Chapters 1 and 2 from Holy Fire, + The First Sermon

 

HOLY FIRE

A NOVEL

By BRANDON K. NOBLES

 

For Diana, part time muse and best friend,
My editor and nemesis, Fred,
And my personal assistant and student, Heather.

Thanks for keeping me sane.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

_______________________

 

WHEN THE CASE FELL INTO DETECTIVE NATE GREGSON’S HANDS, nobody really knew how many men, women and children were inside the church compound on Maynard Hill. From the information the department gathered, along with letters forwarded by worried parents and schoolteachers, Nate didn’t believe the danger of Zachariah Rohim’s cult could long be ignored. He flipped a page. Ah, and there it was. Affixed to a large folder on his desk was the portrait of a handsome young man with a strawberry birthmark beneath his chin.
Missing for 3 weeks now, Steve Harris had vanished after football practice, poof, without a trace. A popular running back on the Landsmore High football team, his disappearance rattled the community and brought Gregson’s attention back to the Church. A good Christian all her life, she hadn’t approved of what she found in those bright, laminated pamphlets. She claimed something changed in him, as though he were dreamwalking.
After a couple of months he quit school and was working every day in the heat helping the Community rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The kid was last seen Lowry St, at the Chinese buffet, across from the road that turns onto Maynard. His mother called every day, every day more desperate than the last. Her only son. Her strawberry blossomed boy, there were long answering machine messages of Mrs. Harris, not knowing she forgot to hang up, crying and blowing her nose into the receiver.
The movement was Messianic, utopian even, led by a man hailed as a living Prophet, conduit to God, who speaks by inspiration. A charismatic, handsome man in his late 60s, Father Rohim was hailed as Prophet by adoring crowds. Droves of people, young and old, rich and poor, people from all walks of life abandoned their jobs, their studies and their families to join the Church of the Living God, to belong, to live the communal life. Documents in Gregson’s folders suggested the founder of the church was once part of the Unified Church of God some decades earlier in neighboring Irmo county. Apparently a leadership dispute caused a split between the supporters of Rohim and the former Prophet’s six year old son. Rohim was an opportunist at heart, and he made the most of what he had; nothing. Now he lived in a compound that was estimated to be some 15,000 square feet with hundreds of devotees, hands, eyes, ears.
Nate’s job was a quiet one. Not a problem, he wrote around in his junky Corsica, his first and only auto. He was parked at the end of Lover’s Lane when the call went out. He was able to break up a disturbance that left three people bruised and bleeding and sent three people to jail. Two were too young to hold, but the other was cuffed and hauled in. The man was silent for the short drive from Campbell to the Sheriff’s Department on North 15th.

First he was forced to provide his name, which he gave as Arthur Lindler. But he had no ID. Inside the jailhouse, deputy Sharon searched him.

“Looky here, Nat,” his secretary Susan pulled a yellow pamphlet from the man’s back pocket.

She passed it to Nate and he opened it up, thumbing through it. Poorly xeroxed and falling to pieces, block words across the front of the thin volume read A GUIDE ALONG GOD’S PATH.

“Oh ho,” Susan cackled, “ding, ding, ding! We’ve got jail-time.”

“Weed or meth?” Gregson asked.

“Not sure, but it ain’t fucking sugar.”

The young man was booked and had his picture taken. Susan let him smoke a cigarette before she made him take off his shoes, pants, and put on the orange pajamas. Nate wasn’t interested in a middle aged man with an eight ball of methamphetamine, but the zeal with which this man had acted; as though triggered from afar for a greater purpose. He didn’t look so holy in orange. He remained quiet for the rest of the night, and Nate left him there and headed home.

He spent a few days studying the homily. From what he could tell, the church’s energy came from an urgent need to perfect themselves as humans. Prophets appeared whenever humans were struggling, to call attention to the evils of the world, to usher in an era of peace.  Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, Muhammed and Jesus were equal, and their message genuine; God spoke in the context of individual cultures. Jesus would not have been able to spread the way of righteousness to Northern India, so another prophet was sent; in al-jahaliyya, the age of ignorance, the Prophet Muhammed was sent from the one God, a serious point for Rohim.  founders of world religions had been prophets of the same God. Despite its melodrama, at the heart of it Gregson sensed the exertion of a great will, a passion and urgency uncommon in his experience. They quoted Suras and Sutras, the Rambam and Moses, the Zohar and Talmud.

The Church was not new to the community, not at all. Construction began when Gregson was still in middle school. On his way home each day, with his dad driving their Ford Bronco, he would look out across the lot at the bald men, the women clothed from head-to-toe in pastel cotton dresses. They worked without modern equipment, and Gregson’s father used to joke, “You’d think God would grant them power tools.”

In the years since the compound’s completion a lot had changed in Landsmore. An industrial textile mill on Central Avenue shut down, and investors and ready workers were quick to abandon ship. Gregson’s own mother, Virginia, a loomfixer and weaver at the plant, lost her job after 25 years of steady employment, six days a week, twelve hours a day. The economic distress was compounded by the swelling number of ever bored teenagers who, in Landsmore, had no access to entertainment; no cinema, no fast food joints, and with nothing to do, they found their way to Father Rohim’s compound.

“Crazy shit, ain’t it?”

Gregson sat at his desk in a converted closet at the back of his small apartment, looking over his files and spinning in his chair, unsure how he was to approach the case.  Higher ups at the Department were nervous about a potential Waco or Jonestown, so it was decided the lightest possible touch would be the best way to go. Rumors around the office suggested that Rohim already had one of his creatures on the town council, so secrecy was paramount. When in doubt, Nathan Gregson had always relied on his brother-in-law Matt. So he stepped over the scattered papers on the floor, dodged the piles of clothes, and picked up the phone.

Matt answered immediately, “Hello?”

Nathan could hear his niece and nephew laughing in the background. It always brought a smile to his face.

“Hey man,” he said, “I’ve been thinking…”

“Shit,” Matt said. “Here we go again.”

“…Shut up for once, you twat and listen. What’s the best way to figure out what a cult member wants to do, you know, how could one find out what Rohim tells his flock?”

“I don’t get it,” Matt said. Then, “Oh, you’re not serious?”

“Why not?” Gregson asked. “Best place to hide a tree’s a fucking forest.”

Matt cleared his throat. “You’re serious about this?”

“His mother calls me to cry,” Gregson said. “And when I don’t pick up, she’ll leaving crying on my answering machine, just to remind me we’ve — I’ve done nothing for her.”

Gregson heard a door shut on the other end, “Hold on.” Silence. Matt returned a moment later, softly, “Now,” he said, “what if you go in and can’t get back out?”

“I’ll create a situation wherein it seems absolutely beneficial for them that I get out.

It was a question Gregson had yet to consider.

“I’ll think of something,” he said, finally. “Regardless, if I don’t go today, I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Let me know when you decide,” Matt said. “And I’ll do my part.”

He heard his niece crying in the background. He missed her, plump and sweet, she loved her uncle Nate yes she did.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Tell Alice I love…”

Dial tone.

Gregson decided it would help his chances of being useful if he cleaned himself up a bit. Too claustraphobic for a bath, he took a bath in the sink. He soaked a washrag in soap and used it to clean his underarms and crotch, then washed his stomach and backside with soap and water. He had to part with his beard, however, and looked him over in the mirror. The sight of grey hairs wearied the young detective. The 29 year old would certainly miss his well-coiffed hair. A sturdy sort, and quite tall, Gregson had pale skin and large black bags under his eyes, which were shot and ringed pink from many a sleepless night. He lived in the Subertown Apartment Complex, not too far from the compound on Maynard Hill, in a row of identical looking townhouses. He packed his Topamax and Vicodin bottles inside his jacket pocket, not before taking his daily dosage, and sat on the front porch to get himself together. He looked at the row of houses across the street, covered in patches of sunlight. Some of those houses were falling apart and others had never been put together well enough o fall. He wasn’t outside long before the phone startled him and he ran back inside, throwing open his screen door.

“Hello?” he said, stepping over an overflowing trash bag.

“Detective Gregson?” said a familiar, sweet voice.

Oh no, he thought. Oh no.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said politely, grinding his teeth.

“Okay, now, I hate to bother you, and I know you’re working hard…”

“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?” “Okay I think Stevie tried to call me.” “You think he tried?” “There’s, look, there’s a recording on my answering machine. At first it’s just silence, okay, just fuzz but then you can hear people talking in the background. I’m sure it’s Stevie, but my hearing, it ain’t what it used to be I tell you that.”

“Oh yes ma’am… Well, do you think you could play it for me?”

“Oh yes sir Mr. Officer, I have it on my answering machine. I can put the phone up to it and play it for you.” “Give me a second,” Gregson said, putting his phone down. He pushed aside a stack of tangled cables and Beanie Babies and pulled out a two-way auxiliary cable. He plugged one end into his phone and the other into his stereo speakers.

“Alright,” he said, “play it.”

A plastic click, then static, before finally he could hear it in the background. A man was speaking, and — someone else was listening, someone younger. The older man’s voice was louder. Gregson put his ear against the speaker and strained himself to hear the rest. A young boy was being questioned but the words were unintelligible. And there they were. The flowing tears and wailing, begging like his life depended on it. A thud, then he screamed; Gregson could only imagine his mother’s horror. Another thud, sickening and empty, like a ham against a mound of dirt and the screams to follow were enough to chill the blood, to take one’s breath away. Sobs spilled through the speakers in high definition.

“That right there,” she said, “I know the sound of his tears.”

Gregson slammed the phone against the wall.  A short drive from his apartment in Subertown and the compound on Maynard Hill. A short drive from Subertown, Maynard Hill was on the outskirts of Landsmore, right on the county line. He did not think; he kept Steve’s picture, got his car, and pulled out of his drive with a squeal of his tires.

He stopped by Wilson’s to get gas, groaned at the rising prices, and went inside to pay. Gregson also bought a pack of cigarettes, though he had promised his on-again off-again girlfriend that he would quit–among other promises he had broken. He backed out of the parking lot and turned onto Sycamore Street, a winding road lined by small, decrepit houses with boarded up windows and high grass growing in the front yards. Passing by Park Street Elementary, he saw his former first grade teacher outside with a group of children. She waved to him as he passed. With a kind heart and patient manner, Mrs. Shealy was professional and kind, worried by the unease she felt among the students who remained at Park Street. In a town of 800 people, there were 37 churches and one poorly stocked library. Gregson never liked that metric.

Turning onto Central, he drove between the two large parking lots in front of the mill’s ruins. Bereft of vehicles the lots housed large stacks of salvaged wood and timber. The hulking ruin rose high into the air, a monument to the people who originally settled and built Landsmore. The old tower, a redbrick ruin overran by ivy and kudzu, surrounded the base of the ruin which was stark against the stretch of blue sky and white wisps of clouds overhead. Many of Gregson’s family members had worked there at some time or other; he remembered when his aunt Denise used to work there, sweet Denise with her powerful fragrance and bright lipstick. Any clothes found to be defective–with a misplaced or misspelled logo–made its way to the Gregson household, a gift to Nathan and his younger brother Christopher.

Nathan Gregson stopped at the bottom of Maynard Hill and pulled his car off the side of the road, into a back alley that ran from Lowry Street all the way back to Subertown, a shortcut he used whenever he went bicycle riding around town and a nice place to hide and have a beer and a smoke. It didn’t take him long to bring the car in, cover it up with limbs and leaves as best he could, and, grabbing a jacket, lock it up. He hoped it would be there when he came back. He lit a cigarette and took a pull, glanced up at the endless stretch of blue sky. He wondered if he was getting in over his head. Before leaving his car, he called his sister Alice’s phone. Matt picked up on the first ring.

“Again?” he asked.

“I think I’m going to convert,” Gregson said. “But if I don’t do it now, I’ll change my mind and nothing will get done. It has to be done now. If you haven’t heard from me in six months, try to find me. Make sure you the Chief – and the Chief only that Daniel Miller’s ID and backstory needs activation. That way, if they look me up, they’ll find a repeat offender and drug addict.”

“You sure you can pull that off?” Matt laughed. “Alright, alright. If you must…”

“Listen to the recording, man,” Gregson said. “Whoever that was…”

“What recording?” he asked.

“Ah, the football player’s mom. She has a recording I think you should hear. Those sounds, that voice… “I have to do something. Look, if we don’t deal with it as a sapling, we’ll have to cut down the tree eventually.”

Matt was quiet, shocked at Gregson’s.“And don’t say anything to Ally,” Gregson said. “I don’t want her worrying about me.”

Matt sighed, and was quiet for a moment. “Alright, brother. Be careful, you hear? What should we tell She-who-must-not-be-told?”

“You’re her husband,” Gregson said. “You should know how to tell a convincing lie by now.”

“She’s too smart for that shit,” he laughed, but grimly.

“Take care of her, man. She’s an ass but I love her.”

“You know I will, brother… Just…just take care of yourself. Here she is.”

“What do you want, Nate?” Alice picked up.

Nate could hear her shift the phone from one ear to the other. He forced a laugh.

Gregson bit his lip. Tears welled up in his eyes. He wondered when he’d see her again, or his niece Samantha, his nephew Xavier. The thought was too terrible to consider, so he shook it off. “Hey, Ally. I’m going to be out of town for a while on a case. Can’t say much about it… I just wanted you to know that I love you. Tell our mother I love her when you see her. And give Sammy and the little professor a kiss for me, and tell them their uncle Nate loves them very much.”

There was alarm in her voice. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Gregson said, “I just don’t know when I’ll be back in town…”

“You’re not telling me the truth,” she said. “I know you, and I know when you’re lying.”

Gregson laughed. “Let’s just say, as it goes, I might as well be out of town. I’m working a case, Alice. I just wanted you to know I love you.”

He turned the phone off and closed it. Turning it over in his hand, Gregson wondered if he could get away with taking it inside the compound. Would they torture him, evict him? With no other way of contacting the outside world, he decided to take it in openly, nonchalantly, and hope he didn’t get caught.  This came as something of a relief, as he only knew one way of sneaking a phone inside. It took him a few minutes to go through his phone and delete his contacts list. Though he was quicker to act than to think, Gregson was loathe to put anyone else at risk for his own stupidity. Before leaving his car, he made sure all the doors were locked and took another Vicodin. He looked at the pill bottle, then a ridiculous notion came to him. He slid the cellophane off his pack of cigarettes, poured half the remaining pills into it, and used his lighter to seal it up. Next, the embarrassing, uncomfortable, but necessary part. Gregson refused to risk a cold turkey situation surrounded by religious zealots. Sobriety was bad enough without waking up at 6am each morning and being lectured.

From there he walked the rest of the way up the steep incline of Maynard Hill which aggravated his old knee injury, making each step more painful than the last. Pills rattled in his pocket as he walked. When he emerged at the top of the hill, the compound, which consisted of several buildings, blotted out the sun. At the end of the lot was a high bell tower, and a high fence topped with concertina wire surrounding the compound. Comprised of two large buildings, housing adults and children, a playground and walkway leading up to the sliding, padlocked fence. Inside he could see seesaws and slides, jungle gyms and monkey bars.  A long patch of earthen mounds rose up at the edge of the far end of the fence. Beside the building was a long, cobblestone walkway beneath an aluminum awning, which stretched some 35 feet from the fence to the door.

He took one last hit off his cigarette and flicked it to the ground as a young man with a smooth face and awkward smile approached him from the other end of the playground. Looking up and around him, Gregson would not have believed how massive the compound was; it took the young man quite some time to make it to the fence, where he stopped on the other side and glared at Gregson through the chain links. Gregson tried to make some mental notes.

“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” he asked.

Gregson affected eyes full of tears and put on his most solemn expression. Then he withdrew the pamphlet and held it up. “I didn’t know where else to turn,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “I thought the Prophet might be able to help me get my life together.”

The man on the other side of the fence smiled and gestured at a figure in the tower. A moment later the fence, its prominent bars glinting in the midday sun, began to creak and open. Gregson allowed himself to smile as he passed inside, onto the well trimmed grass of the Church. The man, pale with light blue eyes and a bald head that caught the sun, embraced him and held on tight.

“There’s nothing to worry about anymore,” he said. “I’m Samuel. Welcome to the community, Brother.”

With another gesture Gregson turned to watch the fence slide to a close behind him and clang against the metal post.

“Right this way, Brother,” Samuel said. “We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I’ll take you to see Father Rohim.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet a prophet,” Gregson said. “I have so many questions.”






Signed as finished 27 March 2019,
Author signature: Brandon K. Nobles

Editor signature:Fredrika McQueen



















CHAPTER 2

 

_______________________




SAMUEL LED GREGSON INTO A SMALL OFFICE LIT BY A CRACKLING FIRE, surrounded by four, cheap walls that seemed to have been thrown up in a hurry. The whole compound had a hurried look to it, as though put together in haste. Out front was the belltower, which attached to the sermon hall. The walkway leading to Samuel’s office took them beneath an aluminum awning. The carpeting was brown and rough, stiff and scratchy. A single coat of beige paint covered the rough sheetrock walls. A large oak desk was in the center of the room, beneath a rattly ceiling fan and naked bulb. Pamphlets quite like the one Gregson found on the delinquents earlier in the week were spread across his desk.  In the center of the room was a tidy desk, on top of which were a number of brightly colored, laminated pamphlets. A row of gilded crucifixes hung on either side of a large portrait which depicted an elderly man, thin of hair with a prominent nose. Though it was not the photograph on file, Gregson was certain the airbrushed photograph was the Prophet himself. Songs came from beyond a doorway to Gregson’s left, laughter and muffled voices.

Despite the ceiling fan the room was hot and stale. The air was heavy and thick, with an unpleasant chemical smell about it. Might be the paint, Gregson thought. Samuel seemed inattentive, as though something much more engaging was going on just beyond the door to the adjoining room. He kept looking from Gregson to the door and back again, as though he were in a hurry to have him sorted. Daniel’s heart thundered against his chest like a clapper against the bronze shell of his ribs which rang him like an unwitting bell. His stomach turned and knotted but he tried to keep the same, eager expression on his face. Samuel was a professional and his wide smile and large, unblinking eyes never flinched. The mask, if it was a mask, had fused with his face until whatever was once there had been replaced, a tailor made personality gifted him by a master forger.

Samuel cleared his throat and adjusted himself in his chair, weary of the stranger before him. It was rare for people to just show up at the compound; especially on their own. In Samuel’s experience, conversion was a family affair. He looked Gregson over for a moment before asking, “What makes you want to join our community?”

“I just feel so lost in my life,” Gregson said. He relaxed his face on the cusp of his hand. “I’ve lost my girlfriend. I don’t have a job. And I was going through this pamphlet and noticed that you offer counseling for people struggling with addiction… ” Then he burst into tears. He wondered what his father would think, now that he put those years in theatre to use for something important.

Samuel’s eyebrow rose but the wide-eyed stare and plastic smile did not falter, and the face as it was unto blown glass did not slip. An ill-fitting sort of mask, and eyes that made Gregson shift back and forth in the hard folding chair. He nodded pensively, “Mhm,” he said, “the people within these walls come from all walks of life, rich and poor, black and white. Many of the young boys here were once orphans, until Father Rohim his name be praised offered them a place to realize their potential. An outlet for their energy, a purpose.”

Gregson nodded. “I feel like I’ve just drifted through life,” he said. “From one thing to the next, without leaving anything behind. Like a ghost that has no one to haunt, and no reason to linger…”

“Yet it does.”

Gregson did what he could to hide his surprise. “Exactly,” he said. “I’ve never been much of a believer…”

“Look, Mr…?”

“Daniel,” Gregson said. “My name is Daniel Miller.”

Samuel stood and crossed the room, taking this somewhat amiss, as he put his arm around Daniel’s shoulders. Daniel Miller was an identity he was given on an undercover case some years earlier, when he tried to bust up a methamphetamine ring operating out of Landsmore. Since the cover had never been blown, and those he hunted down were now behind bars, Gregson–Daniel Miller–thought it safe to use. The idea of his real name becoming known made him shiver.

“Relax, Brother Daniel. You’re okay now. First, before I take you to see Father Rohim, would you mind emptying your pockets?”

Daniel stood and slipped off his coat, passed it to Samuel. He hung it on the doorknob. Then he placed the bottle of Topamax on the table, followed by his near-depleted stash of Vicodin.

“Like I said, father, I’ve fallen on bad times…drugs, hopelessness…I never see my daughter anymore…”

Samuel took the bottles in hand and looked them over. “Do you have anything else?”

A shot of panic ran through him as his mind kicked into high gear. What about the phone? He wondered. If he gave it up now, and things went south, what would he do? Who would he call? But he acted quickly and took it out of his pocket. “I would like to keep in contact with my daughter,” he said but handed the phone over nonetheless. “And the Topamax, I have to take that each day along with a meal. That other stuff…” he gestured to the bottle of Vicodin, “that shit gives me the strength to keep digging a grave I’m afraid to get into. Life’s too painful to live, and I’m too afraid of dying to off myself.”

“Oh my dear Mr. Miller,” he said. “I do hope Father Rohim will decide in your favor. Now,” he took a leather satchel from a drawer in his desk, “I’m just going to put all this in a bag. If it is decided you will join The Community, you will have your property returned to you.”

This surprised Gregson. He was sure, as he walked the steep hill up to the compound, that his possessions would be confiscated on arrival. To be fair, he thought, they were – but the hope of having his phone returned kept him cheerful as his last dose of Vicodin–along with what he could stash elsewhere–began to work its chemical magic, relaxing his nerves as a wave of warmth fell over him like an itchy blanket. He shifted in his seat at the prod of the pack of cellophane hidden in his rectum, filled with enough Vicodin to get him through a potential cold turkey situation. Every time he shifted in his sheet, he regretted sticking the sharp plastic in his ass. What would mother think? He wondered. Shame rolled over him in waves. He missed her, and he decided if he ever made it out, he would make things right.

Samuel placed his belongings back in the top drawer, locked it. And, to Gregson’s surprise, he returned to his seat, pulled out a clipboard and pen. He cleared his throat.

“Before I give you a tour,” he said without looking up, “could you answer some questions for me?”

Sweat beaded down his forehead and anxiety overtook him, the chest pain, the sense of impending doom, the feeling that he stood on a high ledge and could do nothing to stop himself from either falling or flinging himself over. He stuttered, “Sure.”

He had a good idea of what Samuel intended to do; he would ask around about a Daniel Miller and, if all was still in place, and Matt had done the right thing and got off his ass, it would all check out. Hopefully, Gregson thought, Sheriff Epps had not been compromised. Landsmore was an island amid forests, surrounded on all sides, and if Rohim infiltrated the Police Department, it was possible that he could take over the entire town. Samuel called his name again, and he realized he had not answered to Daniel when first called.

“Sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m just nervous. I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t take me in…”

“I understand,” Samuel said. Big smile, hollow eyes. “Now, shall we?”

Gregson leaned back. “Alright then, go ahead.”

“What’s your date of birth?”

“April 17th, 1989.”

Sam scribbled something down.

“Your father’s name?”

“Henry Miller.”

“And your mother?” he continued writing but did not look up.

Gregson hesitated. “Linda Miller.”

“How did you come to hear about us?”

“I’ve read your pamphlet, and talked to a missionary the other day.”

“Some of our more recent converts,” he started, “are a bit, how do you say, enthusiastic. One kid came in a few weeks ago, nothing but skin and bones. He was living under the bridge, shooting meth and stealing to feed his addiction. But here, with the help of an extensive family and support network, he’s been clean for two weeks and has become a valuable member of the family. I understand their zeal. It can be overwhelming for someone who has been shunned for their entire life, or someone who has gone through a painful divorce, lost a friend or loved one, to find support and friendship, and in doing so they come to know the love of God.”

Gregson nodded. “I’m sorry if I implied…”

“That’s quite alright,” Sam said. “Any allergies, food or otherwise?”

Gregson gave him a rueful smile. “Yeah,” he chuckled. “Strawberries.”

Samuel looked at him from behind the clipboard. “Really? Strawberries?”

Gregson shrugged. “I told you, I’ve never really been a believer. After all, what kind of loving God would sentence a man to death by strawberry?”

Samuel laughed an eerie, affected laugh, as though he was attempting to imitate human behavior he had but read about. He finished scribbling and then tore the page off the clipboard and filed it away inside another desk drawer. “You know,” he said, standing. “My mother told me once, that we should not curse God for what he does not allow. Rather, we should praise God for what we have. You may be allergic to berries, Brother Miller. But the air, however, is free.”

Gregson had never thought of it like that, but the notion appealed to him.

The noise from the adjacent room rose, ever more ebullient and effusive, happy even.

“I think that’s all for now,” Samuel said. He put his pen and clipboard away. “Now, since Father Rohim is deep in prayer until noon, I can show you around in the meantime, acquaint you with some of your future brothers and sisters?”
“I always wanted a family,” Daniel said. “Please.”
The room adjacent was wide and spacious, comfortable and fragrant. Potted plants and vases adorned the walls and expensive cabinets were installed above the stove. There were three women there, Ethel, 59, and her two daughters Lindsay and Lauren. A long couch wrapped around one side of the room, and they each sat beside each other, close and intimate. A fireplace in the middle of the room had a grill over it and the air smelled of grilled cucumbers and squash.

When they noticed the newcomer, Lauren, less cautious with Heretics than her sister, approached the New Brother and embraced him warmly. Her sister, who, with fair hair and bright pink cheeks could not be more different than her sister. While Lindsay remained stand-offish as Samuel introduced Brother Daniel. Ethel, a former shift manager at the Mill looked at him with searching eyes. Gregson panicked. He knew her; not long after the jobs were shipped out of town, a riot broke out among the workers who refused to turn over the last of the material products. The police were called out and, Gregson being a ride-along gopher then, stood outside as the tear gas flew, as the workers choking eyes watering finally gave in. Gregson gave her a bottle of water. Those eyes, though, intense and wide, gave no hint of recognition. Her toothy smile and maternal manner was genuine and, when she called Daniel son a part of Gregson felt loved. The walls were painted baby blue, adorned with billowy clouds and the sun and stars. In the corner, next to an empty door frame which led off into a narrow pantry. A tall bookshelf covered in dusty volumes stood in the corner, stack with obscure volumes by God knows who.

Everything was clean. No roaches, no trash, no dirty dishes. Ethel was quick to offer Gregson a cup off coffee and something to eat. The sisters, 15 and 17 years old respectively, wore long cotton dresses. Their hair was curled into a high coif at the top of their forehead and tight french braids ran down their backs. Daniel found them charming and enticing, smiles as bright and pure as the driven snow, sparkling wide blue eyes.

“Ladies,” he said, “this is Mr. Daniel Miller. He hasn’t met with Father Rohim yet,” the thin, pale man gave Gregson a terse smile, “but I think we can go ahead and welcome him to our family.”

The elderly woman was quick to stand, smooth her dress and approach me.  She pulled Gregson into a bear hug, her heavy bosom pressed hard against his chest.  “It’s so nice to have you with us,” she beamed. Still blessed with beauty and a quick charm, Ethel was shrewd and attentive. She watched her daughters with the precision of a security camera, especially when they got too close to the Stranger. Despite the relative comfort, Gregson sensed something amiss. A tension, an expectation lingered in the room. When the chorus of bells smote on the afternoon air the brothers and sisters near jumped from there seat. The bells banged against each other and the notes rang out, tied to a foot pedal that allowed for the notes to be held. Sam took Gregson by the arm, and Daniel was eager, near ecstatic to meet Father Rohim.

“What now?” Daniel asked.

“Just follow me,” Sam said. “His Holiness will want a glass of milk, and on my way I’ll introduce you. You tell him your story, and I’m sure he’ll do all he can to help.”

Samael put his hand on my shoulder and I near jumped out of my boots. “Come,” he said. “His holiness will explain.”

Before I could back away I felt something slip into my waistband. I did nothing to draw attention to it but hid it away quickly.  “Anyway,” I said, finally moving away, “It was nice to meet y’all.”

“Right this way,” he said, leading Gregson from the room. He was down a cement flight of stairs and passed a row of doors along a long corridor. Every five feet there was a door, and halfway to the end of the hall, Daniel was told, was Father Rohim’s private chambers. There he prayed and wrote his sermons. As Gregson passed the cheap doors in poor frames he could hear young girls talking to one another. The first ten rooms, on either side of the hallway, were the female dorms; girls lived with their mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces; young boys, halfway down, likewise lived with fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews in identical rooms, with up to five people packed in a singular room no bigger than 12 by 12 feet.  A thick pallette covered the floor and a long table was pushed against the wall, where they studied and learned to read and write. The girls learned to cook and sew, how to keep house.

The pair stopped outside Rohim’s door. Gregson wished he could sneak another pill, but he decided he would attempt to look at life there at the Compound from the perspective of the people who came looking for something; what someone forget, he knew, is that reasonable people end up in restrictive, controlling cults before they know it, seeing the revered figurehead as their totem, the figurehead of power that represented the shedding of their own weakness and lack of purpose, which Father Rohim dutifully supplied.

“Wait here,” Sam said. “I will announce you.”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked into Daniel’s eyes, as though he was, through the optic nerve, peeling Nate apart, layer by layer, scratching at the inauthentic eyes staring back at him, the faux smile that did well to deceive. But, when he came out and opened the heavy door, creaking as it swung on rusted hinges, he warned:

“Just don’t lie,” Samuel said. “He’ll know.”

Gregson decided it was best not to respond; nervousness was natural, no reason for them to suspect subterfuge. Sam leered at him a moment, “Good luck, Mr. Miller. And God bless.”

Samuel tapped each door he passed, rapped against it once, and walked to the next door, knocked and repeated until the halls were filled with two rows of people on opposite sides; men lined up and halted until their female counterparts departed. Strict rules were in place to keep teenage boys and girls separated. When the dorm rooms were empty, a man with a large belly and broad shoulders went from room to room with a cleaning lady, pushing a cart. Gregson swallowed in a dry throat and grabbed the door handle. It was hot to the touch.

I can do this, he told himself. Deep breath, deep breath. His backside had started aching and the pressure mounted. Suddenly he turned the golden knob and stepped inside. Silence greeted him on the threshold and cold air greeted him. The heavy door closed behind with a quiet click behind him.  The room was lit by scattered candles, gaslamps on coffee tables and stools, tables covered in books and papers. A mantlepiece above the fireplace was lined with antique books and dusty volumes. Featured prominently above it was a large, framed print of Caravaggio’s painting of Abraham and Isaac; Isaac, a child with a hair of curls, face frozen in horror with his face pressed against the altar; to the left, an angel stayed the knife in his father Abraham’s hand.  

Hunched over the fire with clasped hands, the bones in his spine, each lumbar could be seen sticking up along his spine like a scaled reptile, a lizard with proper posture and comportment. Rohim wore a beggar’s robes, and a ritual tefillin, a black leather strap wrapped seven times around his wrist and forearm. His eyes were alert, but yellow and rheumy; his fingers gnarled and spindly, like spider’s legs, and his large head nested between two shocks of stringy white hair above his ears. A fragile figure, his small frame, spindly arms, and visible backbones belied the force of character within.

“Come now,” said Father Rohim, “let us speak, son.”



Completed 2ND CHAPTER – as far as I know.

SIGNED 26 MARCH 2019
Author signature: Brandon K Nobles
Editor’s signature [sign when complete, Fred]




















CHAPTER 3



As he got closer to the thin figure in his oversized mantle he saw a knotted forehead shiny with sweat and a prominent nose, sharp deep set eyes and grandfatherly smile. Rohim had a handful of peanuts and cracked them in his hands, tossing the shells into the fire. He handed Daniel a pecan balance on the end of a knife glinting in fire light.

Zach took the time to look me over, top to bottom, as I approached. He smoothed back his wild hair, balding as he was, and leaned back. He took a handful of pecans from a low table behind him and began to crack them in his hands, tossing the shells in the fire. He offered me a fresh pecan.

“Thank you.” I said.

“Please,” he said. “Sit down.”

I took a seat in a ragged wooden rocker beside him, a bit too close to the fire for comfort.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked, looking at his pecans. A bit warm, I resisted the urge to slide away from the fire. He was quite close to it.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

He smiled. “Have you ever been swimming, son?”

Zachariah looked at me like he saw past me, no skin, just a brain and heart sitting before him, suspended on a tuft of air.

“I did,” I said. “Yeah, when I was growing up.”

“Ah, as did I,” he nodded. “I remember standing on the deck at my aunt Maria’s house. Everyone shouted, “Jump in.” It was a warm summer night, and the air felt good against my skin. The water, it was ice cold. I dipped my toe in, and recoiled. But, Henry, my youngest brother, he pushed me in and laughed.”

“I’ve pushed in many a younger brother,” I added.

Zachariah smiled, cracked open another pecan. “And of course, I hit the water and could swear steam rose off the water, like breath in the winter. I must’ve been cold for 15, 20 minutes before, gradually, the water warmed. The temperature did not change, mind. Thirty minutes later, I splashed about, having a good time. Now, here’s what I find interesting. When I got out, the air was as cold as the water had been, and again I was freezing, so I jumped back in for warmth.”

I nodded.

“The temperatures did not change, friend. I did. That there’s interesting to me.”

He handed me a fresh pecan. “Are you too close to the fire?”

I took the pecan, “Thank you, no. I’m comfortable.”

He leaned back in his rocking chair. “They call me Zachariah because they can’t pronounce my name without spitting,” he laughed. “You know what they say, Yiddish is German with more phlegm.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

He looked at me with a knowing smile. “My grandparents were Polish, but my family has been in this country for a hundred years. I have many brothers, many sisters, baruch Hashem. But, if you are asking if I keep the Law, yes sir I do.”

“The Ten Commandments?”

He laughed, shook loose the cracked nuts, and stood. “Come,” he said, limping. “The mitzvote number some six-hundred plus, if memory serves. But, we all fall short. We are not commanded to be perfect, son. Only to try.”

“I’d like… to ask you a few questions, holiness.”

He paused at the edge of a fine laquered table, leaned against it. “Anything you’d like, son.”

“What’s with all the crucifixes?” I asked.

He turned his back and started speaking.

“Have you ever considered, or even thought about, how many prophets, saviors, messiahs and enlightened ones have lived in human history? Majavera, the prophet of the Jains…” I stood and slid the listening cross from the cuff of my jacket and placed it behind a row of books atop the mantlepiece, beneath the line of figures in cruciform.

“To this day, they refuse to kill anything. Any thing. They wear surgical masks and sweep the ground before them as they walk, all to avoid the harm of any creature’s jiva, or ‘divine spark’. They drain their water to ensure nothing is accidentally swallowed. They treat mosquitoes better than some men treat their fellows…”

Moving as he spoke, Zachariah turned on a lamp in the corner of his room. “Many of them, more often than not, arrive at a similar, culturally applicable code. The men, the women–the prophets and prophetesses, they rise in times of spiritual need, in times of despair and want. Not to give everyone what they want, no, but to show them how much they already have, and how valuable it is.”

I nodded like a fool, entranced by this feeble old man. I began to understand, so I thought, why so many might find comfort in this convent, with such a leader. That was also his danger, this ability to get one to drop one’s guard, only then to slither in like a botfly, in the ear, which eats away at individual thoughts one by one before they’re eaten up, before it bursts out leaving behind nothing but hollow men.

“Tell me about the hollow men, holiness,” I said. “Is it literal? Figurative? Should the town be worried?”

“No, sir,” he said. “Come, let’s have something to eat, and we’ll talk. I’ll answer all your questions.”

At the far end of his private chambers was a heavy wooden door which led out into a large kitchen and cafeteria. Long tables stretched out from one side of the room to the other, the floors coated in shiny yellow linoleum, the food counters of stainless steel. Behind the counter was a large storage room, full of canned goods, cornmeal, potatoes, tomatoes, grits, and breadcrumbs; a gala of soups, tomato, clam, chicken. Zachariah walked behind, head downcast, looking at the baskets of fruit and whistling. A line of women with hairnets and rolled up sleeves stood behind the countertop, ladling gravy onto a yellow tray of mashed potatoes,  fresh pear slices, and, when I arrived at the front of the line, a glass of orange juice and a warm smile.

“There ya go, hon,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“Thanks, Beatrice,” Zachariah said, “You have a jar of olives?”

“One second,” she disappeared behind the counter. A moment later she rose up, exclaiming, “Here we go!” She passed a jar of olives to Zachariah. A smile crossed his face. “Thank you.”

He looked back to me, “Shall we?”

We went to one table amid many, with round stools attached by aluminum pipes. Sturdy, hard plastic seats, not as uncomfortable as they looked; we sat down and he bit into an olive. “I’ve always loved olives,” he said. “Please, son, enjoy your food.”

The lunchroom workers shifted into high gear; they turned on pots, boiled water; others shucked corn, prepared baby formula and Gerbers softpeas. A loud clang as double doors opened at the other end of the room and multitudes of robed men, the acolytes, all having shaved their heads as a sign of devotion. Behind them followed the women and children, in step, in sync, by mood and will. “Unity must be of purpose,” Zachariah said. “All other unity is artificial – race, nation, party – if they are not of the same purpose, it is folly; they will pull themselves to pieces, and unravel like a ball of twine when the fervor of the moment passes. Here, we have unity of purpose, common interest and a righteous cause.

“All of these people here chose to be here, to recognize their potential, and are free to leave at will. Do you know how many of these people roamed the streets like strays, sleeping beneath bridges and eating out of dumpsters before they found their way here? Discarded by their families, their churches, especially when the mill shut down; that’s when they flooded in. Some were petty criminals, breaking into houses and selling their plunder. Some were tender hearted people the world had no trouble grinding underfoot. ”

I chewed with my mouth shut. Always a gentleman, I dabbed a heavily starched napkin at my lips and set it aside. I pushed away my plate. I reached into the inside pocket of my vest and handed the Prophet the picture of the widow’s boy. “Have you seen this young man?” I asked.

He looked at me with a stern, thoughtful expression. “When people come here, they wash away who they were. If this young man entered, he is no longer here.”

“Nah, that doesn’t work for me, see. Now, I respect your operation here. Poor people, orphans, they need to be fed. That’s charity. But when they come into my city and scare my people, then we have a problem, when hollow men are loose in this town, well, I need to know what that means.”

Al-shabah,” he said. “It’s Arabic. Think, we have words for spirit, for ghosts, but not quite for this concept. It literally means, ‘Dead but still walking’. It refers to someone who, without passion or fervor, watches life pass them by like the seasons; they consume, led by their nose, by their lusts, their greed and ambition. The hollow men have nothing left but need, and are strung along by their desire like a fishhook in their mouth, dangling as a catfish hung on the end of a fishing rod. Now, I have time to give you a brief tour before the sermon…”

“I’d like to find…” I raised the photo again, “this young man. Holiness, you won’t believe how many calls I get over this one young man. People are worried. So, how about you let me see him, I take back a message to his family maybe, and we can let this last disruption slide.”

Zachariah looked past me, as though there was a whole dimension just over my left shoulder. The clanking of spoons and plastic trays and muffled talking filled the room, the discord of cutlery and heavy smell of rye. Many of the acolytes, I noticed, took but a bowl of rice and sat, legs crossed, beneath a fire above which, in elegant folds of royal purple, bore ever more ancient script.

I drank the rest of my orange juice, “Look, holiness, you seem nice enough…”

“I’m just an abbot, a rasul, a slave of God.”

“Fair enough,” I dabbed the napkin at my mouth again. “Now, think you could show me around, see if we can find a young bald man with that–” I tapped the photograph with my index finger, “–that pattern of birthmarks, a little constellation of moles on his upper cheekbone, there? You see that?”

Zachariah nodded. “Come, I’ll show you around, and, though you won’t thank me, I’ll show you what we fear.”

A woman with her hair pulled back in a sporty ponytail, pale pink lips and green eyes approached the table. “Did you enjoy your meal, sir?” she asked. She had the same intense glare in her eyes, happiness in her bearing.

“Yes, thank you, ma’am,” I said.

She was quick to take our trays, bow to Zachariah, and head off. “That’s Bea’s daughter, Liza,” Zachariah said. “Sweetest girl you could ever meet, and a wise friend.”

He struggled from his seat, and Samael, at the back of the lunchline, hurried over to meet us and help His Holiness get to his feet, steadying himself on the handle of a polished walking stick. Samael greeted me with a smile, with those bright eyes, almost eerie, the eyes of a two-way mirror. Being there started to make me nauseous, and I lacked the nerve to really push my case. I wondered whether I should give Zachariah the confessions of Lauren, and reveal the note stuffed in my waistband while in the nursery. How many more had plastered masks with happy smiles and blank looks affixed to a frightened animal below, unable to summon the nerve to pass a note, to climb the fence and try to crawl over barbed wire to freedom, or to risk the man who stood vigil at the guard tower.

We left the cafeteria, alighted onto a cement walkway that led to another building, grass on both sides of the path, hedges and potted plants, fragrant and lovely in the sun of a waning day. I checked my watch, nearly 1500; I’d have to get the taps in place, a place where they could pick up the most information, with the least amount of risk of being found. I paused, leaned down to tie my shoe and slid the last crucifix from my shoe. A small thing, it would be inconspicuous enough. I put it in place above the arch leading into the cafe in a quiet, quick motion. Zachariah limped forward with the help of his cane. I hurriedly placed the cross against the vinyl just above the door, the gathering place where the acolytes and nuns stood waiting on their meals to be prepared, where priests and acolytes with censers lined up and chatted before they dined.

Zachariah led me up a flight of stairs onto a long porch, covered in planks of wood with, as of yet, no varnish. “Be careful now,” he said. “We just finished laying these, and I’m afraid you need to watch out for splinters.” Inside, the doors opened up to wide, empty space, with tables covered in building tools strewn about the room. Workers hammered away at a picture, raising it above an office just to our right. A stairway to our left circled upward, “That’s where our new dorms are going to be,” he said. “We’re starting to get crowded, and here’s where we’ll start our first school. Here we’ll teach the children how to read, how to write. Teach them kindness, and compassion.”

“And teach them about the evils of the world?”

“Follow me,” he hobbled away, turning around a corner of naked sheetrock.

He led me into a hallway with a window that peered into a room of tiny beds. “And this will be our nursery,” he said. “Lauren, one of our newest converts, is expecting. By the time the child is born, we’ll have a dedicated nursery; an on-staff OB and pediatrician. Our on staff doctor…”

“I’d like to have his name, please,” I said. “Before I leave, of course.”

Zachariah smiled, “Of course.”

Drills whirred as we talked, hammers rang against walls, the grunts of manual labor and men talking came from down the hall. “But come, we can finish our interview in my office, and from there I will see you out.”

“I’d like to see Lauren,” I said. “To congratulate her, holiness. Before I leave.

When my sister’s son was born, you couldn’t keep me away.”

“No kids?”

I shook my head.  “Separated.”

“Something troubles you, I can sense it,” he said. “What was her name?”

His eyes focused on mine, piercing and alive, but his gaze was distant, hypnotic and unwavering. While his manner and bearing was soft, fatherly, and his frail frame and grandfatherly appearance made it easy to confide in him, thinking without doubt that he could understand.

“Just regrets,” I said, “too many regrets.”

“Everybody has regrets,” he said. “Perhaps that is why you slump, son.

Because you have a giant key in your backpocket.

“I ruined the best thing that ever happened to me, as I always do.”

He placed his hand on my knee. His eyes glazed over with a film of tears. “What

went wrong?”

“It was an accident, I tell myself that, but it is also true I met her by accident. I was writing a book, long before I took the police exam. I had tutored math and physics in college, so I decided to write a history of classical physics, from Ptolemy to Niels Bohr, and I tried to message someone else, but messaged her by accident. I mistook her for her sister, since I didn’t remember her name. Me and her sister were the same age, in social studies together, and I mistook the two. She answered enthusiastically about my work. We had a lot in common, immediately. Within weeks we talked on the phone for five and six or even eight hours, all day every day we talked.”

“Sometimes to appreciate the loss, we have to work our way to a solution, to make things work out for the best.”

“There’s no going back, holiness. There are lines not meant to be crossed, and I crossed more than my share. A great sin… a sin.”

“Start from the beginning, son.”

“We talked over the internet for a while, wrote poetry with each other, made love and loved each other. Before we ever met, we were best friends. The first time she came to see me, she got out of her SUV and, I still remember the first thing she said to me. ‘Damn, you are REALLY tall.’ Not much of an achievement, really. I spend a lot of time by myself, so I was kind of shy. I mean, I’m reasonably clever, I think, but I’m not an underwear model. But, she sat close to me. She smelled warm, if that makes sense; she had olive skin, a regal hauteur, a royal Italian beauty. A smile like a string of pearls, I was in love. I just didn’t know what to do. I held her hand. We were sitting on a couch in my room, a studio apartment, watching King Lear. Halfway through it, where the King is so pissed off he’s yelling at God, with no one there to save him but his fool, she kissed me and I kissed her. It’s hypnotic, to fall in someone’s arms, you risk not getting out. Problem is you risk getting thrown out too.

“We saw each other off and on and talked for hours on the phone. I wrote her poetry, as though I were some bard, some troubadour from chivalrous times, a song for Isabella, songs of his fair lady. I just had very little money. Her father–now this is..” I broke off, wondering how he’d manage to get me revealing so much, so quick.

“Don’t be afraid of the fire, son. You might have to walk through it, as Dante did. You can be who you want to be.”

“Not without her.”

“What sin have you committed my son?”

I fell open again, wanting to confess. “I broke one of the Commandments, holiness. Thou shalt not steal.”

He nodded simply. “Ah, yes… Did not the Messiah Yoshua allow breaking commandments in the service of the holy? It is written, ‘When the trumpets sounded, the soldiers yelled, at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword all living things in it, men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and asses.’”

“It was not my conquest, to take the holy land. I harmed the innocent, holiness. It had no purpose, nothing but to satisfy my debauchery.”

“What is it you have done, my son?” he leaned over and put his hand on my knee. “Confess, and let this weight be off you. Our purpose in life cannot be realized with the burden of Atlas bearing down on us.”

At the time I did not realize how weird it was; he was able to instantly win my trust, make me feel safe and understood, to bring out ideas as I thought them. I did not realize at the time how this type of initiation unto control worked. But, in the moment, I confessed to him my crimes, weeping and sobbing.

“I spent the night at her house, to work on a story. It was the first time I ever got to go in. She had a bottle of whiskey, and her kids played with her cat in the living room, and on our way there, I lost my laptop. I was in a hurry and nervous and left the satchel on top of the SUV, never saw it again. When we found out, we tried to go back to find it. I made a few phone calls, had two friends go walk by my house. Both said it was gone. My medicine was in that bag, my drugs. I needed them to work, to function. And when I lost them, I stole her children’s. First his cough syrup, then her ADHD meds. She had to call the teacher while I stood there drowning on dry land; that’s regret, it’s how a man can drown without getting wet. We spent the night having the time of my life. Eating Chinese food, and I helped her kids with homework. It felt like everything came together in perfection, my life was worth living, there with her and when she finally went to sleep, I stole from her children. Kids I love. Kids I miss… She was the only star in the sky, holiness, she was holiness, a gentle rock and romantic friend, wise and funny, strange and singular, in a word – heaven, nirvana, the lap of God, and I slipped. I’ve been falling since.”

I was crying then. The effect such conmen have is subtle and, strangely, makes the victim volunteer such private information.

“In John 7:53–8:11, we hear tell of the woman taken in adultery. The Pharisees bring her to Jesus, Hoping to catch him in a trap they ask what should be done. Should the Law of Moses be obeyed, or should Jesus contradict his own teachings on forgiveness? Well, he has a way out. He kneels and begins to write upon the dirt. He famously says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. And, gradually, as he writes, people begin to back off. When he looks back up, everyone is gone. Everyone but the woman. He says, ‘Is there no one left to condemn you?’ She says, ‘No, Lord.’ He says, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’ And, Nathan, I condemn you neither. Go and sin no more.”

I bowed instinctively, blissfully unaware of the effect upon my person. I had slipped, somehow, under the control of an expert craftsmen using heat to bend a vessel into shape, there to refill it, to circumvent its interlocutor and override it. Until you became an extension of the leader’s power over others. But, he had a real effect on me. I decided I would call her, and that I would sin no more.

Zachariah made to speak but was interrupted by a young man who hurried in and startled when he noticed me sitting there, legs crossed.  

“Maître, un fille s’est échappé. Nous avons des chiens sur le sentier et Simeon chasse. Elle n’aurait pas pu aller trop loin.”, he said.

Zachariah stroked his beard, nodding. “Ne la blesse pas, mais mets-la dans la boîte quand on la trouve.”

“Oui,” the fresh faced acolyte nodded. French! I could near make out the words. And what I could understand frightened me.

He turned to me, “Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” he said. “Isaac, son,” Zachariah said in that gruff, solemn voice, “would you help our friend here find his way out? He needs to run back through the mess, see if he can locate his friend. You wouldn’t know anyone who came in recently under the dead name, ‘Steve’, would you?”

“I can look at the list of dead names,” Isaac replied.

He was a handsome man with blue eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, neat and somber in his demeanor. I stood up, reached across the desk and shook the prophet’s hand. It was leathery, calloused, old. “It was nice to meet you, holiness. I’ll congratulate Lauren on my way out.”

Isaac cast a nervous glance at Zachariah. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said.

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to be made possible,” I repeated.

Zachariah rose, hands up. “Wait a minute now, son. What happened, Isaac?”

The young man stood up straight. “She wasn’t at roll call, when Leonard did the count after the lunch. Ethel said the last time she saw her she was headed to the women’s toilet on the second floor.”

Zachariah looked at me. “I think that’s all for today, detective. Now, if you want to come back for Sunday service, I’ll make sure that we find your boy in the photograph, and make sure he gets word out to his concerned mother.”

Figuring I’d do no better by pressing the matter, and confident in the bugs, I relented. Isaac showed me out, silent as the grave, as we retraced my steps from the new school building, across the walkway, back into the cafeteria. It was empty, then, but the women from the lunch counter were still there, hairnets on, sweeping and washing tables, taking out the trash. From there we passed through Zachariah’s room, now cold, as the fire must have died. We walked on, down the cement walkway, up the stairs, and into the nursery. The room was empty, the women and children gone, the playpen empty; all the dinosaur toys put in the large toy chest in the corner. An eerie feeling came over me, for Lauren’s sake, and finding myself back in Samael’s office, I stopped to thank him and wish him a good-day.

Samael did not look up. Instead he kept on mumbling to himself, his face bright red, eyes bloodshot. Something had driven the poor guy to distraction, so I slipped out of the door and walked to the far end of the fence to have another look at the raised mounds I had seen when first entering the compound. I stopped just short of where they had been and saw, now, where they were was now newly grown, bright, the most ardent green of fresh grass glittering with dew as night fell.

 

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