“You’re … what?”
Lonnie had been sitting alone on the park bench, quietly minding his own business, soaking in a little late afternoon sun, and continuing to recover from the excesses of the previous night. He’d come to this part of the park to get away from the old busker playing his trumpet. Still, a few high notes would sometimes drift over. And he’d been alone until an absolutely nondescript middle-aged man came strolling along and sat down next to him. Even at that, the man was so utterly unremarkable that Lonnie didn’t notice him at first, or that he had a cloth bag. Then the man spoke.
“You heard me,” the man said. “I am Satan, and I want you to do a job for me.”
“Look, guy,” Lonnie said. “I had too much to drink last night, too. Go home and sleep it off. I’m not in the mood.”
“Your mood is not relevant to our conversation,” the bland man said. “I need someone killed and you can easily do the job. The target sold her soul to me and doesn’t wish to pay. She’s trying everything she can think of to avoid her fate, and I’m getting tired of it. Even though it will do her no good, she’s holed up in a church, and the priest is sympathetic to her. I want you to go in and kill her.”
“Just like that. Go into a church and kill a woman.”
“Yes.” The man opened the cloth bag and carefully dumped out a .45-caliber pistol on the bench between them. “It’s loaded. The bullets are the exploding sort, so you should have no trouble. And if you were to accidentally send that priest on his way I wouldn’t mind.”
“Hey! Get that thing away from me.”
“I haven’t touched it; it was packed for me. You’ll have no trouble getting it into the church.”
Lonnie stood up. “Look, man, I still got a little headache from last night. I don’t need whatever crap you’re trying to pull. You say you want someone killed, I’m willing to believe that, but I’m not going to help.”
“It’s always wisest to give The Devil what he wants.”
“You idiot. No one believes in ‘the devil’ anymore.” And Lonnie made quote marks in the air with his fingers.
“Oh?” the man said, scowling.
Lonnie’s stomach suddenly felt much like it had earlier that day. Worse, in fact. It heaved and he felt something crawling up his esophagus. He opened his mouth to scream, but that had to wait until the rat leaped clear of his mouth. He stared at the rat and then at the man on the bench and fought not to soil himself.
“I repeat: I am Satan.”
Lonnie believed, and he went down on all fours to vomit. When he finished, he looked into the eyes of the Prince of Darkness. The body was still nearly indistinct, a perfect disguise. But the eyes, filled with hate for everything, were perfectly clear.
“Now,” Satan began, as though nothing had happened, “you will take the gun to the rectory of St. Luke’s Catholic Church on 12th Street and ask to see Rhoda. Force your way in at gunpoint, if necessary. When you find her, kill her.”
Lonnie wiped his mouth on his sleeve and sat up. He put his hands together as he hadn’t done in three decades and began to pray. Satan waited, listening to Lonnie’s heartfelt plea for forgiveness and deliverance.
“If you’ll think about the life you’ve been living, Lonnie, you’ll understand why a host of angels haven’t come to your rescue,” Satan said. “Why, last Saturday evening alone would be enough for Him to ignore you.”
Lonnie continued to pray even as tears streamed down his face because he knew the devil was right.
“How many high school girls have you seduced? How many years have you cheated on your taxes? How many times have you taken things because no one was looking?”
“Jesus, oh, Jesus, help me! Help me!”
“And how many times have you used that name in an extremely uncomplimentary fashion? Forget it, Lonnie. You’ve been mine for years.”
Lonnie’s broken voice weakly called on divine aid yet again.
“Lonnie, I’m beginning to get annoyed,” Satan told him. “Instead of a rat, it could be a rattlesnake slithering up from your gut.”
Lonnie broke off praying and merely cried.
“Now, it’s not as bad as all that. You’re bound for my country after you die, but if you stand up like a man and do this simple favor for me, it doesn’t have to be horrible. Why, there are lots of young women down there just like the one from last Saturday. You would have privileges, Lonnie,” the Father of Lies said. “Just take the gun and go on your errand.”
Lonnie wiped away tears and looked at the gun.
“I’ve lived a bad life,” he admitted.
“Well, yes,” Satan agreed. “But you’ve had fun, and that’s what really matters.”
Lonnie reached out a shaky hand toward the gun. A gentle breeze brought some music through the trees; the trumpet player was still doing his thing.
Lonnie jumped to his feet. “No! No! I won’t do it. Help me! Jesus! Help me!” And he ran away from Evil Incarnate as quickly as he could. Satan looked over his shoulder and watched Lonnie go.
He picked up the gun and put it back in the cloth bag. He gave it a sharp toss into the air and, if one had been looking from just the right angle, one might have seen a hand catch it before both disappeared.
Satan walked through the park, attracting no attention in his disguise. He came to where the trumpet player was holding court. Some young people threw a couple of dollars into the trumpet case and walked on. Satan sat down next to the musician.
Satan shrugged. “We’re trying to get their attention, aren’t we? That’s something I’ve always been good at.” He paused. “Too good. They learned too well. I have a lot to make up for.”
“Well, I’m glad to have you back on our side, Luce,” the musician said.
The former ruler of Hell shrugged. “What else is a devil to do when he’s made himself redundant?”
A mournful silence began to stretch out. Then the musician nudged Satan with his elbow.
“Hey, Luce. Want to hear something Louis Armstrong taught me recently?”
Lucifer, once called the Morning Star and now a repentant angel, smiled a little. “Sure.”
And Gabriel blew on his horn.