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Authors: Margaret Millar

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BOOK: How Like an Angel
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The Brother nodded and smiled, while the little bird pecked gently at his ear.

“A most unfortunate choice of names,” Sister Blessing added to Quinn in a whisper. “He seldom speaks. But then, perhaps prophets are better off not speaking too much. You may sit down, Mr.—?”

“Quinn.”

“Quinn. Rhymes with sin. It could be a bad omen.”

Quinn started to point out that it also rhymed with grin, spin, fin, but Sister Blessing replied brusquely that sin was by far the most obvious.

“I gather sin is what brought a young, able-bodied man like you to such a low estate?”

Quinn remembered what Newhouser had said about the people at the Tower, that they were especially hospitable to poor sinners. “I'm afraid so.”

“Drinking?”

“Of course.”

“Gambling?”

“Frequently.”

“Womanizing?”

“On occasion.”

“I thought so,” Sister Blessing said with gloomy satisfaction. “Well, I'll make you a cheese sandwich.”

“Thank you.”

“With ham. There are rumors in town we don't eat meat. What nonsense. We work hard. We need meat to keep going. A ham and cheese sandwich for you, too, Brother Tongue? A drop of goat's milk?”

The Brother shook his head.

“Well, I can't force you to eat. But I can at least see that you get some fresh air. It's cool enough now to sit outside for a while. Put your little bird back in his cage and Mr. Quinn will help you with your chair.”

Sister Blessing gave orders as if there was no doubt in her mind that they would be carried out promptly and properly. Quinn took the rocking chair outside while Brother Tongue returned the parakeet to its cage and Sister Blessing started to prepare some sandwiches. In spite of her strange clothes and surroundings she gave the impression of an ordinary house­wife working in her own kitchen, pleased to be of service. Quinn didn't even try to guess what combination of circum­stances had brought her to a place like the Tower.

She sat down on the bench opposite him and watched him eat. “Who told you about us, Mr. Quinn?”

“A man I hitched a ride with, he's a hand on a ranch near here.”

“That sounds plausible.”

“It should. It's true.”

“Where do you come from?”

“First or last?” Quinn said.

“Either, perhaps both.”

“I was born in Detroit and the last place I lived was Reno.”

“A wicked place, Reno.”

“At the moment I'm inclined to agree with you.”

Sister Blessing gave a little grunt of disapproval. “I assume that you were, as they say in the vernacular, taken to the cleaners?”

“Thoroughly.”

“Did you have a job in Reno?”

“I was a security officer at one of the clubs. Or a casino cop, however you want to put it. I still have a detective's license in Nevada but it probably won't be renewed.”

“You were fired from your job?”

“Let's just say I was warned not to mix business with pleas­ure and I didn't get the message in time.” Quinn started on the second sandwich. The bread was homemade and quite stale, but the cheese and ham were good and the butter sweet.

“How old are you, Mr. Quinn?”

“Thirty-five, thirty-six. Thirty-six, I guess.”

“Most men your age are at home with their wives and families, not skittering about the mountainside looking for a hand­out ... So you're thirty-six. Now what? Are you going to start your life all over again, on a higher plane?”

Quinn stared at her across the table. “Look, Sister, I appre­ciate the food and hospitality, but I may as well make it clear that I'm not a candidate for conversion.”

“Dear me, I wasn't thinking of that at all, Mr. Quinn. We don't go out seeking converts. No, they come to us. When they weary of the world they come to us.”

“Then what happens?”

“We prepare them for their ascension of the Tower. There are five levels. The bottom one, where we all begin, is the earth level. The second is the level of the trees, the third mountains, the fourth sky, and fifth is the Tower of Heaven where the Master lives. I've never gotten beyond the third level myself. In fact”—she leaned confidentially toward Quinn, frowning— “I have some difficulty staying there, even.”

“Now why is that?”

“It's because of the spiritual vibrations. I don't feel them properly. Or when I do feel them it turns out there's a jet plane overhead, or something's exploded, and the vibrations aren't spiritual at all. Once a tree fell, and I thought I was having the best vibrations ever. I was bitterly disappointed.”

Quinn attempted to look sympathetic. “That's too bad.”

“Oh, you don't really think so.”

“But I do.”

“No. I can tell. Skeptics always get a certain twist to their mouths.”

“I have a piece of ham caught in my front tooth.”

Before she covered her mouth with her hand, a little giggle escaped. She seemed flustered by the sound of it, as if it were a frivolous memento of the past she thought she'd left behind.

She got up and walked over to the icebox. “Shall I pour you some goat's milk? It's very nourishing.”

“No, thank you. A cup of coffee would be—”

“We never use stimulants.”

“Maybe you should try. Your vibrations might improve.”

“I must ask you to be more respectful, Mr. Quinn.”

“Sorry. The good food has made me a little light-headed.”

“Oh, it wasn't that good.”

“I insist it was.”

“Well, I admit the cheese isn't so bad. Brother Behold the Vision makes it from a secret recipe.”

“Please congratulate him for me.” Quinn rose, stretched, and concealed a yawn. “Now I'd better be on my way.”

“Where?”

“San Felice.”

“It's almost fifty miles. How will you get there?”

“Walk back to the road and hitch another ride,”

“You won't find many cars. Most people going to San Felice prefer to take the long way around, by the main high­way. And once the sun goes down, cars aren't so likely to stop for a hitchhiker, especially in the mountains. Also, the nights are very cold.”

Quinn studied her for a minute. “What's on your mind, Sister?”

“Why, nothing. I mean, I'm concerned with your welfare. Alone in the mountains on a cold night, with no shelter, and wild animals roaming about—”

“What are you leading up to?”

“Well, it occurred to me,” she said carefully, “that we might find a simpler solution. Tomorrow morning Brother Crown of Thorns will probably be driving the truck to San Felice. Something's gone wrong with our tractor and Brother Crown has to buy some new parts. I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you rode along with him.”

“You're very kind.”

“Nonsense,” she said with a frown, “it's pure selfishness on my part. I don't want to lie awake worrying about a tender­foot wandering loose around the mountains. . . . We have a storage shed you can sleep in. There's a cot in it, and a couple of blankets.”

“Are you always this hospitable to strangers, Sister?”

“No, we're not,” she said sharply. “We get thieves, vandals, drunkards. We handle them as they deserve.”

“How is it I get the royal treatment?”

“Oh, it's not very royal, as you will find out when you try sleeping on that cot. But it's the best we can offer.”

From somewhere nearby a gong began to ring.

“Prayers are over,” Sister Blessing said. For a few seconds she stood absolutely still, her right hand touching her fore­head. “There. Well, we'd better get out of the kitchen now. Sister Contrition will be coming to start the fire for supper and it makes her nervous to have a stranger around.”

“What about the others?”

“Each Brother and Sister has a special task until sundown.”

“What I meant was, how do the others feel about having a stranger around?”

“You will be treated with courtesy, Mr. Quinn, to the extent that you display it yourself. Poor Sister Contrition has many problems, it might be wise to avoid her. It's the schools. She has three children and the authorities keep insisting she send them to school. And what would they learn in school, I ask you, that the Master can't teach them here if it's fit to learn?”

“It's a subject I'm not prepared to take sides on, Sister.”

“You know, for a minute when I first saw you, I thought you might be one of the school authorities.”

“I'm flattered.”

“You needn't be,” Sister Blessing said brusquely. “They're an officious, thick-headed lot. And the trouble they've caused poor Sister Contrition you wouldn't believe. It's no wonder she has as much difficulty with spiritual vibrations as I have.”

Quinn followed her outside. Brother Tongue of Prophets was dozing in his rocking chair under a madrone tree, little patches of sunlight glistening on his shaved head.

A short broad-shouldered woman came around the side of the building followed by a boy about eight, a girl a year or so older, and a young woman of sixteen or seventeen. They wore identical gray wool robes except that those of the two younger children reached just below the knees.

They went silently into the communal eating room, with only the young woman giving Quinn a brief questioning glance. Quinn returned the glance. The girl was pretty, with brilliant brown eyes and black wavy hair, but her skin was blotched with pimples.

“Sister Karma,” Sister Blessing said. “The poor girl has acne, no amount of prayer seems to help. Come along, and I'll show you where you're to sleep. You won't be comfort­able but then neither are we. Indulge the flesh, weaken the spirit. That's what you've always done, no doubt?”

“No doubt at all.”

“Doesn't it worry you? Aren't you afraid of what's com­ing?”

Quinn was more afraid of what might not be coming, money and a job. But all he said was, “I try not to worry about it.”

“You
must
worry, Mr. Quinn.”

“Very well, Sister, I will begin now.”

“You're joking again, aren't you? You're a very peculiar young man.” She looked down at her gray robe and at her bare feet, wide and flat and calloused. “I suppose I must seem peculiar to you, too. Be that as it may. I would rather seem peculiar in this world than in the next.” She added, “Amen,” as if to close the subject.

From the outside the storage room appeared to be a small replica of the other building. But inside, it was divided into compartments, each of them padlocked. One of the compart­ments had a small window and was furnished with a narrow iron cot with a thin gray mattress and a couple of blankets partially eaten by moths. Quinn felt the mattress with both hands. It was soft but without resilience.

“Hair,” Sister Blessing said. “The Brothers' hair. It was an experiment on the part of Sister Glory of the Ascension, she's very thrifty. Unfortunately, it attracts fleas. Are you sus­ceptible to fleas?”

“I'm susceptible to a lot of things, fleas are probably in­cluded.”

“Then I'll have Brother Light of the Infinite dose the mat­tress with sheep dip. First, you'd better test your susceptibility, though.”

“How do I do that?”

“Sit down and stay still for a few minutes.”

Quinn sat down on the cot and waited.

“Are you being bitten?” Sister Blessing said, after a time.

“I don't think so.”

“Well, do you feel anything?”

“Not even a vibration.”

“Perhaps we won't bother with the sheep dip, then. You might not like the smell, and poor Brother Light of the Infinite has enough to do.”

“As a matter of curiosity,” Quinn said, “how many people live here at the Tower?”

“Twenty-seven, right now. At one time there were nearly eighty, but some have strayed, some have died, some have lost faith. Now and then a new convert comes to us, perhaps just casually appears on the doorstep as you did. . . . Has it oc­curred to you that the Lord might have guided your footsteps here?”

“No.”

“Think about it.”

“I don't have to. I
know
how I got here. This man, New­houser, picked me up in Reno, said he was going to San Felice. That's what I understood anyway, but it turned out he meant —oh well, it doesn't matter.”

“It matters to me,” Sister Blessing said.

“How?”

BOOK: How Like an Angel
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