He looked awful. He wore his signature navy-blue captain’s hat, now more slate than navy; from beneath it, wispy strands of dingy gray hair hung almost to his shoulders. He was unshaven and disheveled, his old windbreaker hanging off of one shoulder. His swollen knuckles were wrapped around the knotted bunch of a ragged plaid lap blanket, a dark twin of the “kilt” I had worn on the streets of Anaheim a few days or years ago. His rheumy old pale blue eyes were magnified ridiculously by his big plastic-framed Harry Caray glasses. He seemed to have at least one foot, if not an entire leg, in the grave.
Pushing his wheelchair was a hooded figure who was positively glaring at me from beneath the dirty brown wool. He swung his eyes over to Gareth, then back to me. I’d seen this routine before; someone has just been told that Gareth and I are twins, and is now trying to reconcile the information and the evidence. In our case, seeing definitely was not believing. He cleared the doorway and stepped around from behind Merriman and up to Gareth. He pushed back his hood and leaned over to whisper a couple of words in my brother’s big furry ear. The first word was a nearly-reverential “Sir?”
Now I recognized him: the “Prime Ladderkeeper” from Nick’s nuthouse neighborhood lynch mob, Steve something-or-other. Davenport? He’d apparently lost his nerdy glasses sometime in the past few weeks, but it was him all right. He looked at me again, and now I saw the fear in his eyes. Of course, from his point-of-view, he really was seeing a ghost. “You,” he said. He blinked like a confused cartoon character. For a second I thought he was going to rub his eyes and do a triple-take. Apparently he’d either never seen The Chosen Show that Dad had mentioned, or his eyesight was so poor he’d never recognized me before. But he sure recognized me now.
I sat up straight. I wanted to stand, but my chain to the bed frame was too short. “Hello, Steve,” I said. “Does your new boss know you executed his grandfather?”
Nobody is harder to to surprise than Gareth, but this got an unguarded reaction: his eyes flared as his already ruddy face reddened. I heard Merriman mutter, “Oh, my God.”
Gareth took a step toward me and quietly said, “Tell me.”
Much as I relished putting Stevie’s head on the block, I couldn’t let Gareth think Papa Nick was dead. “Relax,” I said. “Junior here couldn’t mastermind a nap. Nick and I walked right out the back door before the house was even torched.”
Then Stevie lost his mind: “That’s not true! They were in the house! Tied up! We all watched it burn down! Nobody got out! Nobody could have!”
Gareth’s right arm swung around in a blur, and he suddenly had his huge mitt wrapped completely around Steve’s neck. I think it was entirely possible that he could have popped Stevie’s pointy little head clean off.
“Don’t do it, Gare,” I said, maybe a little half-heartedly. “After all, he didn’t know Nick was your grandfather. He just thought he was executing a ninety-year-old man for insulting his dear dead daddy.” Okay, so I might have been making it worse; Steve’s face was turning purple.
There was a sudden distant rumble, and the wood-frame house shook as it passed. Gareth let go; Stevie collapsed to the floor, gasping and sobbing all at once. Gareth yanked him back to his feet, likely dislocating the little creep’s shoulder in the process. Then he tore the brown robe from his scrawny frame. “Go,” he growled. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.”
Even I had to resist a shudder; Gareth didn’t utter such words lightly. Stevie risked one look of appeal to Merriman, who shook his head; then the pathetic bastard actually had the nerve to look at me. I think he was actually more afraid of me than he was of Gareth, which just proves he really was an idiot. Finally, clutching his mangled arm, he shuffled out the door, openly sobbing.
Gareth was still churning with rage; he turned to Merriman. “You knew nothing about this?”
“Of course not. You know damn well Nick Underhill is the only real friend I’ve ever had. Don’t try to put that little toady’s nonsense off on me. I’ve told you a hundred times that the True Believers are dangerous.”
“So you have.” He reached out and took Millicent’s hand; as she stood he turned back to me. He opened his mouth to speak, then changed his mind, just shaking his head. He didn’t need to speak; he had plainly just said, Well played, Brother. He nodded at TJ, who ducked out first, and then he and Mils swept out the door, pulling it closed behind them.
I looked at Merriman. “So. You got babysitting duty?”
He laughed, which had a rattling, tubercular edge to it. “Hey, welcome to the Monkey House. I for one am not sure who’s babysitting whom here, are you?”
“Well, I’m the one chained to the bed.”
He tossed off his lap blanket, kicked his footrests out of the way and stood up, only wobbling a little. “Hell, we can fix that,” he said. There was a little table next to Millicent’s chair. He reached into an ashtray, fished out a key and tossed it to me. “Here you go,” he said. He sat in the chair, then patted his pockets, coming up with a pack of Lucky Strikes and a plastic lighter. “Mind if I smoke?” he said, lighting up.
Merriman had supposedly given up smoking decades ago, part of his Scientificist leadership. “I thought you gave those up. Something about poisoning your Eudynamic aura,” I said as I unlocked my cuffs.
“Please. I know you know I don’t believe any of that bullshit.” He inhaled deeply, and oddly his breathing seemed to improve. “It ain’t been easy, chain-smoking in secret for thirty years. One good reason for the hermit bit. Just had to convince a few True Believers that I was smoking so they wouldn’t have to anymore. I haven’t paid for a smoke since Reagan was president. You?”
“Never took it up.”
“Which is why you’re not the one dying of cancer. Good for you.” He took another drag. “The day before these so-called Angels came, my oncologist washed his hands. Said I had maybe six weeks to live. When I held his feet to the fire, he admitted it might be more like six days.” Now he coughed; it was an awful ordeal that seemed to drag on for several minutes. “So I really am on borrowed time,” he said finally. “Cancer of the Everything.” Another big cough. “Can’t really complain, though. It’s been a good run. I never caught up with Asimov, but I wrote a lot of books, a couple of hundred at least. And the Good Doctor never invented a brand-new bona-fide religion. So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”
I shook my head. Here I sat in a tin-foil-lined house, listening to a man that hundreds of thousands considered the greatest prophet since Moses quote Caddyshack to me. Surreal? I don’t think the word has any meaning for me anymore.
Still on the Caddyshack theme, he said, “I really did meet the Dalai Lama once, you know. He is indeed very serene. The Pope, not so much. Not that I ever met one; they all considered Scientificism the Devil’s work. Met every President since Nixon, too. Reagan told me he loved my Westerns; compared ’em to Louis L’Amour, which was quite a compliment. Bullshit, of course, but flattery always is. Clinton claimed he liked my Detective stuff. Carter was no fan, which only shows he had some taste.” He took another drag, then used the butt to light another, only wheezing a little this time.
“I was a big fan of your science fiction,” I said. “Grew up on it. The Nudist Colony was one of my favorite books.”
“When you were what, fourteen years old?” I nodded. “Perfect. Hell, I only wrote that one to piss off Heinlein. He kept yammering about this world with three genders where no one wore clothes... So I stole it from him. Made a fortune, because of all you fourteen year old boys. But it wasn’t my usual crap. I actually had to work on that one.”
“Well, I don’t see how anybody manages to write a hundred books. I started a novel five years ago, and still haven’t finished it.”
“Which shows that a) you give a shit about the book you’re writing, and b) you don’t type all that fast.” I admitted I was writing by hand on legal pads. “Then you’re an idiot! Listen: when I was starting out, a penny per word was the going rate for pulp fiction, the paperback crap. When I heard that, I did the math and figured out that at sixty words a minute, that was thirty-six bucks an hour! Man, I never looked back. The trick is to make up the story as fast as you can type. I mean, come on, it just ain’t that hard! You want a Western, you set up your town or ranch or whatever, and you have a stranger ride in—the stranger can be a good guy or a bad guy, doesn’t matter; if it’s a bad guy, then there’s a local misfit who’s eventually gonna stand up to him; the other way around it’s a local bully versus the good-guy stranger. If you want a longer book, hell, just mix ’em both in there. Either way, there’s a girl; she’s in some kinda trouble. There’ll be a huge misunderstanding at some point, but it all works out, and sometimes the hero stays, and sometimes he rides off into the sunset. Take that same story and set it on the moons of Saturn, and you got yourself a good old-fashioned Sci-Fi space-opera. Take that same story again and set it on a Southern plantation or an Italian villa or something, and you got yourself a Romance—”
“Hold on! You never wrote any Romances.”
“Merriman never wrote a Romance, true. Ever hear of Daphne Fairhope?” I admitted that I had. “Well, you’re lookin’ at her. Wrote at least eighteen or twenty books under that name and put in her bio that she was pathologically agoraphobic so we wouldn’t have to tour. I got sympathy letters that’d break your heart.”
I said, “It can’t be that simple.”
“Kid, I’m tellin’ you. I once did exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Just to see if I could, I wrote the same story and published it under different names as a Western, a Mystery, a Sci-Fi, a Romance; I even threw in some dragons and made it a Fantasy. I was gonna dumb it down and do it as an illustrated kids’ book, but I couldn’t find an artist I liked. Every one of those books made piles of money; hell’s bells, it even came out that I’d written most of them, and we reissued and made even more money!”
He paused for another coughing fit. When he was breathing again, I asked, “So why Scientificism?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Your grandfather and I were on a three-week drunk down in Mexico someplace; I had my portable Smith-Corona with me, planning to do some bullshit Hemingway thing I guess, but when I sobered up I had a satchel full of Eudynamics. It was probably all Nick’s idea. As you may have gathered, I’m not all that scrupulous on the whole intellectual property thing. Sue me, that’s my motto.”
“And all this APAFA business?”
“Hey, that’s your brother’s gig. As I said, I’m just a figurehead, along for the ride while the ride lasts.”
“So you’re not impressed by your own prophecies coming true?”
He laughed and coughed and laughed and coughed some more. Tears ran down his face as he said, “Haven’t you been paying attention, kid? I never prophesied anything. I took a little Bible here and a little Cabalism there, maybe a little Buddhism or whatever, stole the plot of Childhood’s End, put it all in a blender with Dale Carnegie and a double-shot of pseudo-scientific bullshit and proclaimed it all a profound new religion. It was a joke, son! Supposed to be the greatest satire since Gulliver’s Travels! How was I to know people were stupid enough to believe it?” He shook his head as he lit another cigarette. “But you know what Bob Heinlein always said: ‘Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.’ After a while, it just took on a life of its own. If I tried to deny it all, I was just testing their faith. If I babbled meaningless gibberish, I was speaking the language of the Cosmos. Finally, I just had to go with it.” He suppressed another coughing jag.
“Listen, no one was more surprised than I was when these so-called Angels, whatever they are, turned up. And when your brother showed up at my door and asked me to help organize a Resistance, I told him not only no, but hell no. But he wouldn’t take hell no for an answer. And if he can use my name to rally people to the cause of chasing these big bastards back to wherever they came from, well, more power to him. I won’t be around to see it, but—Well, maybe that’s a better legacy than World’s Greatest Humbug.”
Genuine contrition? Self-pity? Or just more bullshit? It was hard to tell, but my money was on the bullshit.
There was some noise on the other side of the door, and another robed figure, this one a middle-aged woman, opened the door and shouted, “The Angels just blew up the Golden Gate Bridge!”
She slammed the door and continued down the hall, shouting the muffled news over and over again. I realized that that must have been the big explosion we’d heard and felt a few minutes earlier. I looked back at Merriman, who sat with his eyes closed. He wasn’t napping; he was taking this news in, and he wasn’t at all surprised. “Angels blew up the Golden Gate Bridge?” I mused aloud. “Now why would they do that?”
Without opening his eyes he said in a low tone. “They wouldn’t.” He looked up at me. “I tried to talk him out of it. TJ and the other Ishim provided the explosives. Everyone will believe the Angels destroyed the bridge. If they deny it, those same people will believe the Angels are lying. Gareth wants everyone to hate them as much as he does.”
This obvious truth hadn’t occurred to me before—Gareth was way beyond “defiant.” He hated the Angels. Why? Unlike Millicent and millions of others, he hadn’t lost any close loved ones because of them. What made his hatred burn so hot? I could only think of his take on Shamu: Gareth just wasn’t going to jump for his fish, no matter what.
At that moment he opened the door. “Everybody up and at ’em!” he proclaimed. He tossed one of the dirty brown monk’s robes and a pair of sandals at me. “Put these on,” he barked. Millicent and two or three robed toadies were in his wake. Mils went over to a closet and started handing out shotguns and boxes of shells as I slid into the smelly oversized robe.
We weren’t moving fast enough for Gareth. “Come on, people, this is not a drill! Let’s go, go, go! Steer off to the Wick!” His face had a feverish glow as he grinned his apish grin. “It’s show time!”