Adam had dressed himself with the help of the homeless people who stood up for him during his ordeal, and was led through the congestion at the mouth of the alley into the crowd still spilling onto the street. Almost immediately, as they made a circle around him, Stork, who introduced himself as Royal Channing, presented the remaining eleven and several others, who had protested the treatment of this man.
From the opposite side of the boulevard, Alfredo, at Moses’ insistence now parked the produce truck on the curb, and contrary to his promise that he would remain in the cab to make his voice heard climbed out with his friends’ assistance and made his way across the street to hear this historic event for himself.
“I thought Christians don’t lie,” Alfredo rebuked Moses, as the five men crossed the street. As he remained sitting behind the wheel, he called, also half-seriously “Hey, I wait for ten minutes then I’m gonna head uptown. I’m not kidding Moses, I got deadlines too.”
“Why you doin’ this Moe? You made your point!” asked Al, as the preacher staggered toward the crowd.
“There gonna lynch you his time,” Little Tom said dramatically. “They think that man’s God!”
“You don’t understand,” Moses scolded his friends. “The Lord’s guiding my steps. I have to see this phenomena close-up myself.”
“You should be in the hospital,” Skunk counseled worriedly. “You should wait and do this later when you’re sure on your feet.”
“I’m just going to listen right now,” he explained dismissively. “I’ll wait for the Lord to put words in my mouth.
“Oh, Lordy,” groaned Al.
Moses depended upon Skunk and Tom to keep him on his feet. Against his wishes, they stopped on the outskirts of the mob, refusing to go any further if the preacher opened his mouth.
Adam, who had a keen memory for names and faces, sensed the significance of the first dozen vagrants introduced. The number of bodies was, of course, twelve. A pause in Stork’s introductions after he reached, with hesitation, Kaz Yorba, and the fact that this group stood apart from the others, seemed coincidental, if not portentous. A sinking feeling, that came upon him as he stood there in the crowd, worsened as he studied this motley group. He hadn’t seen Moses yet in the crowd or he would have been shaken by the look on the prophet’s face. Already, he had mentally marked those who had played the part of the tormentor when his ordeal began. It seemed obvious to him that Royal Channing, though he behaved cowardly when put to test, had been on his side. This was true for Troy Holland, Alden Taylor, and the women in the group (Ursula Painter, Liz Moydin, and Effie Powers). He also remembered the piercing but benevolent gaze of Wyatt Brewster and Cassie Moa, a timid creature cowering by Liz’s side. The remainder of the twelve, however, he placed on a different mental list. Buff Peyton, who had started the whole thing going, he swore to himself, he would never forgive. Into this same group, he would put the malicious little dwarf, Kaz Yorba, the sinister looking Indian, Jonathan Trueblood, and Heck Reyes, whose voice he remembered heckling him too. Everyone else, who stood around him, including the kindly bag lady introduced as Lucille, were not part of the twelve. This realization came to him on his own, without inspiration from Satan, which added an element of dread to his apprehension.
None of the twelve gave him that warm and tingling feeling he knew he should feel. They were, after all, unwashed homeless people—a polite name for tramps, misfits, and bums. Without giving the deceased another thought, several of the local vagrants, he recognized as one-time tormentors, also crowded around him at this point. Although they still thought he was a very weird man, he had killed one of their enemies: Charlie Blintz. He had also gotten rid of the local nuisance, Rhoda, the skid row witch. He was, in their estimation, some sort of holy man, though they were not unanimous on what exactly that was. The vagrants, who had, as most of the twelve, shown sympathy for him from the start, had moved forward from the sidelines and appeared to be the majority among the mob. Gradually, as Adam looked around accusingly at the crowd, many of his one-time tormentors, due to guilt or shame, faded away into the bowels of skid row whence they had come. When droves of them began departing from the crowd, members of the twelve, taking the cue, attempted to thin their own ranks.
“Get away from the preacher,” Stork ordered Buff, who, quite humbled now, was holding his arm and wincing with pain.
“You too,” Effie pointed at the dwarf, “get!”
No one dared tell Heck and Johnny to leave. Kaz Yorba, who ducked behind the two men, displayed a rotten mouth of teeth to compliment his misshapen shape. Adam was reminded that moment of Gollum, the fiendish little toady in Lord of the Rings. His protectors struck him simply as a pair of thugs. As they looked down menacingly at the crone, Adam placed the dwarf and his protectors right below Buff Peyton on the “who to get rid off” list being compiled in his head.
Among the twelve, Stork (Royal Channing) was the first one to ask Adam who he was. He simply didn’t know the answer to this question and looked at them all blankly, hoping they would think he was too overwrought to reply. Another group, far too small to have any significance, were composed mostly of curious motorists. Because of the distance, most of them had not actually seen the cremation and were not as impressed with the strange-looking man. Satisfied that he was all right, many of them looked afar at the holy man and his tattered congregation with skepticism, started up their vehicles, and drove away from this dreadful place.
It’s time for another miracle, the thought came into his head. He looked around for her now, hoping that he wouldn’t be forced to communicate only mentally with her the rest of his life. Where was she now? Had she slipped back into the invisible state she had communicated with him before. It would be very supportive right now to have her looking on in the crowd…. Suddenly, with the great ring of squalid bodies formed around him, she spoke again to him again in his thoughts, actual words instead of mere thought impulses echoing in his mind.
“Place your hand on Buff’s arm!” she commanded softly.
“No, absolutely not,” he grumbled under his breath.
“Don’t argue Adam,” her voice rose inside his head, “do it now!”
“Weren’t you watching this debacle?” He mumbled angrily, as if to himself. “That son-of-a-bitch started it all. He drew attention to me!” “No, Satan, this nonsense has gone far enough!”
Seeing his lips move, those closest to him perked up their ears. Many of the onlookers, including members of the twelve, still thought he was addled in the head.
“He’s speaking. The holy man’s speaking,” Kaz murmured in awe.
“Get away from me, you creep!” Adam cried aloud, grinning with satisfaction as his chief advocate, Stork, shoved Kaz passed Heck and Johnny into the crowd.
“Touch his arm. Do you hear me Adam?” She shrilled this time. “This man will become one of your greatest disciples after what you’re going to do!”
“Buff,” he began reluctantly, looking in disbelief at the sky.
“Buff deserved what he got,” Stork said, eying the other man with contempt. “He’s always bullying guys down here… ‘cept me. I’ll kick his ass!”
“Buff, the Creator is telling me to heal your arm,” Adam now blurted. It was a lame effort to identify his benefactor and brought on an immediate reaction.
“No, Adam,” Satan admonished him sternly, “don’t try to give me any of your silly Judaeo-Christian names. Let me come up with a title. Call me Lord, if you must. That’s a more neutral term. Now grab his arm…. That’s it look into his pain-glazed face. Don’t hate him Adam. His father use to burn him with cigarettes before he left Buff’s mother. His mother abandoned he and his brothers on the street when he was twelve. He’s my child Adam. He’s now your son too!”
When Adam found her words impossible to digest, she attempted logic on him again. “Adam, look now at your new friend Stork, who protects you. He’s watching you carefully now.”
Looking inappropriately at the sky, he shook his head, heaved a sigh, and looked forlornly at the ground. To onlookers, as he mentally communicated with Satan, he seemed to be doing a pantomime. “He’s not my friend,” he wanted to shout. “He ran like a scared rabbit with all of the others. He looks like he might have AIDS! Is this the best you can do for me? You’ve surrounded me with the worst bunch of misfits I’ve ever seen!”
“This man is merely malnourished and needs general medical treatment,” she explained patiently. “He’s expecting great thing from you now; please don’t act like an ass. When you’re done working your miracle for Buff, Royal will grow spiritually, become a great evangelist and spread your name to every corner of the world.”
“What are you talking about?” Adam asked incredulously, scanning the crowd for her face. “I heard you say world before. Surely you can’t mean the world. Look at me and where I’m at. I’m a joke!”
“We’re going to remedy that Adam,” she promised, as a warm current seemed to blow across his face and neck. “I’ll tell you hard luck stories about the other members later that you won’t believe. You need to know these people first before you tackle the world. Skid row will become your proving ground. Like the original twelve, their success stories will be the cornerstone of the new faith.” “Now heal Buff!” She prodded less gently. “Show those few brave motorists on the edge of the crowd, who’ve left their cars, your powers. We both know how important they will be: they are mainstream folk. When they drive out of here they’ll tell everyone they meet about this miracle. Maybe we’ll be lucky and even draw in a television crew. Do it for him Adam! Do it now! Did I not promise you great power?”
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled looking around unhappily at the assembly. “All right,” he then said to himself, again scanning the crowd. “My heart’s not in this. You must tell me exactly what to do.”
By now, Moses had managed to filter into the crowd. Many of the homeless people, who recognized him, moved politely aside. A few greeted him quietly, but the preacher noted an undercurrent of hostility, as if he was intruding upon a sacred event. Little Tom, Skunk, and Al were positioned protectively around him, refusing to let him move too far forward into the crowd.
“He’s talking to Satan,” Moses observed with excitement.
“Moe,” Al whispered into his ear, “shut up! You promised you wouldn’t make a scene!”
“Is he really talking to the devil?” Tom whispered to Skunk. “I just see his mouth moving. I think he’s nuts!”
“Place your right hand on the wounded area,” she told Adam, searching her mind for an appropriate ritual. “That’s it. The ancient Picts of Scotland performed this ritual before they were corrupted by that troublesome sect…. Now place you’re left hand on his filthy head and raise your eyes to the heavens as if you’re praying to whats-his-face.”
“We need a name for him,” Adam thought, reluctantly gripping Buff’s arm. “Whats-his-face won’t do.”
“What’re you doin to me?” Buff asked, fearful of the holy man’s vast powers. “I said I was sorry. I am sorry. I didn’t use to be such an asshole. Please don’t cremate me like Rhoda and Charlie Blintz.”
“Shut up!” Adam snarled. “This isn’t my idea!”
“Repeat after me,” she whispered into his mind. “By the power of the Lord of the Universe.”
“By the power of the Lord of the Universe,” Adam said, continuing to stare at Buff with utter contempt.
“I heal you’re wound and forgive your transgression.”
“Oh God,” Adam groaned.
“I heal you’re wound and forgive your transgression.”
“That your healing may be a testament to the New Age God of enlightenment and tolerance.”
“That your healing may be a testament to the New Age God of enlightenment and tolerance,” Adam responded mentally, watching a tiny insect from Buff’s head skitter across his hand.
“You see I’ve been listening to your sermons,” she chatted with him as the ground again shook below his feet. “Everything we do from now will be based upon the apostasy you generated in your church.”
“Apostasy?” Adam protested mentally. “I didn’t consider it apostasy!”
Buff Peyton felt a sudden and inexplicable shot of pain in the vicinity of the stab wound. Looking inside his grubby coat at his arm now, Buff made gasping and whistling sounds as he realized that the stab wound to his arm was not only healed, but the blood on his foul shirt had almost disappeared.
“My wound’s gone!” He cried at last. “The son-of-a-bitch healed me!”
“It was the Universal Lord,” Adam said, quickly removing his hands from the filthy bum.
The tobacco-chewing and foul-mouthed Effie now became the first to acknowledge his divinity.
“Oh Jesus, you’ve come back to Earth,” she said, bowing down onto the ground Oriental fashion and fluttering her arms and hands. As some of the others followed suit, Adam, greatly impressed with this second demonstration of Satan’s power, had the presence of mind enough to cry out “Stop this at once. I’m not Jesus Christ!” Following this outburst, Satan again began telling him exactly what to say in his thoughts.
“Jesus Christ was one manifestation of the Godhead,” he said in rote fashion. “So was Buddha and Mohammed…. There are other prophets of enlightenment…. I am the last such prophet. But don’t bow down to me.”
At that point, Moses friends had to muffle him and drag him protesting mutely from the crowd.
“Okay mister holy man, what’s your name?” Asked Effie, her cantankerous expression having transformed into a look of adoration.
“My name?” He muttered to himself, looking self-consciously at the ground. “Okay, I’m waiting…. Anytime now. I can’t go by my old name. Adam’s suppose to be dead. Who am I suppose to be?”
“Salem Dade,” she replied, after a short pause.
“Salem Dade?” Adam responded, looking up into Effie’s blinking blue eyes.
“Sounds flowery,” Effie grinned toothlessly. “Like one of those English aristocrats or something.”
“Knew a gent from Salem, Oregon,” Stork said thoughtfully. “Stole my shoes one night when I was stinking drunk.”
“Isn’t Dade a county in Florida?” Asked Troy.
“It’s an anagram,” Marie explained to Adam, as he mentally digested his new name. “Salem means peace in Hebrew. Troy is correct: Dade’s a county in Florida. I wanted your name to have some kind of significance.”
“Salem’s a prophet,” Buff said, reaching out to fondle Adam’s arm.
“Salem’s a holy man,” Stork said, with rapture in his watery blue eyes.
“Which am I: prophet or holy man?” He whispered to her, searching the crowd one last time.
“You’re both,” her voice came once more into his head, “but let these unwashed vagabonds define what you are. Let them compare you to Jesus Christ if they wish. But you’re mine now Salem. Don’t forget by whose authority you operate when you exercise my power!”
“All right,” he had the presence of mind to ask. “You’ve given me a new name. What’s your name? What do I call you, now that we’ve made our bound? Satan, Lucifer, or Mary Queen of Hell won’t do. It’s time to personalize yourself, madam. I know that we made love, but are you fish or foul? Am I to know you as man, woman, or beast?”
“I’m many things,” she replied carefully.
“Not good enough,” he folded his arms, “I need consistency. I need a name.”
By now, his pantomime was interpreted by observers as a form of divine madness. To members of the twelve, who witnessed close hand the first miracle, it was easier to dismiss his quirky behavior. For many others outside of the twelve, however, he did not seem right in the head. Several onlookers, who had not witnessed the first miracle, shrugged their shoulders and walked away.
“I’m a woman,” she said softly. “You can call me Marie.” After scanning the audience, she added, with hesitation, “…Roget.”
It was the name of Adam’s first girl friend in the sixth grade. Satan, he realized with a shudder, had been tracking him all his life.
As the crowd continued pressing him for answers, he rubbed his temples, hoping that he had would be released from her mental hold. Unless she decided to leave, and without God, no power on Earth could exorcise her from his mind. That moment, as he broke away from his friends, a distant voice hollered out a warning to the world: “Beware! A false prophet is among us as a wolf in sheep’s clothing!”
Al, Skunk and Tom had been dragging Moses Rawlins back to the truck, Al instructing Alfredo to “haul ass out of skid row,” but not before Moses gave his counterpart a scathing prophecy. With his unmuzzled head out the window, Moses shouted the first lines of his verbal war against the False Prophet of Skid Row:
“Listen Children, do you hear that sound? That charlatan in your midst would have you believe he’s a harmless lunatic, but he’s not harmless, nor is he a lunatic. He’s the False Prophet spoken of by John, the Divine, and by the Apostles of Christ. Listen not to his voice, when it appears to ring pure and true. Look around your world at the signs. Listen to the sound of distant drumming: wars, political chaos and moral decline. The End Times, though a whisper, has been set in motion by this man. For lo, in the words of the Revelator: ‘the devil has come down to earth and has but a short time!’”
As Moses Rawlins voice trailed off in the distance, Salem was not certain whether or not he had been insulted by that man. In the preacher’s own words, he was not a harmless lunatic but a man to be reckoned with. He had called him a wolf in sheep’s clothing and worse, a devil—unflattering titles for a onetime minister, yet ones commanding fear and respect. He had never believed in the prophecy in apocalyptic literature, so being called a false prophet, wolf, or devil shouldn’t have bothered him. When he had heard the old evangelist on television ranting about the End Times, he had rejected it outright. So why did it fill him with dread to hear those labels again? The Book of Revelation, after all, he believed, was written as an admonishment to the churches by Saint John, the Divine. His liberal interpretation of the Bible had allowed him all sorts of loopholes for his faith, which made it easier for him to accept his destiny now. Didn’t Satan say the street people would define him? What did it matter what he was called now or who he was? No one could ever harm him again. He would, with the help of these credulous fools, make the best of his new role on Earth… Or so he told himself, as he considered the preacher’s words…. But what if Satan was wrong?
So far it appeared as if all the doomsday forecasters had been mistaken. Not only was Satan a woman, but the Bible’s play script appeared to be in error. This was skid row, not Babylon or Rome, as it was prophesized in the Book of Revelation. What about his role in Marie Roget’s scheme? Who was he suppose to be, if he wasn’t the False Prophet of the End Times? Someone in the background was at this very moment arguing loudly with another spectator about this very subject.
“He’s not Jesus, you dumb shit. Didn’t you hear him tell us who he is? He’s Salem Dade, prophet for the Universal Lord.” Stork corrected a man in the crowd. “It was an act of divine judgment: a bolt of lightning straight from heaven. Then he cured that fat guy over there’s arm!”
To Adam, however, who knew differently, it was Satan’s triumph—her hour. He could see her now in a plain blue dress, her long dark brown hair bellowing faintly in the afternoon breeze, a countenance indistinguishable from millions of other pretty faces seen in the world.
As she winked at him, he was reminded of the moment when she told him to brace himself. He had barely felt the surge go through his body, and yet as a luminous, human cross, he had smote his enemies and, at the same time, set their cause—whatever that was—in motion. He had been a transmitter for her magic, a living testament for the faithful and an example of her supernatural powers. Now, in front of this lingering crowd, he felt his destiny as an insubstantial reality, in spite of and because of the presence of Marie Roget. Who would ever believe the identity of this baby-faced woman? He scarcely believed it himself.
Handing him a fresh robe and sandals, she whispered sweetly to her protégé, “Put this on to hide your tattered clothes. Put the sandals on your feet. There are many sharp objects on the sidewalks and the street. You will find many pitfalls in life, but I will be there.”
Before he could reply, she warned him by stern eye contact not to acknowledge her and then returned to her uncomfortable habit of injecting thoughts into his head.
“I told you ‘Put this on!’ Say only what I tell you to say. You need a script at this stage. I will provide one for you as you go along. Someday the whole world will know about this miracle and hear of the new messiah. But right now he is a very tired and overwrought young man, who needs the strictest guidance to hold this crowd.”
All right, he responded mentally, guide me.
Eagerly accepting her direction during these critical moments, he concentrated with great difficulty on her every thought. With the notion implanted that the crowd must define who he was, to the repeated question who are you?, therefore, he carefully avoided replying directly to avoid entrapment. He used instead the ancient Jewish custom of answering one question with another, saying “who do you think I am?” Because there were several god fearing people now in their midst, including motorists who had appeared just now on the scene, the answer could have been many things. As John the Baptist had done, however, he did make it clear who he was not, when he said, “I am not the Messiah.” It was only important to him, at this stage, that they did not confuse him with Christ. As weary as he was, he knew that this mistake in identity would run contrary to the fundamentalist interpretation of the Second Coming. In spite of the fact that he had never believed in a physical return, himself, such a bald-faced lie that flew in the face of Biblical prophecy would be looked upon as the worst heresy by most Christian groups.
A better response, Marie informed him patiently, would have been I am not Jesus—-period! Now, at least for this small audience, he could be no more than a holy man or, as Moses accused him of, a prophet and a false one at that!
Whether or not he was called a prophet, a messiah, or a preacher made no difference at all to him. It was all he could do now just to humor Satan and play the role developing for him on the street.
The questions regarding what had happened here today were much easier to answer, for his answer was based upon observable facts. Again, though, he allowed the crowd, particularly the twelve, to answer for him. When they asked him how he did it, he simply raised his eyes heavenward with palms uplifted, emitted a long, indiscreet yawn, and allowed them to draw their own conclusions. A dozen or more “Hallelujahs!” and “Praise the Lords!” by members of the twelve and other members of the crowd were uttered without a single word on his part. Not one person dared call him Jesus after his clarification, although his ascetic visage gave him a Christ-like appearance.
While the eye-witnesses of at least the second miracle were nevertheless convinced of his divinity or holiness, those arriving belatedly on the scene or not having the vantage point of the “inner circle,” who had followed his tormentors into the hallows of the alley, were not so impressed.
“You believe what you want to,” a deliveryman replied to the trucker who had seen the second miracle with his own eyes. “But there’s something not right about all this. What would a holy man or prophet be doing down here in a place like this? Does that make sense to you?”
“Jesus started with a bunch of low-lives,” Marie offered as if she was just one of the crowd. “One of them was a tax-collector. Another was a prostitute too.”
“Which one were you prissy?” Effie asked, spitting tobacco on the ground.
“I am his wife,” Marie announced, walking up to her and staring unwaveringly into the old woman’s myopic eyes.
For perhaps the first time in her long career as a bum, Effie gave way to another woman, a look of fear etched on her ancient face. Watching Adam wince but keep his composure after her declaration, Marie listened to the gathering crowd. It seemed to her that most of the people, who had witnessed the miracles, were still stunned and at a loss for words. It was enough now just to be near the holy man and know it was real. A few still believed he was the savior returned at last to earth. Most of the newly arrived motorists and pedestrians became deeply impressed with what they heard from the eyewitnesses, though there were a few skeptics in the crowd. Everyone, except the skeptics, shook their heads in wonderment at these events.
Wyatt Brewster stood beside Alden Taylor, who had been his friend for many months on Skid Row. The student priest, whom his friends sometimes called Padre, had been praying quietly to himself after hearing Moses prophecy from the window of the truck.
“… I know now what I must do now Lord,” he whispered under his breath. “I am greatly terrified after watching that woman appear in the crowd. I know she is the dragon, and it’s my mission to stand as a witness and record the rise of this man.”
As he conversed mutely with the Lord, Alden watched him carefully, wondering if this was not another episode of the young man’s manic depression now. Without saying a word, the distinguished looking black vagrant, shook his sleeve gently, as if to say “Wake up, that’s enough,” but this time Wyatt ignored his guardian, withdrawing to the back of the crowd to be alone and talk with God.
An hour and fifteen minutes after it began, following Satan’s miracles and Salem Dade’s debut, an LAPD cruiser arrived finally on the scene. After assisting Robbery division uptown, Patrolmen Garth Fletcher, with his partner Phil Reed, had been loath to answer this call. Fletcher and Reed had seen almost everything on skid row, including hate crimes, robberies, knifings, shootings, and rapes. The complaint that a homeless man was being harassed by fellow vagrants seemed commonplace and lacked urgency. Homeless men and women were always being victimized by other street people down here. In point of fact, this crime scene included a stabbing, molestation, and two cremations—an impressive list of violent acts for just one call. What the two police officers saw now, however, were a collection of misfits surrounding a strange-looking man, whom they conjectured was probably on drugs. Before the officers even exited the cruiser, a cynical mindset was therefore presented to the vagrants on the street.
“What do you think, Phil?” Garth motioned to the crowd. “You believe dispatch’s report? You think there was a 187 here?”
“I don’t know, Garth.” Shrugged Phil. “Let’s check it out.”
“What’s going on, chief?” He called out to a young man on the street.
“Prophecy must be fulfilled,” Wyatt replied dreamily. “I shall, as a Judas Priest, after chronicling the beast, denounce him when the time is right!”
The patrolmen, who assumed he was drunk or on drugs, could hear Alden Taylor’s baritone voice utter, “Who is this man, who will render to ashes his enemies yet heal the wound of a foe?” And shortly thereafter a woman shouted from a departing vehicle, “He’s a fake and charlatan. That man’s not Jesus Christ!”
At this point, in guarded humor, they exited the safety of their squad car and strolled, hands poised over holsters, through the crowd. A déjà vu feeling struck them both as they recalled similar incidents uptown and at Pershing Square. The closer they came to the central figure in the crowd, the more clearly they could understand the woman motorist’s concern.
“What do you make of this?” Garth shook his head in disbelief. “He look like Jesus Christ to you?”
“He’s probably on drugs,” Phil concluded with a sneer.
Though Marie seemed totally unruffled, Adam didn’t know what to say to the police. They were laughing at this spectacle. He wasn’t worried about the cremated vagrants in the alley; all that remained of Crazy Charlie and Rhoda, the witch, were carbonized smudges on an alley wall. But he dreaded the notion of having his background probed if someone turned in a report. After murdering his wife, he no longer had a personal history. Until his bargain with the devil, he barely had a future as well. What if they arrested him and took him downtown? A few moments ago, he had become Salem Dade, but downtown he would, after a lie detector test and police interrogation, become Adam Leeds again.
“Have your forgotten,” Marie murmured sweetly, “that I can read your mind?”
“Then please tell me I won’t go to jail,” he said from the corner of his mouth.
“You won’t go to jail,” she promised, squeezing his hand.
He noted with relief, after seeing the officers’ gestures and expressions, that they were, more than anything else, amused by what they saw. They were, Marie explained discreetly, used to seeing aberrant behavior, especially on skid row. This part of town was rampant with schizophrenic, autistic, bipolar, and multiple personalities. It naturally had low priority, which was why it took so long for them to arrive. It would have been much worse, she assured him, if hard-boiled detectives were questioning him now. These were merely patrolman responding belatedly to a dispatcher’s call.
The decision to dismiss the event in vague terminology as a religious affair crossed Adam mind, but he hadn’t the foggiest notion what to say. In his thoughts, he was reminded by Marie to let his disciples define him. Did not that bumpkin fisherman Simon identify Jesus as the Son of God? Several people were now chattering about the event to the police. Three interrelated topics dominated their conversations: the miracles performed today, the strange circumstances surrounding his appearance, and the two people, Charlie Blintz and Rhoda Simms, cremated by the wrath of God. Everyone had accepted the presence of Marie Roget in spite of her eleventh hour appearance on the scene. The police ignored these obvious lunatics as they would any vagrant burnt out on cheap wine, but took note of the attractive auburn-haired teenager by his side. Adam could see the mirth in their eyes, as they swaggered through the group.
“What’s up, chief?” The handsome black officer, Phil, asked Stork, who walked forward to greet the police.
With eye contact, Adam had told Stork to be careful. So, not knowing what else to say Stork replied forthrightly, “we’re having a meeting officer, just a friendly chat.”
“A meeting? Friendly chat? Is that right ma’am?” Garth, the tall, muscular prematurely gray officer seemed to undress Marie with his eyes.
“That’s correct,” she lowered her gaze demurely.
“Yeah, a meeting,” Ursula said defiantly. “Ain’t no law against that.”
“It’s a meeting!” several other vagrants cried, nodding their shaggy heads.
“What kind’ve meeting?” Phil looked squarely at the black woman with unveiled contempt. “…. Say,” he stuck out his jaw, “Didn’t we bust you once for prostitution?”
From blazing eyes and feisty snarl to what struck Phil Reed, an avid hunter, as a “a dear in the headlights look,” the attractive black woman grew submissively quiet. At that point, he looked around at Adam, Troy, and the others and shook his head with disgust. Garth, for his part, focused upon Marie, whom he suspected was under-aged. Phil moved down the line toward the man in white, wondering, as his partner, if she might be a runaway teen. If that was the case, he would have some explaining to do. Stork whispered into Adam’s ear, as Phil, appraised both of them with a drill sergeant snarl, “Quick! Act addled in the head, and he’ll leave you alone!”
Don’t overdue it, cautioned Marie in his mind. They might think you’re on drugs!
When the black officer stood directly in front of him mere within inches from his face, Adam began imitating the actions of the autistic Cassie Moa, who stood next to Liz Moydin, looking down, up and, sideways furtively, mumbling to himself, his right arm shaking as if he had a palsy—something even Cassie didn’t do.
You’re overdoing it, scolded Marie.
“What’s wrong with him,” Phil looked squarely at the woman.
Suddenly and inexplicably for the policemen’s benefit, the woman’s face aged noticeably in a split second, the time it took for them to blink. The amorphous Satan, Adam noted grimly, added a few wrinkles under her eyes and flecks of gray to her hair, though she still looked younger than himself.
“He’s finally talked, after all these years,” a rich baritone voice came from the crowd. “A few ruffians made sport of him, but we scared them away.”
“What the—!” Phil’s mouth dropped, the expletive flowing mutely out of his mouth.
“What’s going on here?” Garth looked back and forth from the mystery woman to the owner of the Darth Vader voice.
Garth, like Phil, could think of nothing clever to say. Alden Taylor, a dignified black man wearing a tattered gray suit, came forward now, as if he was the spokesman for the group. When he explained, in his own eloquent voice, the cremations and healing, the officers turned away with renewed disgust, elbowing their way back through the crowd. Almost instinctively, Adam noted, as if street savvy was a natural sense, the homeless folk said nothing specific about the two homicides and healing but cloaked them in supernatural terminology, which made them unbelievable to the police. Everything was all right now, he felt reassured. They would take care of their own. The two officers looked back, mumbled something among themselves, but then departed with looks of scorn on their faces. Adam wondered if Marie was correct and this was the way the police answered all such calls. Down here, there were just too many mentally disturbed vagrants to take one autistic man seriously, even if he looked like Jesus Christ.
Marie, after reading his thoughts, nodded faintly. Again, the chameleon face of the Enchantress changed: the flecks in her brown hair disappearing, just enough aging under her eyes remaining to leave onlookers guessing her correct age. Marie was, of course, ageless, thought Adam; in another body, with a different voice, she had tempted Nero and Genghis Khan. Almost all had fallen to the Temptress. The greatest exception had been the man whom he resembled now. Here he stood, not in Biblical Jerusalem or marching with the Third Reich, but among lowly rabble of skid row. The smile on her beautiful, adolescent face belied her role as the Queen of Hell. It struck him with bittersweet clarity that his mentor had picked the perfect hideout for a murderer. Truly he could lose himself here. He would be safe on skid row, if he kept a low profile, as just another mentally disturbed misfit on the street.
The police officers noticed several motorists and two truck drivers still parked on the curb. Although this area was a legal parking zone, they found this gathering of vehicles unsettling. What had that strange autistic man done to generate so many spectators? Wondered Officer Phil Reed. Officer Garth Fletcher was thinking about the woman whom they called Marie. He would never forget the subtle transformation that took place in her face. Through cupped hands Phil hollered at the crowd of hangers-on “Show’s over folks. This is becoming a public nuisance. Break it up, and go home.” Not certain he was talking to them, however, most of the drivers held on, wondering what the Jesus look-a-like was going to do next. Other incoming motorists would pull over when they caught sight of the counterfeit Christ. A few of the vagrants, who had shown up recently, turned away and, as with most of the motorists, laughed at the absurdity of this scene. None of the homeless folk, who had seen the miracles, however, departed, as the squad car drove away. Everyone was waiting for the holy man to finally speak…. A peculiar feeling of well-being overtook Salem Adler (a.k.a. Adam Leeds) as he watched the cruiser disappear. He realized, with some trepidation, that he had nothing more to fear with Marie Roget by his side.
“I know why we begin in skid row,” he spoke aloud now. “…. It’s like being reborn.”
“You still don’t understand completely yet,” she said, while adjusting the clasp on his robe. “You were reborn last night. With me, Salem, you are safe anywhere on earth. It’s your disciples who are what John Locke called blank sheets. Forget that positive thinking new age rubbish you’ve been spouting. You will write your will on these lost souls. You will give the world a brand new religion, unlike anything seen or heard before!”