Both sides of the window in the door featured privacy blinds. If I peeled back this blind to peek, I would only see the back of the other blind—unless the chief peeled his back to peek at the same time that I did, in which case we would be eye to eye.
My heart raced. My mouth went so dry that I knew my tongue would rattle against my teeth if I dared move it. I was afraid to turn the knob because, as the chief felt it rotate under his hand, he would know where I was, while I would still not be entirely convinced about his location.
At some point, when paralyzed by fear, you have to decide if it is better to move at any cost or to remain motionless until you fall dead from a burst bladder or go raving mad with terror. Thus far, in such moments, I have always decided to move, and again I made that choice.
I turned the knob, thrust open the door, and entered the next classroom. Hoss Shackett was not waiting there for me.
Although annoyed with myself, I was not embarrassed. Even for someone like me, gifted with paranormal perception, it is often difficult to tell the difference between reliable intuition and the effects of an overstimulated adrenal medulla. You must shrug and take comfort that it was merely the medulla malfunctioning, for if it had been the entire adrenal gland, you would suddenly grow hair on your palms and begin lactating.
A few steps into the new room, a disturbing sound caused me to halt and c**k my head to listen. An arrhythmic clicking-ticking rose from other classrooms or from the long hallway to the back entrance, at first utterly alien, then familiar, then abruptly recognized: the click of sharp claws on vinyl flooring as eager coyotes scrambled and slipped and sniffed in search of something odd to eat.
Shackett must have opened the back door and accidentally let them inside. But if he had done so, why hadn’t he cried out in alarm when they surged around him or why hadn’t he fired a shot to spook them into retreat?
If I had navigated correctly through the joined rooms, the door ahead of me should open onto the short hall of the T, the entrance corridor. Indeed, it did.
Although it was not a noble thought, I hoped that the coyotes had torn the chief of police to pieces when they had come through the back door. Not having heard the beasts snarling and not having heard the chief screaming, I assumed my fond hope would not be fulfilled.
As soon as I entered the short hall, I turned left and rushed to the enclosed flagstone walkway between the annex and the church. I slammed the door behind me and kept moving, but when I glanced back, I saw that the latch had not caught, that the door had rebounded, and that it still stood open.
I was in the Hall of What Would Jesus Do, where I ran past a child’s drawing that I had not noticed during my previous passage: Jesus in a helicopter, rescuing livestock from a veal farm.
When I reached the entrance to the narthex, I looked back and saw coyotes leaping through the annex door into the enclosed walkway, tails lashing with the delight of natural-born gourmands when they saw me.
I took time to close the narthex door between me and the pack, and to make certain that the latch engaged.
The front entrance to the church remained locked. I returned along the main aisle of the nave, hurrying toward the chancel railing over which I had fled such a short while ago.
Because the coyotes couldn’t have gotten into the Sunday-school annex on their own and because the chief hadn’t cried out in terror or in the agony of a bitten man, I considered the possibility that he had let them inside to assist in the search for me.
That made no sense. Even coyotes that were something more than only what they appeared to be were nonetheless coyotes, and evil police chiefs were still human beings. Predatory wild animals and people did not form multispecies gangs for their mutual enrichment, not even in California.
I must be overlooking something. This wouldn’t be the first time.
As I threw open the chancel railing and entered the sanctuary, even in my haste I was smug enough to congratulate myself on my quick thinking and fast action. When, in a moment, I departed the church by the sacristy door, the slavering coyotes would be roaming through the annex, confused and distracted, and I would have a clear track to the Mercedes parked in the street.
In the sacristy, I crunched across the glass from the window that I had broken to gain entrance. Evidently, Hoss Shackett had been nearby at the time, had heard the noise, and had followed me into the church through the same window.
Why he had been in the immediate neighborhood, I did not know and did not need to know. Curiosity + cats = road kill. All that mattered was getting to the Mercedes and splitting before the chief saw what vehicle I was driving.
I unlocked the sacristy door and went out into the fog, through which I could see many lights at the previously dark rectory, on the farther side of the courtyard that was populated by bloodcurdling devotional statuary.
Perhaps Reverend Charles Moran had been awakened by a poor parishioner who had no more dried peat moss or briquettes of dung to burn in her potbellied stove, nor any more porridge to feed the six orphaned nieces with whom she shared her one-room shanty out by the pauper’s graveyard, and now he was preparing to rush off to bring her a selection of Lean Cuisine entrées and a case of Perrier.
Whatever he was up to, I assured myself that it was none of my business, but then as I headed toward the street, I had a change of heart at the sight of yellow-eyed legions of coyotes appearing out of the fog as they rounded the corner of the bell tower. As I could not return to the church and as the minister’s residence offered the nearest haven, I decided to ask if Reverend Moran needed a companion on his mission of mercy.
Maybe the coyotes, too, were badly frightened by the unorthodox sculpture and put off their stride, or maybe I found resources that I had never before tapped. Instead of trying to keep up with me, those cousins of wolves decided to outflank me, angling toward the front of the rectory with the intention of being there with bibs on when I arrived.
Still a member of the smartest if also most ignorant species on the planet, I changed course for the back of the house, which I hoped to reach before they realized what I had done.
They continued to lope through the night in silence, which was not characteristic of their kind. Usually, in the hunt, they issued ululant howls, eerie songs of death, that chilled the blood.
Springing up the back-porch steps, I sensed that the silent predators had gotten wise to my trick and were in fierce competition to be the first to rip out the seat of my jeans.
Certain that I had no time to knock and present myself properly, I tried the door and blew out a gust of breath when it proved to be unlocked.
INSIDE THE RECTORY, AS I ENGAGED THE LOCK, I hoped the coyotes didn’t have a key. I noted with relief, there was no pet door.
Tidy, cheerful, the kitchen contained nothing that identified it as that of a clergyman.
On the refrigerator were a collection of decorative magnets that featured uplifting though not spiritual messages. One declared EVERY DAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR LIFE, which seemed to me to be an excuse to remain infantile.
I did not know what to do next.
Nothing unusual about that.
Hoss Shackett might have been on his way to see Reverend Moran when he heard me break the sacristy window. He could show up here at any time.
Currently more deranged than usual, alarmed, desperate, the chief might even have decided that, after all, he had to kill the minister, who had witnessed my arrest.
Considering all that had happened since I had been taken into custody and how totally the chief’s plans had fallen apart, killing Reverend Moran no longer made any sense, if it ever had. But that was the way of a sociopath like the chief: He could pass for normal year after year—until suddenly he no longer could.
Intending to locate the minister and warn him, I left the kitchen—and heard people talking. I prowled swiftly room by room until I arrived at the half-open door of a study, off the entrance foyer, where I stopped when I recognized Charles Moran’s voice.
The Lord is with us, Melanie.
A woman laughed tenderly. She had the kind of musical voice that on certain words trembled toward bird song. Charlie, dear, the Lord is at all times with us. Here.
I don’t know that I should.
Jesus himself imbibed, Charlie.
They clinked glasses, and after a hesitation, I pushed open the door and entered the study.
Reverend Moran stood beside the desk, wearing chinos, a tan turtleneck, and a sports jacket. He looked up from his drink, his eyes widening. Todd.
I’m not here to harm you, I assured him.
The woman with him was attractive but with a hairstyle twenty years behind the times.
Mrs. Moran? I asked, and she nodded, and I said, Don’t be afraid.
To my surprise, Reverend Moran drew a pistol from under his jacket, and to my greater surprise, he shot his wife dead.
He turned the pistol on me. In answer to my astonishment, he said, She poured the first drink. She’d have suggested I pour a second.
I noticed the brand name on the bottle: Lord Calvert.
The Lord is with us, Melanie.
Charlie, dear, the Lord is at all times with us.
And when my hands were busy fixing the drink, she would have pulled the pistol under her jacket and shot me.
But. She. You. Your wife.
Of eighteen years. That’s why I could read her so well.
Dead. Look. Dead. Why?
The way this blew up, there’s not going to be enough money for both of us.
But. You. Church. Jesus.
I’ll miss the church. My flock.
The bombs? You? Part of that?
Chief Hoss Shackett announced himself and cured my incoherence by slamming the flat of his hand so hard against the back of my head that I stumbled forward and fell too close to the dead woman.
As I rolled onto my back and looked up, the chief loomed behind his mutant-pink-zucchini nose. You knew he was part of it, shithead. That’s why you came here in the first place, nosing around.
Earlier in the night, I had arrived at the church with the dog, out of that unusually dense fog that had been more than a fog, that had seemed to me like a premonition of absolute destruction.
On consideration, it made sense that if my blind wandering with the golden retriever had been a kind of waking premonition, then I might have found my way to a place that was associated with the truth behind that hideous vision.
Shackett pointed his gun at me. Don’t get cute.
Looking up at him, my ears ringing, I said, I don’t feel cute.
Reverend Moran said, Kill him.
No flying furniture, Shackett warned me.
None. No, sir.
Starts moving, I blow your face off.
Face. Off. I hear you.
Kill him, the minister repeated.
You sucker-punched me before, Shackett said.
I felt bad about that, sir.
You see my gun, shithead?
Where is my gun?
In my face, sir.
Where it stays.
How long to squeeze a trigger?
Fraction of a second, sir.
See that chair?
If that chair moves?
See that desk set?
I see it, sir.
If that desk set moves?
Kill the bastard, Reverend Moran urged.
The minister was still holding his pistol.
His hand was twitching.
He wanted to waste me himself.
Get up, Shackett ordered me. You’re gonna talk.
As I obeyed, Reverend Moran objected. No talk.
Control yourself, Shackett admonished the minister.
Just kill him, and let’s go.
I want answers.
He won’t give you any.
I might, I assured them. I will. I’d like to.
Shackett said, Coast Guard’s reporting the tug is beached.
Yes, sir, I said.
I’m not talking to you, shithead.
Reverend Moran said, Beached where?
The cove at Hecate’s Canyon.
Reverend Moran said, Could we—
No. Coast Guard’s all over it.
Kill him, Reverend Moran said more ferociously.
When it’s time.
Reverend Moran said, It’s time now.
It’s not time, Shackett said.
It’s not, I agreed.
Hoss, it’s over, the minister said.
His gun hand shook like a Pentecostal receiving the spirit.
I know it’s over, Shackett said.
Do you really know it’s over?
Oh, I really know, Shackett said.
We gotta fly, the minister said.
Shackett said, We have a little time.
I want to be gone, Reverend Moran insisted.
You can’t wait five minutes?
I want to be gone now.
You want to be gone now?
Right now, Hoss. Gone. Now.
Hoss Shackett shot Reverend Moran in the head, said, Now you’re gone, and had his gun back in my face before I could blink.
This is bad, I said.
You think this is bad, Harry?
Oh, I know it’s bad. Very bad.
It can get worse.
Yes. I’ve seen how it can.
The Reverend and Mrs. Moran were not bleeding. This did not mean they were not human.
They had not had time to bleed. They had died instantly. Neat corpses.
I want what you’ve got, Shackett said.
What have I got? I asked.
The stuff makes you psychic.
There’s no stuff.
What did you call the power? The furniture power?
I want that. I want the juice.
I told you—one shot, it’s for life.
That was bullshit.
If only he knew.
No bull was involved.
I can produce it without a bull.
One shot, I insisted. Then they have you.
You say the government screwed you?
I hate them. They screwed me good.
Where is my gun?
It’s in my face, sir. May I ask a question?
I nodded and bit my lip.
He glared at me. What?
Why didn’t the coyotes tear you to pieces?
When you let them into the Sunday school.
Don’t try to make me think you’re crazy on drugs, Harry.
I wouldn’t, sir.
That would be as pathetic as the amnesia crap.
My point is, if the government screwed you, then you would have sold out for twenty-five million.
They would have killed my family.
You’re not married.
No. It’s my brother.
Who cares about a brother?
We’re twins. We’re so close.
I don’t buy it, Harry.
He’s paraplegic, see.
And he has a learning disability.
And he lost an eye in the war.
What’re you pulling here?
Iraq. My other brother, Jamie, he died there.