The pub in question was a centuries old inn built partially into the hills overlooking the sea with at least a dozen different ales on tap; a refreshing change from the norm that Jake looked favourably upon. Partly because his first pint disappeared before Ramona, who was buying, sat down.
“I’ll fetch another round,” was her deadpan response. Despite her almost completely absent sense of humour, Jake was deeply attracted to her. Isobel took great pains to press the side of her breast suggestively against him, reminding him of her presence. She could see the attraction, but frankly Ramona wasn’t any prettier than anyone else. Still there was something about her that commanded attention.
Maybe it’s being an angel, she thought, watching her own pint quickly slipping away.
Ramona returned with fresh ale for them both and a bottled Mexican beer complete with a slice of lime for herself. The three of them sat in silence for a minute, Ramona watching the crowd as Isobel and Jake waited for her to speak. Ramona seemed content staring around at things and Jake was admiring both the historical décor of the pub and Ramona. Only Isobel was becoming pissed off with the arrangement.
“What are you staring at?” she asked Ramona, whose gaze was transfixed on the far corner table.
“That guy,” she nodded at a tall young man with short dark hair and a curious growth on the side of his head. “He has bone cancer. He thinks he’s getting better, it’s in remission. He only has a week left.”
“And you know this how? Angelic super powers?”
Her eyes flicked back to Isobel, “Yes.”
“I feel for him,” she picked up her beer and took a swallow. “His life’s over already and I’ve been here for centuries.” She sighed sadly, “The will of our Lord.”
Isobel frowned. “You don’t seem especially pro God for an angel.”
She shrugged. “He’s a good enough boss. Allows us a lot of autonomy. I still don’t get what he’s thinking a lot of the time though. I mean twenty-six?” She indicated the young man in question and shook her head.
“You said you knew what was going on,” Isobel pressed.
“Yes.” Ramona sat back and ran her finger round the lip of her beer bottle, an act which Jake found peculiarly arousing. Isobel was infuriated. Was Ramona doing it deliberately to wind her up? Isobel sipped her drink, quietly seething, waiting for her to speak. Finally Ramona’s eyes flicked back to them. “You’re tainted,” she said.
“You’re tainted,” she repeated. “That’s why you have the apocalyptic dreams, the reason your eyes turn black. It’s your blood.”
“Our blood?” Isobel was still critical, “How does that work?”
“Your blood is part demon,” Ramona explained. “That means you get premonitions in the form of nightmares. They show you what Hell is intending to do.”
“Yes, Hell.” She looked away, sighed and took a sip of her beer. “This would really work better if you saved the cynicism until after I’m done.”
“Fine,” Isobel said sharply and sat back. “I’ll wait.”
“Your blood is part demon” she resumed. “That means it’s drawn to evil. That’s why you were drawn to that tower block.”
“The black veins were showing me the way?”
“Told you,” she nudged Jake with her shoulder and nodded to further punctuate the point. He simply shrugged.
“You speak as though they’re a separate entity,” Ramona said. “It doesn’t work like that. The black is the demonic taint of your blood coming to the fore. It happens when evils afoot. It’s a part of you. It’s not separate. It’s part of who you are.”
“Question,” Isobel said.
“Why me? Why do I get the weird black vein thing and Jake, whose had the nightmares longer, doesn’t.”
“It’s the blood again,” Ramona continued. “Like any condition, it’s more pronounced in some people than in others.”
“I’m more tainted than him.”
“You have a higher percentage of demon in your blood, yes.”
Isobel blew out a breath, shaken. She noticed Ramona had become distracted again. She glanced at the terminally ill young man on the far side of the pub. “Concerned?” She poured scorn into her voice. Ramona either ignored it or didn’t notice. Isobel bet on the former. Her rival seemed sharp.
“That blonde at the bar likes him,” Ramona commented. “She’s too reserved to go over and talk to him though. Shame because he quite fancies her too. In another life they could have been happy.” A sad smile warmed her face.
“Why doesn’t your boss do something?”
“He has a plan.” Ramona’s smile widened. “Apparently.”
“Yes. Truthfully I’m not sure how much attention he’s currently paying to this world. I guess that depends on us.”
“You’re interrupting again.”
Jake rose from his chair. “I need more alcohol,” he said indicating his empty glass and headed for the bar. Isobel watched him go, noticing Ramona doing the same. Was Ramona attracted to Jake as well? God, she hoped not. The idea made her nervous. Ramona was unquestionably sexy and Jake had certainly noticed her. Worried and unsure of herself, Isobel kept drinking as dark clouds of fury gathered in her mind. It was a quiet afternoon and Jake was served quickly. He returned with fresh drinks for all, even though he was the only one who’d finished.
“Thanks,” Isobel said.
“Thank you.” Ramona smiled at him.
Jake swore his heart skipped a beat at that beautiful, amazing smile. She really is an angel, he thought. He couldn’t help grinning like a schoolboy in response.
Isobel noticed the exchange with an exasperated huff. “So,” she resumed, “Why doesn’t your omnipotent fucking boss do something to help that poor guy over there?”
“Omnipotent?” Ramona laughed, a very sincere laugh. “God, I forget people still believe that.”
“Why is that so funny?” A note of fear crept into her voice, more at Ramona’s strange response than anything else. It wasn’t at all what she was expecting.
“He’s not omnipotent.” Ramona said, still smiling, the ridiculous idea clearly tickling her pink. “How could he be? No one can see, hear or know everything. Not us and certainly not God.”
“What do you mean?”
“He created worlds Isobel, lots of them. You try keeping track of all that by yourself. It can’t be done, not without help. Not even God can be everywhere at once, it’s just not possible. His omnipotence is the biggest misconception of them all.” She drained her first beer and drew the second bottle in front of her, enjoying the refreshing feel of the cool glass against her hand.
“What other misconceptions are there?” Isobel asked. She was still sceptical but Ramona was so sincere and apparently informed that she was either completely insane or she was telling the truth.
“That God knows, loves and watches over you all.” Ramona was warming to her subject. “There are people who pass through existence completely under God’s radar, beneath his notice. They’re not lesser, he doesn’t hate them, he just isn’t looking.”
“Would he hear if I called him a cunt?”
Jake looked shocked, his jaw dropped slightly at Isobel’s blasphemy.
Ramona simply smiled. “I don’t know,” she said, “I’m not his keeper. I don’t know where his attention is at present.”
“Is he aware of us?” Isobel asked.
“He knows you exist, you’re tainted after all. He tends to keep track of anyone who’s tainted. Beyond that I couldn’t say.”
“So Big Brother isn’t watching us?”
“Let’s say I believe you,” Isobel said. “Which I don’t, but say I do, this is a hell of a learning opportunity. How many people get to sit down and question a real life angel?”
“More than you’d think.”
“Yes. I’ve spoken with many tainted souls over the years.”
“Just tainted folk? No normal people? What about lovers?” The last was spoken out of insecurity.
Ramona smiled. “There have been some.”
“Which? Others or lovers?”
Ramona’s smile grew. “Both.”
This was not the response Isobel had been hoping for. “I’d have thought angels would have to remain pure and virtuous, kind of like an uber-nun.”
“No,” Ramona smiled, clearly entertained. “That’s not a prerequisite of the job, thank God.” She rolled her eyes and smiled mischievously. “Can you imagine going eternity without sex?” She shook her head and drank.
“So you’re not celibate then?”
Ramona laughed raucously at this; even her laughter held a seductive note that further annoyed Isobel.
“Of course not,” she kept smiling, endlessly amused by Isobel’s ideas. “Why would I be?”
“No reason, I guess.” Isobel exhaled, her eyes flicked nervously to Jake, who was steadily sipping his ale. He was looking at neither of them, his eyes studying the intricacies of the battered wooden table top and his beer. Isobel’s attention went back to Ramona, “We’re getting distracted, let’s go back to the beginning.”
Isobel blew out a breath and looked into her own beer, gathering her nerve before ploughing ahead. “What is going on?”
“You’re tainted by demon blood.” Ramona repeated.
“We got that part,” Isobel snapped. “What does that mean?”
“Your blood is impure for a start.”
“Clearly. What has it got to do with our dreams?”
“Remember, I said the blackening is your demonic taint coming out?”
“That’s your demon bloods response to evil stimuli, it becomes more active around other demonic presences. Your dreams are evil stimuli; they’re communications from Hell, the demon world. To some extent they’re premonitions of what’s to come, of what may be.”
“What may be?” Isobel was scathing, “That’s not at all vague.”
“These things aren’t set in stone,” Ramona told her.
“What, like the ten commandments?”
“I’ve actually seen those tablets.”
“Good for you.” Isobel shook her head and took another long sip of her beer.
Ramona took a moment before resuming. “Some of your dreams will also be partially, if not completely, prophetic,” she continued. “That’s why they’re increasing in frequency. Things are happening quickly now and there’s not long left until it happens.”
“Until what happens?”
Ramona locked eyes with her, her face so serious and dark it was terrifying. Even Jake glanced up at the silence, eyes flicking back and forth noticing the major eye contact between the two women.
“The end,” She said.
Ramona nodded, “The end of the world.”
“The end of the world?”
“The end of the world is coming?”
“Fuck off!” Isobel scoffed and threw herself back in her chair. She watched Ramona’s face as she drank her beer. “That’s absurd.” Ramona just looked at her, no amusement on her face. She looked deadly serious.
God, she really believes this shit, Isobel thought.
Trouble was Ramona’s explanation so far tallied up rather well with Isobel’s own theories about what was going on in these dreams. As much as she was resisting and trying to think logically, part of her couldn’t help but believe what Ramona was saying.
But it’s so ridiculous.
Still she couldn’t help wondering if it could be the truth. Insane, but still the truth. “What else?” She asked suddenly feeling like she was treading on unsteady ground, ground that threatened to collapse under her at any moment, casting her tattered sanity into the abyss.
“The taint doesn’t just allow you these visions,” Ramona said. “It also lets you control some lesser demons. Depending on how tainted you are.”
“Demons?” Jake said.
“Demons are involved now? Fuck this.” He downed his beer and got up.
“Where are you going?” Concern tinged Ramona’s voice. That pissed Isobel of.
Why does she want him to stay so bad?
Fresh worry blossomed in her heart, like a poison flower, adding an anxious chill to her already boiling blood.
“To the bar,” Jake replied.
“That will be your fourth pint of ale,” Ramona observed.
“Yeah, it will.” Jake turned and went for the bar.
“He’ll be back in a minute,” Isobel said coldly.
Ramona smiled gently, “I know. But he needs to hear this as well.”
Isobel sighed, she just wasn’t going to win this afternoon.
She and Ramona drank in strained silence for a minute, Isobel staring out of the back windows into the beer garden, wishing she was out in the hot, sunny weather and not sat in here with this mad woman. Eventually Jake returned with another round. “So demons?” he said, sitting down and getting stuck into beer number four.
“Yes. Demons.” Ramona looked at them both, ensuring she had their full attention before continuing. “You’ve encountered demons in your dreams by now. Flying creatures made of fire.”
“The fire dragons?” Isobel asked.
“Yes,” Ramona smiled. “That’s an accurate description, fire dragons. Your blood allows you to control them. But they have to sense it. It’s no use inside your body, it needs to come out.”
“Come out?” Isobel asked. “Come out how?”
Ramona smiled, a hint of darkness creeping into her face. “How do you think?”
“We have to bleed.”
Ramona nodded, “You need to cut yourself and show the demon your blood. If you can get some on the beast, that’s better, it gives you greater control, but you should be able to control it once it sees or smells your blood. It’ll recognise you as kin.”
“You are part demon. Your blood is an integral part of you, as is your soul.
“Our souls?” Jake interjected.
“Our souls are tainted as well?” He looked scared.
“Why our blood?” Isobel refocused the discussion. One thing at a time. “Why does our blood give control?”
“Why is blood used in sacrificial circles?” Ramona shrugged. “It’s the carrier of life, even demonic life. Yours is just... polluted.”
“Jesus, you don’t mince your words do you?”
“No.” Ramona waited while Isobel drank off a hearty draft of beer. She was going to need it. When Isobel’s attention was back on her Ramona continued, “Your blood is only tainted by demon, not pure demon. So while you’re part demon you were also made in God’s image. Therefore you immediately look and smell like an enemy to demons, which is why they attack you. Your blood is the most demonic part of you, so when you cut yourself the demons recognise your blood.”
“It’s the same as theirs.”
“Exactly. The combination of demonic and divine blood allows you some control over the demons. We don’t why, but the duality unlocks certain abilities.”
“So are we God’s children or Lucifer’s?”
Ramona smiled. “A bit of both. More God’s creation, I think, but the taint is strong.”
“How strong?” Isobel was still sceptical, but found herself intrigued by the madness Ramona was spouting, “I mean what percentage roughly?”
“It’s not something you can put a figure on.” Ramona frowned slightly, “Not a very high percentage, certainly. You’d go mad.”
Alarm bells rang in the back of Isobel’s mind, her flesh broke out in cold goosebumps at Ramona’s words; her offhand comment described Isobel’s mental state all too well. “How so?” she asked hesitantly.
“The dreams,” Ramona explained. “The blackening of the eyes. The more powerful your demonic side, the harder it becomes to stay on the human plane. You end up cracking.” She grimaced, “I’ve seen what it can do to people. It’s not pretty.”
“What about our souls?” Jake asked again, “Are they tainted?”
“Yes.” Ramona said.
“What does that mean exactly?”
“It means your souls are impure,” Ramona said. “Tainted by the same demonic part of you that affects your blood. It also means you can never reach Heaven.”
“Shit.” Jake closed his eyes. “I was afraid that was going to be the answer.”
“I’m sorry.” Ramona sounded genuinely regretful, “I wish it was different. I wish I had better news for you.”
“So do I,” Jake smiled wistfully.
Ramona returned his bleak smile with her own.
At least he was being told by a pretty face.
“You don’t seriously fucking believe this crap do you?” Isobel was incensed. How could Jake fall for this lunacy?
He shrugged. “I agree it’s out there, but Isobel, it feels right. Don’t you think it feels like the truth?”
“No!” Isobel did but was too deeply shaken and wasn’t about to give Ramona the satisfaction of convincing her that easily. “No, Jake, I don’t. It’s bullshit. It’s fucking hogwash, can’t you see that?!”
“Hogwash?” Ramona raised an eyebrow.
“Shut it you,” Isobel spat with a venom that startled Jake. “You’re a fucking lying whore and the only reason he,” she jabbed a finger angrily at Jake, “believes anything you say is because your showing half your flesh!” Isobel sat back and downed her pint, maintaining eye contact with Ramona, silently challenging her.
Ramona just watched her, head cocked slightly to one side, showing the long, graceful curve of her shoulder and neck to full effect. Jake didn’t even look this time, just sat silently staring into his pint. “It’s a lot to take in,” he said finally.
“Yeah, shit is always hard to swallow,” Isobel said, glaring at the supposed angel. Ramona was still watching her. “What the fuck are you looking at?” Isobel snarled.
Ramona just smiled. “You’re definitely tainted. You’ve got the temperament.”
“Fuck you.” Isobel sank a large part of the final ale Jake had put in front of her and stood. “I’ve got to get to work.”
“The Black Swallow.”
“God, who the fuck are you!?” Isobel snapped, loudly enough for the whole pub to hear. Others, the sick young man on the far table amongst them, glanced briefly their way. Lower, in an icy growl, Isobel said: “Stay the fuck away from me.”
“I can’t.” Ramona responded simply.
“You. Will.” Barely restrained fury seethed in her voice and eyes. She spun on her heel and stalked out of the door, slamming it back so hard the handle took chips out of the wooden panels. Jake started immediately after her, but once outside he couldn’t see her anywhere.
She was gone.