“I’m going next door for just a little while,” Pastor Henniks told his wife.
“All right,” Sue said. “I’m going on to bed. Don’t be too long.”
He nodded at her and went out the front door of his parsonage and walked across the lawn to his church. He let himself in a side door and went directly to the sanctuary. The pews could hold about eight hundred people, and most Sundays they were filled. He turned on the chancel lights, leaving most of the room in darkness.
He knelt before the altar and stared at the gold-plated cross.
“Lord, I know I’ve done wrong. I’ve done more wrong than a man should, especially a man in my position. I’m sorry. I am so very sorry. Please, please help me. Don’t visit my sins on my poor family or on my congregation. They don’t deserve that. I know I’ve done wrong. But I’ll change, I’ll change. I’ll mend my ways if you’ll just take this cup from me.”
His words fell flat in the big room. He waited a moment.
“Lord? What do you say? I’m still a good pastor. There’s still a lot I can do for you. But you’ve got to help me.”
An indifferent silence continued.
“Louis XIV felt the same way,” an unexpected voice said. “‘Has God forgotten all I’ve done for him?’”
Henniks whirled. In the third row, barely visible in the chancel lighting, sat a man in a dark gray suit with a dark blue silken tie. His black hair was longer than the current fashion but was neatly styled. A sympathetic smile nestled in his sharp-edged Van Dyke beard.
“Who are you?” Henniks demanded, walking toward the man.
“A friend, Pastor. It would appear you desperately need one.”
Henniks ran his hand backward through his graying hair.
“I’m … I’m having some personal problems…” he began.
“Yes, I know: embezzling church funds and an adulterous affair with a parishioner’s wife. And she’s written a letter to the bishop about it since you’ve stopped buying her nice gifts.”
Henniks winced. “How do you know all that?”
“My master told me just before he sent me here.”
“Your … master?”
“Yes, my Lord and Master, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, Ruler of Hell. Also known as Satan.” And the demon did the old trick of making his eyes glow cherry red briefly as a form of identification.
Henniks fell back and landed on the bottom step of the chancel.
“Oh, no! Oh, no!”
The demon stood up and walked out of his pew. He raised a calming hand.
“Easy, Pastor. Don’t hurt yourself. I know I’m not the help you sought here, but I’m the help that has had the courtesy to show up. Where’s an agent of your lord and master?” He made a show of looking around the sanctuary. “No, no one else here.”
“How can you be here?” Henniks asked. “In this house of God?”
The demon chuckled. “Pots and kettles, Pastor. There’s not a painful taint of holiness about this place.” He looked toward the darkness at a particular pew. “Although I wouldn’t sit over there in the sixth pew. That’s where your true believers are found every Sunday. I’d think they’d be getting lonely here.”
Henniks knew immediately who the demon meant; he had been avoiding their eyes for two months.
“As I said,” the demon continued, “I have been sent here to offer my master’s assistance. You are free to decline it with no additional burden to yourself. Merely the bed you’ve made to lie in, as it were.”
“And I suppose the price for this help would be my immortal soul,” he said a little testily, trying to get back on firm footing in the conversation.
“Not at all. I’m offering only a small favor. My master will get you completely out of your troubles. No one will ever know they existed. You can even make that new start you were offering your master.”
“You must want something in return for that,” Henniks said.
“Yes,” the demon agreed. “Something small. Inexpensive. Easily replaced.”
“And for this something small that’s easy to replace, I can get back to a decent life?”
“That is correct, my good pastor. You will be under no further obligation to my master.”
Henniks mulled the proposal. He looked over his shoulder at the altar and the cross, then upward. There was no sign that anyone else was listening.
“I might add, Pastor, that you have only five minutes to agree. At that time I will leave and this offer will be canceled.”
The demon watched with quiet amusement as Henniks searched the rafters in vain for an angel. The minister looked at the demon again.
“And what is this small thing you want in return?”
The demon pointed with his chin. “The cross on your altar. For our collection.”
Henniks swiveled toward the cross and then back to the demon; his shoulders bunched around his ears in fright and his blood roared in his ears.
“You want … to take the cross … to Hell?” he croaked.
The demon nodded affably. “Oh, yes. We have many. My prince considers each a reminder of his one really happy day. And this isn’t an expensive one. You can pass its disappearance off as a theft — those darn youths today — and get another one just like it from the catalog. It can be here before next Sunday, as though it were never gone.”
Henniks gaped at the gold-plated symbol. The demon was right; it was easily replaceable. It had been made on an assembly line, probably by people who weren’t at all reverent about what they did every day. But Henniks had, as a youth and again as a man, pledged himself to the cross. The demon didn’t understand — or did he? — that Henniks would lose at least part of his soul in giving up the cross to become a trophy in Hell.
“Tick, tick, tick, Pastor. Your freedom from your mistakes is slipping away. Think of all the people who will be hurt.”
Henniks closed his eyes. He saw his wife, his children, his elderly mother, his parishioners. He opened his eyes and saw the cross gleaming in the light.
He stood up and faced the demon, who waited patiently.
Then he turned and walked up the steps to the altar. He grasped the cross with both hands, lifting it from its place for the first time since it had been set there. He walked back down the steps and stopped before the demon.
The demon was courteous and did not smile triumphantly. He suddenly held an envelope in his hand.
“This was on the bishop’s desk, underneath several other things.” He showed it to Henniks, who read the return address; it was from his former mistress, and it was unopened. The envelope suddenly burst into flame and was quickly consumed.
“Speaking of her,” the demon continued, “she has, at this moment, suffered a stroke. She’ll recover well enough, but her memory for certain things will never again be the same, I’m afraid.” He smiled at Henniks, who understood.
“And the bank?”
“Ah, the bank,” the demon said. “The bankers will discover tomorrow that their computer has been malfunctioning. All the church’s money is right where it should be, down to the last penny. This will embarrass them terribly and they will carefully hush up their little investigation of your finances. You, Pastor Henniks, are in the clear once more.”
The demon held out his hand.
Henniks thrust the cross into it, being careful to not touch the demon.
“And thus our business is finished,” the demon said. “I bid you a good night, Pastor.”
The demon turned as if to walk down the aisle, but Henniks realized his hellish contact was getting shorter. It appeared, and sounded, as though the demon were walking down a staircase. In the middle of the church’s center aisle, the demon was walking down into Hell.
Henniks fell back against a pew and his hands clutched at it. The demon smiled and waved the cross cheerily in a final farewell before disappearing under the carpet.
The pastor remained frozen for some minutes, staring at where the demon had been. He finally made himself let go of the pew and summoning his courage turned his back on the aisle. The bare altar accused him and he sighed.
Henniks fished in his jacket pocket and found his cell phone. He dialed the number of a parishioner who was also a policeman.
“Harv? It’s me. Sorry to bother you so late. I’m at the church. I came back to lock the doors, but I found the cross is missing from the altar.” He listened a moment. “Yeah, probably for drug money.” A pause. “OK, then, I’ll see you in a few minutes.” He put the phone away and sat in the front pew to wait.
It was all over. His sins were buried, and the agent of Hell no longer lounged in the sanctuary.
He looked up at the ceiling. No angel hovered there to scorn him.
None that he could see, anyway.