The Wager

Publisher: Zondervan
ISBN-10: 0310248736
ISBN-13: 978-0310248736

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About the Book

Includes Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount.
God and Satan have made a wager. Now it’s up to Michael Steele to determine a winner. Michael T. Steele has been nominated for an Academy Award, but his most compelling performance has just begun. He has been cast unaware as the lead character in a supernatural drama between good and evil, heaven and hell. Claiming that the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible standard, Satan has chosen Steele to prove his point in a wager with God. God agrees to the choice, insisting that Michael can live out the truths of Matthew 5, 6, and 7 in the ten days before the award ceremonies. 

The Wager follows Steele as he copes with his career, his crumbling marriage, and his struggles with his faith—not to mention a few diabolical tricks and temptations by Satan and some guidance and encouragement from heaven. All this as Steele probes the depth of the Sermon on the Mount and how one man might follow it. Part fiction, part Bible study, The Wager is a powerful parable examining the Sermon on the Mount and how to live it in today’s world.

The Wager

Myers’ gift for the bizarre twist flings the reader on a sublimely bruising ride through horror and ecstasy
Romantic Times Magazine
Readers beware: Picking up this book to read a couple chapters before bed is not a good idea if you hope to actually sleep that night. I was drawn in to this story from the spine-chilling séance on first page and lost all track of time. Even when I put it down, Myers’ brilliant writing branded vivid images in my head that wouldn’t let me sleep. Bill Myers takes the battle between good and evil, as well as the battles that rage within all of us, and weaves them together in this page-turning story. You won’t put it down until you’ve read the last word.
Focus on Fiction
This has to be the best book I have read in my life! Myers has woven a captivating story that provides an action-packed thrill…and brings you closer in your relationship with Jesus Christ.
T. Bell
…It’s no wonder Mr. Myers is a best selling author. His writing is tight and quick, and we identify fully with the characters who could be our family members or our friends. Maybe that is why his books touch the soul: we could imagine ourselves or our loved one’s in the same perilous situation as the characters in the book. He gives us a feel of the fire of hell and that sends us searching for the love of heaven. You won’t be disappointed when you read this book; in fact your life might be forever changed.
Linda Mae Baldwin The Road to Romance
I just finished reading “The Presence”. Wow! Gave me a lot to think about as far as my walk with the Lord is concerned. A summation of the contents of your book would make an absolutely awesome message for Pastors to give their congregations. I mean it, there is a lot of food for thought in this story. I am sure that this story had to be God inspired. I look forward to the next volume of the Soul Tracker series. I know that you will write the story as God inspires you and it will be a success. Thank you.
Joanne Desy
I just finished reading “The Presence” and it was the most amazing book. The way you are able to write brings the characters so alive you feel like you are right there with them. I was unable to put the book down. The book has also made me stop and think about what my own glow and its color would be like if we could truly see. It has caused me to evaluate myself more closely – to look deep within. However you get your ideas for your books, I feel God is using you in a mighty way to reach so many. So no matter how odd a story line may seem, write it. There is someone out there who needs to read about it – to hear a word from God through it.
Tammy K. Colvin
Bestselling novelist Bill Myers pens a supernatural, question-raising thriller . . . How would your soul look to earthly eyes? How would someone else’s soul appear? His writing is vivid and daringly descriptive . . . not wordy for the sake of words but words crafted to open your eyes and heart’s imagination. The action is extremely intense at times, and as usual, Bill Myers’ characters are believable and have great depth. The faith-based concept of forgiveness is explored; how unforgiveness affects you more than it does the other person. I’d highly recommend reading “Soul Tracker” first so you understand the story’s foundation before reading “The Presence.” If you have enjoyed any of Bill Myers’ previous books, you will not be disappointed! If you haven’t read him yet, what are you waiting for? Consider this your personal invitation!
Dale Lewis Hope to Home Publishing

The Wager

Copyright © 2003 by Bill Myers

Author’s Note

This little adventure is a bit different from my others. I wanted to write something that was as much a Bible study as it was a story. If you try reading this as regular fiction, you’ll probably be disappointed. Instead of spinning a conventional yarn, I’ve tried to explore each of the topics in the Sermon on the Mount (in the order they were given) and develop a story around them. By conventional storytelling standards, that is a suicidal approach. But as a means to study Scripture, I’m hoping it will provide some fresh and provocative insights.

At the back, you’ll find a Bible study asking questions from each chapter that should help explore these insights a bit more deeply.

Many folks consider the Sermon on the Mount to be one of the greatest single teachings of all time. If this little approach brings any of its truths closer to home, then it has succeeded. And, just so you know, we’ve stacked the deck a bit with a handful of folks who are praying that it will touch, encourage, challenge, and minister to you as you read it.

Hope it works. Thanks for taking the journey with me.

Best of blessings,



The Accuser of the Brethren and his Creator are having another debriefing. The CAMERA gently moves in, bringing them into a MEDIUM TWO SHOT.

So, where have you come from?

You’re God. You already know.

Humor Me.

[reluctantly quoting]
“From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

You do that very well.

I’ve had lots of practice.

And what did you find?

Things aren’t so good.

How so?

I don’t know. The sport is all gone.


Everything’s too easy. In this postmodern, whatever-they’re-callingit culture, there’s nothing for me to do anymore.

You seem pretty busy with the whole Middle East thing.

Same ol’ same ol’. What I mean is, there’s nothing I can sink my teeth into. Your boys are barely offering resistance.

For now. But keep your eyes open.

What? You’re going to pull that whole darkest before the dawn routine again?

Could be.

You’re so predictable.

It always seems to fly.

But where are Your saints who struggle with purity? I mean, if nobody’s buying into holiness these days, who’s left for me to accuse and torment for failing?

I’ve still got a few out there.

[sighing in exasperation] It’s not like the good old days. The only time holiness comes up is when I make a joke about it in the sitcoms and movies.

Talk about being predictable.

It always seems to fly. Seriously, do you remember way back when people actually tried to live the Sermon on the Mount?

[smiling in memory] Yes.

Now most treat it like some hyperbole, like an impossible theory that can’t be lived.

Shouldn’t that make you happy?

Like I said, the challenge is gone. Nobody’s even trying to live by those standards. Nobody can.

Actually, that’s not true. Anybody can.

Yeah, right.

I’m serious.



[Satan scoffs.]

I’ll prove it. Pick anybody you want, anybody at all, and I’ll prove to you that they can live the Sermon.

[rubbing chin with claw]

How ’bout that prostitute you’re tormenting with AIDS on Beeker Street?


Okay. Then the abused orphan you’re starving to death in Kinshasa?

Way too easy.

How’s that?

They’ve got nothing to lose.

All right, then——you pick one.

Let me see. The Academy Awards are coming up in a couple weeks, right?


Isn’t one of Your boys up for Best Actor?

Michael Steel, yes. A good man, though carrying a lot of excess baggage.

[more chin rubbing]
Then I want him.

What? You’re not serious?

Yes, very serious.

I’ll need time to prepare him.

Don’t give me that. You’re omniscient; You’ve known this conversation was going to happen since the beginning of time.

Good point.

So, what do You say? Do we have a deal?

You sure you want Michael? The poor fellow has so much on his plate right now that——

I want Michael Steel.

Yes, but his sister is soon going to——

I want Michael Steel.


You’re getting better at this, you know.

So, do we have a deal?

The usual emissaries?

But not a lot of miracles. I hate it when You——

He’s My son.

I can appreciate that, but——

He’s My son. I’ll be there when He needs Me.

All right, all right. But we have to set a time limit. None of this deathbed repentance stuff.

What do you have in mind?

Before the Academy Awards.

That’s ten days away. Don’t be ridiculous.

You’re also omnipotent, remember.

You are getting better at this.

He’ll have to fulfill all the terms of the Sermon on the Mount before the end of the Academy Awards. So do we have ourselves a bargain?

[slowly, thoughtfully]
Yes . . . we have ourselves a bargain.


I awoke, my heart pounding. I rolled onto my back and took a deep breath. Before I could stop myself, I reached over for Tanya, my wife of twenty years. But, of course, she wasn’t there. She hadn’t been there in months . . . years, if you count her emotional departure. But I still reached for her—sometimes when I was half-awake like now, other times in my sleep, waking up with nothing but her pillow in my arms. Wishful thinking? I suppose. Or maybe a type of prayer. It didn’t matter. She was never there. Only the empty spot in our bed where she had once slept . . . and the hollow void in my chest where she had once lived.

I opened my eyes and stared up at the ornately carved walnut ceiling. No need to check the clock. The time didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Not now. I hadn’t been able to after the first dream, and there was no way I could after this one. It was so vivid, so real.

With another breath, this time for resolve, I pulled back the covers and threw my feet over the edge of the bed. I rose, my left ankle stiff and burning—a reminder of the fencing stunt gone bad nearly a year ago. It also served as a testimony of my increasing age and my reluctant acceptance of the studio’s demand that I now have a standin double, no matter how simple the stunt.

Old age stinks, even at forty-five.

I hobbled into the bathroom and snapped on the lights (enough to illuminate a small city). In the multiple mirrors stood the halfnaked body that last year’s People magazine had named “One of the Ten Sexiest Men in America.”

I snorted in disgust. If they only knew what he was like on the inside.

And outside? The outside was nothing money couldn’t buy . . . as long as you didn’t mind spending three hours a day with a personal trainer, having every scrap of food examined and approved, and, as embarrassing as it is to admit, allowing yourself to be talked into having the excess luggage around your eyes removed.

I turned and leaned closer to one of the mirrors. No amount of money could remove the faint white scars that ran across my shoulders from an overzealous preacher father who looked for every opportunity not to spare the rod. Scars that my shrink insists go much deeper. But those scars are insignificant compared to the ones my sister will forever bear from that monster.

I glanced at the Rolex on the marble counter.


In an hour the studio driver would pick me up and take me to the set of The Devil’s Breath, third in the series of Chad Slayter, NSA pictures. The series was your typical mindless, big-budget carnival ride. But it kept my agent happy by thrusting me into the spotlight and the studios happy by making tons of cash. And me? Of course I liked the fame and money; who wouldn’t? But I was also grateful for the financial opportunity it gave me to sneak off to do little pictures that actually involved more acting than car chases. And it was one of those little pictures that had thrown me into this year’s Oscar hopper.

Did I deserve the nomination? Of course not. Still, it was a nice gesture. Apparently the idea of not forgetting my starving-artist roots and doing a little project had pushed the right political buttons.

But for me the nomination was much more than that.

It was this nomination (along with Tanya’s frequent railings at my hypocrisy) that had driven me to try and be a better Christian. Why? Because I was trying to earn Cosmic Brownie Points to win the Award? Hardly. In fact, it was just the opposite. No matter what anybody says, there’s nothing that challenges a person’s faith like success. What do the Scriptures say? “A man is tested according to the praise given him.” It’s true. The nomination only brought to a head the diseases that had been festering inside my soul for years. Now, more than ever, people were treating me like royalty, offering me all manner of kingly pleasures—every indulgence you can imagine, and some you don’t want to. And, at least for me, at least for someone who claims to be a follower of Christ, things had gotten very dangerous.

So I did what any halfway serious person of faith would do when temptation threatens. I hunkered down and tried to follow God more closely—reading my Bible, praying, going to church, being on my best behavior.

Then, exactly one week ago tonight, I’d had the first dream. Except for one element, it had been nearly identical to tonight’s. Nearly identical and just as unnerving. It had been so clear and vivid that when I awoke I grabbed my Bible, crossed to my leather reading chair near the fireplace, and began studying the Sermon on the Mount. I read it once, twice, and then, just as the Santa Monica mountains began glowing with a sunrise, I closed the book and said a prayer. Right then and there I had made a promise to God Almighty that I would try to live by these exacting standards. After all, if Christ had spoken the words, and if I claimed to be a Christian, the least I could do was live them.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the vow was a lot easier to make than to live. Within hours I was messing up again. And, gradually, as the days passed, I let the promise slip into the well of good intentions. I figured God understood. After all, the Sermon was a worthy principle to strive for, but certainly not something you could live on a daily basis. That was the unspoken understanding I thought we had reached.

Until tonight.

Until the dream returned.

I said it was nearly identical to last week’s—just as real, just as unnervingly vivid—except for the addition of one important element. In tonight’s encounter the two had finally reached their conclusion. God and the Devil had finally selected their participant. Tonight, they had both agreed that it would be me.


“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and

sat down. His disciples came to him—”

I stared at the radio in disbelief. Not only had I been dreaming about the Sermon on the Mount, but now some preacher was reading and ranting about it over the car radio. How strange. And how sad. Because the more I heard the words, the heavier they weighed on me . . . and the more hopeless I became. That’s why I’d borrowed my producer’s Lexus and was heading east on Hollywood Boulevard to visit my sister. We were filming less than a mile away and had taken a short break. What better time to swing by and see my Annie, a fellow prisoner of the past. My Annie, a tent peg in the fiercest storms.

“And he began to teach them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they-ers is the kingdom of heaven.”

His speech, craggy, breathless with old age, and drawling, betrayed his Southern roots—which accounted for the occasional extra syllable. I’d grown up with these words. Heard them all my life. But, as I had climbed the entertainment ladder, the principles had begun slipping through my fingers like water. How could I be poor in spirit when every move in my business is calculated to scream, “Look at me! Pay attention to me! Come see the movie because of me!” And if I’m not screaming them, then I’m paying big bucks for my publicist or my agent or my manager to scream them.

Of course, I’m not foolish enough to believe my own press. I know Michael T. Steel is simply a commodity, something that has to be sold and marketed like dishwashing soap. Yet no matter how hard I try, some small part of me still buys into what is being sold. Those are the times I want to shower, to try to scrub off the pride that keeps seeping up through my pores. But it doesn’t work. Because, like the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, a little leaven really does leaven the whole loaf.

I approached Mann’s Chinese Theater and turned left onto Sycamore where a handful of dilapidated homes from the twenties and thirties still stood. Halfway up the block I pulled into an empty space. All this as the preacher continued:

“Blessed are those who mou-wern, for they will be comforted.”

I snorted in self-contempt, then slipped on some Elvis sunglasses and a moth-eaten stocking cap, courtesy of the Wardrobe Department. (The last thing I wanted right now was to be recognized.) I threw a glance at the parking meter, grateful for the time still on it, then shook my head with more disgust. What did I care about parking money? With a current deal of twenty million dollars, against fifteen percent of gross, what did I care about the cost of anything? I had more money than I could spend in a lifetime. In two lifetimes. Mourn? What did I have to mourn about?

Unfortunately, nothing.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

He just kept piling it on, didn’t he? Meek? Anything I knew about meekness was long forgotten—replaced by demands for bigger dressing rooms, more screen time, my name above the title. Meekness? There was no meekness in my life. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead on the leather steering wheel. I had everything and then some. And now I had the audacity to feel terrible about it? Or—let’s be honest here—to feel terrible for not feeling terrible about it? How sick is that?

But that’s why I was here.

I didn’t come often. Schedules and my rise in popularity made that close to impossible. But this afternoon, since we were shooting a second-unit car chase on La Brea, and since Wardrobe let me sneak off with the clothes I’d been assigned—well, here I was . . . once again trying to find some sort of “center.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

I lifted my head from the steering wheel with a rueful smile. I finally got one right. At least I was hungry. Still, I doubted one out of four was exactly the percentage Christ had in mind when He gave the Sermon. I turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car. Pulling the trench coat from the backseat, I slipped it on over my raveling sweater and stained wool pants. I shut the door, beeped the locks, and started forward.

Heat and blinding light reflected off the sidewalk. It was midafternoon and well into the eighties. Thanks to the heavy clothes, I felt every degree.

Up ahead stood a two-story white house with green shutters. “Jeremiah’s Place.” It was a halfway house where the dregs of society stayed until they were strong enough to reenter life . . . or sink back into the dregs. Runaways (boys and girls), pimps, druggies, hookers (boys and girls), street crazies—anyone who had fallen through the cracks or had been swept under society’s rug. These were the people my Annie worked with day in and day out.

I noticed activity on the front porch. Some white chick was cowering behind a big black bald guy while a scrawny white kid with dreadlocks was shouting at her.

“You c’mon, now!” the kid cried. “You can’t hide here forever! C’mon!”

The girl stayed behind the bald guy who silently held his ground.

“C’mon now, Heather. Don’t be makin’ it no worse than it is.”

It could have been any one of a dozen scenarios. My guess was that some drugged-out hooker was trying to go straight, and her wannabe pimp/boyfriend had come after her. However it fell, the big bald guy (no doubt a staff member) was the only thing between her and bodily harm.

“Girl, I’m not tellin’ you again!”

I turned onto the broken sidewalk and headed toward the porch. All three saw me and came to a stop. Big Bald shifted slightly, preparing to hold us both off if he had to.

Now, no matter who you are or how hard you try, there’s a certain arrogance that comes with money and power. Let no one tell you different. It may be disguised, but it’s always there. And when money and power no longer mean anything, then that arrogance can turn into a type of recklessness, even self-destruction. I suppose that’s some of the mode I was operating in now.

“What’s going on?” I called.

“This ain’t your concern, old-timer,” Dreadlocks replied. (I could have done without the handle, but to these youngsters, forty was close to Medicare.)

I started up the stairs slowly, deliberately, taking one step after another.

“Who are you?” Big Bald asked quietly. “What do you want?”

I finished the steps and joined them as Dreadlocks gave another warning. “Be careful, old man.”

I raised my eyes to meet his. I could see they were bloodshot from booze or dope or both. This was either going to be a very brilliant move on my part or a very stupid one. Either way, I wanted to enter the house, and the girl obviously needed help. So . . . slowly, I reached for my sunglasses and removed them. Holding his gaze, I quietly folded them and slipped them into my pocket. A spark of recognition flitted across his watery eyes.


Carefully, and with more than a little drama, I reached up and removed my stocking cap. Never taking my eyes from his, I began folding it.

The spark of recognition flared to a flame. His mouth dropped open. “You’re . . .” His voice caught and he lowered it. “You’re him!”

For a moment I wasn’t sure which him he was referring to. He looked like a bright kid, but there was all that dope and booze running through him, so it was hard to tell. Fortunately, he didn’t keep me in the dark.

“Chad Slayter,” he gasped. “NSA!”

Now I knew which card to play. I gave a slight nod and raised a finger to my lips.

“What are you doing here?” he whispered.

I glanced around.

“You on assignment?”

I looked coolly into the eyes.

Raising his hands, he apologized. “I know, I know, man—if you tell me, you gotta kill me—sorry.”

Not only was he living in the wrong reality, he was quoting some of its worst dialogue. I looked at him and slowly nodded. Then I motioned to the girl. “She’s with me.”

Dreadlocks turned to her, his mouth sagging further.

She stared at me and blinked.

“You mean . . . ,” he swallowed, then continued, hoarsely, “she works with you?”

“Undercover. Yes.”

He looked from her to me and back to her again. Then, breaking into a grin, which broke into a hacking cough he said, “I knew it, girl. I knew there was somethin’ different about you.”

She continued to stare.

“I knew it,” he kept coughing, “I just knew it . . .”

I glanced at Big Bald. His face was street-poker neutral.

“. . . I knew you was different.”

Turning to Dreadlocks, I asked, “Is that a problem?”

“No man, no problem. Heather here, she was just, you know, hanging with me some, and I thought, you know, she was trying to get smart or somethin’, but now I see.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It was all part of her cover.”

“Yeah, man, I see, I see. I get what’s comin’ down.”

“We can be assured of your silence?”

“You bet, man. Anything for my country and Chad Slayter. Anything, just name it.”

“Good. Then, if you don’t mind . . .” I motioned for the girl to join me. She hesitated, until Big Bald nodded permission. I continued. “We have much to do.”

“It’s cool, man, it’s cool. I understand, it’s cool.”

The girl tentatively approached. I placed my hand against the small of her back and directed her toward the door.

“Hey, wait a minute! Wait a minute!”

I felt her tense. I tried not to as I slowly turned back to him.

“Look, if there’s like anything I can do to help, you know. I mean if you need a man on the street, like to watch your back, just say the word. ‘Cause when it comes to the street, I know all and see all, you know what I mean? Just say the word and I’m there.”

I looked him over then gave the slightest nod—part agreement, part dismissal—before turning and heading for the door.

“You take care, Heather,” he called after us. “You keep doin’ us proud, you hear?”

Big Bald stepped ahead of us and opened the door. As we passed, his eyes caught mine and he quietly whispered, “It’s good to see you, Mr. Steel. Your sister’s inside.”

– – –

“I swear, Toad, you are some piece of work.” Annie gave one of those laughs of hers—part mocking, part good-natured ribbing. A laugh that, even as kids hiding in the basement from our father, gave some comfort and assurance of greater wisdom. “Don’t you get it?” she asked.

“Get what?”

“You already qualify!”

I frowned as we made our way out of the kitchen, drinking caffeine-free Diet Cokes. We walked through the living room and headed for the stairway. I slowed and waited patiently as she limped up the creaking stairs ahead of me, as she grabbed the banister and pulled herself up one step after another. I’d learned years ago never to offer help.

As we continued, I looked about the house. It hadn’t changed much—same old musty smell, same wooden floors, same donated furniture. Most of the staff and residents were new, but even they held a familiar look of wornness.

An older man, in his sixties, was on his hands and knees beside an electrical outlet. He muttered to himself as he stuffed tightly folded paper into each hole of the receptacle.

“How’s it going, Bill?” Annie asked.

“Just couple more to do, Miss Annie,” he answered without looking up. “Then no more electricity leaking out on the floor.”

“And no more aliens drinking it up at night?” she asked.

“One can only pray, Miss Annie. One can only pray.”

“Amen to that,” she said. We continued up the stairs as he resumed his muttering and folding of paper.

I quietly smiled and thought, as I occasionally did, how the two of us used our pasts (or how they used us) in choosing our professions. Annie, with her firsthand experience of abuse and suffering, was able to reach out to others who suffered . . . while receiving from them the heartfelt love that she so desperately needed. And me? I suppose I had the same need to be loved, I’d just found a different way of earning it.

We reached the top of the stairs, turned right, and headed down the hall to her office—a tiny sweatbox of filing cabinets, sagging shelves, thumbtacked pictures on the wall, overflowing bulletin boards, and a roaring window fan. I’d frequently offered to donate central AC to the ministry’s house (as well as a new house) but Annie always turned me down, insisting that the church and community needed to support them. Something about taking ownership and building relationships. I didn’t fully understand it then or now, but I knew better than to argue. Once Annie made up her mind, trying to change it was a waste of time.

She’d barely kicked off her shoes and plopped behind the old steel desk before I got back on topic. “What do you mean, ‘I qualify’?”

“I mean, the very stuff you’re talking about . . . “poor in spirit, meek, mourning, hungry for righteousness” . . . the fact that you feel so awful about not having them means that you’re already poor in spirit, and meek, and mourning, and hungry.”

I closed my eyes and tried again. “You don’t understand what I’m saying.”

“I understand perfectly. I understand that you’re going through another one of your little self-analytical actor things.”

“How can you say that?”

“‘Cause it’s true. There’s no one harder on Toad than Toad. And now that you’re a big shot, up for the Oscar in what, two weeks?”

“Ten days.”

“Ten days—you’re going to be even tougher on yourself.”

“Shouldn’t I be?”

“Of course you should. You of all people.”
I scowled.

“Look.” She ran her hand through the tight curls of her auburn hair. “I got religious supporters coming through here every other day—arms folded in smug piety, confident of their faith, as they busily write checks for us.”

“And you’re not grateful?”

“I’m ecstatic. That’s not the point. The point is, they think they’ve got it all together. They’re not hungry for God anymore. But you, little brother, your arms are reaching out, begging for help.”

“Because I need it.”

“And that’s why you’re blessed: You know you need it. The same goes for those who are poor and meek and mourn and hungry—they know they need God.”

I shook my head, still not entirely buying it.

“Let me ask you. If you were God, whose hands would you fill— someone who’s got them stuffed piously in their pockets? Or someone who’s got them wide open and pleading for help?”



We looked to see a staff member at the door. She was a gaunt bottle-blonde, obviously an alumnus from the street.

“It’s Mrs. Clouda again.”

Annie nodded and blew a tendril of curls out of her eyes. She motioned for me to hold my thought as she reached for the phone. “Hello, Mrs. Clouda.”

She listened patiently then rolled her eyes at me. The woman was obviously giving her an earful. Covering the mouthpiece, she whispered, “She turned eighty-seven last week. Want another Diet Coke?”

I shook my head.

She spoke back to the phone. “I appreciate your frustration, Mrs. Clouda, but—”

More listening.

“Yes . . . yes . . . but I have to call the paramedics every time you attempt suicide. It’s the law.”

I raised an eyebrow.

She shook her head and hit the mute button, still keeping the receiver to her ear but free to talk. “She calls in a couple times a week. Me and the boys at the fire station are her only social outlet. Now, where were we?”

It took a moment to gather my thoughts. “It’s just—I’ve been having these dreams that God is pretty serious about the Sermon on the Mount and—”

“Of course He is.”

“Right. But how can I—”

She hit the mute button and spoke. “From New Jersey, you say. Do they ever come out and visit you? Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . . I see . . .” She pressed the mute button and looked at me, waiting for more.

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “Maybe I should just chuck it all and come here to work with you.”

“Right, quit the hard life and find something easy to do.” She gave me her famous lopsided grin.

“You know what I mean,” I insisted.

She pressed the mute button. “So the paramedics are there now?

Yes, Mrs. Clouda, it would be a fine idea if you let them in. Yes, dear, I can wait.” Hitting the mute button she looked back to me. “Listen, Toad, we all have our wars. And changing from one battlefront to another doesn’t make them any easier.”

“Yes, but, at least—”

“Besides, you’d just be coming here for a religious high.”

“Pardon me?”

“The thrill of self-sacrifice. The joys of martyrdom.” She shook her head. “No way, little brother. That stuff never lasts.”

Before I could argue, she was back on the phone. “Hey, Brad, Annie from Jeremiah’s Place. Everything okay?” She paused a moment then nodded. “Great. No, go ahead and put her back on. Catch you later.” She turned to me, waiting.

“You don’t think I could last here?” I asked, using all of my acting skills to avoid sounding defensive.

“Not a week.” Then, shrugging, she added. “Someday, maybe, when you’re ready. But not now, no way.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘When I’m ready’?”

She shook her head. “You’ve got it made in the shade, pal. Movie star, beautiful wife, fancy homes, loved by millions.”

“But it doesn’t mean anything!”

She nailed me with a look that was more than skeptical.

I tried to explain. “Here, I mean at this house, you’re really touching people, you’re really being an influence.”

“And you’re not? The fact that millions of people watch you, that they want to be just like you—you don’t think that’s touching people, being an influence?”

I sighed wearily. “But what kind of influence?”

“I guess that’s up to you.” She returned to the phone. “Right here, Mrs. Clouda. Yes, they are nice boys, but you can’t have me calling them for no reason.” She paused a moment. “Yes, they said you had the gas on full—but they also said you didn’t bother to blow out the flames.” Another pause. “No, I appreciate a woman your age can’t remember everything, but—”

I shook my head, musing at the scene as they shared more chitchat until it finally drew to an end.

“Okay, dear. Thanks for calling. Yes, I think the world of you too. Bye-bye.” She took a deep breath and hung up, blowing more hair from her eyes.

“Two times a week?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Are there others like her out there?”

“Enough.” Then, focusing her attention back on me, she said, “Listen, if you really want to do some guilt relief and get your hands dirty, I’ve got a project you might be interested in.”


She leaned past me and called out the door. “Charlie?”

No answer.

“Charlie, I know you’re there. Charlie, will you come in here, please?” She lowered her voice. “He’s been sitting in the hallway ever since you came in.” Mouthing the words, she added, “Big fan.”

I nodded as a skinny nine- or ten-year-old appeared in the doorway. He kept his head lowered, eyes riveted to the floor.

“Charlie, this is my brother, Michael Steel. Michael, this is Charlie.”

“Hey, Charlie,” I said, smiling.

He continued staring at his shoes.

Annie explained. “Social Services assigned him to us, until they can locate his parents.” Turning to him, she added, “But at the moment, you’re not giving us any clues, are you, Charlie?”

He gave no response.

“But he sure does love the movies. Fact, I hear someday he plans on being a big star, just like you.”

That brought the slightest of nods.

“He’s especially fond of Chad Slayter, NSA.”

“That so?” I asked.

“In fact, rumor has it that he’s got the lines from both of the movies memorized. Isn’t that right, Charlie?”

A little shrug.

“No kidding,” I said. “That’s quite an accomplishment.”

More shoe staring.

“Did you know we’re filming Part Three?” I asked. “In fact, we’re less than a mile from here.”

His face shot up to mine in excitement. And what I saw made me gasp.

Annie chuckled softly. “Looks familiar, does he?”

I continued to stare. And for good reason. I was looking into a child’s face nearly identical to my own at that age. Same chin, same thick eyebrows, same brown hair spilling over the forehead. And the same liquid dark eyes. But it was more than our physical similarities. There was something else, something deeper. As I looked into those eyes, so full of awe and wonder, I felt an immediate connection. It was like looking back thirty-five years into the soul of another boy. One equally consumed by movies—one equally vulnerable, equally filled with pain and hope.

“You said you were filming nearby?” Annie asked.

I blinked, then swallowed, coming to. “We sure are.” I forced what I hoped to be an engaging smile. “In fact—,” I glanced at my watch. “Shoot! I need to get going! We’ve got a beach scene scheduled at 5:00.” I quickly rose, but barely made it to my feet before an idea formed. “Annie . . .”


“If Charlie here is a big fan of Chad Slayter, and if we’re filming not too far away at the Santa Monica Pier . . . maybe he could . . . I mean, do you think you could fix things so we could . . . .”

She was grinning mischievously. “It’s already done.”