By the time I had helped him to his feet and he had twice nearly pulled me off mine, I explained that I was seeking water for my dog, and he identified himself as Reverend Charles Moran. His eyes were merry, and when he assured me that his fall had not been as terrible as Satan’s, I saw that he amused himself, and I liked him for that.
From a mini-refrigerator, he withdrew a bottle of water and from the closet a shallow dish. Together we went to the golden retriever, where he lay obediently in front of the chancel railing.
Reverend Moran did not suggest that I had been wrong to bring the dog into the church, but only asked his name. I didn’t know the name and didn’t want to explain how the retriever and I had come to be together, so I said his name was Raphael.
For an instant, I did not understand why I had chosen Raphael instead of Fido. Later, I would realize what had inspired the name.
When asked my name, I said it was Todd.
This was not exactly a lie. My parents insisted that they meant to name me Todd but a mistake had been made on my birth certificate—which did not explain why they had called me Odd forever thereafter.
Besides, when I say that my name is Odd, a series of tiresome misunderstandings and explanations ensues. After my adventures since late afternoon, I did not have the patience to thread the needle of my true name for the minister.
We knelt by the dog as he drank, and Reverend Moran asked if I was new in town.
I said that I had been there about a month, and he asked if I was looking for a church to join. I told him that I had stopped in this evening to pray because my life had taken a wrong turn.
The reverend proved discreet enough not to press me about the nature of my troubles, trusting in his counseling skills to tease my story from me in the course of easy conversation.
Although I had come to Magic Beach alone—but for Boo and Frank Sinatra—I was incomplete without a family of close friends. I am no good alone. I need bonds, vows real if unspoken, shared laughter, and people who depend on me as I depend on them.
Hutch was turned too far inward to be more than a casual friend. I had not known the wonderful Blossom Rosedale long enough to share the truest things with her.
At ease on the floor with the dog, the reverend had a relaxed manner and an open heart. Speaking with him for a few minutes made me feel less alone.
I did not tell him more about myself, but somehow we got around to the subject of Armageddon. That was not surprising. These days, with most people, doomsday seemed to crop up in conversation more than it once did.
Eventually Reverend Moran asked if Raphael might be as hungry as he had been thirsty, and I said maybe so, but I did not want him to bother himself about it. He said it was no bother, he had a dog of his own, and he went away to get some biscuits from the pantry in the rectory.
Charles Moran’s companionship had taken the edge off the fear that my premonition of total destruction had aggressively sharpened.
The dog solicited more attention, and I was pleased to respond, because in the human-dog relationship, both are therapists.
After a few minutes, however, Raphael scrambled to his feet. His ears lifted as much as a retriever’s ears could lift. He stood alert, staring at the sacristy door at the back of the sanctuary.
I assumed that Reverend Moran must be returning with biscuits and that the dog had smelled them at a distance.
When Raphael shifted his attention from the sacristy door to the back of the church, peering toward the narthex, toward the main door through which we had earlier entered, I got up from the floor.
EVERYONE A NEIGHBOR, EVERY NEIGHBOR A FRIEND.
Maybe the community motto did not apply to newcomers until they had been in residence a year. I had not read the fine print on the sign that welcomed visitors at the town limits. Maybe during your first year, you were fair game.
Life had not taught me to distrust ministers, but it had taught me to trust no one more than dogs.
I went to the third pew on the right. A long wooden pocket on the back of the second-row pews held hymnals for use by those who sat in the third row.
From my left hip pocket, I fished out Sam Whittle’s wallet, the possession of which would be incriminating now that he lay dead in his bathtub. Hymnals were lined up in the holding pocket, but there were spaces between them. I dropped the wallet in one of those gaps.
Nothing would be gained by revealing more about myself than the name Todd. I fished my wallet from my other hip pocket and secreted it with Whittle’s.
I returned to the dog and stood with him, glancing from the sacristy door to the narthex, sacristy to narthex….
The first two police officers came through the main entrance, crossed the narthex, and stepped into the nave. They did not draw their pistols, but they approached along the center aisle with their hands on the butts of those weapons.
A policeman also stepped out of the sacristy, onto the altar platform. He was in his late forties, a decade older than the two officers in the center aisle. His prematurely gray hair was shorn close on the sides, as flat on top as brush bristles.
He possessed an air of authority that had nothing to do with his uniform. If you encountered him in his undershorts, you would still call him sir and do what he told you to do—or be prepared to pay a high price for disobedience.
Reverend Charles Moran followed Brush Cut out of the sacristy. He met my gaze and did not look away, but his eyes were not as merry as they had been earlier.
I asked him why, and when he did not answer, I asked him again, but the reverend seemed not to hear me, and he would not speak to me, though we were both alive and neither of us governed by the law of silence imposed on the lingering dead.
I HAD RIDDEN IN A SQUAD CAR BEFORE, BACK IN Pico Mundo. Although this was not my first time, it was still kind of cool.
Police headquarters—which included a small jail—was a Greek Revival building that stood adjacent to the courthouse, on the park, in one of the most picturesque parts of town. Now it beetled in the fog like a medieval fortress.
The watch officer’s desk, the booking station, and all of that would be on the main floor at the front of the building. The two young officers parked in an alleyway behind the building and took me in through a back door.
Earlier at the church, they had searched me for weapons. Here, I expected them to take my wristwatch and the silver-bell pendant, and ask me to sign a receipt acknowledging that they had confiscated no additional items of value.
I also expected them to fingerprint me and take my photo. And it was my understanding that they might allow me to call an attorney if not book an appearance on a reality-TV courtroom show.
Instead, they escorted me along a hallway with depressing blue-speckled linoleum and walls the color of tubercular phlegm, through a door, down two flights of stairs, along another hallway with an intriguingly stained concrete floor, through another door, and into a bleak windowless room that smelled of a pine-scented disinfectant strong enough to kill asthmatics and, under that, subtly of vomit.
This chamber measured about twelve by fifteen feet. A concrete floor, concrete walls, and a low concrete ceiling offered little to work with for even the most talented interior designer.
A square metal table and two chairs stood in the center of the room.
A third chair had been placed in a corner. Maybe that was where they would make me sit if I didn’t behave.
One of the officers pulled out a chair for me, which seemed to be a hopeful sign that they were respectful of a prisoner’s innate human dignity.
But then the other guy shackled my right ankle to a ringbolt that was built in to the table leg. Although he did not handle me roughly, he did seem to be contemptuous of me.
Without informing me of what crime I was suspected of having committed, not bothering to explain the system for ordering a snack if I should want one, they went out and closed the door, leaving me alone.
Coming in, I had noticed that the door was so thick it must have been designed by a paranoid. It closed with the solid clunk of one thousand pounds of steel.
They had left me with nothing to do except contemplate my pain threshold and my mortality, which was probably their intention.
The table to which I had been shackled seemed heavy but not immovable. I felt sure that I could drag it around my windowless prison, but as the room offered nothing to see or do, I remained seated.
When I peered under the table, I noted an eight-inch-diameter drain with a slotted grille. Considering that Magic Beach had no history of floods, I supposed that this design feature facilitated the hosing-out of the room after unfortunate accidents.
This was one of those sobering circumstances in which my overheated imagination, if I were not careful, could cause a portion of my cerebellum to melt down, and set my hair on fire. I counseled myself that I remained in the United States, which was not Cuba or Venezuela, or even Mordor.
I consulted my watch—8:56. I still had a few minutes more than three hours to save the world or a significant portion thereof. No problem.
Because I had firm control of myself, I did not care when nothing happened by 8:57 or by 8:58, although I was within seconds of shouting strident demands for justice when the door finally opened at 8:59.
One man entered the room, but he was enough. At the church, I had thought of him as Brush Cut, but I had since learned that his name was Hoss Shackett and that he was the chief of police.
Hoss must have been the short form of a longer name, but I didn’t know what that might be. I had asked the younger officers in the car but they had twice refused to answer me; and the third time that I asked, they had advised me to perform an act of reproduction with myself.
After closing the blastproof door—of which Norman must have several in his Cold War missile silo in Nebraska—the chief came to the table and stood staring down at me. He didn’t say anything. He just stared.
I smiled and nodded. He didn’t.
After I had busied myself for a while staring at my hands and wondering what they would look like after being smashed with a tire iron, the chief pulled out the other chair and sat down across the table from me.
When I looked up, ready to parry his questions, he still did not speak. He continued to stare at me.
He had ugly green eyes colder than those of a snake, although I would not have made this observation to his face or, for that matter, within one hundred miles of his jurisdiction.
I am not a stickler for etiquette, but I did not feel that it was my place to initiate our conversation.
After a while, I could not bear to stare into his venomous eyes any longer. Either I had to look away from him, which he would take as a sign of weakness, or I had to say something that would force him to speak.
I imagine, I said with a relaxed affability that surprised me, you’ve mistaken me for someone else.
He neither replied nor broke eye contact.
I have never been in trouble with the law, I told him.
He remained fixated on me and was so still that I could not be sure that he breathed—or needed to.
If there was a Mrs. Hoss, she was either psychological wreckage or one tough mama.
Well, I said, and could think of nothing to add.
At last he blinked. It was a slow blink, as if he were an iguana dazed by desert sun.
He held out his right hand and said, Take my hand.
I knew what this was about, and I wanted no part of it.
His hand remained above the table, palm up. He had hands big enough to play professional basketball, although the most sporting thing he had probably ever done with them was bash suspects’ heads together.
Over the years, I had read thrillers in which the authors wrote things like the air was full of violence and the pending violence hung over the scene like black thunderheads. I had always judged this to be clumsy writing, but maybe they should have won Nobels and Pulitzers.
Take my hand, Hoss Shackett repeated.
I said, I’m already dating someone.
What’s the point of dating if your pecker’s broken off?
It’s a platonic relationship, anyway.
My hands were folded on the table. Viper-quick, he struck, seizing my left hand, folding it tight enough in his to make me wish I’d had my knuckles surgically removed.
The grim concrete cell vanished, and I stood once more on Armageddon Beach, in a tempest of crimson light.
Chief Hoss Shackett was not a man who lightly revealed what he was feeling or thinking. But when he dropped my hand, returning me to reality, and leaned back in his chair, I could tell from a slight widening of his pupils that he had shared my nightmare vision.
So, I said, what was that about?
He did not reply.
Because, I said, that has only happened to me once before, and it freaks me out.
He had a hard strong face that Stalin would have envied. His jaw muscles were so knotted at the hinges that he appeared able to crack walnuts in his teeth.
Nothing like this—sharing a dream—has ever happened to me before, I assured him. It’s every bit as awkward for me as it is for you.
Sharing a dream.
I had this dream, and now people touch me and I’m thrown back into it. What is this—the Twilight Zone?
He leaned forward, a small move, but it was like being in a Jurassic meadow when the T. rex that has its back to you casually looks over its shoulder.
Who are you? he asked.
I have no idea.
I won’t keep asking nice like this.
Sir, I appreciate how nice you’ve been. I really do. But I’m serious. I have amnesia.
It really is. Not knowing my past, my name, where I’m from, where I’m going. It’s totally pathetic.
You told Reverend Moran your name was Todd.
Sir, I swear, it was just a name to tell him. I could have said Larry or Vernon, or Rupert, or Ringo. I could be anybody. I just do not know.
He did the staring thing again. It was as effective as it had been previously. Second by second, I became increasingly convinced that if I didn’t spill everything about myself, he would bite off my nose. For starters.
Although he would infer weakness if I looked away from him, I had to break the stare before his eyes sucked out my soul. I examined my left hand to confirm that he had returned it with all my fingers.
With the solemnity of Darth Vader, the chief said, You aren’t carrying any identification.
Yes, sir. That’s right. If I had some identification, I’d know who I was.
I don’t like people in my town not carrying ID.
No, sir, you wouldn’t like that, you being a man of the law. I wouldn’t like it if I were in your shoes, even if there’s nothing in the Constitution that requires a person to carry ID.
You’re a constitutional scholar, are you?
No. Well, I guess I could be. I won’t know until I recover my memory. What I think happened was somebody mugged me.