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ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


Chapter Five

 

April, Year 1 A.E.

 

"We're going to try and find this boy's people," Alston's voice said through the earphones. "We have a few words of his language, and presumably there'll be a goodwill factor for handing him back."

"Unless he dies of the common cold," Cofflin said gloomily.

"Our medic doesn't think so. He did get the runs, but a few pills cleared him up." A pause. "How are things back there?"

"Everything's more or less on schedule," Cofflin said. "Enough to eat, just, but everyone's getting tired of fish. There's been some tension, people are upset—I think it's really sinking in that we're stuck here."

"Here too, but this situation is a little more exhilarating," Alston said. "Perhaps because everything is strange. In any case, I'll keep you informed of developments, Chief Cofflin. Over."

"Likewise, Captain," he said. "Cofflin out," he added, and laid down the radiophone.

"Reception's good," the operator said. "Better than I can remember it ever being, before."

"Nobody else on the air, Karen," he said, looking out over the little airport from the control tower.

It already had a deserted look. The small planes were all in the hangers, or staked down under tarpaulins; Andy Toffler was doing the air scouting for the fishing and whaling, with what gasoline they could spare. Out beyond, thick columns of smoke marked fields where the brush was being fired.

He looked down at his notes. Quick passage, no trouble so far, and they'd made a beginning on talking to the locals, picked one up at least. I wish everything was as smooth here.

At least his stomach didn't hurt every time he thought about the food situation anymore. You could live on fish. He still dreamed about that burger he'd been about to buy when all this started; they'd eaten the fresh meat almost overnight, with no more coming in. Except whale meat, which was oily and always had a slight fishy overtone. Well, hell, whole peoples had lived off salt cod. The clearing was mostly done, planting going well… and everyone was going a little crazy.

Or most people were. "Well, I've got a dinner date," he said.

"Martha Stoddard?" the operator said, grinning.

"None of your business, Karen."

The phone rang. "It's for you, Chief. Pastor Deubel is at it again."

"Science has no explanation for this thing that has happened to us," the clergyman said.

There were over a hundred people listening to the open-air service outside the little church on Milk Street. Normally there wasn't a church on the island that got that many on a Sunday, not on Nantucket, where the biggest congregations were Unitarian and Congregationalist. The day was fine, mild, a breeze from the south that kept the smell of whale blubber boiling from creeping up from the docks. The people…

Cofflin leaned his bicycle against the wall of a house built for whaling skippers—it crossed his mind, an irrelevant fragment, that they'd be perfectly at home with the faint smell of oil and fish that hung over the crowd. Their faces were rapt as they watched the man on the steps. He paced back and forth, as worn as they—the able-bodied clergy had been pitching in, like everyone else—but his face glowing with conviction.

That's a good way to put it, Cofflin thought. It was a fire, and sparks were catching in the dull faces of the onlookers, lighting them from within.

"Science cannot explain it. We must ask ourselves, brothers and sisters in Christ, why has this thing happened to us? For this is a mighty and terrible thing that has happened, a thing to shake the earth. Not only earth: a thing to echo from the walls of Heaven, and make the gates of Hell rejoice."

"Fallacy," muttered a voice beside him.

Cofflin started. He had been caught up in the sermon, despite himself. Martha Stoddard was not; her gray eyes were cool and appraising.

"Fallacy," she said again. "Two, in fact. Science couldn't explain how the sun kept going, before Einstein. That didn't mean science was inadequate, simply that it hadn't gotten around to solving that problem yet. And just because something big falls on you doesn't mean there's an intention behind it. That's the pathetic fallacy, historical division. Mount St. Helens didn't blow up because God was mad at the bears."

Cofflin grinned. They were all off balance psychologically, with a few exceptions. Martha Stoddard seemed to be one of them.

Pastor Deubel was winding up: "All this I have said to you before, my brothers and sisters. Today we must ask a new question. If science cannot explain this thing that has happened to us, and if some great purpose is here, what is that purpose?"

He wheeled and pointed out into the crowd. "What is the purpose for which this miracle—for it can be nothing else—has been accomplished?"

Cries of God! and Jesus loves us! punctuated his gesture. He raised his hands.

"Why would God, a loving God, a God who watches as each sparrow falls, thrust the blameless into danger and hardship?"

"Oh, Lord have mercy, doesn't that man's church teach any theology at all?" Martha hissed through clenched teeth.

"We have been thrust into the past before Christ," Deubel shouted. "Christ's sacrifice is not yet made. Moses has yet to bring God's holy word down from Sinai to the Jews. We are lost in a world of pagans and devil-worshipers, cut off from the healing blood of the Lamb. To take the blood and wine now is blasphemy."

This time there were moans and cries of no! from the crowd. Many were weeping. Cofflin felt a touch of apprehension himself; he was a believing man, if not much of a churchgoer. Come on, now, he told himself, remembering something his own minister had said once. God's not in time. God's outside time, He's eternal.

"Some mighty power of the other world has done this thing. I tell you, there can be only one answer: Satan! And his purpose? Haven't we all thought how our presence here must change the history of humankind? Can there be a Herod, if history is changed? A Roman Empire? Can there be an Augustus who sends out a decree that all the world is to be taxed? A Pontius Pilate? Will there even be a House of David?

"What else can the Evil One intend than to frustrate God's plan by preventing the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ?"

This time the reaction from the crowd included screams of fear. Many fell to their knees and began to shout prayers.

"Well, that's original, at least," Cofflin said quietly. He moved forward half a step, so that the clergyman could see him. It cut through the exaltation on the man's face. The rest of the sermon was a call to pray for guidance.

"Man's dangerous, Jared," Martha said.

"Ayup. On't'other hand, I was a policeman, and now I'm head of state, God help me—but this isn't a police state. So long as the man does nothing but talk, I can't stop him."

"Later might be too late."

Cofflin took his bicycle by the handles, and they turned and walked toward Martha's house, not far from the Athenaeum with its white columns. The house she was using, rather; she'd moved into one of the fancy pensions on Broad Street, since the owners weren't there and neither were the guests booked for the summer. A number of teachers had followed her; one thing the Town Meeting had been firm about was that the schools had to continue, somehow, at least part of the week. She and they weren't the only ones that had switched dwellings. Some families were doubling up, and many single people were taking over the empty boardinghouses in groups. It saved on cooking and housework and made child care easier, and without television or radio or recorded music, or even electric light, most people found a whole house too cheerless for one person.

"No sense in allowing perfectly good broiled scrod to go to waste," Martha said practically. "Held off on it when I heard you had trouble with Deubel."

"Ayup," Cofflin said, and nodded greetings to several of the people passing by.

She pulled back a cover on the basket she was carrying. "Dandelion greens, chicory, and pigweed, with sliced raw Jerusalem artichokes. Salad."

Cofflin's mouth watered, and he swallowed. "Thoughtful of you, Martha," he said.

"Ought to get some use out of being a Girl Scout leader."

They walked up the porch, through the dining room, and out into the backyard. Several of the teachers were sitting around, fiddling with a whale-oil lamp. They'd found hundreds of the lamps, maybe more, in antique shops, in the hotels as ornamentals… most of them functional, with a little work. The whale oil was abundant now, since they were harvesting the whales for their meat more than anything else. More of the oil had started off the wood in the barbecue, but the coals were low and glowing now. A pot burbled on one corner of it, sending out a savory, almost nutty odor.

"Dulse," Martha said, jerking her head toward it and picking up a platter with two large breaded fish on it. She slipped them onto the grill. They began to sizzle immediately. Meanwhile she rinsed the wild greens from a bucket of water standing in the kitchen—the running water was on one hour a day—and dumped them into a bowl, adding something else from a Styrofoam cooler. "Sea grass," she added. "Ulva lactuca." She tossed them with a little oil and vinegar.

Both her own suggestions. Bless her, Cofflin thought. He'd never considered seaweed as anything but stuff that washed up on beaches and smelled, and him a fisherman and a fisherman's son.

"Well, make yourself useful, Jared," she said.

He flipped the fish, which were just firming up, and then slid them back onto the serving platter. They went into the dining room and sat; it was just about sundown, and someone had lit the lamp bracketed to the wall. It cast a puddle of yellow light around their table.

"Fine eating on these scrod," Jared observed after a moment. "Haven't been doing this well myself."

"Bachelor," Martha observed, serving the dulse.

There were some mussels cooked with it, in a thickened broth. Jared savored the green nutty taste of the cooked seaweed and the contrasting flavors of the wild herb salad. His forehead was sweating slightly, and not from the eating or the mild spring weather. Martha ate with the same spare economy she did most things; he was a bit surprised when she brought out a half-bottle of white wine and poured them both a glass.

"Ill wind that blows no good," he observed after a moment. "Been meeting people I wouldn't have, before the Event."

Martha nodded. "Think I can guess what you're leading up to, Jared," she said.

He paused with a forkful of fish on the way to his mouth. The sweat rose more heavily on his forehead. Christ, man, what sort of a fool are you? he thought. A high school graduate fool. Just because the world had turned upside down didn't mean everything was changed. If Martha Stoddard wanted someone, it would be someone from her own level.

"And I'm not saying no," she added.

"You're not?" An effort of will prevented his voice from turning into a squeak.

"Wouldn't have asked you over if I were," she said. "Or seen this much of you since the Event. I'm not a cruel woman by nature, though I can't abide fools. Which is why I'm still single, despite a few offers. There was a man in university, archaeologist, did some excellent work on Mogollon pots, but then he started to talk about football… Mind you, I'm not saying yes either."

An even greater effort of will prevented him from saying You're not? in idiotic counterpoint to his last contribution to the conversation.

"And the world was crowded enough as it was," Stoddard went on meditatively. "None of that applies now, of course… and I'd say you're not any kind of a fool, Jared. But we do have to find out how we'd suit, and that should take a while. Plus we're none of us ourselves, right now. Best not to be hasty."

"Bundling's a little out of style, even here," he said, feeling a laugh welling up. He let it out as a dry chuckle, and felt his shoulders relax. It seemed that some things went on despite glowing domes of light and journeys into the past. Even tentative middle-aged romance, apparently.

"It may come back, with a cold winter and no central heating," she replied. They touched their glasses.

The Cappuccino Cafe was still open, although the days when it served what Cofflin had always thought of as yuppie fast food—quiches and such—were long past. There were still customers, although the food was made mostly from the same basic rations as everyone was eating. A new exchange system was growing up using the work chits the Council issued. They could be exchanged for food and fuel, but a lot of people preferred to trade some of them in and eat at a place like this now and then, rather than cook at home. Barter, too, he thought, watching two teenagers come in with a brace of rabbits and a duck and begin haggling with the proprietor. Their bicycles were leaned up against the lampposts on Main Street outside, and they had slingshots stuck in the back pockets of their jeans. It was the end of a chilly, foggy spring day; outside a few windows showed lit against the gray gloom. The light had an unfamiliar yellow tinge, lanterns or candles rather than the white brilliance of electricity.

"At least we're not short of whale oil," Cofflin said to Dennis Brown, the manager-owner, when the youngsters had collected their chits and IOUs.

"I should hope not," Brown laughed.

He jerked his head toward the counter behind him. The pots and warming pans were suspended over improvised whale-oil heating lamps. Back in the kitchen an equally improvised stove with a chimney of sheet metal had replaced the electric ranges. It burned wood well doused with the oil, and twists of rendered blubber. The smell of the blubber was a little more ripe than the nutty odor of the oil itself, but they'd all gotten used to it… a little, at least. Here it was just an undertang to the scent of cooking.

"What'll it be, Chief?"

"A turkey club sandwich, and a fresh green salad, with a banana and a couple of peaches for dessert," Cofflin said. They both laughed. "What've you got?"

"Lentil soup with rabbit, mixed seafood chowder, and whaleburger. Or whaleloaf, if you want to call it that. And biscuits."

"Rabbit and biscuits! Hot damn! The lentil with rabbit, and biscuits," he said. "Three hour-chits do it, or do you want some sort of trade?"

Dennis shrugged. "I've got two kids, Chief; I figure we're pulling through because of the way you got things organized. It's on the house."

"The town pays me to do my job," Cofflin said gruffly. "I'm not taking freebies." He held up a hand. "Not even when it's all right. Bad example. Thanks anyway. Two orders, then."

Dennis nodded. One of his people dipped out ladlefuls of the soup into bowls and surrounded them with the biscuits. There were only two each, but he still felt saliva spurt into his mouth at the sight and smell of them. Flour was getting scarce; there just wasn't much on the island.

He took the tray and ambled over to a table, sitting with a bit of a groan of relief. He'd been on his feet all day, or pedaling the damned bicycle, and whatever Coleman said about it being good for them, he still missed cars. For a moment he sighed and remembered; you just got in, turned the key… and suddenly five miles wasn't all that far. Less than ten minutes' travel, warm and dry and comfortable. The power seemed almost godlike. At least Nantucket was relatively flat—although he'd become painfully conscious, mostly in his calves and thighs, that a rise that was barely perceptible behind the wheel was all too obvious when you were pushing pedals. Cofflin looked at his watch. Martha had said she'd be here at six, and it wasn't like her to be late.

The bell over the door rang, and a man pushed through. Cofflin looked up, and smiled to see Martha behind him. The smile ended when he focused on the man's face again. It was scraggly and unshaven, but no more than many in town these days—Cofflin had given up shaving more than twice a week himself, what with the razor blade situation, until he found an old cutthroat straight razor in the attic. The man stank of dried sweat, too, for which there was less justification, and his coat was crusted with food stains and dirt. Before the Event, Cofflin would have figured him for a bum—homeless, the jargon was—and seen that he got on the ferry back to the mainland first thing. These days, he looked like an islander who'd been letting himself go a bit.

Have to see about that proposal for bathhouses, he thought. It was just too hard to heat water yourself and then haul it upstairs to a bathtub, particularly when you were exhausted already.

A few people gave the man room, wrinkling their noses at his smell. He marched over to a table, one where a quiet-looking woman in her thirties was sitting with a half-eaten bowl of chowder and a book. She was as worn as he, but considerably cleaner. When she looked up at him, she frowned and snapped:

"Donald, what part of no don't you understand? It's over. Learn to live with it."

"Do you understand this, bitch?" the man said.

Something in his voice froze Cofflin's smile. His head was turning even as the Glock came out. Time slowed; he could even see the rims of dirt under the man's fingernails, and the yellow color of his teeth as he snarled through a matted beard glued in clumps with old food.

"Do you?" the man—Donald, Cofflin supposed—said thickly. "Do you understand this?"

Donald Mansfield, he remembered. Up on assault charges for attacking Angelica Brand a couple of weeks ago. Sentenced to extra hard labor and reduced rations; his wife had left him shortly after that. Evidently he hadn't been adjusting to the Event as well as she had. There was a fair amount of that. Men seemed to be slightly less psychologically flexible, on average.

All that took just long enough for the expression on Martha's face to freeze and her eyes widen as they slid sideways toward the man with the gun. Cofflin's hand dropped toward his, and found only an empty belt holding up a pair of blue jeans. George Swain was head of the police these days. Maybe I should have kept the gun. He began to surge forward, cursing the decades that had slowed him down.

The woman's face had gone fluid with shock; her hands came up in a pushing gesture in front of her and she turned her head aside. That left it facing toward Cofflin. He could see the features twist, not so much with pain as incredulous shock as the bullets punched into her torso. Blood leaked from mouth and nose. She toppled backward and the man grabbed at her. He caught her with one arm around her body and staggered backward himself, to rest with his shoulders against the rear wall of the restaurant, sliding down to sit on the built-in couch. The dying woman slid across him, lying in his lap in a parody of affection. Somewhere in the room a scream tailed off into a choking, retching sound. Ricochet, Cofflin thought. No time to turn around and check who.

"You wouldn't listen to me, Michelle," the gunman crooned. "It'll be better now. We're together again. I'm sorry I had to hurt you…"

The gun came up and trained on Cofflin. He stepped slightly sideways, putting himself between it and most of the people in the room; those to the side were moving away on their own.

Now, what do you say to someone who's utterly, completely, incontestably bugfuck? Cofflin thought.

"Mr. Mansfield, why don't you put the gun down before anyone else gets hurt?" he said, his voice calm and controlled. High pucker factor here. "You can't hold on to it forever."

"Michelle will be with me forever!" he said. "You'll never take her away from me!"

He was a little over twice arm's length away. Cofflin was quite close enough to see his hand begin to clench on the gun, much too far to cover the distance needed to stop the 9mm bullet punching into him.

Whack. Something struck the wall near Mansfield. Whack. This time it hit him in the body, bringing a grunt of surprise and pain. The gun roared, loud in the confined space of the restaurant, and the bullet went by with an ugly flat crack. Then they were swaying chest to chest, grappling. Even then Cofflin had time to notice the man's sour stink. The frenzied wiry strength was inescapable, wrenching and twisting at his hand where it held the automatic by the slide and strove to force it upward. Then blackened fingernails clawed for his eyes. He ducked under them and jammed his head into the filthy cloth of Mansfield's coat. Can't let go. Too many people behind him, Martha behind him. He hooked an ankle behind the madman's and pushed. They fell, toppling bruisingly through chairs and marble-topped tables and rolling about.

Whump. This time the gun's discharge was muffled by the press of their bodies. Cofflin felt hot gases burn his skin, and waited for the battering pain of ripped flesh. Nothing happened except a fresh set of stinks. The body locked against his began to thrash convulsively, and blood spurted into his face. He rolled free, spitting and wiping at his face, his hands coming away red as crimson gloves. One look told him that Mansfield was dying, his body jerking as he drowned in the blood pouring into his lungs. The messy, undignified process would be over in less than a minute. His wife—ex-wife—was already limp beside him, in the crimson pool that was spreading around them; Cofflin put fingers to her throat to check for a pulse, knowing it was futile. Blood was splashed everywhere, walls, the mirrored pillars, even droplets on the pressed steel flowers of the ceiling. More on Martha, where she stood with the teenager's Y-fork slingshot in her hand. He moved toward her.

"None of it mine," she said, in a voice like ash.

One of the teenagers lay at her feet, with his companion and another islander giving him first aid; from the way he clutched at his lower stomach, he'd need it to survive until the ambulance got here. And there should be a helicopter to take him to a hospital on the mainland. This shouldn't have happened at all.

He stooped to pick up the Glock, ejecting the magazine. Three cartridges left, out of twelve. "Damn," he said hoarsely. "We've got to do something about this."

The vehicle arrived, sirens wailing; someone must have heard the gunshots. The paramedics leaped into action, injecting a painkiller, cutting away cloth, and rigging a plasma drip. One swore softly as he exposed the wound in the youngster's stomach. They moved the torso quickly, slapping a pressure bandage on the larger exit wound and lifting the victim onto the stretcher. Another was already calling instructions into her radiophone from behind the wheel of the ambulance.

Martha dropped the slingshot, shuddering. Cofflin slipped an arm around her. "You saved my life," he said quietly.

"Had to," she said. "Wasn't anyone else. You saved us all. Take me out of here, please."

He did. We've got to do something about this, he thought grimly. People were just too near the edge. Get the guns and explosives under control for a while.

"Thought so," Cofflin said to himself, as the phone in his jacket buzzed.

They were sitting side by side in the chair swing on the front porch, holding hands. The grin he'd been suppressing—he'd never live this down, and several people had passed by close enough to see him in the light of the whale-oil lanterns—slid away unnoticed. The expression left behind was one generations of Cofflins had shown to the sea in its wilder moods, or to a boatload of Papuans trying to storm a whaler cast aground in the South Seas. Charles Fs troops might have recognized it, coming at them behind a three-barred lobster-tail helmet at Marston Moor.

He pulled the phone out and listened. "Go ahead with it," he replied briefly, then rose and tucked it away. He checked the action of his pistol and reholstered it.

"What's wrong?" Martha said sharply.

"You weren't wrong the other day, about Deubel," Cofflin said shortly. "I couldn't arrest him before he did anything… but that didn't mean I couldn't have him watched. Now he's doing something. I'm a cop again, for a little while."

"Setting fires?" she asked.

He looked at her sharply. "Deduction," she replied. "The town was nearly wiped out by fires in the 1830s, and he knows it. And it'll serve his crazy purpose if we're just damaged enough to die off. The history he's interested in protecting ends after 30 A.D., and he doesn't care about what Europeans will find in the Americas."

That is one hell of a woman, he thought. The grin threatened to come back for a second.

"We do think alike, Martha," he said. "Have to go. See you at the Council meeting tomorrow. Thanks for the dinner."

The man fumbled with the oil-soaked rag. One match went out, then another. At last the cloth caught, flames running up it in sullen yellow and red. It dropped to the ground as the yard-long club made solid contact with the back of the arsonist's head.

"That's enough," Cofflin said sharply, stamping on the torch. The flame sputtered alive again and again, until he kicked dirt over it.

The militiaman—volunteer police reserve sworn in last week, technically—was winding up, wild-eyed, ready for a solid blow that would have cracked the arsonist's skull. The man on the ground was moaning and trying to crawl; abruptly he began to vomit. It wasn't as easy to knock a man out as the movies could make you think, and when you did he didn't wake up a little later as if he'd taken a nap. A member of the TV generation with no training or practical experience was all too likely to hammer a skull into mush and expect the recipient to get up and fight again like Jean Claude Van Whatsisname.

"Watch him," he said. "The rest of you, follow me."

The volunteers lined up with their shields and wood-dowel clubs. No guns tonight, thank God. The island had turned out to have an appalling amount of firepower, but it was all safely under lock and key now. Cofflin led his party of volunteers up Main Street. A few of Deubel's fanatics fled before them. None had had enough time to do much mischief, although he could hear the wail of the fire engine from the station off to his right rear. At the head of the street he met George Swain. He could barely recognize him in the gloom. Speaking of which…

He took out the phone. "Ready?"

"Ready."

"Throw the switch."

He squeezed his eyes to slits as the streetlights came on for the first time since the second night after the Event. Amazing how bright it looked, after a few weeks without electric light.

"Let's get the rest of them rounded up," he said. "Then we can figure out what the hell to do with them."

The volunteers trotted down the street after him. He could hear the other squads, but such of his attention as could be spared was on the houses around him. Wood, mostly. They couldn't keep the pumping system going all the time. The last time a real fire had broken loose here back in the nineteenth century, half the town had been leveled. If it happened now, there would be no aid from the mainland. His stomach clenched at what it would be like, trying to survive with most of the town in ashes.

What the hell are we going to do with them?

The circle closed in on the little church. A few fights broke out, and ended with more stunned or weeping men and women sitting on the curbsides, handcuffed or hugging bruises. More and more ordinary townsfolk were following along behind, drawn by the noise and the appearance of the streetlights. Deubel's congregation were hammering on the door and calling on their leader, but the door was locked against them, and the church's windows showed empty and dark. A last surge of pushing and shoving, and the would-be aronists let themselves be led down between the ranks of club-bearing volunteers and regular police.

"You're all under arrest, under the emergency powers invested in me by the Town Meeting," Cofflin said harshly, when they'd been gathered together. "You'll get a fair hearing. Now sit down and be quiet, will you?"

It was less formal than the pre-Event procedures, but it'd serve. "Hell of a thing, George," he said. "Better than twenty of them."

"Just glad you called it ahead of time, Chief," the younger man replied.

"So am I—but this's as far as I thought. Get the doorknocker, would you?" A piece of law enforcement equipment rarely used on the island before, but they did have one in stock.

It came up with four of his old officers staggering up the stairs under its weight, a steel forging with handles; shooting the lock out of a door was also something that looked a lot easier—and safer—in the movies. In real life the ricochets and flying metal made it a last resort.

"Pastor Deubel, please open this door. We don't want to damage your church." True in the literal sense; in the metaphorical, he wanted to get rid of Deubel's church and congregation, and get the people in it acting sane again. "Pastor Deubel, this is your last warning."

Cofflin sighed. It had been years since he had had to break down a door, and he'd never liked it. There ought to be a place where a man could go and lock the world away; on the other hand, people ought to be able to sleep secure in their beds without fear of a lunatic burning the roof over their heads.

Suddenly a sound cut through the murmur of voices and the distant wail of fire-truck sirens. A huge thudding boom, coming from the east, down toward the harbor. A cloud of smoke rose skyward, shot with sparks of firelight.

"Uh-oh," Cofflin said. "That was—"

George Swain took the phone from his ear. "—the warehouse with the guns and stuff, Chief."

Cofflin winced. Maybe that wasn't such a bright idea after all, he thought. Then: No, goddammit. Think what Deubel might have done with some firepower.

"Get some more volunteers down there," he said. "All right, Ted, Caitlin, Matt, Henry. Go for it."

He signed everyone else back from the steps and drew his pistol, holding it up in the two-handed grip that made it more difficult to grab. Only the second time he'd drawn iron as a policeman, other than to clean the piece. Deubel's crazy enough for anything. Sometimes he wondered what God thought of the number of people who claimed to act in His name. What had that old book said? A fanatic is someone who does what he knows God would do if only the Almighty knew the facts of the case.

Boom. The police officers staggered back as the steel rebounded from the stout doors, but there had been splintering as well. Stronger than a house door—those gave in at once. Boom. This time the splintering was louder. Boom. The doors swung open, and the team staggered a few steps into the aisle, drawn by the momentum of their ram. It was nearly pitch-dark in there, only a few gleams from the streetlamp up the road penetrating. Cofflin unhitched the L-shaped flashlight from his waist and shone it within.

"Christ," he whispered.

Deubel was there, all right—swinging from an iron light bracket, the cord that had once fed the light deep in his swollen neck. Matter dripped from his feet to the floor below, the usual release of bowels and bladder, and the stink was heavy inside the musty closeness of the church. He'd made a hash of hanging himself, too. Not enough drop, and his hands were still fastened to the cord where they'd scrabbled to stop his slow choking.

"The poor man," a voice said behind him. Cofflin looked back; it was Father Gomez, from St. Mary's.

Cofflin nodded to the priest. "Excuse me, Father." Louder. "Ladder in here, and a stretcher." Not much doubt about the cause of death; no need to rout someone out for an autopsy.

"The poor deluded man," Gomez said again, crossing himself, as the blanket-covered body was carried out. Deubel's followers looked at it as it went by, some weeping, some impassive, a few cursing or spitting at the dead cleric who'd left them to face the consequences of his preaching.

"Manichaeism is always a temptation," Gomez went on. "Chief Cofflin, I think if I talked to some of these people…"

"Do you think it would do any good, Father?" Cofflin asked. He wasn't Catholic himself, but he had a fair degree of respect for the little priest. Certainly he took his job more seriously than some of the other clergy on the island, and he'd been a voice of good sense since the Event. "They're not exactly of your denomination."

"We're all Christians, Chief Cofflin," Gomez said.

"What was that… Manni-something?"

"A perennial heresy—imagining that Satan is as strong as God. Poor Deubel thought that the Incarnation could be halted—which is to say that God's will could be defied. But even Satan is part of God's plan; He is omniscient and omnipotent, or He's not God at all. I don't pretend to understand what's happened to us here, but then there are many things we're not supposed to understand or can't understand. Mystery is at the heart of life. If God makes many worlds, He'll arrange them as He pleases—including when and where to send His son in this one."

Cofflin looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, I think it might be a good idea if you did have a talk with these people," he said.

"I will." Gomez hesitated. "Not to tell you how to do your own job…"

"Go ahead—everyone else does. It's a free… island."

"But it might be better if any formal trial, any Town Meeting, were held off for a week or so. People were frightened enough without this, and…"

"… frightened men are vicious, I know," Cofflin said. And by then I can figure out something, I hope. I'll ask Martha.

Cofflin rubbed a hand across the back of his aching neck. "I hate this job," he muttered.

"And that's a very reassuring thing, my son," Gomez said.

 

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