THE OFFICE had no windows, only electric lanterns to light the hundreds of spines standing in their cherry wood bookcases. A single lawyer's lamp spread its yellow hue over the leather-topped desk. The room smelled of linseed oil and musty pages, but to Dr. John Francis it was the scent of knowledge.
"Evil is beyond the reach of no man."
"But can a man remove himself beyond the reach of evil?" Kevin asked.
The dean of academic affairs, Dr. John Francis, gazed over bifocals at the man who sat opposite him and allowed a small smile to nudge his lips. Those blue eyes hid a deep mystery, one that had eluded him since their first meeting three months earlier when Kevin Parson approached him after a philosophy lecture. They'd struck up a unique friendship that included numerous discussions such as this one.
Kevin sat with his feet flat, hands on knees, eyes piercing and un-moving, hair ruffled despite a compulsive habit of running his fingers through his loose brown curls. Or because of it. The hair was an anomaly; in every other way the man groomed himself perfectly. Clean shaven, fashionably current, pleasantly scentedOld Spice, if the professor guessed right. Kevin's ragged hair begged to differ in a bohemian sort of way. Others fiddled with pencils or twirled their fingers or shifted in their seats; Kevin ran his fingers through his hair and tapped his right foot. Not now and then or at appropriate breaks in the conversation, but regularly, to the beat of a hidden drum behind his blue eyes. Some might consider the idiosyncrasies annoying, but Dr. Francis saw them as nothing more than enigmatic clues to Kevin's nature. Thetruthrarely obvious and almost always found in subtle-ies. In the tapping of feet and the fiddling of fingers and the movement of eyes.
Dr. Francis pushed his black leather chair back from the desk, stood slowly to his feet, and walked to a bookcase filled with the works of the ancient scholars. In many ways he identified with these men as much as he did with the modern man. Put a robe on him and he would look rather like a bearded Socrates, Kevin had once told him. He ran a finger over a bound copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"Indeed," Dr. Francis said. "Can man step beyond evil's reach? I think not. Not in this lifetime."
"Then all men are condemned to a life of evil," Kevin said.
Dr. Francis faced him. Kevin watched, unmoving except for his right foot, tapping away. His round blue eyes held steady, stared with the innocence of a child's, probing, magnetic, unabashed. These eyes attracted long stares from the secure and forced the less secure to avert their gaze. Kevin was twenty-eight, but he possessed a strange blend of brilliance and naiveté that Dr. Francis could not understand. The full-grown man thirsted for knowledge like a five-year-old. Something to do with a unique rearing in a bizarre home, but Kevin had never been forthcoming.
"A lifetime struggle with evil, not a life of evil," Dr. Francis clarified.
"And does man simply choose evil, or does he create it?" Kevin asked, already many thoughts beyond his initial question. "Is evil a force that swims in human blood, struggling to find its way into the heart, or is it an external possibility wanting to be formed?"
"I would say man chooses evil rather than creates it. Human nature's saturated with evil as a result of the Fall. We are all evil."
"And we are all good," Kevin said, tapping his foot. "The good, the bad, and the beautiful."
Dr. Francis nodded at the use of the phrase he'd coined, which referred to the man created in God's nature, the beautiful man, struggling between the good and the bad. "The good, the bad, and the beautiful. Indeed." He stepped for the door. "Walk with me, Kevin."
Kevin ran both hands past his temples and stood. Dr. Francis led him from the office and up a flight of steps to the world above, as Kevin liked to call it.
"How is your paper on the natures progressing?" Dr. Francis asked.
"Guaranteed to raise your eyebrows." They stepped into the empty main hall. "I'm using a story to illustrate my conclusion. Not conventional, I know, but since Christ preferred to use fiction to communicate truth, I figured you wouldn't mind if I borrowed from him."
"As long as it makes the point. I look forward to reading it."
Kevin walked with Dr. John Francis down the hall, thinking that he liked this man beside him. The sound of their shoes striking the hardwood floor echoed through the chamber steeped in tradition. The older man strolled casually, his ready smile hinting at wisdom far beyond his words. Kevin glanced up at the paintings of the divinity school's founders along the wall to his right. Bold, gentle giants, Dr. Francis called them.
"Speaking of evil, all men are capable of gossip, don't you think?" Kevin asked.
"Even the bishop is capable of gossip."
"Do you think the bishop does gossip? Sometimes?"
The dean's answer waited three steps. "We are all human."
They came to the large door that opened to the central campus and Dr. Francis pushed it open. Despite the ocean breezes, Long Beach could not escape periodic stretches of oppressive heat. Kevin stepped out into the bright midday sunlight, and for a moment their philosophical bantering felt trivial in light of the world before him. A dozen seminary students walked across the manicured park, heads bent in thought or tilted back with smiles. Two dozen poplars formed an avenue through the expansive lawn. The chapel's steeple towered over the trees beyond the park. To his right, the Augustine Memorial Library glistened in the sun. The Divinity School of the Pacific, South, was at a glance statelier and more modern than its parent, the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley.
Here was the real world, made up of normal people with sensible histories and ordinary families pursuing an admirable profession. He, on the other hand, was a twenty-eight-year-old convert who really had no business attending seminary at all, much less leading a flock one day. Not because he didn't have honorable intent, but because of who he was. Because he was Kevin Parson, who had really only discovered his spiritual side for the first time three years ago. In spite of his wholehearted embrace of the church, he still felt no holierand maybe lessthan any drunk on the street might. Not even the dean knew his whole story, and Kevin wasn't sure the man would be so supportive if he did.
"You have a brilliant mind, Kevin," the dean said, gazing out at the grounds. "I've seen a lot of people come and go, and few of them have your same tenacity for the truth. But believe me, the deepest questions can drive a man mad. The problem of evil is one of those questions. You'd be wise to court it slowly."
Kevin looked into the graying man's eyes, and for a moment neither spoke. The dean winked and Kevin offered a slight smile. Kevin liked this man as much as he might like a father.
"You're a wise man, Dr. Francis. Thanks. I'll see you in class next week."
"Don't forget your paper."
The dean dipped his head.
Kevin took one step down to the concrete landing and turned back. "Just one last thought. In absolute terms, gossip isn't so different from murder, right?"
"Then the bishop is ultimately capable of murder, isn't he?"
The dean lifted his right eyebrow. "That's a bit of a stretch."
Kevin smiled. "Not really. Neither is more evil."
"You've made your point, Kevin. I'll be sure to warn the bishop against any sudden urges to kill his fellowman."
Kevin chuckled. He turned and walked down the steps. Behind him the door closed with a soft thump. He turned back. The steps were empty.
He was alone. A stranger in a strange world. How many grown men would stare at a flight of steps just vacated by a professor of philosophy and feel utterly alone? He scratched his head and ruffled his hair.
Kevin headed for the parking lot. The sense of solitude left him before he reached his car, which was good. He was changing, wasn't he? The hope of change was why he'd chosen to become a priest in the first place. He'd escaped the demons of his past and begun a new life as a new creature. He had put his old self in the grave and, despite the lingering memories, he was coming to life, like an aspen in the spring.
So much change in so little time. God willing, the past would remain buried.
He swung his beige Sable out of the lot and merged with the steady flow of traffic on Long Beach Boulevard. Evil. The problem of evil. Like trafficnever ending.
On the other hand, grace and love weren't exactly running scared, were they? He had more to be thankful for than he ever imagined possible. Grace, for starters. A fine school with fine teachers. His own home. He might not have a rack of friends to call on at his every whim, but he did have a few. One at least. Dr. John Francis liked him.
He humphed. Okay, so he had a ways to go on the social front. Samantha had called him, though. They'd talked twice in the last two weeks. And Sam was no slouch. Now there was a friend. Maybe more than a
His cell phone chirped loudly from the cup holder. He'd gotten the thing a week ago and had used it once, placed a call to his home phone to see if it worked. It had, but only after he'd activated the voice mail, which had required a call to the salesman.
The cell rang again and he picked it up. The thing was small enough to swallow if you got hungry enough. He pushed the red button and immediately knew it was the wrong one. Ignore "Send" above the green button. Green is go and red is stop, the salesman had said.
Kevin lifted the phone to his ear, heard silence, and tossed it on the passenger seat, feeling foolish. It was probably the salesman, calling to see if he was enjoying his new phone. Then again, why would a salesman bother to check on a nineteen-dollar purchase?
The phone chirped again. Behind him, a horn honked. A blue Mercedes crowded his bumper. Kevin punched the accelerator and picked up the phone. Red brake lights cut across all three lanes ahead. He slowed downthe Mercedes would have to chill. He pressed the green button.
Male voice. Low and breathy. Drawn out to accentuate each syllable.
"How are you doing, my old friend? Quite well from what I can gather. How nice."
The world around Kevin faded. He brought the car to a halt behind the sea of red taillights, felt the pressure of the brakes as a distant abstraction. His mind focused on this voice on the phone.
"I . . . I'm sorry. I don't think"
"It doesn't matter if you know me." Pause. "I know you. In fact, if you really think you're cut out for this seminary foolishness, I must say I know you better than you know yourself."
"I don't know who you think you are, but I don't have a clue what you're talking"
"Don't be stupid!" the voice yelled into his ear. The man took a deep, scratchy breath. He spoke calmly again. "Forgive me, I really don't mean to yell, but you're not listening to me. It's time to quit pretending, Kevin. You think you have the whole world fooled, but you don't have me fooled. It's time to let the cat out of the bag. And I'm going to help you do it."
Kevin could hardly comprehend what he was hearing. Was this for real? It had to be a practical joke. Peter? Did Peter from Intro to Psych know him well enough to pull a stunt like this?
"Who . . . who is this?"
"You like games, don't you, Kevin?"
There was no way Peter could sound so condescending.
"Okay," Kevin said. "Enough. I don't know what"
"Enough? Enough? No, I don't think so. The game is just starting. Only this one is not like the games you play with everyone else, Kevin. This one's for real. Will the real Kevin Parson please stand up? I thought about killing you, but I've decided this will be much better." The man paused, made a soft sound that sounded like a moan. "This . . . this will destroy you."
Kevin stared ahead, dumbfounded.
"You may call me Richard Slater. Ring any bells? Actually, I prefer Slater. And here's the game Slater would like to play. I will give you exactly three minutes to call the newspaper and confess your sin, or I will blow that silly Sable you call a car sky-high."
"Sin? What are you talking about?"
"That's the question, isn't it? I knew you'd forget, you stupid brick." Another pause. "Do you like riddles? Here's a riddle to jog your mind: What falls but never breaks? What breaks but never falls?"
"Three minutes, Kevin. Starting . . . now. Let the games begin."
The phone went dead.
For a moment, Kevin stared ahead, phone still plastered to his ear.
A horn blared.
The cars ahead were moving. The Mercedes was impatient again. Kevin pressed the accelerator, and the Sable surged forward. He set the phone down on the passenger seat and swallowed, throat dry. He glanced at the clock. 12:03.
Okay, process. Stay calm and process. Did this really just happen? Of course it just happened! Some madman who called himself Slater just called my cell phone and threatened to blow up my car. Kevin grabbed the cell phone and stared at its face: "Unavailable, 00:39."
But was the threat real? Who would really blow up a car in the middle of a busy street over a riddle? Someone was trying to scare the snot out of him for some maniacal reason. Or some sicko had randomly chosen him as his next victim, someone who hated seminary students instead of prostitutes and really intended to kill him.
His thoughts spun crazily. What sin? He had committed his sins, of course, but none that stood out immediately. What falls but never breaks? What breaks but never falls?
His pulse pounded in his ears. Maybe he should get off the road. Of course he should get off the road! If there was even a remote chance that Slater meant to carry out his threat . . .
For the first time, Kevin imagined the car actually filling with a blast of fire. A shaft of panic ripped down his spine. He had to get out! He had to call the police!
Not now. Now he had to get out. Out!
Kevin jerked his foot off the accelerator and slammed it down on the brake. The Sable's tires squealed. A horn shrieked. The Mercedes.
Kevin twisted his head and glanced through the rear window. Too many cars. He had to find a vacant spot, where flying shrapnel would do the least damage. He gunned the motor and shot forward. 12:05. But how many seconds? He had to assume three minutes would end at 12:06.
A dozen thoughts crowded his mind: thoughts of a sudden explosion, thoughts of the voice on the phone, thoughts of how the cars around him were reacting to the Sable jerking along the road. What falls but never breaks? What breaks but never falls?
Kevin looked around, frantic. He had to dump the car without blowing up the neighborhood. It's not even going to blow, Kevin. Slow down and think. He ran his fingers through his hair several times in quick succession.
He swung into the right lane, ignoring another horn. A Texaco station loomed on his rightnot a good choice. Beyond the gas station, Dr. Won's Chinese Cuisinehardly better. There were no parks along this section of road; residences packed the side streets. Ahead, lunch crowds bustled at McDonald's and Taco Bell. The clock still read 12:05. It had been 12:05 for too long.
Now true panic muddled his thinking. What if it really does go off? It's going to, isn't it? God, help me! I've got to get out of this thing! He grabbed at his seat belt buckle with a trembling hand. Released the shoulder strap. Both hands back on the wheel.
A Wal-Mart sat back from the street a hundred yards to his left. The huge parking lot was only half-filled. A wide greenway that dipped at its center, like a natural ditch, surrounded the entire lot. He made a critical decision: Wal-Mart or nothing.
Kevin leaned on his horn and cut back into the center lane with a cursory glance in his mirror. A metallic screech made him duckhe'd clipped a car. Now he was committed.
"Get out of my way! Get out!"
He motioned frantically with his left hand, succeeding only in smashing his knuckles into the window. He grunted and swerved into the far left lane. With a tremendous thump he crashed over a six-inch-high median and then into oncoming traffic. It occurred to him that being rammed head-on might be no better than blowing up, but he was already in the path of a dozen oncoming cars.
Tires squealed and horns blared. The Sable took only one hit in its right rear fender before shooting out the other side of the gauntlet. Something from his car was dragging on the asphalt. He cut off a pickup that was trying to exit the lot.
"Watch out! Get out of my way!"
Kevin roared into the Wal-Mart lot and glanced down at the clock. Somewhere back there it had turned. 12:06.
To his right, traffic on Long Beach Boulevard had come to a screeching halt. It wasn't every day that a car blasted through on-coming traffic like a bowling ball.
Kevin sped past several gaping customers and zeroed in on the greenway. Not until he was on top of it did he see the curb. The Sable blew a tire when it connected; this time Kevin's head struck the ceiling. A dull pain spread down his neck.
Out, out, out!
The car flew into the ditch and Kevin crammed the brake pedal to the floor. For a fleeting moment he thought he might roll. But the car slid to a jolting halt, its nose planted firmly in the opposite slope.
He grabbed at the door latch, shoved the door open, and dove to the turf, rolling on impact. He scrambled to his feet and raced up the slope toward the lot. At least a dozen onlookers headed his way from the sea of parked cars.
"Back! Get back!" Kevin waved his arms at them. "There's a bomb in the car. Get back!"
They stared at him for one moment of fixed horror. Then all but three turned and fled, screaming his warning.
Kevin swung his arms furiously at the others. "Get back, you idiots! There's a bomb!"
They ran. A siren wailed through the air. Someone had already called the cops.
Kevin had run a good fifty paces from the greenway before it occurred to him that the bomb hadn't gone off. What if there wasn't a bomb after all? He pulled up and whipped around, panting and trembling. Surely three minutes had come and gone.
Was it a practical joke after all? Whoever this caller was, he'd done almost as much damage through the threat alone as he would have by detonating an actual bomb.
Kevin glanced around. A gawking crowd had gathered on the street at a safe distance. The traffic had stalled and was backing up as far as he could see. Steam hissed from a blue Hondapresumably the one that had hit his right rear fender. There had to be a few hundred people staring at the nut who'd driven his car into the ditch. Except for the growing wail of sirens, the scene had grown eerily silent. He took a step back toward the car.
At least there was no bomb. A few angry motorists and some bent fenders, so what? He'd done the only thing he could do. And really, there still could be a bomb. He'd leave that for the police once he explained his story. Surely they would believe him. Kevin stopped. The car tipped into the dirt with its left rear tire off the ground. From here it all looked kind of stupid.
"You said bomb?" someone yelled.
Kevin looked back at a middle-aged man with white hair and a Cardinals baseball cap. The man stared at him. "Did you say there was a bomb?"
Kevin looked back at the car, feeling suddenly foolish. "I thought there"
A deafening explosion shook the ground. Kevin instinctively crouched and threw his hands up to protect his face.
The bright fireball hung over the car; boiling black smoke rose into the sky. The red flame collapsed on itself with a soft whomp. Smoke billowed from the charred skeleton of what was only a moment ago his Sable.
Kevin dropped to one knee and stared, dumbstruck, wide-eyed.