"Repent! Sinners! Judgment is upon you!"
You see a hundred like him on the streets of New York City: scrawny, ragged, matted filthy hair and beard, dressed in a crude approximation of biblical robes - in this case a sheet with a hole in the center duct-taped at the waist, and rubber shower tongs. The sight both annoyed and chilled David Harrison. A cheap sheet from a thrift store? In this weather? He never was long on empathy, except when it came to sniffing out a deal, but the thought was enough to give him the shivers. This guy was off his meds, big time.
"Sinners!" The ragged vagabond waved his sign and screamed at the holiday passers-by who studiously ignored him while passing as far from him as the sidewalks allowed. "The End is nigh! The doomed shall know the face of darkness!"
"Darling, we'll miss our train." Angela tugged at his arm in vexation.
Yeah, right. That set David fuming again. Spending the holiday with the relatives in Connecticut was her idea. He didn't care for her family, her mother in particular. They just didn't grasp what it means to be on Wall Street. By God, he walked among the Lords of Creation, albeit as a junior player; they were middle management: peasants. These encounters were uncomfortable for all concerned, but Angela was determined to trot her Wall Street stud in front of her family at every opportunity. So after surviving the weather and the holiday traffic, they were right across the street from Grand Central Station. But getting across that street would be a neat trick.
Two taxis were stranded in the middle of the intersection after a minor fender-bender. The cabbies waved their arms and argued in Farsi or Hindi or some-such jabber while the traffic squeezed past around them. The streets were backed up in all directions as hordes of taxis, limos, and the occasional city bus tried to connive or bully their way through the log jam. The din of horns and revving engines was deafening, and the oily stench of exhaust was giving him a headache. The taxi drivers were the worst: frustrated suicide bombers, clawing their way through by sheer intimidation. Getting across this last street would take luck more than anything else.
"This is pathetic," David grumbled. If this was how his weekend was starting out, the rest of it would be sheer hell. Angela hated her parents almost as much as he did, and grabbed every excuse to rub their noses in it. The same went for her former classmates at that jerkwater college, and even the neighbors. She'd married up, and made sure everyone knew it.
"Sinners! Bow down to the Creator! The hour is upon you!"
And on top of everything else, here was that ragged fool and his sign. Enough is enough. David gauged the traffic, a momentary opening appeared, and he made a tentative move...a taxi swerved past, practically on the sidewalk, splashing icy slush over his trousers.
"God...!" he gasped. "Dammit!" This was just too much. He shook his legs futilely, trying to shake off the muck and road salt running down into his shoes. These were his new Guccis! His angst boiled over, and he did the Frustration Tango, looking around at random for some indefinable release...
"Sinners!" The sign waved frantically back and forth, all but hitting him in the face. "Pray now! Judgment is nigh! The doomed shall know the face of Darkness!"
"Can't you get rid of all these damned cars?" David growled. That was just a reflexive gripe - Heaven forbid he be seen chatting with street sweepings - and he really didn't expect a reply. But the ragged creature stopped, and turned, and stared at him - or rather through him. 'Shit, got a crazy one here.' David was suddenly worried: for all that he was a scrawny shrimp, this guy could be dangerous.
"Uh..." the street creature mumbled at last, "...yeah, sure. I can do that."
'Probably fried his brains on drugs,' David decided. At least he didn't seem dangerous, thankfully. The whole thing was so improbable that his ill mood faded, and he was momentarily amused by this pathetic cretin.
"Darling, we really have to be going." Angela tugged at his arm and eyed the street prophet with obvious distaste. Blue-blood wannabee: she still didn't grasp she was just eye candy to advance his career. That, and an adequate lay.
"It's all right," he rebuked her. "We'll catch the next train if we have to." He ignored her pout and turned back to the vagabond, intent on a bit of sadistic distraction. "Well, then, why don't you?"
The street prophet stared through him for another long moment, as if forming a simple thought meant marshaling all his remaining mental facilities. "Um...'cause you gotta say 'please'," he mumbled at last. "S'pos t' say please an' thank you."
This was ludicrous. David was so tickled by the whole bizarre scene that trains and taxis and dripping guck were forgotten. "You're right, actually," he chuckled. "So will you please get rid of all these cars?" He ignored Angela's ill-tempered tug, and waved his free arm at the thundering herd fighting its way past. "We have a train to catch."
Again the ragged messiah stared through him at some infinitely distant horizon. "Huh? Ah...sure," he mumbled at last. "Here, hold this."
Before he realized it, David found himself holding the street prophet's sign: a broomstick with a big piece of cardboard duct-taped to it, with THE END IS NEAR scrawled in crude block letters. And the fool was tottering down the street, leaving him to look like a prize chump. 'Probably headed back to the shelter.' David thought as he glanced around in nervous embarrassment and prayed fervently that none of the senior partners would come riding by. The hypercompetitive Wall Street jungle showed no pity to the non-conformist.
"You are ridiculous, darling," Angela growled in her best blue-blood wannabee sneer. He was beginning to think she was right when the street prophet halted a dozen paces away, turned to the traffic, raised his arms in the best Cecil B. DeMille style, and let out a string of some foreign gibberish. David was momentarily bemused by the frail cretin's volume, loud enough to be heard clearly over the roar of traffic, before an unearthly glow erupted around them, swelling to fill the Universe, blinding them with its glare before disappearing again.
It took them a few seconds since they were dazed by that burst of unearthly light. Angela caught it first, and her panicky squeak alerted him. The street was empty. Up and down the Avenue as far as they could see, on the cross streets, in the taxi stand at the station: nothing.
"What the..." David gasped. The two taxi drivers looked around in astonishment, then took off in different directions, running from they knew not what. The next thing he realized was that the street messiah had wandered back over to them.
"What...what did you do?"
"...uuuuhh?...uh...I got rid of 'em, like you asked."
"Where are they?" Angela whimpered to herself. "Where did they go?"
"...uuhh...din' go nowhere. Made 'em not, ya' know?"
"But...all over Manhattan?" Angela wasn't the bored blue-blood now.
"...ummm...ever'where. All of 'em, jus' like you asked."
It took David several seconds to absorb that before the implications began sinking in. 'Transportation issues will go to hell, come Monday,' he realized. "Everywhere? All over the world?"
"...um...yeah. Like you asked."
This was too sweet. 'Better come in early,' David thought. 'This'll be the ultimate insider deal!' But then another market factor crossed his mind; one you don't normally see on the Big Board. "What about the drivers? The passengers?"
The street prophet stared, then, "...um...I made 'em not also. Can't have 'em hit the pavement at 60 per." He tapped the side of his head in a knowing gesture. "Total road rash, ya' know? Kinder like this."
Scratch any Wall Street killings. Hundreds of millions of people all across the country - the whole world - were suddenly 'not'. The panic would be righteous. The economy would tank for damned sure.
Their eyes met, and David saw something - some unfathomable depth - which chilled him to the bone. He stared, transfixed by the emptiness in those eyes - an emptiness which drew his very soul out of him. And as his consciousness sank deeper and deeper into that emptiness, he got a glimpse of what looked back at him. Were there stars in there? He realized without comprehending that whole galaxies - an entire Universe - lay in those rummy, bloodshot eyes. Then he realized in uncomprehending horror that the seconds this ragged messiah needed to gather his thoughts, the delay he mistook for the comic struggles of a brain-damaged loser, were the reaction time of an intellect so vast, so remote, so utterly alien that the fate of mankind was a mere 'to do' item.
'The doomed shall know the face of Darkness.'
"God..." He shook off the sensation, and prayed for the first time since he was a kid as the street cretin, the shell used by some unspeakable power to connect with this earth, watched silently. "All those people? Every car in the world?"
Every truck, every bus...trains? Planes? Ships? Even if it was just the cars, there were millions of them; three hundred million or more just in the USA. And it was the height of the rush hour...
"C-can you...bring them back?"
And it was his fault. He shuddered at the emptiness in those eyes; an emptiness that was finally aware of him; that hungered; that regarded him with cool disdain.
'The doomed shall know the face of Darkness.'
"...uh...no, man. Tha's creation. Done that gig." The messiah twitched nervously, and looked at them with a new, unnatural - unholy - presence. "Destruction's the scene now. Tha' whole Armageddon thing. Worl' gotta end some time."
"Let's GO, darling!" Angela snarled in fear as she hauled on his arm. She always was the practical one. He followed numbly, looking both ways out of habit for non-existent traffic.
"Hey, man, my sign?"
David stopped in the street, standing stupefied in a puddle for a long moment before he realized he still held the sign: broom stick, cardboard, duct tape, crude block letters spelling out THE END IS NEARER. He handed it back. "Thank you," he mumbled without willing it.
The ragged messiah stared again as his thoughts slowly gathered. "...No biggy, man. Uh...hey, you got a dollar?"
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