The Angels of Lost Days
E. Steen Comer
The bleak moon cast little light for the priest to navigate by, as it filtered through the high barred windows to the dank corridors of Newgate Prison. There were few torches, as they were considered a luxury by the guards, and he picked his way to his destination with care. The priest reached the cell where the prisoner was being held, and nodded at the single guard, who recognized him from his regular visits to the condemned. “Good even’n m’lud. Come to see another one off to Hell?”
The priest frowned. “George, you know as well as I that if I am successful in my efforts, and by the Grace of God, his soul shall be redeemed and not reach The Pit.”
The guard smirked. “Be that as it may, m’lud, but there’s some as say that this one may be beyond your help, given what he’s been up to.”
“No one is beyond the reach of the Lord, George,” the priest said sternly. “Now, be so kind as to let me do my job.”
The guard ducked, abashed, and without another word unlocked the cell door, holding it open for the priest while hovering just beyond in case the man inside might attempt to flee.
He need not have worried. Inside the sparsely appointed cell, a small man sat at a writing desk, making no acknowledgment of the door opening, not even looking up from whatever he was writing. His appearance was composed, stringy blonde hair draped over the simple clothes of a moderately successful merchant. He had the reserved strength of a man who had once made his way by his fists, softened somewhat by more time now spent at desks. He had put up no resistance to his captors, his trial had been swift and brief, he had not challenged the charges against him, and seemed almost serene as he was sentenced to death by hanging. And now, in darkness save the one lamp that illuminated his desk, he was calmly putting his signature on what the priest could see were documents of trade.
“Good evening, Father,” he said, without looking up. “Pray excuse me for not stopping my work, there are certain matters I must see done and, as you know, I have not much time left in which to accomplish them. Please, sit down.”
The priest looked around the room, and took the only other seat, a bare cot set against the wall opposite the desk, so that he was watching the hunched back of the writing prisoner. There was no sound in the cell save the scratching of his pen and the faint street sounds of London drifting up from below. Finally, the priest spoke. “Surely, my son, there is no business more urgent than your repentance, and the saving of your soul.”
At this the man stopped, and slowly set aside the pen. He half rose, and turned the chair around so that he was facing the priest on the cot. He smiled kindly. “Why Father, the salvation of my soul is assured, by the very acts that have condemned my body to death. When the hangman comes of the morning, he’ll find me eager to pass to my reward, and I’ll not go in fear, but rather in full knowledge that I have helped save—not only myself—but the very world.”
The priest blinked slowly. “My son,” he began gently, “you have killed ten men…”
“Eleven,” said the condemned man. “And some dozens before, but all of those were minor mistakes, they were unimportant, and my errors in those matters, while regrettable, are I feel certain made up for by the great justice I have since helped bring to the world.”
“But all murder is murder!” said the priest. “The only judgement of a man’s worth can come from the Lord, and to claim that for yourself manifests the sin of Pride beyond measure, in addition to your other fell deeds.”
The prisoner smiled again. “And you, Father, know only what you have learned from my trial. Can you claim to understand me and my reasons? Do you not commit the sin of Pride yourself by doing so?”
The priest sighed, exasperated. “Then, please, my son, tell me your story, so that I may offer you whatever absolution your Pride may allow.”
The prisoner seemed to think for a moment, glancing at the papers on his desk, then turning back to the priest. “That I will do, Father. It is too late for anyone to change what has taken place, and someone besides myself may as well known the full truth. But there are certain matters… I must ask you to take this in the spirit of Confessional, and promise to me that those who I name may not suffer because of what I say of them.”
“This you can be sure of, my son,” said the priest, “the alleviation of suffering is the most important part of my duty to the Lord.”
“Then perhaps you may come to understand my actions, my reasons, and how I, too, have attempted to set right the evils of the world.”
In order to understand my actions, Father, the condemned man said, you perforce must understand the conditions under which they developed. I was born in London, to a Mother who taught me religion, and a Father who taught me little but absence, for he was felled by a Papist arrow in the uprisings when the Acts of Supremacy justly took back our wealth from Rome. My mother raised me as well as she could, and, my father having been a merchant of some success, I quickly grew into that business. When I reached the age of majority, I was able to wrest control of it from the treacherous eels that had taken it from my mother whilst I grew.
As I am making, it seems, full confession, it is here that I must say that this is when I killed my first man. A merchant named Jenson had refused to relinquish to us the portions of the mercantile business rightly deserved me by birthright, and I arranged for him to be found face down in the mud by the docks, as a warning to the others who held interest at that time. My message was received, we soon had back all that was ours, and I began to ply my goods around Europe.
As I became more skilled in the ways of trade, one thing had my utmost fixed attention, and that was the problem of Time. For a navigator’s trade is, at its base, knowing where he is in relation to Ports and various Hazards of the Sea, and at sea Distance can only be measured in terms of Time. But Time is a fluid, slippery thing, it is hard for a man to grasp, and the knowledge of it may only be accomplished with the utmost of Study and Sacrifice. I spent much effort trying to understand Time, so that I might prosper more than my fellows who merely saw it as a thing through which they moved, as a fish through the ocean, never thinking that it could be grasped and controlled. I resolved myself completely to the study of Time and its ways.
As I am sure you know, Father, I was not the only one with such ideas. The Problem of Longitude, as it it is known, is one which many of our best minds have spent much effort on, as well as many less qualified who wish the fame and fortune such a discovery would bring. In the course of my travels I met many a curious Character, both Gentlemen of high character and regard, and raving Madmen with wild notions meant to dupe the unscrupulous into their mad schemes. Oft times, it was hard to tell the difference, so it was with a certain cautious voraciousness that I approached any new idea in this regard.
In my studies, I came across the rather unique work of one Doctor John Dee, who had brought to England his idea of the Jacob’s Staff, a tool for measuring position from the angle of certain stars. I’ll not bore you with the details of the matter, but when my mind, fixed as it was upon the resolution of this problem, encountered the notion, I knew at once that Doctor Dee had lit upon the essence of the thing. I immediately wrote to him, praising him for his accomplishment, and addressing certain technical matters which I felt his research pointed the way to. We began a correspondence, and it was as though two souls destined to travel together had found one another. We had much in common, not least the fact that Dee had many interests in diverse Mystical matters, which had long fascinated me. I confess when we first communicated, I feared him in league with the Fiend, but it soon became clear that his studies were pursued with the utmost love for God.
What began as a professional correspondence soon became a friendship. Our connection was so strong that, despite the fact that he was a rising star in the Court, and I but a lowly merchant, he would arrange to meet me discreetly at certain Public Houses. He claimed that it allowed him “time away from the nattering niceties of the preening peacocks that strive only to bend the ear of the Queen, God save her.” Of course it would not do for one in his position to be seen in such places, so he would come in disguise. He would arrive scratching at his ungainly street clothes, and it was more than once that the local toughs, smelling the money on him, would whisper Conspiracies at their tables to relieve him of such upon his exit. It was more than once that a word from me to certain other upstanding members of the community would ensure that these ruffians were themselves deprived of what little lives they had left to them, for such was my immediate respect for Dee that I could not help but to protect him.
By this period I was spending less time at Sea and more time managing the affairs of my business from London, so we would regularly retire to the back room of certain Houses and talk at great length about all manner of things, from navigational mathematics, to the Communication with Angels he claimed to have by way of his Scrying Stones. I am sure you know of his broader interests, as they are a matter of public record, but I must here emphasize that he had a vast love for all Knowledge, and had theories on any topic a Gentleman could name. As a matter of course, eventually the discussions turned to Politics. We were of a mind regarding the folly of Rome, and the need for England to stand firm against her deprivations. As a member of the Court, he was, I am certain, engaged in certain Matters both earthly and Esoteric, to provide for the defense of England against the Catholic Threat.
One night, he came in with an especially stricken air. I had already reserved a small back room of one of our favorite houses, and I knew we would be safe from any who might spy upon our doings, so as he entered and sat down heavily I asked him with haste what the matter was, for his face was paler than I had ever seen. He was silent for some time, collecting his thoughts, and when he finally did speak, the words flowed forth like a torrent. “The Papist Dogs have done the Unthinkable, my friend! They have stooped lower than even I thought of them; they have unhinged Time itself!”
I had never seen him in such a state. This man who applied the most scientific and reasoned of principles, even as he spoke with Heavenly Sprits, was reduced to seething and growling incoherently, like a base drunkard. I ordered strong ale, and after a time, gently bade him disclose to me what was the matter. Eventually, after much urging, he calmed enough to speak.
“Pope Gregory has this day signed a decree to reform the calendar along the unscientific principles taught him by his pet Cardinals. He has ignored my work on this matter, and thus split the year in a way most unsatisfactory to scientific measure. But this is not the essence of the problem, I am not simply distressed by the personal and professional insult laid to me by this. No! The trouble is this: this Gregorian Calendar, as he so has the audacity to name it, removes eleven days from this year!”
I must admit my first response was incomprehension. “Surely this is not a problem of such great degree,” I said. “What matter eleven days?”
Dee turned his piercing gaze upon me, and fixed me to my chair with the intensity of his speech. “What matter eleven days?” he replied. “You know as a sailor that Time and Space are of one fabric, but what you may not yet know is that the same is true of Spirit. The Zodiac wheels across the sky, in twelve equal divisions. The planets move ‘round, and in their heavenly arcs describe the paths of Angels. There is an order to the universe, and in changing the nature of Time, the Old Church risks rendering wildly wrong the calculations of all those who use the science of Astronomy to understand that order. But more than this: they offend the spirits of these days. Each time has a spirit, my friend, each day hath its own soul, and from now there will be Eleven Lost Angels of the Unnamed Days, who will wander eternity without peace, forgotten by Man, and Damned by this despicable mockery of Science.”
I did my best to calm him, and at length called a carriage for him to take him back home. He left still ranting, and I was struck by the force and fervor of his convictions in this matter. I confess to not being so spiritually advanced as Doctor Dee, nor having the training in such matters, but something about his words, or the strength thereof, did set hard upon me.
So much did these thoughts preoccupy me that I woke the next morning still contemplative of them. I went on about my business, but it seemed everything around me had taken on a different air. The thought of the Angels of Lost Days Dee had spoken of haunted me, and as I pondered upon it more and more it seemed to me a very possible notion, that the very Vault of Heaven could be turned on an upset by the folly of the hated Pope. I would not see Dee for many months after that fateful meeting, for he was traveling abroad or kept in court, and did not trust such important matters to letters that might be read by others. So I was on my own to decipher whether he had been right, or driven mad by his Experimentations in the Mystical Arts. I mostly counted it folly, and had just resigned myself to having to talk the Doctor back from the edge of madness when next we met, when I received my own Visitation.
I was in my chambers, by myself, late of a night, having tried to turn my mind from these thoughts by continuing to contemplate the Problem of Time mentioned earlier. Many of the ships of my company were coming to ground in unfriendly lands, and I had recently lost some not small amount of cargo to a lack of proper navigation. I was thinking idly of clocks, and calendars, and the wheels of Heaven, when of a sudden a great light began to fill my small room. It seemed to me at first that the sun was rising and that I had, in my contemplation of Time, lost all track of it. But then the light broke with such speed and intensity that I knew that it was not the sun, and there appeared before me a vision that I knew could only be an Angel.
In the book of Ezekiel the Cherubim are described as appearing to the Prophet as Wheels within Wheels; I saw this, but the wheels were as the gears of a vast and Cosmic Clock, every part turning within every other, hours, days, years, aeons, in harmonious motion, the whole tinged with a fierce fire before which I cowered, as the Pious must before the will of the Almighty. But even as I attempted to avert my gaze I could not help but see that the Mechanism did not turn smoothly, that there were gaps where wheels should be but which had been wrested from their place. What appeared to be dark oily blood welled from these open spaces, and the entirety of the Angel shook mightily, as teeth failed to mesh, finding no purchase on open air. From that shaking a voice emerged, seeming to come from all parts of the room simultaneously. The sound! I cannot describe it, but to say it was the sound of time itself. Its tones were the chime of all the Clock tower bells in the world at once, its sibilants the ticking of every tiny watch. In all of its cacophony, its words were clear to me; “What has been taken must be restored!” As that voice vibrated my very bones, the blood began to pour forth faster and faster, seeming to fill the entire space and drown me. I sank into blackness.
The next I knew I was waking on the floor of my room, and the true sun was streaming through the window. I was deeply shaken, but I knew then with a clarity and certainty unmatched what I must do. Eleven days had been wrested from the mechanism. Eleven souls had been exiled from Heaven by the act of man. Eleven more souls must be sent to Heaven to take their place.
The first was simple. As a well respected merchant, I had access to the records and plans of a great amount of Shipping and Travel across Europe. As someone known and feared in pubs and docksides, I had access to many agents to assist me in my methods. It was a simple matter to determine the travel plans of Cardinal Wallace Montgomery as he left Rome on a political mission to France. His journey was uneventful, as I knew it would be, until such time as he came to port in Lyons. Through my various agencies, I made sure that the ship he was aboard ran into some difficulties which necessitated the movement of her passengers to another vessel which was transporting goods of mine, though those aboard her knew me not, as I traveled anonymously as any base laborer. Such was the confusion of the situation that strict attention was not paid to the necessary precautions of moving people and heavy goods at the same time, but I was able to make very certain that he was the only person beneath the crate of clock mechanisms being shipped from Germany when I cut the rope.
It was by no means my first killing, as I have made clear, and I had had no particular joy in the taking of life when I felt it needed in the past. However this time, as my knife sliced easily through the rough rope, I felt an elation, a release, I had but rarely known. As the heavy crate smashed into the gangplank it exploded, and the metallic sounds of a thousand gears and springs flying about the deck echoed the voice of the Angel I had heard in my chambers. I felt in my soul a great settling, as though a small piece of the Cosmos had been set right, and I knew for a certainty in that moment that Heaven was with me in my mission. I returned to London with a glad heart, despite being informed on my return of the loss of certain expensive cargo.
After this first sacrifice filled me with such certainty, I wrote to Dee to express, in cryptic terms safe from the prying eyes of others, the process I had begun. We had not beforehand had opportunity to agree on a common cypher, so this proved difficult, and my hopes that he would share in my excitement were thwarted. My first messages were, it seems, too cryptic, and his responses at first confused, then, suddenly, ceasing altogether. It seems apparent to me now that he chose to distance himself from me, having sensed the holiness of my mission, and not wishing to risk turning me astray with his fears for my safety, chose not to speak at all, nor meet me again in public houses. I was saddened by this, but in the end, it did naught but strengthen my Resolve, as I began to see myself as a Stylite, alone and Blessed in my Work.
The others followed quickly. As someone who would not be questioned overly much about extensive travel, I was able to be present at as many of the sacrifices as possible, but some I perforce could not attend. I was sadly not the one who left Cardinal Osmond to bleed out his last on the base of the Sundial in the churchyard of St. Cuthbert’s in Bewcastle, but it was by my word and by the hand of a man trusted to me that it was done. I was not, of course, in the Deserts of Arabia when Cardinal Amberson was led away from his Missionary caravan into the choking dust of a sandstorm, but I made sure afterwards that my agent had been able to deliver my message to him regarding the implacability of the Sands of Time. I was, however, able to attend the Monastery at St. Edmonds at the same time that Cardinal Jacobs was present, and I was the direct cause to why he was found floating face down in the large water clock reservoir therein. The Monks were aghast that someone had violated the sanctity of their ancient church to perform such a despicable deed, but I knew in my soul that it was the Will of God that such sacrifice was in such a befittingly holy place.
Also it was I who did push Cardinal Jameson from the Astronomical Clock Tower of Prague, after luring him there with conversation about its elaborate mechanisms. I had planned to enmesh him in the gears and have him be crushed by the motions of time, but he was a dull man, and I was perturbed by the fact that he clearly did not care about the fascinating operations of the Clock, so in an instant flashing of anger I simply shoved him out into space. It was this reckless moment that proved my downfall.
The Fiend himself must have caught hold of my plan, and sent his hellish minions against me, for in the moment after I had pushed that boorish Cardinal from the tower, a cloud of black wings set all about me, as a flurry of bats, doubtless wakened by our struggle, sped into the night. Oh, the terror of that moment returns to me even now in the telling, and I see before me again the moon blotted out by the swirling cloud of demonic creatures! The fear must have clouded my mind, or else truly a Demon was set upon me, for I swear to you I saw in that horrible instant one of the bats gain Human form, and become a cloaked figure, which threw itself upon me, swinging powerful fists. In my weakness, the fight was brief, and I was quickly rendered unconscious, waking to find myself upon the steps of this very Prison, bound tight and gagged, and being prodded by various Guardsmen exclaiming their delight in my sudden and surprising capture.
But whatever Demon the Evil One had set against me had come too late. My work had been completed in exemplary form. All told, when I found myself in chains, I had dispensed with ten Cardinals, all despicable supporters of the Gregorian Heresy, all dispatched in manners befitting and proper to assuage the Wounds of Time. At each death, I felt the gears of the Cosmic Mechanism settle more into place. I heard the song of Time echoing from every one, from the tiny tick as Samuelson was pricked by the poisoned needle of his new watch, to the terrible clang as Foster’s head was crushed by the clapper of the midnight bell of St. Eligius’, the sound each time was an echo of the voice of that Angel; the Vault of Heaven resonated with the what had been taken, was, in time, restored.
Thus, when those Gentlemen dragged me up those stone stairs to this Purgatory I did not put up resistance. I bade the court, as a matter of Civilization, have men repair to my home and retrieve these documents, having already prepared my needs for this last, short journey. And when I was told that I would be hanged, I felt only the desire to set my last affairs in order, which, you see, I was doing when you arrived.
The priest had sat silently through this entire recitation, his expression by turns stoic, perplexed, and horrified. As the prisoner reached the end of his tale, the priest considered his response, but could only think of one thing.
“You said when I came in that you had killed eleven men, and you say you killed in reparations for eleven days. Yet now you say ten, but that you feel your work is done. Who then is the eleventh man?”
The prisoner smiled slowly. “Why, Father, none other than myself. For tomorrow of the morn I will be hanged, and shall ascend to my rightful place, a cog in the mechanism of Heaven.”
The priest was silent then again for a time, then finally shook his head. “My son, I would offer you forgiveness for your sins, but you have made it clear that you want none, for your Pride and madness make you think that base murder can be done in the name of God.”
“And then, Father, am I so different from any knight of any King that kills in the name of God? I ask no forgiveness, because I am confident that my actions are guided by the Hand of the Almighty. I thank you for your concern, but, as you can see, the recitation of my tale was sufficient, and it is enough for me that someone know why I have done the things I have done. Now, if you will excuse me, the hour grows late, and I have much left to accomplish before I take my Final Journey.”
Thus dismissed, the priest had no choice but to make his way back along the chilly corridors of the prison, and to his home. He sat for many hours in contemplation of everything the prisoner had said to him, eventually praying to God for guidance in understanding how a man could think himself so raised by such lowly deeds, and finally slipping into an uneasy sleep.
The next morning the priest awoke still troubled with thoughts of the night before. Normally he despised seeing life taken, even in the name of justice, but some part of him thought that perhaps he could understand this enigma if he saw it through to its conclusion. Thus he resolved himself to travel to Newgate to see the hanging of the man.
He arrived to find the prison in a flurry of activity. The public was not being let in to the courtyard for the hanging, and they were near a riot for the deprivation of their sport. The Guard was doubled at every gate, but he had to be turned away by several dour Guardsmen before finding one who knew him enough to answer his questions. “Whatever is happening, George?” he said to the man. “Why all this confusion?”
George looked pinched and nervous. “It’s that prisoner you was talking with last night, m’lud. He was meant to be hanged this mornin, as you know, but he’s… gone.”
A horrible feeling began to settle upon the priest. “What do you mean, gone?”
“Well, we opened up his cell, and he was… well I guess to say he’s… escaped, but we don’t want that word bein’ used, if you don’t mind, m’lud.”
The priest was seized with a terrible certainty. “George. You must take me to his rooms. You must allow me to see what he was working on last night. I may be able to give some guidance in where he has gone off to and how he may be found.”
George considered briefly, then nodded. “Right, m’lud. With me, if you please.” He called over another Guardsman to take his place at the gate, and he and the priest made their way swiftly back to the cell.
Once inside, the priest noted with thanks that little had been disturbed by the Guardsmen. He went to the prisoner’s desk and began rifling through the papers there, all the while questioning George about what messages the prisoner may have sent out. The Guardsman said there had been none, and the priest’s hopes began to fail, but then, beneath a ledger, he found a stack of papers that were not at all shipping orders.
They detailed a mechanism of great intricacy, gears and cogs fitting together with elaborate care. At first he thought this was some attempt at diagramming the prisoner’s mad conceit of the universe, but eventually he recognized the forms as a Clock. A marvel of design, small enough to be kept within private chambers, but with tiny, cunningly wrought mechanical figures playing out a Dance of Death upon the hour. On different days, various combinations of figures would emerge from the clock, led about a track laid around its base by a tiny Reaper. On one particular date, not long hence, only the Reaper would emerge, and another, entirely different and more deadly mechanism would be triggered. The penultimate page was a draft for a letter, detailing how an association of merchants in England, wanting for peace between their Country and The Church, was offering this beautiful clock as a gift for His Holiness, Pope Gregory XIII. The bottommost page was blank, save for a note in neat script.
“Dear Father,” it read, “I must first apologize for lying to you. All that I said was true, save the last, that being the identity of the Eleventh Man. And you were correct, of course, about my falling victim to the Sin of Pride. Not in the way you surmised, but rather in what I said about needing someone to know the truth of my tale. I know that you will come to see these documents, whether it is the morning of my departure, or later, and I know that you alone will be know their meaning. Though you are a Man of the Cloth and I a Man of the Calendar, we are not so different, in our separate ways of doing the Work of the Lord.
I must be brief; Tempus Fugit, and so do I. You must know, of course, that there is no way you can stop these events. The construction was completed months ago, and my present to His Holiness may well already be in Rome by the time you read this. The mechanism is cunning, and the poison is subtle. They will, no doubt, think that he simply died from some natural disease. There is no reason to raise a cry; the deed is done, and, as all I told you was in the Sanctity of Confession, only two will ever know the truth; yourself, and,
Your humble servant in the work of the Lord,
1 April, 1585.”
E. Steen Comer wrote his first story at age 9 about the destruction of the human race, and generally things have gone downhill since then. He occasionally lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.