Read an Excerpt
SAMUEL PRESTON, a local reporter with bronzed skin and glow-in-the-dark teeth, turned to one of the guests of his TV show God Talk. “So what’s your take on all of this, Dr. Mackenzie?”
The sixty-something professor stared silently at his wristwatch. He had unruly white hair and wore an outdated sports coat.
He glanced up, disoriented, then turned to the host, who repeated the question. “What are your feelings about the book?”
Clearing his throat, Mackenzie raised the watch to his ear and gave it a shake. “I was wondering…” He trailed off, his bushy eyebrows gathered into a scowl as he listened for a sound.
The second guest, a middle-aged pastor with a shirt collar two sizes too small, smiled. “Yes?”
Mackenzie gave up on the watch and turned to him. “Do you make up this drivel as you go along? Or do you simply parrot others who have equally stunted intellects?”
The pastor, Dr. William Hathaway, blinked. Still smiling, he turned to the host. “I was under the impression we were going to discuss my new book?”
“Oh, we are,” Preston assured him. “But it’s always good to have a skeptic or two in our midst, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Ah.” Hathaway nodded. “Of course.” He turned back to Mackenzie, his smile never wavering. “I am afraid what you term as ‘drivel’ is based upon a faith stretching back thousands of years.”
Mackenzie removed one or two dog hairs from his slacks. “We have fossilized dinosaur feces older than that.”
“Just because something’s old doesn’t stop it from being crap.”
Dr. Hathaway’s smile twitched. He turned in his chair to more fully address the man. “We’re talking about a time-honored religion that millions of—”
“And that’s supposed to be a plus,” Mackenzie said, “that it’s religious? I thought you wanted to support your nonsense.”
“I see. Well, it may interest you to know that—”
“Actually, it doesn’t interest me at all.” The old man turned to Preston. “How much longer will we be?”
The host chuckled. “Just a few more minutes, Professor.”
Working harder to maintain his smile, Hathaway replied, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re not a big fan of the benefits of Christianity?”
“Benefits?” Mackenzie pulled a used handkerchief from his pocket and began looking for an unsoiled portion. “Is that what the thirty thousand Jews who were tortured and killed during the Inquisition called it? Benefits?”
“That’s not entirely fair.”
“And why is that?”
“For starters, most of them weren’t Jews.”
“I’m sure they’re already feeling better.”
“What I am saying is—”
“What you are saying, Mr… Mr.—”
“Actually, it’s Doctor.”
“Actually, you’re a liar.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Finding an unused area of his handkerchief, Mackenzie took off his glasses and cleaned them.
The pastor continued, “It may interest you to know that—”
“We’ve already established my lack of interest.”
“It may interest you to know that I hold several honorary doctorates.”
“Honorary, as in unearned, as in good for nothing… unless it’s to line the bottom of birdcages.” He held his glasses to the light, checking for any remaining smudges.
Hathaway took a breath and regrouped. “You can malign my character all you wish, but there is no refuting the benefits outlined in my new book.”
“Ah, yes, the benefits.” Mackenzie lowered his glasses and worked on the other lens. “Like the million-plus lives slaughtered during the Crusades?”
“That figure can be disputed.”
“Correct. It may be higher.”
Hathaway shifted in his seat. “The Crusades were a long time ago and in an entirely different culture.”
“So you’d prefer something closer to home? Perhaps the witch hunts of New England?”
“I’m not here to—”
“Fifteen thousand human beings murdered in Europe and America. Fifteen thousand.”
“Again, that’s history and not a part of today’s—”
“Then let us discuss more recent atrocities—towards the blacks, the gays, the Muslim population. Perhaps a dialogue on the bombing of abortion clinics?”
“Please, if you would allow me—”
Mackenzie turned to Preston. “Are we finished here?”
Fighting to be heard, Hathaway continued, “If people will read my book, they will clearly see—”
“Are we finished?”
“Yes, Professor.” Preston chuckled. “I believe we are.”
“But we’ve not discussed my Seven Steps to Successful—”
“Perhaps another time, Doctor.”
Mackenzie rose, shielding his eyes from the bright studio lights as Hathaway continued. “But there are many issues we need to—”
“I’m sure there are,” Preston agreed while keeping an eye on Mackenzie, who stepped from the platform and headed off camera. “And I’m sure it’s all there in your book. Seven Steps to—”
Annie Brooks clicked off the remote to her television.
“Mom,” Rusty mumbled, “I was watching…” He drifted back to sleep without finishing the protest.
She looked down at the five-year-old and smiled. He lay in bed beside her, his hands still clutching Horton Hears a Who! Each night he’d been reading it to her, though she suspected it was more reciting from memory than reading. She tenderly kissed the top of his head before absentmindedly looking back to the TV.
He’d done it again. Her colleague and friend—if Dr. Nicholas Mackenzie could be said to have any friends—had shredded another person of faith. This time a Christian, some megachurch pastor hawking his latest book. Next time it could just as easily be a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist. The point was that Nicholas hated religion. And heaven help anybody who tried to defend it.
She sighed and looked back down to her son. He was breathing heavily, mouth slightly ajar. She brushed the bangs from his face and gave him another kiss. She’d carry him back to bed soon enough. But for now she would simply savor his presence. Nothing gave her more joy. And for that, with or without Nicholas’s approval, Annie Brooks was grateful to her God.
“Excuse me?” Nicholas called from the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car.
The driver didn’t hear.
He leaned forward and spoke louder. “You just passed the freeway entrance.”
The driver, some black kid with a shaved head, turned on the stereo. It was an urban chant, its beat so powerful Nicholas could feel it pounding in his gut. He unbuckled his seat belt and scooted to the open partition separating them. “Excuse me! You—”
The tinted window slid up, nearly hitting him in the face.
He pulled back in surprise, then banged on the glass. “Excuse me!” The music was fainter but still vibrated the car. “Excuse me!”
He slumped back into the seat. Stupid kid. And rude. He’d realize his mistake soon enough. And after Nicholas’s call to the TV station tomorrow, he’d be back on the streets looking for another job. Trying to ignore the music, Nicholas stared out the window, watching the Santa Barbara lights soften as fog rolled in. Over the years the station’s drivers had always been polite and courteous. Years, as in Nicholas was a frequent guest on God Talk. Despite his reclusive lifestyle, not to mention his general disdain for people, he always accepted the producer’s invitation. Few things gave him more pleasure than exposing the toxic nature of religion. Besides, these outings provided a nice change of pace. Instead of the usual stripping away of naÏve college students’ faith in his classroom, the TV guests occasionally provided a challenge.
Other than his duties at the University of California, Santa Barbara, these trips were his only exposure to the outside world. He had abandoned society long ago. Or rather, it had abandoned him. Not that there was any love lost. Today’s culture was an intellectual wasteland—a world of prechewed ideas, politically correct causes, sound-bite news coverage, and novels that were nothing more than comic books. (He’d given up on movies and television long ago.) Why waste his time on such pabulum when he could surround himself with Sartre, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche—men whose work would provide more meaningful companionship in one evening than most people could in a lifetime?
Nevertheless, he did tolerate Ari, even fought to keep her during the divorce. She was his faithful companion for over fifteen years, though he should have put her down months ago. The golden retriever was deaf and blind, and her hips had begun to fail. But she wasn’t in pain. Not yet. And until that time, he didn’t mind cleaning up after her occasional accidents or calling in the vet for those expensive house calls. He owed her that. Partially because of her years of patient listening, and partially because of the memories.
The car turned right and entered a residential area. He glanced down to the glowing red buttons on the console beside him. One of them was an intercom to the driver. But, like Herbert Marcuse, the great neo-Marxist of the twentieth century (and, less popularly, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber of the 1980s), Nicholas mistrusted modern technology as much as he scorned the society that created it. How many times had Annie, a fellow professor, pleaded with him to buy a telephone?
“What if there’s an emergency?” she’d insisted. “What if someone needs to call you?”
“They have do-not-call lists,” she said. “You can go online and be added to their—”
“Okay, you can write them a letter.”
“And give them what, more personal information?”
“They’d only ask for your phone number.”
“Not if I don’t have one.”
And so the argument continued off and on for years… as gift occasions came and went, as his closet gradually filled with an impressive collection of telephones. One thing you could say about Annie Brooks, she was persistent—which might be why he put up with her company, despite the fact she doted over him like he was some old man who couldn’t take care of himself. Besides, she had a good head on her shoulders, when she chose to use it, which meant she occasionally contributed something of worth to their conversations.
Then, of course, there was her boy.
The car slowed. Having no doubt learned the error of his ways, the driver was turning around. Not that it would help him keep his job. That die had already been cast. But the car wasn’t turning. Instead, it pulled to the curb and came to a stop. The locks shot up and the right rear door immediately opened. A man in his early forties appeared—strong jaw, short hair, with a dark suit, white shirt, and black tie.
“Good evening, Doctor.” He slid onto the leather seat beside him.
“Who are you?” Nicholas demanded.
The man closed the door and the car started forward. “I apologize for the cloak-and-dagger routine, but—”
“Who are you?”
He flipped open an ID badge. “Brad Thompson, HLS.”
“Homeland Security Agent Brad Thompson.” He returned the badge to his coat pocket.
“You’re with the government?”
“Yes, sir, Homeland Security.”
“And you’ve chosen to interrupt my ride home because…”
“Again, I apologize, but it’s about your brother.”
Nicholas stared at him, giving him no satisfaction of recognition.
“Your brother,” the agent repeated, “Travis Mackenzie?”
Nicholas held his gaze another moment before looking out the window. “Is he in trouble again?”
“Has he contacted you?”
“My brother and I seldom communicate.”
“Yes, sir, about every eighteen months, if our information is correct.”
The agent’s knowledge unsettled Nicholas. He turned back to the man. “May I see your identification again?”
“Your identification. You barely allowed me to look at it.”
The agent reached back into his suit coat. “Please understand this is far more serious than his drug conviction, or his computer hacking, or the DUIs.”
Nicholas adjusted his glasses, waiting for the identification.
The agent flipped open his ID holder. “We at HLS are very concerned about his involvement with—”
Suddenly headlights appeared through the back window, their beams on high. The agent looked over his shoulder, then swore under his breath. He reached for the intercom, apparently to give orders to the driver, but the Town Car was already beginning to accelerate.
“What’s the problem?” Nicholas asked.
The car turned sharply to the left and continued picking up speed.
“I asked you what is happening,” Nicholas repeated.
“Your brother, Professor. Where is he?”
The headlights reappeared behind them, closing in.
“You did not allow me to examine your identification.”
“If you do not allow me to examine your identification, I see little—”
“We’ve no time for that!”
The outburst stopped Nicholas as the car took another left, so sharply both men braced themselves.
The agent turned back to him. “Where is your brother?”
Once again the lights appeared behind them.
Refusing to be bullied, Nicholas repeated, “Unless I’m convinced of your identity, I have little—”
The agent sprang at him. Grabbing Nicholas’s shirt, he yanked him to his face and shouted, “Where is he?”
Surprised, but with more pride than common sense, Nicholas answered, “As I said—”
The agent’s fist was a blur as it struck Nicholas’s nose. Nicholas felt the cartilage snap, knew the pain would follow. As would the blood.
“Where is he?”
The car turned right, tires squealing, tossing the men to the other side. As Nicholas sat up, the agent pulled something from his jacket. There was the black glint of metal and suddenly a cold gun barrel was pressed against his neck. He felt fear rising and instinctively pushed back the emotion. It wasn’t the gun that concerned him, but the fear. That was his enemy. If he could focus, rely on his intellect, he’d have the upper hand. Logic trumped emotion every time. It was a truth that sustained him through childhood, kept him alive in Vietnam, and gave him the strength to survive in today’s world.
The barrel pressed harder.
When he knew he could trust his voice, he answered, “The last time I saw my brother was Thanksgiving.”
The car hit the brakes, skidding to a stop, sliding Nicholas off the seat and onto his knees. The agent caught himself, managing to stay seated. Up ahead, through the glass partition, Nicholas saw a second vehicle racing toward them—a van or truck, its beams also on high.
The agent pounded the partition. “Get us out of here,” he shouted at the driver. “Now!”
The Town Car lurched backward. It bounced up a curb and onto a front lawn. Tires spun, spitting grass and mud, until they dug in and the vehicle took off. It plowed through a hedge of junipers, branches scraping underneath, then across another lawn. Nicholas looked out his side window as they passed the vehicle that had been behind them, a late-model SUV. They veered back onto the road, snapping off a mailbox. Once again the driver slammed on the brakes, turning hard to the left, throwing the vehicle into a one-eighty until they were suddenly behind the SUV, facing the opposite direction. Tires screeched as they sped off.
The agent hit the intercom and yelled, “Dump the Professor and get us out of here!”
The car continued to accelerate and made another turn.
Pulling Nicholas onto the seat and shoving the gun into his face, the agent shouted, “This is the last time I’m asking!”
Nicholas’s heart pounded, but he kept his voice even. “I have already told you.”
The man chambered a round. But it barely mattered. Nicholas had found his center and would not be moved. “I have not seen him in months.”
The car made another turn.
Nicholas turned to face him. “We ate a frozen dinner and I sent him away.”
The agent searched his eyes. Nicholas held his gaze, unblinking. The car took one last turn, bouncing up onto an unlit driveway, then jerked to a stop. There was no sound, except the pounding music.
“Get out,” the agent ordered.
Nicholas looked through the window. “I have no idea where we—”
Nicholas reached for the handle, opened his door, and stepped outside. The air was cold and damp.
“Shut the door.”
The Town Car lunged backward, lights off. Once it reached the road it slid to a stop, changed gears, and sped off. Nicholas watched as it disappeared into the fog, music still throbbing even after it was out of sight. Only then did he appreciate the pain in his nose and the warm copper taste of blood in his mouth. Still, with grim satisfaction, he realized he had won. As always, logic and intellect had prevailed.
© 2010 Bill Myers