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When the priest returned, Jim said, "A question, Father.”


"What's that?" His voice was still raspy, but he sounded a bit more like himself "If there's a God, why does He allow suffering?" Alarmed, Father Geary said, "Are you feeling worse?" "No, no. Better. I don't mean my suffering. Just. . . why does He allow suffering in general?" "To test us," the priest said.


"Why do we have to be tested?" "To determine if we're worthy.”


"Worthy of what?" "Worthy of heaven, of course. Salvation. Eternal life. " "Why didn't God make us worthy?" "Yes, he made us perfect, without sin. But then we sinned, and fell from grace.”


"How could we sin if we were perfect?" "Because we have free will.”


"I don't understand.”


Father Geary frowned. "I'm not a nimble theologian. Just an ordinary priest. All I can tell you is that it's part of the divine mystery. We fell from grace, and now heaven must be earned.”


"I need to pee," Jim said.


"All right.”


"Not the bedpan this time. I think I can make it to the bathroom with your help.”


"I think maybe you can, too. You're really coming around nicely, thank God.”


"Free will," Jim said.


The priest frowned.


By late afternoon, nearly twenty-four hours after Jim stumbled into the church, his fever registered only three-tenths of a degree on the thermometer. His muscles were no longer spasming, his joints did not hurt any more he was not dizzy, and his chest did not ache when he drew a deep breath Pain still flared across his face periodically. When he spoke he did without moving his facial muscles more than absolutely necessary, because the cracks in his lips and in the corners of his mouth reopened easily in spite of the prescription cortisone cream that Father Geary applied every few hours.


He could sit up in bed of his own volition and move about the room with only minimal help. When his appetite returned, as well, Father Geary gave him chicken soup, then vanilla ice cream. He ate carefully, mindful of his split lips, trying to avoid tainting the food with the taste of his own blood.


"I'm still hungry," Jim said when he finished.


"Let's see if you can keep that down first.”


"I'm fine. It was only sunstroke, dehydration.”


"Sunstroke can kill, son. You need more rest.”


When the priest relented a while later and brought him more ice cream Jim spoke through half clenched teeth and frozen lips: "Why are some people killers? Not cops, I mean. Not soldiers. Not those who kill in self defense. The other kind, the murderers. Why do they kill?" Settling into a straight-backed rocker near the bed, the priest regarded him with one raised eyebrow. "That's a peculiar question.”


"Is it? Maybe. Do you have an answer?" "The simple one is-because there's evil in them.”


They sat in mutual silence for a minute or so. Jim ate ice cream, and the rocky priest rocked in his chair. Another twilight crept across the sky beyond the windows.


Finally Jim said, "Murder, accidents, disease, old age. . . Why did God make us mortal in the first place? Why do we have to die?" "Death's not the end. Or at least that's what I believe. Death is only our means of passage, only the train that conveys us to our reward.”


"Heaven, you mean.”


The priest hesitated. "Or the other.”


Jim slept for a couple of hours. When he woke, he saw the priest standing at the foot of the bed, watching him intently.


"You were talking in your sleep.”


Jim sat up in bed. "Was I? What'd I say?" " There is an enemy.'" "That's all I said?" "Then you said, It's coming. It'll kill us all.'" A shiver of dread passed through Jim, not because the words had any power of themselves, and not because he understood them, but because he sensed that on a subconscious level he knew all too well what he had meant.


He said, "A dream, I guess. A bad dream. That's all.”


But shortly past three o'clock in the morning, during that second night in the rectory, he thrashed awake, sat straight up in bed, and heard the words escaping him again, "It'll kill us all." The room was lightless.


He fumbled for the lamp, switched it on.


He was alone.


He looked at the windows. Darkness beyond.


He had the bizarre but unshakable feeling that something hideous and merciless had been hovering near, something infinitely more savage and strange than anyone in recorded history had ever seen, dreamed, or imagined. Trembling, he got out of bed. He was wearing an ill-fitting pair of the priest's pajamas. For a moment he just stood there, not sure what to do.


Then he switched off the light and, barefoot, went to one window, then the other. He was on the second floor. The night was silent, deep, and peaceful. If something had been out there, it was gone now.


The following morning, he dressed in his own clothes, which Father Geary had laundered for him. He spent most of the day in the living room, in a big easy chair, his feet propped on a hassock, reading magazines and dozing, while the priest tended to parish business.


Jim's sunburnt and wind-abraded face was stiffening. Like a mask.


That evening, they prepared dinner together. At the kitchen sink, Father Geary cleaned lettuce, celery, and tomatoes for a salad. Jim set the table opened a bottle of cheap Chianti to let it breathe, then sliced canned mushrooms into a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove.


They worked in a comfortable mutual silence, and Jim wondered about the curious relationship that had evolved between them. There had been a dreamlike quality to the past couple of days, as if he had not merely found refuge in a small desert town but in a place of peace outside the real world a town in the Twilight Zone. The priest had stopped asking questions In fact, it now seemed to Jim that Father Geary had never been half probing or insistent as the circumstances warranted. And he suspected that the priest's Christian hospitality did not usually extend to the sheltering of injured and suspicious strangers. Why he should receive special consideration at Geary's hands was a mystery to him, but he was grateful for it.


When he had sliced half the mushrooms in the can, he suddenly s "Life line.”


Father Geary turned from the sink, a stalk of celery in hand.


"Pardon me?" A chill swept through Jim, and he almost dropped the knife into the sauce. He put it on the counter.


"Jim?" Shivering, he turned to the priest and said, "I've got to get to an airport.”


"An airport?" "Right away, Father.”


The priest's plump face dimpled with perplexing, wrinkling his tanned forehead far past his long-vanished hairline. "But there's no airport here.”


"How far to the nearest one?" Jim asked urgently.


"Well. . . two hours by car. All the way to Las Vegas.”


"You've got to drive me there.”


"What? Now?" "Right now," Jim said.


"But" "I have to get to Boston.”


"But you've been ill" "I'm better now.”


"Your face--" "It hurts, and it looks like hell, but it's not fatal. Father, I have to get to Boston.”


"Why?" He hesitated, then decided on a degree of revelation. "If I don't get to Boston, someone there is going to be killed. Someone who shouldn't die.”


"Who? Who's going to die?" Jim licked his peeling lips. "I don't know.”


"You don't know?" "But I will when I get there.”


Father Geary stared at him for a long time. At last he said, "Jim, you're the strangest man I've ever known.”


Jim nodded. "I'm the strangest man I've ever known.”


When they set out from the rectory in the priest's six-year-old Toyota, an hour of light remained in the long August day, although the sun was hidden behind clouds the color of fresh bruises.


They had been on the road only half an hour when lightning shattered the bleak sky and danced on jagged legs across the somber desert horizon.


Flash after flash erupted, sharper and brighter in the pure Mojave air than Jim had ever seen lightning elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the sky grew darker and lower, and rain fell in silvery cataracts the equal of anything that Noah had witnessed while hurrying to complete his ark.


"Summer storms are rare here," Father Geary said, switching on the windshield wipers.


"We can't let it delay us," Jim said worriedly.


"I'll get you there," the priest assured him.


"There can't be that many flights east from Vegas at night. They'd mostly leave during the day. I can't miss out and wait till morning.


I've got to be in Boston tomorrow" The parched sand soaked up the deluge. But some areas were rocky or hard-packed from months of blistering sun, and in those places the water spilled off slopes, forming rivulets in every shallow declivity. Rivulets became streams, and streams grew swiftly into rivers, until every bridged arroyo they passed over was soon filled with roiling, churning torrents on which were borne clumps of uprooted desert bunch-grass, fragments of dead tumbleweed, driftwood, and dirty white foam.


Father Geary had two favorite cassette tapes, which he kept in the car: a collection of rock-'n'-roll golden oldies, and an Elton John best-of He put on Elton. They moved through the storm-hammered day then through the rainswept night to the melodies of "Funeral for a Friend," "Daniel," and "Benny and the Jets.”


The blacktop glimmered with quicksilver puddles. To Jim, it was eerie that the water mirages on the highway a few days ago had now become real.


He grew more tense by the minute. Boston called to him, but it was far away, and few things were darker or more treacherous than a blacktop highway through a storm-wracked desert at night. Unless, perhaps, the human heart.


The priest hunched over the wheel as he drove. He studied the highway intently while singing along softly with Elton.


After a while Jim said, "Father, wasn't there a doctor in town?" "Yes.”


"But you didn't call him.”


"I got the cortisone prescription from him.”


"I saw the tube. It was a prescription for you, made out three months ago.”


"Well. . . I've seen sunstroke before. I knew I could treat you.”


"But you seemed awfully worried there at first.”


The priest was silent for a few miles. Then he said, "I don't know who you are, where you come from, or why you really need to get to Boston.


But I do know you're a man in trouble, maybe deep trouble, as deep as it ever gets. And I know. . . at least, I think I know that you're a good man at heart. Anyway, it seemed to me that a man in trouble would want to keep a low profile.”


"Thanks. I do.”


A couple of miles farther, the rain came down hard enough to overwhelm the windshield wipers and force Geary to reduce speed.


The priest said, "You're the one who saved that woman and her little girl.”


Jim tensed but did not respond.


"You fit the description on TV," the priest said.


They were silent for a few more miles.


Father Geary said, "I'm not a sucker for miracles.”


Jim was baffled by that statement.


Father Geary switched off Elton John. The only sounds were the swish bum of the tires on the wet pavement and the metronomic thump of the windshield wipers.


"I believe that the miracles of the Bible happened, yes, I accept all of that as real history," the priest said, keeping his eyes on the road.


"But I'm reluctant to believe that some statue of the Holy Mother wept real tears in a church in Cincinnati or Peoria or Teaneck last week after the Wednesday-night bingo games, witnessed only by two teenagers and the parish cleaning lady. And I'm not ready to believe that a shadow resembling Jesus, cast on someone's garage wall by a yellow bug light, is a sign of impending apocalypse. God works in mysterious ways, but not with bug lights and garage walls.”


The priest fell silent again, and Jim waited, wondering where all this was leading.


"When I found you in the church, lying by the sanctuary railing," Geary said in a voice that grew more haunted word by word, "you were marked by the stigmata of Christ. There was a nail hole in each of your hands-" Jim looked at his hands and saw no wounds.


"-and your forehead was scratched and prickled with what might have been punctures from a crown of thorns.”


His face was still such a mess from the punishment of sun and wind that it was no use searching in the rearview mirror for the minor injuries the priest had described.


Geary said, "I was. . . frightened, I guess. But fascinated, too.”


They came to a forty-foot-long concrete bridge at an arroyo where the runoff had overflowed the banks. A dark lake had formed and risen above the edge of the elevated roadbed. Geary bulled forward. Plumes of water, reflecting the car's lights, unfurled on both sides like great white wings.


"I'd never seen stigmata," Geary continued when they were out of the flooded area, "though I'd heard of the phenomenon. I pulled up your shirt. . . looked at your side. . . and found the enflamed scar of what might have been a spear wound.”


The events of recent months had been so filled with surprises and amazements that the threshold on Jim's sense of wonder had been raised repeatedly. But the priest's story leaped across it, got to him, and sent a chill of awe along his spine.


Geary's voice had fallen to little more than a whisper. "By the time I got you back to the rectory and into bed, those signs were gone.


But I knew I hadn't imagined them. I'd seen them, they'd been real, and I knew there was something special about you.”


The lightning had fizzled out long ago; the black sky was no longer adorned by bright, jagged necklaces of electricity. Now the rain began to abate, as well, and Father Geary was able to reduce the speed of the windshield wipers even as he increased that of the aging Toyota.


For a while neither of them seemed to know what to say. Finally the priest cleared his throat. "Have you experienced this before--these stigmata?" "No. Not that I'm aware of But then, of course, I wasn't aware this time until you told me.”


"You didn't notice the marks on your hands before you passed out at the sanctuary railing?" "No.”


"But this isn't the only unusual thing that's been happening to you lately.”


Jim's soft laugh was wrenched from him less by amusement than by a sense of dark irony. "Definitely not the only unusual thing.”

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