Ralph looked at the floor and shook his head when he lumbered back into The Lines editorial offices. Nodding at Francois, he plopped into his chair, slumped in front of the computer, and his fleshy cheeks billowed till he looked much like an over-fed blow-fish. He sighed. His heavy sweat smelled to Francois like a car’s exhaust.
Francois twitched his nose and watched Ralph, who now stared at uneven stacks of paper on his desk. The skinny Frenchman spoke just above a whisper. “What is it? A man who has just seen his wife should be overjoyed.”
“Yeah.” Ralph lowered his gravelly voice and shoved a paper clip toward his monitor. “It was good seeing Shirley. But, I dunno.” He sighed.
“She was not happy to see you?” Francois watched Ralph’s face for tells. Could the couple’s marriage be in trouble? he wondered.
“Overjoyed.” He smiled slightly. “But oh, so ticked off. Bonnie made her wait outside. Shirley felt like she’d been treated like a criminal. And in a way, she was. That ain’t no way to treat an employee’s wife.”
“Security’s important here.”
“Wasn’t like she didn’t have an ID or something.” Ralph sighed again, leaned back in his chair and dabbed rivulets of sweat from his forehead. “I dunno. This afternoon, I just want to go home, to be with Shirley the way we were.”
“But you weren’t enlightened then—you didn’t know your life’s purpose.”
“I dunno. Maybe my life’s purpose is just to live in Denver with Shirley and forget all this stuff. Besides, Shirley says The Movement is Satanic.”
“What?” Francois frowned, squinted, and leaned across his desk. “Where did she come up with such an idea?”
Without moving or changing his expression, Ralph glanced up at him. “From your wife.”
Francois leaned back in his chair. “Lynette wouldn’—” He cleared his throat. “Maybe you need to keep closer tabs on Shirley.”
Ralph furrowed his forehead. “Whaddaya mean? Maybe she’s right.”
“Shhush.” Francois drew closer to Ralph again. He worried that someone had heard his friend, and he glanced around the room. “Don’t say that. And don’t even consider the thought. Shirley—and perhaps Lynette have been prey to evil influences. Perhaps they’ve been watching too much TV. Or maybe they’ve read the wrong books. This is likely a Communist conspiracy. Did you see anybody near them?”
“Well, no. Lynette had left to go to The Watergate with some quiet broad. Shirley said she was a poet.”
Francois sighed and crossed his arms. “That’s it. Probably a socialist. Many poets are.”
Ralph frowned. Veins in his forehead formed a thick V. “Cripes, Francois. You’re paranoid. Shirley said the woman’s just a teacher and a poet from Kansas City—I mean, Kansas City. They hate socialists there. They just hooked up with her in The Hecht Company’s restroom. The poet’s very religious and has read the Bible a lot. They ran into her by accident and started yapping. You know how women are.”
Francois lifted his chin. “That’s the problem.” He knew he had to be firm with his friend. “Women usually talk too much. You never know.” He sniffed. “Such things happen.”
Ralph scowled again. “Talk about keeping closer tabs on my wife—you haven’t even seen Lynette.”
“We have reservations for a charming dinner date. Besides, I’ve been training Lynette, as The Divine Principality recommends, to put The Movement first. And Lynette may dislike The Reverend, but she wouldn’t dare suggest he’s Satanic. I think that’s Shirley’s interpretation.” He pushed away from his desk, stood, then clapped Ralph on the back. “Let’s not fight, my friend. We want no division. The enemy wants to divide us. Poor Shirley and Lynette are victims. They’ve been infiltrated by some negative influence, whether it’s Communist, socialist, or whatever. So we must fight their battles for them.”
Ralph shot him a withered look: his cheeks sagged, and his forehead wrinkled again. “How? When we’re here and they’re there?”
“Ah ha!” Francois smiled. “The Movement has people everywhere. The Reverend knows Lynette likes to read, and we must be careful what our spouses read. So we help them. There’s a librarian who works near our home in Denver. She’s a Uni. And part of her duties are to keep tabs on Lynette. In fact, she slipped a transmitter into Lynette’s purse. To hide it, she stuck it inside the lining. Now she can track Lynette anywhere in the city. She keeps my wife out of trouble—away from evil influences. I’m surprised The Reverend hasn’t set up a guardian for Shirley.”
“Well, she don’t read much.” Ralph grimaced. “Guess they’d need to grab a store clerk to track her.” Then he chuckled. “Or maybe a waiter in a few of the best restaurants.” He continued chuckling. “Shirley would drive anyone crazy who tried to keep tabs on her. I can just see it.”
He tapped Francois’s desk, turned, and sauntered back to his. But his feelings about The Reverend—indeed the Movement had shifted, albeit almost imperceptibly. Even if Shirley were a tad zany, sometimes a laughable character, she remained his wife. And Beth had no reason to act so condescending toward her. It wasn’t respectful. And he’d never heard of any secretary for any religious or charitable group treating one of the member’s spouses in such a way, not when the spouse had done nothing to merit such slights. Something indeed, was rotten here.