Killing the Devil

by Paul Michael Peters

After you read this book, you will understand that you are responsible for your own darkness.

The devil shows up when you go look for him. If you don’t prickle and jag with him, you may never meet him. He only comes when you call him and when asked. People who stay put and quiet do not interest him. He feeds on fear, hate, and other negative emotions, and finds a fertile ground whenever someone plants these seeds.

What is the deal with the devil? In this book, he is “harvesting” after an earthquake in which family members have been lost, he is a drop-in stranger impregnating a baby-starved mother, a pastor who fights his demons by seeing the devil in his father’s face, reviving a love story from decades ago by threatening with an imminent lynch, and a celebrity who turns into an abusive nutjob.

However, Tex has originally destroyed his own life when he left Jessica, the only woman that he loved. Is there a redemption for him? Well, once you start teasing the devil...


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Killing the Devil by Paul Michael Peters



FREE CHAPTER PREVIEW


CHAPTER ONE

KILLING THE DEVIL

“There is a God to fear and a Devil to shun,” he preached from the front of the congregation, his eyes squinted, brow covered in perspiration. “There is a heaven to gain and a hell avoid,” he continued. He moved his hands up and down slowly to calm the energized crowd. “Now, close your eyes with me. If there is anyone joining us for the first time who doesn’t have peace in their heart, if there is anyone here who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, I need you to raise your hands. Raise your hands high and acknowledge that you need Him, that you need the sweet Lord to enter your heart . . . or be cast out with Lucifer into a fiery lake, where your soul will burn for all eternity.”

Tex Bryant stood at the back of the service. He had chosen this spot to best observe the Southern Appalachian congregation. The hundred tan folding chairs he had counted out of boredom during the sermon were not all filled, even though it was Sunday morning. Outside the double doors of the church, it was no more than ten degrees, but inside the brown-paneled walls, the room was sweltering from all the jumping, swaying bodies.

You have to respect a church this size with a full drum kit and a base guitar, Tex thought.

Over the past three months of his crusade, he had seen his fair share of tambourines, folk guitars, ornate pipe organs, and even a few karaoke machines leading the worship. He loathed the incessant cabasa that seemed to be included in every church percussion starter pack. It seemed to scrape its rhythm across the crowd, chewing at Tex’s every nerve.

“Anyone here,” the pastor went on, “who has never accepted the word of God into his heart faces a choice today: everlasting joy at the right hand of our Lord and Savior or eternal damnation of fire licking at your heels.”

Tex noticed the last comment was directed at him. The spiritual leader shot a tense stare through the crowd, toward Tex. Tex shook his head and waved off the pastor, who wore a well-tailored tan suit.

“Thanks, I’m good,” Tex mouthed back at him.

The pastor tilted his head in return, demonstrating a lack of acceptance in the matter, then returned to his preaching. “Thank You, Lord Jesus. We thank You for the peace in our hearts today, the peace that transcends all understanding. We thank You for leading us down the path of light, of joy, of happiness. It is a path only You can provide.”

As the pastor brought the three-hour service to a close, he walked down the center aisle toward the back of the church while the band played him out. He kept one eye on Tex the whole time. After he said a closing prayer, the congregation exited, each receiving a handshake, a pat on the back, or a hug of encouragement from the pastor.

Tex waited, just as he had done at every service since he made his decision.

 

***

 

When he’d typed “How to kill the devil” into the Internet search engine, it had been on a lark. Online, he’d found the process described in four simple steps. First, find out who the devil is. Second, figure out the devil’s weakness. Third, find the devil. Finally, kill the devil.

In retrospect, Tex thought that finding the information had been like taking the first hit of a joint: it had seemed simple and benign at first, but it wasn’t until later that he’d realized it’d had an impact. Those few laughable words, such simple instructions, had planted a seed and taken root in his life. He’d found himself wondering what it would it take to kill the devil. Was there even a devil to kill?

That cold day in Abilene, Kansas, after typing those words into the search engine, letting the results stew in his mind while he showered, and eating dinner with his best girl, Tex had determined what he had to do.

He had to kill the devil.

 

***

 

When the door closed behind the final parishioner and the bitter cold stopped blasting into the church, the pastor’s footsteps creaked over to Tex. He had such a tight, square squint that his eyes looked permanently closed. His salty hair, more white than dark, was about as square as it could get without being a military crew cut. He removed a toothpick from his pocket and let it rest on the right side of his lower lip, looking Tex up and down.

“They call me Pastor Bill,” he finally said. “What do they call you?”

Sitting in the padded brown folding chair, Tex replied, “Tex Bryant.”

The toothpick started to dance as Pastor Bill tickled it with his tongue from behind his pursed lips. “What can I do for you, Tex?”

“I’m looking for information,” Tex said. “In certain circles, they say you’re the one with answers.”

“Certain circles, you say. What kind of circles are those?”

Tex wondered if this was just another dead end. There had been many along the way. Some found his quest amusing and would simply play along as if they had the answers. Some men who claimed to be holy seemed to think a profit could be made off a man seeking to kill the devil. More than once, Tex had found himself a pawn, being used as an excuse to pass the plate around one extra time at a service. He never saw a penny, of course.

“There is a brotherhood outside the village of Nendeln in Liechtenstein who have taken a vow of obedience to protect a wall in the cloister where a set of ancient weapons are kept,” Tex began.

Two women full of smiles to demonstrate peace beyond all understanding entered the church hall and began straightening the rows of chairs in service to the Lord. A third entered with a vacuum.

Pastor Bill nodded toward the door. “Let’s talk in my office.”

Tex rose and followed him down into the basement, which was painted white and carpeted in a deep shade of brown. The church had been built on a foundation of ancient stone, now whitewashed. Chunks of painted mortar dangled loosely on the walls, ripe for picking. A Sheetrock wall with a doorframe separated the church supplies from the pastor’s private sanctuary.

“C’mon in. Take a seat,” Pastor Bill said, sitting down behind a hefty wooden desk.

“How in the world did you get that desk down those rickety steps and into this dungeon?” Tex asked.

Pastor Bill chuckled under his breath. “You don’t mince words, do you?” He pulled the top desk drawer open, leaned back, and propped his legs up on it. “This was here when my daddy got the place. Don’t know how they did it, but it got done. You can do anything you set your mind to. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“Yep,” Tex said, sitting in the chair facing the desk.

“I heard—from those certain circles you mentioned—that you might be on the way. What is it exactly you’re looking for?”

“Pretty simple, really. I’m looking for the devil.”

“Right. Well, you know that the devil is a spirit, an angel gone bad. Look around this world and all you see are the remains of his work. What you’re looking for isn’t easy to find.”

Tex smiled. “Well, I’ve been on the trail, and it’s brought me here to you. I understand you’re a man who knows.”

“Who told you that? The monks?”

“Yes,” Tex said. “The details were limited. Only a few of them were allowed to speak, while the others were completely focused on the ‘counsel of perfection,’ on writing, and on prayer. During my three weeks there, the elders found me to be serious-minded. One night, a note was slipped under my door. It described a small church in the Appalachian Mountains where a church leader watches over the lock of the devil’s keep.”

Pastor Bill dropped his feet down to the floor, reaching into the bottom drawer and pulling out an old bottle of whiskey and two small glass tumblers.

“None for me, thanks,” Tex said.

With a huff implying weary patience, Pastor Bill filled both glasses, then reached behind the desk to a small refrigerator and took out a bottle of water. He handed Tex the bottle before quickly shooting down the first tumbler of alcohol, leaving the second for sipping. “There are a lot of churches fitting that bill.”

“I know. I’ve been to nearly all of them. This is the last one on a long list.”

Pastor Bill sipped again at his whiskey. He looked Tex up and down, seeing his lanky build before him, outfit shabby from miles, and breathing in the faint odor that had clung to him since his last shower. “What if I’m just a zookeeper, a jailer, a man with a key?” Pastor Bill took the drink in hand, leaned back in his chair, and propped his legs up again. He wore the expression of a man reminiscing. “I didn’t know about him until I was older, a teenage,” he said. “It was my father who caught him.”

“So, it’s a ‘he,’” Tex said.

“Yes, I think so . . . when I see it . . .” Pastor Bill continued. “My father was getting older and weaker. His hair was always white, his skin ashy, and there seemed to be something eating away at him. When I turned sixteen, he brought me here, showed me the door, and explained what he had done.”

“What exactly had he done?” Tex asked.

“Made the biggest mistake anyone could have: he’d let the devil loose on the world,” Pastor Bill said, staring down at the glass in his hand. “Your monks? My father met them on a stormy night, lost in the mountains of Liechtenstein. He had been separated from his unit during a training exercise.”

Tex listened as Pastor Bill explained his father’s journey. As a young man stationed in Europe, stumbling upon the order of devout monks, Pastor Bill’s father had entered an unknown world. Inside the monastery was a locked room where a normal man had begged to be let out, claiming that the monks were religious zealots who had imprisoned him unjustly. Pastor Bill’s father had taken pity on the man and helped him escape. As the man had run away into the darkness, the pastor’s father had realized the monks had, indeed, captured the devil. Each step running into the darkness had transformed foot to hoof, skin to scale, man to beast. He knew that it was now up to him to recapture and imprison him, so the world would not suffer his next reign.

Tex was beginning to doubt Pastor Bill’s story. His leg had been pulled before, and he didn’t want to be made a fool again. “You think this is funny? You think I’m a joke or a fool? You’ve just described an episode of the Twilight Zone. Thanks for wasting my time.”

Tex stood up and turned toward the door.

“I guess you’re right,” Pastor Bill replied, cynicism in his voice. “There certainly couldn’t be any truth in a tall tale like that one. No way that a young writer in the army could have heard this story from my father late one night in the barracks and written a screenplay about it. You’re absolutely right. Run along, young man. Keep searching, wander the desert like the Israelites for forty years, that’s what you do best.”

Tex stopped at the doorknob. “A story based on truth, you say?”

Pastor Bill’s faded blue eyes opened fully for the first time. He let his shoulders drop into a slouch, finally revealing himself. “You’re the first one who didn’t walk away,” he said, wincing as he took another sip of liquor. “There is a devil,” he went on, “and I can prove it.”

 

***

 

The hatch in the floor bore a metal crest on its thick wooden planks. It was the same symbol Tex had seen emblazoned on the cloister wall where the ancient weapons were guarded. The hatch was heavy, and Pastor Bill used a rope and pulley to shift its massive weight. He unhooked several booby traps as he and Tex descended into the sub-basement.

Thick padding lined the walls and ceiling, dulling every sound. Opening a door, Pastor Bill revealed a downward-sloping passage, leading even deeper into the earth. The two walked down the dark corridor, arriving at a heavy door with an eye-level metal slot .

Pastor Bill stopped in his tracks. “Tex,” he said, “this is your last chance. If you have anything in your life worth living for, if there’s something or someone you wanted to keep safe, if you have any doubt about going forward, this is your opportunity to turn back. Once you see this, it can’t be unseen. There won’t be a day that passes when you don’t think of it, not a sleepless night without its image bubbling up again.”

As the words of warning came from the Pastor’s lips, memories flooded Tex’s mind. He thought of the friends and family he’d lost and tried to forget. He thought of Jessica, his one true love, who was now little more than a painful sting of remorse in his gut. He saw their faces and knew that killing the devil was more important.

With that knowledge, the weight of his cares was lifted from his mind and he moved forward. “Open it,” he said.

Pastor Bill shook his head. “No skin off my nose. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in thirty years.”

The man of God encouraged Tex to step closer. With a rusty drag, the heavy iron slot opened.

Tex expected something fantastic to happen. A beam of light. Fire and brimstone. He moved toward the slot and squinted, ready for anything. But all he saw was a sparse room, with a single light and a simple bed tucked in one corner. At a plain wooden desk sat a man, reading. He wore a short sleeve dress shirt with a pocket protector filled with pens and a small ruler. His belly, like his face, was round. His dishwater blond hair had a pronounced cowlick.

“Are you sure this is the right dungeon?” Tex asked, confused.

“What is it you see?” Pastor Bill replied. “The devil takes on many forms.”

“Well, it’s a guy who looks like he’s from IT support, maybe an engineer.”

A small voice, crisp and throaty, came from inside the room, “Oh, hello. Didn’t expect company today.”

Tex looked to Pastor Bill, “What is that accent?”

“My name is Louis,” the voice from inside the dungeon came again. “Are you here to help me? Can you let me out, please?”

Tex and Pastor Bill exchanged a knowing look. The devil was a liar. Anything he said, any appearance he took on, was all a deception, no matter how convincing.

“It seems some crazy rednecks have kidnapped me,” the man said. “Please, help me get out.” With that, the man rose from the desk, dropping his book, and pressed himself up against the door, his face directly across from Tex’s. “Oh, fresh air!” he said. “I can feel it, smell it. You brought some with you. I have been in here . . . well, I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. I can’t keep track of time. What day is it?”

“Sunday,” Tex replied.

“What month?”

“February.” Tex watched as the trapped man dropped his head and leaned against the door.

“That makes five years. Five years in this hole. Help me,” he pleaded, becoming agitated. “Help me get out. Help me get home. You have no idea what they do to me. They are mad. Mad, I tell you!”

“I’m told that you’re the devil,” Tex said.

“The devil?” the man asked, his mild manner returning. “Ha! That’s a good one. I’m just a guy.”

“What do you know about the devil?”

The IT man seemed to search his head for any answer that might help him escape. “I know a joke. Well, it’s a story, actually. I am not very good at jokes.”

“Go on,” Tex urged.

“Let’s see. It starts when the devil and Jesus are in heaven, standing in front of God, arguing about who’s better at running a computer. Have you heard this one?”

“No, go on.”

“The argument lasts for days about who is better, so God sets up this test. He’s always testing the devil, you see. The test is three hours long and has a detailed list of tasks they need to complete. The test starts, and Jesus and the devil start running programs, typing command lines and the like. About ten minutes before the timer sounds, a bolt of lightning strikes, knocking out the power.”

Tex watched the man through the slot in the door. His nervous little storytelling dance involved lots of hand motions and swaying from side to side.

“The devil,” the IT man continued, “is outraged at this, knowing full well that God has added this as an extra test. He says it’s a trick that God has played on him. Just then, the power returns, rebooting the computers, and Jesus starts printing out His final stats to complete the test. The devil is enraged. He’s screaming and pounding the desk all mad, and then, the timer goes off. The devil starts yelling at God, saying that Jesus cheated, that there was no way He could have recovered all that work.” The IT guy started to giggle to himself before the punch line. “And God says, ‘Well, Jesus saves!’” The man looked to the eye slot, clearly anticipating a reaction. “You get it? Jesus saves! That’s how he won!”

Tex and Pastor Bill remained silent.

Frustrated by the absence of laughter, the trapped man continued explaining. “It’s a well-known tag line in the church. Jesus saves.”

Tex, unfazed, said, “I guess it’s just not that funny if you have to explain the punch line.”

“Okay, fine, it’s not that funny. But it’s all I’ve got. You have to help me get out of here. I’m just a guy, not the devil. The devil would have a better sense of humor, right? He would have told a dirty joke. Do I look like the devil to you?” There was real fear in his voice.

The pity Tex felt came as a surprise. In his mind, he knew this was the devil, the dark lord of lies. But still, he felt doubtful. What if they were wrong? he thought. What if they were part of a crazy cult and just caught a man, a human?

“Be strong, brother,” Pastor Bill said. “You know it’s true. He is a liar, a deceiver, a serpent.”

Tex looked back through the slot and said, “If you’re a man, tell me about your life before they caught you.”

The trapped man’s face suddenly popped up in the slot, startling Tex. Now he could smell the body odor and bad breath.

“I am a computer programmer,” the man said in a hushed tone. “I was sent here by my company to help a customer, you see. Just here to help. I got lost driving, and when I stopped to ask for directions, Pastor Bill and his family abducted me, brought me here. They have been keeping me trapped in this room ever since.”

“What was the name of your company?” Tex asked.

“PaineWebber,” the man replied.

Tex began a small chuckle.

“What? Why are you laughing?”

“They’ve been out of business since 2000, and they aren’t a software company,” Tex replied.

“No, I was in IT. I came over from Europe. They sent me to help a client.”

“Okay, what was the name of your client?” Tex asked.

The man’s face disappeared from view, and there was a long moment of silence. Tex thought the man might have stepped away from the door, into the recesses of his dimly lit dungeon. Tex balanced on the balls of his feet to get a better look inside the room, but suddenly, the man appeared in the iron window, sending Tex stumbling backward in shock. A loud howl of laughter filled the air.

“You got me, didn’t you, Tex Bryant?”

More bellowing laughter erupted from behind the heavy door. Tex returned to the eye slot, his heart racing. Looking inside, he saw that the once mild-mannered man had now taken the shape of an old haggard beast-like person.

“You outsmarted me with just a few questions! Guess I’m out of practice with these little games. I should have said SAP.” The kind, bespectacled eyes of the IT professional had now been replaced by a pair of seething, yellow eyes with black, horizontally slanted pupils, like those of a goat. The beastly man sat, staring at Tex, ass on the dirt floor.

“Be strong,” Pastor Bill said. “Last year, he took the form of my wife and pretended to be trapped in there. He takes many forms, anything to gain an advantage.” He extended his hand to help Tex to his feet.

“It is the devil,” Tex said, standing up.

“No shit, Sherlock,” the devil taunted from behind the door. “We have a real bright one here, don’t we, William? Another one to test me! Someone to take your place, perhaps. You’re old and feeble now. You can’t even keep it up for your wife.”

“Don’t pay attention to his rants,” Pastor Bill said. “He’s not nearly as strong as he claims. If he were truly powerful, he would have gotten through that door by now.”

“Oh, I can get out any time I want. I choose to stay in here,” the devil said. “Plans are in play. Soon, your wife will be underneath me, screaming with pleasure. Your daughter’s virginity will be next to go. You will watch as your precious women writhe in delight.”

“I thought he would be more original,” Tex said, looking at Pastor Bill. “After an eternity of torment and sorrow, I expected him to have thought of better ways to taunt us.”

Pastor Bill, looking pale, grabbed Tex by the hand and dragged him a safe distance away near the passage entrance. “His words don’t sting at first,” he said. “He plants a seed in your mind. It’s easy to brush them off . . . until you wake late one night and all you can think about is ‘what if?’ What if he gets out? What will he do? It haunts me. It’s unshakeable.”

“Yeah, but I see those types of things in movies, on television, in video games. It seems ridiculous.”

“If he were to ever get out, these things would quickly become reality.” There was a seriousness in the pastor’s tone that moved Tex. “He must die,” Pastor Bill continued. “I don’t have enough energy left in me to do it. You have to end this.”

“Can you get me in there? Without letting him out? Can you open the door for me to go in and kill him?”

“The fire hose next to the door. We have used it in the past to spray him and push him back into the corner. That’s how my father and I used to keep him at bay. We pushed him away from the door with the hose.”

“If you can get me in there, I can kill him,” Tex said confidently. He unsnapped the pocket on the side of his cargo pants and removed a leather sheath. The knife’s handle was of polished silver. Tex gripped the handle and unsheathed an ancient blade.

“Where did you get that?”

“The monks. It was one of the weapons they guarded. It is part of their purpose to keep safe the tools that would fight the devil. It’s the only way.”

“It’s beautiful,” Pastor Bill said, admiring the blade. “Will it work?”

“I have done nothing with my life until now. I am willing to risk everything to find out.”

The two made their way back down the tunnel. Pastor Bill unraveled a circular fire hose. Next, he turned the wheel that regulated the water pressure, shifting it to full capacity. The pipes began to groan as the fabric hose filled up.

In the dungeon room, all was silent. Tex took his place beside the door, blade in hand. Pastor Bill readied himself, sticking his key in the enormous lock and picking up the pressurized hose. He leaned forward, looking through the eye slot to locate his target. Just as he pressed his face to the door, the devil appeared at the slot, shooting a mouthful of fiery spittle out at the pastor and hitting his target.

Pastor Bill dropped the hose, clutching his face. “It burns! It burns!” he cried.

Cackling laughter came from inside the dungeon.

“Are you okay?” Tex asked.

Pastor Bill raised his face, revealing the swollen slots of his eyes. Feeling for the hose, he picked it up and held it up to the slot. With one quick movement, the nozzle lever opened and a torrent of water burst out. Pastor Bill leaned into the pressure of the hose, holding it up and in place. As he moved the nozzle from left to right, the spray found its intended target.

The beast’s laughter transformed into a gurgling howl of pain as he was pelted with the high-pressure stream of water.

Pastor Bill squinted through his swollen eyelids, staying focused on the writhing beast. “Now, now, now!” he shouted to Tex. “Go, go, go!”

Tex lunged forward, turned the key, and pulled the heavy door open, cracking through a rusted crust of seams. Then, he squeezed into the room before pulling the door closed behind him.

Leaning all his weight into the door, Pastor Bill helped to slam it shut and quickly turned the lock until it clicked. He continued spraying water through the slot, keeping the monster in place as Tex moved in on his prey.

The blade of Tex’s holy relic glinted under the dull light of the single swaying light bulb. He struggled forward into the rising mud, moving closer to the blasting water and the weary beast.

A rumbling sound came from the water pipes. Pastor Bill turned his attention away from Tex just in time to see one of the pipes explode. Water poured from the earthen ceiling, and the hose went limp. Pastor Bill ran back to the main entrance, shutting off the main valve and locking the basement hatch, trapping Tex and the devil inside.

Tex looked at the beast lying on its back as the last trickle of water flowed from the hose and Pastor Bill slammed the sub-basement hatch. The devil displayed no apparent wounds, but stubbed horns protruded from his forehead and hooves had sprouted where his feet had once been.

“Just do it,” the devil said, sounding exhausted. “End it. I am tired and old. Put an end to me.” The devil rolled over onto his side, exposing the spot at the base of his neck that the monks had told Tex about. This spot, they’d said, was where the devil was weakest.

Tex took the opportunity and vaulted forward, blade in hand, aiming true. He felt the blade slide in and break off in place, with no chance for removal.

The devil flopped around and struggled to stand up. A mighty, razor-edged tail emerged from the base of his spine, swinging wildly. Leathery wings grew from his shoulder blades, and he attempted to take flight.

Tex fell backward, stunned by the transformation. The tail swung in his direction, and he felt it slice across his chest with great force. Tex fell forward, slamming his head against the bedframe and landing face-first in the ice-cold pool of muddy water. As the beast writhed above him, everything turned to black.

 

***

 

“You killed him.”

The voice spoke directly to Tex. It had no corresponding body or shape but simply penetrated his mind.

Tex opened his eyes and found himself bathed in a beautiful light. He felt strongly and completely that there were no more worries. Fear was only a four-letter word. No emotion. No pain. All was golden, angelic, warm, and inviting. This, he knew, was the ethereal plane. “God?”

“It is I.”

“I killed the devil!” Tex announced proudly.

“Yes. Why?”

Tex didn’t understand the question and took what seemed an eternity to answer. Several things went through his mind. Firstly, he did not want to disappoint the Almighty, nor did he want to feel His wrath. Secondly, he didn’t quite know how to answer the question.

“Well,” Tex finally replied, “I entered into battle with him, and I won.”

Silence in this holy place felt far more awkward than on a first date, much worse than a job interview. Instead, it felt like being on a large stage in front of a huge audience, naked and unable to remember your lines.

To find relief, Tex just began to speak, hoping that it might improve the situation. “There I was, in my mother’s basement, with no real job, and this question popped into my head: why don’t we just kill the devil? So, I looked it up on the Internet—” Tex paused. “You do know what the Internet is, don’t You?”

There came no response, only the vast and great silence of the unknown.

“Of course You do, all-knowing, all-seeing God. So, this question sat with me all day. I took my best girl out for our anniversary dinner, and I explained to her this feeling I had, this need to do something more, do something bigger, and that it wasn’t going to happen in Abilene, Kansas. She felt the same, that moving somewhere and doing something bigger was what we both needed to do.”

As he recounted the story, Tex could remember the conversation clearly. That night still stung him deep in his chest. He realized that he should have handled the situation differently. How do I still know this pain and anguish in heaven? Tex thought. Where is the peace that surpasses all understanding?

“Why did you do it?” the voice came again, resonating deep in Tex’s body.

“Finally, a full sentence,” Tex mumbled. “All for You, my Lord. All for you.” He let out an exasperated sigh. “I thought it was the right thing to do! I thought that killing the devil would remove evil, badness, and hurt from the planet.”

“That’s not how it works, Tex,” the voice said.

“What’s the deal here, Lord? I took down Your bad guy. Now, don’t I get a reward? Aren’t You happy? How does it work?”

“Thou shall not kill,” came the reply.

Tex stepped back in shock at the simplicity of what he’d overlooked. “That applies to everyone? That covers the devil too? There is a lot of confusion about this subject on earth, You know. There are exceptions to that rule, like in war, abortion, euthanasia, or, say, the devil where killing is all right.”

“Thou shall not kill.”

“So, that is an absolute rule. Got it. There are people, like Pastor Bill, representing You on earth and encouraging the opposite of Your absolute rule, and You saw how that played out.”

“Pastor Bill is not My best representative.”

“No? If he was not Your best representative, then how did he and his father capture the devil?”

“If you kill the devil,” the voice explained, “you take his place. The beast you killed was Pastor Bill’s father.”

“Wait, go back,” Tex interrupted. “If you kill the devil, you take his place? I’ve never heard that before. It seems like it should be covered in the top ten rules.”

“Thou shall not kill.”

“That is clear to me now.”

“It is time,” God replied. “You will now take the place of Lucifer, the original adversary. Go, spread his lies. Encourage pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth, and greed.”

“Why would You have me do that? What kind of fucked up system did You create?”

“Tex, I love all of My own creation. The devil is part of that balance. Kill him and you upset the balance. Without choice, humanity would be nothing more than a group of robots who do nothing but worship Me. I give you choice, free will. You need the devil. You need to have choice.”

“Oh,” Tex replied. “I didn’t think of it that way.”

“I know,” God replied. “I was watching you.”

“When will it happen?” Tex asked. “When do I become the devil?”

“It has already begun.”

“Do You have any advice? Words of wisdom?”

“Read My commandments, and do the opposite.”

Tex started to feel a tingling inside his body that quickly progressed into a burning sensation. He became annoyed by God’s answer. “Fuck that!” he spat in return. “I thought I was doing the right thing before, and now, here I am, the devil himself.”

“See? You’re already doing a great job.”

“No further advice, I suppose,” Tex said angrily. “You’re just going to drop me back down there and tell me to do the opposite of what You would.”

“The power you have is the power given to you by the sinful and by the doubtful. If you seek, you shall find.”

“Screw You. Get me out of here.”

“You’re going to be great at this.”

 

***

 

Tex sat upright in the icy waters of the mud basement. “Ugh, this shithole.”

The smell of something like burnt skunk hung in the air as the leathery remains of the former devil began to bubble and melt away into a fog.

Tex tried the door. It was locked. He pushed harder. He could feel that the earth holding it in place was loose. After a few more minutes of pushing, the whole doorframe fell over. Tex walked back up the earthen corridor to the hatch. He knocked on it in hopes that someone might answer. He called out to Pastor Bill. When no answer came, Tex tried to visualize the hatch in his mind. He thought of the way the counterbalance was arranged, the metal locking mechanism, and he imagined it all melting away. The harder he thought about the silly door and the metal symbol on it, and the more he visualized that rope burning, the more real it all seemed. He could almost smell the smoke.

Opening his eyes, he realized that there was actual smoke. The rope was on fire. Then came a thud that sounded like the counterweight falling to the floor. Molten silver began to drip through the wood’s imperfections. Tex tested the hatch again, and it opened with ease.

Stepping up into Pastor Bill’s office, Tex could see that the fire was spreading. The heavy desk was now timber, fueling his burning anger. Looking around the office, Tex saw the collection plates, the envelopes filled with tithes, and shoved them into his pockets.

With a turn of the knob, he was in the supply room. He climbed up the steps, along the whitewashed walls, out the large double doors, and into the icy wind. He walked a quarter mile up the road to the first house and knocked on the door.

From behind the glass panes came the voice of Pastor Bill. “You stay away from here, devil. You are not welcome in this home. In the name of Lord Jesus, you stay away.”

Tex touched the knob and watched it melt away beneath his grip. He pushed the door open, and the sound of both hammers striking the shells of the double barrel clicked. There was a thunderous noise and a spray of gunpowder struck Tex’s body, but it had no impact.

Devil Tex tried to walk into the home, but he couldn’t make it over the threshold. It was just a matter of stepping forward, yet there was something preventing this simple action. He remembered what God had told him, that he only had the power others gave to him. Admission into his home was not something Pastor Bill was going to give.

“How long can you stay in there, Bill?” Tex asked.

“Long enough.”

“Seems like you weren’t being entirely honest on this whole project, were you?”

“I had a promise to keep. He couldn’t be the devil any longer. He couldn’t take it.”

“A hell to fear, a devil to shun? You’ve been a bad boy, Bill. You made a made a deal with the devil, or should I say ‘daddy’? Let the next fool take his place,” Tex said.

There was another click, followed by the sound of opening the barrels to remove the empty shells. One more click and both barrels were full with fresh shells.

“You know that won’t stop me,” Tex said, pointing at the weapon.

“Might slow you down some,” the pastor replied.

“Spoke with God about you. He doesn’t seem to like you much. Said you were not a good representative of His Word.” Tex felt pleasure as his words stung Pastor Bill, whose pain discharged onto Tex like the warmth of a radiator on a cold day. It was a new kind of nourishment for him. “How long can you wait in there, William? A few days? Maybe months? One day, someday soon, you are going to put your big toe on this porch and I will be here. I have all of eternity to wait.”

“We will see,” Bill said. “We will see.”

“Your daughter and wife are in there. I can smell their fear,” Tex said, his nostrils flaring. “Might be a nice spring day when your daughter finds a new prize on the porch and can’t resist the temptation of bringing it inside. Then, I’ll be in, Bill. Inside your home. Wasn’t that your fear in the pit? It’s what the last devil warned you about—your precious wife and daughter.”

A click sounded, followed by the thunder of both barrels ripping pellets through the air. Tex stood unchanged, reveling in his invincibility. It was clear to Tex that this was a mental game. The fear, hate, and negative emotions of these earth-bound mortals would feed him. He only needed to make the suggestions.

 

***

 

Snow crunched under his feet, each step plunging knee-deep into the fresh powder. He had to raise his legs high as he moved forward. Making the turn through the pines, Tex saw a small cottage bathed in the glow of hearth and light. He trudged forward, eventually reaching the porch that wrapped around the front of the home. He wasn’t cold. He wasn’t hungry. There was no sense of thirst. There was only the sense of being there, in the moment.

He sat in the rocking chair that had stayed out for the season. Closing his eyes, Tex could sense that there were two people inside. He knew that it was a man and a woman. He could feel that they were good people and that their kindness was a weakness. He could use it to take advantage of them.

Tex stood and pushed the rocker over, making a loud thud, then got down on his knees, pretending to be desperate, feigning confusion.

The front door opened a sliver, and warmth and light poured out onto Tex’s snow-covered body. A woman’s head poked out, and the door opened wide when she saw Tex.

“What is it, honey?” came a male voice from inside. “Another deer?”

“It’s a man,” the woman said, stepping out quickly to help Tex. “Get some blankets! Put the kettle on! And add more wood to the fire!”

The woman bent over Tex and tried to help him to his feet. Tex feigned slow progress, starting by balancing on the flipped chair, then putting his weight on her shoulder, and finally sliding each foot under him to move forward. Near the door, the man appeared and helped to bring Tex inside, seating him by the fire in a very comfortable chair.

The woman helped Tex remove his jacket and shirt before placing a warm blanket around his shoulders. Tex watched the flames for a long time, listening to the two talk about him as if he weren’t even there.

The storm had come on strong. They would be there for days, maybe even a week, before the roads would be clear enough to get help. They decided they would just have to do their best with the stranger. After all, they agreed, it was the Christian thing to do.

Tex took delight in hearing these words. These would be the perfect conditions for him to find out just how much power he had.

The man stooped at Tex’s side and said, “Mister, what’s your name? I’m Glenn, and this is my wife, Mary. And you?”

Keeping up appearances, Tex was slow to respond. “Tex,” he said eventually.

“Tex,” Glenn repeated. “That’s a great name. How did you get here, Tex?”

“There was so much snow,” Tex replied, telling the couple precisely what they wanted to hear. “I got lost on the roads. Then, the car just wouldn’t move. So, I started walking.”

“Kind of what I figured, Tex,” Glenn said.

“Thank you for letting me inside,” Tex said. “Mary, thank you for letting me in.”

“Of course, Tex. I heard that loud noise and had to see what it was. Can’t leave you out in this kind of weather.”

Mary was attractive. She had long brown hair that went past her shoulders and lightened at the tips. Glenn looked like a capable man, wiry and strong, with a thick, untrimmed beard. Both looked to be somewhere in their late twenties or early thirties.

“I really appreciate it,” Tex said, looking back to the fire. He could feel the worry Mary had in bringing him inside. He sensed her uncertainty. Glenn, on the other hand, was more like the static and white noise of a television set on the wrong channel. Tex was not sure if this was a result of the three empty beer cans on the kitchen counter or just a lack of any meaningful thought from him.

“We don’t have much, but you are welcome to it,” Glenn said.

“Are you hungry, Tex? We have some meatloaf from dinner. I can cook you a potato. Do you like salad?” Mary asked.

“That would be great,” Tex said, focusing on the fire. “You sure are nice to offer. I would be grateful.”

Tex could feel his senses heightening in a way he had never experienced before his transformation. He listened to the two in the kitchen area. There was the scrape of Glenn dragging out a large plate from the cupboard, the sound of the refrigerator seal breaking when it was opened, and the tinkle of cheap utensils being removed from the drawer. There was a shift in the air of the small cabin as the two moved around. He could smell the ash and soot from the long-burning fire.

When the meal was ready, Mary and Glenn helped Tex to the table and watched him eat. He wasn’t sure if this attention was from having someone new in the cabin or if he himself was particularly interesting.

“This is very tasty, thank you,” he said to Mary.

“It’s my mother’s recipe. She’s a good cook,” Mary replied.

“Don’t get to see her much, do you?” Tex asked.

“Not as much as I would like, but we talk on the phone.”

“Lives pretty far away, does she?”

“No, not really, just an hour from here. We just don’t drive over that often in winter.”

Tex sensed that the blame for this lay on Glenn. Mary wanted to see her mother, but she blamed Glenn for preventing her. “Glenn, when this all melts away, you should drive your beautiful wife over to her mother’s. There may be more recipes as good as this one that Mary will bring back.”

Glenn chuckled. “Yeah, we should do that.”

For the first time, Tex got a flicker from Glenn. It felt like spite, almost hate, for the word “mother” and all it signified. It wasn’t necessarily Mary’s mother; it could have been his mother or all mothers.

“Very good,” Tex said lightly. “Is it just the two of you here?” he asked, trying to make innocent conversation.

Although Mary and Glenn were nothing but smiles, Tex sensed that this question too ignited all types of harsh feelings. Their silent suffering was feeding him even more than the meatloaf.

“Just the two of us,” Mary said, placing her hand on Glenn’s and looking him lovingly in the eyes.

“Built this place myself,” Glenn bragged. “Took me a year, and I still keep adding to it.”

Tex felt the nourishment again. Inside these two seemingly kind and charitable people were dark feelings that had been building over the course of their relationship. Tex felt stronger. He felt smarter. Something inside of him began to grow the more turmoil he observed.

“Kids?” Tex asked innocently. With that word, a full blossom of emotional energy radiated from the couple, and Tex started to feel full and satisfied.

“One day,” Mary said.

“Maybe, when the time is right,” Glenn added.

Then came the dessert. Glenn’s “maybe” opened a tap of frustrations that had been festering in both. For Tex, this was like eating a full Thanksgiving meal, consuming more than one normally might, going back for more, unbuttoning one’s pants, and adding on the toppings. He was feeding on the dark feelings they’d held for each other over the years.

Mary offered Tex the couch, and he lay under a blanket, listening to the two bickering in the kitchen while they cleaned up.

“Look, even a starving man couldn’t eat your mother’s meatloaf. See how much he left on his plate?” Glenn whispered.

“He said he loved it,” Mary replied.

“He was being nice.”

“What was your ‘maybe, when the time is right’ answer? You know full well I want children. You can’t keep coming up with excuses.”

“Excuses? Do you want to raise a child in this tiny cabin? It’s already crowded with just one more person here. Let me finish the place first, that’s all I am asking.”

“Glenn, you are slower than molasses when it comes to building. Two years? They built Prudential Tower in four, and this is just one cabin.”

With each harsh whisper, Tex felt stronger. The energy continued to build for some time, even after the two had gone to bed. As the two lay awake, refusing to speak to one another, Tex was fueled even more.

 

***

 

He woke to sounds from the kitchen in the morning. Mary had gotten up and was making breakfast.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked when she saw him stirring.

“Yes, thank you, Mary. You have a most comfortable couch,” Tex said as he got up, stretched, and looked around. “Where’s Glenn?”

“He was up before light. Wanted to do some hunting. Said it would be easier to track deer in the snow.”

Tex, naturally aroused in the morning, was not ashamed or modest about these things anymore. He watched Mary move. Her top was loose, and when she leaned, Tex could see that she wasn’t wearing a bra. She wore what looked like yoga pants, tight, reminding Tex about all the things he liked in a woman.

He was slow to approach her. He enjoyed watching. “I am sorry to put you out like this,” he said.

“It’s no trouble. You’re not putting us out,” Mary replied.

“Well, I don’t mean to pry, but I could sense that my being here may have caused some trouble between you love birds here in your nest.”

“Oh, that? That was nothing, really. When you’ve been married for twelve years, that’s normal. You are no burden.”

Tex stood behind Mary, who was facing the sink. He leaned in close and started to whisper in her ear so she would feel his hot breath. “Normal? Normal to dedicate yourself to one man for so long? To spend this much time and energy on him, to think of all the little things he likes, and he won’t even let you visit with your mother?”

Almost in a daze, Mary asked, “How did you know?”

His words began to dazzle. “All you want is to be a mother yourself. He doesn’t understand you. He is tough, mean, and insensitive to your desires. All the boys in school chased you, and now, you’re stuck in the woods, alone with this brute, who won’t give you a child, who can’t even make you feel.”

Mary’s body pressed back against his. She started to push her butt into his groin. He could hear her breath changing, becoming deeper. He moved his hand under her top and began to massage her breast while his other hand started to explore the band of her yoga pants. Slowly, he peeled them down. She did not resist or complain but willingly complied with his directions and suggestions.

“You want a baby?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I can give you one. You want to have my baby?”

“Yes,” she replied feverishly. “Yes, I want you.”

Like a bending reed, he pushed her in half over the sink and began to thrust his pleasure into hers. Her moans of delight filled the little cabin like they never had before.

When it was over, Tex went to the bathroom and helped himself to the shower. He dried himself with the first towel he found. Seeing the two toothbrushes in the cup on the counter, he felt the need to put both in the toilet for a good lap in the bowl and return them, as if untouched, to their holder.

Tex got dressed, taking Glenn’s jacket, socks, and boots as easily as he had taken Glenn’s wife. There was no second thought about whether it was right or wrong. It was just what he wanted.

He sat at the table, and Mary served him breakfast. She watched Tex eat and drink coffee, smiling as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

“You are going to be a good mother,” Tex said. “I just know it. You’re going to raise my boy right and never tell Glenn it isn’t his.”

Mary smiled and nodded in agreement.

“Or you might even think about going to live with your mother. When the roads clear, you should pack up and do that,” Tex said, dragging the toast across his plate to sop up the last of the yellow from the egg.

Once he was finished, Tex got up from the table, grabbed the scarf and hat hanging on the back of the door, and said, “Mary, it was my pleasure.”

She turned with a smile and waved, watching him close the door behind him.

Tex began to make his way down the drive through the deep snow. It was taking longer than he had hoped, and he heard Glenn call out from the woods. Tex stopped and waited for him to catch up. “Good hunting?” Tex asked.

“No, didn’t see a thing,” Glenn said, trying to catch his breath. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. Next town. Whatever I find,” Tex said almost gleefully. “This is all one big, new adventure for me.”

“Is that my jacket?” Glenn asked.

“Why, yes, it is. How generous it was of you to give it to me.”

“I didn’t give it to you.”

“Sure you did, Glenn. Last night, you said I was welcome to whatever you had. So, I took what I wanted.”

“Oh.” Glenn looked both disappointed and confused that someone would take advantage of his kindness in such a way.

“Mary was delightful this morning,” Tex added. “We had breakfast. I’m off now.”

“I understand,” Glenn lied.

“You know, Glenn,” Tex said, turning back, “in a place like this, so isolated from the rest of the world, if you didn’t have Mary, well, it might drive a man to drink. That sure would be a dark place to find yourself. Drunk, depressed, alone.”

Glenn looked at him strangely, almost shaken.

“Yes, sir. I would worry about Mary leaving if it were me. I’d hate to be alone out here, to wake up one day with a bottle in my hand and a rifle in my mouth, all by myself in an empty cabin of lost hopes and dreams.” Tex shot Glen a wicked grin and a wink. “But you have a great day, Glenn. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Glenn smiled and nodded silently, watching Tex make his way through the snow in the direction of the main road.