“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)
“There’s no hope of this city surviving,” the Creator said firmly, shuffling the papers in front of him and gazing round the boardroom.
Malachi, who had been idly daydreaming, stiffened with alarm. “I know recent crime figures have been up,” he began tentatively, “but isn’t that due to the hot weather?”
“With respect, Sir, “Samael cut in smoothly, “I think you’ll find Birmingham is, in fact, underperforming on all levels.” He flicked his tail and the screen at the end of the room winked into existence. “If I may just run through this short presentation...”
Malachi watched gloomily as slide after slide shimmered across the screen. Here was the city at its worst. Homeless alcoholics sprawled on litter-strewn pavements in the subways; drug addicts shot up in one of the main thoroughfares; and gangs of youths patrolled the streets, carving their anger into innocent passers-by before relieving them of their valuables. Despair pervaded the whole sorry montage, leaking from every image. Anyone with any sense would certainly stamp ‘CONDEMNED’ across the whole of Birmingham.
Nevertheless, Malachi had promised to protect and defend her, and he couldn’t give up on her now. “Excuse me, Sir,” he ventured a little nervously, “the figures are bleak, but surely that doesn’t mean the city is hopeless?”
Samael shot him a filthy look. “You’re forgetting there’s a precedent for eradication,” he said smugly. “Sodom... Gomorrah... Rome... Need I go on?”
“Even those cities were given a chance,” Malachi pleaded.
“Very well, then,” the Creator sighed. “You have twenty-four hours to prove that there is hope in the city.”
“Sir!” Outrage thundered from Samael. “I must protest!”
The Creator gave him a hard, omnipotent stare.
Samael quailed momentarily, then continued, “If the city’s to be given a chance, then surely I should have a say in the matter? After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to accuse You of favouritism.”
“State your terms.” The Creator sounded bored.
Samael rubbed his hands together in glee. “I thought we’d follow just one particular person,” he announced casually. “Let the fate of the city rest on one man’s shoulders.”
Malachi relaxed slightly. In a city this size, there was bound to be at least one righteous man.
“And,” Samael continued, “I’ve already preselected our lucky winner.” Another flick of the tail and the screen on the wall zoomed in on a rather dishevelled individual. “He’s a recovering alcoholic,” Samael continued. “Hit rock bottom over a year ago and lost his wife and kids. He’s been doing well for the last six months or so, but all that could change...”
Malachi’s shoulders slumped. He felt defeated already.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Samael added. “His name is delightfully symbolic – or perhaps I should say ‘ironic’...” He paused for effect. “It’s Noah.”
Noah was not having a good day. It had all started when his alarm failed to go off, even though he could have sworn he’d set it the night before. Consequently, he’d been too late to grab a shower or anything to eat before heading out to work; and now he was sitting in his cubicle, on the day of his appraisal, feeling caffeine-deprived, sweat-infested and extremely nervous. What was worse, his ex, Claire, had chosen today to fill Facebook and Instagram with pictures of her new love interest. Noah gritted his teeth as he swiped past photo after photo of the two of them holding hands and grinning inanely.
He supposed he couldn’t blame her: at his worst, he’d been impossible to live with, staying out for nights at a time on drunken binges that had eventually destroyed both his bank balance and his marriage. He’d lost his job too – not turning up for work for five days in a row without a doctor’s note or even a phone call to apologise probably hadn’t helped; but what had placed the final nail in the coffin was drinking too much at lunchtime on his first day back and then being sick in the third floor filing cabinet. He was lucky that anyone had offered him work at all after that stellar performance, so he couldn’t complain that the role he now had with TechCorp was mundane and meaningless and paid less than half the salary he’d enjoyed at Adalan.
Malachi watched the young man sympathetically, aware of how hard he’d struggled to get his life back on track after losing everything. He’d skimmed through the footage of Noah’s life this morning – in fact, he’d been so engrossed in it that he hadn’t noticed Samael sabotaging the alarm clock. His rival would obviously stop at nothing to try to make Noah’s day a disaster – presumably with the intention of driving him back to drink. Malachi had seen everything though: the AA meetings; the bottles of alcohol-free beer in the fridge. Noah was determined to beat his addiction and Malachi would give him all the help he could today.
He hadn’t realised just how devious Samael could be – not until the appraisal was underway and the demon deliberately knocked over a cup of coffee, soaking the papers that were on the desk and almost scalding Noah’s boss in the process. Noah’s cheeks flamed as he apologised profusely for his clumsiness – even though his brain told him that he hadn’t been sitting close enough to the coffee to tip it over. “He’s a liability,” Samael hissed in the irate man’s ear. “Let him go.”
Malachi felt his hands ball into fists. Samael sniggered. Slowly, Malachi released his fingers then whispered loudly, “He’s a bit clumsy, but he’s a good worker. Why not give him another chance?”
Some hours later, Noah sat at his desk, busily typing up a report on sales figures. The three months’ pile of papers was gradually decreasing, but Samael had been suspiciously quiet for over an hour now and Malachi didn’t like it. He shifted his head slightly. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Samael blowing very gently but just hard enough for the paper at the top of the pile to flutter to the floor and lie, half-hidden, beneath the desk. Malachi gave Samael a sharp look; Samael returned it with an air of studied innocence. Sighing, Malachi reached out a hand to flick the paper back into visibility, then stopped: Samael had placed a foot on the paper, pinning it to the floor. He was obviously taking no chances.
Malachi felt his chest constrict momentarily with anger, then checked himself. He would not allow himself to be sucked into Samael’s games, he told himself sternly. Nevertheless, the unfairness of it all was already setting him on edge.
Noah worked steadily through his lunch hour, trying to ignore the nagging hunger pains that reminded him he’d had no breakfast. If he could just finish this report and show Mr Williams how reliable he was...
He was almost done. Quickly, he typed in the last few figures and was just about to press ‘Save’ when he stopped. He’d made a mistake somewhere: total sales were several thousand less than they should have been. He’d obviously screwed up somewhere, but how?
At that point, Samael finally decided to move his foot. Breathing a sigh of relief, Malachi grabbed the missing sheet of paper and recklessly brushed it against Noah’s ankle, hoping to attract his attention. It worked. Noah looked down and exclaimed in surprise.
It was only as Noah bent down to retrieve the errant page, that Samael revealed his true stratagem: whilst Noah’s eyes were fixed on the paper, Samael calmly reached out and pressed the ‘Delete’ key. Malachi gazed in shock.
“You can’t do that!” he croaked at last.
“I think you’ll find,” Samael’s tone was mocking, “that I can and I have.”
Seconds later, Noah sat upright once more, his hand clutching the piece of paper. It was a good job he’d spotted it before he sent the report in. It shouldn’t take too long to insert the details either: if he just did a date search and then...
He froze in horror as he looked at his computer screen and realised the report had vanished.
“No!” The expletives that followed were so colourful that several nearby workers craned their heads round their cubicle screens to see what the matter was.
Noah looked about him wildly, wondering what to do. The file was still open, but all the details he’d so painstakingly entered were gone. It would take him hours to retype it all – hours he didn’t have. The report was due by 3pm and it was already 2.15.
“Control Z,” Malachi breathed loudly. Samael shot him a dirty look.
Noah was struck by a crazy thought: what if he’d somehow inadvertently managed to press the ‘Delete’ button when he bent down to retrieve the missing page? If so, then surely pressing ‘Control Z’ would sort it out?
As the report flashed back onto his screen, Noah relaxed visibly and hit ‘Save’ straightaway. Meanwhile, Malachi extended his wings over Noah and his computer to stop Samael from sabotaging the report again before it was safely delivered.
By 5pm, Noah felt absolutely exhausted. His body was now past the stage of feeling hungry, but his legs were definitely wobbly and his heart seemed to be racing at twice its usual speed. He promised himself that would stop off for fish and chips on the way back and eat them straight away.
Making his way down Bennett Street, he found himself strangely allured by the sounds of music and laughter drifting out of the pub.
“Wouldn’t you like to go in and drown your sorrows?” Samael murmured in Noah’s ear, nudging him like a fruit machine so that the photos of Claire lined up in a neat row across his memory.
Noah groaned inwardly. Every morning he told himself, ‘I will not drink today,’ but the temptation was now so strong that he wondered if he’d be able to keep his promise. “I will not drink for the next minute,” he muttered fiercely. Samael tweaked a memory. All at once, Noah was assailed by longing so potent that he almost crumbled. Momentarily, he relived that first flush of intoxication when all the world was wonderful and he was invincible.
Samael shot Malachi a gloating look. Malachi swallowed: there was only one option left open to him now, but it was risky. Leaning over, he pulled the memory tighter, letting fragments of the seedier side of addiction dance in Noah’s brain. The man gasped as he saw himself staggering out of the pub and urinating in the gutter; he relived falling asleep on the bathroom floor at home, then waking up to glistening piles of vomit on the tile-effect linoleum; he watched in horror as he flung insults, followed by blows at a sobbing Claire.
“No!” Noah whispered to himself. “I can’t go back there.”
Ignoring the happier images of alcohol-induced merriment that Samael was now desperately firing through his mind, Noah sank to the floor. He was broken inside.
The eyes that Samael turned on Malachi now blazed venom and hatred. “You think you’ve won, don’t you?” he hissed malevolently. “Well, I’ve only just started ...”
As Noah gradually came to a place of calm acceptance – “I am an alcoholic; I will always be an alcoholic; but I can choose not to drink” – Samael found a chink between Malachi’s feathers and sidled in, slithering his way into Noah’s mind with alarming alacrity.
“Yes,” he agreed smoothly, “you’ll always be an alcoholic, and that’s why you’ll never see your wife and children again. Do you really think she’ll ever be able to forgive you for what you did?”
Noah’s shoulders slumped once more. What was the use in trying? He’d already lost the most important things in his life.
Above his head, Malachi faced Samael, eyes flashing. “Get out of his head,” he ordered. “Now. You’ve no right...”
“I think you’ll find I have every right.” Samael whipped out a document from the breast pocket of his pinstriped suit. It looked authentic, but Malachi knew better than to trust a demonic deed.
“Let me see...” A pair of spectacles appeared just above Samael’s nose. “Blah blah blah... Ah, here it is. Said he would sell his soul for a drink on... June 21st last year. I think we can agree that this is a watertight agreement?”
“And I think you’ll find that contracts made under the influence are null and void!” Malachi snapped back. Although it pained him to do it, he reached inside Noah and squeezed his heart gently. Noah shuddered with the anguish of his past, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Malachi regarded the quivering, palpating organ with a mixture of wonder and incredulity. It never ceased to amaze him that the human heart was capable of such intense feelings: emotions like love and pain and forgiveness that he and Samael could never know for themselves.
Finally, Samael spoke. “I’ll need to see something a lot more impressive than tears to convince me that this is a righteous man.”
“There’s still time,” Malachi said absently, tracing the outline of an hourglass in the air. “Six hours, to be precise – a lot can happen in six hours.”
Samael scowled. “Perhaps we need to adjust the timeline.”
Before Malachi could protest, the forked tail whipped itself around the heavenly chronometer and shook it violently. The sky darkened suddenly as sand rattled through at an alarming rate. Malachi gasped in horror.
“Half-eleven,” Samael said reflectively. “I reckon thirty minutes should be ample time to witness young Noah here showing us what he’s made of.”
Unaware of the spiritual battle taking place around him, Noah looked up, feeling somewhat puzzled. How long had he been sitting here on the pavement? Checking his watch, he saw to his astonishment that it was hours later than he’d thought. He’d have to hurry, or he’d miss the last bus home.
Samael let him reach the bus stop before he pulled out his final ace. A hollow eyed, unshaven man in his thirties tottered up to Noah, reeking of stale beer and cigarettes and begging for twenty pence towards a cup of coffee.
“You know he’ll only spend it on booze,” Samael hissed. “Or drugs. Look at him – he can barely keep himself upright.”
Once more, the demon tugged at a memory. Noah saw himself staggering home on such a night as this, so desperate for more alcohol that he was picking up discarded cans from the street and desperately swigging at them to see if any dregs of lager remained.
“That was you,” Samael continued mercilessly, “and that’s where you’ll be again in a few months’ time. You know you’re going to end up drinking again at some stage, so why fight it?”
Noah hesitated. He knew there was an off-licence just around the corner – one that would be open until the early hours of the morning.
Malachi held his breath. He knew what Samael was trying to do: he wanted to coax enough self-loathing out of Noah to make him give up entirely. There was only one thing Malachi could do now, but it was hazardous. Dare he chance the fate of a whole city on one last spin of the roulette wheel?
For the second time that day, Malachi pulled the memory tighter, allowing Noah to drown momentarily in the despair of past drunken behaviour; but then, as his soul floundered, Malachi threw him an unexpected lifeline: amidst the hopelessness of begging in the gutter, someone pressed a couple of pound coins into Noah’s hand. “We’re not alone,” the stranger had said.
Noah looked once more at his watch. He had just enough time to make it to the off-licence and back before his bus arrived. Without looking back, he hurried off to do what he had to do.
“Fifteen minutes.” Samael sounded smug.
“It’s not over yet,” Malachi told him.
Noah paid for his purchases, wondering if this was a mistake. Today had been challenging in many ways and alcohol had always relaxed him in the past. He exited the shop, clutching a carrier bag and looking about him furtively.
“Seven minutes.” Samael knew he’d won. His horns tingled as he visualised the guilt and despair that Noah would feel after he’d sobered up.
Noah was running now – presumably for his bus. To Samael’s surprise, though, the man flashed past the bus stop, his eyes scanning the street about him.
Finally. Malachi breathed a sigh of relief as Noah’s gaze took in the sorry figure that had previously accosted him.
Approaching his fellow alcoholic, Noah pushed the carrier bag into his hands. “It’s not much,” he said. “Just a few sandwiches and some bottles of water – but it’ll keep you going for a bit longer. It might help you remember that we don’t have to go through this alone.”
Malachi could have sworn that a golden glow surrounded Noah as he handed over the food.
The human world faded into nothingness as Malachi and Samael found themselves once more in the boardroom. A smile played about the Creator’s lips. “The city is safe.”
Samael’s expression radiated fury. “What? After everything I’ve shown You? The violence; the crime; the godless behaviour – and You’re ignoring all that because one man commits a one-off act of kindness?”
“Those were your rules,” the Creator nodded. “Congratulations, Samael – you’ve convinced me that Birmingham is worth saving – for a season at least.”
Malachi unfolded his wings and basked in the Creator’s glory. A strong sense of intuition told him that this had always been the outcome and always would be. While there was still compassion in human hearts, there would always be hope for their survival.