Merrick downshifted and parked Mutt inside a shed behind the cabin and covered the bike with a tarp, then he exited the shed with his saddlebag through a side door and looked around at the mountains, which appeared to go on forever in every direction, as did the stars above.
The biker inhaled deeply of the night's cool, crisp air, trying to keep the aftereffects of the astral plane at bay. Thanks to Michael, he wouldn't have to worry about reliving his past in excruciating detail; still there were the headache, nausea and body cramps to contend with. When he reached the cabin's deck, a sharp pain pierced him between the eyes and he was forced to grab the railing to keep himself from falling forward. After he steadied himself, he shakily ascended the steps, stumbling upon the last one and up to the door where he took another deep breath and knocked. Soon he could hear the shuffling of feet from within the house followed by a cough and the switching on of the porch light.
Merrick leaned against the door frame and greeted the big elderly lady who opened the door. "Hi, Ms. Adelaide."
Ms. Adelaide reached deep into the cleft between her bosoms, pulled out her glasses, and slid them on. "Elijah, sugar, I didn't hear you pull up." The old woman shivered and rubbed her large arms with her chubby, little hands. "My goodness, it feels like Ol' Man Frost's done come a-callin'." She smiled despite the chill in the air, happy to see one of her few children that had made it to adulthood. Noticing the sweat dripping down the side of his face and the unsteady way in which he held himself, the smile retreated from her lips and she put one of his arms around her shoulder and helped him inside.
"Come on, honey, let's get you into the kitchen."
Ms. Adelaide, limping and grunting, did her best to assist Merrick to the kitchen table. "Gracious me," she said, breathing heavily and collapsing into the chair across from him, "this ol' knee of mine's been acting up somethin fierce all day; must be Ol' Man Frost's doing." Her expression suddenly changed from one of exhaustion to concern. "What is it, sugar? What's wrong?"
Merrick shook his head and smiled weakly. "I'm fine; just a little tired, that's all."
She looked at him with eyebrows raised. "Don't you come into my home and lie to my face, boy. I know when somethin' s wrong with one of my young 'uns."
Merrick laid his head on the table and aloud Ms. Adelaide, a former janitor from the hospital where he had been committed, to stroke the side of his face. Her soft, dark hand and the smooth fullness of her voice as she sang one of her favorite hymns soothed his mind and drove out the bad memories that threatened to break through the angel's spell.
The biker closed his eyes and let the only person whose touch didn't make his skin crawl do what she did best: provide love and comfort for the wounded child. In her presence, God's love for the innocent was undeniable. Soon Merrick was overwhelmed by the woman's goodness and a tear escaped the corner of his eye.
Ms. Adelaide finished her song and then leaned over and kissed him on the brow. "Oh, sugar," she said in a voice that embodied the whole of motherhood, "the Lord can't give you the kind of healing you need if you ain't even willing to let Him try. He loves his little children, Elijah, including you; I'm living proof of that."
Merrick wiped away the tear and raised his head. "Any new kids?" he asked.
The old woman stared at him for a moment. When she realized that the subject would remain changed, at least for the moment, she sighed and said, "Of course. The slave industry's still thriving, isn't it?"
Merrick grunted. Why, he wondered, did the bad guys always have to be more determined than the good ones?
Ms. Adelaide stood up and limped over to the counter next to the sink. "Every day I pray for the Lord to wipe my heart clean of hateful feelings." She opened one of the kitchen cupboards and grabbed two coffee mugs with convenient store logos on them, which she then placed on a tray next to a plate of sliced raisin bread. "But sometimes," she said, carrying the tray over to the table, "I just . . ." The old woman paused. "Sometimes, it's just so hard not to hate when you hear from the mouths of babes the evils that have been committed against them. Monstrous acts that only the Devil himself seems capable of devising."
"It ain't all him," Merrick told her. "Too many evil people use him as a scapegoat. He can't make them commit crimes against the innocent; they have to want to do it."
She patted his cheek. "The Lord has big plans for you, sugar. You'll see."
Merrick had the overwhelming urge to tell her everything he knew about angels and demons, about Mutt and the members of Bart . . . about the seal. But he swallowed the words back down instead.
"What is it, Elijah honey?"
The biker reached for a slice of raisin bread and began tearing off large chunks and popping them into his mouth. "It was a long trip," he said with his mouth full.
"What you need is some of my special tea. It's bitter, but it'll sure put you right again; it sort of soothes the soul as well as the body." She reached across the table and grabbed a jar. After she uncorked the top, she spooned out some of its contents and placed them into the mugs.
"He was a real angel, he was," Ms. Adelaide told Merrick.
Merrick paused in mid bite. "Who was?"
The old woman smiled. "The drifter who gave me this tea a few days ago when the van broke down with me and the groceries. I was so upset -- felt like the whole world was working against me. 'Lord,' I said, 'please don't let all this good food spoil on us. Don't let these children go hungry.' And, Elijah, I don't know where this man came from, but within a few seconds he was standing right beside me."
Before the kettle had time to whistle, she pulled it from the flames and brought it to the table. "This is what you need," she said, pouring some of the hot water into a mug and passing it to him. "Anyway," she continued with her tale of the drifter, "the man, who had the most awful scar you ever seen across his left eye, not only fixed the van and gave me this tea, but he gave me a sweepstakes card he had won at the grocery store. Five hundred dollars worth of groceries, just like that!
"Now if I can only find a way to come up with the money for the bank, I can focus all of my strength on healing the Lord's wounded lambs."
Merrick sipped his tea. Immediately his mind began to clear and his body and his soul were revitalized. He reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope containing the money he had earned from the only job he was qualified for: bounty hunting. "Here," he told the old woman, "this should take care of the bank, at least for a while."
She took the envelope and peeked inside, then held it to her breast. "Praise the Lord, for he does work His miracles in mysterious ways." She reached over and patted Merrick on the cheek. "Big plans, sugar. Big plans! Now, drink your tea," she told him. "I can see it's already starting to do its work."
It sure is, thought a grateful Merrick. "You wouldn't mind letting me take a couple of spoonfuls of this with me, would you?" he asked her.
"Honey," she said, handing him the jar, "you can take it all. For some reason (and I know this sounds crazy) I think the drifter meant that tea especially for you."
Merrick insisted that she keep the tea for her leg but she refused to listen, so he put the jar into his saddlebag and finished drinking the cup of tea on the table in front of him.
"Ms. Adelaide?" a sleepy child's voice called from the dining room.
"We're in the kitchen, sugar."
A little girl around six years old walked into the room, her tiny fists rubbing her eyes. "I had bad dreams again," she said, climbing onto the old woman's lap.
"Oh, honey." Ms. Adelaide put her arms around the child and began to rock back and forth in her chair. "You want to talk about it?"
The little girl shook her head. "Uh uh. Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"Of course you can," said Ms. Adelaide between kisses.
Who's he?" The little girl pointed to Merrick.
"That's Elijah. He's one of my big young 'uns." Then: "Elijah, meet Maria."
Merrick smiled. "Hi, Maria."
The little girl gave a small wave and then yawned. Humming along with Ms. Adelaide, she tried to keep her drooping lids open and her eyes fixed on the stars outside the kitchen window. By the time she fell asleep again, she was snuggled so deep in the old woman's arms that only her head and her feet could be seen sticking through the layers that helped make up Ms. Adelaide's wholesome goodness.
Merrick, his energy somewhat renewed and enjoying Ms. Adelaide's company, stayed up for a little while longer talking to the old woman about good and evil, the past and the future, and the decisions that each individual soul would be forced to make if ever evil was to be vanquished by good once and for all. Then when the two of them had had their fill of conversing for the evening, he carried the little girl into the old woman's room and placed her on the bed. After saying goodnight and accepting a hug and kiss from his surrogate mother, he found his way up to the attic and rested himself until the following afternoon.
Merrick cracked an eyelid and looked into the faces of several youngsters gathered around him. "What's up, people? Was I farting or snoring?"
"Both," said a boy in a red-and-white striped shirt.
Some of the smaller kids giggled.
"Ms. Adelaide wants you to come and eat lunch with us," Maria told him.
"Uh . . ." Merrick rubbed the corner of his eyes with his fingertips. "Tell her to give me a minute to wake up, okay?"
The boy in the striped shirt nodded his head and herded the other children out of the room and down the stairs.
Merrick sat up on the side of the bed and gazed out the window at the mountain peaks which shined like great capped teeth set upon devouring the horizon and everything beyond it. After lacing up his boots and concealing his ax beneath his coat, he found his way to the dining room and took a seat at the head of the table.
Ms. Adelaide passed him a plate piled high with his favorite dishes, then everyone seated at the table bowed their heads, linked hands with the person on either side of them, and listened as the smallest child led them in prayer. Once they were finished with the afternoon meal they went out onto the cabin's deck and relaxed in the sun while Ms. Adelaide spun them one of her fantastic tales of faith and courage. The story ended, as always in the old woman's tales, with the good guys being the victors, bravely vanquishing their enemies with fierce determination and (as always) with love.
Merrick stood and moved his goggles from his neck to his forehead. "It's that time again," he told her.
"Hold on a second, sugar, I wanna make a thermos of hot water to take with you. I have a feeling you're gonna be wanting some of that drifter's special tea whenever you get to where it is you're going.
The old woman hobbled inside before he could protest. When she returned, he put the thermos in his saddlebag and tolerated a final kiss and pat on the cheek which she was determined to give him.
"Be careful, Elijah honey," she said, wiping tears from her cheek.
Merrick gave her a reassuring smile. "Always," he told her.
Everyone stood on the deck and waved goodbye as the biker retrieved his chopper from the shed and took off down the driveway. The bike, making all of the sounds that were required of it, even hammed things up a little as they passed by the children. Instead of shifting into the astral plain when they were out of sight of Ms. Adelaide and her kids, they turned onto a paved road and began following its winding way through the wilderness.
Merrick took in the sights and smells of the surrounding countryside as he thought of that evening's appointment with Lucifer's second-in-command. Several miles down the road, while taking an exceptionally sharp curve with his body and mind, he was approached by a group of flying spheres that began to harass him, forcing him him over the fine white line that marked his territory. Luckily the biker was able to fight his way back to the proper lane before colliding with an oncoming semi, which temporarily decommissioned a handful of the silver orbs with its grill. Then he sped up the mutt and led his new traveling companions deeper into the mountains.
The biker slapped at a couple of the spheres that were flying close to his head before zigzagging through the ones that were trying to wreck his bike. Mutt, ever the sport when it came to its masters bidding, blasted its horn and gave a guttural cry as the biker popped a wheelie and brought its front wheel smashing down on top of a sphere that was determined to get into its spokes. The orb's comrades then changed their shape to something resembling daggers and started stabbing at its tires. For a moment Merrick thought of losing them through the astral plane, but his instincts told him that they could enter the other side without the help of ancient artifacts, such as the ones that had been melted down and molded to create the bike's tank or those that had been incorporated into its frame.
Merrick, using the talents passed onto him by Jerrod, successfully out-maneuvered and destroyed half of the spikes before he was sprayed in the eyes with a chemical that caused him to go blind. This was followed by an intense burning sensation that spread quickly throughout his body as the daggers became poisonous barbs that buried themselves into his back.
The biker lost control of the chopper and went skidding across the pavement. Once he stopped moving he attempted to get to his feet, but the poison had already begun to do its work, and so he fell back to the ground, unconscious. When he finally awoke again he was near a stream with the sun setting in the west.
He gazed up at the tree towering above him. Perched on one of its branches was a young boy with short white hair, dark brown skin, and falcon wings.
"Good evening, Elijah. Feeling better?"
Merrick looked up into the angel's ancient blue eyes. "Vykane?"
The angel smiled.
"What are you doing . . .?" The biker paused and looked over at his chopper. Stuck in its spokes and fenders was an array of leaves and small branches.
"Sorry," said the angel, "I've never driven a motorcycle before. It was very exciting, very . . . human."
Merrick sat up and watched as more and more animals were drawn to his immediate location by the angel's presence. When a large grizzly bear came lumbering onto the scene, he quietly got to his feet and made his way closer to the tree's trunk.
Vykane offered his arm for one of his winged friends to rest upon. "It was a good thing I decided to visit my friends today," he told Merrick as he stroked the owl's breast. "Otherwise you would have been abducted by Abaddon's trackers."
Merrick, thinking of Mutt's battle wounds and keeping a wary ear open for any changes in the bear's calm demeanor, asked absently,"Is that what those things were?"
Vykane nodded. "And they leave a really nasty mark wherever they go; in your case, several."
Merrick put his hands on the small of his back and stretched."I don't know, I feel pretty good."
"Of course you do, I took the liberty of tending to your wounds while you were unconscious." The angel, much more mischievous than the rest of his brethren, grinned as the owl dived straight for the biker's head. At the last second, the bird of prey veered off to the right and disappeared into a cluster of firs.
"Have you seen Michael lately?"
The biker looked at the angel suspiciously before kneeling to clear the chopper's spokes of debris. "You know I have."
Vykane stepped onto the branch below him and sat down."Well," he said, swinging his feet back and forth and tilting his head innocently, "I suppose that means you wouldn't believe me if I told you that I just happened to be in this particular part of your world today?"
"Nope," said Merrick, "I sure wouldn't. But then again, you're an angel, and angels aren't suppose to lie, right?"
The expression on the angel's face became even more mischievous. "Right!"
Merrick did his best to ignore Vykane who, with a single flap of the wings, landed gracefully on the seat of his bike, but the angel's intense eyes and unnerving smile finally got the better of him. "What?!"
The smile that lit up Vykane's face was suddenly replaced by an expression of stone "You're a very rude, ungrateful human, you know that? A human who lives with the delusion that he's entitled to a god that can magically make everything better, a god that can undo every evil that's ever been done or will be done."
Merrick pulled the last branch from the bike's front fender and threw it over his shoulder. "Just tell me what you want."
The angel's smile returned as quickly as it had retreated. "Nothing; I told you, I'm visiting my friends." Vykane picked up a young fox and placed it on his lap then put his hands on the chopper's ape hangers and made a few vroom! vroom! sounds. "But," he said, raising a hand to wave away a couple of moths that were drawn to his celestial fragrance, "to be forthcoming, which even I must be at times, Michael did ask me to check in on you." Then: "He's one of your biggest fans you know."
Merrick grunted. "That's beautiful. Now, you want to point me to the nearest road; I wanna give Mutt a test drive before we enter the astral plane."
Vykane got off of the bike and nodded toward a wolf that was watching them from a slab of stone. "He'll take you where you need to go."
Merrick raised Mutt's kickstand and began pushing the bike in the direction of the wolf. "It's amazing how much you and your kinsmen like to meddle," he told Vykane.
The angel laughed before letting go of the fox and flying back to his perch. "See you around, Elijah. And by the by, not only do the heavens favor you, but the earth as well. My friends and I will be awaiting the outcome of your upcoming battle with bated breath."
The biker returned Vykane's laugh with a sarcastic one of his own. Then, with a tightly controlled shake of his head, he began following the wolf through the forest. Occasionally the animal, a regal-looking, gray male with white patches on its cheeks and eyelids, would stop and look over its shoulder, as if checking to make sure the biker was still there. By the time it had led him to a path cut into the earth by tire tracks, it was already dark.
Merrick beheld the full moon as he slid into the chopper's seat and thought of Abaddon. Tonight marked the third anniversary of Jerrod's death. The biker hoped three years from tonight would mark a new anniversary.
Yep, it's that time again. Only tonight it's the demon that's going to burn.
Scanning the area around him for any sign of the wolf and finding none, the biker reached out and patted Mutt on the tank. With a confident rumble the chopper took off down the path with it's usual power and grace. Satisfied that there had been no major damage done, he increased the bike's speed and shifted to the last gear.
There was a sizzling sound, followed by a loud pop and a heightening of his senses. The road the astral plane provided was more intense than usual as he made his way back to Louisiana. Along the way, on a deserted stretch of road, he passed a lone hitchhiker. The man's physical projection, full of light and more defined than most others', turned and smiled at him before sticking out a hand to thumb a ride.
Great, thought Merrick, I have an angel for a stalker.
As soon as the biker neared the City of the Dead, he re-entered the physical world and pulled over on the side of the road. He quickly took the jar and thermos from his saddlebag. After having a cup of luke-warm tea and resting for a bit, he finished his trek to the cemetery where his contact and long-time friend, Otto, was already waiting for him.