I tried to ignore the couple in front of me and just enjoy the movie, but they were absolutely yakked to the gills and being extremely annoying about it. The film festival was showing Giant, one of my favorites – lemme tell you, you can’t beat those West Texas vistas on the big screen and, seriously, James Dean is so weird in it. We really missed out on a grade-A bizarro career when he got smeared all over that highway. But this pair of assholes kept hopping up to blow a rail or two in the bathroom and then come back and whisper and giggle and generally piss me off with their coke fidgets. At first I was willing to stew in silence; I mean, hell, I was young and dumb once, but when the dude wobbled to his feet and gave an exaggerated salute to Sal Mineo’s flag-draped coffin, I decided they owed me for ruining my evening like that.
Rock Hudson gets his ass kicked by a racist, the extremely sappy ending swells and bursts, credits roll, lights come up, show’s over. The snowbirds, jittery and looped to hell, start vibrating up the aisle towards the door. It’s real crowded and busy, lots of noise and activity all around – perfect pickpocketing weather. The lady’s got a nice fat purse but I don’t feel like running and besides, given the way she’s hanging onto him I figure this is his party, so I decide to go for his wallet. I’m a couple people behind them, just watching and waiting. We all debouche into the lobby and then there it is, my chance, all laid out for me like a Sunday stroll.
They’re both in low orbit, everything is a distraction to them. She’s frantically digging in her purse for something, so I slide right up behind ’em, execute a flawless faux-stumble and put my right hand on his shoulder. He jumps and his head jerks around – his eyes are big black pools, fully dilated, fully snowed-in. As I’m murmuring apologies for my clumsiness I get his wallet out of his back pocket and into my left hand. Then I’m outside. Fucking cokehead didn’t even feel a thing, certainly wouldn’t notice his missing wallet until his next purchase.
The night was humid and hot, so I headed south down Congress towards the river where it’d maybe be a little cooler. Nearly ten on a Saturday, so it was pretty busy downtown – college kids, convention zombies, a local here and there, and a few pedi-cabs drifted by, all of ’em heading towards the hell that was the 6th Street club scene.
I pushed through all that and eventually hit the park by the river. Bats flicked in and out of the orange beams of the streetlamps, hunting moths. There were some night joggers, but it was quiet and a nice breeze stirred the big cypresses lining the shore. I found a bench and examined my prize.
It was a fat one alight, big dumb black leather thing with, I’m not even fuckin’ kidding you, a goddamn Ferrari crest stitched onto it. Official Ferrari merchandise! I mean, who the fuck has a Ferrari wallet? The kind of asshole who needs a few bumps to get through an epic saga of greed, hubris, and generational decay like Giant, I guess.
Insights into the asshole’s personality continued apace once I flipped the wallet open. First and most important thing – a name for the dick. I held his driver’s license up and squinted in the sodium glow of the lamp, and it suddenly made sense, him bein’ a cokehead and all. I mean, what did his parents expect, naming him Brayden?
Brayden’s an out-of-town boy. Los Angeles, natch. Poor dude’s a walking cliché. Rough. I slip his license back into its holder and studiously ignore the credit cards. Pickpocketing is one thing, but a credit card company will move heaven and earth to terminally fuck anyone who crosses them. Resisting the temptation is easy though, because Brayden was carrying a lot of cash. I run the stack through my hands twice to confirm my count. Six fifties, ten twenties, ten tens, buncha fives and ones. More than $600, undoubtedly his nose candy fund. Of note was the complete absence of receipts; not looking to get reimbursed, so he wasn’t here on business or nothing. Just partying, I guess. I stuffed the whole wad into my pocket, and as I did I found the second interesting thing in his wallet.
It was a ticket. Bright yellow cardstock, sturdy, creased from its time in the wallet. Big black letters spelled out “Saint Grobian’s MIDNITE RAFFLE” in a broad upper arc, while a lower curve said “MUST be PRESENT to REDEEM” which, I mean sure, that’s like a central tenet of Christianity, right? Framed between those phrases was this ticket’s particular number, “074.”
Now, coke and Jesus ain’t as hypocritical a combination as you might think. Lots of folks like Brayden love Jesus and cocaine too. Hell, I was a preacher’s kid up in Waco, so I know what I’m talking about. I mean, what’s a honk or two when you’ve bathed in the blood of the lamb, right? Besides, everybody loves a good church raffle. I remember the donations that’d come into my dad’s church whenever Christmas would roll around. Always the usual big-ass hams and sour cream poundcakes of course, but there was generally at least one spectacular big-ticket item, something really good, a TV or a chainsaw, primo shit like that. One year there was even a goddamn bass boat, big twenty-footer with a 225 Mercury Pro XS hanging off the back. Donated by this dentist that ended up doing seven years in Three Rivers for insurance fraud, but still: beautiful fuckin’ boat.
Brayden might’ve been a LA dickhole, sure, but I couldn’t fault his taste in movies, so I figured if the ol’ piece-a-shit thought there was something worth buying a ticket for over at this church raffle, well, maybe I oughta stop by to check it out. I slipped the ticket into my pocket and closed the wallet, got up, and winged it into the river, getting a couple of good skips before it vanished beneath the dark waters.
I didn’t know exactly where this Saint Grobian’s place was, but I figured it must’ve been back up near downtown. There’s a big block of charities, almost all of ’em of a religious bent, clustered just north of the bars and clubs, where a lot of homeless folks congregate. This place sounded Catholic maybe, and I knew from walking around down there of at least three churches on the drag with blood-soaked saints looking miserable on big stained-glass windows.
Good hour and a half until midnight, so I strolled at a fairly leisurely pace up that-a-ways. I stopped at my favorite truck for a couple of tacos (al pastor and a tinga de pollo, both on corn tortillas), and then had a beer or three at this bullshit tourist honky-tonk on Lavaca. I tell you what, if I hadn’t had a pocket full of Brayden’s cash already, I could’ve cleaned up working that place. Lotta marks getting sloppy on $2 Lone Stars.
Anyway, feeling expansive and comfortably buzzed, I made my way towards our city’s sacred quarter. I walked in the shadow of row after row of tax-exempt holy buildings, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, LDS, hell we got ’em all here. They were all dark though, resting up for the sabbath I guess, and I was having a hell of a time finding this Saint Grobian’s place. St. Mark’s on the corner with its big radio antennae, sure, and a block away there was St. Cecilia’s with its big bloody Holy Martyr out front all lit up, but no sign of Saint Grobian’s or their raffle.
Figuring I needed a bit of local guidance, I stopped at the mouth of an alley where a man was making camp for the night, unrolling a sleeping bag over a big piece of cardboard. He had a dog with him, a cheerful if tired-looking mutt who cocked its head quizzically at me as I approached. The dog whined a greeting, its tail scuffling against the cardboard, and the man looked up from his bag. He tipped back his Houston Astros ballcap and gave me a once-over, which I let him finish before speaking.
“Hey man,” I said, nodding with what I hoped was casual affability. “You know around here pretty well?” His jaw relaxed, probably because he’d decided I didn’t look like a cop.
“Here? Yeah, I know around here pretty good,” he answered.
“Good, ’cause I need some directions. There a ‘Saint Grobian’s’ church somewhere?” His eyes bugged a bit, and he sat down hard on his sleeping bag. His dog scrambled up and laid its head on his lap, and he gave it a loving scratch behind its ears.
“Shit, man,” he said, shaking his head. His voice was low, and there was a wary look in his eyes. “You don’t want nothing to do with them!”
“Why not? Real deal Jesus freaks or something?”
“Don’t know about the Jesus part, but they’re for sure some freaks.” He nodded, and his dog seemed to agree, stretching its neck out and nuzzling his hand with its nose. I waited, grinning, but the guy seemed to have said all he was going to on the subject.
“Well, c’mon now!” I laughed. “You can’t leave me hanging like that. What’s the story, huh?”
“Eh, yeesh,” said the man, grimacing. “Got a smoke?” I handed him the crumpled pack in my back pocket and my gas station lighter.
“Keep ’em both,” I said. He nodded and was soon drinking smoke deep into his lungs.
“Thanks,” he exhaled. “It’s like this. They moved into Saint Adrian’s, the old meat-packers cathedral, corner of Manzanita and 8th. Saint A’s been empty for a while – used to be a good place to wait out a storm, had a big stoop out back and all. Anyway, one day these big black vans roll up, all these kids pour out of ’em and start hauling all sorts of stuff into Saint Adrian’s. Now, I didn’t see them move in, I was across the river then. My buddy Red told me about it, but he wasn’t the only witness.” He paused for another long drag. “They had this electronic equipment right, cameras and boards and lights and stuff like that, you know? Lots of it. They’d empty one van and then start on the next. Computers, big machines, I dunno. Lots of stuff like that, right?”
“No pews or hymnals though?” I said, leaning against the wall.
“Exactly man, exactly. Everybody figured it was gonna be a club or something, especially when they took the old ‘Saint Adrian’s’ sign down. But then, week or so later, there’s a new sign: Saint Grobian’s, and these same kids all come pouring out of the church and they’re all over the neighborhood, talking to us.” He squinted up at me, a knowing look on his face. “They were some weird kids, too. Real ‘Hitler Youth’ vibe, you know? All blonde and blue-eyed, crew cuts on the boys, braids on the girls. All dressed the same, too – khaki slacks, pleated for Chrissake! And black polo shirts. Cult shit. Real fuckin’ weird, you dig?”
“When you say kids –”
“Like college kids, eighteen, nineteen. Young.” He switched the cigarette to his other hand so he could pet his dog better. “Anyway, these Aryan fucks are crawling all over the neighborhood. They got sodas, they got sandwiches, they got donuts – fine, I’ll put up with a sermon so long as I can eat while I listen. But these are not your normal bible-thumpers. I know bible-thumpers, man; I’ve been talked at by all of ’em! From the Catholics it’s that sacred heart stuff, Jesus on the cross and all, which, hey thanks man, but what’s he done for me lately? Baptists is always on about how my ‘circumstances’ will change for the better if I just get right with the Lord, to which I reply ‘cash in hand, motherfucker.’” He grinned up at me, then shrugged. “But with these blonde kids, it was different. All they wanted to talk about was the End of the World.”
“Fire and brimstone types?”
“Nah man, this was X-files shit,” he said, shaking his head. “UN troops pouring over the border! Microchips in the water! ER docs sucking out our spinal fluids to keep hundred-year-old Satanists alive. I ain’t too up on my bible, but to me this stuff all seemed a bit, uh, non-traditional.”
“Wild shit!” I laughed.
“That’s nothing,” he took a last drag off the stub of the cigarette and then flicked it off into the alleyway, a tiny glowing comet that arced up and away into the darkness. “Did you know Satan has a big machine at the core of the planet that he uses to send rays up to fuck with people’s brains? You ever just feel sad for no reason? Or angry? Or scared?” I nodded. “Well, that’s the Devil punching your number into his ray machine.” I looked at him, incredulous, but he just leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. “Yeah, after that one I asked for my sandwich to-go.”
“Conspiracy nuts, huh?”
“Hell, crazy shit ain’t nothing on the streets. Nah, the real weird shit was that they started wanting to measure everybody’s heads and bones.”
“Said they was looking for a specific type of person, with specific measurements and such. Had these big whatchacallits, pinchers or whatever that they’d put over your head, front to back, side to side, measuring it. Measure your arms, pits to thumb, and legs too, knees to toes. Heard from some folks that they even asked for blood samples, offered cash for them; never asked me, and good for them, ’cause some Jesus freak comes at me with a needle? Well, there’s gonna be trouble.” He looked around, up and down the street, and his voice got lower. “But there’re rumors. Some folks say that there were people who took ’em up on the blood samples, and they’d take ’em back to the Church and lead ’em inside. And some folks say not everybody who went in came back out again.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, impressed. I always appreciated some good old what-the-fuckery, and this was grade-A shit.
“What you want with them, anyway?” he asked me. His dog rolled over onto its back, tongue lolling out of its mouth, and he rubbed its belly. Grinning a little sheepishly, I dug in my pocket and produced the yellow raffle ticket.
“Found one a these,” I lied, “and figured maybe I’d get lucky.”
“Hm,” said the man. “Trust me on this one, man: you don’t want whatever it is they’re giving away.”
“Maybe so,” I said, tucking the ticket back into my pocket. “But now I gotta see these weirdos for myself. You said corner of Manzanita, right? Thanks.” I waved at him and his dog and started walking, but before I could get away, the man called me back.
“Hey, wait man!” He dug in his backpack and pulled out what looked like a kid’s pencil case, plastic and dingy and held shut by a couple of thick rubber bands. He snapped these off, flipped the lid back and very carefully extracted something small and rectangular that flashed wickedly in the light from the streetlamp. He held it up, offering it to me.
“A razor blade?” I said. He nodded, and thrust it towards me.
“Look man, the boy scouts know what they’re talking about, right? Always be prepared! You heading into Saint Grobian’s, you oughta have an ace up your sleeve. Or in your shoe, whatever the case may be.”
“Hate to deprive you of yours, though,” I said, gingerly taking the blade between my thumb and forefinger.
“No problem, not with Gus here,” he said, ruffling the dog’s ears.
Well, I didn’t want to seem rude, so I thanked him again and took the razor. Didn’t want to cut myself, so I carefully tucked it into the watch pocket of my jeans, really hoping I’d remember to take it out before I did laundry again.
It was a good thing I’d stopped to ask for directions, otherwise I’d probably never have found the place. It was way down 8th, a good half-a-mile past what I’d thought was the last of the churches, a big ridiculous Lutheran pile, all spires and glass. But I trusted my informant and kept going, and there it was at the corner of 8th and Manzanita, a long and tall brick rectangle, bell tower and everything.
The stained-glass windows were all dark though; from the outside it looked abandoned, and it wasn’t until I’d walked all the way around to the front that there was any sign of life. Under an incongruously modern “Saint Grobian’s” sign there was an open door where bright yellow light spilled out onto the quiet sidewalk. Standing just inside the entrance, arms crossed menacingly, was one of the biggest, blondest fuckers I’ve ever seen. He gave me a classic bouncer staredown as I walked up the steps.
“I’m here for the raffle,” I said, when he didn’t show any signs of moving.
“You got your ticket?” he asked. His voice was flat and affectless, although he made sure to accentuate his question with a threatening flex of his tree-trunk arms. I flashed him the yellow card, he nodded and stepped aside. “Good luck, sir,” he said as I passed through an inner door and into the nave of Saint Grobian’s.
I immediately saw why the church had looked abandoned and dark from the outside – the walls and windows were completely covered, floor to ceiling, in soundproofing foam. You could’ve set off a bomb in that place and no one outside would’ve known. Soundproofing is always a little sinister, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that they’d set up little niches with moveable walls all along the edge of the nave, little spaces with cameras and ring-lights and heavy velvet drapery, miniature studios for filming Christ knows what.
I suppressed my natural inclination to get the hell out of there and kept walking up the nave towards the altar. There weren’t any pews, just rows of folding chairs with a cleared central aisle that ran the length of the church to the altar. That had been stripped bare too, a cleared patch of empty tile the only sign of where choir benches had once sat. There was still a crucifix though, a huge one with a big bloody Christ, his face hidden under a long black cloth or hood. Two big lamps at his nailed-down feet flooded him with light from below, casting weird shadows high into the dome overhead.
The crowd matched the surroundings. I’d say the hall was about half-full, maybe a hundred people scattered in twos and threes among the folding chairs. There were definitely some survivalist types – camo shirts, army-navy store BDU pants, boots, real soldier-of-fortune fashion plates, right down to their open carry holsters and tactical belts. There were plenty of the usual Christofascists too, buttoned down men and women with severe haircuts, gold crosses around their necks, and the twitchy energy of people who dreamt of holy war. Even a few dirtbags like me, sunglasses-inside types whose primary ecological niche was transforming goods into money at pawn shops that didn’t ask too many questions.
A few of the blondes were orbiting the hall, all in uniforms like the guy had described, khakis and black polo shirts. Some were adjusting chairs or checking speaker cables, others had trays with little dixie cups full of juice. One of them drifted near and offered me a drink, but I politely declined on account of what I remembered about Jonestown.
You gotta believe me, I was this close to cutting out of there; the combination of the hooded Christ and the soundproofing was doing a number on my mental wellbeing, but then they started wheeling out the raffle prizes, and I went and got a seat. They opened the door to the sacristy and the blondes started filing out two by two, hauling or pushing or dragging all sorts of stuff. There were some of those fancy expensive coolers, a nice family-sized tent, a stand-up propane stove with a full tank of gas. They wheeled out a big combination smoker/grill like you saw at the fair; I mean, one a those would set you back $3000! They carried out a nice .30-30, corny camo pattern on the stock but a Remington nonetheless, the sort of thing that a pawnshop wouldn’t waste their time trying to nickel-and-dime you on. I already had Brayden’s $600 in my pocket, but some of this stuff could easily double or triple that! I had to stick around.
The stuff kept on coming, some of it less interesting – there was a complete set of those Left Behind books, two years’ worth of survivalist food buckets, a whole box full of World War II army surplus entrenching tools. They kept piling the stuff against the wall of the altar until, finally, I guess they reached the end. The last thing to come out of the prize door was a tall, statuesque blonde woman with a tower of hair piled on her head. She eschewed the uniform of her fellows, though, and wore only a long black robe that rippled as she moved, shining like velvet in the light. One of the rank-and-file popped a folding chair open and plunked it down right there amidst the prizes, and the berobed mystery woman sedately took her seat there, between the smoker and a big ten-gallon passive water filtration tank. Then there was a series of twelve chimes, and one of the indistinguishable blonde kids started the raffle.
They had one of them spinning bingo ball set-ups, hand-cranked and full of numbers. One kid would give it a whirl, get all the numbers popping and jumping around, then they’d stop it and the MC would stick his hand in and draw out a number. Strange thing was that they never announced what precisely they were raffling off – number would get called, someone from the audience would hustle down to the altar and hand over their ticket, and then they’d find out what they won. A bible-chewer got the rifle, which seemed like a real bad idea, and there was a really disappointed survivalist who, while struggling to get his complete set of Left Behind back to his chair, kept looking wistfully over his shoulder at a solar-powered charger set they had on stage.
Took ’em the better part of an hour to get through all that stuff – I yawned while the smoker/grill went to some twitchy fuck who looked like he was gonna trade it for meth the first chance he got. I hadn’t won shit, and now there was nothing left except for the weird robed woman, smiling oddly at her seat on the now empty altar, right below the big hooded Christ. Me and everyone else were getting ready to leave, and a few people were already offering to swap prizes right there in the hall, when the blonde kid running the show coughed into his microphone.
“Please, everyone,” he said, “there is one more prize tonight.” His voice, which had been affectless and dull the whole evening, had suddenly taken on a strange thickness, and I noticed that the other blondes seated in the front row had suddenly bowed their heads and started mumbling prayers. I got a bad feeling, a little prickling that ran up and down my spine, but I still sat down.
They cranked the bingo barrel, the remaining balls hopping around like crickets. The prickling in my spine dug its needles deeper into my back. Was the MC looking directly at me?
He reached in and plucked out a number.
“Seventy-four,” he said, a slight tremor in his voice.
“Seventy-four!” intoned the row of blondes in front of him, exhaling it like a prayer.
“Will number seventy-four please come up to the altar?” the MC said again. I surreptitiously looked around, and noticed that the big bouncer had found a twin, and both of them were blocking the exit, arms crossed. They must’ve counted us all as we came in and knew that, somewhere in the hall, was the ticket that I had in my pocket. I coughed, sighed, and stood up.
“That’s me, chief,” I said, waving up at the altar. The kid who had been cranking the bingo barrel fainted, and no one bothered to see if he was all right. The MC beckoned me forward.
“Everyone else may leave,” he said into his microphone. “Now,” he added, and the menace in his voice was enough to get the crowd flowing away towards the now opened door. I really wished I could’ve joined them, but I beat on against the current and got up there, the ticket getting a little damp in my sweaty hand.
“So what’s my prize?” I asked, trying to sound calm and casual and not at all freaked out. “All expenses paid trip to Cozumel?”
“My most fortunate friend,” mewed the MC. A waxy smile spread across his stupid blonde face and made my knuckles itch. “You have won more than you know! But let us wait; this is not for the rabble.” He placidly looked over my shoulder – most everyone was gone, and the bouncers were “helping” the twitchy guy with his huge smoker out the door, mostly by physically throwing them both down the stairs. There was a crash and some cursing, but they were immediately cut off as the doors, also sound-proofed, were swung shut. A terrifying silence descended on Saint Grobian’s.
A couple of the cultists got busy setting up cameras and lights facing the altar, while the rest of the blondes formed up in a semicircle around me, hands clasped, shivering with excitement. I was joined in the center of their group by the MC and the weird robed woman. It was the look on her face that scared me the most. I’d only ever seen the manic light that flashed in her eyes back in Dad’s church in Waco, when old Mrs. Francine would suddenly jump up from her pew and start screaming in tongues. Having something like that turned directly on you was unsettling, to say the least.
“Now, Mister, uh… ” began the MC.
“Jones,” I lied, grabbing the first name that came to mind.
“Yes, Mr. Jones,” he said, that unctuous grin spreading like an oil slick over his face. “You have been chosen for a particular honor. Yes, I say chosen, for it was not chance that your number was drawn from yon vessel. It was the Hand of God Himself!”
“Alleluia!” “God wills it!” “Praise Him!” rang out from the peanut gallery gathered around us.
“And what did the Big Man have in mind for me tonight?” I asked, looking around. If I moved fast, I could probably rush one of the littler blondes and break out of the circle, but then what? And the fervor in all their eyes was getting a little Dionysian, if you catch my drift – I wasn’t sure I’d survive the attempt intact.
“Surely, Mr. Jones, even one such as yourself, steeped in the world of sin and iniquity, can see the Holy Signs all around us? These are the End Times, and the Kingdom of God is at hand!” More cheers erupted from the assembled faithful. “But before the Kingdom of God, of Heaven on Earth, can be realized – ”
“The Kingdom of Satan must be established!” gasped the robed woman, stepping forward, and the mad glimmer in her eyes made me shiver.
“Yes,” said the MC. “It is written that Satan shall have power over the Earth, his dominion established to scourge believer and unbeliever alike! That is the Holy mission of Saint Grobian’s, our sacred duty – to usher in the age of Darkness, so there may be an age of Light afterwards!” He looked at me expectantly; sweat beaded on his upper lip, and an unpleasantly purple tongue darted out between his lips to lick it away.
“Ah, hm,” was all I could muster.
“‘Be fishers of Men!’ exhorted our Savior, and that was what we came here to do, to trawl these foul seas for the dregs of humanity. There are signs encoded in the Bible, Mr. Jones, that gave us things we could search for, craniometric values, genetic profiles, that we believed we could use to identify the Herald of Satan, but in this we were sadly disappointed. Many promising candidates, but none who proved to be him whom we sought. Then, a divine vision was given to us!”
“Was given to me,” sighed the robed woman, stepping even closer to me. I stepped back, but the tension from the circle around us was like an electric current, so I very carefully stopped moving. “A dream!” she suddenly shrieked. “Fire, and a sea of blood! The moon burned, the stars shivered and fell from the sky, and I emerged, full with child upon the Great Beast! And in my womb? The Antichrist, quickening! A voice like thunder rolled through my dream! We were too soon! The Antichrist who would establish the Kingdom of Satan was not yet born! I was to be his mother! I was to be the tool of God to bring about the Tribulation and Christ’s return!”
“Using the Holy Gematria we determined the time of his conception; it is now, in the dark before the dawn of the Holy Sabbath that Satan’s Wrath must be conceived! And it was through the use of the ancient technique of sortition that the father would be found! The raffle was God’s own will, and you Mr. Jones have been selected, nay, fated, to be the father of the Antichrist!”
“Come,” panted the woman in the robe. “Take me as your wife, you filthy reprobate, and beget upon me the Spawn of Satan!” She shimmied in place trying to wriggle out of the heavy velvet robe, but it had gotten caught around her waist and she was stuck. I felt hands suddenly on me, trying to pull my shirt over my head.
“Reveal the face of our Lord!” screamed the MC, gesturing at the covered visage of Christ on the cross.
“Waitaminute, wait wait!” I said, breaking away from the pawing hands of the blondes all over me.
“You wouldn’t dare refuse the honor you have been selected for?” said the MC, suddenly seething. The elation in his and everyone else’s eyes instantly grew dark and hateful.
“Oh no no, of course not, hate to disappoint a lady and all,” I said, nodding towards the now naked woman heaving in terrifying ecstasy beside me. “Um, however,” I coughed and wracked my brain. “I would, uh, I would like to, hm. Freshen up? A bit? I mean, before I father the Antichrist and bring about the end of the world, shouldn’t I, uh, have a shower?” The MC paused, and I saw doubt flickering beneath the fervor in his eyes. I dug deep into my memories of my Dad’s church. “I mean, does not the bible say ‘he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean?’”
“Ritual ablutions are the norm, and a certain purity of body at least should be expected, even from so foul a vessel as you,” he replied, uncertainly.
“I mean, absolutely, right?” I said. “Jesus said: ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash,’ but it’s been a long day for me, you know, and it is a little warm in here and everything.” I turned to the mad-eyed woman next to me. “Besides, I’m really thinking about you, you know? I mean, I haven’t showered since this morning.” The MC fingered a bible while he thought.
“‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean,’” he muttered.
“Isaiah,” I nodded solemnly, hoping he wouldn’t ask for the chapter and verse like my old man would’ve. But that did the trick.
“You are indeed the proper vessel for this most Holy act,” he said. The fire in his blue eyes sparkled pure again, and I saw that I’d bought myself a little time. “Take him to the Rector’s bathroom! There is a shower there, but,” he stepped in close and gripped my arm, “do not be long, and do not make us come in and get you. Understand?”
“Me, make a lady wait? Ha ha!” I said.
Two big blonde gorillas led me through a door into the back of the Church. I kept glancing around, trying to spot an escape route. There was a doorway down at the end of the hall, the big red exit sign glowing over it beckoning to me like the gates of paradise, but we stopped a good hundred feet short of that, and the muscle that was escorting me ushered me into an office with an attached bathroom.
“Ten minutes,” said one, handing me a towel and a robe as I went inside. “Do not lock the door. We’ll be right outside, and we’re watching the clock.” Through the frosted glass of the door I could see their hulking shapes as they waited.
“Goddammit goddammit goddammit,” I muttered, taking stock. The window was right out – the tiny one in the bathroom was long and thin, barely six-inches high, no escape for me. Everything else was pretty spare; sink, toilet, small garbage can, plunger, and a shower stall with a faded floral print plastic shower curtain. There was a mirror over the sink, but other than some Q-tips, gold bond powder, a half a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and expired aspirins, it was empty. A big sign had been screwed into the wall by the door: “NO SMOKING: FIRE ALARM WILL SOUND” it said, and a big red arrow pointed up, towards the ceiling where a smoke detector blinked down at me.
There was a sharp knock on the door.
“Don’t hear no water in there!” barked one of the goons.
“I’m taking a shi~iiit,” I sing-songed back.
“Eight minutes,” he replied. Fucking taskmasters, Christ. Hated to think how’d they’d be if they forced me to go through with this insane breeding ceremony.
I spent another thirty seconds pacing the tiny bathroom, trying to think. My eyes kept going back to the No Smoking sign, since it was the only bit of decoration on the walls. No smoking. Pace. No smoking. Goddamn wish I hadn’t given my cigs to that dude, I could use a smoke now…
I stopped and stared up at the smoke alarm, a warm glow rising from the pit of my stomach.
It was one of the usual store-bought kind, battery operated and stuck into the ceiling with screws. I didn’t have my lighter either, but I’d spent a few months inside and had picked up a few ingenious tricks. I turned the water on in the shower and hoped the noise would be enough.
No chair or anything, so I had to use the plunger to knock the smoke detector down. It clattered alarmingly against the tiles when I finally batted it free from the ceiling, but they must not have heard it outside ’cause they left me alone. I didn’t doubt that they’d bust in on me when the ten minutes was up, so I worked fast. I yanked the batteries out of the alarm, netting myself two AAs.
Making a prison lighter is easy, but you gotta be able to cut the battery a bit to expose the metal body. Luckily, I had the razor blade the guy had given me in my pocket. I got it out and, very carefully, shaved around the negative end of one of the batteries, cutting the plastic coating back a centimeter or so, leaving gleaming metal exposed around the terminal. Then I placed the steel razor flat against the pole and pressed the other end to the metal. I immediately felt the gentle sting and heat of a completed circuit. I grinned wide.
“Five minutes!” shouted a goon.
I unwound both the whole roll of toilet paper in the wall and the spare role, piling them loosely into the garbage can. Then I laid the towel they’d given me across that, about half in the garbage can and half out. I stretched the robe they’d given me all the way to the door, making a rough perimeter the length of the bathroom. I doused the whole thing with the bottle of alcohol. The fumes made me feel a little sick. Now all I needed was a spark.
I held the razor blade against the battery again, longer this time. It got warm, then almost hot, and the segment of the blade directly in contact with the battery started to glow faintly. I gave it a full minute, until it had developed a good bright orange aura on the blade, and then quickly placed the heated metal against the fuzzy ends of a couple of Q-tips. It smoked, smoldered, and then caught, burning merrily like a match.
I flicked it into the garbage can, there was a whoosh as the toilet paper caught, and then a line of flame followed the alcohol-soaked towel to the robe, and the whole thing was a bright, smoky blaze in no time. I got behind the door and screamed.
“Fire, fire, for fuck sake there’s a goddamn fire in here!”
The goons rushed in. One of them started stomping on the towel and the robe, sending flaming bits of toilet paper all over. The other didn’t do anything, because I hit him hard over the head with the plunger. It broke, but he went down and didn’t get back up. The other goon turned, but I was already gone, out into the office, where I pulled down a couple of bookshelves, just in case. I heard coughing and shouts behind me, and I saw the blonde thug who was still standing hauling the other one out. Fire danced in the doorway, and black oily smoke poured out of the bathroom. I figure the plastic shower curtain must’ve caught; probably 99% petroleum product, must’ve gone up like a fuckin’ roman candle.
I didn’t stick around though – there was no one in the hallway, and I ran to the exit, pushed hard, and got outside out back of the church, onto the stoop the guy had said they’d waited out storms under. I ran hard, hopped a fence, and just kept running.
I did a half mile in record time, and I only stopped to catch my breath when I saw I was back almost where I’d started, right near the alley where I’d gotten directions. He was still there too, the homeless guy, snoring loudly and cocooned up in his bag. Gus, the dog, raised his head and slow-wagged at me.
I pulled the wad out of my pocket and peeled off enough for cab fare, then put the rest under a brick next to the guy’s bag. I also, very carefully, put the razor blade there, blade safely stowed under the brick where he’d certainly see it. Then, with a quick pat on the head of Gus, I turned and started for home. I figured I could catch a taxi on 6th Street, so I went that way.
Fire engines rushed past me down 8th towards Saint Grobian’s. I turned and looked; the night was full of a hellish glow in that direction, and the column of black smoke that rose into the sky was lit from below by a deep roiling red.
Hell of a night.
Eric Williams lives on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX. He is the author of Toadstones, a collection of Weird Stories published in 2022 by Malarkey Books.