Faith: an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.

“I left my tart, in San Francisco,” Michael sang, only slightly off key. With the Golden Gate Bridge an artifact of his recent rearview vision, a rivulet of memories from his years in Baghdad by the Bay slugged through his slowly sobering brain. Predominate was the parade of girlfriends and romantic misadventures, pausing, perhaps lingering on Jenny. She was perfect in the sense that she was perfectly unforgettable, though forgetting her might have been Michael’s best option. She was, in a word, mildly dangerous. Enough spunk, spontaneity, and fury to keep man’s a mind alert and pondering ammunition options.

She was San Francisco, to Michael. For him, San Francisco was like a woman that he knew was bad for him, but was so terribly hard to leave. Jenny was San Francisco, and San Francisco was Jenny. Sexy, over-sexed, morally distressed and seemingly always on the verge of collapse or tectonic disaster.

He could have loved her, but he knew better. He retained an animalistic sense of self-survival.

Driven by his newfound mission of visiting the world’s spiritual centers, Michael made a sharp left before reaching the monied and spiritually vacuous town of Mill Valley, deciding instead to zip up the Pacific coast, along its plummeting cliff lines and onward toward its stately redwoods. He recalled reading that Buddhist monasteries littered the northern California forests, taking considerable cash from upper-middle class Caucasians seeking enlightenment and an edible vegan dinner, though both of these seemed equally improbable. Proximity made this segment of metaphysical commerce an acceptable starting point before crossing the country and the world on his quest to mentally molest every religious leader engorged with devout faith.

With windows down, Michael sensually sucked in lungs full of Pacific coast air, uncorrupted by San Francisco’s odors and attitudes. The air here was clean, and the people were as uncomplicated as they were bifurcated in their psychological centers. Money occupied the south side of Marin County, and sullied the people there with the chains that money brings, namely the need to show other people you have the stuff. In the tawnier towns, a Lexus parked in front of your house was a sign of poverty and an object of shame. Social gatherings were largely antisocial, with the underlying theme of every cocktail conversation being about business and, corporate wise, who was doing who. This aphrodisiacal side effect of wealth made the sport of who was doing who in bedrooms a second-tier activity to who was doing who in the boardroom. As practiced in Marin, both were devoid of anything remotely spiritual, and of no interest to Michael.

Yet by the time he had reached the latitude of San Rafael, signs of Marin’s alternate personality started appearing. Even hippies participated in urban flight once San Francisco’s Summer of Love devolved into its Winter of Loathe. Clinging mightily to their mythical notions of clean communal living, replete with sex, cheap drugs and minimal work, wave after wave of disenfranchised free spirits headed north, overtaking the headlands faster than the non-indigenous eucalyptus trees. Faux vagabond couture gave way to the real thing, with denim and tie-dye becoming the dominate, perhaps the only, outfit for all North Marin genders. Mini-mansions surrendered to ramshackle squats as the ocean, trees and lack of stress made life bearable and breathable.

Had there been road signs ahead, Michael would have known he was approaching Bolinas. The locals, a funky mix of elder and latter-day hippies, fishermen and psychological refugees, preferred to loot local road signs with the overt intent of helping nobody find Bolinas or stop there. This unorganized middle finger to humanity was ineffective as Bolinas’s reputation and obvious geographical advantages brought weekenders from San Francisco, sports fishermen from points around the planet, and ever more hippies in search of something they could not define, much less find.

As Michael and the stolen Cadillac rumbled past Wilkins Gulch, he saw a hitchhiker along his road. What he actually noticed at first was a pleasantly feminine form, subtle in its curvature, upright in its youth, flowing in its tresses, and lean from its poverty. Only after his fleeting admiration for God’s handiwork, did he see her thumb in the air and unconsciously take his foot off the gas pedal. The Caddy’s contribution to greenhouse gases subsided, and four thousand pounds of Detroit pig iron drifted to a halt on Highway 1. Michael pressed a button, and the Caddy’s still functional passenger-side widow slid down.

A face emerged from the dark and lightly misted Marin air. The hitchhiker’s expression was one of confident happiness laced with un-stoned, but stoner-like indifference to fate. It expressed understated wisdom and purity of soul, untroubled by the past or the future. It paired her contentment with life with a restlessness to get on with it. Underlying it all was a foundation of effortless sexuality that Michael recognized would not be given up easily, though he suspected that were it ever surrendered, it would be presented with an overtly sensual intoxication that could only lead to a carnal bender.

That she was a decade his junior and four ball fields out of his league was the disappointing part. That her bodily intemperance would likely not be his, Michael tallied that sad fact into his life’s regret column.

He noticed a backpack leaning against her leg, indicating she was not looking for a ride to the grocery store. His examination traveled swiftly north, and she tactfully ignored his fleeting glance at the gap behind her crisscrossed laced top. The lack of breeze in Marin’s late-night hours allowed her hair – the color of which had lost its way on the journey between brown and yellow – to fall and sway with her movements, undulating in what resembled slow motion. This instant, when she was only one nose into the Cadillac, was the most rare of moments, one where Michael did not speak.

“How far are you going?” she asked, her words flowing smoothly, with just a hint of tonal lift at the end. Woman and girl, internally inseparable.

“Probably too far,” Michael replied. “But that tends to be the way I take most things.”

She smiled a half smile, an appreciation of both his honest humor and what was already obvious to her, his basic honesty. She reached in through the window, and unlocked the door.

“That’s good. Moderation is for monks,” she said.

Michael wondered, but only briefly, is she knew who had written that line, or if there was a small degree of cosmic continuity in the universe – that an obscure comedic line would be uttered by a Marin woodland nymph to an overly spiritual urban refugee, both being on the road to somewhere other than where they were. Given the geek subculture origin of the prose, he thought it best to not open that line of discussion, and instead fully took in the visual of her posterior as it swung effortlessly into the passenger seat. The door closed, the gear shift found drive, and they headed up Highway Unity.

Every day in Hell is both busy and utter chaos. Souls to torture, bodies to dismember, and everything requires cleaning, though Hell’s janitorial services division had long ago been banished, slithering away for eternity in slime trenches for the sin of having missed a spot. Demons dashed, strolled and slaked from appointment to appointment, with defrocked imps lugging whatever tonnage demons demanded them to. Alone, the work of onboarding newly dead souls neared pandemonium, and that was before the age of punk rock and the influx of people who didn’t give a damn about being damned.

Today, however, Etch was seeing through all the disorder. He knew what had to happen, how to make Satan whole once again.

Bleclick, per his S.O.P., was simultaneously confused, and mildly interested as he paced outside the Palace’s rear entrance. Etch had gone inside hours before, without explanation of leaving instruction should he suddenly follow in the hoof tracks of his predecessors. Fearing the worst, Bleclick began to wonder if Etch had done something to infuriate His Satanic Majesty, and had been cast into a smoldering corner of Sheol. Or worse still, had been evaporated, sent to the eternal nothingness of Oblivion. He fretted and rubbed his hands, feet and claws together until his shell nearly rubbed his flesh raw, and he didn’t stop until Etch finally appeared.

Without a word, but with a curled finger, Etch motioned for Bleclick to enter the Palace. He had to repeat the gesture as Blecklick was frozen with understandable fear. This was, after all, Satan’s home. Slewfoot himself was likely inside. What a thrill and a danger it would be to see him, to have a peak up close. Bleclick had watched Satan during fits of monumental rage when he would soar like a dragon over the fields of torment, unleashing ever more agony. Blecklick once saw Satan eat one of the Middle Pit’s giants, and use its gnawed bones to shiv another, the only purpose being to enforce order through fear. When in full form, his spine rigid, his wings seemingly spanning past the horizon, his head back and his laugh shaking Hell’s chambers, he was even at a distance impressive.

But to glimpse the devil, up close and in the blistered flesh, would be the highlight of Bleclick’s demonic afterlife.

Etch’s finger was curling impatiently before Bleclick finally scuttled up the steps and through the Palace doors. They said nothing, barely breathed, and navigated rooms of discarded bottles, barrels and bodies. Blecklick could tell that they were heading evermore toward the center of the structure, to the inner-most part of Satan’s abode. They stopped in front of a pair of doors, built from layers of bulwark wood, interleaved in rows both vertical and horizontal. The doors towered at least one hundred feet in the air, and because one was slightly opened, Bleclick could see they were at least ten feet thick. Massive in scale, impenetrable to any common being, even against the giants upon which Satan had not dined, they were perfectly suitable for the Master of Nights.

“He’s, well …” Etch started. “He’s asleep. And we best keep it that way. Trust me on this Bleclick,” he said with unmasked hints of pain in his voice. “He is not a morning person.”

Blecklick blinked in a way that disgusted even Etch. Not just for the odd construction of Blecklick’s twelve eyes, or even for the greenish discharge that seeped from around them. It was that Belclick’s style of blinking showed he understood what he was being told, and yet had no real idea what he understood. Sure, Blecklick knew that waking Satan would be bad policy, but he obviously did not appreciate the full scope of what “bad” meant in this context. What Etch understood down into his infected marrow was that it is one thing to reside in Hell, and it was another matter entirely to uncork its concentrated essence.

“We are looking for something that The Master misplaced. We are looking for a crystal, shaped like a four-pointed star. It is in this room. So is he. So whatever you do, whatever you move, wherever you step. Do so silently.”

Blecklick blinked. Etch sighed, then bent his finger once more before they quietly slipped into the room.

Satan’s big toe was the first thing Bleclick noticed. He had expected perhaps that Satan would be reclining on a stone mattress, or even lolled across a heap of squirming bodies. What Blecklick saw instead was a toe peeping over the shattered remains of barrels, some smoldering and others branded. The word “Lynchberg” appeared on many of them, though the word was outside of Blecklick’s points of reference. As they crept further in, he could see that Satan’s other toes retained their talons, though they were in poor shape. Each claw was caked with soot and dried chunks of decayed flesh – of which species it was unclear, though the dried meat was likely human. In his mind, Bleclick had imagined every inch of Satan’s body to be spotless from activity. Most specifically, he had always assumed that Satan’s talons would be honed, sharp and bare from climbing across the high rocks above Hell’s endless acres.

Aside from an ankle, the big toe was all Blecklick could and would see of Satan at that moment. The rest of his Master was obscured by small mountains of discarded containers of every variety, with the only unifying theme being that they once held hooch.

Etch pointed to the right, and once he was sure Blecklick understood, moved to the left. The room was sparse in household accoutrements. There were a few chests, an old but heavily damage war cabinet, a few wrought iron implements of torture – souvenirs from a medieval era where leaders of one faith reported directly to Lucifer. Etch and Bleclick poked through all the containers, around the room’s perimeter, and under anything movable. They dug fingers and claws through the rubble, lifted staves, and inspected every micron for an ornament made of many crystals.

They found nothing.

Etch knew what this meant, and he was not thrilled by the implications. The item he wanted, the element he needed, must be on Satan. Inspecting the split-footed monster himself would be risky. Very risky. In Satan’s state of utter intoxication, everything was deadly. Waking him would be lethal. A misdirected belch from Satan’s agape gob would produce a stream of fire that might not kill a demon, but would put him forever on the DL.

It was dicey. But it had to be done.

It would also be disgusting. Etch knew Hell. It was a place with as much rot as ruin. It reeked worse than a Calcutta landfill on a hot August afternoon. Hell’s odors were ignorable to the average demon, and being Satan’s assistant made Etch more immune than most. But the devil exudes his own aroma, which lingers unpleasantly between that of slaughter houses, pig farms and the discount perfumes preferred by Tajuana prostitutes. Compounding the stink was that Satan’s drunkenness, which had steadily escalated since the Dark Ages and had led to a decline and then total suspension of his hygiene. Satan was putrid from centuries of slovenly living. To be in the same room with him bordered on unbearable. To crawl around his body was revolting. To touch him, likely toxic. In fact, the only spot Etch imagined was safe to touch would his Satan’s left hand, the one in which he clutched a goblet made from the skull of a Nephilim, and from which sanitizing alcohol would slosh, dribbling down his hands and fingers.

Etch, unenchanted by the alternatives,  decided to start there.

Bleclick wisely chose to hold back as Etch gingerly transversed the refuse surrounding Satan’s shoulder, and inched down the length of his arm. Progress was slow due to caution and the complication of parasitic survival. Hell is a wonderful home for vermin, much of which had been imported to provide a more horrible eternity for Hell’s growing roster of residents. Etch would normally kick aside or squash whatever rodent or slime dripping gastropod he encountered. But now, needing more than anything to ensure that Satan snoozed, Etch had to gently pick up and lay aside each of the slowly undulating waves of creatures who found sustenance wherever they could, including the various substances fermenting in and around Satan himself.

Etch would halt every time too much movement caused Satan to snork, shift or in one case, flail his other arm in an arc that came close to ending Etch. Once safely snoring again, Etch proceeded, looking in every crook for a pouch, a locket, or even a fold of flesh in which the four-sided crystal might be kept. He was rapidly losing hope as he reached Satan’s hand, thinking that he would need to continue down the left side of Satan’s body. That would include a necessary inspection of Satan’s loins, which Etch had unfortunately witnessed in vivid horror. Once in a great while, an extraordinary sinner would land in Hell when Satan was sober enough to remember his own purpose. For the devout, who had in life used their religion to cause great harm, Satan would unknot his member, allow it and its spikes to fully engorge and thus erect, he commited rape that would have shocked Nanking, had Satan not already raped that city’s invaders as well. It is one thing to be defiled, and quite another to be erotically dissected from the inside.

“Perhaps,” Etch thought while subduing a shudder, “I should save genitalia as a last resort.”

Etch reached Satan’s hand, and would have sighed in relief were making any noise not potentially fatal. As he navigated past Satan’s wrist, the devil’s flesh ran out of filth though is smelled like the third shift at a moonshine still. Actual skin and scales showed through and by the time Etch crawled around the thumb, Satan’s hide was positively sanitary. Etch peeked under webbing between Satan’s digits, scouted the spaces under which he had enough light to see, and was about to abandon the hand and proceed to Satan’s leg when a faint glint caught his attention. An orangish light from the Phlegethon river’s perpetual flame had found passage through the doors Etch had left ajar. The hue was perfect, and refracted through something on Satan’s pinky. Nothing in all of Hell glinted, so Etch, responding to the unusual turned about and inspected Satan’s smallest digit.

There, in the middle of the fingernail, imbedded like a diamond in a ring, was a four-sided piece of jewelry. Etch looked upon it with fascination and with fear. In this dark, dismal and horrific place, there was nothing of beauty. Nothing to behold and find rapture within. Yet here, on the Prince of Darkness’s own body was an object so seemingly delicate, so refined in its design, so perfect in its clarity, that Etch could not fathom it. And whatever elation it brought, however deep its beauty, he also knew it was the tool that would end everything and plunge the world into perpetual night.

“Oi!” Moses yelped.

The others, startled by the sudden outburst, a groan out of character for even the otherwise sedate old man, looked upon him as if they finally had confirmation of his madness.

“Asha. I felt it too,” said Zoroaster, looking into Moses’s eyes and sharing an expression of fear.

“Bruder, what was it?”

Buddha struggled to sit upright, but was wide-eyed with anticipation. Mohamed reached nervously for a weapon, sensing a plot between the two ancients. Jesus tried to focus and, as usual, failed.

“I don’t know. But something has changed. Something has snapped. Something is rising.”

“What do we do? What, what?” Buddha screamed in panic.

“We do nothing,” Lao said.

“That’s what you always say,” Mohamed hissed. “What has that done for us.”

The others watched Lao nervously. For Lao to interject was rare. To do so with conviction, more so given that all of Lao’s philosophical meanderings swirled down the drainpipe of fatalism. That each of the prophets was suddenly fearful of whatever in the universe had slipped, was unusual. That Lao was untroubled was predictable. That Mohamed was irate was common enough.

“We wait,” Lao said without emotion. “This is what you said would be.”

“My name is Faith,” she said once her firm derrière was firmly planted on the Cadillac’s faded leather upholstery. With a soft smile she showed Michael an astonishing contentment with life as she knew it.

“I would say ‘we all need a little faith’,” Michael said with his best pervert voice. “But you’ve likely heard that joke before.”

She smiled slightly broader, acknowledging Michael’s unsubtle yet oddly sweet lechery. “A few times. Where are you heading?”

That was a tough question for Michael to answer, despite his newfound mission. He had a purpose, but not a direction. He had a goal, but no destination. Sensing that Faith was limber in mind, and Michael suspected in body as well, he decided on full disclosure.

“I’m on a something of a quest. I’m going to track down every spiritual center of gravity there is, and see if anybody has a real clue about the nature of God. Pardon the unintentional name dropping, but I want to see what constitutes faith.”

“I can see this is going to be a conversation of landmines.”

“Mind if I call you Beth instead.”

She let lose a small laugh before saying “Yes, I mind. We’ll just have to deal with the confusing consequences of language, Michael.”

“Done and done. Besides, I find that fun. Words are my play toys. Now that you know where I’m not exactly heading, where are you going.”

“Away,” she said without sadness. Her tone and timber showed that she was not running, not escaping. “It is time. Something tells me I need to be on the road.”

“Faith has a calling?”

She grinned, recognizing that Michael did indeed have a love of wordplay. “That was appalling.”

“Alas, that is me from hat to boot. Appalling though not unappealing. But do you have a destination in mind? Do I need to set a course?”

Faith slightly squinted as she looked out the windshield an into the streetlight-free night on Highway One.

“Not yet. But answers tend to evolve. Follow the flow.”

“That’s very Buddhist of you. Enlightened?”

“I might ask the same,” she said, turning her head and taking Michael fully in for the first time since the Cadillac had lurched forward.

“You could say that,” Michael began. “Daddy was part Chinese. His people were almost Buddhist in thought, though not much in deed. Between their occasional mutterings and some misguided reading, I’ve learned but have not become enlightened.”

“I would not have taken you for Chinese.”

“Oh, I’m a purebred mutt. Pops was half Chinese. Mama’s people were Germans, and Irish, and Good Lord knows what else. They were everything but sane.”

“Runs in the family?” she asked with enough lilt so that Michael knew she was being humorous.

“Perhaps. A madman never knows it of himself. But given it all, I think my sanity disguise still works.”

“Was your mom a Buddhist as well? Did she, um, convert?”

Michael was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. He was not fond of some subjects, and instinctively did not want to turn the Cadillac into a Detroit-made confessional. But, he was on a spiritual journey, so the backstory needed exploration as well.

“She started out life innocently, as an atheist. It wasn’t until I died that she found God.”

“Oh, my,” Faith said with inquiring bewilderment. “You died?”

“Yeah. Didn’t last though. I had something. The doctors never nailed down a real diagnosis. But I ended up in the hospital with an amazing fever, slipped in and out of consciousness over the course of a day. Finally, my heart seized-up. I was technically dead in my bed for four minutes while the doctors kick-started my ticker. Poor Mama was there the whole time, and …” Michael paused, holding back the one negative emotion he had yet to conquer. “Well, it affected her. A lot. When I came to, the fever started to break as well. I went from dead to playing softball within a week.

“Soooooo, Mom saw this as a miracle or some such. That I didn’t die … not completely anyway.  And that I rushed back from the brink. She took this all as unexplainable. That was my first notion about the power of spirituality. When people need an explanation, and there isn’t one, that’s when they find religion. And Good God, she found it in full. She when double-barrel Pentecostal, and Papa was never the same for it.”

“Uh, wait. Your father and his family were Buddhist and your Mother became evangelical?”

“Pure Holy Roller. First time she started speaking in tongues scared me and poor Papa half to death. But having been there before, I turned back. I think in the long run it did kill Dad.”

They glid up the highway for a few miles without the benefit of conversation or even the radio playing in the background. It was just them, the darkness, a slithering anaconda of a roadway, and thoughts about things more complicated than most mortals enjoy. Michael finally broke.

“So, Faith. Do you yourself have faith?”

“I have faith in myself,” she said quickly enough for Michael to know it was a line she had delivered before.

“You have faith in Faith!”

“But I don’t need faith.”

“Don’t need it? That was an interesting word to use.”

“People get needy when they doubt. Doubt and fear. I think that is why religion never goes out of style. People want certainty, and there is none. So, they look to religion. I’m comfortable with ambiguity. Not knowing the answer doesn’t bother me. I don’t need faith because I’m untroubled by questions that cannot be answered.”

“Well, Hell. That’s … comforting. What do you believe?”

“I believe we should find a motel to not have sex in,” she preempted. “I’m tired.”

“I am so proud of that sermon. It is one of my best.”

The Reverend Richard Righthouse, founder and evangelical mouthpiece for the First United Church of Kansas, failed to recognize his own first slip down the long and steep slope of deadly sins. He often said to his congregation – both the live bodies in his church outside of Lebanon, Kansas and to a rapidly growing national television audience – that “Pride goeth before the fall.” Reverend Righthouse did not recognize the fall he readied himself to take by beautifying his own oratorical performances.

He also did not know that Tick was partially responsible.

Tick was a star among imps, a hero to the hordes of Hell’s earthly labor force. As a species, imps plied processes for bedeviling people. Like human employment, most found work in meaningless and utterly boring tasks. Conning an American into overeating was considered basic training for imps. Instilling lust, a half-step above that. Most imps had long ago abandoned inducing sloth in humans, relinquishing that task to television producers. Once an imp had some experience in the field, they tended to specialize in one or perhaps two sins, and within narrow cultural channels. Imps with a talent for making humans greedy headed for national capitals, with a stint in Washington, D.C. being a choice gig. Most wrath engineers migrated to the middle east, and those with a knack for envy found their niche in any suburb populated by the upwardly mobile. Imps with low ambitions hung out with the homeless since drug ingesting street sleepers were very easy to manipulate.

But Tick was exceptional. Not only could he cover all the Deadly Sins, he frequently combined them in exotic ways to cross-leverage the weaknesses that he found in people. He was, as imps go, an artist of the multimedia variety. He preferred elegance over volume, craft over quota. But what set Tick apart was his specialization, one that aroused envy in other imps.

Over several hundred years Tick engineered the downfall of many religious leaders. He helped William Miller with his miscalculations. He coaxed Jessica Hahn to take a job with Jim Baker. In his most shining moment, Tick introduced Ted Haggard to methamphetamine and gay prostitutes before ensuring the media received evidence. Tick particularly enjoyed the hilarity of making the highly visible and depressingly righteous stumble in the face of public humiliation. It was social engineering, media, propaganda and comedy rolled into a never-ending farce. It was art.

It was also a mission, and one that long ago had attracted the approving attention of Satan himself. It was quite an honor at the time, considering that Satan had not made a highly visible announcement in Hell for … well … for about as long as anyone could recall. But on that day, slurred as his speech seemed to be – and Tick thought that must have been due to the piss-poor underworld acoustics – Satan himself praised Tick’s work in undermining belief in religion itself.

Tick was proud of his work, as proud of it as he had made Reverend Righthouse proud of his own performance.

Righthouse’s televangelism had caught Tick’s notice. “He’s gooooood,” Tick audibly oozed when Righthouse’s digitized continence came barreling out of a television screen. Righthouse had it all. He was, without any shade of doubt, full of faith and full of himself. This was the combination of flaws which made Tick’s work easy. Many preachers found their sense of self-worth by assuming that they spoke for God. This stoked egos. Massive egos. Egos normally unseen outside of Hollywood. It also allowed these men and women of God to use religion as a shield from accurate criticism. Blaming the minister was, in their minds, the same as blaming God himself. This generated a beautiful feedback loop that elevated their evangelical egos ever higher, until their self-admiration reached the heavens and poked God in his arse.

This was when their egos were ready to burst, and when Tick would stick a pin into them.

It never took much. Sex was the easiest, because everyone buckles to lust. The trick there was knowing what unfulfilled fantasies were in a minister’s mind. That was never simple to unravel since sexual repression was often a minister’s primary trade. Money was almost as easy, thought Tick. “Religion,” he once opined, “is second only to taxation in terms of high margin profitability, and slightly better than other forms of prostitution.” Greed – the next deadly sin on the “short seven” list – came into play easily enough. All Tick had to do was make it look as if nobody would notice a small discrepancy in a church’s bookkeeping, an inconsistency Tick often arranged himself. It was a short step then for a preacher to commit the next irregularity. From there, a cleric’s theft grew on the ever-turning wheel of avarice until Tick could locate a truly pious functionary in the church’s administration, who in turn would publicly disclose the mathematical inconsistencies the church’s ledger.

For Reverend Righhouse, Tick had more complicated plans. Sex might work, but getting any rational female, male or farm animal interested in Righthouses bloated chassis would be a stretch. In Righthouse’s headquarter state of Kansas, Gluttony was less of a sin and more of a competitive sport. And Righthouse had already pre-arranged for a hefty portion of tithing to flow directly into his pockets as a salary, depressing this temptation in a way that nearly depressed Tick.

With Righthouse, Tick chose to focus on the man’s ego. It was not noticeable at first. Righthouse was many interconnected things, but most vividly an emphatic preacher, capable of thundering from his pulpit to the furthest pew without the aid of electronic amplification. He exuded passion in scripture, kept in his mind all current pop culture trends and sins, and hid his ego behind noble indignation and ecclesiastical fervor. But beneath the piety was Reverend Righthouse’s ego, and it loved itself mightily. For Tick, the goal was clear – to help inflate that self-image until it was barely tolerable, then explode it. It was this challenge that made Tick passionately pursue Righthouse, because it was often tricky business to pump and prick an ego like his. To maintain an ego, that ego needs strong self-defense mechanisms, and Tick had to either work around, or work with those landmines. Yet that was the joy of Tick’s work, the combined art, engineering, and manipulation of emotional booby traps in order to shatter this shaman, and by doing so the dismaying his flocks.

Tick leaned in closer to Righthouse’s skull, and in frequencies peculiar to imps, ones that are not detected by the ear but by the brain, whispered “And you should be proud. Your best sermons serve The Lord, and what greater glory is there than that?”

“What greater good is there than a sermon that serves The Lord,” Righthouse said to Katie Mae, his slavishly devoted and spiritually excitable Executive Assistant. At those words, she beamed with the goodness of heart and absence of mind that many with devout convictions obtain. She removed her eyeglasses, letting them plop down to the altitude her breasts once occupied, to dangle on a drug store faux pearl necklace designed for such, the only flourish of fashion she permitted herself.

It was easy for Katie Mae to enter states of religious overload in the presence of Reverend Righthouse. He had captured her spiritual heart years prior while preaching within a tent erected in the parking lot of Hilston’s Guns and Feed in what passed for the downtown shopping district of Lebanon, Kansas. He was electric, dynamic, and a true preacher of the word. Katie Mae could feel the spirit when he spoke. He was seemingly a pipeline to the divine, God’s own fax machine. In those early days, he was a huge presence though 120 pounds lighter. And though the years had robbed him of some physical agility, he had lost none of his piety.

Katie Mae stared at Righthouse while Righthouse stared at the looping video of last Sunday’s sermon. They were both enthralled with him.

His office, sitting high atop the newly constructed church, was like the tip of a monument, a monument to himself. The circular structure below bled upwards to a circular office providing a 360 degree view of the flatness surrounding Lebanon. From there he could see the downtown area, and on clear days he thought he might see as far as the Nebraska line. He could also spy a tiny marker that sat upon the geographical center of the United States, or at least the lower forty-eight.

That marker was of spiritual significance to Righthouse. It was what originally caused him to reroute his fledgling traveling salvation show to Lebanon. A spur of the moment decision to see this otherwise insignificant point of interest landed him in Lebanon and into the arms of a sympathetic audience. He took it as a sign from God that the center of the United States, which Righthouse held as the center of civilization, would now become the center of holiness. Lebanon, Kansas was to Righthouse where the rebirth of mankind’s connection with God would begin, or perhaps end.

“End” was the word that flashed into Righthouse’s mind when the sky outside quickly flashed to utter black in the middle of a clear Kansas day. Katie Mae gasped, as the sun seemingly blinked, and coldness dashed through the building.

“Something has changed,” said Tick worriedly to no one as his head swiveled around.

“Something snapped,” Katie Mae choked out, though she wanted to scream it aloud.

“Something bad is rising,” was how Righthouse sensed the event and the perils it could provide.

Etch did not fear Death. An afternoon of crawling around Satan’s prone carcass was dreadful and frightening. The punishment that would have come from being caught while heisting Satan’s bobble was horrifying. That the same object would begin The End of Time made Death look positively benign.

Death stood on the other side of the crystal wall, staring at Etch, not knowing what to make of him. Nobody – no demon, no imp, and certainly no human – ever came to this corner of Hell. Even if Satan had not prohibited it, and described in lurid details the atrocities he would commit on anyone who visited the Crystal Cage, most demons were very warry of The Horsemen. The Horsemen’s reputations proceeded them.

Today, however, was different and Etch was a very determined demon. Perhaps a meter of air and a sheet of impregnable crystal separated them. Death looked downward, being a good three times Etch’s height. Death knew that at any time, after escaping his confines, he could add Etch to his fatality roster. But Death also understood that any demon who ventured to the Crystal Cage was possibly of use. Death wanted the End Times to begin, and thought, perhaps, that Etch might be Satan’s messenger, bringing news that the party was about to start.

The other Horsemen watched with far less interest. They too had an inkling that something unusual was afoot, but long ago had lost most of their enthusiasm for the Apocalypse, it appearing to be permanently postponed.

Etch slowly lifted his skull, dragging his gaze up Death’s frame, tilting his head to one side and spying Death with his good eye. Death’s glare was riveting, unmoving, as still as the rest of his rigid body. No sounds passed through the crystal, not Death’s slow, raspy breathing or the tormented screams of a billion lost souls echoing from Etch’s side. All that could be said was communicated through body language.

Body language and a smile. One corner of Etch’s overly wide mouth curled, exposing a broken fang and blisters on the inside of what could only charitably be called a lip. Death moved not a muscle. Death did not react to Etch’s smile, his standing a little taller, or his hand reaching into a fold of skin. But Death’s shoulders slowly arched forward and he bent at the waist, arms spreading and palms against the transparent wall when Etch slowly retrieved a four-pointed crystal.

Both Etch and Death were immune to the fact that the sounds of Hell dimmed and that four horses in an adjoining field kicked, reared and sent sparks flying as their hooves landed on stone. The other Horsemen, roused with slightly renewed interest, gathered behind Death. As Etch slowly raised the four-pointed crystal, his arm finally extending above his head so all of the Horsemen could better see it, Strife let loose a shriek reminiscent of teenage girls attending boy band concerts. War and Hunger momentarily gazed disapprovingly at Strife, who was himself oblivious to everything except the crystal Etch held aloft. All four of the Horsemen leaned in for a closer look.

“Keeeeey,” Death growled lowly, looking at the crystal and then at Etch. Etch could not hear Death, but saw Death’s mouth draw back to form a word, and Etch knew precisely what had been said. Etch nodded, smiling a little fuller before glancing to the left, and then to the right, searching for where his four-pointed crystal was designed to fit. At a junction of two walls, there was a brace and a shimmering box, something that appeared nowhere else.

Etch looked back at Death, then back at the junction box. Death did not immediately make the connection, so Etch repeated the head gesture with more exaggerated movement. Again, Death was clueless, and once more Etch pantomimed the all-but-universal signal that said. “look over there dummy”. On the fourth attempt, Hunger leaned close and said something into Death’s right … well, it wasn’t an ear per se, but perhaps where and ear might have otherwise hung. Death’s head snapped to his left, then after squinting for a better view, Death slowly, strongly stood to full height and strolled purposefully to the junction of the crystal walls.

All four of the underworld equestrians moved, in unison, in choreographed style many meters, with Etch following along the opposite side of the crystal wall. They all arrived at the point where two massive panes met, embedded deeply into the earth below and seamlessly connected. At this convergence of walls and demons, and above Etch where he could barely reach, was a square box made of translucent quartz. Inside Etch could make-out refractions of light that exposed an indent, one with what he perceived as having four distinct points.

“The End,” were the words that leaked out of Etch’s mouth as he lifted Satan’s trinket to the visible delight of three Horsemen. Death watched intently, but showed no emotion, though his leather wrapped fingers involuntarily curled and clinched into fists, before releasing and repeating again. Etch, stretching his full frame and rising on one toe managed to hoist the four-pointed crystal into place. He fumbled it in his fingertips, turning it clockwise and pushing it as far back into the box as he could manage. He cursed in several languages, spewing a fluent exposé of profanities that would have been recognized by people ranging from Aramaeans to Aztecs. After a few more near misses, the points aligned, the crystal slipped backwards and locked itself into position with a satisfying click. A momentary surge of light flew up and down from the junction box, along the invisible joint between the two great and now radiant walls, and quickly lapped around the perimeter of the Horsemen’s Crystal Cage.

Then, the walls turned a shade of nauseating blue. Bright white letters appeared on the surface, backwards within the cage, but readable on Etch’s side. Confused and wide-eyed, Etch staggered backwards to look up at the walls and take in the oversized message. Strife moaned, having quickly read the text, despite it appearing in reverse on his side of the wall.

“It says we get to start our fatal exception,” War chimed hopefully.

“Terminate! I like the idea of terminating,” Hunger opined, after scanning the text himself.

“What is a Microsoft?” War asked.

“I hope there is a place in Hell for Bill Gates,” Strife said, savoring the notion of inflicting a very specific torture on a very specific geek.

Etch bounced back and forth, between being furious at the fact that his plans for initiating the End of Time had be halted by a software glitch, and warmed by the knowledge that he had seen the name “Bill Gates” on the VIP page inside the Book of the Damned.

Death looked at the wall of blue, and knew in the hollow of his chest, where a heart otherwise would tick, that there were things worse than Hell.

Etch danced in circles, whirling like the Dervish after inhaling several kilos of Peruvian Marching Powder. He stomped, and cursed, and hurled rocks in random directions. “Sweet Fuckin’ Jesus!” Etch shouted.

“Who said that?” asked Jesus, suddenly a little less distracted by idle and aimless thoughts.

“Heylik drek!” Moses added.

“No. NO. NO!” Mohamed muttered nearly under his breath.

“You heard it too?” Zoroaster asked.

They all nodded. They could hear most any voice call to them from Earth, though each had long ago filtered out every unanswerable prayer lobbed their direction. They could, with effort, also hear people begging for mercy from sundry pits in Hell, though these were mere background noise and eternally uninteresting. But this voice, it was pure in its intensity and unmistakable in its origin.

“A demon …”

“Demons don’t call on us,” Buddha said just above a whisper.

“What in Hell is going on here?” Moses yelled.

“Maybe we should help him,” Jesus said with authentically misguided sympathy.

The others stared at Jesus, in silent and unloving wonderment. It took more than a few moments for Christ to notice that the others were not jumping to support his suggestion.

“Shmegegi,” was all Moses could muster in response.

Etch threw himself against the wall of crystal, falling to his knees. The infuriating calamity of not being able to unleash the Horsemen, to do what Satan was too drunk and disorderly to accomplish, was an agony as pure as what Satan would do to Etch once the theft of the four-pointed crystal was discovered. Etch had seen Satan at his worst and his best, and the outcome was similar. When nearly sober, Satan engaged in the most sadistic of assaults on incoming celebrity sinners. The way he raped child molesters was disturbing in how Satan simultaneously violated both ends of their alimentary canals. He found intense amusement in serially killing serial killers, who vividly realized that death was not an end, but the beginning of death again, proving that some forms of reincarnation bring a modicum of enlightenment. And his ongoing daily Death by a Thousand Explosions that Osama endured was as fiendish as it was both audibly and visually disquieting.

The punishment for usurping the authority of the Antichrist was beyond even Etch’s otherwise vivid imagination. He planted his palms against the crystal wall, wailing in tones that united sobs and screams.

Death looked at the blue projection, the white lettering, and then at Etch. He made the connection, and realized that Etch had risked everything to make the End Times occur. In effect, Etch had risked an eternity of unspeakable torment so that Death and the other Horsemen could finally fulfill their destiny. Before him, on the other side of the blue-hued crystal wall, was a broken and doomed demon.

Death felt pity for Etch.

He bent low, in an almost supplicant bow. He pointed a bony, steel talon-tipped finger toward Etch, preparing to get his attention. Death pulled his finger back, then at Etch’s eye level, tried to get Etch’s attention with a single tap on the crystal wall.

The sound that tap made was not a ping. Not a click. Not even a tinkle. It was the sound an egg shell makes when cracked, magnified by a thousand Marshall amplifiers and run through Hendrix’s own distortion peddle. From the point of that fateful tap, a single clink echoed as a shard of crystal fell inside the Horsemens’ cage. Etch, distracted by the initial thunderous cracking sound, had raised his eyes in time to see the fragment fall. It bounced on the ground at Death’s boots, and held both his and Etch’s attention in full. Simultaneously, Etch and Death lifted their heads and unblinking stared from the shard and into one another’s gaze, then back to the shard again just before another piece fell. One by one, then by three, then by dozens, chips of crystal began to cascade. Hunger was the first to abandon proximity to the wall, running in fear as far back as he could. Strife soon followed, not enjoying the anxiety that this new silvery shower caused him. War was the last to seek shelter, leaving Death to stand, and Etch to kneel in rapidly growing heaps of glinting fragments.

It sounded like rainfall before enough crystal had fractured and dropped for a structural weakness to occur. The main wall collapsed in a single sheet, sending a spray of razor sharp remnants in every direction. Etch, eyes wide in wonder, fear and elevating elation was buried up to his neck.

Death cocked his head to one side, looking down at Etch, and managed what passed for a smile on Death’s face.

“That was easy,” was all Death said.

Cash management had never been a talent Michael acquired, which explained the barely suitable accommodations he finally located.

His decision on motel options was influenced in part by its fortunate proximity to a liquor store, to which he excused himself once Faith and her backpack were safely inside their room, a chamber regrettably furnished with two beds. This arrangement was made per Michael’s remaining gentlemanly sensibilities, which barely maintained order over his gurgling interest in Faith’s curvatures. He soon returned with a bottle of mid-priced pinot noir, an over-priced cork screw, and a small package of plastic drinking glasses shaped almost, but not quite like wine stems. Thanks to vineyard professionals of nearby Napa County, Michael had procured a redneck wine tasting ticket.

Michael checked his instinctive reactions upon hearing the motel shower running and not seeing Faith. No jury would convict her of being sexually unappealing, a verdict that crossed Michaels mind too often during the drive. However, his stubborn nobility, his inherited Southern stricture, his perpetually annoying noblesse oblige, kept animally lustful notions more-or-less contained. Michael clicked on the television, surfing past the intellectually destitute programming – which to Michael was most programming – and parked on one of the twenty-four-by-seven news networks that pantomimed journalism. He was ready to play his favorite TV game which he called Pop the Anchor’s Agitprop, where he would call out the obvious and often unsubtle bullshit uttered by news network teleprompter-fed models.

Normally Michael would have turned his full attention to Faith as she exited the bathroom. There was always the chance that a freshly bathed women would be wrapped in a towel, and that alone was a sight worth Michael worshiping. Yet his sense of honor – his insufferably obtrusive copilot – insisted on more restrained responses, and he kept both of his eyes and his awareness on the television and the bleached haired, artificially breasted, fashionably clothed and mildly dramatic anchorwoman. In this moment though, had he buckled to his base desires, he would have been disappointed, for Faith emerged in clean replacement jeans and a shirt even less revealing than the one she wore into the lavatory.

This worked well enough, for Michael’s attention was now firmly riveted on the Pope and the Panchen Lama. On the bottom of the screen, a streaming banner reported that the two holy men were meeting to address age old conflicts between Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists. Reconciliation had evidentially gone very well. B-roll footage, floating beneath the news anchor’s carefully and soullessly crafted tones, showed the Pope and the Lama embracing, then smiling warmly at one another. They kissed on the cheek, then the mouth, then in a full-on mutual tongue and tonsil exploration. The footage fell away when their cassocks and saffron robes did.

That scene was soon obscured by the image of a whitehaired man, bulbous in face, loud in voice, and obviously distraught in demeanor. He was nearly shouting responses to the anchor’s questions.

“This is the blasphemy of the ages,” he thundered, the low-definition television still able to trace the arch of his spittle. “God will not tolerate the ungodly, especially when they speak in his name!”

“Who is this yahoo?” Michael asked. Faith answered as the yahoo’s name appeared on the floating screen banner.

“Reverend Richard Righthouse,” Faith deadpanned in a mock newscast announcer voice, reading the streamer. “He sure is full of himself.”

 “He’s full of something,” Michael opined, his voice betraying more than a dollop of curiosity. “He has that revival tent aura about him. He believes what he says.”

They watched as Righthouse seized the moment to elevate evangelism, God and his own image. His church-bound and growing electronic congregation had caught the attention of this news network, who now offered Righthouse a nationwide, 28% market share for sixty seconds. Even by megachurch metrics, that was big, and Righthouse was making the most of the opportunity.

“Say’s he is a televangelist.”

“Is that crypto for tele-vandalism?”

“Now, don’t be cynical.”

“One can’t be cynical in this era. It is completely impossible to keep up.”

“Satan himself is responsible,” Righthouse roared. “Nothing less could bring men of God into unholy sodomy. And in primetime no less!”

“I’m not cynical about him. He believes what he believes. And he is certain of his beliefs. That is the nature of spirituality.”

Faith looked mildly shocked. “That is spiritual?”

“We have to accept that spirituality has a butt-ugly side too,” Michael replied. “He is the yin to the Lama’s yang.” As the network replayed the interfaith consecrated carnality video that had so electrified Righthouse, Michael said “And it appears that the Lama has a yin for the Pope’s wang.”

Faith mildly grinned, but was too absorbed with the amateur gay pornography being poorly redacted on television.

When he reappeared, the television displayed Righthouse’s face, and off in an ‘info box’ to the right fed the public details about Righthouse, his religion, his church, and his location.

“Lebanon, Kansas! That’s positively biblical!”

“The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon,” Faith quoted from the Old book.

“Truly?” Michael said, his head turning toward Faith in bemused amazement as that psalm walked a long path, uphill, from the depths of dormant memories about scripture overheard in his youth.

“Let’s go to Lebanon,” Michael said as more of a statement that an opening to negotiation.

Faith, on her mission to nowhere in particular said “Why the Hell not.”

“Maybe we can meet this fellow, this Righthouse,” Michael said as the camera zoomed in for an unforgivable close-up. “Maybe we can convince him that religion is mankind’s way of worshiping itself.”

“Ut oh,” said Moses.

It was just a feeling at first. A tug, a sense that something was coming, that whatever it was, it would be beyond his control, and that it would be uniquely unpleasant. It was the same sense of pending discomfort every man has when bent over an examining table and hearing their doctor snap on a latex glove.

“Ittaqullah,” was Mohamed’s reaction as his hips started to distort, slowly elongating and deforming. His body was growing, dissolving, stretching and, most worrisomely, heading straight for Moses.

Moses was involuntarily reciprocating.

“What is happening?” shrieked a panicking Buddha as Jesus watched wide-eyed. Christ was confused, as always, but now so was every other prophet in his company.

“Wisdom has been revealed,” said Lao in a matter-of-fact voice. “Enlightenment. Someone has unraveled a secret and dared to speak it.”

“Vos zenen fak?” cried Moses as his mid region thinned, simultaneously reaching out toward Mohamed. Their two masses hesitantly connected, sending both Moses and Mohamed into convulsions, wildly waving their arms, all while trying to get their legs to run away from one another.

Stark fear blazed in Mohamed’s eyes as his body, bent involuntarily at the waist, seeped into and merged with Moses, glowing in a Disneyesque shade of baby shit yellow. “Fak yu aleaql!” was the most he could say as the process accelerated.

Moses tried to scream, but his voice was garbled by the drain-like sounds of his and Mohamed’s bodies becoming comingled. Their robes and tunics fell away, their flesh united, their brown skins lapped and overlapped, their bones dissolved and reformed in disorderly arrangements.

“God help us!” Zoroaster uttered. “Help yourself,” Lao thought to himself.

Know When The Devil Calls Again

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