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The Devil and Pastor Gus: Prologue

      
Prologue

"Good day, my man." The stranger might have been addressing the doorman at the finest of five-star hotels back on Earth and not Heaven's renowned gatekeeper.

Simon Peter leaned closer to the bars of the outer gate to get a better look at the man. Black hair. Short goatee. Custom-made flesh-colored suit. Anything but average in appearance.

"I have an appointment with God."

Simon Peter grabbed the golden clipboard from a nearby stool and glanced over the names on the top sheet. Then he flipped to the second sheet. And the third. Just as I thought. No new arrivals expected for another eight earth minutes. And nobody shows up here before his appointed time. Ever.

The stranger swaggered to a prominent spot several feet from the outer gate. Peter narrowed his eyes in shock. New arrivals didn't do that. They stood back a respectful distance, their heads bowed as if they were already in God's presence, and waited for Peter to call their names. What was with this guy?

After giving him another discreet once-over, Peter mentally clicked through each of the pictures he'd viewed moments earlier—the people who hadn't arrived yet that day. He shook his head. The stranger's picture wasn't among them.

He rubbed his chin and looked at the man. "I'm sorry, but I don't know who—"

"Call me B.L.ZeBubb," the stranger said before spelling his surname-twice. "No spaces, and the accent is on the L. Bee-EL-zuh-buhb. The Bible misspelled it as B-e-e-l-z-e-b-u-b." He crossed his arms and looked into Peter's face. "As I just told you, I have an appointment with God."

"Bee-EL-zuh-buhb," Peter said to himself as he ambled over to the computer at the check-in station and typed the name into The Lamb's Book of Life search field. He double-checked his spelling before clicking Go. If he didn't get a hit on the correct spelling, he would try the misspelling.

A blood-red "No matches found. Be on the alert!" exploded across the screen. Peter narrowed his eyes. He'd never seen anything like that. A message from God popped up on the screen before Peter could wonder what to do. "Not a problem, my child. Here's how I want you to handle this…"

#

Twenty yards into his stroll towards his appointed meeting place with God, B.L.ZeBubb glanced back over his shoulder. Peter was still watching. And laughing his fool head off.

"This is what I think of you, Simon Peter." His eyes glowed red as he spat, and the saliva sizzled as soon as it hit the ground and burned straight through to…wherever.

Even though God had long been his worst enemy, B.L.ZeBubb deserved better treatment than this. The very thought of His refusing to grant a visitor's pass or speak to him in person. Unwarranted.

But making him walk halfway around Heaven's outer wall to talk on an intercom? Preposterous. He almost turned around to leave. But this mission was too crucial to his well-being to give up on that easily.

He walked only a few yards further before one foot slid out from under him. He barely caught himself in time to keep from landing in…mud. Conditions ahead appeared worse. He looked this way and that for a way around the bog only to discover that Heaven's foundation extended a mere five or six feet outside the wall, and that part was completely mud-covered now.

An immediate drop-probably bottomless-surrounded the foundation's outer perimeter.

Why hasn't God installed warning signs and guardrails? Especially to protect someone as important as I am?

The closer the path came to the edge, the more often B.L.ZeBubb lost his footing.

He glared at the mud and sensed that it was glaring back at him. Scuffing his custom calf-high boots through the shallow mire and leaving little toe troughs in his wake, he mumbled a string of the most profane curses he knew. And he knew a lot of them.

He would've preferred to shout them at the top of his lungs, but his mission was too important to chance offending God. These aggravations wouldn't mean much once he got what he'd come for.

"I won't be satisfied until I have Gus Gospello's soul," he muttered. "And every bit of my lost respect."

He snorted like an unbroken colt and clenched his fists. He wanted to shake them in God's face, but that would cost him his case before he could present it. And would also mean losing his balance and falling in the mud-and possibly sliding over the edge.

Ugh. He shook his head.

After rolling his pant legs up just above his hairy knees, he slipped off one boot and-balancing awkwardly on the other leg-peeled off a sock that matched his flames-and-pitchforks necktie. He almost fell backward into the mire before getting the second boot and sock off and leaving them standing Satan-less near the edge. As he worked his way closer to the wall, the mud oozed and squished between his toes.

It was cold. Oh, so cold. After thousands of years in a much warmer climate, he couldn't stand anything that wasn't superhot.

His movements slowed. The mud had grown deep enough to bog his steps down with a distinctive, sucking thlurp each time he lifted a bare foot to move forward. He proceeded that way for several minutes, each an eternity longer than the one before, until he spotted a waterfall washing-no, flooding-the way ahead.

The outlet from Heaven's central heating and air conditioning system. He'd once gotten into big trouble by turning the heat up all the way as a practical joke. Maybe that's where God got the idea for Hell.

Sounded like a God-thing.

Grrr. Something small, silvery, and cylindrical sat on the mud at the base of the wall, where his chances of avoiding an ongoing drenching ranged from nil to zero. That must be the place.

After thlurpping closer, B.L.ZeBubb grabbed the empty can, pulled the handwritten note out, and held it up to the light that spilled over Heaven's wall. What in the...?

#

B.L.ZeBubb read the note aloud. "Satan, you didn't expect me to welcome you with open arms, did you?"

"Yes, I did." So what if he sounded petulant? God had no right to treat him this way.

"This play intercom-two empty cans, a pair of nails, and a piece of string-is the best you can hope for. Take it or leave it."

B.L.ZeBubb snorted at the indignities he'd encountered. Like the waterfall itself, they never seemed to let up. What's God going to do next? I'm out of here.

But he couldn't leave. His reputation depended on his success today.

"Gus Gospello," he muttered, "I'm gonna take you down. And I mean all the way to Hell."

Hopeful that God hadn't heard him, he read the rest of the note. "Pull the can away from the wall until the string is taut. Then we'll talk." He looked around. Was anyone watching?

Oh, man. Female angels sunbathing on top of the wall. Six, no, seven of them. Their eyes are glued to my every move. And they're giggling. That's okay, babes. I'm going to win your respect back today. Shortly, anyhow.

He put his mouth to the open end of the can. "Hey, God? I wouldn't do this to the lousiest, holiest human being on earth." I wouldn't even treat Gus Gospello this way.

"Don't You have any respect for me?"

Laughter. From the can-and from the top of the wall. A deep bass voice responded. "The ambitious angel who tried to steal my kingdom dares to complain about how I treat him?"

Hmm. Better not respond to that. "I've been out walking the Earth, as I do daily." He was proud that his words sounded so biblical. "Your churches are filled with hypocrites. Especially the ministers. Doesn't that bother You?"

"Yes, my pastors sin, but I forgive them-just as I forgive all of my children."

Although B.L.ZeBubb had tipped his can to drain the water, the momentary delay didn't keep him from shooting back a quick response. "Who's tested them enough to determine their veracitude?"

"You've done your best to sidetrack them from their calling, fella."

"Not really. You've never let me test them adequately." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Not enough to prove their faithlessness."

"What about Job? He was the most righteous man of his day. I let you 'cross the line' with him."

B.L.ZeBubb bit his tongue…hard. "But you wouldn't let me kill him."

"What would that have proved? A dead man can't reject me."

B.L.ZeBubb shrugged.

"Face it, Satan. You failed to prove Job unrighteous. He didn't sin against me."

B.L.ZeBubb ignored everything God said except "You failed." He never conceded loss. Especially regarding Job.

God must've read his mind. "Yes, you failed."

B.L.ZeBubb let the string go slack so he could curse. Several times, in fact. Then he pulled it taut again. "Don't I deserve a second chance? You give human beings 'seventy-times-seven' second chances."

God remained silent.

"My methods are more sophisticated now. I could do a really good job of testing Job."

God smirked, and the angels giggled. "A good job of doing bad? Fancy you suggesting an oxymoron like that."

What the—? Are you calling me a dumb ox? Or a moron? Or both?

He couldn't take much more of God's derision. Or of the sunbathing angels' raucousness.

He took a deep breath. "You always look for the good in Your children. That keeps You from seeing their wickedness. Under the worst of circumstances, even the best of them will turn against You."

"I see my believers in ways you can't. But if you want to perform an updated test—"

"I do. I do." B.L.ZeBubb's mouth watered the way it did when closing a deal on a human soul. Not even manna tasted as sweet as the prospect of success.

"I know you have an ulterior motive, though."

B.L.ZeBubb opened his mouth to protest, but promptly closed it again and grimaced in silence. No point in arguing over that.

"Tell you what. Pastor Gus Gospello once talked to you about a deal—he told me about it when he asked my forgiveness. How he almost signed the contract but changed his mind at the last minute."

"Oh, I..." B.L.ZeBubb's Job failure had been bad enough, but he never let anyone remind him of the Gus Gospello fiasco. He couldn't very well tell God to shut up, though.

"Gus changed his mind out of fear, not righteousness. Your bait almost had him, Satan. If you hadn't scared him into breaking the line before you could scoop him into your net, this might be a different conversation."

And I thought Peter was bad about using fishing analogies.

"After you boasted to everyone that you'd snagged a faithful Christian minister, his failure to show up for the signing galled you horribly. My angels are still laughing at you. Gus isn't Job, but would you like to fish for him again?"

"I...I'll land him this time."

"Here are the rules. You can torment Gus any way you like, but you can't hurt him physically." He chuckled. "Or kill him painlessly, either."

"No?" B.L.ZeBubb's enthusiasm dwindled into a joyless whine. "That's not—"

"You said you've updated your methods. Prove it. Fail to win Gus and you'll remain the laughingstock of Heaven. And I'll have my angels spread the word around Earth, too."

B.L.ZeBubb's ego roared to life. Like a car with a new, high-power engine. "No way."

"You must get Gus's signature on your standard Souled Out contract—"

"Of course. That's it?"

"And deliver him personally to the fires of Hell. Do both or you're the loser—again."

B.L.ZeBubb huffed. "That won't be a problem."

"So you say. By the way, Gus is suffering a tough mid-life crisis right now. Thought you might like to know that."

B.L.ZeBubb barely stopped himself from snarling. You don't think I can figure out Gus's weaknesses by myself? Success was all that mattered, though. He'd accept a little help from the enemy if it gave him a head start.

He stared at the angels on the wall. Just wait, you blasted creatures. You'll soon show me all the respect I deserve.

#

B.L.ZeBubb drop-kicked the can with such force that the string broke, sending the can soaring over the edge of Heaven's foundation into nothingness. He started thlurpping his way through the mud back towards the gate. Lost in his thoughts about acquiring Gus Gospello's soul, he forgot to retrieve his boots and socks.

He also failed to notice the angels serenading him with a personalized rendition of a Carly Simon song. "You're so smug. We bet you'll think this book is about you. You're so smug..."

Neither did he notice the bass voice shaking the ground beneath him with regal authority. "But it's not, B.L.ZeBubb, and you aren't going to like the ending. Not one bit."