I just wanted to say thank you to all of you who have purchased a copy of Chosen and shown your support. Things are crazy for everyone right now and money is tight, so I doubly appreciate that you would take the time and money to support us at this time of year. I’ve talked endlessly about how important this book is to me, as it is my chance to share with the world how insanely talented Mark was. I hope you all enjoy it, and that you have a very happy holidays.
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Chapter One: When It Rains
I sensed his presence before I saw him, which is how it usually worked. A single moment of perfect stillness before the rain comes.
It had rained a lot this year.
I didn’t bother to turn around. “Let’s just get this over with. I got shit to do today.”
He chuckled, the deep baritone rolling through the empty graveyard like distant thunder. “Such hubris from one who is about to die! May it be your epitaph: ‘Here Lies Jude – he had shit to do today.’ Most of the humans I’ve slain were hardly so flippant about their approaching death.”
“Yeah, well, we both know I ain’t most humans.” I sighed and shook my head as I climbed from where I was kneeling at the headstone before turning to face my would-be assassin.
When most folks picture a demon they tend to think of some hideous thing that makes you want to lose control of your bodily fluids, or maybe a shadowy form that stalks and torments you in the night. Sometimes they do appear that way; but more often than not, evil is more deceptive than we want to believe. The really scary demons are every bit as beautiful as people imagine angels to be. That’s because they are angels; fallen angels, cast out by their Father centuries ago, but angels, nonetheless.
The specimen standing before me was no exception. His physique was that of a Greek god, resplendent in white robes. All around him the air crackled and his skin shone with a brilliant yellow hue that made me want to shield my eyes from the glare. Here was an idealized warrior-angel, appearing as though he’d just emerged from a sixteenth-century fresco and brought with him a hateful malice that was millennia older than that. Rancor radiated from him in waves, pulsating through the graveyard in my direction, battering me with invisible blows in the Spirit. Staring into the crimson crescents of his eyes, a sharp jolt of adrenaline went through me as I beheld one of the Enemy’s top assassins.
This was The Executioner.
I scoffed. “Alastor. Your boss must be gettin’ twitchy if he sent someone like you after a washed-up old man like me.”
His feral grin was anything but warm as he drew his sword, its white blade singing as it parted from the scabbard at his side. I noted with a degree of satisfaction that he set his feet securely before casually waving his weapon towards the nearby chapel. “No one sent me, Chosen. Only lost little sheep like you need a shepherd. I guess Father never told you – you stray from the flock and you’ll welcome the wolves.” His grin became a smug smirk. “Or maybe you’re just a black sheep that He’s cut from the fold.”
I pasted on a smug smile of my own and concentrated for a brief moment, begrudgingly allowing that familiar warmth of presence to flow over me. Like a hot drink on a cold day, I could feel it ooze down through my being. It spread through my fingertips and, as it did, my own fiery sword sprang to life in my right hand. “Well, now. If it ain’t the wolf callin’ the sheep black…”
He snarled and lunged. His body was a blur as he moved at what I could only describe as the ‘speed of thought’. If I were a normal man, his sword would have pinned my weathered carcass to the turf before my eyes could even register the movement. Instead, I snapped my blade up in time to knock aside his strike, our swords exploding in a shower of light as they collided. I went with the momentum of the swing, spinning around and backhanding him across the cheek. The impact echoed like a thunderclap and Alastor tumbled end over end, landing in a heap ten meters away.
He slowly got to his feet and massaged his jaw. “Very good, old man. I was afraid that this would be ea–” His monologue halted with an unexpected click as my heel collided squarely with his jaw and sent him, ironically, crashing through a granite rendering of an angel.
“’The Executioner’, huh? I gotta say, jackass, so far, I ain’t impressed.” My sword flared and I beckoned him on. “C’mon, big guy! Show this little ole’ sheep what’chu got.” I added with a smirk, “baa.”
Disappointed, I chided him for not being able to kill me today. Even if life was a bitter pill that I’d grown tired of swallowing, I knew that taking the easy way out wasn’t the solution that I was looking for. Alastor couldn’t kill me, so I couldn’t die yet.
Bad for me, but worse for him.
He ignored my goading. Circling cautiously, his blade always between us, I could tell that he was mentally revising his strategy, testing the possibilities of different cuts and thrusts. He had underestimated me before and didn’t want to repeat the mistake. He came in with a strike at my left, but instead of blocking it, I jumped, and the sword swept underneath me. Kicking out, I caught him once again in the jaw, knocking him on his back and jarring the ivory weapon from his grip.
As his hand desperately searched for the hilt, I claimed it at the wrist and the charred scent of cauterized flesh filled my nostrils. His mouth was moving now – spitting invective or begging for mercy, I really couldn’t tell which with my boot planted firmly on his throat. He squirmed for a few futile moments as the flames from my sword licked at his flesh. I rolled my wrist and dropped to one knee as my sword plunged into his chest.
In an instant, the fire from my blade engulfed his entire body. He convulsed in agony as a black chasm opened to suck him into the Void, the great emptiness where fallen spirits are sent until the day of final judgment. His screams faded as the portal closed, and I simply stared at the space where the demon had been. I sighed, once again alone in the pre-dawn graveyard, as though the entire thing had never taken place.
No, not alone.
When it rains, it pours.
“Was that really necessary? Your speed and efficiency in dispatching one of the Enemy’s better assassins speaks well of your skill, certainly, but wrath is a deadly sin, my boy.”
“Not for me, apparently.” I was already scowling as I glanced out of the corner of my eye to acknowledge the man emerging from the morning mist. He wore robes of white with golden sandals, but not the glowing kind like those of angels and their fallen brethren. This was another breed of hideous demon: a bureaucrat.
I stood and my sword disappeared in a puff of smoke, as though someone had thrown a bucket of water on it and quenched the flame – which wasn’t too far from the truth. “Spare me the sermon, Enoch. He came after me, not the other way around. If your boss didn’t approve, He wouldn’t have supplied the juice.” He opened his mouth to object, but I cut him off by stabbing at the center of his chest with my right index finger. “And don’t try and twist self-defense into some sort of altruistic rebirth for me. It wasn’t my choice to fight this asshole… or the dozen before that.”
The man nodded as he ran his right hand over his white-bearded jaw, but his brow remained furrowed dubiously. There was always something condescending about him that made me feel childish and small. I guess, compared to him, I was. He waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, Jude. You’ve made your desires perfectly clear; which is why I’m here.”
“Oh really?” I didn’t try to hide the surprise on my face as I sank down onto the old stone bench next to me, a little more drained than I’d expected. “I didn’t think He was listenin’ to me anymore.”
“You know better than that.”
I shrugged. “Maybe I did, once. So, you here to take me home, then? I’m not much good to Him here anymore.” I nodded towards where Alastor had fallen moments before. “I’ve been puttin’ up with shit like that for over two hundred years now. I think I’ve earned my pension.”
Enoch shook his head. He must’ve read the annoyance in my expression because the muscles at the corners of his jaw bunched beneath his beard. “I am not here to take you home.” He held up a hand and my protest died on my lips. “At least, not yet.” I exhaled heavily through my nose but remained silent. “He is well aware of your… present state, Jude, and whether you believe it or not, He does sympathize with you. He wants you to come home, as He does all of His children, but there are concerns greater than your own that must be attended to first. You will be granted your retreat, but before that can happen you must prepare your replacement.”
Enoch nodded gravely. “His name is Paul and he is ready to be told the truth of what he truly is and brought into the fold. He has already begun to question things, which is good. He is independently minded, a natural leader, and he already feels a growing restlessness. Given your current feelings on the subject, it has been determined that you will be able to relate to him the best.”
I laughed openly and then twice as hard when I saw his confused expression. “Hell, given my ‘current feelings’ I’ve gotta be the worst person for the job. I’m just as liable to scare him off.”
Enoch smiled – that self-righteous, knowing smile that always made me want to deck him. “Yes, that was my assessment as well, but it’s not my decision. It is the Lord’s will that you be the one to train him.” He shrugged. “Despite your current state, I’m sure that He has His reasons.”
“Yeah, no doubt.” I waved absently. “Well, ‘the Lord’s will be done’ and all that.” I rose from the cold stone and glanced around the dank graveyard, unable to keep the bitterness from my tone. “Anything, if it’ll get me out of this hellhole once and for all.”
Enoch’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “I’m glad to see that you still have such a positive attitude. However, there is more that you should know.” His tone hardened again. “There is evidence that the demon that came here for you this morning was actually part of a contingent whose mission was to find your successor before you did.”
I felt my insides freeze and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Hunts for Potentials were not unheard of, but hardly standard operating procedure for the demon hordes. I may have thought Alastor was a chump, but against a Potential he would’ve been overkill. If he was only one of a group, though…
Enoch nodded as though he’d read my expression. “Luckily, the fool you banished to the Void this morning was lured by the bigger target. His compatriots have been linked by the Faithful to a cult operating outside of the city. Find them, quickly, before they find Paul.” His eyes went wide for a moment and he seemed to look at something in the distance that I couldn’t see, and then looked back at me. He was always doing that, which annoyed me even more than his damn condescending smile. “I’m afraid that is all the information that I can offer you. You’d best be going. I believe your new pupil may need your help very soon.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
I was trying unsuccessfully to get my tie even, but the smaller part kept ending up longer and sticking out from the back. Mary laughed and turned me towards her.
“Here, let me.” She undid the tie and started over fresh, glancing up to meet my eyes as she did so. “And you know you shouldn’t be talking that way, Paul. He’s the Pastor, and you agreed to serve under him when you came here. Besides, you were miserable before he swooped in and gave you this opportunity.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know, but it’s not like I had much of a choice. I felt like God was telling me something, pushing me to come here and serve under him, so I did. What was I going to say? ‘But God, this idiot is paddling in circles while I – a genius, mind you – am wasting my skills’? I know I’m capable of so much more, but my past accomplishments don’t seem to mean much to Pastor Dullis.” I sighed and realized that I was starting to rant, so I shrugged my shoulders. “So, this is where God wants me to be? I’m stuck as a lazy jerk’s lackey, and I don’t know why.”
“I know why.” She made a show of rubbing her stomach and I felt some of the fight bleed out of me. “I think that God felt it was time that you started acting like an adult. You’re going to be a daddy soon and I don’t think that I have the energy to baby-sit two kids.” I made a face and Mary gave me one of those knowing smiles that always bugged me. She tightened the tie a notch below excruciating before patting me on the chest. “But seriously, honey, maybe God just guided you here to humble you.”
“Gee, thanks.” I turned away, went to the sink, and started battling with my unruly black hair. The brush kept getting tangled and the frustration from that found a perfect mate in the sarcasm of my voice. “I appreciate the support, sweetheart.”
Mary followed and wrapped her arms around my waist from behind. “Hey, all I’m saying is that you’re such a talented person and, because things have always come so easy for you, maybe you’ve been coasting on your own steam. You got your first degree at what – like, nineteen, for crying out loud?”
“Excuse me, Doogie. Sixteen. My point is that you’ve accomplished so much already that maybe the only way that God can get your attention and teach you some of the things that He needs you to learn is to put you in a place where He can break you. Maybe God wants more for you than you want for yourself.”
I put down the brush and turned, taking Mary up in my arms. I smiled down at her and kissed her fully on the lips. As I ran my hands through her blonde hair, I relished the smooth sensation between my fingers, and I felt the tension in my soul subside. I kept my forehead pressed against hers and whispered, “Maybe you’re right.”
She bit her lower lip, and then returned my smile with a dazzling grin that sent a jolt through me from head to toe. I could only pray that God blessed our child with her looks and good sense. “That’s what I’m here for, honey. I know this hasn’t been easy for you, but you’ve got to have faith. I have a feeling that something big is about to happen, and God is going to do something great for all our lives.”
Chapter Two: It Pours
“Great,” I sighed. “Just fuckin’ great.”
Thousand-yard stares and cryptic prophesies aside, Enoch had provided me with precious little information on my successor-to-be. For instance, I knew that his name was Paul Thomas, that he was in his twenties, worked as a minister, and that he lived outside the Memphis area. What I didn’t know was where he was now – or if I’d even be able to find him in time.
God may be omniscient, and Enoch may be his go-to guy, but I’m just a temp in the office that is Heaven; meaning I basically just pass notes and sometimes hear the gossip that leaks out from the boardroom. If Enoch didn’t tell me specifics it meant the Big Guy upstairs didn’t feel like sharing. That usually translates to tedious and frustrating work for me with an all-too-often obscure purpose… ‘mysterious ways’ and all that shit.
I have a love/hate relationship with this Sherlock Holmes aspect of the ‘Lord’s work’ – by which I mean I used to love it and now I hate it. In the old days, when I still had a fire in my belly, I would’ve gone through the phonebook, narrowed a list, hunted down every lead, and played the detective thing to the hilt. When you perform most any task long enough, I guess it’s human nature to turn it into a game. But if life is a game, we’re the players, not the masters of it. We’re subject to the rules the Creator put into place, and the consequences can be tragically real when things don’t go our way. At least they were for me, so I stopped playing. I guess that’s really what the ‘need-to-know’ crap was all about; Heavenly Father had anted up and He wanted to know if I was ready to throw in my chips.
Regardless of my ‘state’ – as Enoch put it – the stakes were too big to pass up. So, I found myself standing over the bodies of eight members of the local Faithful cell Enoch had mentioned, with an unshakable feeling of dread settling over me and sinking into my bones. The blood trail on the stairs and the splatter pattern on the walls gave me a good idea of what I’d find in the rest of the suburban split-level home. All around me, bullet holes were scattered like pores on skin. Pock-marks riddled the floors, ceilings, furniture and bodies, but there were no shells to be found. Some of the cadavers bore large lacerations and wounds from blades both large and small. It wasn’t until I reached the far side of the living room that I realized the carpets were naturally white and that it was the volumes of blood that had given them the rich burgundy color I had first noticed. It was mostly dried. They’d been dead for some time.
The computers in the house appeared mostly damaged or destroyed, but no more so than any of the other electronic devices. Further, none of the bodies suggested more than a futile struggle. They were caught unaware and hadn’t been expecting trouble, judging by the obvious lack of return fire or dropped weaponry. Nothing pointed to the scene being anything more than a random act of violence – nothing except the truth of who I knew these people were, and the fact that the carnage hadn’t been reported to the authorities.
These nice dead folks were Faithful, and not in the sense of ‘they go to church every Sunday and always say grace before dinner’, though that was probably true enough there in Germantown, Tennessee, the Bible Belt-buckle. The Faithful are a globe-spanning organization of people from all walks of life who know ‘the truth.’ They know about people like me and what we do; they’ve been clued in to the reality of the war between Heaven and Hell, and they perform a number of vital roles in support of ‘the cause.’ They reach as high as governments and celebrities, and as low as back alleys and street corners. To put it simply, if those like me are the sword, then the Faithful are the shield.
What the Faithful lack in power, they make up for in access and information. Unfortunately for the poor bastards littering the floor, information can get you killed, and in this case with a vengeance. Whoever did the job murdered the victims because of something they knew or had access to, but everything at the scene suggested it was well above a simple hit. Whoever did the deed enjoyed it. It was a crime of passion, of hate, and that smacks of Cultists- extremist little punks with a hard-on for the dark side. They are the unfaithful. They do for the Enemy what the Faithful do for us. They’re not as numerous or well-organized, at least as far as I know, but they are enthusiastically bloodthirsty.
I tossed aside what had once been a computer hard drive. There was nothing left that would help me, like an address or the name of the church that the kid worked for. For security reasons, the Faithful don’t keep hard copies of anything lying around. “Well, shit.”
I walked next door. It was disturbingly nice outside after being in that house. The plastic slide and the little basketball hoop flanking the ubiquitous mini-van in the driveway suggested a nice young family for the nice expensive house with its nice beige siding. I didn’t take it personally when my rings of the doorbell were ignored. I even allowed myself a snicker when I saw the curtains rustle in the far window. It told me enough.
Luckily, on the other side of the slaughterhouse I found another fresh-faced young couple exiting their SUV. The blonde woman was attractive in a stuffy sort of way, but everything about her significant other told me that they were the type of people who knew the ‘right’ people. They were appropriately cordial until I started asking about the people next door – nothing direct; I spun a story about being a business client paying a casual visit. Then everything abruptly turned cold and I suddenly felt like a cop questioning a suspect who doesn’t know what they’re being accused of; they stiffened up, stared straight ahead, and started handing me short ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers in hopes that I’d move on. I obliged, and they fled for their door like roaches scattering from a light.
I returned to the crime scene. The people in the neighborhood saw enough or were forcibly compelled into thinking that it would be unwise to pay any attention to, talk about, or acknowledge what had happened. Definitely a Cultist touch. Demons wouldn’t bother scaring the neighbors into silence. Not like solving that particular riddle lessened the pain in my ass at that point. With everyone in the Faithful cell dead, I was no closer to tracking down Paul, and the I needed to get to him quick. Something stunk about all this Enemy activity around one fuckin’ Potential.
It didn’t add up.
I had a contingent of demons, one of whom went out of his way to put me down before I even got my orders from Enoch. Then, there was a Cultist hit on the local Faithful cell with nothing but information on the Potential, my replacement, to connect them. Enoch seemed to think that Alastor had come for me because I was a ripe target, but for him to come to that graveyard, on that day of all days, stunk to high Hell. I was running behind the action. Everyone was two steps ahead of me. Someone or something was hemorrhaging vital information. If I could trace the bleeding back to the source, I’d stand a better chance of finding Paul in time to prevent him from ending up like the stiffs in the house.
I left the scene as I found it. I’m no human hunter- that’s a job for the Faithful. Someone would be along to clean up the mess in their cloak and dagger way that wouldn’t lead the authorities anywhere, if or when they decided to look. I spat in disgust and frustration, as though it would remove the bad taste that’d been setting in my mouth.
Once I found Paul, I’d be that much closer to my reward and that much further from this bullshit.
“I have a feeling that something big is about to happen, and God is going to do something great for all our lives.”
Mary’s words before we left that morning still rolled around in my head two hours later as I sat on a church pew, half-listening to what the pastor was saying and slipping in and out between thought and prayer.
Lord, what do you want from me?
“It says in the Word: ‘Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door will be opened!’” Pastor Dullis took a deep breath and I was almost blinded by the reflection of the bright overhead lights off of his bald spot that was flanked by thinning red hair.
“We all do the asking! That’s all we do! We ask, ask, ask-ask-ask, and then sit there and wait – for God to just bring it on a silver platter! But how many of us seek? Huh? How many of us are persistent enough to not just ask, but to keep seeking until we receive an answer? How many of us have enough tenacity to keep knocking… to keep pounding, until the door is opened?” He slammed his fist against the wooden podium to emphasize his point and I saw spittle from his mouth splat an old lady with a frilly purple hat in the front row. She was so caught up with what the pastor was saying that she didn’t seem to notice.
I snorted as I glanced around the sanctuary. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best and sitting on the pretty maroon upholstered pews that took three “church meetings” and five votes to decide on. I knew that most of them were only pretending to pay attention because I could see it in their expressions – slack jawed, eyes unfocused; one guy off to the side was nodding off.
I felt dirty just being there.
Sheep. That’s all these people are. They blindly follow because it’s easier than seeking the truth for themselves. They come here week after week, more because it’s expected than because they get anything out of it. What’s the point, Lord? What do You want from me? Why did You send me here? They don’t want to listen to what I have to say. They’re too content with being sheep.
In truth, I felt like my compass was off. It wasn’t God that I doubted; it was my perception of Him. I didn’t feel like I could trust my own judgment anymore. Considering interpreting that area of life was my job, the problems just compounded.
Maybe I’m not supposed to be a minister. Maybe I was never called at all.
I felt Mary squeeze my hand and looked over to see her smiling up at me, the yellow dress she wore to Sunday services highlighting the softness of her blue eyes. I was reminded of our conversation earlier. She always seemed to have a sixth sense for when I got into one of my self-defeating moods. I know some of what she’d said was stroking my ego, but maybe she was right about the rest. It always fell to her to remind me of how much I had to be thankful for when I hit bottom and sometimes, I took for granted how well she could read me. I squeezed back and gave her a warm smile.
No. I’m sorry, Father. She’s right. I shouldn’t be thinking this way. Please, forgive me, and help me to see as You see. Help me to love these people.
My reverie was interrupted when I realized that Pastor Dullis was looking down at me with his cold gray eyes. His flaccid form, wrapped in its clammy, wrinkled and pale skin combined with his generally bemused countenance made the man almost a dead-ringer for a zombie. “And now, I’d like to ask Minister Thomas to come and lead us in the closing prayer.”
I tried to push away the mental image of the pastor moaning “braaains” as I climbed the few stairs up to the stage. He gave me a wink and a smile, and then patted me on the back as he sidled past. It took an extreme act of willpower to not roll my eyes or recoil from his touch.
I forced a smile as I looked over the congregation, but that faltered when my eyes locked with a lone man in the back. Looming behind the assembly like some dark specter, the man wore solid black from head to foot. The shadow cast across his face by the wide brim of a black hat obscured all but the glint of his eyes. They seemed to burn through me. I could feel the heat of the man’s stare radiating from across the room. I gaped for a moment, dumbstruck, but forced myself to look away as a chill crawled up my spine.
With a deliberate effort, I forced myself to ignore it and focus on the job at hand. Luckily the congregation, already out the front door in their minds, seemed as blissfully unaware of me as they were of the dark man. “Uh… thank you. Could you all, uh, bow your heads, please?”
I did so as well and began. “Father, we thank you for this time that we have had together in worship.” The five of us that actually were worshiping. “We thank you for the message that Pastor Dullis has just delivered to us.” Which I wrote. “And I ask that you please just speak to our hearts and reveal the truth to us.” Because that’s the only way most of these people are going to get it. “Please be with us and protect us this week; and let everything that we do glorify and honor you.” Yeah, right. “It is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.”
I opened my eyes and wasn’t even remotely surprised to see that most of the congregation was already standing and making their way to the doors.
Thanks for coming, everybody. I’m sure your Creator is honored by your heartfelt rush from His house.
The only one who lingered was the man in black. When he saw that I was looking, he gave me a tight smile and nod before standing up and following the stream of people out the front door.
Well, that was really weird.
I shook my head and made my way down from the stage to where Mary waited. She looked up at me with a frown. “You okay?”
I did my best to muster a nonchalant smile, but my voice came out flat and probably gave me away. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just that there was this guy in the back…” I suppressed another shudder. “He gave me the creeps.”
I turned towards the door, but the man was long gone. Mary had followed my gaze, and when she looked back at me, her face was painted with concern. “Maybe we should go.”
“Nah, I’m sure it was nothing. You go on ahead and I’ll meet you at home. I’m sure Pastor is going to have a whole bunch of junk for me to get done before he’ll let me leave.”
She glanced back towards where the dark man had been, her face scrunched in concern. “You sure you don’t want me to stay and help?”
“No, it’s all right. I think I’m going to try and spend some time in prayer afterwards.” I frowned and gently caressed her cheek with my hand. “You look a little flushed, though, is something the matter?”
She was shifting her shoulders uncomfortably as she avoided my gaze. “No… well… yeah… it’s just that… I don’t think I got enough sleep last night. I had another dream. It was really… creepy.”
“Lemme guess – was the ‘faceless man’ chasing you down the alley with the knife? Or was it the one where aliens abducted me?” I snickered as I raised her chin with my thumb and forefinger.
She laughed lightly, but her eyes were still kind of glassy. It had become something of an old refrain between us these past few months. She’d be having really vibrant dreams since she’d found out about the baby. “I just don’t feel right – like we shouldn’t be apart right now or something.”
I cupped her face in my hands. “Listen, I promise that nothing’s going to happen. Not to me, not to you, and not to that bun that you’ve got in the oven. I’m gonna go and do some really boring crap for Pastor, you’re gonna drive home, I’m gonna pray for a bit, and then when I get home we’re gonna fool around. Right?”
I waggled my eyebrows at her, which earned me a laugh.
“I wouldn’t bet on that last part there, Minister Thomas.” She brushed my cheek with her left hand and sighed. “I guess you’re right, though. I’m probably just being hormonal.”
“I won’t let it go to my head.”
“Smart man.” She kissed me on the cheek and pulled her purse back up onto her shoulder. “All right, sweetie. I’ll see you at home, then.” She glanced over to where Pastor Dullis was shaking hands with the last of the folks leaving and saying goodbye, and then gave me a wink. “Make sure to play nice with the other kids.”
I laughed and gave her another kiss. “I’ll try.”
I watched through the window and made sure Mary got to the car okay and then intercepted the pastor as he was making his way to the back office. “Pastor, could I speak with you for a moment?”
Pastor Dullis nodded but continued to walk. “Make it quick, son. Betty’s waiting on me and I hear Mrs. Mattie’s fried chicken calling my name.”
“Well sir, I was wondering if you had given any thought to letting me give the message next Sunday?”
Pastor stopped and gave me a weak smile. “I don’t think you’re quite ready for that yet, Paul. Don’t get me wrong, the message you wrote this week was very good, and I can hardly wait to see what you come up with for next week, but I just don’t think you’re ready for the pulpit.” He patted me on the back with a thick, sweaty hand and continued making his way to the office. “Ask me again in a few weeks and we’ll see. Now, do me a favor and count over the offering and put it in the safe for deposit before you leave.” He grabbed his hat and jacket from the stand and walked through the door, shouting over his shoulder. “And don’t forget to lock up!”
Not ready for the pulpit? I’ve been doing this since I was eight years old, you hack.
I took a deep breath and almost forgot to exhale as I made my way over to the desk and the work that was waiting for me. I rushed over the offering, not really caring if I made a mistake. The pastor’s words kept bouncing around in my head, festering with the wound of my already shaken faith. I did my best to remember what Mary had said that morning, and while it didn’t do much for my bruised ego, it dulled the edge of my mood. By the time I had secured the safe and confirmed that everything was in order I felt composed enough to talk to my boss.
Chapter Three: Welcome to the Party
“You know my ways ain’t all that mysterious.”
His neck felt so thin, so fragile in my hand. I let his feet dangle off the ground, lengthening the journey of the blood rolling lazily down his arm and falling from his fingertips to the cracked back-alley pavement. He squirmed against wet brick and mortar, either to escape or to ease the pressure on his throat so that he could talk. It didn’t really matter which, since he wasn’t particularly successful at either. “Oh, I know how you do, my nigga,” he half-croaked, “Don’t come at The Stilted One with yo’ Shaft on. You changed, Money, you changed! Now, The Stilted One keeps it rea–ack!” My grip tightened seemingly of its own accord, choking off his diatribe.
The ‘Stilted One’ here was merely the latest incarnation of a low-level demon with a penchant for possession. Every so often when the heat got too hot or the ‘role’ too old, this method actor would jump to a new body and create a new ‘character’. In the decades that I’d know him he’d been a woman, a child, a Wall Street tycoon, and apparently now he was a hustler with a cane and an offensively gaudy jacket.
I fuckin’ hate pop culture.
Any mortal body with a burden of sin or in a suggestible state was open to his kind of possession. At times it could become quite a hassle, since I’d have to keep in mind that any damage done to the body would remain after the demon departed. Not to mention that if the vessel died you’d lose the demon too– meaning an overzealous interrogation could send your source back to Hell and make you a murderer.
Luckily, two things aided me in this particular situation. First, I was in a hurry, so I didn’t really care. Second, I’d known this demon long enough to know that he didn’t want to go to Hell any more than the two-bit pimp he’d decided to slum in. I consciously eased my grip and let blood return to his brain. I didn’t want ‘The Stilted One’ getting any dumber on my account.
Hacking and coughing, he cut back into the jive routine almost immediately, so I zeroed in on his demon better half. Its name lacked importance, if for no other reason than he’d had so damned many of them over the centuries. He was The Rumplestiltskin, The Great Gazoo, the Genie-in-the-Lamp; the one who always has what you need for a price that you’d never imagine. But to me, when I wasn’t yelling expletives at him like I was then, he would always be known as…
“Snots!” I forced twelve packs of gravel and a steel edge into my voice. “I swear I am this close to tearing the rest of your limbs off. You won’t die, but you’ll slither on your belly like the snake you are until I decide to call down fire and brimstone on your ass so hot it’ll make the sun seem like a fuckin’ popsicle. I am hanging by a very thin thread here. You don’t want to see it snap.” I clipped off that last sentence with a flaming sword exclamation point; the blade burst from my right hand and leapt up to tickle The Stilted One’s nostrils.
We’d done this routine so many times over the years that I was always impressed by my ability to conjure new and inventive threats. It had become such a practiced game between us that it had degenerated to casual conversation between friends the last few times we’d met. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d drawn the sword on him. Having to use this kind of force on him scared the hell out of me on some level. Seeing my refection in the dark eyes of The Stilted One as they widened with genuine terror, I had to admit the truth in some of Enoch’s appraisal of me. But as I thought of what was at stake, I decided that if this ‘state’ brought the results I wanted I’d still be just as satisfied.
Almost as if to validate my reasoning, the presence within Stilts began to stir. Not so much a physical reaction as it was a spiritual implication; I perceived the essence of Snots pulling away from my blade, inching like a child from the pain and fear held in a nurse’s needle. The motley denizens of this misbegotten ghetto wouldn’t notice a change to look at him, but for me it was plain as day to see the ‘snot’ leaking out of Stilts – green tendrils blurring the lines between the man and the parasite within. If a demon could ever be personified as claustrophobic, this was it. Snots wanted desperately to abandon his meat-sack and leave him to face my weapon alone.
It was an irrational response and exactly the kind of thing that I’d been waiting for. I felt a predatory smile crack my face in half. Snots knew that he couldn’t escape me. The people in this neighborhood had seen enough of trouble to know how not to see it, graciously leaving us alone and undisturbed in the alley. Even if Snots could jump from this body, he wouldn’t get far. He’d broken character now; and I knew that if he was ready to fly like a bird, I could make him sing like a canary.
“I’ll repeat myself just this once.” I spoke the last three words slowly and deliberately, as if they were the tolling of a great and ominous bell. I exhaled heavily through my nostrils and he flinched as though it were scalding steam coming from my lungs. “Where are–”
“You needn’t bother.” The words emanated from the man, but it was clear that I spoke to the demon now. The cadence and tonal quality had changed, and the lingering of a second, raspier voice became apparent, like a sound with a shadow. “It is not my memory, but your demands of it, that command my silence, old man.” The words came tensely, but nonetheless precise; a low-down pimp barking with an English gentleman’s pedigree. “You do not last to my vintage, in my profession, without the wits to listen with both ears, and mind which side of the mouth you speak from at all times.”
“Which side of your mouth were you usin’ on Alastor when you rolled over on me?” I snarled.
“Oh, I’m way past ‘mad’ after this morning.” I heard a hiss, like a match plunged into water, and only then realized that my sword arm was trembling, and the blade had bitten into Snots.
He released a few choice curses, some of which I’d bet were older than Enoch. “Bugger! Are you POSSESSED?! What would I gain from selling you to The Executioner? Aside from pissing people off?! Hell, I made up half of the bloody stories about that wanker!” His face twisted. “I guess he’s dead now. Good for you – even with your head up your arse, you’re still a bloody tank.”
I could feel my teeth grinding. Snots could act, but this felt a little too much like genuine surprise. I set my jaw and decided to press. I had to be sure. “Don’t con me, Snots. You’re on a short list of people who’d know where I’d be today. What’s your angle?”
“Well, surely you’ve uncovered my master plan for angering my dwindling allies, pitting them against one another, and getting myself sent back to the pits.” He oozed the words sarcastically, but abruptly turned very grave. “You are out of your depth here, old man. You have fallen so far that even I can’t throw you a rope. When you fell off the map, you cast a stone in the lake and the ripples have touched every shore. Interests have organized, powers were consolidated, and plans set in motion. What comes next falls on you.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Stop talking in fuckin’ metaphor! What aren’t you saying?”
“Check your ‘short list’ again, Jude. You don’t think that he forgot about today, do you? Your unhappy anniversary?”
I felt my face go slack as the answer slammed home. Snots nodded, his dark eyes suddenly feeling uncomfortably heavy as they fixed on mine. “That’s right, the big wave is crashing, old friend. If you’ve been dragged in from the cold, it means that someone has decided it was time you either permanently got out of the way or got back into the game. And a messy business that, with the local Faithful cell getting wiped out and now this bo–”
Snots’ final words were not so much cut off as drowned out when a bolt of lightning descended like the wrath of Zeus to snuff out his life and any knowledge he might have shared. At least that’s how it seemed from my front-row seat. Processing at what felt like half-speed, I realized as Stilts’ body fell limp in my hands that the smoking hole in his chest was no lightning strike – and that the rolling ‘thunder’ in the concrete canyons of the city were the echoes of a high-caliber rifle’s report.
With a ferocity reserved only for those who’ve lost as I have, I threw myself into the air, screaming like a banshee in an intelligible howl of rage. My leap had carried me some distance, out of the alley and above the main street to a roof across the way. I was moving on instinct and spiritual inference at what felt like Mach 2. That must have scared the absolute shit out of the two gunmen, who’d abruptly found their nurtured hopes of escape dashed.
“You missed, asshole.” My voice came hoarser than I’d have thought myself capable. I thumped my chest aggressively. “Here I am! Shoot!”
They were young – younger than I would’ve thought possible, but their ink marked them as Cultists. “We weren’t aiming for you, man, fo’ real,” the de facto leader stammered as he threw the gun to the rooftop and held up his hands in surrender. He was all skin, bones and a shock of greasy black hair, yet taller than his counter-part, who could have been his brother. Apparently, he’d thought offering that revelation would make it better. In fact, it made it much, much worse.
Seizing him by his over-sized ‘Death of Superman’ t-shirt, I heaved him into the air. Little Brother watched in horror as Superman took a direct flight through the high window of the factory building next door. I was pretty sure he’d live; a suspicion confirmed when the high-pitched squeal of agony was followed by subsequent whimpers of pain.
But Junior didn’t need to know that.
Enoch had called it my state. Snots said I was mad. Whatever I was, it must’ve given all kinds of credibility to my ‘bad cop’ reputation, because Little Brother promptly soiled himself. He was about to turn and run, but because I’d anticipated it, his turn brought him headlong into my chest instead. He squealed as he rebounded off of me and I seized his wrist as he fell. Rotating his arm slightly in my grip, I pulled it through a bullwhip motion that dislocated his shoulder in a fairly traumatic fashion. I dangled him over the street by that arm for a few moments, after which I believe he would’ve told me I could have his firstborn if I’d make the pain stop. I made it readily apparent that I had no intention of stopping.
Snots’ “death” ate at me. It wasn’t the fact that I had once considered him a friend, so much as I found the Enemy’s willingness to banish him back to Hell disturbing. Snots was a pain in the ass and a bit of a ham, but he served a very real purpose to both sides in terms of information sharing. He was one of a precious few talking points between opposing sides of a very bitter war. His relative neutrality was an asset and had enabled both sides to spread and gain information, or at times even misinformation. That they would so casually discard such an asset spoke to the ‘consolidation of power’ Snots had warned me about. Talking between sides was over.
What comes next falls on you.
I decided to beat myself up about that later. For now, it was essential to find Paul and close ranks on our side. Luckily, Junior was more than willing to discuss at length the hit carried out on the Faithful cell, the details of the demon contingent he worked for, and the plan for the assassination of the ‘Potential’, a.k.a. Paul Thomas.
I didn’t even have to twist his arm.
I always enjoyed going into the sanctuary when the lights were off and no one else was around. It just seemed to have a sense of overwhelming reverence that would settle over me, and I imagined that was how the temple priests felt whenever they walked into the holy of holies. It felt like God was there, close and intimate, in ways that it never seemed to when other people were there. I would often go in there to pray because it was one of the few places that I felt that I could really turn off my brain and touch the face of God.
That morning I was in desperate need of doing just that.
With a sudden sense of weariness, I dropped to my knees at the altar in front of the stage, closed my eyes, and just let all my frustrations come out in a rush.
Father, please help me. Help me to see clearly what You would have me do. When I look around, all I see is darkness. Complacency, falseness, professions of love followed by hateful attacks, division, all in Your name. I’m sick of it all, Father. I’m so tired and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore. I’m overwhelmed. It’s just too much.
I took a deep breath and wiped at the tears that managed to squeeze past my tightly clinched eyelids. My consciousness was caught up in the stream, becoming a blur of emotions, half-prayers and half-formed questions, imaginings, and fears. Turmoil consumed my mind and soul like a virulent cancer, manifesting itself physically when I felt my fists clench. Pounding the altar with each unspoken recrimination, I battled the disillusioned demons of my own nature, railing at them like a dark shadow of the pastor from this morning as I thunderously emphasized my points.
I’m just so scared, Lord. I feel so lost.
I know this is where You want me to be. I know You’ve provided for me, it’s a steady job, making more than enough money to support my family. My family. My family. My God, I’m going to be a father. I’m bringing a new life into this world… this dark, depressing world.
Why do I think that way? I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I can’t think that way. Mary was right. Thank you so much for her. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry… Gah! What’s wrong with me?!
Why am I here? What do You want from me? Nothing I do is what I need to be doing! Is there something more for me? Is it wrong to ask for more? I know there is something more than this. I just don’t know what it is. What is it? Please… PLEASE… help me.
Suddenly, that sense of unease and malice from earlier returned a thousand-fold, swirling around me, sucking the wind from my lungs; all my senses screamed in unison for me to run and to not stop. I panicked and opened my eyes, my breathing suddenly heavy. Before me, sitting in the pastor’s chair on top of the stage and staring down at me with gleaming eyes and an icy smile, was the dark stranger from the service.
I jumped up from the altar, fighting the feeling of dread that had my stomach in an iron grip. Briefly, I wondered how much of my display he’d witnessed. “Uh, sir – I’m sorry, but the church is closed right now.” My voice sounded shaky and weak to my own ears as I continued, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. If you’d like to speak with the pastor, he’ll be here in his office tomorrow at noon…ish.”
The man chuckled as he stood up from the chair and started to stroll towards me. “I’m not here to see the false shepherd, boy. I’m here to see you.”
The man was closer now and the feeling in my gut grew worse. It took all that I had just to stand my ground as the man approached. I tried to keep the nervousness from my voice, but it was a futile effort. “Oh, really? Why is that?”
The man spread his arms as though he were offering a hug. “Why, I’m the answer to your prayers, Paul.”
With a suddenness that defied all logic, I found myself flying backwards through the air. I slammed into a pew, which flipped over from the impact and spilled me to the floor. Groaning as I wiped blood away from my lips, I tried to sit up. My head felt as though I had been hit with a sledgehammer.
I could hear the man chuckle again as he slowly approached. My eyes couldn’t seem to focus, and my head was swimming. When his blurry profile came within view, he threw his head back, conjuring a cackle that would have given the Joker a chill. I felt the blood in my veins freeze. “Stand up, Chosen! Fight! I’ve been looking forward to this for a long while, so don’t ruin it for me by acting the coward.”
For some reason, I complied, slowly dragging myself up using the pew behind me for leverage. I kept hold of it – the room was still spinning, and I knew that if I let go, I would fall to the floor again. “Chosen for what?” I managed to say through the blood pooling in my mouth. “What… what do you want?”
The man’s eyes, growing dark and red, widened in surprise. “I’m here to kill you, of course. What did you think?”
I almost stumbled as I stepped out from between the pews and groggily backed my way toward the set of double doors behind me. “B… but why? What did I do?”
The man stopped. “You mean you don’t know? They haven’t told you anything?” He threw his head back and roared like a demented Santa Claus. “Well, this is a surprise.” The leer on the man’s face made me want to vomit. “It appears I’m going to have fun tonight after all.”
He slammed his fist into the pew beside him as he stalked passed, flipping it end-over-end and sending it crashing through the wall on the opposite side of the room. I felt my jaw drop along with my bladder. “I might just have to take my time with you. Make it last. Savor it. It’s been years since I’ve really gotten to enjoy myself.”
Then, without further prelude, he exploded.
The light was so bright that it stung through my clenched eyelids and forced me to throw my arms over my face. I stumbled backwards and fell hard on my backside; when I looked up again, the light had resolved into the shape of a man wrapped in glowing white robes, rippling in a wind that I couldn’t feel. I was paralyzed with a mix of fear and wonder as my mind raced to process all that I saw. A single word resolved in my head, springing unbidden from the torrent of unconscious perceptions and emotions – angel.
Angel? An angel? Why would an angel want to kill me? Lord, what have I done?
His hand moved deliberately to the hilt of a sword that dangled from a golden belt. He slowly revealed its blade; as I watched, it seemed to take on a glow from within. He pointed it at me, and his leer grew beyond human proportions, distorting his features into something truly terrifying. “Let’s begin, shall we?”
With that, a bout of fire exploded from his chest. Every muscle I had tensed, as I braced for the heat and pain of an attack that never came. Instead, those red eyes widened in sudden shock and the flames engulfed him, only diminishing when a black void surrounded and consumed his entire being. A lone flame remained, but I could see the source now – another man, tall and of dark complexion, his bald head inset with fiery emerald eyes. He wore a beard that was lightly streaked with gray. He, too, was garbed all in black, but held in his hand a sword that seemed to be made of fire itself. The blade extinguished in a puff of smoke and the older man smiled.
“Welcome to the party, kid. My name’s Jude, and I’ll be your host.”
Available Thanksgiving 2022