Salem Dade was so spent after his ordeal, Marie decided that the twelve must fend for themselves their first night as disciples. Tonight Salem and his mistress would, for the last time, have the hotel to themselves. Such an interval could test the disciples’ resolve. Were they ready to change their lives? Did they really want to become the founding members of the Universal Church? Another reason for the delay, which she must overcome, was the natural distrustfulness of street folk. The hotel, they told her, had a bad reputation, which is the reason why it wasn’t used as sleeping quarters by vagrants on the street. Its rickety staircase, flimsy floorboards, and history of muggings and mayhem were well known on skid row. Not wishing to flaunt her powers in front of the disciples or test Salem’s patience, however, she would wait for the right moment to transform these quarters into a safe and livable home. Salem needed time to rest up before playing his part. It must be obvious that he, not she, was responsible for the transformation. When it was done, it must be his, not her, powers they see. Not one of the twelve disciples wanted to stay in the hotel in its present condition, so they scattered (in Salem’s thinking as so many vermin) back into various corners of skid row, promising to return the next day. Marie had clapped her tiny hands in approval, but Salem shuddered at the thought. Since street people were normally nocturnal and often slept late, the designated hour was 12 pm. It would, she explained to her exhausted and overwrought protégé, be a test for them. If they returned at the required hour, they were meant to be members of the twelve. If they failed to arrive or filtered in later than required, they were unworthy to be counted in the twelve.
Salem, of course, had expected far more stringent requirements for membership, which would have eliminated all of them and any future derelicts selected in skid row. Salem had wanted respectable “uptown folk,” and in his opinion even the vagrants who finally stood up for him were unacceptable lowlifes, who had been too cowardly to answer the call.
A bolt of lightning—Satan’s wrath—had saved him. Only Marie Roget could he count as a friend on earth.
That night, after a less sumptuous feast, the prophet-to-be took a shower in resurrected plumbing nearby their room. Marie, not wanting to suffocate him with her affection, followed suit, allowing her protégé to crawl into bed alone this night, as she showered, and fall into a deep, untroubled sleep. When she was finished, she stood naked, dripping wet, staring down at the world. For many hours, she would pace the creaking floors of the hotel, wrapped in thought. Never hungry or tired, unable to sleep as mortal folk, she stood there, the most perfect specimen of womankind, hoping her calculation were corrects, wondering if the Gate Master of Hell might just rebel and claim her dominion in hell.
The following morning, after sleeping in late and a frugal meal, Salem and Marie waited in expectation that all members of the twelve would arrive on time—Marie hoping they would and Salem hoping they would not. Marie had modified his wardrobe significantly. Instead of the Biblical getup he had worn on the street, he now wore a conservative white suit. Though his Nazarene beard had not changed, he wore his hair in a ponytail and had, on his feet, a shiny pare of black shoes. When the clock, which Marie had set on the wall, struck twelve, all members were seen congregated below the hotel. With a sinking feeling, Salem followed his mistress down to the lobby, where they greeted the twelve. Heck and Johnnie appeared, upon close inspection, to have hangovers, and a few of them, who scratched, shivered and wiped their noses nervously, seemed to be suffering from withdrawal. Most of them, however, Salem noted with disappointment, had expectant expressions on their dirty faces. Not one of them had failed to show up, and they had all arrived at the hotel at the same time.
This morning—the first morning that Salem, Marie, and the Twelve Disciples would go forth as members of the Universal Church, Salem was expected to shepherd his small flock. They were, at this stage, Marie explained patiently, like Bible students and, as the old bum had promised him on the street, the nucleus of his congregation. He was, she reminded him, still a pastor. He just had a different faith and different church. But now that he had what would be the founding fathers and mothers of his congregation, Salem wondered what he was supposed do with them. What doctrine would he teach them? Marie remained silent about this issue, as if she herself didn’t know. He knew that she wasn’t impressed with his new age form of religion and showed little enthusiasm for the positive thinking, liberal messages he had recently espoused in his church. So what exactly did she have in mind with this bunch? If not Christianity, what doctrine could he teach men and women, who had been living as lost souls on the street?
He was repulsed and nonplussed by this collection of ragamuffins and derelicts following Marie and him now. In spite of her power to give him anything he desired, she wanted him, for inexplicable reasons known only to her, to live here on skid row and parade around with a dozen unwashed bums. At this stage, though, he had little choice but to rely on his mentor for almost every thought and action. He felt like a toddler taking his first steps, but they were steps into the unknown rather than steps into the familiar environment of one’s home, and yet, for the time being, this was his home.
To make matters worse, he told himself, though no longer an indwelling spirit, she was still able to read his thoughts whenever she wished, and she was probably reading them right now. Kiss my ass bitch! Go to hell! He experimented with his thoughts, but there was no response. Glancing back at the newly formed congregation following he and Marie down the boulevard, he shuddered at his task, half hoping that they would still lose interest, as burned out bums often do, and disappear into the alleys from whence they had come. He still couldn’t believe that all twelve of them had shown up today. In spite of his liberal leanings, Salem realized now how much he disliked these folk. They were dirty and smelly souls, with rotting teeth, bad breaths, and uncouth ways. His resentment at this collection of ragamuffins increased steadily as they wandered through skid row.
So far, in spite of his efforts of mentally shutting them out, Salem had gleaned information about the twelve as he listened to them talk amongst themselves. There were eight men and four women. The loudest and most uncouth members of the group were the overweight and bloated faced Buff Peyton and shabbily dressed, crone Effie Powers, who, it was explained to him by Marie, had once been a call girl on the street. This was difficult for Salem to imagine, since she was, without a doubt, one of the most uncouth members of the group. A more recent lady of the evening had been Ursula Painter, who had been on and off drugs for the much of her life, a still attractive, but hard-looking Afro-American woman, with a shaggy head of frizzy black hair. Among the twelve derelicts, there were also those two fierce-looking fellows, Heck Reyes, an ex-gang member, and Jonathan Trueblood, an American Indian, with nothing in common but their size, muscular stature, and unkempt beards. More clean shaven, though still sporting stubble on their faces, were the less unsavory-looking members of the group, such as the talkative and affable Royal Channing, nicknamed Stork, who sported a shock of blond hair and had almost albino-like skin. Yet another one in this group, Troy Holland, who managed to maintain a crew cut, had a tattoo on his arm with the telltale inscription The Few, the Proud, the Marines. Salem had heard Wyatt, the youngest man in the twelve, referred to affectionately by members of the group as Padre. He wore the dark jacket of the cleric and yet couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Salem found it hard to believe that Wyatt had been in the seminary, but he heard him explain to Troy and Ursula that he had actually been a novitiate priest.
The third and forth woman in the group appeared to be good friends, and yet one of them, Liz Moydin, had a hard look about her, perhaps from drug use or simply being outdoors for so many years. The younger of the two, whom Liz called Cassie, seemed to be only a teenager— a Samoan-American girl it appeared, who talked in rhyme and riddles and seemed to be getting on everyone else’s nerves.
Kaz Yorba, the dwarf, was the strangest-looking member of the group, yet, in spite of his features and small size, he had a sense of humor and seemed well adjusted to life on the street.
Always near the dwarf, perhaps to protect him, was Alden Taylor, someone whom Salem had mentally saved until last in his reflections, perhaps because of this black man’s uncomfortable resemblance to a renowned actor he had always admired. Of all the ragamuffins following he and Marie, he seemed the most out of place, for he wore an old, tattered suit and a derby. Clutched in one of Alden’s hands was an umbrella, probably serving the duel purpose of a sunscreen and protection against the rain.
As he glanced back furtively at the twelve, he noticed from the corner of his eye Marie’s probing gaze. He knew that she was watching and appraising everything he said or did.
“It’s good to be thinking about them,” her thoughts came impulsively into his head. “When we reach the park, we’re going to get to know each other. That black fellow, Alden Taylor, caught my eye too.”
“How long do we have to stay down here?” Salem blurted his thoughts aloud.
If she had, in fact, been tuned in to him, Marie was slow to answer, which was, he was certain, deliberate. Everything Marie did was deliberate. The fact was, however, she probably didn’t know how long they would be down here. All of this, including these twelve ragamuffins, he sensed with dread, was unfolding before her dark eyes as a great pageant, beginning in these lowly depths and perhaps ending, he suspected, at Armageddon during the latter days.
What if the fundamentalists had been right all along? He asked himself, as he waited for her response.
“…. How long?” she mused, a dreamy look appearing in her black pupils. “…. That’s a good question, Salem… a good question, indeed…. But don’t trouble yourself…. We have plenty of time!”
“Don’t trouble myself?” He wanted to scream. “You change my entire life and you tell me not to trouble myself!” But instead he smiled wryly at her, certain that she had read his thoughts.
With all his theology and Biblical knowledge turned upside down by Marie, he wasn’t sure how much time they had. Perhaps a doomsday clock had suddenly begun ticking away when she returned in the flesh back on earth. He didn’t recall this event they were sharing prophesized in scriptures or apocalyptic literature. Satan, in fact, appeared to be making all this up as she was going along. Reaching down and taking his hand again, she squeezed it gently as would any coquettish damsel, with the exception that she had the power of life and death over her enemies, as well as himself, and could shift shapes into anything that walked, flew, swam, or crawled on earth. She was the mother of all deceit and father of lies, he reminded himself light-headedly, as she brought his hand up to her warm lips and kissed it. Yet her interpretation of reality was becoming his own.
“I love you Salem,” she broke her silence. “…. Did you ever hear What’s-His-Name say that?…. I will protect you and take care of you as no one, even your own mother, could have done.”
“What?…. What did you say?” He broke away from his own thoughts again and looked askance at her. “My mother, indeed. How very absurd!”
Her last sentence sounded so ludicrous to Salem that he broke into hysterical giggles. Here beside him, now fashioning herself as his soul mate, was Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, the devil; he could take his pick of titles. Had he been wrong all these years? Was the dark hermit of hell merely a master opportunist, on a power trip and not interested in corrupting his immortal soul?
“I could almost believe you,” he murmured, glancing back at Effie Powers, who was suddenly a few paces behind them, puffing and panting, a protest on her nicotine-stained lips.
“You must believe me,” Marie squeezed his hand. “If you believe in me, you will have great power.”
“Hey,” Effie called out rudely, “what’re we suppose to do now? These people are getting restless. I think they’re hungry.”
The other eleven ragamuffins nodded in agreement yet said nothing.
“Oh,” Marie shrugged faintly, motioning with her free hand to the side of the road, “over there near that old dumpster between those buildings....There’s something special for his children.”
“Garbage?” Effie made a face. “We thought he had power!”
“Yeah,” scowled Buff, “I’m tired of scrounging in garbage cans.”
“Could you scrounge me up a tuna sandwich, deary,” whined Liz.
“Salem,” Marie murmured, “show them your stuff!”
I don’t have any magic, Salem thought bitterly. All I am is a conduit for your power!
“Point to the dumpster,” Marie said from the corner of her mouth, nudging him gently. “Say what I tell you, as it comes into your head.”
“No,” he bolted at the thought, “do it yourself!”
“What was that?” Effie asked Stork with suspicion.
“Salem,” Marie whispered aloud, “ad lib if you wish, but you do have the power. I have already given it to you!”
“Abra cadabra, hocus-pocus, shazam!” he jerked both hands around in pill-mill motion. “Lobster thermidor, au gratin potatoes and French apple pie! Ouá la!”
Suddenly, as all eyes turned that way, a serving table appeared out of thin air. As if Satan had second-guessed him, she added several side dishes and several beverages, and yet omitted alcoholic beverages this time. He was famished, himself. The twelve disciples now ran toward this apparent mirage, laughing and giggling hysterically amongst themselves. At one point, Kaz, the dwarf, tripped but quickly jumped back on to his feet. Ill-mannered Buff, Heck, and the mysterious Jonathan Trueblood, were the first three to arrive at the feast, elbowing everyone else, including each other, out of the way. Trueblood, the largest and meanest-looking member of the bunch, was the first to grab a lobster and can of coke
“Abra cadabra, hocus-pocus?” Effie muttered to herself, as she waited her turn. “What kind of Christian talk was that?”
“Who cares?” Buff snarled, piling his silver plate with vittles.
“I can’t eat lobster, it gives me hives,” Stork complained, as he surveyed the main course.
“Look at the casseroles and breads,” exclaimed Alden, motioning with his fork. “You don’t need a main course, man; I could fill up just on the bread!”
“I’m starved,” Salem murmured to Marie. “I’ve never had such an appetite. You have truly bewitched me!”
Marie, the Princess of Darkness, smiled wanly. Though he had come a long way, Salem, she realized, was not yet working with the program. He felt burdened with this riff-raff. His lingering distrust of her was becoming transparent. It was also becoming apparent to Effie and Buff who was really in charge. His attitude would have to change soon, she reminded herself, as she watched him, without so much as a “bless the food,” heap chunks of lobster and au gratin potatoes onto his plate.
While the small group feasted upon the lobster, soft drinks, and various delicacies, other derelicts were naturally attracted to the scene, which was all right with Marie but disturbed Salem that much more. Once again, he was reminded of flies converging upon spoiling meat, but this time they were interested in food and not his radiant appearance. Skid row had grown used to one more lunatic wandering its depths. The additional vagrants were surprised at this feast but didn’t pay homage to the new messiah. The retention span of many of them was evidently short, and many of these particular street folk had probably not witnessed the miracles performed. Salem was surrounded by enough derelicts as it was; it would take several weeks just to rehabilitate this group. When the world saw the before-and-after story of all these down-and-out bums, they would be moved in the same way Christians are moved by Jesus’ motley crew. This had been, he sensed acutely, Marie’s plan from the beginning. She would not admit this similarity to him, but he understood the number and the significance of her choice. She was attempting to outdo Christ in picking twelve humble folk as disciples. She had even thrown in four women to round it out, two of whom had been prostitutes on the street.
As far as Salem was concerned, however, bums were bums, and he still saw himself as a counterfeit Christ.
“Tell me Salem,” she said, watching him wolf down his food, “do you feel differently at all about yourself?”
“Huh?” he made a face, wiping butter from his beard “Of course I feel differently, Marie. I just made love to the Princess of Darkness. I just took part in the incineration of a man and a woman, witnessed several miracles, and I now have twelve disciples, and still look like Jesus Christ!”
He was being sarcastic. Satan was not amused.
“Don’t use that name in my presence,” she shuddered, giving his arm a sock. “You’re wearing a white suit now, Salem. With your ponytail and beard, you look more like Rasputin than Him. But we can change that too, Salem, if it seems too close. After a few days, we could modify your appearance entirely.”
“Yes, entirely,” Salem cried out through a mouthful of food, “even the white suit and this ridiculous beard and hair. You promise, Marie? I don’t like the symbolism and message. You’re not fooling me, Marie. I can count: twelve of’em, just like in the New Testament, except that they’re the dregs of humanity.”
“Believe me, Salem, the number is a sublime coincidence,” she lied sweetly, shaking her head. “These folks just happened to be there at the right time. There’s no black magic here.”
“Hah, believe you?” He scoffed, after another mouthful of lobster and long swig of Coke. “That’s like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” “…. By the way,” he frowned into his Styrofoam cup, “how about a little rum in this Coke for me, huh? I could use it right now. Why didn’t you just zap up some champagne and wine like you did in the hotel?”
“Tsk-tsk, so they could all get drunk?” She looked at him with disappointment. “You know the problem some of these people have with alcohol and drugs. It will be part of our job to rehabilitate these lost souls.”
“Those are fine words,” he took a bite of croissant, “… but please remember that I know who you are!”
“Please don’t talk with your mouth full,” she made a face.
Realizing that he had been displaying poor manners, he washed down his mouthful of food with Coke and unceremoniously wiped off his mouth with his sleeve.
“…. My first task, Marie, before I whip these bums into proper form, is to forget who you really are,” he explained after a loud belch. “I have to get to know Marie Roget first. What better way than through an alcoholic fog?”
“You know me already,” she said with a frown. “You just have to open your mind.”
“No,” he uttered a bitter laugh, “you seduced me, madam, and we made love. I remember you going through three stages: temptress, comforter, and enchantress—all of which made you no less the devil. Now you must convince me, that you are not Lucifer or the devil, but my friend and confident Marie Roget.”
“Yes,” she acknowledged slowly, “… that’s my goal.”
After the feast, Salem, with Marie’s coaxing, gathered his bums together and led them to the park. All he had to do, he was surprised to find out, was to give them a come-on motion with his hands and they rose up like zombies and followed him down the street. He wondered at first if Marie might have bewitched them. This thought as soon as it popped into his head, he noted immediately, caused a faint smile on her infantile face. He couldn’t be sure, however. They were all surfeited with victuals, and it had been a long morning. There need not be a supernatural reason for everything Marie did. After stuffing themselves with fine food, the group, Salem included, wanted to find a shady place and take a nap. But Marie was relentless, and she forced her will on her protégé, who, in turn, turned and motioned impatiently again for the twelve bums to hurry up.
“Let’s get the lead out,” he called back at them at one point.
“The holy man is testy,” Liz murmured to Cassie.
“The road is long; the task is great.” Cassie replied enigmatically.
Several members of the twelve groaned. Buff spun around and exposed his middle finger to the prophetess, and Marie flashed Cassie a questioning look. At one point, when they could all see the park at the boundary of skid row, sighs were heaved and steps quickened. After such a feast, members of the twelve were now thinking about finding a nice shady tree and taking a nap. Salem knew what was coming up now. He had seen it in a Biblical movie many years ago when he still felt his faith. He refused to believe, as Marie kept telling him, that Whats-His-Face (she refused to call him Jesus) had started with twelve dirty ragamuffins. Peter, James, and John had been respectable fishermen and Judas had been a scribe. None of them had been down-and-out derelicts like these people. That it appeared that at least one of them in the current twelve had been a U.S. Marine and the handsome black man still wore a suit proved nothing to him.
“They’re bums now,” he said petulantly under his breath. “Tell me, Marie. Didn’t you tell me Effie and Ursula in their former lives were hookers? What was Kaz, the dwarf, a circus clown? And Stork, what was he—a pimp?”
Before Salem had a chance to characterize the other members of the Twelve, Marie eyed a random telephone pole, and the group watched in horror as it erupted in flames.
“Must have been the encasement,” Marie quickly responded, “they’re in pretty dilapidated condition down here.”
“Very clever,” Salem whispered into her shell-like ear, “what does that prove? That you can destroy me and anyone else who pisses you off? I already know that.”
“You are such a fool,” her thoughts raced into his head. “I only care about you. These poor wretches and everything else I control around you is for your benefit!”
“Stop that!” He brought his hands to his ears. “Once and for all stay out of my head!”
“What’s wrong with the holy man?” Buff now asked Stork. “That explosion must’ve spooked him!”
“I don’t think it was the explosion,” Stork answered, walking rapidly forward and gently pulling Salem’s sleeve. “Sir, I say sir,” he inquired timidly. “Are you all right?”
“He’s tired,” Marie explained gently. “We’re all tired. When we get back to the hotel, we’ll all take a nice nap.”
“That hotel’s condemned,” Effie informed Marie wryly. “It’s a wonder one of them floors hasn’t collapsed yet. If it’s all right with you, I’ll sleep in the park.”
“It’ll be all right with Salem protecting us,” Marie promised, taking his arm.
Salem recoiled only slightly this time. He knew that Marie had the power to do what she wanted with him no matter how he much he resisted, and, more importantly perhaps, he had nowhere else to go. All that mattered to her, he realized light-headedly, as they approached the city park, was that he accept her—one hundred percent. Looking ahead, as he recalled the incineration of Charlie and the witch, the healing of Buff, and the recent miracles on the street, he knew it would be a monumental task for him to look upon her as a normal person, but he knew he must try. She was Marie Roget, his mentor and savior, but no less the Satan who had once tempted Christ.
She had called it a sublime coincidence, but Salem was not fooled. Why were there exactly twelve disciples in their group—the same number as Christ’s Twelve Apostles? Why not eleven or thirteen? The odds against such a portentous number of transients seemed great to him. Why had Marie used the adjective sublime too? Wasn’t that another word for miraculous? Since this collection of ragamuffins was obviously not an act of God or a coincidence, as she claimed, it had to be a deliberate selection. Infernal coincidence therefore seemed to be a more appropriate catchword. In the same way she had observed and probably corrupted his wife, these wretches were her “children”—lost souls whom she had been watching for a long time, as she had been watching him.
What supported Salem’s suspicions now was Marie’s knowledge of members of the group. How, for instance, did she know that Buff Peyton had been abused as a child? How had she known that Ursula Painter and the crone Effie Powers had been prostitutes on the street? She probably knew the backgrounds of the other nine members too. This ‘get-to-know each other’ meeting she had planned after the feast seemed so unnecessary to Salem. She obviously knew everyone already. She could brief him beforehand, giving him thumbnail sketches of each member of the twelve and make it seem like he could read their minds. To get his religious movement going properly, however, she should could have selected a much better crop of followers and started off in a respectable part of the city, instead of leading this sorry lot through the worst sector of town.
He didn’t want her back inside his head again, but his mind was filled with questions. “Why are you doing it this way?” He could not help asking her again. “Why don’t you use your black magic like you did this morning!…. Couldn’t we at least take a bus?”
“There are no buses stopping here,” she replied icily inside his head. There was no answer for the other two questions, only a disappointed sigh and heavy silence, the same presence he had felt before.
“Jesus Christ, Marie!” Salem thought in desperation. “You’re the Queen of Hell! What are we doing on skid row?”
“Do not curse at me,” responded Marie calmly, “I told you not to use His name!”
He couldn’t help giggling hysterically to himself. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, was now a curse word. He was forbidden even mentally to use His name.
“This is absurd,” he whispered this time. “Everything that’s happened to me is absurd. Please get out of my head, Satan. Talk to me like a mortal woman. What kind of game are you playing with me, Marie? The twelve disciples you picked for me are nothing but skid row bums!”
“I picked no one,” she whispered back testily. “Keep you voice down. This has never been a game!”
“I don’t trust you, Marie,” his voice rose above a whisper. “For once tell me the truth! Are these not my future Apostles? Am I not some sort of counterfeit Christ?”
“That is nonsense!” She declared shrilly in his mind.
Suddenly, as he glanced back at the twelve, he sensed, as a prickling at the back of his neck, what she was up to. His suspicions had been justified. He felt giddy from this insight. He had been wrong about one thing only: she wasn’t making this up as she went along. She knew exactly what she was doing. He was a false Messiah and these were his disciples. He felt trapped and had the momentary yet overpowering urge to run—anywhere to get away from this plot.
“It’s true!” He exclaimed aloud. “Are you not the greatest mischief-maker of all time? This is how it begins!”
“Shut up! They’re listening to you!” Her voice now blared into his head.
He wondered, feeling light-headed as they entered the park, if she would always be lurking like this in his brain or if she was just being overprotective and controlling today. He could never be sure of her presence, unless she shared her thoughts or flashed him that enigmatic smile to let him know she had read his mind. Even without her mental communication or expressions, he at least sensed a pervasive presence in his head, as if she was studying his train of thought, always ready with her counsel if he began going astray, which, in fact, he felt himself doing now.
“Please be patient this afternoon,” she counseled him again. “This is all strange to you Salem, but you have been making progress. You are wrong about many things, but you are right to want to think on your own. When you learn to trust me completely, then will you be free, like no man ever born. You are my anointed and my perfect love. I think of you as my very own son!”
“Good grief!” Salem groaned.