THE WRONG GOD
Ea’s cave had a hole in the roof. Not to let smoke out, but to let the moon in. It wasn’t really a cave anymore; over the years the loose rocks had been removed and white sand brought up from the beach in leaf-lined baskets by her followers to make a soft floor. It was a temple now, but the entrance was still a narrow fissure in the jumbled rocks below the hilltop. The moon was past half and fattening, and the time was not long past twilight on this summer night. The high moon made a ragged shape of light on the bright sand and lit the cave, poorly assisted by three small olive oil lamps set into niches between the rocks.
Ea sat alone in the moonlight across from the outland warrior captain, the stone on the sand between them. She had no need for an attendant; she was no longer young, with much gray in her hair, but still nimble enough to sit or rise gracefully. The outlander had arrived in the village at mid-afternoon, in a chariot, with a hand of hands of warriors walking behind. He was large, impatient, and Ea could see scars on his hands and arms. He had told the villagers, the few who were not in the fields and pastures, that he served the king, Croesus of Lydia, and that he had heard that an oracle lived nearby.
“What do you wish of me?” Ea asked.
“First I would know why I should believe what you foretell. What powers do you possess and what god do you serve?”
“I serve the Great Goddess. As to my powers…” Ea stretched out her hand, palm down, and the polished riverstone that lay on the sand rose into the air, untouched, then settled back as she lowered her hand.
“Then listen, seer. We go to battle against the men of Cyrus, King of Media. We will meet them tomorrow, near the place where the shepherds cross the river. I would know how I shall fare in battle.”
“What will you pay?”
“A goat…and this.” He reached into a pouch and withdrew a bracelet of coiled copper. Ea had never seen one like it; perhaps a spoil of war.
She nodded and placed the bracelet on her arm, then floated the oracle stone and cupped it between her palms. After only a moment she spoke. “I see woe. You will die tomorrow and the men of Croesus will be broken.” It seemed likely. The shepherds reported that the captains of Cyrus had far more warriors at the river than those with this captain of Croesus, and they had already been there a day.
The visitor blinked, then shook his head. “That cannot be. This battle must bring me honor and glory!” He rose quickly and Ea got to her feet as well. “That cannot be!” He was angry and sneering, and Ea thought of running, but he was nearer the opening. “You are wrong, seer!” He drew his long iron knife and stepped forward. She tried to strike him with the stone, but he knocked it away.
“You serve the wrong god!” He stuck the knife deep into her belly and she shrieked pain. She collapsed on the sand and curled in upon herself. From far away she felt fingers remove the copper bracelet from her arm. She didn’t feel it when he kicked her.
“The wrong god!”
# # #
The old man stumbled on the top step as the legionaries roughly hustled him forward behind the striding centurion. The building was not a palace, barely even a large house, but it served as a palace here, far to the east of Constantinople. More importantly, the man who lived in it ruled in the name of Constantine, the Emperor, and he called it his palace. The soldiers jerked the old man upright, and he found his footing again as they passed through the open doorway and into the main room. The man who waited for them was plump and perfumed, with rings on three fingers of each hand. He was only in charge of a small district, but called himself Prefect.
The centurion marched forward, halted smartly, and struck his breastplate with his right fist.
“Here he is, my lord. The man called Volantus.”
The Prefect looked at him sternly, and the old man wanted to run away, but that was hopeless. Even though the legionaries had released him they stood within half a pace, ready to seize him again.
“I am told that you can walk on water. Is this true?”
“No your lordship, of course not.”
“And yet I am told that it is true. Is my centurion a liar?”
The centurion’s hand was on his gladius.
“No my lord, that is…I can…lift myself, sort of. Doesn’t matter if it’s over water or not.”
The old man swallowed hard and looked around the room. In addition to the Prefect and the three soldiers there were a servant, a secretary, and a man in a brown robe standing slightly behind the Prefect. The man in the brown robe wore a carved wooden cross on a leather thong around his neck.
The old man began to tremble. He nodded to the Prefect and closed his eyes. He reached out for the hand of Jupiter, and rose up, wobbling a little. He held himself a few inches off the floor, counted to three, and released the hand. He bent his knees, but his joints hurt all the time now, and he staggered as he landed.
“ Are you a prophet?” The man in the brown robe was wide-eyed. “Did God speak to you?”
“It is the hand of Jupiter. It has been there since I was a boy.”
“But…this is blasphemy! Only Our Lord Jesus could do such miracles!”
“ If you say it. May not one god do as another does?”
“Mind your tongue, old man!” The Prefect stepped forward. “Have you not heard that the Emperor has accepted the Christian way for all of us? There is only one God for Romans now.”
“The gods are the gods. Can an Emperor change that?”
The Prefect hissed through his teeth. “This one can, and you are going to regret your foolish words. Centurion!”
“This scum has demeaned the Emperor. Execute him.”
“Yes sir. The rack?”
“No. Put him on the catapult. Let’s see how high our Volantus can really fly. And a gold solidus to the bowman who can feather him in flight.”
# # #
Dror had chosen his tree carefully the day before, and he sat under it now, waiting for customers. Boda had set out the coinbox and lounged nearby, looking large, and menacing any who approached without coin in hand. The boy, Andja, was in place, hidden behind the trunk of the tree and the brightly striped pavilion where Dror told fortunes and rested between shows. He could smell the scents of market day; roasting meat, drying spices and dung, the same wherever he went. He was an outsider here, dark-skinned, with his black hair worn long and tied back.
Dror had been a soldier when he’d left Rajput many years before, hired into service to drive out the Mohammedan invaders. The invaders had been driven back, across Persia and even into Asia Minor, the land of the Turks, but the campaign had faltered. By then Dror had had enough of soldiering, and one night he had simply taken his belongings and left. Many others had done the same and for a while he’d traveled with a group. The local people called them Rom or Roma and did not welcome them. Eventually Dror had decided it was safer to travel alone, supporting himself as a magician and fortuneteller, as his father had. He knew many sly tricks and was an accomplished juggler. He had picked up the others along the way. Both had tried to rob him, which was often the way he met people. He had passed through the city of Pella some three days ago, in a land where many people claimed descent from Philip and Iskander, and was now farther to the west.
He checked the positions again. He was seated on a low stool, with a small carpet in front of him. On the carpet lay five juggling balls of various colors and a stick carved with what he called runes. Two paces in front of the carpet was the coin box. Boda’s job was twofold; to protect the box as it filled, and to make sure that nobody came closer to Dror than the box. At two paces in the shifting light under the tree he was confident that none could see the gossamer line of spun silk that was attached to one end of the runestick. From there it went up to a crotched branch, carefully smoothed the previous night with a stone and a bit of dogfish skin, thence to another crotch above Andja’s hiding place, and finally to Andja’s hand.
The crowd began to gather and he started the juggling routine. By the time he added the fifth ball they were thick, and he paused to savor the applause and to let Boda remind them of the price of entertainment. At the front were a man who looked like a crofter and a boy with a strange fixed smile.
“Hai, Goodman. Is something wrong with your boy there?”
“Not my boy. He’s addled. Got kicked in the head by the new Bishop’s ass. We keep him around to kill rats. He can’t talk, but he’s death on rats with a sling – never misses. You a healer?”
“Not I. A traveling showman and fortuneteller only. Attend, good people, attend! I will show you the wonders of the fabled runestick!”
Dror began his chant, waving his hands wildly, but carefully avoiding the silk thread. The crowd pressed forward until Boda snarled at them. The box seemed adequately full, so Dror shouted a loud “Haiyee!” which was Andja’s signal, and the stick slowly rose upright on the carpet.
“Behold!” he exclaimed.
“Witchcraft!” came a shout from the crowd. A fat man in the robe and tonsure of a friar pushed to the front, accompanied by the mayor of the town. He stopped next to the drooling boy, who danced from foot to foot, pointing at the stick.
“This is the work of the Devil!”
Dror jumped up, waving his hands in front of him in denial, and felt one hit the filament. The stick pinwheeled, then fell still as the line broke.
“No, good sir, no, it is but a trick, an entertainment! Here, look.” He waved his arms wider, feeling for the thread, but it wasn’t within reach and he couldn’t see it. The drooling boy leaped forward and clutched the stick, but the friar snatched it away and threw it down. “The boy, Andja, behind the tree…he will show you.” Dror turned but he could already see Andja slipping away, hiding in the market day traffic.
“Witchcraft! I saw. We all saw.”
“ No, your worship, it was merely a trick.” Dror felt the sweat running down his face. “Here, I will give the money back.” He reached for the coinbox but the friar caught his hand.
“Take him to the square. Prepare a stake and a fire.”
“Your Worship, I have heard that the Church of Rome has begun burning witches, but the people here are of the Eastern Church and still revere the Patriarchs.” The mayor looked around nervously. “It is not our way…”
“Then let it become your way! His Holiness will not tolerate heresy.”
The addled boy began clapping and dancing again and the stick rose once more.
“You dare?” the friar bellowed, his face darkening.
“Not I, not I!” Dror yelped, shrinking back from the carpet. “Someone else!”
The friar fixed his glare on the grinning mute. “Is this your doing? Are you a witch too?”
The addled boy bounced up and down, his head bobbing, and the people at the front of the crowd tried to shrink back.
“Take them both. One fire should serve for two witches.”
The email from John Chalk spoiled Andy Taggart’s day early. He stared out the window not seeing the view that normally calmed him and reassured him that life was really pretty good. In early May of a decently wet year, like this one, the Marin hills were still more green than gold, the grass tall, rippling as the breezes pushed waves across the open spaces between the scattered oaks. The wildflowers were good this year, too, but Andy wasn’t thinking about the beauties of nature in Northern California. Andy was thinking that he was forty-two and it had been a long time since grad school, and whatever John Chalk was doing now, it was probably more important (or at least better paid) than being the science writer for a weekly news magazine and a technology monthly.
The email was still on his screen, and he read it again.
Hey guy, it’s been awhile! I’m going to be in the Bay Area next week and I was hoping we could get together. I saw your magazine piece on the accelerating universe – very nice. This trip is more than visiting old friends. I need your help as a writer and a physicist. Can’t say much now, but either I am onto something remarkable and important or I am going nuts.
Send me a phone number and the best time to get together. We’ll need half a day, at least, just to plan what we need to do. Anytime next week is OK.
Say Hi to Kate for me.
Andy had been proud, was still proud for that matter, that he had finished his doctorate in physics, but it had been clear before he finished that he wasn’t one of the special ones, the brilliant ones who did important physics. John was. Not that he had ever been arrogant about it, or one of the grinders; John had always been up for a ski trip or a rock climbing weekend, an occasional evening of baseball and beer. But physics was easy for John, easier than for the rest of them, and he never felt guilty about taking the time off. John had gone on to do a postdoc at MIT, then a faculty slot at Stanford, with a consulting gig at some high-tech startup on the side. Andy had spent three years in a non-tenure-track teaching position at Sonoma State, then taken a leave when his parents died in the plane crash. He’d moved into the Marin house that was the bulk of the estate, and when the letter arrived informing him that his position was being eliminated in the latest round of budget cuts he had begun writing articles about science. He’d gotten together with John once, for dinner in Palo Alto, but that was it. Andy had heard that John had moved to some government-financed industrial research lab, but it came to him now that he had not actually seen or spoken with John for almost ten years. And now this email.
Andy rocked back in his chair and absently drummed a rhythm on the edge of his keyboard tray. The email was mysterious and portentous and disturbing. John needed his help? Surely he had friends and colleagues of more recent acquaintance. And why no phone number of his own? The email had been sent from a free hotmail account, so the return address told him nothing.
“Well, shit.” Andy glanced at his calendar, but he knew already that next week was empty after Monday, the deadline for his current assignment. Which he should be working on even now. He popped up a reply window and typed.
Yes, it has been a long time. Good to hear from you. I’m not sure how I can help you with your mystery project, but I’ll be glad to listen. Monday is bad, but the rest of the week is open. Shall we say Tuesday afternoon starting with lunch? Just let me know where you’ll be staying and how to reach you.
I’m afraid I can’t say Hi to Kate for you – she divorced me
Andy stopped, then backspaced.
We were divorced almost two years ago.
It will be good to see you again.
He thought about deleting the part about Kate, then shrugged, added the phone number and clicked send.
Andy’s coffee was cold and he got up to carry the mug downstairs for a refill. It was white with a red and gold Chinese dragon wrapping around, and a bit dingy, he noticed. Time for a good wash. He stopped in the bathroom and examined his face in the mirror. The bump on the bridge of his nose wasn’t prominent, but it was there for those who knew to look, one of the accumulated inadvertent body modifications that marked the passage from youth to…whatever he was now. John had been there the day his nose got broken, though he’d certainly not been responsible for it. John had been third on the rope, Andy second, in the middle. Jeff Richards, the most experienced of them, had been on lead with Andy belaying. They were doing one of the classics at the ‘Gunks, with an awkward belay for the third pitch, on a tiny stance in a sort of cave at the base of a corner under a big ceiling. There had been barely enough room for both Andy and John. They’d paid attention in setting up the belay, three bombproof anchors rigged to resist the upward force of a leader fall, slings adjusted to balance the load, and a separate anchor on which John was tied off. The error was in making the slings too long. Not much, only about a foot, but enough that when a hold broke off under Jeff’s hand and he’d gone flying, the sudden yank on the rope slammed Andy’s head into the rock of the ceiling. He’d held the fall, but the front of his helmet had smashed down onto his nose. John had used his sweatshirt in an awkward reach to stanch the bleeding while Andy coughed and snorted blood and held on until Jeff was back on the rock and climbing again. It hadn’t been a bad break, as noses went, or so the doctor had told him. He wouldn’t have said that he and John had ever been really close, but the guy had always been reliable on a climb.
Having his office on the second floor of the house gave him the view, but it meant a trip down and up to get coffee from the kitchen. He figured the exercise was good for him. As he poured he tried to remember what he had heard about John’s career after Stanford, but all he could recall was an unnamed research lab near Washington. He turned on the small television he kept on the kitchen counter, always tuned to CNN, and sipped his coffee as the anchor read the latest reports.
“Ibrahim al-Iraqi, the self-proclaimed leader of the radical Islamist group New Taliban, today released a communiqué claiming responsibility for the recent attack on the US military facility in Ramallah. He accused the US of pursuing a war of extermination against Muslims around the world, pointing to the US-sponsored resolution to withhold UN refugee assistance funds from states designated as Islamic theocracies as an attempt to starve Muslim children. In Washington the President responded defiantly to critics who accused him of waging a religious war.”
The picture cut to a clip of the President, looking angry. “Listen, I didn’t make this a holy war, those fellows over there did. If some Muslims think we are targeting them because of their religion, let them root out these terrorists who attack us in the name of that very same religion. Regimes that tolerate terrorism in the name of religion are the enemies of civilized people everywhere, and I plan to stand up to them.” It was just the usual stuff; it seemed like the war had been going on for a decade and was going to last forever. He began surfing the channels and stopped when he recognized a face.
The Truth Channel was showing a speech by the Reverend Warren Thiebault. Andy remembered him from the Republican Convention the previous summer; a big burly man running to fat, with movie-star teeth in a leonine face framed by swooping wings of white hair. Since the convention, anything Thiebault said was deemed to be newsworthy, at least on the partisan channels. This seemed to be an inspirational address for some sort of youth group; the audience consisted entirely of young men in suits and ties.
“Yours is a time of glory, for I tell you that the End Times are at hand, as the Bible tells us. The battle is upon us and we who are living today, your generation, are called to serve. The battle is stark, between Good and Evil. There can be no neutrality. The armies of wickedness are on their stealthy march here at home, even as we face them in battle across the sea. The innocent continue to suffer and die, as they have in New York and Washington and Miami and Los Angeles over the years. We are weary, but we cannot rest.”
“It is a mistaken reading of scripture to believe that we need only wait for Jesus to lift up the righteous. The battle must be won first, and Christians are the chosen instrument of God in that battle. True Christians must rise up in holy wrath and take arms against the unbelievers. Be not afraid, nor suffer the false prophets and deceivers. Our duty is clear, spoken by God in the words of Deuteronomy: ‘…a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.’ The heathen who deny Christ, who would murder us all in the name of their false god, are false prophets, each and every one. Each of us bears individual responsibility for carrying out God’s will. It is your job, not someone else’s. This is our battle, for we are commanded to take dominion of the earth.”
“The President and the armed forces are doing their part, but it is not enough. They are hindered by weak-willed apostates who have no stomach for war, even holy war, and by those who deny the truth of scripture. It is time to teach the atheists and the apostates that, yes, citizens must respect government and follow the law, but government must respect God and follow God’s laws.”
“Let us close with a brief prayer. Heavenly Father, watch over those who risk their lives on the battlefield so that Thy will may be done. Bless especially those who serve willingly not in the nations’ armies, but in Your Army. Make them strong in the knowledge that victory is at hand. In Jesus’ Name, amen. Now brothers, we have prayed for God’s Army. Is it not time for you to join?”
Andy pursed his lips as if his just-poured coffee had gone cold and bitter and switched the set off. There was little joy in watching the news these days on any channel, and he wondered why he bothered.
He sighed and cursed his lack of self-discipline, but he knew that he was not going to get any more writing done this morning. Well, he was ahead (a little bit), and the subject of creationist views about life on other planets was not exactly riveting, although the money would be decent. Instead of returning upstairs he continued down another flight.
Like many houses in hilly Marin, his was set on the side of a steep ridge. There was a main floor with the garage and the front door, living spaces, kitchen, a large outdoor deck. Upstairs were the master suite and the bedroom that had become his office. The lowest floor, originally designed for children’s bedrooms, had been redone as one large room, broken by support pillars, with a bathroom off to the side and a smaller deck off the back. Andy called it the taiko room. It contained nothing but a bookshelf, a small table, a stretching mat and his drums.
At the moment there were four drums. Two were Andy’s original practice drums; automobile tires of different sizes, each wrapped in several rolls of transparent plastic packaging tape. The tape was wound across the plane of the tire, each wrap nearly a diameter, but angled a bit from the previous wrap, until the center of the tire was multiply crisscrossed to form a drumhead. The two tire sizes gave slightly different tones, although each was a dull thud compared to a real taiko. They were good for practice, though, and cheap.
Beside the tire drums, on a metal stand, was a shime daiko about the size of a snare drum. Andy had made this too, stretching the thick hide heads and tensioning them with rope that compressed the protruding rims anchoring the heads. The heads were wider than the central cylinder and the drum looked like an oversized spool for computer cable, the top and bottom flanges bent toward each other at the rims by the rope interlacing. The shime had a sharp tone, high-pitched with little reverberation.
The last drum Andy had not made, although it was the one in which he took the most pleasure. It was a genuine Asano chu-daiko, made in Japan. It was about the size of a wine barrel, tunneled out of a solid piece of keyaki. The wood was a rich reddish brown, with sinuous dark grain markings in patterns revealed by the barreled shape. The heads were fastened by two offset rows each of iron nails, the rounded nail heads zigzagging around each end of the drum. The sound of the chu-daiko was full and deep and loud, and Andy loved to play it. Not as much as the o-daiko, the big drum, that he sometimes played in group practice and performances, but he had no hope of ever owning an o-daiko. Even the chu had cost several thousand dollars, used, on E-bay.
Andy picked up a pair of broomhandle-thick sticks, bachi, and began tapping out a soft don-doko rhythm on the chu-daiko, one long and two shorts, right, right-left, right, right-left. After a few cycles he stopped and frowned at a roughened area where one stick had begun to splinter. Sensei Yoshida would not be pleased if he saw that. Andy put the bachi down and moved to the shime-daiko, picking up the lighter, tapered bachi used to play it. He tapped the drum and winced. Time to tighten it. Again. He tossed the bachi on the floor in annoyance, then sighed and picked them up and placed them under the tripod legs of the stand, neatly aligned. Yoshida-sensei would also not be pleased if he came to practice in this sort of mood. He found a roll of black electrical tape and wrapped the splintered bachi, then resumed the don-doko exercise on the chu. Eventually he relaxed and it became smooth and even, but it took longer than usual.
# # #
Officer Joaquin Martinez yawned, stretching his wiry frame in the driver’s seat of the dark gray unmarked sedan, and ran a hand through dark hair worn a little longer than regulation. The car was parked next to a loading dock, facing the street.
“He still there?”
“Yeah, he’s still there.” Officer Dave Stein, a balding buzz-cut ex-linebacker who looked too big for the shotgun seat, was wearing the night vision goggles and had a small parabolic microphone on his lap. The goggles were pointed at a dark shadow beside a warehouse on the opposite side of the street, maybe fifty yards away. This warehouse park was all dark shadows and yellow glare at night from the widely spaced sodium vapor floodlights. The lighting made trucks easy to see, but provided lots of places for a single man to hide. Without goggles they wouldn’t have had a prayer of following Paco.
“How long since he moved?”
“Ten minutes. Maybe this is where he plans to do business tonight.”
Paco’s business was diversified. He dealt in drugs, stolen cars, undocumented aliens, whatever came to hand. This area of warehouses near Dulles airport offered lots of opportunities for Paco and the Latin American gang he sometimes ran with. One of Stein’s informants had tipped them that Paco was meeting a coke courier tonight or tomorrow, somewhere in the warehouse park. No good location for a stakeout, so they had to tail Paco.
The parking lot of the warehouse across the street held a number of trucks and a single car, a silver Lexus sport coupe. It could be Paco’s target or it could belong to somebody he was doing business with. There were stacks of lumber and bricks and plastic pipe between the car and the building and that’s where Paco was waiting. Stein was watching Paco while Martinez watched the car and the building. It was a row of small business facilities, each with its own high bay with an overhead door and an adjacent pedestrian door. The pedestrian door nearest the Lexus opened.
“Heads up, someone coming out.”
“Yeah, he’s moving.” Dave reached down and picked up the parabolic. He held it out through the open side window and pointed it. There were indistinct sounds from the speaker in the dashboard, then footsteps.
“White guy, medium height, leather jacket, heading for the Lexus.”
Two sets of footsteps from the speaker now, and Stein angled the microphone, following Paco as the two figures converged.
“Nice car man.” It was Paco’s voice; Martinez had heard it many times on tape.
“Yeah it is. Can I help you with something?” The second voice was unfamiliar, and wary.
“Doesn’t sound like a buy.” Martinez reached for the ignition, ready to start up.
“Help me with something? Yeah, you can help me to your wallet and car keys!”
“Gun! Go!” Stein flipped the goggles up and out of the way with his left hand, still pointing the microphone with his right. Martinez turned the key.
“Whoa, take it easy. I’ve got a hundred on me, take it.”
“Nice car like that and only a hundred? I don’t think so. More inside, maybe? Let’s go see. Move it!”
The gray sedan fired up. Martinez put it in gear, then gave it gas and turned on the headlights at the same time. The mike lost target as the car jumped forward, but they could see Paco turn and raise the gun.
In rapid succession, fast as shots from an automatic pistol, three objects flew out of the darkness. The first hit Paco’s hand, knocking the gun loose; the second hit his elbow, bending it the wrong way; and the third hit him in the ear. Paco went down.
The gray sedan roared and swerved across the street and into the parking lot. Stein was out first, though he’d barely had time to pull in the mike, drop it on the floor, and draw his weapon. He pointed it at Paco. Three bricks lay scattered on the ground next to Paco, who was bleeding from the scalp behind his ear. Paco tried to lift his right hand to his head and cried out, clutching his right elbow with his left hand. He began cursing in Spanish. Stein pivoted to point his gun into the shadows, where the bricks had come from. He flipped the goggles down but the shadows were empty. “Joaquin, you see him? The thrower?”
“No. Nobody came this way. Must have gone around the front.”
“Couldn’t have, I’d be able to see him.” Stein rose from his crouch and raised the goggles again, turning to the near-victim of the robbery. “Did you see him?”
“I didn’t see anything. Are you police officers?”
Stein sighed and put away his automatic. “Yes. Officer Dave Stein.” He reached for his badge holder hanging from a neck strap inside his shirt. “This is Officer Joaquin Martinez. We had a stakeout on Paco here.”
Martinez showed his own badge, still looking around. “What happened? We saw him trying to rob you, then he got clobbered. Who threw the bricks?”
“I don’t know.”
There was something evasive about the answer, and Martinez looked at the brick pile, measuring angles. The bricks had come from the stack, on the opposite side of Paco from his victim. “Who are you, sir? Could I see some ID?”
The man opened the wallet he was holding and took out his driver’s license. “My name is John Chalk. I work here.”
Martinez took out his note pad and wrote down the name and license number while Stein fetched the first aid kit from the car and placed a wad of gauze against Paco’s head. The cursing had subsided.
“Okay Mr. Chalk, we’ll need a statement. What happened?.”
“I came out of the office and this guy appeared out of the shadows and tried to rob me, pointed a gun at me.”
“Yeah, we saw that. Then what happened?”
“Well, he heard you and turned and something hit him – the bricks, I guess.”
“And you didn’t see anybody else?”
“I told you, no.”
Stein looked up. “So, you think those bricks just fell out of the sky, Mr. Chalk?”
“No, of course not. I don’t know where they came from, I was watching the gun. Look, it’s late and I’m a little shaken up. Can I just go home?”
Martinez looked down at Paco, pushed a bloodied brick with his toe, then looked at Stein. Stein rolled his eyes and shrugged, and Martinez flipped his notebook closed. “I guess. We have enough to bust him and we’ll have to get him patched up first. You remember anything else, you give me a call.” He handed over a card along with Chalk’s license and turned to help Stein get Paco on his feet. “You’re lucky we were watching. He might have killed you. He’s done it before.”
“Yes, lucky. Thanks, officers.”
“Sure. Glad you’re okay Mr. Chalk.”
The victim unlocked the silver Lexus and got in while they loaded Paco into the back of the gray sedan. He complained when they cuffed him, but there was no divider, and injured or not they wouldn’t leave him in the back seat with his hands free. The Lexus drove away as they got into the front seats.
The car was still running, but Martinez didn’t touch the gear lever. “He was lying, Dave. Had to be. Whoever threw the bricks didn’t come past me, and if you couldn’t see him with goggles – there was no place he could have gone.”
“Yeah, but Chalk couldn’t have thrown them, and anyway, who could throw three bricks that fast and that accurately? I’m going to put him through the system.”
“As what? I mean we saw Paco try the robbery. Chalk is the victim, even if he’s concealing the thrower.”
“I know, but there’s something funny about him.” Stein pulled up the keyboard of the police computer link. Martinez handed over the note pad and Stein entered the name and number. Martinez took a look at Paco while Stein waited, watching the small screen. The answer came back quicker than usual. “Hey. He’s already in the system. On a watch list, national security priority, no less. But no pickup indicated.”
“Then he isn’t our problem. Be happy, man, we busted Paco tonight. Let’s go park him.” Martinez again put the car in gear.
As the gray sedan pulled away from the parking lot and turned right, a similar car, black, eased out from behind a truck at the far end. When it reached the street its headlights came on and it turned left, the direction the silver Lexus had taken.
Andy stepped into the restaurant and looked around. John Chalk was seated in one of the booths in the front room, across from the bar, as arranged. He was smaller than Andy in height and bulk, his features still sharp and tight-skinned, with a narrow nose, prominent chin, and blue eyes that blinked less often than most. The years showed only in the lines around his eyes and a hairline that had receded a little. He was dressed casually, in an open collared blue shirt and a microfiber suede jacket. A cup of coffee steamed on the table in front of him. Andy walked over to the booth and extended his hand. John didn’t get up, but reached out to take the hand.
”Hey, John! Good to see you again. You’re looking reasonably well preserved.”
“Reasonably well. How are you? Still skiing and climbing?”
“Skiing, yes, climbing, no - at least nothing technical. Too hard to stay in good enough shape.” Andy slid into the booth opposite John and a waiter appeared immediately.
“Hi, I’m Rick, and I’ll be your server this afternoon. Can I start you off with a beverage?” He placed menus in front of them.
Andy didn’t open the menu. “I just want coffee and the chicken Caesar salad. Have you ordered?”
“No. The salad sounds fine, I’ll have one too.” John closed his own menu and placed it on top of Andy’s. He seemed reluctant to speak with the waiter hovering.
Rick poured a cup of coffee at the bar and set it down in front of Andy, then headed for the kitchen as a busboy arrived with a tray holding glasses of water and a basket of sliced sourdough with a little ceramic crock of butter. Andy waited until he was out of hearing then leaned forward.
“Okay, John, what is this all about? What’s the big secret and why do you need my help as ‘a writer and a physicist,’ in that order?”
John Chalk’s mouth jerked upward in a twitchy little half-smile. He scanned around the restaurant, but late in the lunch hour on a Tuesday the Roadhouse was almost empty. “I have to sort of sneak up on it. What if I told you I could do magic?”
“You don’t mean card tricks, bending spoons, sawing sexy assistants in half, I assume?”
“Nope. Real magic.”
“Define real magic. Spells? Wands? Demons?”
“Let’s say…an ability to transcend the laws of physics, at will. Without using any recognizable type of physical interaction.”
Andy considered that for a few seconds. “ If you were a stranger on the street and told me that, I would assume that you were a con artist or a nut. Which you have obviously considered. If you, my old physics buddy John, told me that, I would assume that either you had been conned or that you were having me on. Are you telling me that?”
“Not quite – but you see my dilemma. I have discovered something that looks like magic.”
“Come on, John, I’ve read my Clarke! ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Why this reference to the occult from a practicing physicist?”
“Because it isn’t a technology – or I don’t believe it is. It appears to be a talent.”
“Do tell. And only you have this mysterious talent, I presume? You are having me on!”
John shrugged. “No, I’m not, but I don’t expect you to believe that for a while. I came to you because – whatever is going on – I need you as a witness. A trained skeptical observer who can describe what he sees in a way that will be credible to scientists, and can be understood by laymen. And who also will trust me and give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. It’s a damn small set, Andy. Just you.”
Andy cleared his throat. “Benefit of the doubt…Okay, I’ll nibble. I assume that a small demonstration is in order?”
“Let’s eat first. I’m hungry and…well, let’s just eat first. Can I ask what happened with you and Kate, or is that out of bounds?”
Andy’s immediate urge was to tell him to mind his own business, but he managed to suppress it and wait before he answered. John had known Kate; it was only fair that he would be curious. Kate had become part of the group when she’d moved in with Andy - not a physics student, but usually along for skiing and other outings. That didn’t mean that he had to provide sordid details, however.
“Kind of. Short version, we didn’t talk enough, grew apart, splitting up was her idea, but in the end I agreed she was right. She’s somewhere in Nova Scotia now. How about you, did you ever marry that girl you were seeing at Stanford, Stephanie?”
“No. Not married, don’t expect I ever will be. I tend to get wrapped up in things, and women don’t seem to tolerate it very well. Are you still in touch with any of the others from grad school?”
“Just Dennis Ruggels in the Bay Area. A few Christmas cards and emails. I heard Ron Cowan is teaching at the Naval Academy, do you ever see him?”
They continued the who’s where exchange until the salads arrived, then concentrated on eating. Andy felt an undercurrent of impatience, awareness of an artificial deferment of a moment of truth, but he dutifully consumed his chicken and romaine until finally John pushed his half-finished plate aside.
“Okay, that’s enough. Let’s get on with it.” John looked around, studying the few faces in the café. He gave a quick little nod, as if he were committing himself to something irrevocable. “A very small demonstration. And then we get out of here and go someplace private, a place you choose. Have you got a pen?”
“Here.” Andy reached into his shirt pocket.
“Put it on the table. I don’t want to touch it.”
“Okay.” It was a standard black plastic ballpoint. Andy started to set it down, but John said “Take the cap off,” so he popped it off, put it on the barrel of the pen and laid the pen on the table.
John looked at the pen and his eyes seemed to focus at a distance - and the pen rose to balance upright on its point. It stayed there, steady as a flat rock, for perhaps ten seconds, then floated – it was the only word Andy could think of – back down to lie on the table again.
Andy snatched up the pen and stared at it, then at John. “I don’t know how you did that, but it’s a hell of a trick.”
John stood up. “Isn’t it? But now we have to go.” John dropped a more than sufficient bill on the table and they rose. Andy didn’t think anyone had noticed them except Rick the waiter, who hurried over.
“Is there a problem with your food?”
“No, it’s fine, but something has come up,” John answered. “Keep the change. Come on Andy.” John was clearly agitated and anxious to leave, looking around again as he started for the door. Andy shrugged at Rick and followed.
Outside Andy started toward the parking lot, but stopped. “John, was that an illusion of some kind? I can’t possibly have seen what I thought I saw.”
“No illusion, it was real. Where’s your car? I know I sound paranoid, but I don’t want to hang around. I have the feeling that people are looking for me.”
“What people? How did you get here? Do you have a car?”
“Nope. Taxi. Made him drop me in the parking lot under the freeway, too. Wherever we’re going, we’re going together, so you can drive.”
Andy wanted to ask a thousand more questions right then and there, but he held them and walked swiftly to his three-year-old Honda. John got in as soon as he had the doors open.
“Where are you staying?” Andy started the car and looked around, but there was nobody else nearby.
“The St. Francis, downtown. I’ll take a cab back when we’re done.”
As they pulled out of the driveway Andy asked again, “What people?”
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure there is somebody, but I just don’t know who, yet.”
It took ten silent minutes to drive from the restaurant to Andy’s house up on a ridge between Corte Madera and Mill Valley.
“This is your place? Very nice.”
“Thanks. My folks built it, back in the day when ordinary people could afford a house here.”
Andy pushed the button on the garage opener and eased in. Like many Californians, having no basement or attic, he used the garage for general storage, although his wasn’t as full as some he had seen. The house had a two-car garage; he parked on the right, where there was a door leading outside. The left was half-filled with miscellaneous ‘stuff’ on shelves. He got out of the car, crossed the open space in the middle and dug in a box of camping gear while John slammed the car door and came around the back. Andy led John inside the house through the door at the back of the garage, closing the overhead door with a pushbutton on the wall as he passed. The garage entrance was on the middle level, and Andy continued down to the taiko room, to the small table set against the wall. He uncapped his pen and set it on the table.
“Do it again.”
John got the faroff look and once more the pen rotated upward to balance on its point. Andy blew out a gusty breath.
“Goddamn you, John Chalk, if this is a stunt of some kind…” He reached out with his left hand and pushed against the top of the pen with one finger. It tilted, but resisted, as if attached to a spring. “So. Not a hallucination or purely optical effect. I can feel it.” With his right hand Andy lifted the compass he had picked up in the garage. The needle swung and settled, pointing toward what he knew to be the north wall. The needle kept pointing that way as he moved the compass around and over the erect pen. “Not a magnetic field, no supporting filaments. What if we change the object?” He quickly stepped over to the shime daiko and returned with a tapered bachi. Putting it on the table he gestured with his hand; show me. The pen settled and the wooden stick rotated upward.
Andy put down the compass, picked up the pen and took a notebook from the bookshelves next to the table. “Better start recording, I guess.” He frowned at the pen in his hand. “No residual heat or chill, feels normal…writes OK. Why did the pen stop when the stick started? Does it only work on one object at a time?”
“No, I just figured I’d take one step at a time. The maximum number depends on the weight of the objects. It takes concentration, and if I get tired or distracted I can’t do it.”
“So, mass matters.” Andy scribbled. He reached out again with his left hand and pushed against the top of the stick, left, right, forward, back. “It feels like the resisting force is symmetric and gets greater as the deviation from vertical increases – a horizontal potential well. How much mass can you handle?”
“I don’t know. Maybe twenty-five pounds right now. I seem to be getting stronger, like building muscle strength through exercise.”
Andy laid down his pen. “John, that’s impossible. Direct mind control of antigravity through some power generated in the human body? Telekinesis? Give me a break!”
John sighed and the stick settled to a normal horizontal position on the tabletop. It didn’t drop with a clatter, Andy noted, just gently reclined.
“I know, Andy, but whatever you want to call it, it’s an observable effect. As Holmes says, ‘Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains…”
“We can’t eliminate the impossible!” Andy broke in, “This is impossible!”
“No!” John’s voice was sharp. “It doesn’t fit within any physics we know, but it is observable! It can be investigated rationally and systematically. It isn’t a delusion, or an illusion, or a hoax. It is replicable, at least by me. It doesn’t depend on whether the observer believes. It’s real, Andy, and I need someone to corroborate the observations.” He gave a rueful little laugh. “We can figure out what to call it later.”
“How did you discover this ability?”
“Let’s get into that later. Right now I want to concentrate on getting an unbiased description of the observable effect.”
Andy stared at John, absently tapping a don-doko with his pen. If there was a trick being played here, he couldn’t see it. Yet. So John was right, observe and record.
“Okay, we need a plan of investigation. Accelerometers to measure the force being exerted. Detectors through the complete EM spectrum, plus particles. Various shielding enclosures. Video gear for recording. I’m sure we’ll think of other stuff. And a range of objects, different masses and compositions. Speaking of range, how far away does it work?”
“Again it depends on the number and mass of the objects, but meters, maybe tens of meters.”
“ And you get tired? How quickly? How long can you keep a stick upright?”
“I don’t know. Hours. I’d get bored before I got exhausted. Supporting maximum mass, maybe ten minutes. “ John yawned and worked his head back and forth, as if his neck were stiff. “ And right now I’m tired from traveling, so my limits would be reduced. Sorry, I didn’t sleep much last night. I took the earliest plane I could get out of Dulles.”
“Okay, why don’t you go upstairs and take a nap while I get some instrumentation organized? In fact this will probably take days; you can stay here if you want.”
“You live alone? Since you and Kate split up? Or maybe that’s something else I shouldn’t ask.”
“It’s okay. There’s someone – Rachel Hollander. She stays here - sometimes. Mostly, I guess, but there’s nothing formal. She has her own place. She’s on a business trip right now, but she’s back in a couple of days. You’ll meet her then.”
“Well, let’s wait until after that to talk about me staying here. I am wiped, though. Just call a cab for me and I’ll head back to the hotel. They should be willing to let me into my room by now.”
“You already know what it will cost if you came out by cab. I don’t mind driving you in.”
“I can afford it, Andy. I can afford to pay you for your time and the instrumentation, too. I brought cash. Here.” John reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a bulky zippered cash wallet like those used by banks. “There’s fifty thousand in here.”
It was way too much. Andy stared at John’s unblinking eyes for a long moment.
“Go ahead, take it. I pulled a big chunk of cash out of my stock portfolio, just for emergencies and contingencies. Don’t worry, there’s more.”
Andy accepted the wallet and hefted it. “I’d still rather drive you, and I need to pick up some basic electronics. I’ll get the serious stuff from Dennis Ruggels over at Berkeley tomorrow.”
“Okay, I’ll take the ride. Thanks, Andy.”
Andy thought he meant for more than the ride. “Don’t thank me yet, John. I am going to be a very damn skeptical observer indeed.”
The ride was quiet. Most of the traffic on 101 was coming the other way, out of the city in the usual late afternoon crawl. The air was clear and the sun was low enough to give the light a touch of the golden cast that came late in the day, though sunset was still hours away. The marine layer was charging in, though, and as they climbed the grade above Sausalito they passed a fogfall, thick mist tumbling over the ridge through a notch, flowing down the slope, and evaporating before it reached the roadway. When the layer was deep the fog came in as a high wall, drowning even the highest hills under a rolling ocean of mist. When the layer was shallower, like this, it surged against the coast ranges in a silent flood, sneaking through the low places, jetting through the Golden Gate as if it were a nozzle pointed at Berkeley. Coming out of the tunnel they could see the orange bridge towers poking above the incoming river of fog, and by the time they were on the bridge visibility was down to a couple of car lengths.
“Summer in the Golden Gate” Andy offered, but John didn’t respond and Andy felt like an idiot, recalling that John had lived in Palo Alto and knew the fog. The layer lifted, or they dropped below it, leaving the road clear as they rattled down Doyle Drive through the Presidio. The elegant old officers’ mansions were now filled with everything from nonprofit groups to animation studios, feeding the northbound frenzy on Doyle. Andy got off at Lombard, by the eternally crumbling dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. “The Saint Francis, you said?”
“ Yes, but I don’t want you to drop me there. Drop me in North Beach.”
Andy glanced over, surprised. “Why North Beach?”
John was looking out the side window. “I like North Beach. And I don’t want anybody to see your car near my hotel.” He turned to face Andy. “Just a precaution.”
“So where should I pick you up tomorrow?”
“Don’t. I’ll rent a car. I think I can find your place, and if not I’ll call for directions.”
Precautions against what, Andy wondered, but said nothing as they rolled down Lombard and turned onto Van Ness. He took the Broadway tunnel, with its sign requesting silence that always caused the teenagers to honk. Just another example of the law of unintended consequences, or maybe the tendency of the perversity of the universe to a maximum, he mused. Physicists loved laws of nature, even, or especially, facetious ones. It was the way they thought. You weren’t supposed to be able to break a law of nature at will. What was John Chalk doing?
Andy managed to pull over in a bus zone and John opened the door. “This is fine. Look, I’ll see you tomorrow around noon. Don’t worry if I’m a little late; I have some things I need to do. Thanks for the ride.” John got out, closed the door and went around the back of the car. An arriving bus honked menacingly and Andy pulled away, watching in the mirror as John headed toward the corner by the City Lights bookstore where an intermittent stream of cabs disgorged tourists. Or maybe he was just going to the bookstore. Andy shrugged and put his attention back on the traffic as he began to work his way back toward the bridge. He could pick up a decent digital video camera cheap on the way home.
Prasad Gupta knocked twice at the polished oak door and waited. Even though the secretary had cleared him at reception and sent him back, he waited for the word, as always. It did not do to interrupt Wendell Murchison. Many things were considered and decided in this office, and even with his clearances and his position as a Senior Associate, Prasad had a need to know only about the specific matters assigned to his attention. Mr. Murchison had made it quite clear from the beginning that no phone conversations were to be overheard, no visitors glimpsed, no documents perused out of curiosity. It had seemed strange at first – unexpected in what was ostensibly a political action organization – but it had quickly become evident that the Veritas Foundation served many purposes. Most importantly, it was where Wendell Murchison operated.
The wait seemed longer than usual and Prasad glanced around. Most of the building was finished and furnished in the utilitarian style of modern Washington offices, but Mr. Murchison’s suite was something else. There were thick oriental carpets, marble-topped tables, fresh flowers in antique vases of Chinese porcelain. It was the lair of a managing law partner or an ex-Senator turned lobbyist. This was the vision that kept young men like Prasad at their desks long past dinner and sent them pre-caffeinated to six-AM breakfast meetings. He allowed himself the luxury of imagining how he would furnish such a suite when it was his.
The familiar voice from the speaker grill said “Come, Prasad,” and Gupta refocused. He opened the heavy soundproof door and entered the innermost office, closing the door firmly behind him, as always. The office was as large and luxurious as the anterooms promised, with furniture of old wood and rich leather, one wall lined with books on built-in shelves. They were mostly history books, he knew, with heavy emphasis on the ancient world and on the history of religion. The desk was centered, facing the door where he had entered, with another door beyond it. He had noticed in the past that the familiar Washington photo wall was missing in Mr. Murchison’s office, but he assumed that this was a gesture of discretion. He didn’t look around this time, but concentrated on the man behind the vast mahogany desk. Wendell Murchison was sixty-something, nearly bald, not terribly large, initially unimpressive; Prasad knew better. Each time he entered this office it was an opportunity to make his value known, to step up the ladder, but it was also a risk. Mr. Murchison was not patient with his subordinates.
“You have heard from Singapore, I gather?”
“Yes, sir. Wu confirms that Souvanophong quit his job, left Singapore, and entered the monastery at Chiang Mai last month. His coworkers say that he had been expressing more and more disaffection with what he called ‘crass material values’ over the last several weeks. Wu reports that the man who first claimed that he saw Souvanophong levitate now admits that he had been drinking at the time, but still swears that he saw it. The monks at Chiang Mai refused to provide any information, but Wu managed to bribe a local farmer, who supplies the monastery with fruit, to snoop around. The farmer says the monks are in something of a panic because,” he took a note card from his pocket and read from it: “ ‘the Old Master and the New Master have gone ahead without them.’ Wu arranged for the local anti-terrorism authorities to visit the monastery, and they reported that Souvanophong and the senior monk had left the compound. The police put out an alert at the Embassy’s request, but there has been no sign of them. Souvanophong has disappeared, I’m afraid.”
“So Chalk is our only lead.”
“Yes, sir.” Prasad hesitated, then continued in a carefully diffident tone. “If I may, this seems like a great deal of effort to base on a report from a probably drunken observer who claims to have seen a miraculous levitation and to have heard the words ‘John Chalk was right’ from Souvanophong. Do we have additional information? Something that might help with the search?” He left the words ‘Something you’re not telling me?’ unspoken.
Murchison narrowed his eyes and Prasad immediately wished that he’d kept his mouth shut. “You don’t believe it, do you Prasad? You don’t think it’s possible.”
Prasad shifted his weight. “It seems a low probability, sir.”
“Yes. Nevertheless, we will pursue it. I have my reasons. Continue surveillance on Chalk, but keep it light. Don’t alarm him. Put out a global alert for Souvanophong; detain-for-questioning, do-not-injure. Put it out through the FBI, so it has some official status.”
“Very good, sir.” Prasad’s tone carried a verbal salute, perhaps even a short stiff bow, though he remained immobile.
“Thank you, Prasad. That’s all for now.”
“Yes, sir.” Prasad turned and opened the door, mentally cursing himself for a fool, then closed it from the outside and took several deep breaths. You do not climb the ladder by questioning the judgment of the man at the top, he knew that. He would have to be doubly diligent and hope that fate offered him some morsel of information that he could deliver, something to confirm Murchison’s strange conviction that this report of an unphysical phenomenon was accurate. It couldn’t be, but that no longer mattered. He headed back to his office, making up a story for the FBI about why they wanted to talk to Souvanophong.
# # #
A county fair was a natural trouble magnet for ten-year-old boys, and Wendell Murchison didn’t need much to draw him. The main difference between him and the other boys was that he prowled alone, while most of his contemporaries moved in packs or suffered the shame and boredom of confinement to a family group. Wendell didn’t like groups; there was always some blabbermouth to get you caught. Since his mother had gotten sick in the last year, he’d been pretty much on his own when he wasn’t in school, and that was okay with him.
It wasn’t a bad fair, even with the heat and dust of a dry Oklahoma summer. He’d watched some amateur rodeo and seen the display of the new ’59 cars. He’d broken a little better than even playing marbles. He’d tried ring toss and decided it was a gyp. He’d eaten cotton candy, a corn dog and a snow cone. Now he was exploring the side show and menagerie. Not from the front where the shills and barkers worked, but in the back where the carnies lived. Mostly they seemed to live in old cars and older trucks and beatup house trailers and raggedy tents. There was nobody around because they were all working the booths and cages.
He slipped along among the dented vehicles and patched tents, sneakin’ peeks, as he called it. Next to one trailer there was an awning set up, with a canvas wall on the windy side. He heard music and muted thudding noises, so naturally he had to investigate. When he snuck around the corner of the trailer he could see that the music came from a portable phonograph, the kind that looked like a little suitcase. The thudding noises came from the skinniest man he’d ever seen, who was trying to tapdance on a sheet of plywood laid on the dirt. The man was dressed in a work shirt and grimy jeans, and he wore work boots, which weren’t helping his tapping any. The boy snickered, hunkering down to watch, but his elbow struck a metal canteen cup he hadn’t seen, and the skinny man saw him and stopped.
“What’re you doing there, boy?”
He stood up. “Nothin’. Just lookin’ “
“Lookin’ to steal somethin’, I’d bet. Get on out of here. Rubes ain’t allowed in the back.”
“I wasn’t stealin’. Are you a dancer?”
“Don’t look like much of a dancer, now do I? I just clean the cages and do what needs doin’. And I ain’t gonna be a dancer if you keep me from practicin’. Now get.”
The boy withdrew from the skinny man’s glare and headed back to the shows and attractions. This was a boring place to sneak, anyway. There was nobody to catch and if he did they wouldn’t be around long enough to worry if he told, so they wouldn’t pay him anything. Not like Mrs. Morton. The dollar a week was good, but the best part was seeing her blush every time she paid him. He hadn’t told anyone else how he’d seen her down on her knees in her kitchen kissing Fred Gordon’s dick, but he could, any time he wanted. If he told Mrs. Spoder, the church organist, everybody in town would know inside of an hour. Man, wouldn’t she blush then!
He went out toward a small stage where various performers worked for whatever the crowd would drop in the hat. There was a juggler who was pretty good, working five flaming torches, and then a magician who wasn’t; you could see him palming the cards if you knew to look. There was a small crowd here, and the boy kept his hand on his money in his jeans like Pa told him, so he wouldn’t get his pocket picked. A young man with red hair, maybe high-school age, snorted at the magician and shook his head, then caught the boy’s eye. “He stinks, don’t he?” The older boy said it softly, not heckling, just saying.
“He can’t do card tricks, anyhow.”
The fellow cocked his head. “You know about magic?”
“Want to see some real magic?”
“Like what? Are you a magician?”
“Yep. The real thing, too.”
“Won’t cost you a penny.”
“Are you going on stage next?”
“Naw. You gotta pay to use the stage. But come on, I’ll show you.” The red haired teenager led the way out of the crowd and the boy followed him. They walked toward the big Revival tent set maybe ten yards from the stage. It was empty and quiet, the preaching not scheduled to start for over an hour yet. Inside the older fellow turned and surveyed the boy.
“You got marbles in that sack,” he stated, pointing at the cloth bag tied to the boy’s belt and a belt loop on his jeans. “You mind if I borrow them?”
The boy hesitated, then nodded. “Okay, long as you give ‘em back.” He untied the strings and held out the bag.
“Just dump ‘em out, and hold out the bag.”
The boy opened the bag and poured out the marbles on the straw and sawdust.
The marbles rose into the air and began to circle like the juggler’s balls, except that they never touched the teenager’s hands. He put his hands behind his back, for emphasis, and grinned. “What do you think?”
“Pretty neat! How do you do it?”
“Like I said, magic.” The marbles now chased each other in a figure-eight pattern, then rose and began to orbit the older boy’s head, like a halo of sputniks, or the stars when Elmer Fudd got hit with a frying pan in the movie cartoons. Then, one by one, the marbles dove into the bag in the boy’s hands. “It’s my God-given talent. I’m a miracle worker. I don’t want to do shows, I want to be in the Revival and save souls for Jesus.”
“Do you now?” The voice was deep and rich and powerful and came from behind the boy, who turned and found himself looking up at a large man in a black suit and string tie. The man let the tent flap fall and stepped all the way in. “Well, this is the place for that. I am the Reverend Jordan Parnell and this is my Revival. You say that you’re a miracle worker? What’s your name?”
“Johnson, sir. Albert Johnson. Named for the tobacco.”
The Reverend Parnell smiled. “Well, then, Prince Albert, what kind of miracles can you perform?”
“Dump ‘em out again,’ Albert instructed, and the boy hastily complied. True magic and miracles might be even better than sneakin’.
The marbles repeated the halo effect, went back into the bag, and Albert waited for his applause.
“Nice grabber, son…never seen that one before. Couldn’t see the threads, even from here. Can you Heal?”
“What do you mean, Reverend?”
“Can you perform a miracle of Healing? Or make someone just plain feel better?”
“Well, no, I don’t think so. I can make almost anything move almost any which way, though, just by prayin’. It’s a gift from God, Reverend, and I believe I am called to preach the gospel.”
Reverend Parnell frowned, then shook his head. ‘Not in my tent you aren’t. Look Albert, people don’t want to watch tricks, they want Healing. You can’t do Healing, what good are you in a Revival? Healing, hosannahs and troubling the heathen, those are the sure things. Stick to magic shows.”
Wendell spoke up for the first time. “Do you know a preacher named Brother Alton?”
The Reverend frowned. “Why, I believe I do. Another itinerant man of God. Has he passed through here lately?”
“Last spring. He said he could Heal people if they prayed for it.”
“Yes, prayer is the key. Go along now, you fellows, beat it, I got to get ready to preach.”
Albert looked like he wanted to argue, and Wendell decided that he had seen enough. Whatever Albert was going to say, it wasn’t going to work on Reverend Parnell, he could see that. He looked at his new wristwatch and announced “I’ve got to get going. I don’t want to be late meeting Pa.” He dashed out holding the marble bag and headed for the Ferris wheel, the agreed meeting place.
He was only a couple of minutes late, but his father was waiting. “Sorry, Pa.”
“That’s okay, you were close. We have time for some supper before the Reverend starts. Here, your Ma thought you might like to look at your books before the meeting.” His father handed him three comics, two well used and the other looking brand new. The new one was Children’s Illustrated Bible Stories; the others were Alexander the Great, one of the History Series books his mother subscribed to for his benefit, and The Story of King Arthur. Naturally she hadn’t sent any really good ones, like Superman. Still, Alexander was okay, with battles and conquering an empire, and in King Arthur there were not only battles, but Merlin the Magician.
“Pa, I saw somebody do real magic, like Merlin! He made my marbles fly around in a circle.”
Pa pinched the top of his nose, like he had a headache. “Wendell, there isn’t any such thing as real magic. Merlin is a fictional character, made up. There are only miracles, found through Jesus. Was this a Jesus miracle?”
“No, I guess not. It sure looked real, though.”
“I’m sorry Wendell, I’m afraid somebody probably played a trick on you. Come, let’s eat.”
They ate barbecue beef sandwiches and the boy described his afternoon at the fair, leaving out sneaking. They went into the big tent early, but it was already a quarter full, with people in choir robes bustling around near the altar and podium. He didn’t want to go to the Revival at all, but he knew Pa wouldn’t let him out of it. His father chose seats near the back, as always, and they settled down to wait and read, his father with a Bible and the boy concentrating on Alexander.
The service started with the choir singing, and then everybody stood up and sang a hymn. The boy didn’t know the words, but he dutifully stood and faked along. The Reverend Parnell came out in a white robe, said a prayer, and then got to the heart of the matter.
“I know that many of you have come here tonight for Healing – and welcome to you all. Healing and praising the Lord are what this Revival is all about. So don’t be shy, don’t hold back! Who will be the first? Who will show the way? Please, brothers and sisters, let the rejoicing begin!”
“I will, Reverend.” The voice came from the right front and a man in a wheelchair rolled forward. “Can you heal my legs? I haven’t been able to walk since I had the polio.”
“If you have faith, friend, all things are possible. Come forward!”
Wendell couldn’t see very well but the man in the wheelchair rolled to the center facing the altar. Reverend Parnell stepped down from the podium and placed his hands on the man’s shoulders. “By the power of Lord Jesus we pray…let this man be healed. Let him rise up and walk! Be Healed!”
The Reverend stepped back and the man in the chair slowly lifted himself by his arms, rocked forward, then rose to his feet and took a step. He turned to face the audience with a glorious smile and raised his arms to heaven “Praise the Lord!” The boy saw his face clearly now, for the first time. It was the skinny tapdancer.
“Praise the Lord indeed!” The Reverend picked it up smoothly. “Friends and neighbors, will you not open your hearts and wallets so that this Revival can reach out to others in need? Will you not offer your support?” The choir started another hymn and men with long-handled baskets stepped forward from the tent walls and waded into the audience.
As his father reached for his wallet Wendell tugged at his sleeve. “Pa, it’s a trick! Just like that Brother Alton last spring, when he promised to cure Ma. Don’t give ‘em anything!”
“Wendell, that’s a terrible thing to say! We have seen a true miracle here, not some trick with marbles! Reverend Parnell Healed that man before our very eyes. Your mother was doubtful, but now she must come. I will bring her tomorrow, and the Reverend will restore her, and she’ll get better.”
His father stopped and drew a breath, then took a dollar out of his wallet and waved it at the nearest basket passer.
The boy looked around. Some of the men and most of the women were feeding the baskets, and a line of people with canes, crutches, wheelchairs, bandages and tremors was forming in the center aisle. He counted people in a row and rows in the tent. There were four hundred in the audience, he estimated. If half of them gave a dollar each, that was… two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars a night was pretty good. He wondered if this time the Reverend really could cure his mother; she sure did cough a lot now. Probably not, if he was just tricking people to get their money. Like Brother Alton, who took their money and said Ma was still sick because he and Pa hadn’t prayed hard enough. Doc Schubert had said she had something called lung cancer, and there wasn’t any way to fix it. He supposed she’d die soon, and that scared him some, but he’d already sort of got used to her not being around. Anyhow, with her stuck in bed she couldn’t catch him sneakin’ peeks. He settled back in his chair and read again how Alexander cut the Gordian knot.
# # #
Murchison tapped a finger on his knee impatiently as he scanned the daily news summaries on the computer monitor. Coverage of the Army of God was still skeptical in tone in too many newsrooms. Ellsworth was still holding up funding in the Senate. Past time to eliminate that particular roadblock.
An electronic ping announced the arrival of a priority email and he popped up the window. It was from Prasad.
Surveillance reports that John Chalk has gone to California, purchasing a ticket at the last moment. They suspect that they have been made. Chalk has been reacquired in San Francisco, but operatives there report a lack of cooperation from local law enforcement. The police are insisting on a warrant before installing a phone tap at Chalk’s hotel. Should we comply?
Murchison picked up the phone and punched the second speed dial button. Prasad picked up on the first ring. “Of course we will not comply! I have no intention of revealing sensitive information to some local judge who can’t hold his tongue, nor will we waste time inventing something. Tell surveillance to go directly to the hotel management and request access to the internal switch for all hotel phones. Remind them as to who we are.”
Murchison hung up and shook his head, returning to his news scan. Prasad still had much to learn. The whole point of gaining wealth and power was to be able to ignore the rules. Some people learned that earlier than others.
# # #
The layout room was a mess, as usual. It was an office with a glass wall on one side, a large table in the middle, a side counter, and no chairs. There was crumpled paper all over the floor and the counter. This was the place where the pages of the News Gazette were laid out and pasted up each day, and nobody tried to keep it neat during the process. Cleaning up afterward was Wendell’s job, and he hated it. Working at the newspaper was a coveted summer job, reserved for those about to start their senior year at the high school, but after a month he couldn’t see why. The Principal had said this was a special opportunity because his Ma was dead and his Pa was crippled by the stroke and he was a smart boy who deserved a chance, but it didn’t look like much of an opportunity to him. He was supposed to be a copy boy, but that seemed to mean gofer and janitor, and he didn’t plan to spend his life taking out other people’s garbage.
He moved the waste paper barrel, a large open-topped cardboard drum mounted on casters, and bent to pick up a sheaf of discarded photos off the floor. As he stood up he took another long look at Laurie Samson’s legs. She had another of the summer jobs; receptionist for Jack Miller, the Editor. She sat at a desk in front of his office and sideways to the layout room. It was hot, and behind the presumed privacy of her reception desk she had hiked her skirt up high, above her stocking tops. He’d tried to date Laurie, but she had the hots for Jimmy Woodruff, like most of the good-looking girls in their class. Jimmy didn’t need a summer job.
The door that led to the reporters’ bullpen opened and Pudge Wilson came in headed for the Editor’s office. Pudge was really named Henry, but with his build he couldn’t avoid the nickname. He was from Chicago, two years out of college, and acted like he thought he was smarter than the local kids. Wendell thought he must have been out on a story, because there were sweat patches under the arms of his shirt and his tie was tight. Around the office Pudge always wore his tie loose and his sleeves rolled up. Pudge mumbled “Hi, Laurie” and angled so he could see whether Jack was alone in his office. Since he was, Pudge sailed right on past Laurie without stopping, and closed the door behind him.
“C’mon, Pudge, at least knock at the doorjamb on your way through it.” Jack’s voice came through the other doorway, the one that connected his office to the layout room. That door was half open and Wendell could see inside as he moved his barrel and bent down for another pile of paper.
“Sorry, Jack, but I got something on the Mexican girl they found out past the stockyards yesterday. The coroner says she died of blood loss and complications from a botched abortion.”
“So? Girls die from abortions around here every summer. Especially Mexican girls who have to go to the cheap outfits.”
“Christ, Jack, she was only fourteen!”
“Look, Pudge, sex with fourteen-year-old girls is illegal, and abortions are illegal, and nevertheless the girls keep getting knocked up and wanting abortions. One more dead Mexican girl won’t change anything.”
“This one might. She was seen the day before, getting into a car driven by one Jimmy Woodruff, one of the local high school kids. He can lead us to the abortionist. It’ll be a big story, Jack, you gotta let me follow up.”
“What makes you think the boy will help you?” Wendell thought Jack sounded sort of strangled, but he couldn’t see the Editor’s face. As if Jimmy would ever tell anything!
“If he was the father he’s guilty of statutory rape. If he doesn’t cooperate, I’ll threaten to put his name in the story.”
“There won’t be a story, Pudge.”
“Why not? That story about the abortion mills in the Houston paper last year was nominated for a Pulitzer!”
“Pudge, how long have you been in town?”
“A year, since they transferred me from the Little Rock paper. Why?”
“Jimmy Woodruff would be James M. Woodruff, Jr. Son of James M. Woodruff Sr., who is the owner of Woodruff Holdings, which owns Simcoe Communications, which in turn owns various properties including newspapers here and in Little Rock. You need to do a little more homework, Pudge.”
“Oh shit. So the kid gets a free pass?”
“For the rest of his life, probably. Go find another story.”
Wendell picked up the last of the paper and shoved it down into the full barrel. There’d been a rumor about Jimmy getting some girl in trouble, but nobody knew who. As he rolled his barrel out past Laurie he looked at her bare thighs again and wondered if there was any way to use what he knew against Jimmy. Getting Jimmy out of the way would give him a better chance of getting into Laurie’s panties. If he were rich like Jimmy, she’d probably be begging for it. He let himself think about that at some length as he rolled the barrel out to the dumpster.
# # #
Finished with the news summaries Murchison pulled up the latest report on the investigation of Senator Ellsworth. The man was openly gay, which closed off a number of normally effective stratagems. Where was he most vulnerable?
The email icon pinged again and he opened the window, prepared to be annoyed if it was Prasad again, but this time the sender line read ‘E. Swivett.’
I have just received a call from FBI HQ. It seems that Mr. Gupta has instructed them to place one Sanjay Souvanophong on the highest priority anti-terror watch list. Souvanophong has a current security clearance and FBI requests clarification.
This time when Murchison picked up the phone he punched the first speed-dial button. As before he heard only one ring.
“Earl, what is the problem? So what if Souvanophong has a clearance? Tell them we want him!”
“Yes, sir. The problem is that since they provided the clearance they need a reason. To cover their own asses. Can we give them a reason?”
“Make one up!”
“Yes, sir…it would be good if we had a plausible and consistent story, even better if it were true. I…well, I don’t like lying to the Bureau, sir. Plus it’s a sin.”
“Earl, I would have thought you would have learned to deal with divided loyalties by now. Your primary responsibility is no longer to the Bureau, it is to me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir, I understand that.”
“Good. The truth of a story has no meaning except in the mind of the audience, and not all audiences can accept the same truths. Tell the FBI that Souvanophong may reveal potentially devastating information about a new kind of weapon. That is as much truth as they need. Our work is in the service of a higher truth. If you are troubled by what you think is a sin of lying, I’m sure that Reverend Thiebault can ease your mind. Now, do you think that you can remember who you work for?”
“Yes, sir. My apologies. I’ll take care of the Bureau inquiry immediately.”
Murchison hung up and returned to the report on Ellsworth. Earl would never understand that truth mattered far less than belief, and there was no point in explaining it further. It would always be one of Earl’s limitations.
# # #
The Reverend Michael Hawkins paced. He knew he shouldn’t, but each time he sat and tried to compose himself the anger and outrage overwhelmed his commitment to serenity. Pacing revealed weakness, but it felt better. In any case, no one could see him but the receptionist and she was reading a magazine with Pat Robertson and Vice President Bush on the cover. When he turned toward her he fixed his eyes on the logo on the wall behind her. The Truth Network - what a crock that was! He took the five steps permitted by the small waiting room and turned back toward the window. Still sleeting. What in God’s name had he done to be here, in Tulsa, in winter, in a sleet storm, about to have his life ruined? He had only taken four steps toward the window when the phone on the reception desk buzzed. He cut his circuit short and spun around. She already had the receiver at her ear. The woman was young and pretty, but her pink sweater set and pearls could have come straight from the 1950’s.
“Yes, Mr. Murchison? Yes, He’s still here. Yes, sir, right away.” She set the receiver back on the cradle and looked at him poker-faced. “Mr. Murchison can see you now. Please go in.” She didn’t even get up to open the door.
Hawkins took the deep breath anyone would take before facing his nemesis and strode toward the door to the inner office. He opened it, entered, and closed it a little too firmly. He had to turn to his right to face the room’s sole occupant. Wendell Murchison sat behind a large, old mahogany desk, watching his entrance with ill-concealed amusement.
“Have you come all the way from Des Moines just to cool your heels and slam my door Mr. Hawkins?”
“Not for much longer, I suspect, but that’s none of my business.”
“Well it’s your fault! You have made it your business to ruin me, to drive me out of my church, all with a pack of lies.”
“Really. Reverend Hawkins, why would I harbor ill will toward you or your church? You are accused of statutory rape, as I understand it. Seems like there is a lot of sinning going on among television preachers these days. Your church will undoubtedly do better with your successor. In fact, I have a man in mind. Very charismatic. Fellow by the name of Warren Thiebault.”
“Now you listen – I’m not like Bakker and Swaggart, the ones that got caught with prostitutes. I’m faithful to my wife! I’ve never been with another woman since we married, let alone with a fourteen-year-old girl. And I haven’t gotten rich from my show, either. All we do is televise our Sunday service on the local cable access channel.” Hawkins clamped his hands on the back of a visitor chair to keep them from shaking.
Murchison leaned back and spread his hands. “Then you should have no problem. Why have you come to me?”
“Because it’s your doing; your man spread the lie! I never touched that girl. And what did I ever do to you?”
Murchison said nothing for a moment, then sat up and folded his hands on the desk. “You really have no clue, do you? I’m a businessman, Hawkins. Do you know what is happening in the cable television industry right now? It is consolidating. Whoever builds the biggest network of systems is going to get very rich. I mean to be that person. The way I’m going to do it is by buying up regional cable companies – like the one that serves Des Moines. You opposed our acquisition of that company, didn’t you? Vocally and publicly, even in your sermons?”
Hawkins felt lightheaded. So Janet had been right. She’d told him it was about the money. She was the hardheaded one, his wife, while he only wanted to serve God and his flock. But this was so unfair! “Is that really what this is all about? You’d ruin a man of God with a lie, just to make money?” He glared at Murchison, looking for signs of the Devil, but the man looked ordinary, just a fortyish businessman behind a beatup desk.
“Oh, I’m not ruining you, Reverend Hawkins, your parishioners are doing that. They have chosen to believe the reports of your indiscretions with the young woman in question – a parishioner herself isn’t she? You could have probably gotten away with it in New Orleans or San Francisco, but not in Des Moines.”
“But I didn’t…”
“And why should anyone care about the fate of a small-time TV preacher who doesn’t even try to make money at it? You are a grasshopper caught in a hailstorm, Hawkins. All you can do is get out of the way, crawl under something and hide.”
“Hide? Where can I hide? I’m a preacher, a man of God!”
“You keep saying that. Do you truly believe in God, Reverend Hawkins? Have you prayed that this burden might be lifted from you?”
“Of course I believe. I believe with all my heart and soul. I pray every hour of every day.”
“It doesn’t seem to be doing you much good, does it? There’s probably a lesson for you in that, somewhere. You can slam my door again on your way out, if it’ll make you feel any better, but your time is up.”
# # #
A different chime pinged from the computer at the side of the great desk and Murchison turned to look at it. A line of text in an IM window from the receptionist announced the arrival of his luncheon guest. Murchison rose and went through the door behind the desk. It opened onto a short hallway. To the left was his personal bathroom, equipped with a shower, a clothes closet, granite counter tops, and an array of his favored hygiene products. He washed his hands and continued to the end of the hallway where another door opened into the private dining room. Guests arrived through the door on the opposite side, and one such was looking admiringly at a chipped marble head in the Greek style, mounted on a pedestal under a spotlight.
“Hello, Byron, glad you could make it.” Murchison crossed the room and offered his hand.
Byron Calhoun took the hand briefly. “Always good to see you, Wendell. This is new? Authentic?” He nodded his head at the sculpture.
“Probably not, I’m afraid. It was supposed to be a contemporary head of Alexander, picked up somewhere in Turkey by a British viscount during the peak tomb robbing years of the Empire. I bought it from a descendant who wanted more than the British Museum would pay. According to the experts it’s at least two hundred years post-Alexander. What will you drink?” Murchison stepped toward the small bar at the end of the room. There were two dining tables, one in the center that would seat eight, and a smaller one against the window and next to the bar, that was now set for two.
“A glass of that lovely Montrachet, if you still have some.”
Murchison smiled, took a bottle from an ice bucket, and filled two waiting glasses. “You are reliably predictable in your drink, Byron. I had them open a bottle in anticipation. Here you are.”
Calhoun accepted the glass and took a sip. “As is your luncheon menu, I presume?”
“Of course. Steak, potatoes and greens, always.”
“Yes. Tournedos Rossini, potatoes Dauphinois, and radicchio with walnut oil last time, as I remember.”
“Something simpler today. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you Wendell. Good of you to have me.”
Byron Calhoun was ten years younger, and taller, perhaps six-two. He was tennis-player lean, with still-thick dark hair only sprinkled with gray, and, if anything, more money, yet he deferred to Wendell Murchison. It was an act, Wendell knew. Calhoun was old money and good manners and breeding, and on at least two occasions he had bankrupted a rival with that deferential smile still in place. He had inherited a banking empire and then quietly acquired energy assets throughout the nineties. He now controlled very large accumulations of the two things that mattered most in the world: capital and oil. Because his interests and Murchison’s were orthogonal, not competing directly, they had been able to collaborate on a number of projects, focusing primarily on influencing tax and trade regulations. He was renowned for his ability to assess the minimum required bribe in any situation.
They sat and, without visible or audible signal, the door to the kitchen opened and a waiter entered with salad plates bearing wedges of iceberg lettuce topped with thousand island dressing. He set them down and disappeared without a word. Calhoun eyed the salad, then looked up at his host.
“Simpler. I see.”
“Taste it,” Murchison invited, smiling.
Calhoun picked up his salad fork, dipped it lightly in the dressing, and lifted it to his mouth. “Oh, my! That is remarkable. What’s in it?”
“Marco won’t tell me. He’s a prima dona, but he knows I won’t fire him. Wait ‘til you taste the steak sauce and the ketchup with the French fries.”
Calhoun set his fork down and took a sip of his wine. “Luncheon with you is always a pleasure, Wendell, but I have to ask. To what do I owe the pleasure this time?”
Murchison took up his fork and knife and cut a bite of lettuce. “A proposition, of course. What do you think of the way the President is handling the war?” He crunched on the lettuce as Calhoun digested the question.
“So far it has been quite profitable.” Calhoun cut into his own salad before he continued. “The price of oil is up nicely, as we anticipated, and he is protecting the fields and the infrastructure. We have positions in some of the defense contractors that have also done well, although not as well as they were doing before Congress insisted on the new procurement oversight. On the whole I think it’s going well. Why?” Calhoun put the section of lettuce in his mouth and crunched in turn.
“Well, as you say, Congress likes to get in the way – some do at any rate. You tried to remedy that last year, didn’t you?”
Calhoun nodded, chewing, and frowned. He swallowed. “Yes. We supported a primary challenge against Ellsworth, but there was a stink about corporate contributions. More niggling rules about how a man can spend his money. Again, why?”
“Byron, at the moment we have the same problem. The same Democrats who imposed the procurement regulations and support the campaign finance limits are opposing funding for the Army of God. It would benefit us both if they were defeated. Or saw that they are likely to be defeated if they don’t change their tune.”
“True. Although I have to say that I have some misgivings about your Army of God and this religious war thing.”
“Why? When it’s over we will be firmly in control, no more of this silly dependence on puppets who insist on a show of autonomy. And surely you see that the jihaddis must be destroyed?”
“Oh, I see that alright. I’m just not sure that we want to encourage the puritanical urge. Those people do like to make rules.”
“Come, Byron, rules are not for the likes of us. You have been to Rome, to Saint Peter’s. The popes who built the Vatican were not encumbered by rules. They had visions of glory and the wherewithal to achieve them. Surely we are not lesser men?”
“Not as long as the oil keeps flowing. Very well, Wendell, what do you have in mind?”
“Ellsworth and a few other House and Senate Democrats would be in very deep trouble if their constituents began losing jobs. I would like you to use your influence on companies in which you have large holdings to encourage them to consider relocating plants and facilities out of the states and districts of the people we will target – to consider it very publicly. The reasons don’t matter; we’ll make the real reason clear through back channels.”
“And in return?”
“The Truth Channel will begin a campaign to repeal all limits on corporate political contributions, as violations of free speech.”
Calhoun dipped his fork into the salad dressing, not bothering with lettuce, and savored it for a long moment before he smiled. “I like it. They will be forced to rail against the corporations at the same time their voters are panicking about losing their jobs. I’ll want the repeal campaign to continue even if they go along with your Army of God, though.”
“Of course. Through the next election.”
“Thank you, Byron.”
The kitchen door opened again and the waiter emerged with two platters, followed by the chef holding a pair of sauce boats amid the perfume of sizzling beef fat. “Gentlemen,” the chef proclaimed as the waiter delivered the platters, “ribsteak of Kobe beef with French fried potatoes in three colors, accompanied by my own steak sauce and ketchup.”