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Home: The Toast

A bar. Could be in any town, in any country in the world. Just a one-room bar with a dusty mirror, dusty bottles, and dusty smiles. A bar with too many heartaches and too few customers. Like every other bar.

Unlike every other bar.

When he ran — flung himself, more like — through the doors, everyone sitting at the bar squinted and held their forearms up against the bolt of afternoon sunlight that came shooting in. “Christ,” murmured someone sitting at a back table.

His eyes were red and his breath was ragged. He looked like he hadn’t shaved for days. He looked around wildly and threw himself breathlessly against the bar. “Where is she?” he asked the bartender. “Is she here?”

The bartender looked around. The only other woman in the bar was Tinky, and she was drowsing quietly over a Moscow Mule in the banquette.

“I don’t know who you mean,” she said. “You all right, mister?” Her hands flew up to adjust her hair.

He stared at her. “Then it must be you,” he said. “It must be you. You’ve got to listen to me. Heaven is missing an angel, and it’s you.”

The bartender looked at him and laughed, a little nervously. “That’s a good one,” she said, starting to turn away. Something in his voice stopped her.

You don’t understand,” he said. “This isn’t a joke. My God, you don’t see. Heaven is missing an angel, and they’re going to rain hell on us until they get her back.”

“They couldn’t have found me already,” she whispered tonelessly. “They couldn’t have known.”

She looked at him. He didn’t have any pupils in his eyes. That’s the last thing she noticed, before the tremors started. Before every bottle in the house quivered and shattered. Just before everything went black.

Heaven. No particular time. Or every time; your choice. It’s warm. It’s peaceful. You know the place.

Well. You don’t know it. Not yet.

Soon you’re going to wish you’d never heard of it.

“143, 999…” Jerahmeel paused. Something wasn’t right. “143,997…143,998…143,999…”

The number was 144,000. The number was always 144,000. None were either added nor taken away from their number, nor was their glory ever diminished. That was the point. So where was 144,000?

He counted again. Uriel noticed the dark furrows on his brow and glided over. However angels walk, without moving their feet. Glode. “What’s wrong? You never take this long for evening head count.”

Jerahmeel sighed. “Someone’s missing.”

“You’re kidding me,” Uriel said. “No one’s missing. No one’s ever missing. We don’t go missing.”

“I know,” Jerahmeel said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, “except for this time, someone is.”

“Let me see that,” Uriel said, snatching the clipboard out of Jerahmeel’s hands. (Angels didn’t go missing, but they still used clipboards.) “Is anyone guarding the gates of the dawn this week?”

“Not from our side,” Jerahmeel said. “It’s the cherubim’s turn.” The cherubim would have a field day with this one, if cherubim ever needed to use a field. Whatever the cherubic equivalent of a field was, they’d have a day on it.

“Is anyone wrestling a patriarch? Delivering tidings of gladness and great joy? Telling shepherds not to be afraid?”

Jerahmeel shook his head. “None of those things have happened for thousands of years.”

“Oh,” Uriel said, then peered briefly down at the earth. “You’re sure?”

“Well,” Jerahmeel said. “I think I’m sure. They’ve either already happened or they haven’t happened yet. But they’re not happening right now. I know that much.”

“Then someone’s missing,” Uriel said, and Jerahmeel’s heart sank.

“Then someone’s missing,” he agreed. “And I think it’s Holly.”

“How could this happen? Could someone have taken her?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. We have to think. We have to think.”

“Maybe it would be better if someone had taken her,” Uriel said.

Jerahmeel looked at him, astonished. “Better? Better, to know that someone had somehow forced their way into Heaven — undetected, mind you — and made off with an unwilling Power and Principality of the Fourth Sphere? That sounds better to you?”

Uriel tried to smile, but it slid off his face. “The only other alternative is that she left us. And you know what has to happen if she left us.”

Jerahmeel sat down, hard.

“You know what we’re going to have to do,” Uriel said, and Jerahmeel knew his face looked every bit as anxious as his companion’s. He nodded. “I know.”

“We’re going to have to tell the Heavenly Host. And the Heavenly Host is going to want us to bring her back, if we have to rip her out of the heart of hell with our own hands.”

A clot of clouds gathered in the distance. They were pulsing with heat and with darkness and there were webs of lightning flickering in them.

Heaven was missing an angel.

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