here had consecrated it in a way that mere buildings could not do, but this building would make any site holy. He stood on the pavement, before that unassuming wall, that quiet arch, and knew himself to be home.
Malcolm laid his hand on the door. It swung open for him silently. No locks would bar his way at a time like this. He gripped Jamie’s arm and held him back from the door for a moment.
“Jamie. After this is done. Julius and Nicola. Go to Julius. Tell him I sent you. Do what he says. Make it work for Nicola. Make her do what I told her to do in email today. You hear?”
“I hear you.”
“Make Julius take Sam on, yeah?”
“Malc, you’re not dying.”
“Promise me, y’cunt. Fucking promise me or I’ll gut you. Say she’ll be taken care of.”
“Calm yerself. I fucking swear it.”
He shivered and stepped into the church. Quiet now, dark, all the tourists gone home. Up the steps. Inside into that great echoing space, all air and light in the day, ghostly dim in the night. He paused to let his eyes adjust. The votives had gone out, all save one. The one he’d lit earlier in the day was burning steadily and consuming nothing. His little miracle. It would be undone in a moment.
Malcolm breathed in, out. There was the altar, with the two great candles on it unlit. He would do it there. He walked forward to it past the benches, and stood just before the plinth. Jamie stood beside him. Malcolm saw him cross himself, heard him murmuring. The words of that ancient plea to the Blessed One.
“Malc.” Jamie clasped the back of his head, pulled him down so their foreheads touched. His cheeks were wet. “I canna stop you?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Jamie, brother. Go. Don’t stay. Don’t watch.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“You stupid twat.”
“It’ll be okay, Malc. You’ll be okay. You’re too much of a cunt to have anything truly bad happen to you.”
“Fuck you too,” Malcolm said, knowing that Jamie knew what he meant by it. That was his curse. He always said exactly what was needed. “Tell Sam I loved her, okay?”
Jamie laughed and Malcolm could hear the tears in his voice. “Fuck you, tell her yourself. You’re walking away from this a fuckin’ boring cunt like me. You know it.”
He knew the opposite. He knew it wasn’t what was going to happen. Let Jamie dream, though, let him think it. If this was it, if he was saying goodbye-- he leaned into Jamie and let himself feel it for a long moment, feel the humanity in him. Raw life, blood pumping in his veins, the warmth of his breath, the urgency of his emotions and body, the body and soul of Jamie MacDonald. His friend. A human. One of the reasons he’d done it all.
Another moment of what another pair of men might have called an embrace, and he stepped back. Turned. Paced across the open chancel to the altar in the center. Stone, white stone, huge pillar candles sitting upon it unlit. He wiped his clammy palms on his trousers. Nerves. Fuck, he was not going to flinch from it now. He couldn’t bear another day of this. He couldn’t. He took one last look back at Jamie, Jamie his friend. He was on his knees with his hands clasped and eyes closed. Malcolm could see his lips moving. Poor fuck.
He turned away. He must do this as if he were alone.
Jacket off, tossed aside. Shirt unbuttoned. His hands were still shaking but he didn’t hesitate. He’d found his nerve.
He stood before the altar, bare-chested, arms outspread, and let himself be seen as he was, let his wings spread all the way, let his spirit show itself fully. Not human. Blessed. Cursed. They were one and the same to him. He was almost dizzy. That morning he’d resolved to top himself. It was midnight now, and he was about to do it. Suicide by God. The Blessed Power didn’t like being called that, but that’s what They were. God. He’d sinned, used his gifts for evil, and now he would pay for it.
The Blessed One made themselves known to him. They were there, hovering over the altar, because Malcolm had summoned them. He swallowed. Fuck. He was in it now.
Malcolm went down on his knees, there before the altar. He drew in a deep breath. He was shaking. Fuck, yeah, he was afraid. He knew what the Blessed One could do. He might die quietly; might just as easily die screaming. Rejecting the gifts: not fucking done. Not enough, kneeling wasn’t enough. He lay flat on the floor in front of the altar, wings and arms outspread. Crucify him right here, right onto the floor. Fucking nail him down and rip his wings from his bleeding back. Let him die here. Whatever happened, it ended now.
“I fucked up,” he said, to the presence hovering over the altar. “I fucked it all up. You gave me this and I used it selfishly. I put those cunts in power. This is me making amends. Sorry, Lord. Sorry, Dad. You wouldn’t have wanted it if you’d known.”
He knelt up.
He held out his right hand, curled his fingers just so, and the sword manifested itself. Red flames ran along it, from tip to hilt, like blood running down. They dripped and were gone before they hit the floor.
“I’m done,” he said, again. “Done with that fucking self-serving power-mad twat. If you let me live, I’ll make it right, but doesn’t fucking matter to me if you do. I’m giving it back to you. Don’t deserve it. But you heard my fucking confession. Not going to say it twice.”
He took the sword in both hands. Raised it over his head, let fall back so it was flat against his back, between his shoulders. Turned it. Let the otherworldly edge of the blade touch his left shoulder, the place where the wing emerged from human flesh. So little effort it needed, so little effort to press it in. To let it bite.
A moment of surprise as his wing fell away, shock at how easy it had been, and then the pain hit him and he cried out. He fell forward onto his hands. Blood, the smell of blood, the hot rush of it down his back. Paralyzing pain. Move, move, don’t lose his will now. Fuck him, it hurt to push himself up again, take up the sword again. He clenched his jaw around the scream and lifted the sword, held it over his right shoulder. Pushed hard, felt it cut into his back, his weight shift as the wing fell away. Too deep, fuck, but it wouldn’t matter. It was done and it was going to kill him.
He shoved the bloody feathered mess toward the altar. A fucking offering to the fucking other world: the outward sign of his curse.
“Fucking take it from me, you fuck! I’m done!”
With his last scrap of will, Malcolm laid the sword on the altar. He collapsed onto the floor. The blood was pumping down his back. He could feel the life draining from him. Every heartbeat. Shock. Cold. The pain, Christ, the pain–
The spirit fell down upon him. Malcolm let go of his life.
Malcolm let go his life, and the flames took him.
He was held motionless, teeth bared in agony as the blessed powers did whatever they had chosen to do to him. The fire ran through his veins, burning him up from the inside. His back burned. Blood everywhere, blood and feathers and the sword on the altar before him, bursting into flames before him. Everything that he was, wings and sword, burned before him. Heat and light and pain and the spirit everywhere, the face of something he knew without knowing how, a being of unimaginable power, a hand reaching out to him, a finger touching him.
Everything went black. He was held suspended. Time to be judged.
Time swirled. His vision shifted.
He was a boy, sitting in church, listening to the Latin of the liturgy. He loved going to Mass though he didn’t understand at all what it meant. There were wings in the light that shone upon the altar. He looked up at them and smiled with utter joy. Nobody else seemed to see them, but he could. And then he saw the angel, hovering there, smiling at him, and he wanted to cry it was so beautiful.
Why did nobody else see it? Why was Mass always different for him than for anybody else? He was touched, the priest said, though at his age nobody knew which way. He might be Cursed. He might be Blessed.
Either way, his name went in the government book. They kept a watch on him. Every year they tested him, as they did all the other children who showed signs. Every year, nothing interesting. He began to hate being touched, being different, being in that book. Being watched. Being marked out at school.
He was twelve, awkward, face broken out in spots, voice breaking, shaking with strange feelings, a strange tingling in his chest and stomach when he talked to a pretty girl at school. Stranger sensations yet when he went to church or touched the little shrine his father kept in the front room. Itching in his back, in his palms. A secret, he knew, something terrible. He was an angry boy, a sullen boy, an unpopular boy. Nothing that was happening to him was any good. Until the Sunday he went to the altar, took communion, and collapsed. The fire fell upon him from above and every candle in the church burst into flame. Malcolm lay before the altar and caught fire with them.
Then came a week of fever and weakness and the conviction he was burning from the inside out. A week of the priest praying over him, the angry boy, the boy who would wear the altar boy’s vestments if you made him, who would do the daily ritual if you made him, but whom everybody had marked to be one of the evil few. Except he wasn’t. He was one of the few, yes, but holy, holy, holy, most holy of holies, one of the Blessed, an angel. Before the week was out his true form had come clear. He had wings, gorgeous white feathers, and fire in his hands that he could not keep in check.
The priest blessing him, touching him with chrism and pronouncing him Blessed, his father holding him close, his mother crying. At first Malcolm could only be grateful they weren’t coming to kill him. He wasn’t cursed.
And then everything changed. They came for him, but it was for his benefit. Because he was Blessed.
He was at the school, holding a bag with his clothes in it, standing in the dorm room. There was a uniform laid out on his bed. The other students, the other Blessed teens, were there to meet the new boy. Not a one of them posh, not a one of them with a proper accent. A Scouser and a Brummie, a ginger from Belfast, another Weegie like him. He didn’t think to wonder if the posh Blessed kids went to a different place. Not until much later.
The girl who was the seer. The girl who was the Guardian. The boy who was the Sword. The one of them whose gifts were never explained, boy or girl Malcolm never could tell, who moved among them silently. That one had been the most sullen and angry of them all.
Visits home, so awkward. He was posh now, had nothing in common with his former friends. It was all Anglican at the school, not proper Mass, so he wanted to be happy to be home again, with the priest talking Latin. But he couldn’t enjoy it any more, not when he had to help every time while they all stared. Their local boy, Blessed. Held up as an example to them all.
He was grateful to be back at school after a while, where at least he was ordinary. Where he could sit with his friend, the strange one, unspeaking yet together, playing scratched vinyl on a third-hand stereo system. Robyn, its name was, and when it spoke it was music, many-voiced multitudes chanting, but it didn’t like to speak and even the masters were afraid to make it.
The hierarchy that existed even then, with the more deeply gifted of them treated differently by the teachers. So powerful they were, with no idea of how to use their powers. No control. Being taught that control, carefully. Being taught when they may and when they may not use it. The laws. The burdens. The expectations. The constant watch they were under. At sixteen, the choice: to serve openly, or to shutter themselves away and lead normal lives. The state could not hold them any more, by law, liberal-era law, and they were free to choose. Free to hide or serve.
Very old tradition guaranteed them all a living. They would never want, the government Minister for the Blessed told them. They therefore owed their country. They were to serve it, or they were not to use their gifts.
The army took the Sword and the Guardian. Robyn went to Oxford to read maths, with a post in government promised. It left Malcolm its vinyl collection when it left, but no address to write to. Not that Malcolm asked for one.
The Seer had vanished from the grounds before the Minister came to speak to them. The staff shrugged; the Seers always did this. They were no true Seer if they did not.
Malcolm had A levels in hand, a gift for writing already evident: he had taken his living and gone back to Glasgow to study, hidden. A brief window of happiness in his life, that time at university, reading and working and living a normal life at last. His family was nearby to visit. He found sweetness in his first awareness that he had free will despite it all. No one was controlling him now. So long as he stayed quiet, stayed discreet, he could be himself. If only he knew who he was.
Time swirled. His vision shifted.
He was in the newspaper office, at a borrowed desk, writing his first article on an ancient typewriter, seeing his byline in the paper for the first time. Writing about the lives of the Scots around him, the humans, the people whom he was supposed to serve. Living in the real world. Seeing how bad it was. Heroin, addiction, squalor, death, vibrant life, creativity, art, people loving each other despite the misery. It’s grim up north. Malcolm had a sense of purpose at last: there were people he could help, wrongs he could right.
He had a life. Friends. No one knew what he was, and so he could be himself. If only he knew who he was.
Sitting out in the back garden of a pub with Jamie on a damp cold night, three pints already down the hatch. Out for a smoke and a quiet talk about things at the paper, somewhere out of the noise. Handing the mashed packet of Marlboros to Jamie, taking it back, digging out the last. No matches in his pockets, none in Jamie’s. Jamie swore, casually, and he stood to go back inside to cadge a light. Malcolm shrugged and let himself be present just enough to light both. The beating of wings, red flames flaring, and Malcolm drew in a sweet lungful of smoke.
“What the flipping fuck just happened?” said Jamie. And he looked at Malcolm and saw him for the first time. “Fuck me, you’re an angel. Malc. Fucking hell.”
“Yeah,” Malcolm said. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, spread out his hands, and showed himself, his wings, the light that could shine from within. Nobody else out on this rainy night to care, and he was just drunk enough to wish there were.
“Fuck me,” Jamie said again. “I knew you were touched, could always feel that, but-- you? Why the fuck are you here? Why aren’t you off doing something, I don’t know what, whatever they have angels do?”
“Why are you here and not wearing a dog-collar?”
Jamie blew smoke out his nose. “I like women too much. You could have any woman you wanted if you showed those, so that canna be your excuse for shirking.”
“I didn’t want it. Don’t want it. Ruined my life when it happened. Got sent away. Lost all my friends. People stopped talking to me like a human being, started trying to suck my prick.”
“Won’t catch me dead doing that. Though I won’t say no to the odd light.” Jamie picked up his glass and drained it in long swallows, cigarette wedged between his fingers. Some kind of feeling in Malcolm, rising, something he hadn’t known since childhood. Friendship. Affection. Jamie was a mate. That was the word. He didn’t give a fuck about the wings. He gave a fuck about his mate Malcolm. An arm slung round his shoulders, another round bought, and home singing and then stopping to hurl up his guts onto the curb.
It was years later, down in London. Standing in the church beside Jamie, clear-eyed, sober, holding the rings for him, watching him beam at the woman he was about to marry. Reaching into himself and summoning a blessing for his friend and the woman who made him look like that, that prosperity and happiness be theirs, that they know joy, that their union be fruitful. And it was, because no matter what darkness was in his heart, Malcolm had the power.
Time swirled. His vision shifted.
Back to Glasgow, to the dim grim North. Thirty years old, a head full of curling hair, a face that people trusted and told stories to. Already a little bitter, a little biting, a little frustrated. He wasn’t making the difference he wanted to be making. Politics. If you wanted to help people, and you had a gift for writing, for inspiring, for bearing a message and spreading it, you got into politics. Local politics at first, city things, and then the local SNP. Growing well sick of them, but persevering. Looking for alternatives. Fuck the hapless SNP. Fuck the notion of a Scottish parliament and devolution; it was small beer. Malcolm wanted to make a difference. Malcolm wanted to help. So he helped. He wrote speeches; he wrote position statements; he wrote ad copy. The odd extra pound here and there never hurt; he was drinking his salary away as it was. He learned how to listen to a fucking politician, sort out what the bloke wanted to say, and turn it into a speech that sang with the fucking voters. He learned how to do it well enough to win an election for a LibDem MP who had no business winning an election, not in 1992 in Glasgow.
Malcolm got shit-faced drunk at the celebration afterward. The hapless inexperienced fuck wasn’t going to be able to do fuck-all in a fucking Conservative government, but Malcolm had done it. He explained all this to a sober man sitting next to him who smiled quietly at him then went away. Malcolm stumbled home in the bracing spring evening, feeling no pain, feeling pride, some strange satisfaction. His gifts had always begged for expression like this, for some bold cause to ring trumpets over.
Malcolm saw the sober man again at a meeting a few weeks later, in London, down south with his man in office, managing his press. A boring man, a quiet man, a man who knew everybody’s names. A man in a lovely suit, worn casually untidily. Tom, his name was. LibDem. MP from a constituency down in Somerset, a fucking miracle given the money and the conservatives and the fucking Tories all over. Tom. A nobody, but he’d noticed Malcolm. He’d noticed his skills. And he knew what Malcolm was.
“Malcolm Tucker,” the man said. “You are an angel, a soldier of the blessed hosts, cloaked away. Hiding yourself.”
Not that he cared, he was at pains to say. He merely knew talent when he saw it. A light hidden under a basket that need be hidden no longer. He had some writing that needed to be done. Odd jobs. Would Malcolm care to assist? Tom was in a position to arrange a little favor for him.
A little favor.
His father. Malcolm’s father.
Tom. Behind him in the room, a being of light, something Malcolm could not see directly. A shimmer, a presence, a power that Malcolm knew he could not contest.
A being of light.
Time stopped. Malcolm’s vision sharpened.
The Blessed Presence made themselves known to him again. Look, they said to Malcolm. What is this being?
Malcolm did not know.
A Light-bringer, the Presence said.
“What the fuck is that when it’s at home?”
Do you not know?
“Tom’s secret? I thought I was his secret.” Though of course Tom had to have more than one of him. He was merely the communications arm. What did the light bulb do for Tom?
He was standing at the desk, swaying on his feet, drunk, pricking his thumb on the black knife Tom had to hand, squeezing out the blood, dripping it onto the paper. Signing his name in blood and ink. Feeling the chains wind themselves around his soul, his heart, his everything. Feeling himself bound as he had never felt himself bound before.
Tom poured another drink for him, smiled, touched his elbow. “Good man, Tucker,” he said. “You’re taking care of your family. Doing the right thing. I’ll remember this act.”
“Yeah,” Malcolm had said. “Won’t forget this favor myself.”
“I think we’ll make a lovely team.”
And they did. They did, so help him, they made a wonderful team. Tom with his moderate, achievable visions, his drive to build coalitions. He thrived during the New Labour, despite his differences with the Blair-ites. Malcolm made it so. He loved every moment of it. He coaxed Jamie down south to join him, taught him how to run a PR office. Wrote speeches, more speeches. Taught his man how to debate. Taught him how to turn a dull lunch into a stump speech. Taught him how to talk to reporters.
He was in his office, pulling open his filing cabinet, riffling through to find an empty folder. Slotting into his his first handwritten notes on a reporter, a stained receipt for a grubby little hotel in Soho. His blackmail file on reporters and their peccadillos, their little foibles. Next to it in the locked drawer, a folder for the politicians. Tories at first, then Labour, then Tom’s enemies among the LibDems. Spent a weekend at the Horse Guards Hotel? Malcolm would have it in the file by Tuesday.
Rising, rising, rising, making the jump to working for the Party (loyal to Tom, sworn to Tom, bound by blood-oath to Tom). Hiring Sam, feeling as if he had somebody in his corner for once. Giving up smoking in solidarity with Jamie, for the sake of his bairns. Then: his father, dying. Confessing to Jamie how much he’d been drinking, how he needed to be sober to see his father one last time.
An arm around him, a hand in his hair ruffling it. Jamie said, “Come on, you sad fuck, let’s dry you out.”
His first meeting, sitting in a corner, two shots in his belly, listening to people talk. Going around his office with Jamie, pouring the bottles out. Going around his little house, doing the same, all on his own. Sitting with his sponsor and crying his eyes out over his father’s memory, wordlessly. Going to bed sober. Making it stick.
Burying himself in his job, because what the fuck else did he have? Work, years of work, into the new millennium. Rediscovering his anger. His hatred of a world that bound him into place, made him hide who he was.
Politics. Internecine battles. Nick Clegg ruined, almost casually. Smiling with Tom, celebrating with him, smoking a cigar with him and coughing his lungs out because it had been too long since he’d smoked. Tom, wreathed in smoke, holding out his cigar so Malcolm could light it with his holy fire. A trick, a party trick, for which Malcolm was rewarded with a back-slap and a fresh splash in his glass.
The Tories. Cameron, that pig-fucking glad-handing wealthy shit. Never a moment’s privation known, never thwarted. A temporary alliance, Tom said. Sell him on it for me. Convince him. Make him believe the message. We’ll knife him later. And Malcolm had done it. Smiled and gone away and thought and written and done it. Sold the nation, coaxed them into voting against their own self-interest. Convince sheep to vote for the wolf? A piece of cake when it was Malcolm Tucker carrying your message for you, finding the words for you.
Election. Victory. Crates of Moët & Chandon delivered. Malcolm, drinking his fizzy water, watching the drunken celebration, hiding his curled lip behind his glass. Anger, never-ending anger. Lies, threats. His power used as he needed, to serve the whims of his master, his ever-rising, ever-more-powerful master. Tom. Tom. Power. The world, his responsibility. A boy dead on a beach.
“Please,” Malcolm said, to the void, “let it end. I yield. I surrender. I’ve given up my gifts, because I fucking didn’t deserve them. Please. Stop.”
It stopped; time stopped. Malcolm was held motionless, suspended somewhere nameless, in measureless space, in void, before the Presence.
“I’m sorry,” he said, over and over. “I was a terrible vessel. I didn’t deserve it.”
The Presence studied him, infinitely powerful and merciful. It was terrifying and comforting at once. He was dying, he knew he was dying, bleeding out the last of his life on the church floor, somewhere in another dimension, but here and now before the Presence he felt comforted. What could he do but surrender to this? If only he’d surrendered back then. But how could he have known? He’d been a teenager, peach fuzz on his upper lip. He’d known nothing.
And then he understood. It had been grace, a gift, a blessing-- it had been kindly meant, in the hope that one in a hundred would use it well. It was a burden, yes, but one that held its own relief within. He had done more with his gifts than many. At least he hadn’t decided his task was to go fight wars and destroy civilizations.
But-- The threats he’d made stuck in his throat. Rape, men and women both. Terrible insults. He’d said whatever it had taken to work Tom’s will, without regard to the cost. And he’d won, and the world suffered.
“I did evil,” Malcolm said, to the Presence around him.
“I deserve death.”
“I don’t understand. I fucked up!”
Will you make amends?
Even if it requires that you suffer?
Suffering, Malcolm said to the void, was no more than what he deserved.
Even if death waited for him afterward? He had already accepted death. How many times must he say that he surrendered himself to justice? He surrendered himself. It was complete. He would accept the judgement of the Blessed One, no matter what it was.
The light faded.
Malcolm sucked in a desperate breath and then another. Something was wrong, very wrong. He hurt all over. His lungs hurt. His back–fuck. He thrashed, and somebody’s arms closed around him. He was on his face, sprawled on the floor, with his head in somebody’s lap. Whoever it was had a hand on his head, the other splayed over his back. His back. It hurt. It hurt so goddamn much.
“Sweet Christ, oh sweet Christ, he’s breathing.”
Malcolm shuddered and breathed. His back burned. His entire body burned, as if he were on fire, but his back, there was something wrong with his back. He tried to push himself up, but his feet slipped in a mess on the floor. He was in a pool of his own blood.
Jamie was crooning to him, saying over and over, “I got you, got you, Malc. Don’t move, brother, stay where you are.” Then he shouted: “Hey! You! Give us a hand here! Man here needs a doctor!”
There were figures in the darkness just beyond the pool of light. One came forward, dared to walk into the otherworldly light that shone on the altar. The priest, the man whose church this was, and another man with him. A night watchman. They helped him sit up. Malcolm bent and retched up his guts. He vomited into a pool of his own blood, over and over, until his body was empty. Jamie held him through it, wiped his face with his shirtsleeve, crooned to him meaningless things. He wiped at his mouth. There was something all over his arm.
“He’s in shock,” somebody said.
“Water,” Malcolm croaked.
The priest let go of his elbow and scrambled away. He came back moments later with a ceramic cup with water. He touched it to Malcolm’s lips, tipped it up. Malcolm drank and shuddered but it stayed down. It wasn’t water. Or it was, but that wasn’t all it was. It was power, flowing through him, pooling in him. It was holy water, and an affront to his sensibilities, but Malcolm was in no condition to resist. He drank and felt a little better and then a great deal better. The burning pain in his back faded to warmth. He felt strange, now that the pain had dimmed. That dull weight in his stomach had lifted. He was dizzy and sick and euphoric, but there was nothing to be euphoric about.
He remembered, now, what he’d done. He’d cut his own wings off. He’d drawn his sword and maimed himself. He’d bled to death, surely he’d bled to death. He was lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of St Stephen’s Walbrook. But he had been reborn, somehow. He was alive. They’d let him live. Here he was, at the foot of the altar, shivering from shock and the memory of the pain.
“Fuck,” Malcolm said. He fell back into Jamie’s arms. Warm arms, strong arms, holding him up, cradling him. The touch made it better somehow, warmed him inside. “What happened?”
“Jesus Christ, Malcolm, brother. You were dead. You were dead, I swear it. I felt the spirit leave you.”
The priest–Delaney, his name was Delaney–said, “I saw it. You died. Your spirit left, and I saw it. And then–and then–There was a miracle worked here tonight, Lord.”
“It was worked on you, Lord.”
“Stupid cunt,” Jamie said. “I thought you were fucking dead. I swear, you were dead in my arms. And now you’re talking.”
“I think I was dead. I saw Them. The Blessed One. Talked to Them. Fucking wankers, They are.”
“Brought you back from the dead. Fucking hell, Malc.”
“Fuck.” It was too much, too much. Malcolm tipped his head up and squinted at the priest. “Could I–could you–if I can ask?”
“Lord, I can deny you nothing.”
“Don’t call me that,” Malcolm said. He squeezed his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to look at that man’s kind face.
“As you wish. But it is true–I will give you anything you ask that is in my power.”
“My back. I–how bad is it?” His wings. Were they truly gone?
Jamie and Delaney sat him up, gently. He heard Jamie’s intake of breath. They touched his back, gently, and Malcolm bit his lip. Their touch burned him. He could still feel them, somehow, his wings. Ghosts, now, phantom limbs. He’d maimed himself.
“It looks worse than it is,” the priest said. “I think–I think he’s healed.”
“Healed over and scarred to shit,” Jamie said. “So much blood, though. Can we wash him off, Father?”
They poured water over him, more holy water, more water charged with power by Them, and it was doing something Malcolm felt with senses he apparently still had. How was it that he was feeling this? Malcolm knew without being told that it was holy water washing over his back, that the priest had anointed his forehead with oil that was also blessed. A holy symbol on his forehead, not burning him but sustaining him.
Somebody appeared with a blanket, and Jamie wrapped it around him. Warmth, protection, good. Another act of kindness from the priest who more than deserved to be graced with something in thanks. A blessing, he used to give blessings for this. He’d given one to Jamie on his wedding day, to Nicola in gratitude for the simple kindness of giving him a meal. He ought to thank the priest somehow. He stretched out his hand, without thinking, forgetting he’d just given it up, reaching for power that was no longer there.
And then something happened, and the air around them swirled and danced with warm sparks. The wind itself, moving inside the church, under that dome, sweeping in something that had not been there before. The power fell on the three of them there, at the base of the altar. Power all around them, in the air, in every column of light, in every candle flame. And there were many of those: every candle in the votive racks was alight, and so were the two great pillar candles set upon the altar. Had they been burning before?
They hadn’t. The church had been dark before this moment. And the pools of blood–his blood, his life, his soul–were rising into the air, vanishing in blue sparks of something he couldn’t name. The marble glowed where he’d bled out onto it, where his wings had burned. His blood, turned to something else. Fire and light and the air itself. The altar was marked now: the stone had burned black where his wings had gone up in the flame. Malcolm bared his teeth for a moment in bitter amusement. It wouldn’t be tourists visiting this Wren church: they would be pilgrims, and they would go to their needs and seek blessings from his bloodstains. He’d created a relic. Another fucking miracle, and it was his fault. His bloody accidental burden to endure while the Blessed One fucked him over again.
Not that he was going to complain this time. He’d been sent back to set things right. He’d do it, then he’d kill himself again, properly this time. No Jamie watching.
“Malc,” said Jamie, in his ear. “You’re glowing. Sorta blue. Different.”
“Sorry,” he said, and screwed his eyes shut. He had wanted peace. He had brought on himself more weary labor. He’d wanted to give up his gifts. He’d exchanged them for this burden. More senses he didn’t want. More awareness of the spiritual world. He knew, for instance, without opening his eyes, that someone had joined them under that dome, and was coming toward them across the marble floors. Someone touched. Another fucking cursed fuck.
He raised his head and saw that the person who’d joined them was a winged being. It loomed over him for a moment, then knelt down next to him. A young man, it was, with too much dark hair and a wispy beard. There was a ring in his eyebrow and another in his nose. His wings were not like Malcolm’s had been–they were shaped differently, and streaked with jet. Whatever their color, they glowed in the candlelight, and Malcolm knew the man as Blessed. He was holy despite the t-shirt with the anarchy symbol, the jeans, and the faint whiff of ganja. An angel of anarchy. Malcolm felt a little thrill of amusement in him, despite everything.
The angel of anarchy touched his shoulder. He felt comfort wash through him, angelic comfort, the comfort he’d used to be able to give to others, before, before–before he’d cut his wings off. Fuck. He’d been able to give this feeling to people? Why hadn’t he lived to bestow it on everyone he could? Why had he wasted it?
Right. Because he’d been an undeserving fuck.
“Lord,” the angel said.
“Don’t fucking call me that.”
A pierced eyebrow went up, but the angel did not seem angry. “My name is Rami.”
“Rami the angel. Fuck me.”
“I’m here for you.”
“Why the fuck?”
“I was called to attend you, Lord.”
“Don’t call me that, you flying fuck,” Malcolm said again. “I’m not an angel any more.”
“Whatever you say,” Rami said, calmly. “You know what you are.”
Rami scowled at him and shook his head. He had a lot of hair. Too much hair, in Malcolm’s view, clouds of dark hair. “Don’t play daft. You’ve been touched again, you and your friend here.”
“What the fuck d’you mean?” said Jamie.
“Nobody who was near that altar could escape unchanged,” Rami said, serenely.
“Fuck,” Jamie said. “Father here too?”
“Oh, dear,” said Delaney. Poor fuck. A lifetime of quiet as a mere priest, a conduit, a vessel for the weekly Mass, and then he’d had the misfortune to choose to be kind to Malcolm Tucker. Well done. Join the legions of the cursed. The few, the proud, the fucking fucked.
Jamie said, “What’s it mean? How are we changed?”
Rami shook his head and abruptly stood up, cutting off the discussion. He shivered his wings in a gesture Malcolm recognized as anxiety. He felt a pang, then, for his wings. He’d given them up. He’d never feel them again, never spread them, never curl them protectively around someone again. Tears pricked his eyes for the first time that night, and grief gripped his throat. He’d given it up. Whatever Rami said about what he was, he wouldn’t be that again. He wouldn’t fly again.
Malcolm shivered and screwed his eyes shut against the tears. Jamie, mistaking it, wrapped the blanket around him tighter. “Drink some more,” he said, and handed the cup of holy water to him.
Malcolm drank again, despite the horrible impiety of it. He’d been a devout man before, even when he’d hated the Blessed Wanker. Now that he’d been in direct contact with Them, he was beyond devout. No faith required. Please don’t kill me screaming. That was all any human ought ever to think about, if they knew what he knew.
Rami was circling the altar, wings quivering non-stop. He came to a halt before the three of them. He glowered down at Malcolm. “We need to get out of here. Can you stand?”
“No,” Malcolm said.
“Look at him, you radge fuck!” Jamie said. “He’s no’ ready to move.”
“We need to hide him before the entire Blessed population of London shows up wanting to know what happened.”
“Fuck. Can you stand?”
Malcolm grimaced. “I’m a fucking pensioner clean out of fucking Viagra.”
“I’ve got you, brother,” Jamie said, and proved it by hauling Malcolm to his feet. Malcolm hung himself over Jamie’s shoulders and tried to take his own weight. He almost managed it. How was it that he was able to stand at all after losing all that blood? And if the Fucking-Over Ones had meant to resurrect him, why not heal him properly?
Rami picked up his blood-spattered jacket and shirt from the floor and bundled them under his arm. He led the way out of the church. Malcolm found himself able to walk, after a fashion, with Jamie on one side of him and the long-suffering priest on the other. They hauled him out to the curb, where he stood between them, propped up, huddled in his blanket. A sorry lot they made, bunched up on the curb, waiting for someone Rami assured them would come. For the first time Malcolm got a look at Jamie and saw how much blood was on his shirt and trousers. That was his blood, Malcolm’s blood. His stomach turned over again, and he fought against heaving up the water he’d drunk. Jamie had held him while he died. Fuck. Why had he let him stay? A man ought not burden his brother with that. He could never repay this debt to Jamie, never.
Somewhere nearby a siren wailed.
“They’re coming,” Rami said. “She better get here soon. Always late.” He launched himself into the air for a moment, and Malcolm felt his soul ache with longing for flight. Until that moment he hadn’t known how much a part of him it was, his identity as a sullen cloaked angel. A reluctant angel, but an angel. A week hadn’t gone by in the last thirty years he hadn’t flown at least once, to look at the city, to reveal himself and stretch his wings. And now–
Get over it, Tucker. He hadn’t deserved it.
Rami landed beside them with a thump that made Malcolm sneer–no grace, no finesse. He ran his hands through his hair and cloaked himself. “She’s almost here,” he said.
Jamie muttered, “Who the fuck is she?”
A little car came around the corner too fast for safety, a Renault that had seen better days on tires that would rather not be squealing like that. It pulled up to the curb before them and the passenger door popped open. The driver leaned toward them: a middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense face.
“Hello, Malcolm,” the woman said. “Get in.” Her voice was familiar, and Malcolm puzzled before a moment before it dropped.
“Rachel,” he said. The girl who’d refused to hold his sword, the seer in his cohort at the school for the Blessed. “Fuck me.”
“Save the pleasantries for after we’re safe. They’ll be here soon.”
Fuck that. He had to pay his respects to Father Delaney first. Malcolm turned and reached out his hand to the man. “Father–” Malcolm said, to the kindly face. “Thank you. I’m not sure who’s coming or what they’re after, but–”
Rami said, “They’ll have questions for you. Don’t grass him out. Don’t betray him, whatever you do.”
“I will handle them,” Delaney said, calmly. “You were never here. No one was here. Go.” Though he was in slippers and a robe instead of a dog-collar, there was a dignity to him that made Malcolm believe him.
Jamie handed him down into the car. Malcolm folded himself into the little back seat as best he could, given that none of his limbs seemed to be working right. Jamie tucked himself in and wrapped his arms around Malcolm again. Malcolm opened his mouth to complain then changed his mind. Jamie’s presence was helping him somehow, as the touch of the anarchy angel had done. The embrace of a true friend. Simple faith and belief: such power in them. Power in Jamie.
Rami closed the door on them then clambered into the front seat. Rachel slipped the clutch. The Renault shot into motion into empty City streets. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut. The car smelled faintly of petrol and his head was swimming. Rachel’s complete disregard for signals did not help.
“Suppose you saw this coming,” he said, with some difficulty.
Rachael laughed. He could remember her laughing, back at the school. She hadn’t laughed much, but sometimes, sometimes Robyn had reached her. “Yes, well, it loomed a bit large after I touched your sword that day. Was one of several possibilities, mind.”
“Not the worst by a long shot.”
“A sodding comfort as ever,” Malcolm said.
Jamie said, “Where are we going?”
She knew where it was, of course. One did not wonder how Seers knew things. They knew them. Sometimes. You could never predict what they’d know, but you could trust them if they said something was so. If they said anything, that was. After the war the Seers had gone nervy, stopped telling people things. Started protecting themselves. It was a different world after the second world war, a lot more secular. And who could blame humanity for that?
Jamie said, “You said something about being safe. Who’s after him?”
“It’s not so much him as his sacrifice in the church,” Rachel said.
“You mean his fucking attempt to kill himself,” Jamie said.
“Precisely. It was a nuke going off in the middle of London, at least as far as any spiritual sensitive was concerned. Spiritual energy the likes of which we haven’t seen since the last time humanity allowed miracles to happen. Which, as you know–”
“Spare me the fucking history lesson.”
“Resurrection,” Rami said. “Haven’t felt a call like that my whole life. Rachel told me it was coming, but I wasn’t ready for it.”
Jamie crossed himself and muttered an oath under his breath. “So they’ll want to know what happened.”
“And scoop up any incidental powers that it created. The priest of St Stephen’s Walbrook is, fortunately, too high profile a person to be made to disappear.” Rachel’s voice was grim.
“We’ve got a conspiracy theorist driving us God knows where. Stop the fucking car.”
“She’s probably right,” Malcolm said.
“Christ, not you too.”
“Something Tom said. Wanting to use us. He feels they’ve been ignoring us too long. He’s set Julius on the task. Been poking at the Minster of Spirituality. Nicola was doing something with that fuck.”
“Haven’t much been ignoring us,” Rami muttered.
“You’ll wish for the way it is today if Tom does what he’s planning,” Rachel said.
Malcolm slid down in the seat, deeper into Jamie’s arms. The motion was making him ill, or something. His vision was flickering. He kept seeing things in the air. Beams of light that weren’t light. Ghostly shapes of people in the corner of his eye as the car moved north through London. The well-being that had flooded through him when the priest had washed him was gone, now. He was a man who’d died and been dragged back.
“I think we need to take him to A&E,” Jamie said. “Fuck, I think I need to go. Feel fucking manky.”
“You’re transforming,” Rachel said. “If I let you go to hospital they’ll ask more questions than we want to answer.”
“Who’s this fuckin’ we?” Malcolm said, but his voice wasn’t working very well any more. His awareness of the corporeal world was shifting around him. It was like when he’d been a boy and the spirit had fallen on him during Mass. He was only half in this world. Half there in the car, half staring into the void.
I don’t want to transform, he said, into the void. I want to do this as a human.
The voices, the familiar voices, in his ear: It has already happened.
Fucking let me be human!
The flames again, always the flames, always fire with him. Only this time he was in the air, high up, and he was the wind, he was movement, he was a flash of motion. He held a sword. He was the flash of insight. Blue fire, this time, rippling along his arm, dripping from his fingers. He came not to bring peace but a sword.
Malcolm was dimly aware that they’d reached his house, that Jamie was extracting his keys from his jacket pocket. Up the steps, carried by Jamie and the angel, up to his bedroom. They laid him on the bed, his bed, home, safe. Malcolm let himself fall back into the unconsciousness.
He slept, did not sleep, fought with the Blessed One in his mind. Or not. Just fever dreams, just a man recovering from near-death. Moments of lucidity, maybe, sitting up, drinking water. People around him. Rami, fully manifested, casting wards around his room. Jamie, kneeling at his bedside, praying. Jamie was wearing armor and holding a sheathed broadsword propped before him. A white shield with a red cross hung on his back. Fucking Jamie, a knight? On a grail quest? Sam, in his room, sponging his brow, holding a cup for him to drink from. She was a figment of his imagination, he knew, even as he thrashed. He said her name and pleaded with the universe to let him see her one last time.
And then calm sleep, dreams of his childhood, of mundane things. Of being late for an exam, and encountering friends who helped him find the classroom. Jamie, shooting two fingers at him and then carrying him into the room.
Malcolm woke and felt more like himself than he had in years. He was in his own bedroom, in his own bed, warm under the blankets. The house was quiet around him. Familiar sounds only: the tick of his bedside clock, the shiver of leaves in the trees in his garden. He tried to sit up, gingerly, and found himself able, though he was weak. Somebody had stripped off his blood-stained trousers and dressed him in t-shirt and pants, but that had been a while ago. He smelled like old sweat and his chin was bristling. More growth than he’d expected from overnight. Fuck. He pulled the blankets aside and swung his bare feet onto the floor. Cold floor, a little creak from the floorboards as he stood. He swayed on his feet. He felt like he’d been down with flu, maybe, but it had run its course. He was alive. Now he had to find the loo and the shower.
He made his way out of the bedroom, cautiously, leaning on the wall at first.
“Shit!” he said. “I’m a fucking wreck.”
And then somebody was running up the stairs to him–Sam, here, in his home, running up his steps toward him. She stopped in front of him, reached out as if to touch him, and stopped short. Malcolm tried not to fling himself at her. He looked down at himself, at his bare legs, and cringed.
“You’re awake,” she said, rather pointlessly.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Keeping watch over you, and that idiot Jamie.”
“Shit. Sam. I’m gonna take a shower. Shave this shite off my face. Unless–Is everything okay? Anything I should–”
Sam shook her head at him. “Nothing that needs you right now. Go. Shower. I’ll have some tea ready for you in the kitchen.”
“You don’t have to–”
“Shut up,” Sam said, and there was enough steel in it that Malcolm just nodded and turned and went into the bath.
The shower was good. It was good to be clean and warm, to smell like soap instead of whatever the hell he’d been sweating out of himself. Good to shave himself, to meet his own eyes in the mirror and see that he looked much the same as he had before. Gray hair, lines around his mouth that he couldn’t deny, yeah, but that was middle age. He’d been to hell and back, literally, and it was in his eyes that he could see it. Blue eyes, beneath graying eyebrows, and there was something in them he couldn’t describe. As for the rest of him, he couldn’t say. He twisted in front of the mirror, trying to get a glimpse of his back. Nothing there, nothing that he could see, not even the scarring Jamie had mentioned. It was as if he’d never been what–what he’d been.
He’d never fly again.
He wrapped a towel around his waist and ducked back into his bedroom. He scrounged up casual trousers and a clean pullover, and he was Malcolm again. Just Malcolm. Yeah, wasn’t an angel any more. He was well shot of it. He’d done what he’d set out to do. Now he just had to fix it all.
He drew in a deep breath, another, and settled his shoulders. Time to face Sammy and find out why she was here. Where had Jamie gone? Time to find out.
Malcolm walked downstairs, leaning on the rail only a bit more than usual. He could smell tea. Tea, and something strange in his lounge. Was that the smell of fucking drugs? Somebody had been smoking a roll-up in his fucking lounge? Ah, yes. There was Rami sprawled on his sofa, bare feet on a pillow. He was wearing odd jeans and a t-shirt with a political message on it. No ethical consumption under capitalism. No ethical consumption under anything, as far as Malcolm had been able to work out. His lounge looked a bit of a tip, with Rami’s duffel bag spilled open across the floor. He’d have to have a cathartic shout about that later. After his tea.
He made his way into the kitchen, following the scent of tea and the small sounds of somebody moving around. There was Sammy. She wasn’t in work clothes, but instead of jeans and a jumper in a shade of green he liked. She nodded to him and he ducked his head. She’d seen him in his pants.
Malcolm sat down at his kitchen table quietly and watched her make tea. She was moving around in his kitchen as if she knew her way around it. Which she hadn’t, last he’d seen. She set a steaming mug in front of him. Milk in, sugar in, comforting. Give a man a bit of tea and he’d feel better. He took the cup from her, felt a thrill he could not suppress when his fingers brushed hers. Tea and a biscuit. He hadn’t eaten since that meal with Jamie, and it felt beyond good to eat the biscuit. New life flowed into him. Hope, even.
Sam sat herself down across from him, her own mug in hand. She was watching him and he couldn’t read her expression. Fuck. What did it mean? She wasn’t saying anything, just looking at him, and whatever it was she was thinking, it wasn’t happy.
He broke the silence at last. “Is Jamie okay?”
Sam smiled at him at this, and he felt better. “Yeah. He’s asleep in your spare room, which is why Rami is on your sofa.”
Malcolm grimaced. “Why’s that cunt still here?”
Sam mirrored his expression for an instant. “Says he is meant to be with you, won’t leave. Says resurrections are rare in this world and they are his burden. He also says Jamie’s a Guardian. Your Guardian. Says that’s also rare. It was, well, I’ve never seen a Guardian before.”
Jamie in armor at his bedside: no fever dream, then. “They’re fucking rare. And when they show up, they’re pressed into service.”
“So Rachel said.”
“Oh, she’s been here too?”
“Yeah, in and about. She’s a bit mysterious. Won’t explain herself. Drove Jamie mad.”
Drove Sam mad too, if Malcolm could read that voice tone right, and he thought he could.
“How long was I out?”
“Almost three days.”
“Fuck. They’ll be missing me.”
“You had food poisoning,” Sam told him, calmly. “So did Jamie. Jamie made you dinner and you were both taken ill. He blames the jar of tomato sauce you’d left open in the fridge.”
Malcolm nodded at his hands, laid flat on his kitchen table. “How did you get into this mess?”
“Jamie rang me the morning after. He was incoherent, so I came. We’ve been spelling each other watching over you.”
“Not much of a lie, that story. You were pretty bad.”
“If you hadn’t been that bad, I’d have slapped you across the face.” Malcolm raised an eyebrow and Sam nodded grimly. “Jamie told me everything. And I mean everything.”
“Oh.” His heart sank into his socks. Not a chance Sammy would touch him now. Not that he’d had much hope. Sam had a life of her own. Boyfriends, family, whatnot. He might want more from her, might thrill to every touch of her hand, but that didn’t obligate her to care. Not if she knew what a fucking bully he’d let himself become. Not if she understood that Britain’s dire straits were his fault.
Malcolm steeled himself and stiffened his upper lip. He had to carry on, whether Sam respected him or no. And that meant carrying on with his questions. What would he ask her if he weren’t mourning the loss of what had never been with her?
“St Stephen’s. Was there a fuss about it?”
“Not a word in the papers about anything. There’s talk online about how holy the place is now. Tourist visits already up. Photos on Instagram of the altar and a candle that won’t go out. That’s all.”
“Story well-suppressed, then.”
“Tom came round himself to request that the story be contained. Your team is doing its job in your absence. If you like, your inbox has the relevant messages. When you’re ready.”
Malcolm shook his head. His interest in the public relations problem was merely academic. “Want to talk to Jamie and that cunting angel first. Starting to feel famished, though. I’ll order in some takeaway.”
“Already done, when I saw you were awake. From one of the menus on your fridge. Should be here in about ten minutes.”
As efficient as ever at anticipating what he’d need, was Sammy. Malcolm wondered, not for the first time, if she had her own gifts, uncategorized by the bureaucracy, that made her that good. No. She was intelligent and thoughtful, a human good at her profession, no fucking gifts from the other side necessary. And for some reason she was loyal to him.
Unless maybe everyone was touched somehow. The walls between the dimensions felt soft to Malcolm after what he’d seen. The Blessed Ones reached across and meddled often, routinely, as if experimenting. As if it were academic. Or a game They’d been playing for so long that They did it without much thought. They meddled with the humans that They had made, and tried to prod them into doing a little better at the game of being human, then scored the results. Please don’t kill me screaming? Please don’t damn me for eternity? He remembered the infinite sadness radiating from the Blessed One, the infinite hope. Was the Blessed Fucker a psychotic fuck, yes or no?
No. There was method, not simply madness. No damnation. No demands. Just the messes humans made with what they’d been given. There was a plan, and it was up to him whether he helped it or not. He’d had control all along.
Well, that was a hell of a thing to realize. Jamie was a Guardian now because he’d been one from the moment he’d refused to leave Malcolm to die alone. Malcolm was–what was he?
“We choose what we become in the moment,” Malcolm said, slowly. “They told me that at school. We know what’s inside our souls.”
“You changed. Jamie changed.”
“Yes and no. Jamie’s always been my guardian. Now’s it just sort of fucking made manifest, you know? They’re literal fucks, the Blessed Ones. They take our souls and make them fucking literal.”
“Do you know what you are?” There was a tremor in Sam’s voice.
“I’m afraid to find out.”
Malcolm knew, even as he said it, that he was further from human than he’d ever been. The Blessed One had refused to give him any easy way out because he hadn’t wanted one. He was burdened with gifts of power even now, now that he’d confessed himself unworthy of gifts. The Fuckers that were many beings in one had disagreed, and now he was–he was–he was something. Now it was up to him. He might as well try to get it right. He might as well cooperate. He was what he was: Blessed, Cursed, human, none of the above. A man who had a job to do.
A few months. Maybe longer. However long it took to take down Tom and restore a reasonable government. Malcolm’s mind turned to this and spun into motion. Scenarios, timelines–the election coming up–Fuck. It was like looking at a chess board and understanding all the things that might happen if he moved that knight. If he manifested himself, what would he become? He stretched out a hand over the table, over his empty cup of tea, and tried to imagine a sword in it. There was power latent in his hand, but he was afraid to let it flow. Whatever he was, it was not a bog-standard angel with flaming sword. Whatever he was, he did not have a name for. He raised his eyes to Sam’s and saw fear in them, enough to match his own.
“Sammy,” he said. He reached over to her and she took his hand. That thrill again in his chest when his fingers touched hers: his fucking heart would want things, it would keep trying to give him reasons to carry on.
She squeezed his fingers for a moment.
He said, with a husky voice, “Thank you for not abandoning me when, when Jamie told you.”
Sam squeezed his hand tight for a moment, then let go. Malcolm stared down at the table. Here it came.
“Look, Malcolm, I knew a lot of it already. I knew Tom had something on you. I thought it was plain blackmail, not that, that spiritual thing Jamie told me about, but I knew you were doing things you didn’t like. Always fasting, always denying yourself comfort. And still you’d do what he wanted. Still you’d say those things.”
“Worse than a bully.”
“It never mattered to me. You were kind to the people I thought you should be kind to.”
“Shit, Sammy. Don’t excuse me. I loved doing it. I fucking loved terrorizing people. Didn’t matter if they deserved it or no. I’d have done it either way. Tom just used what was in me. He didn’t put it there.”
“I’ve got to make amends.”
“Will you help me? Sammy. Please. I can’t–I don’t want to do it on my own.”
She shook her head at him. “You have Jamie.”
“I’m not saying no. I’m saying–I’m saying you need to promise me.”
“Promise you what?”
“Promise me you’ll come to me next time you want to do this. Promise me you’ll tell me next time. Let me help you instead of, of–”
Sam burst into tears. Malcolm scrambled out of his chair and knelt beside her. He laid a hand on her shoulder. Fucking hell, it tore him up when women he cared about cried. Nicola crying turned him into a mess, and Sammy crying outright destroyed him.
“Sammy. Sammy, love. Wasn’t you. Didn’t want to hurt you. I just wanted it to stop.”
“I know, I know. I’m being selfish, I know. Promise me, Malc. Please.”
Malcolm took her hands in his and kissed them. “I promise, love. For you. I’ll come to you. I will. I swear it. Next time it’s that bad.”
An oath. An oath he would be held to, but it felt so different from the last time he’d sworn to someone. Sammy was on his side. He kissed her hands again.
The knocker at the front door went. Malcolm froze for a moment, wondering if Tom was there, if he’d been caught.
“Delivery’s here,” Sam said, and he sighed in relief. Foolish thought. Guilty thought.
Sam went off without another word to him. Malcolm remained where he was for a moment, kneeling on the floor beside her empty chair. He wiped at his face. Fuck, this was hard. It was all too much emotion for him. He wanted to get angry at something. Anger was familiar. He’d spent the last decade angry and he was good at it.
Sam poked her head back into the kitchen. “Go roust up Jamie, would you?”
Jamie was already awake when Malcolm walked in on him, stretched out fully-dressed on top of his guest bed. No armor was visible, nor that ridiculous shield, but he was wearing his boots, right there on the bed. Malcolm shot him two fingers, and Jamie returned the gesture.
“Food’s here,” Malcolm said. “Get your lazy arse out of bed.”
“You’re one to talk.”
And then Jamie was on his feet, and they were holding each other tight and not saying anything about it. A long embrace, more of that fucking emotion pricking at his eyeballs, Jamie hauling his head down to his shoulder and swaying him back and forth. He was swearing under his breath at Malcolm, who knew what he meant by it. He pulled back and looked his friend in the face. He looked okay. No haunted stare, no bitterness. None of the horror that Malcolm could see in his own eyes. He looked good. Jamie was peering at him just as closely.
“What are you fucking staring at?” Malcolm said.
“You. Not dead. Told you you were too much of a stupid cunt to die,” Jamie said. “Yeah?”
“Fucking not human, though.”
“Neither are you, you wee devil.”
“Yeah. Got a great whacking shield to carry now. Every time I see you I get the urge to take it out, you know? They gave it to me to fucking bash your head in.”
“Can I fuckin’ eat my tea before you crater my skull? Because I haven’t eaten in two days. Not since your cooking, which I’m told made me sick as a dog.”
“Fuck off. The ghee is mine.”
“You can fucking have it. I want a curry that burns my head off.”
Jamie let go of him with one last thump of his back, and they went downstairs together. Rami was awake and sitting up. Sam had piled the lounge table high with plates and cartons of food. It smelled fucking fantastic. Malcolm wanted to eat and drink; he wanted to hold Sam’s hand again; he wanted to live. So Malcolm ate. He ate blistering hot vindaloo scooped up with naan. He ate and sweated and felt the will to live grow ever-stronger in himself. Hot food, a mango lassi, a full stomach. Rami inhaled a container of mattar paneer, everyone’s leftovers, and the last of the naan. Jamie shook his head and muttered something about youth. Malcolm shrugged. The cunt would find his middle softening before too long, as every man before him had, and he’d stop eating everything in sight.
After all the food was gone, and they were sat making random conversation with their legs stretched out before them, Rami pulled a metal pipe from his pocket and a bag full of herb. He sat himself tailor-fashion on Malcolm’s sofa, bare feet and all. He packed the pipe methodically, seemingly oblivious of Malcolm’s glare. He stared at the bowl of the pipe and it lit itself. He inhaled deeply. The bowl of the pipe glowed red. Malcolm glared and wondered why the fuck didn’t burst into flames. Then he gave up. What the fuck did he care? He’d campaigned for legalization as a social justice issue, rather pointlessly given that he was part of a fucking Tory government, but the thought counted, right? Wrong, but here he was. He flung himself down into his armchair and watched Rami inhale and hold his breath. He could smell it everywhere. Like being at uni again, where it had been all around him. Not that he’d dared.
“Christ, they would have taken the hide off me in my day if I’d done that.”
Jamie snorted. “You used to light our cigarettes that way, you hypocrite.”
“Proper tobacco they were, not this stuff. Didn’t they teach you it’s a sin to drink and drug?”
Smoke curled from Rami’s nose for a moment, then he laughed and coughed. “I wouldn’t know.”
“What, have the masters gone soft?”
“Didn’t go to those schools. The government doesn’t know about me. Never has.”
“Impossible,” Malcolm said. Then he reconsidered. “How the fuck?”
“Seers get to some of us first. Rachel found me early. My mother lost a sister to an exorcism, so they were willing to let me be hidden.”
Malcolm bit at his thumb and considered that. The exorcisms. Nobody ever questioned them. He’d never questioned them. He’d just done to himself what they did to the Cursed ones they exorcized, more or less. Rip the sin out of them, by whatever means necessary, and usually that meant by ripping the physical evidence away. Force them to manifest, torment them, maim them. Sometimes they even lived afterward.
He’d never wondered until now if they were right. Never even occurred to him to ask, not even when he’d been sick with fear about it happening to his father. He had been a fucking stupid shit, hadn’t he? And he was starting to feel angry. Anger, yes, and an odd responding well of power inside him, itching at his fingers. What would he do if he let it loose? An interesting question, and one that would not remain academic for long.
“Where is Rachel, anyway?” Jamie said.
“I texted her when Malcolm woke,” Sam said, and Malcolm shot her a dirty look. Sam shrugged at him. “She asked. Nicely, even. She ought to have been here already.”
Rami exhaled a long stream of smoke. “She’s always late.”
“Presumably she fucking knows when other people want her to do something, and is elsewhere on purpose. She was like that at school.”
“She hated school. One reason she gets us out of it. If they don’t kill you, they brainwash you. That’s what she says.”
Malcolm shrugged. “It was an education. Better than what my mates back home got.”
“And why’s that? Why shouldn’t they get one as good as you got?”
“The angel’s a fucking socialist,” Jamie said, and laughed.
“Yeah? Why the fuck aren’t you? You grew up in Motherwell, you say.”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“You work for the Tories.”
Malcolm grimaced and sat up to argue for real. He hadn’t had a good wrangle in a long time, had been spoiling for one, if he were honest. But even as he opened his mouth, the doorbell went and the front door opened.
“Hello, Malcolm,” Rachel said.
Speak of the devil.
31457 words; reading time 105 min.
tags: p:gen, f:the-thick-of-it, c:malcolm-tucker, c:nicola-murray, c:jamie-macdonald, c:sam-cassidy, c:julius-nicholson, genre:hurt/comfort, trope:wingfic, au:supernatural-elements, suicidal-ideation, genre:angst, religion, politics, angels, authors-favorite