There is the smell of fresh-baked apple pie, made foul by the mingling acrid odors of blood, mildew, flatulence.
Hanging slouched off the left side of a cushioned, regal chair, the Pope dips a zig-zag finger into the pie and suckles it. His lips tremble.
Any minute now.
A chunky bar of light lands at his feet. The creaking of a door. His faithful Mitzi descends the stone steps, thick soles splashing against the pools of moisture in their cracks and divots.
The door falls shut behind her, and once again the only light in this foul-smelling, hellish chamber is a swinging gaslight lantern.
“How’s the pie, Your Holiness?” Mitzi asks.
“Too sweet,” says the Pontiff, and the armed woman comes to stoop at his side. Though her elder cannot hear so well, she’s aware of the distant sounds of gunshots, screaming — echoing into the nothingness down here from chaos high above.
“It’s done,” she says.
His eyes are nothing but a pair of yellow dust motes, dancing in the torchlight. He wheedles some air into his collapsed chest in greedy weak chugs.
And he can’t help it — the Pope grins.
For in that moment, from all those hundreds of feet overhead, the baritone peal of a well cared-for voice travels down to them — hollering, moaning, growing louder. Closer.
It’s blasting out of a large, circular hole in the cavernous ceiling, that howl. Centered underneath the dripping, stalactite-toothed maw, there’s a mattress: soiled, roachy, yellowed, crusty.
Out of the overhead opening plops something big, heavy, slack. It lands on the mattress, and the yelling ends with a conclusive grunt.
Mitzi winds some twine around her thumbs.
“Hang him,” the Pope says, scooting the pie pan forward with a knuckle and considerable muster.
The devoted servant to the Bishop of Rome tugs on the twine, measuring its resolve, and steps forward to do the same to the man now unconscious on the floor.
She figures she’ll need a few rolls to hold Gideon Dodd.
I. I Was Pushed Hard, So That I Was Falling
“Let me go! Let go of me! Let me drop!”
That night — the night of The Nicest Time of His Life, the night of terrific French cuisine and the walk along the Seine — that night had ended. It was morning now, though in name only. It was still dark. The stars were still out.
And a pair of French officiers de police had Gideon Dodd by the ankles, dangling from the railing on the tippy-top of the Eiffel Tower.
“Let me drop!” he shouted. He twisted, jerked, flopped in unholy rage, fists spinning on helicopter limbs. “Let me fall! I want to! I want to!”
Over three hundred metres below — about a thousand feet to the American preacher — was, surely, whatever was left of his wife.
Tamara had taken her tumble.
Gideon had jumped after her. Had been caught.
“JUST LET ME GO GOD DAMN YOU!” he shouted at his saviors.
“JUST LET ME DROP I WANT TO I WANT TO GO TOO GOD DAMN SHIT BASTARD FUCKHEAD SHITTY SHIT ASSHOLES! TAMMY I WANT TAMMY LET ME GO JOIN HER NEED TO YOU SHITHEAD FUCKS!”
In French, the officer holding the pastor’s left ankle asked his compatriot: “Did she jump?”
“Looks like an accident,” said the other, also en Français. “But who knows?” She grunted this last, pulling with all her might.
“Why do I recognize him?” said the first, nodding toward the thrashing, wailing, incensed creature they were currently dragging up by the legs.
“He’s that preacher,” said the other. “The American one. You know, from the TV.”
As if they were reeling in one very large marlin, the pair of them fought and tugged and yanked until the flopping, hefty leviathan — the catch of the night — was thrown over onto the right side of the railing. He kicked and screamed his voice hoarse, taking swings and kicking at the officers who’d saved his life.
“BASTARDS FUCK YOU!” he shouted. “TAMMY! TAMMY!”
“Pretty foul mouth for a preacher,” the constable on the left said.
“WHY GOD WHY WOULD GOD HOW COULD GOD GOD NO!”
“Yeah?” The other one shrugged, pinioning the reverend — a danger to himself, really — with a booted foot.
“Well. My English isn’t great.”
The free-footed policeman reached for the jangling set of handcuffs affixed to his belt, opened them up, and bent over. “You know what Americans say when they curse?” he asked, in French.
On his knees, the officer clipped the cuffs around the pastor’s wrists. “‘Pardon my French,’ they say.”
Thus bound, Gideon Dodd gave up fighting.
II. Chains of Gloomy Darkness
Gideon Dodd opened bleary, heavy eyes to find himself enveloped in blackness, a single sphere of red light swinging pendulum-like before him. Tightness squeezed him around the joints, the chest, his belly — suspended in the air, he rocked horizontally, at a slight tilt, his feet bent up over his head.
Fading in and out of the roving lamplight came a leering, creased face. Bobbing, scowling, came the Pope, as flotsam swishing and swaying in an undertow.
“Well, then,” he said, reaching up one arthritic claw, placing two dry fingertips to Dodd’s forehead. “You’re awake. With half an hour to go until the polls close. You will have time to draft a concession speech, after all.”
“Kids,” Dodd said. His throat sputtered like a rusted transmission. “James, Ellie. Where…?” A glass of water appeared next to the Pontiff’s solemn face. The rim bounced against Dodd’s lips as he turned away from the offering. “Where are my kids? Where’s— where’s Maria?”
“I’m right here, Gideon.”
A burst of light several yards ahead, to the right, and there was Maria, all right — head sagging heavily, hair covering her features like a curtain — taking a great stride away from the Tiffany lamp on a rickety old end table.
“I’m over the whole dungeon ambiance,” she said. “This feeling around in the dark is stupid.”
“Dungeon” just about did it justice: this room of cobblestone floors dusted with moss, of concrete block enclosures, a steady drip from overhead. It brought to mind old Gothic castles, the prisons of classic Russian literature, that damnable Harry Potter. The Pope, in all his glory, stood a foot in front of Dodd, with help from a gold-and-jewel-encrusted walker. To his side, one arm behind her back, the other brandishing a tall glass of water, was Mitzi. Even down here she kept her sunglasses on.
“Maria?” Dodd wrestled with his rope bindings, dangled and swung. “Maria, get out of here! Call for — nng! — call for help! Get to safety, get James and Ellie to safety. I’ll…”
But Maria was shaking her head, staring at the floor.
“Your reporter friend is quite safe,” the Pope said. “I told you, she is here as my guest, and we are conducting an interview.” His melted candle visage lifted the tiniest bit. “Your children, likewise, are in no danger. And neither are you, if you behave yourself.”
Dodd ignored him. “Maria…?”
“Mrs. Stenson here found something,” said the Pope, and he scooted a few inches over to block the preacher’s view of his friend. “Your boy showed it to her, actually. Upstairs, while you were grandstanding and making your exorbitant proclamations and empty promises. Empty, empty.”
The leak from above was ceaseless: drip, drip, drip.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria said. Now she stepped forward, carrying herself with her usual grace and confidence, but as she drew nearer Dodd saw something else in her gait, her posture. He thought of a few words for it: outrage, defiance, disillusionment.
“Tell you what?” the preacher asked.
Maria wrenched the glass from Mitzi’s hand. Some water pattered to the stone at her feet. She held it to his lips. “It’s fine,” she said. “Just tap water. C’mon, you need it.”
From where he hung, they weren’t quite eye-to-eye, her vantage a few inches higher so she had to look down upon his suspended form.
She pulled the glass away, half-empty.
“Midian Speculations?” she said. “Jesus, Gideon. That’s— that’s some lowdown huckster bullshit,” she said, “even for a billionaire who goes on TV every Sunday asking for donations to feed starving kids in the Sudan.”
Dodd saved the last bit of his current sip, let it soak into his tongue like a crusty sponge. “What are you talking about?” he said.
Maria’s lip trembled. She thrust the remaining water into the pastor’s face.
“The jig, I think, is up,” said the Pope.
From behind came a low rumble. Dodd wriggled, threatened, but soon enough all that appeared as an old tube television on a rolling stand. Mitzi pushed it front-and-center, right in Dodd’s view, and switched it on. Being a relic of the 1990s, it took a few minutes to warm up.
On a lower rack of the A/V cart sat a tin pie tray, its contents untouched save for one hole poked into the center.
“Would you like some American pie?” asked the old Vicar.
But Dodd didn’t have eyes for pie.
“What’s…?” he began, but the ancient set’s dull image had faded in enough to make out what — who— they were looking at. Dodd went mum. His boy, his James, was there on the TV. Below, a news network’s logo in the corner, the words “LIVE: GIDEON DODD’S SON SPEAKS OUT MOMENTS AFTER VATICAN TRAGEDY; VOTING CONTINUES.” Percentages (GOD 11%; G. DODD 89%) ticked by in the crawler.
Little skinny James was in the apse of St. Peter’s. A security crew, clad in black, darted to and fro all round him, handling a scene of dwindling pandemonium. Several stretchers, covered in bodies covered in blankets, were still being wheeled offstage behind Dodd’s son, whose mouth was moving soundlessly.
“Huh?” Dodd gasped. “I can’t hear anything! What’s he…?”
Mitzi jabbed a button and the sound of his son’s voice filled the room, bouncing off the old ruin walls.
“…responsibility to let the world’s population know before a final decision is made…”
The boy spoke in a stilted staccato, uncertain pronunciation of every other word, clearly reading from something off-camera. There was a well manicured hand on one of his shoulders, a familiar tallit draped behind. Rabbi Fauntleroy seemed to be coaching James through his television debut.
Dodd’s son had a very old Blackberry in his unsteady hand, the kind Roger used to carry around. In fact, it looked an awful lot like one of the doodads he and Roger had—
“My father’s church, for years, accepted donations from Mitten — uh, Midian — Speculations, a…. con-gommo-rat? Congle-mate?”
Offscreen, someone whispered: “Conglomerate.”
James nodded, trembling and wide-eyed. “A conglomerate founded by my uncle, then-Congressman Roger Bulkiss of Maryland.” He took a breath, rubbed one eye, looked up. He started, “This organization was only a…” His expression slackened; he blinked, hesitated, as if to ask, Do I have to?
The rabbi’s fingers inched closer to the boy’s neck, wiry-haired knuckles growing whiter. The same behind-camera vocal coach could be heard: “Go on, son,” and Dodd recognized the voice as Mormon President Marsten’s.
A tear spilled from one of James’s eyes and stuck to his cheek, sparkling.
“This organization was only a front for a gambling ring,” he went on in his monotone, halted read. “My uncle’s bookies took high-stakes bets regarding the… thee… theel?”
“Theological content of my father’s weekly sermons.” James hugged himself. “Bettors could stand to gain upwards of eight fingers — figures — eight figures if they could correctly predict the topic of a Gideon Dodd sermon, week to week.”
Fauntleroy nudged James out of frame with a violent push. Dodd twisted in his bonds. “Hey!” he shouted.
The rabbi leaned in so close to the camera that Dodd could count the blackheads on the bridge of his nose. Hamish wagged a finger, said: “Gideon Dodd colluded with his crooked politician brother-in-law — a known cocaine addict and amateur LSD manufacturer — to profit from these wagers!”
Bouncing in to join him came first Marsten’s gut, then the rest of him and his parrot, a few green feathers fluttering in his wake.
“Gideon Dodd purposely wrote and delivered hackneyed, trite sermons and profited millions!” he said. “We got the bank statements!” He waved a wad of crinkled papers, actually tipped the camera a bit with them. “Millions deposited in the guise of donations. Ha!”
Dodd chanced a quick look at Maria, who stood transfixed. Arms crossed, she chewed on her inner cheek, shaking her head.
On the news, Fauntleroy nodded, red-faced, beard dancing in angry expulsions of breath.
“And,” the rabbi said, “lest anyone consider the good reverend’s faultless ignorance as to what was really going on here —” He flung an arm off-screen, yanked James back into focus, and tugged the aged Blackberry out of his hand. He held it up, all cracked screen and rusty screws and dirt-caked buttons.
“He buried the evidence in his own backyard!”
Here’s where Dodd would have expected an audible gasp from the crowd, had this been a movie. So too, apparently, did Fauntleroy expect such an outburst, for he stood back, beaming, assessing the crowd in a warrior stance.
But the Vatican assembly was silent.
There was, however, one notable response to the holy men’s announcement, to James’s pained admission.
The numbers on the bottom of the screen were changing. Not like before. Really changing. Dodd read:
GOD — 27%
G. DODD — 69%
“Whoa,” he said.
Next, with the Mormon leader’s hand infuriatingly hovering between her shoulder blades, came Ellie. She had a stack of cards in hand; like father, like daughter. She read from them now, with no sign of the reticence or nerves of her brother.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Ellie Dodd. My daddy is running for the office of God Almighty. After what you just heard,” she flipped to a new card, flicked her eyes up into the camera, continued, “I hope you’ll reconsider your vote. I hope you’ll do the right thing, do your part, to keep God in Heaven where He should be.” Unlike James’s prepared statement, which seemed so odd coming out of the mouth of a pre-teen, Ellie’s words felt sincere, earnest.
They were clearly her own.
The numbers continued to alter drastically.
GOD — 41%
DODD — 52%
Dodd blew out a lungful of damp. A pair of hands wrapped around his ankles, spun him around like a piñata. Mitzi held him like that. The Pope was over here now, leaning into his gilded walker, studying his cuticles.
“Well, you see now, Mr. Dodd: Once again, the Church swoops in with answers at the eleventh hour.”
“I wish you hadn’t dragged my kiddos into this,” said Dodd.
The Pope’s mouth imploded, caving in on empty gums.
“Will you take that pie now?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry,” said Dodd.
“Hmm.” One slippered, slow step at a time the Pontiff slid closer. “Perhaps you do not deserve a treat,” he said. “Perhaps you should be admonished. What a shame. What a shame you are to those children. What a shame you are to the memory of you beloved wife.”
Down here, in the dank chill, radiator heat burst from within Dodd’s cheeks.
“All right,” Maria’s voice behind him, now. Mitzi let go, and Dodd spun — thought of twisting up the playground swings and letting his children fly; whee! He continued to swerve in diminishing arcs, seeing Maria, then the Pope, and again. “This James Bond scene is over. Can we cut him down? Or— wait.”
She reached back and slapped the preacher.
“Can we cut him down now?”
“I would prefer,” the Pope’s voice echoed, and Dodd felt the trace of a pruny finger on his bare heel, “to leave him as is to watch God’s triumph over the hubris of man.”
“Fine,” Maria said. “But I’m going. And if he isn’t upstairs five minutes after the election’s called, I’m calling the police.”
Dodd pushed on taut twine in a futile attempt to wave her down.
“Don’t go. Maria, don’t go.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t know where those donations were comin’ from. Was never part of any gamblin’ ring. I hate gamblin’. I don’t even know how to play poker.”
“Some American,” said Mitzi.
“Maria,” Dodd said. “Please. You have to believe me. I would never— I had no idea. Thought they were just donations. Big companies dump money into churches and write it off all the time. Why would I look into it?”
“Why indeed,” said the Pope.
Maria held up a finger. “I hardly think we need commentary from the guy with the golden walker, nine fingers covered in precious jewels, and a torture chamber bigger than my apartment complex.” She looked back to Gideon. “Go on,” she said. “You got five minutes.”
She meant that the election would be over in five minutes — or so, Dodd thought.
“So,” she said, “you didn’t know about Midian Speculations. Doesn’t explain why that Blackberry was planted in your garden, but, okay, fine. Let’s make that logical leap.” With another step she was looking down upon his helpless body again.
“The alternative to you working with Bulkiss on this idiotic scheme would be that your sermons were really so predictable and phoned in that gambling bookies could assign odds to them.”
Dodd closed his eyes.
“I had tiddlywinks,” he said.
“Tiddlywinks,” Dodd repeated. “The game. I had a board with words on it, y’know — ‘abortion,’ ‘fasting,’ ‘infidelity.’” He swallowed; they both turned away.
To the floor he added, “Every Saturday evening after dinner I’d play me a game of tiddlywinks. Flip a chip, see what word it landed on, and start writin’. By Sunday morning I’d have my sermon.”
At his feet, there was a stirring, the clanking of small metal parts. Maria would not be distracted: She was searching the preacher, peering down through his dilated irises to depths unknown.
“You always said God sent you those sermons,” she said. “‘Wrapped up in a tidy bow,’ you’d say. ‘From God’s lips to my ear.’”
“Maria.” Dodd’s voice dropped so low she had to lean in to hear what came next. “What the blue blazes you think all this’s been about? God ain’t ever talked to me. God ain’t ever talked to nobody.”
“A piece of burnt toast don’t count!” This he yelled, and it bounced off the walls, repeating itself like Marsten’s odious mockingbird.
“What are you saying?” But the way her eyebrow arched, he knew she knew. She just wanted him to say it.
He inhaled — an indignant sniff.
“I only ran for God so He’d talk to me.”
She stepped back. “Then you didn’t…?”
In his coiling ropes, he shrugged. “I don’t know.”
With a raptor-like jerk, she looked over her shoulder at the television. Dodd peeped up, too.
GOD — 49%
G. DODD — 49%
“Shit,” said Maria.
“Language,” Dodd said.
“I really believed in you.”
“Well. I really believed in Him. Once.”
The reporter took the reverend’s hand, as well as she could, which is to say she squeezed the tips of his snared digits.
“You’re the only friend I got,” he said.
“It’s true. I abandoned Ray. My kids hate me — you saw that much.” He wiggled his fingers in her grip. “Mal I kinda liked, but I reckon he’s dead.”
“All right.” All-ah riiight-ah.
The Pope, his servant steering him like a toddler’s toy lawnmower, wheeled and shuffled around them. “It is time, I think, to go upstairs.”
A relieved smile swept Dodd’s face. “Oh, thank goodness.”
“Not you,” said His Holiness. “I meant myself. I would be remiss not to address the events unfolding up there.” The cobweb flesh under his chin flapped. “Such senseless acts of disgusting violence. Their faith shaken in the candidate they hoped would bring about change. Someone must assure them: Change is best digested in small, slow doses.”
“I’ll be back, Gideon,” Maria said, and with another small squeeze she released his phalanges.
“Oh, no, Mrs. Stenson,” said the Pope. “No, I think you will be staying down here, as well.”
In her surprise, Maria failed to dodge Driver Mitzi’s stern grab. The papal guard swung a pair of old, rusted cuffs around Dodd’s primary suspension rope, clamped them shut around the reporter’s wrists so she was locked into place, nose-to-nose with the preacher.
“Hey!” she said. “Hey, what is this? You promised me a story!”
“And what a story it is,” the Pope said, scooting toward the limestone stairwell. “A hidden lair beneath Vatican City, a relic of the Inquisition — still in active use by the current Head of the Church!” He clucked his tongue. “What a story indeed. I don’t believe I prefer for it to be widely known.”
Mitzi scooped him up, walker and all, and scaled the stairs. Halfway up, he called down to them. “We will have to decide what to do with you after tonight’s Holy Victory. You may wish to get comfortable here.”
The door that shut behind them didn’t creak or squeal on metal hinges; it grumbled tectonically, stone grinding on stone.
Basked in lamplight and boob-tube ozone, Dodd bent his head to see over Maria’s shoulder. Airing now was live footage of the rabbi and the Mormon taking his children’s hands and leading them offstage.
The ticker read, “POPE TO ADDRESS VOTERS AT ST. PETER’S.”
Just above that: GOD — 52% G. DODD — 44%
“I’m sorry, Maria,” he said.
Her sighed reply danced in the bristles of his mustache.
“You know,” she said, “I could be covering the People’s Choice Awards right now. And back when I interviewed your wife, when I crashed Bulkiss’s stupid party, you know where I was supposed to be?
“People’s Fucking Choice Awards.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dodd.
“They’re probably handing the latest Transformers a ‘Best Picture’ trophy right now.” Her forehead briefly brushed against Dodd’s chest. For just a second she used him for support. “Maybe I’m better off here. But Gideon, you know, I think maybe I finally followed you to the end of the road. So — you fat old phony — thanks for inviting me to a lifetime of imprisonment with you, I guess. If they grant us life at all.”
“I didn’t invite you,” said Dodd. “The Pope did. You don’t cover Gideon Dodd anymore, remember?”
“Actually, the Pope’s people didn’t arrange the interview. That was your man Kratz—”
“Kratz!” Dodd jostled, sending a Jello-like ripple through the two-person 7-shape strapped from the cavern ceiling.
“That asshole,” Maria said. “What about him?”
“Maria! Can you tweep?”
“Like a twit. Like on the cell phone?”
“Yeah! Can you?”
“Uh, sure,” she said. “What, you want me to live tweet our execution?”
“No.” Dodd jerked and twisted in his bonds, once or twice jabbing Maria in the nose with his brow. They bobbed and hopped from the cable (like when Ellie would swing too high and the chains would give her a little thrill hop).
“What are you—“
“Tryin’ to — sorry! — get my big butt up so you can reach it.”
“Back pocket,” Dodd said. “My phone. The one Kratz’s been usin’ as me, anyway. He said we could use that Twitter to call him.”
Cheek smooshed against his, Maria, muffled, said: “Why not just call him?”
“Do you know his phone number?”
“You mean it’s not 1-800-DEADEYED-CREEPO?” She managed, just, to slip two fingers into Dodd’s trouser pocket. She pinched the mobile between them, making sure she had a decent grip.
“Too many digits,” Dodd said. “Anyway he said use that Twitter. Last thing he said to me. Only—”
“Only what?” She had it now. Her handcuffed arms, locked into place around the preacher’s torso, held the phone up in the air behind his head. Bending, she looked around him, squinted in the dim light to find and open the Twitter application.
“Only I told him he can’t come to Heaven with me if I win,” Dodd said. “Hope he ain’t too sore at me.”
“Yeah, well.” Maria touched the pen-and-quill icon, tapped out:
“@Sauer_Kratz: Locked in #CatholicDungeon by @PopeOfThePeople. Under sanctuary. #SOS”
“You’re really winning hearts and minds today, aren’t you, Father?” She tucked the phone into his belt, where it would be easier to reach.
“You keep saying that, but I don’t think you know what you’re sorry about.” There was new pressure on the pastor’s midriff as she slumped a little. “Anyway, it might not matter anyway. Service down here’s for crap.”
On the television, a commercial came on — something about homeowner’s insurance, something about “Acts of God.”
“D’you want to hear the Pope’s address? Keep watching the numbers come in?” Maria asked.
With surprising poise and a marksman’s aim, she flung up one leg, sending a wedge shoe flying behind her — smashing right into the TV’s on/off switch.
“Now what?” the preacher asked.
The journalist lifted all of her weight from the hanging pastor — stood on her own two legs.
“Can I think about that?” she said.
III. Go Into Your Room and Shut the Door and Pray to Your Father
“You can get out of this, Gideon.”
Seven days after the death of Tamara Dodd, the preacher was back in Baltimore. His room was white, his gown was white, patches of his hair and beard had turned white. He sat at the window, staring up into the nightly void.
In Baltimore there were no stars.
“Gid? You hear me? You can whip this. You can pull out.”
Raymond Wachstetter’s squat, gourd-like body perched upon the foot of the bed, hands clasped into a ball upon which his chin rested. Every move the preacher made (there were few), Wachstetter followed with adroit, attentive eyes.
“C’mon, buddy,” he said. “You Dodds. You mean the world to me. I think of ya’, always thought of Tammy, like you were my own family.” He sniffed. “What happened was… Sheesh. I don’t even know. But you can pull outta this, pal. I’m rootin’ for you. I’m prayin’ for you.”
At this, Gideon Dodd’s spine went ramrod. Swiveling at his taut neck, his face appeared to Ray in profile.
“Prayin’?” he said. His forehead hit the window with a thump. “I been prayin’.” Glued to the glass, he spoke, and a cloud appeared on the pane, throbbing in the way a heart does — to a point.
“Gideon.” Ray stood, made to scoop his friend up in a brotherly hug. But the preacher’s visible eye went into a letterbox warning. Ray stopped.
“I prayed for Tamara back, at first.” Gideon re-glued his head to the window. “But I come to my senses. Asking too much.” He raised his arms, plastered his palms overhead. “So next I asked God for answers. ‘Just make me understand,’ that was my prayer. Still nothin’.
“So I thought, ‘okay, maybe I ain’t askin’ right.’ And next I prayed for peace. Just — just to be all right with it. And you know what happened?”
Wachstetter shook his head, but his boss and friend didn’t see.
“Nothing happened, Ray.”
“Er— would you like to sit down, Gid?” Ray smoothed his buttocks imprint from the bed sheets.
“Look on the nightstand, there.”
It was nicked and warped where coasters hadn’t been used. The only thing on its grimy surface was—
“That a tooth?” Ray asked.
“It’s all they could find of her,” said Gideon Dodd, without looking round. “And still He’s ignorin’ me. Even Job got a heart-to-heart eventually. But I guess I’m chopped liver, Ray.” He sunk an inch closer to the ground.
“Ray,” he said, “Who is it’s preachin’ up at my church again?”
“You mean your church? The one you built?”
“Uh, that’d be Bill Gross. That Christian financial advisor. He gets good ratings for the network. Why? D’you want to—”
“Fire him,” said Dodd.
Now he did turn around, and Ray saw his old pal’s face for the first time since he’d returned from Europe. Dodd thought this must be what it’s like to be a monster — to look a man in the eye and get that expression back. To see goosebumps pop up on his arms and watch him take a step away without realizing it.
Well. He felt a little like a monster, so that was okay.
“I’m comin’ back,” said Dodd. “Sunday.”
Wachstetter pantomimed washing his hands. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he said. “I mean, there’s no r—”
“Sunday,” said the reverend, the widower.
“Oh.” The preacher’s manager sat back down on the bed. He played with his orange necktie, the one Gideon hated but would never say so. “I’m sure I can arrange that. I think people will be— uh, pleased to see you back at it so quickly.”
“I have plenty to say.”
“You know, um.” Ray scratched his chest, watched the wrinkles on his shirt wad and smooth. “Maybe you’d like to see the twins,” he said. “They’re outside waiting. Only you haven’t talked to them since you got back. I think it would be good for you. All of you.”
“I can’t,” said the preacher. He stepped toward the nightstand, flung a drawer open, and got out a pad and pen. “Have to get to writin’.” He turned an eye to his employee, his buddy. “What’s the name of that school Ta— What’s that school we were lookin’ at?”
“You mean St. Vitus Preparatory Academy.”
“Right.” The man of God pointed the clicker of his pen at the tip of Ray’s nose. “Get hold of them, would you? James and Ellie can still make the spring semester if we don’t dawdle.”
Ray folded his hands in his lap.
“Gideon?” he said.
Gideon was already cross-legged on the visitor’s chair, scribbling on his notepad. “What?”
“I love you, buddy.”
Out in the hall, someone screamed.
Ray put his clasped mitts to his forehead.
“Do you mind if I pray?”
The scratching sound of pen-to-paper ceased. Dodd’s eyes floated upward, consumed by his falling brow.
“What on Earth for?” he said.
IV. All His Adversaries Were Put to Shame
“Gideon—” In the papal dungeon, Maria Stenson spoke in the hushed, thrilled flavor of clandestine urgency. “My handcuffs. They just— they just snapped. They broke.” She fanned her free arms around Gideon’s head. “See?”
The preacher nodded, still hanging like a two-bit Peter Pan stuntman. “That’s good. Good work.”
“I didn’t do anything.” She rubbed her wrists, the jingling cuff artifacts transformed to new jewelry. “It’s a miracle.”
“Maria— please.” In the endless recesses of the cavern, that incessant water drip carried on: plip, plip, plip. “Both of us shouldn’t die.” Dodd looked the journalist dead-on, puffy sacks of exhaustion trembling under each peeper. “Go find James and Ellie. Get ‘em out of here.”
She fumbled half-heartedly with his bindings. “Well, lemme get you out of these—”
“Might not be time.” Dodd jerked a shoulder, rocking a little. “Just go. Send for help when you’re safe. When my kids’re safe.”
“If it is a miracle, it’s your miracle. So take it.” He bared his teeth; Maria almost laughed at his attempted tough-guy sneer. But laughter didn’t come easy down here.
The reporter shook her head, but what she said was: “Okay. Okay, yeah.” To leave, she did not turn around and run. She walked backwards, watching her friend hang there, helpless, lifeless, a sandbag from the theater rafters. “You know I’m coming back for you.”
“Sure,” said Gideon. “Sure, you are. I know it.” And he smiled back at her. It was the smile he’d smiled a thousand thousand times — on stage, on camera, on book covers. It was the smile he used to make when he spoke of God, when he bragged about the direct line he had to God’s heavenly ear; it was his prophet’s smile.
When he was finished lying, the endless dripping ceased. The chamber filled with thick, sludgy silence. The television set stirred, inexplicably, from its hibernation and switched on of its own apparent volition. This time, it did not display a feed from the news network, or give any hint as to Dodd’s standing in the election tallies. Instead it flashed loud blasts and image bursts of a sort of theme:
Terrible images. Little bodies in war-torn deserts. Black-and-white footage of human beings marching into gas chambers. Dog fights. An excerpt from Caligula, a really nasty one.
Dodd averted his eyes. Maria, halfway up the stairwell to freedom, paused a moment to soak it all in — in the toxic glow of the RCA display, she looked ill.
Lions tearing the throats from beautiful gazelles. Warlords putting automatic rifles in the hands of eight-year-old boys. A KKK rally. Mel Gibson accepting an Oscar.
“What on Earth?” Dodd closed his eyes. “Maria, go. Go!”
Maria left. Dodd expected to her to say something else, or send a comforting farewell message echoing down the stone balustrade. She didn’t. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The door scraped open and ground shut behind her.
The emptiness, the loneliness in her absence was unlike any Dodd had experienced. Even the steady drip had left him. In this abysmal quiet, the television continued flickering its vile and hateful images, so he had to close his eyes and complete the sensation of no sensation. No sight. No sound. Only the cruel pinching of the ropes to remind him he was alive, he existed, he was somewhere on God’s Green Earth.
This went on a long time.
Maria would certainly have had ample time to free him of his binds. They could have left together.
When the door groaned open again, many long minutes later, it was not Maria’s promised rescue that stepped through. It was the Pope, and Mitzi. It was the Mormon President Marsten, it was Rabbi Hamish Fauntleroy that came calling. It was Benjamin Dunwoodie.
In other words, it was not salvation of any kind for Gideon Dodd.
“Ah, Reverend Dodd,” the Pope called down the stone steps, a nonagenarian babe-in-arms held to his stolid driver’s breast. Between every labored word he spoke, Mitzi’s shoe went clack on the stairs. “You—clack—missed—clack—quite—clack—a speech—clack—up there.”
Now they were in the basement, the lot of them — the Vicar’s coterie of spiritual blackmailers, a mass of bobbing shadows blotting whatever minimal light attempted to peer through from above.
“Pride being a cardinal sin, I am loath to extoll my own considerable virtues,” the Pontiff said, “but — fact being fact — I believe my little address may have, effectively, swayed the outcome of tonight’s election for good.” The shadowed, many-headed blob lurched forward. “Yes, if ever you truly stood a chance of winning, I think that we can confidently dismiss it in light of— oh, what is that?”
For now they had submerged deeply enough into this mildewed warren to make note of the flickering television screen, its disturbing slideshow of vice and violence. Their horrified, offended faces bent cartoonishly in the broadcast’s glow.
“Disgusting,” said Fauntleroy — a young man was clamping electrodes to his genitals, a red ball-gag stuffed into his mouth.
“What’re you watchin’?” Marsten asked. His parrot beat wings and squawked as its master lunged to prod the set’s power button. He tapped it, again and again, grunting softly. The images remained, flashing in five-second intervals.
“Dodd.” The Pope panted. His bodyguard thrust him forward by the armpits, forehead to forehead with the American. “Where is the reporter?”
The preacher half-sighed, half-chortled: “She’s gone.”
The old man’s eyes devolved into yellow buckeyes.
“I don’t like this,” said Dunwoodie, wheedling, bouncing. “You saw what that Going Clear documentary did to the Scientologists. The Boston Globe and you Catholics. She could really mess this up for us.”
“What’s done is done,” the Pope said. “What’s lost—” here he patted the preacher on the head, “is lost.”
But all the same, his breathing was faster, more troubled. His head flitted and jerked like a chicken’s on that crackling neck of his. Crispy popping fingers fed themselves through Dodd’s tight curls and tugged.
“Where did she go?” he said. “We will not hurt her. No need. We have already won. But we can help her. Help her get home. Help her return to a normal life. We just need you to tell us where she went.”
“Don’t know,” said Dodd.
Each man, neither one touching the ground, stared deeply into the other’s eyes.
“We will see,” said the Pope. He turned, as much as he could. “Mr. Marsten, will you turn that infernal drivel off?”
“I can’t!” said Marsten. “The button’s jammed or somethin’.”
“Somethin’,” his bird said.
“Oh, you fat schlemiel,” the rabbi said. He crouched down to wind the TV cord around his hand and tug.
The plug flew free from the outlet with a tiny spark.
The TV kept playing.
Horrific, awful things.
Such terrible things.
“I don’t understand,” Fauntleroy said.
After a second’s light buzzing, the desk lamp Maria had first switched on fizzled out. Next moment, there was a gaseous whoosh, and the swinging little flambeau snuffed it, leaving behind a faint sulfuric stink.
The only source of light was the television.
Its flickering clip show carried on. Dodd gasped at the freshest scene now underway — in revulsion, yes, but with undertones of that very human “Hey, I know that guy!” knee-jerk.
“What the…?” Dunwoodie said.
For it was him on the screen. Dunwoodie. A bit younger, but oh yes — no mistaking the kid’s dumbfounded O mouth, his tiny bottom teeth popping out, his flaking nostrils. In the flashing footage, the kid’s pants were lowered to his calves, his overlong white dress shirt covering him like a cocktail dress. His face shone brilliant red as, with a damp cloth, he scrubbed the insides of his dropped drawers.
“How?” the real Dunwoodie said.
On TV, the door flew open and two middle-aged women entered, mid-conversation, freezing and pointing and shouting at poor soiled Benny.
The young Jehovah’s Witness turned to Dodd, said, “Stop it.”
Dodd shook his head, powerless. He kept watching the broadcast; one of the women tugged the cloth from the kid and commandeered the cleanup process between his thighs.
“Stop it!” Dunwoodie shouted, just as his wide-eyed onscreen self’s long shirttail began to lift, making a tiny Halloween ghost.
The scene changed. Now Marsten was the star. The real Marsten grunted an interrogative and took a step back, shaking his head. The group watched in silence: Marsten was on a Southern porch — swing and sweet tea and all — and had the same green bird cupped to his sternum, a look of rage in his eye and a fat tabby at his feet. He stamped repeatedly on the cat’s paws, and when it yowled and made to dash, he ground his heel on its tail, pinning it in place — smiling.
“Damn thing tried to take a bite outta Boogie,” Marsten-in-the-flesh said. More quietly: “Or I bet it woulda’.”
With a bright burst the scene changed again: Fauntleroy in bed between two women, another man climbing in with them. The real Fauntleroy said nothing; he’d turned his back before it was his turn.
Another flicker, another image. Here was the Pope, probably twenty years younger and — Dodd choked — sidling his way down a row of extended arms, the bodies to which they were attached obscured in darkness. One by one His Holiness bit a finger on each proffered hand to draw blood as he progressed. A few of them severed, falling chunks of flesh dropping to the ground or dangling by tendons.
There was a sound like tearing giftwrap as the Pontiff licked his lips and signaled Mitzi to bring him closer to the screen. He reached up, pressing fingertips to the glass. Dodd saw the old man’s shoulders draw together, one toe prodding Mitzi in the knee. She stepped back. He waggled a thumb toward the set.
“That isn’t real,” said the Pope. “Tinseltown trickery, it must be.” He looked to his compatriots. “None of yours were real, were they?”
All the men shook their heads at a sloth’s pace.
“‘Courze dot,” Dunwoodie said, knuckle to his septum. He was bleeding again.
Its job done, the TV set switched off with a nostalgic boob-tube whine. Now all was blackness. Dodd blinked and could tell no difference.
“Mitzi,” the Pope said, “flashlight.”
There was some clicking, some smacking of plastic to palm. Mitzi’s voice: “It’s dead.”
One of the men grumbled. Another whimpered.
Someone not human.
A low, mad canine rumble rose from some other, unknown, more profound depths. It lifted, echoing to confounding effect, and Dodd saw for the briefest moment two tiny red balls of light, dashing forward in the dark and out of sight in a blink.
My hero, he thought, and grimaced to brace himself.
Marsten cried out first — a guttural clipping yelp, cut short. For a moment, there was a light fluttering of feathers and a squawking facsimile of Marsten’s own holler. That, too, had its abrupt, hollow end.
Next Dodd recognized the whiny screech of Fauntleroy, the sound of cloth tearing, the beating of flesh on flesh (a la a boxing match, a street brawl). More growling, snarling — a bark so clear and fierce it breached unreality.
A wet smacking. Scuttling, panting — Dunwoodie’s clogged yowl from a surprising distance.
Dodd’s pulse throbbed at his jawline. Suspended and fidgeting, he dangled and bopped like the tooth around his own neck. Melded with the sounds of his own labored breathing there was moaning, sniffling, soggy chewing.
The gas lamp relit itself. Ridiculously Dodd remembered trick birthday candles — Ellie laughing, James scowling — and he was bathed again in dim amber. The flame was too weak to tell his eyes the whole story, and that was a mercy. Here was Marsten’s twitching loafer, there was Fauntleroy’s grasping shiny hand. A white exclamation mark bounced far away, where the moss was thicker and the smell was worse. Wagging. A very happy dog’s tail catching the light, just so.
Before him, knees pressed to stone, Mitzi cowered. The Pope clung to her and sucked on her thumb.
He lifted his head upon realizing light had returned.
“What did you do?” he asked.
Dodd blinked. “Nothin’.” It took incredible concentration now just for him to breathe. “Not me. Couldn’t. Not that.” An acidic bubble burst in his throat, singed his tonsils.
“Can I get down?” he asked.
But His Holiness wasn’t listening. Into Mitzi’s ear, the Pontiff breathed. “Well, kill it!”
Mitzi nodded, delicately placed her charge on the floor where he curled up into a withered apostrophe. The driver dipped her chin toward the preacher, as if to apologize for something totally beyond her control. A sure hand reached for the firearm at her waist, unclipped the holster, raised the weapon. She spun around.
She did all this just in time to be tackled by a massive, howling black shadow.
A scream tore her vocal cords to tatters, and she fired. Deafening pops — Dodd was surprised they were pops, not bangs — ricocheted along with their bullet partners as Mitzi roared and fired into the air, fired at stone, fired up into the hole that had produced Gideon Dodd and spat him out.
She fired at Gideon Dodd himself.
Hit him right in the chest.
A set of sharp fangs, propelled by spring-loaded mandibles, sunk into the driver’s throat and she screamed no more.
Trussed up as he was, Dodd couldn’t reach up and touch the space below his heart where he knew a gunshot had penetrated him. He would have liked to, because it was so very odd that he should feel that stinging instant of white-hot impact and now, to not only still be alive — but to feel no wetness spreading there, or any pain at all, really.
He worked himself up to open his eyes. There was a lot he thought he might see that he’d rather not: A pool of blood below him. A calf-sized dog and its latest meal.
What he saw was no less unpleasant than those things, but it wasn’t expected.
The Pope was kneeling, mirrored hands and fingers pressed together. (In fact he was using a lifeless Mitzi’s arm as his kneeler, whether he knew it or not; she was subservient even in death.) The old man rocked, muttering in Latin.
“Are you praying?” Dodd asked.
The Vicar’s chin creaked upward, eyelids hoisting a hefty cargo. His mouth dropped open. He breathed in.
“To you,” he said.
He pointed up a swirling, unsteady finger. Dodd did his best to follow with his eyes. Unhappily he looked down at his chest. He saw frayed, singed material there, but the flesh underneath was soft, hairless, unharmed.
“I don’t understand,” Dodd said. “I was shot?”
His Holiness nodded.
“And— I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Why didn’t it kill me? Get up.” Even Dodd jumped a little at the harshness of his last two words, the fireworks-burst quality of them.
The Pope got up.
“Why didn’t it kill me?” Dodd asked again.
“Because you can’t kill God,” someone — not the Pontiff — answered. Every light in the joint lit up — candles, lamps, even Mitzi’s flashlight, hanging from the pants pocket of her tossed-and-crumpled body.
As Dodd’s eyes stung in reflexive adjustment, he reran those words in his head, those words in that well-known and not-well-liked voice. You can’t kill God.
Trails of light wormed and tickered in his periphery. At the far unlit end of the chamber there tiptoed Kratz, stepping with care over the bodies of Dunwoodie, Fauntleroy, Marsten. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of a more characteristic, royal-blue windbreaker jumpsuit. His head shook at each new discovery of the fallout from his pet’s earlier arrival. Oh, you scamp, he seemed to be thinking.
Kratz looked up and grinned at Dodd.
“Yep,” he said, and flicked a trigger-finger at the preacher. “They just called it.” He squatted next to Mitzi’s fallen form and the still-feasting hound, scratched the latter behind the ears without breaking his gaze. “I hesitate to say ‘landslide,’ but you won.
Dodd’s lungs emptied. Every drop of moisture in his mouth evaporated. He hung there, unthinking, all five senses offline. Prostrate, the Pope looked around at Kratz, who was at this moment munching a fresh-cut slice of papal apple pie.
Through a mouthful, Kratz said, “Y’know,” and stirred a pointer. He swallowed. “Good pie. Y’know, Eve didn’t really ever eat an apple? Bible says ‘fruit,’ just ‘fruit.’ That’s one vaguely-phrased book. Who’s to say it was an apple? How ‘bout an orange, an avocado, a dragonfruit? Is that not fucked up?”
The once-again victorious campaign manager smacked the air and said “Ah, forget it.” He proceeded to whistle something jolly, bent to snag the handgun lying on Mitzi’s soaked dress shirt. He wiped the butt on her sleeve and slid his finger through the trigger guard, giving a shudder of pleasure as he did so.
“Nice place you got here,” he said to the Pope. His arm stiffened to a beam, the barrel consumed by the vortex of loose, spotted skin sagging off the Bishop’s temple.
Dodd belched two words: “Lucky. Don’t”
Kratz’s black eyelashes flapped. Draculan canines roosted bat-like from his thin lips. With a dismissive sneer he stowed the gun and kneed the Pope in the back.
“Thought I asked you nicely,” he said, giving the old man another little prod with his toe — just for fun — “to never call me Lucky.”
Blank, empty, Dodd only stared back.
“Okay,” Kratz said. “Okay.” The more he nodded the less convincing it became. Head bobbing, he came around to Dodd’s ankles, slipped loose the knot of a single rope, and inhaled. “Okay,” he said again, and came back over to the trembling, petrified Pope to hogtie him.
Snared now, the Pope swirled his noggin in unsteady circles on the way up to gaze at Dodd. “Please forgive me my trespasses, Mr. Dodd,” he said. “Long may you reign.”
Kratz spat a derisive puh and made a vulgar hand gesture. The dog, slopping its dripping jowls, abandoned its half-finished feast and sniffed the Vicar’s bald spot; a wet puddle formed beneath the old man as he fainted. The canine, perhaps disinterested in a meal without any fight in it, stepped away to lift its leg against the nearby wall before spinning down into a serene curlicue.
Kratz’s legs formed a long V over the shriveled Pontiff. He took his client by the shoulders to steady him.
“Well,” he said, “you feel any different?”
Considering this, Dodd did a mental scan of his body from horizontal head to toe. He paddled his freshly freed ankles and feet, pushed against the snug bindings still wrapped around the rest of him.
“I don’t feel anything,” he said. “Numb, like.”
“Adrenaline, I guess. Or shock. Got fuckin’ nasty for a minute there, huh?” Kratz lifted a dripping sneaker and sucked a cheek. “Sorry about the mess,” he said, “but you did say ‘SOS.’”
“I didn’t ask for this!” Dodd said. “I-I thought you’d call the cops. You weren’t gonna come in the— in the church! I thought…” He gagged, bit down on his tongue. “Oh, lordy,” he said. “Oh, lordy-lord. You shouldn’t be here.”
“I do avoid the sanctuary whenever possible,” Kratz said and shrugged. “Especially in Catholic churches — heebie-jeebie town. But this is no sanctuary. Some pretty bad shit’s gone on down here, pappy.” He tipped an invisible hat. “Worse than anything you saw tonight, trust me.”
Dodd swallowed. If he spoke, he assumed he would be sick — and anyway he didn’t know what he could say at this point.
“C’mon,” Kratz said, and pulled the gun again to become an extra from a gangster drama. “You’ve got an acceptance speech to give. If we get you cleaned up fast, you might still make it to the balloon drop.” He tussled his hair with the barrel and flashed his sweetest smile. “And— maybe there’s a little surprise up there for you, a little group of real cool guys just… livin’ on a prayer?”
He fired the gun but once, though the shot rang out two dozen times. By the time it quieted, Dodd’s ears were ringing so much it didn’t make a difference.
Rather late, he understood he was now on the floor. This numbness was all-consuming. It took much too long to realize Kratz had shot the rope holding him up; even longer to see and sense that Kratz was dragging him by the severed cord along the cobbled, cracked floor.
He lay, sarcophagus-like, staring up, and his public relations man pulled him along.
The dog looked up from its nap, curious.
“Bleibe,” Kratz said. The mutt barked once and curled up again.
“I don’t want this,” Dodd said.
Kratz kept dragging.
“I don’t think I want this,” Dodd said.
“You are one heavy bastard, you know that?” Kratz heaved and grunted, pounding Dodd’s vulnerable head against the base of a set of stairs Dodd hadn’t noticed before, beginning in a dingy alcove. Up they went, a fresh knock to the noggin for every step.
“Can you — oof — untie me?” Dodd asked.
“You still planning to toss me out on my ass?”
“You just killed — buh!” That one got him good. “Just killed four people and almost shot the Pope in the head. Yes, I’m going to — hey! — fire you.”
“Hrm.” Kratz wheeled around on the halfway-point step. Teeth gnashing, he hoisted the pastor up with both hands gripping his frayed leash. He looked Dodd up and down, wrapped up in his cocoon. “You know, of course, if you accept the election, and the Old God concedes, you could theoretically just snap your fingers and make it so those assholes never died — right?”
Dodd’s pupils dilated to pinholes.
“Yeah,” Kratz said, “I think I like you better tied up like this.”
V. For Even Satan Disguises Himself
Confetti and balloons had replaced oxygen in the atmosphere of St. Peter’s Square. Dodd breathed it, spat out tiny shreds of damp tissue, blowing to disperse the stuff in a futile attempt to see below.
His wrists throbbed; his ankles were swollen. So feeling had returned to his body — now contorted into a human asterisk, strapped to one of the church bells of the Basilica, some hundreds of feet above the Square and solid ground. Somewhere far below, dampened by the soup of party favors, he could hear the closing refrain of “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Kratz stood on the concrete outcrop of the tower’s open-air window, shirtless. Cackling, he leapt and grabbed onto the bell’s cable like a gym rope, unbound by gravity, swinging and swinging.
The bell rang two, three, four times. The vibration turned Dodd’s spine to jelly; the sound made mush of his eardrums.
How did I get here? he thought. It wasn’t merely existential; he had no memory of being carried up to the bell tower, or nothing that felt like memory — more a dream. In the dream four men, all of whom looked exactly like Mal, had carried up him here, strung him up to the massive bell, and sent down a rickety helicopter ladder for Kratz.
Now Kratz, doing his best Tarzan, half-naked and suspended from a Catholic vine, spoke into a bullhorn. The result was much louder than Dodd suspected any megaphone capable of; louder, in fact, than the bell-ringing.
“Ladies and germs!” Kratz bellowed, the sound waves cutting through floating paper. “Today your voice was heard! Today marks the single biggest event in the course of infinity! Give yourselves a pat on the back!”
Dodd heard cheering from below, from this distance registering more as a cicada swarm-song.
“In five minutes, your new Lord and Savior will make his acceptance speech.” Kratz said, the wind whipping his hair, his ribs countable. “That’s plenty time to hit the can or get a wine! Meanwhile, how about another song by Mr. Jon— Bon— Jovi?”
The locust whine crept back up to Dodd’s ears and nested there. Kratz dropped his megaphone down the long, long drop beneath the old bell and let go of the rope. He landed with the grace of a cat on the small ledge overlooking a thin, jagged descent of plank stairs and a certain death drop.
“You hear that?” he said, turning around to assess his captive. “You got five minutes to draft a speech. But you’ve bullshitted your way through an address with even less prep time, am I right?” He squatted and sat, letting his legs dangle over the open mouth of the inner tower. He looked ridiculous, thin and sinewy and pale — the last boy picked for the basketball team. To accentuate this, the loud burst of swirling colors framed behind him made the white of his flesh all the more inhuman.
“Can I come down then?” Dodd asked, not hearing his own voice. “To speak?”
“Uh-uh.” Kratz wagged a finger. “Here’s when you come down, Padre: When you accept your new role as God of the Heavens and the Earth — and publicly state and vow that I will serve you as Archangel and Advisor Eternal. That last one I just made up. Sounds neat, though, right?
“Then,” he said, “I cut you down, grab on tight, and we float on up to Heaven.”
It would have been easy, Dodd thought, to simply lie and agree to these terms and then make a speech of a wholly other variety.
Except Lucky Kratz seemed to be quite adept at telling and detecting lies.
So instead he said, “If I did accept, Ray Wachstetter’d be my Advisor Eternal, whatever that means. Like I already told you.”
“You fucking dunce!” Kratz’s shout bounced around the inside of the bell, sending tickle-waves down Dodd’s buttocks and thighs. “Ray Wachstetter’s dead! Ray Wachstetter’s been dead. He’s fertilizer on some dickhead’s lawn back in the States!”
“What?” he said.
“Are you that dense?” Kratz leaned and knocked on the rim of the bell; it whined at Dodd’s heels. “That halfwit was dragging us down. With him around all you were good for was pining after the past, crying into your pillow every night about dear Tamara. He had to go. You gave me the go-ahead.” He pounded his sunken chest. “I went ahead.”
“You…” A sliver of confetti sucked up into Dodd’s nostril and he coughed. “You… Fed my best friend to your dog?”
“Again,” Kratz peeled back his lips to the gums. “When you take the Throne you can do anything — anything. Bring back Wachstetter. Bring back Tamara. See if I give a shit.”
“Don’t say her name.”
“But you don’t take office without me. If you don’t appoint me in—” he checked his watch “—three and a half minutes, I’m cutting that bell down and letting you drop.”
“I thought God couldn’t die,” said Dodd.
“You want to test it?”
Dodd pinched one eye shut with a cheek. “Who are you?” he said. “What kind of a man are you?”
“I’m the kind of man that gets shit done.” Kratz hopped to his feet, chest filling and falling, arms out and legs bandied on the tower outlook’s rim. “I’m the kind of man who delivers. I see the change the world needs, the secret greasy desires of men and women, and I make it a goddamn reality.”
Now he was having fun. Arms aloft, he walked the thin chunk of concrete like a balance beam — and with equal Olympic flair.
“I’m the kind of man that put the knife in Brutus’s hand. The kind of man who sold Lincoln tickets to Our American Cousin, who lured plague rats onto westbound ships with a chunk of muenster.”
He took a bow. “And you’re gonna thank me, over and over, when we’re working together, Pappy.”
The preacher flexed every muscle he had — even those he hadn’t known how to flex.
“You’re the devil,” he said.
Kratz tilted his head with canine consideration. The thin hair around his mouth ticked. Unable to contain himself, he burst into a shaking fit of laughter, clutching his sides.
“Oh!” he said. “Oh, you!” He waved a hand as if signaling a driver to go on ahead at the four-way. “You think I—” he fought through a fresh fit of cackles. “You really think that highly of me?” He held the sides of his face, collecting himself. “Dodd. Doddly. Dodderino.”
He sighed. “Can I ask you something?” he said. “Whose name was on the ballot opposite that of Yahweh Himself? Who debated the Creator on international television multiple times? Who ran attack ads and asked the sinners of the world to help him take the Holy Ghost down a few pegs?”
He pointed an overgrown fingernail at the pastor.
“I’m not the devil, Mr. Dodd.
While Dodd sputtered and grunted an inarticulate protest, Kratz waited — scratched at an armpit, examined the undersides of his nails, bit down on one. After about two minutes, the preacher, having made no point or rebuttal in any known language, gave up arguing.
Kratz looked down the tower interior.
“Oh, dear,” he said, “It’s speechy time and I dropped our bullhorn, didn’t I?”
He snapped his fingers. “Ah, who’m I kidding? Guy like you — you can project!”
TO BE CONCLUDED.