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Chapter Twenty-One

 

Tales of the Twelve

 

 

 

In a grove of elms, oaks, and countless other varieties of parkland trees, Marie again used her magic it seemed to find just the right spot where they wouldn’t be disturbed, which turned out, in fact, to be the most remote spot in the park.  Suddenly, all sounds, including birdcalls and street sounds were muted.  An unexpected shaft of light broke through the foliage above them, basking the upturned faces of the twelve with its eerie glow.  All they could hear were the trampling of their feet and the rustling of an errant breeze.

“I’ve never noticed this place before,” declared Effie, looking up into the foliage with wide, unblinking, bloodshot blue eyes.

“I stay clear of places like this,” Stork rubbed the stubble on his jaw. “It’s too isolated.  I like plenty of light around me when I bed down.”

“Yeah,” agreed Heck Reyes, “this is a good place to get knifed!”

“Well,” chirped Cassie Moa looking around at everyone with the widest of grins, “it looks quite inspirational to me!” 

Buff Peyton and Heck Reyes echoed Stork’s sentiment: it was too dark and too quiet.  Heck claimed to have seen one poor drunk murdered in front of his eyes, and Buff related his own experience of being mugged in the park.  As they gathered together in the cathedral-like clearing, Cassie played with the motes rising in the light.  Both Buff and Heck, Salem suspected, had probably taken part in muggings and murders, themselves.  Poor little harmless Cassie struck him as slightly mad.  She smiled and tilted her head too much, as if she was listening to voices, which, he assumed, she probably was.  And yet the hard-looking Liz Moydin, whom Salem supposed was the Mary Magdalene of the group, smiled with affection at Cassie now.

“She thinks everything is inspirational,” sneered Effie. “She ain’t right in the head.”

“I like her stuff,” Liz disagreed, “she writes great poems!”

“Is that true Cassie?” Marie gently squeezed her hand.

“Yes, I’m a writer,” Cassie beamed proudly, looking around at the group, “and a poet of the street.”

“She’s delusional,” Buff said matter-of-factly. “She spent three years in the mental hospital.”

“She ain’t right in the head,” came Effie’s refrain.

With this knowledge, Marie seemed to take an immediate fancy to Cassie and motioned for the small, dark haired girl to sit next to her as she and Salem settled on the grass.  Sensing a relationship between Cassie and Liz, Marie motioned for her Liz to sit close by too.  In an almost perfect circle, the group settled.  Though they were still unwashed bums in Salem’s mind, they all behaved as children settling down for story time at school.  He was the teacher.  Marie, the teacher’s aid, who looked radiant in the light, exhibited that contented, Mona Lisa smile.  It appeared as if most of them, as his mentor, now had complete trust in him.  So he knew what came next.  Marie not only wanted the twelve members to get to know each other, if they didn’t already, but also tell Salem about themselves, which would come after the question Salem would ask the group: the ice-breaker.  For only the second time since this nightmarish odyssey began, a feeling of euphoria swept over him.  The last time, after he had sex with Marie, it seemed superficial, since she had seduced him.  He had not had sex for several months.  This feeling he had now, which reminded him of the sense of religious inspiration he experienced as a minister of God, was at least real.  It could not be the Holy Ghost or any of the emotions he had at the pulpit.  It was, he sensed, the first inklings of his power through Satanic grace.

“Do you wish my help?” her question entered his head.

“No!” He shook his head emphatically, then mentally replied, “I know what to say to these losers.”

“Be nice,” She murmured sweetly, “they’re our children.”

“Children,” he now took her cue, “you are not here by accident.  You have been selected by the Celestial Father.”

Very good, thought Marie, her face glowing with pride. You didn’t have to say His name!

Salem now stood up and looked down at the twelve upturned faces.  They were, if nothing else, a diverse lot.  If this had been a media event, pundits would say that it was politically correct, for almost every race, age group, and gender was represented in the group.

“Tell me children,” his voice took on a dramatic edge, “who do you think I am?” “Wait,” he held up his hand as he recalled this question being uttered by Christ, “Let me rephrase that… who do I remind you of?”

“Excellent!” Marie clasped her hands.

“Jesus!” Effie was the first to chime.

“An angel,” Cassie raised her hand as if she were in a classroom.

“I heard someone call you a false prophet,” Stork said innocently, “twas that preacher on the street.  Moses Rawlins, that’s his name.”

Salem recalled the street evangelist before he entered Big Molly’s apartment and then the warnings he directed at him this morning on the street.  Now he knew his name.  With that sour note, he made a shushing motion, and inexplicably looked over at Alden, who was chewing methodically on a blade of grass.  In the lighting Alden reminded him very much of Sidney Poitier, his favorite black actor.  His skin was a rich chocolate brown.  His chiseled features were enhanced by a gray-flecked beard.  A derby hid his hair or more probably his baldhead.  He looked as if he was wearing the same gray suit he had on when he dropped out of his previous life.  In spite of his plight, he carried himself with dignity.  Unlike several members of the twelve there was character in his weather-beaten face.  Of all the members of the twelve, Salem knew from the beginning that this man would be the most important.  He would be in Marie’s plan, Salem thought reflectively, Peter, the Rock. 

“…. And who do you think I am?” His eyes locked on Alden’s sad, dark eyes.

The quiet black man was taken back.  He looked down self-consciously at the ground again, uncomfortable with this attention.

“You’re not the Christ,” he said bluntly, but then, realizing he was being singled out, rose to the occasion. “…. You’re a prophet who must create a new religion,” he cried out.  “You have chosen a bunch of misfits and losers to help you build your church.  You’re special, sir, the likes of which my sore eyes have never seen!”

“Bravo!” Marie said, clapping her little hands.

“What are we,” whined Buff Peyton, “chopped liver?”

“And you, Alden,” Salem pointed at him with a steady finger, ignoring the grumbling of the other members, “ are special too!”

“Huh?” Alden frowned. “No, sir, I’m not special.  Look at me, sir, I’m a bum.  Please don’t fuss over me like that!”

“Yes, Alden, you’re special,” he walked over to him, reached down and yanked him up by his hand. “You shall be a foundation block of my church!”   

Alden was visibly shaken with how Salem was acting.  Salem put his hand on the shoulder of his tattered suit jacket and, ignoring the man’s sudden radiation of body odor, announced to the congregation.  “No mortal man told him this, but the Celestial Father, whose name is hidden in the shadow of time.”

“Tell me, Adam,” he said, looking around at the others, “what did you do before you began wandering the streets?  Don’t be embarrassed.  We have hard luck stories too.”

“You sir?” Liz made a face. “Even you, the holy prophet?”

Alden Taylor began to squirm as he stood there wondering what to say.

“Come on, we’re waiting, Alden,” Effie cackled with mirth, “this oughta be good.”

“Hot damn, I bet he was a pimp,” Buff slapped his knee.

“Or a drug dealer,” Heck Reyes offered, looking around at the others with mirth.

“You’re no one to talk,” Alden looked down at the heavily tattooed Reyes. “I was never sent to prison like you.” “And,” he paused, looking over at Effie, “I never made my money on my back!”

Marie rose up suddenly and raised her arms.  “Children,” she scolded them, “let’s not quarrel amongst ourselves.”

“I ain’t no kid,” muttered Heck to himself.

“You’re acting like one,” Stork glared over at him. “You should show the proper respect.”

Heck looked for a moment as if he just might rise up, walk over, and strike the other man.  Salem admired Stork’s bravery and realized there were at least two good men in the group.  Once again, however, he mentally balked at the notion of having people like Reyes in the twelve.  He was obviously an ex-con like the silent and evil eyed Trueblood and the loud-mouthed Buff.  He could see Alden being cleaned up and rehabilitated back into society, along with Stork, Wyatt, and Troy, and possibly Liz and Ursula too, but Buff, Heck, and Johnny Trueblood were undesirables.  He made a mental note, which Marie probably picked up, to suggest replacing them later if they couldn’t behave.  High on the list of possible replacements, he concluded, would also be the loud-mouthed crone Effie Powers.

“Let’s listen to what our prophet has to say,” Marie turned to Salem, irritated that he was letting matters get out of control.

Salem didn’t want to finish what he had begun.  It made him feel stupid and pretentious, but also uneasy in singling Alden out.  He had automatically created jealousies in the group.  Not surprisingly, however, a few of the twelve seemed pleased that Alden was being singled out.  Troy Holland, the homeless veteran, sat quietly a faint smile playing on his hardened face, and Kaz Yorba, the dwarf, and Wyatt Brewster, whom someone had called Padre earlier, actually applauded when Alden began to speak.

“…. You want to know what I was before I fell on hard times,” Alden looked down at the ground. “…. Well, the truth is,” he announced after a pause, “I taught history and math in high school before the bottom of my world collapsed.”

Salem sensed that this was a purgative moment for Alden Taylor.  His baritone voice was rich with emotion as he brushed away a tear.

“…. I had a family,” he continued, standing close to his friends in the circle, “—a wife, a daughter, and a bright son.  They were my life…. Everyone was happy, until my wife began to drink.  She didn’t like my long hours and resented the many nights I had to bring papers home to grade.  She wanted me to get a real job, she kept saying, and make some money.  But I loved teaching, and I loved kids.  I still can’t imagine doing anything else.  Unfortunately, to please my wife, I made the choice finally to find a higher paying job, which didn’t work out.  I hated the new job immediately.  I used my teaching expertise to instruct consumers on how to use the products at this company, and I washed out the first month.  So I went back to teaching, this time at night school, because there were no positions available anymore in the day, and that made it that much worse for my wife.  It also gave her too much idle time at night.  I didn’t realize that she had been drinking until one night I came home and found out she had set our house on fire.  No one was hurt, but the damage had been severe.  Our insurance covered most of the damage, but I never got over the fact that the fire started and ended in my study, where I kept all my papers and books.  You just can’t imagine the things going on in my head.  Fact is I left the bitch, after a few more months of listening to her explanation for what happened.  According to my wife, the official story she told all her friends, the fire started when an old lamp of mine, she had been begging to me get rid of, shorted out.  But I knew differently.  The report given to us by the fire marshal blamed the fire on a suspicious conflagration in one of my filing cabinets.  In short, drunk as she was, she either dropped a cigarette or match into the papers accidentally or she deliberately set the fire.  Either way, this was the final straw and a mighty big straw at that. 

“I left the bitch and tried making it on my own.  She wouldn’t divorce me because she was Catholic, so I left it at that, and would visit my children on the weekends whenever I could.  She continued to drink of course, something I never cared for much, even when I wound up on skid row.  One night I came over and discovered she had left with my children.  I was so shook up, I went straight to the police.  They said there wasn’t anything they could do about it for twenty-four hours.  By then, my wife would be long gone to another life and another state.”

“…. Afterwards,” Alden’s voice cracked, “I got a ruling from a judge—I forget the exact name, but it would do no good in helping me get back my children, unless I could find my wife.  I called everyone I could think of, and I posted a missing persons add in the paper and later on the web.  I even hired a private detective, draining the last of my funds, but the truth is I never found my wife or kids.  That was twenty-five years ago.  Please don’t ask me how I wound up here.  Fact is, I couldn’t hold down a proper job and spent a spell in the county hospital like many of you.   But, unlike my wife or a lot of you, I never became a drunk.  Hell, I don’t even smoke.  I bet if the doctor gave me a check up, he’d find I was still in good shape.  But until I met Mister Dade and Miss Roget, I was simply killing time, occupying space.  I got this crazy feeling that I got a purpose now.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way again.”

With the exceptions of Cassie Moa, who seemed to be excited about practically everything, the story that Alden Taylor told the group generated little enthusiasm among the twelve.  Most of them were yawning, their eyelids drooping.  Buff Peyton, Johnny Trueblood, and Heck Reyes were asleep.  It was just one more hard luck story in all of their jaded minds, and yet Marie at least acted impressed.  Offering him a dainty clap with her little hands, she elbowed Salem gently for his response.  For Salem the part of the alcoholic wife had hit home.  Of course, he thought grimly, he had handled it quite differently, himself.  Thanks to his mentor and Big Molly, his wayward wife paid for her misspent time with her life.  So far, now that he thought about it, everyone, including Cora Leeds, who had threatened him, were dead—that last two incinerated into fine powdery ash.  Nevertheless, as Salem watched Alden adjust his derby on his baldhead, he felt that his instincts had been correct about this man.   Marie proved once more that she had been reading his mind with a sly smile and nod of her head.  During the silence that followed only one voice could be heard, after a few moments pause.  Cassie was singing to herself: “If I were a hammer, I’d ring it in the morning... ”  Buff, Johnny, and Heck were lying on their backs snoring unabashedly, while the remainder of the twelve sat in various stages of torpor or boredom. 

Salem knew that he was suppose to inspire them to talk about themselves, but he sensed that this would be even more difficult for the other members of the group.  After all, Salem reasoned, Alden had been a teacher, while some of these Neanderthals, like Trueblood, seemed barely able to talk.  The most logical person to call upon seemed to be Stork, who held the second highest esteem in Salem’s eyes.  For some inexplicable reason, perhaps due to his clerical demeanor, Salem would save Wyatt Brewster until last.  Though almost asleep himself, the tall albino-like Stork, responded to his voice immediately.

“Huh?…. Whazzamattah?  Did I miss anything?” He murmured groggily under his breath.

“You’re on, Stork,” Salem smiled graciously.  For the first time in his life, the ex-pastor was thinking of about getting drunk.  How could they work with this motley group?  It would, in deed, take a major miracle by Marie to whip this twelve into shape.  Yet Stork, like Adam, rose finally to the occasion.

“First of all,” Stork said with surprising alacrity after such a fuzzy start, “my name ain’t Stork.”

“It ain’t?” Buff taunted. “You look like one!

“Excuse me, Mister Channing and Mister Peyton,” Marie snapped her fingers, “the word is isn’t, not ain’t.  If you’re both going to be a force in Salem’s new church and movement, you must learn to speak well.” “This means all of you!” She then looked around the group.

“What the devil does that matter?” Salem whispered into her ear. “He’s talking, isn’t he?”

Marie nodded thoughtfully, again impressed—this time with Salem’s forcefulness.  Salem now looked down angrily at his deadbeat audience.  “Everybody wake up,” he shouted, clapping his hands vigorously. “This time I want you to listen!” “Continue, sir,” he motioned to Stork.

All twelve members of the group were now awake.  Those members who had been asleep, however, had surly looks on their faces.  It was very likely, Salem guessed, that many of them needed a drink.

“You folks know my name.” Stork said loudly and clearly.  “It’s not Stork.  It’s Royal Channing,” 

“What kind of name is that?” Heck made a face.

“He-he-he,” Buff snickered, “that boy’s anything but royal!

Royal ignored their scorn.  He looked over at the three rogues with a frown and shook his head, yet remained unfazed. 

“…. My Pa reckoned our family tree stretched back to England cause of our high sounding name, so he named his oldest son Royal.  I don’t gotta pedigree history like Alden.  His problems started with his wife and family.  Mine started much earlier, when my Pa died and my ailing Ma was unable to care for us, which allowed them high minded city fellers to come in and put us all in homes.”

“How many were there?” Liz asked, sympathy etched in her worn face.

“He never told us this,” Wyatt murmured to Troy.

“…. There were eight of us,” he answered after a pause. “Since I weren’t old enough to take care of them, we was farmed out to different homes.  I didn’t take to it too well and got myself in trouble with the law.”

Royal Channing paused, reached down and shook Ursula’s and Liz’s up raised hands.  Though he was growing sleepy, himself, Salem was encouraged by what was happening: eight members of the group: Royal, Alden, Troy, Wyatt, Ursula, Liz, Cassie, and even Kaz seemed to be forming a close bound.  

“I never saw my brothers and sister again.” He heard Stork tell the group.  A voice in Salem’s head cried shrilly Wake up!  “Uh, that’s terrible.  What happened next?” He asked, rubbing his eyes. “You go to prison Stork, I mean Royal?  What-the-hell did you do?”

“I got ten years for manslaughter,” Royal nodded, looking down at the ground. “Truth is I killed the bastard for raping my little sister.  Brained him with his own bottle of hooch.”

“Sweet Mother Mary,” blurted Wyatt.

“I’d a done it myself,” Troy set his jaw.

This story, unlike Alden’s humble tale of good versus evil, had generated interest in the group.  Everyone, even the evil-eyed Trueblood had his full attention as he stood there gathering his thoughts.

“Go on,” Salem motioned. “Is that why you’re on the street?”

“Yup,” he smiled ruefully at him. “I come to LA looking for a job, but I sort’ve got lost when I arrived.”

“Yeah?” Snorted Effie. “So how come they call you Stork?” 

“I don’t call myself that,” he grew defensive now, “I never called myself that.  My name’s Royal—Royal Winston Channing.”

“I call him Royal,” Kaz, the dwarf stood up supportively.  Alden and Wyatt raised their hands as if to say they did too, followed by nods from the remainder of his friends.  But Effie began cackling, her one good eye filled with mirth. 

 “I’m proud of my God-given name,” Royal looked down at the little street urchin with contempt, “at least I had me a family and weren’t dropped by some bar room slut.”

Adam, Troy, Wyatt, Ursula, Liz, and Kaz—Stork’s friends, broke into laughter, but Cassie, who was always smiling, suddenly frowned.

“Please continue,” Salem said quietly.  He was curious, himself, to know how he got his nickname.

“I had a family,” Cassie murmured to herself. “…. I think I had a family…. They’re all dead now.”

“They call me Stork because I found a baby in an alley,” Royal explained huskily, as he recalled the event. “I turned him into Social Services.  Never saw him afterwards.  Believe it or not, that happened twice to me, ‘cept the second time me, Alden, and Kaz found a baby in the dumpster, it was dead.”

“Dear God,” Ursula reached up and touched his tattered sleeve, “you a good man, Royal.  What kind’ve woman do that?”

“Let’s see,” Salem said, “looking around the group, who wants to be next.  Don’t be ashamed.  No one’s perfect.”

Once again there was silence.  As Royal sat down amongst his friends, the remainder of the twelve looked down and fiddled nervously with the grass blades and their untied shoes.  After a few moments, Salem grew impatient again and pointed at Troy Holland, whose tattoo promised a story in itself.  Troy didn’t stand up, but spoke from where he sat, his eyes never leaving the grass.

“To begin with,” he announced bravely, “I don’t have no fancy tale.  Truth is I got no one to blame but myself.  I was a Marine for three years and spent half of it in the Gulf during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  Everything was going great after I came back until I climbed drunk into that car.”

“I know what comes next,” Heck blurted, “this is… would do you call it?”

“A premonition?” Effie offered.

“No, no,” Heck rubbed his face and groaned.

“Déjà vu,” Troy frowned.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” he smiled.

 Something had been triggered in Heck’s own past, and as Troy explained what happened to him, Heck began sharing his own story to his friends.

“I ran a light and hit this car,” Troy persisted, glancing with annoyance at Heck. “I injured these two old ladies pretty badly.  They didn’t die, but my career in the Marine Corps did.”  “Jesus Christ,” he looked around the group, “I lost my license and was put on probation for six months.  Worse yet, they kicked me out of the Corps.  All I ever wanted was to be a Marine!”

Salem tallied it up in his mind: Troy had been on skid row for at least quarter century.  He was a lifer.  Yet his excuse for being on the street struck him as lame.  He shuddered at the thought of being a US Marine.  Alden had lost his entire family, Royal, because of his own stupidity, had just admitted spending several years in jail, and he could not imagine what caused Cassie to be the way she was.  Nevertheless, he liked the amiable Troy and felt obliged to offer him comfort, no matter how trivial his story seemed.

“There, there,” he said, rising shakily onto his legs, “you’re not a criminal to us.  That was an accident.  You mustn’t carry a cross like this, because it wasn’t your fault.” 

Troy just sat there, however, staring into space, possibly reliving the experience in his head.  Waiting for him to add details to his account, Salem grew impatient.

“It’s all right Troy.” He waved dismissively. “You got it off your chest.  Anyone else want to open up?”

This time someone seemed to be volunteering.  At first Salem ignored Cassie’s outstretched hand, until Marie reached up and jerked his sleeve.

“All right,” he looked hesitantly at Cassie, “let’s hear what our poet laureate has to say.”

“No, not me. Liz has a good story,” she pointed to her friend.  “Go wan, tell’em Lizzy!”

“I been a junkie for five years, dimwit!” Liz playfully thonked Cassie’s head.

“No, not that one Lizzy,” Cassie rocked back and forth, hugging her knees. “The other story, before that.”

“No,” Liz shook her head.

“Come on, it’s better than theirs,” she begged, motioning to the group.

“I said no, Cassie!” Liz grew irritated.

Salem wondered if this was such a good idea.  Some of the twelve obviously didn’t want to open up.  Troy seemed to be traumatized by the experience.  Heck’s entire mood had changed.  After whispering something to Buff and Trueblood, the big Hispanic sat there clenching and unclenching his fists, a wild and searching look on his face.

“That’s all right, Cassie,” Salem said, reaching down to pat her head. “Liz doesn’t have to talk.”

“Yes she does,” declared Marie. “Our Liz should be thankful she’s even alive.” “Come on honey,” she prodded, “it’s the first step in your new life.”

“Yeah, come on Liz,” Effie cackled, “what you got to hide?”

Liz shot Effie a menacing glare but said nothing for a moment as she gathered her thoughts.

“I was never a hooker like some of you,” she began, glancing at the crone. “I had a good life.  I had me a family just like Alden until something happened…”  She searched for the words. “…. You see I had this golden haired little girl, Brenda, who I loved more than life.  One day, ” she continued, a tear rolling down her cheek, “my husband—that son-of-a-bitch just upped and left us.  That was okay with me, since I hated the bastard, but Brenda missed him terribly, so I figured I’d get her another Daddy.”

“Does she mean a John?” Effie murmured to Buff.

Buff and the Effie laughed amongst themselves.  Salem suddenly jumped up and wrung his finger at them.  “Shame on you two, especially you Effie.  All you’ve done is undermine our group.  Let her finish, for Christ’s sake!  Shut-the-hell up!”

Marie was concerned with how much of Salem’s vocabulary was peppered with Biblical catchwords but also with profanity which was unbecoming for a man of the cloth.  Such expressions as what-the devil, carrying a cross, for Christ’s sake and now shut-the-hell up poured naturally out of his mouth.  She had, she realized, a great deal of work left to do.  For one thing, he looked upon the twelve with various degrees of disgust.  He refused to use the power she gave him.  Instead of growing irritated, he could, if he tried, force his will upon members of the group.  Too easily did he lose his patience with her children, and too quickly did he grow angry with members of the twelve. 

Can you not see, Salem,” she re-entered his mind, “why I have chosen these misfits, instead of more perfect mortal souls?  You see them as useless dying things, when what I see are wilted flowers needing only fertilizer and the proper light.”

“Oh please,” he cried aloud, clamping his hands on his ears.

Liz, of course, thought he was referring to her.  “All right sir,” she said, rising to her feet. “…. I never told anyone this except Cassie, and with her it sort’ve doesn’t count.”

The group, including Cassie, herself, laughed.  Marie pulled on Salem’s hand this time in order to make him sit back down.  Liz’s experience was the most moving so far, in spite of the fact that everyone had heard this familiar story many times before in television drama and the news.

“My live-in boyfriend—and that’s what he was—was never a father to my kid.  He didn’t like Brenda.  He said she whined too much.  He said she was spoiled and needed more discipline.  One night when I left her alone with the bastard he gave her some discipline.  He smacked her so hard she died that night while I was working the late shift trying to earn a few more lousy bucks.”  “…. Yeah, I turned to drugs,” her voice rose, “and yeah, I wound up on the street…. But I didn’t care.  They put my boyfriend in jail, and someone knifed the son-of-a-bitch while he stood at the urinal taking a piss.  I didn’t care about that either…. But I cared about my Brenda, and I let her down.  My life’s been one long dirty tunnel until now.” “…. Now thanks to him,” she pointed to Salem, “I see light at the end…. Maybe I can even stay off drugs.”

Alden, Stork, and now Liz saw hope in this unholy alliance.  If only they knew, thought Salem.  He wanted desperately to reach out to them now, but was held back by his distrust of Marie and the terrible knowledge of who she was.  What if, he wondered, as he looked around at the twelve, they found out suddenly who she is?  Would they not rise up in terror and run from this circle, as he had wanted to do when she first tempted his soul?

A gentle nudge in his ribs told him it was time to look around the group and select someone else.  The natural choice would have been Wyatt, Kaz, or Ursula, who were Alden, Royal, and Liz’s friends, but instead he looked over at the undesirable sector of the circle.  Yes, Marie’s thoughts came into his head, change pace now, and pick one of them.  Rising up wearily again, he found himself moving in their direction and standing over Heck Reyes, who still had a haunted look on his brown face.

“What happened to Troy happened to you, too, didn’t it Heck,” Salem’s said hoarsely. “Come on, you were telling your friends about it.  Tell us, your new friends, too.”

“Man, that ain’t nothing compared to me,” declared Heck, glancing at Troy. “Those old women lived to see their grandchildren again.  I killed someone’s kids and grandchildren—three of’em… and I ran.”

“Sweet Mother of Jesus,” Wyatt murmured to Troy.

“You mean hit-and-run?” Salem tried to hide his disgust. “…. Why did you run, Heck?  Is that why wound up like the rest of us on the street?”

“First I went to prison, like him,” he explained, looking this time at Royal. “I got fifteen years and served seven of them, and man that was hard time.  Those people are animals.  They raped me like some girl.  I swore I’d kill them all when I got out… and yet I wound up joining the brotherhood.  That’s were I got all these tattoos.”

Salem felt revulsion for Heck, and Marie frowned at him for his contempt.

“Did you do drugs after you got out?” He asked Heck gently.

“Nah, uh-uh, I liked booze, man,” he managed to laugh.  “I don’t want to talk about this no more.”

“All right, I understand.” He forced himself to shake Heck’s hand. “What about you Buff?” Salem peered down at the fat man with even greater disdain. “I bet you have an important story to share with us.”

“Nope, I’m not playing this game,” Buff said, clamping his jaws shut.

“You will play it or leave are group at once!” Salem found his chance.

Marie’s thoughts came immediately into his head: now you will know why Buff is such a jerk! 

Salem had hoped that this challenge would force Buff to leave the group.  He continued to feel great irritation with Marie’s intrusions.  Buff remained silent for several moments as Salem stood over him, ready to tell the fat man it was time for him to take his attitude and go.  But then Buff looked up from the grass, the defiance gone from his face, his eyes filling with tears and lips trembling as if he was about to weep.  Marie put on her saddest face.  A collective gasp rose from the group.  Salem looked away with embarrassment, trapped into making the next move.

“There-there, Buff,” he patted his filthy hair. “You’ll feel better if you get this off your chest.  Come on, we all know there’s goodness in you.”

Salem cringed at what he had just said.  It sounded so lame to most of the twelve that they broke into giggles amongst themselves.  Even Alden and Troy couldn’t help laughing at this statement.  Salem, however, was moved by this change of mood.  Suddenly the one person whom he thought was the worst member of the twelve was reaching up to him to embrace his hand.  It took all of his will to take Buff’s filthy hand, from which he quickly recoiled.  He now remembered the contrite face of the fat man when he had healed his arm.

“I… I don’t know where to begin,” he looked up at Salem.

“Begin at the beginning,” snorted Effie.

“You’re next!” Salem pointed to the crone. “… Now Buff, tell us why you’re on the street.”

“He’s a pimp,” Heck whispered to Johnny.

“I never had a family,” he declared, holding up his chin. “You folks had people to go home to once.  I just wanted to run away.  My old man use to work me over something fierce, until the social workers came in and took me away.  I was only about six or seven, but I remember it clearly.  That was okay with me.  My mom, whom I never knew, died when I was a baby, and this woman, who was my old man’s whore, use to play with me…”

He stopped in mid-sentence after hearing several gasps.  Everyone, except Marie, was in shock.  During her communication with Salem, she had left these last details out.  Salem, who had a reasonable childhood, himself, was taken back as Buff wiped his bloodshot eyes, his cracked, tobacco stained lips quivering like a small child. 

“That’s sick,” Liz murmured to herself.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Salem motioned impatiently. “Go wan, Buff, what happened next?”

 “Well,” Buff looked back down at the grass, “they put me into this foster home full of a bunch of perverts.”

“Oh, I don’t like where this is going,” Ursula shook her head.

“You must’ve been a looker,” Effie cackled, throwing back her head.

“Please,” Salem raised his hands, “the rest of you shut up!

Buff looked at Salem with newfound respect.  Marie’s approving look signaled to Salem that matters were going well.  When the fat man began speaking again, the group seemed transfixed in what was clearly the spiciest story so far.  Not only had Buff been beaten by his father and trifled with by his father’s girl friend, but his foster parents had sexually abused him too, and Buff admitted to them that he was a bisexual now and had been hiding it all his life.

“Man, you make me wanna puke!” Heck jumped up and moved away from the group. 

Johnny Trueblood sat there with a snarl on his face.

“In my tribe,” he spoke for the first time, “we make men like you wear women’s clothes.  You should not have fooled us with your big talk.”

Salem was speechless at this point.  Marie, however, looked over calmly at Buff, rose up lithely on her legs, walked over to the sobbing fat man, bent down and gave his filthy hand a kiss.

“Ho-ho-ho,” Effie broke into giggles, “all that talk about screwing every woman that walks and ol’ Buff is as queer as three dollar bill.”

“Buff, listen to me,” Salem forced himself to say. “No offense Heck, Stork, and Troy, but you’ve never hurt anyone like they did.  You never stole money or killed anyone.”  “… Like Effie,” he almost gagged, “yours is a victimless crime… a crime against yourself, since it’s obvious that you’re punishing yourself for all those terrible years.”

“Hey man,” Heck took issue now. “In prison I got it in the ass for a solid month, and I didn’t turn queer!”

 “What he did isn’t a crime.” Liz shook her head. “Playing with a little child is a crime!”

“I remember what they call queer braves,” murmured Johnny to himself. “Berdaches.  It’s not an Indian word, but French.  I don’t know why it’s French.”

Buff’s story now turned into an argument, which polarized the group that much more.  Curious to see how it played out, Salem and Marie sat there listening, surprised by this reaction from members of the group. 

“In the eyes of God,” Wyatt said flatly, folding his arms, “it’s a crime!”

“Why?” Ursula suddenly came alive. “What would a skinny boy like you know?  Look at him, Wyatt.  This man just might be human, if he opens up.  I never thought I’d see that man cry!”

“What’s that got to do with it?” Troy asked severely.  “There’s a lot of cry babies on death row.  Buff might not be a criminal, but he’s still queer!  He can’t be in our group!”

“Yes, we can’t have this kind in our group,” Wyatt seconded, clenching his frail fists.

At that point, Buff got support from an unexpected quarter.  Both Alden and Kaz stood up in his defense.

“Listen people,” Alden said, clearing his throat nervously, “… I never felt comfortable around them kind’ve folks, but he’s not a moral leper for that.  Now what comes out of his mouth, all that hate-mongering stuff, that’s what’s bad.  I’m sure old Buff will keep his sexual preferences to himself.”

“I don’t get it,” Effie made a face. “He must weigh three hundred pounds.  Who’d ever want to mess around with him?”

“All right, that settles it, Effie,” Salem jumped up to his feet, “We’ve had enough of this argument.  You’re the next one to speak!”

“No, no, no, no,” Effie wailed.  Like Buff, Effie’s mood changed instantly when it came her turn.

The old adage that she could dish it out but not take it, seemed in order for Salem, as the little woman rose up suddenly and ran from the group.

“Let her go,” Stork said with a snarl.

Go get her, Salem!  Marie returned to his head.

“No!” He said aloud.

“We don’t need her, sir,” Kaz said thoughtfully. “Just let her go!”

“I won’t do it!” Salem argued with Marie. 

The others, however, thought he was arguing in Effie’s favor.  Salem realized just how unpopular the old crone was.  Even Buff and Heck wanted to see her gone.  What convinced Salem to go after Effie were his own words, when he recalled what he said to Buff.  How could he allow an undesirable fellow like Buff to stay and let Effie go?  What could Effie say to shock him now?

“All right, let’s go get her,” he called back to members of the twelve, as he began trotting into the park.

He called once more for their help, but no one budged from the group.  Marie stood up and castigated them all.  “Are any of you perfect and without faults?  Look at yourselves.  Effie needs this group to change her life.  Without us, I assure you she will die soon on the street!”

That famous line spoken by Jesus, ‘He who is without sin cast the first stone,’ rose hauntingly in his mind.  Shaking his head to dispel this parallel to Marie’s words, he watched several of them shrug their shoulders and rolled their eyes.  Only one member of the twelve, Cassie Moa, was moved to act now.  With a swiftness that surprised everyone, she shot up and was off in a flash.   It was much easier for Salem to run in conventional clothes than a robe, tunic, and sandals, but before long, the swift-footed Cassie had passed him up on the beaten path, caught up with Effie, and was dragging her back to the group.

“Let go of me, you nut case!” Effie cried.

“The road is long, but the reward is sweet,” Cassie chanted cryptically as she pulled Effie through the park.

“You really are nuts, aren’t you?” Salem looked at Cassie with disgust. “Why couldn’t you have just let her go?”

With Salem holding one arm and Cassie the other, they dragged her little frame, kicking and screaming, back to the group.

“Lemme go, he don’t want me here!” She protested, as they sat her down onto the grass.

“He wants you here,” Marie frowned at Salem. “You have tried him sorely today, and he was afraid you would harm the group.”

“Yes,” Salem sighed unhappily, “you’re a real pain in the ass!”

“What kind’ve talk is that for a holy man?” She looked squarely at him with her good eye.

Suddenly, it came to Salem that perhaps Effie was in the group for a reason….To test him and sharpen his focus, as Dathan had tested Moses.  Was that what Marie had in mind?  How many times had Effie questioned his piety and position with such questions?  Had she not been cynical about everyone who had spoken so far?  Yet she was the first one to call him Jesus. 

Salem received a message from Marie now.  This time, he didn’t balk at it.  He was growing tired of the effort, and she had given him a possible solution to Effie’s obstinacy.

“What if I told you Effie, that I already knew your past, and,” he looked up at the others, “I knew all of your pasts!”

“I’d say you wuz a damn liar,” she spat boldly.

“Well settle back Effie, and listen to what Marie—I mean I—have to say,” he said wearily, trying to keep up with Marie’s input. “To begin with you’re mother and father divorced when you were eleven, and your father took your twin brother with him when he left.”

“Stop,” Effie cried out, “I’ll tell the rest!”

“What’s the big deal about that?” Heck asked, looking around the group.

“That’s the nice part,” Effie explained, scratching her filthy, matted hair. “…. All the rest is bad.”

“Tell, us daughter,” Marie said, taking Salem’s hand.

“So,” Salem communicated to Marie, “it’s true as I suspected, these people are your children.  You selected this twelve purposely, and this wasn’t a random choice.”

“… Most of them are, Marie confessed slowly. “I don’t know Wyatt at all, and Cassie’s insane.”

“It’s like this,” Effie resumed staring at the ground. “My stepfather wasn’t one of them pedophiles, as you might think.  Nor did my mom beat me or was I raped when I was a kid.  You might not believe it, but I was a looker once.”

That caused a smattering of laughter in the group, but most of them managed to keep a straight face.

“I guess it sort’ve went to my head,” she admitted with a shrug. “I let practically every guy in school do it me, until one day—what’s that old expression?”

“The rabbit died,” Ursula looked with sympathy at her now.

“Yeah, I got knocked up,” Effie sighed brokenly.  “Trouble is I loved the little bastard, and it tore me up something awful when they made me give him away.”

“Wait a minute,” Troy said with disbelief, “are you telling us that this is the reason you wound up on the street?”

Salem, who was about to say the same thing, himself, held up his hand and stifled a laugh before motioning Effie to go on.

“It’s when it all started.” Her prune-like face, seeming always to be drawn into a snarl, managed to smile. “…. You see I was one of those stupid kids who ran away from home to wind up forever on the street…. I thought I was going to be a prostitute my entire life, until my looks were shot and I couldn’t give it away.”

Heck began giggling uncontrollably now.  Almost everyone was smiling or trying not laugh.  But Buff, of all people, sat there quietly, a thoughtful expression on his normally scowling face.

“Why are you here?” Salem asked her now.

“I-I don’t know,” she searched for words. “I guess this is the end of the line.”

“Well thanks all-to-hell,” Heck said, wiping his eyes with mirth. “We’re the end of the line.”

“That’s an honest answer,” Salem said with a sigh. “Let’s see, who was it that showed our Effie compassion just now?”

“Oh shit,” Ursula grabbed her forehead. “You don’t wanna hear my story.  How many times you hear about a girl gettin' knocked up before you get tired?”

“Is that what happened to you too?” Marie leaned forward and reached over Cassie and Liz’s laps to squeeze her hand.

“Yeah, but not exactly,” Ursula answered obliquely. “You see my boyfriend didn’t want the little fellow, so my parents and him talked me into an abortion.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Marie consoled her gently, “millions of women do it all the time.  Why spoil your life?”

Most of the twelve nodded their heads, but Wyatt, Alden, and Effie had troubled looks on their faces.  Salem, whose wife hadn’t been able to have kids after losing their first child, thought about what Marie said and wasn’t surprised.  Had not his mentor committed homicide untold times, herself?

“That’s murder,” Wyatt said flatly. “Like Effie, you should’ve run away.”

“Yes, he’s right,” Effie cried. “I wouldn’t have done that.  I would’ve died first!”

“You don’t understand any of you,” Ursula stood up dramatically and looked down at the group. “I didn’t want to abort my kid.  That was my parents’ doing…. After that, I was never the same.”

“You mean that’s why you’re on the street?” Salem asked in disbelief.

“It’s like a snow ball rolling down a hill, gathering size as it rolls, until it comes crashing into a tree,” she tried to explain.  “… Here I am with all my sins,” she confessed tearfully. “How dare you people judge me now!”

“I don’t judge you.” Stork rose up to comfort her.

“I don’t either,” Liz reached across to pat her leg.

Alden, Kaz, and most of the others, also murmured at least half-hearted support, but Wyatt sat frozen in dissent.  A strange feeling gripped Salem now.  A mixture of admiration and concern filled him when he considered this enigmatic young man.

“But you do,” Salem said, looking across the circle at him. 

“Whose next?” Marie took the initiative now.

The natural choice after this moment of truth seemed to be Wyatt, and yet Kaz rose this time to the occasion.  Everyone applauded.  It seemed that everyone had grown to like the little dwarf.

“I wasn’t in no circus neither,” he began pertly in a bubbly voice. “My parents died when I was a kid.  They were on an airliner that went down in the Pacific.  I was staying with an aunt, who treated me like one of her dogs.  In fact, when she was told that she was all I had, she hid me like a freak from her friends.  I never did too well in school, but when I was old enough, I struck out on my own.  I thought I might get a job in show business.  Boy was I wrong.  You know how many dwarfs are looking for work in Hollywood?  Like some of you, I got messed up on drugs and managed to get myself a record so I couldn’t find a job.  I spent a summer in county rehab and I’ve been clean ever since, thanks to Alden.  Wherever Alden goes, I go.  Here, I think I found a home.”

By now, everyone was tired of show-and-tell story time.  Heck and his friend Johnny Trueblood had fallen back asleep.  Only a lethargic Salem and, of course, ever-alert Marie, applauded little Kaz.  Alden, however, gave the little guy a hug.  It was up to Salem to select between the last three: Wyatt Brewster, Cassie Moa, or Johnny Trueblood.   Wyatt seemed too controversial now, Trueblood frightened him, and Cassie was merely insane.  Gravitating toward Cassie, he found himself standing over her.  Not surprisingly, after he stood awhile looking down at her, she raised her hand.

“You ready now?” He gave her a dubious smile.

“I-I don’t remember so good,” she struggled with her memory, “but Wyatt’s got a story.  He was going to be a priest.”

“No, she must speak for herself,” Marie insisted now.

“Ah hah!” Salem conveyed, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “It’s true. You weren’t kidding.  This one you don’t know.”

“All right.” The affirmation came begrudgingly. “I don’t know Cassie.  The woman’s insane.”

“Come on girl.” Salem snapped his fingers impatiently. “We’re waiting.  What’s your hard luck story?”

Cassie began to squirm as she sat there, and finally covered her head with her arms and began to sing: “What is like a word, but a bird unheard, rising like a feather in all kinds of weather.”

“Stop that nonsense?” Salem grew irritated. “Come on, Cassie, tell me about it yourself!”

Suddenly Cassie let out a shrill, escalating scream that awakened Heck and Johnny and caused the others to jump to their feet.

“Shut her up,” Marie ordered Salem, “before someone calls the police!”

“Ain’t no one gonna call the police in these parts,” Stork said blandly.

“She does that all that time,” explained Effie to the group.  “I think she’s got turrets.”

It appeared as if most of them were familiar with Cassie’s eccentric ways.  But Johnny Trueblood was quite upset by her antics.  Making his tribe’s sign to ward off the evil eye, he ran over and moved his forefinger around as if he was writing something on her forehead, drew back and mumbled a few words in his tribal tongue, at which point Cassie’s ceased screaming and stood there staring into space.

“She should be institutionalized,” Salem said calmly to Marie. “How does this woman take care of herself?”

“I take care of her,” Liz explained, taking Cassie’s head and laying it gently in her lap. “There-there, just close your eyes, think about the elves and the fairies… sleep.”

“What was that thing you did with your hands?” Salem turned to Johnny Trueblood now.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he snarled at Salem.

“Didn’t I say I knew already,” Salem challenged him.

“All right chief, “ retorted Johnny with a sneer, “what happened between me and the reservation police?”

“You were caught drinking on the reservation but you were arrested by the civil authorities for being drunk and disorderly in town,” Salem parroted Marie’s thoughts.

“No bad,” Johnny nodded with respect. “Are you a sorcerer?  You obviously have a different god.”

“There’s only one God,” murmured Wyatt.

“Wyatt is correct, of course,” Salem felt uncomfortable with this topic. “Tell me, Johnny, what is your reason for being on the street?”

“I’m not a bum,” his eyelids narrowed to slits. “I was just passing through.  I’m a little down on my luck, that’s all.”

“You’re also very proud, Johnny,” Salem replied, a sudden stream of information arriving in his head. “But according to my sources, you spent some time in jail before heading out on your own.”

“If you know so much, you tell me,” Johnny stuck out his jaw.

A more fierce-looking man, Salem couldn’t remember.  At about six foot three, he was tall for an Indian but he was also built like a weight lifter, a build he achieved in the federal prison, according to Marie.

“You killed a man in a fist fight,” Salem continued, annoyed by the stream of information in his head. “…. It had been a fair fight, but you kept hitting him, until he was dead.” “You’re a violent man, Johnny,” he commented, looking unflinchingly into his eyes.  “But you only got three years in the federal prison because the man had been carrying a knife.”

Johnny’s stone-like expression melted to slack-jawed awe. His tribal superstitions took hold of him momentarily, but then, inexplicably, his expression hardened again and a snarl marred his face. 

“You probably read my police report,” his gravely voice carried venom.  “You’re either a charlatan or you’re inhabited by an evil spirit that’s playing with our lives…. No one’s gonna mess with my mind…. I’m leaving this place.  You’re all a bunch of losers!”

With Marie, Salem was certain, he had nothing to fear.  Responding to her telepathy, he walked up to Johnny Trueblood, pausing mere inches from his face, and stared unwaveringly into the Indian’s dark eyes.

“You’re the one who’s a loser,” he said almost in rote. “You can change your life here, Johnny.  Back in the reservation, you’ll get into trouble again.  Here with the twelve you’ll have a purpose in life.  You’ll become an important member of our church.”

“No, I’ll go home,” he cried, as Salem received a stream of Marie’s thoughts. “This is bad medicine.  That woman’s bad medicine too.”

“Let him go,” said Royal, rising to his feet.

“He’s nothing but trouble,” spat Troy, folding his arms.

 Salem couldn’t help agreeing with them.  He realized that the message Marie fed him wasn’t just for Johnny Trueblood but was intended for everyone in the group, including himself.  Suddenly, he was promising them all wealth and happiness, everything to their heart’s content if they served the Celestial Lord, when in reality, Satan, not he, was offering them riches and power if they served the church.  In a Biblical sense, as Christ put it himself, it was like throwing pearls before swine, which made it all the more insane to him now. 

As he listened to himself explain the lofty aims of the church (to bring all religions together and to promote world peace, etc), Johnny backed away from the circle and began retreating slowly through the park.

 “Who needs you, you son-of-a-bitch!” Heck, whom Johnny thought his best friend, yelled.

          “No, Johnny,” Marie called after him, “come back.  We need someone like you.  You’re people will be important in our church.  The Celestial Father is like the Great Spirit.  His medicine is good, not bad!”

“Some of these people are nothing but criminals, Marie,” Salem argued mentally with her. “Johnny Trueblood might be the worst.  He’s a potential time bomb.  Let him go!

No one, except Marie Roget, cared if Johnny Trueblood returned.  This time, in spite of the protests she leveled in his mind, Salem didn’t move from the circle in order to bring a member back.  He stood his ground, and it appeared as if his feeling was unanimous in the group.  Then suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Johnny reappeared on his own volition, a puzzled look replacing the stony expression on his face. 

“What do you know of my people?” he stared quizzically at Marie. “…What do you know of our gods?”

“Salem, our leader will explain our aims to you,” she explained awkwardly.

Johnny knew very well that Salem Dade wanted him out.  He was also deeply suspicious of who was really in charge.

“I want you to explain it me,” he said, ignoring Salem and looking squarely at her.

“… I know that you are a Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation,” she chose her words carefully, “whose people have suffered greatly because of the government…. I know that the chief god of the Plains Indians is Great Spirit, who was once called Sky Father by some ancient tribes.”

 “Sky Father?” Johnny made a face. “What tribes were these?  Leprechauns?  Fairies?  Is that another name for Celestial Father?  I’ve never heard of that god!”

Marie noted sarcasm in his tone, but she extended her small hand to the big Indian.  She answered him by shaking her head and sighing as if his words wounded her.  Johnny took her proffered hand as if it was a small treasure, the vaguest trace of smile breaking his stern face.

This seemed like the last straw for Salem.  He felt overwhelmed with the events of the past three days.  Johnny Trueblood, he realized, had helped define the new god, who was not only the Celestial Father, but Great Spirit--the universal god.  Rising wearily onto his legs, he retreated to the far corner of the clearing and slumped down beneath a tree.

“Salem,” her voice came into his head now, “you make me use this power over you.  Please gather your strength and take charge of the twelve.  There are those who doubt you!  You must take command!”

“Ask me if I care,” he shot back, his face resting on his knees.

Without being asked now, Wyatt rose up and walked over to Salem’s tree.  The other eleven disciples were growing restless after staying so long in one spot.  Though their bellies were filled, the old habits and urges for liquor or cigarettes and finding a place to sleep for the night tugged at them now.  After looking at their new leader who didn’t seem like a leader at all, they turned to Marie for answers.

“What’s wrong with the holy man?” Liv was the first to ask.

“He’s very tired,” Marie said softly.

“Doesn’t he like us?” Kaz frowned.

“He loves you,” lied Marie. “He’s wrestling with a new world order.  The powers of darkness pull at him this hour.” “… Be patient children,” she added, as she watched Wyatt approach her protégé. “…. The Father is speaking to him now.”

 

******

          But the Father was not speaking to Salem Dade.  It was the voice of Wyatt Brewster, who, after studying this strange man awhile, was reminded of what his mission was on earth.

          “Listen to me, sir,” his adolescent voice brought Salem back down to earth. “I was a seminary student for two years.  I have a drug problem, but I’ve been clean for an entire month.  Alden, that righteous man, you spoke to first, is helping me kick the habit…. I know a lot about the Bible.  I was a child prodigy.  I had a Master’s Degree in Divinity before I decided to join the Catholic Church.”

          “You don’t understand,” Salem murmured, his face still slumped onto his knees, “this is a new religion… a new god, if you will.  Flee this place before its too late, Wyatt.  Get away from that woman and me!”

          “I’m not afraid,” he said, squatting down onto the grass, “God is watching me.  I know now that everything that has happened to me has led me to this place.  I was not excommunicated from the Church, because I was still a novitiate.  I wasn’t even disciplined, but went on a leave of absence for health reasons.  I’m still in good graces with the Roman Catholic Church.”

          “Why are you telling me this, Wyatt?” Salem looked up finally. “You’re soul’s in great danger now!”

          “You have chosen Alden as the first among your disciples,” he explained boldly. “I have a feeling that rogue Johnny will be your bodyguard and Liz might love you the most.  But I have great knowledge as well as computer skills.  My minor was business in college and I have learned to hack into systems on the net.”

          “Okay, that’s all fine and dandy,” Salem whispered hoarsely. “… but what does that got to do with me?”

          “It has everything to do with you sir!” He said confidently now. “You need someone like me.  I would consider it an honor to work on your team!”

          “On my team” cried Salem, again feeling light-headed as he considered Wyatt’s words, “—a would-be Roman Catholic priest?  You call this group a team.  By God, Wyatt, I like your spirit!”  “This young man’s a computer hacker,” he called to the others. “He wants to be on my team!

          As Wyatt began walking back to the group, Salem began muttering to himself “I have my twelve disciples: murderers, thieves, a homosexual, mental case, prostitutes… and this, the best of the lot, is a man of God—a student priest.” 

 

******

Now that Salem Dade had accepted, with the greatest misgivings, his twelve followers, it would be his job, according to Marie Roget, to make them forget their failed lives in order to fashion them into willing servants of the faith.  What exactly this faith would be, he didn’t know; it would, he was certain, come to him via telepathy during the first few months.  They were to become blank sheets (tabula rasas) in the tradition of the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke—an empiricist concept that irked Salem’s rational mind.  It would take many months of re-educating the twelve, clearing out the life-experience rubbish that made them bums, and filling them with the necessary philosophical and religious claptrap before they were ready to become vessels of the Universal Lord.  The most important thing now, Marie explained to Salem, was gaining their complete trust and compliance and making them work as a family and team.  Those who failed to get with the program would be kicked out of the twelve and be replaced by others more responsive and compatible with the group. 

          “I already have several in mind,” Salem announced irritably under his breath.

“Let’s not be so hasty,” whispered Marie. “We must give them all a chance.

          “We’ll never be able to trust Buff, Johnny, and Heck,” he mumbled testily, looking back at the twelve. “Cassie’s insane, I don’t trust Wyatt, and I can’t understand for the life of me what that creepy dwarf is doing in our group.”

          “Patience,” she counseled, giving him a pat. “Cassie has a poetic spirit.  Kaz is, if nothing else amusing, and I expect great things out of Wyatt, the novitiate priest.”  “If we must, as you insist, weed out Heck, Johnny or Kaz, we must make sure we have replacements.  I saw several potential disciples out there today.”

          “Disciples?” He looked at her in disbelief.  “I don’t like that word, Marie.  Why’re you calling those deadbeats disciples?”

“There’s something you must do tomorrow to remind the street people who you are,” she spoke discreetly as they approached the hotel. “….  I want you to come out boldly onto the street at about the same time you did at noon today with me by your side, followed by your twelve disciples, and speak to them.  I don’t want them to think that what happened was a fluke.” “Also,” she added as he began to protest, “I want you to show them that you’re not crazy—an impression you deliberately gave the police.  We can rest this evening, but you must re-emerge—resurrected if you will—tomorrow, like you did this morning, but this time with all of us by your side.”

Salem argued with her for several moments telepathically about the absurdity of such a show.  With a following of unwashed bums, he didn’t think he was ready to proclaim the Universal Church to the world, but Marie was adamant: he had to make some sort of announcement tomorrow to remind the street people who he was.  Street people had short memories, she reminded him.  Forgetting himself entirely that moment, he lapsed back into a muted monologue with Marie, giving the impression, as before, that he was talking to himself.  Royal Channing told the others that the divine madness of the prophet had gripped Salem again.  Perking up their ears, they heard only snatches of conversation (“need more time, Marie.” . . . “weed out losers first.” . . .), making them wonder who was in charge.  Was it Marie or Salem?

Lapsing into silence, Salem looked self-consciously at his benefactor, who frowned severely at him now.  The twelve homeless people, appeared to accept his erratic behavior as a matter of course, but Salem must, she communicated telepathically again, take the initiative and show them that he, not Marie, was in control.  Most of them, who couldn’t possibly understand the trade-off they were going to make, appeared to accept him as a prophet or holy man, but there were those in the group who suspected that she, not him, had the power.

“This would be just fine,” thought Marie, “if that was my plan.  You could be the proverbial yes-man or lackey, as I direct the twelve.” “But that’s not my plan, Salem,” she explained, glancing back at the group. “They’re beginning to see, through facial gestures and muted words, whose really in control.  While they’re getting to know us, this must change.  We’ll make them believe that you were traumatized by your experience and your ‘addled-mindedness’ was just a passing phase.  You, my chosen, not I, must take command.  Through you, a mortal man, the message of the Universal Lord will spread!”

 

******

As the group looked up at the hotel looming before them, Salem, laughed hysterically to himself at the thoughts now entering his mind.  He must, she insisted, earn the respect of these misfits.  Walking backwards a moment, he took this comical parade in at a glance as they approached the marquee, giggling foolishly a moment as he followed his mistress into the hotel. 

Alden had already taken on a mystical, introspective look, as if asking himself “what does this all mean?”  His friend Wyatt, whom Alden had taken under his wing, seemed to distance himself from the others and seemed to be praying at times.  Salem wondered why Marie trusted this strange young man.  Wyatt had been a seminary student for her archenemy the Roman Catholic Church.  Stork, Troy, and the women, who had now found themselves a meal ticket, chattered excitedly amongst themselves, as if they hadn’t a care in the world.  Questions asked back and forth, which Salem overheard, included “What do you think’s going to happen now?” “Is that strange man really insane?”  “Is that woman really his wife?”  Though he didn’t have a clue, Stork, who insisted on being called Royal, believed they were all going to be preachers like Moe Rawlins, but for the entire world.  Kaz Yorba, acting as the court jester, thought this was amusing.  As Stork, Troy, Ursula, and Liz tried to talk seriously awhile, the dwarf giggled and cavorted through everyone’s legs, acting like a buffoon.  While Buff grumbled under his breath, Heck and Johnny walked in stony silence, occasionally cursing the dwarf or casting jaundiced eyes at the other members of the group.  At one point, Buff looked around in disbelief, himself, at the motley crew, as Cassie Moa, holding Liz Moydin’s hand, babbled nonsensically to herself.  Virtually none of Buff’s old friends had made the cut.  He felt alone and isolated from his old pals.  Salem could understand his dejectedness, for he felt alone and isolated too, but from God, his religious peers, and the world he once knew.

Trailing far behind the others was Wyatt Brewster, the Judas Priest, praying quietly and biding his God-given time.  Passages played in his mind now, which gave him comfort.  From Exodus, he recalled the verses “I’ve been a stranger in a strange land” and “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  From Psalms Twenty-three, he whispered Adam Leeds’ favorite passages to himself as he followed the others into the hotel: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil…” 

Now, as he looked around the darkened habitat, the one chapter that seemed the most appropriate was the very same passage from Revelations that Moses quoted when he first spotted the Reverend Adam Leeds on the street: “And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.”  The thought now chilled the novice priest that here in this darkened habitat both Satan and the False Prophet of the Apocalypse would be dwelling with eleven other men and women, who would be trained to be their emissaries on earth.

 

 

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