CHAPTER 1: THE BARGAIN
It was a bright and sunny June afternoon, as a large group of mourners huddled
around a casket near the top of a grassy hill. Although there were a number of trees
interspersed throughout the cemetery, none were close enough to provide any
respite from the sweltering rays of the sun, which were mercilessly beating down
on them. Many in the crowd were young and unaccustomed to being so close to
death and its symbols. The boys fidgeted with their ties, while the girls twirled their
fingers through their hair. They looked on while the Reverend James O’Brien, or
Father Jim, as he was known by parishioners at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in
Bonita, California, said prayers, expressed words of comfort, and sprinkled holy
water on the casket.
Also in attendance was an old man who stood apart from the crowd as he took
in the fruits of his handiwork. He wore a sweat-stained work shirt, well-worn shoes,
and a frayed straw hat for the occasion; his weathered features complemented his
ragged clothes. He assumed the few people that bothered to look in his direction probably
thought he was a groundskeeper or a grave digger. It made him smile to think
that they only thought of him as the hired help.
His smile, however, quickly turned into a sneer as soon as his eyes fell upon Father
Jim. He nearly convulsed when the priest made the sign of the cross over the casket
and said, “Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon
her. May she rest in peace. Amen. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.” While the mourners said,
“Amen,” the old man turned away from the crowd and spat on the ground.
As the casket was lowered, the old man felt something brush up against his leg.
He looked down and saw a program with a teenage girl’s picture on the front. He
picked it up and read the girl’s name, Avery Elizabeth Edwards, followed by the date
of her birth and death under her youthful face. The girl in the casket had only been
sixteen years old when she died. So far, so good. Everything was going according to
plan. He folded the program and stuck it in his breast pocket.
When the service ended, the old man tried to surreptitiously listen in on the
mourners’ conversations. He was eager to learn what they knew and thought about
Avery’s untimely death. He struck gold when he came upon two notorious gossip
mongers. One of the women, Melinda Lynch, was a stocky busybody who glittered
like a Christmas tree as the sunlight hit the oversized jewelry on her arms, ears, and
neck. He thought that the gaudy multicolored flower brooch pinned to her black jacket
was a particularly nice touch. Her friend, Gloria Santos, was an even larger woman
who reeked of some cheap drugstore perfume which, to his great amusement, had
caused more than a few people to gag and cough in her presence. The old man looked
up at the sky and grinned. So, are these self-indulgent women the pillars of your Church?
He shook his head. They’re also rotten to the core.
“Rumor has it that Avery was drinking when she drove that car of hers off the
road,” Mrs. Lynch said in a low, conspiratorial voice to her friend. Mrs. Santos audibly
gasped as she shot her friend a look of shock worthy of an Oscar nomination. Mrs. Lynch
put a hand on Mrs. Santos’ arm, adding, “I heard she was using prescription drugs, too.”
Mrs. Lynch motioned to her niece, Lea Meeks, a girl with perfectly styled blond
hair, manicured nails, and a frozen smile, to come over. Lea dutifully complied and
walked toward her aunt with a friend of Filipino-American descent, Cecilia Licad,
who seemed to share Lea’s fashion sense and haughty disposition. Mrs. Lynch pulled
Lea toward her in order to form a close-knit circle and proceeded to pepper her with
questions about Avery. Lea, for her part, was only too happy to fill her aunt in on
what she knew.
“I caught Avery smoking in the girl’s bathroom a couple of times,” Lea said. “I
don’t think she cared who saw her. She bragged to me once about stealing drugs from
her mom’s medicine cabinet, and looked high half the time she was in class.”
Mrs. Lynch shook her head while Mrs. Santos crossed herself. Mrs. Lynch asked
Lea, “Did the administration do anything about it?”
“She got called into the principal’s office a couple of times, but not for drinking
or using drugs,” Lea replied. “I don’t think that she ever got in trouble for doing those
things at school.”
“Avery was skipping school and getting mouthy with her teachers,” Cecilia
chimed in. “Not exactly the smartest thing to do when your best friend is the principal’s
“You mean ex-best friend,” Lea said.
This time, Mrs. Santos looked genuinely surprised. “Did Avery and Alexis have
a falling out? I thought those two were nearly inseparable.”
“I’ll say,” Cecilia said. “They’ve been best friends since grade school. But someone
told me that they had a pretty big blowout just before Avery died.”
“About what?” Mrs. Lynch asked.
“It wasn’t a secret that Alexis didn’t like Avery’s boyfriend,” Lea replied. “She
thought he was bad news. I think she might have also felt kinda left out. Alexis doesn’t
exactly have a lot of friends.”
“Is Avery’s boyfriend anyone we would know?” Mrs. Santos asked.
“Maybe,” Lea replied. “I’ve seen him in church before. I think his name is Bobby.”
From the looks on their faces, the name didn’t seem to ring a bell for either woman.
“Is he a student at Mater Dei?” Mrs. Santos asked.
Lea shook her head. “I think that he goes to one of the public high schools around
here. Not sure which one though.”
Mrs. Lynch’s interrogation of her niece came to an abrupt halt as soon as she saw
Father Jim walking by them. Mrs. Santos flagged him down with a wave of her hand.
He smiled at them and said, “Good afternoon, ladies.”
They responded in kind and invited him to join them as they commiserated about
“It’s such a tragic loss of life, isn’t it Father?” Mrs. Santos said with great dramatic
flair. “She had her whole life ahead of her, but I suppose God had His reasons for taking
her so young.”
Father Jim paused briefly and then said, “Death at any age is unfortunate, but
particularly when it happens to someone so young.”
“I heard she was…troubled,” Mrs. Lynch said with a note of derision in her voice.
The priest furrowed his brow and clasped his hands firmly together as he locked
eyes with Mrs. Lynch. Abashed, she turned her head away and took a step back as he
said, “Even though God has a plan for each one of us, He lets us choose whether to
follow Him or not. Luckily for us, He never abandons us, no matter how far we stray.”
“How are her parents doing?” Mrs. Santos asked, in a transparent attempt to
draw the priest’s attention away from Mrs. Lynch.
“About as well as one would expect,” Father Jim replied. “The loss of a child is
one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person. I hope you will keep
them in your prayers.”
“Of course we will,” the two older women said, almost in unison, while the two
teenage girls nodded in agreement.
“Will you be going to the reception?” Mrs. Lynch asked tentatively.
Father Jim looked down at his watch and said, “Unfortunately, no. I have other
business I need to attend to.”
After exchanging a few more pleasantries with these ladies, he politely excused
himself and walked away.
Once Father Jim was no longer within earshot, Mrs. Lynch turned to Mrs. Santos
and said, “That girl will need more than the prayers of our congregation to save her.
If you ask me, I think she went straight to…”
Mrs. Santos clucked her tongue with a disapproving “tsk, tsk,” as she alerted her
friend to the old man’s presence. Mrs. Lynch gave him a disapproving look. He tipped
his hat and flashed her a toothless grin. Her horror-stricken face made him smile even
more broadly. He suppressed the urge to laugh as they quickly moved away from him.
As he watched them recede into the departing crowd, he thought about how much he
was going to enjoy seeing the looks on these ladies’ faces upon entering his realm in
the next life.
The old man then turned his attention to a light-skinned girl with long brown
hair and brown eyes who was standing, silent and immobile, in front of Avery’s now
lowered casket. A hint of a smile spread across his face as he said her name under his
breath, “Alexis MacKenzie Neil.” After months of careful study, he felt that he knew
a great deal about her and her family history, and had come to his own conclusions as
to why this unassuming girl was garnering the attention of so high-ranking an angel.
At the moment, she looked as lost and fragile as a china doll. Such easy prey.
Alexis’ mother, Lisa Perez Neil, a petite Filipino-American woman in her early
forties, was standing beside her. She put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and said,
“Anak ko, it’s time to go now.” My child.
“Can you give me a few more minutes, please?” Alexis replied with a slight
tremor in her voice. Lisa obliged with a nod and stepped sway.
A moment later, Avery’s mother, whose gaunt features were hidden under a black
veil, came up to Alexis and hugged her.
“I’m so sorry,” Alexis said in a choked voice.
Mrs. Edwards shook her head as she placed her hands on either side of Alexis’
face. With quivering lips, she said, “No one blames you for what happened. It was an
accident. You were her best friend, and I know that you’d never deliberately do anything
to hurt her.” She took Alexis’ hands in her own and said, “She’s with God now.”
Alexis nodded her head slowly as Mr. Edwards approached his wife from behind.
He acknowledged his daughter’s best friend with a slight smile before wordlessly leading
his wife toward a car parked immediately behind the hearse.
Moments later, Alexis’ father, Eric Neil, a bespectacled man with dirty blond
hair, joined her. Other than the groundskeeper nearby, they were now the only two
people left standing by Avery’s grave. She shook her head violently when he put his
hand on her shoulder and then fell to her knees as she clutched her stomach and let
out a piteous cry. He knelt down beside her, giving what little comfort he could to his
inconsolable daughter. Eventually, he helped Alexis get back on her feet and gently
guided her toward their car.
As the Neils walked away, the old man spied a gentleman in a white suit standing underneath a jacaranda tree not far from the gravesite. He recognized him instantly and
thought that he looked positively angelic. At one time they had been colleagues, until
an irreparable rift had forever set them on divergent paths. He smiled and waved at
the gentleman, who was focusing on Alexis. After a moment of deliberation, he decided
that it was time to have a chat.
“It’s been too long, my friend,” the old man said when he finally reached the
jacaranda tree. The gentleman said nothing. He moved closer and noted that not even
one bead of sweat appeared on the man’s brow, even though the scorching sun was
now bearing down on both of them. He paused to carefully consider what he was
going to say next.
“The believers are old and dying. The young ones don’t care.” He looked at the
gentlemen to see what, if any, impact his words had made on him. “It’s only a matter
of time before the churches are completely empty. God will be nothing more to them
than a footnote in the history books.”
“You misjudge them,” the gentleman replied as he coolly stuck his hands in his
pockets. “There will always be those who believe.”
The old man clapped his hands in delight. “Ah, so you do have a voice.” Sensing
that the gentleman had no interest in engaging him in a conversation on the general
state of the Roman Catholic Church, he decided to get right to the heart of the matter.
He was ready to make a deal.
He looked at Alexis, who was getting in the back seat of her parents’ car, and said
with mock sympathy, “So much grief at such a young age.”
“Her family and friends will help her through this.”
“That girl has been blessed with beauty, intelligence, and health. She also has
friends and family that love her. It’s easy to have faith when you’ve been given so
much,” the old man said. “But if you take those things away, what would become
“Of what significance is she to you?”
“Isn’t the question really what significance is this girl to you…and Him?” the old
man asked with an inquiring look. “She must be of great importance if He sent you
here to watch over her.”
“As usual, you are reading far too much into things.”
“Am I? Then I presume He won’t mind if I decide to play with her a bit?”
“What exactly are you proposing?” the gentleman asked, as he arched his eyebrows
and, for the first time, looked his adversary in the eye.
“I propose to put the girl to the test,” the old man said. “He’s allowed me to do
“I’m surprised that you even bothered to ask, considering the damage you’ve already
The old man feigned shock at the suggestion. “I would never do anything without
His permission. Besides, Alexis’ relationship with Avery was already falling apart by
the time I started taking an active interest in their lives. So, do we have a bargain or
“Her soul belongs to God, Satan.”
“It belongs to whomever she pledges it to, Michael. Alexis will come to me willingly.
You will see.”
Over six thousand miles away, the Grand Master of the Order of the Brethren of the
Cross, Hugo Molina, awoke with a start. He hadn’t had a restful night’s sleep in weeks.
Tonight was no exception. He turned to look at the digital clock by his bedside; it was
midnight. He turned on the lamp, reached for his glasses, and opened the top drawer
of the nightstand to retrieve a well-worn copy of the Bible. He opened it carefully
and proceeded to read portions of Psalm 144:
Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for war;
My safeguard and my fortress,
my stronghold, my deliverer,
my shield, in whom I take refuge…
The Grand Master closed the book and placed it back on the nightstand. He
closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind, but the importance of the task entrusted
to his care weighed heavily on his mind. The kind of war that he and The
Brethren were physically and spiritually trained to fight hadn’t been waged in the
scale he now envisioned for centuries. Yet here he was, preparing for a private
audience with the Holy Father at the Apostolic Palace in the morning to obtain
his consent to wage such a war. He had arrived in Rome just two days ago to meet
first with the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and
Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Giuseppe Bellini, and then with the Holy
His train of thought was interrupted by a knock on the door. A moment later, a
zealous young chaplain of The Brethren, Ignacio Escriva, who had accompanied him
on this trip to Rome, slowly opened the door and said, “I saw that your light was on,
Brother Molina. Is everything all right?”
He shook his head and gave Father Escriva a wry smile. “If only it were.” He
motioned for the priest to come in and invited him to sit in a chair by the window.
He dutifully complied and sat with his hands folded in his lap.
“I trust your meeting with Cardinal Bellini went well.”
“As well as can be expected.”
The Grand Master saw a slight frown form on Father Escriva’s face. “I don’t
mean to dispute the issue, but the signs are clear. The evidence is incontrovertible,
and now we have the girl’s name and location.”
The Grand Master raised his hand in an attempt to interrupt the young priest’s
train of thought. He said, “Cardinal Bellini stressed the importance of taking a measured
“What does that mean?”
“It means that we will likely be given the authority to send observers to monitor
“A handful, I suspect.”
“Why so few?” the priest replied. “The last time this happened, the Holy Father
sent an entire army…”
“That was centuries ago. We can hardly do that now, especially in this day and
age.” He shook his head and threw his hands up in the air as he said, “Can you imagine
what kind of coverage we would receive from the cable news networks if we did that?
The last thing we want to do is draw any kind of unwanted attention to us or our mission.
I agree with Cardinal Bellini that less is more.”
“What if the situation…escalates?” Father Escriva asked.
“Then we must report the situation to the relevant authorities and wait for permission
to adjust our plan,” he replied.
The Grand Master stood and walked over to the window. From that vantage point,
he could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. At that moment, he felt as though the
weight of the world were on his shoulders. “In all the years that I have spent in service
to the Church and the Order, I never thought that I would live to see this day.”
“Do you know who will be sent?”
“Arrangements are being made as we speak. Our Head Chaplain has already volunteered
“El Arquero.” The Archer. The Grand Master saw Father Escriva’s eyes widen.
“Why do you look surprised? If the girl is in real danger, who else would we send?”
“But The Trials only took place a month ago. Don’t we need more time to
“There is no time.”
Father Escriva nodded and then asked, “Do you think he is up to the task?”
The Grand Master replied, “For her sake, he must be.”