Read Wild Cards: Death Draws Five Online

Authors: John J. Miller,George R.R. Martin

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General, #Fantasy, #Heroes, #General, #Fantasy - Contemporary

Wild Cards: Death Draws Five (32 page)

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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“Say,” Jerry said. “Isn’t that ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Angel said. “It sounds like rock and roll and I know nothing about the Devil’s music.”

“Oh, lighten up for once, would you?”

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Angel said. “It will be dangerous for both our bodies and our souls.”

“Yeah, well, we have to check them out. We’ll get a gander at their service. Ask a few questions. Maybe slip Uzziah a couple more twenties to take care of the damage you did to their larder—”

“You ate their food as well!” Angel said, stung.

Jerry sighed. She seemed to be one of those women who didn’t respond well to criticism, no matter how mild. “Let’s not go comparing who did what to the refrigerator, all right?” Jerry said.

Angel was reluctant, but she followed him. As they ambled up the hill to the church, Jerry noticed an oddly-decorated tree standing off by itself. He wasn’t sure what kind of tree it was. It had bottles of all colors, shapes, and sizes tied to its branches by strips of cloth. The bottles hung close enough together that when a wind blew they jangled softly against each other, making an odd, strangely pleasing music that could be heard even above the wailing tones of the electric guitar.

“What is that thing?” he asked, wondering.

“It’s a Spirit Tree,” Angel said.

“Spirit Tree?”

She nodded. “That’s what I said.” They stopped to look at it for a moment. “They’re common down South, but then so are snake cults. I ‘spect these people came up from somewhere near the Appalachians, bringing their snakes and Spirit Trees with them.”

“What’s it supposed to do?” Jerry asked.

Angel reached up and touched a cobalt blue bottle that had once held a stomach tonic, looking at it as if it contained the secrets of the universe. “Oh, the noise they make in the wind is supposed to scare away ghosts. Or maybe catch them if they get too close.” She let go of the bottle and it swung back, tinkling softly as it glanced against one of its fellows. “Anyway, that’s the foolish superstition. Come on,” she said, as if suddenly galvanized. “We’re missing the beginning of the service.”

They went on up to the church where they found seats in one of the back pews. It was already filling up. There were maybe thirty people inside with a dozen or more still filing in. The wooden pews were skillfully handcrafted. The floor was laid wooden planks, polished, and cleanly swept. The church’s interior was whitewashed plaster. The walls were unadorned except for some folksy portraits of Jesus Christ, most of which concentrated on the more gruesome aspects of His life. Christ scourged. Christ crucified. Christ with the crown of thorns. Most of the images made Jerry shudder. They resembled scenes more suitable for horror movies than a church, though he wasn’t really familiar with anything but the staid upper-class Protestant services he’d largely abandoned once he became an adult.

A simple plank altar stood against the rear wall. Before the altar was a wooden podium, hanging on the wall behind it was a nicely executed wooden statue of Christ on the cross. Even from their vantage point in the back, Jerry could see the agony on Christ’s face, the pain in his thin, rope-muscled body as it hung from the nails driven through his mutilated palms. It was a powerful if morbid bit of folk art. It seemed to hit Angel even harder. She stared at it from her knees on the pew’s unpadded rail, her lips moving in mumbled prayer.

The band was to the left of the podium. Daddy was playing the guitar, a shiny red Fender that looked like it would be far more at home in places where they played the Devil’s music that Angel so abjured. He wasn’t bad. Daddy caught Jerry’s eye, smiled, and briefly waved at him. Jerry waved back. He seems like a nice enough guy, Jerry thought. He sure raises some great-tasting vegetables.

The rest of the band was musically less certain. A teenaged boy sat behind a scanty drum set that consisted of a base and a couple of snares. A couple of women beat raggedly on tambourines, and a geezer had a big pair of cymbals that he whacked together at seemingly random intervals. He did seem to be having fun, as did the rest of the congregation. They were singing the lyrics to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

“I told you that’s what the song was,” Jerry whispered to Angel, who had stopped praying, but was still kneeling on the rail, her clasped hands resting on the pew in front of them. She looked around as if she’d found herself suddenly cast into the lion’s den.

Daddy, apparently leading the band, segued into a rocking version of “I Saw The Light,” which the congregation took up without missing a beat.

It was hot inside the little wood structure, and crowded. The pew where Jerry and Angel sat was full, as were most in the small church. The congregation, the men dressed in worn jeans or stiff polyester pants and neatly pressed shirts buttoned up to their necks, the women in ankle-length dresses with lace collars and tiny flower prints and sensible black shoes, were singing and clapping along enthusiastically with the band, when Uzziah made his entrance.

He walked quietly down the center aisle while Daddy led the congregation through one more chorus of “I Saw The Light,” a worn black Bible in one hand and a long, narrow wooden box carried by a leather strap in the other. He reached the podium, put his Bible down, and went to the altar and set the wooden box upon it as the congregation’s sing-a-long ground to a ragged but cheerful halt.

Uzziah looked out upon the congregation, a thoughtfully serious expression on his lined, darkly tanned face. “Ain’t it hot in here?” he asked in a soft voice than nonetheless penetrated to every corner of the suddenly quiet church.

Somehow Jerry didn’t think that he was talking about the weather.

“I said,” Uzziah said again, “ain’t it hot in here?”

This time a chorus of “Yes,” and “Amen” burst out from the congregation. Jerry looked around out of the corner of his eyes. A growing rapture was evident on many of the faces surrounding him as Uzziah opened his Bible and read the first thing his eyes seemed to strike on the page.

“ ‘And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out Devils; they shall speak with new tongues’—”

Uzziah paused briefly and there was a sudden great intake of breath as if everyone knew what was coming next. When he spoke again his voice was raised, was exulted like the roar of a lion, though he seemed to put no more effort into these words than those that had come before.

“—‘THEY SHALL TAKE UP SERPENTS’—”

Pandemonium swept through the church like a whirlwind, leaving in its wake shouting, stamping, singing, crying people as Mushroom Daddy led the ragged band through a very up-tempo version of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” The energy and power exhibited by the tiny congregation was almost frightening. Jerry had never seen anything like it before. Everything that had previously transpired was the merest warm-up. It damn well was hot in there.

He glanced at Angel, and suddenly froze at the look on her face. Her features were stiff and wooden, as if paralyzed, with her eyes bulging and her teeth clenched and showing in the dead rictus smile of her mouth. A line of spittle ran down her chin. Jerry wondered if she’d had a seizure of some kind, and then she began to speak like a meth freak who’d mixed his speed with acid. Jerry couldn’t understand the rapid-fire words she spit from her mouth. He didn’t even know what language they were in.

Tongues, he thought dazedly. She’s speaking in tongues.

He looked around wildly, wondering what he should do. The others in their pew watched with interest but no special concern, as if this was not a terribly unusual occurrence. Jerry supposed that it wasn’t.

One man marched up and down the aisles like a wind-up toy, loudly proclaiming his love for Jesus while clapping his hands almost in rhythm with the band. Others prayed or testified in loud voices. In front of the congregation, near the simple altar, Uzziah opened the long narrow box and took out a snake.

It was a thick, gray-mottled four foot long serpent that he held fearlessly in his hands, its rattles buzzing with a determined noise that could be heard over the band playing, the congregation singing and praying, and Angel loudly proclaiming in tongues. Uzziah held it behind its head with his right hand and supported the rest of its thick, coiled body with his left, its face so close to his own that its flickering tongue caressed his lips with its questing touch.

Jerry suddenly felt that they should get out of there. He knew that he had to get Angel’s attention. He had read somewhere that it was dangerous to try to wake sleepwalkers. He hoped that the same wasn’t true of tongue-talkers.

He gripped her upper arms and tried to turn her to face him in the pew. “Angel!” Briefly he considered slapping her face, then thought better of it and tried to shake her out of her trance. “Angel! It’s Jerry—” Christ! He had forgotten what name she knew him by. “Jerry Creighton!” he amended swiftly. “Snap out of it! You’ve got—”

Her eyes focused on his, without a hint of recognition in them. Only anger.

“Shit,” Jerry said.

Angel shrugged, easily breaking his grip. He reached out to her and she grabbed his arm, pivoted, and threw him against the wall. She flung out her other arm, caught the pew’s backrest and shattered it into kindling. The people around them scattered as splinters flew among them like shrapnel. The band ground to an uncertain halt.

Apparently, Jerry thought as he crouched on the polished wooden floor, this was an unusual occurrence, even by their standards. He took a deep breath. Nothing was broken, though he’d hit the wall with the impact of a multi-story fall onto concrete. Fortunately, due to his wild card power, his bones were rather flexible.

He looked up to see Angel panting and staring at him. In other circumstances it might have been arousing. But her stare was fixed and it seemed that she was panting with anger, not passion. She launched herself at him, and Jerry did the only thing he could think of to possibly ensure his survival.

He curled up on the floor in a ball, his face buried in the crook of his elbows, his hands protecting his head, his knees tight against his gut. He felt something go by him like a train in the night and there was a mighty crash as Angel smashed through the church’s wall.

“Jesus Christ,” Jerry whispered, as if he was praying or cursing.

“Hey, man, you all right?” a concerned voice asked.

He didn’t have to turn around to realize who it was as Mushroom Daddy’s clinging aura of essence of marijuana announced his presence.

“Yeah,” Jerry said. “I guess.”

“Let me help you up, man.”

He gripped Daddy’s offered hand and the hippie hauled him to his feet. He clung to him for a moment until his head cleared. They both watched Angel run through the settlement, then stop suddenly and reverse her field.

“She’s coming back,” Jerry said. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

They watched in silence for a moment, then Daddy shouted, “No she’s not, man! She’s stealing my van! She’s stealing my frigging van, man! Man, that’s so not-cool!”

They watched in astonishment as Angel flung the van’s driver side door open and vaulted into the driver’s seat.

“How’d she start it without the key?” Jerry wondered out loud as the engine roared into life.

“The key’s in the ignition, man, where I always leave it.”

Jerry looked at him.

“What?” Daddy said. “We’re in the country man! Nobody steals shit here. Everyone’s, like, all honest and cool, man. Besides, before I thought about keeping it in the ignition I kept forgetting where I’d put it and then I’d have to go all the way to Middletown to have a duplicate made. Oh, man!”

He said the last in a disgusted voice as the chugging motor finally caught and Angel spun the wheel and roared down the unpaved road, kicking up a spray of dirt and gravel like a contrail in her wake.

Jerry sighed deeply. He turned around. Everyone in the congregation was staring at him, even the rattlesnake who was draped around Uzziah’s shoulders like a feather boa. The snake, in fact, had possibly the friendliest expression in the whole group.

“Sorry,” Jerry said with a tentative smile that no one, not even Mushroom Daddy, returned.

♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

New Hampton: the Snake-Handlers’ Commune

This has been an unsettling experience all around, the Angel thought. She’d felt odd ever since getting out of the hippie’s van, but had turned away the strangeness with vast quantities of the snake-handlers’ unbelievably excellent food. She felt better after eating, but now she realized that she should have resisted Creighton’s notion to attend the ophiolatrists’ services. She wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with what went on in their places of worship. He mother had taken her along when she’d attended several such churches during her quest for spiritual enlightenment. They had also frightened her. The loud music. The crazed testifying. Tonight, for some reason, she felt herself terribly susceptible to their call.

She prayed to the Lord for strength to remain calm. But for some reason he chose to deny her prayer. Part of her watched in horror as some strange spirit rose up in her and she heard herself confessing her sins, her wanton desires, fortunately speaking in no language of Earth. Which, when she thought about it, frightened her even more.

Then she heard the Voice.

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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