Crunch, crunch. The dry, sparsely buttered toast disappeared slowly as Jirel nibbled on it in his booth in the cafe’s darkly lit and almost deserted back corner. How many days had he been left waiting here? 100? 200? In all that time, the divine nod to do a good deed had been sorely infrequent.
How long, Lord? How long?
Sometimes, the silence deafened. Others, it whispered. Steady, steady.
So, he waited. And lamented.
Ding-a-ling! An old man entered, walking with a slight limp, and headed straight for Jirel.
The man settled into the booth across from him. “Jirel?”
He wrinkled his nose and nodded. Who told the man? “And you are?”
Jirel coughed. Lies smelled so rotten.
At least he could still smell them. A most unfortunate deception; Smith probably felt he had good reason. “All right, ‘Mr. Smith’, what are you doing here, and how do you know my name?”
“I’ve come with a Word for you.”
What have I done to deserve this humiliation, Lord? Why send a mortal to speak to one who has stood before Your throne? “Speak on.”
“God is not punishing you, Jirel. He’s brought you here on a mission.” The old man pulled a manila envelope from his vinyl jacket and placed it on the table. “You’re a sergeant in the Imperial Army.”
Jirel swallowed. “What?”
“There’s a boy who needs your help to become a man.”
Jirel arched his eyebrows. “What do I know about being a man? I can hardly teach him to be what I am. He’d sooner learn how to be a bird.”
“You don’t have to know, you just have to help him.”
Ignoring the messenger, Jirel petitioned Heaven. “Why, Lord? What am I doing here, cast from my proper abode and trapped in this tent? Are there no saints available in all of Heaven and Earth?”
Smith sighed. “It may be my fault. Thanks to my Ecumenical Patriots’ Council, it’s against most churches’ doctrines for Christians to serve in the Imperial Military. A few serve secretly, but either in such low ranks, or they are so badly compromised by the oppressive environment, they’d be useless for this assignment.”
Jirel swallowed. And also beyond the general perimeters of the host’s commanders. Their mansions, like the King’s, were visible to mortal eyes, but not meant to abide in this world. “I see. Who is it?”
Smith pushed the envelope towards him. “Open it.”
Jirel slit the top off with a fingernail and pulled out a picture of a male human about sixteen years of age with a ragged dark blond mop of hair and aquamarine eyes.
The waitress came to the table. “Sir, will you want something?”
Smith waved away the menu extended to him. “Two egg whites and grape juice. You do take American, I trust?”
The lady smiled. “We prefer it.”
“Thank you kindly.”
After she walked away, Jirel gestured to the boy’s picture. “As you were saying.”
“That’s Annunciation Leslie Snyder.”
Smith chuckled. “But don’t think of calling him that. Snyder goes by his last name only. I knew his grandmother. A dearer saint and a dearer patriot has never graced this earth.”
“More saintly than Teresa of Calcutta and more patriotic than Betsy Ross?”
Smith laughed. “So hyperbole is out. She’s as dear as anyone I knew. Rescued her grandson from a breeder and devoted herself to raising him. A couple years back, her daughter euthanized her and kidnapped the boy, but he got away and fled to his surrogate mother and her son Cerulean-faithful Baptists his grandmother willed him to. He’s been staying with them until recently.”
Jirel rested his back against the red leather of the booth. “What changed?”
“Snyder reached the perfectly rational conclusion that the police today are corrupt and incompetent, especially in regards to the city’s gang problem. So the lad took matters into his own hands and formed his own gang. Sometimes, they worked with the police, but when the police refused to work with them, ‘justice was done.’
“The problem Young Snyder has run into is that his brand of justice the law considered a hate crime when he tried to hang a local child molester. The Imperial prosecutor wanted to hang him, but the arresting officer felt sorry for Snyder and had enough leverage with the prosecutor and judge to get the case suspended. Rather than being executed for a hate crime, he needs only finish three years in the military and he walks away a free man with no criminal record.”
Jirel nodded. Most Gracious and Holy Lord, how great you are to lay up mercy in the human heart towards whom you will to favor.
The waitress brought out the egg whites and the grape juice. Smith nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.” He cut his eggs into bite-sized pieces. “This time in the military will include some of the most important decisions of his life.”
Like the most important one. “Where does his soul stand?”
“Until a couple years ago, other than being bored to distraction in class and getting into scuffles in the schoolyard over his given name, Snyder was the model Catholic lad. Since his grandmother died, he’s withdrawn from God and the Church. I’ve heard him around town, talking with other boys about how great things will be once the old coot-that’d be Emperor Herald-keels over and Prince Donovan can rule justly.”
Jirel grimaced. “So, he’s fallen into worshiping the prince?”
Smith took a sip of grape juice. “He’s grabbing onto hope wherever he can find it. So, Jirel, are you in?”
Jirel pressed his lips together. Why did he not feel God directing him? Maybe, this man was not really of God? What if Smith had consulted with the enemy, and that was how Smith knew him? Perhaps this was yet another attempt to make Jirel fall.
No, he would have smelled the enemy’s stench. Smith had to be a saint who had not yet traded his corrupt tent in for the mansion awaiting him in eternity. Only the Blood could get a mortal smelling this clean. Fear and self-pity were getting better at sneaking up on him unawares, but divinations were among the least subtle of evil’s breeds. His senses couldn’t have become that dull.
But the man could have come on his own, and somehow guessed, perhaps misused a gift of the Lord.
Jirel looked up to Heaven. Master, please. I need direction. Show me what to do.
A quiet rumbling came, a slight affirmative nudge. Jirel looked down. “I’ll go.”
“Splendid, I have your uniform in the car, along with your identity papers, and bus tickets. You’re Staff Sergeant Jirel Cutler of Army Intelligence. You’ve been sent to Fort Columbia on temporary assignment to take recruits through basic training.”
Cutler. To be given one name had been honor enough, but two? The Lord abounded in generosity.
He lowered his head respectfully to the child of the Most High. “Sir, I have no training in the Imperial Army and no experience training soldiers. Who am I to teach? Who am I to give men orders? Where I come from, it is the other way around.”
Smith finished his egg whites. “Don’t give in to doubt. God will show you what to do and how to act. Submit yourself and He’ll guide you as He always has. Now, come, let’s get your gear, Sergeant Cutler.”
Cutler and Smith went to the front counter and paid their bills.
Out in the parking lot, Smith opened the trunk of his red hybrid hatchback and pulled out a suitcase. “Given that this place is friendly towards American currency, I’d recommend changing into your uniform at the next stop on the bus. Now, give me your strong hand, Sergeant Cutler.”
He extended his left hand and stared at the bulge in his wrist indicating a microchip “tag” tied to an International Commerce Account. To obtain it, humans had to deny God and pledge allegiance to that impostor, Emperor Herald.
Jirel trembled with the urge to claw it out. “What’s this?”
“An untagged Imperial Sergeant would be quite suspicious, but you’ll never have to sign anything. It’s one of our bypass chips.”
Smith pulled out a black rectangular device. “All right, the chip is programmed with your data. Your ICA balance is $2350.12, in international dollars, of course. Every two weeks, you’re paid $1100 plus benefits, with $600 left after taxes.”
Jirel swallowed. “I see.” He touched the lump in his tent’s wrist. Lord God Most High, I don’t understand what you’re doing to me, or why, but I will do as you command.