Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

A Gathering of Angels

by Dannell Lites

Andrew blinked his green eyes and frowned.

"That's my assignment?" he blurted as he watched the tall, ominously costumed man disappear over the Gotham rooftops, leaving pain in his wake.

"That's right, Angel Boy," declared Tess tartly and smiled. "He's all yours!"

"Even if I don't want him?" Andrew demanded to know. Maybe there was a mistake? He could always hope.

"Oh no, Angel Boy!" Tess was firm. "You don't get to pick and choose! God's love is for everybody. Not just the good folks, but everybody! Even him." Andrew nodded ruefully. He had the feeling he was going to need the practical, older Angel to remind him of that frequently during this assignment. This was going to be a tough one, he could tell.

"Right now he's punishing the guilty," Tess said. "After all ....that's what he was created for. Watch."

Together they watched as Andrew's latest Assignment impaled three intruding guards at once on the point of his flaming sword. With a scowl beneath his concealing hood, the garishly clad man lifted one guard, still impaled and struggling feebly, above his head. With a flick of his wrist the angelic chaos-maker tossed the screaming gun runner away like a rag doll and turned his attention elsewhere. The strong smell of blood and ozone from the ionic sword in his hand burdened the air. With almost feline grace the powerfully built man leapt into the air as the shouting, panicked guards fell back and attempted to regroup. Like a fox among helpless hens, the costumed man landed among his foes. Wordless in his fury, he cut them down without mercy. They had no time to even scream before death took them. Like ripe wheat the fleeing men were mown down, falling to the floor to lie still and lifeless.

"Carleton LeHah!" the harsh voice lashed out, pointed and sharp as the sword its owner held and colder than glacial, arctic ice. "Know that men call you betrayer! Know that the godly name you defiler and heretic! You are guilty. And the guilty must be punished."

Backing away, the man named LeHah drew the heavy caliber pistol at his belt. "No!" he shouted. "Damn you, I killed you once! Why won't you stay dead?"

Several shots rang out, echoing in the large room as booming thunder. Wide eyed with horror, the besieged arms dealer Carleton LeHah, late the treasurer and embezzler of funds from the Order of St. Dumas, watched as the bullets from his gun ricocheted harmlessly off the cloth of the advancing man's colorful costume.

"Mortal fool!" his foe hissed. "You cannot harm God's Messenger of Death! My holy armor has improved since last we met!"

With that, he struck with his flaming blade and, spewing blood from his mouth, Carleton LeHah fell dying to the floor to join his minions.

Surrounded by the violence, at the heart of it, cradled safely within its warm and soothing familiarity, the tall costumed man gave vent to his joy, until his breath came in short, quick gasps, like a wounded predator brought to bay, at last, by packs of persistent hounds. Slowly, he sank to one knee, turning his face toward Heaven.

"St. Dumas!" he cried. "Again I have done your will. The blasphemer LeHah is no more. Will you not bless me?" He bowed his head and his lips moved in silent prayer.

There are certain human beings, gifted with The Sight, who could have seen a ghostly outline of the figure that materialized, then. But the three unseen observers, being Angels, had a much clearer vision of the newcomer. Tall and stately, clad in Crusader armor, St. Dumas lay both gauntleted hands on the kneeling youth's head.

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant of righteousness," he whispered. "Like your father before you, you serve me well. You are blessed."

When the figure faded the man rose and crossed himself. Huge eyed, Monica stamped her small foot in anger. "Tess!" she cried. "How - how can God allow something like this? That spirit was no saint!" Andrew prudently remained silent but agreement could be glimpsed in the depths of his verdant eyes.

"Now just one minute Miss Wings!" came Tess' reproof, stern and sharp. "Don't you go questioning The Almighty! That's not your place!"

The auburn haired younger angel bowed her head. "I know ... I know ... " she murmured. She looked up suddenly, her glance pleading. "But ... I don't understand ... why would God countenance such - such -"

"God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, sweetie," answered Tess with assurance. "You can be sure that He has plans for The Order of St. Dumas. That they have a purpose under Heaven. Waste not, want not, that's God's policy."

Chaos descended into the room, then, with the belated arrival of a number of more guards. Taking in the gruesome sight greeting their stunned eyes, many of them froze.

Like the parting waves of the Red Sea before the Israelite hosts, the frightened guards parted before him as the costumed man made his serene way to his goal, with a scowl fit to frighten demons, visible even through the mask. He took a moment to savor the smile of terror frozen on one youthful guard's face. Then the young man's gun exploded with a touch of the burning sword and he fell to the ground, wounded and blind, to add his screams to the numerous howls of anguish already rising on the strong wind. Pell mell, the rest fled.

"Mother of God ..." breathed a stunned Monica. Tess shook her black and silver head.

"God has very little to do with that man," the elder Angel assured her. "Not yet anyway. And yet ... in a strange way Angel Girl, God has everything to do with him."

"Who is he?" her companion asked. Tess shook her head again.

"He's not sure. Most of the time he can't remember the name they gave him when he was 'born'." The angelic caseworker told her. "His name didn't matter to them, you see. It isn't very often that he even remembers he has a name. His creators called him Azrael after the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction and told him he was an Angel of the Lord."

The two younger angels paled. Monica covered her mouth with her hands. Andrew only looked sad, after a moment.

"And that's what he calls himself most often. But that's not the name he was born with," the silver haired elder Angel said. Monica shivered. "When his 'father' was allowed to name him, he called him Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul Valley."

"He isn't ... I mean he can't actually be ... : Monica stammered.

Andrew looked grim. "Can't he? Azrael hasn't been seen in Heaven for a long time," he reminded his young co-worker. "No one knows exactly where he is or what he's doing." He turned toward Tess and closed his green eyes, his voice almost beseeching.

"Please don't tell me that I'm here to coax Azrael back into the Host. Please."

Tess smiled. "No, Angel Boy, you're not here for Azrael. You're here for Jean-Paul." she assured Andrew who gusted a small sigh of relief at the welcome news.

Monica shook her silky auburn head and gazed off in the direction at the dying guards and Andrew's Assignment. "How does someone get like that?" she asked, genuinely baffled. "What happens to make a man so - so - ?" Tess chuckled, low in her throat.

"Oh, that's easy, Miss Wings," she informed Monica. "First of all, it helps if you can arrange to be genetically modified; the product of generations of training and torture. Then you have to manage to be raised and treated as a weapon, not a person, with only one purpose - to kill the heretical. And if at all possible you need to be lied to and told that what you do is blessed, God's will; the work of Angels. Then you need to be convinced that you don't really exist. That you're only a vessel for Azrael, God's Angel of Vengeance and Destruction. After that, all you need is about ten generations of practice at being one of the all around nastiest, most efficient pieces of killing work on two legs ..." Her smile was sad. "But mostly what you have to do, sweetie, is believe."

The red haired Angel looked appalled.

"All right, Tess," Andrew said quietly. "What am I here for, then?" Tess looked away for an instant. Almost unnoticed, she took Andrew's hand in hers.

"What are you always here for, Angel Boy?" she said and her low, rich voice echoed with deep compassion for both of them: Andrew and his Assignment.

"He's going to die," she said, simply.

Jean-Paul Valley stepped under the shower's scalding needle spray, his eyes carefully, tightly closed against the world. His hands shook as he glided them over his body, wiping away the dirt and filth of yet another "Holy Mission". No one, he knew, could see you cry in the rain or in a brisk shower. How many had Azrael killed this time, he wondered in dull agony? How many more souls had he condemned; sent screaming into the cold arms of Judgment?

He did not know.

He opened his eyes just in time to see the water sleeting off his body, stained now the rich red color of the choicest rubies, swirl away almost playfully, spiraling down the waiting drain. To be forgotten?

No. Not to be forgotten. Never that.

He closed his eyes once more and when he opened them again the water sheeting from his body ... was merely water once more; clear and pure; devoid, now, of any accusing stain.

Presently, he stepped from the shower, reaching for the threadbare towel on its painted rack. But before he could begin to dry his muscular body, he sat suddenly down on the closed toilet seat, as if overcome with unexpected weariness. His head began to pound. Behind his eyes, a fierce headache began to bite and scratch, howling for release. With a small grimace, he reached into the medicine cabinet for aspirin. He shook six of the extra-strength tablets into his outstretched palm and dry swallowed them. The bottle was almost empty, he saw in dismay. Shopping would be necessary in the near future.

Soon, clad only in pajama bottoms depicting the humorous antics of Garfield the Cat, he padded soft and barefooted into the tiny kitchen of his minuscule three room apartment. For long moments he simply stood there, and then closed his eyes in resignation. He should eat something, he knew. But his stomach rejected the idea. He did not wish to be sick and he knew that he would be if he ate. With a sigh, he poured himself a glass of orange juice. From some hidden place inside the walls an adventurous cockroach scuttled forth and waved its insectile antennae at him in what he convinced himself was a pleasant greeting. He smiled.

"You, too, little friend?" he addressed the tiny scavenger, merrily. "Are you hungry as well? Bien!" He made a sweeping gesture taking in the cabinets and the refrigerator. "Bon appetite, mon frere!" he invited.

In the living room he sat his radio on the upright orange crate that passed for a coffee table, tuned it to a classical station, and lay back with a sigh on the battered and stained Salvation Army couch. He had almost lost himself in the magic of Vivaldi and Mozart when he was roused, sent crashing willy nilly back down into the unwelcome arms of harsh reality.

"Technology is a wonderful thing, isn't it?" inquired a pleasant non-descript voice at his rear. "Of course, not everyone appreciates change," the voice continued as Jean-Paul leapt to his feet to face its owner. "I like the old ways best, don't you?"

The tall young man found himself facing a smaller equally blond fellow whose rounded face was as pleasantly attractive as his voice. His shaggy blond hair swept over his forehead above a pair of bright green eyes. It was the eyes that captured Jean-Paul's attention now. Leaning against a doorway, the other man regarded the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction from out of bottomless eyes the color of old bottle glass. Beneath their emerald depths something disturbing stirred just out of sight, behind the iris' where all the secrets hid. Involuntarily, the man in the colorful pajama bottoms crossed himself.

Jean-Paul's eyes widened as he regarded the smaller shaggy haired blond man with the bright green eyes who blocked his path.

"I - know you," he said slowly, almost uneasily.

"Oh, yes," said Andrew, the Angel of Death, and nodded. "You've known me for most of your life. The first time you met me, you were barely 3 years old. Your father held your hand and covered your eyes so you wouldn't see the men who came for you. The men who hurt you so that you could learn to hurt them back. And you did learn, didn't you? He told you not to be afraid but you were. After that, we met quite a few times. We're old friends, you and I ..." Andrew smiled sadly. "You've given me a lot of work over the years."

Involuntarily, Jean-Paul Valley backed away from the strange man. His blue eyes never wavered, though, as he faced the other. The muscles of the young Frenchman's pleasant, unassuming face tensed. And suddenly ... Jean-Paul Valley was ...gone ... From beneath the battered couch, a sword appeared with blinding, inhuman speed. Sharp metal hovered in the air only inches from the blond man's eyes.

"Who are you and what do you wish of me?" Azrael demanded. Andrew pushed the sword gently aside.

"My name is Andrew," he said, "and you won't need that ..." Looking unconvinced, the barely clad man named for an angel nevertheless made no move.

"What do you wish of me?" he said again, softer this time. Andrew strolled unhurriedly over and looked up at the taller man with an angelic smile.

"Why, I want to introduce you to someone," he told his threatening companion.

The world twisted, stretched and folded in on itself. In the blink of an eye the tiny harshly lit room was gone. Rubbing his eyes Azrael peered into the brightness of a large one room laboratory filled with bubbling chemicals and the presence of many odd machines, humming and blinking.. Like a sea wave the smell of death and despair assailed him. Carefully, Andrew stepped between two hefty metal work benches strewn with the still bloody instruments of the surgeons trade. Since the body of the female ape lying vivisected upon the one larger table was dead, she did not see them. Gaping wide, her now empty womb lay open and exposed; torn and violated. Andrew schooled his bright features to calmness and pointed.

"Him for example," he invited Azrael's attention.

Raising from the floor below to the ceiling far above, a tall transparent column snaked its way. Floating within the column's bubbling, churning pale yellow nutrient fluids was an unborn fetus, eyes tightly closed, tiny fists tucked under the sharp chin, dreaming peacefully. A tall man clad in gray vestments, the disfigured side of his face covered with a metal plate, scurried about, murmuring to himself.

"Ah, my little future Azrael," he soothed the infant in the tank, "soon, now. Soon. Soon it will be time to impart to you your wrath. Yes, yes, yes, it will. The Gray Abbott must do his duty; yes, yes, he must."

Turning his attention to the computer console before which he stood, the Gray Abbott's supple hands flew over the dials, marking the proper settings from long experience.

"Not to much now," he cautioned himself in a stern voice. "No, no, no, never too much. Too much electricity is death. Then we must start all over again. Not good. Not good. Bad. Wasting of time and genetic material. Just enough to be painful. Enough to teach you. Oh my, yes. Teach you."

With the touch of a key the room was flooded suddenly with the strong smell of ozone and the Gray Abbott smiled. The infant in the tank writhed and flailed in agony, wind milling its small limbs in pain and betrayal. Its eyes flew open. The tiny mouth opened to scream. But no sound emerged, of course, to disturb the peace and tranquility of the laboratory.

"Are you angry, my little Azrael?" the Gray Abbott chortled. "Yes, yes, yes, you are! 'Rage, rage, rage against the dawning of the Light!'" he quoted. "You must always be angry, little one. Yes, you must. More angelic wrath is coming." He adjusted the controls again and set the timer. "Every twelve hours, yes. You must be made very, very angry."

Azrael's hands knotted into fists at his side and he shook for an instant.

"Don't you recognize him?" asked Andrew. "Look closely."

Slowly, the Holy Assassin approached the child gestating in the laboratory's forlorn corner. Kneeling, he ran his eyes impassively over the tiny writhing body and watched him for several moments searching for some spark of rebellion, some sign of defiance. His nose stung with the stink of death and helpless despair. The muscles of Azrael's jaw set themselves into taunt chords as he stood.

"No," he said flatly, "That's not me. That's Jean-Paul. No, I don't know him." Andrew looked unhappy.

"That's too bad," he said. "He could use a friend."

Turning away from the vista of the growing, hopeless infant suffering in his tank of animal fluids, the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction may have paled. It was difficult to tell.

"He learned. He obeyed. He is blessed and devout. His is the work of Angels. He is a servant of righteousness who is loyal and obedient. He will not be swayed."

"No," Andrew said quietly, "he believed." Azrael nodded and his vise like grip on the sword in his hands tightened.

"Yes, he was always very good at that."

The blond Angel stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets. Again, reality seemed to spin out of control, to whirl and change, leaving Azrael dizzy and slightly nauseous in the wake of its transformation. In a breath they found themselves standing in the midst of a large crowd. Acrid sweat stung their eyes from the heat and the voices of many angry men filled their ears. Andrew pointed at the object of their wrath.

"What about him?" he asked.

The boy put up a splendid fight. About him the ground was littered with the scattered bodies of his enemies, moaning softly and whimpering in pain. The hairy, craggy face of the dwarfling called Nomoz, charged with his training, looked pleased. The thirteen year old boy stood stock still, vacant eyed, his youthful face without expression; awaiting further orders.

The tall blond man, in whose handsome face could be seen the reflection of the younger boy's smooth features, looked somewhat troubled. "Nomoz," he addressed the burly little man, "must he be trained in such a way? With living targets? It seems wasteful." He pointed at one of the twisted figures lying so motionless on the hard floor. "I think that man is dead. He was a loyal brother of The Order. Surely there must be a better way than this. It troubles me."

Nomoz frowned. "It is the way that the Azrael's have always been trained, Ludovic Valley. It is the way that you were trained."

Ludovic Valley bit his lip. "I know that, Nomoz. I know that. But I was hoping ... I - I suppose I was hoping that things might be different for him ... "

"Why should he be different, Ludovic Valley?" the dwarfling was puzzled. "This is the way that the training has always been done. This is the best way. 'The System' is infallible." The hairy brows knitted themselves together ominously. "Careful lest you transgress into blasphemy, Azrael," he warned. The elder Valley cast a sidelong glance at the boy standing so still and unheeding, his face blank like a fresh sheet of clean parchment unstained by any ink, staring at him for several moments. Tabla rasa. And what was the Order writing upon that blank slate? Death and destruction. Then he swiftly gathered himself, remembering what he was about, bowing his head slightly.

"As you say," he whispered. "Be it so. I obey."

"Of course you do," observed Nomoz dryly. "You are Azrael. That is what Azrael does."

Azrael said nothing, until finally ...

"Nomoz ... his eyes. I am worried about his eyes," the older man explained. "He is short sighted. How is this possible?"

A brief look of concern passed over the drawfling's flat face. "Unknown," he admitted. "The Gray Abbott is investigating. It may be that the genetic matrix is ... degrading ... after so long. It has been almost five hundred years that Azrael has served The Order. None can say. Further tests are required. The problem will be studied and, if necessary ... corrected ... "

Ludovic Valley paled. For an instant he moved, as if to stand between the boy and the dwarfling; to protect him. His hand, laying lightly upon the developing shoulder, tightened until the knuckles were white. "No!" he cried. "You can't mean - No, pluh - please ... he - he's only a boy! Please ... no ... "

"Doubtless termination will not be necessary," said Nomoz and observed carefully as Ludovic Valley relaxed. "It is only a minor flaw. Easily repaired. He will be fitted with corrective lenses and given exercises to strengthen the muscles of his eyes. Ophthalmic surgery may be an option at a later time."

Azrael nodded briefly but otherwise remained silent.

"I must report our progress to Blessed Brother Rollo," Nomoz informed him. "He will be pleased. The boy learns quickly. That is good. You may release him from his state of hypnotic suggestion, now that the lesson is complete. Then summon his tutor to continue his studies. Brother Rollo will call for you shortly. He has another assignment for you."

Watching carefully as servants removed the bodies and assisted the injured to the Infirmary, Ludovic Valley stood as still and expressionless as the hypnotized boy at his side. When he was sure they were alone he smoothed the boy's long blond hair (so like and yet so different from his own short locks) into neatness. He did not speak. But his hands, when he touched the youngster, were gentle. And awkward. As if he weren't quite sure how it was done, this touching.

"I wish .. I wish ... "

From his face, it was plain that he did not know what he wished. Only that he wished for something other than this ... something better.

"You are a foolish man," he whispered to himself and then spoke the words that would release Jean-Paul back to reality. When the boy returned to awareness Ludovic Valley was gone. As if he'd never been there at all. There was only the stout figure of Sister Caramina to greet him. The nun wasted no time.

"Conjugate the verb, 'to be'," she instructed in her shrill pedantic voice. "In Latin and then in Greek."

Blinking back confusion, the boy obeyed. But he must have been distracted.

"No!" the Sister barked, and brought her wooden cane down smartly on his tender exposed knuckles. "Wrong! Do it again."

Gazing into his own arctic blue eyes blazing with rage and pain, Azrael nodded.

"Now, him I know," he said.

"I thought you might," was Andrew's sad admission.

Azrael stood mute. But nothing ever seemed to reach or warm his blue eyes. "He is holy. He does his duty," the tall man declared.

"Oh yes, " Andrew conceded, "he's great at keeping the world at bay; at frightening people so they can't hurt you anymore. Splendid for making sure Jean-Paul doesn't feel helpless as he was meant to. But, then, that's what he's for, isn't it?" The man with the frozen soul scowled and brought his hand up in a threatening salute.

"So is this," he replied and the sword point still hovering near Andrew's eyes flickered.

"You don't need that here," Andrew reminded him. Earnestly he pleaded with the man who believed that he was an Angel, "Don't you see? You've been granted a second chance here. Don't blow it! You can make a difference. Jean-Paul Valley isn't helpless. Not as long as he uses his mind and his spirit to help others! You could be a vital part of that. That's all he ever wanted to do; help others. To bring them to God because that's where he always felt safest. When the Order taught him that the best way to do that was to kill the blasphemers among them ... he believed them. But they lied to you. You know that now, don't you? No one here will hurt you unless you hurt them. You don't need to frighten them to be safe." Azrael blinked and began backing away.

"I don't believe you!" he cried. Andrew nodded his head sadly.

"I know. Maybe someday you will. That's part of why I'm here but there isn't much time. There's peace and joy for you here if you'll only reach out and take it. Wouldn't you like that? In the beginning it was all that tortured, abused little boy wanted. Just ... not to hurt anymore. And to help others." The man who called himself Azrael stared at the smaller blond man, but it was 13 year old Jean-Paul Valley who was forced to look away. Then, without a word, he spun on his heel and left the Andrew staring at his broad back.

"Did you really think he'd listen?" inquired a deep, rumbling voice at the angel's back. Andrew shook his head ruefully. It wasn't just anybody who could sneak up on Death. Smiling, Andrew turned to face the voice from the deep shadows. Another old friend.

"Why not?" Andrew said mildly. "You did."

The Batman snorted through his nose then inhaled deeply. "And it only took me most of thirty five years," he observed with sarcasm. "That has to be a record."

Andrew laughed. "Not really, Bruce Thomas," he said. The Dark Knight Avenger grew still.

"Now there's a name I haven't heard in a very long time." The man behind the cowl of The Batman looked away. "Don't call me that. He's dead. As dead as his parents who named him that."

Andrew raised one pale eyebrow in inquiry. "Is he? As dead as that other little boy?"

The hero of Gotham straightened, brushing the question aside.

"I'm not the reason you're here," he pointed out slowly. He gestured in the direction of the disappearing Azrael. "He is. You've got your hands full this time, I'm afraid." Andrew rubbed the back of his neck and made a wry face.

"Definitely," he agreed with a heartfelt sigh of exasperation. The taller Batman stared off into the gathering gloom with pensive, troubled eyes.

"He's going to die, isn't he? That's why you're here." After an instant that lasted no longer than a heartbeat, Andrew nodded. The muscles of The Batman's face worked themselves in silence.

"Soon?" The angry shadows in his dark blue eyes were the only thing that betrayed the Dark Knight, his voice was steady as a rock.

"Soon enough," Andrew replied softly. "I'm here to help him find his way Home."

"Why bother?" asked The Batman in a rough, hoarse voice that betrayed his pain. "Is he that important?" The Angel of Death smiled.

"Everybody's important, Bruce. You know that. You've dedicated your life to that," Andrew said softly. Then he smiled widely. "Oh no, Angel Boy!" he cried in a perfect imitation of Tess' vibrant contralto, "You don't get to pick and choose! God's love is for everybody not just the good folks! He's all yours!"

The Batman didn't laugh, but a small smile scampered past his guard before he could summon it back. For a moment he reflected on the irony that Death was one of the only people who could make him smile. Bruce Thomas Wayne decided that it was a good thing for one soul to laugh with another. When silence reigned once more Andrew lay a hand on the taller man's shoulder.

"Why is he important? I don't know. Why is anyone important? He's important because he lives; because he suffers. And, maybe, just maybe, because if there's hope for him, then there's hope for all of us." At first The Batman said nothing but there was a gathering storm behind those eyes that were the exact shade of a dying Summer sky. Smiling, The Batman snorted hot derision.

"Did anyone ever tell you that for The Angel of Death you're a pushover?"

"All the time," muttered Andrew glumly, "all the time."


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