A second or two ticked by with no sound but the crackling of the bonfire. Then the crowd found its voice and started loudly chanting for my death. At first it was a bit ragged, but soon they pulled together: “Kill-him! Kill-him! Kill-him!” in a steady beat.
I opened my eyes. Again Steve raised his hands for silence.
“Take him to his grandfather,” he said simply to the Cowboys. But his tone said, “Off with his head.”
So I was marched around the bonfire as some of the crowd positioned themselves for an impromptu gauntlet. Mostly they were trying to spit on me, but the majority missed. I imagined that some little Jimmy or Billy or whatever had been sent back to the house for some eggs or tomatoes, but if so he didn’t make it back in time. I did get some fresh bruises in my ribs from the Cowboys though, as they prodded me up Papa Nick’s front walk, past the eucalyptus trees and through the wide-open front door.
There was no living room furniture; it had no doubt fed the fire, which now provided an eerie illumination through the curtain-less bay window. The hardwood floors were covered wall to wall with corpses, at least a dozen or so. This group wasn’t shrouded, and many still had puddles of blood beneath their noses. I looked for Nick among them, but he wasn’t there. They had been freshly soaked down with gasoline. In fact, gasoline was dripping down the walls, and at least half a dozen five-gallon cans were stacked in one corner. The smell was overpowering. I was beginning to get the picture: I had a front-row seat at a mass cremation.
I was shoved on past the makeshift morgue into the kitchen, which had been thoroughly ransacked as well. There was a hurricane lamp on the stove providing light. Nick sat on the floor, his back to the cabinets under the sink, his hands obviously tied behind his back. He looked up at me and grinned, the old fool. “Hey, Sparky,” he said, as if he was expecting me. “Welcome to Hell.”
I finally got a look at my Cowboy Extras as they used some phone cord to tie my hands behind my back as well, then gave me a shove to plop me down next to Nick. They didn’t much look their parts. Both of them might have been schoolteachers or used car salesmen; they didn’t look like proper henchmen. I tried reasoning with them before they left. “Come on, guys, you don’t want to do this. You never killed anybody before. Why don’t you let us nip out the back and we’ll run like the, like the… yellow-bellied cowards that we are—”
“Skip it, pal. You had your chance,” one said. The other chimed in with, “More than you deserve.”
I was half-expecting a kick in the ribs as a parting gift, but they just turned and left. I turned to look at my grandfather. Under almost any other circumstances, I’d have said he looked great; tan, fit, his big white moustache impeccably groomed as always. His thick head of hair was a bit disheveled, but all in all, for a man sitting on his own funeral pyre, he looked great. The same as he had always looked to me. “So, Nick,” I said, “I came to make sure you were okay.”
He laughed a good honest laugh. “Well, I hope you brought marshmallows.”
We sat in silence for a while. We could hear Steve ranting some more out by the bonfire, working hard to keep the crowd on edge. Papa Nick nudged me. “‘Yellow-bellied cowards’? What was that?”
“I don’t know! I guess I’ve got my brain bogged down in some kind of ‘Billy the Kid versus the Zombies’ scenario. I was just trying to speak their language.”
The singing started up again outside. I couldn’t make out the words, but the melody was supposed to be “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
“Merriman, you putz,” Nick muttered. “You couldn’t spring for an original tune?”
Merriman. That was it! All this pseudo-religious secret-society gobbledygook was Scientificism! Of course! They believe Angels are coming back; their priests are called Ladderkeepers, after Jacob’s ladder. They call their immortal “Eudynamic” souls “Alphans.” And just to thumb their noses at the rest of the world calling them a cult, they call their churches “Cultures.”
Now it all made a perverse sort of sense. Back in the early ’60s, Merriman and Nick had been neighbors, even drinking buddies… J. Hal Merriman had once lived right across the street.
“Okay, Papa Nick,” I said. “Let me guess. You told these good folks outside that their spiritual leader is a fraud. A liar. A humbug.”
Nick nodded, grinning. “Something like that.”
“And for that, they sentenced you to death? And me, just for being related to you?”
“Well, I might’ve stood out on the porch and told them that their beloved Merriman was an unrepentant alcoholic no-talent hack. Maybe I mentioned that he and I made up ‘Eudynamics’ together while on a drunken binge in Cabo. I might have said that the ungrateful bastard still owes me about a zillion dollars in back royalties…”
There was a sudden heavy dragging sound from overhead. “What the hell is that?”
Nick listened for a second. “I think they’re putting the old man’s body up on the roof. Place of honor for the Viking Send-off.”
I was trying to put it all together. “What did you do, kill one of them?”
“No, no, no. At the end of my tirade I said that their local Grand Poobah, the Prime Stairmaster, was an ignorant, arrogant waste of space.”
“Well, those may not have been my exact words.”
“Never mind.” The noise on the roof wrapped up with the distinct sound of footsteps heading away. “I still don’t get it. So you’re a nasty old curmudgeon. They couldn’t just tar and feather you and run you out on a rail?”
“Oh, the old High Hoohah might have done just that. He and I had been trading insults for years. Trouble is, he dropped dead this morning. His son is a little more tightly wound; he thought my verbal desecration of his dead daddy amounted to a high crime. Hell, I didn’t know the old fart was dead!”
“Would it really have made any difference?”
“Well, I might have treaded a skosh more respectfully, but I take your point. So, once he put on the coat of many colors he sent a goon squad over to haul me out front for a private little auto-da-fé. They had already started the bonfire as kind of a warm-up; had a blast burning all my books. The original plan was to rig up a stake for me out there. I had to work a little Br’er Rabbit brain-fuck on young Steve to convince him I should perish along with my beloved house.”
“‘Oh, pleeeeease, Mister Steve, don’t burn me up in there with all those poor lost souls!’ I’m sorry I missed that.”
Nick grinned. “Well, Stevie isn’t quite that easy to manipulate, but, yep, you would’ve liked it. Still, in all fairness to the little shit, before final sentence was passed, he did give me a chance to renounce my Grand Heresy and join their little cluster—”
“Whatever. I told Steve he could kiss my ass.” Now it was my turn to laugh. “Then I dropped trou and mooned the masses.” I howled. Why hadn’t I thought of that? There was a certain comfort in facing death in high humor.
We heard some glass shatter in the front room, followed by the unmistakable “whoosh” of a large fire igniting. Our execution/funeral was underway.
“The irony,” I said to Nick, “is that it turns out Merriman was right after all. The Angels have returned.”
Nick was shaking his head. “Don’t tell me you got sucked into that giant angel mass hallucination that these science-magic morons have been prattling about all day?”
“Oh, it was no hallucination. You didn’t see it?”
“Nope. Nothing but blue skies did I see.”
“Well, it’s just an expression. The sky might’ve been green or purple for all I know. You know I’m as color-blind as a cocker spaniel.”
“Huh. Well, that might explain it; it was just some kind of holographic projection. But never mind that. I met the real deal. Called itself Gabriel.”
Nick took a long, hard look at me. I was a little surprised to notice how much he and I resembled each other. My mother had always said so; I guess I’d had trouble seeing it when I was younger, but now that I had a few wrinkles and a little facial hair it seemed obvious. We definitely had the same golden-gray eyes—as he looked into mine, it was like staring at some magic mirror… “through a glass, darkly.”
Finally, he grinned. “This I’ve got to hear. Come on, let’s get out of here.” He pulled his hands from behind his back, holding the untied clothesline. “Dumb and Dumber there weren’t exactly Eagle Scouts. Turn around.” He quickly untied me.
“But where are we going? They’ll be watching all the doors and windows.” We stood up. “I don’t know, though. I guess getting shot might be preferable to burning to death.”
“Relax. We won’t be leaving by a door or a window. Follow me.” He grabbed the lantern and led the way to the hall bathroom. “Keep your head down. Stay close.” The living room was fully ablaze, and the bedrooms had been torched as well. A foul smoke billowed at the ceiling. The bathroom had a deep shower stall with an elaborate custom tile job. Nick stepped into it, pulling me after him. He touched one black tile, and then punched another with the heel of his hand. Suddenly a narrow door in the tile wall swung back, revealing a concrete shaft leading down into darkness. There were built-in ladder rungs on the far side. He turned to me with a grin. “To the Bat-Cave!” he said brightly, and started down the shaft, deftly balancing the lantern as he descended. “Close the panel behind you!” he called up from below.
Nick had built the bomb-shelter at the same time he’d built the house, in 1959, with occasional improvements and upgrades over the years. My grandmother, the sainted Jean-Marie Graham (yes, I was named after her) Underhill, had died earlier that year of some aggressive cancer. Nick had vowed to finish their house, and had done so with a vengeance. Over the years, he had often been made lucrative offers for the property, until word got round amongst local realtors that they might wind up being forcibly kicked off the front porch for their efforts. Recently, the Church Culture of Scientificism had been pushing hard, as the entire rest of the block had either converted or been bought out by the faithful. Merriman’s old house across the street had long since been the home of the late lamented Prime Ladderkeeper (whose “temporal” name was Richard Davenport—“but everybody called him Dick,” Nick smirked), and his self-appointed “Cultural” heir, the aforementioned Steve. As Merriman’s home when he penned Eudynamics, the house was also considered a kind of Holy Shrine, and there were ambitious plans to turn the entire block into the largest CCS center in the US. Of course, Papa Nick had resisted these CCS efforts even more strenuously than the others. Consequently, he had been the Grand Anathema in this community for years now.
Once we passed the double-threshold/airlock and sealed ourselves in, Nick found some matches and lit more lamps. The effect was quite cozy. The accommodations were Spartan, but there were shelves lined with books, pantries full of canned and dried foods, and a huge cistern of water. There was even a toilet and shower rigged to a distant septic tank. Air could be vented though hand-cranked triple-filtered conduits to the surface, and there were tanks of compressed air and oxygen to boot. Nick figured he could hole up here alone indefinitely—several years, at least—if the outside air wasn’t too toxic, and for three months or so if it was. I was impressed, and I said so to Nick.
“I learned a long time ago that if you’re going to paint yourself into corners, you need to make sure the corners have doors. What’s the current cliché? ‘Always have an exit strategy.’”
“So, do you have an exit strategy for your exit strategy? Seems to me we’re just in a long free-fall from the frying pan into the fire.”
He shook his head. “O ye of little faith,” he said. “We have options within options. Relax.”
He pulled down a built-in sofa and gestured for me to sit.
“Tell me about this Gabriel that you met.”
And so, over the next hour or so, between bites of cheese and sips of a snappy little Napa Valley Cab (both of which were in plentiful supply), I told Papa Nick my tale. He listened intently, never interrupting, never doubting even the elements I was starting to doubt myself. By the time I wrapped it up, I was so exhausted I may have fallen asleep mid-sentence. I snapped out of it when Nick tossed a pair of pajamas into my lap.
“You can bunk right there,” he said. “Get out of that ridiculous get-up.” I opened my mouth for some snappy mock-offended comeback, but my reflexes were shot—nothing came to mind. “Get some rest. Grab a shower first if you want. But don’t get too comfy; we need to get you back to that pyramid, stat.” Among Papa Nick’s several careers, he had once been a nurse or orderly, and he still favored medical jargon in times of stress.
“Really? I was kinda hoping we could just lay low here for a week or ten.” I had peeled off my baby blue jacket; now I stood up to take the towel he offered. “Besides, I told you, I can’t get back in. I tried.”
“We’ll think of something.”
I yawned. “Okay, Nick. ’F you say so.” I headed for the little bathroom.
He didn’t think I heard him as he muttered to himself, “Now if only I can figure out what.”