Authors: John Farris
Another helicopter, twin of the first one, had arrived on the scene. In the front seat of the Taurus Deputy Humbard looked up, shielding her eyes with one hand, then looked at the sheriff.
"McLain," he said, shrugging. "There's some McLains in Moby Bay. One's a painter, I think. I remember admiring his seascapes when we were there a few months back. But his price was a little too steep for me and the woman."
ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND â¢ MAY 29 â¢ 4:20 P.M. EDT
he red-haired man had been waiting in the shadowed study of the rectory of Immaculate Conception Church in suburban Washington for about fifteen minutes when the priest, Father Giles Ducannon, walked in with an apologetic smile.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr.... Barnes, is it?"
"Joe Barnes," Victor Wilding said, rising from his seat but not offering his hand. He was holding his Bible, an expensively bound new standard version. "It's very good of you to see me on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays must be your busiest time."
"Actually, no. Apart from saying early Mass and confessionals before the ten-thirty Mass, I don't have much else to do. Catch up on my reading, work on my short game on the putting green out back. I'll be umpiring girls' softball at five. But I'm always available for home or hospital visits or to hear confession."
He looked expectantly at Wilding. Ducannon was a burly man of middle age, built like a medieval siege machine. He was going bald. The hair he had left was like rust around his ears and down his jawline, spurred sideburns. He wore wire-rim glasses with round tinted lenses the color of a harvest moon.
"I'm not Catholic."
"I see." Ducannon glanced at the Bible. "But perhaps you have some questions for me?"
"Yes, I do."
"I hope I can help you. Would you like tea, or coffee?"
The focal point of the study was an alabaster statue of the Virgin, life-size, Mary looking not much older than fifteen. In her soft amaze, she glowed like the depths of a diamond. Wilding's eyes were drawn to the Virgin again. He declined refreshment. The priest suggested with a gesture and a smile that they sit down.
"Was she the perfect woman?" Wilding asked.
"For us, yes. I'm a Marist father. The Society of Mary."
"Could there have been a virgin birth?"
"Once, and only once."
"I'm not doubting it. Doesn't seem strange at all to me."
Ducannon nodded encouragingly.
"I think I ought to tell you. Barnes isn't my name. There are reasons why I can't tell you who I am."
Ducannon nodded, cautiously considering his next question.
"Have you committed a crime?"
"I'm not charged with any crime. I'm not a fugitive."
"All right," the priest said, after a few moments. "Why don't we go on, then? To be charged with a crime means that a crime has become known to certain authorities."
"Yes." Wilding's eyes skipped around, came to rest, inevitably, on the polar whiteness of the Virgin. "I am, let's say, a man of authority myself.
The ordinary laws don't apply to me."
"But there is only one Final Authority. God the Almighty."
"I'm willing to believe that."
"Have you committed a crime that you want to confess to God, and ease the burden on your soul?"
"There are two problems with that. Saying that I've committed a crime is like saying Pol Pot had lapses of taste. And this business of souls. I don't have one."
"All of God's children have souls."
"I told you. The ordinary laws don't apply."
"God's laws are immutable. Nothing has changed on this earth since He made it. We all have a history of sin and guilt, suffering and redemption through His grace. Our streams and oceans are salted with the tears of the common misery and a longing for peace; the air is filled with cries and prayers, the dialogue of unbearable solitude. These are the sounds and wounds that time repeats, endlessly, while playing no favorites. Are you dying?"
"I don't know. I think I am."
"And you're afraid."
"The light's too bright in here. Can you do something?"
"The only light is the light of the most holy Virgin. Her light has never dimmed; nor will it ever go out. I've observed that you haven't been able to take your eyes off Her."
"I didn't have a mother."
"You were an orphan?"
"Not in any sense you can understand. Can we talk about the soul?"
"According to natural or, I suppose, spiritual law, if a woman gives birth to you, you are born with a soul."
"There are good souls and bad souls."
"Debatable. And I admit that I have problems with the actuality of theological hell. No matter, God cherishes all souls. As does our beloved Mary.
And salvation is easily within the grasp of all men." Wilding was perspiring heavily, rubbing his hand across his mouth. Ducannon looked concerned. "Are you sick?"
is. Failing badly. He might die any day."
"Who are you talking about?"
"My fa-fa-fa-therrr. In a manner of speaking. The one who created me."
"God the Father? But God is Eternal."
. Robin Sandza had the powers of a god, but he was only fifteen when heâwhen IâI
. Was made. From nothing, from his left-handed art. Not so much as a borrowed rib bone. Or a shadow."
"Your Bible will tell youâ"
A look of strident anxiety came and went in Wilding's eyes.
"Hebrews 11:3. 'The universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.'
was a thought that took on flesh, made in his image, and consigned to my appointed sins. Are you a drinking man, Father? I've always appreciated a shot of Irish for calming the nerves."
"Why, yes. That might beâif you would excuse me for just aâ" Wilding reacted with a violent start, not overtly menacing but scary just the same.
"Never mind! Stay put. Don't try to call anyone. I'm
insane. I only wantânot to die. To go on. I want to be in the company of the undying."
Ducannon eased back into his seat, focused intently on Wilding, biting his underlip with gold-reinforced teeth.
"Then you must confess your sins to God. Set yourself free."
"Am I a man? Or do I only look like a man?"
"You are a man. One greatly in need of relief from suffering, whatever the nature ofâ"
Wilding put his Bible on his knees, picked up a letter opener from a table beside his chair, and plunged the point into the palm of his left hand, hard enough to cause blood to squirt. Ducannon looked appalled.
Wilding let the letter opener fall to the floor and clenched his wounded hand tightly. "Do I bleed like a man? I bleed, I feel pain. I get wet when it rains. I have my highs and lows. I love sex. In case you were wondering. I might even be able to conceive a child. I'm not just a neutered replica, a damn donkey!" Wilding hunched forward to the edge of his chair. "But I don't have a soul. Robin couldn't give me that! Without a soul there's no connectionânot to man, God, Eternity. You don't believe in hell? The fire ever after? I'll take hell! I'll take it, because at least it's
. Hell is not nothing. Hell is
. Hell would be a blessing for me, because I won't just disappear when
creator takes his last breath." He glanced at his outthrust fist. His French cuff was turning red. "Oh, am I dripping on the carpet? Sorry."
Ducannon had his handkerchief out. "Let me take care of that for you, Mr.... are you still unwilling to tell me your name?"
"Call me Vic," Wilding said wearily. His eyes went around to the Virgin as the priest bound his wound and tied a knot in the handkerchief.
"You should have this looked atâVic. When you leave. Why don't you let me drive you to a hospital?"
"St. Elizabeth's, maybe? The nuthatch? I'm not falling for that one, Father."
"I'm only concerned about the severity ofâ"
"The bleeding's almost stopped. I'm too impulsive, sometimes. But I've done worse to myself. That's our little secret. In an hour there won't be a trace of the wound. I heal fast. Don't worry about the carpet. It's not ruined. My blood just goes away." Wilding stood. Ducannon stared up at him. Wilding said, "There'll be a check in the mail, couple of days. A nice little contribution. Church can always use an extra five or ten, I guess. Listen, I'm better now. Really. A man in my position doesn't have anyone he can confide in. Maybe we could meet again. Maybe if IâI don't know. Took some vows, or something. While there's still time."
"God is always listening."
"I needâneed a way out, Father."
"You have made that very clear to me, Vic."
VALLEYHEART, CALIFORNIA â¢ MAY 29 â¢ 2:44 P.M. PDT
den Waring's doppelganger, drying off in the sun, stood with hands on her invisible hips watching the FBI guys jog across the bridge toward the roadblock. The other stealth helicopter was banking for a landing on a Little League ball field a couple of hundred yards downriver.
If anyone had been looking her way, they would have seen only drops of water hovering in the air. A few of the drops were moving slowly downward, sliding as if on a sheet of glass, occasionally splashing to the ground. But this phenomenon went as unnoticed as a swarm of gnats against a background of trees of different hues like a mixed-green salad.
She was trying to decide what to do next, mindful that she had left Geoff McTyer hangingâliterallyâbelow the mountain road three-quarters of a mile uphill. It might not be too long before the sheriff, or whoever was going to be in charge, sent a search team back up the road. Another distraction was called for.
Both of the SUV units that formed the roadblock were parked facing the town. The sheriff and his deputies stood behind the Explorers, watching the FBI team approach them, watching the second helicopter above the treetops.
Five vehicles in all, counting Geoff's Taurus and the two highway patrol units. And two helicopters. There were also a couple of cars and a van waiting on the town side of the bridge to get across, and the roadblock had stopped, so far, a camper, a pickup truck, and a church bus filled with raucous kids, most of them hanging out the windows. There was some traffic on the river too, canoes passing beneath the bridge.
The man who seemed to be boss of the FBI team took the sheriff aside. Two agents looked over Geoff's Taurus. Another one got behind the wheel of one of the SUVs and drove back across the bridge, apparently on his way to the ball field to meet the incoming chopper. The sheriff looked a little miffed. Eden Waring's doppelganger moved closer to eavesdrop. "James Brooker, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco field office. You're Sheriff Udale?"
"Jones. Udall's my first name, that's with two ls."
"Right. Do you have the girl and her boyfriend in custody, Sheriff?"
"No. She was alone in the car when we stopped her. She said he was in the trunk with a shotgun, but that turned out not to be true. It was just a diversionary tactic on her part. But it got our attention. She slipped out of my deputy's grasp before she could be handcuffed, ran to the river, and jumped in with no hesitation. We haven't seen her since."
"Could she have drowned?"
"Not likely. Water's clear and not deep. Plenty of people saw her jump in. Then she climbed out of the river under the bridge and took her wet clothes off. That's her jersey lying there on the hood of the Taurus."
"Took her clothes off? You mean stripped naked?"
"That is how it appears to us. She wasn't wearing all that much to begin with."
"A young woman in her birthday suit, and still she got away with all these town folk hanging around gawking? That doesn't make sense to me, Sheriff Udall."
"Jones. It's Jones. I'm only telling you what we've observed and what we believe to be true."
"But you don't know where the young man is either, since he didn't pop up from the trunk of that car?"
"Probably got out up the mountain a ways."
"You send some deputies back along the road to look for him?"
"No, sir. We thought he was in theâ"
"Want to do that for me now, Sheriff? Since there seems to be no immediate danger in this area."
"All right. What if we find him, and he does have a shotgun?"
"Sheriff UâJones. That young man is very valuable to us. If any harm comes to him, I promise we will render your ass and turn your testicles into blue-ribbon nut butter. Inform your deputies, Sheriff Jones."
The sheriff shrugged and dispatched two deputies in the other SUV, sent Rachael Humbard and a highway patrolman down to the river again to see what might have been overlooked. Special Agent Brooker pressed the send key on his walkie and ordered the helicopter parked in front of the Chevron station back into the air. Eden Waring's dpg walked behind him to the bridge and started across. Now that the helicopter was no longer blocking the way, it was time for the merry chase she'd been cooking up.