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She followed him gratefully back the dimly lighted hall, which smelled of lemon oil and pine disinfectant and vaguely of incense.


The kitchen was homey. A well-worn, yellow linoleum floor. Pale yellow walls. Dark wood cabinets with white porcelain handles. Gray and yellow Formica counter tops. There were appliances-refrigerator, oven, microwave oven, toaster, electric can opener—as in any kitchen, which surprised her, though when she thought about it, she didn't know why she would have expected it to be any different. Priests needed appliances too. They couldn't just summon up a fiery angel to toast some bread or work a miracle to brew a pot of hot cocoa.


The place smelled wonderful. Cocoa was brewing. Toast was toasting. Sausages were sizzling over a low flame on the gas stove.


Father Castelli showed her to one of the four padded vinyl chairs at the chrome and Formica breakfast set, then scurried about, taking care of her as if she were a chick and he a mother hen. He rushed upstairs, returned with two clean, fluffy bath towels, and said, "Dry your hair and blot your damp clothes with one of them, then wrap the other one around you like a shawl. It'll help you get warm." While she was following his instructions, he went to the bathroom off the downstairs hall and fetched two aspirins. He put those on the table in front of her and said, "I'll get you some orange juice to take them with. Lots of vitamin C in orange juice. Aspirin and vitamin C are like a one-two punch; they'll knock a cold right out of you before it can take up residence." When he returned with the juice, he stood for a moment looking down at her, shaking his head, and she figured she must look bedraggled and pitiful. "Dear girl, what on earth have you been up to?" He seemed not to have heard what she'd said about aliens when she'd first crossed his threshold. "No, wait. You can tell me over breakfast. Would you like some breakfast?"


"Yes, please, Father. I'm starved. The only thing I've eaten since yesterday afternoon was a couple of Hershey bars."


"Nothing but Hershey bars?" He sighed. "Chocolate is one of God's graces, but it's also a tool the devil uses to lead us into temptation—the temptation of gluttony." He patted his round belly. "l, myself, have often partaken of this particular grace, but I would never"—he exaggerated the word "never" and winked at her—"never, not ever, heed the devil's call to overindulge! But, see here, if you've been eating only chocolate, your teeth will fall out. So … I've got plenty of sausages, plenty to share. I was about to cook a couple of eggs for myself too. Would you like a couple of eggs?"


"Yes, please."


"And toast?"


"Yes."


"We've got some wonderful cinnamon sweetrolls there on the table. And the hot chocolate, of course."


Chrissie washed down the two aspirins with orange juice.


As he carefully cracked eggs into the hot frying pan, Father Castelli glanced at her again. "Are you all right?"


"Yes, Father."


"Are you sure?"


"Yes. Now. I'm all right now."


"It'll be nice having company for breakfast," he said.


Chrissie drank the rest of her juice.


He said, "When Father O'Brien finishes saying Mass, he never wants to eat. Nervous stomach." He chuckled. "They all have bad stomachs when they're new. For the first few months they're scared to death up there on the altar. It's such a sacred duty, you see, offering the Mass, and the young priests are always afraid of flubbing up in some way that'll be … oh, I don't know … that'll be an insult to God, I guess. But God doesn't insult very easily. If He did, He'd have washed His hands of the human race a long time ago! All young priests come to that realization eventually, and then they're fine. Then they come back from saying Mass, and they're ready to run through the entire week's food budget in one breakfast."


She knew that he was talking just to soothe her. He had noticed how distraught she was. He wanted to settle her down so they could discuss it in a calm, reasonable manner. She didn't mind. She needed to be soothed.


Having cracked all four eggs, he turned the sausages with a fork, then opened a drawer and took out a spatula, which he placed on the counter near the egg pan. As he got plates, knives, and forks for the table, he said, "You look more than a little scared, Chrissie, like you'd just seen a ghost. You can calm down now. After so many years of schooling and training, if a young priest can be afraid of making a mistake at Mass, then anyone can be afraid of anything. Most fears are things we create in our own minds, and we can banish them as easily as we called them forth."


"Maybe not this one," she said.


"We'll see."


He transferred eggs and sausages from frying pans to plates.


For the first time in twenty-four hours, the world seemed right. As Father Castelli put the food on the table and encouraged her to dig in, Chrissie sighed with relief and hunger.


8


Shaddack usually went to bed after dawn, so by seven o'clock Thursday morning he was yawning and rubbing at his eyes as he cruised through Moonlight Cove, looking for a place to hide the van and sleep for a few hours safely beyond Loman Watkins's reach. The day was overcast, gray and dim, yet the sunlight seared his eyes.


He remembered Paula Parkins, who'd been torn apart by regressives back in September. Her 1.5-acre property was secluded, at the most rural end of town. Though the dead woman's family—in Colorado—had put it up for sale through a local real-estate agent, it had not sold. He drove out there, parked in the empty garage, cut the engine, and pulled the big door down behind him.


He ate a ham sandwich and drank a Coke. Brushing crumbs from his fingers, he curled up on the blankets in the back of the van and drifted toward sleep.


He never suffered insomnia, perhaps because he was so sure of his role in life, his destiny, and he had no concern about tomorrow. He was absolutely convinced he would bend the future to his agenda.


All of his life Shaddack had seen signs of his uniqueness, omens that foretold his ultimate triumph in any pursuit he undertook.


Initially he had noticed those signs only because Don Runningdeer had pointed them out to him. Runningdeer had been an Indian—of what tribe, Shaddack had never been able to learn—who had worked for the judge, Shaddack's father, back in Phoenix, as a full-time gardener and all-around handyman. Runningdeer was lean and quick, with a weathered face, ropy muscles, and calloused hands; his eyes were bright and as black as oil, singularly powerful eyes from which you sometimes had to look away … and from which you sometimes could not look away, no matter how much you might want to. The Indian took an interest in young Tommy Shaddack, occasionally letting him help with some yard chores and household repairs, when neither the judge nor Tommy's mother was around to disapprove of their boy doing common labor or associating with "social inferiors." Which meant he hung out with Runningdeer almost constantly between the ages of five and twelve, the period during which the Indian had worked for the judge, because his parents were hardly ever there to see and object.


One of the earliest detailed memories he had was of Runningdeer and the sign of the self-devouring snake… .


He had been five years old, sprawled on the rear patio of the big house in Phoenix, among a collection of Tonka Toys, but he'd been more interested in Runningdeer than in the miniature trucks and cars. The Indian was wearing jeans and boots, shirtless in the bright desert sun, trimming shrubs with a large pair of wood-handled shears. The muscles in Runningdeer's back, shoulders, and arms worked fluidly, stretching and flexing, and Tommy was fascinated by the man's physical power. The judge, Tommy's father, was thin, bony, and pale. Tommy himself, at five, was already visibly his father's son, fair and tall for his age and painfully thin. By the day he showed Tommy the selfdevouring snake, Runningdeer had been working for the Shaddacks two weeks, and Tommy had been increasingly drawn to him without fully understanding why. Runningdeer often had a smile for him and told funny stories about talking coyotes and rattlesnakes and other desert animals. Sometimes he called Tommy "Little Chief," which was the first nickname anyone had given him. His mother always called him Tommy or Tom; the judge called him Thomas. So he sprawled among his Tonka Toys, playing with them less and less, until at last he stopped playing altogether and simply watched Runningdeer, as if mesmerized.


He was not sure how long he lay entranced in the patio shade, in the hot dry air of the desert day, but after a while he was surprised to hear Runningdeer call to him.


"Little Chief, come look at this."


He was in such a daze that at first he could not respond. His arms and legs would not work. He seemed to have been turned to stone.


"Come on, come on, Little Chief. You've got to see this."


At last Tommy sprang up and ran out onto the lawn, to the hedges surrounding the swimming pool, where Runningdeer had been trimming.


"This is a rare thing," Runningdeer said in a somber voice, and he pointed to a green snake that lay at his feet on the sun-warmed decking around the pool.


Tommy began to pull back in fear.


But the Indian seized him by the arm, held him close, and said, "Don't be afraid. It's only a harmless garden snake. It's not going to hurt you. In fact it's been sent here as a sign to you."


Tommy stared wide-eyed at the eighteen-inch reptile, which was curled to form an 0, its own tail in its mouth, as if eating itself. The serpent was motionless, glassy eyes unblinking. Tommy thought it was dead, but the Indian assured him that it was alive.


"This is a great and powerful sign that all Indians know," said Runningdeer. He squatted in front of the snake and pulled the boy down beside him.


"It is a sign," he whispered, "a SUPERNATURAL sign, sent from the great spirits, and it's always meant for a young boy, so it must have been meant for you. A very powerful sign."


Staring wonderingly at the snake, Tommy said, "Sign? What do you mean? It's not a sign. It's a snake."


"An omen. A presentiment. A sacred sign," Runningdeer said.


As they hunkered before the snake, he explained such things to Tommy in an intense, whispery voice, all the while holding him by one arm. Sun glare bounced off the concrete decking. Shimmering waves of heat rose from it too. The snake lay so motionless that it might have been an incredibly detailed jeweled choker rather than a real snake—each scale a chip of emerald, twin rubies for the eyes. After a while Tommy drifted back into the queer trance that he'd been in while lying on the patio, and Runningdeer's voice slithered serpentlike into his head, deep inside his skull, curling and sliding through his brain.


Stranger still, it began to seem that the voice was not really Runningdeer's at all, but the snake's. He stared unwaveringly at the viper and almost forgot that Runningdeer was there, for what the snake said to him was so compelling and exciting that it filled Tommy's senses, demanded his entire attention, even though he did not fully understand what he was hearing. This is a sign of destiny, the snake said, a sign of power and destiny, and you will be a man of great power, far greater than your father, a man to whom others will bow down, a man who will be obeyed, a man who will never fear the future because he will make the future, and you will have anything you want, anything in the world. But for now, said the snake, this is to be our secret. No one must know that I've brought this message to you, that the sign has been delivered, for if they know that you are destined to hold power over them, they will surely kill you, slit your throat in the night, tear out your heart, and bury you in a deep grave. They must not know that you are the king-to-be, a god-on-earth, or they will smash you before your strength has fully flowered. Secret. This is our secret. I am the self-devouring snake, and I will eat myself and vanish now that I've delivered this message, and no one will know I've been here. Trust the Indian but no one else.


No one. Ever.


Tommy fainted on the pool decking and was ill for two days. The doctor was baffled. The boy had no fever, no detectable swelling of lymph glands, no nausea, no soreness in the joints or muscles, no pain whatsoever. He was merely gripped by a profound malaise, so lethargic that he did not even want to bother holding a comic book; watching TV was too much effort. He had no appetite. He slept fourteen hours a day and lay in a daze most of the rest of the time. "Perhaps mild sunstroke," the doctor said, "and if he doesn't snap out of it in a couple of days, we'll put him in the hospital for tests."


During the day, when the judge was in court or meeting with his investment associates, and when Tommy's mother was at the country club or at one of her charity luncheons, Runningdeer slipped into the house now and then to sit by the boy's bed for ten minutes. He told Tommy stories, speaking in that soft and strangely rhythmic voice.


Miss Karval, their live-in housekeeper and part-time nanny, knew that neither the judge nor Mrs. Shaddack would approve of the Indian's sickbed visits or any of his other associations with Tommy. But Miss Karval was kindhearted, and she disapproved of the lack of attention that the Shaddacks gave to their offspring. And she liked the Indian. She turned her head because she saw no harm in it—if Tommy promised not to tell his folks how much time he spent with Runningdeer.


Just when they decided to admit the boy to a hospital for tests, he recovered, and the doctor's diagnosis of sunstroke was accepted. Thereafter, Tommy tagged along with Runningdeer most days from the time his father and mother left the house until one of them returned. When he started going to school, he came right home after classes; he was never interested when other kids invited him to their houses to play, for he was eager to spend a couple of hours with Runningdeer before his mother or father appeared in the late afternoon.


And week by week, month by month, year by year, the Indian made Tommy acutely aware of signs that foretold his great though as yet unspecified-destiny. A patch of four-leaf clovers under the boy's bedroom window. A dead rat floating in the swimming pool. A score of chirruping crickets in one of the boy's bureau drawers when he came home from school one afternoon. Occasionally coins appeared where he had not left them—a penny in every shoe in his closet; a month later, a nickel in every pocket of every pair of his pants; later still, a shiny silver dollar inside an apple that Runningdeer was peeling for him—and the Indian regarded the coins with awe, explaining that they were some of the most powerful signs of all.


"Secret," Runningdeer whispered portentously on the day after Tommy's ninth birthday, when the boy reported hearing soft bells ringing under his window in the middle of the night.

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