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Fallen Angel


 

by Robert Walton

July 21, 2003

"The crux is next."

"Right."

"It's yours."

"Right."

"The guide says it's a straight in crack that flares and fades."

"Quit reminding me."

Harry chuckled, "Not on top form today, are we?"

Tony looked at his partner and said, "Go to hell, Harry."

Harry threw back his head and laughed. He laughed - a harsh and unpleasant cackle like that of a hyena - snorted several times and then said, "Tony, you're so succinct. But, after all, you're the star. This is the crux. Get on with it. Time's passing."

Tony looked up at the pitch before him. Pale granite glowed orange and red in the low light slanting in from behind his right shoulder. A crack rising from the ledge upon which he stood was sharp, initially perfect for hand-jams, but higher the wall grew steeper and the crack faded. He suddenly felt very old. He rubbed his temples with both hands and took a deep breath. Then he looked at his hands - scabby knuckles, smears of new blood on finger joints, fingertips worn thin to the point of bursting. They seemed poor and battered tools for the job ahead. He looked up again. The cliff glowed scarlet in the fading light and, as always, remained implacable, mute. He looked at Harry. "I'm tired, Harry. Why don't you take it?"

Harry grinned, his black eyes sparkling, "Not bloody likely. It's your turn."

Tony sighed. "I know. I just thought . . . "

"Quit whining. Get on with it. We don't have all night."

Tony said nothing and turned to the rock. He locked his left hand in the crack and began. His first moves were stiff, tentative, but then his muscles warmed. The snow-pure act of climbing lifted him above pain and fatigue. Fear and doubt floated out of his mind like silver wisps of cloud. He surged up the cliff face, fingers locking, toes finding purchase in the crack or on crystals to the side. Finally he reached a foot block about twenty feet below the summit ledge. His fingers rested in the last pocket of the disappearing crack. He paused.

Harry called up, "What's the matter?"

"Just taking a break."

"Light's going."

"Right." Tony looked down. The base of the cliff was lost in purple shadow. The line of night swept up and touched Harry's toes. He looked to either side. Sunset transformed the rock face into a vast lantern's flame and he was at its center. He looked up. The summit shone like a star, evening's first star.

The next few moves would be difficult. The final two onto the summit would be at the edge of his ability. His last good piece of protection was at his toes. There would be no more. He stood relaxed in perfect balance for an instant more and then launched into the series of moves. He floated up on crystals and almost jams in the shallow crack. He paused just below the summit, his left foot on a coin-width edge supporting most of his weight. Two more moves would do it. Two more moves would carry him past the cobra neck's curve of granite above to jug holds at the lip of the ledge. As usual, there was no time to think and no going back. The crack's remnants gave him a three-finger-tip edge for his left hand. He leaned back on it, smeared his right foot high, stepped up. The fingers of his right hand oozed around the slightest of bulges. It couldn't be called a hold, but the friction of skin against rock gave him balance. His right knee straightened. His left foot swung free and wide. He rose, rose, stretched. His left fingers brushed crystals below the lip, reached it, curled over its edge.

He fell. He fell just as he touched safety and victory. His right foot failed him and he fell. The fall was a small and harmless thing at first. He felt his fingers slip away from rock. Crystals winked sunset eyes at him as he slipped by them. Then came a monstrous breath of speed. His highest piece, a small stopper, twinkled at him as he fell past it.

His weight came onto the rope, onto the stopper. His body slammed against the rock. Pain rushed in as his breath rushed out. He swung to the side. Then the stopper failed. He fell.

He fell again. And smashed again. Other pieces failed and he fell. He fell into shadow and stopped. Consciousness never left him, but it became a distant, narrow window through which he could see nothing that mattered. Then a face appeared in the window.

Harry said, "That was a whipper."

Tony dangled just above the belay. He watched blood drizzle down his left arm and drip off the ends of his fingers.

Harry continued, "You almost had it that time. I like that little counter-balance swing of the left foot. That's new."

Tony groaned. "How many times must I try?"

Harry shrugged, "Until you get it."

Tony slumped against the rock. "This is hell."

Harry nodded. "Yes, it is."

Tony looked up. "It is?"

"It is."

Tony shook his head even though his vision blurred and a needle of pain lanced his temples. "Why am I here?"

Harry chuckled. "Oh, the usual. We'll get into details later. That's part of the fun, after all, but let's call it the usual for now. A little cheating on the wife, quite a bit of arrogance - you rock-climbers are a self-centered lot. Let me see . . . " Harry continued to grip the rope with his right hand. With his left he removed a small notebook from his shirt pocket. He flipped it open. "Yes. You're actually a fairly decent person, but there are one or two special items here. We'll get to them later, shall we?" He grinned. "Let's get you back on the ledge."

Pain budded and bloomed in Tony's various parts like spring roses as Harry lowered and then swung him onto the ledge. He groaned with relief as he leaned back against granite. Harry removed his helmet and wiped sweat from his brow. Tony looked at him and then stared.

Two blunt, red horns protruded from the sweat-matted hair above his brow. Harry noticed Tony's attention and smiled. "I've got to get this adjusted. Clog helmets aren't suited to my physiognomy."

Tony looked away. "Why are you here with me? What about everybody else? Why am I special?"

Harry shrugged. "All are special, Tony. Don't you realize that? I'm with all my clients through their various travails."

"All?"

"Don't bother trying to understand it. Paradox, you know. Suffice it to say that it wouldn't be much fun being the devil if I couldn't form personal relationships with all the damned. My clients and I explore together all the nuances of guilt and remorse, not to mention missed opportunities. We'll come to know each other very well, Tony."

"Will we?"

"Oh, yes. Eternity is, well, eternal."

Tony said nothing.

Harry grinned again. "Tony?"

"What?"

"The crux is next."

"Right."

"It's yours."

"Right."


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