Dream Time

         Chief William Borden, Jr. hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a week. He had hoped that the pain medication he picked up from the pharmacy would give him a good six hours of uninterrupted sleep, but that went out the window the moment he received the distress call. Burglary in progress at the Old Farley Ranch on Hampstead; fourth attempt in as many months; would be the sheriff’s problem if the ranch existed just one-hundred yards further down the road and in unincorporated Redwood Hills. But, no, Old Farley Ranch is in Redwood; and, though the initial details are sketchy, this time it appears the old man actually managed to inflict a self-defense gunshot wound on something more predatory than one of his own chickens. Or so he claims to the 911 operator who takes his call, though of course at this time of night he is going to be so drunk he will not have much of a clue what he’s actually done. He’ll just be red faced and teary; clinging to his rifle, like one of the right-wing caricatures in President Obama’s imagination; and babbling on about how the Bible gives him the right to defend to the death what is his. He’ll be less than useless when the police crime scene team arrives on the heels of an ambulance and takes him aside for questioning.

         The chief’s deputies call him ‘Little Bill.’ It is a play on his 6’5” and 280 pounds of American beefsteak. He barely fits in his police vehicle even when he leaves his Smokey Bear hat on the passenger seat beside his Remington shotgun and sinks as deep into his seat as possible. Wear the hat while driving, and he’s a squished sardine with a nasty disposition. The other reason for the nickname: His father, William Borden, Sr., had been chief so long only the old timers have a vague memory of his predecessor. The old man is retired; dickering with tools in the garage; waxing poetic about that time he sucker punched the high school bully in the chin and won Charlotte’s love; sneaking a sip of Jack Daniels, even though the VA doctor has made it clear his illicit affair with hard liquor is going to shorten his life. But he remains in practice the final authority behind all that happens in the Redwood PD. In comparison, the successor chief is a ‘Little Bill.’

         Right now, as he is taking the sharp curves on Hampstead, and grimacing in pain every time the car buckles, he can think of a third reason for his lovable nickname. He is a ‘Little Bill,’ because he is just shy of his fiftieth birthday but he feels like a petulant and pain riddled boy. He’d rather be home, cuddling up to his on-again and off-again wife, resting his neck on his icepack while waiting for the pain medication to kick in. Hell, he’d rather be sitting up, because he is not able to sleep, and talking on the Vonage with his faggot son in New York. In those black hours, when his son is going on and on with his various ‘relationship problems,’ he is a cranky dude, but he still feels better then than he does now.

         The chief listens for any updates over the CB Radio. His deputy, Rickard Kirk, is already on the scene. He’s an officious prick whose been eyeing his seat as long as he’s been on the force. He figures he’s entitled, because his daddy is Mayor Douglas Kirk, and his mommy, Lulabelle, is from the ridiculously rich and fabled Hornheischman family. He’s a snob in a town of retired military veterans and country bumpkins, and so he has few supporters and no friends. But, on the plus side, he always shows up earlier than anybody else, and types his very own CYA police reports. No doubt, right now, he’s thinking how he can best position himself in the police report that is going to be filed on this attempted burglary.

         The chief sees an ambulance roaring down Hampstead from the opposite direction. They are both going to arrive at the Old Farley driveway at the exact same moment, and so he yields so that the paramedics can get to the wounded suspect before he does. He winces from the loud ambulance siren ahead of him and, again, wishes that he had gone to bed and had pulled out his phone before getting the distress call. He slowly rubs the back of his neck with his free hand.

         The driveway appears to go on forever; but he finally gets to a California Ranch style home on the crest of a hill. It is very old and ramshackle. No doubt, there are plenty of code violations; and if anybody in the local government had it in for Old Man Farley, then they could have condemned his home a long time ago. But the only guys who have a beef with him are the saloon owners in town who have hauled him into small claim’s court countless times for not paying his tabs; and in the court of public opinion that does not really matter because the saloon owners are viewed as only a peg higher than faggots and out-of-towners.

         And, anyway, who can really despise an old man whose taking care of his special needs grandson? No one knows what happened to the parents; but every one knows that, in spite of his frequent drunkenness, the old man is performing God’s work by caring for a ‘slow boy’ who would be otherwise left to the state.

         The chief steps out of his police vehicle. He puts on his Smokey Bear and walks over to the gunshot victim. He looks dispassionately down at him, glances at Deputy Kirk, and looks down again. There is something very unsettling about this victim beyond the fact that he had tried a forced entry for God knows why.

         And, yes, victim seems to be the proper word here, because even though he is without question the would be burglar he is no more than a skinny, pimply boy, a Howdy Doody lookalike in a starched, white shirt and black trousers, the image of a Mormon missionary no more than nineteen or twenty years old. He is halfway in and out of the shattered window beside the front door; his bony legs still on the hardwood floor of the foyer; everything above his waist sprawled on the wet lawn. He is bleeding profusely in his abdomen, losing color in his pudgy cheeks, and staring blankly at the night sky above him. But for a slight quiver in his chest, there is no indication that he is still alive; and, very likely, he will be housed in the morgue before the historic church clock in town strikes midnight.

         Just another lost boy, Rickard says while snapping another photograph of the bleeding red head near his polished knee high boots. A whole lot nowadays.

         No, the chief responds. More than that…I just can’t put my finger on it….

         The chief lets his words hang in the air for a moment, and then he drops the matter. He knows all too well that instinct plays a critical role in any police work, but he also knows that he feels like shit and frankly cannot trust his sixth sense tonight. He thinks about his icepack and pillow at home, then walks away to let his mind clear up a bit more. He watches the paramedics like a bystander rubbernecking a crime scene until his instinctual fright passes aside for a while.

         He steps through the front door. Old Man Farley is sitting on his old sofa, massaging the rifle on his lap, and mumbling gibberish through his sloppy tears. He is wearing a white nightshirt and nightcap splattered by the victim’s purple-red blood. He has never been a handsome man; but tonight he looks like a sick, old gnome on his last legs. Strangely, there is no alcohol on his haggard breath.

         The chief cannot understand why Rickard did not disarm him. The loopy old man is a danger to himself and to everyone else there, if only because he is understandably shell shocked. Yes, we all love the Second Amendment in these parts; but surely there are reasonable limits during a crime scene investigation.

         The chief walks over to the old man and squats in front of him. He puts a hand on the rifle and arches an eyebrow as if to say: You really don’t want this now, do you? He smiles and nods gently, when the old man removes his fingers.

         The chief sets the rifle aside without breaking his kind stare into the sad and withdrawn face of a tortured soul. Right then, he views himself more as an unofficial chaplain than as an officer; and that seems to suit this situation best.

         Want to talk about it? The chief whispers confidentially after some time.

         Son of a bitch gonna die? The old man replies with a question of his own.

         Maybe, the chief answers while thinking that the honest answer is likely.

         Old Man Farley curls his fingers into fists, while he sheds his hot tears in buckets. It takes him a while to create those fists on account of his pronounced arthritis, but he manages finally to slam them against his lap and to look at the kind face of the police chief he’s known since the chief delivered The Redwood Democrat every weekday morning before dawn. That was back in the day when Old Man Farley was just Farley, and lived in town alongside most everyone else.

         Had to protect my boy, the old man says. Would do it again if necessary.

         Damn straight, the chief nods in agreement. No one is gonna blame you.

         Old Man Farley searches the chief’s eyes, like he’s looking for some sort of explanation. He gives up after a while. He wipes his tears and sniffles loudly.

         The chief hands him a handkerchief. The old man stares at it as if he has never before seen such a strange thing, but then he takes it and blows his nose.

         So you want to talk about it? The chief asks again. You don’t need to if…

         Son of a bitch came out of the night, the old man reflects. No warning at all. Alpo didn’t even bark, and that bitch barks like a mad woman whenever an out-of-towner so much as looks at our driveway while driving down Hampstead. So what can I say? It’s like one moment everything is normal, the next there’s a shadow running toward that window. Like something out of a dream. I just grab my shooter, as that cursed shadow man throws a rock the size of a bowling ball and just shatters glass everywhere. I get one look at his face. He’s a creepy son of a bitch, wholesome face, kind eyes, but a grin that says: I’m gonna fuck your boy up big time. And I just knew at that moment that he wasn’t there for cash, or the old Zenith that doesn’t work anymore, or the T.V. dinners stacked in my frig. No, he was there for my boy, there to slit his throat, no more, no less. Not any one reason why I knew that. I just did. Soon as he stepped into my house, I shot him in the gut. Damn if that shadow man ain’t still grinning, like a son of a bitch. In a queer way, I almost think he wanted me to shoot him like a sick dog.

         The chief feels that instinctual fright creep over him again. He keeps his kind face, but inside he’s shaking like a boy who is first realizing that there is a boogeyman living in his bedroom closet. He does not yet know that boogeyman, at least not well enough to be able to pick it out of a lineup of the usual ghosts and ghouls, and he has no idea whatsoever why the night before everything had been fine in his life, and yet this night everything is off kilter. He just knows in his heart that something has turned up that is going to attack him in due course and turn his young and innocent life upside down. He wants to pull his blankets over his eyes, rest his neck on his icepack, and wish that something to go away.

         Deputy Rickard’s gonna bother you about a police report, the chief says, when the shakes finally stream through him. Tell him the chief says you can do it tomorrow morning. You’ve had enough bullshit for one night, it seems to me.

         Had to protect my boy, the old man repeats. Nobody else here to do it…

         You did the right thing, the chief assures him, while placing his big hand on the old man’s left shoulder. Straight up, you need anything to sleep tonight?

         Old Man Farley does not say anything for a while. Perhaps he is replaying in his mind what had happened, since he tears up again. Perhaps he will replay in his mind what had happened until finally God sheds enough mercy on his soul to take him from this world. There is nothing to do but to let the moment pass.

         Don’t need it, the old man says. Gave up the booze. Never slept better…

         The chief smiles. He is happy for him; even if he only manages to remain sober a short time. It is the tiny steps forward that truly matter in the long run.

         The chief stands upright. He should not have squatted, because now he’s in a lot of pain; but he keeps a brave face, while picking up the old man’s rifle.

         I’m gonna need this tonight, the chief says. You can reclaim it tomorrow morning, after we’re done wiping our asses with it. Just procedures, you know.

         No matter, the old man shrugs. I have got a fucking armory in my closet.

         I know you do, the chief smiles, while tipping his Smokey Bear. All legal.

         Second Amendment’s my gun permit, the old man says, as he stands up.

         The chief shakes the old man’s hand. He is about to step outside, when a new and important inquiry pops into his head. He turns back, and smiles kindly.

         Did Little Johnny see or hear anything? The chief stares into his old eyes.

         Old Man Farley does not say anything at first, but he does not look away, either. He just searches the chief’s eyes with the same intensity with which he is being searched. He is searching for something, an answer perhaps, a tangible reality in this terrible nightmare on which he can rest his mind once and for all.

         Nothing, the old man says. He didn’t see or hear nothing. Nothing at all.

         Are you certain? The chief persists. There must have been a lot of noise.

         Let’s just say my boy is a deep sleeper, the old man answers cryptically.

         Try to get some sleep, the chief says. I’ll send Deputy Craig out to stand watch, until you get a new window in the morning. No worries. He’s a good kid.

         Old Man Farley says nothing. He just stares a while longer, and then with downcast eyes and stooped shoulders he staggers down the hall to his bedroom.

         The paramedics lift the stretcher into the ambulance. They move in that fast, but controlled, manner that is meant to convey that they can handle with no sweat the medical emergency handed to them. This is their moment, and so they are determined that the victim at least go from a likely to a maybe he will die. They climb into the ambulance and leave the scene without saying a word.

         The chief watches them go. He then hands the old man’s rifle to Rickard without looking at him. He is in too much pain to deal with Rickard’s officious, selfish bullshit, and so he avoids that eye contact that may lead to a lot of talk.

         Make sure the old man gets this in the morning, the chief orders. Call for the kiddie to stand watch. I’ll expect the report on my desk by noon tomorrow.

         The chief squeezes into his police vehicle. Since he forgets to remove his Smokey Bear hat, he smashes it into a brown and black pancake. He tosses it to the side, rolls his haggard eyes, and leaves Rickard in his dusty rearview mirror.

*   *   *

         Dustin called for you, Margie Borden hollers from the bedroom down the hall the exact moment she hears her husband step into the foyer and mount his Smokey Bear hat. He needs to talk. Says he’s left messages the last week or so.

         The chief takes off his jacket. He tries to hang it beside his hat, but the jacket with ‘Chief’ emblazoned over the heart only falls onto the floor instead. He sees it there, thinks a moment, and then decides not to pick it up just now.

         Didn’t you hear me? Margie hollers yet again. I said Dustin called for you.

         Honey, I’m home, the chief offers anticlimactically. No need to kiss me.

         Don’t worry. I’m not, Margie responds in a manner tinged with sarcasm.

         The chief unbuttons his shirt as he staggers down the hall. He is trying to unzip his trousers when he smiles at his wife in the doorway. He recalls that he had asked her to mend the zipper last week, but of course that did not happen.

         He crosses the bedroom to the master bath. He gives up on that damned zipper and just pulls his trousers down his legs. He thinks he may have ripped it in the process; but he does not care then, and neither does Margie, apparently.

         Dustin called for you, Margie repeats. Left two messages with the kiddie.

         That’s Deputy Craig; the chief corrects her. Threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter last spring to maul McKinley High. One of Redwood’s finest…

         But can’t seem to pass on a message, Margie interrupts. The kiddie does not actually have a badge and a pistol, does he? He is practically in his diapers, and his mama would never forgive me if something happened to him out there.

         He stands watch, types reports, and doesn’t pass on messages, the chief says, as he scrubs his face. Just another boy…at least not one of the lost ones…

         She does not respond. She is brushing clear polish remover onto her nails and debating if she would rather call it a night, or pick a fight regarding Dustin.

         A kid tried to break into Old Man Farley’s tonight, the chief continues. A goddamned kid; one of the lost ones; likely dead this hour from a gunshot to his gut…cannot put my finger on it, but it’s not like any other attempted burglary…

         What are you harping about, big guy? Margie slings at him in a pissy tone.

         Nothing, the chief answers. Nothing that can’t be solved by a good night sleep…did you put my icepack in the freezer this afternoon, like I asked you to?

         Why the fuck can’t you just call him? Margie slams her polish remover on the bedside table. He’s our son. He needs his father right now. Not later, now…

         The chief wants to give it right back to her. He loves her, but she can be a real bitch sometimes when she’s got the curlers still in her hair and the polish remover dripping down her fingers. And most especially when their son, Dustin the New York Faggot Off-Off-Broadway Actor, comes up in their bedtime chats.

         But he is tired, in pain, and frankly more preoccupied than he should be with the fair-haired boy no doubt on his way to the morgue. He’ll let the bitch, not just any bitch, but the lovely ‘till death do us part’ bitch, win this skirmish.

         I’ll call him tomorrow, the chief says with as much empathy as he is able to fake. I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I’ll make a point of reaching out to him.

         Margie lets herself be satisfied. She also is tired. She rolls onto her side.

         Did you put my icepack in the freezer? The chief asks again, while trying to rub the kink out of his neck. You remember when I asked you this afternoon?

         Oh, yes, Margie mumbles into her pillows. It’s always about you, isn’t it?

         The chief ignores the comment. He walks into the kitchen, finds the cold icepack, swallows a handful of pills, returns to the bed, and turns off the lamp.

         But he does not sleep, goddamn it. He thinks about the boy; the boy that he regards as a victim; how he even looks like a marionette in one of those old, quaint, black and white children’s television shows. He rehashes everything the old man said; how he had to protect his boy; how the victim really appeared to be suicidal. Fourth burglary attempt in as many months; each time the suspect, no, the victim, is no more substantial than a shadow chased off by an old drunk shaking his fist and misfiring his rifle; but this time the victim has a fair-haired, freckled face, and the old drunk is as sober as a Baptist teetotaler. Has this boy been the victim the previous times? Has he been getting just a bit closer every time, so as to put the old drunk on edge and to invite the kind of response that surely would put him into a morgue? Isn’t there an easier way to end one’s life?

         And what is this about protecting his boy? Why does the old man believe that the burglar is there to hurt his boy, rather than to steal their valuables? Or is he just shielding what he loves whenever there is any kind of terror on hand?

         And how is Rickard going to spin what happened at the crime scene? He’s going to file a well-typed, factually sound, noncontroversial police report. That is what he has done always, and there is no good reason to think that he will do otherwise this time. But what is he going to whisper to the town selectmen and newspaper crime reporter? How is he going to use this incident to take one step up the ladder while shoving the chief two or three steps down the same ladder?

         The chief imagines that he can stare through the ceiling above him; just count the stars one by one, like others count sheep or remember their previous conquests in bed; just count them, until finally his sleepiness takes a real hold, and the unanswered questions echoing in his mind fall away like excess musical notes edited out of a score. He hates how long it takes to fall asleep. He would hate it even more if he realized that Margie also had a hard time falling asleep, that she stared into the wall beside her bed for God alone knows how long, and that Rickard figured as prominently in her own mind as he did in her husband’s.

*   *   *

         Sure enough, the police report is on his worn desk, when the chief steps into his office and mounts his Smokey Bear hat one minute after twelve o’clock noon. He has had a long day already; a drive all the way out to Judge Shepard’s chambers in the town of Beverly to testify in a criminal trial; a meeting with an unhelpful politician about getting enough allocation in next year’s town budget to hire another deputy; an earful from the local Baptist pastor, Reverend Lloyd Goober, about the various evils set loose in the streets since Redwood changed from a dry to a wet town several decades back. His neck is not any better than it had been the previous night, and he has misplaced his pain medication. He is not in a mood to parse the spin from the fact in Rickard’s official police report.

         It turns out that this time he will not need to unlock his desk drawer and to search for his cracked reading lenses, because Rickard knocks upon his large, glass door before he has a chance to do so. Frankly, the chief would rather talk to his wife than the officious snob angling for his job; but any conversation will be better than poring through the single-spaced small font in front of him now.

         Come in, the chief says, setting that report aside, and folding his hands.

         The boy survived, Rickard says, after closing the glass door behind him.

         The chief cannot believe his ears, but he remains as impassive as he can.

         He lost a lot of blood, Rickard continues. And when he fell back from the gunshot and hit his head, he suffered a trauma. His brain is swollen, and he’s in a coma. Not sure if he’ll ever wake up. He’s mooching off the taxpayers now in the intensive care over at Redwood General. I selected Blondie to stand watch.

         Blondie is Deputy Claire. She is the only woman on the force; a beautiful and smart martial arts expert who could take down any one of the guys, if they ever got too fresh with her; and, like Rickard, a member of a prominent family in town. The guys presume she is a lesbian, because she will not give anyone of them the time of day. About the only guy she likes is the chief whom she views as a kind of professional father figure, and the chief in turn sees her as his ally.

         Do you have any ID? The chief asks, as he recalls that Howdy Doody face.

         Nothing, Rickard admits, folding his arms, and looking more than slightly ashamed not to have been able to identify the victim. There is no match for his fingerprints. I have emailed my shots to the FBI for facial recognition. See if he matches a suspect sketch. I realize he is young, but I doubt he has never had an encounter with the law in the past. He really must be on the books somewhere.

         Don’t be so sure, the chief stares deeply into Rickard’s eyes. Even today, in our total surveillance society, there are persons who fall through the cracks.

         I’ll keep you informed, Rickard declares, while staring back at the chief.

         I have no doubt you’ll tell me everything, the chief remarks with a grin.

         Rickard nods. He lifts his chin into the air, and steps out from the office.

         Persons who fall through the cracks, the chief repeats under his breath.

         He looks at his telephone. Dustin bartends the three-martini lunch crowd at that swank, post-modern, leather fetish restaurant appropriately named XXX somewhere in God forsaken SoHo. He can imagine how the perverts in silk suits fawn over his son’s tight butt, while sipping their nouveau martinis (no doubt, a phallic fruit or vegetable version, such as a cucumber martini with an appetizer of crunchy pickles) and sticking out their pinkies for every other faggot to view. He looked up the number a while ago, and he knows that it rings the telephone at the bar. He could call his son right now, and fulfill his promise; and, indeed, he even lifts the receiver to his ear; but he does not dial that sick 666 number.

         Maybe someday; but right now, he just does not have the mind to do so.

*   *   *

         Anna Burns does not have a problem making phone calls. 

         She is unassuming enough at first look; a plump, spectacled, bird-faced, lily white woman of about sixty or so; a floral dress stretched at the waist to its breaking point; a pair of sensible shoes that squeak on virtually any surface; an unctuous fat lady perfume that suggests Ben-Gay much more than Coco Chanel.

         She speaks with the soft voice and measured words of a sweet, little girl or a church mouse; a submissive downward tilt to her head whenever she talks; a wide-eyed look that suggests she is afraid she will be slapped at any moment.

         And yet she is almost singlehandedly The Redwood Democrat. There are a few old lefties who will write a news story or an editorial column for her now and then. A retired cop named Beatty even volunteers as their ‘crime reporter’ whenever he is not drinking his remaining brain cells away somewhere south of the border. But, for the most part, she is a one-woman show; and beneath that church potluck veneer of hers, she has the sheer tenacity to keep a local paper in business, when all the rest in the county have been gobbled up by one of the conglomerates. True, The Redwood Democrat has been reduced from an entire floor in the downtown commercial building to a portion of a Victorian house on Magnolia Street (the rest of that old house providing office spaces for a Jungian feminist psychologist, a GLBT Proud attorney at law, and a recently retired, all around hippie, FM deejay now recording children’s audio books). True, its daily subscription is less than half of what it had been a generation previous. True, it has few advertisers apart from the immediate friends and family of its devoted publisher, editor, chief writer, and saleswoman. But it is in business, and every now and then it manages to report hard news that truly would never have been reported anywhere else. For this reason, and because there is a lot of goodwill in the community for the fat lady in the sensible shoes, the locals purchase just enough copies every morning to keep it afloat, and imagine that it is that same Democrat that used to strike terror in the hearts of town officials or merchants who had been targeted in one of its exposes back in the day. It is the last of its kind; a nostalgic throwback; a reminder of when news reporters had been quite dogged in their determination to uncover the truth, even at their own expense.

         And so even though most news cycles in the sleepy town of Redwood will consist of the latest Little League scores, the newest Ford trucks to show up on Happy Hans’ Save Your Hard Earned Dollars used car lot, or the scariest posters against ‘demon rum’ that Reverend Goober will plaster on the sandwich boards in front of his First Baptist church (usually cartoonish drawings of boys mangled in drunk driving accidents reaching out to a Resurrected Jesus Christ who is just not going to grab their hands no matter how much they beg), Anna Burns makes a point of calling her sources in local government and business to see if there is anything newsworthy each and every morning. She never leaves a message on a work answering machine or with a secretary. She just keeps calling back, again and again if needed, until the source picks up the phone in person and responds to her inquiry. She calls this her ‘Dialing for Truth,’ like the ‘Dialing for Dollars’ that used to be on television way back when; and while she would never admit it to another living soul, she experiences more than a mild charge inside of her bosom as she dials the phone numbers on her list and waits to see who answers on the other end. ‘Dialing for Truth’ is practically a sexual experience, damned scary and vaguely orgasmic, and so it is proper she makes her calls while alone.

         Deputy Rickard Kirk is near the top of her list; but this time he calls her, before she has a chance to dial him. The moment he says hello she knows there must be something truly juicy. Why else would he reach out to her beforehand?

         She grabs the notepad and pen out from her desk drawer. Beat Reporter; Lois Lane with a Pretty & Plump discount card inside her pink purse; however it is described, this is her very favorite of all her job titles. She is still so excited even after so many years on the beat that she salivates on her notepad scribble while trying to keep up with Rickard’s story. She loses some of the details when she allows herself to be distracted by her recurring dream of getting a Pulitzer.

         He tells her about the attempted burglary at the Old Farley Ranch. He is hunting down the suspect’s ID. He would’ve been able to ID him already but for ‘sloppy police work’ above his pay grade (obliquely referencing the fact that no law enforcement agency has matching fingerprints on file, but implying there is something wrong about how the chief is running the PD). Thank God he had got there first, or else the entire crime scene may have been contaminated, and no ID ever would be possible (another dig at the chief, since this suggests that the chief had been late in arriving there). And finally the whopper: The suspect has survived thus far. He is in a deep coma at Redwood General. One of Redwood’s finest is standing watch – except when she is allowed to take a bathroom break at the top of every hour. Then, for several minutes, the suspect is totally alone in intensive care; and God forbid if someone should happen to sneak inside and to snap an unauthorized photograph of this clear and present menace to us all…

         Anna Burns is no dummy. She knows what Rickard hopes to get out of the story. A front page about an attempted burglary is one thing. A front page that includes an unauthorized photograph of that suspect is something else; perhaps no big deal in a big city where violent crime is a daily part of life; but still a big deal in a sleepy town lost somewhere in the middle of Americana; and if people are talking about a story that features the heroic exploits of one Rickard Kirk of the famed Kirk and Hornheischman families, does that not help in his ascent up the ladder? And does that not foster an early retirement for anyone in his path?

         She hangs up the telephone. She will not bother with the rest of her list.

         She puts on a pair of dark sunglasses. Even though a blind man would not fail to see her fat rolls from a block away, she likes to think that she is actually incognito when wearing these glasses instead of her typical owl lenses. This is a part of her daydream: The beat reporter slinking in and out of tight places with no one else the wiser; all for the sake of truth; all in the service of community; and, naturally, somewhere down the line, the fringe benefit of a Pulitzer Prize.

         She squeezes into a dark trench coast. This is her Lois Lane look. It too is a part of the daydream; and so she will wear it then regardless of the weather, and regardless of the fact that it is two sizes too small for her enormous frame.

         Two more things: An old-fashioned film camera that she hides inside her trench coat, and a fine watch on her wrist that is accurate down to the second.

         She skips down the front steps, and turns right on Magnolia. She will find a taxi on Main Street. She knows in her heart that this is going to be a fine day.

*   *   *

         Skippy Hawes loves his Cup of Joe at Millie’s Old-Fashioned Diner on the corner of Main and Kellogg. He prefers it extra thick and strong; a special order half American and half Espresso that the one Mexican in town (a stereotypically happy-go-lucky illegal alien that appears to pop up as the dish washer and floor mop man in virtually every restaurant in town, or so people presume, since the south of the border types ‘all look alike’) rightly calls ‘Café Europeo,’ whatever the heck that means, but that Millie has christened her ‘Blow Job Joe.’ She just laughs and laughs every time she asks Skippy if he’d like a ‘Blow Job Joe’ along with a pastry. He smiles broadly, but he will go no further than to refer to it as his ‘Special Cup of Joe,’ because after all he is a Good Baptist and an American in that order. Regardless, jokes aside, Millie brews it just right, and Skippy goes on to add just enough cream and sugar to turn the blend into something divine.

         Well, not literally divine. That would be blasphemy. But good enough to sizzle the crew cut on his sixty-five year old head and to warm the mushy heart under his red and white checkered shirts. Golly, it is Rooty-Tooty Baptist Good.

         The problem is that Skippy has never once finished his Cup of Joe. About half of it is poured down the drain, when finally he leaves the diner to go to his day job. By then, it is cold and clumpy, not even fit for Millie’s black cat Shelly out by the dumpsters, more likely to clog a sewage pipe than to cockle a heart.

         Not that he does not try; he keeps returning to his Cup of Joe throughout the morning; but, you see, when Skippy Hawes is sitting at his regular stool, he is not just another retiree reading the sports section or telling tall tales. He is a selectman holding court. Indeed, so far as anyone can recall (and that includes several old buzzards who watched FDR wave to the Redwood townsfolk from his caboose back when the train tracks and the steel mills on the edge of town still operated), he is the longest serving selectman holding court. He is there for no other reason than to glad hand, to swap jokes, and to kiss babies; his advice to a suffering constituent always a variation on ‘praying harder’ or ‘supporting the troops’ back home from ‘Afghani’ or ‘Iraqistan;’ his words of wisdom vague but strangely Biblical, especially when he coats his comments with odd verses from Leviticus. He is the most beloved man in town, except perhaps for Happy Hans; and though the townsfolk are smart enough never to elect him as Mayor (a man who is God fearing is a man who knows someone else’s limits), they’ll keep him on the board until he’s six feet under, and then give him yet another term just for good measure. Yes, the times may be a changin’ alright; and really changin’ for the worse, in the view of just about everyone who slides a stool and orders a heap of breakfast chow at Millie’s place. Indeed, whoever thought we’d elect a Commie Negro to the White House? But there are fixtures still; unmoved from an idyllic past; and Selectman Skippy Hawes, Baptist Deacon, Tea Party Patriot, and Bill O’Reilly Premium Member, is a living and breathing fixture about town.

         There is another reason Skippy Hawes has had a political life longer than what Reverend Goober refers to as the Whore of Babylon’s lying nose. He is the perfect lever in a machine; well oiled smile; polished mannerisms; but entirely controlled by the hand that pulls and pushes the lever. He does not see himself as a tool. He prefers to believe that he is just ‘getting along for the good of the community,’ or ‘looking out for the whole,’ or ‘doing what Jesus would do.’ No doubt, Jesus would do whatever pleases Mayor Douglas Kirk, ‘cause Jesus is the kind of guy who goes out of his way to please people (except for all them nasty Jews, of course, but they don’t deserve to be pleased by Our Personal Lord and Savior come to think of it). Skippy Hawes is the perfect man to send out to the wolves, whenever the wolves are going to be denied whatever it is they desire. And the reason is obvious enough. Every one of those wolves really likes Skippy, and they’ll keep on liking him even after he says NO with his great, big, Baptist Brotherly Love smile. And truly there will not be even a trace of vindictiveness in his NO, because Skippy won’t really understand what it is he is answering NO to anyway. As Skippy reminds people every election night, when he puts on one of his big hurrahs for his uncontested victory, he’s not one of the roosters. He’s merely a chicken like us, and chickens don’t cluck where they’re not supposed.

         Skippy Hawes doesn’t pick out the wolves from the sheep. Depending on the Mayor’s frame of mind, the designation changes all the time anyway. So he just smiles at everyone like they’re one of his long lost friends; for, who knows, if they’re a wolf today, then they could be as easily a sheep tomorrow. He just lets the Mayor call him in the middle of the night; always a minute or two after one of the two saloons closes; always a stray cat or a loose girl meowing in the background; while he is sitting up in his twin bed and watching Charlton Heston narrate Bible stories on the boob tube. He smiles amiably as the Mayor berates the cat or the girl, and then tells him which wolf he needs to visit the very next morning. He continues to smile just as amiably when minutes later he is asleep.

         This morning, the designated wolf had been Chief William Borden, Jr.; a ‘Little Bill’ compared to his old man; a kind enough fellow truly, but then again everyone’s kind enough as far as Skippy is concerned. The Mayor had instructed Skippy to sit in the gazebo at the center of the downtown plaza. He’ll go to any location to meet with one of the wolves, ‘cause we all know that is what Jesus would do in a heartbeat; but he especially loves meeting someone in that white gazebo. It is surrounded by roses, and he just loves to smell the roses before he strolls over to Millie’s for that ‘Special Cup of Joe.’ Are not roses just heavenly?

         The chief is pitching more funds for the cops. Oh, golly, lots of numbers.

         What would Jesus do? Skippy asks after the chief has finished his spiel.

         The chief stares back at him blankly. He is still in a lot of pain, and he is in no mood for a damn sermon; but he is politically astute enough to hold back.

         Thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness; Skippy quotes verbatim from Leviticus, while still smiling as broadly and as stupidly as if offering a silly nursery rhyme.

         The chief does not know how to respond, and so he holds his hot tongue.

         You see, our town coffers are in the red, Skippy explains. As dark red as the blood of a woman’s pussy in heat. So, you see, now’s not the time to try to slip under her sheets for a quickie. It’s in the Bible, and the Bible surely knows.

         That time of the month, huh? The chief laments, and then glances away.

         The mean bitch time, Skippy confirms, while still smiling and talking like he is Mr. Rogers and the chief is a naive five-year-old boy watching him on PBS.

         The chief thinks a while. He stares back at Skippy with penetrating eyes.

         Now, you don’t suppose it’s going to be ‘that time of the month,’ as long as Douglas Kirk sits in the Mayor’s seat, do you? The chief asks softly but firmly.

         We’re all one, big, happy family, Skippy offers. Just like the Bible says….

         The chief stops listening to Skippy at that point. God bless Skippy. He’s a white angel who somehow fluttered his wings into one of the devil’s old haunts but still thinks he’s above the clouds. He means well, but he’s woefully naïve in thinking that the Mayor and the Chief are in the same family. Or put it this way then: If they are in the same family, then they’re estranged brothers, throwing punches and spitting invective at one another in the worst kind of a blood feud.

         The chief interrupts Skippy. He really wishes he could talk longer, but he has a lot of work to do. He steps away from the gazebo, and he waves goodbye.

         Skippy waves back. Isn’t it great how the Good Lord brings all of us back together? Don’t the roses remind him of a scented pussy before a woman cums?

         Oh, golly, that was not a decent thought, now was it? Time to stroll over to Millie’s to wash out the sins of a new morning with that ‘Special Cup of Joe.’

         About an hour later Skippy has forgotten his quirky conversation with the chief. He has only sipped that ‘Special Cup of Joe’ twice, but he’s having a ball nevertheless. You see, Old Buckaroo is back in town, and he is full of stories to tell about how the Whore of Babylon is conspiring with the Allah Ayabs to force the rest of us into their Greenpeace New World Order. Old Buckaroo knows the secret truth inside and out. He’s even met Jerome Corsi and Alex Jones, though he suspects that they’re the same person. First of all they’re never in the same place at the same time. Secondly, take a long look at their eyes, and you’ll see what no one else has seen. Boy, the secret truth is really exciting stuff, isn’t it?

         And I’m gonna coach Little League next season, Old Buckaroo continues.

         Old Buckaroo barely can walk. He is much too vain to use a cane, but he hobbles more than he steps; and every now and then he seems to be altogether lost. Moreover, he probably sleeps in his overalls, since frankly they do not look or smell like they’ve been washed in weeks. He’ll make a great baseball coach, Skippy thinks; and, who knows, maybe someday Old Buckaroo will join with him on the town council. He’d be a great addition to the leadership core, no doubt.

         Skippy is going to ask him if he’d ever thought about running for political office, when he eyes Anna Burns outside Millie’s window. She’s a troublemaker. Oh, sure, she pretends to be a Christian; always brings a warm dish to the First Baptist socials; helps organize the Old Hen’s Guild to raise money for sponsored missionaries in the Congo; but she can’t be a real Christian, not when she pens news stories and editorials critical of our Good Mayor. More like a Judas Iscariot in drag, she is. Up to no good, especially when she’s hiding behind those creepy sunglasses, clucking where she is not supposed, an Old Hen imitating a Rooster.

         He thinks she’s going to step into the diner, but she never slows down. In a moment she has passed out of his view on her way towards Redwood General; no doubt on the scent of something or other; likely another one of her exposes.

         Skippy turns back to Old Buckaroo. The crotchety coot does not seem to notice that he had ever been distracted. He is still blabbering about how he has the secret truth and how those with the secret truth are best able to coach the small and spongy minds of the future. Only those with the secret truth are able to sneak into their little boy daydreams then and to set straight what had been perverted slowly and imperceptibly by the Greenpeace New World Order goons.

         What would Jesus do? Skippy asks after the Old Buckaroo ends his spiel.

         The Old Buckaroo is not sure. He waits patiently for Skippy to tell him.

         Skippy takes another sip from his ‘Special Cup of Joe,’ and smiles more.

*   *   *

         Normally, Anna Burns finds a reason to stop at Millie’s. She is not partial to the coffee there; really, anything with caffeine in it gives her heartburn; but boy does she love Millie’s family hotcakes. Literally drown the jumbo stack in a concoction of melted butter and orange marmalade, and you’ve got a heavenly chow down. She also picks up quite a bit of news tips there; tidbits added to an impolitic joke, or in whispered conversation, or in the way two regulars happen to look at one another; even though as a lifetime member of the fairer sex, she is not welcomed to sit on a stool at the counter. That is fine. She prefers those comfortable banquettes along the walls; each featuring an old time jukebox no longer operable and a paper placemat with accompanying crayons; and she can hear everything she wants to hear without annoying the good ole boys up front.

         But this morning she hardly notices that she has passed it along her path to Redwood General. She never found a taxi on Main, so she’s pushing her hefty legs as hard as she can to get there before someone else snaps that photograph that really belongs in her newspaper. True, The Redwood Democrat has not had a local competitor for the better part of a decade; yet one of the conglomerate newspapers (perhaps a Hearst paper, but she has never bothered to find out for sure, since as far as she is concerned all those conglomerates are just different faces of the one and only Wall Street-Washington news monopoly and therefore in essence interchangeable) has a volunteer reporter and photographer living in Beverly that provides sporadic news about this part of the country. Even worse, the bitch is a former Democrat employee who just loves to steal any Democrat scoop she can get her hand on whether or not her parent company runs with it.

         Time is of the essence, and so even Millie’s family hotcakes must wait on the griddle for another morning. She’ll celebrate with a double order when she views her subscriptions explode as a result of the fears and anxieties generated by her front page story. She’ll scarf them down like there is truly no tomorrow.

         She has to admit that the PD is doing a good job in keeping their secrets, since there is nothing happening in the front lobby that would suggest anything askew. Murray Moot is sitting in the waiting area. He’s holding his head of thick white hair, and staring blankly at his filthy work boots, no doubt experiencing a wallop of a hangover and hoping the emergency room doctor will prescribe one of those ‘instant headache cures’ he’s seen on late night infomercials. Next is a teenaged skateboarder with a black eye and a bruised arm. Anna Burns believes his name is Chip or Chet. She’s not sure, because he and his family do not serve Our Personal Lord and Savior at First Baptist. Rumor has it they’re sick Papists, the parents sexual deviants, the daughter a lesbian, and the son a daredevil on his way to the morgue. Regardless, he’s as much a regular at Redwood General as Old Murray Moot, and so there’s no surprise to notice the two of them there.

         There is no one manning the front desk. She slips into the guest elevator without being noticed by hospital staff or security. So far so good, she mutters, while pressing the fifth floor on the control panel and straightening her glasses.

         The intensive care floor is almost as empty. Indeed, it is so quiet that, in a moment of self-doubt, she wonders if she got the story right. Certainly, if the comatose suspect is here, then there should be a little more commotion on this floor; but there is only an orderly flirting with the Polish intensive care nurse at her station, a wispy thin, bald, middle aged doctor filling out a clipboard down the hall, and a female deputy guarding a door at the very end of the same hall. Only the cop is out of place; but she is leaning against the door, folding her big arms before her even bigger boobs, and either napping outright or daydreaming with her eyes closed (impossible really for Anna Burns to tell from so far away). Anyway, the cop seems as nonplussed as everybody else; and with the soft grey sunlight filtering through the blinds along the right side of the hall, and casting everything within this floor into a drab shadow, the entire place seems to be as devoid of passion as the few people meandering through their respective shifts.

         Still water runs deep, Anna Burns reminds herself. There is a story here…

         But there is never going to be a story, at least not a screaming headline, story, and photograph in The Redwood Democrat, if the cop at the other end of the hall awakens all of a sudden and sees an incognito lady beside the elevator. The deputies around here would never make it in a big city PD, but they’re not so dumb as to miss a full sized gal in a trench coat and sunglasses who happens to be loitering about the intensive care facility on the very same morning there is a burglary suspect in residence. If that blond beaver muncher with the badge and the pistol suspects Anna Burns, then the story will vanish before it even has a chance to be reported. Truthfully, there is nothing worse for a beat reporter; and the real possibility of it at once makes her feel awfully sick in her stomach.

         Anna Burns sees a payphone on the wall. In a world of near universal cell phone usage, it is rare nowadays to see payphones; but Redwood General keeps them around on the theory that cell phone signals might get in the way of their medical equipment. Also, they get a tax benefit in return for providing a phone service for the poor; and this Ma Bell antique apparently qualifies as such. Anna Burns does not care why it is there. She just holds the pink receiver by her ear, pretends to dial a telephone number, and turns her face away from the deputy.

         Um, lady, that doesn’t work, Nurse Lola Lipinski remarks so loudly to the huge incognito lady that no one in the intensive care hall could fail to hear her.

         Anna Burns is so startled she jumps back from that payphone as if it is on fire. She slams the receiver into its holder. She waits until her blush clears; and then she looks sheepishly at the kind, but concerned, nurse staring back at her.

         I wondered why I couldn’t hear anyone, Anna Burns says unconvincingly.

         Happens all the time, Nurse Lola smiles, and then glances at the orderly.

         The orderly is one of those 2.0 GPA linebackers who neither had the skill to go pro nor the smarts to go beyond junior college. He is a fifty-something on the last year or two of his good looks, though that does not stop him from being a consummate flirt with a goofy grin on his face and a dirty bedpan in his hand. He wears a nametag that says: Chuckles. The name fits, because he chuckles at the smallest provocation; and, right now, he is chuckling at that incognito lady.

         Don’t laugh at her, Nurse Lola says to Chuckles with feigned indignation.

         Chuckles continues to laugh, but at least he manages to cover his mouth.

         Anna Burns looks at her watch just then. It is almost the top of the hour.

         The payphone on the first floor works, Nurse Lola offers with a big smile.

         Where is the restroom? Anna Burns inquires as she walks up to the nurse.

         Nurse Lola gestures down the hall without once breaking the wide plastic grin on her face. She looks like a dark haired, ethnic version of a Stepford Wife.

         But it is out of order, Nurse Lola remarks. Use the one on the first floor.

         Is that the nearest restroom? Anna Burns pretends to be really pissed off.

         The nearest operable restroom guests can use, Norse Lola responds with just a bit of sarcasm in her tone. The others are reserved for staff and security.

         Thank you, Anna Burns gushes. You are a real life ‘Florence Nightingale.’

         Happy to help, Nurse Lola says, but obviously not getting the reference.

         Anna Burns takes the elevator back to the emergency room. Murray Moot and the teenaged boy are still there. A third man has joined them. He is a thin, muscular road repairman with premature wrinkles. He is holding his right hand; and though he keeps a stoic face, he squirms enough to imply he is in real pain.

         She takes a seat near them. She pretends to read a magazine, but really focuses her attention on the guest restroom beside the first floor elevator door and water fountain. The top of the hour comes and goes, but the lesbian blond cop does not take a potty break. Another hour comes and goes; again no break.

         Finally, the elevator door opens; and the cop slouches toward the guest restroom. She looks like she is in a real daze. Anna Burns suspects she had been asleep all along; and so she makes a mental note of her debilitated state, so as to include that embarrassing tidbit in the larger story on the comatose suspect.

         Anna Burns takes the elevator back to the fifth floor. She straightens her glasses again, steps from the elevator, and surveys the scene in a single glance.

         Nurse Lola and Chuckles are gone. There is another nurse at the station. She is a miserable horse face named Nurse Dora. She is so preoccupied with an email on her computer screen that she does not notice Anna Burns walk by her.

         The door at the end of the hall is unlocked. Anna Burns glances over her shoulders to make sure that no one observes her. It turns out the coast is clear.

         She reaches for the camera inside her trench coat. She opens the opaque glass door with her other hand. It opens with such a loud creak that she pauses.

         Again, the coast is clear, and so she lets the door shut behind her with a wicked thud. She steps into the quiet gloom and prepares to face her exclusive.

*   *   *

         Just as Anna Burns steps toward the comatose suspect, the chief shoves his paperwork off to the side. He had hoped to focus on a few of the old police reports that had escaped his attention in recent weeks. Maybe several hours of mindless work would ease the kink in his neck and, even more so, dissipate the anxiety with which he has been afflicted since first laying eyes on that peculiar Howdy Doody lookalike at the Old Farley Ranch. He cannot reconcile the fact of the young man’s obvious guilt with the fact that, somehow, that same man is a victim. The intellectual and moral paradox of course would not be comfortable for anyone, but it is especially hard for a law enforcement officer who insists in his own mind that black is not a little white and straight in not a little crooked.

         His telephone rings. He eyes it suspiciously, even feels his heart sink into his stomach, but he picks it up before it goes to the secretary outside his office door. He realizes who it is before he hears the bitchy slurred voice slap his ear.

         I just got off the phone with Dustin, Margie says. He really needs to talk with you. God only knows why, but he insists you’re the man who can help him.

         I’ve been helping him his whole cursed life; the chief snarls back at her.

         Don’t you talk to me that way; Margie scolds him. Don’t…don’t…don’t….

         I stood by him when the kids at school bullied him, called him a queer, a fucking fudge packer; the chief insists. I toughened him, taught him how to be a fighter, gave him everything a man can possibly give his son. I shelled out my paychecks, one after another, so that he could go to acting school, even though I knew all too well that it would be nothing, but a glee club for social outcasts, sexual deviants, and faggots. Might as well have paid his way into a gypsy gang.

         I hate you, Margie slurs. I hate how you gave up. Just threw in the towel.

         When I was his age, I was busting crooks, the chief spits out his invective with such force that his face turns crimson red. I wasn’t bartending queers in a twisted bar in goddamned SoHo of all places. Goddamn it, darling, I stayed put.

         That’s right, Margie screams loudly enough to cut him off. You’ve always stayed put. Straight and narrow, that’s what you’ve been your entire life. And I hate. Dustin hates it. And, I suspect, you actually hate it most of all, Little Bill.

         You’re drunk, the chief snaps back at her. Filthy drunk, and still in bed…

         You’re right, Margie laughs. Why don’t you come back and join me? Your not so far gone you can’t remember coming home for our midday fucks, are ya?

         After I hang up on you, I’m gonna find out when and where Al-Anon next meets, the chief proclaims slowly and coldly. And you’re gonna be there, bitch.

         Straight and narrow, Margie laughs even harder. Find help for the cranky drunk battle-axe. Get her to the meetings on time. Check that item off the list.

         Do not call me again today, the chief insists. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

         Let me ask you something, Margie pleas, as she struggles to sound sober.

         I really have to go, the chief snaps back. I don’t have time for your bull…

         When was the last time you dreamt? Margie asks. I mean really gave your mind and your body permission to take a real flying leap into God knows where?

         God knows where? The chief asks. I know where. Bartending at the XXX…

         Margie laughs ruefully. She tries to say something, but the words cannot seem to be separated from the spittle on her lips; and so she only laughs more.

         The chief does not bother to say goodbye. He just hangs up on the bitch.

         There is a soft tap at his door. He snarls for whoever is there to come in.

         It is his personal secretary, Peggy. She is an old hand with her white hair in a granny bun and her thin body in a floral dress. She served his father in this same capacity for decades, and she will probably be here still serving whoever sits in this seat when he is done. Like every old hand, she knows intuitively just the right moment to step forward and to diffuse a situation; and so here she is.

         Would you like me to take your calls the rest of the day? Peggy asks him.

         The chief looks up at her, and smiles. His lit fuse smolders immediately.

         I’m going out to the Old Farley Ranch, the chief says. Need to follow up.

         Do you want any back up? Peggy asks softly. Or is this one off the record?

         I’ll go alone, the chief responds with a wink. Just keep him off my scent.

         No need to say who should be deflected. Peggy has been sending Rickard down the primrose path since Little Bill succeeded his father. She knows, more of less, what the mayor’s son is trying to do; and on account of her strong ethic of loyalty and decency, she has grown over the years to dislike the effete snob.

         The chief grabs a hold of his Smokey Bear hat. He steps out of his office.

         Old Man Farley is hiding something. He knows more about why the young man tried to burglarize him than he is letting on. He hinted at it when he spoke of protecting his boy. Then he just shut up. They always do; but, like all others attached somehow to a crime, his bloodshot eyes gave him away just the same.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) can be sexy still in a MILF kind of way. It takes longer nowadays, and she surely cannot get by without doing her hair and masking her wrinkles and blemishes with an extra coat of makeup. Way back in the good old days, she had been a knockout when undone. Now, she’s apt to be a wet noodle, if she does not do what every decent woman recognizes must be done when her foxy forties become faded images inside of her rearview mirror. Still, take a long, hot shower, spend an hour and a half in front of a vanity, and the woman comes alive from beneath her shroud of curlers and polish remover.

         She is still laughing when her husband hangs up on her. It takes her some time to figure out he’s no longer on the line; but when finally she realizes he is gone, she stares quizzically at her cordless a while, wondering how on earth he had had the last word, and mumbling something that is a bit closer to Pig Latin than to American English. She slams the cordless onto the floor beside her bed.

         She sits up on her pillows; sees the half empty bottle of whiskey and the dirty shot glass near the lamp to her immediate left; tips the heavy bottle into her glass (most of the Jack Daniels dribbles down the side of the nightstand and onto the carpet, but she manages to fill her shot glass); and swallows one more mouthful of liquid comfort. It burns down her throat and makes the room spin a motherfucker, but she feels better than just after the end of that conversation.

         She is wearing nothing, but the pink Victoria’s Secret piece she bought a few days ago. She has been hiding it in the back of the bedroom closet, and she is happy that it fits her still as perfectly as when she had tried it on in the back room at the retail mall in Beverly. Oftentimes clothes shrink one or two sizes in the least giving parts of a woman’s body for no other reason than that the same piece had been taken from the store. Dressing rooms expand; bedrooms shrink.

         Most importantly, she feels sexy. Yes, she is angry still that her husband is so hardheaded about poor Dustin; but, more so, she is excited that her lover in on his way. She is not so sure this is an affair to remember; but at least, it is an affair right now; and sometimes that is the best we can hope for in a sordid, little life full of dashed dreams and misguided attachments. A half hour of real, ecstatic escape a few times a week; a chance to feel like a woman, rather than a bitch, or a nag, or a dried up prune sinking ever more and more into the most unforgiving phase of middle age; and, finally, a chance to get even and to know that wicked smugness that comes from deliberately doing something altogether naughty. She is in on that dirty, little secret: Sin is fun. Indeed, it continues to be fun, until that hellfire takes over; and, who knows, perhaps even after then.

         She is as drunk as a skunk, but nevertheless she hears her own front door creak open and close. She hears the strong and steady footsteps; plodding over her hardwood floor as unmercifully as a Roman centurion walking over the bony remains of fallen Goths; pounding as if to the consistent beats of a metronome. She even hears a belt buckle unfastening, and a pair of pants sliding down legs.

         For her husband, she is Margie; but for the man just beyond her bedroom door, she is Margaret. For her husband, she is in their master bedroom; but for the man unbuttoning his shirt, and then tossing his hat onto the comforter, she is in her bordello. For her husband, she is the tired and cranky wife; but for the man who is naked, but for the black socks stretched up to his knees, she is that happy whore that figures prominently in dreams. And, indeed, right now, those blinds between fantasy and reality have been shut, so that the blinding light of truth does not get in the way of a pleasant detour into debauchery. There is no light in here but what slithers out from beneath the lampshade. It is the kind of light that can be whatever the dreamers want it to be; and the dreamers inside of this bordello, the man crawling over the comforter and licking his lips like an eager boy with one too many screws loose, the woman slithering into her fluffy pillows and opening her legs, want the light to obscure more than it reveals. No love will be shared here, notwithstanding the euphemistic reference to the act of lovemaking. Only sick and sordid secrets will be veiled; the very illicitness of what they are doing to one another binding the secrets so much more than they would be otherwise bound; and, in the process, each of them will harden their sick hearts that much more to the horrible deeds that they must perform later.

         She stares into the face that is looking down at her. It is not a handsome face. It is a bit too narrow. The nose is much too thin and snobbish. But it is an ambitious face; marked by privilege; contorted by a lust for power that will be either fulfilled, or altogether lost. It is an all or nothing face, not ‘staying put,’ but ‘taking a risk;’ and if only for that reason, it is incredibly sexy for her now.

         She looks even more deeply into the beady eyes penetrating hers. There is no love in there; not even a capacity for love; but there is an alluring passion for dreams yet to be tapped. When those dreams have been unleashed, sooner rather than later she believes, those eyes will flare crimson blood, much like a pair of dead, white eyes in a shark turning red from the blood of that deadbeat victim in its jaws. He will be hideous; but he will be so much more alive in that excess, so much more virile in those dreams, a living and breathing torch firing up what has been dormant and sterile for so long. She does not know what that may mean for her. She just senses that whatever it is, it will be an exciting ride out from the matrimonial malaise with which she has been burdened. And, yes, that is a selfish motivation; but dreamers really are selfish, come to think of it.

         I could eat you alive; Deputy Rickard Kirk snarls to the whore under him.

         Lick me, bitch, Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) snaps back into his face.

         There is the barest trace of a grin on Rickard’s face, as he slithers down her panties, senses her cheap perfume, and buries his tongue in her moist cunt.

         She leans back and closes her eyes. She imagines Dennis on stage. There is no one in the audience, but Little Bill, no one to give him the ovation that he really deserves, but a hard man impervious to the world beyond his small mind.

         Little Bill does not clap. Hell, he does not even blink. He just stares back at his son with the blank face of a plastic mannequin. And, indeed, it turns out that Little Bill really is a dummy; a cardboard cutout from the props room; just dead when by contrast his own son is so much alive, virile, warm and orgasmic. 

         Somewhere along the line, she comes; but the dream continues, even as the deputy with the narrow face and the snobbish nose finally exits stage right.

*   *   *

         This is the Maui Wowie Shit, Chuckles salivates, as he rolls what he likes to call his ‘patented green booger joint,’ and sniffs the fresh grass aromas upon the Roach Slim rolling paper. Damn, girl, you actually outdid yourself this time.

         Nurse Lola leans back on the sofa. She has kicked off her slippers already and is unbuttoning her white blouse. She looks up at Chuckles and grins giddily.

         No, seriously, you’re the girl, Chuckles beams, as he puts the joint in his mouth and tries to find his matchbook in his many pockets. Just don’t do what I am doing. Smoking the Old Booger fries brain cells and causes cancer, after all.

         Don’t forget impotence, Nurse Lola laughs. It’s not good for your pecker.

         That’s never been a problem, Chuckles smiles, as he finds a good match.

         Nurse Lola removes her blouse. She tosses it at his face, and very nearly knocks the match and the joint out of his fingers in the process. She laughs that much more, as the orderly scrambles not to drop his goodies on the clean floor.

         Watch out, she teases him. Or you’ll be scrubbing this room afterwards.

         Chuckles removes the blouse from his head. Nurse Lola responds then by unsnapping her padded bra and tossing it to the same place above his forehead.

         Very funny, Chuckles says with just a hint of real annoyance in his voice.

         He removes the bra, looks back to see if she is going to launch anything else his way, and lights his joint. He holds it in long and tight and then exhales.

         The pungent marijuana smoke spreads very quickly throughout the small hospital sleep room. The lamp is not on, so it is impossible to observe the thick cloud slithering into every nook and cranny in that sparse room; but the odor is unavoidable. It is a tropical wet blanket clinging to every one of their brainless, irresponsible chuckles. It is even in the sweat oozing out of their clammy skins.

         Nurse Lola puts a stethoscope into her ears. She listens to her fast heart.

         It is an excited heart, but it is not in love. The realization stuns her, and the stupid smile on her lips falters. She throws the stethoscope aside, and wills one more groovy grin onto her face. But the moment has passed; and no matter her embrace of wanton abandon, her passion for life on the edge, she knows it.

         Chuckles undresses. It is just as well that she cannot see him, as there is nothing particularly romantic, let alone sexy, in how he slimes out from his old, wrinkled work uniform. His joint dangles in his lips as a smoldering, spent cock.

         Wait a minute, she says suddenly, when she feels him going for her skirt.

         What? Chuckles mumbles groggily. Wha…Wha…What are you saying, girl?

         Just wait a minute, she repeats, as she shoves his hands off of her waist.

         Nurse Lola reaches behind the blue, square pillow on her sofa. She grabs her iPad, turns it on, and inserts the iPad earphones. She goes to the one track that she has saved on iTunes, hesitates a second or two, and then presses play.

         It is Barry Manilow singing Copacabana. Few in her generation have even heard of it; and those that have think that it is decidedly ‘uncool.’ But she has a soft spot in her heart for the nightclub dancer, Lola. It is not simply that they share the same first name. In her daydreams; indulged while taking the 6:05 to Redwood General every weekday morning; entertained while inserting patients’ data into her computer; she is that very same Lola, dancing before creepy docs and orderlies in the hopes that just one of them will take her into his heart and give her the love she desires, smiling sexy and dumb before the glare of a cold, indifferent universe. She does not have ‘yellow feathers in her hair;’ but within strict hospital regulations, she manages to retain her ‘dress cut down to there.’

         She closes her soft eyes. She lip syncs along with the colorful song lyrics.

         Chuckles once more goes for her skirt. This time she does not stop him.

         Chuckles slides his naked body over hers. He is hairy and sweaty, and she imagines a scratchy towel that has been dragged through seaweed and sand for God knows how long and then laid out to dry beneath an unforgiving sun. It is a corrosive sensation; and so every time he slides up and down, she feels as if an untold number of skin cells have been rubbed off of her body and dumped onto the sofa cushions. By the time this is done, she’ll be a dead thing quite literally rubbed into the sofa; and the night janitor will need to scrub her off that night.

         She feels burning pinpricks on her face. She opens her eyes and sees that his joint is still dangling from his lips, while he is sliding up and down like some sort of demented snake. The stinky flame on the end of his joint every now and then falls into her skin. The ashes streak down her cheeks beside her sad tears.

         She closes her eyes again. She imagines Rico smoking his suave cigarette, while watching Lola dance on the stage before him. She cannot make out Rico’s swarthy face. It is hidden in the shadows. But it is there, and it is there for her.

         Nurse Lola has to play the track several times, since no matter how hard he tries Chuckles cannot get an erection. His sticky hair itches her down there; and, at one point, she thinks that his sloppy gasket may have dribbled out some lukewarm beer piss; but nothing at all happens that might be conceived of as a climax. Everything from start to finish is anticlimactic; bored; even irritable, so that in the end the hairy stud on top just yawns and slithers off in search of his white athletic socks. Maybe there had been something to the impotence tease, since the only flame in the sleep room turned out to be his Maui Wowie Booger.

         Chuckles mumbles something or other about having had a long night. She does not respond, though she thinks that every one of his nights must be ‘long,’ since she cannot remember the last time he managed to pump his gas into her.

         She waits for him to shuffle out the door, before she puts her iPad away and scrambles for her work uniform on the floor. She does not have to rush, as her dear friend Nurse Dora is out there doing the work that she should be doing and keeping watch for the two of them. But she hurries anyway. She feels sick, even unclean, and wants to get back to the rest of that day as soon as possible.

         She almost vomits, as she scoots up her skirt; but she continues anyway.

         If she had been a minute faster in returning to the nurses station, and if Chuckles had gone straight back to the intensive care facility, rather than take a detour to an open window elsewhere where he can exhale the last few traces of his pungent pot smoke, then one or both of them might have caught the lady in the trench coat and dark sunglasses sneaking into the room at the end of the hall. God only knows what they may have done, but almost certainly she would not have been able to snap that grainy front-page headshot that becomes, soon enough, the greatest news sensation that their quaint town would ever endure.

*   *   *

         It’s just timing, that’s all, Gus Gleason remarks, while scanning the fine print on his clipboard. If the bastard had broken your window last month, you’d have been covered by the warranty. But you never signed up for Warranty Plus.

         Thought you said I had Warranty Extra, Old Man Farley says with obvious contempt. I paid another $19.95 to be treated like a goddamned king, you said.

         And I would’ve bowed at the waist, if this was last month, Gus responds.

         But it ain’t, and you’re not, Old Man Farley looks away from the hideous, fat slob in the blue work uniform. ‘Cause Warranty Extra ain’t Warranty Plus, is that it? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? Or am I totally missing something?

         Warranty Extra added another year to your coverage; but Warranty Plus, if you’d signed up for it, well, it would’ve added another three years, plus free installation of our very top of the line. You can sign up for it now, if you’d like.

         Fuck you, Old Man Farley mutters. If I was still a drinking man, you’d be flat on your back right now; minding an elder; crying ‘uncle’ so I don’t beat ya.

         Gus Gleason lowers the clipboard to his side, and smiles. He is twice the old man’s size, and he had been the county boxing champ back in the day; but, ever since he discovered Jesus in Reverend Goober’s River Jericho hot tub, he’s put away violence for the good of his Personal Lord and Savior, blessed be God.

         So what’s the tab? Old Man Farley asks, when he composes himself a bit.

         $99.99 for the glass, and $49.99 for my labor. Um, that comes out to a…

         I can do math, Old Man Farley snarls, as he reaches into his overalls, and finds a Benjamin Franklin and a Ulysses S. Grant mixed into a fistful of Safeway receipts and greasy napkins. Here it is. Don’t let my front door hit your fat ass, unless you’re into that sort of thing. And tell your old man I ain’t buying one of his goddamned warranties, come hell or high water, ‘cause he’s no better than a cheat and a half. You make certain you tell him that. Do ya hear me, fat boy?

         Yes, sir, Gus smiles stupidly, as he pockets the bills. Here’s your receipt.

         Old Man Farley glances at the receipt, and he tosses it onto the floor. He really wishes he was half blitzed just then. He’d have the courage to knock the stupid smile of that fat boy’s face, no matter that Deputy Craig is right outside.

         And remember that Jesus loves you, Gus offers with a tip of his ‘Gleason Glass’ blue ball cap. Loves you so much that He gave up His life for yours. All in the Good Book. John 3:16. Just like the sign in the football stands always says…

         He turned water into wine, Old Man Farley interrupts him. But he cannot turn a Warranty Extra into a Warranty Plus. Appears your Jesus ain’t so helpful.

         Gus Gleason frowns. He does not know how to respond. He exits quickly.

         Old Man Farley watches Gus exchange a few words with Deputy Craig. He does not need to give him the same Jesus spiel, since the kiddie cop is already a member in good standing with the First Baptist church in town. They just hug each other; brothers in the blood of the lamb stuff; and Gus leaves in his truck.

         Old Man Farley steps out of his home, when the blue Gleason Glass truck turns off of his long driveway and onto Hampstead. It is a little after noon, and Old Man Farley senses that everything is just too silent and still, now that all of the clean up from the crime scene has been completed. Nothing else to do, but to exchange goodbyes with that young cop who guarded his house all last night.

         Actually there is a lot still to do; but first that young cop needs to leave.

         Reckon you’ve stayed longer than your shift, Old Man Farley says kindly.

         Deputy Craig has the stamina of a young man, but sixteen hours straight is still sixteen hours straight. His eyes are bloodshot, and his face is sweaty and a bit off color. He manages to hold back his yawn, but he cannot mask just how bone dead tired he is right now. He will be asleep as soon as he hits his pillows.

         No worries, Deputy Craig replies eagerly. Happy to protect and to serve.

         Well, everything here is fine now, Old Man Farley remarks after a while.

         Let you know, if there’s any development with the case, the cop offers.

         I’m sure you will, Old Man Farley smiles. Give my regards to your chief.

         They shake hands. Deputy Craig drives off in a cloud of filthy, hot dust.

         Had to protect my boy, the old man mutters. Need to protect him still.

         As soon as the police vehicle is out of sight, Old Man Farley steps into his house. He eyes his rifle on the sofa. He had gone into town at the first break of dawn to retrieve it from the PD. True to his word, the chief had made sure that he’d be able to get it back with no fuss. It’s locked and loaded, just like all the other beautiful trophies to the Second Amendment he’s got stored in his closet.

         He looks down the hall. Little Johnny is standing in his bedroom doorway looking back at him. The boy is twelve years old, but he’s got the mind and the body of a squirt about four or five. The boy is clothed in his Spiderman pajamas and slippers, sucking silently on his right thumb, and staring blankly through his drab grey eyes. He is sweating from his forehead like he’s just broken a terrible fever; but since he always looks that way, it is impossible to tell if he has been any more sick than usual. He is a special needs boy, after all; and so far as Old Man Farley can tell, special needs boys are always as sick in their squirt bodies, as they are in their heads. It’s just the way they’re gonna be in their poor lives.

         Pappy’s gonna take you for a drive today, Old Man Farley says to his boy.

         Little Johnny does not react, at least not in a way that the old man sees.

         Old Man Farley walks passed his boy to the closet at the back of the hall. He fumbles through his pockets and finally finds the key. He unlocks his armory and takes a quick inventory of the firearms and bombs he’s got stored in there.

         It takes a while; but piece-by-piece the old man hauls the weaponry and ammunition boxes out to his 1949 F5 Ford flatbed. He chains everything snugly, and throws a blue tarp over it for good measure. He is a sweaty, stinky gnome, when the work is all done; but he feels rejuvenated in knowing that he is doing what needs to be done now to protect his boy. It’s as simple as that in the end.

         Little Johnny has been observing him in silence from his open front door.

         Old Man Farley picks up his boy. He puts him in his passenger seat. There is no seatbelt in the vintage truck, but some time ago the old man had installed a leather belt that could do the trick. He fastens the sick boy beneath the belt.

         He steps into his house one more time. He locks up his back closet, even though it is now entirely bare. He grabs his rifle from the sofa, checks to make sure that the safety is on, and bolt locks the front door behind him. He steps to his truck and takes another look at his house. Already, it feels like it is an open grave; what is left behind when the grave robbers are done; a place vandalized and forever raped of its innocence; a dark spot that can only trouble the minds of those who might venture too close in the years to come. But that’s okay. His real home is wherever he can protect his boy, and that is now somewhere else.

         Old Man Farley starts up the engine. He lays the rifle on the bucket seat between himself and his boy. He looks over at him. He wipes the cold sweat off of his forehead with a handkerchief, and waits to see if his boy will reply at all.

         But Little Johnny just stares ahead and sucks his thumb. He seems to be unmoved by his Pappy’s kindness. He seems forever snared in his undying sleep.

*   *   *

         Anna Burns holds her breath. She is quite sure the loud sound of the door slamming shut behind her is going to get unwanted attention. There is no doubt in her mind that that horse-faced, miserable nurse at the station heard it, even if she is preoccupied with her email. Perhaps the bald doctor that she observed earlier is in one of the nearby rooms. If so, then he would’ve heard it shut, too.

         But she does not hear any footsteps coming down the hall. Indeed, there is no sound at all, but the distant hum of the machine monitoring the comatose suspect. It is like she has locked herself into a hermetically sealed, sound proof isolation chamber; and in a sudden wave of fear she remembers her strong and taciturn father taking her to a science fair for her eighth or ninth birthday. She sees the opening to a maze that is billed as sound and light proof. ‘Explore your other senses,’ the sign above the entrance says. She does not want to go inside what she conceives to be a house of horrors; but, of course, her father insists it is ‘the Burns Way’ to confront ones irrational fears head on. She looks back one last time, sees the tense lips and the upturned nose on her father’s face, looks again at the black hole in front of her, and crawls into the maze. She is frantic; hyperventilating; so frightened that the scream trying to crawl up her throat in fact seems to be choking her. But she presses on. That is ‘the Burns Way;’ and, sure enough, the fear passes, as she crawls through a padded tunnel that twists and turns like her favorite bowl of spaghetti. She never likes the experience, to be sure; but she learns to adapt; and she puts on a brave smile when she exits.

         ‘Explore your other senses,’ the sign had said; but, in fact, she explored her imagination. She does not remember smelling or touching much of anything in there. Even the soft pads against her palms and knees had not registered any particular sensation in her brain. But, boy, did her imagination run overtime. In there, she had been the first girl ever to fly in outer space, a princess escaping from her captor’s dungeon, a snake slithering through the high brush inside the Garden of Eden, even a mushroom emerging out from a crack in the earth, and finding its life in the cold and sterile darkness of a cave. She forgets that crawl through her own imagination, until the incident snaps back into her mind many years later; but she knows that about that time she decides definitely to follow in her father’s footsteps. She is going to be a newspaperman, a storyteller who provides her readers the only actual signposts in an otherwise uncharted life, a beacon in a dark and quiet place. She not only touches upon the length and the depth of her imagination. She sees how it can be a force for good in this world.

         Well, this intensive care room is not nearly as dark and silent. There is a mechanical hum. There is grey light filtering through the blinds off to her right side. But she is as alone as she had been on that fateful day so many years ago.

         She realizes that no one is going to enter the room. She fumbles with her camera. She is more nervous than she had thought, and as a result she drops it.

         Goddamn it, that noise is going to stir someone. She picks up the camera and hides behind the plastic curtain that is only half pulled around the hospital bed of the patient. Rationally, she knows that it is not much of a hiding spot. If someone entered the room, then he or she would see her almost at once; but it calms her nerves to know that there is something between herself and the door several feet away. Something is always better than nothing. That is how a mind works, and so she gets a grip on herself within a few seconds of hiding her huge body. Her breaths leave a sweat stain on that plastic, but mellow soon enough.

         She steps out from behind the curtain. Even though she can observe how the grey light bleeds through the dust particles in the air, it is very dark overall in there; and of course her dark sunglasses do not help the situation. She nearly removes them; but then, she imagines beat reporters in a sultry film noir. None of those newsmen would remove their fedoras, or put out their smokes, or take off their jackets, no matter if the Queen of England were to appear suddenly in one of their dives. The clothes make the woman, even more than the man; and so she keeps her sunglasses on and relies mostly on her intuition to step over to the side of the hospital bed. At that moment, whatever fear she had earlier has been replaced by the sheer exhilaration of recognizing what she is about to do.

         She raises the camera to her eyes, but then lowers it. She first wants to see the comatose suspect with her own naked eyes before snapping his picture. 

         Of course, she cannot see much on account of her sunglasses. Still, she is able to observe that he is young, freckled, redheaded, not at all attractive, nor even interesting. Indeed, apart from a passing resemblance to Howdy Doody, it is most accurate to say that he does not look like much of anything at all. He is about as close to a clean slate as any man can be; a canvas before an artist has added his first dab of color; a kind of limbo on which an imagination may shine.

         For that reason, he is the most frightening thing she has ever observed in real life and in her dreams. She recalls Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil. It is a vague memory; indeed, much like Arendt’s thesis; and it is gone almost as soon as it is entertained. But that insight lingers: The devil is neither especially beautiful, nor hideous. He is a forgettable cog in a vast maze of interconnected parts; one of the pads on the floor of that tunnel that twists and turns about as if spaghetti in a bowl; an unremarkable suspect without a name in an unmarked intensive care room. He neither growls, nor pounces, but only sleeps in silence.

         She snaps the picture. Her hands are trembling; her breaths are haggard; and she totally forgets to use the flash. So God only knows how good the actual picture will turn out to be; but, regardless, she is not going to stay around long enough to snap another one. She is going to scream like a banshee, maybe even slam herself into the wall, if she remains any longer beside the forgettable boy.

         She stuffs her camera into her trench coat. She opens the creaky door in one quick motion; and though she is again all but certain that someone is going to notice her leaving the room, she steps out of there without any hesitation. It is like she is being freed from a prison cell in hell, and so she is much too joyful at that moment to give a damn about what others may or may not think of her.

         At first, she hurries down the hall; but by the time she reaches the nurse station, she regains her composure. She glances over at Nurse Dora, who seems as oblivious as ever. She steps into the elevator, passes those sad souls who are languishing still in the emergency room, and returns to The Redwood Democrat without so much as a nod nor a ‘hello’ to the persons she passes along the way.

*   *   *

         Skippy Hawes thinks about his Cup of Joe when he steps out from Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner on the corner of Main and Kellogg. Golly, he wishes that he had had a chance to finish it. Perhaps next time if the Good Lord so allows him; but thy kingdom come, thy will be done, he says to himself, and smiles warmly.

         Several townspeople wave at him. He always waves back; and if he sees that the person who had waved at him is one of the saved; blessed in the blood of the lamb; then he also gives him a thumbs up. It’s in the Bible; Leviticus, no doubt, though he cannot recall the exact verse at this moment, since of course the beast works overtime on the squeaky clean sheep (baah, baah, baad Whore of Babylon Lucifer); but, regardless, it’s in the Bible that the joyful brethren of Reverend Lloyd Goober’s First Baptist Church are saved. Extra brownie points if the good soul can define Bill O’Reilly’s “Word of the Day” without having to get up from his Lazy Boy and flip through his Webster’s. That man is not just saved; he’s downright awesome; and while Skippy cannot be sure whose got the extra brownie points, he’ll add a double pump to his thumbs up to those he figures to be so blessed. He’s not much in the brains department, he readily will admit to himself or to anyone else who may press him on his grey matter; but, as one of the Good Lord’s chickens, he truly respects those who have been designated by the same as life’s calculating and scheming roosters. The smart ones keep all of the chickens in order; and, as needed, they sweep out the chicken shit to make space for the chicken feed; all to keep God’s House clean until His Son returns.

         Uh-Oh, there’s that Judas Iscariot in drag up ahead; that newspaperman with a pussy; okay, that’s not a particularly Christian way of putting it; but it is true. She’s a newspaperman, and she’s a woman; so that then must make her a newspaperman with a pussy. And to make matters worse, she hasn’t missed any meals in years; and we all know about those who prioritize Hostess cakes above Baptist grape juice. They’re hiding something wrong in those fat folds of theirs.

         Anna Burns hurries away from Redwood General. She is looking down and clutching at some sort of mechanical device not so well hidden inside of her big trench coat. She has ‘guilt’ written all over her; and since there’s quite a bit of her beneath that coat, there’s plenty of fleshy space on which to spell g-u-i-l-t.

         Skippy Hawes looks away. He technically should give her a thumbs up, as her name appears on the First Baptist roster; but she’s just too damned mouthy in print, even if she is disarmingly soft and sweet in person. She’s a problem for the church and the town, a Jezebel without beauty, a Salome without rhythm…

         He would have thought of more insults; but she passes him in a blur; and for Skippy Hawes at least, the old adage is ever true: Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

         And so he looks forward again; catches the eye of a voter; and waves his heart out. He continues in this vein, until he turns from Main onto Jordan River Lane and sees the white steeple of his First Baptist Church sparkling in the sun.

         Howdy, Hank, Skippy says to the man hammering a wooden sign into the ground in front of the church. Doing the Good Lord’s work this afternoon, I see.

         Hank “Huey” Wurst turns to him, and smiles. Hank is the varsity football coach at the local high school; a legend for masterminding the lopsided victory over McKinley High; a Santa Claus in the annual Redwood Christmas parade (his one condition that the parade organizer always refer to him as ‘Jesus Claus’ on account of the fact that everyone knows ‘Santa Claus’ is pagan and popish); an all around man’s man with a crew cut on his Big Bavarian head, a goofy grin on his Meaty Munich face, and a grimy football jersey on his Awesome Aryan torso.

         Hank’s wooden sign blasts: Redeem Redwood from Rome’s Rum Runners!

         In smaller font below: Learn the Bible Truth. Friday Night Potluck. 7PM.

         The sign is in front of a number of gruesome sandwich boards that depict teenagers dead or dying on account of alcohol abuse. They are reaching out to an Aryan looking Super Jesus who is folding his strong arms in front of his beefy chest and looking the other way. And below each image: Learn the Bible Truth.

         You Betcha, Hank remarks with good cheer. Just one more for the team.

         The church door opens with a loud creak. It sounds like a coffin that has been unearthed from hot sand and opened to the air for the first time in untold years. There is a choir rehearsing inside the church. It sounds like a gang of sick ghosts wailing lamely in a tepid breeze, until the door shuts and silences them. There is the American flag fluttering overhead, but it too sounds tired and sad, like a banner left behind when the holy army has been vanquished on the field.

         A small and wiry man with a jet black pompadour walks hurriedly toward the two men. He is wearing a black, silk suit, a pair of black cowboy boots, and a silver belt buckle featuring a red cross. He has his tiny hands curled into fists, swinging by his sides like pendulums, and each gripping a half of the newspaper advertisement that he has ripped out from the back of The Redwood Democrat.

         Take a look at this infamy, Reverend Lloyd Goober says to the two men, when he stops beside the wooden sign and regains his breath. The devil’s work!

         Hank pieces the two halves together. He reads it with the concentration of an archeologist trying to decipher the never before seen script inside a cave.

         He hands the two halves to his pal. Skippy takes as much time to read it.

         The advertisement yells: Porkin’s Beer Hall. Grand Opening. Friday 7PM!

         Hey, we refused their permit, Skippy says incredulously after some time.

         Read the finer print, Goober snarls, as he grabs back the advertisement.

         Skippy and Hank stare blankly at one another. Neither can read the finer print, since the good pastor has snatched it back; and yet, at the same time, in no way do they want to embarrass him by calling attention to that fact. And so, without knowing what else to do, they just look at one another in total silence.

         Goober realizes neither can read that finer print, so he does it for them.

         555 Hampstead, Goober seethes. Out by the Old Mill. Plenty of Parking. I bet there’s plenty of parking. Need extra parking spaces for the pimps, papists, and pedophiles that will be the tithing parishioners in that rummy devil church.

         That’s a good two or three miles passed Old Man Farley’s, Hank mutters.

         Unincorporated land, Goober moans. Liquor permit issued by the county.

         But we refused their permit, Skippy repeats, while lost in his confusions.

         And so those devils slicked their trade across the town line, Goober says.

         Out by the Old Mill, Hank mutters. Don’t them Cat’licks own the Old Mill nowadays? Converted it into a monastery, or something? I would’ve sworn to it.

         No doubt them Cat’licks are behind it somehow, Goober reasons further.

         But we refused their permit, Skippy repeats, putting a hand to his head.

         I’m gonna snoop around some, Hank says. Find out who owns what there.

         Goober’s dour and intense lips contort suddenly into the kind of ecstatic grin reminiscent of a leprechaun in heat. His charcoal eyes sparkle as if jewels. He prances on the balls of his little feet, like a Mexican Jumping Bean on a fire.

         Doing the Good Lord’s work, Goober declares joyously. Born Again Hank!

         You Betcha, Hank remarks with good cheer. Just one more for the team.

*   *   *

         The chief rubs at the back of his neck, as he turns off of Hampstead and down the long driveway. The pain has been waxing and waning all day, but it is especially sore right now. He wishes that he could go home, relax his hard neck on an icepack, and conk out for the rest of the week. He knows furthermore he would be impervious to everything, even the constant nagging from his battleax of a wife beside him; his flesh chiseled stone; his soul untouched by any dream.

         But that is not his luxury. He is a man stooped by his responsibilities; his face prematurely aged; his bloated belly swelling toward cardiac arrest; his sad and heavy cross born day in and day out, because he refused the youthful voice that had tried once or twice to coax him into a debauched life. He had elected to stay put, to do what it right, to be counted among real men; and so his must be the reward offered all good men, the crown of suffering, the diadem of sure defeat. Yes, he has come out here to ask Old Man Farley a follow up question in the light of a new day; but, truly, he is here to suffer without the distraction of a ringing telephone, or an unread police report, or a deputy angling for his job.

         He is not surprised to see that Deputy Craig has left. Most often, Gleason Glass is punctual and efficient; and he presumed that by now Gus would’ve put in a brand new window beside the front door. No doubt, Old Man Farley had to pay for it, as Gleason Glass has a reputation in town for slipping and sliding out from their own warranties. But with the glass installed, and a final check of the house, Deputy Craig would’ve been freed finally to leave the old man in peace.

         He is not surprised that the old man’s truck is nowhere to be seen. It is his right to take a drive, of course; but there is something about the stillness of the place, indeed, even the silence of the tepid breeze fluttering upon his dirty windshield as he comes to a stop, that implies that the old man and the special needs boy have abandoned their house and gone into hiding. Call it intuition, or that special sixth sense that comes from years in uniform, but he has known all along that the old man would feel the need to flee to protect his special needs boy. And why? Because there is something much more vicious at play here than an attempted burglary by a boy who is now wasting away in a coma. He cannot put his finger on it, except to insist that there is a force beneath this odd crime that reminds him of the unseen malevolence flowing in and out of a nightmare. Even more so, it reminds him of those anonymous eyes undressing his son, as he is mixing a fruity cocktail; those false promises of fame and fortune, as he goes onstage to debase himself before a casting director; those unhinged beast men in squalid hotel rooms pulling down his jeans and doing God knows what to him by the light of a flashing neon sign. It is a sick and debauched force; like one of those perversions in a dream never to be recounted to another man even under the veil of a purple stole. None of this makes any sense from the perspective of police work; but the man who suffers, the man who has wrestled with his queer dreams in the past, the man who has had to endure the absolute fear of a black shadow sin smashing through his own sanctuary, well that man knows what is at stake here. And so, no, the chief is not surprised; not in the slightest; because, deep down, he knows that he too will be fleeing someday, when finally the sad and heavy cross that he bears is too much for his bloated flesh and beaten soul.

         The chief allows these thoughts to fester longer than they should. He is, after all, a man on the clock; and no matter what may be afflicting his soul, he is here to investigate the attempted burglary of the previous night. He is proud to be a man of duty; so, goddamn it, he must set his shit aside and do his duty.

         And so he straightens his Smokey Bear hat and knocks on the front door.

         Of course, no one is here; but at least he can say that he tried. He turns around and is then transfixed by the absolute certainty that there is something inside that will aid him in finding the old man and his boy. It is not a deduction from his rational mind; not even a case of police intuition, really; but more like what passes for an insight in a dream. A character in a dream does not need to piece together all of the clues, or move logically from awareness to conclusion. He just knows suddenly what is around the corner, or chasing him from behind, or pushing him over the abyss. He just knows it, because a dream may progress more or less chronologically, but the fundamental truth of that dream all along is there. It is not the kind of insight that can lead to a warrant, nor make sense in even a falsified police report; but it is there in the mad mind of the sufferer.

         The chief struggles with the front door. It is bolt locked, and he does not have the wherewithal to force it. He views the newly installed glass, returns to his police vehicle, fetches his shotgun, and smashes the firm butt of his shotgun against the glass, until it shatters into the foyer. He identifies with that victim, that boy who also smashed through the last layer of defense, that boy who also had a death wish; and, in a brief moment of self-loathing, his heart sinks when it is apparent that there is no one inside prepared to fire a bullet into his belly.

         Sure enough, even though the old man and the boy could not have exited the scene that long ago, the house already smells stale. It is a warm and moldy odor, like dead flesh that has been unearthed from a marsh and that is literally dripping off of the bone. It is the odor when time stands still at the exact scene of that crime and unchains ghosts to creak rotten boards and to echo footsteps.

         Every sanctuary is a tomb; a place of ghosts; a fragment of a dream that is lost as soon as it is found; and so the abandoned sanctuary is no more than a rotted coffin bereft of any corpse. That is why churches feel so much like those decrepit graveyards that have been given back to the elements. The guests and the parishioners alike whisper, not out of sure respect, but from fear of waking those sick and surreal dreams best left shrouded in the crypt beneath the altar.

         Stop it, the chief says aloud when he again notes how his thoughts stray.

         He steps on the sparkling glass shards in the foyer. He sees the particles of dust swimming in that beam of afternoon sun slicing through the living room.

         He walks down the hall; his big head hanging heavily upon his shoulders; his stomach heaving sweat into the lining of his shirt. He softly breathes in here on account of that putrid staleness. He tries to swallow spit, but nothing forms in the far back of his mouth, but a filmy clog of what feels like sun baked sand.

         He steps into what had been the boy’s bedroom. There is a bed, a stand, a pile of unwashed clothes in a wood hamper; but, strangely, there are no toys, no animals on the walls, not even those fairy tale books on a shelf that a loving Pappy presumably would read to his boy before bed. It is sparse, cold, a kind of limbo where the imagination of a child could never take root. It is neither sad, nor sinister, but rather reserved to the point of absolute isolation from grief as much as joy. The boy who had spent so much time in this limbo room had been protected well enough, at least until the previous night, but he had never been rewarded for whatever fits of imagination he might have unearthed in himself. The boy who had stared blankly into the ceiling in this room had been learning, even more so absorbing, the life of a man who stays where God has placed him.

         Boy after my heart, the chief mutters and then steps out from the room.

         He passes by the back closet. He does not bother to break open the lock.

         The armory is wherever the old man is now, he thinks. Under his pillow…

         He imagines all of those firearms and bombs stashed underneath a pillow somewhere. The pile is so high that the old man needs to stand upright in order to rest his old head on the pillow, but that is his one way he can sleep at night.

         Ridiculous fantasy, but is it so far from the truth? The chief does not see how it could be otherwise. We hold close what protects us from our madness in the wee hours of the night. This is as true of the elder man as of the little boy; their image of the boogeyman perhaps different; their fears nonetheless similar to the point of seducing the one, while beating down the other, and vice versa.

         He steps into the old man’s bedroom. While the boy’s room is so sparse, this one is sober. It is the room of a recovering alcoholic; taciturn; clean; all of the overalls and long johns neatly and properly folded in drawers; all of the old sheets so starched as to seem brand new. The main piece of furniture is an ugly but functional hospital sick bed. It is the bed of a man who never again will be of a mind to take a liquored up witch home from a saloon after the closing bell.

         Under his pillow, the chief says aloud. What he holds so near and dear…

         The chief pulls the bed sheets aside. He removes the pillow. There is an old Catholic Bible; the kind where parents can record the birth and the baptism of their lovely children; and poking out from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is a bookmark picturing an angel snoring on a cloud and an inspirational prayer penned in Latin. He cannot read Caesar’s language, but the caption below says:

         Sober for Christ Men’s Group. Father Alain Delacroix Presides. Fri. 7PM.

         Lifeboat in his storm, the chief comments, as he removes the bookmark.

*   *   *

         As the chief steps out of Old Man Farley’s house with the bookmark in his back pocket, Father Alain Delacroix pours himself another shot of whiskey. This is not easy for the old priest, since he is already four or five sheets to the wind, and any amount of alcohol exacerbates his arthritis. Much of the whiskey lands unceremoniously in a puddle between his black shoes, but enough hits the spot for him to soothe his worries for a while. At least, he can be thankful to God he is counted among the ‘happy drunks’ since his mental disposition overall seems to improve in proportion to the degeneration of his physical condition. He grins broadly, swaps slurred jokes with the real or imagined men sharing his cramped space in the attic of the Old Mill, and slumbers back into his relaxed, dreamless sleeps without ever being aware that he had crossed from one level of his mind to another. When he is far enough gone, he even manages to tell himself that it is not so bad to be a priest in exile; the only inhabitant of a monastery founded for no other purpose than to be a pleasant, but remote, gulag for those Fathers in Christ failing to meet the marks of their vocations; the latest embarrassment for a diocese already embroiled in recent years with a pedophile priest scandal, a retired bishop caught with his hand in the money jar, and a lesbian nun (even worse, a heavyset, ugly, lesbian nun that reminds people of Kathy Bates’ crazy woman in Misery) running off to New York to marry a novice sister presumed to be only a third her age. His scandal is that he fell off the wagon, after decades of sobriety, and at the height of his pastoral responsibilities as the head of the Sober for Christ Men’s Group. A priest may be forgiven, indeed, held up to the congregation as the very exemplar of Christian virtue, so long as he is definitely a ‘recovering alcoholic;’ but a ‘face in the filthy mud from having fallen off the wagon’ alcoholic is an embarrassment for a diocese trying every which way now to squeaky clean its image. Get thee to a monastery, the bishop says through a brown nosing subordinate; and find a way to die a meek, and largely unnoticed, death, while you’re out there, lest that contemptible, fat, Baptist woman from The Redwood Democrat catches wind of a possible news story in your downfall.

         And so, yes, the thin and disheveled priest is persona non grata at Saint Agatha’s parish on Main. He cannot talk with the deacon who has taken over his duties pending the arrival of another priest (most likely a charcoal dark African with an English so accented as to be all but incomprehensible, since that is the only part of the world still holding up its end in regards to new vocations to the priesthood). His only visitor is the old maid, Miss Alice, who has been the loyal, efficient, and tight-lipped secretary over at Saint Agatha’s since about the time that Christ Jesus emerged from His tomb on Easter morning; and though so kind as to provide him enough money every week to finance his sickness, she has not the charm of a spirited tongue, nor frankly the disposition even to try to hold a pleasant conversation. And yet, in spite of these reversals in his fortune, he has every reason to feel good about his fate. He can drink all he wants. He can look at whatever he wants on the Internet secretly installed in his attic by that good fellow who owns Porkin’s Beer Hall several hundred yards away (no interests in pornography, but more than a casual acquaintance with online poker). And, on occasion, he can stay up as late as he wants with the old school, unapologetic, Roman Catholic drunks (all of them former altar boys, like that what’s his name who owns Porkin’s Beer Hall) who drop by to swap liquor shots and lurid stories with their favorite priest. He is going to be dead soon. He can feel it in his achy bones and swollen joints. Is it wrong if he should die with a smile upon his face?

         He had thought that his pastoral concerns had been relegated to his past life. Surely, no one will be showing up at the Old Mill with any serious problems on their chest. Most of the faithful in town do not even know that he is so close to them. The official story is that he has taken a leave of absence to pursue the life of prayer and reflection so necessary a priest, and in the imagination of the vast majority of churchgoers that means going somewhere indeed very far from here (a fantasy Catholic shrine atop the Himalayas, perhaps, or a dark dungeon beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, but not so ordinary a place at that filthy Old Mill just beyond the township line). Those who know of his existence there, except of course for Miss Alice, have no desire to be redeemed from the bottle and the boorishness with which the old priest in diapers and dentures is well stocked. In this last stage of life, should he expect any real trouble to knock upon his door?

         And yet that is exactly what had happened earlier this afternoon. He had awakened from his sickly stupor of the previous night, had relieved himself into the large clay pot beside his straw bed, and had determined to go into the dark pantry and to pour himself a late breakfast, when he heard a vehicle driving up to the Old Mill. Normally, the vehicles are delivery trucks providing whatnots to Porkin’s Beer Hall in preparation for its opening night bash on Friday night; but, unless his gnarled and chewed up ears are fooling him (not out of the question, especially when he has had an especially long night prior to this day), he hears this vehicle continuing past the beer hall and braking in a cloud of dust in front of his front door. He staggers down the staircase from the attic in time to meet Old Man Farley, before the old man has had a chance to knock on his door. The old man’s strange, little boy is standing behind him, just sucking his thumb like a lollipop, and staring blankly ahead. The two of them look and act like they’re exhausted refugees, even though there is no outward sign of injury or of stress.

         The priest is beside himself. How does Old Man Farley know that he now resides here, since he is no longer hanging out with that crowd of wisecracking, beer guzzling, whiskey brewing jerks that visit him at the Old Mill now and then for shits and giggles? Or has Old Man Farley fallen off the wagon and connected once more with those old friends of his? However he may have found him here, the priest just hopes that the old man has not fallen back into that demon rum; and then, just as soon as he prays that the old man remains on the straight and narrow, he intuits somehow that the old man has remained sober in spite of all.

         Father Alain Delacroix has had a soft spot in his heart for the old man for a long time. Yes, he admires him for taking that creepy grandson of his into his home, when the alternative would have been an orphanage. But even more so, he admires him for having stuck with the Sober for Christ Men’s Group during a number of ups and downs in his struggle with demon rum. The exiled priest is a happy enough drunk (or so he tells himself); but deep down inside he is happier still to see those few souls who have managed to kick the addiction out of their lives. He has given up the fight, but he is very glad to see that others have not.

         Old Man Farley is not an eloquent man; but he speaks with his whole soul when conveying his fear that they are going to get his boy if he and his boy stay in their house; and the sleepless intensity in the old man’s eyes makes it all too clear that he and his boy are at the ends of their ropes. The priest is consumed with their fears at once; and though he is mindful enough at that time to direct the old man where he can hide his truck, and to lead the refugees up the stairs and into his sanctuary, he cannot really focus his thoughts on anything, but the next shot that will be sliding down his throat. He has learned to enjoy his sinful addiction; but at this moment, he really needs to surrender to that Siren’s lure.

         Thus, as Old Man Farley and Little Johnny settle into their new sanctuary atop the Old Mill, Father Alain Delacroix retreats to his dark pantry every once in a while to down another shot. He keeps his whiskey bottle and his shot glass hidden from view, lest he inspires the old man to fall off the wagon; but, in the back of his mind, he knows that he probably can smell his breath anyway. That realization, gnawing at the back of his mind like a starving rat, stops the priest from fully enjoying his descent into oblivion. Yes, the worries abate, when that liquid gold first stings the back of his throat. Yes, he experiences the loopy loss of control that he associates with being a ‘happy drunk.’ Nonetheless, he really cannot relax to that stage of depressed numbness; that utter dreamlessness for which he suspects he would give his fatherly soul, if needed; when he knows all too well that, notwithstanding his measures, he is tempting the old man to give in to the addiction just by having that strong barley scent on his own mouth. No doubt, the priest’s guilty conscience is at play here; and what a sting it is when the priest acknowledges that he cannot contain his own sickness from the good, just people that God has put into his care. Oh, how that troubles his mad heart and prevents his soul from getting that rest that his whiskey shots should allow.

         Father Alain Delacroix waits until Little Johnny is sleeping soundly on the straw bed. The priest is as drunk as a skunk; but he cannot relax, not enough at any rate; and so with Little Johnny soundly sleeping, he decides to ask Old Man Farley to explain in more detail what had happened. He figures if he cannot be dead to the world, then he may as well embrace what God has thrown now into his old and tired lap. He does not think that that will make him feel any better, but he is starting to feel as if he needs to be a pastor now as much as he needs to be plastered. Perhaps only the sinner can alleviate the pain and the fear of a man attacked by sin. Perhaps only a drunk and debauched priest in exile is able really to help an old man and a boy tossed and turned by the devils inside their imaginations. Regardless, this is his duty tonight, and he decides to embrace it.

         Old Man Farley is staring out the window, searching the darkness for that black shadow that can creep out from nowhere and smash through the defenses at any moment, clutching his fists whenever he sees a pair of headlights driving down Hampstead or hears the wind rustling through a nearby tree. He does not want to leave his post; but he finally faces the priest, and gives him the details of the home invasion that had happened the previous night. He emphasizes how the young intruder had come for his boy and yet, inexplicably, had wanted also to be shot. He does not know if the young intruder is dead or alive, but there is no doubt in his mind that he is out there, laying wait even now, skulking in and out of the shadows, getting ready to pounce if ever he lets down his guard, sort of like a boogeyman in a sick and twisted dream. After all, that’s what this is in the end, isn’t it? A sin crashing into a sanctuary; a creeping nightmare breaking into a dreamless rest; a sudden fall from grace as heart wrenching and as scary as the pastor of the Sober for Christ Men’s Group himself falling off the wagon.

         Old Man Farley does not actually reference the priest’s fall from grace in his recounting of the home invasion, but that is what the priest hears him state in no uncertain terms. And so Old Man Farley tells his story, but the priest only hears his own, neither truly hearing the other as they speak well into the night.

*   *   *

         The chief passes Saint Agatha’s several times in the late afternoon hours to see if anyone is there; but the tall doors opening into the narthex are locked and bolted, and the side door leading into the office is closed as well. No one is around, not even one of those volunteer groundskeepers that can be seen most days raking up leaves and tending flowers. In many ways, the church appears as abandoned as Old Man Farley’s house; and the chief even senses the same sick, moldy scent on his nose every time he steps out of his car to take another look.

         Nothing happens in the office. Most of the deputies are gone, and Peggy leaves early to attend her granddaughter’s third grade recital at a school out in Beverly. He pretends to read the police reports in his hand; but no matter how much he tries, his mind wanders from the scene of the crime, to the bookmark, to the sick, moldy smell, to his son pulling down his jeans and bending over for a beast man with a pungent cigar and a pair of beady eyes, and then inevitably back to the scene of the crime. Everything is related somehow: an old man now sober enough to protect his boy; a special needs boy who sleeps very deeply; a would be burglar who is more a victim than a perpetrator; a lifeboat in a storm because, notwithstanding that the boy is in a coma over at Redwood General at this very moment, there is still a storm out there, a storm that is going to blast through the barrier and, soon enough, be in here. He keeps mouthing the words that are sifting in and out: protect, sleeps, victim, lifeboat, out there, in here.

         A storm brewing, the chief mutters, as he looks out his office window at dusk and observes that it is an especially calm and quiet evening out there. Too quiet like the calm before the storm, or even more so in the eye of the storm…

         And what is the eye of the storm, really, but a remote house, or church, or even town that feels protected, but that is surrounded on all sides by crazed screams and whirling winds? And is the eye of the storm permanent? Or is it the false sense of security, before the maelstrom breaks through the exterior glass?

         He puts the police reports away. He grabs his Smokey Bear hat and exits.

         He still feels like shit, though the throbbing pain in his neck has subsided a bit from earlier in the day. He merely wants to go home and to call it a night.

         But that is not going to happen, not yet anyway, because as he drives by Saint Agatha’s he sees a light on in the side office. He pulls over to the curb at once, grabs his hat from the passenger seat, and knocks twice on the side door.

         Miss Alice answers. She could be Peggy’s twin sister: grandmotherly hair, floral dress, long and wrinkled face; except that there is a flair in Peggy not at all on display with Miss Alice. Peggy is a widow who still kicks up her heels and dates on occasion. Miss Alice is an old maid with the sallow skin and disposition of a deflated balloon; a tired, old bat hiding behind the huge cross she wears as a kind of talisman over her chest; a snarling witch when she feels that she must be in order to protect the secrets confided to her. And indeed, like Peggy, Miss Alice is a gatekeeper extraordinaire, a lady who knows so that she can protect.

         How can I help you, Chief? Miss Alice snaps without the fine pleasantries.

         Pleasure to see you, Miss Alice, the chief comments with a tip of his hat.

         Miss Alice turns away from the door. She is boiling a kettle of tea on the small stove beside her desk. There is a small refrigerator beside the stove; and the chief is not the first man to wonder if the old bat lives inside of this office, as no one seems to know where she lays her sad head when the vampires roam.

         Didn’t boil enough for two, Miss Alice remarks as she pours herself a cup.

         No worries, the chief says. I won’t be here long. Just a question or two…

         Of course, Miss Alice snaps, taking her seat behind her desk, and cupping her small and arthritic hands about her hot Earl Grey. The police come to God’s House on only two occasions: to bury one of their own, and to ask questions. So what is it tonight, chief? Another false accusation against one of our godly men?

         Ah, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, the chief says as he takes the small and uncomfortable plastic seat that has the words ‘Godly Guest’ printed on the back. I am not a very Biblical Man, but I know that much.

         Very few may be counted as neighbors nowadays, Miss Alice snarls. False witness can come from virtually any direction. Our Fathers in Christ, Mother of God bless them all, have been libeled and slandered by the supposed faithful as much as by the heathens and the heretics. It’s a wonder God does not strike us down altogether. But, I suspect, you are not here to discuss such a matter. The police do not care a whit about the powers and principalities beyond our doors.

         Actually, some of us worry a great deal about them, the chief comments and then clears his throat. We’re tasked with whatever threatens public safety.

         Miss Alice chuckles. It is not a normal response for her; and so she comes across as simultaneously awkward and duplicitous, as she laughs ever so briefly.

         What tickles your funny bone? The chief tries to sound light hearted with his question in the hope that maybe; just maybe; he is beginning to disarm her.

         I imagined the police commissioning an ‘exorcism unit,’ Miss Alice offers.

         We would be well advised, the chief mutters while he rubs his sore neck.

         Miss Alice frowns. She had let up her reserve, even if only for a moment, and now regrets what she may have disclosed just then to that observant chief.

         She taps the eraser end of a No. 2 pencil on her desk. She glares at him; her long and wrinkled face chiseled stone; her huge cross hanging low upon her flat chest; her floral dress draping the brittle bones barely veiled by her sallow flesh. The rest of her body can wither away, but those eyes remain, impervious to sympathy, frigid, lifeless, consumed in the madness beneath her still waters.

         The chief feels a chill snaking up and down his spine. He glances back to see if perhaps the side door is open, but it is not. The chill is coming from how she glares at him, and so he decides he would like to finish their chitchat soon, if possible. He is not sure why he is afraid of this lady. He just knows that he is.

         Haven’t seen Father Alain about town, the chief smiles. How’s he doing?

         He’s on a leave of absence, Miss Alice responds emphatically and coldly.

         On holiday, huh? The chief leans slightly forward. Don’t happen to know where? In case you need to forward his personal mail, or to pass on a message…

         Miss Alice shrugs her stooped shoulders. She barely conceals a tepid grin.

         I guess Bishop Mossy out in Beverly would know, the chief mutters softly.

         Gatekeepers not only hide things. They also work overtime to keep all of the dirty laundry in house. The chief, therefore, assumes that Miss Alice would rather give him a meager crumb than have him drive out to Beverly to converse with the next guy up the heavenly steps. He relaxes, and awaits her next move.

         Rome, she snaps defiantly. On assignment. Desire to know anything else?

         Another insight about gatekeepers: the first meager crumb offered to an inquiring outsider is a lie. So Father Alain is not in Rome. Indeed, he’s probably not even out of the state. He must be near, not inside this old parish, but near.

         Rome, the chief thinks aloud. Never been there. Wife would like to visit.

         You should visit the Aquae Salviae, Miss Alice offers with an unexpected, and thus disturbing, excitement in her voice. It is where Saint Paul the Apostle, Mother of God bless him, gave his soul unto Christ Jesus. Legend has it his head bounced three times, once for every Person of the Holy Trinity, and a sparkling clean fountain sprang up at each spot. Legend also has it he was martyred then for snooping into Caesar’s affairs. Oh, how we mourn his prying eyes and ears…

         Terrible way to go, the chief offers, as he stands up, and offers his hand.

         Miss Alice stands, but she does not accept his hand. Rather, she looks at his hand contemptuously; and then she gives him her witchy ‘if looks could kill’ stare, which seems to drop the temperature in that office another ten degrees.

         He drops his hand, tips his hat, and smiles. He can see that she is hiding something, or more properly someone. It is written now all over her blank face.

         He turns to leave, but unexpectedly goes for the door that leads directly into the church proper. He steps into the sacristy behind the sanctuary, before Miss Alice can stop him. He fumbles for the light switch as she grabs at his arm.

         No need to get frisky, the chief smiles at the bug eyed witch beside him.

         This room is off limits to you, she snarls. You must go out the other way.

         I’ve seen the other way, the chief replies. It’s not nearly so illuminating.

         He searches the sacristy in the dim light. It is a narrow room featuring a counter on one side and a dresser on the other. The accouterments of Mass are on the counter: chalices, patens, cruets, bottles of sacramental wine, and one, gaudy, gold plated monstrance with a cracked piece of glass where the Blessed Sacrament would be. Someone dropped a handful of unconsecrated hosts into a sink that has been stained by the blood of a cut finger or hand. The wafers look runny and mildewed, more like paper thin, bluish smears etched into the filthy sides of the sink than tasteless, white circles awaiting consecration. The robes, cassocks, and chasubles in the dressers have been tattered by moths into dirty, smelly rags. If Father Alain had been using this sacristy in recent times, then he must have been plastered, because a sober priest never would have accepted a sacristy so disgusting. It looks like a cross between a butcher’s back room and a dumpster full of torn and stained linen even the hobos thankfully would refuse.

         Looks more like Jacob Marley’s Ghost than the Body of Christ, doesn’t it? The chief asks the witch still clinging to his arm, as he walks through the hovel.

         She does not answer, but she finally stops trying to pull him into the side office. Instead, she remains close to his side, observing everything he does, and making firm mental notes for the report she will file with the mayor tomorrow.

         He steps into the sanctuary. There is no light switch there, but he is not going to need it on account of the lit sanctuary lamp hanging from a huge chain directly over the tabernacle on the altar. The lamp emits its ghostly, blood red glow over the whole of the sanctuary and as far into the nave as the first three rows. It is a disorienting light, like an unseen monster in a dream that serves no other purpose than to add the layer of confusion that can turn a run of the mill mental flick into an all out horror show. It is also eerily reminiscent of the light inside of a seedy, gay disco; and, at once, the chief imagines his son, Dustin, in nothing but tight leather undies gyrating like a drunk snake on top of the altar; his son hissing at the crucifix; his son metastasizing into a senseless beast; and, all the while, ghost arms reaching out from the shadows to rub his naked chest.

         Have you seen enough? Miss Alice asks him in a tone just shy of a scream.

         The chief breaks out of his sick and terrifying daydream. He glances back at the old maid, and determines that she must have been trying to ask him that question a while before she finally felt the need to raise her voice. He is totally ashamed. He starts to stroll back towards her from the center of the sanctuary.

         He then notes that there is an uneven three-by-three square beneath his boots. It is hidden by the blood red carpet, but it can be felt rather easily here.

         It is a floor door of some sort. Perhaps it leads to a storage compartment beneath the sanctuary. Likely nothing down there, but antique church supplies.

         Or so he tries to tell himself, since in truth he is too tired, embarrassed, and frightened to want to stay around long enough to find out what is in there. For now, it is enough that he knows that Father Alain is not inside the parish. It is his sixth sense that is telling him that, as he has not seen even a tenth of the building space; but he has trusted it in the past and will continue to do so now.

         The chief and the old maid do not exchange words, as he walks with real haste through the sacristy and out the office. She remains at the door until the police vehicle vanishes down Main. She then returns to her lukewarm Earl Grey.

*   *   *

         Anna Burns cannot take her eyes off of the front page. She is sitting firm and upright at her desk. The only light inside the office is her fading desk lamp.

         The Redwood Democrat has seen better days. Just a few years ago, not a long time at all in a town that seems altogether impervious to passing decades, there would have been two or three others in this cramped converted Victorian sitting room burning the midnight oil over a story or passing the kind of morbid gossip best left to the after hours. The final product had not been any better in those days, but there had been energy then; chatter; typing; even music on the old phonograph. No distractions tonight, but the wind rustling through the tree outside the front window, and every now and then a car driving down Magnolia.

         Often, while sitting alone beside her desk lamp, and reading the finished product that her newsboy will start to deliver the next morning before sunrise, she asks herself if this is worth it. Yes, she is the last survivor in a small county that has been otherwise gobbled up by the conglomerates. Yes, she still strikes fear now and then in the hearts of politicians and merchants who would feel no public restraint otherwise on what they do. Nevertheless, in the dead of night, when everyone else is asleep or getting drunk, and when it is too late for Anna Burns to be ‘Dialing for Truth,’ the beat reporter extraordinaire is just an aging fat lady with no one waiting for her at home but her arthritic feline Cassiopeia.

         And in that state of mind she cannot deny how her newspaper, like all of the other independents around the country, is in the midst of a slow and steady decline that inevitably will result in its ruin. One late night, after approving the last front page, she will pull down the shutters, bolt lock the door, and call it a lifetime. She’ll survive in some form; maybe turn into an eccentric cat lady and stare out at the world through filthy blinds; but The Redwood Democrat will be gone; and, worst of all, few in the town will even remember it had been there.

         But those doldrums are far from her tonight. Indeed, right now, she is as hopeful, no, more hopeful than she’s ever been for her pride and joy. And why? Well, just take a look at the photograph on the front page, and you’ll see why…

         Okay, admittedly, it is a grainy picture. She had forgotten to turn on her flash; and, as a result, the photograph is more a mishmash of lines and shadows than a clear image of a comatose suspect. But just look at that sleeping face a bit longer, and you’ll start to see that he is more handsome than Howdy Doody.

         He is innocent, youthful, even freckled; but he is no Howdy Doody. Even making the comparison is obscene in a way. It is like comparing a slick shithole to the Grand Canyon, because the two happen to be gaping cracks in the earth.

         No, Anna Burns repeats, this is no Howdy Doody. More like the young and beautiful Robert Redford about the time the dashing star portrayed Jay Gatsby.

         She slips into her deepest fantasy. She is walking up to the large podium to receive her Pulitzer. The applause is deafening. She is ravishing, svelte, sexy but smart in her Oscar de la Renta couture gown. She lifts her chin into the air, and waves regally, like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Audrey Hepburn forever admired and loved in the world’s spotlight. She shakes the hand of that old and dignified gentleman who places that Gold Medal over her demure neck.

         And then, standing before the podium, basking in the adoration, she sees Robert Redford standing in the front row. He is wearing that electronic cowboy suit and hat he wore in The Electric Horseman; and yet, since this is her dream after all, she can see through his glittering lights and blue linen to behold what he has to offer in all his naked glory. He smiles, points his right index finger at her, and says telepathically to her: ‘It’s all about you, baby, it’s all about you.’

         She repeats that fantasy over and over; her body firm and upright at the desk; her eyes glazing dreamily at the front page in her hands; her open mouth drooling warm spittle onto her lap; until the newsboy opens the creaky door to her office and scares the dickens out of her. Pete is a good kid, and he goes out of his way to apologize for having scared her so; but the moment has been lost.

         Or has it? Anna Burns glances at her desk clock, as Pete picks up a pile of newspapers and staggers out to his Schwinn. It is only 4:05. She can sleep three more hours before the call of the new day eventually forces her out of her bed.

         She grabs her coat and her scarf. She cradles her newspaper in her chest like a newborn, while she walks across the street to her house. Cassiopeia is all miffed that she has come back so late to feed her, but Anna Burns turns a deaf ear to her cat’s incessant meows. Indeed, truth be told, Anna Burns truly would not give a flying fuck if the cat walked into a rotating fan at that very moment.

         Anna Burns undresses wildly, while Cassiopeia just gives her the evil eye.

         She is soon blubbery, oily, piggy naked; a grotesque exaggeration of the Rubenesque Woman; a sight that would have induced blindness in Peeping Tom perverts, except for the fact that she is so modest about her flesh (indeed, one of God’s Holy Temples, since she has been born again and is counted among the saved in Reverend Lloyd Goober’s First Baptist Church) that she keeps her filthy blinds drawn at all times. But in her mind, she is that svelte and sexy woman at the podium; and she does not want any clothing to separate her from her man…

         And so she lays naked on top of her comforter, presses the creased front page against her bosom, and glazes dreamily at the Robert Redford in her soft, voluptuous dream. He in turn still points only at her with his right index finger; his smile sweet, innocent, but also debonair; his love for her without any of the limits that are to be found in the real world; his devotion to her eternally alive.

         It’s all about you, baby. It’s all about you, baby. It’s all about you, baby.

*   *   *

         Hank “Huey” Wurst loves to eat when he wakes up in the morning. He is a big man; varsity football coach with a record of 33 wins and 1 loss (robbed by three fouls in the fourth quarter called by a ‘blind as a bat’ referee, he says to anyone who ever asks, and he goes on to say that he figures the referee is ‘kind of a Jew’ every once in a while); ‘Jesus Claus’ in the annual Christmas parades, even since the beloved Reverend Goober exposed the previous Claus to be ‘sort of a papist.’ So he’s a big man with big responsibilities, and that means he’s no slouch when it comes to his breakfast. Gotta chow down eggs and sauerkraut at the kitchen table for Jesus, because that’s what the ‘Big 12’ disciples would’ve done. And when the little woman’s not around, he’s gotta go for those seconds that make a meal even better, no matter what the doc has said about his belly.

         He struts out from the bedroom and down the hall. He’s wearing nothing but a pair of gym shorts and an oversized T-shirt that says ‘Team Jesus’ on the chest. He is a super proud man, because a man’s gotta be the king of his castle in this world, and he’s in his castle, no doubt about it. His name is on the deed.

         Popsy, six, and Pepper, seven, are playing with one another in the living room. They’re wearing nothing but Spiderman underwear and Redwood Beavers football helmets. They run out from opposite corners and smash their big heads into one another. Hank stops, smiles, and gives them a thumbs up for effort. In time, he’ll need to show them how to tackle properly; but, for now, he’s happy enough they’re not sissy boys. They’re too many sissy boys nowadays, he thinks out loud. Likely has something to do with all that Chinese fluoride in the water.

         Punch, nine, is dressed in his fatigues already. He’s at the kitchen table, gnawing off the plastic head of an Indian figurine, and drooling warm spittle on a placemat that features the King of Kings stepping on the abnormally big eyes and horsey lips of a Black Sambo. Punch isn’t going to win any academic awards (at least not the kind that them Jews give out); but, bless his white boy’s good heart, he’s learned finally how to distinguish the Indians from the Cowboys. He no longer bites off the plastic heads of the Cowboy figurines; only the red ones.

         Hank stops, smiles, and gives Punch a thumbs up, too. He opens the pink refrigerator (the little woman’s favorite color and Hank’s one concession to her desire to add some ‘feminine charm’ to their simple tract home on Manzanita), removes a half a dozen eggs, and cracks them into a plastic bowl. He returns to the refrigerator, grabs a handful of sauerkraut, and mixes it into the runny raw eggs. He looks at his concoction, and smiles. It takes a real man to eat a hearty breakfast, especially the kind that slides down a man’s chin, and leaves a stain.

         He brings his bowl to the kitchen table, winks at Punch (who in turn does not seem to notice him at all, as he is so preoccupied with trying to decapitate Chief Pow Wow with his dagger teeth), sits at his placemat (the very same King of Kings, except this time the poor schmuck beneath the golden sandal is a big, fat ‘Shyster Shylock’ with a Star of David, instead of a pupil, inside of his beast eyes), and nods his head in prayer. He is so thankful for all that Jesus has given him to eat that he tears up a bit, even though that is sort of a girly thing to do.

         Pete, ten, returns from his paper route. He finishes his morning delivery by putting the latest copy of The Redwood Democrat beside his father’s plastic bowl. He pours himself a bowl of Wheaties (‘Breakfast of Champions,’ his proud father reminds him every time he sees him shaking those flakes out from one of those oversized boxes that they bought at Costco), and sits next to his old man.

         Hank does not read the front page at first. He goes straight to the sports section. Gotta find out how the Little Leaguers are doing with their new coach.

         The boys do not speak, when their father stares long and hard at a local sports column. They know better than to break his concentration at such times.

         Hank does not use a spoon. He figures the Baptist Cave Men of old never used those sissy spoons; and as a result, they managed to tame the jungle, and to put some sense into their little women, with just their bare hands. He would not admit it, because, well, frankly, the whole thing sounds a little queer when you come to think of it, but he furthermore really likes how the runny raw eggs and the sauerkraut slide down his chin and plop on his gym shorts. He feels like a man at that time, not that that is ever really a question in his little mind, but it is still a good and wholesome feeling nonetheless. And so even though his big belly is full when he finishes his bowl, he always goes for one more, if the little woman is not there to remind him in her ‘little girl’ voice what the doctor said.

         He is cracking another six eggs into his plastic bowl, when the neighborly mailman stuffs some letters through a slot in the front door. Pete finishes with his Wheaties, puts his plastic bowl away, and retrieves the mail from the foyer.

         One of the letters catches his attention. It is a business envelope with no return address. It is soggy from what feels like a soft and meaty intestine inside of it. Even worse, it has such a rancid smell that he almost upchucks his cereal.

         Pete drops the envelope beside his father’s newspaper. He looks blankly at his father, who is just now returning to the kitchen table with another bowl.

         Hank is so startled by the letter that he drops some of the runny raw egg and sauerkraut concoction on the tile floor. He sets his bowl down and dabs the letter with his left index finger like it is a beast that could awaken at any time.

         It takes a very long time for Hank to figure out what is gong on here; his mind is not at all quick when confronted with something new or strange; but as soon as the light switches on in his Munich Meathead, all of the color drains out from his face. He is a deer caught in the headlights; and, truth be told, not one of those manly bucks with antlers, but one of those girly fawns that have leapt out from the dewy marsh and come face to face with a snarling boar. He knows how he must look in front of his boys, but he cannot help it. He’s lost all of the Jesus Power that keeps his spine straight and his body hard, so help him Father God; and his thousand-yard stare has been replaced by watery, bloodshot eyes.

         Play with Popsy and Pepper in the other room, he finally manages to say.

         Pete blushes red hot. He leaves the kitchen without looking back at him.

         Punch does not leave. He does not seem to be aware, especially as he is getting very close now to chewing off the head. Hank decides not to scold him, since the future United States Marine Corps. Sergeant (OOH-RAH) and Redwood police officer will not be able to put any of the puzzle pieces together anyway.

         Hank opens the envelope. As he expects, the only thing in there is a big, slimy, uncooked bratwurst that looks a lot like a flaccid, albino penis. He holds it in his right fist. It droops over his knuckles like a cock that has spent its wad.

         Golly Darn Buck Rogers, he mutters in reference to the shithead, faggot, arch nemesis varsity football coach at McKinley High. When’s he gonna give up?

         Never, Hank answers his own question. And why should Buck give up this sick and twisted game, when he’s got the black and white pictures of Reverend Lloyd Goober and Hank “Huey” Wurst playing ‘hide the bratwurst’ in those nice and clean First Baptist choir stalls? Giving up would be like a coach, for no good reason at all, just grounding his star players in the second half of the statewide championship game and inserting his half-wits and his also-rans, when the team is two touchdowns and a field goal behind. Giving up would be totally indecent; no, even worse, it would be a girly girl thing to do. And Buck is no girly girl, not by a long shot, even though he has never been able to defeat ‘Team Hank’ on a football field. Buck is a man; and like all men, Buck can be an ass if he desires.

         But I can be an ass, too, Hank mutters, as he throws the bratwurst away.

         Yes, you can be Reverend Lloyd Goober’s ass, Hank thinks about himself.

         He shakes that thought out of his head. He leans over the sink, and gags.

         He sits at the table. He tries to pray, but he knows golly darn well Jesus Christ and the ‘Big 12’ care as much for a faggot, as for a drunk or a Democrat.

         Consumed by his despair, he starts to bawl uncontrollably, though he has enough mind still to do so in total silence. He grabs his newspaper, and stuffs it into his face, wiping off his tears, and blowing yellow green snot from his nose.

         He removes the front page from his face. It is then that he sees the front page photograph for the first time. It hits him, like a head butt from a lineman.

         Golly Darn, that’s Buck Rogers on the cover, he thinks manically, as he is grasping at his neck and trying to recapture his breaths from the air above him.

         There are his dyed black hair and mustache, his beady eyes, his chapped lips; that once handsome face that has been marred by forty some odd years of smoking two packs a day; that snarl that arises out from a black heart hell bent on ruining the private life of a man he can never defeat between the goalposts.

         Why is Buck Rogers on the front page? He does not even need to read the headline. He knows all too well why. Bucky has given Anna Burns, the fat bitch, all the dirty details about that ‘brotherly love’ that takes place at First Baptist.

         And Anna Burns, the fat bitch, has printed everything, even though such a story hurts the reputation of her own church. And she’s just the type to do it.

         Hank wants to throw the newspaper away; but when he steps aside from the table, his eyes glaze over. He feels like he’s in a dream, even though at the same time he knows that he is fully awake. He is not sleepy, certainly not calm and rested; but he senses that invisible hand that bends the edges and contorts the perspectives within nightmares before switching off the lights in this world.

         No matter what he wants, he cannot throw away that newspaper; and so he rolls it up and holds it firmly in his right fist. It too droops over his knuckles.

         He returns to his bedroom. He puts on a pair of jeans and cowboy boots. He keeps on his ‘Team Jesus’ T-shirt, because somehow in the very back of his soft and dreamy mind he knows that he’s going to need all the help he can get.

         He pays no attention to his boys in the living room. He does not see how Pete looks at him, which is just as well. That look would have broken his heart.

         The little woman is in the kitchen now. She sees that he is going to leave and asks him where he’s headed. She is careful to speak in her ‘little girl’ tone.

         I promised the Good Reverend I’d check out that new saloon, Hank grins.

         Doing the Good Lord’s work, the little woman blushes. Born Again Hank!

         You Betcha, Hank remarks with good cheer. Just one more for the team.

*   *   *

         Father Alain Delacroix awakens before dawn. He had tried to sleep on an antique rocking chair beside his attic window, while Old Man Farley and his odd boy slept intermittently on the straw bed; but he never faded into the shadows longer than a half hour or so. Even then, his cat naps had been marred by awful dreams; mostly confused brushes of blood red paint upon a canvas; but once an exaggerated image of the purple shirted prelate pimp who had exiled him here.

         He stares into the predawn darkness. There is nothing out there, but the slight rustle of a branch in the wind; certainly nothing to distract his mind; and yet, try as he may, he cannot recall more than a snippet of that image when he tries to do so then. Did Bishop Mossy say anything to him in his dream? Perhaps, as he is inclined in real life, he stared at the condemned Father Alain Delacroix and pointed his long and quivery right index finger for all of the clerical eyes to see. Perhaps he delivered his trite exposition on the evils of demon rum before sneaking into his private office to mix his Old Fashioned and to stare blankly at the BBC evening news. But if he did anything so dramatic, that has been lost to the sad and bleary wakefulness that now compels the priest to wait in patience for the first sign of sunrise. There is nothing recalled, but the bishop’s old face.

         Bishop Mossy had been a handsome man; a Dandy Don Juan with a simple but eye catching song and dance routine in a swanky Hollywood nightclub about the time Lewis and Dean were the rage; a paramour with a promise that caught the nubile heart a while, but invariably disappointed, until the tale about town was that he had packed the flimsiest straw in a golden case; and, finally, about the time Captain and Tennille were the rage, a washed up bum selling souvenir T-shirts on Venice Beach. Worse, his once tanned and beautiful face had turned spotted and scruffy, misshapen even, so that the few who noticed him anymore presumed that he had been under the plastic surgeon’s knife once too often. In fact, by the time his looks had started to fail him, he had not the money to pay a Mexican veterinarian to beautify him, let alone a Beverly Hills shaman. Faced with his own defeat, he had no choice, really, but to turn to Jesus and to make himself a torchbearer in an army serving a master other than himself; not at all an easy pill for a man of his pride and prejudice to swallow; but food for a soul that would be otherwise starved. Still, even as he is renewed in the waters of a baptismal font, he manages to carry over a bit more than he should of that old, swindling, unwashed Manny Mossy. He embraces traditional Catholicism (all the rage for a small, but dedicated, religious sect on account of the arcane stature and sound of the Latin Mass and the staid theatricality of its vestments, incense smoke, and sanctus bells), assumes the role of a ‘rigid reformer’ (meaning that he is doctrinaire when necessary to quash the ambitions of an opponent, but an otherwise happy and jovial politician when there is no immediate threat on the horizon), and climbs that success ladder that had eluded him in Hollywood. It is smashing fun, all that condemning, conspiring, cajoling, even copulating, when an old biddy benefactress catches his wandering eye. His rise in eminence may be marked by the real decline of his features, as spotted and scruffy slides into scarred and scatological. But for his debonair, white hair, slicked back to make his forehead bigger, he is a genuine shit face by any true measure; and, maybe for that reason alone (since he never offers anything pastorally or intellectually that might stir the imagination of the faithful), he becomes the Go-To Bishop in the event of a scandal that needs to be swept aside, or an embarrassment that needs to be reassigned to a monastery somewhere. He embraces these missions of mercy, since he knows that invariably they will afford him a chance to stand theatrically before the rabble and to point his right index finger at someone. In each of those moments he can forget almost he had ever sold souvenir T-shirts.

         Well, truth be told, Father Alain had been neither more nor less than the latest in a series of condemned clerics; and yet the priest drinking away his last vestige of manhood in the attic of an old mill cannot set aside the thought that his condemnation had been personal. Every bishop is a pimp, he says to himself in the darkest hours of his self-pity. They move their whores from one parish or diocese to another, when they have lost favor with the johns in the prior locale and are no longer bringing in the bacon. They exact tribute (an annual diocesan assessment on every parish) in return for providing legal and spiritual cover for those priests who fall short of the mark. They decide when their whores should be put out to pasture (permanent sabbatical in a monastery or on a committee in Rome, where the has been can be lost gracefully in the shuffle). But the fair and righteous pimp knows that it’s just business, nothing personal, like the don who orders a hit just because that’s the only way that 2 plus 2 can equal 4 in a particular situation. With Bishop Mossy, though, it’s not fair and righteous, it’s personal, ‘cause that pompous prelate never got a star on Hollywood Boulevard and so resents anyone who may have even a shimmer of star quality of his own.

         And, yes, Father Alain had been a star. Saint Agatha’s faithful had loved him, to be sure; but the Sober for Christ Men’s Group had venerated him, even when they had started to suspect that he had fallen off the wagon. Yes, he had tasted the trappings of a star, had known that it was the very taste of sin itself (no doubt the same taste that Adam and Eve had experienced when first biting down on that forbidden fruit), and had known furthermore that nothing in time could come of it, but his own spiritual ruin. But, boy, had he loved it then, and had resented the shit faced, purple shirted pimp who had snatched it from him in the end. If Father Alain had had any thought in his mind that the good bishop was acting out of love and concern for the wellbeing of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, then he would have been able to accept his own loss with a certain equanimity. But Father Alain knows, hell, every brown nose in a black shirt and a white collar knows, that there is no such love and concern inside of that purple shirted heart. There is just envy, raw, simple, and stupid; and that means that, rather than balancing the heavenly scales, one sin (envy) has been added onto another sin (drunkenness) to smash the weighted side of those very same scales altogether. Surely, Father Alain can tell himself that he likes to be a debauched exile; that it is more fitting his temperament and skills; but, even when he is sloshing it up with his former altar boys, and more so in the black of a sleepless night, he knows that he has been robbed by an ugly devil in a miter.

         Father Alain stirs from his troubled thoughts a moment to observe a lone ray of sunrise reaching over the horizon and stretching along the several crests and valleys between the old mill and the end of the world. It is so very far right now, and yet it strikes his eyes in less than a blink of apprehension, so that the cramped sanctuary in which he and his two visitors reside presently seems as if on the edge of that far away abyss; the distance contracted almost totally in an instant of contemplation; the far and the near coming together like a beast in a dream that is at once way out there but also in here, so up close and personal, always personal. Goddamn it, the beast in a dream is always personal, born out from the dreamer as much as from the devils afar, inflicting a sharpened knife, twisting the handle, and smiling unctuously as when a brother slays his brother.

         His mouth is dry. His lips are quivering. But he cannot step into the dark pantry for another shot, lest the old man stir, follow him, and then himself fall off the wagon. He had been selfish enough to drink yesterday afternoon. He has just enough of a conscience in him not to continue with that selfishness until in time the old man and the odd boy realize that, indeed, they can return to their former lives. He’ll just have to fester in his dreams, seeing the face of the man who robbed him, acknowledging that he has been the victim of an injustice not ever to be undone in this world. He’ll lust for that deep and abiding rest that is the dreamless stupor; he’ll hate the pastoral care and responsibility that is now expected of him; but no matter, he’ll refrain from the whiskey until all is done.

         Until all is done, he repeats as a heart wrenching mantra, when he steps out from the old mill and takes a walk down the driveway to Porkin’s Beer Hall.

         He is not at all sure why he’s walking down the driveway in the glittering and dreamy light of the approaching sunrise. He had seen Porkin’s pickup truck turn off of Hampstead and park in front of the saloon’s swivel doors. Really not unusual, since most days Porkin Peabody is early to arrive and late to leave the drab, square building with the corrugated steel roof for which he had expended a lot of dollars and years to get the necessary permits. But, this time, the tired and confused priest had been drawn by an invisible hand of some sort to sneak away from his sanctuary, to approach the preoccupied businessman, and to say hello. Not at all odd in and of itself, except that in the back of his mind Father Alain knows damn well that he is not strolling down there of his own accord. No doubt about it, he’s as much a man under orders now, as when he had to stand in disgrace before the shit face and to sign a form acknowledging his sinfulness.

         He steps through the swivel doors and offers pleasantries to the balding, pig nosed, effeminate barkeep recounting the grimy shot glasses laid out across his counter. He takes one glance at just how filthy they are, and prays that the degenerate black sheep of the Peabody clan at least has enough self respect to wash them before opening night. He doubts that’ll happen, though, and so sets the thought aside and focuses instead on what Porkin has rolled in his right fist.

         See you’ve been in town already this morning, the priest remarks, as he looks at the newspaper in the pudgy fist. So what’s the news that’s fit to print?

         Bastard out-of-towner went after Old Man Farley, Porkin shrugs. Sleeping at the General on the taxpayer’s dime. Like a coma’s paid leave, or something. I’ll tell ya. The world’s gone to the Japs when a man’s attacked in his house at night, and an out-of-towner gets three squares and a sponge bath from a nurse.

         I doubt he’s eating three squares, the priest comments with a tired grin.

         See for yourself, Porkin responds as if that front page news story indeed will confirm that a comatose out-of-towner incongruously is sitting up just now in his taxpayer funded hospital bed and munching on his taxpayer funded meal.

         I’ve already heard the many details of what happened, the priest thinks. I spent much of the night listening to the old man tell me his story. And yet, for no reason of which I am aware, I just need to take a look at that front page. No doubt about it, I’m simply a pawn under orders now, under orders now, under…

         Father Alain almost shrieks aloud when he views the picture on the front page. It’s Bishop Mossy just like he saw him in his dream last night. He can only see his shit face close up, but he imagines him standing in front of an audience of fellow clergymen and pointing his long and quivery right index finger at him.

         The picture is next to a column, but he does not bother to read it, since of course he knows all too well what it says. Clearly, Bishop Mossy has given an exclusive to that heavyset Baptist reporter-ette. He’s told her all about his fall from grace. He’s even told her where he’s in exile, so that those loopy Baptists can drive by and snicker at him, and his fellow Catholics can drive by and shed a tear for how far his star has fallen. He’s not sure which is worse: ignominy, or pity. He just knows that that shit face has scored another point against him, his personal envy toward him apparently having no limit, and that he’d better take another drink right this moment, lest he feel the full extent of his utter shame.

         His eyes glaze over. Porkin notices his eyes, but shrugs. The Good Father is always somewhere between pickled and glazed. It’s the look he hopes to see in all of his customers, pickled and glazed, the kind that will keep on buying all he has to sell even after the last bell tells them that ‘legally’ he’s closing now.

         Father Alain wants to hand back the newspaper, but he can’t. He rolls it into his own fist. He holds it like a shaman might hold a talisman against a dark and unseen devil. He senses that he must look ridiculous, but he does not care. Only the dream matters now, the dream that is coming for him, the shit face in a purple shirt that will never leave him alone, not even in his sanctuary in hell.

         I need a drink, Father Alain says, trying to sound nonchalant, but coming across instead as just overwhelmed and meek. Whatever whiskey is fine by me.

         I’m not legally open yet, Porkin grins. But anything for the Good Father…

         Porkin turns to the bar. He returns with a half empty Jack Daniels, pours it into a grimy shot glass, and hands it to the priest. He pours himself one, too.

         Father Alain could care less that the glass is dirty and cracked. He slams it down his throat, hands it back, and uses his forlorn eyes to plead for another shot. He intends to keep begging this way, one after another, pitiful and servile with those forlorn eyes of his, until finally he collapses into his own last misery.

*   *   *

         Hank “Huey” Wurst is a man of his word. Indeed he is going to check out that new saloon near the old mill. The papists are up to no good; he can feel it; and he’ll be doing a service to the town to expose them as co-conspirators with that pudgy Peabody Pig Man. Nothing worse than papists and pigs collaborating.

         But, first, he needs to fetch a tool in his garage. And not just any tool on his workbench (painted the red and gold colors of the Redwood Beavers and set against the wall opposite the garage door that features posters of a topless and strapping Jesus flexing his muscles into bodybuilding poses, ‘cause after all the big man who does ‘man’s work’ should be able to admire the Divine Muscle Man in all His glory at the same time), but his mega phallic Bosch 26618-01 cordless screwdriver, rated the most powerful in the marketplace, and featuring a 2,800 RPM gear box that guarantees the fastest and the deepest drive time. His Bosch is Viagra Incarnate, the Jesus of battery operated drills, a hot screw that would be consigned to the back pages of Hustler magazine, but for the fact that good, Christian, All American, Aryan Proud, FOX News loving Men champion how good and sweaty it feels when in their greasy palms and revved to its highest power. Oh, man, it feels good, like sex in a steam room with a slutty adolescent girl in pink panties whose been born again, like a FOX News blond in a G-string, like….

         Better get a hold of yourself, partner, Hank mutters to himself. This one is for the Man Upstairs, and He doesn’t cotton to sick hanky-panky on the mind.

         Still, he allows himself the thrill of operating it for a moment, ostensibly to make sure that the battery inside works, but really because he likes how the tool in his hand makes his born again pecker feel. He turns it off, when he fears that he’s going to make a mess of himself inside of his undies, looks around the untidy garage guiltily, and steps out before the little woman finds him in there.

         On his way out of the garage, he grabs a hold of his goggles. He imagines he’s one of the German Flying Aces in the Great War. He carries a wide grin on his cherubic face, while he settles onto his Harley Davidson in the driveway and roars down Manzanita. He’s a crazed Hun on a mission for that Awesome Kaiser in the Sky, one that he intends to win, like he’s won every one of those football games, but for the game stolen from him by that kike in the fourth quarter. No kike’s gonna throw the red flag at him this morning. And that is the Bible truth.

         He flies out to Hampstead on autopilot; his mind lost in the dreamy face of Buck Rogers; his right hand still gripping the flaccid newspaper and the right motorcycle handle; his left hand still gripping the battery operated screwdriver and the left motorcycle handle; his legs straddling the body of his hog like he’s riding a metal beast to orgasm. He flares his nostrils, like he’s literally smelling the scent of his enemy; and no matter the sudden turns and the near misses on the road, he keeps that wide and silly grin on his face. It is impossible of course to see his eyes on account of the goggles; but if the goggles flew off of his face all of a sudden, you’d see that his eyes are so glazed over as to be blank clouds of fog in a pair of eye sockets. He may as well be dead, because he is caught in a dream from which he is never going to awaken on this side of that River Styx.

         He turns off of Hampstead and parks alongside Porkin’s pickup truck. He pays no attention to the swivel doors in front of him, even though ostensibly he is there to find out more details about Porkin’s ties to the papists. He does not see Porkin staring belligerently at him from the other side of those swivel doors because by then he’s forgotten entirely why he had set out for the beer joint in the first place. Indeed, he’s blind to everything around him, but the odious and conniving prankster who had the gall to send him a sausage through the United States Postal Service. And, lookee here, the prankster happens to be facing him from the driveway between the beer joint and the old mill. Isn’t that so sweet?

         Hank stares at Buck. Buck stares at Hank. They’re a couple of cowboys in the O.K. Corral; facing each other down; waiting for the toll of the church bells in the distance to draw their pistols and to settle their scores. Iconic image but for the fact that neither one of them has an actual pistol. Instead, Hank has his newspaper in one hand and his Bosch in the other; and, so far as Hank can view from so far away, Buck has his newspaper in one hand and his sharpened, wood crucifix in the other. Well, Hank never thought that Buck was the praying kind, what with that Dead Jesus in his hand, but he figures Buck ought to pray, since the sick prankster is not going to be living among the saved sheep much longer.

         Hank does not hear actual church bells; more like a soft click in the back of his head; but the signal is clear enough even to a man lost in the clouds. And so without hesitation, he runs forward; the morning sunlight glittering off of his goggles; the loopy grin on his cherubic face unwavering; the newspaper held up and fluttering like a battle banner; and the Bosch turned on to its highest level.

         Just one more for the team, Hank cries out. Just one more for the team.

         And, yes, he’ll deliver one more for the team, as God is his quarterback.

*   *   *

         Father Alain Delacroix may have passed out. He is not sure. One moment he gulps his fourth or fifth whiskey shot, dribbling much of the liquid gold down his chin, blinking bleary eyed back at that what’s his name on the other side of the dirty counter; the next moment he crawls through the space beneath those swivel doors and pukes barley scented bile onto the front passenger tire of that what’s his name’s pickup truck. He does not feel any better after unloading his breakfast, but he is clearer headed about what he needs to do just then. And in case he forgets, he still has that newspaper in his right fist and that shit face in his head; his eyes so glazed as to be clouds; his lips mouthing ‘until all is done.’

         He tries to use the grill of the pickup truck to stand up, but he is too far gone at that moment, so he crawls up the driveway toward the old mill. He has to pant like a dog just to take in enough breath. He shivers like a sad dog trying to unload fleas. He is still in his black shirt and white collar from the afternoon before, but every time he falls into the earth he turns a little more earthy red, so that the combination of earthy red and black makes it look as if he is in fact wearing the kind of purple shirt reserved for bishops. And, maybe, as he crawls haltingly toward his sanctuary, and mutters insanely his mantra, the priest with the scarlet letter in his right fist has attained a kind of equality with the bishop who had condemned him to this corner of hell. They are both consumed men at the ends of their ropes; one wanting forever to forget that time behind a table at Venice Beach that he did not have enough change on hand for the snarly guy wanting to purchase a souvenir T-shirt; the other wanting forever to forget that time at a Sober for Christ Men’s Group meeting that he had drunk so much hard liquor he could not remember even the first word of his prepared remarks; and like all such men, they are prepared to lead their sheep to the slaughter behind the white banner of Christian fidelity and righteousness. One will be exiled to a grave; the other to a sanctuary; and even if every one of the fair sheep in their care should be lost in the blood struggle, neither will submit until the last wail.

         The priest manages to regain his footing at the front door. He climbs the staircase. He stops only once, when he thinks he is going to vomit whatever his bowels still retain, and then he continues all the way up to the sanctuary attic. He pokes his head in, and sees that Old Man Farley and Little Johnny are asleep still in his straw bed. He sneaks in, grabs a crucifix off his wall, and sneaks out.

         Outside, in the soft light of the new sunrise, he stares at his crucifix. For God knows what reason, he had sharpened the base some time ago, so that it is a wooden dagger that could be thrust into the earth, or for that matter a vein…

         He still has the newspaper in his right fist. He cannot imagine standing in the open air without it, and yet he has no need to glance once more at the shit face on the front cover. It is indelibly marked in his mind, as if the sublime gift of the Holy Spirit that he and every other priest receives at ordination; a black, menacing light in his soul; a vocation to murder, when the Good Lord calls him.

         Bishop Mossy gave his interview. He exposed him to the world. But, dark and twisted prelate that he is, the bishop is not going to stop there. Oh, no, he is going to show up here this very morning and condemn him all over again. The purple shirted shit face is going to stand in front of him, point with his long and quivery right index finger, and tell the whole universe that he is a failed priest, a scandal, a loser who fell off his wagon when he should’ve been helping others stay the steady course. And then the purple shirted shit face is going to rush up to him (as best as he can in his old age) and make him sign that confession over and over again. And all that’s gonna happen before high noon, while the whole, blessed, charmed world remains mired in the soft and joyful dew of a new day.

         Father Alain stands on his driveway, midway between the old mill behind him and the beer joint in front of him, letting the breeze flutter the newspaper in his fist, and gripping ever so tightly on the Christ Corpus in his left palm. His eyes remain fogged in, but his ears capture the roar of what sounds at first like a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Of course, that’s no motorcycle. The bishop is in no condition to be driving a Harley. That’s the roar of his chauffeured Cadillac.

         The priest braces himself. He dreams he’s a gunfighter in the O.K. Corral just waiting for the villain in the black cowboy miter to face him. They’re going to wait for the toll of the church bells, and then they’re going to fire their guns at one another. Except neither one of them has a real gun. He has a newspaper in one hand and a wooden crucifix in the other. Bishop Mossy has the very same newspaper in one another and what looks like a cordless drill in the other. Well that’s fitting, isn’t it, that the bishop should want to screw him one more time?

         Father Alain does not hear actual church bells; more like a soft click; but the signal is clear enough even to a man lost in the clouds. And so he tenses his body, and observes Bishop Mossy staggering up the driveway toward him with a battle banner fluttering in the winds and a cordless drill roaring artillery shells.

         Bishop Mossy is staring into his eyes. He is returning that same mad gaze. Neither of them is looking at the hands of the others. This gives the priest who is not moving a distinct advantage at the critical time; and so, with God clearly at his side, and the wind in his sail, the priest raises his crucifix and thrusts the sharpened base into the bishop’s heart. He can hear a hard bone shatter as the spear point penetrates the chest and punctures the swollen, black arteries long ago claimed by the devil himself. He hears what sounds like a blood gurgle, and then a hiss, seeping out from the wound, and marring the stillness of the clean, dawn air. He then sees purple blood globs bursting out from the black hole and dribbling over the Christ Corpus. This is followed by a blood spray that sprinkles his face, his collar, and his shirt, so that he soon looks like a wild beast spotted by chickenpox. He does not try to escape. He wallows in the blood of the lamb.

*   *   *

         That son of a bitch Buck Rogers got me; Hank thinks at the very moment the crucifix stabs him. It was my offensive drive, and yet he managed to score. Just the dumbest luck. Caught my quarterback glancing away. Intercepted him, just snatched the ball out of the air when no one’s looking, and took the score.

         He is so caught up in this thought that he barely feels the horrible pains.

         In fact, he’s not really aware of what’s happened, until he sees a slew of blood spots on Buck Rogers and then realizes that the blood is coming out from his punctured chest. Buck didn’t just score. He won the whole game in the first quarter. Oh golly, there will never be a second quarter; no halftime to regroup; no second half to rally a come from behind victory; nothing, but instant defeat.

         He may have won the game; Hank barely manages to think as the bleary, confused madness of extensive blood loss starts to rob his brain of what meager faculties it had had. But I’ll be the Whore of Babylon, if he ever manages to sit on his derriere to enjoy that trophy that he has snatched from me this morning.

         And so with what little strength he has left, Hank thrusts his roaring and vibrating Bosch at the football coach who had the gall to mail him a sausage. It is going to be his Hail Mary pass (terrible how those papists managed to name it after the Egyptian Goddess Isis that they worship); his last hurrah; his exit from the field; but he’s going to make sure that it hurts where ‘the sun don’t shine.’

*   *   *

         That son of a bitch Bishop Mossy is going to screw me after all, the priest thinks, when he sees the battered, but not dead, prelate thrust his drill at him.

         That breaks him out of his spell. He does not want to wallow in the dark purple blood of the lamb any more. He just wants to get away from the injured prelate, hurry back into his sanctuary, and drink until the blackness takes over.

         But that’s not in the cards. Father Alain steps back twice, trips on a rock behind him, and falls onto his back. He hits his head on something, and sees his life start to pass before his eyes in a series of flash photographs in the heavens.

         It is just as well that he focuses on those flash photographs, because the mad bishop pounces on him, pulls down his filthy trousers, and thrusts the drill into his rectum. The pain is unbearable; orgasmic blood fury as veins burst; the fleshy goo spluttering out from his anus and seeping into the pores in the earth.

         He passes through the entirety of his life until he sees the shit face stand up and point his long and quivery right index finger at him. Right there is where the slideshow ends: the bishop condemning him; the other clerics joining in the vitriol; the priest who fell off the wagon forever alone in his shame and defeat; that moment captured as in a horrible dream from which he will never awaken.

*   *   *

         Hank feels Buck squirm. He smells Buck’s rectum burning. It excites him, viscerally, sexually, spiritually, much more than what he had ever experienced with his First Baptist Reverend. It’s hard to tell for sure, since he’s in enormous pain himself, but he believes he cums in his undies just as he is falling forward, not a bad way to go even if he needs to be carried from the field in a stretcher.

         Hank falls on top of Buck. Their lips meet. Their foreheads gash into one another. Their chests vibrate on one another, as the Bosch continues to dig into the intestines of a corpse. And on that note, Hank finally gives up his sad ghost.

*   *   *

         The cordless telephone beside the bed rings relentlessly. Margie is in the shower; the long curls in her hair protected by a plastic shower cap that covers her ears; the warm water spray battering against the sides of the tub like rapid fire from a machine gun; so she cannot hear anything. The chief has been dead to the world since stumbling into his side of the bed last night; his face a silent and still rock smashed into a pillow; his large stomach pushing a cavity into the mattress that will remain long after he has left for another day of drudgery. No matter how much the phone rings by his ear, he’s not going to stir until there is a soft and incessant voice inside of his subconscious mind that informs him that the bow of the Titanic has struck an iceberg. His own dream voice will stir him, nothing else; and though that may be quite selfish and irresponsible for a chief tasked with the security of his town, it cannot be any other way as long as that physical and emotional pain beats so relentlessly upon his soul. He can offer no more of himself than to be the walking dead; his mind caught up in the kinds of surreal daydreams that no doubt obscure more than enlighten his investigation; his body practically comatose unless an absolute emergency forces him to slide out from beneath his sheets; his spirit taxed, beaten and deflated, just helpless in its own darkness, when his son and his town need him to be a steady beacon.

         Well, there must be an emergency out there. It must be the kind that, in due time, is going to be in here, notwithstanding the many protective measures that the well insulated chief set up years ago to guard himself from the dream-like chaos that is just beneath the surface of things. It must be the kind that in no uncertain terms is demanding his attention, because on the twelfth ring that soft and incessant voice inside of his subconscious mind finally sounds an alarm that cannot be buried by even the deepest sleep; the dream breaking the cover of dreamlessness; the dream insinuating that there is no rest on this earth that can insulate a man for long from the queer devil he has been taxed to struggle.

         The chief reaches for the cordless phone without moving his sweaty face from the pillow. He presses it against his ear; hears nothing; then comes to the conclusion that the wrong side of the phone had been placed there. He lifts his pale face off of his pillow, turns around the phone, and listens for the caller to identify himself or herself through that irritating static. He waits some time for the caller to bleed through the noise, knowing in his mad heart already the gist of what the caller will say to him finally, and yet waiting to heed it for himself.

         I’m submitting my resignation, a woman’s voice proclaims after a while.

         The chief sits up in his bed. He cannot quite place the voice at first, but he can tell from the strain in her voice that she is serious about leaving the PD.

         What’s going on? The chief asks, while perplexed and afraid. Talk to me.

         You haven’t seen the newspaper this morning? It is Deputy Claire’s voice on the phone, but she sounds uncharacteristically weak and tired with her sobs.

         He does not respond. He winces from the kink in his neck, and stands up.

         She proceeds to tell him about the front page. The headlight screams for all in town to hear: Attempted Burglary Highlights Police Problems. There is no information about the actual crime beyond what Rickard had told the chief the previous noon. The suspect remains unidentified; his motive unclear; his status in Redwood General unknown, outside of the fact that he had been admitted to intensive care; more questions than answers, even though even the most crack, hillbilly PD knows that the vast majority of the facts needs to be ascertained in the first forty-eight hours, or else they are likely never to be known. And so the second half of the column focuses on alleged inadequacies of police procedures as told to the reporter by an ‘anonymous source close to the investigation.’ We can thank God Deputy Rickard got to the crime scene on time, the ‘anonymous source’ editorializes; otherwise, the scene would have been contaminated, and prosecution would have been all but impossible. But notwithstanding his smart, conscientious work in trying to identify the suspect, Rickard is stymied by ‘total failure above his pay grade.’ There is only one terse sentence about the officer ‘above his pay grade’: ‘Police Chief William Borden, Jr. could not be reached in his office for comment, despite repeated attempted yesterday afternoon.’ The chief had been out at Old Man Farley’s abandoned home at that time, following up with a question, then pursuing the lead that he had found beneath a master bedroom pillow. But, of course, none of that is in the article, so the reader has no choice but to think the chief is not manning his store in gross need of repair.

         That is not the reason Deputy Claire is submitting her resignation. She is leaving, because there is a fuzzy headshot of the suspect on the front page that could not have been taken unless the photographer somehow managed to break into the intensive care room. And that means Deputy Claire failed to secure the room adequately from outside penetration. There is really no question about it.

         Maybe that’s true. But the chief does not want his best ally on the PD to resign. The article is not subtle. Deputy Rickard and his father, the town mayor and long standing political foe, no doubt are gunning for his job. He will need a real supporter within the PD, if he is going to have any shot at fighting back the witch-hunt that undoubtedly will be the result of this expose. And, anyway, the chief is not so sure the deputy is at fault. She had not been relieved in way too many hours and so should not be vilified for heeding the calls of Mother Nature.

         Your resignation is denied, the chief insists. I’m going to need you, girl. I think there’s something going on here. And it’s a lot more than bullshit politics.

         But I failed, Deputy Claire insists in the voice of a teary six-year-old girl.

         Buck up, Blondie, the chief scolds. You can take any one of us down with those karate moves of yours. You’re strong enough to handle this bullshit, until it passes. You have my total confidence. So go out there and kick ass, okay girl?

         He practically can hear Deputy Claire smile over the phone. She lets out a sigh of relief, and promises ‘no more tears.’ She hangs up on that joyful note.

         The chief wishes he could feel so relieved. His wife’s still in that damned shower, and God knows when she’ll be done. He would like to run hot water on that kink in the back of his neck, but he cannot very well join her in there, can he? So he dispenses with a shower, puts on his clothes, and stumbles out to the kitchen. He is in so much physical and mental pain he wants to skip that cereal upon which his doctor insists (a cereal box on the top shelf that features an old man, maybe Wilford Brimley, staring grimly back at the observer beside various testimonials from other geezers about how the flakes inside are “fortified” and “man tough”) and go straight for the Honey Nut Cheerios and Jack Daniels (milk gives his lactose intolerant gut a massive case of indigestion every time he’s so stupid as to drink it, but whiskey stays down just fine). Even more so, he knows he needs to see for himself what Deputy Claire has described over the phone in some detail, although he fears he will feel even sicker after he scans it himself.

         And so he pours his Honey Nut Cheerios, sloshes Jack Daniels over it, and steps outside to fetch the newspaper from his doorstep. He has just swallowed a slushy mouthful, when he looks down and views that face staring back at him.

         It’s that young boy, that victim, he’d seen at the scene of the crime; but at the same time, it isn’t. No, the longer you stare into that face, the innocent boyishness, the freckles, the high cheeks, the sleeping eyes, the more you have to see what is there, even if it is so very difficult emotionally to acknowledge it for what it is. That’s not the face of the attempted burglar. That’s the sad, and yet strangely beautiful, face of Ben Carson, his son’s best friend back when the two of them were twelve years old, and his son’s first homosexual sweetheart…

         The chief drops his bowl and spoon on the doorstep. He grabs at his tired heart, steps backward into the foyer, and nearly passes out. He would’ve fallen into the darkness entirely, if he had not had the mind to drop onto his knee and to close his eyes until the world had stopped spinning. He then staggers back to his feet and, against his better judgment, takes another look at the photograph on the front page. No doubt, that’s Ben Carson almost twenty years ago; just a sweet, innocent, harmless boy; a friend to his sweet, innocent, harmless son; a good influence, until he happened to catch the two of them one day sharing an anxious kiss while sitting together on a swing. Then, at that moment, the sweet boy turned into a devouring beast in his eyes, and he would not let his son play with him any more, even though as a result his son became estranged from him from hence onward. Now, the devouring beast has returned. It is just out there and soon enough will be in here, inquiring for his son, wanting one more kiss on that swing before it proceeds to tear apart his son one indiscrete act at a time.

*   *   *

         Times passes. The chief is seated at the kitchen table; his head buried in his arms; his tears saturating his sleeves; his mind unable to focus on anything, but that distinct memory. It floats behind his closed eyes like a dream that had emerged from out of his mental darkness and taken on the pallid colors and the clammy textures of his lifelong sickness. That dream has been there for as long as he can remember. It will be there too, he suspects, when he gives up his sad and tormented ghost. He had set up enough mental and emotional guards in his life to pretend, if not always, then at least most of the time, that that horrible dream had been lost to time; but now he can no longer pretend. It is here; and it has been here always; and it Is not going away no matter what he tries to do.

         There may be absolution for sins. He is not sure. He is not a churchgoing man. But, for sure, there is no absolution for the mad dreams we carry with us. There is nothing that prevents these boogeymen from opening our closet doors, slowly creaking hinges in the dead of night, and from snatching us out from our sheets; no prayers; no incantations; not even the nightlight plugged into a wall.

         He looks again at the front page. It is Ben Carson. There is just no doubt.

         His eyes are glazing over. His vision narrows so that he sees nothing else, but the young and innocent face of a deranged beast just the moment before it kisses his son. Incongruously, it is also the young and innocent face of his little, private tormentor; the boogeyman meant for him alone; the beast that smiles a way a loopy queer does whenever he tries to seduce a real man into the kind of perverse and irresponsible behavior that can lead only to a man’s emasculation and ruin; a charming smile surely; but equally, a deranged and decadent smirk.

         He wants so much to give in to this dream, to proceed with the drudgery of the day on autopilot, to give his mind over to that memory that can serve no other purpose than to enslave him to his basest passion. But somewhere from a deep shadow in his soul he is able to conjure up the vague and strangely unreal memory of when he had taken his oath of office. He had sworn to serve and to protect, goddamn it. He had taken the righteous path, the narrow country road that kept him in town and responsible to his family and his community, the less glamorous but steady and predictable way of the good soul. That is how he has chosen to see himself all these years anyway, and he is not going to give up the self-image, no matter the strong lure to kill that son of a bitch Ben Carson now.

         And, indeed, that is the lure. It is not just Ben Carson, you see. It is Ben Carson smirking at him, taunting him about what he’s going to do with his weak and defenseless son, and so urging him to drop by Redwood General at this very moment and to kill him, before he has a chance to defile his son. Oh, come on, pops, kill me, it is saying. Come over here right now and choke my neck, before I teach your son how to choke his chicken. Oh, pops, come over here right now, and do me, before I do your son, and teach him to do those big city perverts. It is not too late, but it will be if you do not act soon. So just kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.

         The chief throws the newspaper across the kitchen. He grasps at his own skin like he’s trying to pull off maggots. He is a dead man just awakening to the fact that he is inhabiting a decomposing corpse. He wants to scream, but try as he may he simply cannot generate any wind from his tense and dried up throat.

         Still, as terrible as he feels, he senses that his eyes are not glazing over.

         He looks around the kitchen. He can see everything clearly enough; and, when he sees that the newspaper is no more than a wrinkled ball in the corner closest to the refrigerator and the kitchen door, indeed when he sees that it is nothing but a newspaper, just the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat, his anxiety deflates like a popped balloon. He is having a nervous breakdown, that is all. He is recalling the boy that he believes introduced his impressionable son to the gay lifestyle (nice euphemism, he thinks, since there cannot be anything at all gay about poking a hairy butthole, thank you very much); and, given how much his wife has been urging him of late to talk with his son, he should not be surprised that his mind is a brazen gravedigger unearthing that buried memory.

         And so what’s the worse that will come of this hallucination? He mutters through his tears. I’ll need to see a shrink. Maybe find God, until this thing just passes. Maybe get the kind of closure that comes from picking up that goddamn phone and calling my son. I’m not sure what I must do. But I am sure that there is nothing abnormal about that front page. It’s simply a photo of an attempted burglar; a photo accompanied by a hit piece; a political smear that will put one or two more wrinkles on my brow before all is said and done; but nothing more, nothing queer, nothing that cannot be beat down by reason and common sense.

         And then he looks again at the wrinkled ball, and he’s not so sure. There is something going on. He just said as much to Deputy Claire on the phone only a few minutes ago. More than bullshit politics, he had remarked. So how can he be so sure that this is just nerves? How can he be so sure of anything right now?

         He is weak and dizzy, and so it takes him a while to stand up; but, when he does so, he staggers over to the wrinkled ball, flattens it, and stuffs it inside his shirt. He does not want Margie to see that front page. He doubts Margie will go to the market today, so there is little chance then she will stumble upon the front page in a newsstand. She watches a lot of television, but the local station in Beverly will not cover this story unless it blows into something bigger; and, if he plays his cards right, then this story will be gone altogether before too long.

         So he should be able to protect his wife from whatever’s playing with his mind right now. God knows she’s daffy enough without all that shit in her head.

         He steps into the foyer. He hears his wife turn off the shower. He has no desire to speak with her this morning, especially with tears in his bloodshot and exhausted eyes. Yes, he’ll have to confront her sometime, lay down the law for the two of them with regard to how far they’re willing to go to accommodate a self-destructive pervert of a son, be the chief in his home; but not at this time.

         He is not much of a churchgoer, but he knows one or two passages in the Bible. Here is a good one just now: ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

         He picks up his bowl and spoon from the doorstep, puts them in the sink, puts on his Smokey Bear hat, and steps into the glare of a new sunrise. His eyes remain somewhat glazy, like he’s awakened from a long night of boozing at one of the saloons; but he is clearheaded enough to sit inside his police vehicle and to let the morning dispatcher know that he is on his way to the office just now.

*   *   *

         Old Man Farley stares out the window. He cannot remove his weary eyes from the two corpses on the driveway below. No, corpses is not the right word; better to call them lovers, because they’re in an eternal embrace, one man on top of another, their lips forever clenched in a blood smeared kiss, their bodies forever drenched in a purple flesh goo disconcertingly reminiscent of cum. The two lovers had been in a fight; but the struggle had been so visceral and earthy in its gore, indeed so pornographic, as to be what passes for lovemaking in hell.

         Though it is entirely still and silent out there, the old man knows all too well that that evil soon enough will be in here. The evil had arrived this time as a big man with a ‘Team Jesus’ T-shirt on a Harley Davidson. The evil had taken on the face of a man he’s seen before in town, though he cannot remember his name. It does not matter, because that evil had been there to take out his boy, just as it had emerged from the dark shadow to break through his front window two nights ago. Father Alain had sacrificed his life to protect his boy, indeed in light of the sexual nature of that struggle down there it is more accurate to say that he had sacrificed his chastity to protect his boy. Regardless, the priest will no longer be in a position to offer them sanctuary. After all, he is in the throes of eternal lovemaking; the door locked; the Do Not Disturb placard on the door handle; the window blinds drawn, so that the old man cannot help but think of himself as a dirty Peeping Tom as he continues to stare down at the two lovers.

         Still, transfixed as he is, he realizes that they need to leave immediately and quietly. ‘Team Jesus’ is not going to get his boy, but perhaps the next one is driving up Hampstead at this very moment. There is no way to guess who and when. All he knows is that this place is not safe anymore for his son, because it has been marked, as his house has been marked. That is the unavoidable truth.

         He looks back at his boy. Little Johnny is sitting up in the straw bed. He is sickly white, withdrawn, timid. He is sucking his thumb feverishly and staring back at him with blank eyes that seem not to see anything, but total blackness.

         It is time for us to go, boy, Old Man Farley says, giving the boy his hand.

         The boy does not resist. He walks with his Pappy down the staircase and out the door. He does not even look in the direction of the two lovers, although as a precaution Pappy shields his blank eyes from that gruesome scene anyway.

         Old Man Farley drives his truck out from behind the shrubbery where the priest had hidden it. He looks at the boy, but the boy does not return his loving gaze. He looks ahead, accelerates around the two lovers, passes the beer joint, and turns onto Hampstead. He is not the praying sort, but he offers one anyway to whatever God out there may be willing to help an old man and a special boy, who are trapped in a death dream from which he fears they will never awaken.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) steps out of a hot and steamy bathroom. She is wearing nothing, but a white towel that barely extends below her moist, smooth pussy. She has curlers in her hair and the first hint of makeup upon her face. Once she gets into bed, she’ll continue the long and arduous morning task of staring into her hand held vanity mirror and putting cakes of soft creams and slutty mascara on her face. She will bypass breakfast; maybe even lunch; since she feels one or two pounds too chunky in the waist; but she’ll indulge dessert, when later that afternoon her lover boy drops by with his handcuffs and badge.

         She hears her husband drive off. Good riddance. That sad sack with a big gut can’t get anything up, but his worries and his blood pressure. She loves him still; probably always will; but she can’t stand to see that sour look on his face. Even his smell, a putrid combination of Ben-Gay and middle-aged man sweat, is as offensive as her lover’s cologne is delicious. The world is not grey. It is truly black and white; and, for the first time since she threw her rebellious spirit off to the side in order to be a dutiful wife and mother, she has decided to indulge as much of the black as she can. It’s a sin. It’s self-destructive. But it’s so fine, delicious, sexy; and if the cost is an eternity in hellfire, she’d rather endure it, than have her pussy tied to the flesh of a husband crawling into his early grave.

         Choosing this path in life had not been tough for her. She’d been a good, dutiful, loyal wife, running errands for the household, yakking it up with those fat, middle-aged gals at the salon, watching repeats of Oprah on OWN, maxing the credit card every month buying whatever Dr. Phil recommended as ‘woman power’ merchandise, but avoiding even the looks and the grins of delivery truck drivers and supermarket clerks. She’d noticed Deputy Rickard at several police events, even smiled at him once or twice, but she’d avoided what she regarded anyway as flirtatious behavior. Hers had been the straight and the narrow path no doubt; and though usually mired somewhere between bored and pissy, she’d never viewed herself fit for anything, but the domestic life mapped out for her.

         And then, one afternoon, while stepping out from the salon and blowing a kiss to one of her gal pals, she’d seen an out-of-towner drive down Main in an old, beat up, bohemian VW van. In between a faded peace symbol and a bright, flashier Darwin Fish, there’d been the bumper sticker: ‘I’m married, not dead!’

         That one line had been all she needed. It had struck her in the face, but in that soft and playful manner that Dr. Phil calls ‘woman power intuition.’ She had gone home, looked up Deputy Rickard’s private phone number, and started living a life more akin to a dream than reality. Now, she’s a raving bitch to her husband, especially when their son is the topic of conversation, and a conniving witch with her lover. As the pop song goes, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

         Unbeknownst to her at that moment, her husband had stuffed the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat inside his shirt, so that she wouldn’t see that photograph on the front page. But he need not have bothered, because she has been snared by a crazed dream already. Admittedly, hers is more slutty, than it is homicidal; more nympho, than it is black widow; but unless she stumbles into a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment, and makes the right decision, the result will be the same for her in due time. And how can it be otherwise for the vixen shrew that decides she’d rather stay in her bed all day and so not awaken from her dream?

*   *   *

         Porkin Peabody steps out from behind the swivel doors. He can smell the death in the air. He does not smell decomposing flesh. It is much too soon after the priest and the football coach had turned one another into bloodied corpses. But he senses that dry emptiness in the breeze behind his beer joint, when two ghosts have pushed off from their beaten and battered flesh, and he smells the sluggish pool of blood that has yet to congeal into a kind of brittle, purple mud.

         He looks up the driveway. The death embrace is gruesome; but more so, it is sick, unnatural, even homosexual what with that cordless drill turned meat grinder, that crucifix poking through the shoulder blade like an erect cock, and of course that lip lock. Porkin has seen every one of the Faces of Deathmovies. He’s surfed banned ‘snuff porn’ sites (no more real than professional wrestling, but blood effects that would make Tom Savini proud). He even pulls over when he sees mangled road kill to take snap shots that he then posts on his Facebook page. But Porkin has never seen anything as gruesome and pornographic as that death embrace fifty yards or so in front of him. It’s the kind of sicko scene that would give him nightmares, if he had an actual conscience in that soft meatball head of his. Instead, what he sees suggests economic opportunity if he manages to play it right; and so, in a way, it is the most beautiful gore he has ever seen.

         Porkin does not get any closer to the corpses. He observes the first wave of flies swirling out from a cloud of dust and settling on their soft and shredded bodies. The corpses are still too squishy for the dark flies to snap off any bits of dead skin or hair, but there is more than enough sloshy, new blood everywhere to fatten their stomachs. And so the first wave of flies will be followed soon by a horde that will blacken those dead bodies, and buzz as loudly as a motorboat.

         So Porkin does not have a lot of time to get some good footage. He steps back into his beer joint and walks into the small room behind his bar. It is dark, stuffy, and vaguely sulfurous in there; but he knows exactly where to locate his camera and so stays no longer than is necessary. He steps out of the dark room, puts his camera on the bar (knocking over a dirty shot glass in the process, and responding with a slew of profanities uttered under his bad breath), and fiddles with it a brief time to make sure that it works, as it should. It is an ancient RCA JVC camcorder; big and bulky, probably from when Beta had given VHS a strong run for its money in the new video recording industry. He’d purchased it a year ago with a stolen credit card on eBay, because at that time he’d been all gung-ho about producing stock footage for YouPorn. His girlfriend had decided she’d rather not lick hundreds of anonymous pussies, after all; and that had been the end of his film production company, Porkin Porn, for the time being. Since then the RCA JVC has been taking up space and collecting dust in his back room; and he’d come close to tossing it away once or twice. Thank God he never did that, because now he has what he needs to perk up his marketing campaigns tenfold.

         It is one thing to be the newest saloon to open beyond the township line. It is quite another to be both the newest saloon and the scene of a horrible and gruesome double murder. People will flock here from all over the county if only to tell their family and friends that they saw with their own watery eyes where the priest and the football coach had killed one another. His will be a notorious saloon; a live action Faces of Death, even though the two bodies will have been long since removed from the scene; a spooky venue for Halloween and bachelor parties. He practically can smell the extra dollar bills padding his huge pockets.

         Porkin steps through the swivel doors. He walks up to the putrid corpses.

         Goddamn it, the big flies are everywhere. He has to balance his RCA JVC in one hand, while he swats them away with the other. That’s going to diminish the quality of the footage, but there’s no other way he can stay so close to the cesspool of gunk and gore. He figures this is what it’s like to be a war reporter.

         He focuses in on the lip lock, since that’s the most salacious, but he also pans the full length of their bodies. There are so many flies sitting on the hard, phallic crucifix poking through the football coach’s shoulder blade that it looks like an erect, black cock in his camcorder lens. Definitely slick porno material…

         Maybe I’ll put this part of the footage on YouPorn, he chuckles savagely.

         The bottom half of the priest’s corpse looks a lot like ground chuck that had been drenched in purple goo. That part of the footage is not going to make it to YouPorn. But that’s okay. It’ll be an instant hit on those ‘snuff porn’ sites.

         Most of the footage, though, will be going to a friend of his who works at ABC 7 in Beverly. The newsboys are always looking for blood and guts to be the lead story for the six o’clock news. Usually, they just rip off video from the AP; but, naturally, a local double homicide beats out a national or an international story any day, especially when that double homicide is featured in Technicolor.

         Porkin takes several minutes worth of footage. Then, the flies overpower him. He retreats to the saloon, pours himself a shot of whiskey, and phones the Redwood PD. It’s his duty as a citizen, after all, to report such a terrible crime.

         While Porkin dials his phone behind the bar, Old Man Farley accelerates around the bodies and turns onto Hampstead. Porkin neither sees nor hears the old truck driving passed his beer joint, which is just as well perhaps for his own psyche. Surely, he’d hate to know that someone else saw what happened here.

*   *   *

         The chief had hoped that by driving his car toward the Redwood PD, and going down the mental list of all the police work he needs to do today, he’d be able to forget Ben Carson. But, of course, the mind really has a mind of its own when it comes to those incidents we’d prefer to forget. Nothing is lost, even if forgotten for a while; and it only takes the right nudge, a sound, a scent, a fear trembling the spine, or maybe only an unclear photograph on the front page of a local newspaper, for the team of archivists behind the forehead to push their carts down this and that aisle and to find the right assortment of dust covered, torn, rancid books. They bind the books together, and lay them out upon a nice table near the front door, so that anyone who happens to enter should observe them without trouble. Of course, the only man who happens to enter that front door is the thinker himself, the owner of his own library, the lifetime mayor of his own town, the eternal king of his own universe (or so he likes to imagine, as soon as a God other than himself gets in the way of his own will or passion). He cannot help but peruse the pages and be reacquainted with his old nightmares.

         He is about to turn into the tiny parking lot beside the Redwood PD when the morning dispatcher speaks through his CB Radio. He cannot make out all of what she says. The static is really bad, and the chief makes yet another mental note to ask for new radio equipment in next year’s budget. But the gist is clear enough: There’s been a double homicide out by the Old Mill. Eyewitness on the scene reports that the dead are Father Alain Delacroix and Hank “Huey” Wurst.

         Oh, shit, the chief mutters, as he turns his car around and races towards Hampstead with his siren blaring in the otherwise still and silent dawn. Old Man Farley’s lifeboat in a storm. Whatever came for the boy got the priest, instead.

         Now, that doesn’t make any sense; just a bunch of hocus pocus; a crazed mind fuck, like the hallucination he saw earlier today that is still creeping him out. But, of course, he knows all too well that that is exactly what is happening here. Whatever (not whoever, but whatever) came for the boy got the guy who is supposedly on sabbatical in Rome. It got him, and it’s going to get a bunch of others, until the chief screws his head on right, and solves this nasty old pickle.

         The chief sees two other police vehicles at the scene. He pulls up beside the Harley Davidson in front of the beer joint. He exits his dirty car, straightens his Smokey Bear hat, and swats through the flies to approach the gunky bodies.

         Deputy Claire is squatting over their heads. She is taking one photograph after another of the carnage. She is absorbed in her work just now, emotionally unattached, professional, not at all the teary six-year-old girl who had been on the phone offering her resignation less than an hour earlier. She is a very strong and beautiful woman, and the chief is lucky to have her as an ally on the force.

         Deputy Craig is standing several feet away. He is filling out a police form on a clipboard. He is not looking at the corpses, not even bothering to swat the flies away; and when the chief gets closer, he observes that there is a thin tear slithering down his left cheek. Of course, he is reacting this way, the chief then thinks. Hank “Huey” Wurst had been Deputy Craig’s football coach last season; and by all accounts he had been a mentor and a friend to the star quarterback. The two of them also had been in Reverend Goober’s First Baptist Church; truly two peas in a pod among God’s saved; practically father and son to each other.

         I’m sorry, the chief says, as he puts his hand on Deputy Craig’s shoulder.

         Deputy Craig does not say a word. He does not look up. He just writes in the clipboard, while that one tear of his drips off of his chin and onto his boots.

         The chief strolls away from that mourning cop. He squats next to Deputy Claire and studies the two bodies. Father Alain is in much worse shape owing to the cordless drill that one of his deputies already has put into an evidence bag, but Hank Wurst is nasty enough what with that crucifix sliced through his chest. No one has touched the crucifix yet. It is as if the crucifix is some sort of pagan charm and that the divine thunder will descend from on high and strike down a person who happens to touch it. This is not surprising. The police claim theirs is a scientific endeavor; reason and logic deducing what happened; C.S.I methods putting the right dirt bags behind bars; but really the police are as superstitious as old ladies in church and peyote smoking shamans. It’s how the mind takes in and makes sense of all that semen, piss, vomit, and gore with which the police must be concerned at a brutal crime scene. It’s too much to handle in real life; and so it’s consigned to the realm of dreams and incantations, where every dirt bag is the boogeyman and every victim is a mess the boogeyman leaves behind.

         The chief stands up. He sees Porkin Peabody in his peripheral vision. The shit bag proprietor of Porkin’s Beer Hall (and rumored pornographer) is his very distant cousin on his mother’s side; the black sheep of the Peabody clan; worse than the stain on his mother’s white dress; and so the chief will have one of his deputies interview the slime, and then read the content in the police report. In order to avoid talking with him, the chief instead walks down the driveway and investigates something else in the dirt that has caught his eyes at that moment.

         There are recent tire tracks. There is very little breeze, so the imprint is almost as clear as when first made. The chief calls for Deputy Claire and orders her then to take several photographs of the tire tracks for crime scene analysis.

         He thinks he knows whose truck made those tire tracks, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He just looks down Hampstead, and waits in silence for his deputies to finish their work. Deputy Claire finally removes the crucifix; Deputy Craig interviews the slime; the paramedics remove the corpses; and they leave.

*   *   *

         The chief is so lost in his thought and fear that he fails to notice the two persons who are not at the crime scene. One is Miss Anna Burns, the committed lifeblood of The Redwood Democrat, the soft-spoken, blushing, moralistic ‘Lois Lane’ who’d be ‘Dialing for Truth’ at the break of dawn and no doubt informed of the police dispatch out to the Old Mill. The other is Deputy Rickard, the man angling for his job, persnickety and pompous, but equally shrewd in turning any crime scene into a new notch in his police belt. They should have been buzzing around those corpses with the flies and the gnats, but they were nowhere to be seen. If the chief had noticed, then perhaps he could have avoided much of the turmoil about to unfold. But he did not; and so he’ll be blind sighted just when he is least able to guard himself. Like a boy assaulted suddenly in a nightmare…

         Talk about a boy in a nightmare. While the paramedics are removing the corpses, Deputy Rickard is fidgeting haplessly across from his father’s longtime, personal secretary, Gladys Gurley. Mrs. Gurley has been a dowdy widow glaring at the world through old lady pince-nez, padding her bra with socks, and giving children the creeps since before Rickard was born. Rickard is a cocky, capable, strong-willed man on the move; but sitting in his father’s stuffy anteroom, and beneath the stare of his father’s gatekeeper, he is a boy of about six-years-old, waiting to be paddled for God knows what transgression, and feeling the steady minutes pass by as if hours. He tries to think of Margaret, how she spends hours every day just getting ready to please him, how she sort of wilts when he slides his manhood over her pussy; but it does not work. He still feels small and puny.

         Mrs. Gurley glances suspiciously at ‘Little Ricky,’ as she still refers to the second-in-command at the Redwood PD, but for the most part she hunches her long face and bony shoulders over an old fashioned typewriter. Notwithstanding her decades as a personal secretary, she cannot type. Instead, she pokes gnarly and arthritic index fingers at the faded keys, very slow and plodding, like she is stabbing at a rat to see if it is actually dead. She uses an antique, long-necked, black, rotary telephone. Supposedly, it had been her father’s phone back when he had been the Redwood Mayor who called to congratulate Teddy Roosevelt at the occasion of his re-election to the White House in 1904. Today, it is a closed circuit intercom between Mayor Douglas Kirk and his beloved blue haired witch.

         The telephone rings. Deputy Rickard looks up, like he’s about to view his hooded executioner step into his jail cell. He hears the witch warble something in response to whatever his father has said to her. She snarls at ‘Little Ricky’ as she hangs up the receiver, and he interprets that as his sign now to step inside.

         Mayor Douglas Kirk’s office is as grand and ostentatious as that anteroom is small and cramped. It is an exact replica of the Oval Office; preposterous for the mayor of a town as small and remote as Redwood; but indicative of the one time in its history when the discovery of an enormous coal deposit not far from what is now the Old Farley Ranch convinced the elites that theirs truly could be a ‘Great American Township,’ once the mining permits had been procured. The powers that be had built the Oval Office to let the ‘big boys’ in the county seat in Beverly know that Redwood intended to be the guardian of its own economic prosperity, thank you very much. Then, the Hornheischmans (fabled ancestry of Deputy Rickard on his mother’s side) and the Weeks (fabled ancestry of Deputy Claire on her father’s side) ignite a ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ brawl over which of the families owns the land rights. There are shots fired, dead horses, and house fires, but most of the haggling takes place in the county courthouse over thirty some odd years. By the time the land dispute has been settled, there is enough of a nascent environmentalist movement in the region (Joan Baez performs for an assortment of beatniks and hippies in the Redwood Grove, and Hanoi Jane is seen passing through town in a VW with her ‘Commie Twinkle Toes’ husband on one or two occasions) to hold up the coal mining for another few decades. Now there is little stomach for the project, except among a few holdouts that hoard guns and gold on what they call their ‘Ron Paul Ranch,’ and who insist to those naïve enough to lend them an ear that they’re raising the funds to purchase the land and to operate finally the ‘Liberty Coal Mine.’ But the Oval Office remains as first constructed, though the United States Presidential Seal on the carpet is now the Redwood Township Seal (tall and imposing redwood tree lending shade to an old man on a tractor, a young soldier with a bayonet, and a boy in a small beanie kneeling on the wet lawn to pray to Our Lord and Savior), and the grand portrait of George Washington is now the First Mayor of Redwood (also rumored to be the first moonshine king operating from a hidden distillery on Hampstead, and trolling the wayward young men on their way to the California gold mines), Wallace Simp. Given the solemnity of the grand room, and the enormity of the wooden desk (an exact replica of the Theodore Roosevelt desk, though there is an exact replica of the Resolute desk in storage in the unlikely event a Cat’lick ever gets elected mayor), whoever happens to be the mayor always looks small and puny in comparison to his surroundings. He is a midget amidst his artifacts.

         And that is especially true of Mayor Douglas Kirk. He is a sweat hog, who stands about five feet tall when he wears his cowboy boots with the overly tall heels. He is an odious, pug nosed, beady-eyed tyrant in a white suit who cannot envision conducting business without puffing on a pipe, and hacking up phlegm.

         He is considerably older than his ‘Lovely Lulabelle;’ indeed, so old some people in town whisper he is Deputy Rickard’s grandfather masquerading as his father so as to cover up the scandal of his ‘Lovely Lulabelle’ being impregnated by his son from a previous marriage; and so, like his personal secretary, he is a hunched, decrepit, snarling man with sick eyes glaring evilly through pince-nez.

         Skippy Hawes is sitting on a small and uncomfortable seat before the big Theodore Roosevelt desk. He is considerably taller than the mayor; but because of the mayor’s dominant personality, he seems small, like a schoolboy awaiting his punishment for running in the hall. He wrings his hands, and looks about the room confusedly. He then bats his forehead with his palm as if he has had a V8.

         But we refused their permit; Skippy mutters, and then looks about again in search of God knows what on which to focus. I mean we refused their permit for real. I would’ve sworn it, just like in the Book of Leviticus, Praised Be God…

         Jehovah God works in mysterious ways, the mayor offers him cryptically.

         The mayor sees his son and gestures for him to sit down. As there is only one guest seat, Deputy Rickard taps Skippy Hawes on the shoulder. Skippy looks up, blushes, nods dumbly, and leaps out from the tiny seat like he has the runs.

         The mayor tosses the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat across the desk. Deputy Rickard looks at the front page. He intends to toss it aside quickly enough, since of course he knows well enough what Anna Burns wrote. But that photograph catches his eye. It’s the young, freckled, Howdy Doody he observed the other night; but, at the same time, it isn’t. Really, when you look at it just long enough, it’s the very image of Chief William Borden, Jr. Even worse, it is a clear picture of the chief looking back at him alone, and smirking triumphantly.

         Deputy Rickard feels a hot spasm of hate surge up his spine. He had been nervous entering his father’s palatial space, but now he is a strong man, aching to even the score with his competitor, and so barely hearing his father’s words.

         Seems like the chief’s slipping, the mayor roars irritably at his loopy son.

         His loud voice finally breaks through his son’s glazed eyes and tense lips.

         Sorry, father, Deputy Rickard stumbles awake, and sets the paper aside.

         You damn kids don’t listen no more, the mayor blasts. I could swat you…

         Sorry, Deputy Rickard repeats. There’s something about that photograph I didn’t note at the scene, that’s all. It’s like the suspect’s been here all along.

         Right under your nose; the mayor smiles. The problem, the solution, it’s the same thing, just how you look at it. Goddamn lawyers make a living with no more insight than that. You’d be the chief now, if you thought more like them Jew lawyers. All smiles, pretty like, ‘till you see that son of a bitch on the rope and then going in for the kill. Well, like I said, seems finally the chief’s slipping on his own big feet. Arriving late at the scene. Not able to identify the suspect. So the million-dollar question is: Are you in a position to do something about it?

         Deputy Rickard looks away. He feels like a boy who is being reprimanded for not coming home with all A’s on his report card. Even worse, he knows that the chief is laughing at him at this very moment, no, not laughing, but smirking in that indelicate way of his. Yes, Deputy Rickard has landed a double punch on the chief’s chin. He has sold a scandalous version of an otherwise routine crime story, and he is bedding the chief’s wife. But the chief is winning right now. He is smirking, and he is winning; and his father is rubbing all that in his face now.

         The mayor abruptly stands up. He waddles over to a side table and picks up a 6 X 8 frame featuring an old black and white of the mayor and his political mentor, Dub “Dickey” Wilson. Now, Dub is a unique good ol’ boy in the steamy, sordid, and sometimes scandalous annals of Redwood’s political history. He is a son of an itinerant bum and a washerwoman who grew up as the only white boy in the Negro shantytown way out where Keeble junctions with Hampstead. Dub had been born and bred to suffer the indignities of little education (kicked out of the one-room schoolhouse on the edge of town in the third grade because of a suspicion he’s half-Negro, notwithstanding his blue eyes and pasty skin), little cash (enough to get boozed on cheap whiskey every night, but never enough to get ahead), and no culture. In essence, by most everyone’s estimation, nothing good was supposed to come from the poor boy’s brutal and brief life in the grey world in which he had been sired. And yet, by as much hard work as scandalous tenacity, he became one of the leading merchants in town; no doubt, unsavory; but also, devil smart and resourceful. He could never be in society, on account of his poor birth; but he could, and did, wield enormous power behind the drab and cigar scented curtain. He made and broke selectmen and mayors, including Mayor Douglas Kirk and everyone now sitting on the town council; and in return they all turned a blind eye to his dirty business dealings and sometimes violent, thuggish tactics to get whatever he wanted. And so it was a big surprise when a young and ambitious FBI agent showed up one morning to ask pointed questions about Redwood’s home grown Horatio Alger. Mayor Douglas Kirk and his friends on the town council had tried to run interference, but someone had tipped that Eric Holder butt kisser. And so the piss ant, out-of-towner troublemaker would not get a hint, until he had put Dub “Dickey” Wilson in handcuffs. To her credit Anna Burns never reported the story, the mayor thinks. But, still, someone had the temerity to buck Redwood’s code of silence and to bring into their oasis an effeminate, mongrel, FBI ‘shit for brains’ from Jew York City. And don’t we all know that that someone is ‘Little Bill,’ that small and insecure pisser in a huge body trying to step out from his dad’s shadows and to make a name for himself?

         Seems like the chief’s had it coming, the mayor surmises, as he picks up the photograph, stares at it a while, and nods his head. Son of a bitch picks the scab and then wonders why he’s sick. Now, son, what do you do to a dog that’s sick in the head? Rabid and dumb cur; flea infested; heck, you don’t even have to think about it. You just put your shiny police pistol in its ear, and then, Pow.

         The mayor returns the photograph. He moves it a few inches in this way, and then that, in order to get it in the exact same spot where it’d been before.

         He turns toward his son, and smiles. His is the wide and insincere grin of a country preacher. His cheeks seem to shine from all that ‘Holy Spirit’ in him, and yet his beady eyes sparkle the lustful decadence of the devil’s imp at play.

         I’m going to put the chief’s woeful negligence on the town council’s next agenda, the mayor says with all the soulful solemnity of a preacher sermonizing his flock. It is our sacred duty. Why the safety of every white woman with child is imperiled, when our own police chief can no longer maintain his solemn oath of office. But, of course, at the end of the day, all of that is politics. Loud hand wringing at the microphone, he said, she said, maybe another expose inside the pages of The Redwood Democrat. But just politics, and so unlikely in the end to vacuum that slimy devil seed out from the womb. Seems the final solution, like the problem, transcends the normal routine of politics. The ‘Big Play,’ the ‘Hail Mary Pass,’ excuse the Cat’lick reference, that’s what we’re gonna need to see in reality that grand victory that we have known heretofore only in our dreams.

         The mayor stops suddenly. He is waxing eloquent, like when he gives one of his stump speeches at the Grange or the Sons of Norway; and, as a result, he is sweating showers. He dabs his forehead with his handkerchief, and sits down.

         Yessir, Skippy Hawes says, stepping forward, and enthusiastically shaking the mayor’s clammy hands. Oh I know you have it in you to do the Lord’s Work. 

         The mayor does not even acknowledge Skippy. He stares at his son, first with a lunatic scowl upon his face, then with a knowing grin. He leans forward, folds his thick hands in prayer, and rests the folds of his chin upon his knuckles.

         You’re gonna do the Lord’s Work, the mayor says dreamily. Remove that loony cowboy like Brother Michael did to that there Beelzebub back in the day; and then, when he’s up there in Jew York City, raising his pinky, and sipping his Earl Grey with the likes of federal bureaucrats and half-breeds, you’ll be sitting in his seat where you belong. Now, boy, don’t you think that’d make your papa smile? Don’t you think that’d result in a star by your name in God’s Who’s Who?

         The mayor wants to see his son smile like any dutiful boy who’s just glad as can be to do his papa’s bidding. But Deputy Rickard cannot smile; heck, he is not even able to return his papa’s stare; since he is again fixating on that front page. He is not there, so much as he is fading into that repeated dream, where he takes everything that the chief has ever prized, and finally wipes that smirk off of his fat face. Yes, he is fading into that dream, and he just loves how that sets him loose. It makes him feel like a real man with all A’s on his report card.

*   *   *

         Anna Burns is the other person absent from the gruesome scene near the Old Mill. On any normal day, she’d be “Dialing for Truth” at her desk inside the Victorian office of The Redwood Democrat; and as soon as she’d heard news of the police dispatch, she’d have gone over to Millie’s Old-Fashioned Diner to see if someone would drive her out to the boondocks. One of the geezers would’ve obliged, if only so as to have something to do after eating their share of walnut pancakes and coffee. Then, at the blood scene, she’d have folded her hands in front of her bosom and blushed crimson on account of observing the aftereffect of so much testosterone. Double homicide really is a stag magazine spread gone wild, she’d have thought, before inconspicuously removing an old notepad from inside her trench coat. She’d be able to take copious notes, in part because the cops would not bother to hold their tongues beside a woman who seemed to be the very exemplar of Saint Paul’s ideal of womanhood. If she totally faded into the woodwork, then perhaps she would’ve snuck out her camera and snapped a grey and fuzzy photograph; but even if that had not been possible, she’d obtain enough fact and fantasy from the scene to write a real whopper of a news story for the next edition. And, who knows, that might’ve been the salacious, double homicide story that injected new life into a paper languishing on its deathbed. At the very least, it would’ve added a skip to her step about their town square.

         Although Anna Burns is sitting at her desk, she is not “Dialing for Truth,” indeed not even calling Mimi’s Donuts to see if she’s made another batch of the old fashioned glazed. She had enough sense in the morning to dress in her polka dot dress and heels, not her customary attire for a day at work, but much more appropriate than the ‘birthday suit’ she would’ve worn to work if by the luck of the draw she had not caught a glimpse of her unctuous flab folds in her antique dresser mirror. She even has a vague sense of sitting in her office and staring at the front page of her own newspaper. But, for the most part, she’s not there at all. She’s standing at the podium, still receiving the adulation of that crowd for winning a Pulitzer Prize, and watching Robert Redford in his Electric Horseman getup leave his seat and walk towards her. They’re sharing a private, delicious, sinful grin. Their eyes are locked into one another; each undressing the other in the spotlight; the two enraptured in hot and sweaty decadence, even before he gets to her on the stage. She knows this is the kind of Jezebel lust that springs the trapdoor open and drops an unsaved woman in hellfire, and so she offers an ecstatic prayer of thanksgiving that she has been saved and so freed to indulge.

         Robert Redford walks up to her right side. He takes her gently by her fat arm and turns her, so that she is facing him, rather than the audience. At once, the audience either falls silent, or she ceases to hear them. She could care less which, as she’s with him, and he’s with her, and together they’re swaying their hips in each other’s eyes. And then, as if one scene has faded into another in a soft and voluptuous dream, the stage turns into a hall in Jay Gatsby’s enormous mansion. Robert Redford is still in his Electric Horsemangetup (though now the blue shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal the kind of bare cross necklace that a Brother Baptist would wear as a sign that he too is swimming in the sugar sweet blood of the Unblemished Lamb), but he is that debonair romantic, Jay Gatsby, and the porky pig Anna Burns in his arms is none other than his Daisy Buchanan.

         It’s all about you, baby, he sings in the alluring tone of a Wayne Newton or an Engelbert Humperdinck. But, now, my sweet donut, it’s all about you and me. And, together, we’re going to soar with the eagles, and then descend from on high to live as the prophet and the prophetess of our time. And just like that milk ad, we’re going to plaster the fences and the walls with white posters that cry out: Got Truth? And then the whole town will burn, baby, burn. Oh, can ya dig it? Burn, baby, burn. Oh, yeah! Burn, baby, burn. Oh! Ah! Burn, baby, burn. Give it to me! Burn, baby, burn. All the way! Burn, baby, burn. Blessed Be God!

*   *   *

         On most matters, Skippy Hawes is a master at taking his time; but, when the porky pig midget mayor looks over at him and proclaims in his Voice of God that ‘it’s your Jesus Work for the day,’ well, Skippy Hawes knows what to do in the Name of the Lord. He pumps his fist, tenses his lips, and assumes that hard and handsome ‘thousand yard stare’ that he had had to use often back when he had served in the military. He does not actually type out the pamphlet himself, since words can be pretty confusing things sometimes; but by golly when a girly intern in the mayor’s office hands him crisp copies of the town council meeting notice, he knows what to do. It’s his Jesus Work for the day to make sure every one of those copies is posted upon a fence, pole, or bulletin board in the town; and it’s his Jesus Work Overtime to tell every ‘saved’ white man that he sees in person just how ‘very important’ it is for them to attend on Wednesday at 7PM.

         And so by the time the chief returns from the Old Mill, he has had plenty of opportunities to read the town council meeting notice. They are everywhere he turns, it seems. The large, black font totally screams off of the white paper:

Emergency Meeting of the Redwood Township Council

By Order of the Honorable Douglas Kirk

Agenda: Police Chief Negligence and Nonfeasance

‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’

Wallace Simp Government Building, 666 Main Street, Wed. 7PM

         Of course, his personal secretary, Peggy, sees them the first moment the white sheets glisten in the morning sun. She steps into the office and then sees that one of them has made it onto the Redwood PD bulletin board. She removes it, takes it to her desk beside the chief’s office, and ponders it in her heart. No doubt, the Kirk Boys are gunning for her boss with a trumped up charge; and as she has viewed her boss struggle with his neck pain and heavy heart in the past few days, she knows that he is in no position to defend himself from their blood cries. She’ll simply have to do what every good woman behind the throne does, when her man is besieged; and so she slips the sheet into her desk drawer, and offers the chief a warm and welcoming smile, as he staggers tiredly passed her.

         Indeed, the chief is exhausted; but not on account of the intense gore to which he has been exposed before his first cup of Peggy’s coffee. It is the worst bloodshed he’s ever seen in the township; but, believe it or not, it is really not as bad as a violent crime he witnessed in a back alley in Manhattan the one and only time he dabbled with the young man’s dream of getting out of this remote and dead end town. He’d never told anyone of his brief excursion to Sin City so many years ago, let alone of what he had seen when the moon floated between the two buildings in which he had been sandwiched just then, and shed her soft and dreamy light on something so bestial as to seem unreal at first. Just seeing it had been his punishment for buying a Greyhound ticket all the way out there when he should have been tending his responsibilities right here. He’d take the memory of what he’d seen into his grave, and so nothing would compare really, not even the gruesome, and strangely homosexual, embrace of a local, Catholic priest and a local, Baptist football coach. So, no, the latest violent crime to be dropped unceremoniously onto his desk is not the real reason for his sleepiness.

         He is tired because he is stuck between his heart and his mind. His heart is in the right place, just as it is usually. It wants him to put aside the terrors of the past and to focus on the investigative work at hand. He has to find that old man; slap him silly, if necessary; and ask him just what he meant about having to protect his boy. What does he know? What does the boy know? And why, just why, would that innocent, freckled, Howdy Doody lookalike incongruently want to go after the old man’s special needs boy and to be shot dead on the spot? So which is it? Is the comatose victim in Redwood General an attempted murderer or an attempted suicide? He has to knock his own emotional baggage aside, and right this moment, so that he can get to the bottom of those questions. And he has to do all that, while beginning his investigation into the double homicide at the Old Mill. Hard to do, his heart acknowledges, but also the right thing to do.

         But then there is that mind of his. It cannot escape how Ben Carson, that twelve-year-old son of a bitch pervert, is smirking at him, egging him on, really seducing him, like he had seduced his own soft son so many years ago, to drive out to Redwood General, and to kill him. And when you think about Ben Carson on that swing with Dustin, the two boys kissing one another, blushing like sappy girls, can’t you realize that there really is no difference between an attempted murderer and an attempted suicide? The suicide murders his own flesh, and the murderer takes the life out from his own soul as much as the living breath from his victim. And when you think about it some more (as indeed the mind is quite happy to extrapolate from one insight to the next in weaving its thick web over the heart), can’t you realize that all those faggots out there, those kids like his Dustin, like that Ben Carson, like so many others, are murderers and suicides as well. They murder whatever small shreds of moral and intellectual reserve they had had once upon a time, so as to indulge their perverse tastes for hairy asses and sticky cream pies. And why? ‘Cause they want to die, that’s why. They just want to catch some sort of creepy, little STD in a back alley somewhere and go to their premature graves. They are murderers and suicides, all those perverts.

         That’s what his mind says, and it speaks to him in Ben Carson’s squirrely voice. I’m gonna do your son, it says. I’m gonna do more than just kiss him soft and tender like on this here swing. I’m gonna reach down and grab his ball sack ‘till its soft and gooey inside of his underwear. When I’m done with him, he will be as much of a murderer suicide as I am; initiated into our tribe; baby brother in our limp wristed wolf pack; lost in the theaters off Broadway; nothing, but a good ass and a decadent grin behind the counter of a gay bar. So then, let’s get down to brass tacks: Whatcha gonna do about it? Are ya gonna kill me before it is too late? Or are ya gonna sit back and do nothing, as I’m doing him hardcore?

         The chief closes his office door and slumps into his chair. He holds up his forehead, like he’s having a migraine. But he does not feel pain, so much as an overwhelming exhaustion, a glazed and drowsy feeling manifest in how somber, even withdrawn, his eyes look then. He wants to cry but cannot shed any tears.

         He removes his hands from his forehead, slips the filthy newspaper from beneath his shirt, and stares long and hard at the front page. It feels more like a dirty oil rag than an actual newspaper in his hands. It smells like the sweat of a fat man who hasn’t bathed since God knows when. But none of that matters, because that’s Ben Carson chuckling at him, giving him the middle finger, going down on his son on that swing that they’re sharing with one another. There is a protest in his heart, but no doubt in his mind, and the mind truly has to win out in the end. He’s a responsible man, after all, a public official, not a silly queer.

*   *   *

         Deputy Craig had indicated to the chief that he would be returning to his small desk at the Redwood PD to file a police report. Normally, for a homicide, either the chief or Deputy Rickard would have done the honors; but, though no one wanted to admit it outright, it had been clear enough that indeed the chief had lost his mind, at least for the day; and as for the second-in-command, that prick had turned out to be AWOL. Blondie could have done it, of course; and, if she had insisted, then she could have taken the case as a result of her seniority over Deputy Craig. But Deputy Craig did not want a ‘girl’ to be handling such an important assignment. As far as he was concerned, it would be like recruiting a cheerleader from the sidelines to quarterback the offense to a late touchdown.

         But as he drove back towards downtown, the football metaphors swan in his head like the residue of a sickening nightmare. He had loved Hank, first and foremost as his coach last year, but also as his fellow Baptist in Reverend Lloyd Goober’s flock and the closest thing he had to a father figure. Yes, he would’ve given up his life for Hank’s, plain and simple. Hank had a family relying on him. Hank had a team relying on him. No one relied on Deputy Craig, not really, not since his knee injury in his final triumphant game with the Redwood Beavers all but eliminated his chance of going to the NFL. Deputy Craig could not really be replaced in that come-from-behind victory; but he could be replaced elsewhere and, in the back of his mind, presumed that he would be eventually. So, yes, if necessary, then he would’ve stood in for Hank in his final fight against that evil and superstitious Whore of Babylon priest; but he would’ve made sure that sick and perverted ‘father’ (guess them Cat’licks never read Matthew 23:9, idolater papists that they are) suffered repeated Baptist Boot Kicks to his wrinkled face, before either one of them gave up the ghost. The priest got off easy having his asshole turned into ground chuck by a cordless drill, Deputy Craig thinks aloud, and then slaps himself several times for that profanity in his internal discourse.

         He sees that he’s driving near Hank’s house. Likely, Hank’s wife and kids are still there, since she homeschools her boys to protect them from that ‘devil writ’ in the public school textbooks. Since there had been no press, presumably the news has not yet made it into the small town rumor mill. But, surely, it will before the afternoon; and it would be wrong for Hank’s family to get the tragic news in that way. And so he turns onto Manzanita, parks in front of Hank’s fine, Christian home, takes a deep breath, and walks slowly up to the front door. He feels the entire weight of this moment pressing on his shoulders, and he almost returns to his car. He asks his Personal Lord and Savior for the Holy Spirit to be his shield and buckler; and with his spine stiffened accordingly, he knocks upon the front door and then waits what seems like an eternity for a child to answer.

*   *   *

         Sort of looks like meat patties, Bobbi Chu remarks after her long silence.

         Porkin tries to adjust the old television screen. He thinks that’s the real problem here, since the late 1970s model VCR seems to be working totally fine.

         Bobbi Chu crosses her arms. She is convinced that indeed there had been a bloodbath between a priest and a football coach about a hundred yards or so behind Porkin’s Beer Hall. There is still plenty of blood on the dirt to indicate a fight of some sort had happened there. Furthermore, even though Porkin really is a dirt bag, why would be make up a story that could be shown so easily to be false? All she needed to do was to phone the Redwood PD to verify his account; and though she did not get along with that Peggy Bitch over there, she knew as well as anyone else in the local news business that Peggy always tells the truth.

         Bobbi is not pretty. She is a lantern-jawed Chinese-American (Redwood’s old timers call her a ‘Chink Nip,’ but Porkin prefers to call her ‘Asian Raisin,’ as ‘raisin’ refers to the pimples on her face), short, emaciated, horsey sourpuss to the point of being an all-out bitch. She is a reporter with the local ABC affiliate in Beverly. She had thought that that lowbrow station in such a remote hillbilly county was going to be her first step upon a ladder taking her career inexorably to CNN or The View (the end point depending upon whether she focused mostly on hard or soft news stories along the way). But when no one outside of Beverly had hired her after several years on the job, she’d come to the conclusion that her pimply face; buckteeth; and snarly attitude would keep her out of the large metropolitan markets. Matter of fact, acceptance without pathos, such are the phrases that best describe her approach to the world; and so, without fuss, she finally signed a multi-year contract with an ABC affiliate hoping to showcase its ‘commitment to diversity’ (a commitment that didn’t mean squat to the locals, but that gave the station manager bragging rights whenever he went to the ABC cocktail parties in Manhattan). Frankly, there’d been another reason for staying in the county; one that would escape the attention of her boss and her viewers; and that was the quality of the Maui Wowie she bought from Porkin every other week. Sure, there’s good pot everywhere; but nothing compares to the ‘creepy greenies’ Porkin peddles from a hidden compartment in his pickup truck. She is line and sinker hooked, and staying put will keep the grass coming indefinitely.

         Porkin thinks he may have adjusted the screen. He cannot tell for sure if it is going to be good enough for Bobbi, since at best the dark grey seems to be a purple grey. Nevertheless, he gamely rewinds the videotape and replays all of that gruesome homicide footage for the discerning eye of the ‘Asian Raisin’ gal.

         Guess we could use parts; she fidgets and whines. It’s been a slow week.

         ‘Course you can, Porkin responds excitedly. It’s like goddamn news porn.

         Why couldn’t you film it digitally, like everybody else in the twenty-first century? Bobbi teases him. It’d make editing a lot easier. I mean this is archaic.

         Porkin ignores the tease. He ejects the videotape and dangles it over her like it’s some sort of jewelry that she’s been craving. His eyes sparkle lustfully.

         Just promise me you’ll mention Porkin’s Beer Hall, he says with a smile.

         Bobbi thinks a while. She taps her right foot, and she twinkles her nose.

         Throw in another two-week supply of Maui Wowie, and we’ve got a deal, Bobbi smirks. I don’t mean your discount shit. I mean your ‘Miracle-Gro Grass.’

         Oh, come on, Porkin snaps. Like the john says, you like it more when you pay for it. So how’re you gonna get your ‘Redwood High,’ if you just get it free?

         It’s not free, Bobbi insists. I’m gonna give your pigsty a plug, remember?

         Porkin thinks a while. He then grins, hands her the videotape, and urges her to follow him out of the dirty back room of his saloon and toward his truck.

         The transfer is done in about thirty seconds. Porkins has learned to move fast when he’s removing his dope from his hidden compartment, lest a guy who should be minding his own business happens to see how and where he hides the merchandise. Bobbi is also quick. She stuffs the baggie in her blouse, and grins.

         Now, what am I plugging again? Bobbi asks in jest. Is it Porkin’s Piss Pub?

         Very funny, Porkin snaps like a mad queer. Now, it’ll be on tonight, yes?

         Piss and vinegar. Intra-faith fight. I think we’ll just fit it in, Bobbi winks.

         Fuck you, Chink, Porkin says. I’ll be watching tonight. You’d better do it.

*   *   *

         Lola Lipinski is in a funk. She calls it her ‘blues,’ and very often she finds a semblance of a cure in the Maui Wowie she keeps in her Ziploc baggies behind her Stephen King hardbacks. But she’s out of the ‘creepy greenies’ (her happy-go-lucky, on-again off-again, poor excuse for an FWB unceremoniously coughed out the last morsel after his utter failure in their hospital love shack); alcoholic beverages before sundown just make her sick; and her DVD player is so old and enfeebled, when she puts on one of her Richard Gere movies the romantic hero is bright red and hazy on her television screen. She thinks he vaguely resembles an inebriated George Hamilton fresh out of a tanning booth. That’s not a whole lot better than what Chuckles offers, and so the ‘blues’ just keep on stretching from a cranky morning to a teary eyed afternoon. It does not matter if there is a blue sky beyond her blinds. Inside the day is overcast with hints of grey slush, no conceivable end in sight, and nothing to silence the wail of her lonely heart.

         She is off today; but even if she had been scheduled to nurse that dreary intensive care unit at Redwood General, she’d most likely have called in sick as soon as her warbling alarm clock slapped her out from her underwhelming, and vaguely depressing, dreams. She’s been calling in sick so many times of late the hospital really should send her on her way; but she knows that the head doctor in the intensive care unit desires to get inside her tight pants, and as long as he remains so enamored he’ll block any disciplinary move from the bean counters.

         She gets the newspaper, though she cannot remember why she ever had subscribed to the silly thing. Maybe it had to do with the ‘Romance Horoscope’ that used to be sandwiched between the SPCA Report and the Obituary, where the stars always had her on the verge of finding her dark and handsome knight. The column had been penned by Redwood’s version of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, an outspoken, humorous, and carefree old gal named Ruby Rose who’d given up on reading the constellations, and taken to a shack even further removed from the town than the Old Mill. No one could tell if the deranged, silly witch with a red twinkle in her one remaining eye and a lustful smile on her slimy lips should be counted among the living or the dead. What mattered is that she no longer had a column; and so unfulfilled woman like Lola Lipinski had no reason to continue to subscribe to The Redwood Democrat, except perhaps for the U-Save coupons that have been featured in the waxy insert since about the time of Methuselah.

         Lola could have broken the doldrums just a bit by unbolting and opening the front door to her apartment, carrying the paper into her kitchen, and doing a once over of the news. She could have clipped some of the coupons and had a valid excuse to walk over to U-Save. Maybe along the way she could have eaten something greasy and fattening at Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. She could have teased the old timers at the counter by dropping her napkin every few minutes, bending over to pick it up, and then laughing at herself like Betty Boop. Surely, not enough excitement for a young nurse who really should be pursuing life and love in the big city; but better than spending the whole day pouting in her cell.

         But she does not go for the newspaper. When she cannot get the DVD to work properly, she returns to her bed, tries to re-read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, gives up when her mind keeps wandering, and finally cries herself into the kind of sleep that taxes the body and deflates the soul. She does not have a vivid dream, but she senses in that grey twilight between fully awake and down for the count that she is sliding down a slide and getting splinters in her crotch.

         She would’ve stayed in bed all night, except that the telephone rings on her nightstand. She answers it, while also wiping tears off of her cheeks with a napkin from a fast food chain. She is so out of her mind just then it takes her a moment to figure out who’s blabbing to her on the other end, even though it is a voice that she should’ve realized immediately as belonging to her best friend.

         Let’s go out tonight, Dora Duggan insists. It’ll be good for you. Linda told me earlier today that The Cowboy Gramps are playing over at the Western Star tonight only. You like their sound. I think you bought one of their CDs last time.

         Yeah, they’re good, Lola says absently, while looking at her alarm clock.

         It is only 5:55, but it feels like it is passed midnight. She really does not feeling like getting out of bed, putting on her jeans, and boogying to the ‘acid cowboy’ sound that is the real signature of those ‘60s retreads. True, she loves how they still look in their Wranglers and Stetsons; and most certainly she’d do the longhaired, emaciated, and slightly creepy slide guitarist in a heartbeat, if the geezer rocker would send so much as a wink and a nod in her direction. But this is her ‘blues’ day; and like the silly song says, it’s her party, and she’ll cry if she wants to, cry if she wants to. And so thank you so much for your concern.

         But Dora is not going to take no for an answer. She is a short and mousey woman; her black hair cut like Marcie’s in the Peanuts comics, her narrow face snow white and ratty. The middle-aged and married players who frequent dives like the Western Star never even look in her direction. Also, truth be told, even as she often urges Lola to go to the saloons with her, she really does not like all that loud music and pungent cigarette smoke. She usually returns home with an awful headache and a hacking cough from the secondhand smoke. Still, she just needs to be with Lola most nights. Perhaps she’s attracted to her, sort of like a grown up Marcie wanting to hang around a grown up Peppermint Patty, though she’d never admit to herself that there’s any sexual interest. Perhaps she feels feminine by being able to enjoy vicariously all the attention Lola receives from the beer bellies in greasy overalls. Whatever the motivation, Dora spends much of her nursing shifts thinking about the next time she’ll be going to the Western Star or the Tinker’s Dam with Lola boozing, boogying, and high-fiving right next to her. It is the little daydream that keeps her marking the hours of a long day.

         I’ll pick you up in thirty minutes, Dora says. You’ll thank me for it later.

         Yeah, okay, Lola surrenders. But we are not going to stay until the bell.

         Dora does not respond to Lola’s condition. She chuckles, slaps her thigh, and hangs up her old fashioned rotary phone, before Lola can change her mind.

         Lola sighs. She slides out of bed, stretches, and slogs over to the T.V. on the other side of her bedroom. She turns on the local ABC affiliate. The news is on; but as far as she is concerned, it is no more than mild background noise, as she rummages for her tight jeans, cashmere sweater, and jewelry in the closet.

         Handsome Handy Hart is introducing the first story. He has been the lead anchorman in Beverly since before Lola was born. No matter the story, he gives his viewers the same wide and stupid grin; really, the smile of a privileged, and inebriated, frat boy who just happens to be residing in the chunky body and the jowly face of a seventy plus year old, well fed, and famously pickled gentleman about town. He virtually sings the news with his old-fashioned, radio announcer voice; and with all that Brylcreem in his dyed, black hair, and the sensuous way that he winks into the camera every half minute or so, he provides his country cowpoke fans just enough ‘Hollywood’ to keep them coming back for more. His first story is very grim, but you wouldn’t guess it from his debonair affectation.

         Bobbi Chu reports from the blood soaked scene. She talks in that nasally Valley Girl manner that excites the worn peckers in aging men, and drives their wives up the wall. She sounds like every slut who’s ever stolen a married man; the ‘mistake’ that ends decades long marriages; the cutie whore bitch with the smirk at the corner of her lips that says that she can take any man she desires, no matter the dire consequences to hearth and home. No one thinks of her as a conventionally beautiful lady, but many perceive her ethnic otherness as exotic enough to be downright dangerous. Therefore, while no one claims to like her, she commands the kind of hateful attention that’ll keep her on the local news as long as she wants. Her presumed staying power makes her strangely alluring.

         Lola glances at the screen. She sees the unsteady and hazy footage of an ugly bloodbath. Apparently a local Catholic priest and a beloved football coach decided to do the Texas Two-Step with one another. Instead of offering a white corsage, they pelted their dance partner with a blunt instrument. This maudlin affair ended with the coach kissing the priest, while reaching into his papal ass.

         Oh, and lest we forget, the gore fest occurred beside Porkin’s Beer Hall, which will be having a grand opening Friday night. Porkin has indicated that he will dedicate his business to the struggle to ‘take back the night’ from the kind of bloody violence that already has marred the good name of his establishment.

         Lola shudders. She has observed a lot of blood and guts pass through the intensive care unit; usually farm related accidents, or teenagers mangled while driving drunk; and so the gore itself does not startle her. Rather she is haunted by the brutality of two grown men going after one another for no sound reason. The whole thing is kind of sexual; perverse, loveless, queer embrace; one lover reaching for the heart, the other for the prostate; man lust, no doubt, but also the tale of every experience she ever has had with a FWB in her sad love shack.

         They keep showing the same footage over and over again, interrupted at times by a quick shot of Handsome Handy Hart tensing his lips and nodding ever so empathetically at the carnage, and described in vivid detail by the Chink Nip Valley Girl. It is such great theater the rest of the news stories (Beverly Zoning Commission recommends more “commercial residences” downtown; New Little League coach, Old Buckaroo, will do a fine job with the youngsters, because he knows the ‘secrets’ inside and out) are condensed into the last minute before a blitzed Bob Wolf gives the weather report (Happy Sunshine, anyone? ‘Cause it’s coming in waves…oh, yes, blue skies, talking about blue skies) and a pudgy man boy named Corky Cornfellow reads the sports scores from a postcard (either he cannot read a teleprompter, or the teleprompter is broken all of a sudden). It’s then Hart’s last wink and nod, and his closing line: ‘Lights Out, Boys and Girls.’

         Lola switches off the T.V. She wishes she’d never seen that footage. It is going to haunt her all night, unless perhaps she gets royally drunk and screws a married asshole in the Little Cowboy’s restroom behind the Western Star stage. 

         She hears the station wagon pulling into her apartment complex parking lot, before it honks. She takes one more look at herself in her mirror; grabs her pink cowgirl hat off of that hook beside her front door; and exits into the night.

*   *   *

         Lola is tired still, but at least she is awakening. The chief is not so lucky.

         He had spent most of the day pretending to work in his office. There was no need for a police investigation. The murderers and the victims were one and the same. Deputy Craig had informed the Wursts, and Deputy Claire had paid a visit to Saint Agatha’s. Really, there was nothing more to do, but to wait for an official certificate from the coroner’s office and to file away all the loose ends.

         Of course, the chief had known since he first set eyes on that front page photograph that normal police procedures would be of little use in stopping the madness that had started to infest his small town. How many others had looked at the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat, perhaps while sipping a cup of coffee at Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner, or while waiting for the bread in the old toaster to burn, and had seen their worst nightmare literally come to life in the unremarkable, even blank, face of a comatose young man? How many others in this quiet town, from schoolteachers to carpenters, pastors to policemen, were indulging those old and sordid resentments that would push them over the edge soon enough? Even before he had taken assessment of the sheer brutality of the crime scene, the chief had noticed that the priest and the football coach were each grasping a copy of the same newspaper that had pushed him to the edge a short while earlier. At that moment, he had known that the madness was going to spread. It’s the same madness that compels a young man to leave his family, go into the city, and indulge the base passions in the terra incognita part of his mind; the same madness that turns a fine sensitive boy into a drooling, stooped queer in a back room somewhere; the same madness that lurks, and then snaps out from nowhere like a demented ‘Howdy Doody in a Box’ that snarls: Kill me!

         There is only one development in the Old Mill case, though it is one that the chief had guessed from the moment he had observed the tire tracks turning off of the driveway and onto Hampstead. Deputy Claire pokes her head into his office late in the afternoon to confirm that the tire tracks very likely had been made by the same brand of tires that Old Man Farley uses on his vintage pickup truck. Also, they’d been made that very same morning, probably within an hour of the aged priest and the football coach slicing one another into ground chuck.

         Deputy Claire had inquired if she should put out an APB for the old man.

         The chief had waved it off. There had been no indication of a third party involvement. Whatever Old Man Farley might have observed would not likely be any more illustrative than Porkin’s sworn statement. Better to leave him alone.

         And, anyway, I know where the old man is, the chief had thought, while his favorite deputy had returned to her work. Where else would he be when the powers and principalities at work here are chasing him and his idiot boy, but in the protective custody of Saint Agatha’s? He’d sought sanctuary with the exiled former pastor. Now, he’d find refuge with Miss Alice; probably inside that tiny, cramped space he’d discovered beneath the altar last night; huddled so near to his boy in that absolute darkness as to share in that boy’s unending nightmares; unable to scream out, when what is out there even smashes through the shield of the Catholic Church. Old Man Farley’s hardly a religious man, and neither am I. But when the dream starts to take over, the best laid plans of the reasonable mind fall to the wayside. There are no atheists in foxholes, they say. Well, that may or may not be true. But, for certain, there is no room for police procedure and letter of the law restraint, when the boogeyman has been unleashed from a forgotten childhood and given free reign to smash through the storm resistant glass we build around ourselves. There is no way to face him off, but irrational, even self-destructive, superstition. There is no end but in the kind of gruesome and blood soaked murder that kills the Christian man and leaves behind his old, snarling, pagan soul. There is no actual safety but in the lowest fire pit in Hell; the devil alone keeping the boogeyman at bay; the devil grinning at his charges in the pale and freckled face of that unassuming victim languishing in his coma.

         The chief does not hear Peggy say goodbye. It is almost 6:00PM. Time for a light snack in the Redwood PD cafeteria, while peeking at the ABC 7 news out of Beverly. Share a joke and a smile with the evening dispatcher. Straighten his Smokey Bear hat, pull up his belt buckle, and wander out to one of the saloons. Hear there’s a band at the Western Star tonight. Maybe take in some cool tunes while remaining outwardly stiff and responsible, the very epitome of the strong restraint expected of a good chief, the tense lips never once curling into a grin.

         But none of that is going to happen, because the chief has a higher duty.

         Perhaps, it is better to call it a mission as in a mission of mercy. You see his very own son is hurting right now; crying out in pain; wallowing inside of the dark and cramped place he euphemistically calls ‘urban living,’ but which in his heart of hearts he knows is just another stinky shithole in an endless expanse of stinky shitholes. He’s probably sore in his butt right now, though of course he’s used to that, maybe even enjoys it in a way. But much worse, he’s sore beyond measure in his heart, and there’s no way to get used to that. It’s the awful kink in the back of the soul that never goes away. It’s the directional arrow that has no other purpose than to point a lost man in the direction of alcoholism, crazed sex, and suicide. His very own son is hurting, indeed; but he is not crying like a girl for relief, certainly not for redemption, but rather for vengeance. Hard and cruel vengeance. That’s the reason he’s been trying to reach his papa upon the telephone these past several days. He’s been wanting to beg his papa finally to set aside all those police procedures, all that letter of the law stuff, and to kill that son of a bitch that set him on this path in the first place. It’s all very clear now. That’s what his son wants. And, good papa that he is, that’s what the fine and upstanding chief is going to do, before the setting sun slides into her grave.

         The chief steps out of the office of the Redwood PD. A thin gentleman in a dark suit walks up to him, pats him firmly on his back, and tells him that he’s ‘gunning’ for him, no matter the insinuations in the newspaper article. It is not the chief’s fault anyway, the thin gentleman elaborates. Rather it’s the fault of the obese kid with horrendous B.O. who bullied the thin gentleman relentlessly when the two of them were in the sixth grade together. He knows it’s that sick fatso’s fault because he observed the bully’s ugly face right next to the article. 

         Normally, the chief would recognize the thin gentleman to be Redwood’s friendly State Farm broker, Custis Green. He’d stop, share a few words with his sometime drinking buddy, ask about his wife and kids, and go on his merry way.

         But this is not a normal time. This is the dream time; the chief’s private dream time, anyway; perhaps some other people’s dream time as well; and so, without the slightest pause, the chief just keeps on walking with a pair of tired eyes in his big face and a rolled up newspaper in his right fist. He does not hear another supporter whisper to him that the ‘real culprit’ behind all that terrible police mismanagement is the son of a bitch that lured his wife away from him a year ago and that is now pictured on that front page. Nor does he hear another supporter call out to him from across the street that the ‘ass munch’ disrupting the police department is the grease monkey that repossessed his pickup truck a few months ago and that is now pictured on that front page. They’re all friends of his, well recognized, comfortable, small town neighbors, but now they’re no more than gentle breezes whispering into the bolted, metal door of a dungeon.

         The chief steps into Redwood General. He passes a candy striper, a soft, sweet, adolescent girl with a cherubic face, who is holding up the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat and snarling like a rabid dog at the old man featured on the front page. That’s the same old man who kidnapped her when she was a six-year-old girl and raped her in a dilapidated stable beside Wild Indian Creek. That’s the same old man whose throat she slit last week, when she dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and went out looking for her own personal wolf. And, yes, that’s the same old man whose body parts now are stuffed inside her large Whirlpool washer and stinking up the damp basement of her home sweet home.

         The chief does not notice her, either, though she is practically yelping as she steps into the sunset. He only has enough sense to remove his hat. Protocol dies hard, after all. Otherwise, he knows nothing in his glazed and distant eyes, but Ben Carson’s frightened expression, when he is choking the queer boy blue.

         There is a television on in the emergency room. Bobbi Chu is describing a brutal double homicide. The footage is so gory portions of it have been blocked out by the ABC affiliate. The chief should be pissed that someone videotaped it and that the station has the unmitigated gall to broadcast it. But of course, the chief is not pissed. He is not even mildly chagrined. Frankly, he could care less, if the whole town is vomiting up their T.V. dinners from the gruesome footage, because he is a man on a mission; and he is getting very close to the end point.

         He takes the elevator up to the intensive care unit. He does not so much as glance at that elderly, black nurse at the nursing station nicknamed Snoopy, who is adorned in a traditional dress, apron, and cap, and who is well absorbed in the front page of the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat. For her part, Snoopy does not notice him, either. She is fixated upon the face of that fucking cracker who lynched her papa for sport and left his corpse hanging from a tree.

         The chief slides the newspaper beneath his shirt, so as to free up his big hands for the job ahead. He flexes his fingers while plodding down the hallway. He shifts his hat from hand to hand. He shuffles ahead like a dead man walking. 

         Deputy Claire is standing watch beside the burglar suspect’s door. She is filling in for Deputy Craig, who is still mourning the loss of his father figure and so just now tearfully reciting Bible verses antiphonally with Reverend Goober in the Sunday School Room over at First Baptist. She is leaning upon the wall, and fading fast, but she comes to when she observes her boss walking like a zombie directly towards her. He is so peculiar, his eyes dark, heavy, and blank, his lips tense, his skin clammy, like he’s fast asleep beneath a comforter, that she very nearly grabs for her pistol. She drops her hand, but nevertheless she continues to eye him wearily. She steels herself to put him on the hard floor if necessary.

         The chief stops inches in front of her nose. He grins. He is still caught up in his dream time; but he also knows that he is not going to arrive at the actual end point, unless he passes Blondie. And so he awakens from his reverie enough to offer her a friendly grin and to tap her on her shoulder so that she’ll move to the side. He’ll slip right back into his deadness, when Blondie is out of the way.

         Deputy Claire knows something is wrong. The chief is out of his mind, or just stressed beyond measure. Whatever it is, he should not be here; no matter if he has the authority to do pretty much what he wants. Still, like every black belt in a martial art, she is as much a leader as a follower, a master sensei as a white belt beginner; and so she steps aside to accommodate the apparent wish of her superior to enter into the suspect’s room. Yes, she steps aside; but also, she grabs a hold of her huge flashlight, and follows her boss into the dark room.

         It is not yet 6:30PM, but it is as dark as a moonless night in there. And it is depressingly cold, notwithstanding the room temperature kept at a fairly dull and steady seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit. It is desperation blue cold, a bone-chattering, meat locker, morgue frozenness that clutches the heart of any man who should happen to enter inside. Or at least this is how the chief experiences the dark room, because he had felt that same chill in his spine, that same mad, halting breath, when he had come upon his son and that creepy boy sitting side by side on that swing. Is it any surprise that he should feel the same sensations, the same despair, the same hell that freezes hearts and minds in an everlasting contemplation of the worst nightmares imaginable, when Ben Carson is in here?

         Ben Carson does not move at all on that hospital bed of his, apart from a labored breathing that seems mechanical, even though he has not been hooked up to a ventilator. His eyes are shut, his flesh pale, his soul already so far gone.

         And yet he is smirking at the chief, laughing at him, taunting him to kill, to wrap his fingers about his throat and to squeeze, to press down until the last whimper of breath has been lost to the darkness. Do me, he is saying, like I did your boy, not just that one time on the swing, but more times than I can recall.

         The chief drops his hat. He hunches over the queer. He reaches out with his hands, flexes his fingers, sniffs as a dog smelling food, and goes for the end point. He just goes for it; lost as he is in a crazy dream that is finally gathering enough speed to catch up to the horizon; beaten out of his last bit of humanity.

         Deputy Claire has no freaking idea why she does what she does next; but martial art expert that she is, she knows to go with her well-honed instincts. In the battlefield, there is neither time nor space for thoughtful deliberation, and so the keen warrior always knows that chance as much as readiness determines who lives and who dies in the split second decisions amidst the dark fog of war.

         She draws her flashlight, as if it is her six-shooter in the O.K. Corral. She points it at the chief’s glazed eyes, and she repeatedly snaps it on and off. The flashing light makes the chief look as if he is the stooped and snarling character in a black and white horror film. In a way, it highlights his very unreality, shows his dream to be nothing more than confused film frames on a screen, pulls back the curtain and so eliminates the suspension of disbelief. As a result, that angry and murderous chief is shown to be small, pitiful, no more than a set prop for a film starring powers and principalities much greater than he ever could be. And as the chief begins to see himself in this way, his madness just falls to the side, like toy soldiers knocked to the ground. Indeed, only the innocent child enters into the Kingdom of God, since in virtue of his diminutive size and capacity that child cannot but realize himself and his worries to be infinitesimally small when compared to the divine. The chief looks back at her, sheds the tears of a lonely infant, and dives into her arms. They hold one another, as if mother with child.

*   *   *

         Lola manages to relax in the passenger seat of Dora’s station wagon. She had had a frazzled look on her face, when she had stepped into the automobile idling by the curb; but, anticipating her nervous energy, Dora had responded at once with a devilish grin (out of character with her usual Marcie-like blandness) and a half-smoked joint. It had been a far cry from Maui Wowie, but it had put her troubled mind at ease almost from the first toke. Indeed, the pot had so hit the spot that she’d neglected to share it with Dora, thus violating the very first protocol rule handed down from an experienced pothead to a newbie. Dora had not minded, since she’d only smoked a part of the joint to please Lola anyway.

         Lola leans back in her passenger seat and blows long trails of smoke into the window. The bluish-white smoke jitters like dancing ghouls against the dark night. It is spotlighted every now and then by a white light that they pass along the way; and when so enraptured by white light, it looks like some beast sifting through the veil between dreamscape and reality. That really is what the white light in the darkness does. It magnifies, then disorients, leaving behind a loopy, even creepy, feeling; and the only possible response is to be scared out of ones wits, or to turn on, tune in, drop out. Lola chooses the Timothy Leary option at this time; indeed, most every time; even though she senses that she’s falling a bit more into a dark charred hole every time she dances with the smoke ghouls.

         She does not speak much to Dora along the way. For the most part, she’s lost in her imagination; and yet, lost woman that she is, she has a loopy grin on her face, when Dora turns off of Keeble and into the packed parking lot of what used to be the Enola Gay. The fifties era burger joint is long gone, though some rumor that it has been reopened as a kind of retro speakeasy in the boondocks. In its place is the Western Star; just as big and colorful as the Enola Gay; but a gaudy, western ‘Boom Town,’ rather than a Jetsons’ space age, veneer. A huge Texas Star glitters above the entrance. On both sides of the walkway leading to the entrance are life-sized mannequin Cowboys and Indians. Guests who’ve met their ‘pardners’ (spouses or significant others) on the Western Star dance floor can tape one of their romantic couple photos on the grinning and well-endowed Cowboys. When the couples break apart (most often because one or both of the ‘Texas Love Birds’ finds ‘another pardner’ on the same dance floor), the photos are moved over to the Indian side, where they soil and fade on the old red skin.

         Lola confidently struts her stuff. She tilts her pink cowgirl hat up, shoves up her breasts, and pushes through the swivel doors. Dora is just a quiet mouse beside her, as she pushes her owl glasses closer to her eyes, and peers into the cigarette smoke to try to find a spot where the two of them can sit next to one another. Dora is happy enough to be the worker bee while her girlfriend shines.

         The moment they saddle up to the bar, two hairy roughnecks in Stetsons and Harley Davidson leather jackets surround Lola. They’re just another pair of red-faced, cross-eyed, bearded boozers; journeymen looking to score a bit here or there, before the law gets close enough to persuade them to crouch low and mean on their Harleys and to head on down to the next small town; the kind of rugged, nasty, white bruisers who during the American Revolutionary War likely would’ve signed on with the Swamp Fox, not because they cared or even knew about the Declaration of Independence, but because they wanted to piss and to brawl with the best hard asses in return for whatever they could steal from the fat of the land. They’re cruel and senseless Goths, that’s what they are, simply born and bred to wreck havoc, until finally a stronger beast knocks them down.

         Lola loves them at first blush. They’re dangerous, crooked, gangsters on the run from something or other who could kill without a moment of hesitation.

         They could be twins in girth and in appearance. The only real difference is that the one named Barley does most of the talking (ongoing diatribe about a ‘retard nigger’ whose stealing motorcycle carburetors in the dead of the night, ‘cause you can’t see nothin’ but their coon eyes when the sun goes down), and the one named Bubbles just stands there with his arms crossed before his huge, sweaty, tattooed chest. They are a real pair; and the way that they look at one another every now and then suggests that they’ve got a hidden agenda tonight.

         Lola senses their underhandedness. She can only make out about a third of what Barley is saying, especially when the psychedelic groove on the stage is ascending the crest of an LSD wave; but she smiles and giggles without measure in response not to what he says so much as to how he swaggers in his grotesque and scheming manner. She buys them all a round of drinks (‘Cowgirl Cosmos’ in pink glasses for herself and her gal pal; Budweisers straight from the bottles for the roughnecks), then another, then a third or a fourth (she loses count), while all the time her smiles get bigger and her boobs floppier. Her cowgirl hat slides so far back on her head that Dora quietly removes it, lest it falls onto the filthy sawdust that passes for a floor. Still, notwithstanding Dora’s attention, she has the misfortune of losing one of her fancy free boots, when Barley borrows it so as to pour a Budweiser into it and to chug it all down. He simply forgets to give it back to her, that’s all, just like Bubbles forgets to return some of her jewels.

         Every night out crests and falls like a wave; perhaps the aforementioned LSD wave, surreal and groovy, loopy grins and batting eyelashes that skip along the surface until there is a crescendo of acid cowboy energy, all bronco busting intensity, and then dead and somber calm; or perhaps the free and happy wave that collects the tropical romance from beyond the night’s horizon and showers it gently upon the naked lovers on shore, before receding into the stillness of a moonlit beach love; or perhaps the strong and stoic wave that is born out from the splash of Moby Dick’s tail, moves toward the distant shore with unwavering will, only to crash upon the rocks and to sprinkle in a breeze as if a frilly cloud.

         Sometimes, all three waves make an appearance, as if disjointed scenes cobbled together in a dream that makes no sense to the rational mind, but that nevertheless leaves a lasting scar on the emotional soul. Tonight starts out like the LSD wave, to be sure. Barley and Bubbles scheming; pink cowgirl hat tilting back; giggles aplenty; but then the two roughnecks, hand in hand at this point, their eyes no longer glancing at one another and then darting away, but instead remaining fixed on one another, leave the Western Star to pursue whatever the night offers them. And just as they leave, Lola catches the glance of the creepy sexy slide guitarist; and all at once the LSD wave gives way to the beach lovers’ wave. It is amazing, breathtaking, even momentarily heart stopping, how just a touch of the tropics in a shared glance feels like warm sand rubbing into nubile flesh. That is Lola’s pleasant dream just then, and she assumes it is his as well.

         Lola keeps the stare long after the slide guitarist looks away. She flitters her ‘Cowgirl Cosmo’ glass towards her grinning lips, spilling much of it upon her chin, holding back another inebriated giggle, since she knows somewhere in the back of her dull mind just then that this is supposed to be the kind of touchingmoment that will make the back room sex afterwards somehow deep, maybe in a way spiritual. She grasps a hold of Dora’s hand with her other hand. She does not look at Dora then. Indeed, she has not paid any attention to Dora the whole night on account of all those dreamy waves she’s been surfing. But, somewhere deep down, she likes knowing that Dora is still there; her last bit of reality that has not been carried away by the night; her lifeboat in a sea of charging waves.

         She has another ‘Cowgirl Cosmo’ while waiting for the set to finish. This is her fifth or sixth one (even Dora has lost count). Dora gives the bartender her ‘concerned friend’ look, and the bartender knows to be light on the alcohol. By the time the night is done, they’ll be practically ‘Virgin Cosmos’ in a pink glass.

         Eventually, The Cowboy Gramps finish their last song, a meandering ode to Jim Morrison that features lines from forgotten Dada poetry and John Wayne inspired gun shot sound effects. The drugged out geezers in cowboy wear slump off the stage, and Lola does her very best to straighten her posture and to push up her breasts (not very successful on account of all that cheap booze slouching her head and shoulders forward and blubbering a single drool tear out from her mouth). She still has a mind to straighten the cowgirl hat on her head, although that too is a failed effort on account of her warm head slouching so far forward that the hat ends up on the sawdust after all. And in the end, it turns out to be much ado about nothing anyway, as that slide guitarist never walks over to her.

         So the beach lovers’ wave collapses before it crashes into the shoreline. That leaves the Moby Dick wave, strong and stoic resolve, even though doomed to be nothing more than a frilly cloud when all has been said and done. And so, when the slide guitarist steps outside for a smoke without so much as a friendly nod in her direction, Lola gets up from her stool and walks toward the first man she sees on the dance floor. Her feet hiccup several times, as she endeavors to make a beeline toward her random victim; but her face remains the impassive, stone cold visage of the methodical bitch. She’s gonna screw tonight, goddamn them all, and sense nothing, but that mad hatred that steels the heart scorned.

         The random victim is another in a long line of middle aged meatballs. He does not even bother to hide his wedding band. He grins and says he is Rex the Tex, ‘cause all his Exes live in Texas. She is way too drunk to get the joke, and she’s no longer in a giggling frame of mind anyway. She just wants to dance the two-step (after the band leaves, someone turns on the jukebox to George Strait music), grab the Rex Tex by his starched collar, and lead him into a back room.

         They dance the two-step well enough; but then when she reaches for his collar, he turns out to be as gone as a cloud of mist in sunlight. Perhaps he had never been there. She has been known to dance by herself when she’s as drunk as a skunk, and in dreams anything momentous can turn out to be a frilly cloud.

         She sees how Dora’s eyes are magnified by her owl glasses. Everything in the saloon is a soft sparkle, a dissipating cloud left over when that willful wave had struck the rocks before the shore. Everything, that is, but Dora’s big eyes…

         Lola rejoins her girlfriend. Lola is teary-eyed, partly because she has had too much to drink, but mostly because she has been unable, yet again, to keep those waves beneath her feet. Yes, she’s survived the crash; but that is just it. She always survives, just survives, good to go for another day of unfulfilled and misspent dreams. She’d be happier if she ended up tragically dead; taken down in a fit of passion; just like that exiled priest and that football coach did to one another earlier today; because at least then there would be something actually decadent and passionate about her life. But, instead, she just survives, and the woman who just survives never forgets that her life most often is anticlimactic.

         Lola leans her elbows on the counter. She looks over to the side and sees that someone has left behind the latest edition of The Redwood Democrat. She normally would not pay any attention to it, except that this one time there is a front page photograph that seems to reach out from the paper and to grasp her tired eyes. It is a bland, freckled, young face; the same face she has seen those many times she’s gone into the hospital room at the end of the hall to check on the monitoring equipment, or to inject more Big Pharma drugs into the tube, or to change the sheets. Except, it’s not that same face, no, not really. It’s a very beautiful and sexy face; vaguely Latin; no, not vaguely anything, but rather the explicit and dangerous face of a Brazilian gangster; a Brazilian gangster with an inhumanly cold and vicious stare; a Brazilian gangster who just happens to be a regular at the Copacabana. His name is Rico. He wears a diamond. He is always escorted to his chair. And he has eyes for no other gal, but Lola dancing there…

*   *   *

         As Lola steps out from her apartment, and walks quickly over to the curb to get into Dora’s station wagon, the chief releases Deputy Claire from his long, impassioned, tearful hug. He observes the startled look in her eyes, her anxious breaths, her tight body ready to take him down, if necessary; and the very last, feeble hold that his dream had had on his mind and body falls aside, like scales from the eyes of a redeemed man. He is confused, sick in the bowels, mentally and spiritually exhausted; but he has been awakened from his nightmare, if not forever, then at least for the time being. Count that as a victory in his column…

         A victory in my column, the chief mutters. Like this is some sort of damn competition. I don’t know how to say it. But it’s like a war between what’s out there and what’s in here. And it doesn’t matter how we shield ourselves, in our work, in our small town identifies, in our fears and prejudices, none of that can stop what’s out there from breaking through the old glass and hunting us down.

         The chief cries out again. He presses his palms against his forehead, and he bends forward, like he is going to vomit onto the floor. He has lost his mind.

         Or so Deputy Claire thinks. While she no longer flashes the flashlight, she keeps the beam pointed straight at his eyes. She intuits that if she removes the beam, then his sad eyes will fog up again, and God knows then what he will do.

         The chief finally gets some control over himself. He leans on the edge of the hospital bed, and stares straight into the face of the comatose, young man; but he does not seem to know where he is or what he is observing. It is as if the moment the dream shattered, the young man, indeed the entire hospital room, vanished from his consciousness. He is trying to make sense of something, thus the intellectual impetus to get some control over his emotions, but he remains too close to the edge to be sure of anything, except that he is totally weak and in need of a shoulder on which to lean. He is only a baby in need of his mother.

         Just as my son needs his father, he mutters, and then tears up yet again.

         Okay, that’s enough; Deputy Claire scolds him, while simultaneously she steps forward to comfort him. I don’t know what’s going on, but this must stop.

         The chief looks back at her. There is a quizzical look on his face, as if he is groping at an insight just beyond his reach. He waves a nervous finger at her.

         And then a dim light goes on in his head. He lowers his finger, and grins.

         You never read the newspaper today, the chief remarks. Isn’t that true?

         I mean it; Deputy Claire whispers. This silly monkey shit has got to stop.

         The chief grabs the newspaper out from beneath his shirt. He rips it into shreds, while gibbering nonsense, and looking wild eyed in the flashlight beam.

         I mean it; Deputy Claire repeats even more softly. This really must stop.

         She puts the flashlight on the bed, and takes his hands into hers. All that shredded newspaper falls by the wayside as she stares maternally into his eyes.

         The chief regains his composure. There remains a tinge of insanity inside his eyes; but he breathes normally, and speaks once more with some authority.

         I need a drink, he says with a grin. I think I’ve got some explaining to do.

         You don’t need to explain anything to me, she states. Go home and rest.

         No, he corrects her. I don’t need any more rest. I’ve been sleeping most of the day, hell, most of my life. And, yes, I do need to explain my situation to you. I’m in over my head; and, for once, I need to admit that to someone else…

         Deputy Claire steps back. She drops her maternal stare. She is again just a young woman in secret awe of her boss. She is comforted by the fact that the Big Man in the Redwood PD (she never thinks of him as a ‘Little Bill,’ and hates it when she hears others refer to him in that way behind his back) is once more in charge, and so she allows herself to be small and vulnerable before his stare.

         We need to talk. But not here, the chief says, while nodding toward that comatose, young man who had been all but forgotten. Let’s go out for a drink…

         I’m on duty; Deputy Claire interrupts him. Craig takes over at midnight, so until then I’m the only shield between the boy and the mad world out there.

         She is not sure then why she too is referring to the mad world out there. She thinks it is just craziness. The chief has been under a lot of personal stress, and he is evidently fixating his own private concerns on this comatose boy. And yet, as much as she tries to think that she is just playing up to his eccentricity, somewhere deep inside her own heart she knows that he is on the mark. There is something terrible about the world out there; and it is creeping into here, as surely as the two of them are talking to one another in this dark hospital room.

         Protecting the boy, the chief muses. Protecting the victim. You’re right. This boy requires protection from the world, more so than the world from him…

         Insane, or insightful? Deputy Claire thinks. She grabs the flashlight, so as to point the beam once more into his eyes; but the chief grins and waves it off.

         I don’t need that anymore, he says. And the boy here doesn’t need your protection, either. Hell, he’s just an anonymous nobody sleeping away his days.

         Now, the chief is contradicting himself. First, that boy needs protection; then, that boy can fend for himself. There is indeed a struggle underway, but it is not just a vague fear that some evil out there is penetrating the defenses we so craftily build for our own lives. There is as well a fundamental moral choice: acknowledging a painful truth versus retreating into a convenient lie. No doubt, when the chief suggests that that boy can fend for himself, he lies. It is written all over his face. It makes him smaller; common; even ugly; and yet the deputy so much wants to believe in him that she chooses to indulge that very same lie.

         Switch off the truth barometers, and they can see their dreams play out.

         The chief can get out of here, put his manic episode behind him, and see himself still as the stoic and responsible man who never left the small town for which he had been born. And the deputy, well, she can see him still as the boss and father figure unto whom she can focus her loyalty and trust without regret.    

         Anyway, the old spook out there will watch over him, the chief remarks, referring to that elderly black night shift nurse while grinning like Cheshire cat.

         Deputy Claire can read the insincerity upon his face. Clearly, the chief is setting up the comatose, young man to be attacked. He’s exposing him to those wolves in sheep’s clothing out there. He’s putting himself before his obligation to protect and to serve a victim, and he’s inviting his deputy to follow his lead.

         Totally insane conclusion, Deputy Claire thinks. And yet I believe it, or I just want to believe it; and in the end, there is no real distinction between the act of believing and the act of wanting to believe. They are two sides of a coin.

         And so what does this all mean? They are going to go ahead and do what they both know to be dead wrong. They are going to leave the boy unprotected until midnight, so that they can have a drink together, toss around a few more convenient lies, maybe even convince themselves that they are doing now what is best for the community at large. But the convenient lie, no matter how good it feels at the time, is a real departure for the chief. It is not his historic modus operandi. Neither does the convenient lie fit in well with the normal behavioral pattern of the straight arrow, no nonsense, strong martial arts expert. Any yet, notwithstanding that their decision is so out of character, they are driven really to take each other’s hand and to leave the boy all alone until midnight. Neither is being driven in that all encompassing way as when the chief had been driven to strangle the boy. It is more like a sly and decadent whisper; how the serpent had spoken to Eve; how even the good people in this world of ours manage now and then to veer off of the righteous path. It is a soft but delicious temptation.

         Okay, so be it, but let’s have the drink at my place, Deputy Claire grins.

         The chief returns her smile. They leave the hospital room hand in hand.

         By the time they pass the elderly black night shift nurse, there is a soft, but insane, glint to their eyes. They could be mistaken for lovers. Or they could be mistaken for Charles Manson’s girls walking hand in hand into the courtroom to be tried for their gruesome murders. Either way, they are gone soon enough.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) is ravished. Apart from a few quick trips to the bathroom, she has been in bed all day, staring into her vanity mirror just to make sure one more time that the makeup has been applied perfectly, doing her nails over and over again to get that flawless texture and color (the odor of nail polish and nail polish remover so consuming in her master bedroom that by the late afternoon she is teary eyed and coughing), and imagining her lover boy sliding his hard cock into her ‘Wet Wanda.’ She is naked under her sheet; sultry and sweaty; nipples hard; lips contorted into a passionate sneer; and yet, even as she is ready to romp, she cannot shake off the achy gurgling in her stomach. She’d decided not to eat all day on account of the few extra pounds she’d seen on her waistline in her old bathroom mirror; but her aging body does not agree.

         Even worse, her lover boy never showed up this afternoon. He is so very tightly wound; always showing up at the same time (even to the second, he had proven to her once by showing her his Swiss watch before unbuckling his brown belt); always taking the same amount of time to cum inside her (sometimes, to seal the point, he will count One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi from the moment he penetrates to the moment he ejaculates, and every single time he hits the sweet spot at Twelve-Mississippi, one holy second for everyone of those Blessed Disciples); but he did not show up at all today, as scheduled. It is like one of Mussolini’s trains not showing up on time. The fascist banners still flutter in the air, but the naked woman with immaculate nails waiting eternally at the train depot for the 3:03 to the Coliseum has lost a bit of faith in Il Duce.

         She turns on the television in the master bedroom. Bobbi Chu, the Chink Nip Whore, is talking up a gruesome double murder. When are they going to get rid of that cock tease and put a ‘Real American’ on with Handsome Handy Hart?

         Morals are going down the tubes, she thinks, as she switches off the T.V.

         She slouches back to her bed. She leans up on her pillows, and yanks the vanity mirror off of her nightstand to perform yet another point-by-point check of the Mary Kay on her face, when suddenly she hears the front door just creak open. It sounds like someone sneaking into her house, not at all the big, brassy, and bumbling way that her oaf of a husband enters. And, anyway, it is too soon for him to stagger in and to start complaining about that damn kink in his neck.

         She holds the sheet up to her chin. She opens her mouth but is much too scared to scream. She slides her right hand down and starts to finger her pussy.

         I am fingering myself? She thinks. I could be bound with duct tape; held forcibly against my will; forced to service a stranger; and I am fingering myself?

         Oh, yes, she is, because of course danger is fun; danger is sultry; danger, unmitigated and raw, is what she feels just before she cums in the arms of that man who should not be in her bed. She is living on the edge, and danger is part and parcel of taking a path that winds this way and that ever so near the abyss.

         She hears boots plodding down the hallway. It is a familiar sound, and so she knows that she is not going to be raped. Nevertheless, the danger remains, because this is not the normal time for her lover boy to be sliding into her bed.

         Deputy Rickard stands in the doorway. He is unbuckling his belt, but she hardly notices. Instead, she is fixated on the insane glint in his eyes and the big grin on his lips. He is not wearing any makeup, and yet he resembles a demonic clown prowling the homes of wanton housewives on Halloween night. He moves in the slow and deliberate manner of a sleepwalker ensnared in a queer dream.

         Oh, little woman, I’m so proud of you, Deputy Rickard cheers like a silly, but also vaguely malevolent, clown. You waited for me. Still clad in your flabby birthday suit; nails polished; cheeks dabbed; smiling as a whore in her bordello.

         She does not know what to make of his comment, as he has never spoken before in this odd and disconcerting manner. She feels the danger creeping out from wherever she had buried it in her psyche. She reaches again for her pussy.

         Fingering your futon, Deputy Rickard grins. Now, you should not be doing that in front of me. There is a town ordinance on point. Passed a long time ago but still relevant today. ‘Contributing to the delinquency of a minor,’ minimum year in the town slammer out by the Curly Q, prison shower with soap just once a week. You would never survive the long year so far apart from your Mary Kay.

         You are no minor, she laughs, even though she often thinks of him as her hunky ‘lover boy’ and prefers to imagine herself as a small town Mrs. Robinson.

         That’s not true, he remarks, while dropping his well-ironed trousers and stepping out from them. Every man is somebody else’s son. Just doesn’t matter if he’s six or sixty. He needs to show the old man his report card, and then take the lumps when his playground performance has been given a subpar grade. No way to avoid it, especially when as a result of his below average performance a jackass can smirk at him all day long and yet still hide behind his justice badge.

         She smiles back at him. She doesn’t understand what he is saying to her, but she thinks that he is so sexy when he uses officious words like ‘subpar’ and ‘average performance.’ He is like any cute, little boy putting on ridiculous airs.

         Lick me, bitch, she sizzles, while removing her sheet to reveal her pussy.

         He is unbuttoning his shirt with his right hand. He holds up his left palm in the gesture that means STOP. He twitches the ends of his lips into a dark and sinister grin, and his insane eyes seem to be penetrating through her soft flesh.

         You really must stop contributing to my delinquency, he says with just a trace of mad humor in his voice. And, anyway, I’ve done more than my share of boot and cunt licking. Don’t you think it’s time I grow up? Start out by cleaning house, removing the garbage, sweeping away loose ends. Take care of business before business takes care of me. Now really, isn’t it time I killed the shithead?

         She looks back at him with some alarm. She had surmised that this was a bit of kinky foreplay, but now she thinks that he is dead serious. He is probably not going to kill anyone. He is an officer of the law, after all. But he is going to do something decisive; something that matters; something that is dangerous. It is going to be the type of action that can never be turned back; and so, danger whore that she is, she feels a surge of excitement from her clitoris, and moans.

         Deputy Rickard takes off the rest of his uniform. He sees his handcuffs in his trouser pocket. He picks it up, strolls over to his whore, smiles down at her dreamy eyes, and handcuffs her wrists to her antique headboard. He crawls on top of her writhing flesh; then, he turns around, so that his hard penis is above her face. He slaps her hand away from her clitoris, and bumps his penis against her lips. If anyone is going to be having an orgasm tonight, then it’s going to be him. After all, he may be his father’s son, but he’s going to clean house before long; and in so doing he’s gonna get the S.O.B. who is laughing behind his back.

*   *   *

         The centerpiece of the Weeks Estate is a palatial, Julia Morgan, Arts and Crafts home beyond the iron gate at the end of Briar Patch Road. The dark road meanders through miles of ancient redwoods sifting in and out of ghostly, white moonlight, before stopping abruptly at the iron gate decorated by a stylized W.

         The home looms large and vaguely ominous at the top of a well-watered and manicured grass knoll. Its old shingles flutter loosely in the wind, and a sad light on the porch beckons visitors to a place haunted by far too much time and tragedy. Of course, anyone who should happen to get so near to this forbidding place will be intimately aware of the many generations of lawsuits and murders between the Weeks and the Hornheischmans; but just in case they may be a bit too joyful in mind and in spirit upon the occasion of tramping up the steps, and knocking upon the thick oak door, the tombstones of all those Weeks who have died fighting the Hornheischmans over political and economic dominance in the area will be glanced in the gnarled, bramble bush garden beside the sagging old porch. The moonlight highlights those chiseled names as omens to a lost cause; and indeed, the most casual guest cannot but shiver at the maudlin insinuation.

         Deputy Claire opens the front door with an old fashioned, oversized key. The door opens with a loud and cranky creak; and as if to punctuate the scene, a black cat crawls out from the absolute blackness and rubs its furry hind upon Claire’s leg. It sees the chief standing behind her and lets out a belligerent hiss that makes his skin crawl. It would’ve stabbed at him, except that Claire shoos it away. It scampers back into the blackness and watches the chief in particular with unblinking, blood red eyes that seem to scratch into the back of his brain.

         Claire switches on the lamp in the sitting room off the foyer. There is an enormous moose head hung over a mantle. Its beady dead eyes stare forever at a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on the opposite wall. The oak floor and paneling; the high backed smoking chairs; the smoking pipe encased in a glass box smack in the center of the coffee table; indeed, the musty smell that clings to anyone or anything that should happen to pass through this space even for a brief time; all of it suggests masculinity writ large on the imagination. It is so manly in fact as to be vaguely homosexual, like a mead hall never to be occasioned by a soft, civilizing touch of a woman. Claire seems perfectly at home in this room as she invites her boss to take a seat, pours him a brandy, lights a wood-burning flame in the fireplace, and prods the logs into place with a long and stiff poker. When she bends over the flame with the poker in hand, it is impossible but to think of Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy comment: ‘Speak softly, but carry a big stick.’

         And, indeed, foreign policy is the operative phrase here, since whatever may be that ominous force out there it is inspiring the same chill of foreboding dread as when someone or something foreign suddenly shows up on a doorstep. Look who’s coming over for dinner? Look who’s smashing through my front glass window? Look what’s penetrating my shielded life through my worst nightmare?

         Dustin came as a surprise, the chief says suddenly, while settling into his chair and sipping at his brandy. Margie and I had been trying for years. We’d go to the fertility clinic in Beverly. Even contemplated travelling out to the city. It just isn’t in the cards, we said to one another. And then, there’s Dustin, born a couple of months too soon, touch and go for weeks, then babied by her like one of those delicate dolls she used to have scattered all over our bedroom. Finally I put my foot down, and she gave those dolls to the Salvation Army. But Dustin, well, he more than filled the gap in my Margie’s heart. She stopped crying over those goddamned dolls. Spent all her time holding and sweet-talking that little fellow. I told her she wasn’t loving him, not in a good way, anyway, that she’d turn him into a soft boy, if she wasn’t careful. She just laughed at me. Told me to get my head out of my ass and to try reading Dr. Spock. Well, I didn’t need a queer doctor to tell me how best to raise a boy. Sure enough, one day I arrived home from work, and there was Dustin playing with a doll, a Nigger Mamie doll, I can remember, that Margie had given him behind my back. I grabbed that doll out of his hand and threw it in the creek. He just looked at him with those big, lonely eyes of his. He must have been five or six, but those were the eyes of an old man. Dreamy eyes. And I bent down and took him by his shoulders, so that I could tell him face to face that boys don’t play with dolls. But I could not say a word. I just kept staring into those dreamy eyes. And, I don’t know, it was like each of his pupils had been replaced by the face of a clock, an old grandfather clock, the kind that collects dust and chimes in the dead of night. The hands on the clock were moving, imperceptibly at first, but for real; and I jumped back, nearly lost my heartbeat altogether, clenched by mouth to stop from screaming like a girl myself. He had the most innocent face, white, freckled, the kind you would see on a television show in the fifties, but those clock pupils of his made it all too clear that that innocence would not last. Eventually, thanks to all the coddling he’d been receiving since he came home from Redwood General years earlier, thanks to all that Dr. Spock bullshit, thanks to all the historical changes that we’ve seen even in our small town, his time would be up. He’d be spoiled, like fruit that’s been around too long, and he’d stink up the whole, goddamned world in which he lives. Just stink it up. Well, I tried to stem the tide. I took an interest in his rearing. Put him on my knee every night after work, and told him to stay straight, to stay home, to persevere, ‘cause if guys like us didn’t stand, if we just went along with the passion and the peer pressure, if we went out to the city to chase those falling stars, all hell would break loose. I told him, time and time again, like a broken record: Life is always on the precipice, just about to fall into the abyss, and if the strong men remain responsible and true, then I suppose it can be manageable for them and near everyone else, but if the same men wander off the reservation, like a bunch of Indians in search of fire water, then there’s nothing to stop those demons out there from breaking into here in the dead of night and tearing everything apart. I told him about demons, crazy niggers, goblins, anything to try to scare him straight. But then, the other night at Old Man Farley’s, I stared into the eyes of that boy who’d tried to break into his place, and I just knew that the demons had come. And I knew that I had no one but myself to blame. I’d failed miserably with my son. He’s living in the big city, and he’s a, well, let’s just say he’s still soft. And I’d failed miserably with Margie. And, hell, even our good town had changed under my watch, what with those leftist queers managing to set up shop at that Victorian on Magnolia, and that private school on Keeble that’s pushing gay and straight integration, and a whole host of other Commies and deviants who would’ve been strung up to dry in my father’s time. We live in sick times, soft times, and so what’s been black and menacing out there, gnawing at the edges, playing itself out in nightmares but then retreating in the daytime, well, it’s seen its opportunity. It is in here, spreading like a germ, infesting every time someone even glances at that grey, fuzzy photograph on the front cover of The Redwood Democrat. I know I sound crazy. I am a reasonable man, left brained, solid, and here I am talking about a nightmare let loose. What’s worse, I don’t think I can do anything to stop it. No matter how long I nurtured that boy, he still turned out soft. I spent hours and hours rearing him in the right way, and it took one of his boyhood friends just a moment to turn him onto the wrong path. A good man can spend a lifetime just managing to plug a hole in a dam, and a smiling devil can carve out a new hole in seconds. Time is weighted on the other side, you see. It is slow and laborious for us; fast and easy for them. We die, and they’re still around to menace some other little boy. My impotence before that enemy; that is really the worst of it.

         It is not too late, Claire remarks, as she takes the chief’s hand into hers.

         It is always too late, the chief laments. And, anyway, I am tired; my old neck’s aching; my stomach’s growling for more booze; and I’ve given up hope. I just don’t have any left in me. I really don’t. I don’t know how else to tell you, except that I should’ve been the individual trying to resign the PD this morning.

         No, it is not too late, Claire repeats. So long as you’re alive, it’s not too late. God knows I realize what it’s like to be living among the dead, kicking and screaming those old ghosts away, but I’m still a strong bitch. If they can’t ever collar me, then they can’t collar you, either. I know that about you. I lovethat about you. I admire that about you, and that’s not going to time out. I know it.

         Claire sits on his lap. She nuzzles her cheek against his shoulder. She has her left hand behind his neck, while her right one grips the warm poker against her thigh. She is facing directly into the firm and stoic eyes of Teddy Roosevelt.

         Ah, how I wish I had your faith, the chief slurs, as he finishes his brandy.

         Just sleep for a while, Claire whispers, while caressing his crooked neck.

         Actually, she does not whisper that line, so much as she gives voice to an old and sordid mischief-maker that wants them both to stay there a while. Stay and rest, the little devil tempts them. Relax in each other’s arms, snooze off a bit of brandy, until what has been planned has been accomplished; and the boy in the hospital has been put into a dark sleep from which he will never awaken.

*   *   *

         Eight-Mississippi, Nine-Mississippi, Ten-Mississippi, Deputy Rickard hisses, as his sweaty body clenches, and he ejaculates onto Margaret’s steamy tongue.

         He rolls onto his side. He can hear her smacking his seed on her lips. She sounds like a fat girl munching on an ice cream cone at a carnival, a messy and repulsive sound to his ears, but also the sound of his final victory over the cunt.

         He leans on his left elbow, and looks down at her face. She is a bug-eyed whore with semen drool slithering down her chin. She is trying to smile, but the moment is still far too powerful for her. All she can do is keep her mouth open, and twitch passionately in response to his rancid breaths striking upon her face.

         Oh, my darling cunt, how you love to flirt with danger, Rickard says with a devious smile. Take it into your mouth, swoosh it around, and swallow it. And tell me: How does danger taste? A little sweet and sour, isn’t it? A little lump in the throat, jitters in the stomach, before you release all over your sheets, huh?

         She finally manages to smile, though she is breathing hard, as if she also is going to cum. He looks down to make sure she is not fingering herself, and he sees that he is still holding her hand away from her pussy. Just how he likes it…

         Tomorrow night, my darling cunt, you are going to do something for me, he continues. It is going to be right up your alley, cocky, slutty, and dangerous.

         She nods her head in acceptance of whatever he has in store for her. He waits for her to finish swallowing his seed; even grasps her hand, and uses it to wipe away that sticky sperm drool on her chin; and then, he kisses her lovingly.

*   *   *

         Dora realizes that Lola has had too much to drink; but, still, her instincts tell her that there is something wrong. She looks over at Lola from time to time as she is driving her back to her apartment. She sees a tired woman with glazed eyes sinking into a withdrawn face. She hears a distant woman humming a tune that she thinks is Copacabana. But, mostly, she feels a woman no longer in real control of her own faculties. It is as if Lola is a puppet, and an unseen dream is pulling her strings, making her stare blankly out the passenger side window one moment, then making her look about and mumble something peculiar the next.

         When she drops Lola off at the curb, she must shake her left shoulder to knock a ‘thanks’ and a ‘goodbye’ out of her. Even then, Lola cannot look at her straight in the eyes as she stumbles out the door and into the darkness outside.

         Dora pulls away. She drives less than a block and then decides to go back just to make sure her friend made it into her apartment safely. If Lola is too far gone, then she is going to call Redwood General. Maybe the joint she had given her friend had been stronger than she had guessed, though if that was the case then she should be sleepwalking right now as well. Or perhaps someone put one of those rape drugs into her drinks. Dora had tried to keep tabs on what all the guys were doing around her friend, but she could not see everything all at once no matter her intense concentration. Or perhaps something much darker, even diabolical in a vague way, is playing with her friend’s mind. Surely, Dora senses the kind of something that incites a cold and wet shiver up and down her spine.

         Dora returns to the curb. Panic sets in; and she rushes to the front door without even bothering to switch off her motor. Her intuition had been right. It is dark in there. Dora bangs feverishly on the front door, but no one answers it.

         Lola is stumbling toward Redwood General. Rico is waiting for her there.

         She quickens her pace, when she turns at an intersection, and views the hospital right in front of her. There is little traffic on the street; and though of course the light is on in the emergency room lobby, she can see from down the street that there is no one sitting in there just now. The front desk girl likely is listening to her iPod or sending IMs to her boyfriend. The security guard likely is making the rounds; checking exterior locks; then hiding out to drag a Marlboro. As for the paramedics hanging out by the ambulance in the back of the building right now, they’ll be huddling over a laptop, watching Jean Claude van Damme films that they’ve pirated, or wolfing a late night pizza inside their ambulance.

         Even though she’s not dressed in her traditional nursing uniform, none of them are going to pay any attention to Lola. The reason is simple enough: They are used to seeing her scamper out to the hospital late at night to purchase her baggies of Maui Wowie from the alleyway between Redwood General and Value Pharmacy. Porkins hangs out in that alleyway every now and then when he has a stash to sell, and she is a regular back there with her pink cowgirl hat in tow.

         The difference is that this time she’s not stopping at the alleyway. Rico, after all, is not the kind of guy to cower behind a dumpster and to use the top of a busted garbage can as a makeshift counter. He is in the underworld, to be sure; but he is so far up the chain that he leaves the messy business to the sick and greasy types who would never know how properly to fold a handkerchief in their jacket pocket. He is now in the business of wining and dining the luscious, lost women who dance with feathers in their hair. And, in particular, he is now in the business of wining and dining Lola. No doubt, Rico no longer has eyes for any others. Lola has known this ever since she saw his photograph in the paper.

         Lola pushes through the hospital front door. As she had anticipated, the emergency room lobby is asleep; but there definitely is something rocking hard higher up in the building. She can hear nightclub music that has been muted by intervening floors. She can see how the ceiling shakes from the bass beat. And, every now and then, she can hear a raucous scream followed by drunken laughs and boisterous shoves. It is a free-for-all up there, and Rico must be smoking in his booth in the very thick of it. Surely there would be no better place for him.

         Lola steps into the elevator. She glances at the control panel. In the past there would be floor numbers. Now, there is just one button to push; and next to the button in hot pink lettering: Copacabana, where your dreams come true.

         As the elevator ascends, the music gets louder. It is rattling the elevator so hard that she wonders if it is going to dislodge the mechanism from its cable and put her into a free fall. She leans back upon the elevator railing, and offers a prayer, not to the God of her childhood, but to the Rico who is up there now.

         Rico must have heard her plea. The music does not abate at all; and yet the elevator stops shaking so violently, and the elevator door opens onto a long corridor. There is a passing resemblance between this corridor and the corridor with which she is so familiar in the intensive care unit; but, of course, she is in the Copacabana, not the hospital. She just thinks they look the same, since she is so used to being there day after day. She shrugs off the passing resemblance.

         She steps into the corridor. The ceiling lights blind her temporarily. Now she knows that the fluorescent lights in the hospital are bright white; and, just for a moment, she sees these ceiling lights as the same. But then she sets aside that trick of her mind and knows that these lights in fact are pulsing red. These are nightclub lights, after all; the red exciting the senses to throw aside all the restraints of a moral conscience; the pulse keeping rhythm with a heartbeat on the hunt that desires nothing, but a mindless orgasm in a dark and steamy stall.

         There is a payphone across from the elevator. It is ringing. She presumes it is simply vibrating from the deafening music; but then, something tells her it is a call for her. She picks up the telephone, before it falls off of the hook. And sure enough, Rico is on the line. He is talking to her only in a smooth and suave Latin tone that she imagines is a hybrid between Desi Arnaz and Tony Montana.

         Rico does all the talking, because of course he is the man. Being a strong man of few words, he has only one thing to proclaim: Kill me. Kill me. Kill me…

         After a while, his voice sounds like a telephone pulse; but she knows this is her man. He wants her. He craves her. He craves her so much; he is ordering her to strangle him, so that the last thing he ever sees is the adoring face of his beloved, and the last thing he ever feels is her hands wrapped about his throat.

         Lola sleepwalks passed the nurse station; but, of course, it is not really a nurse station. It is the front desk at the nightclub; and the only reason the sick, little pervert who mans the front desk is not there right now is because he is on the dance floor like everyone else. You see the Copacabana may start out each and every night as an orderly business; but after a certain hour, even the beady eyed staff are in on the fun. By sunrise, it is not a nightclub at all, but rather a disorganized mess of free flowing booze, devil stomping jazz, and stolen virtue.

         She passes hospital rooms on both sides of the corridor. Most of them are empty; but, again, that is an illusion. In fact, hidden in the still shadows, there are young and beautiful people enjoying all the many temptations of the flesh. They are just very well hidden. That is why such rooms seem to be unoccupied.

         Finally, her slow and steady sleepwalk takes her to the room at the very end of the hall. Rico’s private booth is on the other side of that shimmery, red curtain that just looks like a hospital room door. She had anticipated one of his uniformed goons to be standing watch beside that door; but there is no one on duty, and so she presumes Rico has dismissed him or her so as to make it easier for his beloved to join him in his love chamber. For a gangster, he really can be sweet every now and then. Lola blushes as if he’d just given her a dozen roses.

         She pushes open the door. It opens with a creak, but she does not hear it at all. Instead, she is overwhelmed by the Barry Manilow song reverberating off of the walls. There is a glittery disco ball hanging from the ceiling; a shimmery rainbow of polka dot lights rotating about the room; and a grandiose banquette in the center that looks momentarily like a hospital bed but that is really Rico’s private hideaway. Rico is lying back on his cushion. He looks as if he is sleeping in a coffin of roses while he is waiting patiently for his beloved to strangle him.

         Rico is not only beautiful. He is talented, too. He can sleep and speak at the same time. He keeps whispering lovingly: Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me…

         Lola’s eyes fog over completely. She holds out her hands, like she is now Frankenstein’s monster staggering forward. She can feel herself getting hot and bothered inside her pussy. Her soft lips twitch into a dreamy grin that is as fair as it is disconcerting, as if she wants to kiss him and to eat him simultaneously.

         She stops at the side of the bed. She bends forward robotically, in order to wrap her fingers about his throat and to squeeze long and hard. She blushes, chuckles savagely, and imagines having such intense sex with Rico as to be very literally inside of his skin. She is one with her Rico, and he is one with his Lola.

         A black, stooped, hideous form skulks out from behind the commode on the other side of the room. Lola sees this form in her peripheral vision, and she turns to confront the girl trying to sneak in on her prize. She recognizes the girl as one of the other Copacabana dancers, a well endowed, darker skinned, sexy beauty named Chiquita who has been eyeing her Rico as long as she has been a voluptuous body and a succulent pair of legs in the spotlight. She is a bad news bitch who’s never going to give up on Rico until she’s been silenced in eternity.

         In fact, Chiquita is Snoopy, the elderly black night shift nurse. And as far as Snoopy is concerned, Lola is Mavis, a slutty, black whore who’s been treated well enough by the crackers on account of often opening her legs for them. It is true that Mavis, or one of Mavis’s relatives, may have been hurt by this son of a bitch, but no matter. That son of a bitch is mine, Snoopy thinks; and I’ll be too damned for hell, if I allow Mavis to kill him, before I get my chance at his neck.

         And so Snoopy goes straight for Lola’s jugular. Lola responds in kind. The two ladies fall to the floor. They kick and bite each other, as they roll back and forth along the cold hospital room floor; and in so doing, they knock over many valuable items, including a machine that is monitoring Howdy Doody’s vitals, a clipboard on which the nurses are keeping track of their various pharmaceutical infusions, and a box of unused, long syringes that had been unwrapped already.

         Each of the ladies grabs a syringe and proceeds to stab the other without restraint. Sensing that repeated syringe stabs to the torso is not going to work, they then start to focus on the other’s throat in a horrible combat to the grave.

         Lola draws first blood. She stabs the syringe deeply into Snoopy’s larynx.

         Snoopy’s eyes bulge. She clutches her own throat, and staggers back into the darkness. There is a hiss sound coming out of her throat that is reminiscent of air coming out of a punctured tire. There is also a thick blood tear slithering out from the tiny wound and splattering blood drops all over her nurse’s apron.

         Snoopy will be dead soon; but she is not returning home to Jesus Christ, until she first rips the ghost out from that Negress Whore. As such, she staggers forward, grabs Lola by the shoulders, and pushes her toward the room window.

         Uncharacteristically, that window had been pushed open, so the breezes swirling about the night this far off the ground flutter the loose window shades.

         Lola smashes through the same shades. The shades rip off their bar and envelope Lola, as she tumbles through the open space and falls to the sidewalk many floors below. There is nothing left of her then, but a gooey blood splat lit by the moon and a pink cowgirl hat tumbling down the road and into the black.

         Snoopy turns toward the white cracker. She thrusts out her hands, but it is too late. She stumbles forward and falls over the comatose boy’s gangly legs. The impact pushes the syringe further inward, so that it is sticking out the back of her neck. Blood spurts out the back of her neck, as she spasms into a corpse.

*   *   *

         The chief awakens suddenly from a deep and disorienting dream. He has no idea at first where he is. He feels a young woman sleeping on his lap, but he imagines that this must be Margie and the two of them must be a young couple again. They used to make out in a chair like this one, and to fall asleep in each other’s arms while still in the sultry throes of passion, before the globs of Mary Kay, the heated curlers, the deep pains in those tendons that will simply not go away, and of course the unending cries of a sickly baby boy. Those early years, so young, fleshy, and sensual, had been their best years; and for a moment, he imagines that he’s there again. That is where he feels really loved and desired.

         But then he looks around the room, though still without stirring his soft, sweet, beautiful Margie from her rest. It is an old, stately, masculine room. No doubt, not his place, though what he would’ve wanted more than anything just then. There is considerable wealth in this room; prestige; honor where virtually all the other townspeople are too busy with making ends meet, or watching the little ones, or drinking away whatever money they have, to have any real sense of honor in their own soft lives. And, yes, what with the oversized antlers, and the uncompromising glare in Teddy Roosevelt’s eyes, there is pretension in this room as well, though it is of a kind much needed in today’s mushy soft world. If there is going to be any salvation, then it will be found in the Victorian antique furnishings, the musty smells, the faded paint colors, of rooms just like this one here. The chief still does not know where he is, except that he is home, and he has the young and willing Margie, warm against his cheek, and tight in his arms.

         There is a flash of light from beyond the sitting room window that bleeds through the drawn curtain. The light strikes his eyes, like thrusts from a bloody spear. The chief sinks further into his chair, but he cannot escape how the hot, wet, coppery scented light pushes through the darkness behind his groggy eyes, and literally tears apart the vestiges of a dream. He almost hears the animated frames inside of his skull smashing into dead grains of sand, as the light goes on to pick up the dead grains and to carry them out a slight opening in his soul. He hates what is occurring even though he feels more renewed as the debris exits.

         Several seconds pass, and there is a soft rumble outside; a vicious storm brewing on a night that had been forecast to be as clear as a whistle; a sudden, terrible slap in the face of a whole town just wanting to dream the hours away.

         The chief really looks at the woman in his arms. She is not Margie, surely not now, and frankly not even then. Instead, the strong, beautiful, and yet also mannish, woman is Deputy Claire; and she is stirring on account of the thunder.

         They both arise from the chair, as another lightning flash stabs her eyes.

         The chief imagines the stab point twisting and turning inside her beaten, drugged eyes, shattering the animated frames, and then sucking out the dream fragments. The chief looks away, since even though he realizes deep down that this dream purgation is good and necessary, he hates how that obscene sucking sound in his own head, and how that coppery dead smell on his nostrils, suggest illusions passing away. Something has been lost, irreversibly, sadly, as reality is once more able to assert itself in his mind and in the mind of his faithful Claire.

         What have we done? The chief asks, as the thunder gets closer to them, and as he looks about the room in a futile attempt to avoid confronting his sins.

         We slept, when we needed to be awake; Deputy Claire responds guiltily.

         As much as he does not want to admit it, he feels the same guilt. He just wants to slip beneath his sheets at home and curl into the fetal position, but of course he cannot. He is no longer a child; really, never had been, but for a one time excursion to the city that he is going to regret the rest of his life; and thus he must confront the consequence of his own irresponsible behavior. And there is no doubt in his mind that that evil consequence has played itself out already.

         He looks into her eyes. She is as aware as he is. They grasp each other’s hands, and look at their own shoes, like children awaiting the punishment from their mad old man for a transgression that they cannot pass onto someone else.

         They leave together without saying another word. Their worn hearts sink into their bowels, when they slump into Deputy Claire’s patrol car and hear the dispatcher inform them that there has been a double homicide at the hospital; one woman dead on the sidewalk; another slumped over the anonymous burglar suspect; Deputy Craig on the scene already; no response from Deputy Rickard…

*   *   *

         And there is not going to be a response from Deputy Rickard. He is inside Porkin’s Beer Hall, sitting on the filthy counter, kicking his legs back and forth, and listening to the first splatter of rain on the corrugated iron roof. He enjoys how the rain sounds like discharged bullets. He imagines an artillery barrage all at once that penetrates the chief’s bulletproof vest and drops his sorry ass into the earth. That’s a funny image, indeed. It puts a queer smile on his tight face.

         Porkin is there already. He is seated at one of his saloon tables, finishing off a Budweiser, and tapping nervously on the table surface. He looks uneasy in his dirty and sweat stained overalls. He jumps a bit whenever the thunder rolls.

         The swivel doors creak, and in walks Chuckles. He is much more at ease. The maniacal grin on his face says that he has everything to gain from this visit with the Redwood PD second-in-command; and, as if to punctuate how he now has a seat at their table, he winks like a wiseass at Porkin, and sits next to him.

         Porky Pig, meet your new brother, Deputy Rickard nods toward Chuckles and grins. It’s not often we add a man into our family. A time to celebrate, no?

         Porkin does not glance at Chuckles. He just stares at his beer and grunts.

         We really should be a trinity, Deputy Rickard offers. One capo, two guns. It’s how we should rule in a quaint, little, Christian town like ours, a town born and bred on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The question is which one of you is going to be the Son, and which one the Holy Ghost, which the sacrifice thrown to the Feds, and which the stealthy as a ghost son of a bitch who leaves with the blood and drug money undetected? Now, the prior gun we had brought into our family, well, he turned out to be too big for his britches, full of piss ‘n vinegar, the kind that called attention to himself and our family; so naturally in the end, we had to turn him over to the Feds, wash our hands of him, make his sorry ass the sacrifice. He’d turned out to be a Son. He spent three days in Cold Harbor Federal Penitentiary; then, on the morning of the third day, someone in the general population slit his throat, cut him up, and fed him to the wolves, as the guards looked the other way. That time, Porkin was the Holy Ghost, and so he slipped out of town for a while with enough cash on hand to keep quiet until the Feds left us alone. One of you will be the Son; the other the Holy Ghost; so which is it? Do not know? Cat caught both of your tongues? Well, truth be told, I do not know, either. So until one of you starts to fuck up, I’ll be charitable and think of both of you as ghosts, stealthy, creepy, doing the job and then floating off the radar screen when the Chief, or the Feds, or just some nosy bitch gets a bit too close. I’ll give you both my total confidence until I have a reason not to; then, as one of you fucks up, I’ll be your Judas Iscariot, and you’ll be my Jesus.

         We don’t need ‘em, Porkin grumbles. I’ve got the territory well covered.

         You don’t need him; Deputy Rickard smiles. You’ve got the Maui Wowie I supply you. You’ve got the liquor permit that I arranged for you. You’ve got the Chink Nip showing your gruesome footage, and mentioning your business name about two dozen times, because I gave her the green light this afternoon. Yes, I agree, you don’t need him. But I need him. I want him. And the father rules his family, like it is with the Christian God, and on Little House on the Prairie, and on The Waltons, among the whites and the niggers, the saved and the heathen, so it is with us. Chuckles is your brother; and you’re going to celebrate this, no?

         Porkin lifts his bottle, tilts it in Chuckles’ direction, and sips. He refuses still to glance at the smiling son of a bitch, but he does not fight him off either.

         That seems to be good enough for Deputy Rickard. He turns his attention to Chuckles. He stares icily into the eyes of the smiling maniac before him, not just to get a read on his mind, but to let the newcomer know who’s the boss of this family. He knows Chuckles is a scary beast, but he is confident that he can control him for now and get rid of him, when he turns out to be unmanageable.

         Deputy Rickard strolls over to the other side of the counter. He removes two briefcases, puts them on the counter, opens them, and turns them around so that the two guns can see what’s inside. He looks back at his guns and grins.

         Porkin and Chuckles stand, so as to get a better look at the Maui Wowie baggies in the two blue briefcases. There are tens of thousands of dollars worth of dope in each one. The two guns lick their lips, and rub their hands, greedily.

         Deputy Rickard smiles. He has set the trap, and the rats have waddled to the cheese on the spring. He is amazed at how easy it is to manipulate passions for his own end, and he has to restrain himself from laughing aloud in response.

         You each will service half of our community, he continues. Like two friar brothers dividing up the territory of the heathens. I don’t care really where you divide your territories, so long as you come to a firm agreement and stick to it.

         Porkin sighs, but he knows better than to make his case, since it is clear enough that the boss has decided to add Chuckles to the family. But he decides in his own mind that, regardless of the territorial line, he’ll continue to service the clients he has made thus far, no matter where they may reside in the town.

         Deputy Rickard suddenly slams the briefcases shut. His guns look at him, like two starving children who have been denied the food held before them. He sees them hovering above the cheese and decides to pull the spring; and, as he imagines the two greasy rats snatched by the spring, his eyes subtly glaze over.

         His eyes subtly glaze over, because now he has them in his plot to defeat the chief. The two guns do not know it yet, but they’ve been recruited into the foot soldiers of his mad dream. That makes the dream seem even more real, so that for a moment Deputy Rickard cannot tell if he’s asleep or awake just then.

         Now, papa has a request of his two sons; Deputy Rickard says, as he then gestures for ‘his two sons’ to return to their seats at the saloon table. I shall be honest with you. There is some real danger involved. But, let’s face it, you two live for danger as much as for money. It’s what makes you two so damned sexy.

         Porkin and Chuckles fidget in their seats. They know that Rickard is not a queer; that he is only playing with their heads; and yet they still feel much too uncomfortable at that time. They just want to receive his orders, then get out.

         There is a loud thunder roll. The raindrops fall with greater intensity, so Deputy Rickard almost needs to shout to be heard above that machine gun fire.

         Tomorrow night; Deputy Rickard says slowly and pointedly. That’s when you’re going to show your fidelity to the family. If you do exactly as I say, then you will minimize the danger. If you don’t, then likely you’ll lose your fair skin.

*   *   *

         The chief stands in the rain. He keeps his hands in his pockets, stoops his shoulders into his neck (not easy to do because of that kink in his neck flaring in the cold and wet weather), and stares down at what remains of the Redwood General intensive care nurse, Lola Lipinski. The poor girl had shattered literally on the sidewalk; her bone and flesh fragments still turning up as far away as an abandoned lot across the street; her blood breaking up in the rain, and flowing with the dirty water down the street gutter and into a sewage drain. There had been so little left that, at first, the chief had presumed that it would take days to identify positively the victim (especially as the only witness is a dead woman with a syringe poking out from the back of her neck); then, Deputy Craig, quiet and teary-eyed still from the death of his father figure, found a filthy class ring on a disconnected hand. There was a personalized inscription inside that jewel.

         He watches Deputy Craig and two crime scene investigators pick up body parts and bag them. He does not say boo. He is a bystander to the Redwood PD.

         After a while, Deputy Claire returns to the sidewalk. She had been in the hospital room upstairs photographing the corpse of the elderly black night shift nurse. The paramedics already had put her corpse inside the ambulance; and as soon as they finished with their clipboards, they’d drive her out to the morgue.

         Deputy Claire looks at her boss as if to say: This is our fault, goddamn it.

         The chief wants to cry, but of course that would not go all that well with the stoicism every one else expects to see in him. Thus, he tenses his lips, and turns his gaze momentarily to the gurgling, black, storm clouds that seem to be pressing onto him. His sadness passes, when he contemplates just how tiny and inconsequential he is in comparison to the awesome tenacity of the dark storm.

         It is well after midnight when the crime scene investigators leave, and a forlorn Deputy Craig removes the police tape that had been encircling them all.

         Deputy Claire returns to her police car. The chief follows her without so much as grunting in her direction. It is as if they both understand that, for now at least, the chief will be using the Weeks Estate as his home away from home.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) is still awake, as her husband drops all of his physical weight and mental exhaustion onto the passenger seat of the police car. She does not know that it is after midnight, since the alarm clock upon her nightstand had stopped about the same time her lover boy had ejaculated seed into her mouth. But she knows that it is late; and she suspects he’s not going to be returning to their marital bed tonight, tomorrow night, nor any other nights.

         In the past, like most police officers’ wives, she would be frightened out of her wits, thinking that he had been brutally killed on duty, and imagining all the trauma of identifying his big body at the morgue. But tonight those old and womanish fears have been set aside. She is preoccupied with her sordid fantasy of doing something dangerous, even more so something wrong, for her demonic lover boy; and those old and womanish fears would just get in the way. She has no other concern than how well her polished nails look in her hand held mirror.

         Indeed, she did not even bother to call her son earlier this evening, even when her intuition told her that Dustin needed to speak with someone he could love and trust sooner rather than later. She told herself she’d done her part by nagging her deadbeat husband. If anything negative happened to Dustin, then it would be her husband’s fault for not heeding her word and reaching out to him.

         When finally she tires of her nails, she puts the hand held mirror back on the nightstand and fingers her pussy. She has lost track of how many times this evening she’s given herself an orgasm. What matters is how much more intense they are now that she has agreed to be an integral part of a dangerous plot. No more ‘nice housewife’ life for her. If she’s going to go down, perhaps tomorrow night, perhaps some other time, then she’s going to make certain that she goes down in flames. That would be her final and lasting renunciation of her old life.

*   *   *

         Deputy Craig turns onto Hampstead Road. It is after 2:00AM. He has filed already the official police report for that double homicide at Redwood General; and, under normal conditions, he would be turning into his driveway right now, and calling it a long and terrible night. But this is not a ‘normal condition,’ not so much because two gruesome double homicides within twenty-four hours now makes this the bloodiest day on record for the Redwood Township, but because he knows what is behind this mayhem. He has knownever since he observed for himself what that sick papist priest did to his football coach, father figure, and Brother in Christ. There is a boogeyman loose in town. It has assumed the guise of a freckled and inconspicuous young man languishing in a coma, but it is none other than the Whore of Babylon. The Roman Catholic Church is behind all this.

         It is desperately dark on the windy country road. There are no other cars in sight; no lights flashing through his windshield, except intermittent lightning moving on toward the next county; no sounds breaking through his inner voices, except for the hum of his motor and the rustling of tree branches pushed down by heavy raindrops. He has driven this route so many times he does not need to pay attention to the sudden and sharp turns along this scenic road. Really there is nothing to chase out those inner voices preaching fire and brimstone unto his still very young and impressionable conscience; the one voice Reverend Goober   screeching and yelping salvation from his pulpit, the other voice Coach Wurst in his locker room, the two together drowning out any doubt he may have had this evening about the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in such an ordeal.

         The Redwood Township has been cursed, he thinks. Devil seeds had been planted the moment Saint Agatha’s opened her doors. Now, they have matured to the point of wrapping a thorny stem about a man’s reason and restraint, and squeezing any virtues out of his character. The faithful sense this development, which is why there is so much mass hysteria bubbling up from the cauldron, and why people who are usually good and circumspect are realizing their innermost fear in a strangely unsettling front page photograph in The Redwood Democrat.

         The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them, he states with heartfelt, maudlin, but also thankful, tears in his eyes. And the Baptist remnant shall lean upon the Lord in this time of trouble, so as to steal away the innocent from the guilty. And among all others, there shall be just weeping and gnashing of teeth.

         He looks at the DVD on his police car passenger seat. He had videotaped the blood on the sidewalk, the body parts fluttering in the breeze, the bloodied syringe poking through the skin at the back of the neck, before Blondie and the chief had arrived. After filing the police report, he’d burned the footage onto a blank DVD. He’d watched it on that ceiling television set in the closed and dark Redwood PD cafeteria, just to see how the footage actually looks on television.

         And now he’s driving the DVD all the way out to Beverly, in order to give it to that Chink Nip in time for her to broadcast it on the 6:00AM Morning News.

         His first instinct had been to give it to Anna Burns. She is a saved woman after all, his Sister in Christ, the person who brings the best casserole dishes to the First Baptist Church socials. But, at most, after reviewing that footage, she could include the details in a gory newspaper account; yet that would never be enough to manipulate public opinion. He knew that he needed to frighten Jesus back into the hearts of his fellow townspeople, so as to separate the fair sheep from the filthy goats and to inspire a righteous counterassault against the devil and his papist whore; and he knew that there is nothing as effective in inspiring the righteous to take up their pistols and their Bibles than horrific film footage. The masses do not read newspaper columns anymore. They barely look at front page photographs, though apparently the image of the freckled burglar suspect has been an exception to the rule. But every one watches television nowadays, even those saved souls who say that the unseen signals hitting their rabbit ears are being broadcast from Beelzebub’s fiery pit, and so television news matters.   

         He knows where Bobbi Chu resides in Beverly. He idles his police car and steps up to her apartment door. He knocks with all the sure determination of a man on a mission. He holds up the DVD, like it is a bouquet he is bringing to his beloved, and taps his left foot nervously until a light turns on in the apartment.

*   *   *

         Skippy Hawes loves his Cup of Joe at Millie’s Old-Fashioned Diner on the corner of Main and Kellogg. Normally, after sitting this long at the counter, and trading a kind smile with the proprietress, he’d be enjoying its wonderfully rich and creamy taste. But this is not a normal morning, because this is the morning after the worst storm to hit the Redwood Township since only God knows when.

         He is not thinking about that rainstorm of the previous night. Redwood is no more immune than any other small town to an occasional onslaught of white lightning and rain; and, indeed, that weather had not been as harsh as previous onslaughts of the season. No, it is not weather about which he is thinking, but a different kind of storm. You might call it a ‘man storm,’ because ever since the graphic footage last night of what the priest and the football coach had done to one another, and then the similarly graphic footage this very morning of what a black nurse and a sexually loose nurse had done to one another, the small town has been bubbling hot and steamy. He can feel his beloved Redwood Township, the saved and the unsaved alike, about to boil over the rim of the filthy witch’s cauldron. Indeed it is so bad Millie has not poured his first Cup of Joe as of yet.

         Skippy looks at his buddy to his left. It’s none other than Old Buckaroo, a hobbling, mumbling, ancient man always with a tale to tell. As usual, everyone smells him, before they see him, on account of his unwashed overalls. Actually, in a way, it is rather comforting that, while the world seems to be teetering on an edge somewhere, Old Buckaroo remains then his crotchety and pungent self.

         It’s the secret truth, he whispers conspiratorially into Skippy’s left ear at once. No doubt about it. Them Whores of Babylon and Allah Ayabs have teamed up with them Pinko Queers to stir up the people. Sort of like what them niggers did on the road to Selma, breaking windows, busting kneecaps, fingering virtue right out of our women. You see the way they do it is simple. It’s like AIDS, and syphilis too, I reckon. They put the disease out there by adding ‘Made in China’ fluoride to our water supply, kill off some folks, scare just about all the others, then come back with a ‘cure’ that invariably means higher taxes and a lot more regulations. Ever wonder why the Obama Monkey’s smiling. ‘Cause he’s the one who’s going to force this ‘cure’ on the rest of us, even on our white women and Little Leaguers. I know, ‘cause I’ve volunteered to coach the Little League, and already I can see the Obama Monkey’s ‘cure’ inside their dumb eyes. Oh, sure, every now and then they’ll pull back the disease. Give us the impression we’re in control of the situation by easing the pain a bit. It’s how them Chinks work…

         Skippy nods in agreement. Old Buckaroo is on to something when he says that every now and then they’ll pull back the disease. Ever since all that white lightning the previous night, most of his fellow townspeople, saved and unsaved alike, have been able to put aside whatever they thought they’d been seeing in that fuzzy photograph on the front page of The Redwood Democrat. They’re all groggy, cranky, suffering from some sort of hangover, but at least that freckled face is seen for what it is. In a way, that development alone is easing the pain.

         But he that giveth can taketh away. Skippy is so very sure as to the truth of that statement that he presumes it must be in Leviticus. He also thinks he’d be able to remember chapter and verse, if Millie had poured him his Cup of Joe already. Still, what matters is that, while the pain has been eased in regards to the prior dreamlike fixation on that front page photograph, it has gotten worse in regards to the bloody violence and the bubbling tensions. Heck, things are so bad, Millie’s waiting by the window to see if another fight is going to break out on Main Street, rather than doing her womanly duty and pouring his Cup of Joe.

         Skippy would add one more nefarious character to Old Buckaroo’s list of baddies: Chief William Borden, Jr. Now, he’d always known ‘Little Bill’ to be a mere shadow of his old man; slow in the head; weak in the faith; perhaps, even light in the loafers (though that his not particularly insightful, Skippy admits to himself, since all the unsaved folks out there are light in the loafers on account of their preference for the devil’s flesh over the spirit of truth, justice, and the American Way). But it turns out he’s even worse. The chief arranged for Porkin to get his liquor permit just beyond the township line. The chief wants to make sure every white boy in our fine community gets hooked on the Pope’s Whiskey, so that they’ll start wearing low hanging jeans, listening to deviant singers like Elvis Presley (no doubt still alive and putting his rockabilly excrement out over our radio waves under various aliases), and cavorting like oversexed niggers. No doubt about it, the chief wants to upend our morals; mongrelize our race; and, who knows, maybe even arrange for a Trader Joe’s to open up inside the town, thus giving the hippies and the pinko commies a place to shop for commie food.

         Skippy is sure that the chief is behind all of this, because the mayor told him so; and, of course, the mayor does not lie. By God, that is Holy Writ Truth.

         Millie gasps, and covers her mouth. Skippy turns on his stool to see what is happening now. Sure enough, another brawl has broken out on Main Street. It is once more a saved, righteous, Real American trading insults and punches (or, when those fighters are women, slaps and hair pulls) with an unsaved, deviant, Cat’lick or Commie. Each accuses the other of creating the tensions that led to the two double homicides the previous day. Each walks away from the brawl all too bloodied and bruised, but also comforted by the thought that he or she had done his or her part for God. They would have kept on fighting to the miserable end, but of course as the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. That too is the Holy Writ Truth, no doubt to be found in Leviticus, though Skippy cannot remember the actual chapter and verse, until Millie gets around to pouring his Cup of Joe.

         We’re in for bad times, Old Buckaroo concludes. That’s the secret truth.

         Skippy nods in agreement. He turns away from the brawl. He looks down at his hands, and prays that His Personal Lord and Savior, Jeeesus, Oh, my Lord Jeeesus, will give him the strength and the wisdom at the appointed hour to do what is necessary to save the community. The chief must be stopped. Oh praise be the Holy Name that will bring an end to the devil’s mischief at the last hour; and praise be the saved that will stand then behind the guidon of the Holy One.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire knocks on the guest bedroom door. She is wearing the kind of bulky robe normally worn by a gentleman, as he is adding fine tobacco to his pipe and contemplating the first stock report of the morning on his ticker tape. She is holding an ornate riding crop by her side, even though she does not have the time now to mount her mare, Sybella, before returning to the Redwood PD.

         No one answers. She opens the creaky door, and steps boldly into a dark and musty room. The man in the bed in front of her is so still and silent then as to suggest that the guest bedroom in fact is a crypt hidden away from sunlight.

         She walks over to the side of the bed, and observes the chief. His face is red and sweaty from a long night of horrific nightmares. Right now, he does not seem to be experiencing any nightmares at all; and as a result, the anxiety that is still written all over his face is slowly dissipating into a bland calm. He is not getting a better grip over the strange images floating in and out of his mind; so much as he is hiding out from them altogether by embracing a kind of mindless, emotionally distant, spiritually perverse limbo writ large within his conscience.

         There is something so delicate and beautiful about his face, she notices. The more he calms into a kind of subdued mindlessness, the more he resembles an innocent child; a boy who’d not yet even contemplated leaving this town so as to contemplate the dark alleys and the seedy haunts; a boy who’d not yet so much as intuited those strange and discordant feelings that would emerge from some dark place in his own soul when he beheld his own son starting to mature.

         I’ll protect you, Deputy Claire whispers. I’ll keep those monsters at bay…

         And when the monsters have been vanquished, she thinks; then the chief will no longer dream at all. He will be the babe who has not yet even imagined a boogeyman behind the closet door. He will be as dead in his innocence as the antiques gathering dust in this Julia Morgan home, or the tombstones returning to the mud just outside the front door. Then, the two of them will be together, as friends, as lovers, as husband and wife, as lost souls shielded away from life.

*   *   *

         Peggy Compton knows that the bright floral dress draping her thin frame is a bit more conspicuous than would be advisable for the task at hand. The red and pink roses; each flower in a different stage of blossoming; each green stem vaguely snakelike; reflect the light of the sunrise in such a way as to grasp even the least attentive eye. Her stark white bun is no more helpful to her desire to be incognito. It glitters as the aura of an angel, and is known about town as the hair of the lady who has been the police chief’s gatekeeper for decades. She is a creature of habit; the repetition of styles and of behaviors since God Himself knows when that is really what keeps a small town small; and so her one actual concession to the task at hand is to don dark sunglasses similar to the ones that Anna Burns had worn when slipping surreptitiously into the quiet hospital room.

         She is standing beside an old and inoperable payphone across the street from the mayor’s office, clutching a pair of binoculars in front of her flat floral chest, and unthinkingly dropping her jaw open in such a way as to look like she is about to cry out in fear and trepidation. She does not wander from her post, not even when an old timer limps by and says to her: Howdy Morn, Missy Peggy.

         Finally, Deputy Rickard steps out from the mayor’s office. He stops for a moment at the top of the stairs and looks over the street beneath him like he is Napoleon observing his troops before Waterloo. He is going to lead all of us into destruction, Peggy thinks, as she lifts the binoculars to her old eyes and sees in much more detail the vague and lonely smirk just emerging on his narrow face.

         Deputy Rickard sees Deputy Craig on her side of the street. He waves his protégé over and speaks to him in a confidential manner. Peggy wishes so much that she could hear what they’re saying to one another just then, and yet she is confident that she will piece together whatever Rickard has in mind quite soon. She is a gatekeeper, after all, and gatekeepers the world over have a very keen capacity for figuring out the intentions of those fellows who happen to show up at their front desks by observing them. Watchful eyes keep conspirators at bay.

*   *   *

         Deputy Rickard rests his hands on Deputy Craig’s shoulders, and pulls his face closer to his. He looks into the younger man’s tired eyes, and nods as if to say that he knows how he’s feeling right now and empathizes with his situation.

         Mrs. Wurst is a good Christian woman, Deputy Craig says. The Wurst kids, all those boys, they’re Disciples of the Lamb, let me tell you. It is simply wrong that the Whore of Babylon defiles their master; literally stabs him in the heart; and then gets away with it. Something’s got to be done about that Saint Agatha Whore Temple in our town. I don’t know what, but something’s got to be done.

         I know. I know, Deputy Rickard whispers. We’ve got to root out this evil.

         I mean the saved living among the unsaved, Deputy Craig continues. The clean with the unclean. What were the town fathers thinking when they let the Babylonian horde buy homes in our community, go to our schools, eat alongside us in our diners? This has got to stop. We’ve seen the violence already. It’s only going to get worse, unless we stand up and do something God fearing and good.

         The light of righteousness burns brightly in the dark, Deputy Rickard says with a strange glint in his eyes and a knowing grin on his lips. Like the midnight riders burning the holy cross, we too can bring the light of righteousness into a time and a place ravaged by sin. And by that light, we shall see their faces, and know them for who they are. I do not want to tell the fine citizens at Reverend Goober’s First Baptist Church what they should do. I simply want to urge you all to pray about it; just pray to the Living Redeemer; and know that whatever you decide to do, I’ll make sure the Redwood PD backs up your unalienable right to do it. That’s my personal promise to you, and you can pass that on to the other saved souls over there. Pray about it; do it; and realize that I’ve got your back, no matter the fallout. Times like this require the full measure of righteousness.

         You’re a good man, Deputy Craig mutters, as he returns his longing gaze.

         You should get Reverend Goober to organize a prayer meeting tonight on this very matter, Deputy Rickard offers helpfully. Get all your faithful together.

         We’re having a ‘Learn the Bible Truth’ Potluck this Friday night, Deputy Craig responds. We could all pray about this, before digging into the casseroles.

         Under normal circumstances, that would be fine, Deputy Rickard advises him. But these are not normal circumstances, as you’ve rightly said. God should not be kept waiting to receive those prayers of yours. Other innocents may die, or be gravely injured, or be scandalized in the meantime. I suggest you all pray about it tonight and then pray about it again this Friday night. Just to be safe…

         You’re right, Deputy Craig mutters through his tears. You can never have too much prayer, Praise Be Jesus, except I am on watch at the hospital tonight.

         Don’t worry about that, Deputy Rickard says, as he wipes that single tear off of Deputy Craig’s cheek. I’ll order Blondie to replace you. You’ll serve all of us much more so by lending your own saved and undefiled voice to that prayer.

         Praise Be Jeeesus, Deputy Craig exclaims, as he rests his face on Deputy Rickard’s shoulder and sheds more tears. Oh, Praise Be Jeeesus, this very night!

*   *   *

         Something is afoot. Peggy observes Deputies Rickard and Craig embrace, shake hands, and go separate ways. She lowers her binoculars as Rickard walks down the steps, so as not to be too conspicuous when he faces in her direction.

         Normally, at this time, Rickard would walk over to the Redwood PD so as to check in for the day; but, instead, he steps into his a nondescript Ford sedan parked on Peggy’s side of the street. Clearly, wherever he may be travelling at this time, he has taken the precaution of using a civilian car. Peggy assumes he does not want any casual observers to recognize a police car going to wherever he is headed just then. Now then is definitely not the time to lose track of him.

         Peggy looks for a ride. She sees the old timer limping down the sidewalk, who had wished her a ‘howdy morn’ a few minutes ago. He is an old flame who spends most of his time now at the Grange, but who every now and then coaxes a slow dance out from ‘Missy Peggy’ when the Stars of the Western Sky moseys on into town and plays a few sets for the ‘seasoned citizens’ crowd over at the Western Star. His name is Luke Hanson; better known about town as Hard Time Hanson on account of the number of times his farm has been in the bankruptcy court over the last half century; and though slow and hard of hearing, he has a twinkle in his eye still. He’d do anything for ‘Missy Peggy,’ the apple of his eye.

         Peggy holds up her long skirt so that she can free her legs enough to rush down the sidewalk. The binoculars hanging from her chicken throat flail behind her. Even her white bun loosens up a bit. A casual observer might think she has been taken with the love bug this morning, but for the frantic look on her face.

         She catches up with Luke just as Rickard pulls away from the curb. She is out of breath, but manages nevertheless a wink and a smile. It takes a moment for Luke to realize that he’s not having a heart attack; but then the old twinkle flares in his right eye, and he returns the same flirtatious gestures. He had had Millie’s buttermilk pancakes on his mind this morning, especially since he’d had the good fortune to observe the lightning last night and to awaken from his sick preoccupation with the farmer who had swindled his first wife away from him a long time ago (the farmer having been dead more than half a century, and yet, strangely, featured on the front page of The Redwood Democrat); but now that ‘Missy Peggy’ is here, he’d much rather go for a ride with her. He can have the scrumptious buttermilk pancakes any time, since Millie serves breakfast all day.

         Peggy explains that she needs to follow that Ford sedan that just pulled away from the curb a moment ago. She does not go into details, and Luke does not ask. He is happy enough just to be wanted. He turns around and limps back from where he came. He picks up his pace, when he senses Peggy is in a hurry; and although he is out of breath when he gets back to his 1948 Ford F1 pickup, he has a big and naughty grin on his face. He feels like a young man once more on the prowl, and hopes perhaps something nice will come from this adventure.

         He opens the passenger door for Peggy and helps her onto the seat. He is all smiles; a pimply schoolboy on a hot date; and when he sits behind the wheel he has to remind himself to take his bright eyes off of her a brief moment so as to see where he is inserting the ignition key. His grandson, Oslo, had installed a new engine just recently, so the old time wheels roar as if a rocket on steroids.

         He shoots away from the curb and down Main Street. Peggy slaps a hand on his chest, and looks at him with eyes that scream: Slow down before you get the two of us killed. He obliges, winks back at her, and sighs. He’ll be good and proper, even if he is a horny teenager now, because ‘Missy Peggy’ is a fair lady.

         Still, Luke always has had a lead foot; and Peggy has to remind him to go slower, so that he does not get so close to the Ford sedan that Rickard sees him in his rearview mirror. This is cloak and dagger stuff, Peggy remarks with a soft but alluring wink; and the ‘dagger’ reference almost inspires an erection inside of his dirty overalls. The key word here is almost. He’ll need to drop by U-Save and get some of those blue pills, if he’s going to be going the distance any time soon; but, for now at least, it’s plenty nice to be reminded of what it feels like to be a man again. He treasures the word ‘dagger,’ as he continues to drive out to Hampstead, and then to take Hampstead all the way into downtown Beverly.

         The Ford sedan turns off the main road and onto a construction site. The gate remains open, but Peggy senses that it would be safer to park across from the gate and to wait until he reemerges. She has deduced already why Rickard is here, since she knows from past police reports that this construction site also serves as a swap site for stolen vehicles. She’ll look through her binoculars, and see from afar the vehicle he is driving when eventually he leaves the swap site.

         Rickard is in there a while. Luke falls asleep in the meantime; and Peggy has a heck of a time shoving him back into a semblance of consciousness, when finally she spots Rickard exiting behind the wheel of an ambulance. It is an old model ambulance no longer anywhere in service, but some man has painted the Redwood General emblem on the two sides, and installed a new siren. Because of the touch-up, it is a plausible enough addition to the Redwood Township 911 Response Team. Clearly, it is supposed to remain unnoticed, until Rickard has a chance to put his plot into effect. Peggy does not yet know what that plot may be (though given the fact that an ambulance is involved, she has a strong guess as to where the plot will be carried out actually, and who will be voluntarily or unwittingly dragged into the conspiracy), but she knows darn well that she’d be remiss if she did not inform the chief of her observations as quickly as possible.

         Still, even while time is of the essence, she urges Luke to stay back. She figures that Rickard will be more observant of his surroundings than when he’d driven out to Beverly, since now of course he is driving the vehicle that is going to be involved in the plot. She imagines him frantically searching the oversized rearview mirror inside his ambulance to determine if anyone is hot on his heels.

         The ambulance is lost momentarily around a bend. Luke speeds up, so as not to lose the ambulance completely. Peggy again slaps him on the chest; but this time he grins at her, kisses her anxious hand, and tells her all will be well…

         And then in a flash of adrenaline, she glances out the cracked windshield in time to observe that the ambulance has turned around up ahead and is now barreling toward them at breakneck speed. She sees that Rickard is mad. There is a maniacal grin on his narrow face, an evil glint in his eyes, and a dirty sweat stream trickling down his cheek. It is amazing that she can see all of this in just a split second of time; and yet, in another way, it is not so amazing, since that awful madness etched on Rickard’s face veils over everything that then follows.

         Luke swerves to avoid hitting the ambulance head on. He is surprised to see that his own reflexes are not as washed up as he had presumed; but that is small consolation, as his pickup truck slides down a muddy hill and slams into a bed of rocks beside Wild Indian Creek. Still, for all the horror in that final blink of adrenaline, there is a hint of a smile on his cracked lips, as he slams through his windshield, dances in the wind, and opens his head against a mossy boulder.

         Peggy is fast enough to duck her head into her lap while she clutches her binoculars against her chest. Therefore, rather than flailing through the broken windshield, she slams against the dashboard. The pain along the left side of her frail body is immediate and all consuming; and she senses that she has snapped her collarbone; but she never loses consciousness. She just crouches into a ball, and waits for the awful pain spasms to subside enough for her to push open the passenger door with her right shoulder and to stagger onto the cold, wet rocks.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire does not awaken the chief. She telephones the main office to let Peggy Compton know that their boss will be staying home sick today. She does not reach Peggy; indeed, strangely, no one picks up the telephone; and so she leaves a message on the voicemail. She dresses quickly and leaves for work.

         Before she makes it to the main office, she is dispatched to a sour street fight in process in front of Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. This one turns out to be the fourth fight of the morning. The others had inspired a crowd of onlookers in the diner’s front window; but someone decided to call the police finally, when during the fourth fight the gladiators started to swing wrenches at one another.

         Just as Deputy Claire slams on her brakes, one of those bloody wrenches flies through the air and smashes through the diner’s front window. Patrons run backward, trampling over one another, and slipping on broken glass. It is not at first clear who has been hit by the wrench, since there are several old timers in the diner who are writhing on the floor and clutching their heads and stomachs in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Outside, the combatant who still has his wrench in hand lifts it over his own head to deliver a lethal blow on his foe; but before he finishes his assault, he takes the time to blast: Praise Be Jeeesus!

         And the time it takes to offer that brief prayer is all Deputy Claire needs to draw her pistol, to drop to her knee, and to fire a bullet into the man’s right thigh. The man swings his wrench anyway, but his would be victim scoots away from the swing arch. The wrench breaks in half on that bloodstained sidewalk; metal pieces flying off in two directions; dislodged dirt splattering everywhere.

         The attacker grabs his thigh, and falls onto his butt. It is then that Claire recognizes him as Gus Gleason. He is wearing his ‘Gleason Glass’ blue ball cap, which had been smashed presumably by the other guy during their one-on-one. He screams ‘John 3:16’ over and over again, as he writhes in horrific pain from the gunshot injury; and he glances up at Claire with distant and deranged eyes.

         Deputy Claire radios for an ambulance. She recognizes the other man as one of the Sober for Christ people over at Saint Agatha’s. She orders him not to leave the scene; but as he continues anyway to scoot across the filthy sidewalk toward the street, she is compelled to handcuff him to an inoperable payphone by the front door. She then steps through the hole in the front window and sets out to offer care and comfort to the injured old timers until paramedics arrive.

*   *   *

         Miss Alice hears the ambulance siren in the distance; but that incessant, and frankly juvenile, wailing does not distract her from the task at hand. She is fiddling with that huge cross that hangs in front of her flat chest, and squinting through the passenger window. She thinks best, when she has the cross in hand and then looks upon the outside world through the slit eyes of a blind bat; and, frankly, it is important that she think best, since she and the two other faithful Catholics in this large, white van are about to cross the divide into lawlessness.

         I have not been this sober in years, Hurley O’Donovan remarks to no one in particular, as he turns the van onto Manzanita, and looks at the tract homes.

         Miss Alice does not respond. She just fiddles with her cross, and stares at one tired olive tree and cut lawn after another passing before her two slit eyes.

         Oaf Hans is in the back of the van with the crate. He continues to rub at his chest and shoulders, like he is frozen cold, even though already it is a warm and pleasant post-storm morning. There is a childlike innocence in his eyes that suggests that he is a retard. He is not, though admittedly he will never be able to soar with the eagles in the IQ department, and so he memorizes arcane facts and spits them out at opportune moments in order to suggest he’s ‘got smarts.’

         In France, when the Catholic Party came to power, the faithful went to their churches and cathedrals and chanted the Magnificat, while the Huguenots were rounded up and burned at the stake. They said you could not get within a hundred miles of Paris on account of the stench of burning human flesh. Oh, all that body sweat and burnt flesh filled the air like a French derriere, someone, I think, said. But everyone’s heart was calmed by the sweet and mellifluous tone of the Magnificat sifting out from the packed churches and into the dark ashes. Maybe that’s what we can do. Maybe we can sing the Magnificat like we do in…

         That’s enough Oaf, Miss Alice snaps, as she is still fiddling with her cross.

         You’ve been checking out Webster’s, Hurley offers up with a broad grin. That word mellifluous, now that’s really one of the big words, let me tell you…

         That’s enough Hurley, Miss Alice snaps. Get ready. I see one of those sick shit Wurst boys up ahead. Heretic looks like he just stepped out of Deliverance.

         They all see Punch playing on his front yard. He is a strange boy wearing army fatigues and chewing madly at the head of a plastic Indian toy. He seems to be cross-eyed, though it is rather hard to tell for sure from across the street.

         Miss Alice kisses her cross. She looks away from the sun outside; and thus for a brief moment her eyes open up to reveal that, indeed, the stone cold lady is actually starting to cry. She observes that her two companions have seen her tears. She wipes them away awkwardly, and hisses at the buffoons like a witch.

         No more Miss Sentimental, I say; Miss Alice snarls. Father Alain Delacroix deserves better. So let’s get on with it. And may the Blessed Mother guide us in her subtle ways. Okay, Oaf, take out that crate. Hurley will meet you out back.

         Oaf and Hurley exchange worried glances. All of a sudden that wild idea that the three of them had entertained over the phone after seeing the footage of their Dead Father in Christ is now a reality. They’d rather be anywhere else; and yet they also know they’d never be able to look Miss Alice in the eye again, if they shirked their responsibility to the fine name of their fallen parish priest.

         And so Hurley steps out the driver side door and quickly joins with Oaf at the back of the van. They open the crate. There must be several hundred eggs, originally intended for Saint Agatha’s ‘Food for the Poor and Indecent’ program but now earmarked as God’s Judgment. Every egg is totally white and flawless, like the Holy Lamb hammered onto the wooden cross in that Mel Gibson movie.

         Oaf and Hurley again look at each other. They remember toilet papering a house; or running up to a front door, pressing the doorbell several times, and running away before the lady of the house could answer (a game that kids back then referred to as ‘ding dong ditch’); or mooning the little girls in pigtails and braces who could see their pink and hairless derrieres while sitting beside their bedroom windows and doing their homework assignments; but these antics had been performed uniformly after hours. Even as wild boys, they had understood that their chances of being caught went up precipitously, if they misbehaved in the clearness of sunlight. The night does not just tempt the spirit. It also offers the wayward spirit a shield behind which to pretend that it has not fallen from grace nearly as much as the action itself would presuppose. The night gives the evildoer the convenient mask of thinking that if it is not seen then it is not bad.

         That will not be the case this morning. The day is clear enough. Indeed, it is especially clear, as is often the case when the sun burns off the residue of a mighty storm, and then leaves behind an environment freed of dust and soot.

         Miss Alice is watching the kid. He’s obviously a retard (undoubtedly goes with the territory when your parents are heretics and, as such, incur the wrath of the Old Testament Father God), but eventually he’s going to catch on that a white van parked across the street is a cause for alarm. He is still preoccupied, chewing that Indian head like it is the last bit of food on earth, slobbering and smacking like the ‘Missing Link’ between mankind and apes; but he is looking at the van, nonetheless. If he keeps looking, then he’s going to go inside, and tell.

         Miss Alice rolls down her window. She pokes her head out, and snarls: Go on, boys. Remember, the Lord helps those who help themselves. And you sorry, lame, poor excuses for Roman Catholic men need the Lord’s help, believe me…

         She says more, but the two men do not hear her screeching wickedness. Instead, they hear their own hearts beating like wild drums in the Black Congo.

         They look at each other one more time, wince in pain, grab a handful of eggs, and start the mayhem. The incoming artillery shells deface the home and shatter each and every one of the front windows within seconds. The drooping, yellowish, egg sores on the home façade resemble the sores on an aging leper, when he has reconciled himself to his impending death. It is as if the house has surrendered; its roof stooping downward like beaten shoulders; its face melting into the anguished image of fury; its First Baptist Church banner out front soon so pot marked as to resemble the white flag of surrender in the midst of battle.

         Punch drops his Indian action figure, when the first egg flies by his head. He waves his hands and screams like a trapped animal beholding a loony couple of butchers. He intuits that he needs to fight back at once, or else be defeated like those Red Indians of old. The last thing he wants is to go down completely, like Geronimo, especially since his papa has left him to explore the Old West in his own time and manner. He is not a smart boy, but he has courage and pride; and those two attributes will keep a cowboy’s white hat square on his big head.

         Punch runs over to a nearby rose bush. He returns with a slingshot and a handful of hard rocks. He is a good aim; indeed, much better than the two men cannonballing eggs in his direction; and he’ll do what’s required to protect his mama and siblings from this assault, no matter the consequence he may suffer.

         One of the hard rock projectiles smashes through the passenger window, and Miss Alice ducks in the nick of time. She looks out again and pumps her fist.

         Cursed rascal, Miss Alice screeches. No respect for your elders, I take it!

         Mrs. Wurst runs outside. She is a frantic and teary-eyed lady in mourning no doubt experiencing more visceral pain than normal on account of her strong, anti-Catholic bigotry and heresy. Miss Alice hopes one of the eggs does serious; perhaps even permanent; damage to her nose. Real heretics deserve no better.

         Mrs. Wurst swats the eggs away from her face. She grabs Punch, who at that very moment is aiming his slingshot at Hurley’s wide and bull-like nostrils. She forces Punch to go inside with her. He complies, but continues to look back at the attackers like he is trying to mark each and every one of them for death.

         By now, Oaf and Hurley are just having fun. Even their trepidation at the thought of being seen under the clear, blue sky has fallen away like scales from baptized eyes. They are doing God’s chores; and, surprise, they are enjoying it.

         They launch the last of their eggs against the well-stained garage door in front of them. When the eggs hit the wall, they sound like heads cracking open.

         The two men return to the van, just as Mrs. Wurst reemerges. She is still a frantic mess; blinded by the loose strands of hair falling over her right eye in particular; stained by the tears now gushing down her cheeks; but nevertheless ready and willing to return fire with fire. She is carrying a shotgun that appears to be too large for her slight frame, and yet she performs the bolt-action as if a seasoned marksman. She grips her shotgun by her waist and discharges a round.

         The right side of the van is virtually obliterated by the shell. Oaf is back there at the time. He must have nine lives, because he is not even scratched, let alone seriously wounded. Still, he crouches into a ball, and remains in that position long after Hurley puts the van into drive and roars back to Main Street.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) usually does not bother with the mail. It is always just the same: bills, bank statements, coupons, real estate ads. There is only one exception, and that is when she is supposed to receive another Hot & Bothered Dream Girls Shopping Catalog (slogan above a middle aged, jowly, plump gal stretched into fake Victoria’s Secret lingerie: Get It! Flaunt It! So he comes for more!). On those days, she puts on her bathrobe, and waits anxiously by the front door for the first sign of the mailman (strange old man with a limp rumored to be half Negro on his gimpy side). She always delivers him a big grin and a flirty wink, as she opens the front door and wiggles her soapy breasts out from behind her robe. The mailman never seems to notice (maybe he is ‘one of the boys,’ as well as a half Negro with a limp, she thinks every time). He simply hands her the mail, rather than dropping it into the mail slot in the front door, and bids her a fine afternoon. She keeps her pose until he is out of view; then, scrambling back into her bedroom like a child with his favorite Christmas gift in hand, she unceremoniously tosses the rest of the mail onto the floor, and tears the catalog out from its hermetically sealed package. She gasps every time she sees the pinup model, and dreams about being a Hot and Bothered model, also.

         Well, today is Hot and Bothered Day; and, as usual, Margaret is squeezed into her sudsy bathrobe and waiting giddily for the gimpy mailman to limp onto her driveway. She hears the television from her master bedroom (‘As sand goes through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives,’ followed by a housewife showing her neighbors how Bounty is the kind of ‘Quicker-Picker Upper’ sure to put a smile on her husband’s lips). She smells the pungent scent from her polish remover wafting down the hallway and into the foyer. But these distractions do not sway her a bit, not just because the catalog is on its way, but also because now, finally, she is going to order something. She imagines that this is how men feel the first time they actually call one of those 976 numbers in the back page of their stag magazine. It is one thing to be a simpering, bug eyed, fool, looking at a picture of the 976 blond bimbo model going down on a telephone receiver, while trying to coax ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ up and awake inside of his briefs. It is quite another to be a simpering, bug eyed fool actually talking on the phone to Breathless Barbie (always sounds like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat). Really, the first is a safe and harmless fantasy; and there is no risk involved, so long as the man gets rid of his stag before his wife or mother returns. But there is risk, real, unadulterated risk, in the second. After all, Breathless Barbie may be the girl next door who, as such, recognizes his voice; or wifey or mama may chance upon the 976 line item on the phone bill; or ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ actually may awaken enough to make a mess on the carpet. Regardless, doing instead of just dreaming is a great leap forward; and so it portends danger unimagined before.

         She skims through the lingerie; red or pink lace stretched over flab; tiny, red, sequined, Valentine heart put in just the right hot spot so that the catalog is not categorized as pornography; two kissing lips made from stretched nylon, one on each butt cheek, with a white T-shirt that screams on the back: Kiss My Nylons! Normally, she spends hours poring over each image, imagining the look on her lover boy’s face when he sees her posing or wiggling in the attire, rolling her fingers over her skin in order to fantasize better how the fabric would feel; but today she hurries to the back of the catalog where Hot & Bothered features cocktail dresses (‘for the party before the party,’ wink, wink). She is going on a personal adventure tonight; a Texas Two-Step with Danger that is going to free her finally from the very last vestiges of her old life; a player in a conspiracy of which she knows very little outside of her own role, but which, for that reason, looms large in her imagination. She wants to make certain that she is as sexy as sexy gets, especially if she is captured along the way, and paraded later before the local press (or, in this small town, before Miss Anna Burns and her camera).

         She picks a black cocktail dress with little hearts stitched along the low-hanging collar. Really, it is little more than a slip swaying an inch or so beneath the model’s knees. It is rather inappropriate to the task at hand, but it is a fun, frivolous, and flirty gesture; a swan song to her old life; an embrace of the new life that her lover boy has offered her. She giggles like a schoolgirl as she picks up her cordless phone and orders this dress to be driven down from the store in Beverly this same day. She hangs up on that saleswoman, and blushes beet red.

*   *   *

         Peggy is also beet red, but the color is not in her cheeks. Indeed, if she had had access to a mirror just then, then she would have seen that her skin is the very expression of snow white, trembling, beaten fear. Rather, the color is in her hands. It is the blood that is gurgling out from the deep wounds that she had suffered when trying to escape the old truck. It is streaking down her arms, dripping onto her dress, and stinking up the vehicle with a dank, coppery scent.

         She had been staring blankly at the corpse of her old and dear friend for God knows how long. So far as she could tell, she had never lost consciousness; but neither did she have the mental wherewithal then to make sense of what in fact had happened. She just hovered in that twilight zone, every now and then dipping down to take notice of something in more detail, then ascending to the heights of fantasy. It was unreal, like skimming the pages of a catalog, and yet fixating on only one image: Her old and dear friend, Luke Hanson, his chest and stomach sprawled over a boulder, his head flapping up and down on the end of a twisted spine, so that he looks like a Dead Muslim prostrating before a Mecca that only exists in his deceased mind. On one level, she knows that that creepy head flap indicates nothing other than that the wet, rocky banks on either side of Wild Indian Creek have turned the otherwise soft and quiet water flow into a wind tunnel. But on another level; a deep, primal, intuitive heart that could be found as much in a little girl hiding from the boogeyman as in a hardened, ugly, snarling whore reminding the boogeyman to pay up before he unbuckles; there is no denying how awful and garish scenes continue to live on in their very own garishness. Every time Luke’s head flaps upward, blood squirts out from the top of his forehead, and shimmies a brief time in the wind. Every time Luke’s head slams back into the boulder, there is the sound of eggs cracking on hot cement.

         The egg cracking sound had been repeated so many times, always three seconds after the blood squirt, always the same egg shells crunching into small bits, that it had started to play on her taciturn mind and careful heart, forming dark images that seemed to be taunting her, even once lifting her old and dear friend’s head far enough off the boulder so that he could look back at her, and grin like the Cheshire cat. She had told herself in hushed and anxious tones the story drummed up by the rational mind: the dead do not live, no, not truly; the dead do not turn back and grin wildly at their old flames; the dead do not scare little girls, nor do they remind older women that, when looked at with the eye of a jaded and fallen soul, the routines of life also can be quite frightening. But the irrational mind had crept up from behind and had forced her imagination to see what the rational mind will not: the dead live; they stink; they turn color in time; and then they haunt you, long after their cold bodies are lost in the dust.

         And with that morbid thought, she had awakened just enough to eye the broken glass near her. Perhaps if she crawled slowly and carefully, she’d sneak through the hole in the glass and find actual refuge from all that head flapping.

         But she did not sneak through the hole in the glass. Rather, she wounded herself, while pushing aside those old glass shards that really should have been kicked aside. She lost color in her skin, whenever she glanced at her deep cuts.

         And the head flapping continues, unabated, swoosh the head flies up to release more blood, crunch the head slams back into the rock, like a machine, a living machine. And if she does not get the heck out of there; crawl through a hole in the glass; kick back the glass shards; face into the hard and unforgiving wind tunnel; then the next time that head lifts high enough to face her straight on, it’s going to do more than just grin like the Cheshire cat. It’s going to speak to her in Luke’s voice: I gave up my life for you. Least you could’ve done is kiss me. Just a little love between old friends, huh? Just a touch for old times sake?

         Peggy groans. It is an ugly mix of anger, fear, and physical pain; a grimy, guttural release from the depth of her bowels; a crazed lament much like what the ghosts endure when they first come face to face with the fact that, even as dead and decayed, they live on in their frustrations, sorrows, and fears. Luke is alive. He is alive; a smashed corpse flapping in the wind like a bloody towel rag on a rock; but so alive, so visceral, so much a fixture in that sad scene as to be etched into the consciousness of the wind, the creek, the boulder, the smashed truck, and of course Peggy Compton herself. Yes, he is so alive, he’ll be part of whatever life remains for her; a smiling face in her nightmares; a passing scent along the sidewalk; an old man limp in some other person that just reminds her of him; and, above all, a terrible guilt that stoops her thin shoulders and wears down her wrinkled face. She is an old woman already; but with Luke now living in her life, she’ll be a miserable crone cast in the pall of her eternal mourning; dead to any possibility of hope; remote and distant, where once she had loved.

         Such awful, sad, self-loathing thoughts; the kind of thoughts that tax the body and the soul of any desire to press on; the kind of thoughts that culminate into this one snarling chide: Okay, so you know you need to get the heck out of here. You know if you stay, it’s going to get worse. But you’re not going to exit stage right. Oh no, you’re not going anywhere, because you know deep down in your heart that you’re the reason Luke Hanson is dead. You and your principled sense of right and wrong; you and your duty to the chief; you and your infernal snooping in other people’s business; yes, it’s all because of you, and you alone, that Luke Hanson is dead and gone without even getting one last kiss from you.

         The kind of thoughts that will keep Peggy Compton inside that old truck, rather than outside of it, wallowing in self-pity, rather than warning the chief…

         Peggy snaps out of it. She feels like she’s awakening from a disorienting, controlling dream; a manipulative dream; and she believes that, if she retreats so much as an inch back into that quite perverse, and yet strangely comforting, twilight, then she will remain in that old truck forevermore, eaten away by her sad tears, pushed back to her grave by the wind, dead in her own death dream.

         She curls her bloodied hands into fists, and smashes the glass shards. She screams out like a mad woman, an orgasmic bitch, and though overwhelmed by pain, does not stop until the hole in the glass is large enough. She stares at her fists, when she is done. They look like two balls of bloodied chuck meat on the ends of thin sticks, not Rocky Balboa punching ribs in a meat locker, but an old, exhausted, scared woman beating out from within the shell of her crazed fears.

         I hear the Stars of the Western Sky are moseying on into town, the head-flapping horror says to her in a voice that sounds like Luke Hanson, and yet also sounds like eggs cracking on hard concrete. Why don’t you dance with me, huh? Maybe given an old man one last kiss before the closing bell and the cold night? Or if that’s too much, then how about touching me down there, like you really did once upon a time? Dead’s the shits, let me tell ya. It’s the least you can do.

         But Peggy is no longer listening. Because of her mutilated fists, she finds that she cannot crawl, so instead she slithers through the hole in the glass. She worms her way over the mossy rocks, kicking back with her beaten legs, pulling forward with her scabbed elbows, and all the while gathering so much mud and gravel into her floral dress as to appear like a white-haired monster just caked in the fallen earth. And, indeed, she is a beast just then. She has to be a beast, when the only alternative is to surrender finally to the temptations of a dream.

*   *   *

         Porkin hates to look directly into Horace’s face. It is so damned charcoal black; an aboriginal face that looks as if it had been smashed inward by a large Goodyear tire when the little darkie had been born on the edge of town; a big, wide nose that would be a racist caricature, except that it is not a drawing in a white supremacist magazine, but an actual deformity on an actual face. His big eyes bulge out from this smashed face like the fatter ends of light bulbs poking out from sockets. He keeps licking his big lips, smacking and drooling like there is an animal appetite in that round belly of his that is demanding to be satiated right here and now; and Porkin cannot help but imagine a silly pickaninny coon, salivating at the watermelon he is holding out for him in his hands and snapping at the end of an unseen leash. In fact, Horace is nothing of the sort. He is black surely, but he is far removed from that caricature that is playing itself out now in Porkin’s mind. No matter. For Porkin, the truth is what he wants it to be just then; and whenever he is approaching a potential buyer of his wares, the truth in Porkin’s mind anyway is that he is a watermelon seller and the other guy is a rabid coon. It is best to think of every single transaction in this way. It removes from the cashier’s table those pesky moral considerations that, if ever indulged in a moment of weakness, would cut seriously into any profit margin, no doubt.

         I’m not interested in what you’re peddling, Mr. Peabody, Horace snarls. I have been clean for the better part of a year and intend to remain that way, so help me Jesus. So I reckon you’d better leave me alone before I call the police.

         That is not how Porkin chooses to hear him. Instead, in Porkin’s mind, an ugly coon snarls: I ain’t diggin’ your snuff, Porky. I be one of them Jesus coons.

         Porkin grins. Horace always plays hard to get whenever he comes around to show him his latest merchandise. The Redwood General security guard in the cramped safety office beside the dumpsters insists every time that he has given up the ‘devil’s appetizers’ for his Marlboros; that he has made his pact with the Lord and is not turning back to Beelzebub; that he may die from lung cancer at the very same hospital that he has been patrolling for decades, but that he will be counted at least among those who had sobered up from the Reefer Madness.

         Look, I’m offering you a chance to be a Civil Rights pioneer, Porkin says. I’ve never sold Maui Wowie to the colored set. You’d be the first nigger in town to smoke the white man’s burden. Or you could sell it, for all that I care, make a little profit, and give all the proceeds to your ‘Jesus Loves Me’ nigger church.

         You’re the only peddler I know who insults his customers; Horace sneers.

         Ah, so you admit that you are a customer, Porkin remarks confidentially.

         I don’t admit anything of the sort, Horace snaps, as he rushes over from behind his desk and stuffs his face into Porkin’s sinister grin. I’m a sick bastard, dead in my sin, but for what Jesus did for me on Cavalry Way, but I’m not now, and never will be again, so help me Happy Jesus, one of your cursed customers.

         This conversation is working out exactly as Porkin had hoped. Horace has taken the bait. The security guard is in his face, which means he is not glancing at the fuzzy, black and white, closed circuit television screen on the other side of the cramped safety office. Instead, Porkin is glancing at the screen, while he is pretending to tease Horace into buying his ‘devil’s weed’ for old time’s sake.

         Well, you are a customer of Big Tobacco, Porkin prattles, while actually paying attention to what is on the screen. And we both know what Big Tobacco did to your people. Here I am offering you a chance to ride on the white side of the bus. You’d be the Rosa Parks of Maui Wowie in your neighborhood, I tell ya. And all that for a discount. Did I forget to mention I’m selling tonight only for a third the normal rate? Well, golly gee whiz, I think I did forget to mention that.

         Third the normal rate, huh? Horace surmises the resale profit a moment longer than a good man should. And you’re talking the good stuff? Maui Wowie?

         Porkin observes Chuckles now talking up Nurse Dora at the intensive care nurse station. The orderly is all smiles, leaning over the counter, maybe kissing the lesbo, maybe just fogging up her owl glasses with his whiskey stench. It is a bit hard to tell from the camera angle. Whatever Chuckles is doing, he is simply not doing it fast enough. Porkin cannot divert Horace’s attention forever, even if he goes ahead and sells him a baggie at the ridiculous discount he is offering.

*   *   *

         Chuckles hates to look directly into Dora’s face. It is so damned mousey; a pair of rat’s eyes magnified ten fold by owl glasses; a clammy expression that suggests a wet rodent pissed off that the cheese square has been placed out of reach yet again; a dry coppery smell that suggests a pussy that has been chaste so long as to be tantamount to a rusted chastity belt. For all her insipid clinging and conniving, Dora never got Lola to lick her down there, Chuckles thinks. And she’s gotta be a pissy cunt now that Lola’s only body parts in the town morgue.

         At the same time, there is a neediness in her eyes that manages to break through her physical and emotional barriers. She could never be a prom queen; frankly, not even a prom date; but now that Lola is out of the picture for good, sad, but true, perhaps she can have her chance to be the apple of a man’s eye.

         Chuckles reads her neediness. He smiles like Cheshire cat, leans into her face, and plays out his role. Her smell inspires a gross fit of nausea in the pit of stomach; but he is able to keep his swagger and his charm intact, nevertheless.

         I thought of you the moment I heard the news, Chuckles whispers softly.

         Ah, that’s so sweet, Dora blushes, and then looks nervously at her hands.

         Chuckles takes her hands into his. He moves his face in, so that he is just an inch or so away from kissing her on her trembling lips. He tries not to inhale her clammy rat’s breath. He fights the urge to vomit bile into her mousey face.

         I really did, Chuckles continues. I realize that I always had eyes for Lola, but you should know that I also had a place in my heart for you; a special place that I never shared with Lola; a special place I’d finally like to share with you…

         Chuckles works hard to contain his laughter. He is rolling out his lines as if one of the stock writers of Harlequin Romances. Frankly, he did not know he had it in him; and, for a moment anyway, this sudden realization removes from his mind the horrible fear that he may go ahead and hurl all over her ugly face.

         For her part, she is no fool; but she wants to be fooled. She had followed her intuition back to Lola’s apartment, knocking feverishly on her door, sensing that her only friend was on her way to Redwood General to do something awful and ultimately self-destructive. She could have driven over to the hospital. She could have waited around the intensive care unit a while just to see if her wild hunch turned out to be correct and a mad Lola Lipinski showed up in time to do what a mad woman is quite capable of doing. But at the critical moment, when there was still a window of opportunity, she’d set her intuition aside, and gone home. It is not that she had doubted her intuition. On the contrary, she’d been about as sure of her intuited grasp of the situation as if it had been laid out for her without any shades of grey in the presentation. She set the intuition aside, ignored the angel whispering in her ear, because deep down she really wanted Lola to do something that would break once and for all time the real inequality in their relationship. Dora did not know what that something might be; but she figured that, in the end, Lola would fall one or two pegs, and concurrently Dora would ascend one or two pegs. Lola would be even more broken; Dora would be even more necessary to prop her up. Lola would need Dora, and Dora would be needed. And if blood had to be shed, then so be it, Dora had thought, when she had returned to her automobile and had determined to drive back to her home.

         Yes, Dora had wanted, and had expected, a more broken Lola; but she’d never envisioned a dead Lola. Or had she? In the darkest moments of her silent, reserved, dry eyed grief that day, she’d wondered if perhaps she had foreseen, even in a way set into motion, the events leading up to Lola’s violent death. In her own quiet way, she’d been Lola’s enabler for some time; and she could not shake the thought that an enabler, in fact, does more than enable. The enabler actually is a co-conspirator; no doubt less conspicuous than the principal actor; no doubt able to deny the full extent of her involvement; but a co-conspirator, nonetheless. Dora pushed Lola through that window, not literally, but morally. The literal pusher can be excused for having unleashed violence in a fit of fury. The moral pusher cannot be so excused, because in the end the moral pusher is the one who has been working softly and silently to lure the victim to the edge.

         And so Dora is no fool; but given the moral tension afflicting her psyche, the sadness over losing her one friend, the inchoate fear that she had had some real role in the series of events leading up to Lola’s death, the relief that she is able finally to come out from beneath Lola’s shadow (not only to ascend one or two pegs at Lola’s expense, but in a sense to win outright, because Lola indeed has lost), she wants to be fooled. She wants to be the girl who gets that phony, sugar sweet pickup line. She wants to be the girl who is taken into a proverbial back room and ravished. To some extent, she is motivated by her self-loathing; to some extent, incongruously, by her self-importance now that she is the ‘last woman standing’ between the two of them; but mostly she just wants to forget that moral quandary in which she has been mired ever since learning the sordid details. She feels like all day she’s been awakening from a long dream; a dream that started the moment she met Lola; a dream as intense when they’d had the chance to work or to play together as when she’d been alone at home with just the darkness of night as her partner in crime; and now, afraid that she is about to awaken altogether, and to face head on that moral quandary that her dream had obscured, she just wants to be taken into that dark, back room. She wants to dream the dream that cannot be broken even by the light of the eternal sun.

         Be with me, Dora remarks with a sudden force that knocks Chuckles back a step. Take me into the back room. Do with me what you used to do with her…

         The thought lingers in the air between them. Dora once more looks down at her hands. Chuckles once more fights his impulse to puke. And yet, as totally uncomfortable as they both feel just then, they are each on the verge of really getting what they want. Dora wants to be ravished. Chuckles wants to get Dora away from the intensive care nurse station. How sad that when two people get what they want from one another, they each feel like vomiting up their supper.

         Chuckles breaks the tension with his devilish grin. He leans into her face.

         I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, he lies, just as her glasses fog up.

         So have I, Dora mutters. More than you could ever know. So much more.

         Go into the sleep room, and wait for me there, Chuckles whispers softly.

         Dora knows that in leaving her duty station, the attempted burglar down the hall will be unguarded. According to her master list, Deputy Craig should be on watch right now; but he is not here, and there is no indication that someone else from the Redwood PD is going to arrive any time soon to fill in for him. She knows that she cannot really substitute for one of Redwood’s finest; but so long as she is at her duty station she can call the Redwood PD, if an oddball wanders into here. Surely, the fear that something may happen nags on her conscience…

         But it does not nag loud enough, as she sets her conscience aside at once simply by nodding in the affirmative in response to what Chuckles has just said.

         I’ll get a gift for the occasion, Chuckles offers. Just wait for me in there.

         Dora knows that he is not going to be getting her a gift. Clearly, he is up to no good. But she does not care. This is her chance, and she is going to grab a hold of it before this special moment passes, no matter any other consequence. The alternative is to lose hold of that dream that has been keeping her going so long and to confront what she actually did to her one and only friend last night.

         She steps out from behind her desk, stares longingly into Chuckles’ wide, devilish grin, and retreats to the sleep room. Chuckles eyes her until she is out of sight, looks straight into the video camera, and releases his stifled laugh. He is a clown let loose at that moment; all smiles, insane lust gleaming in his eyes.

*   *   *

         In her own way, Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) is as tense as Nurse Dora just then, except that the source of Margaret’s tension is not a nagging internal conflict between feelings of guilt, on the one hand, and of hard won victory, on the other. No, so far as Margaret can tell, there is no emotional strife bubbling out from within her soul; no second thought about the path that she has chosen at this stage in her life; nothing at all, really, but a horrible ache in her middle boobs and waist on account of wearing a new cocktail dress two sizes too small for this or any other occasion. She is damned sure she looks sexy. Whatever she has she flaunts just in the awkward and contrived manner in which she walks in her tight dress and high heels; but no matter how much she grins, the pain is as undeniable as rats gnawing into flesh. She just hopes that, for all her effort this evening, her lover boy sees her in her outfit, before she carries out her portion of this conspiracy, and then returns belatedly to her bed and her vanity mirror.

         As for her part in this play, she cannot imagine that it is all that difficult to accomplish, let alone riskyand sexy. She is supposed to man an old, defunct ambulance that her lover boy earlier that same day had left for her in the dark and overgrown field behind Redwood General. When she then observes the real paramedics leave in their real ambulance (presumably in response to a real call unless they too are in on this play), she is supposed to drive her vintage wheels out from behind a thorny rose bush, up to a loading platform at the rear exit to the hospital, and then out of town. She presumes that she is going to be picking up some sort of cargo; and if that is the case, then she presumes she is playing the role of the ‘mule’ in this play. Hopefully, she is the most beautiful and fair of the mules, rather than a stupid jackass being pulled by its teeth into a ditch.

         Regardless, I’m going to embrace this role with gusto, she thinks, as she leans against the dirty hood of her ambulance and watches the real paramedics passing a joint. There are no small roles. There are only small actors. And with the lover boy in charge, there’s not going to be anything small about this night.

         And so even if not difficult, she’ll make it risky and sexy. She will go the extra mile in this regard, because her lover boy deserves a gal who gives just as much as she gets. She smiles, and licks her lips, when she contemplates in vivid detail just how much she is willing to give to the lover boy living in her dreams.

*   *   *

         Goddamn amateur, Porkin thinks, as he looks now and then at the closed circuit television screen on the other side of the cramped security room. If that deadbeat Chuckles had been faster in persuading that lesbo to get the heck out of Dodge, then I wouldn’t have had to sell my Maui Wowie to this nigger at such a ridiculously low price. That shitty grin already is eating into my profit margin.

         Nurse Dora has left the scene. Chuckles has snuck into the intensive care room at the end of the hall. All is going as planned, though Porkin cannot shake the fact that he’s had to sacrifice some of his merchandise to keep that darkie, Horace, from observing what is on his closed circuit television screen, while the interloper has not incurred any greater inconvenience than to get a bit up close and personal to the lesbo. Porkin makes a mental note to balance the scales on this matter sometime later, when he thinks that he can do so without irritating Deputy Rickard. Porkin believes in getting even, but he also believes in being a smart and cagey son of a bitch; and that often means holding his cards until the finale. After all, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run, or something along those lines he had heard in an old country song. That’s just the way it’s going to be in the end when any interloper ingratiates himself to the boss, and takes half his territory.

         Now, let me be clear, Horace says, while rolling some Maui Wowie into a joint. I’ve not fallen off any wagon. I just need to make certain this devil weed truly is as good as its reputation. Rosa Parks didn’t go to jail so that her people could sit in the front of a Mexican jalopy. I’ll be damned if I take on the risk of an illicit trade, so that my people can enjoy a bud that is all show, but no jazz.

         Of course, Porkin agrees, while briefly returning his gaze to the security guard. You’re a coon with a white man’s soul. I’d expect nothing less from you.

         Horace pauses. He wrinkles his brow. He is not sure then if he should be complimented or outraged by the comment. He then decides that it really does not matter. Porkin is just one more in a long line of ignorant assholes; the Maui Wowie Porkin has sold him is still devil weed (even if it turns out to be the very best devil weed he’s ever lit up and smoked this side the Mississippi); and when all has been said and done, Horace still will be able to look at himself in his big mirror at home and to tell himself that he’s a ‘good man,’ in spite of his role in introducing Maui Wowie into the community of black folks on the edge of town. In Horace’s mind, the moral equation is never going to change; and so if that is the case, then what does it matter truly if he should be called a coon or a king?

         Finally, Porkin sees Chuckles pushing a comatose Howdy Doody lookalike down the hall. That freckled boy is so stiff beneath that thin blanket of his that he actually could be mistaken for dead, but for the wiggly lines on the monitor being rolled alongside his hospital bed. It is sad, really, how that young boy has been caught up in the boss’s conspiracy, even though as a burglary suspect that young boy hardly can be thought of as an innocent in this sordid turn of events.

         Porkin knocks that sadness aside. Empathy is never good for business, no matter the time or the season; and so he is careful to grin broadly, to strike an old match against his trousers, and to light Horace’s rolled joint with his flame.

         Horace inhales deeply. He coughs; but the warm and watery glint within his eyes suggests that he enjoyed it much more than a ‘good man’ should enjoy anything in this fallen world of ours. He will be wasted after two or three more puffs on the Reefer Madness in his dark fingers; and so notwithstanding his very fervent insistence to the contrary, he’ll be off the wagon and in the slimy mud, well before the mad conspiracy now underway has reached its unfortunate end.

*   *   *

         Chuckles stops briefly in front of a freight elevator. He glances nervously behind his shoulders. He is smiling wildly still, but the smile now is more forced than ever before. As a result, he seems much more demented than childish, an unsavory devil’s imp in a blue orderly uniform, a beast with a hospital bracelet.

         Seeing that the coast is clear, he removes a cellular phone from his right pocket, and dials carefully the seven digits that he had memorized beforehand.

*   *   *

         Deputy Rickard is sitting in the dark. He is behind the wheel of his patrol car, which he had parked a while ago inside the branches and the shrubbery of an infamous speed trap near the edge of town. He is tapping his steering wheel methodically; the slow tempo and the simple melody for Army Taps, he thinks, though in fact he is a beat off; and staring blankly at the shack of an old Negro his granddad had busted for ‘breathing while black’ back in the good, old days. He imagines kicking through that shanty door and squeezing that coon’s squishy brains out through his ears and eyeballs. He has been imagining that a lot lately on account of being so close finally to framing the chief and to take his job for himself. Sometimes, he dreams of squishing out the brains of certain white folk he has grown to hate over the years; but, mostly, he dreams of the strange and stupid look on the niggers’ faces, when finally he is able to push the riffraff out of this town. And the first nigger to go will be that darkie right in front of him…

         His cellular phone rings. He awakens from his reverie a moment. He sees that he has sprouted a mushroom inside his crotch, as he reaches for his phone.

         The right text is on his cellular phone screen: Lazarus is out of his tomb.

         But it is not the right time. He wants to think of Chuckles as his new fair haired boy; but he cannot help but realize that it took him too long to persuade that lesbo to step away from her nurse station. On the plus side, it is clear that Porkin managed to do his part just fine, as otherwise he’d be getting a distress call from Horace about this time. So maybe Deputy Rickard had been a bit rash in adding Chuckles to his ‘family’ and dividing up the territory between the two men. At the very least, he will need to keep an eye out on the grinning psycho.

         It’s so hard to find good help nowadays, Deputy Rickard sighs. Must have something to do with the watered down gene pool. Or maybe it’s the fluoride…

         He waits another thirty seconds; mouthing out the seconds in silence like he is screwing the girly girl (One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi); and then he dials Redwood General on his cellular phone. Since there is a block on his number, the operator there will have no idea who is calling to report the horrible car accident further out of town. She’ll just know that an old truck has fallen into the rocks beside Wild Indian Creek and that paramedics are required at the scene ASAP. And she’ll dispatch the paramedics, because that my friends is what she does. Isn’t it great when every peon does his or her part in this life?

*   *   *

         There are synchronicities in life that are implausible in the rational mind but totally believable in the imagination. Coincidence, fate, the intercession of the gods, all these are downplayed in the world of clear headed reason, just as they are preeminent in the world of fantasies and dreams. Whenever there is a sudden and inexplicable overlapping of reason and fantasy, conscious mind and surreal dream, we call this jolting experience ‘confusion.’ Mercifully, confusion usually lasts only a brief moment in time. It is a shudder when we think we see something down a dark alleyway. It is a skip in our step when we think we hear someone who is long dead calling out to us. The incident passes; we shrug it off as a loose marble; and we go our ways with the conviction that the natural and physical laws still reign over the universe. What happens if the confusion lasts a longer period of time, say an hour, or a day? What happens if it afflicts a family or a town or an entire world? When that happens we have what we usually call ‘madness,’ unadulterated fear, raving lunatic eyes, long teeth swimming in sick drool. Then, the beasts reign. There, the monsters roam. And the synchronicity that might be charming, or just a bit peculiar, in the normal affairs of life gnaw at the very foundations of sanity. In due time, like a storm receding back to its origin across the sea, the sheer madness passes. The synchronicity is once more implausible in the rational mind, and it is totally believable in the imagination. But take a close look into the eyes of those who had been touched by madness; peer into their pupils; stay inside their tortured minds a while longer than feels comfortable; and you will see that the madness really has not gone away at all. It is in there, subdued, veiled, but haunting the soul nonetheless with memory, reminding the conscious mind how everything can turn on a dime, and instilling in the subconscious mind a vague fear that synchronicity is neither coincidence, nor fate, nor the intercession of the gods, but rather the devil’s maniacal laugh and cold touch. Nothing is ever the same again afterwards. Two phones ringing at the same time; two messages imparted in the same haste; two fates bridged at the same point in space and in time; these are no longer verses in silly, star-crossed poems, but instead crazed screeches belted out by a devil on the loose.

         And so the very moment that Chuckles texts Deputy Rickard, Peggy leans back on the hood of an old and dilapidated Studebaker parked along the side of the road, lifts the borrowed cellular phone to her right ear (not easy to do as it feels like a heavy dumbbell in her bruised and beaten right hand), and rings the number that she hopes belongs to Deputy Claire. Normally, she would have not have any problem at all in remembering her phone number; but this whole day has been anything but normal for her. It has been a strange trip through hell on a sad highway with no companion but a monster nipping angrily upon her heels.

         Way back when the sun had reigned in the sky, and the soft splash of the Wild Indian Creek could be heard in the near distance, she’d managed to crawl over the mossy rocks and back onto the two-lane road. She never looked back, not when she regained her step, nor when she stopped for a while to rediscover her breaths. She already knew what was down there: the head flapping, blood squirting, cajoling Luke Hanson, still trying to get a slow dance out of her, still reminding her of when she’d stared into his eyes, and touched him down there.

         If Luke had stayed down there; if he’d condescended to wash away with the stream; if he’d squirted out his last pint of blood and smashed into millions of pieces finally against the boulder; then perhaps the long and tumultuous day could have been a bit more manageable for the dirt and blood caked woman on the side of the two-lane road. She’d have been delirious in pain, of course; just disconsolate with grief; maybe even on the verge of madness; but the stoic and stubborn Peggy Compton, gatekeeper to the Chief of Police, taciturn keeper of law and order in the very office of law and order, would have stumbled forward on the sane side of the fence. But, of course, Luke had not stayed down there, dead and gone. He’d had too much of a twinkle in his eye, and a swagger to his step, to be the kind of corpse that just turns blue and stiff underneath the sun.

         I hear the Stars of the Western Sky are moseying on into town, Luke had wisecracked out from nowhere. Why don’t you dance with me, huh? Give an old man a last kiss? Maybe let him pinch your nipple, before his dead hand falls off?

         She’d tried to hurry her step; hearing his loony voice behind her; feeling his liquored up breaths caressing the hairs on the back of her neck; intuiting his fingers reaching for the hem of her dress; but her injuries had hobbled her way too much. The most that she could do was to fall to her bloodied knees, and to crouch her dizzy head into her lap, until that Luke Ghost had had his fill kissing the bruises on her neck, fondling the achy bone in each of her butt cheeks, and at one point even lathering the bony spine down her back with his blue tongue.

         This had happened countless times. He’d have his fill; she’d climb up to her feet; she’d make some way down the long and windy road; he’d sneak back in one of the breezes lifting her dress from her legs; and she’d crouch yet again into a sad and whimpering ball. So far as she could tell not one automobile had passed her that whole afternoon; not one bird had flown overhead; not one dog had crossed her path; nothing had intervened to free her mind from that awful, wisecracking, drunken ghost. She’d forgotten where she was headed, or why on earth she was headed there. Indeed, the whole of the universe had deflated as if a punctured balloon to the size of her mind and the ghost trailing behind her.

         Night had descended like a shroud, and with the night had come finally a pair of headlights beaming into her watery and bloodshot eyes. And that strong light had been all that was necessary to vanquish the Luke Ghost and to set her mind straight; not at ease, to be sure; but finally on the sane side of the fence.

         The Studebaker had come to a halt. The old man who had emerged from the cabin had been an out-of-towner; a farmer from someplace else on his way to Beverly; just passing through the Redwood Township without any awareness, let alone care, for what has been assaulting her small town of late. She’d found his foreignness to be relaxing; a reminder that, indeed, there is a world outside of the cauldron in which we find ourselves; an indication that, no matter how a storm may ravage at the moment, it is ultimately limited in reach only to those bruised and battered souls who have been marked for madness. Perhaps if he’d been spared, then she could be too, if not at that moment then at a later time.

         She insists that she needs to make a phone call. He insists that she needs to go to the hospital. The old stoic and stubborn Peggy Compton revives; and as is normal in her life, she gets her way, though only after promising that she will let him drive her to the closest hospital after she’s had her chance to place her call. The old man relents; digs a while through the pocket in his overalls (damn wrinkled snot rags and receipts seem to multiply in his grubby, arthritic fingers like the loaves and fishes); fetches an old cellular phone (grandson thinks that I should have it, in case I get another burp in the heart, but can’t make sense of all the Japanese squiggles on the screen); and finally puts the ‘goddamned Rice Burner Telephone’ into her bloodied hand, like he’s a defeated military general handing over his white flag. The old man cannot quite figure out if he adores or despises her stubbornness; and though the old Peggy could have helped him to decide one way or another, the new Peggy is glad enough just to be able to get the seven digit cell number out of her rattled head and, more or less, to dial it.

         Peggy leans against the hood, while the old man scratches his gray head.

         Deputy Claire answers just before it goes to voicemail. Peggy is not sure, if she is relieved or exhausted; but, regardless, she seems to sink into the grille just then. The old man reaches forward, but she tells him with a subtle wave of her free hand that she does not need any help. She does not want anything now to distract her from the carefully worded message she needs to give to the only sure ally that the chief has among his deputies. She is not very clear thinking at this moment, but she is conscious enough to realize that the chief is in trouble.

         So far as she can tell, she gives Deputy Claire all the information she will need: how she’d followed Rickard all the way out to Beverly, how she’d seen a cagey Rickard returning with an obsolete ambulance, how later she’d been run off the road by the same Rickard. She is sure something wrong is going to occur this very night at Redwood General (hence the use of that obsolete ambulance) and senses that she may have been too late in telling her everything she knows.

         Deputy Claire assures her that she’ll check it out; but Peggy fears Claire simply is placating her, because Claire keeps focusing on how important it is at this time for Peggy to be treated by a doctor. The call ends with Claire offering yet another assurance, but Peggy remains unconvinced as she hands the phone back to the old man. There is just no telling what may occur in this mad dream world, especially as the unseen director of this play feels like the devil himself.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire hangs up her personal cellular phone. She has broken up a fight on the other side of town. One of Reverend Goober’s friends is sitting on a park bench in handcuffs, humming Onward Christian Soldiers, and witnessing in his mind’s eye an army of white angels ready to take him in loving gratitude to His Personal Lord and Savior’s Mansion. Each of the angels looks like a young Pat Boone wrapped inside an American Flag and holding up a King James’ Bible. Sitting beside Goober’s friend is a Roman Catholic Kraut bookseller. He also is a soiled man in handcuffs, humming The Magnificat, and seeing in his mind’s eye the Immaculately Conceived Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary looks like the young and cute Doris Day who appeared once upon a time in Pillow Talk. She is sporting a replica of Mrs. Cleaver’s pearls from the 50s television show, is wrapped inside a Vatican City Flag, and is holding up a Vulgate that flashes like a neon sign. No doubt the handcuffs alone have stopped the vicious brawl, as the two men side by side are squirming like wet puppies to deliver an elbow into the other’s ribs.

         Claire has been running about the town all day breaking up similar street fights. She cannot remember her quaint, little town ever teetering so very near to the edge. She can understand people being irate on account of the two cases of double homicide within twenty-four hours, especially in a town marred most often by alleged jaywalkers and shoplifters. But she cannot shake the suspicion that there is something much more at play here than simply disgust and fear at the recent upsurge in violence. There is something malevolent here. She sees it in the eyes of the people she’s been booking. She feels it in the black depths of her heart. She knows that it is the same malevolence that is haunting her chief.

         And so even though she suspects that Peggy is out of her mind to a large extent, she decides to do as she had promised. She trusts that Deputy Craig has secured the intensive care unit, since this is his night to be on watch beside the door leading into the attempted burglar’s dungeon. But that does not mean the wily Deputy Rickard cannot figure out some other way to raise havoc over there and, in the process, to try to undermine the trust the people have in their sick, sad sack of a police chief. There is too much evil in the air for Rickard then not to be involved in a horrible, self-aggrandizing plot with an obsolete ambulance.

         Claire decides to release the angry warriors. They throw elbows and fists at one another, but then wise up when Claire jangles her two sets of handcuffs in front of their red and watery faces. They then sulk back to their own homes.

         She returns to her patrol car, sighs, and quickly drives on to the hospital.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) watches the paramedics anxiously throw their joint into the field and scramble into the ambulance. They screech off of the parking lot, switch on their siren, and rumble out toward Hampstead Road, no doubt responding to a real or a false emergency her lover boy had arranged.

         It is only then that the conspiracy becomes very real in her mind. She’d regarded it as if an elaborate game, or perhaps even a sexual kink writ so large as to include other actors and scenarios outside the bedroom; but now that she is supposed to do her part she is suddenly transfixed by fear. This is for real; an old door bolted behind her, and a new door opened in front of her; forever and a day no going back. There will be no more nighttime naggings of her pitiful oaf of a husband; no more gossiping with the other police officers’ wives; not even those heart to heart phone calls with her son (or if she does converse with him, it will never be the same, since then she will cease to be his mother in his eyes and instead be a divorced shrew). She will be a scandalous woman, not just the Scarlet Letter character in a wild sex fantasy that she indulges with her sweaty and surly lover boy behind closed doors, but more so a real life outcast within a small and remote town. She imagines herself a hunchbacked Negress living in a shack on the edge of town, or maybe a Polack rummaging the remains of an old and abandoned mill across the railroad tracks. She is not sure what she dreams. She just senses that that dream is dreadful, and is about to become her reality.

         And yet she cannot turn back; and, truth be told, even if there had been a remote chance, she is not certain she’d want to turn back. She knows she will lose more than she gains, but she also knows she’s going to leave her prior life, and embrace her new life, in a fit of wretched excess never even contemplated in her many years as a dutiful housewife and mother. Hellfire is worth it, if the illicit orgasm is fine enough, or so she tells herself as she sits behind the wheel.

         She drives her obsolete ambulance onto the platform behind the hospital and idles there, as instructed. She is still suffering the waves of fear, but she is also feeling how her seat vibrates when the engine idles. Goddamn if it is not a huge and leathery sex toy, battery operated, and revving her clitoris toward an unmatched climax. She remembers a Woody Allen film that features a full body stimulator called an ‘Orgasmatron,’ and she decides this is even better, fucking hey! So much better, indeed, she coins her vibrator car seat her ‘Orgasm God.’

         I’m riding my Orgasm God, she roars. Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Oh, yes!

         The mood breaks, when she hears the back door creaking open; but still, she remains giddy. Whatever self-doubt and fear she had felt earlier have been washed away, figuratively from her mind, perhaps even literally in the hot and gooey love juices tinkling down her thighs just then. In her mind, she is bathing in the kind of licentious freedom usually reserved for Olympian goddess or porn stars. Forget Debbie Does Dallas, she imagines. It’s really Margaret Does Earth.

*   *   *

         Chuckles rolls the hospital bed into the ambulance. The bed barely fits, since the obsolete vehicle really is too small for the beds now commonly in use.

         Nevertheless, he manages to secure it. He had had to unplug the monitor in order to do so, but he senses that the poor bastard is not going to be needing his ‘Howdy Doody’ vital signs monitored wherever he happens to be thrown off.

         Chuckles glances at the young man. But for the freckles on his face, he’s virtually nondescript; a clean slate on which dreams may be etched and turned into living, breathing, fornicating monsters; a dismally stiff and grey flesh that, for all intent and purposes, is so mired in a coma as to be tantamount to death.

         Fucker gives me the creeps, Chuckles mumbles, as he completes his job.

         He steps out of the ambulance, shuts the door, and scampers into night.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) is happy enough to remain on the loading platform. She imagines herself an Olympian goddess porn star with the alluring screen name of Aphrodite. Her male partner is Zeus, and he does wonders with his lightning bolts. She just squirms in between his big, thick, Zeus thighs and…

         There is a pounding on the passenger side. She practically leaps out from her sizzling daydream, clutches her heart, and looks out the passenger window.

         There is a creepy weirdo standing out there. He is grinning as a madman.

         Got to go, sweetheart, the madman says. Time’s a rocking this evening.

         Margaret smiles nervously. Clearly, that weirdo out there is just a fellow conspirator; probably one of the junkies that her lover boy has arrested and has now recruited into his scheme; maybe harmless, but still too close to the edge to make her feel comfortable. She never takes her eyes off of him, as she puts the ambulance into reverse, rolls off the platform, and drives down the parking lot toward the road. She views him in her rearview mirror watching her closely.

         It is not until she pulls out of the parking lot, and removes her eyes from her rearview mirror, that she recognizes that her heart has been lodged within her throat since she first saw that maniacal grin. She panics, and as a result her eyesight blurs and her arms turn to mush. She almost drives off that unlit road.

         Calm down, Aphrodite, she reflects. Let Zeus ride you. Just let him ride.

         That seems to work. She regains her vision, though it is still an effort to will the nervous tingle out of her arms and hands. She feels as if someone else is actually driving this beast of a vehicle, and she is just along for the wild ride.

         Then, just as suddenly, she is having the time of her life. She is actually doing it. She is not sure what she is doing (besides driving unknown cargo), and she is not sure where this is going to end (her lover boy’s rapturous arms, a jail cell, a morgue, take your pick). Nevertheless, she is doing it. Driving down that proverbial dark and windy road. Going full throttle into the wild side. Leaving a pitiful and uninspired past in a cloud of dust along the side of the road, so as to ram right into God knows what just around the bend. This is Bonnie & Clyde, or Thelma & Louise, or Laurel & Hardy. No, it’s definitely not Laurel & Hardy, not by a long shot, though there is something strangely humorous about all this silly cloak and dagger plot material. You’d almost think her lover boy had instigated a particularly dastardly conspiracy, not just a harmless prank, not just a laugh-a-minute small town misdemeanor, but rather a ‘twenty-five years to life,’ way up the polluted creek without a paddle felony. And, truth be told, you’d almost think her lover boy had set her up somehow; set her up for a big fall; because…

         Because there’s a goddamn cop behind me, Margaret thinks aloud, when she glances at her rearview mirror and sees flashing tactical lights on her heels.

         Her very first thought is to pull over; but then she blushes crimson red in her cheeks, and hot and bothered in between her legs, and understands that no matter if she is being set up this is that danger for which she has been moaning and groaning for God knows how long. Her lover boy had promised her danger, not a Disneyland thrill ride, not even a harrowing roller coaster at Knott’s Berry Farm, but the real thing. And, by golly, she’s going to take it for all it is worth.

         She floors the accelerator. She puckers her shaky lips, and lifts her chin, as if she is the Aphrodite Whore leaning back on her pillow and getting ready to cum all over her lover boy’s face. She has her hands on the steering wheel, but she imagines pressing down on her lover boy’s shoulders so as to keep his young and beautiful face in her sweet spot. She squints into the dismal blackness just beyond her windshield, but she imagines staring into the tattered, dirty curtain that separates her stall from the others in the bordello. Her puckered lips start to break into a devious grin, because she can feel the first squirts of love juice.

*   *   *

         Deputy Rickard eyes the ambulance turning around the bend at the same time he hears Deputy Claire delivering an ‘officer in pursuit’ call back to police headquarters. He simply cannot believe his pointy ears. He had thought that he had taken care of her himself by assigning her to the street fight on the far side of town; and as he had not heard any distress calls over the official dispatch in the meantime, he had presumed that no one had reported a missing patient, or an unauthorized ambulance on the road, or anything else then that would have taken her away from that street fight so soon. So then why the hell is she here, flashing her tactical lights, and staying up close and personal to the ambulance winding down the way towards him? So what in God’s Name does Blondie know?

         His plan had been simple enough. He intended to pull out from his speed trap when Margaret passed him; pull her over; tell her that something had gone wrong with the scheme and that she’d need to keep silent in a jail cell for ‘one or two days max’ while he quietly ‘fixed everything’ for the two of them; book her; inform that Chink Nip newswoman that the chief’s wife had tried to kidnap the burglary suspect presumably so as to cover up her husband’s mishandling of the burglary investigation (no suspect, no prosecution, no official investigations of her husband’s police work); and then ride the wave of public discontent into the chief’s office. Once he had taken the helm, he would have driven out to his buddy in the D.A.’s office in Beverly and convinced him to drop charges against the woman (‘leniency will do a lot to bridge the awful political divide in town,’ he’d have told his buddy). No doubt, she’d leave the jail cell as the scandalous woman in town; too embarrassed to leave her bedroom; too mortified with sex guilt to look anyone else in the eyes; but that would have been just peachy, as far as Deputy Rickard is concerned. He really wanted to keep her for himself at any rate; alone in her own bedroom all day, day after day, pining for his touch, pouting for his lips, aching for his cock; his secret whore, begging for a wedding ring, but eventually happy simply to service him whenever he came a knocking.

         That had been his plan. No, even more so, that had been his dream. And it would’ve been reality, if that Blondie Bitch had not entered into this picture.

*   *   *

         Margaret Borden (nee Muldoon) roars passed the speed trap. She has not one little clue in her noggin that her lover boy is in there watching her up close and personal. Frankly, she does not have much of anything in her noggin, as she is so caught up in the delirium of an orgasm that knows no bounds. This is what the moralists would call ‘mindless abandon.’ And isn’t ‘mindless abandon’ truly the privilege of the gods in general and of the Aphrodite Whore in particular? In the end, isn’t this how the gods really separate themselves from men and dogs?

         No doubt, a heady philosophical discussion best indulged after drinking a few too many glasses of cheap wine with other philosophy majors; but Margaret will pass on this discussion, thank you very much. She’s not analyzing, certainly not parsing, but rather living to the upmost, come Hell or High Water, or both…

         In fact, her Hell turns out to be High Water. She totally misses the sharp turn in front of her, rumbles down a muddy slope, flips onto her roof, and ends up in a bed of mossy boulders beside Wild Indian Creek, not too far from where the real paramedics have uncovered what little remains of Luke Hanson and his old truck. Jagged rocks puncture the smashed windshield, and cut through both of her erect nipples. Margaret dies with a loony smile twitching on her lips, and her right hand clutching at her vagina, just the way she would’ve wanted to go.

         As for the unknown cargo in the back of the ambulance, the freckled boy never stirs from his coma. He just lays in his hospital bed, while the High Water from the creek bleeds through the several gashes along the sides, fills the area, and finally sweeps him out of his bed and into the current. No one but the stark moon sees him bobbing dead and lonesome along the surface of the creek until finally, mercifully, he is pulled into a makeshift grave of sand and rock way out yonder. No one will discover his corpse until some years have passed, and those horrors about to afflict this small and remote town have been all but forgotten.

         The boy is asleep, dead asleep, the kind of sleep from which no one can stir, not even when they are mired in the clutches of the very worst nightmare.

         And so the dream that he inspires will not be disrupted. It will grab hold of the most wayward passions, and cling desperately until the very life of those passions has been spent. It will be the storm that does not pass out to sea. And it will be the sin that knows no end, until the innocent one has been corrupted.

*   *   *

         The chief opens his eyes and gasps for air. He clutches at his heart while searching in the darkness for that last bit of breath that he had exhaled one or two seconds prior. He must have found it, because the tension eases in his face and his hand drops away from his hot and sweaty chest. He does not feel better for having found his breath, though. He feels like he wants to puke out his guts.

         The nausea reverberates in waves from his bowels to his throat, but it is not strong enough to hurl out from his chapped mouth. He is so weak he cannot even vomit, he thinks despondently. And at that awful moment, if he had been able to do so physically, then he would have cried without measure for what he has lost already. He is a broken man, good for nothing but the filthy ditch along the side of the road and the jagged rocks that puncture windshields and chests.

         What’s this with the ditch and the jagged rocks? He asks himself in a soft voice that sounds more like the moan of a tired ghost sifting in and out of cold, turbulent creek water, than the resonant speaking tone of a big, powerful man.

         But, of course, he knows, not rationally, but intuitively; the same police intuition that has been guiding his investigation of the strange affairs afflicting his remote town since the attempted burglary; the same personal intuition that had drawn him to the scene of his son’s first sinful experience with another boy some years earlier; the same personal intuition that had warned him (first, just a whisper in his mind; then, a shout in his mind that grabbed a hold of his spine and almost pulled him back) not to go down that dark and brooding alleyway in the big city decades earlier; and, he now suspects, the same personal intuition that had warned him not to squirm out through his mother’s bloody birth canal.

         He knows what’s with the ditch and the jagged rocks. He can try to deny it all he wants, but he knows. His Margie is dead. Right now, somewhere out in the darkness, the mother of his son is a bruised and bloodied corpse, crashed in a ditch, punctured by jagged rocks, and about to be swept into a violent creek.

         He sits up in his bed. Actually, this is not his bed. This is someone else’s bed, a guest bedroom, a domain of hard shadows that smells like ancient musk.

         He steps away from the bed, still not sure where he is, but dimly aware that he had been lulled into a deep sleep so that he would not be providing the steadfast security that could have saved his wife’s life. Just like he’d been out for the count, when Lola and Snoopy had gone after one another. Just like he’d been preoccupied, when the exiled priest and the football coach had butchered one another. Just like he’d been late to the scene of the attempted burglary in the first place and had been slow to pick up on what Old Man Farley had said at the time about needing to protect his boy. He’d been entrusted to succeed his father. He’d given his whole life to the one task of saving his son, his wife, and his town. And yet he’s been one step behind the whole time, catching up to the crime after the blood has been shed, clutching his heart after it has been taken out and torn into pieces. And the one time he had been there in time, watching as his son shared his first kiss with the defiler, knowing what was going on as it was going on, he’d been powerless to do anything that would keep his innocent son from going down that path. Yes, he had acted. Yes, he had cared. But none of that had been enough to keep his fair son from embracing what is out there.

         Now, because he has failed, because he has been sleeping, when he had had an obligation to be out there in the field, all Hell is breaking loose, even at this very moment. Margie is dead, but that is not the worst of it. Really, Margie had been dead to him for some time. No, what is far worse is that Hell is taking a hold of people’s sleep tonight. The front page photograph had stirred the pot a bit. The violence had escalated the temperature. But now the devil has been loosened altogether to boil the cauldron and to scald every last trace of young, beautiful innocence off the bone, leaving behind only the nightmarish screams, corrupting all he holds dear with illicit kisses and soft touches no longer veiled.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire is staggering down the muddy slope toward the wreckage, bending her knees to lower her center of gravity, holding out her arms to keep balance, when she hears another vehicle park alongside hers on the side of the road. She looks over her shoulder and is not at all surprised to observe Rickard, tall and domineering in the glare of his headlights, cupping his hands around his mouth so as to call down to her. She does not need to hear his actual words, as she would have guessed that he is taking command of the scene, and wants her to be about as far away as a Siberian gulag. She stops midway and climbs back.

         This is his mess, after all, Claire thinks. He wants to clean up the details that might prove to be a serious problem down the road. Peggy had been right. Not sure yet what he’d been trying to do here; but, no doubt, she’d been right.

         Rickard does not reach down and help her over the ledge, even though it would have been easy enough for him to do so. He avoids eye contact with her. He just stands there with his fists on his hips, looking over the crash site as if a pompous general surveying his scarred battlefield, counting out seconds of time for God knows what reason (One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi), and blinking wildly, like a boy transfixed by a nightmare of his own boogeyman.

         Claire barely conceals her disgust. She expects him to ask her how she’d known to pursue the ambulance, and she has decided already to lie, so as to be protective of Peggy’s role in the matter. But he does not utter a word, not one sound even, nothing but those incessant seconds rolling off of his puckered lips.

         A van arrives. Grim faced crime scene investigators emerge. Boy, Deputy Claire thinks, Rickard has been especially fast in getting them on the scene. He truly is on top of things, isn’t he? Always the first to show up when it suits him; nowhere to be seen when it does not; real cagey son of a bitch, Rickard Kirk is.

         Deputy Claire drives off in her patrol car. She never got close enough to the wreckage to identify the driver, though she is pretty sure what the cargo in the back had been. It does not matter anyway. Rickard will write up the report and get the fame. If he plays his cards right, as he is prone to do, he’ll be chief of police after the special meeting of the town council finishes tomorrow night.

         The politics will play itself out. What matters now is that the chief needs her; and although she would never admit this fact out loud, she also needs him.

*   *   *

         As much as she wants to go home to be with the chief, Deputy Claire has no illusion about what will happen if Peggy remains at Redwood General. Claire prides herself on her stoic rationalism; but even she cannot deny the very scent of murder in the air tonight, the irrational, intuited sense of what certainly will be happening, the superstitious grasp of the beast hidden in the shadow ahead. If Peggy does not get out of Dodge, then one way or another she’ll be the next victim of that madness that has taken roots in town. There is no way to deny it.

         Claire arrives at Redwood General in time to observe an Old Farmer John type helping Peggy walk up the steps to the emergency room. Peggy is a bloody mess; no more than a stooped and shriveled skeleton in a shroud of mud; grey-skinned and dull eyed. She needs to see any emergency room physician as soon as possible, lest she lose too much blood, or stumble into shock. But Claire just knows in her gut that if she is admitted into Redwood General, then she will be leaving there before sunrise in a wooden box. Peggy is the next one on the list. God knows how or why, but the fact of the list is as sure as the scent in the air.

         Don’t go in there, Deputy Claire shouts while running up the front steps.

         Old Farmer John looks back. He continues to grasp Peggy at her stooped shoulders. His mouth opens wide, like he is suffering a stroke or a heart attack.

         Peggy is much too weak to look back, but she stops on the second to last step. She cocks her left ear out, in order to try to hear better what Claire says.

         You were right, Deputy Claire remarks. I never should have doubted you.

         Peggy opens her mouth to try to say something; but either she physically cannot speak, or she has forgotten what she had wanted to say, as she emits no more than a troubled moan. Still, she manages to take Claire’s hands into hers, to look her in the eyes, and to twitch her blue lips into a semblance of a smile, not much, but enough to let her know that she knows what is occurring tonight.

         You know you can’t be here, Deputy Claire says slowly and loudly to her.

         What are you saying? Old Farmer John says. Can’t you see? She is in no…

         You know, don’t you? Deputy Claire looks steadily into Peggy’s dull eyes.

         There is a brief flare of understanding in those eyes. Peggy nods weakly.

         Thank you for all that you’ve done, Deputy Claire remarks to Old Farmer John, while taking Peggy into her big arms. I’ll take over now. You go on home.

         Old Farmer John cannot believe what is happening. He clasps his mouth.

         Deputy Claire leads Peggy down the stairs and into her police car. Peggy cannot even sit upright in the passenger seat. Shock could happen any moment.

         Deputy Claire roars out of town, looking over at Peggy every few seconds to see how she is doing, offering up prayers to the God she is not so sure exists.

         About ninety minutes later, she parks in front of the old county hospital in Beverly. She leaves Peggy no longer than necessary to procure a stretcher for her friend. She remains by her side in the emergency room the rest of the night and then heads back to the Redwood Township, once Peggy has been admitted.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire barely can keep her eyes open, as she parks in front of her home, and staggers up to her door. She winces in the dreadfully bright sunlight of a new day, and fumbles for the key, when at once her door just creaks open.

         The chief helps her into her home. She looks into his face, but try as she may she cannot muster a smile. She just grunts in recognition, and then follows him into the same sitting room where they had slept in each other’s tired arms.

         Margie is dead, the chief says at last. I know it. I think that you do, also.

         I’m not sure of anything, Claire mutters. No, that’s not true. I didn’t see her, but I know she died last night. I also know this town is exploding just now. It doesn’t make any sense. Towns don’t just explode. But ours is. I just know it.

         I need to go home, the chief interrupts. I need you to go with me, okay?

         She looks into his face. He is sitting across from her. His large hands are folded in his lap. His shoulders are stooped in, and his face is trembling, so that he is at once a small boy who has awakened from his nightmare but is afraid his own personal boogeyman is still waiting for him in the shadows. He really needs her, like a small boy needs his mama, his helplessly adoring eyes cry out to her.

         She nods in the affirmative. He stands up, takes her hand into his, and at once leads her out to her police car. He drives her car as she sleeps beside him.

*   *   *

         Deputy Rickard had been absorbed in thought, when Claire had followed his order and had climbed back up the muddy slope. Everything had changed on a dime, and yet he figured he could take full advantage of this tragedy anyway.

         He just needed to think through the scenario before him, and to pretend to ignore the disgusted look on Claire’s face. Really, he just needed to bide his time. Do nothing at all in fact, until Claire left that crime scene to his disposal.

         He sees her in his peripheral vision driving away. When she is out of sight finally, he calls down to the crime scene investigators, who are struggling down the muddy slope themselves toward the wreckage. He orders them to wait until he does something first, and then he steps aside to place a confidential cellular phone call. He looks back over his shoulder to make sure they cannot hear him.

         Bobbi Chu answers on the first ring. She sounds like she is out of breath.

         I have a story for you, Deputy Rickard remarks without the pleasantries.

         Captain Kirk? Bobbi Chu asks, while apparently trying to reestablish some sort of control over her end (indicated over the cellular connection by a sudden rustling of clothes or of bed sheets, followed by an emphatic Shhhh! sound, and then a deep voiced snarl or moan). You want to beam me up this time of night?

         I told you never ever to call me that, except only inside our little, secret spot; Deputy Rickard scolds. Can’t you do anything right, you Yellow Chink Nip?

         Yeah, sure, she responds absently, while evidently pushing a man away.

         I have a story for you, Deputy Rickard repeats. Plenty of blood and gore for the morning show. You’ll want to get your rice burner butt here, before my crime scene investigators clean up the scene, and remove the mangled corpses.

         Goddamn, Bobbi Chu says. Redwood’s never been so fucking newsworthy as in the past few days. I’m starting to think that I should relocate over there…

         First, don’t swear. I’m a Christian, Deputy Rickard snarls. Second, don’t relocate. We really don’t want your kind, notwithstanding our love of diversity.

         Yeah, sure, she says. So where’s the carnage? Another double homicide?

         Actually I would bill this one a ‘double suicide,’ Deputy Rickard snickers.

         He tells her where they are located and then hangs up the cellular phone (again without the pleasantries). He turns back to the crime scene investigators and gets them to do some other task, until the Beverly ABC news van shows up.

         Bobbi Chu stumbles out the van. She is bleary eyed and as high as a kite. She keeps pulling down on her green, leather skirt, so as to cover up her knees.

         So where’s the party? Bobbi Chu giggles as she wipes sweat off her brow.

         Deputy Rickard rolls his eyes in the direction of the water and mud filled wreckage down there. He sighs impatiently, as Bobbi Chu retrieves her camera.

         He slides down the muddy slope, looking back once to make certain that Bobbi Chu is following him, but otherwise staring forward in such a stone faced manner as to seem to be in a world all his own. As the slope levels off, he steps forward with the long and pretentious stride of a general advancing to his great and storied victory. One almost can hear MacArthur smirking: ‘I have returned.’

         Bobbi Chu peers through her camera lens, as she surfs down the slope in a haphazard seat of her pants manner. She laughs hysterically, like this is all an elaborate prank, and she is beginning to unveil the several layers of the humor.

         Deputy Rickard poses in front of the smashed windshield. He glares at his camerawoman, but he does not say anything. In a way, it is fitting that Bobbi is as high as a kite. The whole scene is surreal, like something out of a crazy, odd bird fantasy that cannot decide if it is a dream or a nightmare. Still, this is now his moment; and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let it slip, because tonight his camerawoman is a Yellow Chink Nip Loon. And so, while he does not reprimand her, he penetrates her bleary eyes with his dead man stare until she gets a hint and stifles the laugh. He waits until she is serious; then proceeds with his show.

         He removes a flashlight from his belt, and shines the beam on the corpse behind the steering wheel. It is almost entirely covered by a mound of mud and slime; but when he raises the beam to its face, he reveals the corpse to be the late Mrs. William Borden, Jr. Her face is unmistakable in close up, even though it had been contorted by the manner of death into a perverse hybrid expression of grim fright and sexual abandon. Apparently, she’d been totally scared out of her wits and in the throes of an ‘out of this world’ orgasm all at the same time.

         He faces the camera. He makes an ostentatious display of wiping a huge, doleful tear from his right eye. He announces with ‘great pain’ that the chief’s wife had been the kidnapper and that ‘in the interest of justice’ he will not be speculating publicly as to who possibly could have put her up to kidnapping the burglary suspect. Certainly, the fact that in recent days that very same suspect had turned out to be an embarrassment to the Redwood PD, and had raised the underlying issue of the police chief’s competence, must have had no bearing on the chief’s wife’s decision to commit such a crime. We may be assured of that; and in emulation of what Our Lord would do, we must not speculate otherwise.

*   *   *

         Miss Anna Burns has been AWOL ever since Robert Redford swept her off her fat feet and locked his tongue with hers. She’d flirted shamelessly with him while sitting at her desk at the office of The Redwood Democrat, shoving phone and papers aside, drawing the window blinds when things got too hot and heavy to qualify for a PG rating. But when he’d emerged from behind her boxes of old newspapers with nothing on his svelte, hairless, prepubescent body but a white T-shirt (Got Jesus? printed beneath an image of Jesus Christ stuffed inside of a milk bottle) and pink panties, she’d had enough sense to continue her romantic interlude in the privacy of her own bedroom across the street. Mr. Redford had dutifully followed her back to her ‘love chamber,’ cupping her sweaty butt the whole time they crossed the street, and whispering lovingly into her ear: It’s all about you, baby. Oh, my sweet donut. Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!

         As soon as she’d bolted the front door, she’d kicked off her shoes (nearly hitting Cassiopeia in the process), torn off her polka dot dress, and hoofed into the bedroom. She’d grabbed her King James Bible off of her nightstand, leaned against the spongy pillows on her bed, and pressed her black leather Good Book upon her fast beating heart. Mr. Redford in turn had lounged across the foot of the bed, leaning his right cheek on his right fist, and massaging her sweaty toes with his left hand. The two lovers had remained in that position for God knows how long, staring longingly into each other’s eyes, letting the time pass as if no more consequential than a flicker of dust in a soft breeze. Truth be told, if Miss Anna Burns had had her way, then they’d have stayed that way forevermore, a woman and a man enraptured by each other’s eyes, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and a Hollywood Star fulfilling the very promise of love in what they have found for and with one another. Oh yes, if she had had her way, then they would’ve been there even when the Risen Jesus came a knocking on their closed bedroom door at the end of time; and she’s not so sure even then she would’ve taken her own buttered eyes off of his long enough to invite the Risen Jesus to join with them.

         But she would not have her way. Just as the morning show broadcasts all the gory details of the ‘kidnap caper’ that ended disastrously against the mossy rocks beside Wild Indian Creek, Robert Redford abruptly stands up. He leans on the foot of the bed in such a way that Miss Anna Burns can stare down his white T-shirt. He focuses his intense eyes on hers in a fashion that is both adoring and haunting at the same time. It is as if he is speaking to her soul through the soft, alluring, but also frightening twinkle in those baby blue eyes of his; and she has no more capacity at that moment than to swoon like melted butter in his stare.

         Oh, my Krispy Kreme Glazed, there’s gonna be a show tonight, he states confidentially. They’re calling it a Town Council Meeting, but really it’s a show of shows; and you’re gonna be the main attraction. Blessed Be God, the people are starving for truth. Just starving for it. And until the Risen Jesus comes back to separate the saved from the Niggers, Jews, and Democrats, Halleluiah Praise Forevermore, you’re the truth teller in this New Jerusalem. And not just one of many truth tellers, but the One and Only Pulitzer Prize Winning Truth Teller for whom the angels will bow and curtsy on the last day. And the truth you need to tell them is that the devil has taken hold in our New Jerusalem. He’s taking as many souls as he can get his hands on, corrupting the saved, transforming them into Cat’licks, Jews, Niggers, even on one or two sad occasions into Democrats.

         Miss Anna Burns gasps. She is horrified at the thought, of course; but she is also excited to learn just how much Robert Redford’s politics and theology in fact gel with hers. She’d heard that he was the King of the Sundance Lefties, a personal friend of Bill Ayers, even an Obama voter; but apparently, all that had been far from the truth. It seems that all along he’s been a real Rush Limbaugh ‘Ditto-Head,’ like every other man with Jesus in his heart and Common Sense in his brains, and that he has been hiding his real self just to get work as an actor.

         Blessed Be God, the people are thirsting for truth, he proceeds, while he stares into her eyes, and sways his butt side to side. Just thirsting for it. And in the end, no amount of cold water can ease the itch in their tongues. Only truth and justice and the American Way can accomplish that feat, Praise Jeeesus, Oh my pastry. And that truth is this: The devil is roaming free, like a happy coon in heat on a hot, summer day, because the chief’s son is a raving lunatic queer, a bend over rover, a light in his loafers limp wrist, a flaming fart fan, a silly seed sucker, a Peter Pumpkin Eater, in short an unsaved, card carrying homosexual, even worse, an unsaved, card carrying homosexual who resides now in Sin City, pours drinks for a living, swings his booty for kicks, and performs off-Broadway.

         Are you saying Little Dustin is one of the boys? Miss Anna Burns asks him, while straining to recall the last time she had observed the chief’s son in town.

         I’d call him ‘a princess pony with a pink mane,’ Robert Redford snickers.

         I don’t know, Miss Anna Burns demurs at the very idea of tossing out that accusation. Okay, Dustin is a little soft. I’ll grant you that. But one of the boys?

         Robert Redford crawls onto the bed. He arches his bubble butt back, and slinks forward like a cat. He needs to open his legs wide to get around her thick thighs; but he nevertheless manages to hold his face only inches above hers. He looks down at her wide eyes and trembling mouth, and blows her a sweaty kiss.

         Oh, yes, Miss Anna Burns whispers. Dustin’s one of the boys. Dustin’s an unsaved queer. Dustin’s a pee-pee pervert. Dustin’s a crotch cruncher. Dustin’s a fudge packer. Dustin’s a packing his heat with another man’s meat. Dustin’s…

         You get the picture, Robert Redford interrupts her. Now, you need to go out there and spread the truth, so that everyone else in town will get the same picture. That’s the only way to stop the devil in his tracks, Sweet Baby Jesus in the White Man’s Manger. That’s the only way to keep the truth alive, Oh Praise Him. Nothing else will work. So can Jesus count on you? And can I count on you?

*   *   *

         The morning news rips through the small town like lightning. There is an electric sizzle, when the casual observer first turns on his or her television, and sees the gruesome footage of the chief’s wife staring blankly out from behind a steering wheel. There is a kind of burning rubber smell, coppery and warm, the exact moment Deputy Rickard fills the screen and tells everyone precisely what he will not be speculating. The smell is just foul enough to push the casual man or woman to do something; maybe drop a spoon into their cereal bowl; maybe pace up and down the living room. But doing something is never enough, and so that same casual man or woman will start demanding something, like more real answers, or forget the damn answers and just give me justice (not the bloated, time consuming, ACLU kind, but the lynching mob kind). By the time these men and woman leave their tract homes and apartments for their dead end jobs (or, if they’re retired, for Millie’s Old-Fashioned Diner), they’re just crying to settle an old score. Punching out a Cat’lick or a Holy Roller will be justice in lieu of a lynch mob actually getting a hold of that whore kidnapper’s bloody corpse, and killing her all over again. For those not particularly motivated by virile religious convictions (a peculiar hodgepodge of bar bums and lefties), justice can be had by committing some sort of random act of violence; maybe graffiti; maybe eggs thrown at little, old ladies. Even the white-collar stiffs downtown decide to get into the act; maybe by padding their expense accounts more than usual; maybe by manhandling the secretarial staff, rather than simply blowing sultry kisses or making obscene jokes in their general direction. Just about everyone is a Goth, and just about everyone is under siege. As a result, the electrical tension inside the town can be cut by a knife, or punctured by a bullet, or sliced in two by an acid tongue; and as the day progresses, every one of these tools will be used to that purpose. What remains is a town energized, but also beleaguered; swollen in pride, but also spent in righteousness; awake, stalking, pouncing, devouring, but also asleep, snoring, drooling, dreaming; the walking, scheming dead, their eyes blank, their minds frazzled, their hearts dried like old charcoal in a flame.

         To make matters worse, there is no law in town today. The chief and his favorite deputy are AWOL. Rickard is in his daddy’s oval office, counting votes, twisting arms, making sure that there is a clear majority on the town council to do ‘the people’s work’ later this evening. Craig alone is on the beat; but, since his private prayer session with Reverend Goober the previous night, he’s been a Christian Warrior instead of a civil law man. He only seems to find the time and the opportunity to arrest Cat’licks for one offense or another (trumped up does not matter, since none of them are saved anyway), turning his eye when one of his fellow Baptists charges an elderly Irish Cat’lick woman with a wrench or hits a Papist Polack geezer on the nose. The sheep will be separated from the goats in due time anyway, so we may as well start the process right here in Redwood.

         Miss Anna Burns finally comes out of her hole that day. She has printed a slew of posters. The white posters under her right arm scream: Got Truth? The white posters under her left arm scream: Got Jesus? She posts them all over, so many in fact that a casual person driving through town would presume that the public spaces have been taken over by either a religious cult or a rock band. No one blinks an eye at this excess, because excess of all sorts is the flavor of that day. Indeed, given the sporadic outbursts of violence, the screams heard down this or that alleyway, the doors slamming, the cars braking, it really would not be right if there were not bossy black and white posters screaming everywhere.

         Bobbi Chu feels the energy. There is news everywhere she turns; and so after filing the footage for the ‘kidnap caper’ story, she returns at once to that remote hick town she’d never thought would figure all that much in her career. This time she has a cameraman by her side. The two of them walk around town interviewing country bumpkins in ball caps and little, old ladies in floral granny dresses; normally not the kind of people with whom she’d bother; but today all the rage, since each and every one of these small town losers seems to have an awful, vicious, even profane thing to say about someone else. The two of them even manage to score a couple of street fights (two geezers throwing fists in an intersection, while cars drive around them; two middle-aged ladies pulling one another’s bouffant hairdos in a popular hair salon); and when combined with an array of interview clips, that live action footage should take up more than half of the news programming for that night. For all intent and purpose, the Beverly ABC news show that night will be The Bobbi Chu Show Starring Bobbi Chu; and, when you think about her professionalism and dedicated work ethic, isn’t it so proper and right that the show be so named? Who else deserves such accolades?

*   *   *

         Besides the posters that Miss Anna Burns has posted all over town, there are the official posters that Skippy Hawes had posted earlier. These too scream out for attention and seem to be a fitting background for the excess of the day:

Emergency Meeting of the Redwood Township Council

By Order of the Honorable Douglas Kirk

Agenda: Police Chief Negligence and Nonfeasance

‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’

Wallace Simp Government Building, 666 Main Street, Wed. 7PM

         Testy townsfolk start to arrive as early as 5:30PM. Everyone wants a seat as close to the festivities as possible. They push and elbow one another for seat advantage, and somewhere along the line an old black woman named Belva Boo ends up in Redwood General with a cut on her forehead and a broken left wrist (some Goth had been stomping on her hand when she already was down, but no one is going to fess up as to who did it). After that incident (caught on film, but a bit too late to make it into the evening news, and so set aside as a teaser clip for the morning show), Deputy Craig shows up to provide a semblance of order; but when he starts pushing Cat’licks off of their seats, so as to provide seats for ‘saved citizens,’ the situation gets out of hand entirely. There is no peace until the chamber is so full of concerned citizens and wisecracking onlookers (all the seats occupied, and standing room only in the rear) that there is quite literally no more room to throw punches. Nevertheless, acerbic tongues still manage to roll; and so the floor space feels like a pressure cooker about ready to explode.

         At the designated time, there is a commotion in the back of the room, as townsfolk step aside to provide the selectmen a meandering path to the council table up front. Skippy Hawes leads the pack. He is all smiles; glad handing; one manly thumbs up for every ‘saved citizen’ that catches his wide eyes; totally in his element, even though the goofy grin on his face suggests to everyone there, saved and unsaved alike, that he is not going to be the real player in the events to follow. Behind him are four other selectmen: Old Farmer John types dressed in their red-checkered shirts or overalls (the former if they had had the time to change out of their work clothes after a long afternoon on a John Deere tractor somewhere, the latter if they had had no such time), grim faced, parsimonious and taciturn. They all take their seats to a smattering of applause, while Skippy Hawes nods and waves, and the other selectmen stare glumly at their own laps.

         There is a tense moment of anticipation. That cauldron is about to burst, and no one knows if the pervasive feeling in there is excitement or fear. Maybe there is scant difference between the two emotions, as had been the case with the chief’s wife at her last moment. Regardless, just about everyone is shaking on the balls of their feet, wringing their achy hands, glancing from side to side.

         Skippy Hawes raises his hand to quiet the crowd, though no one in there is speaking just then. He intones in a casual voice that tells everyone that he is as good-natured as he is mentally weak and irrelevant. He is the sugary lollipop when the emaciated souls require substantial food to satiate their mad hunger.

         As the Good Book of Leviticus reminds us, the Lord helps those who help themselves, Skippy Hawes says. And we mean to help ourselves to the banquet, the Butterball turkey, the mashed potatoes and gravy, the Cup of Joe, all those fixings the Good Lord has set aside for those of us who make it to His Heavenly grown up table. But we can’t get there alone. We need Jesus to win our hearts, just as we need Mayor Douglas Kirk to guide our brains. And so I am most proud to introduce our First Citizen. Let us sing ‘Praise Jesus’ for Mayor Douglas Kirk…

         Before he can finish his last sentence, the crowd erupts in a kind of tent revival furor that pushes the walls and shakes the rafters. Every ‘saved citizen’ chants ‘Praise Jesus.’ The Cat’licks avoid the evangelical praise chant, but they too share in the glad tidings. For the first time in days, there is a unity in town, born from a shared excitement and fright, molded by the shrewd machinations of an unseen devil hell bent on setting the stage for his final manipulation of an anxious and gullible humanity (though, naturally enough, the politicians assume that they are the ones actually pulling the strings of the dreaming puppets now before them). The unity will persist in the events to follow, coalescing into one shared vision, climaxing into a violent mob, because there will be so much real, visceral relief at having overcome the dissension of the recent past, and also so much fright at the prospect of losing that very same unity. Dissension, scarcity, hunger, these are the seeds of fascism. Memory of dissension, scarcity, hunger, such is the water and the sun that nurtures that same fascism into cold murder.

         There is a parting of the waves, as the standing room only crowd offers a wide space to Mayor Douglas Kirk and his son, Deputy Rickard. The First Citizen wears a Napoleonic beret above his white suit. He even inserts his right hand in between two of his shirt buttons, in order to complete the image of the general on parade. His son follows closely at his heels; hands folded penitentially; head bowed; eyes watery, because, of course, he is saddened still to have unearthed the full extent of the chief’s treachery. To think that the chief would recruit a woman (and not just any woman, but his own wife) to kidnap the very evidence of his own investigatory negligence. To think that the snake has been the chief of Eden’s security all this time. Well, if he did not tear up at the thought, then he surely could not be counted with Redwood’s God fearing and righteous men.

         Mayor Douglas Kirk sits upon the center seat. His son stands behind him, hands still folded, head still bowed, apparently praying for the Lord’s guidance.

         The applause settles down. The meeting comes to order. The Mayor does not speak. Instead, he gestures for Skippy Hawes to run the agenda, so that the Mayor can remain outwardly impartial with respect to the decision to be made.

         There is no real discussion among the politicians. Skippy Hawes reads off his cards. The other selectmen have resigned themselves to the Mayor’s script, even though privately they still hold the chief in high regard (or, truth be told, they still hold the chief’s father in high regard and do not want to dishonor him by sacking his son). They hold up their hands, and mumble Aye when necessary; but otherwise, the Old Farmer John selectmen are complete non-factors there.

         Skippy Hawes opens the meeting to comments from the townsfolk. Every citizen there, saved and unsaved alike, had shown up with the intent of putting down their ideological or religious opponents at the microphone. But then that overriding sense of unity had taken hold; and by the time the townsfolk started to speak, they’d jettisoned their prepared remarks in favor of praising the Kirks and praying for even more unity in the days ahead. The comments were almost uniformly saccharine; forgettable Hallmark Card sentiments; schmaltzy poems; self-help trash (‘each and every one of us tonight is the little engine who can’).

         The Mayor smiles dreamily. His son remains steadfast in prayer. The men and women there assembled, each in their own unique manner, are signing ‘We are the World.’ And so the coup appears to be progressing without controversy.

         Certainly, Bobbi Chu is bored out of her wits. Thankfully, she’d obtained good footage before their show, so at least the long night had not been a total waste. Still, she is about to signal her cameraman to pack up the equipment for the arduous drive back to Beverly, when Miss Anna Burns takes the microphone.

         Miss Anna Burns is in her polka dot dress and high heels. She has makeup on her face, lipstick on her lips, and earrings in her ears. The townsfolk almost do not recognize her on account of her new look. But that does not matter. She is not dressing up for them. She is dressing up for him, for him alone, just him…

         As she straightens the microphone, she scans the many faces anxiously in the hopes of finding her true love. In the past, she’d never had a problem with speaking at the microphone (though, as a Christian woman, she’d been careful to veil her comments behind a soft and submissive voice); but now, she cannot envision doing much of anything without seeing his adoring eyes first. The price of love is helplessness, she figures. And if that is the case, then she will pay the price ten times over just to see that he is there for her, as she is there for him.

         Finally, after a long and uncomfortable pause, she finds Robert Redford. He is actually standing behind Deputy Rickard, poking his head out from behind Deputy Rickard’s head, looking straight into her eyes, and winking amorously at her. He is not speaking just then, but he does not need to speak anymore. They are so much in tune she practically can feel his words floating in the soft ether between them: It’s all about you, baby. It’s all about you, baby. It’s all about…

         She clears her throat. It is not a very ladylike sound, but so be it. With a man like Robert Redford in her corner, she does not need to veil herself behind the veneer of Christian Womanhood. She can be a fat and uncouth pig, because he truly loves her as she is. He loves her, not just lusts after her body, not just hungers for her donut hole. And love means you never have to say you’re sorry.

         We’re all feeling good tonight, Miss Anna Burns comments. Praise Jesus.

         There is a smattering of applause. The Holy Rollers offer several Amens.

         But let us not forget that we’ve been through a perfect storm, Miss Anna Burns continues. The winds and the rains have subsided for now, but they really can return at any time without warning, especially if we let down our guard. As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (perhaps no one in that chamber knows what a Pulitzer Prize is, since there is no reaction, not even a brief head scratch), it has been my privilege and my curse to know the underbelly of our existence; to see the devil face to face in the pages of my newspaper; to report the truth no one wants to hear, just like when Our Personal Lord and Savior ran out the Jew moneychangers. So I welcome the respite from the storm, but I fear her return.

         There is an uncomfortable murmur in the crowd. The Mayor frowns a bit. His son glances up from his steadfast prayer to cast an evil eye in her direction.

         The good news is that we now have a wall that will keep that storm from returning to our innocent town, she continues with a subtle grin on her red lips.

         The murmur passes. The Mayor resumes his smile. His son bows his head.

         The unrighteous think that the way to have a wall is to build something, she reasons. But the righteous realize that Our Personal Lord and Savior already has built what needs to be built. He’s laid the foundation, mortared the bricks, built the wall all the way from Calvary to the Pearly Gates. Our task then is not to build the wall, but rather to keep it from being torn down by those perverts and hooligans who live among us. We should not build. Rather, we should crush with our heels, stomp beneath our steel boots, tear limb from limb, bury in the salted earth, anything and everything that threatens the structural wellbeing of that wall. Jehovah God instructed Israel to murder the men they’d conquered, rape their women, enslave their children, wipe out the sin they’d trampled, so that the wall surrounding Israel would be as strong as ever. When Israel showed leniency, when they married what they should have killed, when they tolerated what they should have despised, the wall came down. And, oh, the great horror and wretchedness of that day. So we must learn from Israel. We must preserve, by rooting out, by tearing down, by hating what we judge to be unrighteous for all time in the face of the living God. Forgive me for preaching. I realize that is not proper to the fairer sex. But I implore you to heed me. I am a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, which means in essence that I am a prophetess, an oracle in our time, a truth teller among liars and thieves. And so behold what I say now…

         She stops. Every eye is on her, but she does not care a whit about them. She just wants to make sure that Robert Redford remains forever in her corner.

         He pokes his head out from behind Deputy Rickard. He blows her a sweet kiss. He offers her an adoring wink. He licks his lips like he is preparing for sex.

         She reaches into a Got Jesus? tote bag beside her left ankle, and slowly, methodically, unrolls a poster sized photograph. It is an enlarged photograph of the Howdy Doody lookalike who had tried to burglarize Old Man Farley’s small, remote house the other night. It is the same picture that most of the townsfolk had seen on the screaming front page of The Redwood Democrat most recently.

         Most of you will recognize that this is the chief’s son, she grins sinisterly.

         It is not a picture of Dustin Borden. If the people had been thinking with their heads, instead of their passions, then they would’ve realized that the boy in the photograph indeed is not the chief’s son. But reason had been thrown to the wind and the rain sometime ago. Only the mayor and his son readily discern that she is mistaken; but they hold their acrid tongues, as they both determine that they’ll benefit then from any focus on the chief’s dysfunctional family life.

         What most of you will not know is that he is an unsaved homosexual, she continues. He lives in Sin City, and he bends over for all sorts of men, including Jews and heathens. He is no longer with us, Praise Be God. But he’d torn down much of our wall before he’d left, and now his old man is hell bent on smashing down the rest. Now that we are all united, let us take the blessing of this unity and put it to the service of rooting out the evil one still in our midst. Let us end the tyranny of the chief. Let us tear down whoever he protects. And then let us gloat upon his sad corpse, so that the evil his son has wrought may be defeated once and for all time in the righteous indignation we offer unto our Father God.

         And with that the people roar in ecstatic approval. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in all that excitement. There is the fervor of godly judgment, ever irrational, prideful, so decadent and lascivious as to be akin to an orgasm.

         Down with our chief, the townsfolk bellow out. Crucify him! Crucify him!

         He got Porkin’s a county liquor permit, Skippy Hawes offers into the mix.

         Down with our chief, the townsfolk bellow out. Crucify him! Crucify him!

         Somewhere in the cacophony of emotions, there is a successful motion in the town council to fire Chief William Borden, Jr. and then to replace him with Deputy Rickard. Indeed, the Ayes are unanimous, but they are also a formality, since the coup had been successful the moment a Howdy Doody lookalike from out of town had attempted to burglarize Old Man Farley’s small, remote house.

         Eventually, the meeting ends. Bobbi Chu then returns to the Beverly ABC news van with her cameraman at her side. She looks at the footage in the back of the van and determines that the enlarged photograph is clear enough to be a featured clip in the morning show. She will bill this homosexual scandal as ‘Gay Gate’ (Watergate reference, of course, since like every other reporter she has a secret desire to be another Woodward and Bernstein). She will return soon, in order to do more ‘Man on the Street’ interviews about ‘Gay Gate.’ She will ride this wave as far as it will take her, and then she’ll ride it even longer inside her dreams. Who knows maybe she will move into the Redwood Township someday? There is certainly something buzzing in the air around here; and from what she can piece together, the dreams experienced here must be all absolutely killers.

*   *   *

         Wild Indian Lake is nestled in the mouth of a long extinct volcano, nearly ten thousand feet in the air, surrounded on all sides by the snow-covered crests of the Redwood Mountains. It is a deep blue body of water connected by untold numbers of tributaries to the Wild Indian River midway down the steep, rugged mountain range. That river in turn slows and narrows into the Wild Indian Creek alongside Beverly and Redwood Township. But, apart from the water capillaries connecting the lake to these lower streams, it is a fresh water oasis, untouched by history, unmoved by passion, even unacknowledged by nature, but for those soft, warm sunrays that seem to glide across the steel blue surface, and once in a while a whispering breeze rippling a tiny wave nowhere in particular. Summer cottages built along the edge of the crater blend in so well with the shrubs and trees as to be almost invisible. Even the clouds fall away, so that a nature lover standing on the deck of one of those rustic cottages, sipping his hot cocoa from his thermos, breathing in deeply the cold, crisp, mountain air, maybe humming a throwback Beach Boys song caught on the tip of his tongue, would see only an endless blue band above him. He could not really imagine himself at the top of the world. The snow-covered mountaintops in the distance would disabuse him of that fantasy. But he could imagine himself the last man on earth; a man now freed forevermore from the trials of the past, or the temptations of the future; a man eternally protected from those surreal nightmares and corrupting beasts that, in his previous life, had managed now and then to crash in from out there and to turn a perfectly calm and respectable life into a horror show. The locals refer to this place, indeed, this feeling, as the oasis; a way of life, really, that every now and then carries them up from their decks or kitchen tables, beyond the clear blue band, and into the sun. When outsiders hear about the oasis, and actually give it more than a moment of thought, they imagine old farts in huge, gas guzzling Winnebagos, or libertines living ‘off the grid,’ or just normal, old, ‘John and Jane Smith’ retirees, smoking too much dope, or taking in too much mountain air. A John Denver song always figures somewhere in the fantasy, and they shrug it off. But ask one of the locals (when he’s willing to talk about it to a stranger, usually after a couple of Heinekens in the Wild Injun Tavern midway up the mountain), and he’ll swear that the oasis is for real. Okay, it is what the philosophers might call a ‘metaphysical phenomenon,’ rather than a ‘scientific, physical phenomenon.’ No one actually raptures into the sun, leaving their cups of cocoa and their uneaten plates of eggs and grits behind, vanishing without a trace, turning into fuzzy black and white images on ‘missing persons’ posters in Beverly and Redwood Township. But what happens in the mind is actually more real. It is life altering; spiritual; a limbo from which the man never has to wake up; and for the men who’ve chosen this oasis, it is all for which they may hope.

         The chief thinks about this oasis a lot, as he drives the police car up that old and windy Route 11 that leads to Wild Indian Lake. He’d never believed the tale. In his mind, the demons are kept at bay, not by running away from serious adult responsibilities and seeking shelter in a crater, certainly not by retiring at the top of ones game like his father had done, but by staying put, fortifying the defenses, and kicking back the tides of change. By moving up here full time, his parents had escaped in much the same way as his son had escaped. He’d stayed put, and now everything in town and in his life has fallen truly to hell in a hand basket. So, really, had his choice been any better? Could he have saved his son, and for that matter his wife, if instead of staying put he’d relocated his family to a cottage closer to heaven, maybe homeschooled his son, maybe changed his wife from a cosmetics and nails whore to a mountain mama? He cannot say one way or another for sure. He can proclaim only that he has never given the oasis as much thought as he is right now and that he hopes there is some sort of real, tangible answer waiting for him where the sky is blue and the air is dead silent.

         When the chief turns into the driveway of his parents’ cottage, he senses a wave of relief momentarily wash the kink out of his neck and the troubles out of his heart. He is home the moment he sees his mother open the door and rush forward to greet him with open arms. She is teary eyed, because she had heard over the one radio station that they get up here (Lawrence Welk 24/7 on ‘your easy listening solution’) that his wife is dead. He has not heard anything yet, as he neither played the radio nor listened to the dispatch while driving here; but, of course, he knows that she is gone, just like his son is gone, and the whole of the small town is about to be gone. He does not need to hear the news to know that what had been out there is now in here and spreading like a damned virus.

         Deputy Claire awakens. She staggers out from the car. She views at once the family resemblance and determines that the older, pretty, blond woman in the white T-shirt and jeans is the chief’s mother. She really is a darling woman.

         Hi, I’m Charlotte, the older woman smiles graciously through her tears. I don’t think I know you. I apologize. Ever since Bill retired, I’ve been out of the loop; truly, I have. You sure are kind to come all the way up here with my Billy.

         Deputy Claire smiles, but she continues to study Charlotte’s face. Beside being the chief’s mother, she is also a part of the Peabody clan in town. That is also written all over her pretty face. So this is Charlotte Borden (nee Peabody).

         Charlotte turns back to her Billy. She hugs him a second time; and now, finally, the tears start to emerge on his face. She has to reach up to pat him on his upper back, and yet she still looks and acts like a mother with a small child.

         The three of them step into the cottage. Charlotte explains that Bill will be returning this afternoon. He has been fishing on the lake since before dawn. He does not have a watch with him, and of course cellular phones simply do not work this close to heaven (not that the old man would use one, even if they did work up here); but somehow his uncanny intuition will lead him back home just as she pulls her homemade enchiladas out of the oven. In the meantime, it will be best to relax on the deck, drink glasses of lemonade, and recall all the good times that Billy and Margie really had shared with each other over the decades.

*   *   *

         After drinking a glass of lemonade, Deputy Claire politely excuses herself from the deck. Mother and son are very kind to her; indeed, both of them make an effort to include her in their conversation; but she cannot shake that feeling that she is eavesdropping on a heart-to-heart talk best left to the two of them. This is their ‘family time.’ The closest she comes to ‘family time’ is when she is driven by her own demons to wander out to the beaten tombstones besides her palatial, Julia Morgan, Arts and Crafts home and to elicit advice from the many Weeks relatives entombed out there. They whisper to her in the rustling of old, shriveled leaves in the wind, or in the swaying of a loose door, or in the distant howling of a stray dog; and, no matter what tidbits they impart to her, she will feel better invariably, perhaps on account of what they say, but more often on account of the fact that, in hearing from her relatives, she is reminded that she is not alone in this cold and dark world. Home consists of private moments and whispered conversations; of tales never to be repeated to the world out there; of walls built and strengthened to keep out those who do not belong. Ironically, in excluding the outsiders, home reminds us that we are not alone; that in fact there is one other person at least, alive or dead, real or imagined, who belongs to us and not to them; and that, therefore, what we hold most dear really need not be lost entirely to the tides of time. Deputy Claire understands home quite well, and so she respects her boss’s need just now to be at home with his mom.

         She wanders down a trail to the banks. There is a handmade sign besides the blue lake that features an arrow pointing upward and that says: Oasis Trail.

         She follows the arrow to the sun above her. Strangely, it is a soft, white, tranquil circle of light in the clear blue; not at all like the sun that normally is going to blind her the moment she happens to look at it; more like a dream sun at the crest of a dream sky that is inviting her to escape once and for all times.

         She blinks and that sun is gone. There is just sky above her. The real sun is rising still from the eastern horizon; and when she glances at it, she sees that it is as sharp and yellow as normal. She’d hallucinated something, that’s surely the case. It is just as well that the moment has passed, because she is never all that comfortable leaving her rational mind aside, and the prospect of escape to La-La Land does not sit well with her. She does not even feel right about being here now. She should be back in town, arresting crooks, protecting innocents, staying put, as her boss is rather inclined to state. She should be doing her job.

         But who is to say that being here isn’t her job? Surely, she could be back in town applying band aids over the cracks that keep appearing in the dam; but she knows that, sooner rather than later, that dam is going to burst altogether, if her boss does not get a handle on what he needs to do. Frankly, in a way that she cannot understand, the chief unwittingly had invited the evil that is now at loose in town. Her rational mind, prone as it is to logical and symmetrical ways of thinking, concludes therefore that the chief is the key to defeating that evil.

         And so she will bide her time, waiting for the chief to get a grip on what he must do, looking out over the lake that appears to stretch in every direction into eternity. She will remain here, until he is able and ready to restore the big wall that had kept the peace for so long. Then, when finally he puts a plan into action, she will remain by his side, no matter the pain, no matter the outcome.

*   *   *

         Chief William Borden, Sr. returns just as his wife removes a half a dozen homemade enchiladas from the oven. He drops his fish in the ice box in front of his cottage, and then he observes the police vehicle parked in the driveway. He deduces at once that his son is here. He should be really happy to see him after God knows how long, but instead a wave of fright and sadness washes over him.

         He opens the creaky screen door. He is an imposing figure in his cowboy hat, western shirt, jeans, and boots. The sweaty white curls sneaking out from beneath his hat; the deep lines on his ruddy face; the five o’clock shadow upon his cheeks; they should make him look old and worn out. But he remains such a strong and manly presence, his eyes as alert as ever, his posture as upright as a soldier on parade, that those ‘old man’ features instead come across as rugged, untamed, even sexual. In his son’s eyes, he has retired, given up the fight, put his rebellious impulse ahead of his responsibility, retreated before the battle is won; and yet he is more virile and astute than he had been his last few years as police chief. More to the point, since orienting his life to the quiet detachment up here, he has kept his own demons at bay much better than when he had had the trials and tribulations of the Redwood PD on his mind. To that extent, he is  fighting the good fight, not with bullets, but with silence, not with loud, forced confrontation, but with quiet, impassive retreat. He has absolutely no reason in the world to be ashamed notwithstanding how he may appear in his son’s eyes.

         He steps through the cottage and onto the deck. He stares into his son’s eyes, before even saying hello. The look in his son’s eyes tells him exactly why he had experienced that wave of fright and sadness just a moment ago. He had intuited then, and has confirmed now, that his son is in the grip of that terrible evil that had assaulted him many years ago. He will need to tell his son tonight what he had hoped and intended to carry in his left bosom into his eternal rest.

*   *   *

         The two Bills had spent the rest of the afternoon talking about Margie. It had been an appropriate topic, of course; but it also had been a diversion from what really needed to be said. The closest that they had come to touching that issue had been when Charlotte innocently inquired as to whether ‘Little Dustin’ had been informed. There had been an uncomfortable silence, as her son then took the time to stare into his own lap, and her husband took the same time to stare off into the distance. She’d gotten the message, glanced at Claire (seated again with the others on the deck, after having finished her long and thoughtful stroll along the banks), and then went inside to stir their after-dinner cocktails.

         Now, it is dark. Actually, ‘pitch black’ is a more appropriate term, since they’re so far removed from city lights as to be incapable of remembering what impression city lights at night make. Even the soft moon rising steadily over the lake; her silvery ray dragging lazily across the surface of the still water; the old ‘Man in the Moon’ etched into the lunar surface smiling insanely down at them; does not break the pitch blackness, so much as strangely augment it. The very essence of pitch blackness is not so much the lack of light, as it is the reality of separation, aloneness, cold indifference by every one else out there (or, in the case of the two Bills sitting on a deck near the top of a mountain range, every one else down there); and the moon whispers to them in so many voices that in fact they are alone, hurtling through outer space toward her insane grin, seeing her silvery ray drag across the surface of the still water in a manner no one out there or down there has or ever will see. The stars twinkle in the distant, black sky; but they are no more than dead gnats clinging about the moon a brief time longer, before giving up their ‘gnat ghosts’ when the moon passes before them. There is nothing to be read in such dead things; no oracle to be deciphered for the two Bills sitting on the deck; nothing up there to help the two Bills imagine that, indeed, there is a God in the Heavens able and willing to be of service for their plight. If anything, then the very deadness of the stars once more reminds them that they are alone, except for each other, and the nightmares that they each carry about in their hearts and play out in their heads, like kept monsters.

         Charlotte has gone off to bed. Claire is once more walking along the still banks, remembering the tombstones beside her home, recommitting herself to the care and the wellbeing of her boss. So it really is just the two Bills sitting in the pitch-blackness and looking out at nothing in particular over their deck rail.

         Now that the girls are gone, the sugary, after-dinner cocktails have been replaced by Heinekens (the only bottled beer that Big Bill can purchase at Wild Injun Tavern, since everything else there is on tap). It takes a lot of Heinekens to give those big guys a buzz, let alone to loosen their lips enough for the truth to pour out, but judging by the empty bottles beside their patio chairs they are well on their way. At any moment, they’ll stop reminiscing about Margie and be completely truthful about why they are there together and what must be done.

         Tonight, I am reminded about the first time I took your mom out, Big Bill reflects, while leaning back in his patio chair and staring into the insane grin of the ‘Man in the Moon.’ We were juniors in high school then. I was a clueless kid just hoping to make it to first base. I’ll never forget. My grandma asked for her Lucky Strikes. I snuck a couple of them, before I returned the carton. She also told me to be home by the curfew; but I think, deep down, I’d already decided to ignore that one. So there I was a thief and a rule breaker, and I had not even left to pick up your mom. I remember waiting a while in Mrs. Peabody’s den. It escapes me as to why. Probably your mom was looking for her shoes. She’s just always looking for her shoes, when you’re about to head out the door. Anyway, I know this may not be something you want to hear, but your Grandma Peabody was one foxy woman. I still had not made it to first base; but in my mind, while sitting across from your Grandma Peabody, I’d hit a grand slam. I believe that’s when the dream started. I used to think it was the very moment I stayed on the date longer than my curfew. But, now, I think it was when I was sitting there in that den, imagining myself hitting that grand slam, and watching the ball fly in the air towards the upper decks. You see I’d substituted what I hoped for what I had. I’d decided to live in my dream a while, instead of acknowledge the hard knocks and the missteps in the real world. And that’s okay, when the dream’s a good one. But what happens when all of a sudden the beautiful face inside your head turns gray, and it starts to peel away like the skin of an onion, and only a stupid, grinning skull remains? You see light dreams can turn into nightmares on a dime. Once you let the dreams into your life; once you let them push through your defenses and snatch away what you hold most dear (like that one day you found Little Dustin with another boy on a swing, Big Bill does not state outright but clearly implies); you never know when the light ones will turn black all of a sudden. I’ve been reading Greek mythology since I retired. There’s not a whole lot to do up here besides fishing, and there’s only so many hours in the day for me to sit on a boat and to cast for bass. And I’ll tell you one of the lessons that I’ve learned from Greek mythology: the Siren is only one blink away from being a Gorgon. And that’s what happened to me the night I made it to first base, the moment I kissed your mom at the Curly Q and decided once and for all times to forget there even was a curfew, the very second I blinked. The Siren turned her face to me, and I saw that it was a Gorgon. And then all hell broke loose. Or to be more precise, all hell broke through my defenses, and took over the town. It is too hard for me to go through all the details. I’ll just say that every teenager I saw that night; every innocent still angling to get to first base; every innocent still waiting his turn to be shot up in the jungles of Vietnam; every damn one of them turned into a skeleton before my eyes. The walking dead were just about everywhere. Even your mom turned into one of them. Nothing but a silly dream twisted into a nightmare, I think. Or at least, I choose to think that’s all it was. But, for me, it may as well have been reality, because that night I changed into the man I have been since. Building up walls, being responsible, staying put, all that started the moment I got home and pulled the sheets over my head. I kept those sheets over my head many years. And I would’ve kept them there, except that a year or so before I retired I started to realize that the flimsy bed sheets were no longer working. I’d look out my office window and suddenly glance one of those damned skull faces in a three-piece suit. Or I’d look out my police car window while driving home and see that a pretty lady’s arm had been stripped of all its skin and flesh. It was just a vision. The arm would be back to normal a second or two later. But what would happen if that second or two turned into a minute? Or several minutes? Or the better part of an hour? Or an entire night of bones and bedlam, like the night I took out your mom? Or the rest of my life? In the end, I couldn’t tell what might happen, because it is all a dream, after all. And as we all know, anything can happen in a dream, and anything can happen on a dime. I just knew that something was going to happen and that the various defenses I had built up over the years were going to come crashing down, like a house of cards, or like a madman smashing through a window. You know I heard about that incident over the radio. The madman suddenly smashing through Old Man Farley’s front window in the dead of night. I know that that somethinghad started; and I prayed that you were up to the task of beating it back, ‘cause for the first time in my life I knew that if I had been in your shoes I wouldn’t have had it in me to beat it back. I would’ve just stood there, and waited for the old nightmare to rip off my skin, to eat away my flesh, and to leave nothing behind but my dead bones. It comes for the innocent, you know. It came for me many years ago (It came for your son, he does not say, but implies). It is searching in the darkness for the innocent one now. It wants to take the boy who has never dreamed and turn him into a dreamer. It wants to fill his head with loopy ideals and false promises, and then watch him squander the rest of his living years in the pursuit of one fantasy after another. And if it can’t get him to dream, then it wants to kill him outright. Make that poor bastard an example of what actual innocence will buy you in a fallen world. And believe me, the poor bastard is an actual bastard, ‘cause innocence is always an orphan in this world. We are able to adopt innocence. We are able to protect it for a while. But we cannot father it. You know I bet you that’s what Joseph was thinking, when he was sitting on all that hay beside the Virgin Mary in the manger. First, he was thinking that he was never going to get to first base with this one. Then, he glanced over at the newborn and thought: I’m not his father. I’ll protect him. But I’ll never truly be his father. Sure enough, whatever is out there, or I should say down there, that something or other riled up the crowd and lifted the Innocent One onto a cross for all to see. And, now, it has returned. It has broken through Old Man Farley’s front window. I suspect from that horrified look on your face that it has broken through yours, too. It snatched Margie, but it really wants you. And, of course, the innocent one. It wants the innocent one. It wants to make it dream, so that there will not be one left in the entire town who doesn’t live in his dreams and nightmares. ‘No child left behind,’ you might say. No boy left in his innocence…

         And with that last phrase echoing in his mind, Little Bill realizes what he has to do. He slumps his head into his hands. He is so very exhausted; worn out from the throbbing kink in his neck and whispering voice in his head; defeated, before the fight really has started. And yet he realizes what he must do, and he knows that he is going to do it, even if he must relinquish his life in that effort.

*   *   *

         Interestingly, ‘Gay Gate’ does not hit the Redwood Township like a loud firestorm. There is no weeping and gnashing of teeth at the kitchen table while the morning show continues in the background; no rending of clothes in front of the dresser; no rapid, confused, foul mouthed pacing in front of the flat screen in the living room. At most, there is a collective sigh; then, an unsaid, but firm, commitment to be unified in the pursuit of this new enemy in our midst. All the old squabbles, ideological, religious, even personal, fall by the wayside. ‘Unity’ is now the feeling of the time. It is a dreamlike feeling that works just beneath consciousness, glazing the eyes, stooping the shoulders, turning everyone into a happy, dumb, unquestioning infantryman in the great army called ‘unity.’ Sure, a few people remain untouched by this feeling. They are the calculating people in the shadows, the Kirks, Reverend Goober, Miss Alice. It is unclear really how or why they should be immune. Perhaps, in their own ways, they are already so much in the corner of the dream master; already so much a tool of the greater ambition of the puppet master; that they do not need to be dumbed down. But regardless, they are the exception. Everyone else now is about as capable, and as desirous, of independent thought as Skippy Hawes. Think of a whole town of glad happy morons, and you can pretty much understand what occurs inside the Redwood Township within minutes of the morning broadcast of the poster-sized photograph of the Howdy Doody lookalike. The people leave their homes. They go about their business. They file into Millie’s for their Cup of Joe. But beneath the affable chatter, the friendly waves, the agreeable nods, there is that silent cancer called ‘unity’ spreading about the town and taking siege of her life soul.

         It takes a few hours; but by around noon, this inchoate feeling has taken on enough of a visceral life just beneath the consciousness as to warrant a real, conscious name in its own right. It is time to be acknowledged; formally, even dogmatically institutionalized; because, in the end, it takes more than a subtle feeling to drive a mass of people into war. It takes banners, speeches, parades, youth corps. Miss Anna Burns certainly does not know where all of this may lead in due time; and given her continued fixation with Robert Redford (now totally naked, but for a cross he wears over his soft and prepubescent chest, as he just waits in her bedroom for her to return from the errand that he has directed her to perform), she really does not care. But she is the first one to take this subtle feeling and give it the rudiment of a plan of action. She accomplishes this deed by stapling white posters all over town that cry out in bold black letters: Unity!

         Skippy Hawes follows suit. He too does not have a clue. He just knows in his heart that this is what Jesus would do; and even more so, he knows that the Book of Leviticus includes a verse somewhere that actually directs him to do all that he is going to do this day. And so as soon as he sees Burns’ posters, he gets permission from the mayor to order workmen to put up a banner at every single intersection downtown that also screams: Unity! The banners flap quietly in the afternoon breeze. They are like dead signs left in a ghost town, not on account of the signs being tattered or faded, but because the people wandering happily and stupidly beneath them are about as alive as soft ghosts inhabiting a dream.

         By the late afternoon, Deputy Craig has added the next touch. He is fine with unity, even though that means working side-by-side with papists who bend their knees before the Whore of Babylon. But as a law and order man, he knows that you need more than community action to root out evil. You need warriors, God fearing bullies with billy clubs, hardened men with badges and steel boots; and you need those men to be organized in such a way as to kick ass when good hearted sentiments like ‘unity’ no longer measure up to the challenge. First, as much as people want to be happy, it is more important that they be afraid; and so, to the purpose, he puts up old fashioned, ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters all over town that feature the image of the Howdy Doody lookalike. Printed in red, bold, frightening letters beneath the stark image is just one word: Homosexual.

         Secondly, after the fear spreads, you need to organize small police cells, ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality to detect the enemy, or those who are harboring the enemy. To this end, Deputy Craig gets permission from Chief Rickard Kirk to deputize citizen ‘straight cops’ to man checkpoints around town and to go door to door looking for the ‘homosexual’ and his ‘conspirators.’ The ‘straight cops’ consist of veterans and roughnecks from the First Baptist Church and Saint Agatha’s. Deputy Craig remains weary of recruiting his ‘straight cops’ from Saint Agatha’s (old prejudices die hard, even when the dream subdues the conscious mind), but the chief orders him to be in lockstep with the new policy of ‘unity’ that has taken hold. And so by sunset there are Catholics and Baptists deputized to put some teeth into the new ‘unity’ program. Only the blacks are kept out of the equation. The mayor and the chief are not sure that it is a good idea to be giving them badges and billy clubs; and anyway, so far as anyone can tell, they do not seem to have been infected with the ‘unity’ bug that is all the rage among the white folks. Better to keep their shantytown out of the picture.

         Miss Alice remains out of view the entire afternoon. She is sitting behind her desk after dark, fumbling nervously with the oversized crucifix that is hung about her neck, mumbling something or other that may be a prayer or may be a first indication of the insanity that will take hold in her later years. At present, notwithstanding her odd behavior, she remains clear-headed about the problem several feet beneath the sanctuary and is determined to find the ideal solution.

         The problem is obvious. She has been harboring Old Man Farley and that weird boy of his ever since they had fled the Old Mill. Even now, the two are in that cramped space beneath the sanctuary that used to be reserved for antique vestments and unused bottles of sacramental wine. She throws food and water down there a few times a day, like she’s feeding a rabid dog trapped in a cage. She also gives them a new candle every morning, since the old candle burns out before daybreak. She has never been comfortable about providing a sanctuary; but she realizes that Father Alain Delacroix would have done the same, and she cannot deny that, notwithstanding his poor church attendance, Old Man Farley had been a member in good standing with the Sober for Christ Men’s Group. So she obliges, even though she grits her old teeth whenever she walks over them.

         Under normal circumstances, harboring Old Man Farley and his boy might be a reason to snarl a bit more than usual, but it hardly would qualify as a bona fide problem. But ever since the morning show (and, really, ever since the first publication of that Howdy Doody lookalike in The Redwood Democrat), the days and, even more so, the nights have been anything but normal. Now, there is an actual homosexual on the loose; an enemy in the midst; a predator pervert just waiting in the shadows to pounce on the innocent, little boys in beanie caps on their way to school. Even worse, that homosexual is downtown. Worse still, he is beneath Saint Agatha’s sanctuary. He is that strange boy that Old Man Farley is protecting. There is no doubt in Miss Alice’s mind. She knows that undeniable fact as much as she knows the Magnificat in Latin. And so there really is here a bona fide problem, because this means that Miss Alice is harboring beneath the holy of holies the homosexual who is posing an existential threat to that ‘unity’ that is so critical to the wellbeing of the town. Holy Mother Church is supposed to be the center of righteousness and peace in any community; but on account of her willingness to harbor Old Man Farley and his boy, her very own parish has become the center of decadence and fear. She practically can hear the demons chuckling in the night breezes, as she continues to harbor what is so very filthy.

         Often, Miss Alice sleeps on a cot in the sacristy; but that night, she stays at her desk, fumbling her crucifix, and mumbling something or other. She dozes off sometime after midnight. She dreams that the Howdy Doody lookalike is an enormous, disembodied face sifting in and out of the shadows. Whenever she is able to see it, it laughs at her, because of course she is not doing what she has to do to stop it. Every time it laughs at her, it is a bit more maniacal, so that as the dream progresses she gets the sinking sensation that sheer homicidal lunacy is about to take hold. When she awakens at the first hint of sunrise, all of that murderous laughter sounds inside her mind like a drill grinding up gunky organs.

         She takes in a deep breath, and arises from her desk. She walks through the sacristy and into the sanctuary. The first hint of sunrise has not yet filtered through the stained glass windows on the eastern side of the nave, and so apart from the blood red sanctuary lamp it remains forbidding dark in there. And yet, no doubt about it, she practically can feel the homosexual life just beneath the loose board in the sanctuary; and if she listens closely enough, she can hear the movement down there. It sounds like rats scratching on loosened dirt in search of food. That is the horrid sound of the homosexual defiling that space beneath the holy of holies and laughing like a battery operated drill inside her old mind.

         She is going to recruit Hurley O’Donovan and Oaf Hans to help her rectify this problem. They are the good and righteous men who egged the Wurst home. They are always game to do a good deed for the woman who has given so much of her life to the church, and they will welcome especially the opportunity now to be of service in eradicating the unspeakable sin out from our blessed ‘unity.’

         Miss Alice retreats through the sacristy and out her office door. She then walks down the sidewalk with her head bowed; her spidery fingers clutching at her oversized crucifix; her lips lost in the arcane Latin verses of the Magnificat.

*   *   *

         It takes a while for the chief to fall asleep, after listening intently to his father recall the first time he’d taken his mother out on a date. He sees readily the uncanny parallel between the walking dead and the sleepwalkers; the total loss of innocence and the attack on innocence; and, most of us, the evil lurking just beneath the surface of all this mayhem and showing itself now and then as the mad chuckle in the wind or the sinking sensation in the bowels. His dad had built a mighty fortress in his police duties, his strong reputation, his dedication to the good of the town; and yet, towards the end of his career, that same evil had started to return, not in one cataclysmic storm, but in brief hints here and there, visions of a skull face, intimations of an arm or a leg stripped down to its bones. Really, could the son presume to do any better? Wouldn’t he succumb to the evil in short order; see what shouldn’t be seen; and turn in his badge (if the mayor had not yet taken it from him) a defeated and deranged man? And yet at once, under that soft and silent moon, beneath those dead stars, he’d make up his mind to go back and to do his best. He’d lose, most likely, but at least he’d go down shouting defiance in the face of his victorious enemy. And his favorite deputy would be there by his side, taking the heat, maybe also falling to death.

         But even though he has made up his mind, he cannot rest really with the sheer enormity of his task clearly established in his imagination; and so he does not fall asleep until the first rays of sunlight start to bleed through his curtains.

         Charlotte lets him sleep in. Deputy Claire stays in the kitchen. She wraps her fingers about a warm cup of cocoa and speaks politely, but minimally, with her boss’s mother. She will drive her boss back into town, when later he comes out of his bedroom, and lets her know that he is prepared to go. Until then, she will allow herself to grow ever more in love with the man she so much admires.

         As for Chief William Borden, Sr., he is nowhere to be found when sunrise finally bleeds through the curtains. Charlotte explains that he is off for another round of fishing, but both women know better. He is gone, because he does not want to watch his son leave later that morning. He has imparted whatever hard but necessary words of advice he’d felt the need to impart to his only son, and so now he has returned to his solitude beneath a clear blue sky and distant son.

         In fact, it is after noon by the time the chief emerges from his bedroom. He begs off lunch because of the time, but Charlotte insists; and so they do not start to head down the mountain until after 2:00PM. Unbeknownst the two cops heading down the long and windy Route 11 that is about the time the energized and prayerful Deputy Craig starts to tape ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters around town. When they pass by the Wild Injun Tavern, Deputy Craig recruits his initial cell of ‘straight cops’ from among his faith brothers in the First Baptist Church. When the highway levels off, and they approach the outskirts of Beverly, there is an initial checkpoint set up on Hampstead Road just inside the township line.

         The chief is lost in thought, when Deputy Claire first sees the checkpoint in the distance. She nudges his left shoulder and points it out to him. Both cops have the same intuitive grasp of the situation: Yes, the checkpoint is makeshift and undoubtedly manned by amateurs; but the very fact that it is there means that something mad has been unleashed in town since they had escaped. There is paranoia in the air. They practically can smell it; and when they first see the line of roughnecks standing with their tattooed arms folded and their legs open in the middle of the highway, they practically can see the smoldering paranoia.

         We can’t get in this way, Deputy Claire says while slowing down the car.

         Turn down this path, the chief orders, as he points to an unmarked road.

         She brakes further in the gravel along the side of the highway, and then turns slowly into a dirt path between two rows of dead and spidery apple trees. She stops in front of an abandoned shack at the end of the dirt path. The shack looks as if it had been burned once upon a time. There is a pig skull hanging on a rope in the doorway. The old pig skull sways in the late afternoon wind gusts.

         Negroes used to live out here, until the Klan got a hold of them, he says.

         They step into the dark space. It is no more than a dirt floor surrounded by mildewed walls. There is the rancid smell of a dead animal in the far corner of the shack; and, not surprisingly, flies buzz in and out of that brooding space in search of whatever they can scavenge before the sun sets beneath the earth.

         From the open doorway, they can see the checkpoint in the distance. As a precaution, Deputy Claire had parked her police car behind one of the several dead apple trees. There is no indication that those roughnecks had seen them, since they are still on watch with their arms folded and their legs spread apart.

         At some point, they’ll get bored, or they’ll be relieved, the chief states. Then, we’ll have a chance to slip through undetected. Until then, we just wait.

*   *   *

         God knows how she does it, but Deputy Claire actually sleeps in shifts on the dirt floor. The flies swarm about her snoring body, but she appears unfazed by them (or at least not fazed enough to be stirred from her sleep); and so the chief suspects that she has slept on the earth beside her tombstones more than once. As for himself, even when it is his turn to sleep, he can do no more than to sit in the corner farthest from the dead animal and to hold his heavy head in his hands. Maybe he manages to doze off in this pose; but if so, then no doubt he sleeps only winks at a time, since he has no actual memory of falling asleep.

         The chief is standing at the doorway, while Deputy Claire saws wood off in the darkness somewhere, when suddenly he sees the roughnecks moving out from their position. It is still dark outside, but they are holding flashlights; and so he can learn where they are going by watching the movement of their lights.

         Honey, it’s time to go, the chief calls out to her in the putrid blackness.

         He cannot believe he called her honey. Part of him wants to take it back at once. Apologize for his unprofessionalism (as if calling her ‘Blondie’ had ever been professional). Promise never to do it again. But a larger part of him knows that she has no problem whatsoever with being called honey. It just feels true, natural, what they’ve been to one another in truth since they first locked eyes.

         Deputy Claire sits up. She does not acknowledge the honey reference, so maybe she did not hear it. But that’s not true. She did hear it, and she regards it as totally agreeable. From now on, she’s going to be his honey. Of course, as they set out, there is the hard question of just how long do they have together?

         Again, Deputy Claire drives. She pulls out from behind the dead tree and steers slowly down the dirt road. When she pulls onto Hampstead Road, she can see the first rays of sunlight sneaking out from beneath the eastern horizon, so she correctly surmises that the night shift has departed before the day shift has arrived. She recalls the sixth order of a sentry, and grins for their good fortune.

         The chief also recalls the sixth order of a sentry, but he does not smile, because frankly he is not so sure that sneaking across the checkpoint is really a bit of good fortune. He is doing what he has to do, but he senses vaguely that it is happening this way since that evil puppet master from out there has allowed it to happen. The roughnecks are not in command of their own faculties; and so far as he could see, no one higher in authority had shown up to tell them to go home before the day shift arrived. So it must have been the evil puppet master himself, or itself, or whatever the hell it is. It must have sent them abruptly on their merry way, so that he and his favorite deputy would enter into town with nothing more to guide them than their wistful hopes. No doubt, they are being lured in by an invisible line, brought deeper into that nightmare that has taken hold, like innocent sheep led to the slaughter by the bridles on their soft faces.

         The sense of being brought deeper into a nightmare turns stronger, when they approach downtown. There are those ‘unity’ banners flapping in the winds above every intersection in that part of town. Each banner looks like a smiling, no, the better word is grinning, clitoris vibrating toward climax, so that though the town remains mostly asleep at this early hour the chief gets the impression of a woman about to come. Something is being conceived here. Something evil, sentient, cancerous is going to feed off of the people, like a developing fetus in the womb off of his or her mother. And he does not want to imagine what most definitely will happen to all of them when that something has a chance in time to be born. He fights his overactive imagination so that it just will not go there.

         Even worse than the banners are the ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters: the Howdy Doody face staring blankly out at them all from his hospital pillow; that awful word homosexual printed in firm, red letters like a Scarlet Letter hanging from his neck; the societal madness implicit in this fear campaign. Homosexual is literally everywhere; beside all those loud Unity!, Got Truth?, and Got Jesus? posters, to be sure; but also standing alone in those places that Miss Anna Burns and Skippy Hawes had not touched. There is not one storefront, not one fence, not even one home front window that is not peering back at the public with the two blank eyes set in that freckled face. Homosexual is the beast lingering in a dream, but it is not the unseen beast that is felt, and then snaps out of a black shadow all of sudden. Rather, it is the beast so often seen that, after awhile, it really is not seen, so much as it fades into the background and becomes the sad and terrible haze from which the townsfolk can never escape. Homosexual will work on the subconscious, notch up the madness now and then, and finally just fly away with the banners and the confetti when the last man has killed himself in a fit of desperation. And then the Redwood Township will be no more than a ruined testament to the passions of men unleashed in a sad dream without end.

         All of this comes to the chief in a moment. It is all crazy; but as he looks at those banners and wanted posters, he knows that it is all inescapably true. It is the evil into which they are driving as they make their way to Saint Agatha’s.

         Deputy Claire parks in front of the church. She knows that she is all too conspicuous there, but she cannot think of a less conspicuous space that will be close enough for the chief to get in and out quickly. She just hopes that he is as fast as is needed to avoid detection. She respects the chief enough not to state as such now, since of course the chief will be thinking the same thing just then.

         The chief staggers away from the car. He is not nearly fast enough, since the throbbing kink in his neck is so debilitating. But he insists on going in there, and Deputy Claire intuits that no one else can or should try. She just sits inside the idling car and offers up another prayer to the God who remains unknown to her. Her rational mind tells her that such prayer is pointless, but still she prays.

         The front door to the church is locked. No surprise there, though he had had to try. So then the chief walks over to the side entrance. He determines in his own mind that if Miss Alice is in there, then he will gag her and tip her up to that damned desk of hers. He is not going to let that witch get in his way, even if as a result she sues his butt for false imprisonment when later this is all over.

         Surprisingly, her side door is open, and she is not there. She seems much too careful to keep her door unlocked when she is out. It occurs to him that the unlocked door is one more instance of the evil puppet master luring him in. The trap has been set, and his job is to stumble into it. Regardless, he steps inside, closes the door behind him, and walks through the gloom toward the sanctuary.

         He walks across the sanctuary several times, before finally he finds that loosened board beneath his boots. He rolls back the rug there, squats down (so hard for him to do, because of that damned pain in his neck, and because he is not nearly as fit as he used to be), and pulls the board aside to reveal at once a spiritually beaten old man and a blank boy crouching in the darkness by a single candlelight. The old man looks up at him through hollow eyes. He pulls the boy into his chest and tenses his lips into an unwelcoming snarl. He does not appear to recognize the chief, since he is so caught up in his own fear at that moment.

         Your boy doesn’t dream, the chief says. Isn’t that true? Tell me, isn’t it?

         Old Man Farley does not relax one bit, but he seems vaguely to recognize his interviewer. He offers no response to the chief but the coldness in his stare.

         You’d suspected that all along, the chief continues. You confirmed it by handing him over to the specialists one night. They hooked up his brain to read his waves, while he slept. Sure enough, nothing going on in there to indicate he dreams. They wanted to keep him longer. It is a rare condition after all, worthy of more tests, perhaps examinations that down the road could lead to an actual breakthrough in treating this condition. But you’d been steadfast. You just had to protect him. Not from them; you knew the specialists were no threat to him; but from whatever is out there and plays on the hopes and the fears that come alive in our dreams. You knew that that evil one would be gunning for him; and so you sobered up, barricaded yourself and your boy as best you could; and just waited every night with your rifle by your side. You figured that it was simply a matter of time before that evil one recruited some drifter, some outsider, and then smashed through your front window. And you also figured that, if he failed in that attempt, then he’d sacrifice himself to inspire the whole town to rise in moral indignation against your boy. These were just mad hunches; what passes for ‘insights’ in dreams unconnected from the restraints of reason and logic; so of course you could never make sense of those hunches while awake. But when asleep, tossing and turning in that bed of yours, gripping your rifle beneath the bed sheets so that you could spring forward at the slightest provocation, during those long and restless hours you knew that those mad hunches were accurate, deadly accurate, deadly true, like the aim of your old rifle, and the blank stare in that young boy’s eyes. You’re here, because you’re hoping the church will be able to provide a sanctuary your home could not. But you know it can’t protect you. You’ve known that fact the whole time you’ve been cowering down there.

         The chief stops talking. He senses that he must sound like an insane man what with his assumptions about Old Man Farley’s internal logic and conclusions in this matter. Like any psychic, he comes across as knowing too much; and the unavoidable conclusion then is either that he is insane (dreaming up these wild assumptions), or fake (pretending to know what he does not know), or actually gifted (touched by the gods, and so doomed to endure the sad fate reserved for all prophets). Each of those options makes him ripe for the fall, and so he truly wishes at that moment that he could take back all he has said and remain mute in this matter. Ignorance is bliss, and he would like a bit of ignorance just now.

         Old Man Farley continues to stare up at him. The snarl on his lips almost imperceptibly contorts into a grin. A knowing glint flashes in his tired, old eyes.

         You talk about the evil one out there, Old Man Farley reflects. I confess I used to think about it in that way. Now, I wonder if the evil one is not all of us.

         The chief frowns. He rubs the back of his neck. He’d never imagined the evil one that way. If it is true, then all is hopeless, unless those not so afflicted should manage to wipe out those who have drunk the Dream Kool-Aid. To think that the final solution may be genocidal; that the only way to secure innocence is not to build up walls, but to tear down the weak and the impudent; that only the Nazi mindset, the predilection for purity at all costs, the willingness to hurt and to kill anything deemed to be a threat to innocence, really succeeds in this regard, well, that is a thought that does not sit well at all with his deep seated respect for law and order. He wants the evil one to be a foreigner; an ugly out-of-towner who had recruited an innocent (and now a small town) to go after an innocent; perhaps a Negro from the edge of town. But if we are all the evil one incarnate, then the chief is as guilty of leading his son down the primrose path.

         Let’s face it, Old Man Farley continues. Man does not need a devil with a pitchfork to create hell on earth. He is very capable of subverting the innocent.

         The chief envisions himself sitting on that swing. Dustin is sitting besides him. His son looks into his eyes, and urges him to respond with a kiss. The chief grins, lowers his face into his son’s, and puckers his lips ever so gently. In turn, his son tilts his face to the side, like he has seen lovers do just before they kiss in those sappy romance films his mother likes to watch. He takes in his father’s sweat and aftershave; his father’s greasy tongue; his father’s rugged, old skin…

         There is a loud creak in the wooden floor behind him. The chief turns at once toward the sacristy. He glimpses Hurley O’Donovan’s dumb and broad grin on a liquored up face. He just registers the name, when he senses a punch land on the right side of his chin. He practically can taste Hurley’s knuckles (strange blend of bologna and aged whiskey), as the universe turns grey, and as he falls into the cramped space beneath the sanctuary. He is vaguely aware of crashing the back of his big head against that dirt floor down there just as all goes dark.

         Old Man Farley fights the urge to be flabbergasted at this sudden attack. He has to protect his boy from the evil one. He grabs for his rifle, which is now beside his sleeping boy in the shadows. He looks up and snarls at Miss Alice and her goons. He had trusted in her, but she too had turned out to be the evil one.

         Oaf Hans draws a pistol out from a deep pocket in his work pants. He has no time either to think about what should or should not be done. Miss Alice will be taken down like the rabid dog she is if that old man is able to fire his round.

         Oaf unloads one bullet smack into the center of the old man’s forehead.

         The gunshot reverberates throughout the nave. It is so very intense that the stained glass windows wobble like waves spreading out from a storm at sea.

         Old Man Farley raises his arms in a ‘Praise Jesus’ gesture as he falls back and lands on top of the chief. He rifle slices through the air and lands on top of the altar. It does not fire, but smoke snakes out from its muzzle, and arises like incense. That smoke is Old Man Farley’s last offering unto the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Miss Alice must sense this, since she hurriedly blesses herself.

         Miss Alice gets on her hands and knees. She reaches into the black hole, retrieves the strange boy from the shadows, and holds his face against her flat chest. She carries him away, like he is a newborn just found inside the manger.

         The two goons eye one another, and grin. They put the loose board over the black hole, roll down the carpet, and follow Miss Alice into the sacristy. As they work side-by-side, they do not share so much as one word, lest the simple words that they might share with one another get in the way of the solemn and holy prayers of thanksgiving that they are each offering unto the Blessed Virgin.

*   *   *

         Deputy Claire had seen Miss Alice and her two goons approaching from a distance. She’d wanted so much to get out of her police car when they arrived, and run interference. But something had told her to wait. Something had snuck up to her right ear and whispered that a woman’s place is inside her police car, not outside running interference, and that this is what the chief would want at this moment. She did not care a whit about a ‘woman’s place,’ but she realized that staying put is what her boss would have wanted then. So she did not move.

         Then, she hears the gunshot. She opens her car door, and draws her gun.

         Stop it, Blondie, Deputy Craig sneers, as he nudges his gun into her face. You are not going inside. Put your paws up where I can see them, and step out.

         She looks into his eyes. He is absolutely insane. Even worse, he is totally serious. He will put his bullet in her forehead for sure if she does not obey him.

         She drops her gun onto the concrete beside her open car door, steps out, and offers her wrists for his handcuffs. He beholds her obedience and grins like a sick dog. He clicks her wrists tight, and yanks her forcibly toward his own car.

*   *   *

         She is booked for carrying a firearm without a license. Apparently, when Rickard had taken over, one of his first acts as police chief had been to remove her badge and her pistol in absentia. In the new order, Blondie would be a lady civilian, not a police officer. In part this had to do with achieving ‘unity’ by the forced reversal of feminism and civil rights; but, though never acknowledged in any way, this had much more to do with Rickard settling an ancestral grudge in his favor. Regardless, she is on the outs; and so she gets really harsh treatment while being booked, disrobed, body searched, and put into a jail cell at the end of the hall. She suspects that if someone does not intervene, she will stay there until the Second Coming, and then some, as she cannot fit in with the program.

*   *   *

         When the chief awakens, the first thought to enter into his head is that he has been placed inside a casket and is having a heart attack. Talk about the proverbial cart before the horse, but that is how he understands his situation at that moment. And it makes sense, in a way. First, there is nothing to see, but a deep and endless blackness in every direction. There is nothing to feel, but the sensation of being in a cramped space that is getting smaller with every breath he exhales. There is nothing to hear, but his own heart beating out from his old chest and reverberating off of what sounds like wooden walls on every side. No doubt, he is inside something small, dark, and cramped; and given the ordeal in which he has been afflicted these past few days, the only logical conclusion for now is that he has been defeated by the evil one and is inside a casket that has been readymade for him. Secondly, there is a dead weight pressing down on his heart. It is senseless pressure, impervious to his pleas, unconcerned with all he needs to do still. Combined with the rapid beatings of his heart, and also a hot, blistering tingle in his arms, that pressure suggests the kind of cardiac arrest an overweight man risks everyday. Maybe it is fortuitous that he is already inside a casket, as it appears now that he will be requiring one for real in only minutes.

         The minutes tick by, and he does not get any worse. Indeed, if anything, then his situation seems to improve, or at least he gets used to it. The pressure is still there, but it feels more like something on top of his chest, not inside his chest. Furthermore, he has been able to control his breathing, and so his heart is no longer thumping like a rabbit in heat. He is nauseous, weak, and confused still; but he is not suffering from cardiac arrest and probably not inside a tomb.

         So if he is not inside a tomb, then where the hell is he? That is a decent question, to be sure; but it is also one that he cannot hope to answer just then. He cannot answer that question in part because he is suffering from short term amnesia induced by the wicked knot on the back of his big head. But even more so he cannot answer that question, because he is preoccupied with a new peril; a problem that he never would have envisioned in a thousand years, in spite of his line of work (no short term amnesia there, as he remembers at once that he is the Chief of the Redwood PD); a problem that he can understand consciously, but that nevertheless fills him with the kind of irrational dread that he has not experienced since he had feared the boogeyman inside his closet. Yes, he truly has been afraid of the evil one in recent days; and he has been suffering a mix of fear and anger with respect to his wife and his son in that same time period; but the boogeyman fear is much more infantile. Indeed, it defies reason and so is not susceptible to the high walls that the chief has been constructing so long.

         He recognizes this problem the moment he reaches for his own heart and instead touches the hard yet clammy chest of a dead man. So then there really is a dead chest laying over his heart; and there really is a dead arm laying over his nose and forehead; and what can he say to himself just then, except maybe that it is a problem when there’s a dead man laying on top of him? What else is he going to say? He surely cannot say that this dead man is part of the solution.

         Actually, he cannot say anything at all. Infants do not speak out when in the middle of the night they hear their closet door sliding open and observe the first hint of the boogeyman’s crimson red eyes. They simply cry. They do not at all cry out loud, as they are much too scared to elicit even the tiniest sound. At most, they cry out in silence, or they cry inside their souls. And so the chief has nothing to say, but he sheds his solitary tear into the depth of his defeated life.

         Although it takes a while, the fear passes eventually. He slides his hands over the hard yet clammy body on top of him. It is transitioning from a spongy, cold doll into a hard, plastic, frozen mannequin; a little give in this part of the corpse; as hard as stone in that other part. There is coagulated blood spread all over the face. It is no longer flowing out from that hole in the forehead; and so he suspects that, if there was enough light actually to see the body, that bullet hole would look like a dark, round spot on a greying surface, or perhaps a small golf hole smack in the center of a mown green area. There is also the very first hint of a rotten smell. It is mixed in with the coppery smell of coagulated blood and drool, but it is there in its own right as well. It is the smell of decay; really in his mind, the smell of defeat; and while soft and vague at present, over the next several hours that smell is going to grow in power until he cannot abide it.

         The chief wants to roll the old corpse off of him, so that he can attempt to push or to kick back the loose board that covers over this black hole. But, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot get grandpa off of him. It is as if that dead weight has been putting on the pounds since it died, and it is now glued to him.

         He suspects that if someone does not intervene, he will stay there until the Second Coming, and then some, as he cannot fit in with the program. If not rescued soon, then he’ll have to learn how to snooze with a dead man blanket, to bathe in a dead man smell, and to dream in a dead man’s black dreamscape.

*   *   *

         There is no real grasp of time inside the cell. Claire sleeps intermittently on the Korean War era army cot beside the broken toilet; but since there is not any light whatsoever in the hall, and no window to the outside, she cannot tell if hours or days have passed. Everything in there is a collage of shadows; a sick, meandering dream that seems to be looping in on itself; an endless present for which old age, infirmity, and finally death are welcomed as severe breaks from the routine. She is not in there long enough to experience any one of those sad conditions, but she wishes that at the very least she could experience a cold or a back ache or something that would direct her own mind away from the dream loop in which she is now mired. Maybe a ghost could rattle her rickety jail bars, reach out to her from the shadows, and give her a scare that would send all her senses to the stratosphere for a brief moment of fright. That too would be very welcomed, because the alternative is the dreariness of cold, stark sameness. In the end, it really is true that anything is better than nothing; hell is better than limbo; the devil’s pitchfork up the ass is better than Lawrence Welk on a radio.

         Wait a minute. There really is someone rattling the bars. It is not a ghost from a Victorian novel. Claire is still much too sensible to believe that. And so, it is a man; a dark man (though everything is dark in this pitch blackness); and, based on the careful manner that he shuffles from one bar to the next, feeling his way evidently toward to the door, a dark man who does not want to be seen or heard. That means one of two things: He is there to do her real harm, or he is there to save her. She momentarily fears the first option. As strong as she is, she is in the end a woman; and so rape is never far from mind in a situation like this one. But then she relents, as her rational mind suggests the second option, and prepares her to be most grateful rather than frightened at her dark visitor.

         And what is it that her rational mind picks up that suggests that the dark man is one of the angels? Certainly, she cannot see anything about him, except that he is a short, black form in the shadows; blackness on blackness; stooped, even shriveled, like Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor. But she can smell his excited sweat and differentiate the odors of normal fear from near orgasmic anticipation. She has had her own experience with a rapist, you see. And so she knows what their sweat smells like when they are in the throes of excited sexual anticipation the darkest moment before the penetration (or at least, her rational mind thinks it knows and so differentiates that experience from this one). And she can hear in spurts how he is mumbling instructions to himself (so many steps from the right end of the jail cell to the center; large key on that chain, rather than the small one; smoothly slide the door open, rather than jerk it). Her rational mind, once more clear where everything else is muddled, tells her that a crazed rapist like the one who attacked her way back when is not going to break his anticipation of sexual release by mumbling instructions to himself. He may be methodical in getting inside, but he will remain quiet, lest his own voice break the sick charm of the moment. No, the dark man is not a rapist, and that means he is an angel for her. God alone realizes why, but she will accept gratefully his helping hand.

         The dark man slides the door open. He stands in the doorway, fumbling a moment with the keychain, observing her sheepishly, like he fears that she will stand up all of a sudden and swat him in the face. He finally speaks to her in a halting manner. It is the only voice that his fear will permit him at that time. In many ways, it is the most beautiful voice that Claire has ever heard up to then.

         Missus, I’m Reggie, the night watchman, he rattles. I’m not supposed to be here. My shift doesn’t start for another hour. But I’d seen you all last night, while doing my rounds, and I just couldn’t break the thought that you’re really suffering an injustice. Hell, the whole town’s suffering an injustice, it seems to me. I’ve been kept in the dark. Sort of like you’ve been. I guess we niggers are not a part of the ‘unity.’ But that’s fine by me, ‘cause I wouldn’t want to be in that show. And I suspect the reason you’re here is you don’t want to be either.

         Claire does not know how to thank him. She just stands up, walks over to him in the doorway, and gently places her right palm on his cheek. He is still an unknowable dark form even this close. He is like something out of a dream that is going to vanish as soon as it has been apprehended; and as much as she truly needs to move on, she does not want this lovely moment between them to end.

         You said you’d watched me all last night, Claire says, breaking out of her spell, and releasing her hand from his face. Are you telling me it is Friday now?

         Missus, yes, it is Friday about 6, he answers with the same halting voice.

         She hurries out, looks back at him, whispers ‘thank you,’ and kisses him.

         Go on, he says. I suspect there’s a lot for you to do, and little time to do it in. The whole town’s gone ape nuts. You’ll see what I mean when you get out there. Just keep your head low, ‘cause the town doesn’t tolerate outsiders no more now. It’s like you’re part of the ‘unity,’ or you’re a shit nigger, you know?

         She nods in the affirmative, but she is not sure he can see her. She steps out the door at the end of the hall. She winces in the early evening sunlight but keeps on moving, regardless. She needs to get away, before anyone notices her in the alleyway behind the police station. Although there is no one around just then; indeed, the entire downtown seems eerily deserted; she senses hundreds of eyes staring at her from behind drawn curtains and locked storefront doors; blank eyes; zombie eyes; the kind of eyes that can only violate her as she drops her head and runs from one shrub to the next out of this part of the dead town.

         The dark man had said that she’d see what he means when she gets out. Well, he’d been right. The white posters and banners from the previous day are gone. Instead, there are garish yellow signs. They scream out in blood red text:

Friday Night Crucifixion Potluck

The Homo’s Going Down in Closed Circuit HD

First Baptist Church. 666 Jordan River Lane. 7PM.

‘Learn the Bible Truth’ Next Friday

         She hurries along the dark edges of this nightmare. Those yellow banners flap overhead at the downtown intersections. They are no longer like the clit in a young woman about to have an orgasm. Instead, the long, heavy sheets seem like the skin folds of a fat, old broad who is performing yet another sordid trick with yet another John back in a dark alleyway somewhere. Sin City has come in from out there; and like all sin, it is tired, worn out, run down, haggard, a sad, pathetic stillbirth that has been lingering all these years and now smells rotten.

         But like all squalid things on the verge of death, it will go through great pains, indeed the wildest exertions, to try to convince itself and anyone else in its grasp that there is more life in it than there really is. Now, it must be at the far end of its tight rope because it has had to resort to crucifixion to scintillate back a pulse beat. The sin is going to crucify a homo. The sin is going to crucify a boy. The sin is going to crucify each and every one of us, before it is finished.

*   *   *

         The only way that the chief can tell that time has passed is that the odor gets steadily worse. It is a heavy, damp, sulfuric smell; an unctuous stew gravy of rotten eggs and road kill (maybe gourmet in West Virginia, but nauseating on the chief’s tongue). It is beyond the smell of defeat. It is more like the smell of vomit left inside of a squishy rectum sometime during an all night bender. That smell inspires the tears of crazed guilt, no doubt, the groveling mind that cries: I’ll never do this shit again, just get me the fuck out of here, wherever the hell here is, ‘cause I’m too shitfaced to remember, and I’ll never do this shit again; I promise; I promise; I promise; Oh, my Blessed Lord, I’ll give you my first born.

         At one point, he had managed to squeeze out from beneath that corpse, that thing that stinks to high heaven and is clothed in its own coagulated blood like a KKK goon in his white sheet, that menace that would have crushed his old and enfeebled heart completely. His right fingers had happened to splash into a pond of blood not yet coagulated. He had had the mind to smear the blood into the tiny crevices between himself and the corpse on top of him. And then, with his eyes clenched, and a strained look on his face, he had had the wherewithal to use the blood butter to squirm out from beneath all that stinky dead weight.

         But the space is too small for him to go anywhere; and he is far too weak to push or to kick against the loose board; so he has no choice but to lie beside the dead man like a groom beside his newlywed bride. He senses minutes pass; slow and plodding steps they are; one moment into another into eternity; while the stink gets steadily worse and fuses itself into everything, including even his own spit. He tries not to swallow, because then he tastes all that languid death in the back of his throat. He wonders if this is what sperm tastes like. He thinks that homosexuals like his son are really necrophiliacs; that they get down for as much death smell as they can get into their throats; that a mark of their kind is that they hide a Jeffrey Dahmer poster in their closets behind their bubble gum pink suede jackets. The dead flesh muncher is a kind of idol for them; really, if you think about it, a queer kind of idol. Get it? He is a queer kind of idol. Wow, that’s funny. Being in here with this stinky dead man is turning the chief into a goddamn Don Rickles. He’ll be booked on The Tonight Show before he knows it.

         He hears someone walking down that hardwood aisle between the pews. Maybe it is Miss Alice and her two goons coming back to finish him off. Maybe it is the Amway man. Who the hell knows? He just knows that he wants to get out of here; and if there is even a small chance that the person out there has come to help him, then he’ll go for it. If the person out there has come to kill him, or to rape him, or to injure him, or whatever, then any one of those sad fates will be better than being next to his dead bride and imagining their honeymoon trip into eternity together. And so he screams out with whatever he has left within his lungs, which is not much, admittedly, but which appears to be enough here, since a minute or two later the board is pulled away and Claire steps into view.

*   *   *

         Holy Christ Jesus, Claire gasps, as she squats down to take a closer look.

         More like Lazarus awakening from the dead, the chief remarks. Help me.

         She reaches down and helps him climb out from the hole. It is only then that she smells that horrible stink wafting up from inside the hole as if invisible tentacles. She has to restrain herself from gagging lest she gives up her tenuous grip on her boss and watches him stumble back into the black tomb from which he is emerging. She averts her eyes, so as not to see Old Man Farley’s surprised look sifting in and out of the grey shadows moving across his blood soaked face.

         And, like Lazarus, mine is a momentary resuscitation, not a resurrection, the chief offers cryptically. I don’t know how much time I have left. Probably a few hours, depending upon how I feel, and then I’ll be back in the box. Please, tell me that if I fall you’ll protect the boy from them. Forget about me. Let me die by the wayside. What truly matters is protecting that boy from his pursuers.

         Don’t talk that way, Claire urges. Nothing’s going to happen to you now.

         Just tell me, Claire, the chief urges. Tell me that you’ll protect the boy.

         I’ll protect him, Claire whispers; as she looks down to hide her sad tears.

         She puts the loose board back in place, and rolls the carpet over it. They had taken her watch when they booked her; and the chief does not have on his watch, either. So she can only guess at the time. Judging by the dim grey light, slanted from the ground upward through the stained glass windows on the west side of the church, striking the dust mites briefly and then fading into the sick, brooding shadows that are the mainstay in this church, Claire figures that it is a bit passed 6:30PM. There is scant time to get to the ‘Crucifixion Potluck’ to see what Reverend Goober and his fellow ‘saved’ Baptists have in store for tonight.

         They took Old Man Farley’s boy, the chief says after a short pause. They never said where they were going to take him, but I surely know he’s in danger.

         I think I know who’s going to be the ‘main attraction’ at the ‘Crucifixion Potluck’ tonight, Claire reflects. Come on. We have very little time to get over there. And we need to keep our head down while we’re going. The whole town is nutty. It’s like everyone has been brainwashed, or something. Or maybe it’s…

         A dream, the chief interrupts. Maybe everyone’s having the same dream.

         Claire does not say anything in response. She does not need to. They are clearly on the same wavelength with respect to the sin that has taken hold now in their town. That sin is more like a cross between a wet dream and a monster nightmare. It scintillates, and it frightens; and it leaves total waste in its path, first a chief with a kink in his neck, then three double homicides, now the town (except, thankfully, for their black citizens), and God knows what may be next.

         They leave Saint Agatha’s. As expected, her police car is gone, so they’ll need to walk all the way to Jordan River Lane. They stay off the main road and try to skulk behind shrubs and trees, whenever possible. No one seems to be on the town roads, but they both feel those hundreds of eyes glaring out at them. And we are not just referring to their imaginations. All that day a core team of ‘straight cops’ has been putting up video cameras. The one-eyed beasts are as conspicuous as those garish yellow signs. Who knows if there is anyone actually sitting in a security room staring at a wall of closed circuit television sets? Who knows if this is how Rickard Kirk now gets his kicks? Perhaps watching for those ‘enemies within’ passes for pornography in this new ‘unity’ society. Regardless, the cameras are everywhere; and so the two cops move as deftly as possible on their way to the First Baptist Church, and they stop entirely when a person or a car happens to pass them (thankfully not very often on those desolate streets).

         The situation changes dramatically, as they turn onto Jordan River Lane. There is a carnival atmosphere; a checkpoint set up midway down that lane; an enormous mob crowding as close as they can to the open front door of the First Baptist Church. Here and there smaller groups have congregated together to be impromptu church choirs singing old time hymns and offering hallelujahs to the Risen Lord. There is not a frown, nor even a quizzical look, nothing to suggest a moment of hesitation in embracing the Jesus Joy offered unto them. They each have the same wide grins on their faces; plastic smiles that call to mind the joy of being Pat Nixon on the campaign trail; blushing cheeks ripe with the promise of innocence; goony eyes that seem to be swimming in hope. This could be one of those Obama rallies in 2008; but even more so, there is the unsettled feeling of Jonestown in the evening air. There is expectation, not so much of the Great Man taking the pulpit to offer up the Blood of the Lamb, the Eternal Rapture of the White Man, the Resurrection Power, though no doubt those pleas will be all well received and duly noted. No, the real expectation is of the death to follow the sermon; the one sacrifice to be made; then, in due time, the Kool-Aid to be consumed by everyone else. Death is hanging in the air. She sings out to them, sweetly, beautifully, melodically in Christian hymns, softly in lullabies sung to babies in carriages; but the Gorgon is just beneath the surface. And the Gorgon makes an appearance on Jordan River Lane every now and then, when a garish, yellow sign comes into view, or when a spy camera zeroes in on one of the poor pawns loitering about the street. The Siren and the Gorgon are two sides of the one coin when the people are so close to the homosexual about to be crucified.

         We’ll never get close enough, Claire reflects as they hide in an alleyway.

         Not if we try to walk in through the front door, the chief says. I have an idea. We don’t have much time to execute it, but I don’t think there’s a choice really. Follow me, and I’ll tell you what I’m planning, while we are on our way.

*   *   *

         No one is wearing a watch, and the cellular phone has been outlawed for the good of ‘unity.’ Indeed, to this end, there are crates located all about town where people can discard their cellular phones anonymously. In this way a good citizen can be in compliance without his neighbors ever knowing that he had at one point owned such an infernal device (infernal because, in allowing persons one-on-one gossip sharing, the cellular phone works against the very concept of ‘unity’). Tomorrow, there will be bigger crates, where people can discard their internet devices, since of course emails and personal information gathering are also working against the very concept of ‘unity.’ The town is cleaning up pretty fast, so there is ample reason for everyone to don their beautiful, plastic grins.

         Fortunately, the town has provided a way for people to know what time it is, and to know what they should be doing and where they should be doing it, so the fact that watches and cellular phones (and soon internet devices) are in fact going the way of the Dodo is not a problem. The town’s solution is to hoist loudspeakers everywhere. Granted, the saccharine sweet female voice intoning the time every fifteen minutes, and giving instructions as needed, smacks a bit of North Korea (though it is a pleasant enough voice reminiscent of the woman who used to tell us on our old telephone that at the sound of the tone it is 7:05 and thirty seconds, or whatever the time may be). Granted, the ambiance is as much ‘concentration camp’ as it is ‘hope and change.’ But the loudspeakers do solve the problem of letting people know the time, and what and where to act.

         The loudspeakers crackle back into life: Attention, ladies and gentlemen dedicated to ‘unity,’ the pleasant enough woman states. It is now 7:00PM and 0 seconds. Time for the First Baptist Church Crucifixion Potluck. Ladies, drop off your tuna casseroles and fruit cakes with Miss Anna Burns. She is at the table by the front door. Gentlemen, if you are unarmed, then see Miss Alice behind the church at the ‘Driving Out the Moneychangers’ weapons’ stockpile. Remember, do not share your firearms with women, children, or niggers, by order of Chief Rickard Kirk. Safety First, Insurrection Never, that’s our ‘unity’ motto when we handle firearms. Now, if you are not privileged to be inside the church, then be sure to gather around one of the high definition closed circuit television sets on Jordan River Lane. As you watch and listen be sure to open your heart to Jesus.

         The loudspeakers click off. The smiling people gather around high poles. There is a high definition closed circuit television set on the top of every one of these poles. The television screens come to life then to reveal Old Man Farley’s grandson, stripped down to his Spiderman underwear, and tied with bloody red bands to a four-foot tall crucifix. There is a crown of thorns upon his head that has punctured his skull already and is releasing tears of blood from his forehead and down his cheeks. The crucifix is standing upright on an oak desk beside the pulpit. Reverend Goober is sitting half on and half off the front of the oak desk next to the crucifix. He smiles gently, folds his hands in his lap, and stares into the camera. He is vaguely reminiscent now of Walt Disney introducing a family-friendly movie of the week. Thankfully, the boy behind him is not crying out in pain, even though he is bleeding already, because otherwise the mild and meek Walt Disney persona would be lost before the sermonizer chooses to jettison it.

         Hello, boys and girls, Reverend Goober grins. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Unity. As we all learned in Sunday school, back in the good old days of sweet mothers and hot apple pies, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white men have been created equal, and that they’ve been endowed by our Personal Lord and Savior with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the pursuit of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. This is our heritage, what we brought with us when we landed at Plymouth Rock, and subdued the savage red man, and gave the negro an opportunity to work for his keep. Now, our fine and noble heritage is under attack. It is under siege. It is being trampled under by the smelly feet of sinners. Now, this sin comes to us in many faces. It is dark faced sometimes. It is brown faced other times. It is even yellow chink faced if and when those other faces are not scary enough to keep us on our toes. But in the end, regardless of the face, it is the same sin; the one that dare not speak its name in mixed company; the ‘bend over rover’ syndrome; the ‘don’t drop a bar of soap in a men’s locker room’ disease; the sweaty and smelly balls plague that scares the little daylights out of all good men. Now, I’m about to say a bad word. Cover up the ears of your women and children. Here goes: the real name of this sin is homosexual. Sometimes, we call it by its nickname, homo. It really tries to pass itself off as ‘gay,’ as if sin can ever be happy. It tries to pass itself off as just an ‘alternative lifestyle,’ as if sin can ever be a way to live, instead of being a certain path toward death. But we are not fooled. We know that the homo is just a menace, like a Jew in Germany before the Final Solution, or like a negro on the white side of the bus. And every now and then the menace rises up to threaten the whole society. When that happens, the menace must be put down, like a rabid dog, or a sick cat, or an Obama voter. It’s just the way it has to be. It’s in the Bible. And the Lord God said to put down the Canaanites, and the Whore Jezebel, and the Whore of Babylon (no offense to the Cat’licks who have joined us here tonight), because there can be no darkness in the light, not one iota of negro in the white man, not one limp wrist among Onward Christian Soldiers. Now, by the grace of Our Lord Jeeesus, Praise Be His Name, we are all going to be a witness to His Righteous Judgment. Behind me we have the awful excrement homosexual who had tried these past few days to divide us from the ‘unity’ we hold so dear. We are going to string him high, and then allow Father God to pass His Righteous Judgment, until he’s nothing but a smelly corpse on a firm cross; a corpse that will not be resurrected on the third day; a corpse that will not be called out of the tomb on the last day. The homo’s going down, sing it to me, brother. He’s going down to the hell pit reserved for stinky ass lovers, Praise Be His Name. So let me hear: Resurrection Power! So let me hear: Amen!

         And there is an uproar of ‘Resurrection Power’ and ‘Amen’ all across the blessed congregation both in and outside of the church building. There is a very joyous weeping and gnashing of teeth, as the power of grace spreads about the townsfolk, and inflames them in their righteousness to give glory to their unity.

*   *   *

         Chief Rickard Kirk looks away from the closed circuit television set in his father’s office. He is visibly worried. Things are getting out of hand. There may be a break down of law and order; and if he is anything in this small town, he is a law and order man. He looks at his father in the hope of being now reassured.

         Mayor Douglas Kirk is sitting at his oversized desk. He is all-smiles in that ridiculous, white, three-piece suit of his. He taps his ringed fingers on his desk.

         Don’t worry, son, the mayor says. You got to have a ‘Kristallnacht’ every now and then. It reminds the little people that they need authority to keep the peace. Nothing will come of the fun and games there, but a few bruised knees. Just be sure to pound your iron fist when they beg for law and order at sunrise.

         Rickard smiles. He likes his iron fist. He especially likes how it feels just when it smashes into some loser’s mouth. It is the part of his job he truly loves.

*   *   *

         The chief squats in front of the combination lock. He is still disoriented, heck, smashed out of his mind is more like it, from having spent an overly long honeymoon with a corpse beneath a church sanctuary. But some things will stay in his mind no matter what, and one of those tidbits of information is the code to the combination lock for his uncle’s junkyard near to where Keeble junctions with Hampstead. They’d had to hail the only cab in town to get out here so fast and furious. Fortunately, the only cab in town happens to be owned and driven by a black man, so he had no problem with taking them so far from all that fine and good natured ‘unity’ nearer downtown. Now that the cabbie has left them, the chief is squatting in front of the combination lock, while his favorite deputy watches his back. There is little time left, so the automobile for which they are looking in the junkyard hopefully will be found and in good working order ASAP.

         The code works. The chief slides open the security gate. Claire looks off in the distance just to make sure no one else is looking at them. So far as she is able to tell, no one is around, though she still cannot shake the feeling that the untold hundreds of eyeballs are watching them from inside every black shadow.

         The junkyard is little more than a few acres of metal scraps and engines, rusted and weathered by years of exposure to the elements, rattling in the soft evening wind that is now casting up frail dust clouds. Automated lights turn on. They do little more than add a sickly yellow cast to the scraps scattered about them, but the chief stops in mid step to consider the idea that has just flashed in his mind. He looks back at Claire and takes note of the big flashlight hanging from her waist. For the first time since God knows when, he has then an inkling of hope that perhaps he can bring an end to all the madness. He moves forward with an even greater feeling of urgency, and Claire has to run so as to keep up.

         There is an automobile hidden beneath a blue tarp on the far side of the junkyard. So far as they can tell, it is the only intact automobile there. Without waiting for Claire to catch up, the chief pulls off the tarp and beholds the 1958 white Chevy Impala beneath. It looks like a restored car. It is certainly polished and clean on the outside. They can only hope then the chief’s uncle got around to restoring what’s inside so that it purrs like a sexy cat when he turns the key.

         These are the actual wheels my old man drove the night he first took my mom out on a date, the chief explains. He smashed it up pretty bad that night, or so the story goes. Anyway, little by little, he spent years restoring it to mint condition. His brother was a repo man, and he kept it on his yard. He was able to restore in time what he’d smashed up. I hope I can do the same. I really do…

         You’re as good a man as your father, Claire says. You’ll make it all right. I know you will. Now, let’s get going, before it’s too late for that innocent boy.

         That innocent boy, the chief whispers wistfully. Everything for that boy…

         The car doors are unlocked. The single key is in the glove compartment.

         The chief rolls his eyes as if to say ‘here goes nothing.’ He turns the key in the ignition. There is a God in the heavens, or at least his uncle has so little to do in his golden years that he has had the time to restore the engine to near perfection, because the sexy cat starts to purr at once. The chief grins, winks a sly one in Claire’s direction, and pulls out of the space feeling for the first time in years as if an adolescent boy. He almost forgets what he is setting out to do.

*   *   *

         Miss Alice stands on the back of the 1949 F5 Ford flatbed that used to be Old Man Farley’s wheels. Now that Old Man Farley has been handed his one key to the mansion waiting for him in the sky, she figures that he has donated it to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Certainly, he has no next of kin, except for that strange grandson who is going to be dead meat on a wood cross before midnight. God loves a cheerful giver, and she chooses to think of him in that way, notwithstanding the surly look on his face when he gave up his ghost.

         She has given away most of the weapons and ammunition he had had on his flatbed. The men had gobbled up the goods like emaciated Ethiopians given a chance to eat whatever turkeys they could grab out of a cage. Similar to the Ethiopians, they had little to no idea how to prepare what they had taken from the flatbed. They just liked the very idea of having nourishment gripped tightly inside their cold, dead hands. The firearm, like the turkey, will put a loopy grin on their lips, when they die; and perhaps there is something to be said for that.

         So she is fine with overseeing the Great Gun Giveaway. She is not so big on working with the Baptists. Unity or no unity, they’re still heretics. But she is smart enough to bide her time. Unity is all the rage now; and she is doing Saint Agatha’s a favor in the long run by making sure Saint Agatha’s is a player in the political machinations of the moment. When this whole détente craze dies off, as surely it must, she’ll go back to tossing eggs at the houses of Baptist widows.

         She tries to block out Reverend Goober’s incessant hallelujahs. By God’s grace, she is behind the church, so she cannot see the closed circuit televisions that are scattered about Jordan River Lane. But she can hear his screechy voice loud and clear. Perhaps this exposure alone will count for a few years off of her stay in Purgatory, though she suspects she has accumulated very little jail time there anyway. If that is the case, then she has nothing to gain from listening to his bad voice and dumb theology. She just hopes this is all over before too long so that she can return to her bed, turn on her tiny television, and watch EWTN.

*   *   *

         The chief drives the Chevy Impala through town. He had recognized the video cameras that the Redwood PD had installed earlier that day. The cameras are able to identify suspect license plates and to notify the officer on duty. Any other automobile that he or Claire owns would be on that list, and they did not want to involve an innocent person by stealing someone else’s car. So really he had had one option: Drive the only car to which he has access that will not be a suspect car, since of course no one at the Redwood PD knows about his father’s restored Chevy Impala. That part of the plan is working out, because no one on the beat has endeavored to pull him aside even though he is driving downtown.

         Now for the second part of the plan: Clearly, he cannot go down Jordan River Lane, park at the curb, and walk through the front door. Beside all of the security there, the street has been overrun by grinning idiots. No doubt, all the Stepford Husbands, Wives, and Children are standing around the high definition closed circuit televisions in awe of the sheer extent to which the good, old Holy Spirit is speaking ‘truth’ to them now through the inspired prose of the one and only Reverend Goober. The Chevy Impala will not get to within a half a block of the church, and once he exits the car he’ll be spotted then by a ‘straight cop.’ So the second part of the plan is to go off road and to drive up to the church on the backside. That will not be easy, since they will need to cross the deep river that runs alongside Jordan River Lane; and the Chevy Impala does not qualify in any regard as an ‘off road vehicle.’ So again he’ll just have to toss out a prayer and hope for the best, since there really is no time to change this plan anyway.

         The chief glances at Claire, gives her another sly wink, and then swerves off of the road. He tries to steer; but for the most part, gravity drags their car down the muddy slope and into the bubbling river. Foamy river water slams up against the passenger windows. The engine gurgles and coughs, like a man who is drowning beneath a cascading wave. The old tires struggle to find something in the muddy rocks on which they can reestablish traction. For the most part at least one of the tires succeeds; but every now and then, the car just floats one way or another with nothing but the wind and the water as its engine. The new windshield cracks into a spider web of loosened glass, when a stone flies out of the river and smashes into it. It is almost as if the river itself is trying to get rid of the foreign something or other hunched on its cascading shoulders for a ride.

         The Chevy Impala slides against a hill. The chief floors his accelerator at once. The tires grab rapaciously for the loose mud at the base of that hill. It is touch and go for a few eternal seconds; but, finally, the tires grip enough sand and rock to pull the rest of the vehicle out of the stream. The Chevy Impala has no more in it at that moment than to chug and to shudder like a cranky old guy on his last legs; but then the second wind kicks in, and the vintage car manages to climb up the hill with little effort. The chief wipes his brow and tells himself that they do not make American cars like this one anymore. No, sir, they don’t.

         I knew I’d make it, the chief lies like a skunk crashing a solemn wedding.

         Claire wants to say something, but she holds her tongue. In a way, she is feeling like a dutiful wife in holding her tongue, putting up with all his bravado bullshit, standing by her man, and so forth. She is not at all used to this feeling in her heart, but she cannot say that it is entirely disagreeable. But now is just not the time to be thinking about how a wife should treat her husband; and so, in order to return her thoughts as soon as possible to the task at hand, she tells herself that she held her tongue simply to buck up his courage before the fight. It had nothing to do with how a wife should treat her husband. Nope, it didn’t, and that’s the truth, and she’s sticking with it come hell or high water or both.

         The chief slugs through a fallow field, as he circles back toward the back of the First Baptist Church. He smashes through a rusted barbed wire fence just a quarter of a mile or so before reaching his destination. The fence cannot stop their progress, but it does throw into the cabin what remains of the windshield.

         Fortunately, the chief and his favorite deputy foresee this happening, so they look down and cover themselves before the impact. As a result, neither of them is cut very badly by the glass shard projectiles. They look back up in time to see that 1949 F5 Ford flatbed parked several hundred yards in front of them.

         The chief screeches to a halt. The Chevy Impala is happy to oblige. He is not certain that he will be able to start it up again; but since time clearly is of the essence, he decides to cross that bridge when he gets to it, rather than try to grapple with that possibility right now. Rather, he focuses on the obstacle in front of him. He identifies Miss Alice standing on the flatbed. By luck, or maybe by divine intervention, she happens to be looking the other way; and as a result of the sermonizing over the loudspeakers, she never heard them approaching at breakneck speed from the riverbank. So the element of surprise is still on their side. The question is: How do we get passed the witch to enter into the church?

*   *   *

         Miss Alice is fidgeting again with the oversized crucifix that hangs below her chicken neck. She is contemplating all the sordid ways that God will torture Reverend Goober, when the dumb hick Baptist (double redundancy in speaking of a ‘dumb hick Baptist,’ Miss Alice chuckles smugly) finally comes face to face with his Roman Catholic Judge, Jury, and Executioner. The poor bastard will be like every one of those evildoers in Dante’s Inferno. He will beg for mercy; just cry out like the squealing pig rape victim in Deliverance; but of course, there is not going to be any mercy left over for the likes of him. Just like his goofy signs and sandwich boards out front depict Jesus Christ turning a blind ear to the sad cries of teenagers killed in drunk driving accidents, so will the Blessed Virgin on High turn a blind ear to him. Tit for tat, you little Baptist Bumpkin (yet another double redundancy, Miss Alice chuckles). I wonder how many stupid hallelujahs he’ll be screaming when he’s trying to save his sorry ass from pitchforks in hell?

         You have a resale license for these firearms? Claire inquires sternly from the side of the flatbed. I hope I don’t have to write you up for selling without a license. The penalty can be pretty steep, even if these parts. Just the way it is.

         Buzz off, sister, Miss Alice snaps. The Second Amendment is my license. I happen to have a pocket Constitution with me if you want to see the fine print.

         I’m just doing my job, Claire continues. So what are you selling anyway?

         Claire reaches onto the flatbed as if she wants to pick up and to examine one of the firearms. Miss Alice kicks her hand away while clutching her crucifix.

         Chief’s Order, Miss Alice snarls. No firearms for girls. And you’re just one of the girls, no matter the badge on your chest and the trousers over your legs.

         While this pleasant exchange continues, the chief sneaks passed that F5 Ford flatbed. He glances back to make sure that Claire has her occupied. Then, without any hesitation, he pushes through the back door and into that dark and brooding church. He props that door open, so that he can get out fast and easy.

*   *   *

         ‘Unity’ indeed is the rage. In keeping with the spirit of the times, this is going to be an ecumenical crucifixion. Reverend Goober is both ‘Pontius Pilate’ and ‘Caiaphas,’ at one point threatening to wash his hands of this whole affair, then on a dime exhorting the faithful that it is best that one boy should die for us all (especially since that one boy also happens to be the homosexual). There is great drama, as the privileged few in the pews, and the greater numbers out on Jordan River Lane, cannot tell if he is going to go ahead with the crucifixion or call it off at the last moment. The tension is so high that several people just faint from exhaustion. Others cry. Still others speak in tongues, or rip off their clothes. As a side note, since none of the beautiful bombshells in the pews rips off their clothes, the church deacons try to dissuade the faithful from this kind of praise. No one wants to observe a fat mama swinging her boobs for the Lord.

         But while the Chief Baptist exhorts the crowd, the Roman Catholic goons Hurley O’Donovan and Oaf Hans are the Roman Centurions. They are dressed in plumed helmets and medieval full body armor (not historically accurate but the best that they could do at the local costume shop on short notice). They unveil a real cross behind the pulpit. They untie the boy from the smaller cross that is on the desk and prepare to nail his wrists to the real cross. As always, the small boy is impassive. He truly is an innocent and clueless lamb led to the slaughter; a lamb that is ugly in appearance; a lamb that never speaks in his own defense.

         Reverend Goober senses that the mob has reached its high point in terms of fear and tension. If his charade goes on any longer, then the very same mob actually will begin to lose interest. People will start to wander off, first one at a time, then in droves, finally as a flood, until he is left with nothing but a tiny remnant of blood and guts aficionados. He is used to playing to the remnant of ‘saved’ Baptists. Tonight is his chance to play to the full deck, and he does not want to squander it by overplaying his hand. Therefore, observing that the end is near, he raises his diminutive arms, like Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments, and screams out: Praised Be Jeeesus, this homo’s going down!

         He turns to the Roman Centurions, and winks. They chuckle, look at one another, and grab a hold of the boy’s wrists. They drag him over to the cross as if he is a sack of potatoes. All the while the holy mob screams out: Crucify him!

         The chief steps out from behind the stage. He draws his pistol and points it at Hurley O’Donovan, who just happens to be nearer to him when he is there.

         Hurley and Oaf stop dead in their tracks. They again exchange glances as if to ask one another: Is this part of the show? Or is this for real? The mob does not notice anything (or if they see it, then they presume the big guy pointing a pistol at one of the Roman Centurions is just an actor doing his part to increase the ‘historical accuracy’ of the crucifixion). Reverend Goober views it for what it is. He ducks out of his own sanctuary as fast as he can, and never looks back.

         Hurley and Oaf finally decide that this is for real. They both pee in their pants simultaneously (quite a feat, actually, that so surprises the chief he very nearly drops his pistol onto the stage). They are Centurions just ready to retire.

         Actually, only one of the two is ready to retire. Oaf is confident with his pistol at his side because of his success earlier in gunning down Old Man Farley.

         He draws his pistol. The chief eyes him. Without hesitation, and with the deadly accuracy of a seasoned law man, the chief fires a bullet into the center of Oaf’s forehead. Oaf’s pistol flies backward, and it lands on top of the pulpit.

         Even then, the mob is slow to react. Many think that this is just part of a normal crucifixion show (though that begs the question what would be ‘normal’ about any crucifixion show in our time). Others are too stunned to think at all. Still others have figured it out, but they are much too afraid to react outwardly to the violence that they have witnessed. They are like the infants first seeing a boogeyman in their closet. They wail on the inside but are impassive outside.

         The chief grabs the boy out from Hurley’s hands, and runs to the back of the stage. He exits behind the real cross. He is gone then in the wink of an eye.

         Finally, a woman in the pews screams holy hell. That releases the awful, stuffy, cramped tension. The men take out their firearms; but of course, being civilians, they do not have the instinct to fire fast enough. There is a misfire at one point that sends a bullet into the ceiling. All that accomplishes is to inspire a mad scramble for the exits, while the smiling idiots on the outside are trying to get inside to see with their own naked eyes what is happening. The two huge masses collide at the front door. This is pandemonium in the House of the Lord.

         The chief cradles the boy in his chest, as he passes by the side of the F5 Ford flatbed. He glances up and sees Miss Alice kicking at Claire’s hand. That is par for the course with the witch, he thinks, as he gestures for Claire to follow.

         Claire steps away from the flatbed. Miss Alice does not even see her exit from the scene. Miss Alice is aware that something is happening up front. She is much more interested in seeing what it is than in kicking back at that girly cop.

         Claire falls into the beat up Chevy Impala, as the chief rolls his eyes and offers yet another quick prayer to the pagan gods of lost causes and spent cars.

         He hands the boy over to Claire. He inserts the key, and turns as hard as he can. Nothing. He tries again. Nothing. He tries a third time. Not even a little cough. He is about to throw the key in disgust out his side window, when Claire realizes that he has been turning the key the wrong way. She grabs the key out of his fingers; inserts it; turns it the right way; and voila, that sexy cat returns.

         The chief looks at her. He is as much disgusted as he is relieved. He does not know if he wants to strangle or to kiss her. Perhaps both at the same time…

         Let’s go, Claire insists. We can sort out our feelings when this is all over.

         The chief grins sheepishly. He puts the gear into drive and floors the gas.

*   *   *

         Chief Rickard Kirk had been prepared for ‘Kristallnacht.’ Indeed, after a minute or so of mulling over his father’s astute political observation that knees need to be bruised every now and then in this business, he had looked forward to the bloodshed, much like someone purchasing closed circuit boxing coverage and wading patiently through all the pre-match filler to get to the ‘good stuff’ in the end. Oaf Hans with a bullet in his head had surpassed his highest hope in this matter. The fact that he hated that son of a bitch added the cherry on top; and, if all had gone as anticipated, he would have burst his balls then from joy.

         But nothing had gone as anticipated. The crucifixion never had occurred; and even worse, the chief had been the reason. In the back of his mind, he had feared that that chief might meddle somehow. Indeed, until Little Bill finally is six feet under, he is always going to be a thorn in his side, even if the Kirks are clearly in the upper hand. In a small town, short of death it is impossible really to settle old scores once and for all time. The sad losers can keep coming back, even if the most that they can do is to spread silly gossip in a diner like Millie’s.

         He turns away from the closed circuit television set. The mayhem is not particularly fun anymore, even though the chief now can be picked up for gross kidnapping and murder. Just the fact that there had been such a huge diversion from the anticipated progress over there causes Rickard to question his control.

         He looks at his father. The mayor still has a smile on his face; but his big smile is just a little too big now; too forced; too obviously the smile of the glad handing politician faced by a heckler all of a sudden. Even more so, his nervous eyes give him away. The mayor too can see that this is going in a bad direction.

         Rickard realizes at once what he must do. He steps over to the antique, hand held microphone on the side table. He clears his throat, and switches the machine on. Whenever he speaks into it with his normal voice he sounds on the other end like the saccharine sweet female intoning the time on the telephone.

         Attention, ladies and gentlemen, please be advised that the homosexual has escaped his judgment. He is on the loose. His accomplice is the discredited former Chief of Police, William Borden, Jr., also known as ‘Little Bill.’ The two pose a clear and present danger to the ‘unity’ we hold so dear. It is your moral, civil, and religious duty to pursue them. Bring them back to justice either dead or alive. Remember what the Bible says: God helps those who help themselves.

         He repeats the same message two more times in thirty-second intervals. Then, he switches off the microphone, and asks his father if he can use the old Snow Cone machine hidden in the closet. He craves something sweet right now, and by giving out such an astute order he believes that he has been a good boy.

*   *   *

         The chief is pleasantly surprised just how well the Chevy Impala is doing off road. He has had to ram two more barbed wire fences. His side mirrors have sliced grapes off of vines, when he had had to drive through a private vineyard. He has slammed over rocks and two fallen trees. It is amazing that the restored automobile is not a heap billowing out smoke and steam from beneath its hood.

         Still, he cannot remain off road the whole way. The terrain is starting to become too treacherous, as the main part of town falls further and further into his rearview mirror. If he is not careful, then at some point he will be stranded.

         He accelerates up a small hill and turns onto Keeble. He is not too far at that point from where Keeble intersects with Hampstead. He can see the Negro shantytowns in the near distance, because a few of the huts have electric lights on at this time of night. He has no doubt the dark faces over there can see him, since his headlights emit blinding beams into the severe blackness after sunset.

         He passes his uncle’s junkyard. A police car then pulls out from inside of the junkyard and starts to pursue the Chevy Impala. Obviously, a cop had been waiting in there specifically for the Chevy Impala, and that means that that cop has been on their trail for some time. There is no need to guess who that cop is since he speaks to them through his vehicle loudspeaker in his cocky firm voice.

         I let you go, Blondie, Deputy Craig teases. I paid that night watch nigger to free you. Even gave him the cell key. You can thank me later for giving you a last taste of freedom. Now, pull over, you guys. I’m booking you for murdering the Papist Oaf Hans, kidnapping the homo, and being a big thorn in the keister.

         The chief’s heart sinks. He knows that he cannot outrun a police cruiser.

         He is about to pull over, when Claire sets the small boy on the floor next to her feet, reaches into her holster, and retrieves her pistol. She winks slyly at the chief, rolls down her passenger window, leans halfway out, aims her pistol, and fires a bullet through the windshield of the police car on their heels. She is careful to aim for the empty passenger seat. The purpose is to disorient Deputy Craig so that the young whippersnapper runs off the highway, not to strike him.

         Sure enough, though he is a courageous Young Turk, he is an amateur on the beat and has no experience with receiving incoming fire. Craig freezes into a spasm of fright, swerves his wheel erratically, and slides into the muddy ditch along the side of the road. But for his pride, he is unhurt. He radios back to the dispatcher to inform the police as to the automobile identification and location of the suspects. Once Rickard passes on the information to the town, every one of those smiling idiots will be on the lookout for a Chevy Impala on Hampstead.

         So much for getting away unseen, Claire remarks, as she holsters her gun and takes the small boy into her arms. Every hick zombie in town will be on the lookout. I feel like Ma Parker when she has used up the eighth of her nine lives.

         This is going to work out, the chief says, recalling how those automated light flashed on inside his uncle’s junkyard. This is all coming to an end tonight.

*   *   *

         When the chief reaches Hampstead Road, Claire assumes that he is going to turn left and travel on towards Beverly. Down that direction presumably will be the same checkpoint as before, but that no longer seems as threatening. All of Redwood Township knows where they are and what they are driving, so truly it is no more dangerous approaching three or four ‘straight cops’ standing with arms folded in the middle of the road, than it will be meeting up with a local in any other area. She is confident that, if necessary, then her boss will ram those sons of bitches. He is determined to protect the boy for whom he has sacrificed so much these past few days. A few dead ‘straight cops’ is a small price to pay.

         But the chief turns right, instead. He will be travelling towards the dark and overgrown backcountry, not away from it. Maybe he has a hideout in mind.

         As if he reads her mind (a feeling he has not had with any woman, since he first courted Margie so many years ago), the chief turns to her and says: We are going to the Curly Q. I am going to wake up the whole cursed town tonight.

         Back in the fifties, when Chief William Borden, Sr. first took Charlotte in this very same Chevy Impala on a date, the Curly Q had been the town drive-in. Many pimpled and gangly adolescents first ‘rounded the bases’ with a girl while ostensibly watching a Roger Corman monster movie through a foggy windshield at that location. Boys scored, girls lit up, geeks got painful ‘wedgies’ from huge football bullies who hung out all night near the drive-in men’s room. In essence the youth culture at the time had found a place to play out their dreams (some silly, some horrifying, all immature dreams in those pre-Vietnam War years). In the eyes of most adults at the time, it was just a sprawling lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence and a prisoner watchtower on each corner (all the jailhouse features mandated by a Cold War era town council that wanted a dual purpose drive-in and nuclear fallout shelter); but in the eyes of the young, it was a spot set apart for their own peculiar hopes and fears. When they spoke of the ‘Curly Q,’ they were referencing more than movies, hot dogs, and sodas. They were in a much more poignant sense referencing the twilight years between innocence and death, between boyhood and dying in Vietnam, between girlhood and going into labor, between sleeping in a crib and awakening to the horrors of real life.

         As an adolescent in the seventies, Little Bill got his first job working as a security guard for a later incarnation of the Curly Q. By that time, the Curly Q had stopped showing films. It had become a kind of local, ongoing Woodstock in the backcountry, a place for hippie retreads to smoke dope, a stage for offbeat bands that in later years would play at the Western Star. It was still a place for dreams, but those dreams had turned a lot surlier in those intervening decades; and for an acidhead caught in the throes of his especially bad trip, those surly dreams had turned into outright nightmares. By the time that infamous Curly Q had shut its gate for the last time, it had become a shady hangout for perverts, queers, and in one instance a notorious serial killer. Most everyone in town had been happy to see it go, and it has been mired in ‘receivership hell’ ever since.

         On that last day of business, the gate to the Curly Q had been bolted. In the years since, vandals have removed the bolt so consistently that the trustee no longer even bothers trying to keep the gate locked. The gate swings creakily in the wind. It sounds like a high pitch death rattle when the icy wind picks up.

         Inside, there is a vacant dirt lot, the remains of a snack shack (the story now goes that a terrible windstorm in 1959 or 1960 caused the snack shack roof to cave in), the outdoor movie screens (useless since the projectors were taken out to make room for Woodstock inspired concerts), the watchtowers (each one featuring a spotlight), and a payphone beside what used to be the men’s room but is now a scrap heap. The chief pulls up next to the payphone, and exits the Chevy Impala. He digs in his pocket for some change; then steps into the booth.

         He knows that the payphone is going to work. Drug dealers routinely pick up their latest shipment at the Curly Q, and they do so a minute or so just after placing a call on this same payphone. For this reason, the state cops maintain a 24/7 wire on this line. As chief, he had become privy to a few of the drug calls.

         He also knows that the man he is calling now will be there to pick up the phone on his end. He could not be anywhere else but in his father’s oval office.  

*   *   *

         Chief Rickard Kirk bites into his Snow Cone. It is the bubble gum pink the innocent, little girls in town purchase after school at Harvey’s Sweet Tooth. He knows, because he often sits in his patrol car at around 3:00PM and watches all the sweet innocents in ribbons and in pleated skirts skipping in and out of there with nothing on their minds but the latest boy gossip and the taste of a bubble gum pink Snow Cone. He thinks sometimes (more often than he would desire to admit) that one of those blond ponytails can be a ripe substitute for Margaret. He supposes he could have Margaret herself, but he is not at all enamored with necrophilia. He is a ‘law and order man’ and has his own moral limits, after all.

         He is sitting beside the side table in the oval office. He stares at the old, black and white, framed photograph of his father and his father’s mentor, Dub “Dickey” Wilson. Poor Dickey, he is the man the Feds picked up for corruption; the man the former chief had handed over even though that had meant defying his father and opening up the whole town to outside scrutiny; the rags to riches to rags man, so much the American Story, but also the fate he will be avoiding, because he is going to get that son of a bitch former chief because he gets him.

         The telephone next to the microphone rings. That is strange. That is the line that bypasses the old gatekeeper out front. Few people know that unlisted number. Fewer still ever use it, because they know just how much his dad truly hates to be disturbed in his grand oval office when he is doing the ‘business’ of the town. Rickard glances at his father, who in turn shrugs his shoulders as if to say: Don’t look at me. None of this mayhem tonight is my doing. Take care of it yourself. You’re the ‘big boy’ chief of police, after all. You’re the man to do it.

         Rickard answers the phone on the fifth ring. He swallows another bite of his bubble gum pink Snow Cone. He tries to sound tough, but is clearly nervous.

         Chief Rickard Kirk here, he says. And with whom do I have the pleasure…

         They’re calling you ‘chief’ now, the former chief sneers. Well, that’ll be the day. Listen, I have your boy, your homo, whatever the heck it is that you’re calling him now. I’ll hand him over, if you guarantee my protection. Meet me in thirty minutes at the Curly Q. And don’t call your zombie friends, or I’ll kill the little turd. Just you and me, man to man, then we simply go our separate ways.

         Of course, whatever you want boss, Chief Rickard says with a sick grin on his face. Just you and me, man to man, then you leave town, and never return.

         They both hang up at the same time. Of course, Rickard has no intention of a man to man confrontation with anyone. He is fine with being ‘man to lady whore,’ or maybe someday ‘man to little, innocent, blond girl,’ but actual man to man, well, that’s a bit more than he can stomach. It is best to hide behind a whole town of sycophant idiots happy to do your bidding. It makes more sense, when you come to think about it, that the man of our times must be protected.

         He picks up the vintage microphone and switches it on: Attention, ladies and gentlemen, there are blessed tidings from the home front. The homosexual and his accomplice, the discredited, former police chief, have been found over at the Curly Q. They are dangerous, so remember white men to bring your arms and plenty of ammo. They are wanted dead or alive, so do with them what you will. Please remember: The Lord helps those who help themselves. God is Love. God is Unity. All for love. All for unity. So can you win this one for the Gipper? Can you do that, white men? Do you have it in you? Show me at the old Curly Q.

         Rickard switches off the microphone. He looks at his father to find out if the old man approves. The old man is smiling, but he can never be sure if it is a genuine smile, or the glad handing kind. He is never certain of much in the real world, which is why he likes being caught up in the dream that is now the rage.

*   *   *

         The cavalry will arrive any moment, the chief says, as he takes the little boy out from Claire’s arms. We have precious little time. Just several minutes…

         Claire places her fingers on his lips. She looks deeply into his tired eyes, and smiles. He tries to glance away, but she will not let him at that time; and, he suspects, she will never let him do so in whatever years they have together. That’s just the way it will be with them. They would not have it any other way.

         He smiles back at her. He holds the boy close to his heart, and leaves for the huge watchtower in the far corner. He trusts that she will do her duty fine.

         There is just a rickety, rusted, old ladder that leads to the top. Up there is a corrugated iron roof shaped like a Chinese Coolie’s hat. It provides the only shelter from the howling gusts snapping the tower and rattling the roof with an ungodly fury. Farther up still, the stars seem to glare like the eyes of gnats that will swoop down and devour whatever carcass is left in the lot after that storm.

*   *   *

         Sure enough, just several minutes pass and then the first wave of smiling idiots arrive. They are a caravan of automobiles, flatbed trucks, gnarly big rigs, even a yellow school bus commandeered off of the public school lot. While it is woefully dark this hour, none of the vehicles have their headlights on. It is as if deep down inside the drivers and the passengers sense that any light within the darkness will disrupt their perfectly happy dream from ascending to its natural, preordained climax. They are having the wettest of wet dreams, and so do not want a sudden light turned on in that bedroom to rouse them from their smiles.

         The smiling idiots waddle out from their seats. They are wide awake and yet seem to be sleepwalking. No one says a word, but there is the intermittent sound of snoring that seems to crest and to fall like a rippling wave. There is no conscious thought, at least none that the chief may surmise, and yet intuitively they wander in the direction of his specific watchtower, and stop beneath him.

         The chief scans the distance. He cannot see Claire down there. He hopes that she does her part soon. The smiling idiots are beginning to shake his ladder with insane fury (though without ever losing that loony Pat Nixon grin that is so much the rage nowadays). Soon, one of them may figure out how to climb it. If and when that happens the chief and the innocent no doubt will be eaten alive.

*   *   *

         Claire is behind what used to be the snack shack. She is squatting before a generator so old that it looks as if something Thomas Edison himself invented.

         Fortunately, beside her expert acumen in martial arts, she has a genuine knack for machines. She thinks that she can get it to work well enough, if she is able to get one more gear tightened just so. One or two cranks with a wrench…

         Shouldn’t you be in jail? Rickard Kirk scoffs at her from behind suddenly.

         She gasps out loud, and drops her wrench. She turns around to face him.

         I don’t remember approving a furlough, Rickard continues. Maybe you’re free on account of a bureaucratic snafu, but I kind of doubt it. I think it is more likely you’re AWOL. And with ‘unity’ all the rage, an AWOL prisoner is not going to cut it. No, ma’am, it’s not going to cut it, ‘cause I’m a ‘law and order man.’

         And with that Rickard draws his pistol and breaks into a fit of frothing at the mouth laughter. His eyes seem to be bulging out from his narrow face, as if he is so awfully malnourished he is turning into a skeleton before her very eyes.

         Claire does not bother to reason with him. He is clearly mad. She knows from prior experience that trying to talk sense to a madman who is determined to do something (rape perhaps, or murder, or anything really that satisfies that small and impotent ego of his just then) is usually counterproductive. She does not think a woman simply needs to lie back and to enjoy it, but she senses that a good dose of female talk will be less helpful than cold and calculated silence.

         And so she looks downward. She is as cold and calculating as any woman can be, but outwardly she projects vulnerability. She will bide her time sensing that as every second passes, the advantage here shifts quietly over to her side, even though she is and likely will remain quite unable to draw her own firearm.

*   *   *

         The smiling idiots continue to arrive in automobile and truck caravans. In time, they are so numerous that the entire lot has been filled, so that the later arrivals need to park their cars beyond the gate and to walk in on foot. They all crowd as near as possible to the far corner, where the chief and the boy crouch together on the lookout portion of the watchtower. The ones nearest the loose, rusted ladder elbow each other for an opportunity to shake the ghosts out of it; the ones farther back just stare at the chief and the boy with plastic smiles and blank eyes on their faces. The violence closer to the ladder soon spreads, like a ripple on an otherwise tranquil sea; and though the ones farther back continue to look up and to smile, they too throw elbows and shove backs, until there is a sad carnival cauldron down there on the verge of bubbling into a mindless mob.

         The chief holds the boy’s face in his chest, so that he cannot see all that mindless hatred down there. He is not sure that it matters, since the boy seems so nonplussed. But it does not really matter what the boy sees. What matters is that he is shielding an innocent one, doing his part to keep the boy as blind and as dumb as possible, holding back the evil out there that, if allowed to break in through the barriers, would give the boy dreams and tear him out in due course from whatever semblance of Eden that boy still keeps in his head. This boy will not be sitting on any swings, nor enjoying any kisses with other boys, nor going off to Sin City to pour drinks and to audition on seedy stages. This boy will be a blank slate (perhaps the only blank slate left) in a world ravaged by knowledge.

         One of the smiling idiots starts to climb the ladder. Since he only focuses his eyes on the homosexualand the accomplice, he misses one of the rungs and slips backward. He falls onto the heads of several other smiling idiots. Another smiling idiot takes his place. Then, another follows on the heels of that one. In a few seconds the old ladder is full of smiling idiots climbing up to the lookout.

         The chief again looks toward the snack shack. Where the heck is Claire? Why hasn’t she turned on the generator? How much time do they have before a ravenous idiot reveals his sharp teeth and then tears out a chunk of them both?

*   *   *

         The intermittent snoring turns into a continual roar. It is the sound of an enormous beast transfixed by the climax of its dream. It is the guttural scream of satisfaction; heightened pleasures; orgasmic thrusts just behind the shifting eyelids of a creature caught inside of its own sleep; the overwhelming feeling a creature has just before that feeling (more spiritual than sensual) turns into an excruciating pain (more sensual than spiritual). There is no greater moment of ‘unity’ than when the entire town roars in ecstatic fuck joy at the prospect of a final victory over those two devils that would presume to interfere with all that ‘unity’ the town holds so dear. It is the ‘unity’ not of a sex dream, although an outside observer would hear the guttural scream and associate it with a deviant sex act on steroids, but of a bloodthirsty mob dream. It is the ‘unity’ of smiling idiots wagging their fingers and nodding their heads at the crucified innocent at the very moment that the dreamlike assembly turns into a real life mob attack.

         Claire can hear that the time is up. She can feel it too, when Rickard has the temerity to step forward and to poke her face with the muzzle of his pistol.

         This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me, Blondie, Rickard snickers and then spits out a gob of filthy drool. But I got to do it, ‘cause I’m a ‘law and order man.’ That’s what my papa says, and he knows all about ‘law and order.’

         Claire rockets her right knee into Rickard’s crotch. He pulls back on the trigger. Claire clenches in anticipation of his bullet blowing her forehead away.

         But nothing happens. His pistol is impotent. It is flaccid in his right hand.

         Rickard is in considerable pain down there. But he is more focused on his pistol. He turns red in the cheeks, not from the pain, but from embarrassment.

         One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, Rickard mutters with trembling lips, as he stares sadly at that pistol flailing about his sweaty fingers.

         Claire chops the pistol out of his hand, twists him to the ground, drops a knee on his chest, and punches him into the kind of dark and surreal nightmare from which he will not awaken until sunrise. She spits into his sad face for good measure, returns to the generator, finds the wrench, and then finishes the job.

*   *   *

         The chief kicks the fingers of the ravenous idiot who is near the very top of the ladder. The idiot must be impervious to pain, because he does nothing in response but look into the chief’s face and smile insanely. He is about to shove his knee over the ledge and to stand on top when the generator finally kicks in.

         The chief catches the spotlight flickering beside him. He leaves the idiot just long enough to get behind the spotlight and to direct it into the idiot’s big, dreamy eyes. The effect is immediate: The idiot’s smile evaporates, as he now wonders what the heck he is doing on the side of the watchtower inside the run down Curly Q. His confusion turns into fear, and he stumbles back from the top of the ladder. He falls onto the heads of the idiots beneath him. Because those heads cushion his impact, he manages to survive the fall, though he will not be running any big city marathons on his broken hip and lower back any time soon.

         The chief directs the spotlight onto the other climbers. They then suffer the same fate, though their injuries are less severe depending upon how far up they had been on the ladder at the time that they had stirred from their sleep.

         He sways the spotlight over the mob beneath him. Since everyone down there happens to be staring up at him with big, smiling eyes, they each get the dose of light that they need to awaken at once. They wander about disoriented and then, realizing that they are inexplicably far from their kitchens and living rooms, they run off in total fright. Most of the injuries happen at that moment, when the scared out of their wits townsfolk stampede over one another toward the front gate and back into the night from which they came. In the end, when most of the townsfolk had fled, there are about a dozen injured soldiers left on the battlefield suffering from concussions and broken bones. The dope smoking paramedics over at Redwood General will spend the rest of the night taking the wounded back to the emergency room for care; but thankfully, no one will die.

*   *   *

         Chief William Borden, Jr. leans back on his desk chair. He feels good for the first time since God knows when. The kink in his neck is pretty much gone, and he is not surprised that it had started to mend that night he had awakened the town from its nightmare. He does not have all of his energy back, and so he is only doing half days for the time being. No one in town seems to mind. They are just happy to see him again on the job; and, anyway, now that Claire is his new second-in-command, he can rely on someone he trusts to fill in where he is unable to tread. Life is good, and he is happy for the sure blessings he has now.

         Deputies Rickard and Craig, Reverend Goober, and Miss Alice have been getting their three squares and a bar of soap every day for the past week. They will remain in the town jail pending an investigation of their actions during that period that the townsfolk now obliquely refer to as their ‘dream time.’ He has given Claire the task of leading that investigation. He has instructed her to say nothing to the Feds and the state troopers. He had made the mistake before of calling in an outsider to clean house. Now, to the best of his ability, he will be keeping the dirty laundry in-house and under wraps, not to protect those loose canons, nor even to protect himself, but slowly and surely to remove Redwood Township from the radar screen of the outside world. He cannot secede totally from the state and nation, but he will make sure the powers-that-be out there have no particular reason to take note of their sleepy hideaway nestled besides Wild Indian Creek. Let Beverly get both the attention and the dollars. Redwood Township will just fade away, like an unmarked tombstone sinking into the soil.

         He had visited Peggy at the hospital earlier that morning. She claims not to remember much about the accident that nearly took her life. He senses that she is just pretending not to know so as to let sleeping does lie. In her own way Peggy wants as much as the chief to sweep all the prior unpleasantness under a rug so that, like everyone else in town, she too can pretend that they have not lost any of that innocence that they once had presumed about themselves. The Lord helps those that help themselves. That is the slogan on their official town council meeting notices. And so in keeping with that sentiment, Peggy will help the Lord heal the town by helping herself to a good dose of willful ignorance in regards to her own accident. And the chief will help her by filing away her case as ‘unsolved.’ Vengeance is mind, saith the Lord, and all well that it should be.

         He stares at his desk telephone. He has the time now to call his son, who has yet to be notified of his mother’s tragic death. He has the time to listen to whatever his son has been wanting to tell him. But he decides not to make that call. Maybe some other time he will, maybe never, but certainly not right now.     

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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