Assuming that the good reverend and his wife were enjoying the deep sleep of the sinless devout, I used the butt of Valonia’s pistol to break one pane in a sacristy window. I reached through, found the latch, and slipped inside.
I switched on my flashlight and oriented myself. Then I went through an open door into the sanctuary.
Turning on the church lights would unnecessarily risk drawing unwanted attention, which in this instance was any attention of any kind from anyone.
Besides, in this small way, I was reducing my carbon footprint. Although, having prevented the detonation of four nuclear weapons, I suppose that I had earned enough carbon credits to live the rest of my life high on the hog if I wished.
Above the altar, the abstract sculpture of Big Bird or the Lord, or whatever, did not look down at me accusingly, because it had no eyes.
I descended the altar platform, went through the chancel gate, and proceeded to the third pew, where I had left my ID and that belonging to Sam Whittle.
Although I had no use for Flashlight Guy’s wallet, my own would come in handy in the event that I was stopped by the highway patrol while behind the wheel of Hutch’s Mercedes and needed to produce a driver’s license. I found mine, shoved it in my hip pocket, and left Whittle’s wallet where it was.
As I returned to the center aisle, the lights came on.
In the sanctuary, just this side of the sacristy door, stood Chief Hoss Shackett.
CHIEF HOSS SHACKETT DID NOT LOOK WELL. IN the interrogation-room disturbance, he had suffered an abrasion on his forehead, one black eye, and a contusion that had darkened the left side of his face. His nose had once been as straight and proud as every sadistic fascist facilitator of terrorism would like his nose to be; now it resembled a mutant pink zucchini. His stiff brush-cut hair appeared to have wilted.
Someone, I assumed, must have found my wallet in the hymnal holder and figured that I would return for it.
Dispelling that notion, the chief said, Lime. Harry Lime. He did not seem to have discovered that my name was Odd Thomas.
Tucking the flashlight under my belt, I said, Good evening, Chief. You’re looking well.
What are you doing here? he asked, except that before the question mark he inserted an epithet that was disgusting but not inventive.
I was hoping, I said, that you had another Almond Joy. I’ve regretted not accepting your offer of half the one you ate.
He took two steps away from the sacristy door, limping to favor his left leg, but then he halted, as if he didn’t want to get too close to me. We were about forty feet apart.
What’s happened to the tugboat? he asked.
Is this a riddle, sir?
What have you done with them?
The? Them? Is it one or two tugboats?
This time, smartass, I am not going to play amnesia with you.
Do you have amnesia, sir?
His right arm had been hanging slack at his side, and I had assumed that it had been injured in his disastrous encounter with Mr. Sinatra.
Now he raised the arm, revealing a fearsome gun in his hand. The firearm appeared to be so large that the weight of it might fracture his wrist, and it wobbled slightly in his grip. A silencer had been screwed to the end of the barrel.
I drew the small pistol that I had confiscated on the bridge of the tugboat. At that distance, I would have to have been a crack shot to hit him with such an intimate weapon.
I need those nukes, the chief said. I need them, I need them right now.
I don’t want to be an enabler, sir. I’d rather get you into a twelve-step program to help you break this addiction.
Don’t push me, kid. I have nothing to lose.
Oh, Chief, don’t undersell yourself. You’ve still got a lot to lose. Your arrogance, your self-importance, your greed, that insane gleam of historic destiny in your eye—
When he fired a round, the only sound issuing from his pistol was a whispery wathup, rather like Elmer Fudd in one of those old Looney Tunes, lisping What’s up?
Although I believed that he intended to wound or kill me, the round went well wide of its target, cracking into one of the pews six feet to my left. Perhaps the injuries to his face had blurred his vision.
If Hutch had thought it took chutzpah for me to try playing Harry Lime, he should have seen me attempting to convince the chief that I was Superman: Put the gun down, Shackett. I don’t want to have to damage the church with my telekinetic power, but if you give me no other choice, I’ll take you out like I did earlier tonight.
He was so impressed that he carefully aimed at me and squeezed off another shot.
I did not juke, in part because Superman would never do so; therefore, a feint would disprove my claim to telekinesis. Besides, the chief’s aim was so bad that I feared I might lean into the slug instead of away from it.
Another pew spat up a shower of splinters.
I’m giving you one last chance to put down the gun, I declared with the confidence of an invincible man in blue tights and red cape.
I don’t know what happened in that room, Hoss Shackett said, squinting at me as he tried to line up his third shot. But if you had the power to do all that crazy stuff, you would have had the power to get yourself out of the leg iron. You didn’t, you had to wait for me to unlock it.
An invincible man might have issued a gentle pitying laugh at such shallow reasoning, but I could not pull that off without a year or two of acting classes. Instead, I said, Any child could see the flaw in your logic.
His third round slammed into a center-aisle column behind me and six inches to my right.
As he aimed again, the chief said, Any child, you think? So bring him to me, and I’ll kill the little bastard after I’m done with you.
When he squeezed the trigger, no wathup ensued. He tried again and then lowered the weapon. He reached to his gun belt to get more ammunition.
I sprinted to the chancel railing, leaped across it, and ran onto the altar platform. From a distance of twelve or fifteen feet, I emptied the magazine of my girly gun into his abdomen and chest.
The pistol proved to be nicely balanced, with little recoil, and I prevented the muzzle from pulling up on the target. Maybe three or four shots missed, wide to one side or the other, but five or six tore into his torso; I saw them hit.
The impact of the slugs staggered Hoss Shackett back against the wall, and his body spasmed with each strike. Yet he did not go down.
He grunted in pain, but I was counting on a scream and a dying gurgle.
Exhibiting a riveting theatricality with which I would not have credited him, the chief ripped open the front of his uniform shirt to reveal the flattened slugs, like puddles of lead, adhering to his bulletproof Kevlar vest.
The six rounds had winded but not wounded him.
This was so unfair.
If I had known that he was wearing Kevlar, I would have aimed for his head. I had gone for his torso because it was a much bigger target. A head is an easy thing to miss, especially at a distance of fifteen feet, when the shooter is a person with an intense dislike of guns, in a situation of extreme stress, firing a Tinkertoy pistol designed for use in close quarters.
The chief had found another loaded magazine. He ejected the depleted one from his weapon.
I dropped my pathetic gun, retreated at a run, leaped across the chancel railing, pleased that I didn’t catch a foot on it and plant my face in the floor. I sprinted along the aisle toward the narthex.
For an instant, I considered throwing hymnals at him, but as I had an ear for sacred music—especially Gregorian chants and gospel songs—and a respect for books, I restrained myself.
The front door, through which the golden retriever and I had come a few hours ago, had been locked for the night. Only a key would open it.
Two other doors led out of the narthex, but considering the church as I remembered it from outside, the exit to my left could have taken me only to the bell tower, which would have been a vertical dead end.
As I glanced back into the nave, Chief Hoss Shackett opened the gate in the chancel railing and limped out of the sanctuary, into the center aisle. He looked like Captain Ahab in a mad frenzy of white-whale obsession.
I took the only exit available to me, switched on lights, and discovered that I was in an enclosed flagstone walkway linking the church to an annex of some kind.
Taped to the walls were charming drawings executed by children of various ages, all featuring a smiling bearded man in white robes, who I assumed, because of his halo, must be Jesus. The Son of God, inadequately but earnestly rendered, was engaged in all manner of tasks that I did not recall being recounted in Scripture.
Jesus with hands upraised, transforming a rain of bombs into flowers. Jesus smiling but shaking his finger at a pregnant woman about to drink a bottle of beer. Jesus saving a stranded polar bear from an ice floe. Jesus turning a flamethrower on stacks of crates labeled CIGARETTES.
At the end of the walkway, beside a drawing of Jesus apparently using his miraculous powers to turn an obese boy’s prized collection of cakes and pies into packages of tofu, another door opened onto a corridor that served classrooms used for Sunday school and other activities.
When I came to an intersecting hall, I saw what seemed to be an exterior door at the farther end, and I made for it with all the haste of Jesus chasing from the temple those people who worked for companies that manufactured clothing made from polyester and other unnatural fabrics.
Although the exit was locked, it featured a thumb-turn for the deadbolt. Through the French window in the top of the door, the cold curdled fog was brightened by an exterior stoop light that had come on with the hallway fluorescents, and it appeared welcoming compared to the Hoss-stalked realm behind me. As I was about to disengage the lock, however, a coyote stood on its hind legs, put its forepaws on the door, and peered at me through one of the four panes of glass.
WHEN I LEANED CLOSE TO THE WINDOW IN THE door to see whether I would have to deal with a lone wolf, so to speak, or with a group, the coyote bared its stained and ragged teeth. The beast licked the glass as if I were a tasty treat displayed in a vending machine, for which it lacked sufficient coins to make a purchase.
Low to the ground, swarming in the fog, were radiant yellow eyes and, bearing the eyes, more coyotes than I had the time or the heart to count. A second individual stood up boldly at the door, and the multitudes behind these two leaders roiled among one another with increasing agitation, though they remained eerily silent.
Annamaria had told me earlier, on the greensward along Hecate’s Canyon, that the coyotes menacing us had not been only what they had appeared to be. She had admonished them that we were not theirs to take, that they must leave—and they had gone.
Although she had told me that I had nothing to fear from them, that I needed only to be bold, I did not feel capable of a boldness to equal that of these coyotes, which had the effrontery to threaten a man taking refuge in a Sunday school.
Besides, Annamaria understood something about them that I did not. Her knowledge made her bold. My lack of knowledge might get me killed.
Hastily retreating from the exit, I slipped into a classroom and closed the windowed door. Light entered from the hallway, and I stood to one side, in shadows.
I listened for Hoss Shackett but heard nothing.
Although usually coyotes explore only the portion of encroaching civilization that borders canyons and open wildland, occasionally one will venture far out of its territory and into the heart of a town. A Columbus of his species.
I had never before seen more than one or, at most, a pair this far from their natural habitat. The horde waiting in the fog seemed to be without precedent.
More peculiar than their distance from open hills and rough canyons was in fact the number of them. Although a family of six had threatened us earlier in the night, coyotes do not travel in traditional packs.
They hunt alone until they mate, whereafter they hunt in pairs. In the cycle of their lives, there will be a period when they hunt as families, the parents with their offspring, until the young decide to venture out on their own.
A female will bear three to twelve pups in a litter. Some will be stillborn, and some might die in their first days. A large family numbers eight or ten.
Although the fog could be deceiving and although my imagination is notorious, I was convinced that at least twenty of the beasts had swarmed beyond the door, and perhaps many more.
If they were not, as Annamaria had said, only what they seemed, then what else were they?
Whatever they might be, I supposed that Mama Shackett’s boy was deadlier than all the coyotes in the night from the Pacific to the Mississippi. I became increasingly unnerved by the stealth with which he sought me.
Hooding my flashlight, I explored my surroundings, hoping to find something that might serve as a weapon, although I recognized that a Sunday-school room would not offer the choices of an armory or, for that matter, of Birdie Hopkins’s purse. The chief most likely would not be so slow-moving that I could buffet him into submission with a pair of blackboard erasers.
In my explorations, I came upon another interior windowed door, this one with a vinyl blind drawn over the panes. I discovered that it opened into the next classroom, perhaps so that one instructor could easily monitor two classes.
I left the door standing open behind me, both to avoid making a noise and to leave a clear route for a swift retreat.
Each room featured a narrow supply closet in which I could have taken refuge. And each teacher’s desk offered a knee space big enough to conceal a man.
If Hoss Shackett conducted a thorough search, which I expected that he would, perhaps after calling in a deputy or two for backup, he would inevitably find me in any closet or knee space. The only question then would be whether the chief would beat me brutally with a nightstick and then shoot me to death—or shoot me to death and then beat me.
Because the second classroom connected to the third by way of an interior door, suggesting that all of these rooms were similarly joined, I might be able to circle through the annex to the entry corridor, getting behind Shackett and away.
Something creaked. I switched off the flashlight, and froze.
The sound had not come from nearby. I couldn’t discern whether it had arisen from the hallway or from one of the rooms through which I had recently passed.
I could have gone to the windows to determine if they were fixed or operable. But I knew that I would find the same admiring throng of chop-licking coyotes urging me with entreating eyes to join them for a run on the wild side, which was how they lured domesticated dogs to their doom.
I stood frozen a moment longer, then thawed, and switched on the flashlight. Filtering the beam through my fingers, I went to the door between this classroom and yet one more.
With my hand on the doorknob, I hesitated.
Either intuition or an overstimulated adrenal medulla, pumping inordinate amounts of stress hormones into my system, led me to the sudden perception that Hoss Shackett was in the next room. And not merely in the next room but standing inches away on the other side of this door. And not merely standing on the other side of this door, but standing with his hand on the knob over there, as mine was on the knob over here.