It’s Charcoal Streets time. Last week’s story, “Call the Baptist” hinted that Muriel, the demon possessing Aurora, was hiding from something. Now, we get to find out what that was… and what “you-know-who” was referring to. It was tricky trying to write exclusively for Muriel. Having him shapeshift whenever someone looked at him made description difficult, but I hope that in the end he’s an entertaining character. Now let’s get into a demon’s head.
Muriel’s eyes gleamed in the headlights of passing cars like a wolf’s gaze. One eye golden, the other baby-blue, they looked to his latest hunting ground: Sonny’s. The music inside sounded throughout the parking lot. Muriel let the ambient emotions from the people within a block fill him like white noise. In the haze, he focused on the fear and apprehension of a few patrons inside. He went to work with all the excitement of picking out the week’s groceries, but it was his job.
Sonny’s was a bar designed to evoke the pride and glory of the Southwest. Deer antlers and cowboy regalia hung on the wall. The burnt orange walls and faux-Indian artwork made the whole place look like a bad attempt at a fancy version of Taco bell. Top 40 hip-hop played on the speakers. Once he walked past the crowd watching the game, Muriel ordered a glass of water, took a seat alongside the businessmen, and tapped the rim of his glass so the water turned to whiskey. He took slow, long sips of the smoky concoction and tried to smell the fear and frustration in the men around him.
Most were stressed. The sweat under their neatly pressed shirts smelled like candy. They shared ice-filled tin buckets with bottles of weak beer and pretended everything was just as it should have been, that things were calm now that the sun set over the desert and they could go home to their wives and girlfriends. Barely contained resentment at everyone and no one radiated outwards like the ripples in a pond. Muriel swirled the whiskey around his tongue as he inhaled the desperation in the men around him and let their emotions rush through him like a guitar solo at a concert. He drew more enjoyment from the whiskey than he did from the storm of fear.
One man in the group looked like the best target for the night’s entertainment. He wore his tie loose after only a few beers and he joked and laughed like a fratboy. Muriel finished his whiskey and listened to the conversation for a few minutes.
“Can I sit with you guys?” he asked.
The men saw him as one of their own: neatly pressed suit, shirt just a little rumpled from running around an office and going to meetings, and a tie now loose to usher in the evening.
Everyone saw what they wanted to see, Muriel knew. They welcomed him like a long-lost brother as soon as he ordered the next bucket. They joked and talked into the night about office gossip and Muriel laughed and offered insight. Karaoke started and a few of the men went up to do a bad rendition of “Sex on Fire.” As the others shouted rather than sang, Muriel looked to the fratboy businessman and said, “You don’t look like you wear suits all the time. Didn’t I go to high school with you?”
The man finished his fourth beer and said, “Maybe. Bulls or Falcons?”
“Bulls para siempre. You were on the football team, right?”
The man laughed and burped. He struggled to keep his eyes open. Muriel almost had him and said, “Oh man, I remember those games. Fucked up the Cats that one time, remember?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Regret pulsed outward. The man’s tears would have tasted good, thought Muriel, a nice way to end an otherwise routine evening, but instead he said, “Didn’t go pro?”
The businessman chuckled and said, “Nah, man… Went to college, hurt my leg.”
“Yeah but… it worked out. You know? Studied business. Got a job from my dad, and now I’m working full-time. Got it good.”
Muriel couldn’t stomach another drink of the warming beer and tapped the bottle, turning its contents into roughly distilled bourbon. He drank a few mouthfuls and said, “Don’t you miss it? Doing whatever we fucking wanted? Just taking what we wanted?”
The man laughed. The bottle almost missed his mouth when he tried to drink. Muriel looked to the bar and saw a young woman drinking alone. She was good looking, though not beautiful. In her short yellow dress, though, she would do. Muriel pointed to her and said, “Think she’s cute?”
The man looked up from his bottle and smiled. He stared for a second and turned to face Muriel. Struggling to keep his eyes open, the man said, “Your eyes are two different colors.”
Muriel blinked and nodded towards the girl. He said, “So, do you think she’s cute?”
“Want me to introduce you?”
The man finished his beer and nodded. Muriel altered the whiskey lingering in his throat to smell like spearmint and went up to the bar. Long weeks and cheap drinks made Muriel’s job easier. He bought her last round and escorted her to the table, then got her and the fratboy another round beers. She declined at first, but Muriel leaned in and whispered a few choice facts, some real, some made up, about his new target. They quickly hit it off and Muriel discreetly left for the bar and watched them play footsies under the table for the next hour or so as they leaned in and eventually tickled each other with their mouths. The other businessmen were long gone by the time the new couple left. Muriel could see them walk across the street to the Motel 6. Last call came and went and the last patrons left by the time the light in the room across the street finally went out.
Muriel sipped the last of his beer bottle of whiskey and felt the lust and pleasure emanating from that room and a dozen others. So much pleasure…
He didn’t smile, left a wad of twenties, and left.
Muriel walked the streets. He smoked a few cigarettes. One yellow and one blue eye looked through tanned skin, freckles, business suits, t-shirt and jeans, and whatever made people most comfortable. Via Rosa smelled like hope, tears, blood, and gunpowder. Ghosts swirled like autumn leaves at an intersection. His eyes scanned the area and felt the utter humanity in the city.
A car pulled up to him. The window rolled down and a young woman poked her head out. “Excuse me,” she said, “where’s Sonny’s?”
She smelled like fear and desperation. She might make a good cap to the night, Muriel decided, and he leaned in and said, “It’s just down the street, about two blocks, then a right. They’re closed, though, but if you want to get in, I know the owner.”
She quickly unlocked the passenger door and let him in. As they drove, he said, “Most people don’t pick up strangers like this. Lots of freaks at this hour.”
“I’m looking for someone. He’s not answering his phone and he was supposed to be back hours ago.”
Muriel felt the fear from her like the rumble in a bass speaker. She vibrated like a tuning fork. It made him drunk like a case of cheap beer. He licked his lips and said, “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know I’m safe to be with? That I’m not the Big Bad Wolf?”
She managed to smile a bit and say, “I doubt a mugger walks around in a business suit like that. I’d ask you how you know I’m not going to kidnap you.”
“Is it a nice suit?” Muriel asked.
A note of confusion and fear, a single sharp sound, filled the car before she said, “I guess. Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering. I don’t pay attention to my clothes. I was just wondering if I really was wearing a nice suit. And as for trusting you… well, I’m always eager to help someone in need, see the light. Take a right at the next stop.”
That same note played throughout the car. Muriel smelled acid and sourness, adrenalin, and her pulse quickened. He could almost see her neck throb.
“Are you a preacher or something?” she asked.
“Something,” he said. “I’m… a man of wealth and taste.”
“You have a very sweet voice, you know?”
“Thanks. It helps with my job. The bar’s right here on the left.”
After they parked, Muriel got out of the car and knocked.
“Hey, Bill! It’s me. Need to talk to you for a sec.”
The woman waited by the car and held her arms close. The night air got cold very fast and Muriel tried looking in but saw no one.
“Guess Billy called it an early night,” he said. “Listen, I can probably get in around the back if you want to have a drink.”
She wasn’t looking at him anymore but instead stared at the man crossing the street. The fear turned to anger as Muriel recognized the fratboy stumbling to his car. The man got to his Mercedes and fumbled with the key. The woman rushed him and smacked the keys out of his hand.
The couple argued for a few minutes and Muriel blended into the shadows to watch the spectacle.
He smoked a cigarette while the couple yelled in the empty parking lot. The ash cigarette fell in slow snowstorms. The burning ember at the cigarette’s tip burned hot enough to illuminate his shifting face in the corner. He became no one and everyone once neither the man or woman looked at him. A pair of yellow and blue eyes glistened in the red light.
The woman held her stomach and grabbed the man’s hand to press against her belly.
They were quiet for a moment. Muriel forgot to inhale. The ash collected on the end of the cigarette while the woman drove away and left the man standing there, a cold expression on his face. He looked around, tried to find his keys, and finally got in his car. He sat there for an hour. Muriel’s cigarette burned out long before and the ash finally fell on its own.
He threw the butt away and walked.
The streets smelled like desperation. It was all he could sense in the alleys and closing bars. Horny men and women who didn’t find a horny mate left with a cheap buzz. Muriel waded through the ocean of people coming out of the Strip on Herradura Street. His fingers tingled. His shape drifted into a dozen forms as the late crowd looked at him. A memory stirred in his mind and pushed against his eyes. No one paid attention to him as he crumpled on the side of a building and held back the rage. They felt him, though. He sent out waves of pain and anguish. Many of the club-goers cried and never knew why.
Muriel gathered himself and dusted his newly formed fur coat. It turned into a raincoat within seconds. He sniffed the air and followed the scent.
Her smell lingered in the air. Cucumber, tea leaves, baby powder… each as distinct as the gunpowder on the streets, the pot in the neighbor’s house, and the pheromones the woman virtually sweat in the car. Her car was parked outside the modest suburban home a few miles from Sonny’s. The houses along the street looked the same: white, sharp at the top, all identical. Muriel felt like he was walking into a crocodile’s open jaw.
Fire raged in him. His eyes simmered red and his leather coat billowed in ethereal wind like a pair of bat’s wings until he took a deep breath and steadied himself. His eyes returned to their normal blue and yellow and he rang the doorbell.
She opened the door.
“It’s late,” she said, apparently not recognizing him. Maybe she saw something else this time. Muriel wondered what she saw…
He smelled salt. Her tired red eyes looked at him.
“I’m very sorry,” he said, “but I think we need to talk.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she said and started to close the door.
Muriel stuck his foot in and said, “It can’t wait. It’s about your husband.”
The pulse of emotions nearly knocked him on the floor. He recoiled and braced himself on the door. “It’s important and it can’t wait,” he said.
“Just come back tomorrow.”
She slammed the door and nearly broke his foot. He focused on mending the cracked bones and joints popped back into place as he yelled, “He was drunk! We… I got him drunk! It was my fault! I’m sorry!”
The outside light turned off.
Nothing happened in the house. She was asleep, Muriel thought. Or as close as she would get. He lit another cigarette and faded into the shadows.
“Fuck you, then,” he said.
Carmen smelled the sulfur before the doorbell rang. She grabbed her Glock and opened the door while aiming at the demon on the other side.
“What do you want, Lilith?” she said
The demon had one purple and one green eye. Her straight-black hair hung over pale skin and a grin that only a demon could ever make, Carmen thought.
“I have a job for you,” Lilith said.
Carmen put the gun in her hip holster and said, “Not interested.”
She started to close the door, but Lilith stuck her foot in and walked into the house, saying, “Oh, you’ll like this one.”
Carmen had the gun drawn and the safety off before Lilith realized what had happened. Her finger on the trigger, Carmen said, “We both now I’m faster than you, so get out or I’ll shoot.”
“Bullets won’t hurt me, little raindrop.”
“Bullets? No. Blessed hollow-points? Probably won’t kill you either but they’ll hurt.”
Lilith grinned and said, “I like you. But this job isn’t for me. It’s for… him.”
Carmen’s hand shook but her aim stayed true. She said, “He’s calling in his favor? Now?”
“Yes. Do this, and your debt will be forgiven.”
Carmen put the gun away and closed the front door. She motioned for Lilith to sit on one couch while she sat across from her in the loveseat.
“So who do I have to kill?” Carmen said.
Lilith leaned forward and said, “A little demon that’s gone walkabout.”
Via Rosa was alive. Muriel tried to drown himself in the exhaust fumes, cheap cigarettes, and expensive mixed drinks that made downtown smell like a cheap attempt at a college party. When he got to the river running through the center of town, he sat on the bridge overlooking the plaza with the angel statue high on a pedestal. The sun rose over the mirrored buildings at the center of town. Old Spanish cathedrals and faux-Hispanic architecture jutted from the desert and made the whole thing look like a bad Halloween decoration.
The smell of brimstone filled his senses before he heard her.
“I’m surprised you showed up,” he said. He stood and faced the woman wearing a constantly shifting outfit. Her curly red hair hung below her shoulders. Purple and green eyes glistened in the morning dew. Her freckled face slowly turned a deep tan as she smiled and said, “You have the strangest sense of humor, Muriel.”
“Pinche hecklers always tell me the same thing.”
“I’m serious,” she said, her smile fading as her hair turned straight and blond. “Here the rest of us are trying to show these people the virtues of chaos and you go an apologize and try to fix things with one them. You broke the rules, little rain cloud.”
Muriel took another cigarette out and tried his Zippo, but it was empty; sighing, he simply touched the cigarette’s tip and it lit as he said, “For being demons, we have a lot of rules, chica.”
“You pissed off a lot of people. You couldn’t be a good little demon and do what you’re designed to do?”
“Maybe I got bored.”
“Damn it, Muriel, I’m serious. The boss wants to bring you back in. He thinks you’ll cause more damage out here.”
“Our job is to cause damage, Lilith. He think I’ll go ape-shit and fix something?”
Lilith sat next to him and said, “Boss called for someone to come find you, take you back to the pit or deal with you here if you resisted. If I were you, I’d run. Fast.”
“Who’d he get? Half those huercos who came with us went pussy ages ago, and the new guys are a bunch of mocosos who think-”
“He summoned a Fallen Son.”
Muriel almost stopped mid-inhale but kept going, saying on the exhale, “About time Lou called in one of those favors. I’m flattered.”
“You’re dead. Just run and he may not catch you for a week.”
“Why not? Fuck, Muriel.”
Muriel flicked the butt over the bridge and straightened his leather coat as it turned into a patchwork of fabrics. He said, “I’m one of the First demons. I fought fucking archangels. Last thing I’m going to do is run from some pimply half-breed human.”
Miguel opened the door to finally stop the incessant knocking. He walked around the bags of recyclables he still needed to take out. He didn’t wear much beyond a tank top and a pair of jeans when he found himself face-to-face with a demon on the other side of the door. He recognized the blue and yellow eyes and the tell-tale aura of brimstone and cheap cigarettes.
“Muriel,” he said, “and what brings you to the bottom of the barrel?”
The demon entered and said, “I need help, Miguel. I screwed up bad. Boss wants me back in the pit and… You really live here?”
Muriel picked up a blue recycling bag and looked inside at the empty beer cans. Miguel took the bag away and said, “It’s cleaning day.”
“Can’t you just… make it go poof and be done?”
“What do you want, Muriel?”
The demon went to the half-kitchen by the sofa and grabbed a glass from the drying rack. He filled it with water and tapped the rim to make more whiskey. He gulped it in one go and said, “I’m so fucked right now. I need a place to hide out for a while until I figure this out.”
“There is not a thing on Earth or Hell or Heaven I’d want from you, so why should I help you?”
“I was hoping all that charity and oath to shepherd the lost may have stuck with you.”
“That would be the clergy, not me. I’m not employed anymore, remember?”
“Once an angel, always an angel. Come on. I need you.”
“If I’m still an angel, that’s even less incentive to help you.” Miguel scratched his unshaven face and tried to assess the demon. Their shifting forms made it difficult, but he saw tension in Muriel’s walk, the way he held the glass.
“Ándale, Miguel,” Muriel finally said. “You can’t tell me you’re holding a grudge.”
“A grudge? No. I got over the War a long time ago. I’m just pissed at you for the incident with Raúl.”
“Please! That was a week ago!”
“Never mind. Tell you what? You tell me what you did, and I’ll help you out.”
“I… No. No thanks. I’ll just leave.” He looked for a cigarette and pulled out an empty pack. Miguel pulled out his own pack and offered him one. Muriel went to grab the cigarette but Miguel pulled it away and said, “Only if you tell me what you did.”
Muriel grabbed the cigarette, a look of resignation on four simultaneous faces, and said, “Fine.”
He lit it with his fingertip and sat on the sofa. His leather coat shifted into black canvas and his neon-orange hair curled into black dreadlocks.
“Do you remember what I was like before the Fall?”
Miguel lit his own cigarette and sat next to Muriel, saying, “Cocky, obnoxious little cherub. Thought you knew better than everyone else.”
“I wasn’t the only one. Anyway, before the Fall, I was… involved with someone.”
“Not a human, right? We rounded up the nephelim-”
“Not all of them.”
“Well, no, not all of them. But if it was with an angel, I’d know.”
“We kept it hidden. I knew what it would mean if it got out. Once I knew how far Lucifer was willing to go, I had to make a choice between staying with her and doing what I thought was right. I signed up, big war, and we got banished. Something happened that reminded me of her. And I tried to fix it. And now I can’t stop thinking about her.”
“Wow,” Miguel said. “That sounds incredible. Want me to get some Chunky Monkey and a copy of Twilight so we can cry?”
Muriel’s eyes flashed red. “I mean it,” he said. “If you had half a spine you’d know what it was like to love someone, but you ran away from the fucking job when it turned into work. And we loved each other, but when Lucifer called for us to join him… I haven’t seen her since then. And I miss her chingos.”
“Muriel, you’ve spent ages tempting people to give in to their most basic desires. You’re the moral opposition. You’re supposed to be entropy and chaos. What does any of this-”
“The guy I convinced to have a one-night stand with some fresa from the bar was married and expecting a kid with his… I’m guessing wife. I don’t break up families.”
Miguel smiled for a few seconds before the laughter almost made him drop the cigarette. He laughed all the way to the sink to get another glass. He filled it to the brim and turned it to beer. Once he stopped laughing, he said, “You realize the irony of a demon being against breaking up family, right? You, all of you, were part of the greatest treachery in history and you’re getting pissy over making some guy cheat on his wife.”
Muriel stood. His shifting features flared into a hundred skin tones, hair lengths, and his eyes burned red as he said, “It’s not the same!”
Miguel caught himself and said, “Fine. Have it your way. Look, I can’t promise anything, but-”
As his form more or less settled on slow shifting, Muriel said, “Lucifer summoned a Fallen Son for me.”
“A Fallen- He actually summoned one of the nephelim? There’s one in Via Rosa?”
“What? You people don’t read the newsletter?”
“No I mean… Muriel, they’re going to drag you back to Hell and-”
“And what? Torture me? Been there. Got the blackened wings to prove it. No t-shirt, though.”
“A Fallen Son could kill you.”
“I know. How long’s it been since one of us died?”
Miguel put his beer down and said, “Not long enough. Fine. I’ll help you. But you’re not going to like it.”
Want to read more? Just visit the main Charcoal Streets page and take a look at the complete stories, samples, and other fun features, and stay tuned in 2011 for the release of the first volume of collected stories!