Chapter One

 

I DON’T usually get creeped out walking home in the dark. I’m used to being alone. But there was something different about tonight. It was unseasonably warm for October in Southern California—in the eighties. I was taking the shortcut from the campus library to my dorm past a row of off-campus shops and apartments. Maybe it was the fact that the shops were all boarded up and dark during a renovation? Maybe it was the fact that the street was totally deserted? Anyway, I was feeling weird.

“Well, well, well, little boy. What sort of mischief are you up to tonight?”

The voice, a deep baritone and just a few paces behind, startled me. I hadn’t heard anyone behind me before. I’d been looking around since I already felt uneasy. I’d been sure I was alone. But the voice had come out of nowhere. I’m embarrassed to say that I jumped before I turned around.

Standing only a few feet away was a devil. Or the guy was dressed up like the devil. He wore a red satin bowler hat with a red-sequined band and two bright white horns poking out. He had a goatee, and his thick wavy hair was dark brown and resting on his bright white collar. While the collar held a red-sequined bow tie in place, it didn’t support a shirt. Instead only red-sequined suspenders stretched down his broad olive-skinned chest that was dusted with delicate brown hair. The suspenders supported a red-sequined jock strap over red tights. The bulge in his jock was overly pronounced. His red-sequined boots should have made enough noise for me to hear him sneaking up behind me. He was stroking his goatee with a red-gloved hand. The exaggerated cuffs on his gloves had a sequined flame pattern with flame-shaped feather tendrils.

He looked me up and down—slowly.

“W-who are you?” I stammered.

Yep. That was the best that I could come up with while staring at an obvious devil. I was even more creeped out and now more than a little self-conscious the way he was leering at me.

“Who do you think I am? Mr. Scratch? Lucifer? Satan? The Devil himself?” He paused for a moment. I was still too shocked to think. “Well, Gabriel, why don’t you call me Marcello?”

“How do you know my name?”

He chuckled. “It’s my job to know the name of those who want to give me their eternal soul.”

It wasn’t an answer, but I didn’t really want to hang around to figure out the truth.

“You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not giving you anything,” I told him before I started to back away.

He just laughed. “Gabriel, you don’t need to be frightened of me. I can’t take your eternal soul. You have to give it to me freely.” I’d gotten a few steps away from him by then. “And even a golden-haired angelic altar boy like you will eventually give in to my charms.”

That stopped me dead in my tracks.

“What makes you think I was an altar boy?”

“The fact that you were one at Saint Francis. I told you I know all about you.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. Probably because I was feeling very exposed. “Really? You think you know so much about me—”

He cut me off. “Oh, angel Gabriel, I know everything about you. You’re a senior at Cal State Glendale. You still live in a dorm on campus, only now you live alone since most of the other seniors have moved off campus. You’re the youngest of five in a very Catholic family, so you wouldn’t think of missing church on Sunday. How am I doing so far?”

I clenched my jaw. I didn’t want to let on how much this guy actually seemed to know about me.

He smiled a wicked smile as he looked me up and down again.

“Of course, you’re still a virgin. Because you always do what’s right. The Church, and God, and everybody else tells you what’s right and that’s what you do. What you don’t do is what’s right for you.”

“What’s right for me is what’s right by God,” I answered defiantly.

He looked down and shook his head. When he raised his head, he locked his eyes with me. His gaze was so intense that I hadn’t realized how close he’d moved until he was only inches away from me.

He practically whispered, “What God is that? The weak and wrathful God the Church teaches you about? Or is it the God of love?”

“There is only one God,” I stated forcefully.

“Really? Well why don’t you tell me about your one God and his relationship with Satan? How does the story go again? Something about a preference for ‘ruling in hell, rather than serving in heaven’?”

“That’s right.”

He shook his head ruefully.

“You don’t know God at all, Gabriel.”

“Really?”

“Really. God is love—eternal, unconditional love. There are no exceptions, and that includes his love for Satan.”

“God hates sin.”

“Your God. Let me tell you a little story about the real God. This is a story that they won’t teach you in catechism. I can’t say it happened a long time ago because there was no such thing as time when it happened. There was only God and his angels. And all eternity was light and good.

“God knew everything there was to know. And he was bored. He wanted to learn more. So he went to his angels, whom he loved unconditionally, with a proposal. He needed one of his angels to rule over darkness. Now his angels all loved him so much that they would have done anything he asked. Of course, his angels had no idea what darkness was, but if God needed an angel to take charge over it, he wasn’t exactly short on volunteers.

“But before Lucifer got the job, God explained what the position entailed. You see, Gabriel, all light and goodness isn’t enough. There has to be contrast or you have nothing. You, my dear soul, can’t only be good because you’ll never get a chance to learn. God needed the darkness so he could learn more. And trust me, darkness, evil, and bad things only bring out the best in people.”

“How exactly does evil bring out the best in people?”

“Because when bad things happen, good people step up to become better people. If the Titanic never sank, mortals might still believe that they could build unsinkable ships and more lives might be lost on ships without enough lifeboats. When a drunk driver runs a red light and crashes into another car, people leap into action to rescue the victim and repair the damage.” His eyes glistened and he looked up for a moment before he went on. “Even if the victim dies, much is learned about automobile safety. But most importantly the victim goes to heaven.”

“How do you know?” I asked. “What if the victim was evil?”

He waved a gloved hand at me to dismiss my argument.

“Everyone goes to heaven. There isn’t really such a place as hell. It only exists here on Earth. Weren’t you listening? God loves everyone. The devil is one of God’s beloved angels. He’s always with God, doing God’s bidding, in heaven.”

“No! That’s not right. The devil belongs in hell along with all of the sinners.”

“For all of eternity?”

“Yes.”

“So a baby born to a Muslim woman, who is never baptized as a Catholic and dies moments after birth should spend all of eternity in hell?” He shook his head. “Is that the God you want to pray to? The God who is so weak that one of his angels rules the entire domain of hell and your God is powerless to stop him and his evil? The God that is so wrathful and vengeful that he would condemn a truly innocent soul—one of his children—to hell for all eternity just for having the bad sense to go off and die before being baptized?”

This guy had me shaken.

“It’s not like that,” I protested.

“Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel. I’ve been there with you. I’ve heard the sermons. Your God is exactly like that.” Then, tentatively, he reached out a finger to slowly run it down the white T-shirt covering my chest. His finger made me shudder, and I involuntarily uncrossed my arms to drop them by my sides. “Why don’t you come with me tonight and I’ll show you the goodness in sinners.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“It’s just a little Halloween party. It’s nothing evil. Well, not too evil. And we’ll have one helluva time.”

“It’s not even Halloween. It’s only the twenty-eighth. Halloween falls on Tuesday.”

“What a good little boy you are, Gabriel. Saturday night is party night. Not homework night.” How’d he know I’d been doing my homework at the library? With a shrug he accepted my objection—temporarily. “Fine. I’ll catch up with you on Tuesday. Remember, I’m always nearby. Sin is always close at hand.”

I backed away from him.

“Careful,” he called out. “Look behind you and watch where you’re going.”

I turned around to see that I’d nearly backed into a fire hydrant. That would have sent me tumbling onto the concrete sidewalk. In fact, I nearly stumbled over it anyway and I had to quickly catch my balance. I hoped the devil guy didn’t see. I looked back, but he was gone. The block was long. I hadn’t heard him walk, or run, away. But he’d vanished.

Still, he was just some guy with weird ideas. He was probably on his way to a Halloween party and nothing more. But the whole encounter had left me rattled.

 

 

I’D BEEN haunted by my run-in with that devil, Marcello, ever since Saturday night. What he’d said about God and heaven and everything else had me questioning all of my beliefs. I’d wanted to talk to Father Christopher after church on Sunday, but Father Bramble had celebrated mass and he wasn’t the kind of priest you could question about faith. He was the kind who would excommunicate you for missing confession one week.

By Tuesday my anxiety over the devil had really amped up. I didn’t want to take a chance of running into that devil, Marcello, again so I took the long way back from the library to my lonely dorm room. But no sooner had I come to the quad than I heard a familiar voice.

“Really, Gabriel, you didn’t think that you could get away from me that easily, did you?”

I looked behind me, but no one was around.

“Up here—in the tree. I can’t let just any mortal see me wandering the Earth, now can I?”

Sure enough he was sitting up in an olive tree camouflaged by the leaves and shadows. But the red sequins glittered from the little bits of light that hit him.

I let out a heavy sigh.

“What are you doing up there?”

He hopped down easily.

“I just told you. I’m hiding out, waiting for you. We have a party to get to.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“But it’s All Hallows’ Eve. The Catholic Church doesn’t exactly condemn a little good clean fun tonight. Not even for altar boys.”

“Sorry, I haven’t got a costume.”

I tried to walk away from him, but he started dancing around me and blocking my path home.

“You don’t need a costume. You already look like an angel.”

“Right,” I answered ruefully. “Just talking to you is bad enough. You are up to no good.”

He continued to dance in front of me and every time I tried to move around, I ended up heading farther away from my dorm.

“This will be fun. Fun is good. God doesn’t have any rules against fun, does he?”

“That all depends on what your idea of fun is.”

He was herding me off campus.

“My idea of fun is meeting up with some friends, doing a little dancing, and drinking the most temperate amount of sacramental wine. God can’t complain about that—not even your God.”

I was incensed by his incendiary accusation.

“He’s not my God! He’s the only God!”

I turned and stormed away only to realize I was headed back to the dark street where we’d first met.

“Fine, fine. Let’s quit talking about God. Let’s just go to the party.”

“I already told you that I don’t have a costume.” I don’t know why I’d made it sound like I was even considering such a thing.

“Well, let’s see what a little devil can do about fixing that.”

I eyed him suspiciously, but that only made him laugh as he danced ahead of me past the construction fence. I glanced around to see if anyone else was nearby to see him acting like such a fool, but when I turned back, he’d vanished.

I looked around. I couldn’t imagine where he’d disappeared. He was doing it again—sparking my curiosity and astonishing me at the same time.

“Marcello,” I whispered as loudly as I dared. I sure wasn’t going to call out for the devil. My answer was a strong hand on my bicep that pulled me behind the construction fence.

Only I wasn’t behind the fence. A little fenced-off area revealed that this was an opening to a door in the building with a bank of mailboxes on the wall. This was probably an entrance left open for the apartments upstairs.

Marcello put a finger to his lips.

“Shh. Let’s sneak in here and see what we can find for you, okay?”

“We can’t—”

“What do you think trick or treat is anyway? It’s a scavenger hunt that over the years turned into giving out candy. We’re just going to scavenge you up a costume.”

He looked both ways and suddenly produced a key to unlock the door. His outfit was skintight, so it wasn’t like he could have pulled it out of a pocket.

“Don’t let the door slam. We must be very quiet.”

I don’t know why I went along with him. But there was an air of excitement to what we were doing. How did he know about this place? Where did the key come from?

One straight, well-lit stairway led up to the second floor. It wasn’t exactly scary here, but it seemed forbidden. When we reached the upstairs corridor, he looked around like he was trying to figure out which way to go.

He grabbed me by the wrist.

“C’mon. Let’s try this way.”

We headed about halfway down the hall before he stopped and pointed at the number on a door.

“Look. It’s lucky thirteen. This is a good place.”

He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. Then he waved his hand over the doorknob and stuck the key in. It opened.

Once inside he flipped on the lights and revealed an apartment with worn ’80s furniture in pale peach and gray, along with family pictures on the walls. Everything looked old but clean. There was an obvious “woman’s touch” to the place.

“Hmm? Looks like some old lady must live here. Well, she won’t miss it. While I spend some time here on Earth, I think I’ll just live here.”

He went over and flopped onto the sofa in front of the television and put his feet up on the coffee table like he owned the place. Then he waved around the room.

“What do you think?”

I looked around nervously. I didn’t think that this looked like his apartment. And I had no idea what he was going to do when the owner caught us.

“I think that we’d better get out of here. What if someone comes home?”

He laughed. “Didn’t I tell you this already? Good comes from evil.” He got up and went to a sideboard filled with framed photos. He picked one up and showed it to me. It was a woman, smiling and clearly seated in this very room. She was old enough to be my mom and she had a pleasantly inviting face. “This is the owner. It’s her place. But don’t worry. She’ll never be back again.”

“How do you know?”

“She’s gone to heaven, Gabriel. That’s the good part. The evil part is that a drunk driver killed her. But everything has worked out the way God intended. And now I have a place to call my own while I’m here. So let’s conjure you up a costume.”

My head started to spin. I nearly fell into an armchair. This was just some guy. He wasn’t a devil. But how did we get in here? How did he know so much about me? How did he know what had happened to that woman?

It wasn’t just my head spinning. My stomach started to churn. Marcello must have seen the look on my face.

“Are you okay, Gabriel? You look like you’re gonna—bathroom’s that way.”

I ran in the direction he pointed.

 

 

“ARE YOU feeling any better?” he asked once I’d come out and lay down on the bed for a bit. He’d already placed a wet cloth on my forehead.

I nodded.

“Good. The evil is out of you and now you feel good. It’s just like I’ve been saying: only good comes from evil.” He stood up from where he’d been sitting next to me. With his back turned, I noticed the hook of a pointed tail that bounced behind him. “If I’m going to be living here, I’ll need some more earthly clothes to blend in.” He waved his hand in front of the closet doors before sliding them open. “Designer labels. Nice.”

Even from the bed I could see that the wardrobe was impressive. If some old lady had lived in this apartment, why would she have such nice men’s clothes? But if they weren’t already here, how could Marcello have conjured them up with just a wave of his hand? It didn’t make any sense.

“This is some kind of a trick,” I tried to assure myself as I made my pronouncement. “You’re not really a devil. There’s no such thing.”

“Gabriel, what kind of good Catholic boy are you? If you believe in God, you have to believe in the devil. And Lord knows I’m full of it.” He followed up with an evil grin and a wink. “Now let’s get you into a costume for the party. First I think that we need some wings for my angel boy.”

He reached deep into the closet and sure enough, he produced a pair of lightweight plastic wings. They had shoulder straps like a backpack. I sat up, amazed at the find.

“It’s still hot outside, so you’ll need to be a hot angel,” he teased.

Next he pulled a pair of white shorts out of the dresser drawer. The shorts were really short. Like so short that no one would wear such short shorts.

“These will be perfect on you.”

“I’d never leave the house dressed in those,” I insisted. Why was I even entertaining the notion?

“Only good comes from evil,” he reminded me. “I’d hate to have something evil happen to the clothes that you’re wearing in order to have you look so good in these.” He dangled the shorts in front of me before dropping them on the bed. Then he pulled out a pair of white sweat socks from the drawer and a pair of white lace-up boots from the closet. “I’ll step out while you slip into your costume, Angel.”

“Where’s the shirt?”

He ran his gloved finger between my pecs and down my black T-shirt. I’d intended it to be my only concession for Halloween. I shuddered at his touch and he noticed.

In a low, growling whisper he said, “I don’t think you’ll need a shirt, Angel. Have you ever seen an angelic blond cherub wearing a shirt?” Then he winked again. His long eyelashes were accented with a bit of mascara, and his chocolate-brown eyes twinkled.

I don’t know what kind of a spell he’d put on me, but I did as I was told. Once he was out of the room, I dressed as his idea of an angel—a hot angel. As I checked myself out in front of the full-length mirror, I couldn’t help but believe that I did look like a hot angel. I worked out and took care of myself. This was the body God had given me, and it was my job to keep it in good condition. But I’d never really taken the time to admire it. This costume made me look good. But did I have the guts to go out onto the street dressed like this?

This wasn’t like me at all. I always did what was right. But there was something about Marcello that kept… tempting me.

There was a knock.

“C’mon, Angel. It’s time for you to step out into the world and combat evil.”

I opened the door.

Marcello’s jaw nearly hit the floor. He eyed me up and down just like the first time we’d met—only it was so much more intense this time. It was lust.

He moved his mouth, but no words came out.

Finally he managed to say, “You’ll turn every head at the party. Now just try to tell me that’s not good.” Then he went on, “Just one final touch.” He sprayed some hairspray into my hair and made it spiky on top before adding in some glitter. Then he sprayed a light dusting of hairspray onto my smooth chest and tossed a bit of glitter there too.

“Now you’re ready to sparkle, Angel.”