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Chapter 1



God's pager chimed the first couple of bars of Pachelbel's Canon and Gigue in D major. That meant Heaven calling . . . again. God frowned and switched off her pager—lately most of her problems came from Heaven. She wondered if she could just let this one go for a while, pretend she'd been too busy to notice the beeper at all, maybe even answer by e-mail instead of with a personal visitation. Off to one side of her, the Maypole dancers wove in and out around each other, swirling and skipping in their ethereal robes to the beat of an extraordinary drummer and the piping of the original Pan. It was going to be a great party. The folks in the pagan afterlife always threw great parties.

But Honorial, Heaven's Chief Recording Angel of Data Processing, never called unless he had an honest-to-God emergency. Maybe, God thought, this will just be a little one. Maybe I'll be able to handle the trouble in Heaven and get back to Summerland in time for the buffet.

God switched out of Goddess mode into the long-bearded persona his Christian children overwhelmingly preferred (he forgot once when he left Mt. Olympus and went through the pearly gates as Zeus, but nobody noticed) and slipped into Heaven, the Christian neighborhood of the afterlife.

As he came through the doors, Heaven's choirs finished up some brand new Bach and switched to rock and roll, with Elvis doing the lead vocals. Elvis sounded great. That short stint in Hell before he repented had been better for him than the Army, and had given him some new themes to write about.

God liked the new song; he snapped his fingers and bopped with the beat. By the time he reached his recording angel, who sat frowning at the computer screen, he was singing along with the chorus.

Cause buh-buh-buh-baby I don'ah like it—
No, no, no, no, I don' like it—
Oh, baby, I don' like it—
Where it's hot!

Honorial sighed. God remembered a bit too late that Honorial much preferred Gregorian chants and madrigals to any other music, and considered more recent styles discordant. He quit singing and surrounded the two of them with silence.


"Yes, Almighty. The numbers on Operation Tarheel just came in and they aren't good."

"They aren't?" That came as a surprise, and things rarely surprised God. He leaned over the angel's shoulder and looked at the monitor. Honorial brought up the North Carolina numbers in Heaven's accounting program, MicroSoul Redeemer, and the graphs rolled across the screen in heavenly gold on celestial black. The graphs showed a net decrease in Heavenbound souls, and a corresponding net increase in the Hellhound. God shook his head. "That's bad. Decidedly bad. Operation Tarheel initially gave us a four percent increase in net. Now we have an almost equivalent decrease."

God had been pleased, but not surprised, by the increase in the Heavenbound after Operation Tarheel kicked in. His subordinates had expressed shock and disbelief when He turned loose roughly fifty-eight thousand fallen angels, devils, demons, and assorted imps and gargoyles into North Carolina, with only the most lenient of rules to govern their behavior. It had been a great joke and an inspired operation, and Dayne Kuttner, the young mortal for whom he'd created the project, had responded magnificently. She'd torn Hell's second-in-command, a fallen angel named Agonostis, out of Lucifer's grip simply by loving him and making him love her.

Hell had no room for love.

Still, nearly everyone but God—in Heaven, on Earth, and in Hell—had been certain the whole state was on the fast track to damnation. Heaven's hosts expressed shock as redeemed devils and imps, recalled to Hell for straying from their appointed tasks, began applying at Heaven's gates for admittance; they watched in disbelief as damnedsouls looked at the events in North Carolina and found hope even in the midst of their Hellish torments—and repented.

But now God realized that somehow Lucifer had found an edge. North Carolina's numbers had reversed themselves, and the state's population of saved seemed to be heading downward at an alarming rate.

"The Father of Lies must have come up with a convincing one," God said. "I wonder what it is."

"Shall I form a task force to go down and investigate?"

Honorial had been itching to go to Earth ever since the Unchaining. God suspected he had friends among the Hellraised he wanted to visit, and that maybe he was a bit envious of the way things had turned out for Agonostis.

"No. No task force. I already told you, a physical presence by any of Heaven's forces is outside the bounds of my experiment . . . for now, in any case. No. Just monitor the situation for me, and when you find out what the unspeakables are up to, let me know."

Honorial nodded, disappointment clear in his expression. "You going to be around?"

"Page me. I have some work I need to take care of elsewhere."

God switched into her Goddess form on the run. She was going to have to hurry—those pagans could clean a buffet faster than a plague of locusts could wipe out a cornfield. If I'm lucky, God thought, hurrying back to Summerland, I'll get there before the ambrosia and the fried chicken run out.

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