Chief Porter had promised to assign a man at once to watch the house in Camp’s End. If Robertson hadn’t been home yet, however, that officer could not have established surveillance.
“You want crackers with the cheese?” Stormy asked.
Crimson had seeped down the summer sky, closer to the horizon, staining the western swathe of bright orange until it narrowed to a swatch. The air itself seemed to be stained red, and the shadows of trees and tombstones, already soot-black, grew even blacker.
Robertson had arrived with nightfall.
I set my wineglass beside Stormy’s. “We’ve got a problem.”
“Crackers aren’t a problem,” Stormy said, “just a choice.”
A sudden loud flapping-fluttering startled me.
Turning to see three pigeons swooping into the belfry and to their
roost in the rafters above the bells, I bumped into Stormy as she rose with two small containers. Crackers and wedges of cheese spilled across the catwalk.
“Oddie, what a mess!” She stooped, set the containers aside, and began to gather the crackers and cheese.
Down on the darkening grass, Robertson had thus far stood with his arms at his sides, a slump-shoulder hulk. Aware that I was as fix­ated on him as he was on me, he now raised his right arm almost as if in a Nazi salute.
‘Are you going to help me here,” Stormy asked, “or are you going to be a typical man?”
Initially I thought he might be shaking his fist at me, but in spite of the poor - and rapidly fading - light,I soon saw that the gesture was even less polite than it had seemed at first. His middle finger was ex­tended, and he thrust it toward me with short, angry jabs.
“Robertson’s here,” I told her.
Suddenly he was on the move, walking between the headstones, toward the church.
“We better forget dinner,” I said, drawing Stormy to her feet with the intention of hustling her out of the belfry. “Let’s get down from here.”
Resisting me, she turned to the parapet. “I don’t let anyone intimi­date me.”
“Oh, I do. If they’re crazy enough.”
“Where is he? I don’t see him.”
Leaning out, peering down, I couldn’t see him either. Apparently he had reached the front or the back of the church and had turned a corner.
“The door at the bottom of the steps,” I said, “did it lock behind us automatically when we came into the tower?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
I didn’t like the idea of being trapped at the top of the tower, even though we could shout for help and surely be heard. The belfry door had no lock, and I doubted that the two of us could hold it shut against him if, in a rage, he was determined to open it.
Grabbing her by the hand, pulling to impress on her the need for urgency, I hurried along the catwalk, stepping over the cheese and crackers, around the bells. “Let’s get out of here.”
“The hamper, our dinner - “
“Leave it. We’ll get it later, tomorrow.”
We had left the lights on in the tower. But the spiral stairs were en­closed, and I couldn’t see all the way to the bottom, only as far as the continuously curving walls allowed.
Below, all was quiet.
“Hurry,” I urged Stormy, and without using the handrail, I pre­ceded her down those steep steps, setting a pace too fast to be safe.
DOWN, DOWN, AROUND AND DOWN, I LED AND SHE followed, striking too much noise from the Mexican-tile steps, unable to hear Robertson if he was climbing to meet us.
At the halfway point I wondered if this haste might be an overreaction. Then I remembered his upraised fist, the extended finger, the glowering photos in his study.
I plunged even faster, around and around, unable to block from my mind the image of him waiting below with a butcher knife on which I might impale myself before I could stop.
When we reached the bottom without encountering him, we found the lower door unlocked. I opened it cautiously.
Contrary to my expectations, he wasn’t waiting for us in the softly lighted narthex.
Descending the tower stairs, I had let go of Stormy’s hand. Now I seized it again to keep her close to me.
When I opened the centermost of three front doors, I saw Robertson climbing the church steps from the sidewalk. Although not
racing toward me, he approached with the grim implacability of a tank crossing a battlefield.
In the apocalyptic crimson light, I could see that his creepy but pre­viously reliable smile had deserted him. His pale-gray eyes borrowed a bloody cast from the sunset, and his face wrenched into a knot of murderous wrath.
Terri’s Mustang waited at the curb. I wouldn’t be able to reach it without going through Robertson.
I will fight when I have to, against opponents who dwarf me if I must. But I turn to physical conflict neither as a first resort nor as a matter of misguided principle.
I’m not vain, but I like my face just the way it is. I prefer that it not be stomped.
Robertson was bigger than me, but soft. Had his anger been that of an ordinary man, perhaps pumped up by one beer too many, I might have confronted him and would have been confident of taking him down.
He was a lunatic, however, an object of fascination to bodachs, and an idolizer of mass murderers and serial killers. I had to assume that he carried a gun, a knife, and that in the middle of a fight, he might be­gin to bite like a dog.
Perhaps Stormy would have tried to kick his ass - such a response is not alien to her - but I didn’t give her that option. Turning from the entrance, I held fast to her hand and encouraged her through one of the doors between the narthex and the nave.
In the deserted church, low pathlights marked the center aisle. The enormous crucifix behind the altar glowed in a soft spotlight directed on it from above. Flames flickered in ruby-colored glasses on the votive-candle racks.
Those points of light and the fading red sunset behind the stained-
glass windows in the western wall failed to press back the congrega­tion of shadows that filled the pews and the side aisles.
We hurried down the center aisle, expecting Robertson to slam with charging-bull fury through one of the doors from the narthex. Having heard nothing by the time we reached the communion railing, we paused and looked back.
As far as I could tell, Robertson had not arrived. If he had entered the nave, surely he would have come directly after us, along the center aisle.
Although logic argued against my hunch and no evidence sup­ported it, I suspected that he was with us. The prickled skin on my arms suggested that I should speak in a honk, have webbed feet, and be covered with feathers.
Stormy’s instinct was in sync with mine. Surveying the geometric shadows of pews, aisles, and colonnades, she whispered, “He’s closer than you think. He’s very close.”
I pushed open the low gate in the communion railing. We passed through, moving in all but absolute silence now, not wanting to mask any sounds of Robertson’s approach.
As we passed the choir enclosure and ascended the ambulatory toward the high altar, I glanced back less and proceeded with greater caution. Inexplicably, in opposition to my head, my heart said danger lay in front of us.
Our stalker couldn’t have slipped around us unseen. Besides, there was no reason for him to have done so instead of assaulting us directly.
Nevertheless, with every step I took, the tension increased in the cords of muscle at the back of my neck, until they felt as tight as key-wound dock springs.
From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed movement past the altar, twitched toward it, and drew Stormy closer to my side. Her hand clutched mine tighter than before.
The crucified bronze Christ moved, as if metal miraculously had become flesh, as if He would pull loose from the cross and step down to resume the earthly mantle of messiah.
A large scallop-winged moth flew away from the hot lens of the overhead spotlight. The illusion of movement - which the insect’s ex­aggerated, fluttering shadow had imparted to the bronze figure - was at once dispelled.
Stormy’s tower-door key would also unlock the door at the back of the sanctuary. Beyond waited the sacristy, in which the priest readied himself before every Mass.
I glanced back at the sanctuary, the nave. Silence. Stillness but for the moth’s shadow play.
After using and returning Stormy’s key, I pushed the paneled door inward with some trepidation.
This particular fear had no rational basis whatsoever. Robertson wasn’t a magician able to appear by legerdemain inside a locked room.
Nevertheless, my heart played knock-and-rattle with my ribs.
When I felt for the light switch, my hand was not pinned to the wall by either a stiletto or a hatchet. The overhead light revealed a small, plain room but no large psychopath with yellow yeast-mold hair.
To the left stood the prie-dieu, where the priest knelt to offer his pri­vate devotions before saying Mass. To the right were cabinets contain­ing the sacred vessels and the vestments, and a vesting bench.
Stormy closed the sanctuary door behind us and with a thumb-turn engaged the deadbolt.
We quickly crossed the room to the outer sacristy door. I knew that beyond lay the east churchyard, the one without tombstones, and a flagstone path leading to the rectory where her uncle lived.
This door also was locked.
From within the sacristy, the lock could be released without a key. I gripped the thumb-turn… but hesitated.
Perhaps we had not heard or seen Robertson enter the nave from the narthex for the simple reason that he’d never come into the front of the church after I had glimpsed him ascending the steps.
And perhaps, anticipating that we would try to flee from the back of the church, he had circled the building to wait for us outside the sacristy. This might explain why I had sensed that we were moving toward danger rather than away from it.
“What’s wrong?” Stormy asked.
I shushed her - a fatal mistake in any circumstances but these - and listened at the crack between the door and the jamb. The thinnest breath of a warm draft tickled my ear, but with it came no sounds from outside.
I waited. I listened. I grew increasingly uneasy.
Stepping away from the outer door, I whispered to Stormy, “Let’s go back the way we came.”
We returned to the door between the sacristy and the sanctuary, which she had locked behind us. But I hesitated again with my fingers on the deadbolt release.
Putting my ear against the crack between this door and jamb, I lis­tened to the church beyond. No teasing draft spiraled down my audi­tory canal, but no telltale stealthy sounds came to me, either.
Both sacristy doors had been locked from the inside. To get at us, Robertson would need a key, which he didn’t possess.
“We’re not going to wait here till morning Mass,” Stormy said, as though she could scroll through my thoughts as easily as through a document on her computer.
My cell phone was clipped to my belt. I could have used it to call Chief Porter and explain the situation to him.
The possibility existed, however, that Bob Robertson had been overcome by second thoughts about the wisdom of assaulting me in such a public place as the church, even though at this moment there were no worshipers or witnesses present. Having reined in his ram­pant anger, he might have gone away.
If the chief dispatched a patrol car to St. Bart’s or if he came him­self, only to find no smiley psychopath, my credibility would take a hit. Over the years, I had banked enough good will with Wyatt Porter to afford to make a withdrawal or two from my account, but I was re­luctant to do so.
It is human nature to want to believe in the wizardry of the magi­cian - but also to turn against him and to scorn him the moment that he commits the slightest error that reveals his trickery. Those in the audience are embarrassed to have been so easily astonished, and they blame the performer for their gullibility
Although I employ no sleight of hand, though what I offer is truth glimpsed by supernatural means, I am aware not only of the magi­cian’s vulnerability but also of the danger of being the boy who cried wolf - or in this case, the boy who cried Fungus Man.
Most people desperately desire to believe that they are part of a great mystery, that Creation is a work of grace and glory, not merely the result of random forces colliding. Yet each time that they are given but one reason to doubt, a worm in the apple of the heart makes them turn away from a thousand proofs of the miraculous, whereupon they have a drunkard’s thirst for cynicism, and they feed upon despair as a starving man upon a loaf of bread.
As a miracle worker of sorts, I walk a wire, too high to make one misstep and survive.
Chief Porter is a good man, but he is human. He would be slow to turn against me, but if he was made to feel foolish and gullible more than once, that turn would surely occur.
I could have used my cell phone to call Stormy’s uncle, Father Sean, in the rectory. He would come to our aid without delay and without too many awkward questions.
Robertson, however, was a human monster, not one of supernatu­ral origin. If he was lurking in the churchyard, he would not be de­terred from violence by the sight of a Roman collar or by the brandishing of a crucifix,
Having put Stormy in jeopardy, I shrank at once from the idea of endangering her uncle, as well.
Two sacristy doors. The outer led to the churchyard. The inner led to the sanctuary.
Having heard nothing at either exit, I had to rely on intuition. I chose the door to the sanctuary.
Apparently the bouncing ball of Stormy’s intuition hadn’t yet rat­tled to a stop on any number. She put her hand atop mine as I took hold of the lock.
Our eyes met for a moment. Then we turned our heads to stare at the outer door.
This was an instance when the card that we had drawn from that carnival fortune-telling machine and our matching birthmarks seemed indisputably to be meaningful.
Without exchanging a word, we arrived at a plan that we both un­derstood. I remained at the door to the sanctuary. Stormy returned to the churchyard door.
If when I unlocked my door, Robertson lunged for me, Stormy would throw open the outer door and bolt from the sanctuary, shout­ing for help. I would attempt to follow her - and stay alive.
THAT MOMENT IN THE SACRISTY DISTILLED THE ESSENCE of my entire existence: always between two doors, between a life with the living and a life with the dead, between transcendence and terror.
Across the room, Stormy nodded.
On the prie-dieu, a small book of prayers waited for a kneeling priest.
No doubt bottles of sacramental wine were stored in one of the cabinets. I could have used a little spiritual fortification.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com