Sweetness and Light
by Adam Cadre, 1994
* * *
September 1st, continued
40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean
I’m pretty sure she’s following me.
Harrison Decker closed his journal for a second and glanced over his shoulder. The young woman in seat 12F was looking out the window.
Could be coincidence, I guess. Not too likely, though. Tran had a point. What’re the odds of her just happening to be staying in the same hotel, eating at the same places, every single day the whole time we were there? Of course, he thought she was following him. Guess with me headed back home and him still in Seattle she had to pick one or the other. Looks like I got elected.
He looked over at her again. She seemed pretty engrossed in the inflight magazine. Decker had read it on the flight up. There was an article about an artist in San Antonio who painted on tortillas and an article about churches in Utah. And there’d been a crossword puzzle, but someone else had already done it.
Whatever. Still could be just coincidence. Anyway, I think the shoot went pretty well. Considering. Never was big on drizzle. And it’s not like a bunch of stumps is going to exactly leap off the page. Tran was pretty excited, though. He loves the investigative stuff. Still takes a little getting used to. The difference from the paper, I mean. They had their agenda and everything, but Oracle’s really got a "stick-it-to-the-man" complex. Tran thinks he’s going to bring down the lumber industry. Got half the loggers in the state after him already.
Maybe she’s one of those wacko environmentalists...?
Uh-oh. Time to put our seats in the fully upright and locked position. More in a bit.
The plane touched down and started taxiing toward the gate. "Please remain seated with your seatbelts securely fastened until the aircraft has come to a full and complete stop and the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign," said the voice on the intercom. Everyone got up and started going through the overhead bins. "The weather here in San Francisco is sixty-four degrees and cloudy," the voice continued. "On behalf of myself, the captain, and the flight crew, I’d like to thank you for being with us this evening. We realize you have a choice of carriers when you fly, and we appreciate you flying with us."
"Excuse me," said the man next to Decker. He got up and squeezed past Decker into the aisle, where people who had already found their luggage were jostling for position toward the front of the plane. A couple minutes later the captain turned off the seatbelt sign.
Decker waited until most everyone had filed out before going to the overhead bin and retrieving his camera bag. He looked over his shoulder. The young woman in seat 12F was calmly sitting there as if she didn’t realize the plane was on the ground. She wasn’t looking at him, though. Then again, she wasn’t not looking at him, either. Decker sort of waited for her to get up before he left, but it soon became clear that she wasn’t going to. So he just left. "Buh-bye," the flight attendant said.
Decker headed down to the baggage claim and picked up his suitcase. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her standing up against the far wall, just kind of hanging out. She seemed absolutely unconcerned about the bags circling around the conveyor. Whoever she is, he thought, she’s not very good at this. Right then she started rummaging through her backpack looking for something and Decker took the opportunity to try to make a quick getaway. He was just headed out the door when someone grabbed his sleeve. "Have you heard about the Temple of Mystic Consciousness?" he said.
"No," Decker said. "Don’t especially want to either. Back off."
He looked over his shoulder. She’d found whatever she was looking for and was walking in his direction. Damn, he thought.
September 1st, continued
BART train, Daly City to Frisco
She’s definitely following me. I’m almost positive.
She’s really quite lovely. Tall dark and handsome, female division. Looks like she could be one of Laura’s old cheerleader friends. Little older, but still, just a kid. Eighteen, maybe nineteen. Which I guess would make her exactly the same age as
Hell with it.
Maybe it’s a story Tran and I did? But then she’d be after both of us, not just me. Don’t have any gambling debts that I know of. And the mob doesn’t sic cheerleaders on you anyway.
Could be coincidence.
Yeah, right. Same hotel, same restaurants, same plane, same shuttle bus and the same BART train? No way.
So what’s a lovely young girl like that want with a burned-out graying old hack like me?
September 1st, continued
Answer: absolutely nothing.
BART train gets to the stop, we all get out, I head one way, she goes the exact opposite direction. Watched her leave the station and wander off God knows where. Walked to the office, dropped off the film, went home, never saw her once.
Pure coincidence. Should’ve known better. Here Tran had me all worked up over nothing.
No mail while I was gone. Just bills. Ants didn’t come back though, that was good. Place smells good. Smells like old wood. And that wood oil they stick you with when you buy a good piece of furniture. It’s a good smell. Smells like a den. Should be more to a home than a den, though. But you take what you can get.
Nothing in the refrigerator. Not really hungry, anyway. Had a slug of whiskey, though. Calm the nerves. Not just from her, from the whole hassle of traveling. Not tired but don’t really feel like doing anything. Just want to sit.
Feel like giving Marilyn a call. Probably shouldn’t, though. Actually, I don’t even think I have her number anymore. Could call information but it’s not worth the effort.
Hey, I know. More in a minute.
September 1st, continued
Just finished going through the last few stories Tran and I did. Just to see who we could’ve gotten on our case.
First there was the piece on the CFCs. Then there was the Oregon cult thing, and then the chicken labelling thing. But then there it was, staring me in the face. The piece on the abortion clinics. That had to get one side or the other pissed off. Or both. Probably only the fundies would stick a tail on us though. Bet she was waiting for just the right moment to come up and show us a hacked-up fetus or something.
If she’d really been following us, I mean.
Looked like the right type, though. Kind of girl you’d see on a Christmas special. Snow in the air, wholesome kids in elf suits, black and white TV, Merry Christmas 1958.
Of course, she wasn’t even born in 1958. Hell, her mother probably wasn’t even born in 1958. Especially if she really is a fundie.
What the hell am I doing? She wasn’t following anyone. Give it a rest, Decker.
I’m going to sleep.
The phone rang at 8:15 am. Decker’s only phone was on the desk so he had to get out of bed and stumble the entire length of the apartment to get it. He picked it up on the fourth ring. "This better be good," he said.
"Decker?" said the voice on the other end. "It’s Jameson. The boys at the lab came back with your prints."
"Good for them," Decker said.
"It’s just a bunch of stumps, Decker," Jameson said. "Two rolls full of stumps. What the hell is that?"
"That’s what we found," Decker said.
"If I want to look at a bunch of stumps I can call a staff meeting," Jameson said. "The whole point of the story is logging in protected forests, right? So I want to see logging, Decker. I want chainsaws, I want lumberjacks, I want spotted owls. I don’t want stumps."
"They were always gone by the time we got there," Decker said. "We’d never catch them. They do it all top-secret."
"Then I want to see goddamn ninjas sneaking into the forest and hacking down the trees with their goddamn nunchuks," Jameson said.
"Look, I just go where I’m told," Decker said. "Tran’s the one who set the itinerary. Talk to him. I’m just here to take the pictures." He hung up.
The phone rang again at 8:35. Once again Decker got to walk the length of the cold apartment in his bare feet. This time he didn’t pick it up until the sixth ring. "This better be damn good," he said.
"Decker? It’s Jameson."
"I know," Decker said. "What is it this t—"
Decker just stood there for a minute. "You mean Minh Tran?" he finally said.
"Yes I mean Minh Tran," Jameson said. "You’d better get down here."
Jameson called early this morning, I came down here right away. Almost forgot to put my pants on. Police gave me the story and then gave me the whole Spanish Inquisition routine. Am I Harrison Decker, do I work for Oracle Magazine, what did I have for breakfast this morning. No, they don’t think I did it. But I was the last person known to have seen him alive.
Scary. I saw him just yesterday. Poor kid. Poor parents. I wish they had let me break it to them. Better someone who knew him than some idiot in a badge who can’t even pronounce his name right. Makes me sick. But too late, they called them before they called me.
Anyway, here’s the story. Not much to tell. Tran and I fly up to Seattle together. He does a couple interviews, I take a few pictures. Day we’re scheduled to come back he says one of his sources is being squirrely and suddenly won’t talk and he has to stay an extra day. I fly down, next day they find him in his hotel room with half his chest blown out.
Naturally they want to know the name of the source. Prime suspect number one, of course. How the hell should I know who his sources are? I’m just here to take the pictures. I take pictures for lots of reporters. Of course, that’s not good enough for them. They tell me I should’ve paid attention, would’ve made everything a lot easier for everyone. That’s the thing about cops. They don’t do anything, but they love to lecture you. Tsk, tsk, should’ve kept that thing locked up. Well, goddamn it, how the hell was I supposed to know?
Anyway. They ask if maybe I’d seen anything suspicious up there. Didn’t tell them about the girl. Slipped my mind. Well, not exactly. Just figured she didn’t have anything to do with it and the last thing she needs is a bunch of cops on her case.
Right now they’re going through Tran’s office. Looking for old papers, find out who his enemies were — clues, basically. Won’t find anything.
Hmm. There were those fundies in the paper who shot those abortionists... could one of them have gotten to Tran? Article didn’t seem like a big deal, but who knows what’ll set those religious freaks off?
Maybe it’s time for me to play detective.
Decker sat in his office writing in his journal. His office was mostly empty: an old metal desk with nothing on it but a phone and a few sheets of negatives, a file cabinet with nothing in it, a wastebasket. Decker himself looked awful. His hair was a wild mess and he hadn’t shaved or tucked in his shirt. He rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch. 10:45. He closed his journal and tucked it into his pocket.
The police were still going through Tran’s office. Decker stood in the door frame and watched them work for a while. "Find anything?" he asked.
"We’re not at liberty to disclose any information pertaining to this case," one of the cops said.
"Yeah?" Decker said. "Well you can just disclose my—"
"Hold on," Jameson said. He grabbed Decker’s shoulder and pulled him away from the door frame. "Let’s talk. My office."
They went to Jameson’s office, which was much bigger than Decker’s and had a big picture window and a computer and a little name plate on the desk and everything. "Now look," Jameson said, "I know you’re upset, but the fact is that you’re not going to be helping anything by busting in there and disrupting the investigation. They’re doing the best they can."
"So have they found anything?" Decker asked.
"Well, I wasn’t supposed to say anything," Jameson said, "but yes, they have. Tran’s desk was full of threatening letters from all kinds of groups. Pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-meat, anti-meat, the works. Even had a letter in there from the AARP and as far as I know he’s never done anything to piss off the old people. So the cops are going to get on the phones and take care of it, okay?"
"Whatever," Decker said.
"And here, take this," Jameson said. He pulled out his wallet and handed Decker a ten-dollar bill. "Go get yourself a cup of coffee and something to eat. Then go home and make yourself presentable because frankly you look like hell."
"I don’t need your charity," Decker said.
"It’s not charity," Jameson said. "It’s coming out of your paycheck. Now beat it."
Decker trudged back towards his apartment. He considered himself pretty lucky to live within walking distance of work, even if it meant living in a less than affluent neighborhood. The way he figured it, it was worth the chance of being beaten and robbed if it meant not having to deal with all the traffic.
He could feel his stomach grumbling and decided to stop somewhere for some breakfast. There was a place on the corner that he’d been to a couple of times: it wasn’t good, but it was familiar. It called itself the Second Street Café even though it wasn’t on Second Street and the only reason it could even begin to consider calling itself a café was the Mr. Coffee machine behind the counter. It didn’t have a whole lot in the way of ambiance, either. What little ambiance it did have wasn’t helped by the big white menu board above the cash register with little plastic stick-on letters saying things like "TURKY SANWICH 2 95". Decker studied the sign for a moment and then walked up to the counter. "Two eggs, two strips of bacon, side of sourdough toast, coffee," he said.
"How are you wanting the eggs, sir?" asked the man behind the counter.
"Over hard," Decker said. "Real hard. And make the coffee black. Black as you can get it." He started to sit down at the counter but spotted a table near the door with a discarded newspaper on it and decided to sit there. Out of habit he flipped through the paper to make sure the magazine hadn’t been scooped on the logging story, but then with a sick feeling he remembered there wasn’t going to be a logging story. "Goddamn it," he said. He put the paper down.
The café had been empty but suddenly the door opened and two people came in. One was a huge, imposing man with vaguely Russian features who took all of five seconds to order and then sat down at a table in the back. He was over seven feet tall and nearly as wide. The other was an old black man who asked for a cup of coffee and sat down at the counter. Decker got out his journal.
September 2nd, continued
Second Street Café
Almost got into an argument with the cops and got sent to my room. More than a little humiliating.
No point in going through Tran’s office. Cops’ve already taken anything that might be helpful. Feel useless. Wish I had some kind of inside edge to the investigation but I can’t say I ever really knew the kid. Cops probably know more than I do now. Feel like there’s something I should be doing. Instead I’m sitting in a cheap coffee shop with Ivan the Human Slab and Thurgood Marshall’s grandfather.
And it smells like they’re burning my toast.
Sure enough, the manager of the café arrived a few moments later with two eggs over hard, two strips of bacon, a cup of black coffee, and a side of burnt sourdough toast. Decker didn’t say anything, though. He just put his journal away and started in on his breakfast.
After a few minutes the old black man finished his coffee and got up and left. The manager went into the back room. And then several things happened at once.
Decker saw the huge Russian jump up out of his seat and reach for something in his coat. He never saw exactly what he was reaching for, though, because before he had a chance to react someone jumped on him and shoved him under the table. Then there were two loud explosions right near his head and for a second or two he couldn’t hear anything. He assumed that if he wasn’t dead yet he would be in just a moment or two. But then someone grabbed his shoulders and he found himself looking into the eyes of the girl who’d been following him.
"Run for it!" she said. "I’ll cover you!"
Decker was too stunned to move but then the girl pushed him out from under the table and he didn’t have much choice but to make a break for the door. The giant took another shot at him but the girl threw the table at him and the time it took for the giant to dodge was enough for them to get away. He took off after them but when he got out to the street there was no sign of them.
"That was close, huh?" she said.
The two of them were in an alley right next to the café, crouched behind a dumpster. They couldn’t be seen from the street but there was a door right next to them that opened into the back room of the café. Or at least they thought it did. It had to. Otherwise the café manager couldn’t have gotten out before they did, and they’d seen him taking off down the street.
"It’s still close," Decker said. "He’s going to find us here. We’re as good as dead."
"Shh," she said. "He won’t find us as long as we keep quiet."
They waited. Ten minutes passed. "Okay," she said. "That should be enough. I think he’s gone."
"I’m staying right here," Decker said.
The girl stood up and took a few tentative steps down the alley. She peeked around the corner. "He’s gone," she said.
Decker got up and followed her out to the street. The cafe was empty, the door wide open. They went inside. "He won’t be coming back," she said. "The first rule on a hit is that you clear out immediately and get as much distance between yourself and the scene as you can. Even Brother Ephraim knows that." She walked over to the table they’d used as cover and picked it up. Three sizeable chunks had been blown out of the formica. "Wow," she said.
"Okay, okay, okay," Decker said. "Question. What the hell is going on here?"
"Going on?" she said. "Oh my gosh, I totally forgot." She spun around and stuck out her hand. "I’m Sister Marjorie. Pleased to finally meet you."
Decker was about to shake her hand but then the air suddenly filled with the wail of sirens and she jumped as if she’d been bitten. "What’s that?" she asked.
"Police," Decker said. "Manager probably called 911 on the first pay phone he could find. Surprised it took them even this l—"
The girl’s eyes went wide. "We have to get out of here," she said. She looked around the room frantically. "Come on," she said. "Let’s go."
"Go?" Decker said. "I’ve just been shot at! I want as many cops here as I can g—"
"But the police are our enemies," she said. "I can’t stay here. I have to go. I have to get out of here." She let out a breath that sounded as if she was about to cry and then she bolted for the door.
"What the hell?" Decker said.
The police showed up less than a minute later. They roped off the café and questioned Decker about what had happened. Then the manager came back and they questioned him too. He wasn’t very helpful. He said he’d heard some shots and then run for his life.
Decker, on the other hand, provided much more information. He gave the police a detailed description of his attacker: about seven-two, three hundred pounds easy, black hair, Russian features, very square jaw, wearing a trench coat. When they asked him how he’d managed to escape he told them the truth: he’d ducked under the table and then made a break for it and hid in the alley behind the dumpster. Not a word of it untrue. He just left out the part about the girl.
September 2nd, continued
This is without a doubt the second worst day of my life.
I got shot at. Probably the same guy who got to Tran. Or they’re working together, or something.
And that girl! Damn right she was following me. Saved my life and then freaked and ran when she heard the cops coming. Weirdest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something.
I’d be dead. Jesus.
Didn’t tell the cops about her. Figure I’ve got to have some kind of edge if I’m going to break this case. I know, probably unethical. Counterproductive. Maybe she’s the key that’d break the case wide open.
But I doubt it.
I’m so goddamn paranoid right now I don’t know what to think. For all I know the police and Ivan are in it together and she’s the only one on my side. Or maybe she and Ivan are in it together and they’re playing some game. Probably more likely. She called him Brother something, called herself Sister something. Maybe they’re related.
This is just too weird for me. Feel like I stepped into the wrong theater.
Came home, spent a couple hours trying to pull myself together. Probably ought to go back to the office, see what I should do. Last thing I want is the cops coming here. Especially if they are against me.
Decker made sure to lock the deadbolt on the way out. Not that it’d stop anyone who was really insistent on getting in, he figured, but enough that he’d be able to tell himself that he’d done everything he could. That was important.
She was waiting for him around the corner. "Are they gone?" she asked.
"Jesus," he said. "What, not enough’s happened today, you need to give me a heart attack too?"
"Sorry," she said. "I didn’t mean to scare you. Where are you going?"
"Office," he said. "Have to see what the policy is on working under a death threat."
"Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it," she said. "He’ll never get you as long as I’m around."
"As long as you’re...?" He stopped. The girl was looking up at him very earnestly, absently scuffing one of her sneakers against the sidewalk. "Okay," he said. "I think I missed a reel somewhere. So we’re going to back to the beginning and you’re going to fill me in. Okay?"
"Okay," she said. "Well, I guess it starts with—"
"Not here," Decker said. "Office. We’ll talk there. Come on."
So she followed him. It took a while because every time they got to an intersection she’d stand at the corner and make Decker wait until the light changed before she’d cross. By the fourth or fifth time Decker’s patience was wearing thin. "Come on," he said. "We don’t have all day."
"I’m not allowed to disobey signs," she said. "There. Now we can go."
So they crossed the street and turned the corner onto the street where the Oracle building stood. The girl stopped in her tracks. "Look," she said. She pointed. There was a police car parked outside the building. "I can’t go in there," she said.
"Why not?" Decker asked. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," she said. "But the police are trying to hunt us down and kill us. Brother Evan says so."
"The guy who tried to kill me?" Decker said.
She turned to him, a shocked expression on her face. "Of course not!" she said. "That’s Brother Ephraim. Brother Evan is—"
"Look," Decker said, "they’re probably still up on the sixth floor going through Tran’s office or something. There’s a supply room down on the ground floor. We can talk there and the police will never know you’ve been here."
The girl still looked scared. "You promise?" she said.
Decker rolled his eyes. "Yeah," he said. "I promise."
"Well, okay," she said.
They went in. The girl paused in front of the building to admire the huge Oracle logo etched into the glass above the front doors. "Wow," she said.
"Come on," Decker said. "This way."
He led her past the reception desk in the lobby down to a stock room in the back. Inside were a bunch of shelves and boxes full of old typewriters and layout sheets. Decker sat down on a box. "Have a seat," he said.
The girl looked around and then sat cross-legged on the floor. Decker noticed that the right knee of her jeans was split. "So what’s your name again?" he asked.
"Sister Marjorie," she said. "And you’re Harrison Decker."
"Right," he said. "So, what, are you a nun or something?"
She looked confused. "Nun?" she said. "Why do you think I might be a nun?"
"Why else would you call yourself Sister Marjorie?" Decker asked.
"Oh, that," she said. "Well, we’re all brothers and sisters in God’s light."
"Christ, she’s a fundie," Decker muttered.
Marjorie smiled pleasantly. "What did you say?" she asked. "I didn’t quite catch that."
"Said it’s nice for a Monday," Decker said.
"Oh," she said. "I guess. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this California weather though."
"You’re not from California?" he asked. He was surprised: it’d simply never occurred to him that she might not be from California, even though he’d first seen her in Washington. She just matched his idea of what a California girl looked like too well. Lissome and healthy and all that. She even had a tan. He’d figured she was from San Diego or someplace.
"No," she said. "I’m not from California."
"So where are you from?" he asked.
She flashed him a bittersweet smile as if she had bad news for him and wanted to break it to him as gently as possible. "Actually, Mr. Decker," she said, "I’m from Oregon. Ascendance Ranch, to be exact."
And that was when Decker finally understood what he’d gotten into. "Oh, no," he said. "The cult."
She looked hurt. "We’re not a cult," she said. "We’re a faith. We have members all over the western United States and Canad—"
"Okay, okay, sorry," he said. "I’ll read the brochure later. Let’s cut to the chase. Who’s Ivan and why’s he out to kill me?"
"Ivan?" she said. "Oh, you mean Brother Ephraim." She ran her hand through her hair. There certainly was a lot of it. "Well, he’s a little misguided."
"A little misguided?" Decker said. "I’d say he’s a lot misguided. I’d say he’s a hell of a lot misguided. I’d say—"
"That’s understandable," she said. "But it’s not as bad as you think. Honest."
"How bad is it?" he asked.
"Still pretty bad," Marjorie admitted. "There’s been kind of a mix-up."
"A mix-up?" Decker said. "I get shot at and you call it a mix-up? Tran’s dead and you call it a mix-up?"
Marjorie’s eyes widened. "Mr. Tran’s dead? I— I didn’t know." She put her hand to her mouth and for a moment it looked like she was about to cry. But she shook it off. "Oh well," she said, brightening. "Anyway, yeah, it’s all a big mix-up. See, some of the elders thought that the article about ‘cults in America’ in your magazine was kind of defamatory to our faith. And somewhere along the line there was a mix-up and some of the avengelicals got the idea that Brother Evan had ordered that the two of you be killed." She gave Decker an embarrassed look. "Sorry."
Decker sighed. "So who’s this Brother Evan?" he asked.
Marjorie gaped at him. "You really don’t know who Brother Evan is? He’s only— I mean, he’s the Prophet! He’s the living incarnation of the male half of God’s light." She shivered. "Anyway, he didn’t really order that the two of you be killed. First of all, we’re only supposed to kill people who directly challenge the existence of the faith. And second, he’s been in India for over a year now and there’s no way he could’ve delivered a message back to the ranch that fast. So even if you do get killed it’s okay because God hasn’t really condemned you."
"Gee, great," Decker said.
"Uh huh," she said. "Anyway, Brother Ephraim took off to get the two of you before we could tell him that the order wasn’t real. So Brother Orson, who’s an elder, sent me to protect you. But then when you split up I could only follow one of you so I decided to follow you because Mr. Tran did write some things that weren’t true but you were just there to take the pictures."
"Just here to take the pictures," Decker muttered. "Right. So what makes you think you can protect me?"
"Oh, lots of things," she said. "I’ve had the same training Brother Ephraim has. I know what he’s going to try to do."
"Big deal," Decker said. "He could break you over his knee if he wanted to."
"Maybe," Marjorie said. "But we have two advantages."
"What?" Decker asked.
"First," she said, "we have God on our side."
"Great," he said.
"And second," she said, "Brother Ephraim is really stupid."
September 2nd, continued
It’s the cultists.
Remember? Last July? Had to fly up to East Bumbleville or somewhere in the middle of Oregon and drive to that so-called ranch for that piece on cults Tran was putting together? Spent an hour and a half taking shots of a couple dilapidated buildings and pregnant twelve-year-olds and then back to Frisco. Got one tiny little picture in the magazine, got paid a whopping hundred and fifty bucks and now it’s going to cost me my life. Great.
But wait, shouldn’t be pessimistic, not with Sister Marjorie to protect me. How could I ever get hurt with Sister Marjorie around?
Ah, shouldn’t be sarcastic. She’s a nice kid. Completely wacko, but nice. And she’s still lovely. Shouldn’t have called her a cheerleader type before. Gives you the wrong impression. Marilyn was a cheerleader and everything with her was carefully put together, the way she looked, the things she said, everything. This kid doesn’t have any guile at all.
At least I don’t think she does. Guess if she did I wouldn’t know it, huh? But she just seems really honest and natural. Whatever.
Anyway, I told her thanks for the thought but I could look out for myself. I’m sure she means well but the fact is she’s just in the way. Sure she saved me once but if Ivan really wants to get me he’s not going to let some kid barely out of high school stop him. And as soon as I get some money together I’m getting the hell out of here. I’m not going to sit around waiting for him to kill me like I was in one of those bad movies.
Talked to the cops, too. They were no help. Big surprise. Said it wasn’t like they could assign a patrolman to watch over me. At least they’re going after Ivan as a suspect in the Tran case. Guess that’s something.
Decker put down his pen and thought for a minute. Almost of its own accord his hand opened the desk drawer and took out a picture. It wasn’t a picture he had taken.
Hell with it. So what if he does kill me? No one’d miss me. Not self-pity. Just a fact. I’m a journalist. Got to keep track of the facts.
* * *
Home, in bed
Not sure what to do today. Been lying in bed all morning. Usually I’d go to the office and get my new assignment. Probably won’t be one though. Wonder if I should even bother getting up. Stay here and Ivan probably can’t get to me. Shouldn’t let him run my life though.
Probably ought to check into my finances. Wish I’d had a chance to build up some money so I could get out of here. Only have a couple hundred in the bank. Enough for a plane ticket but not enough to live on for more than a couple of days. Need a couple of lucrative assignments before I can leave.
Still have my key. Could go there...
That’s no answer, though. Probably could hide out for a month or two but then I’d be right back to square one. And if Ivan tracks me there... hell, all it’d mean is that it’d be a few years before they found the body. Just like in the movies. "Oh no, we’re being stalked? Better go the one place no one can save us!"
Definitely ought to go to the office.
Decker took a shower and got dressed. Marjorie was waiting for him outside the building. She looked cold. He suddenly realized she was wearing the same clothes she’d been wearing every single time he’d ever seen her: navy blue V-neck T-shirt, pair of faded blue jeans, sneakers, gold necklace, backpack. The weather was unseasonably chilly even for San Francisco and he wondered why she didn’t put on a jacket. More to the point, he wondered what she was doing here at all. "Good morning," she said.
"Yeah," he said. He kept walking. She followed him. "How long have you been out here?"
"Since you came home," she said. "I wanted to make sure Brother Ephraim didn’t try to get to you while you were sleeping."
Decker stopped. "Wait a minute," he said. "You were out here all night?"
She nodded. "It’s okay," she said. "I wasn’t scared. I know how to defend myself."
Decker shook his head and went back to walking. "I thought I told you I didn’t want you hanging around," he said. "Why don’t you just go back to your little ranch and leave me alone?"
"Because then I’d have failed in my mission," she said. She almost followed Decker into the intersection but then saw that the light said "dont walk" and stopped. It took her a minute to catch up to Decker once the light finally changed. "It’s my sacred duty to make sure you stay alive," she said.
Decker couldn’t think of anything to say to that so he just kept walking. Soon they were at the Oracle building and Marjorie followed him into the elevator. "How do these things work?" she asked.
"What?" he said. "You mean the elevators?"
"Yeah," she said. "You walk into this box and push a button and it goes up. What makes it go up?"
"It gets dragged up by a cable or something," he said. "I think there’s a pulley system with counterweights and all that. Why?"
"Just wondering," she said.
The elevator opened and they got out. "Wait in my office," Decker said. "It’s over there." He pointed.
So Marjorie headed off to Decker’s office. Decker watched her walk. There was definitely something about the way she walked. A kind of slow and easy grace. Decker had known girls who walked like that back in college. Hippies, mostly. He realized with a start that the jeans Marjorie was wearing were bell-bottoms. But then she was gone.
He shook his head and went to Jameson’s office. "What the hell are you doing here?" Jameson asked.
"I’m here for my assignment," Decker said.
"I don’t have an assignment for you," Jameson said. "I thought you’d’ve caught the first plane out of here."
"No money," Decker said. "Nowhere to go."
"You need a loan, is that it?" Jameson said. "Should’ve just asked." He took out his checkbook. "How much?"
"I don’t want your charity," Decker said. "I just want an assignment."
"Look, Decker, this is no time to be stubborn," Jameson said. "Take the goddamn money. If only to save me the trouble of hiring another photographer after you get plugged."
"I’m not much of a photographer if I’m not taking pictures," Decker said. "And I can’t take pictures if I don’t have an assignment. If you’re so set on getting me out of town give me a long-distance one. Just— I need something to do."
"I just don’t have anything right now," Jameson said. "If something breaks and I need someone on the scene, I’ll let you know. But I really hope if I do give you a call there won’t be anyone there to answer."
"There will be," Decker said.
He went back to his office. As he opened the door Marjorie jumped to her feet. "What were you doing on the floor?" he asked. "Sleeping?"
"Sleeping?" she said. "Oh, no. I was... looking for something. Ready to go?"
"Just about," he said. "Have to go home and wait for my assignment. You have somewhere to go?"
"I’m going with you," she said. "Until Brother Ephraim is no longer a threat. One way or another."
Decker shrugged and she followed him out. Pretty soon his apartment building was in sight. "You going to just hang around outside again?" he asked.
She started to answer but couldn’t stop herself from yawning. She tried to cover her mouth so it’d look like she was just trying to think of what to say, but she wasn’t really fooling anybody. "When was the last time you got some sleep?" Decker asked.
"Yesterday," she said. "In that room with the strange machines."
"You mean typewriters?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said. "But I got plenty of sleep while you were up talking to the police."
"I was only talking to the police for a couple hours," Decker said. "Tops. Why don’t you go on back to wherever you’re staying and get some rest?"
"I can’t leave," she said. "It’s my sacred—"
"Where are you staying?" Decker asked.
She didn’t say anything.
"Marjorie?" Decker said. "Where are you staying?"
"I don’t exactly have a place yet," she said. "But it doesn’t matter because—"
"Where did you stay when we were up in Seattle?" he asked.
"In the hotel," she said.
"Which room?" he asked.
Again she didn’t say anything.
"When they sent you off to track me, did they give you any money?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "Brother Orson gave me a hundred dollars."
"And how much did you spend on the plane ticket down here?" Decker asked.
"Most of it," she admitted. "But that’s okay because I’ve had lots of training on how to get along without mon—"
"Would you like to get some sleep?" Decker asked.
She started to shake her head, but then checked herself. "Maybe a little," she said quietly.
"Then come on," Decker said.
They went up to the apartment. As Decker unlocked the door he realized that Marjorie was about to become the first person other than Decker himself to see it. Hope it’s clean, he thought.
He needn’t have worried. Clean or not, Marjorie was absolutely awestruck when she saw the apartment. "You own all this space?" she asked. "This place is almost as big as Brother Evan’s quarters." She looked around wonderingly.
Decker looked around too. The room hadn’t changed since the last time he’d been there. It was a modest-sized living room with a desk along one wall, and a chair where he liked to sit and read the paper, and a bookshelf in the corner. It had a hardwood floor which Decker had mostly covered with a couple of big rugs. There was also an ancient television set which mostly sat around collecting dust, and a table where he ate. That was about it.
"And look!" Marjorie said. She walked into the kitchenette and looked around as if she was in a trance. "A refrigerator! We have one of these. And a sink and an oven and a... what’s this?"
"It’s a dishwasher," Decker said.
"Wow," she said. She squatted down on her heels and looked at the floor. "What’s this floor made of?" she asked.
"It’s linoleum," Decker said. "Pretty cheap linoleum."
"Wow," she said.
Decker shook his head. "Okay," he said. "You wait here and I’ll be back in a minute."
He went into the bedroom and got some fresh sheets from the closet. He changed the sheets on the bed and threw the old ones into the hamper. Then just for good measure he folded up the blanket and put it away and got out a fuzzy pink one with frilly edges. He spread it out on the bed and went back into the other room.
Marjorie was curled up on one of the rugs like a cat, fast asleep. Decker went over to wake her up but as soon as he took a step Marjorie jumped up and was wide awake again. "Sorry," she said.
"It’s okay," Decker said. "Here, I put some new sheets on the bed. You can sleep in there if you’d like."
He pointed to the bedroom and Marjorie’s eyes went wide. "You have a whole other room?" she asked. "Oh, wow. This is even bigger than Brother Evan’s quarters." She took a few tentative steps into the bedroom. "What’s in there?" she asked, pointing.
"That’s the closet," Decker said. "And over there, that’s the bathroom. Doubles as a darkroom so make sure you hit the right switch."
"I like this blanket," Marjorie said. She rubbed it between her fingers. "It’s so soft."
"Glad you like it," Decker said. "It’s one of the few things I got to keep. Now you get some sleep. I’ll be in the other room if you need anything. Okay?"
"Okay," she said.
"Then good night," he said. "Or afternoon. Whichever." He closed the door.
September 3rd, continued
Just finished reading up on Marjorie’s little cult. Just a few paragraphs in Tran’s article, but pretty interesting. It’s called the Everlasting Church of God’s Light. Recruits heavily on college campuses, has a couple thousand members, mostly in the western US. Headed by this wacko ex-Marine named Evan Loewinger who claims to be a prophet and the "living incarnation of the male half of God’s light," whatever the hell that means. He managed to get a whole bunch of followers back in the seventies and then back in ’76 they bought a big chunk of land in the middle of nowhere up in Oregon and started up this ranch.
Remember the ranch. Big patch of dirt with a couple run-down buildings on it. Turns out there’s more to it than I saw, though. See, the ranch is divided up into "wards," and there’s a male ward and a female ward and the only male allowed in the female ward is — you guessed it — Loewinger. Not even the "elders" get to go anywhere near the womenfolk. And the males all live in a big barracks but the females get their own private rooms. And then there’s the "community ward" where they have their ceremonies or whatever, and then of course Loewinger gets his own ward. But he’s practically never there so his ward’s usually empty. He’s been all over the place. England, Australia — spent over two years there. Right now he’s in India. They don’t know when he’ll be back.
Article also says they’ve got enough firearms stocked up to launch a small war. And apparently they’ve also been known to send out operatives to knock off people they don’t like. Gee, really? Didn’t know that. Wish I’d read this when it first came out. Save a lot of trouble.
Makes me wonder, though — where’d Tran get all this information? Doubt it’s very likely that they’d just volunteer it all. But then Tran always was big on the investigative stuff. Lot of good it did him.
The bedroom door opened and Marjorie came out, rubbing her eyes. "Okay," she said, "that’s enough sleep. I’ve been thinking and—"
Decker looked at his watch. "Enough sleep?" he said. "That’s barely three hours. It’s not even dinnertime yet."
"The elders say that you shouldn’t sleep more than three or four hours a day," she said. "Otherwise you start thinking heretical thoughts."
"What a tragedy that’d be," Decker said. "So what were you about to say?"
"Hmm?" Marjorie said. "Oh, yeah. I was just going to say that I’ve been thinking and I think we should go buy a gun. Brother Orson couldn’t get me one and I think we’re going to need it."
Decker shook his head. "Uh-uh. No way."
"But that’s your surest way of defending yourself," she said. "If you’re not sure how to handle it I could carry it for you. I’ve had lots of training on how to—"
"It’s out of the question," Decker said. "They’re more trouble than they’re worth. Besides, I’m trying to build up enough money to get out of here and I’m not going to blow what I already have on a gun."
"Out of the question," Decker said.
"All right," Marjorie said. She yawned. "What’s that thing?"
"What thing?" Decker asked.
She pointed at the TV. Decker picked up the remote and switched it on. It was a commercial. "How can you live a healthier, more dynamic life?" the commercial asked. "Turn to page 72." Decker changed the channel. It was the local news. "Expect highs in the low to mid 60’s," the weatherman was saying.
"Oh, wow," Marjorie said. "It’s like— moving, talking pictures of people!" She sat down in front of it and stared at the screen. "What’s it for?"
"Not much," Decker said. "Stupid shows, sometimes news, a football game every now and then. Newspaper’s better. I’d sell it but no one would pay money for it. I’ve had that thing since before— for a long time."
"This is so amazing," Marjorie said. "We don’t have anything like this at the ranch."
"I’ll bet," Decker said.
"Oh, neat," Marjorie said. "Can we buy some of this stuff?"
"What stuff?" Decker asked. Marjorie pointed at the screen. "Now what makes you think you need any of that?" he asked.
"Because they just said it’s really good," she said.
"Of course they did," Decker said. "It’s an ad. You can’t believe everything you see on television. Besides, I already have plenty of detergent."
"This is a television?" she asked.
"Sure is," he said.
Marjorie sprang away from it as if it were a rattlesnake. "Turn it off," she said. "Please. I’m not allowed to watch television. Brother Evan says it fills your mind with lies."
"Henh," Decker said. "Maybe he really is a prophet." He turned it off.
"Of course he’s a prophet!" Marjorie said. "He’s the Prophet. You know, they have weekly meetings in a lot of the big cities — I’m pretty sure they have one here and we could go and you could learn a lot about—"
"I’ll pass," Decker said. "Now why don’t you go get some more sleep, okay? I promise it won’t fill your mind with heretical thoughts."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes I’m sure," he said.
"What if I have a thought and I don’t know if it’s heretical or not?" she asked.
"What do you usually do?" Decker asked.
"I ask one of the elders," she said.
"Then ask me," he said. "Now go to sleep."
* * *
Up early. Chair isn’t very comfortable.
Marjorie’s still asleep. Good for her. Probably more sleep in one stretch than she got all last month combined. No wonder these cultists believe everything they’re told. They’re so exhausted they can’t even think straight.
Jameson better call with an assignment today. Really want to get out of here. Going to have to get a whole lot of work in the next couple weeks. Hopefully by then I’ll have everything worked out with Marjorie. She’s a good kid but really really messed up and a complication in my life that I just don’t need right now.
On the other hand... it’s a good feeling having a girl in the house again. It’s been
The bedroom door burst open. Marjorie looked as panicked as Decker had ever seen her.
"Oh, thank God, you’re okay," she said. "I’m so sorry, I’ve never slept that long in my life, I didn’t mean to leave you without protection for so long—"
"It’s okay," Decker said.
"No, it’s not, if Brother Ephraim had broken in and taken a shot at you I wouldn’t have been able to save you in time—" She stopped and let out a deep breath. "See, the thing is, I didn’t know I was still asleep. I thought the next morning had come and we were out wandering around and— anyway, and then I woke up and realized that I’d just been sleeping the whole time and I thought that when I came out here I’d find you dead. The elders were right. When you sleep too long your mind tries to trick you. It’s always working against you."
"You were dreaming," Decker said.
"Right," she said. "I usually don’t. I’ve been good." She ran her hand through her hair. "Oh well," she said. She brightened considerably. "At least that’s over. What are we going to do today?"
"I have to wait for an assignment," Decker said. He looked at his watch. It was six-fifteen. He knew for a fact that Jameson never got to the office until eight. "Have a couple hours to kill," he said. "Probably ought to get some groceries. You hungry?"
"Maybe a little," she said.
"Okay," Decker said. "Why don’t you go wash up, and I’ll run down to the store and get—"
"No!" she said. "You can’t go anywhere without me. You’ll get killed."
"The store’s just across the street," Decker said. "I’ll only be gone ten minutes."
"Doesn’t matter," Marjorie said. "One of the easiest ways to make a hit is an ambush right outside where the target lives. Almost nothing scores higher for element of surprise and ease of escape."
Decker sighed. "Fine," he said. "You wash up, and then we’ll go. There’re towels and stuff in the closet."
"Okay," she said. "I won’t take long."
She took her backpack and went into the bathroom and closed the door. "Hey, wow," he heard her say. "We have stuff like this but ours is all made out of metal. What’s this white stuff?" Decker started to answer but then he heard the water running and decided she’d been talking to herself.
He went over to the desk and got his keys and his wallet and put on his shoes. He waited until he heard her actually step into the shower and then headed for the door. But then as he was about to open it he stopped.
"Hell," he said.
Very cautiously he opened the door and stuck his head out. The hallway was empty. He walked over to the window and looked outside. No one was waiting outside the building. Especially no one seven feet tall. He looked at his watch. He looked into the bedroom. He looked outside again.
Marjorie emerged from the bathroom forty minutes later. She was wearing a forest green T-shirt and a pair of dark blue bell-bottom jeans and her hair was wet. "Sorry," she said. "I haven’t had a chance to wash my hair in a few days and it takes a while."
"When was the last time you got it cut?" Decker asked.
Marjorie thought for a moment. "I guess about five years," she said. "Maybe six. You know what else? It used to be straight. Now it’s all wavy. I think that’s neat. And it’s been getting lighter. It used to be almost black."
"It is black," Decker said.
"That’s just because it’s wet," Marjorie said. "When it dries it’ll be brown, sort of. Sister Laura says that if I were a cat they’d call it seal point."
"You look like a cat," Decker said.
"Thank you!" Marjorie said. She beamed. "That’s sweet. Well, are you ready to go?"
"Already went," Decker said.
She looked confused. "No you haven’t," she said.
"How do you know?" he asked.
"Because you said you wouldn’t," she said.
"So if you said you wouldn’t then you haven’t," she said.
"Maybe I lied," he said.
She laughed. "Now you’re just being silly," she said. "You’re a good person. You gave me a place to sleep and you’ve been nice to me and everything. You wouldn’t lie to me."
"You’re too trusting," he said.
"No I’m not," she said. "I mean, you didn’t go without me, did you?"
Decker sighed. "No, I didn’t. But that’s not the—"
"So there you go," she said brightly. "I win. Let’s go."
Decker headed for the door but Marjorie stopped him. "Oh no you don’t," she said. "Let me make sure you’re clear before you go anywhere." She stood in the doorway and looked down the hall both ways. There weren’t any blind spots as far as she could see so she stepped out into the hall and checked a couple of the neighboring apartments just to make sure no one was lurking in the door frames. "Okay," she said. "Come on out." She repeated the process at the front of the building. "He doesn’t seem to be here," she said.
"That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you," Decker said.
"You can never be too careful," Marjorie said. "Even with an adversary as stupid as Brother Ephraim. Come on, the crosswalk’s over there."
"If he’s so stupid, how come he’s the one who’s got us too scared to go to the store?" Decker asked.
"Because he’s the one with the gun," she said. "The cat always has the advantage over the mouse. But the fact that you’re even still here shows how stupid he is. If I’d been the one assigned to get you, you’d be dead."
They went into the store. It wasn’t much: a couple of aisles, smaller than a convenience store. Nevertheless, Marjorie looked impressed. "Gosh," she said. "So much food."
"Are you kidding?" Decker said. He handed her a basket. "Wait till I get you to Costco."
"So what should we get?" Marjorie asked.
"Anything you want," Decker said. "So I’d be dead, huh?"
"Hmm?" she said. "Oh, yeah. Easy."
"What would you have done differently?" he asked.
"Well," she said, "Take the coffee shop. First of all, you don’t make a try where the target has that much cover, that’s for sure. The more cover the target has, the more reaction time counts and Brother Ephraim’s kind of slow." She took a few cans of soup off the shelf and put them in the basket. "Then there’s his positioning. When you’re making a hit what you want to do is place yourself between the target and the point of escape so that the target has no way out except through you. And what did he do? He saw that you were sitting by the door — pretty smart of you, by the way — and then he went and sat in the back, so that not only could you get away but his own escape route was cut off. If the police had been there, or if you’d been armed yourself, Brother Ephraim would be either dead or in jail."
Decker got a few pre-made sandwiches out of the refrigerated case and tossed them into the basket. "Uh, what’re you doing?" he asked. "You’ve got twenty cans of tomato soup in there."
"Only eighteen," she said. "That’s all they have."
"Put some of them back," he said. "We don’t need that much soup. Two or three is plenty."
"But then what do we do when we run out of soup?" she asked.
"We come back and get more," he said. "Besides, after three days straight you’ll be sick of tomato soup."
"I’ve had tomato soup every day for the past two and a half years," she said. "We have it shipped in."
"And you actually want more?" he said.
"I’m used to it," she said. But she put most of the soup back.
Decker went to get some eggs and milk. "So anyway," Marjorie said, "there’s more to it than that. It might not be so bad if he had some other skills he could use to make up for his tactical problems. But he doesn’t."
"Other skills?" Decker said.
"Yeah," she said. "Like, if I’d been assigned to take you out and I couldn’t get you alone somewhere, I wouldn’t just follow you around waiting to take a shot at you. I’d try to win your confidence so you’d invite me into your home and then I’d get you. I’d probably even fix it up so it looked like you’d done it yourself. The elders taught us how to do that but Brother Eph— what?"
Decker put down the carton of milk he was holding and edged toward the door. He looked like he was about to throw up.
"Wait — you think that’s what I’m doing?" she said. "Believe me, Mr. Decker, if that’s what I really was doing I wouldn’t have just told you about it. I’m here to protect you, honest." She touched his hand. "Anyway, Brother Ephraim can’t do any of that because he doesn’t know how to deal with people. He barely even knows how to read. The only reason they even let him be an avengelical was because he’s so big. And even that’s a disadvantage because his stealth rating is about as close to zero as you can get. No blending into the crowd for Brother Ephraim."
"Can we just stop talking about this?" Decker said. He put the carton of milk in the basket. "Let’s just get out of here."
Everything in the basket came to less than fifteen dollars; Decker paid with a twenty and gave the change to Marjorie. "Just so you have at least something," he said.
"Thanks!" she said. "Here, let me carry that." She picked up the bag and they headed out.
They got to the corner and Marjorie froze. "Hold on," she said. "Look. In front of the building." She pointed. Hanging out in front of the building was a shabbily dressed man with a scrawny gray cat. He had a piece of cardboard that said "Can you please Help" propped up against the stairs leading up to the building, but the cat kept rubbing up against it and knocking it over.
"It’s just a bum," Decker said. "This isn’t exactly the swankiest stretch of the city. Lots of homeless around here."
"I’d better check him out first," she said. "He could be working with Brother Ephraim."
"I’ve seen this guy before," he said. "He isn’t working with anyone except his cat."
"Is there a back entrance?" Marjorie said. "Maybe we could use th¾
"Let’s just go," Decker said. He went inside and was halfway up the stairs before he realized Marjorie wasn’t with him. He went back down to get her but before he could get more than a couple of steps she appeared at the bottom of the landing. "What kept you?" he asked.
"Sorry," she said. "I was just seeing if he’d seen Brother Ephraim around. He hadn’t. Maybe he finally found out his orders were fake."
"Maybe," Decker said. He unlocked the door to the apartment and went in. Marjorie put the bag on the counter and started unpacking it. "Let me do that," he said. "Grab a seat. I’m going to make you a world-class omelette."
"What’s that?" she asked.
"An omelette?" Decker said. "It’s made with eggs. Are you allowed to eat eggs?"
"Yeah," she said. "But I’ve never had an ‘omelette’ before." She sat down and closed her eyes.
"Well, you’ll like it," he said. "Hmm. Did you already put away the sandwiches?"
"I gave them to the man outside," she said. "He was hungry."
"And the milk?"
"His cat was hungry too."
"Well, we can’t make an omelette without milk," Decker said. "Can you take that five I gave you and get some more?"
"I gave him the money too," she said. "He didn’t have any."
"Great," Decker said. "Just great. I notice you didn’t give away any of the tomato soup."
"He didn’t have a can opener."
"That’s not the point," he said. "The point is, we don’t have any money either. And now I can’t even make the damn omelette." He slammed the pan down on the stove and Marjorie jumped up and opened her eyes.
"I’m sorry," she said. "I didn’t know it was wrong." She sounded as if she was about to cry.
Decker sighed. "Don’t get upset," he said. "It’s not a big deal. I just wanted to do this for you. I can make something else instead."
Marjorie blinked a couple of times and then shook it off. "I think I can fix it," she said. She went into the bedroom and came back with a small packet of something. Decker looked at it. It said "powdered milk — makes one cup."
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
"It’s part of my rations," she said. "You get a biscuit and a packet of dried fruit and some vitamin pills and one of those. You’re supposed to have one a day but so far it’s been six days and I’ve only eaten four."
Decker squinted at the fine print on the back of the packet. "I guess this’ll work," he said. "Thanks."
Marjorie sat down at the table and closed her eyes again. In a matter of moments she could hear sizzling sounds coming from the kitchen and the air filled with the smell of eggs cooking. "You want cheese?" Decker asked.
"Sure," she said.
"Hey, what’re you doing?" he asked. "If you’re still tired go get some more sleep."
"I’m not tired," she said. "I’m meditating. It sharpens my focus."
"Oh," Decker said. "So am I supposed to be quiet then?"
"You don’t have to be," she said. "I have several levels of attention."
Decker flipped the omelette. He cooked it on that side for just a minute more and then lifted it onto the plate with the spatula. He brought the plate into the living room and set it on the table. "Try this and tell me what you think," he said. "It’s been a while since I made one of these so I’m kind of rusty."
Marjorie opened her eyes. "Do you have a knife or a fork or something?" she asked.
Decker tapped his forehead. "See?" he said. "Rusty." He went into the kitchen and brought back a knife and fork. Marjorie took them and then reached into her mouth and took out a back tooth.
"Can I just put this on the table?" she asked.
Decker gaped at her. "What the hell is that?" he asked.
"False tooth," Marjorie said. "I have to take it out when I eat. See?" She flipped it over. Inside the hollow tooth was a small plastic bubble filled with some kind of light blue liquid. "Poison capsule," she explained. "In case I ever get captured. They gave it to me when I first became an avengelical. It hurt like crazy when they took out the real one. Or at least I remember it did. My pain tolerance was still pretty low back then, though." She cut herself a small piece of omelette and popped it in her mouth.
"What exactly is an ‘avengelical’?" Decker asked.
She swallowed. "Avengelicals are those members of the Church who volunteer to carry out the will of the Prophet and act as his fist," she said. "You have to get all kinds of training before the elders will give you an assignment, though. I started when I was fourteen and this is the first time I’ve been sent out." She took another bite of omelette. "This is really good," she said.
"How old are you now?" Decker asked.
"Twenty," she said. "And three weeks. What’s wrong?"
Decker shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Just— nothing. So you’ve never done this before?"
"No, but I’ve been thoroughly—"
"Never killed anyone?"
"No," she said, blushing. "But I do know how. They taught me nine different ways to do it, and six of them—"
"Marjorie, stop," Decker said. "Just stop. I don’t want to hear about any of this. Look at me."
"I am looking at you," she said.
"I mean really look at me," he said. He waved a hand in front of her face. "I don’t want any more talk of killing people, okay? Maybe it’s an everyday subject at your ranch, but not here. Got it?"
She looked down at the table. "I’m sorry, Mr. Decker," she said. "I just didn’t want you to think you weren’t in capable hands."
"Capable? Marjorie, the less ‘capable’ your hands are the more comfortable I’ll be. I wouldn’t have let you sleep here if I’d thought you’d killed someone. I would’ve turned you in. Now you seem like basically a good kid but if you don’t stop talking about death and killing I’m not going to have anything more to do with you. Got it?"
"Yes, Mr. Decker," she said.
"And don’t call me ‘Mr. Decker,’ okay?" he said. "Just plain ‘Decker’ is fine. Or even ‘Harrison.’ Now go ahead and eat your breakfast."
September 4th, continued
I may be in over my head here.
Probably ought to have my head examined but for better or for worse I seem to have taken Marjorie in. Tried to fool myself into thinking it was just temporary but I guess I wasn’t fooling anyone. This kind of thing doesn’t just fall into your lap. This is a test. She thinks she’s saving me but I’m supposed to save her.
Don’t have the slightest idea how you go about "deprogramming" somebody but I can’t let her go back to that ranch. You don’t have to listen to her talk very long to figure out that everything there is violence and killing. At least in the little program she’s been in for the past six years
Who am I trying to kid? This all has to do with one thing and one thing only. I hear her breathing and finally someone’s there breathing when someone should be there breathing. And I can talk to her and find out what she’s like. And maybe it’s totally different but when you think about it for all I know it might as well be exactly the same.
Wonder what Marilyn would say.
"That was really, really good," Marjorie said. She put her fork down; her plate was clean. "That was just— wow."
Decker looked up from his journal. "Liked it, huh?" he said.
"I’ll say," Marjorie said. "That was the best meal I’ve had since— since I first entered into the light, I think. Nine years ago."
Decker closed his journal and slipped it back into his pocket. "Glad to hear it," he said. He took her plate and rinsed it off. "Used to make breakfast every Sunday morning. Been a while, though. No point." He put the plate in the dishwasher.
"So now what?" Marjorie asked.
"Now we wait for the phone to ring," Decker said.
That afternoon the phone rang. Marjorie was so startled she almost dove under the table but Decker grabbed it before the second ring.
"Hello?" he said.
Marjorie watched him grab a notepad and scribble things down. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Got it. Yeah, I’ll be there. This isn’t exactly a big national news story, though — how come you’re—? Oh. Got it. I’m leaving right now." He put the phone down. "Come on," he said.
"Where are we going?" Marjorie asked.
"Berkeley," Decker said. "There’s a riot going on. Something about a park. Normally they wouldn’t bother with something this small but they’re putting together a piece on campus tensions or something and they need pictures." He grabbed his camera case. Marjorie put on her shoes and her backpack.
"Where’s your car?" she asked.
"Don’t have one," Decker said. "Haven’t since I lived out in the suburbs. Too much of a hassle. We’ll have to take BART. Station’s just a block from here."
So they went down into the BART station. "Still have your old ticket?" Decker asked.
Marjorie unzipped a compartment in her backpack and pulled out a ticket. "Sure do," she said.
"Good," Decker said. "I don’t have any cash on me." He took a ticket out of his wallet and fed it into the turnstile. Marjorie did the same. They went down to the train platform.
"This place looks like the bunker," Marjorie said.
"Bunker?" Decker said.
"Yeah," she said. "Where we keep all our emergency supplies and things. That way when the apocalypse comes we can hide underground until it’s safe to come out."
"Sounds like fun," Decker said. "Here comes the train."
They got on. There were a couple more stops and soon they were shrieking through the tunnel. "Guess where we are?" Decker asked.
"On a subway train," Marjorie said.
"I mean location-wise," Decker said. "If you were to get out and start digging straight up, where would you come out?"
"I don’t know," she said.
"You’d come out in the bay," he said. "There’s a few hundred feet of water above us. Ever been under an ocean, Marjorie?"
"I really wish you’d call me ‘Sister Marjorie,’" she said. "Every time you call me just plain ‘Marjorie’ I think you’re mad at me."
"But you’re not my sister," Decker said. "And I’m sure as hell not young enough to be your brother."
"Well, you could call me ‘my child’ if you want," she said. "That’s what the elders call me."
"I’m not an elder," Decker said quietly.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"How old do you think I am?" he said.
Marjorie thought for a moment. "Um... fifty-five?" she said. "Oh, no, I’ve insulted you. You’re probably only fifty-two or so. Fifty?"
"I’m forty-five," he said. "It’s okay, I’m used to it."
"Forty-five?" Marjorie said. "Wow. So you’re the exact same age as the Prophet! Were you in Vietnam?"
"Was I what?" he said.
"In Vietnam," she said. "Brother Evan was in Vietnam. That was where he had his epiphany and saw God’s light. Were you there too?"
"Yeah," he said. "I was."
"Were you in the Marines?" she asked.
"No," he said. "I was in the press. I was drafted first but then when they found out I was a photographer they assigned me to take pictures for the Army newspaper."
"Wow," she said. "Were you scared? When you were drafted I mean?"
"I guess," he said. "Actually, when I got my notice I... you sure you want to hear this?"
She nodded. Her eyes seemed very bright.
"Okay," he said. "Well, we had a cabin up in the Sierras. I’m not sure whose it was. Uncle or a grandfather or someone. Just in the family. And I had a key. Practically no one ever used it and they couldn’t find anyone to buy it so it just sat there, empty. Anyway, I’d just left college and was working for the local paper, taking some pictures and doing some paste-up, and the whole time in the back of my mind I’d been thinking about what I’d do if I got drafted. Then one day I get my notice. And even though I’d been thinking about it for weeks, months, I just didn’t know what to do."
The train emerged from the tunnel. "So what I did was, I took my key and just drove all night and in the morning I moved into the cabin. No one knew I was there, there were no phones, no mailbox, nothing, and I just stayed there. Thinking. Thought about going to Canada. Not so much because I didn’t want to get killed but because I just didn’t want to be stuck in some jungle. Better to not live at all than to live that poorly. But then I didn’t want to be a traitor either. So I just stayed there on top of the mountain, thinking. Didn’t see anyone, didn’t do much of anything, just stayed there thinking. Thinking and reading. Cabin had a huge library with all these great old leather-bound books, nothing after the 1920’s. So I stayed there thinking all day and reading all night. Three whole weeks."
"So what did you decide?" Marjorie asked.
"I didn’t really make the decision," Decker said. "Marilyn did. My wife. Fiancée back then. Three weeks after I got there she drives up. She was only there for ten minutes maybe. She told me that she’d love me no matter what I decided, but there was one thing. If I went to Vietnam, she’d wait for me to come back. If I went to Canada, she wouldn’t."
"Why not?" Marjorie asked.
"Because she said she didn’t want to have to tell our kids that when their father got called to go to fight for his country that he ran. She said that even though she understood, she didn’t want to raise kids who would understand because she felt like there was something wrong with her for understanding. Or something like that. It was kind of hard to follow."
"So you went?" she said.
"Yeah, I went. But you want to know the strange thing? Some guys, they keep their dogtags, or shrapnel they get removed, or pieces they hack off enemy soldiers... me, I kept this." He took out his wallet and from the change pocket he removed a dull silver key. "Cabin’s still there. Mountain’s still there. As far as I know the place is still empty. Maybe once this whole thing blows over we can go. Shouldn’t go now, though. Probably not too safe."
"Probably not," she said. "So have you ever been back? Since the war?"
"Yeah, I’ve been back," he said. "Went back... six years ago. But that time Marilyn didn’t come get me. And she wasn’t there when I got back." He looked up. "This is our stop."
They climbed up the stairs and back out to street level. Decker took a quick look around. Most of the buildings looked like they were about to collapse, but it also looked like that’d been the case for quite some time. "Doesn’t exactly look like they burned the city down," he said. "Whole thing probably lasted five minutes."
"I just decided," Marjorie said. "I don’t like cities."
"No argument out of me," Decker said. "Now let’s see. Jameson said most of the damage was on Telegraph Avenue. I think it’s that way." They headed off towards the east. It was kind of slow going because they had to walk around all the people sprawled on the sidewalk. And once again Marjorie refused to cross against the light. "I’ve heard about this Telegraph," Decker said. "Heard it’s supposed to be like a time warp. The street where the sixties never died, they tell me." He looked at Marjorie’s outfit. "You’ll fit right in," he said.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Those jeans," he said. "Why bell-bottoms? Is that something else to do with your cul— uh, faith?"
She shrugged. "Not really," she said. "They’re just hand-me-downs. They used to be my mom’s." She looked up at the street sign. "Isn’t this it?" she asked.
Decker looked up at the sign. "Sure is," he said. "Hmm. Doesn’t look like a time warp after all. Just scummy."
"I really don’t like cities," Marjorie said.
"That’s because you’re part of the oppressive white capitalist power structure," said a passing pedestrian.
Decker unzipped his case and took out a complicated-looking camera and a special lens. "This shouldn’t take long," he said. "Need to get some shots of some of the busted storefronts and then maybe go down to the park and shoot off a roll there. And maybe take a few shots of the campus. Shouldn’t take long at all."
"Is that a college?" Marjorie asked, pointing.
"Yeah, that’s a college," Decker said. "It’s UC Berkeley."
"Oh, good," she said. "Then the Church probably has a center around here somewhere. Maybe when you’re done we could look for it?"
"Of course it could take longer than I thought," Decker said.
Decker wound up spending two hours taking pictures; he would’ve taken more, but he ran out of film. "Can we go look for the center now?" Marjorie asked.
"Getting kind of late," Decker said. "And there’s something else I want to do. Figure the library here’s got to be pretty big and I’ve got some things I need to look up."
"Well, okay," she said. "I think that’s a map over there."
Right in the middle of the plaza was a little stand with a campus map printed on it. Decker found the library under the graffiti and they headed up the hill toward where it was supposed to be. "Whole front’s fenced off," he said. "Have to go in the back d— whoa!"
"What the heck was that?" Marjorie asked. She watched as the biker who’d nearly hit them zipped on down the hill and off into the distance. "A biker? It says ‘no bike riding’ right on the pavement!"
"Guess they’re not looking at the pavement," Decker said.
"But that’s just wrong," Marjorie said.
"I think that’s the entrance up there," Decker said. "Come on."
"Look!" Marjorie said. "Here comes another one. They just don’t care." She stepped out of the biker’s way and with one well-timed shove sent him careening into the grass. "Can’t you read? No riding!"
"Now, you know you can’t do that," Decker said. He grabbed her sleeve and led her up the hill.
"Someone has to enforce the rules," she said.
"Don’t argue," he said. They went inside.
Decker found a bank of computer catalogs on the second floor. "What are you looking up?" Marjorie asked.
"A few things," he said. "Look, uh, why don’t you go see where the actual shelves are?"
"I’d rather not leave you alone," she said.
He sighed. "Fine. Then how about you look up some of this stuff for me so it’ll go faster?"
"Okay," she said. "What should I look up?"
"How about... hmm. Why don’t you try... California adoption law?"
"Okay," she said. She looked down at the keyboard. "Hey, all these letters are out of order."
Decker squinted at the instructions on the screen. He tried a few keys but nothing happened. "Damn computers," he muttered. "Whatever happened to card catalogs?"
"All right, I’ve got a bunch of listings here," Marjorie said. "Do you want me to write down all of them?"
"Good girl," Decker said. He hit a couple more keys and finally the computer asked him for a subject. He thought for a moment and then typed "Cults--deprogramming" and hit the enter key. A list of books scrolled onto the screen and Decker quickly scribbled down the call numbers.
"Okay, all done," Marjorie said. Decker cleared the screen just as she came over with her list. "What did you need this for, anyway? Are you doing a story on it or something?"
"Something like that," Decker said. "Let’s figure out how you get in."
They left the catalog room and found themselves in a huge, empty chamber. There was Latin writing along the top of each wall and marks on the floor where the old card catalogs had apparently been ripped out. There was also an entranceway marked "Main Stack" but it was blocked off. "Guess they’re remodeling," Decker said.
There was a sign posted next to the entrance; Marjorie went up to it and read it. "It says the new entrance is on the first floor," she said. "Downstairs."
So they went downstairs. Once again, every place they went was empty and abandoned. "I think we’re totally lost," Decker said.
"Let’s try some of these doors," Marjorie said. So they did. Most of them led to empty rooms. But then Marjorie found one that didn’t. "This looks like it leads somewhere," she said.
They went in and found themselves at the end of a very long, dark corridor. "I’ve got a bad feeling about this," Decker said. "It’s not that important. Let’s just go back."
"No, wait a second," Marjorie said. A moment or two passed. "Okay. Let’s go."
"What was that all about?" Decker asked.
"Just needed a minute for my night vision to kick in," she said. "I don’t see any doors or anything along this passageway. We should be safe."
"I’ll bet," he said. But they went down the corridor anyway. It made a few twists and turns but eventually opened up into a circular room with several doors, each marked with call letters.
"See?" Marjorie said. "Nothing to worry about. Let’s take that one first."
They went in the door Marjorie indicated and soon found themselves in a chamber full of shelves. But the shelves were too close together for anyone to walk between them. "What the hell?" Decker said. "How’re you supposed to get to the books?"
"Look," Marjorie said. She pointed. Attached to the side of each shelf was a circular crank, much like a ship’s wheel. As she spun the crank the shelf moved along a track on the ground until it was far enough from the next one for them to fit through. "I guess it’s to save space," she said. "So you only have as many aisles as you need."
"Whatever," Decker said. "Okay, you find the books on your list, I’ll go get mine. Should be just a few shelves down."
"All right," she said. Decker moved down a few shelves and tried one of the cranks. The aisle he wanted obligingly widened. Unfortunately, the one Marjorie was standing in narrowed by exactly the same amount. She yelped and jumped out into the walkway between the shelves. "Um, you might want to be careful about that," she said.
"Sorry," Decker said. They experimented with the cranks until both aisles were wide enough for them to fit through. Then Marjorie went back to her aisle and Decker took out his list.
September 4th, continued
Been flipping through the books on how to rescue someone from a cult. Not too helpful. Most of them are published by different religious groups and they just want to replace one set of lies with another. "Don’t be a Moonie — be a Jew!" "Don’t be a Branch Davidian — be a Baptist!" As if the "good" religions weren’t just cults that got popular. You can even see them move from one column to the other. Like the Mormons. One of the older books says they definitely are a cult, one of the new ones says they definitely aren’t, and then there’s one in between that says it’s hard to say but since there are so many of them they’re probably okay.
Funny. Even the books that aren’t published by some church or another make a big deal about all the telltale signs of a "destructive" cult. Like how they’d rather live by themselves away from everything instead of dealing with modern society. How terrible. Can’t have you shying away from modern society. Shopping malls and sitcoms and all the things kids do. I can think of someone who found modern society more "destructive" than any cult.
Decker put the books back on the shelf. He heard Marjorie come up to him. "Ready to go?" he asked.
It wasn’t Marjorie.
He’d turned expecting to see Marjorie’s face but instead found himself staring at someone’s chest. Then he looked up just in time to see a smirk play across the giant Russian’s face. He saw him reach into his coat and closed his eyes.
And then Marjorie grabbed him and pulled him out of the aisle and spun the crank so that Ephraim was crushed between the shelves. The giant let out a bellow. "What an idiot!" Marjorie said. "Yeah, that’s it, Ephraim, let’s approach the target and alert him to your presence and then bother to get out your weapon! Didn’t Brother Mark teach you anything?" She turned to Decker. "Hold this shut and I can break his neck and this whole thing’ll be finished," she said. "Just say the word."
It took Decker a minute to realize what she was saying. "No," he said. "No."
"Don’t you want this mess over with?" she asked.
"Not that way," he said. "Keep him there. I’ll go get someone."
He hurried down the corridor. Students gave him annoyed looks as he brushed past them but he didn’t notice. Soon he found his way back to the main circular chamber and took the door marked "exit". But instead of winding up in the dark passageway again he found himself at a checkout desk.
But he didn’t spend any time scratching his head. There was a line of students waiting to get past the checkpoint; Decker barged to the front. "Call the police," he said. "You’ve got to—"
"Are you a student?" asked the guy behind the counter.
"No," Decker said. "Now you’ve got to—"
"I didn’t think so," he said. "I’ve been working this desk all day and I didn’t see you come in. There’s a sign clearly posted on the door that says that Moffitt Library is for the exclusive use of—"
"I came in the other one," Decker said. "Now will you—"
"The Doe entrance isn’t open yet!" the guy said. "I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to l—"
"Shut up for a second," Decker said. "There’s a dangerous criminal in—"
The guy behind the desk beckoned to one of the security guards. "This fellow doesn’t have proper ID," he said. "He probably came in off the street. Could you—"
"I’m going, I’m going," Decker said. He shook off the security guard and backed towards the door. "Is there a phone anywhere around h— aw, no."
Marjorie came out of the same door Decker had just come out of with an embarrassed look on her face. "I couldn’t hold him," she said. "He was too strong. He got away. Besides, I was worried. What’s taking so long? Why didn’t they send help?"
"Still know nine different ways to kill people?" Decker asked.
"Uh-huh," she said.
"See that guy?"
A few minutes later as they were walking back to the BART station Marjorie quietly said, "I’m sorry."
"It’s okay," Decker said. "It’s not your fault."
"It’s just that I’m only allowed to kill under the direction of the Prophet or one of the elders."
"Huh?" Decker said. "Oh, that. I wasn’t serious. I thought you meant you were sorry about letting Ivan get away."
"Oh, I’m not really worried about him," she said. She shifted her backpack to her other shoulder. "I’m just scared that someone else who actually knows what he’s doing might be working with him. That’s why I came back so fast. I thought Brother Ephraim might be a decoy."
"Whatever," Decker said. His shoe came untied. He bent down to tie it but Marjorie kept right on walking, lost in thought. Suddenly she was accosted by two guys in their early twenties, one clean-cut and the other kind of scruffy.
"Hi," the clean-cut one said. "My name’s Paul, and this is my friend Doug. We were wondering if you’d be interested in coming to one of our gatherings to discuss some ideas about the world and what it all means..."
"Sorry, I’m already secure in my faith," Marjorie said. "Thanks, though."
"At least take one of our flyers," Paul said. "In case you change your mind."
Marjorie glanced at the flyer. "‘The California Center for Spiritual Awareness’?" she said. "That’s a front organization for the Everlasting Church of God’s Light!"
Paul suddenly became all shifty-eyed. "Uh, no it isn’t," he said.
"Sure it is!" she said. Her face lit up and she put her hands out as if to shove him to the ground but then just kept them there. Paul gave a start and then his face lit up too and he put his palms on hers. Decker picked that moment to get up and walk over to them.
"All right, what the hell’s going on here?" he asked. "What’s with your hands?"
"He’s a member of the Church!" Marjorie said. "This is how we greet each other."
"On what planet?" Decker asked.
"Earth, of course," Marjorie said. She turned back to Paul. "Tell me all about yourself!"
They started chattering away. Decker turned to the scruffy guy, Doug. "You with them?" he asked.
"Nah, not really," Doug said. "They pay me eight bucks an hour to follow this guy around and be his ‘friend.’ They get a lot more people to come to their meetings when it’s two-on-one. Or else they get a chick to do it." He scratched his face.
Decker snorted. He turned back to Marjorie. She and Paul were standing very very close together and he had his hand on her arm. "Yeah, I’ve been living at the ranch since I was two," she was saying.
"You’re so lucky!" Paul said. "I’ve only been there once, for a weekend. Are you in the light?"
Marjorie blushed. "Yes," she said. She fidgeted with her necklace. "And I’m an avengelical, too."
"Look," Decker said, "much as I hate to break up this touching little scene, we’ve got a train to catch. Let’s go."
"Just a second," Paul and Marjorie said. Doug started laughing. "Dude, stereo," he said.
"Have you heard the Prophet’s coming back from India?" Paul asked. Marjorie’s eyes went wide. "It’s true. They say he might even come to the meeting this week before going back to the ranch. We got a special hall reserved and everything. The address is right on the flyer."
"Oh, wow," Marjorie said. "He’s— I— oh, wow."
Doug tapped Decker on the shoulder. "She your daughter?" he asked.
"No," Decker said. "She’s my, uh, niece."
"Your niece is pretty hot," he said.
"Okay, that’s enough," Decker said. He grabbed Marjorie’s elbow. "We’re going."
"Just a second," Marjorie said.
"No seconds," Decker said. "I’m going. You can catch up if you want. Or don’t. I don’t care."
He stormed off down the hill. But he didn’t get more than a few yards away before he glanced back to see if she was following him. She was. So he kept walking. Just before he got out of earshot he heard Doug say, "Some way to treat your niece, man."
He shook his head and headed back into town. Just as he was about to cross off the campus and back into the city someone headed him off. "Hi," he said. "My name’s Quan, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in coming to a Bible St—"
"Don’t you have a friend?" Decker said.
Quan hung his head and slunk away.
September 4th, continued
BART train, Berkeley to Frisco
Suddenly I’ve got Marjorie mad at me for leaving before she could finish giving another one of Loewinger’s groupies the secret handshake or something. She’s still following me but she didn’t stand with me at the platform or sit with me once the train showed up. I’m used to that, at least. Of course you’d think she’d be past that by now. Not sure what the rules are for kids her age.
Probably shouldn’t let it bother me. No matter what I told Shaggy up on the hill, she’s not my niece. She’s not my anything. I don’t have any more connection to her than to anyone else on this train. I mean, she spent one night over at my place. Big deal. A couple of days from now they’ll finally call Ivan off and she’ll go back to her little ranch and it’ll be like we never met. Shouldn’t build this up into more than it is.
Wonder if that’s why I wouldn’t let her finish him off back in that library? So he could get away and she’d have to stick around? Maybe somewhere inside I don’t really want this whole mess over with so she won’t leave?
Yeah, right. Spent so much time with that damn shrink I’m even thinking like him now. What a crock.
Hey, that’s right, I forgot to mention. I almost got killed again. Probably worth writing down. And she saved me again. She
The train jerked to a stop and Decker looked up from his journal. The doors opened; a few people got off, but a lot more got on. One of them was a pale student type in his late teens or early twenties with unwashed hair and a backpack much like Marjorie’s. He was muttering to himself and the corner of his mouth was twitching. He sat down in an empty seat a few seats in front of Decker and a couple seconds later Marjorie got up and sat down next to him.
What the hell?
"Hi," she said.
Decker strained to hear what the guy said. He couldn’t. Even Marjorie had to lean in close to hear him and she was sitting right next to him.
"My name’s Marjorie," she said. "What’s yours?"
Again Decker couldn’t hear the answer. He could only pick up Marjorie’s side of the conversation.
"Are you from around here?" Pause. "Just started, huh?" Pause. "Sounds pretty rough." Pause. "I know exactly what you’re going through." Pause. "Yeah. Exactly! That’s a good way of putting it." Pause. "Wow, that’s really smart. I never would’ve come up with that." Pause. "Tell me more. This is really interesting." Long pause. "Well, they don’t sound like very nice people." Pause. "I guess that’s just the way the world is." Pause. "Right! Right." Pause. "I used to, but not anymore." Pause. "Oh yeah, that’s true." Pause.
Her eyes haven’t moved. She’s been looking right into his eyes listening to him talk for almost twenty minutes now.
The train pulled into the station near Decker’s apartment. He got up and stood in the aisle. "Listen, this is my stop," Marjorie said. The guy she was sitting with muttered something. "Actually," she said, "some friends of mine and I are going to this meeting in a couple days and talking about just this kind of stuff. Why don’t you come? I’m sure they’d all love to hear what you have to say. It’s not very often that you meet really bright people in this town. Here’s a flyer."
She handed him the flyer that Paul had given her. The guy looked at it and nodded. The train jerked to a stop. "I really hope I see you there," she said. She gave his hand a squeeze and then the doors opened and she left. Decker followed her out.
"Marjorie!" he said. She stopped and let him catch up to her. "Marjorie, I’m sorry."
"Sorry for what?" she said.
"I just realized I never even thanked you for saving my life again today."
"Oh, you’re welcome," she said. Decker looked at her. Her eyes were very glassy. Glassier than usual.
"Who was that guy?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Just someone. He looked promising. After a while you recognize the type."
They headed up the steps. "So are you still mad at me?" Decker asked.
"I was never mad at you," she said. "I just wish you’d let me talk to Brother Paul a little longer."
They got up to the street level and started toward the apartment. "Yeah, well," Decker said. "Can’t say I liked the way he had his hands on you. I mean, he didn’t even know you."
She stopped in her tracks. "Didn’t know me?" she said. "He knows me as well as I know myself. And as well as I know him. We’re the same." She started walking again.
"What do you mean you’re the same?" Decker asked.
"I mean we’re the same," she said. "That’s one of the best parts about the Church. When you meet another member of the Church you know exactly how they think and what they’re like because it’s the same as the way you think and the way you are. It’s like recognizing that your soul and someone else’s soul are the same soul. It’s like love. It is love."
Decker didn’t say anything.
"It’s just— this is the first time I’ve been off the ranch on my own," she said. "Do you have any idea how lonely it’s been? It’s like I’ve been on another planet. And then along comes someone I recognize, someone I have a connection to, and I don’t even really get to talk to him." They turned the corner onto Decker’s street. "I really wish you’d let me finish him off," she said, more to herself than to him.
"So you’re homesick," Decker said.
"Is that a word?" she asked.
"Then yeah," she said.
They got back to the apartment. Decker checked his mailbox. It was empty. He closed the mailbox and they went upstairs and inside.
"Have a seat," he said. "I’ll make you some soup."
Marjorie sat cross-legged on the floor and closed her eyes. Decker started to say something but didn’t. He took out one of the cans of tomato soup and followed the directions. It made more than he could fit in one bowl so he had the rest for himself while the bowl was cooling. He cleaned out the pot and then checked the temperature of the soup. "Soup’s ready," he said.
Marjorie sat down at the table and Decker set the bowl in front of her. "Enjoy," he said. "I’m going to go develop this film. Jameson always takes it out of my paycheck when they do it at the lab."
"Okay," she said.
Decker got some chemicals out of a cabinet in the kitchen and went into the bathroom. The shower curtain was closed. He opened it. The tub was full of soapy water with a navy blue T-shirt and a pair of faded bell-bottoms soaking in it. "What are these clothes doing in the tub?" he called out.
"Sorry," Marjorie called back. "I’ll be there in a second." She came into the bathroom and let out the water and started rinsing out the clothes.
"What are you doing?" Decker asked. "The unit has a washer and dryer. Wait till you go through a few more changes of clothes and you can do it all at once downstairs."
"Oh, this is all I have," she said. "What I have on and this. And my dress but I’m only allowed to wear that on special occasions." She wrung out the clothes and draped them over the towel rack to dry.
"Three guesses what we’re doing tomorrow," Decker said.
* * *
The next morning they went down to the Oracle building. Marjorie waited in Decker’s office while he went to Jameson’s office. This time she wasn’t tempted to fall asleep, though. She just sat at the desk and waited patiently and snacked on one of her ration biscuits and tried not to think about anything.
And in the end she didn’t have to wait long. Twenty minutes later Decker showed up with an envelope in his hand. "Did you sell your pictures?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Jameson gave me six hundred dollars for them. Way more than what they’re worth but he’s still trying to get rid of me."
"How come?" she asked.
"He wants me to get on the next plane out of here," he said. "The police aren’t having any luck finding your friend Ivan and Jameson wants me to hide out in Costa Rica or someplace till they do."
"He’d just follow us there," she said.
"Not with a murder warrant out on him," he said.
"Attempted murder," she said. "You’re not dead yet."
"What are you talking about?" he said. "He killed Tran!"
"Oh yeah," she said. "I forgot."
"Well, Brother Evan says we shouldn’t dwell on the past," she said. She stretched and stood up. "Are we going?"
"Yeah, I guess," Decker said.
"Okay," she said. "Let me just put my shoes back on."
Decker looked at her. "You’re not wearing shoes?" he said. "Jeez, you’re still taller than me. How tall are you?"
"Five-nine," she said. "Five-ten-and-a-half if you count the hair." She slipped her sneakers back on. "So where are we going?"
"Well," he said, "this is San Francisco. It’s not like there’s any shortage of stores around here. Figured we could go get this check cashed and then go somewhere and I’ll buy you some clothes. You can get anything you want."
She looked confused. "I already have clothes," she said.
"You have two changes of clothes and they’re both older than you are," he said. "I’m not saying you need a whole wardrobe but you need more than that."
"Oh, these are just what I picked to bring with me," she said. "Back at the ward we all share around. Usually only my mom’s old stuff really fits but I don’t—"
"Look," Decker said, "you might not be back there for a while, all right? And you need some more clothes for while you’re staying with me. Now don’t argue."
So they went home and grabbed some lunch — Decker had a sandwich, Marjorie had tomato soup — and then they headed downtown. Soon they were surrounded by huge department stores. "Take your pick," Decker said.
"I don’t know anything about stores," she said. "Is it too late to say that I don’t really need—"
"Yes," Decker said. "C’mon, you should be thanking me. Marilyn always used to complain that I wouldn’t go shopping with her."
"I’m not Marilyn," she said.
"I know," he said. "Still. Humor me."
"Okay," she said.
So they found a door that looked more or less inviting and went in. Marjorie crinkled her nose. "What’s that smell?" she asked.
"Perfume," Decker said. "They like to put the cosmetics right near the door. That and lingerie. You ever worn make-up before?"
"No," she said. "Some of the older sisters did but Brother Evan says it makes you look like a painted Jezebel."
"Yeah, well, you probably don’t need it," he said. "Now let’s see where the clothes are."
They walked down the aisle a little ways, past display cases selling colognes and perfumes with names like "Lars" and "Nostalgia." Decker could see the women’s clothing department off in the distance but there was someone blocking the way. "Excuse me," he said.
"Oh, sorry, sir," she said. She turned around and as soon as she saw Marjorie her eyes lit up. "Hello, miss!" she said. "Would you like to try ‘Revelation’?"
Marjorie was about to answer when the woman whipped out a spray bottle of perfume and pointed it right at her. But before she could actually spray any Marjorie ducked down and knocked her feet out from under her and sent her sprawling to the ground. She was about to kick her in the head but Decker managed to restrain her. "What’re you doing?" he said.
Marjorie shook her head. "Sorry," she said. "Reflex." She helped the woman back up to her feet. "I’m really really sorry," she said.
"We better go somewhere else," Decker said.
They went to another department store across the street. Decker made sure to pick an entrance without too many salespeople lurking in the aisle. They went in and headed past the shoes and the leather items straight to the directory. "Hmm," Decker said. "Do you think you count as a ‘young woman’ or a just plain ‘woman’?"
"What’s the difference?" she asked.
"If you’re a young woman we go up two floors," he said. "Otherwise we stay here."
"Well let’s see what they have on this floor," she said.
So they went to the women’s clothing department. But after looking around for a couple of minutes it was pretty clear they were in the wrong place. "I can’t even figure out how some of these clothes are supposed to fit on your body," Marjorie said.
Decker grunted. "All right," he said, "let’s find an escalator."
They did. Light music played over the PA system as the stairs drifted upward. Marjorie shuddered. "I hate this," she said. "I want to go. Can’t we go?"
"Where do you want to go?" Decker asked.
"I don’t care," she said. "Let’s just go." She turned around and started walking back down the stairs. But it was a pretty fast escalator and pretty soon she was at the top anyway.
"Look," Decker said, "the young women’s department is right over there. If you don’t see anything you like we’ll go. Okay?"
"Okay," she said. "Let’s make it quick." She looked around hurriedly but then in among the designer jeans and ribbed sweaters she found a stand of plaid flannel shirts. "I like these," she said. "They look warm."
Decker looked at the price tag. "You’ve gotta be kidding me!" he said. "A hundred and twenty dollars for something you can get in a thrift shop for three bucks? Who’re they trying to kid?"
"Okay, then, let’s go," she said. "Let’s go let’s go."
"Fine," Decker said. So it was back down the escalator. Marjorie looked like she was having trouble breathing. "You okay?" he asked.
"No," she said. "This is bringing back a lot of bad memories. I can’t stay here. I have to get out of here." She saw the exit out of the corner of her eye and jumped off the escalator and sprinted towards it. Decker slowly followed after her. He would’ve gone faster but he had to keep apologizing to the people she knocked over.
He found her outside, gasping for breath. "What’s wrong?" he asked. "Marjorie? You want me to take you to a hospital or something?"
"No, I’ll be okay," she said. "I just had to get out of that place." She straightened up. "I feel better already."
"What did you mean ‘bad memories’?" Decker asked. "I thought you said you’d been on your ranch since you were two and hadn’t been off it till last week."
"Not on my own," she said. "But when I was seven my biological father sued and got custody of me and they came and took me off the ranch and made me live with him and his new wife and her daughter and they were always taking me places like that and getting mad at me because I didn’t want to buy anything and I just wanted to go home."
"How old was the daughter?" Decker asked.
"My age," Marjorie said. "And she hated me. They made us share a room and she always had her friends over and they’d make fun of me because I didn’t have any stuff and because I didn’t know how anything worked and then she’d get all mad at me for making her room look ugly and lopsided and because she didn’t like my religion and I just wanted to go home." She shook her head. "I don’t even remember her name."
"So how long were you there?" he asked.
"Only a week or two," she said. "Brother Evan hired some lawyers and got the court to send me back because the outside world was too traumatic. Can you believe it? Here I was just a little kid and he went to all that trouble to save me. I wasn’t even in the light then. I was living in the female communal quarters and he’d probably never even heard of me before but once he heard what’d happened he came back from Canada and saved me. He told me all of God’s children were his children and he’d never let me come to harm." She shivered. "Anyway, I tried to block most of that out but I stepped in there and it all came back and I just can’t be in that, that place. I mean, I want to protect you from Brother Ephraim and everything but there are limits."
"I just wanted to buy you some clothes," Decker murmured.
"That’s what my biological dad said," Marjorie said.
So they headed back to the apartment. As always, Decker was surprised at how fast the ultra-upscale stores gave way to the markedly less upscale collection of cheesy bars and check cashing places and liquor stores. It was really no more than a matter of a couple of blocks.
"Stop," Marjorie said.
He stopped. "What?" he asked.
"Do you still want to buy me clothes?" she asked.
"Sure," he said.
"How about here?" she said.
Decker looked up at the sign. "‘Fred’s Quality Used Clothing’?" he said. "Marjorie, this is a thrift store."
"Even better," she said. "So they’ll have that shirt I wanted for three dollars, right?"
"I really doubt they’ll have anything worth getting," he said. "This is the kind of place you go when you’re freezing to death and you’ve only got a buck fifty."
"Perfect!" she said. She went in. Decker followed her. The store was about the size of a shed and the only other people inside were a couple of grunge guys and the proprietor, a bald steroid case with a mustache and an eyepatch. "Wow," Marjorie said. "Look at all this great stuff!"
"Where?" Decker said.
"Right here!" she said. She went to the table in the middle of the store and picked up a button-down brown and purple paisley shirt with enormous cuffs and a huge pointy collar. "Isn’t it beautiful?"
"It’s hideous," he said.
"Well I like it," she said. "And it’s only seventy-five cents. And look! Jeans for two dollars!" She picked up a pair of patched green bell-bottoms. "Isn’t this a lot better than the other place?"
He started to answer but Marjorie was obviously too busy rummaging through the clothes on the table to listen. One of the grunge guys nudged the other one. "Can I try this on?" Marjorie asked the proprietor. He nodded. She unbuttoned the shirt and stuck her arms in the sleeves. "Wow, it’s nice and long, too," she said. She buttoned it up and turned around. "How’s it look?"
Decker gaped. "Jesus," he said. "It looks — I mean, it doesn’t look bad."
"Of course it doesn’t look bad," said one of the grunge guys. "Your daughter is obviously one of those one-in-ten-million girls who can wear paisley and get away with it. I could’ve told you that the second you guys came in."
"Thanks," Marjorie said. "I love your hat."
"You do?" he said. He took off his Seattle Mariners cap and stuck it on Marjorie’s head. "It’s yours, beautiful. Take care of it." He elbowed his friend in the ribs and they walked out.
"What the hell was that?" Decker asked.
"What a nice person!" Marjorie said. "And look! The shirt I wanted." She went over and took a plaid flannel shirt off the wall. "It’s eight dollars," she said. "Is that too much?"
"No, it’s fine," he said. "You sure you want to wear that hat? That guy didn’t look like he washed his hair too often."
"Sure I’m sure," she said. She took the flannel shirt and the jeans and laid them on the counter. "This shirt too, please," she said.
The proprietor rang up the purchases on an old metal cash register. "Ten seventy-five," he said. Decker got out his wallet and paid him eleven dollars. He didn’t bother to ask for change.
"They’re all going to be so jealous," Marjorie said as they walked back to the apartment. "Usually all the nice things are either too small for me or aren’t made for someone with a slender build. I’ll probably get this all to myself."
"Believe me," Decker said, "even if it fit everyone on the whole ranch you’d get it to yourself."
"I thought you said you liked it," she said.
"On any other human being," he said, "that shirt would be a crime against fabric."
She laughed. Decker had to laugh too. "You have a nice laugh," she said.
"Yeah?" he said. "Didn’t notice. Guess it’s been a while." He started to open the front door of the apartment building but then stopped. "A long while," he said.
Later that evening Decker was reading the paper and Marjorie was... well, Decker couldn’t figure out exactly what she was doing. She was sitting at the table and seemed to be just kind of admiring her new hat. "What’re you doing?" he asked.
"Just kind of admiring my new hat," she said.
"Oh," he said. "You want a section of the paper or something?"
"I’m not allowed to read for recreational purposes," she said.
"Really?" he said. "Huh. Aren’t you bored?"
"Not really," she said. "Whenever I start getting bored I just meditate. It’s very refreshing."
"Is that what you do at that ranch of yours?" he asked. "Meditate?"
"When I get the chance," she said. "But ever since I’ve been an avengelical I spend most of my time in training. Martial arts, firearms, tracking, things like that. Plus I have to work out several hours a day. And then sometimes I work on the crops, just to chip in. And then there’s sunrise service, and sunset service, and midnight service. And I talk with my sisters in the ward. And then if I have any time left then I meditate."
"And how many ‘sisters’ do you have in your ward?" Decker asked.
"Umm... twenty-one others besides me," she said.
"And how many of those do you share a room with?" he asked.
"None," she said. "I’m in the light ward. We all get our own rooms." She tilted the cap so that it caught the light differently. "I’m glad to hear you taking an interest in our faith."
"What is it with you and that cap, anyway?" he asked. He folded up the section of the paper he was reading and put it down. "What do you know about baseball?"
"Baseball?" she said. "What do you mean?"
"That’s a baseball cap," he said. "Seattle Mariners. Let me see it." She showed it to him but didn’t let it go. It was a blue and aqua cap adorned with a big letter S with a silver compass star in the middle. "Looks like their home cap," he said. "I think the away one’s all blue."
"Whatever," she said. "I just like the star. It’s perfect. It’s just like the real ones."
"Real whats?" he said. "Compasses?"
"No, stars," she said. "Whoever made this must’ve known a lot about astronomy."
"Okay," Decker said, "now I’m confused."
"To get the star right," she said. "They put the right number of points on it. Most people don’t. Like the stars on the American flag, or the Star of David. They’re all deformed. Real stars have eight points. Like this one." She put the cap on.
"But stars don’t really have points," Decker said. "They’re just little specks of light."
"Oh, I know," she said. "That’s what they look like from Earth. But when you look through binoculars to see them in detail, they have eight points." She looked at Decker; he looked confused. "Don’t feel bad," she said. "Almost nobody knows about stars. You have to know a whole lot of astronomy."
"But wait," Decker said. "When I was in college I took an astronomy course. You’re totally off base. Stars are... they’re like big collections of gases, billions of miles away. And they shine because they’re fusing atoms, or something." He scratched his head. "Wish I’d gone to class more."
Marjorie laughed. "But that’s just silly," she said. "Use your common sense! If they were billions of miles away we wouldn’t be able to see them. Like, if I stand a mile away and shine a flashlight at you, you wouldn’t be able to see it. Now, true, stars are brighter than flashlights, but not a billion times brighter."
Decker got up and went over to the bookshelf and picked out a book. He flipped through the pages for a minute or two and then found the page he wanted. "Here!" he said. "Look. It says right here that the closest star is called Alpha Centuari and it’s twenty-five trillion miles away."
"You can’t believe everything that you read," she said.
"Okay, then," he said, "if they’re not trillions of miles away, where are they?"
"They’re in a firmament," she said. "A thick black firmament that surrounds the earth. It’s about ten miles up."
"That’s impossible," he said. "I mean, we’ve sent people to the moon. They didn’t run into any ‘firmament.’"
"We’ve never sent people to the moon," she said.
"Of course we have!" he said. "I saw it. On TV."
"Video images can be faked," she said. "You yourself said you can’t believe everything you see on television. It’s all a big lie governments make up so that they can be more powerful than religions."
"Look," he said. "This is ridiculous. I have a pair of binoculars. We’ll go look right now." He pulled a pair of binoculars out of the closet and dusted off the lenses. "Come on."
But when they got outside the sky was a dusky pink. "Damn," Decker said. "Forgot. It never really gets dark in the city. Too much ambient light. Maybe in a couple of hours."
So they waited a couple of hours. The traffic noise outside quieted down somewhat; windows across the street went dark; Marjorie started yawning and stretching like a cat. "Okay," Decker said, "let’s go see."
The sky was a sort of charcoal gray when they got outside. Nevertheless, at least a handful of the brightest stars were visible. Decker picked one out. Without the binoculars it looked like a little speck of light; with the binoculars it looked like... a little speck of light. Satisfied, he handed the binoculars to Marjorie. "There," he said. "No fake video or government interference here. Look through these and tell me how many points that star has."
She took the binoculars, a little apprehensively, and looked through them. A smile slowly spread across her face. "Eight," she said.
"You’re just making that up," he said.
"No I’m not," she said. "I see eight. I’ll count them again." She paused. "There. Eight."
Decker took the binoculars back and looked again. He only saw a single point of light. "You’re seeing things," he said.
"If it were darker you’d see it too," she said. "I’m lucky. I’ve got better than normal vision. But I swear, she has eight points."
"She?" Decker asked.
"Well, sure," Marjorie said. "You don’t think that stars are male, do you?"
"I don’t think stars are anything," Decker said. "They’re just gases. They’re not male or female."
Marjorie shook her head. "You’ve been filled with so many lies," she said sadly. "Of course the government doesn’t want people to know the real truth, because then everyone would join the Church. I probably shouldn’t even tell you, because it’s a secret and you have to achieve a certain level of trust before you’re allowed to know. But I can trust you, right?"
"Sure," he said.
She looked both ways. The street was deserted. Nevertheless, she leaned over and whispered very very quietly into his ear:
"Stars are good girls who die."
Decker practically fell off the curb. He gaped at her.
"That’s why I had to learn so much about astronomy," she said quietly. "Because if I stay good then I’m going to be one someday."
Decker looked up into the sky.
At four in the morning the door opened. "Oh, I’m sorry," Marjorie said. "I didn’t think you’d be up."
"It’s okay," Decker said. He was sitting at his desk. The desk lamp was on but otherwise the apartment was totally dark. He looked at his watch. "What’re you doing up?"
"Getting a glass of water," she said. "Plus it was time to get up anyway. I don’t want the dreams to come again."
Decker grunted. Marjorie got her glass of water.
"What’s that in your hand?" she asked.
"Just a picture," he said.
"Can I see?" she asked. She went over and took the picture from him. "Is this you? I didn’t know you ever had black hair! I always pictured it as light brown."
"Nope," he said. "You’re just used to seeing it gray is all..."
"And this is Marilyn?" she asked. "Your wife?"
"Ex-wife," he said.
"And the girl," she said. "Is she your daughter? I didn’t know you had a daughter."
"Her name is Laura," Decker said.
"Really?" Marjorie said. "There’s a Sister Laura in my ward. Does she live with your wife? Ex-wife, I mean?"
"No," he said. "That picture was taken a long time ago."
"Hmm?" she said. "Oh, I get it. She must be in college now, right? Or all grown up...?"
"No," Decker said. "She’s not all grown up."
"So where is she then?" Marjorie asked.
"Well," Decker said, "I guess you could say..."
"...she’s a star."
Marjorie didn’t say anything.
"Anyway," he said, "I was just... you know."
She handed the picture back to him.
"She’d be twenty now," he said. "Your age."
Marjorie murmured something.
"Hmm?" Decker said.
"Were you close?" she said quietly.
"No," he said.
"Oh," she said.
Decker put the picture back in the drawer. Marjorie sat down.
"She was— I mean, we were—" He stopped. "It’s just that—"
"Turn out the light," she said.
"What?" he said.
"Turn out the light," she said.
He did. The room went dark. He closed his eyes and then opened them again. It made no difference.
"You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to," she said.
"Henh," he said. "You’ll never be a shrink."
"Hmm?" she said.
"You’ll never be a shrink," he said. "You have to keep hammering away, you know. So you can solve the puzzle. Rack up another point on your chalkboard. Case closed. It’s all because daddy never took you to ballgames. Or because you weren’t toilet trained right. But whatever it is, you have to keep talking or else I’ll feel guilty about charging you a hundred fifty an hour. You don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, do you?"
"Not really," she said. "But it’s okay."
"Marilyn made us go to counseling," he said. "Got to shell out a couple thousand so Dr. Gordon J. Sensitive could show off how smart and insightful he is."
"Mmm-hmm," she said.
"No, you’re supposed to say ‘I see,’" he said. "‘Mmm-hmm’ isn’t intellectual enough."
Marjorie didn’t say anything.
"She was fourteen."
He heard her breathing. He wondered if she was breathing louder than usual so he’d know she hadn’t left.
"She’d been having trouble at school. Not classes. Her grades were getting lower than usual but it wasn’t like she was in danger of being left back or flunking out. I didn’t even know she was having trouble until she asked to be transferred to another school."
"Was it public or private school?" Marjorie asked.
"Private," he said. "She’d had to take all these tests to get in, too. And she was there for two weeks and we had to transfer her to the public one. It was a rich suburban school so it didn’t make much difference. Timing was pretty good, I guess. First year of high school, none of the kids know each other anyway."
"So why did she want to transfer?" Marjorie asked.
"Not sure," he said. "Some kind of falling out with her friends or something. Like they got into things she wasn’t into, or she got into things they weren’t into, or something. You know how it is with kids that age. Or maybe you don’t. Anyway, she didn’t fit in with her old crowd anymore. And she wanted to get away."
"Is that what she told you?" she asked.
"Nah," he said. "She didn’t tell me anything. All I knew was that first she dropped cheerleading and then she wanted to change schools. And there was the way she talked. She went from sounding normal to being all overemotional and then she started sounding... canned. Like all the words had been put there for her. Like you do when you start talking about your... faith."
"That’s just because the way I’ve been taught to put it is the most succinct and accurate way," she said.
"Right," he said. "Like that. So I didn’t know what was going on. She sounded like she’d calmed down so I didn’t think anything was wrong. She went to the public school, seemed to be doing okay, started hanging around with this boy... and then one night I pick up the phone to call the office and the line’s dead. So I go around checking phones to see which one’s off the hook. And I get to Laura’s room and there she is sitting there with her head down on the desk and the receiver’s just lying there so I put it back on the hook and I tap her on the shoulder to see what’s wrong and she didn’t answer. Because she’d shot herself in the head. She’d been dead for hours."
Marjorie didn’t say anything.
"It was a small-caliber gun," he said. "So it wasn’t like she’d blown her head off. There was barely even any blood. But she was dead just the same."
"Where’d she get the gun?" Marjorie asked.
"Out of my desk drawer," he said. "Kept it there for protection. I didn’t think anyone else knew about it."
"Oh," she said.
"Turns out it was an impulse thing," he said. "Marilyn found out the story from her friends later. It’s not like she’d been talking about doing it or giving away her things or anything. She just— see, there was this group she’d starting hanging out with, and of course they picked on each other... you know how kids are. And it seems that day after school a bunch of them had ganged up on her and teased her, and she ran home and called one of them up and said if he didn’t take it back she’d kill herself, and he thought she was playing around, and made fun of her again, and then there was no answer, and he figured she’d hung up on him, so he hung up. It’s not their fault. They didn’t know."
"So what did you do?" she asked.
"Well, we called the police, and—"
"No, I mean what did you do to get over it?" she said.
He shrugged, but it was dark and she couldn’t see it. "I just— well, Marilyn had us go see a shrink, but that was just money down a rathole. So after about a week of that I took off and went to the cabin."
"Did that help?" she asked.
"No," he said. "That made it worse."
"I thought you liked it there," she said.
"I did, the first time," he said. "But— it’s hard to explain."
Marjorie didn’t say anything.
"See, when I was younger, everyone always thought that I was the strong, silent type. But I wasn’t really. Just the silent type. I wasn’t a loser or a rebel or anything, just kind of went about my business, and things just sort of fell in my lap. Like work. In college I had a camera and so during the summers for money I’d take pictures for the paper, next thing I know they’re offering me the full-time photo editor job over guys who’d been there forever because unlike them I’d never missed a deadline and even though my pictures weren’t flashy or spectacular like theirs they were always solid. Or in school, I get voted captain of the football team because I just did my thing and blocked out my guy and never got involved in the team squabbles so I was the only one they could all agree on. They all thought I was so deep and mature just because I was... stable. Same thing with Marilyn. Just went about my business and next thing I knew I was engaged. Just something that happened."
He paused. "Anyway, I’m getting off track. The cabin. Well, the reason I liked the cabin so much the first time was the solitude. It was like I was the only person in the universe. I didn’t have to talk to anybody, didn’t have anyone throwing off my routine, I could read without the phone ringing or the TV going or people yammering at me, I could sit and think in peace. The only thing in the whole world was me. No government, no army, just me."
"And then the second time?" Marjorie asked quietly.
"The second time," he said, "it wasn’t just me."
He looked at the window. Even though the shades were drawn the window had become a bright rectangle lighting up the room just enough for Decker to see the outline of Marjorie’s face. It wasn’t because the sun was coming up. It was just that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness.
"The second time I wasn’t the only person in the universe. There was Laura too. Only she wasn’t there. That’s the difference. If you’re alone and it doesn’t occur to you that someone else should be there, that’s solitude. If you’re alone and you can’t stop thinking that someone else should be there, that’s loneliness."
"So you missed her," she said.
"That’s the thing, though," he said. "I didn’t. When I tried to think about her all I could remember was what she looked like. I couldn’t think, ‘I’ll never see her do this again’ because I didn’t know what she did. I couldn’t think, ‘I’ll never meet someone like this again without being reminded of her’ because I didn’t know what she was like. I mean, you look at that picture of her and you know as much about her as I do. So there was nothing about her that I missed. Because I didn’t know it was there in the first place. And suddenly I wanted to find out what she was like, and I couldn’t."
He paused again. "When she was born, it was just another thing that happened without me much thinking about it. I didn’t name her, I didn’t do much to raise her — I just brought home my paycheck and gave it to Marilyn and figured she’d take care of whatever she needed. Whenever she brought me a form to sign I’d sign it. Every now and then I’d ask her how school was and she’d say it was fine. That’s about it. But I guess it was enough."
"Enough?" Marjorie said.
"Yeah," he said. "Enough to give her a name and a presence, if not a personality. Which is enough to make her a loss. And that made all the difference. Because... I was used to her. When I got to the cabin I expected her to be there. Off in the distance, like always. Passing by the doorframe as she walked down the hall, running the water in the sink, just somewhere out on the edge of things. And she wasn’t. And I... felt that she wasn’t. And that was when I realized I wasn’t in a cozy little cabin safely hidden away from everything. I was in a cold empty shack in the middle of nowhere."
"So how long did you stay?" she asked.
"Just the night," he said. "But it was too long. When I got back Marilyn had already moved out. Perfectly good reason, too. The worst thing in her life had just happened, and what’d I do? I left. She left me a letter, though. Still have it somewhere. All about how if Laura’d had a real father she’d still be alive and on and on and on. Probably true, but I knew that already. The part that got me was this. She said she couldn’t understand why I’d felt the need to go to the mountains because when I’d come back the first time I’d brought the cabin with me. That for the past twenty years I’d been two hundred miles away from everything even when I was right there in the room. And she was right. But then when I didn’t want to be there anymore I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And I still don’t."
"Of course you do," she said.
"Where?" he asked.
"You can come with me," she said. "Back to Ascendance Ranch. When this is over."
"That’s ridiculous," he said. "I don’t believe Loewinger’s any more of a prophet than I am."
"Most people who come to live with us don’t, at first," she said. "They just come because for one reason or another they’re sick of the outside world and someone in the Church shows them there can be a better way. Accepting Brother Evan comes later."
"Once they’ve been brainwashed," Decker said.
"Oh, there’s no ‘brainwashing,’" she said. "Sure, you’re expected to do what you’re told, and do your fair share around the ranch. But if you ever want to leave you’re free to go."
"Sure, and get hunted down by the avengelicals," he said.
"Mr. Decker," Marjorie said, "if I thought for a second that that was what the avengelicals were for I wouldn’t have become one. We only defend the faith against those who attack us first."
Decker didn’t say anything.
"You’d belong to something," she said. "You’d be part of a family. I could be your sister. And you’d never be alone again."
The window was steadily growing brighter. The sun wouldn’t come up for a while, but the sky was beginning to lighten nonetheless.
"I don’t think your daughter would have killed herself if she’d thought she belonged to something," Marjorie said. "But she didn’t. She didn’t feel as though she were part of a family, or part of a circle of friends, or part of a faith. She didn’t feel like she belonged to anyone or anything. And without belonging there is nothing. I didn’t know your daughter, Mr. Decker, but I’ll tell you this: when I was growing up, if I hadn’t had something to belong to, I would have been lost long before your Laura."
"Why did you have me turn out the light?" Decker asked.
"Hmm?" she said. "Oh, that. I don’t know. That’s just the way the elders do it. When I need help and go for counseling they always darken the room. But it’s getting light anyway." She stood up. "At least come with me to the meeting tomorrow," she said. "Listen to what Brother Evan has to say, if he comes. It can’t hurt, can it?"
"Okay," Decker said quietly.
"Wonderful!" Marjorie said. "Now I’m going to go change the sheets back. Because you need some sleep."
* * *
Home, in bed
Huh. Just realized — didn’t make an entry yesterday. It’s been years since I missed a day. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Whatever. Anyway. Now that the sun’s up — hell, it’s the middle of the afternoon — all that stuff I told Marjorie seems horribly melodramatic. Mawkish, I think the word is. Maybe that’s what the lights-out routine was about. Hmm. The "elders" just might have something there.
And maybe Marjorie had something there with the belonging bit, too. It would be good to belong to something. And it would be good not to lose her. Sister Marjorie. They’d probably have me work the ranch, to start. Work all day, nice and methodical, then dinner in the communal ward, long tables, maybe I could sit across from her... doesn’t sound so bad.
Yeah, but then I think about the thing with the stars. That’s just stupid. Ten miles up. Wonder what else they’d try to get me to buy. Of course then on the other hand it’s no stupider than a lot of the stuff 90% of the people out there buy into. Parting seas and water into wine and sacred undergarments and phony contraptions to clear out your engrams. Seems to work for them.
Is it worth selling out my brain to be happy? Or not?
Am I stupid to even be considering this?
If so, which side am I stupid to be considering?
Decker closed his journal and got out of bed. He put on his bathrobe and stumbled out into the living room.
"Oh, good, you’re up," Marjorie said. "I need to see if my dress still fits."
"Dress?" Decker said. He rubbed his eyes.
"Yeah," she said. "I’m only supposed to wear it on special occasions but I’m pretty sure the Prophet’s return qualifies. And I haven’t worn it in a long long time and I don’t even know if it still fits."
"Oh," Decker said. "So, what, did you leave your backpack in the bedroom or something?"
"No, I have it right here," she said. "I just need to purify myself before I’m allowed to put the dress on."
"Purify yourself?" Decker said. "We’re not going to have to sacrifice anything, are we?"
"Of course not," Marjorie said. "I just need to take a shower."
There seemed to be more to it than just a shower, though, because Decker could hear the water running for over an hour. "Great," he grumbled to no one in particular. "Money’s not tight enough. Need a four-digit water bill." He made a sandwich.
"How do I look?" Marjorie asked.
Decker turned around. Marjorie was wearing a simple sleeveless knee-length white dress, and she shone. Her hair was damp and her feet were bare and her eyes were very bright and she just... shone. Decker forgot about the sandwich.
"You... you look beautiful, kid," he said. He squinted. He couldn’t figure it out. She looked the same as she always did, just in a dress. It wasn’t even a great fit in a lot of places. Nevertheless, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
"It’s just a replica," she said. "I grew out of my original one. Hey, can I have a sandwich too?"
"Sh-sure," he said. He turned to get some bread and his vision returned to normal. He glanced over his shoulder. Marjorie was sitting on the couch, flipping through a book of photos he’d had out. Suddenly he realized: she wasn’t the one who was bright; she was actually in silhouette. The brightness seemed to come from behind her, or around her. It was strange.
"Here’s your sandwich," he said.
"Thanks," she said. "Wait, what am I saying? I can’t eat this."
"Why not?" he asked.
"I’m not allowed to eat while I’m wearing this dress," she said.
"So change into something else," he said.
"Yeah, but then I’d have to purify myself again before I could put it back on," she said. "Can you maybe wrap it up and put it in the fridge?"
"Okay," he said.
"Thanks," she said. She looked around. "I’m really going to miss this place."
"You planning on going somewhere?" he asked.
"Well, of course," she said. "There won’t be any reason for me to stay after tonight. I’ll just tell Brother Evan or one of the elders about the mix-up with Brother Ephraim and they’ll call him off and it’ll all be over. I might stay one last night if I can’t get a ride back to the ranch but that’s all."
"Never thought about that," he said.
"Of course, you’re welcome to come with me if you’d like," she said. "But you’ll have to make up your mind pretty quick."
He grunted. "We’ll see what your Brother Evan has to say," he said.
Marjorie nodded. "Yeah, we better think about going soon," she said. "We’ll need to get there extra early so I can get everything straightened out before the meeting starts." She reached into her backpack and took out a pair of white slippers.
"Slippers?" Decker asked. "They’ll be ruined by the time we make it to the station."
"Hmm?" she said. "Oh, I know. But I didn’t want to put on my lightdress and then ruin it by putting on my dirty shoes. And there’s one more thing."
"This," she said. She unzipped a special compartment of her backpack and took out her gold necklace. "Can you put it on me, please?"
"Sure," he said. It turned out to be easier said than done, though, because since there was no clasp he had to drop it down over her head and then of course there was all the hair to get out of the way. He’d never noticed the pendant before, either: it was an eight-pointed golden star, the same shape as the compass star on her baseball cap. "Guess you’re not allowed to put it on yourself, huh?" he asked.
"Of course not," she said. "Not even Brother Evan generates his own light. Light is bestowed from without."
"It is, huh?" he asked. "Well, where’s it coming from?"
"Where’s what coming from?" she asked.
"All this light," he said. He stepped back and squinted at her. "I can barely see you."
"Wait a minute," she said. "You can see it?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "How do you d—"
"You can SEE it?" Her mouth fell open. "You can— oh my gosh!" And then her eyes teared up and she grabbed him and hugged him and didn’t let go.
"Um," he said. "Uh, Marjorie? You’re crushing m—"
"Sorry," she said. She let go. "It’s just... if you can see my light then you’re... you’re one in a million. Almost no one can see God’s light without learning what to look for first. You’re... oh, I have to get you an audience with Brother Evan now. He’ll... this is... I don’t even have that much light. If you can see mine—"
"But where does it come from?" he asked.
"Well, from God," she said. "It’s kind of complicated. Only Brother Evan really understands it. But I’ll try to explain it." She put her fist to her chin and thought for a moment. That was when Decker noticed the muscles in her arms. Jeez, no wonder she almost crushed me, he thought. She could snap me in half.
"Okay," she said. "We’ll start with Scripture. See, even though we’re not a Judeo-Christian faith, Brother Evan was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and so when he was in Vietnam and had his epiphany the truth was revealed to him in Judeo-Christian terms. Let’s see. You know the passage that goes, ‘God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them’?"
Decker just listened. Marjorie stopped pacing and sat down. "Well," she said, "naturally people tend to think that that means God looks like a human, that he’s a big guy with a long flowing beard standing around in his robe up in the clouds somewhere. But that’s silly and trivializes God. God is the light that animates the world. So when we say God’s light we don’t mean the light that belongs to God, we just mean the light that is God as opposed to the light that’s just energy. Is this making any sense?"
"Just keep going," he said.
"Okay. So everyone who’s sentient has some of God’s light, or else they wouldn’t be animate. But there’s a difference between God’s light in general and God’s original light in particular. It’s like, if you have a lit candle, and you see a thousand unlit candles. You can touch your candle to each of the unlit ones, and they’ll all have some light, but it won’t be the original flame. To pass on the original flame you have to move all the flame from your candle to another one, like pouring water from one glass into another, and then the first one’ll be out and the light will be living on in the second one, and only that one can truly be said to possess the original light." She shook her head. "I’m really messing this up."
Decker leaned back against the wall and waited for her to finish.
"Now, the verse says that God created man in his image. But he also says that he created them male and female. So you’d think that’s a contradiction, right? But it’s not. See, there’s a male half of God’s light and a female half. So that’s how he could create them male and female. But then comes the difference. See, it says God created man. One man. And God himself is a he. So he passed his light directly, like the candle passing its flame entirely to another one. And so the man was truly in God’s image because he possessed all of the male half of God’s light. But when it came to making people, plural — the them in he created them male and female — that’s like lighting the thousand candles. But the thing is, there already was a male with God’s original light, so all the new male people just had God’s light with nothing special about it. But the female half of God’s original light hadn’t been passed on yet. So when the time came to create female people, some of them lucked out and got God’s original light."
"So what happened when the first guy died?" Decker asked.
"Good question!" Marjorie said. "His light had to go somewhere, because obviously God wouldn’t let his original light die out or else there wouldn’t be any God anymore. And he couldn’t just pass the light to his children because if that was the way it worked then you could never have a father and a son living at the same time. So when the first man died, his light — God’s original light — sought out the man that most resembled God, and descended upon him and supplanted the weak light he already had. And he became a prophet. And that’s how it has gone with the male prophets ever since. As one prophet dies, the next one has his epiphany. We’re still trying to find out who the previous prophet was. All we know was that he died in 1968."
"And what about the original female light?" Decker asked.
"Well, because there was never any one specific incarnation of the female half of God’s light, we don’t know how it travels. Some girls have it, some don’t. Some have a little bit and it makes up a tiny part of their light, others have a lot and it makes up almost all of their light. And when they die, that part which is God’s and hasn’t passed itself on ascends into the firmament and becomes a star."
"So you have some of this light," Decker said. "Some of the female half of God’s original light."
"Just a little," she said. "I’m lucky. Actually, all females are lucky. Only one man can be like God, but many women can be his female equivalent. Like I said, on the ranch alone there are twenty-two of us in the light. And as the little girls in the communal female ward grow up any one of them could join us. The little boys in the male ward, well, the only chance they have of being in the light is if Brother Evan dies and one of them becomes Prophet. They don’t get much to dream about. Me — I have to admit, this is kind of presumptuous — but I always sort of expected that I’d get the call." She fingered her necklace. "And sure enough. Unfortunately I was too young at the time to conceive, and then Brother Evan left the country, but maybe when I get back—"
"Wait a minute," Decker said. "I missed something. ‘Conceive’?"
"Right," she said. "When I was invested with his seed. I was only eleven and since he left so soon after my initiation I didn’t have a chance to—"
"Hold on," Decker said. "‘Invested you with his seed’? Are we talking about the same thing here?"
"I think so," Marjorie said. "You’ve had a child, you know how it—"
"So you’re saying you were eleven years old and he raped you?"
Marjorie gasped. For a second she looked like she was about to cry but then she shook her head and got up and walked over to Decker and slapped him.
"How dare you speak that way!" she snapped. "Brother Evan was gentle and loved me very tenderly. How dare you take the most beautiful experience of my life and twist it into something evil!"
Decker lay huddled on the ground. "I think you broke my jaw," he said.
"It’s no less than you deserve," she said. "I could... oh... do you take it back?"
"Huh?" he said, rubbing his jaw.
"I’m giving you another chance," she said. "Because you’re still learning. Do you take it back?"
"Yeah, yeah, I take it back," he said. He struggled up to his knees and then stood up. "I’m sorry. I didn’t know."
"Well, I’m sorry too," she said. "I guess I overreacted. But you just can’t talk about Brother Evan that way." She turned away. "I guess it must seem strange to you. Maybe even wrong. But it’s not. It’s beautiful. What could be more beautiful than light calling out to other light? Especially new, undiscovered light?"
"So you liked it," he said.
"Mr. Decker," she said, "it goes beyond ‘like.’ If my light hadn’t been fed with the Prophet’s, it probably would’ve flickered out. When there’s nothing left of me but a faint little star somewhere up in the sky, my initiation night will be what makes me shine."
Decker didn’t say anything. He just stood there wondering who this was in his apartment and what she’d done with the girl he’d spent the week with.
"We better go," she said. "It’s getting late."
September 6th, continued
BART train, Frisco to Oakland
It’s finally clear what this test is all about, what I’m supposed to do. Should’ve figured it out right off the bat. Pretty obvious when you think about it.
I have to get rid of Loewinger.
I’m never going to get Marjorie out as long as she’s got Loewinger doing her thinking for her. Don’t know exactly what’ll happen if I do manage to get rid of him but it’s got to be better than the way things are now. Maybe they’ll just pick a new prophet and it’ll be business as usual but at least the new guy won’t be
I think I’m going to be sick.
I’m going to kill him. Even if Marjorie had nothing to do with it the world’ll be better off without him. A sick monster like that who preys on deluded little girls
"Are you okay?" Marjorie asked. "You don’t look so good."
Decker grunted. He tried to think of an excuse but couldn’t think of anything. His mind was on other things.
Don’t know how I’m going to do it yet. Meeting’s probably the best opportunity but I doubt I’ll get a chance to get at him. Probably best to spend the meeting studying him, what he looks like, what his security’s like, see if I can figure out any weak spots. Maybe I can even infiltrate. Not a bad idea. Probably my best shot, now that I think about it.
Not a bad plan at all.
Who knows? Maybe once I’ve gotten rid of Loewinger and rescued Marjorie I can turn my journal into a book. Keep notes of everything that goes on and publish it once I get back to the outside world. The real life story of a cult infiltrator. That’d sell, wouldn’t it?
Shouldn’t get ahead of myself, though. Step one is getting rid of Loewinger. He’ll be sorry he ever thought about touching my Marjorie. He’ll whimper like a dog and cry for his fake God to rescue him.
And then I’ll kill him.
"What are you writing?" Marjorie asked.
"Nothing," Decker said. "Just my journal." He slipped it back into his coat pocket. "Is this our stop?"
"I think so," she said. They got out. Marjorie looked at the bottom of her slippers. Where they’d once been white they were now an almost glossy black in the pattern of the soles of her feet. "You were right," she said. "My slippers are ruined."
"Slippers aren’t the only thing," he said.
They walked out into the dusk. "Beautiful downtown Oakland," Decker said. "We better find the place quick. I don’t want to get shot."
"There’s the building," she said. She pointed. The building looked to be nearly a century old if not more, and had the word "Veritas" carved into a granite block above the entrance. "What time is it?" she asked.
"Little past seven," he said. "When’s it start, seven-thirty? Plenty of time."
"Still, we better hurry," she said. "We’ll need to find someone in authority and then find Brother Ephraim and get him the message all before the meeting starts. Come on."
They headed into the building and then followed the signs into a large, empty chamber. There was a small stage with a microphone set up in front, but nothing else: no chairs, no refreshments, nothing. Decker hadn’t expected a big turnout, but with nearly half an hour to go before the actual meeting started, there were already about a hundred people standing around and talking. "Hey, look, it’s Brother Paul!" Marjorie said. She waved. He waved back.
"And your friend from the BART train," Decker said.
"Oh, he came?" she said. "Good. Try not to let him see me, though." She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked around. "I think that’s an elder over there," she said. "Let’s go talk to him."
"Be with you in a second," he said. "Is there a bathroom around here?"
"I think I saw one on the way in," she said. "Yeah, there." She pointed.
"Okay," he said. "Go talk to your elder. I’ll catch up."
"What, are you crazy?" she said. "Brother Ephraim’s sure to be here. Even if he weren’t after you he’d come to the meeting. He may be stupid but he is a man of faith. I’m coming with you."
"Swell," he said.
So they went to the men’s room. It was about the size of an airport men’s room, with several stalls and sinks, big mirrors and lots of white tiling everywhere, and of course the usual puddles of water and scraps of paper towel lying on the floor. Marjorie scouted around, checking out the stalls, examining the janitor’s closet. The place was empty. "Looks okay," she said. "I’ll wait outside if it makes you more comfortable."
"It does," he said.
She left. When Decker came out a couple of minutes later she was talking to a pudgy bald man with glasses. "Oh, here he is now," she said. "Mr. Decker, this is Brother Nelson. He’s the Church’s regional director here. I was just explaining your situation."
"Terrible misunderstanding," the director said. "As soon as we find this Ephraim we’ll set him straight. He seems to have a severe misconception about the purpose of the avengelicals."
"I’ll bet," Decker said. "Thanks. I guess." He took Marjorie aside and they wandered out to the middle of the room. "So that’s it?" he asked.
"That’s it!" she said brightly. "You won’t need me to protect you anymore. I hope it was worth all the trouble."
He managed a half-smile. "I’d say so," he said. "So are they going to be bringing in chairs here, or are we supposed to stand, or what? I’ve never been to one of these before."
"Oh, we just sit on the floor," she said. "You can tell this is a big event because they have carpeting. I’m so excited! Are you excited?"
"I guess," he said. "Probably be more excited if I knew what was coming. He just going to get up there and talk, or what?"
"It depends," she said. "Hey, weren’t you wearing a coat before?"
"Huh?" he said. "Oh, hell. Left it in the bathroom. Be back in a second."
He went back in the bathroom and headed for the second stall. There hanging on the hook was his coat. He put it back on and checked all the pockets. Wallet, journal, all there. He turned to leave.
And found himself once again staring into the chest of the enormous Russian.
"Hell," he said. "You wouldn’t happen to be here to apologize, would you...?"
Ephraim took a step back and stared at him. Then a smirk passed across his face and he broke into the strangest laughter Decker had ever heard. It was like a tape that had been slowed down. Decker gritted his teeth and with all his might jabbed an elbow into the giant’s chest. That served to send him toppling backwards onto the toilet while the giant looked on in amusement.
"Take it that’s a no, then," he said.
Ephraim reached into his coat and pulled out his gun. For the first time Decker got a good look at it. It was like a miniature cannon. It was so big it actually fit naturally into the giant’s hand. Decker doubted he could even lift the thing. He closed his eyes.
"Remember what I said about not needing my protection anymore?" Marjorie said. "I take it back."
Decker heard a shot and his eyes snapped open. The shot ricocheted off the ceiling and embedded itself in the wall behind him. Meanwhile, Marjorie had the giant in a headlock and he was bucking around trying to throw her off. They seemed pretty evenly matched: he did a good job of denying her leverage but nevertheless she seemed to be cutting off his oxygen by sheer force alone. "Run for it!" she said.
Decker started to get up but Ephraim managed to get off another shot and instinctively he ducked and froze. Then the giant tossed his head back when Marjorie wasn’t looking and split her lip. She responded by letting go of his throat and instead jamming her thumbs in his eyes.
"Jesus," Decker said.
Ephraim cried out in pain and flailed out with his left arm; Marjorie grabbed it and bent the index finger back so far there was an audible snap. The giant dropped to his knees so finally Marjorie’s feet could touch the floor; she jumped off his back, grabbed his head, and smashed it into one of the urinals.
"Marjorie, stop!" Decker said. "You’re killing him."
"That’s the idea," she said. Ephraim was huddled on the floor in a fetal position; Marjorie stomped on his head once, twice, and his eyes and his nose and his mouth were all bleeding, and then she stomped on his head a third time and Decker heard his skull crack. "Please, Marjorie, please," Decker said. "Stop. Stop."
She brushed her hair out of her eyes and grabbed the back of Ephriam’s neck and kept his head pinned to the floor. "Bite down," she said. "It’s over, Ephraim. I’m sorry. Bite down. It’ll all be over soon."
Ephraim bit down on the poison capsule in his mouth. His body shuddered and he put his hands to his throat. Marjorie let go of him and backed off; Decker retreated further back into the stall. All was still for a moment. And then Ephraim started lunging around the room like a wild animal, his chest heaving, spewing blood and vomit everywhere. Blindly he smashed his head into the tile wall; then he sank to the floor, quivering, still gagging. "Give me your gun," Marjorie said. "Ephraim, give me your gun. The poison’s not strong enough. Please, give me your gun."
His hand went limp and Marjorie took the gun. "I’m sorry, Brother Ephraim," she said. "I wish I could say you’ll be a star. But wherever your light ends up, I wish it well."
"Just kill him already," Decker said.
She took careful aim and shot him in the head. Since his head was already flush against the floor the contents erupted upward and sprayed all over the room. Marjorie’s dress was ruined.
Decker poked his head out from the stall. "Is he dead?" he asked.
"I’d say so," said the Prophet.
Marjorie gasped. "Brother Evan!" she cried. She wiped the blood out of her eyes. "How long have you been here?"
"Long enough," he said. "Long enough to see the evil that has come of my folly."
Decker cautiously stepped out of the stall and took a good look at Evan Loewinger. He was a well-built man of medium height, with shoulder-length brown hair and big wire-rimmed glasses; his features were mild, even wise, and he seemed a lot younger than forty-five. He was wearing some kind of robe that seemed to be made out of the same material as Marjorie’s dress, and he seemed to glow almost as brightly as she did. Maybe it’s something sewn into the fabric, he thought.
"Give me the gun," Decker said under his breath.
Marjorie absently handed him the gun. "Oh, Prophet, if only you’d come a minute sooner," she said. "This is Harrison Decker. Brother Ephraim thought you had ordered that he be killed."
"The order was genuine," the Prophet said.
"What?" she said. "But Brother Orson—"
"‘Brother’ Orson was an infiltrator," the Prophet said. "FBI. He was trying to subvert the Church from within. No doubt if I had been in the country he’d have tried to kill me."
"But, if— if you— then—" Marjorie spun around and grabbed Decker’s head and gave it a sharp twist. He fell forward and his face smashed into the tile floor but he didn’t feel it because he was already dead.
"Is that better?" she asked.
"No," the Prophet said mildly. "No, Marjorie, no."
"You remember my name?" she asked, her face full of astonishment.
"Of course I do," the Prophet said. "I know you well, Marjorie Pease. Come to me, my child."
Marjorie buried her face in his chest and he cradled her in his arms. "I’m so sorry," she said, sobbing. "I didn’t mean— I didn’t— the last thing I’d ever do is go against— I mean—"
"Shh," the Prophet said, stroking her hair. "Don’t cry. You’ve done nothing wrong. It is my soul that will be charged with the lives that have been taken today. Dry your eyes, my child. Your light remains untainted."
"He could see it," Marjorie said, still crying softly. "My light. He could see it."
"Brother Ephraim?" the Prophet said. "Of course he could."
"No, no, Mr. Decker," she said. "He could see it. Without being taught. He could see it."
"I’m not surprised," the Prophet said. "Look at yourself, my child. You’re glowing as if you were a star already. You shine as brightly as I."
He let her go and she turned around and looked at herself in the mirror. Not only was she shining so brightly she had to shield her eyes, but her dress was brilliant white again, as if it’d never been stained. She looked down: her slippers were clean as well. "It’s a miracle," she said wonderingly.
"It is that," the Prophet said. "And it is a sign as well."
"A sign?" she said. She turned back around. "A sign of what?"
The Prophet clasped his hands behind him and paced thoughtfully for a moment. "A new era has begun, my child," he said. "I have been blessed with a second epiphany, in India."
"Have you brought us new truths?" she asked.
"Yes, my child," he said. "And I have learned that much of what I thought to be truth was a mortal mind corrupting a divine message. So incompletely have I understood, until now. So many misconceptions have I held, until now."
The Prophet’s light had been steadily gaining strength for several minutes now; he’d grown so bright Marjorie had to avert her eyes. "When the gift of revelation first came to me," he said, "I was told to conduct a war for the faith. But in my woefully deficient mortal understanding I failed to grasp that wars of faith are not as wars of state. The faith does not kill. The faith does not strike against its enemies. Such mortal pettiness is beneath the faith. I have misled you, my child."
Marjorie swallowed. "Then— avengelism is..."
"You avengelicals," the Prophet said, "noble as you are... have been misled. Violence and death are not the weapons of our holy war. For our faith to prosper we must cast aside these poisons and nurture the faith with peace and love. For peace alone can win over an enemy. War can only kill him."
The Prophet stopping pacing and propped up Marjorie’s chin so that she was gazing directly into his eyes. "There is more, my child," he said. "My child. Do you know how many children I have?"
"We are all your children, Prophet," she said.
He smiled. "Such faith," he said. "I meant biological children. How many children do I have?"
"A lot," she said. "Dozens."
"Oh, more than dozens," he said. "You speak only of Ascendance while I speak of those around the world that I have sired. No, my child, my children number in the hundreds. Perhaps you too have borne me a child?"
"No," she said. "I’m sorry. I was too young."
"Of course," he said. "Nevertheless, my children are many. But what of the eldership? Or the many common men of faith? How many children have they?"
"Well, none, of course," she said. "That’s not al—"
"None," he said. "Exactly. Save for the children brought by our converts — children like you were, Marjorie Pease — the only children in the faith are those that have sprung from me. And too few are those. How shall the faith continue and grow, without families?"
"I don’t know," Marjorie said. "How?"
"It cannot," said the Prophet. "I have been a fool, my child. I have stunted the growth of the very Church I founded. That is the true epiphany. The Church must outlive its Prophets. But I have been selfish, and locked away what little light has bloomed on Ascendance. This too must change."
"Is that what you’re going to tell the congregation?" Marjorie asked.
"Yes, my child," he said. "Yes and again yes. How can the faith flourish, when its members are forbidden to contribute to its increase? How can the faith flourish, when it strikes out against the very heathen it hopes to show the light? A new era has begun, my child. And there is yet something else. For all my many children, I myself have no family to speak of. My many sons and daughters, the countless female lightbearers I have initiated... none of them belong to my household. For all those who share my blood, I am nevertheless... alone." A tear trickled down his cheek.
"Oh, Prophet," Marjorie said.
The Prophet let go of her chin and took a few steps away from her. "I have been commanded to take unto myself a single bride," he said. "One whose purity and faith and yes, even light, equal or surpass my own. I received this revelation with despair, for I thought it impossible. But now I see that what God demands, such does God provide."
"What do you mean?" Marjorie asked.
He turned around and looked deeply into her eyes. "You have been chosen, Marjorie Pease," he said. "The miracle we have witnessed is the sign. You have been chosen as I was chosen these many years ago; you have been chosen by a power far greater than either of us; you have been chosen to be the mother of our faith and of the children I shall welcome into my true family. I see you at the center of a radiant shaft of light, the brightest I have seen on this earth; and when you die, your star shall blaze so brightly as to make the night as day and shame the sun. You have only to accept. Will you, my child? Will you be mine?"
"I’m already yours," she said. "I’ve been yours since time began."
"You speak truly," the Prophet said. "And so I thee wed. Take my hands, my child. Shall we speak unto the congregation?"
Marjorie’s lips parted but no words came to them. The Prophet kissed her gently on the forehead. "I’ll try to make it quick," he said. "And then we shall find someplace quiet and begin our life together."
"You mean on the ranch?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Not on the ranch. Someplace else. I’ll think of something. And I’ll get someone to clean this place up. But for now let us go."
"Wait, just a second," she said. She went over to the body of Harrison Decker and placed her necklace around his neck.
"What are you doing, my child?" the Prophet asked.
"He needs it more than I do," she said. "He was... like an elder to me."
The Prophet nodded. Marjorie went through Decker’s coat pockets. In one pocket she found a tiny weatherbeaten notebook. She opened it up. The script was minuscule, almost impossible to read. She squinted at it and tried to make out a word or two. After a moment she managed to decipher at least one phrase: "September 1st, continued," it said. She thought for a moment and slid it into her slipper. Then she found what she was really searching for. She stood up.
"Ready?" the Prophet asked.
"Yes," she said. "And about a quiet place to begin our life together?"
"Yes, my child?"
She held out a dull silver key. "Here," she said. "I know just the place."