Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Enjoy Chapter Five of Angel: Book Two!

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Life Taker; Deal Breaker

HE REBOARDED the Blue Line, then got on the Green Line at Old Town twenty minutes later. At Fenton Parkway he hopped off. Betty Landis lived in a condominium just across the tracks.
Despite treating her like she didn’t exist for more than a decade, she had always responded with respect, courtesy, kindness, and compassion, and had visited him regularly while he convalesced in the hospital.
It was time for her to die. He felt intense regret that whatever compassion he had to offer came only now, at the end of her life.
The security gate to the complex was locked. He grasped the knob and closed his eyes and concentrated, then stepped back and sat on the bench next to the gate.
A boy appeared on the other side a minute later.
“Do you need in, Mister?”
He stood. “Yes, I do. Thank you.”
The boy opened the gate and stepped aside as he came through.
“I’m not supposed to let anybody in,” said the kid, looking fearfully up at him.
The image of Deanna’s father barging into her room flashed through his mind.
“So why did you now?”
The kid stared up at him, but did not answer.
“Sometimes you have to break the rules so that others can get the help they need. That’s what I’m here for. To help someone.”
“Who?” asked the kid. “Are they in trouble?”
“Yes, she is.”
“I know where she lives!” the boy exclaimed. “I’ll take you to her!”
Children, Calliel told him, were often full of spiritual surprises, and this one was no exception.
“Lead the way.”
“Follow me!”
At Betty Landis’ door, he released him.
“Now what’s the rule again?”
“Don’t let anybody in unless they are helpers like you.”
“And if you’re not absolutely sure?”
“Don’t let them in.”
“You’re a good kid, Calvin. Your mother is wondering where you’ve gone off to. Give her a kiss when you see her. That kiss has power, Calvin. It will help her, so make it a good one. Will you do that for me?”
Calvin nodded enthusiastically.
“Go on, now.”
Calvin ran off.
He knocked on the door. A woman with exhausted eyes and frazzled light-brown hair opened it. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties and on the verge of tears.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here for Betty,” he said quietly.
She gaped, horrified. “No!”
She slammed the door.
He could hear her sobbing.
“Norma, open the door.”
Norma’s sobs were heart-wrenching. “No … no … no…!”
“Open the door, Norma.”
She did, but only after several minutes passed. She goggled at him, then hurriedly got out of the way as he stepped inside.
“Why?” she blubbered, backing up, her hands held prayerfully out from her person, as though doing so would stop him. “Why?”
What had to be Betty’s bedroom door was closed. It was just past the living room and a few feet down the hallway. It was warm in here, almost hot, the air stale and rank with the smell of medicine and soiled clothing.
Norma was so weak with grief that her knees shook and then buckled. He knelt next to her and reached for her hands, which she pressed into her stomach as though trying to prevent a leak. She was praying. It sounded less like praying and more like gurgling.
“Why would God let this happen? Why?”
He squeezed her hands. “He didn’t let it happen. It just happened. God is the Lord of all things, but His power is not infinite. He isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. Not, at least, in the sense that you’ve been taught. Look at me, Norma.”
She did. Her gaze was a mix of crippling grief and paralyzing terror.
“What was your mother about?”
“What—? I don’t understand!”
“Look at me, Norma.”
“I … I don’t understand your question! Please … don’t take her! Please!
He released her and stood.
“No! No, wait! Please! She … she was about … she was about family. Her family—us! Us! That’s what she lived for! Her kids! She had to work because Dad … he left her—us—and … and .. and she had to find work to survive! And then that bastard she married next ... We were everything to her, and she was everything to us!”
“Would you say her family was her calling?”
“Yes! Yes!
“Then know she will be in Heaven, that she will survive death.”
He started for the bedroom, but Norma lunged for his arm. “NO! I WON’T LET YOU! NO—!”
Her grasp, which was like a steel vice, abruptly loosened. Her head weaved drunkenly, and she collapsed to her side. He knelt next to her and turned her onto her back.
“You won’t remember me,” he said, touching her forehead with his index finger. “When you wake, your grief will consume you. You’ll curse God. You’ll hate Him. Maybe for a while you’ll even renounce Him and your belief in Him, and you know what, my lovely Norma? That’s perfectly okay. All of it is.
“Just don’t do what I did, okay? That’s why I’m here. He knew you’d be here and He sent me. He sent me because I’m a man who went through what you’re about to go through. It very nearly destroyed me. He sent me to you in order to offer you a seed of hope and healing.”
He pressed harder. “There it is. You won’t feel it for a long time. But it is very powerful and will germinate even in the darkest night. You’ll detect it and hate it and try to destroy it. But it’s a tough son of a bitch, and like the hardiest weed on the driest, hardest, hottest asphalt, it’ll a find a crack in your anger and pain and it’ll come up. Maybe you’ll spray it with weed killer and hack at it and rage at it, but it won’t die. Eventually you’ll throw your hands up and try to ignore it, and you know what, Norma? That’s precisely when you’ll start healing, because in the end you won’t be able to ignore it. You will be different than me. That’s my gift to you. You will come back to God, who never left you, and never will.”
He stood and went to the bedroom door and opened it.
Betty, in bed, was covered with heavy blankets, despite the fact that the apartment was hot. She didn’t look hot; her face was drawn, gray, and free of sweat.
He went to the bed and sat next to her.
Calliel’s teaching echoed in his mind as he looked sadly down at her.
The mortal soul must create a “bridge” through the singularity that is death. That is what mortal life is all about. Those who refuse to create that bridge—and all are called to do so save those unable to—will face Oblivion. Their dead souls will evaporate; their consciousness will be no more. The manure they made of their lives will be used to fertilize greater good.
Calliel had been saved by grace of the fact that he unerringly followed his calling. He had sought justice against a greedy rancher, and that damaged him, but he survived death by “repairing the bridge” with the help of another angel, Jegudiel, prior to being hanged.
Betty moaned and tried to move her head, but appeared unable to. Her breathing became shallow and sippy. She was having another stroke.
He touched her face. It was cold and clammy.
“Betty, it’s me,” he said quietly. “It’s time to go. Grab my hand.”
He stood and reached down.
An ephemeral, shining hand reached up through the top blanket without disturbing it. He took it.
It felt like any normal, warm hand of flesh and bone. It tightened its grip and he gently pulled. The spirit of Betty Landis sat up. As though wanting to be free of the spent shell that was her body, she scooched aside until she was no longer touching it and gazed rapturously up at him.
Her body took a final gasp and was still.
“Dr. Wilms!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Well, I’ll be!”
He smiled. “It’s good to see you, Betty. Please—just call me Ray.”
“Are … are you an angel?
“Unbelievable, I know. I came to get you.”
“You did!” She gave his hand a motherly squeeze. “I always knew there was plenty of good in you.”
“You were one of the very few,” he offered with a sad smile. “And that includes me. Thank you for that. You really helped me when I needed it most. I’d like to return the favor. Are you able to stand?”
“I think so,” she said. He let go of her hand as she threw her legs over the bed and stood.
She glanced down at her nightgown. “Am I going to have to wear this ratty old thing for eternity?”
He chuckled. “No.”
“Will I have to stay this age?”
“I believe that’ll be between you and the Lord. I shouldn’t think so.”
Betty glanced past him to the living room, a thin slice of which was visible from here. Norma was on the floor, still unconscious.
“Oh my,” she breathed, and hurried past him. She went to her daughter and knelt next to her. “She’s going to be so crushed …”
“Say something to her. She’ll hear it. She’s going to need those words, Betty, so make them good. And then we need to get you to your destination.”
He listened as Betty spoke. Her motherly love reminded him of his own mother’s, and touched him deeply. Betty stroked her daughter’s hair and wept, then bent and kissed her cheek.
“What a good and true soul you are,” he said as she stood.
“I always tried to be,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“Shall we?”
She gazed at him, puzzled. “Where are we going?”
“Not we. You. Back in your room. I believe there is a door waiting there for you.”
He took her hand and led her back into the bedroom.
An imposing door stood where her closet used to be. It had a gleaming brass placard on it.
She laughed. So did he.
“It looks like the Lord has a sense of humor!”
“Go on through,” he instructed.
“Aren’t you coming too?”
He shook his head. “This is your entrance. You might be a little scared, but if you keep walking, you’ll be fine. Got it?”
“Got it.”
With surprising brashness she released his hand, went to the door, and opened it. Without a moment’s hesitation, she marched through. When she did, she and the door dissolved, revealing her old closet once more.
He smiled, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Norma was stirring. He knelt next to her and kissed her forehead.
“A new sunrise is coming, Norma. I promise.”
“A mortal’s task, one of many, is to learn to listen to the Voice of God—what mortals often call ‘inspiration,’ ” Calliel taught. “As you know, it’s very difficult. A mortal must make that Voice their own to the greatest degree they are capable. There are many other voices competing for attention. Some seem to be inspiration, but aren’t. A human being who chooses to follow his or her calling becomes better and better at ‘becoming’ the Voice of God. They’ll still make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. Nothing about it is supposed to be easy. It was designed that way.”
“A test?” he asked.
“If you wish,” shrugged Calliel. “The Voice of God and free will are often in direct opposition to one another. That too was by design.”
“So a mortal who chooses not to listen to that Voice is wrong for doing so?”
Calliel shook his head. “No. That’s the point I’m tryin’ to make. There is nothin’ higher than the conscience of a sentient, self-aware being. Not even God is higher. Inspiration—that Voice—may push a person one way, but the conscience—the free will—of that person may ultimately push another. Sometimes—not often, perhaps—but sometimes that decision turns out to be the better one, and creates even higher good than what could have been there before had the person gone along with inspiration, with the Voice. There are many factors that complicate the matter enormously. It’s never simple, certainly not as simple as I just tried to explain it.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re an angel now. The Voice of God is much stronger in you than in mortals, which means your conscience, your free will is that much stronger too. It got that way by the choices you made in your mortal life, and by the fact that you chose to save yourself before it was too late.”
“As an angel, am I obligated always to listen to the Voice of God and follow its instructions or promptings?”
“You’re an angel. You didn’t get that way by being a robot, devoid of free will. What do you think?”
“The few times in my life I felt genuinely inspired I always listened and followed through. I think that’s true of everyone, isn’t it?”
“That’s where you’re wrong, cowboy. I know it sounds impossible, but it’s true. Most people damn that Voice. Eventually it ceases to exist within them. When that happens, so goes their free will. The point is that you are not obligated, Ray, to listen to the Voice of God if you hear the equally high voice of your own conscience telling you to go another direction. The more you genuinely listen to the Voice of God, the stronger your conscience—the stronger your free will—becomes. I said listen, not necessarily follow through.
“A mortal following his calling is a mortal in love. Think of a river. Sometimes it branches off before coming back. Sometimes the branch never does. It doesn’t matter. The calling is the river. It is love. As long as an action is done in love, the mortal is doing God’s work. Like I said, the more you listen to the Voice of God, the stronger your conscience becomes, the more powerful and potent it becomes. It goes the other way, too. The stronger your conscience, the stronger the Voice of God. Together they become a double force for good, almost if you were two people. Pretty cool, huh? You follow?”
“Can I say yes?”
Calliel laughed. “I’m no good at metaphors. I’m good at feedin’ cattle and tendin’ crops and, when called, kickin’ mortal ass.”
“That you are. I did a piss-poor job of listening to my conscience the last thirty years of my life. At one time I didn’t even believe such a thing like conscience existed. So the converse must be true, too: refuse to listen to one’s conscience, and you end up refusing to listen to the Voice of God as well.”
“There you go. And you didn’t use the word river once.”
“I still shudder when I think about my life.”
“I shudder too,” chuckled Calliel. “Just remember this. A true soldier of God does not follow orders without question. By simple virtue of the fact that you are an angel, you are over that for all eternity.”
“Have any angels … you know … gone bad?”
“Like Lucifer?”
He nodded. “Is there such a thing as a fallen angel?”
Calliel stared. “What do you think, O God’s Dark Raven?”
He heard the title and knew what it implied. He smiled.
It was with that conversation in mind that inspiration came. He got off the Green line at San Diego State University and climbed the stairs to the plaza.
Students milled about or hurried to classes. At the community bulletin board he took note of a flier:
--Romans 6:23
Beneath was a photo of a church—Bible First Fellowship Church, in Chula Vista. Deanna’s church. Slightly overlaid over the upper left corner of the photo was another of a good-looking athletically built man in a white button-down dress shirt and tie. He looked in his late twenties, and wore a welcoming smile and held a King James Bible in his right hand.
Text followed:
Indeed, the wages of sin is death, and we all know college life
offers many temptations and occasions for sin!
The first step toward moral excellence is obedience to God
in repentance from sin, confession of Christ,
and baptism into Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 8:37-38; Rom. 6:3).
There were tabs at the bottom with the number. Several had been torn off. He tore one off, and that’s when Johnny Schwaggly’s address came to him. He had a rough idea where it was and set off.
“The world isn’t fair,” Calliel had told him.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“You know a lot, Ray. I’m only telling you because it will come into much sharper focus when you go back. It will anger you. It will enrage you. That’s a good thing. Let it. Then do something about it.”
“Even though it won’t even be a drop in the ocean?”
“Even though.”
“The lion will never lie down with the lamb?”
“That isn’t injustice. The lion is a predator. It was born that way. It evolved into what it is to fill a specific niche in its environment, as did the lamb. There is no injustice in that. A human being who preys on the weaker or more vulnerable among him isn’t filling a niche in his environment. He didn’t evolve to be that way. He has a choice. There are exceptions, of course: those with brain damage, for example. Get those off the streets and away from the public. Treat them with compassion. Help them. I’m not talking about them.”
“Those who have a choice: What do I do about them?”
“They are far more numerous than mortals might want to believe. If you are in proximity to such a monster …” Calliel shrugged. “Do as you will. Believe me, if you are in their wheelhouse, you can be sure that they’ve been warned countless times to get their shit together and have ignored them all. You are a soldier of God. Bring them to justice.”
He crossed the street to a series of gray-blue four-story apartment buildings that lined the road for half a mile heading up the hill back towards campus.
There was no security gate. He went to Building B, mounted the stairs to the third floor, and stopped at Apartment 328.
Its occupant was not home.
He reached for the knob. Locked. He concentrated as Calliel taught him. The lock clicked and released.
He opened the door and went inside.
The sun was setting when the sound of a key being pushed in a lock caught his attention. He was seated at the kitchen table.
The door opened and Johnny Schwaggly walked in, briefcase in hand. He tossed it on the couch and closed the door.
He wheeled about suddenly. “Who the devil are you? What are you doing in my apartment? Who let you in?”
“Come and sit down, Johnny. I made you dinner.”
Indeed, he had. There wasn’t much in Schwaggly’s cupboard or fridge to work with; still, he found plenty of hot dogs and buns, and some chicken noodle soup, which issued lazy curls of steam from the bowl he’d filled.
Schwaggly didn’t listen. He unpocketed his cell and punched it, stared in outraged frustration at it, then pitched it at him. It crashed into the sliding glass door leading to the tiny terrace and fell in pieces to the floor.
“Johnny. Please. Come and eat.”
The junior pastor wheeled about and grabbed a vase off the television and heaved it. It smashed into the sliding glass door, but didn’t break the glass. Almost in the same motion he rushed into his bedroom and emerged seconds later with a handgun. He pointed it at him and fired—BLAM!BLAM!BLAM!—then gawked when he saw that it had no effect.
“I’m right behind you.”
Schwaggly jerked about, startled.
He grabbed Schwaggly’s wrist and squeezed, and the gun dropped to the floor. Schwaggly swung a haymaker at him. It smashed into his face, but, as Calliel told him would happen, didn’t hurt (just as the bullets hadn’t). It felt like a large cotton ball striking him.
(The bullets felt like hot pinpricks, slight, instant—gone.)
He squeezed harder. Schwaggly groaned and collapsed to his knees. After a solid minute of fighting furiously to free himself, he sat on his ass and stared upward in disbelief, breathing heavily.
“You know who I am.”
“I am a voice in the wilderness, a crier of the Good News of the Most High JESUS CHRIST! Be gone, demon! BE GONE! You have no power over me! My soul is saved, SAVED! Eternal life is MINE! I am SAVED! My sins are FORGIVEN! Do you hear me? FORGIVEN!
He started gabbing in tongues or some such nonsense.
An angel’s anger is a fearsome thing. For him it felt like anger did when he was a mortal, but much purer and cleaner, unimpeded by the myriad obstacles and considerations of mortal life. Unlike Calliel, and unlike his mortal days, he didn’t feel the need to yell, so he didn’t. He released Schwaggly’s wrist and walked back to the table and sat.
“Your soup is getting cold,” he said amiably, picking pieces of vase and cellphone out of the way. “I took all that time—six minutes—to microwave it. Please: I must insist: come and eat.”
Schwaggly glared at him from the floor of his living room. “I am SAVED! You cannot have me! I am one in the body of Christ Je—”
“Come and sit, Johnny, or I’m afraid I will become … unpleasant. I have some questions I need you to answer.”
He smiled coldly, as he used to when dressing down a student or lesser faculty member.
Schwaggly stood. He stared at the gun at his feet but did not pick it up. Still staring at it, he spat, “I will not sup with an agent of the Prince of Darkness.”
“Good to hear it. I wouldn’t ‘sup’ with one of Satan’s agents either. But since he doesn’t exist …”
He fell to his knees. The gun waited. “My dear Lord Jesus, I beseech thee to smite the demon in my midst and deliver me from its torment! …”
He opened his eyes when he heard him—the ‘agent of the Prince of Darkness’—stand and come towards him.
“Your strength comes from living the mortal life you were put on earth to live,” said Calliel. “Do not be afraid to use it. I have shown you how; now you must be willing to apply those lessons to mortals when you return. The more you use it, the stronger you become. You are going back soon. You’ll see.”
He got to Schwaggly and stared down at him.
Schwaggly picked up the gun and shot point-blank at his groin. It didn’t hurt, but the intent certainly pissed him off. Schwaggly fired again, then again, then tried to tackle him.
That was it. He grabbed his short brown hair and lifted.
“A mortal may weigh four hundred pounds. It won’t matter,” said Calliel. “The spirit is stronger than the flesh. The flesh can only exist by means of the spirit. It is utterly dependent on it. An angel takes advantage of that when and where he or she can.”
“I have had enough, Johnny!”
Schwaggly was still trying to bring him down. He redoubled the grip on his hair, yanked him to his feet, and then drove his fist into the junior pastor’s chest. The blow was powerful enough to lift Schwaggly completely off the floor and send the pistol flying. He felt the satisfying give of his sternum, and felt it crack. Schwaggly was suddenly sucking air and grasping at his arms and gaping up at him with a purple face and goggling eyes.
When he was a boy, he was bullied by kids who couldn’t stand his love for science and mathematics, who couldn’t stand his superior intelligence. He was routinely beaten; on several times he was given “swirlies”—his head forced into toilets full of shit or piss or both, which were then flushed. On another occasion a cheerleader named Sonya feigned interest in him for several weeks, even going as far as kissing him in a crowded theater. But it was a dare she’d taken with her squad, who laughed mercilessly at him when she coldly dumped him in that same theater later with many of his classmates looking on. Everybody thought it hilarious.
He had fantasized many times of being super strong. Now that he was, it settled into him like the love for a newly discovered best friend.
Here in his grasp was one of the worst bullies imaginable.
He resolved to enjoy this.
“Take out the garbage when you can, Ray. Do it with prejudice. Because it truly is God’s work.”
Schwaggly was coughing up blood. He dragged him one-handed to the kitchen table and dumped him in the seat.
“I’m going to feed you some soup, Johnny,” he said, grabbing the soup spoon and ladling some up and forcing it into the junior pastor’s mouth after grabbing his hair again and yanking it back. “It’s going to heal you. Just watch. Swallow. Swallow! You are going to answer all my questions. For every one you don’t answer to my complete satisfaction, I’m going to hurt you, and then I’m going to heal you with this soup. You’re going to answer me until I’m completely satisfied. That’s how you’re going to spend your last night on Earth. Here—have some more soup. Swallow! Feeling better? Splendid.”
He dropped the spoon in the bowl. It splashed on Schwaggly’s dress shirt, now stained with blood.
He came around and sat across from him and waited.
Johnny Schwaggly stopped wheezing. After a time he coughed, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Fuck you.”
“Ah. Excellent. There he is—the true Johnny Schwaggly. Good to meet you, Johnny.”
Schwaggly didn’t move. He didn’t blink. “No matter what you do to me, I won’t fear you.”
“I do not require your fear. I require satisfactory answers to my questions. Eat a hot dog.” He motioned towards the half dozen on a plate. Buns and condiments were next to them. Somehow they managed to go untouched in the chaos.
Schwaggly stared. “Fuck you, demon cocksucker.”
“I won’t ask again.”
Schwaggly didn’t just eat a hot dog; he grabbed two off the plate and stuffed them full into his mouth. He chewed with his mouth open, grunting. Some of the masticated meat fell out. All the time he stared. Finally he swallowed.
“Thank you. The meat will … compel you, let’s say, to give honest answers to my questions. The soup will heal you should you require it. Now: shall we begin?”
“Burn in hell, you fucking faggot demon cocksucker.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said, smiling. “Now then: tell me about your deal with Martin Franks regarding his daughter’s tutoring at San Diego Cooperative College.”
Schwaggly held silent for a long moment before answering. “Martin Franks is a great man, a godly man. His daughter is a freak, an abomination. He loves her, so he disciplines her. He’s doing God’s work, as I am. We love Deanna, so we do God’s work in reforming her. Do you understand, fucker of mothers?”
He smiled. “That didn’t answer my question.”
“I couldn’t give a fuck.”
“Eat another hot dog.”
“Blow me, pole smoker.”
He stood and walked around the table. Schwaggly didn’t move, didn’t do anything but stare ahead.
“I want you to eat the rest of the hot dogs.”
The junior pastor stared ahead.
He put his blazer back on and looked down on his person. None of Schwaggly’s blood had stained his clothes, just as Calliel said would happen in such circumstances. It evaporated the moment it splashed or pulsed on him. That’s what Calliel said would happen to the blood of those who destroyed their souls, even if that clothing was made on Earth.
“Interesting,” he nodded, gazing down at his person.
He came around the table and sat. He gazed at Johnny Schwaggly, who now looked as he should.
Four more packages of hot dogs were in the fridge. They’d all been fed to him or used to enhance his person. They had been stuffed down his throat until his cheeks bled and nose gushed. He continued to fight back, so two were stuffed up his nostrils. They hung out grotesquely, dripping blood. He continued to fight, so two more were fashioned into crude hog’s ears and stapled to his head over his human ones.
The final effect was like looking at a hellish pig, mouth open, drool leaking in long ropes, teeth exposed. Schwaggly wheezed and hissed and stared blankly ahead.
Two final hot dogs were stapled to the back of his head as demon’s horns. (For some reason Schwaggly had a construction stapler with the silverware.) The large staples held the horns in place nicely, as well as both his middle fingers to the table, which had been thrust into the air one time too many.
Chicken soup kept him alive. He’d been force-fed two cans, unheated. Two more were ready to go.
“You’re an angel, Ray,” Calliel had said. “You are going to face truly horrible human beings—soulless, vicious, cunning, selfish, cruel. You are God’s raven. That is a very special title. He gave it to you for a reason. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
He nodded.
“The darkness that shadowed so much of your life can now be used to bring justice. So use it. Do not fear it. It does not make you evil; it makes you powerful. It makes you a unique instrument of God’s will. Don’t hold back.”
He gazed at Pastor Johnny Schwaggly.
He hadn’t held back.
Schwaggly grunted and squealed.
He’d taken some time to go through Schwaggly’s possessions. There were many trophies in his bedroom and living room, a framed certificate announcing his All-American status, a ceremonial football covered in signatures sitting on the TV, plenty of porn, TRUMP 2016 posters, NRA posters, a poster of Hitler saying something he probably thought profound, and …
He bent and picked them up from next to the unmade bed. A pair of semen-encrusted girl’s underwear.
“I found these next to the bed,” he said, holding them up. “They don’t look like something a woman would wear, but a girl. A teenage girl. Do these belong to a teenage girl, Johnny? Do these belong to Deanna?”
The man across from him grunted and tried to speak.
“Speak in your true tongue, Johnny,” he interrupted. He tossed the panties across the table. They struck Schwaggly in his pig face and dropped out of sight into his lap.
Schwaggly grunted and squealed at length.
Martin Franks had made a deal with his daughter. If she “submitted to private Christian counseling” by Johnny Schwaggly twice a month, she’d be allowed to pursue her math studies with a tutor. “Submitted” meant not complaining or crying, and wasn’t, as it turned out, a choice of any kind. What it came down to was: if she didn’t cry or complain, she would receive tutoring. If she cried or complained, which she did on occasion, the tutoring went away and Martin Franks made his presence much more known in her bedroom.
“How many times did you ‘guide’ her with your ‘Christian love’?”
Schwaggly shrugged and squealed.
“You don’t sound sure. Was it four, or six?”
Schwaggly struggled to get free. When he couldn’t, he grunted and squealed at length.
“So not four or six. More like eight, maybe even ten.”
Grunt, grunt, squeal.
“Does Deanna’s mother know about this ‘deal’?” he asked, sickened and fighting to keep his rage under control.
Squeal, squeeeeeeal, grunt, grunt, grunt, gruuuuuunt.
She didn’t know. That too was part of Deanna’s burden, for if her mother ever found out, there would be “hell to pay.”
“But she’s okay with her husband violating her daughter any time he pleases?”
Schwaggly squealed animatedly.
“Shut up. Shut up,” he said, holding up his hand. “I’m not interested in scripture, especially your interpretation of it. Neither you nor Martin Franks nor his wife have any idea what love is. You have perverted and profaned it beyond all meaning. You are no different than so many others in history who have claimed to do God’s work, to do it in love, but neither know God nor love.”
Schwaggly held silent.
He stared at him. A deadly quiet settled between them.
What to do about evil of this magnitude, this perniciousness? Here was pure malice, starched and pressed white and completely certain of its goodness, its rightness, its “love.” He thought of how Calliel dealt with the gang who slaughtered that lovely old woman, Nora Williamson.
He had dealt with them with untrammeled fury.
Now it was his turn.
He stood and buttoned his blazer. Johnny Schwaggly’s unblinking stare followed him up. Bloody drool leaked off his chin into his soup.
“There is no Hell, Johnny. There is no Lucifer, no Satan, no Prince of Darkness. He never existed. He was invented by small men interested in controlling their sheep. But if there were a Devil, he would be absolutely unnecessary, for people like you, Johnny … well, you would make him look like a rank amateur.
“No, Mr. Schwaggly, there is no Satan, and there is no Hell. But there is Oblivion. It’s both a place and not a place. It exists and it doesn’t exist. That’s where you’re going.
“The mortal human soul can only survive for a fraction of a second in it. But when you’re in it …” He came slowly around the table. “… Oh, let me tell you, it’s … well, there is nothing like it. It’s truly hell. And it feels like eternity.”
Schwaggly squealed and fought to free himself.
He touched Pastor Johnny Schwaggly’s sweat-slicked forehead.
Deanna Frank’s rapist’s eyes crossed, rolled up in his head, and closed. He shuddered grotesquely, almost pulling up one of the staples holding his middle fingers to the table, then went still.
“You are an angel of death, Ray,” Calliel had told him. “Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it.”
He looked down at Johnny Schwaggly’s lifeless body.
“I am an angel of death.”
He went to the kitchen, washed his hands, and left.

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