CHAPTER  FORTY-ONE

I was surprised that Aara had asked Marlina to meet her not at the Muslim Center in Orono, but at Angela's Pizza in Ellsworth. I didn't know if she expected Marlina to come alone, but I really didn't care. Something extraordinarily weird had happened to Marlina, and I was determined not to let it happen again.

I see her as soon as we enter the restaurant. She is sitting with two young men in a booth at the far end of the room. They see us at the door, and Aara, smiling broadly hurries over to embrace Marlina.  "It's wonderful to see you again," she says. "For a long time now, I have been wanting to speak with you."

Marlina takes Aara's hands in hers. "You are looking so very good," she says. "I do hope things are going well for you."

When we move on to the table, hte young men rise, then drop to their knees. They lean forward and assume the familiar muslim prayer position.

What the fuck..." I mumble. All of the other pasta eaters are staring at them, and I am wishing they would stand the fuck up. I look at Aara, who smiles back at me. "I warned you that life can be full of surprises, didn't I"

"That you did," I admit. "But this is ridiculous."

The men have gotten back on their feet, and Aara gestures toward the taller of the two. "Let me introduce you to my brother Wajdi. Wajdi, this is Douglas Doberman, webmaster extraordinaire." She nods at the other man. "And this my other brother, Syraf."

Shaking hands with both guys, I introduce them to Carolyn. "You seem to already know Marlina," I say as we take our seats. "So tell me, what's with the bowing and scraping."

"We are paying the appropriate homage to you and Marlina," Syraf says.

"A simple 'nice to meet you' would do," I say.


Wajdi say, "We are not worthy of such latitude."

For the next minute or so we sit in silence. I can't speak for them, but to me the term "stunned silence" seems appropriate. I am wondering what I am doing with these screwballs. And Aara had seemed so normal, even delightful. A waitress a couple of tables away, holding several menus and a pitcher of water, seems indecisive. She has to be wondering if it's safe to approach us. Her sense of duty eventually prevails, and she fills our glasses as we distribute the menus. After she has beaten a hasty retreat, I ask Aara, "How did you know Marlina was with us?"

Aara says, "It seemed to us you had to know Marlina's whereabouts. Wadji followed you when you left the center. We hoped you would lead us to her, and you did."

I feel I have to defend my veracity. "I was telling the truth. Marlina's appearance came as a complete surprise."

Syraf shrugs.  "The important thing is she is with us now."

"Why are you so interested in my wife?"

Without hesitation Syraf replies, "She fulfills our prophecy. Both of you do."

Baffled into speechlessness, I stare at him. finally I murmur, "Your what?"

"Our prophesy. These are auspicious times. Everything is falling into place. We have been waiting a long time for the end of times."

"And my wife has something to do with this?"

"Your wife is the Messiah.  You are her assistant."

I look to Aara. "Can you please shed some light on this insanity?"

"It's very simple," Aara says. "Your wife, Marlina, is the Hundredth Maiden prophesied by Jesus. You are the Mahdi.""

"The what?" I say as I shake my head. "This is nuts. Let's just agree to disagree and leave each other in peace. You guys go off and believe whatever it is you want to believe, and we'll do likewise. Whatever our differences of dogma in the twelfth century are beside the point today. That was then, this is now, and never the twain will meet. I don't give a good god damn what went on way back when."

Aara continues, "It was prophesied that at first you would deny your role."

I stare back at her, reminded of the old psychology rub that the more vehemently you deny you're homosexual, the more you're indicating that, in fact, you are.

Syraf say, "You have remained hidden for a thousand years, but now is your time to emerge."

"If Mahdi has been hiding out in me, he couldn't have picked a better spot. Last place on Earth anybody would have thought to look."

Syraf turned to Marlina. "We knew you would make your appearance soon. The signs are all around us that the End of Days is nigh."

Wadji gets a dreamy look on his face. "I hear the clatter of their hooves. Can't you hear them? They're coming nearer and nearer. They're nearly here.  War, famine, pestilence, and death.  The Four Horsemen are upon us."

I notice that Aara seems a bit withdrawn. Is it possible she harbors a few rational doubts about all this? Could education have penetrated her redoubtable faith?

Syraf seems to be the more practical of the brothers. "Our faith has long held that in the End of Days Jesus will return as a Muslim."

Marlina's turn to speak.  "I am pretty damn sure I am not any Hundredth Maiden. And I know God damn well, I am not a Muslim. I am a motivational speaker, pure and simple, nothing more. I dispense advice, nothing more mystical than that."

Marlina's profanity surprises me; it's totally unlike her. But I like it. Somehow it seems utterly appropriate. I wonder if she has an F Word in her bag of linguistic tricks.

Syraf reaches over and pats her hand. "You don't think you're a Muslim," he says. "Right now you aren't sure what you are."

Marlina draws her hand back.  "I am quite sure I am not at all religious. I don't think God is religious, either."

AAra speaks up. "Can you accept the notion that a merciful God would not subject multitudes to eternal damnation?"

Marlina nods.

"If so, you would subscribe to a fundamental Muslim belief."

I decide I want to cut this short. "I know who she is," I say.  "She's my woman, a lady I love. Rumors to the contrary, she's no Apocalyptic Warrior Princess. And only recently did I learn what the Mahdi is, and believe me I am not he."

Syraf says, "You don't appreciate your powers. The Mahdi assists the Messiah by spreading divine knowledge around the world. Would you deny Marina your assistance?"

God damn trick question, I say to myself, along the lines of have your stopped beating your wife.  But I am not going to fall for it. "I don't have any freaking divine knowledge, and if I did I would probably keep it to myself. Do I look like some sort of Muslim holy man? I am not Muslim, and believe me, I am anything but holy. I am totally the wrong guy. Divine knowledge. Divine bullshit is more like it. People who know me know I am stupid as hell. If I had a checking account, I wouldn't be able to balance it.  trust me, you've gotten me confused with somebody way different."

Syraf isn't satisfied. "Your server offers the world uncensored internet. We have been able to find no other. The internet of Goggle is bent to serve its purposes. Yours is left in the hands of the almighty. You are in the business of promulgating total, unvarnished truth. You are our Mahdi."

"This has gotta be the silliest, most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. It's insane. There is  no nicer way of putting it."

Syraf continues. "You will come to see the truth. Your websites will ensure the unification of humanity to a single religious framework dependent upon a body of spiritual knowledge. The knowledge of God filling the world assumes the existence of the same unprecedented spiritual set of knowledge."

I wonder why every religion ends up dousing us with doubletalk. "You're nuts," I say. "How many times to I have to tell you, I have no spiritual knowledge. I am an agnostic."

"As such, you adhere to no predetermined doctrine. With you all things are possible. Eternal truths can flow through you." Syraf smiles. "Trust me, my friend, we're dealing with something much bigger than any of us."

Again, I say to myself, the more I deny I am the Mahdi, the more I indicate that I am.  "You seem to be saying that the less I know, the holier I am.  A whole new doctrine of and for the brainless. To your way of thinking, a little knowledge—hell, any knowledge at all—would be a very dangerous thing.  How can I hope to reason with you?"

Syraf gives up on me. "Tell me," he says to Marlina, "do you believe in the Trinity—that Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are all one and the same?"

"Not really," Marlina saysl.

"Do you accept the possibility that while Jesus was a great and good man, he wasn't necessarily divine?"

Marlina shrugs. "I am content with that."

Syraf smiles happily. "Then you have the makings of a fine and devout Muslim."

I am done being nice and am close to snarling when I say, "You have the makings of a first-class fruitcake."

"We are visionaries," Wadji insists. "We believe this war can be conducted without bloodshe. You have great powers of persuasion and a wonderful opportunity to adress millions at the upcoming Super Bowl."

"You expect her to make a case for Islam? I ask. "What if she doesn't?"

Syraf frowns. "It's always possible she is a false prophet.  The Koran warns against them. We're convinced Marlina is genuine, but all things are possible."

I don't feel like asking him what they would do wih a false prophet.

"We want Marlina to come with us," Wajdi says.  "If we can't secure your cooperation, we fear events could escalate into extreme unpleasantness. There might be no stopping it.  Millions could die in the ensuring bloodbath, although in the end Muslims would predominate."

"No way in Holy Hell is Marlina leaving with you," I assert. I sound a lot more sure than I really am. It is me against two tough and determined young fanatics.

I am wondering what Aara will do when she speaks up. "We are not looking to make a public spectacle. But time will tell that Marlina is one of us."

"As for avoiding public spectacle, it's a little late for that, considering the outlandish display of piety that constituted your way of saying, 'Hi, guy.' In case you haven't noticed, people haven't stopped giving us quizzical looks."

"We are accustomed to being misunderstood," Wajdi says.

I've had enough of this. "Do you have a problem with our leaving now?"

Aara speaks for her brothers. "Of course, you may go. As for Marlina, it's her decision. She can go with you or stay with us."

I look a Marlina and wonder why she doesn't respond immediately. Finally she says, "I am bound to remain with my significant other." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but way better than an outright dismissal.

"Well, it's been real," I say, "but we really must be running along."

"We will be in touch," Syraf promises.

I rise and grasp Marlina's shoulder, hoping to hell she doesn't have a change of heart. I don't want to have to drag her out of there. I am relieved when she obliges by rising easily. Carolyn is standing already and seems all to eager to vacate the premises.  I walk the two young ladies to the door and exit without looking back, wondering the whole time is leaving really is going to be this simple. Thank God, the we apparently all share, it turns out to be so.

Once we geet underway, I ask Carolyn what she makes of all this. "I am sure they are sincere in their beliefs," she says. "But there are things about the prophet Muhammad my people will never accept."

"Such as?"

"Well, he married a six-year-old, and had sex with her when she was nine.  How's that for starters? To topo things off, he had 13 wives and kept sex slaves on the side."

"hat does seem a bit too much for a role model," I admit. "You're sure this isn't all just chistian propaganda?"

Carolyn shakes her head. "It's in the Koran. There is no disputing it. He also advocated the wholesale slaughter of non-Muslims."

to my surprise, Marlina speaks up. "The Koran, like the Christian Bible, has inconsistencies and contradictions. In several passages, the Koran forbids the killing of non-Muslims."

I remain silent, but find her words surprising. I hadn't realized that she knew much if anything about Islam. She continues, "Many of your Christian friends believe that when Christ returns, he will be smiting heretics with death rays from his fingertips."

I half expect Carolyn to take offense at this, but if she does, she doesn't show it. Since meeting Carolyn, I have avoided discussing religion. I like her. She seems to be a good and compassionate person, and I don't doubt that her religion contributes to this. Still, as far as I know, she believes that God created the universe over a six-day stretch a few thousand years ago, and Jesus rode around on dinosaurs. How could an intelligent person subscribe to such idiocy? I am quite sure she is far more interested in her music than in dogma, and I would like to have explored all this with her, but in the interests of peaceful coexistence, I have held off. After a few moments, Carolyn says, "The Muslims do say that after he died Mohammad rode off to heaven on a great, white horse."

Marlina says, "Not too different from our Jesus shooting off to heaven like a Saturn rocket."

Is it my imagination, or is Marlina siding with the Muslims? I speak up, "I remember reading that during the American Civil War, both sides used the Bible to support their points of view." I am surprised when both Marlina and Carolyn nod their heads.

"I know one thing for sure," Carolyn says. "People of my faith will never accept the Hundredth Maiden. I don't care how many miracles she performs or if god Himself comes down to introduce her to us, we won't accept it. The idea that the male is dominant, the female subservient, is inherent in my faith. Nothing will ever change this."

Half an hour later, we are back at the Mira Monte. Lana is interested in what Carolyn has to say about our meeting with the Muslims. We talk abut it for abut an hour. Lana says that while Aara and her brothers seem to be putting a rather strange twist on things, they do seem to be more-or-less faith to Muslim doctrine.

There really isn't enough room here for Marlina and myself, and I am not keen on keeping her here anyway. The Muslims know we are here, and the Masons can't be far behind. Lilly was asking about Marlina; what is her interest in all this? It wouldn't surprise me if she rode in on a broom. And ol' man Sutherford. He seemed almost as interested in Marlina as he was in his golf game. What's up with that? Where is he and his gogglegoons?

I grab Marlina's had, lead her to my vehicle, and dirve her ack to Ellsworth. Once there, I put her in my van, and begin driving around. I make a lot of turns and backtrack some until I am confident nobody is following us. Then I park the van behind Goggle/Walmart. I tell Marina, "We're groing to stay here until I can sort a few things out."

"Like what? she says.

"It's possible that some people want to hurt you."

Marlina is obviously bewildered. "I am a motivational speaker," she says. "I encourage people to live positively. I advocate love. I guess I have a gift for making people feel better about themselves. Why would anybody want to hurt me?"

"Good question. All I know for sure is that a lot of people are showing an inordinate amount of interest in you, and some of it seems to be less than friendly."

"Can it be moe than my future fifteen minutes of fame at the Super Bowl?"

"I am sure lots of people would like a favorable mention from you, an endorsement, bu all indications are it's more than that."

"That business about the Hundredth Maiden? You aren't thinking it might be me, are you? Trust me, I wasn't born of a virgin. Far, far from it. Nobody who knows me could think I might be Jesus reborn."

"Maybe not, maybe so. Who knows what the criteria might be? Tell me, do you feel up to smiting heretics with death rays from your fingertips?"

"Not really. Most of my best friends are heretics. I include you."

"How about if you were looking for a quickey divorce?"

"We're not married. Bit it's something to keep in mind."

"I'll admit, I do sometimes wonder who you really are. It occurs to me we've never talked about your ancestry."

Marlina looks pjuzzled. "I don't know much about it. My mother did tell me that her grandmother came here from Southern France. After giving birth to twin girls, her husband, Todd, a union officer, was killed at Gettysburg. One of the twins, Maria, was my grandmother. She married a proper Bostonian, Franklin, who made a fortune in the spice trade. They had a daughter, my mother, who was something of a hippie. She says I was conceived at a gala, week-long music festival in rural Maine.  I never mentioned being a bastard?"

Since almost any reply could prove disastrous, I decide to focus on her entire bloodline. "It seems as though you have come from a long line of fems," I note.  "Was there ever a Tom, Dick, or Harry?"

Marlina thinks about it for a minute. She seems reluctant when she concedes she had never heard of any boy babies. "What are the odds?" she says.












CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

YOU MUST BE SOME SURPRISED...

It is ten-thirty in the morning, and Marlina seems to be making up for lost time in the sleep department. I am glad that she is still asleep when the message appears on my monitor. Sixty point, Aerial Bold, All Caps: Clint might as well have signed his name. I type, "Smaller type would enable you to get more words on the screen"

SOMETIMES IT'S IMPORTANT TO GET YOUR ATTENTION. LIKE NOW.

"Well, you got it. What's up?"

YOU MUST BE HAPPY TO SEE MARLINA.

"Over-joyed. What would you expect?"

SEEMS LIKE YOU SHOULD BE WONDERING WHAT TO DO ABOUT SUZI.

I decide not to dignify this with a response. Truth is I can't think of a good one.

MARLINA, BY THE WAY, IS DELIGHTFUL COMPANY.

I type, "I suspected you were behind her disappearance."

TOOK HER ON A TRIP. IT WAS FOR HER OWN GOOD.

"Some trip. Almost two years."

IN HER TIME, IT WAS SIX HOURS. SHE ENTERED SEVERAL TIGHTLY COMPRESSED BACKWARD AND FORWARD TIMELINES.

"You can go back in time?"

BACKWARD, FORWARD, FAST FORWARD, FAST ANY WHICH WAY. MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. TIME IS THE EASIEST OF ALL DIMENSIONS TO MANIPULATE. SPACE IS A BIT MORE DIFFICULT, BUT NOT ALL THAT MUCH. YOUR SPECIES IS COMING DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO MASTERING ALL OF THIS.

"I could have you arrested for kidnapping."

HA, HA, HA.

"Why did you take her?"

WHEN IT WAS ANNOUNCED SHE WOULD BE THE SUPER BOWL SPEAKER, IT WAS APPARENT SHE WAS IN DANGER. SEVERAL PARTIES WERE ANTICIPATING THE APPEARANCE OF THE HUNDREDTH MAIDEN, AND SOME WERE BOUND TO THINK IT MUST BE HER.

"That doesn't explain why you took her."

SHE IS AN OUTSTANDING EXAMPLE OF YOUR SPECIES. PITY THERE AREN'T MORE LIKE HER. IT WOULD BE EASY TO HAVE WHAT YOU WOULD CALL A CRUSH ON HER.

"She's mine, asshole." Then I decide to try a loaded question. "Is she the Hundredth Maiden?"

WHO KNOWS? IT'S POSSIBLE. WHETHER SHE IS OR NOT, YOU HAVEN'T BEEN TREATING HER VERY WELL.

Time to change the subject. "I assume you know about the codex."

OF COURSE. WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT?

"Isn't it an unbelievable coincidence that I, her significant other, would be in on the discovery of a document pertaining to the Hundredth Maiden?"

I STEERED YOU AND PETER WERE TO THE CODEX.

I ponder this for a moment or so. Nobody likes thinking they're easily manipulated. Then I decide to concede the point. "Why?" I ask.

YOU NEEDED TO BE EDUCATED. IN THE LONG RUN, ONLY YOU CAN PROTECT MARLINA.

"But why do you care?"

GOOD QUESTION. IT'S A BAD IDEA. WAY TOO MUCH HAS HAPPENED ALREADY. CLOSE MONITORING IS OCCURRING. THE WATCHMAN JOB IS IN JEOPARDY.

"Your job is to stop unfit entities from colonizing the cosmos?"

THAT'S RIGHT.

"Any you're not supposed to interfere with our activities, especially when they pertain to legal matters?"

CORRECT AGAIN.

"But time after time you do interfere.  Why?"

YOU'RE INTRIGUING.

"Must be our good looks."

IN YOUR DREAMS. IT'S ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY. IT'S THE TRADITION YOUR BEST GOLFERS HAVE OF ABIDING BY THE RULES NO MATTER WHAT. PLAYERS OFTEN PENALIZE THEMSELVES IN INSTANCES WHEN THEY DON'T NEED TO.

"I was brought up to believe that golf is a gentleman's game."

BULLY FOR YOU. GAMES ARE UNIVERSAL, BUT GOLF IS UNIQUE. THROUGHOUT THE COSMOS, LIFE FORMS THAT EVOLVE TO A CERTAIN LEVEL ARE HARDWIRED TO DO CERTAIN THINGS. THEY DRAW PICTURES, WRITE BOOKS, INVENT RELIGIONS, BUILD BOMBS, AND PLAY GAMES. GOLF IS THE ONLY GAME IN THE COSMOS IN WHICH MANY OF ITS FINEST PARTICIPANTS WON'T CHEAT GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY. I KNOW IT'S CRAZY, BUT GOLF SUGGESTS THERE IS A SMIDGEN OF HOPE FOR YOUR SPECIES.

I realize this is a point worth pondering. I try to imagine an NFL lineman back in the days before football was banned insisting his team be penalized because he used his hands illegally. I come up empty. Then I remember reading about the time Bobby Jones called a  tournament-losing penalty on himself following a trivial infraction that nobody noticed. When he was commended, Jones said matter-of-factly, "A man might just as well be praised for not robbing a bank."  Golf it seems is different from other sports, and perhaps its icons occupy a sphere above that of other athletes.

OF COURSE, I AM NOT SUGGESTING THAT GOLFERS NEVER CHEAT. I'VE WATCH TOO MANY TO COUNT HIT THE BALL EIGHT TIMES AND CALL IT FIVE.

Then I say, "Explain something to me. We humans aren't able to wrap our minds around the formidable distances of the cosmos. The Milky Way is a hundred thousand light years across. Our rocket ships would take thousands of years to reach the nearest star. Somebody, I forget who, once pointed out that it would take us more than ten million years to cross our galaxy, while on a cosmic scale our galaxy is hardly any distance at all. Our galaxy with its hundred billion stars is among some hundred billion other galaxies, many of which are much larger than the Milky Way, and they're all moving away from us at an alarming rate."

YOU'RE FORGETTING THE COUNTLESS OTHER UNIVERSES.

"yeah, sure, whatever. The point is we'll never colonize the cosmos to any appreciable extent. It's just too damn big."

YOUR SCIENTISTS ARE ON THE VERGE OF DISCOVERING HOW MALLEABLE TIME AND SPACE ARE. YOU NEED TO REMEMBER THAT ALL THE STUFF OF THE UNIVERSE INCLUDING SPACE AND TIME ONCE OCCUPIED A DIMENSIONLESS, MICROSCOPIC SINGULARITY. BY MANIPULATING TIME AND SPACE THE FURTHEST REACHES OF THE COSMOS ARE READILY ACCESSIBLE. HOW DO YOU SUPPOSE IT'S POSSIBLE FOR ME TO MONITOR THE ENTIRE PLACE?

"Actually, I haven't believed you when you say you do."

YOU'RE UNDERESTIMATING COSMIC CAPACITY. WITHOUT SLOWING DOWN, MARLINA TRAVELED THROUGH  SEVERAL DIFFERENT TIME TWISTS. SHE MET ZOROASTER, BUDDHA, LAO TZE, AND AMBROSE BIERCE AMONG OTHERS. SHE EVEN GOT OFF THE BEATEN PATH AND VISITED TAZEN PROPZ.

"I never heard of him."

YOU WOULDN'T HAVE. HE HASN'T BEEN HATCHED YET.

"You have been busy."

IT'S IMPORTANT TO STAY ENGAGED. THERE ARE ONLY TWO POSSIBILITIES. THE FIRST IS THAT LEFT UNHINDERED YOU WILL EXHAUST THE RESOURCES OF YOUR PLANET AND FEEL THE NEED TO EXPAND.

"What's the second?"

THE SECOND IS THAT HUMAN NATURE WILL PREVAIL AND YOU'LL BLOW ONE ANOTHER TO SMITHEREENS.  THIS IS THE MORE LIKELY SCENARIO. SOONER OR LATER, PROBABLY SOONER, IT'S PRETTY MUCH BOUND TO HAPPEN. BUT IT WOULD BETTER IF IT DOESN'T HAPPEN JUST YET.


"Why so?"

HONESTLY?

"Yeah, sure, of course honestly. Tell me the truth."

HOGAN'S SECRET REMAINS ELUSIVE.

"Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about your fixation on Hogan's secret. Why haven't you just gone back and asked him?"

TRIED THAT. HE SAID GO AWAY AND STOP BEING BOTHERSOME.

"Couldn't you just mold yourself in Hogan's image and copy his swing?"

WHAT WOULD BE THE SPORT IN THAT?

I decide to change the subject. "I'll bet you know who killed Jack."

SO?

"Even if You don't,  you could go back and find out."

SO?

"He was your friend. You could tell me who killed him. Maybe justice could prevail."

TRUE.

"But you won't."

ALSO TRUE.

"Because this could involve you in Earthly jurisprudence."

YOU'RE CATCHING ON.

"You're infuriating, but consistent."

THANKS. BY THE WAY, HAVE YOU SEEN LILLY LATELY?

"No," I lie.

IT'S A WONDER YOU AREN'T TRYING TO DOINK HER TOO.

"Life is complicated enough as it is."

ESPECIALLY YOURS.

"I suppose you have a crush on her too."

COULD BE. NO DOUBT YOU'VE NOTICED SHE HAS A RACK THAT JUST WON'T QUIT. GIVE THAT GIRL SOME ROOM. YOU'LL DISCOVER SHE HAS A LOT OF HEART.

"You're a letch."

TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE. BY THE WAY, YOU HAVE MADE NO PROGRESS FINDING THE PORTAL.

"I have had next to nothing to go on."

A GREAT GUIDEBOOK WRITER SUCH AS YOURSELF OUGHT TO BE ABLE TO FIND DOWNEAST'S MOST MAGICAL PLACE WITHOUT BREAKING A SWEAT.

There are countless magical places.

BUT ONLY ONE MOST MAGICAL. YOU MIGHT PARTAKE WITH THE YOUNG ERNEST HEMINGWAY.

"What does that mean?"

MAKE OF IT WHAT YOU WILL. YOU HAVEN'T GIVEN UP ON SUZI HAVE YOU?

"It's possible she's killed several people."

SHE DIDN'T. AT HER REQUEST, SHE' S BEEN TAKEN TO A SAFE PLACE. WHO KNOWS? MAYBE THE PORTAL COULD TAKE YOU TO HER.

My screen goes dark.

                                                
 


CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

IF I EVER  get my hands on Clint or whoever's behind Clint, I swear I'll tear his guts out with my bare hands. Never before have I felt this infuriated. I hate the son of a bitch, although I do have to admit he always gives me plenty of things to think about. Time and space compression, cosmic rules, the unacceptability of the human race, intergalactic friendships, sexually obsessed spirits, magic portals, secrets of golf, miner deities fretting over job security. If I ever do catch up with him, I don't know if I will want to wring his neck or tap his brain, if he even has a brain in any conventional sense of the word.

Plenty of things to think about, but where to begin? Whatever Clint is—a force for good, a force for evil, or maybe a force for just having fun or just being annoying—he's a force that's impossible to ignore.  Jack once said that Clint dreamed of being asked to join a scramble team. He wants to be one of the guys, and maybe he feels that sexual obnoxiousness is a prerequisite for this distinction. What with all the fun and games, should I pay any heed at all to Jack's conviction that the fate of mankind is in Clint's hands?

I realize I may have to abandon my theory that Clint is a con man extraordinaire. It made sense for quite a while. It was easy enough to attribute his words on my monitor to high-tech trickery. I have no idea how he does this, but who was it who said that any new technology is indistinguishable from magic? I'll allow the possibility he found a way to invade my computer, but how could he abduct Marlina for two years, convince her it's only been six hours, and have her visit most of the leading holy men of the part several thousand years? I remember watching a magician make a three-story house disappear, but that trick pales compared to this. I could question my own sanity, I suppose, but if it's an affliction, it's one that's reached pandemic proportions.

Will I one day look back on all this and wonder how I could have been so gullible?

Years ago, a popular television series explored the notion that real progress began when mankind was visited by advanced beings from far away. Among many other things, these ancient astronauts taught the pyramid builders their trade. Why should we believe this? Well, for one thing, the pyramids are lined up directionally with a precision we would be hard-pressed to match today. This doesn't prove anything, of course, but it does give us pause. Many of the show's points were like this. With scant evidence to prove anything, there necessarily was a great deal of conjecture. Many, many sentences began, "Is it possible…" followed by a notion that might be highly unlikely, but still possible, as is pretty much everything. " A string of several is-it-possible-questions answered to the affirmative would lead to earth-shattering conclusions. In our secular society, pretty much everything is possible.

The show pointed to the many religions that involve visitations from the heavens by angels and others and asked if these visitors could have been beings from other star systems. Well, sure, they could have been ancient astronauts, although other possibilities may seem far more likely. For those of us with open minds, everything's fair game. Once you admit quantum evidence, it's hard to imagine much that's flat out impossible. Intuitively I know that Clint the Cosmos Watchman isn't likely to exist. But quantum mechanics long ago turned intuition on its ear.

According to Jack, Clint says he was on hand when golf was invented. Clint claims it was his idea to put holes in various locations and to use different-sized sticks for various shots. Is it possible he has spent the last thousand years trying to get his handicap into single digits? Of course it's possible.

Why shouldn't I have believed Jack when he said Clint showed him the way to Pinkal, his long-lost city Guatemala? I guess it's possible Jack got it right when he said Clint is some sort of ethereal spirit, a miner deity, a paranormal pathfinder. As things stand not it's hard not to believe Clint is something far beyond our normal range of experience.

And what's up with Clint and Lilly? All of a sudden he likes her? All I can remember is his mean-mouthing her. Now she's hot shit? And the italics. The word "heart" and "room" are in italics. I am quite sure he's never before used italics. There's gotta be a reason for this.

An inspiration strikes me. Or maybe it's way too obvious to be called inspirational. What if he wants me to go to Lilly's room?

It's Thursday morning. Lilly and her friends will be at the gym practicing martial arts. Nobody's home but Margaret, but getting by her would be all but impossible. An idea begins to form in my mind. I go to my study and empty the books out of a half-full Goggle/Hannaford chicken box. Then I go to my car, lug a cinder block out of the trunk, bring it inside, and place it in the box. Then I wrap the box in some pretty red, white, and blue paper I happen to have on hand. I top it off with a big red bow.

When I get to Lilly's sorority house, as quietly as I can I wrestle the box from the trunk and place it on the lawn twenty-five or thirty-feet from the door. That done I get back into my car and drive it half a block down Stillwater and park it between two others. So far so good I say to myself when I get back to the house. The box in the yard hasn't moved and obviously hasn't attracted anyone's attention. The Greek columns framing the front door remind me of a high school teacher who seemed to have a fetish for them. He impressed upon me the three main types.  The ones here are ionic; not plain, dumb doric, not overly fancy, ostentatious Corinthian, but sensible, in-between, down-to-earth ionic.

I remind myself to pay attention to the task at hand. The columns are fat enough to provide modest concealment as I reach around to ring the bell. Seconds later the door opens and Margaret steps onto the porch. She sees the package and hurries out to it. She bends over to pick it up, but it's heavy, and as I expected she can barely budge it.  While she struggles with the package, I duck inside and hurry to the stairs.

I had been afraid that Lilly's door would be locked, but it wasn't. I enter the room  and depress the locking mechanism in the center of the door knob before shutting the door. Now nobody without a key or a battering ram can interrupt me. I begin rummaging around. In a bureau I affirm what I already know;  Lilly favors both red and black bras and panties. I move on to the closet. There the girl displays a penchant for black. There are black t-shirts, black dresses, black slacks, black blouses. Some are trimmed with patches of white, but black is the over-all motif.

On the floor of the closet are two clear plastic trash bags. I pull one out and see it's filled with leafy green plant material, a healthy supply of Ayahuasca-A, enough to last a decade or longer. On a shelf above the hanger pole, there is a shoe box. I bring it down. The box is black with fancy white script, Bettie Page Shoes by Ellie. I open the box and inside wrapped in newspaper is a mason jar filled with liquid and what looks like a piece of raw meat. Besides the jar, the box contains a motley collection of small items. There is a money clip, a man's necktie, a gold ball, a small collar decorated with several bells, a well-worn Mickey Spillane paperback book.

I decide I want to keep the box.

I hear a rattle at the door. The knob is twisting back and forth. Some keyless person is trying to come in. I feel a flash of fear. It's almost a panic attack. What gives with that? It's gotta be Margaret, and she's old and plump, good at baking chocolate chip cookies, but hardly a threat. Her only black belt would accessorize a mourning flock. I tell myself I should just walk out. "Hi, Margaret," I imagine myself saying. "I was in the neighborhood and thought I would drop by to bop Lilly, but I see she isn't here. The shoes? What Shoes? Oh, these. I am just borrowing them. I've taken a real fancy to  'em. Well, have a nice day. Never mind the cookies."

Who am I kidding? Margaret might have me for lunch. I go to the window and look out. There's a nearby elm tree, but the nearest branch is five or six feet away, further than I can hope to jump.

I take it to the window and drop it out. I am quite sure the wrappings will cushion the jar .

The rattling of the door knob has stopped. Margaret has gone to get a key.

In the closet is an orange, heavy-duty, fifty-foot extension cord, still in its cardboard wrapper. On the floor by the bed is a ten-pound dumbbell. I jerk the cord from its wrapper, and tie an end to the weight with a double square knot. Grasping the cord about three feet from the weight, I swing the weight back and forth four or five times, establishing a rhythm that enables me to heave it through the open window. As I knew it would, it becomes entangled in the branches of the oak. Unfortunately, I have no way of telling how well-entangled it might be . It could easily come loose.

No time to worry about that. I ease my legs out the window and sit on the sill while I draw the cord taut. "Geronimo" I mumble as I launch myself  off the window frame. A second later, I am plunging through leaves and branches until finally I come to rest near a big limb. The weight had been adequately entangled. A minute or so later, I climb down the tree and am on solid ground. I pick up the shoe box and quickly as possible hightail it to Ellsworth. Clint, it seems, is trying to help me, and I hope I can stay in his good graces.






CHAPTER FORTY
-FOUR


 I KNOW SOMETHING IS WRONG the moment I get back to my van. The passenger-side door is open, and I can sense nobody's home. A cold fear grips my gut. Has Marlina disappeared again? Have I mindlessly let her slip through my fingers? Inside the van, my fears are confirmed. Marlina is gone. As far as I can tell, nothing has been disturbed. There's no sign of a struggle. Malina's knapsack  is gone as are her communicator and sunglasses.  Then I notice a faint odor, a familiar one, but at first I can't place it. It takes a few moments before I sense a growing contentment and realize it's emanating from  the two empty cups on the table.

Ayahuasca-A!

Lilly has been here, or maybe her friends have been. In any event, there's no doubt in my mind that this is the key to Marlina's disappearance. Somehow I know she's in Orono. We must have passed each other on the road.

Forty-five minutes later, I am back at Lilly's sorority house. I bang on the door five or six times before Margaret opens it. I don't wait for her to invite me in. I brush by her, actually reaching out and moving her a bit to the side. "Marlina is here. I know she's here. Take me to her now."

If Margaret is offended by my boorish behavior, she doesn't show it. She smiles slightly, then, turning on her heel, leads me to the sitting room. From the doorway she waves me toward the couch. "Lilly will be right with you," she says. No tea, no cookies, no inquiries into how I am doing. Maybe Margaret is a bit offended, like a give a shit.

I sit smoldering for perhaps five minutes before Lilly and Marlina enter the room. They're smiling like they've been enjoying a girl's day out. "What the hell is going on?" I ask.

Lilly speaks up first. "Conversation," she says. "Feminine chitchat. I've been telling Marlina things she needs to know about sacred womanhood." Lilly has a small smile on her face, a smile similar to Margaet's, and she is looking at me in a way I don't like. Lilly and I have a history I would prefer Marlina doesn't know about. I am not sure that Marlina emotionally grasps the notion that in our time she was gone two years, not six hours. Am I feeling guilty? I don't know. Maybe. I keep telling myself I shouldn't. But maybe I do. Hell, it might not even be an issue. Marlina has never seemed possessive. Sexual jealousy might not be part of her makeup. I know I'll find out one way or the other. Sooner or later, she'll learn about Suzi. I can't shake the conviction that later would be better.

I look at Marlina. I sense she feels I have no justification for being upset. "Lilly has been educating me," she says. "She's telling me interesting things about ancient Egyptian gods."

Lilly joins in, "Back in the good old days of proper divinity, women were treated with a hell of a lot more respect than they have been for the past two-thousand years. Not many people recognize the extent to which the Catholic Church waged war on women. Have you ever heard of Malleus Maleficarum—or The Witches Hammer—probably the bloodiest publication ever? It taught the world to fear "freethinking women" and encouraged the clergy to torture and destroy them. For the Church, "witches" was a catchall phrase for female scholars, priestesses, gypsies, mystics, nature lovers, herb gatherers and any women "suspiciously attuned to the natural world." Midwives were murdered for the crime of using herbs to ease a woman's pain during child birth. Witch hunts went on for 300 years, during which time some five million women were burned at the stake."

I shrug. "Bad times, to say the least," I admit. "But water under the bridge. It seems to me your gender is doing okay these days."

"Not nearly as good as we're going to be doing."

I wonder what Lilly means by this, but don't say anything. Finally, I decide to taunt her. "You are some cocky," I say. "You play the victim card, but seem to have no doubt you're in a position to rectify matters. All I can wonder is, you and what army?"

"We don't need an army to assume our rightful place in the world," Lilly continues. "Becoming the leader of world religion will do the trick quite nicely."

Oh.

"My mother's mother told me that Marlina would one day join us. She was well-versed in the prophesy of the Hundredth Maiden."

I look back at Marlina. "You aren't listening to her are you? Lilly is a crackpot. She is not your friend. Trust me, she just isn't."

Marlina meets my gaze. "Perhaps I can remedy that by being her friend," she says.

I fight an impulse to go over and shake her, wrench her free of such sanctimonious bullshit. Before I can act on that impulse, Lilly comes on with claptrap of her own.  "As women, we have been robbed of our birthright," she says. "For two thousand years, the Church has cheated and lied to insure the dominance of the male."

I can be quite snide. "I don't know," I admit. "Maybe you have a case. Probably time to write your congressman or maybe you should burn your bra, one of those wicked black ones with the wondrous uplift." Oops. I may be admitting to knowing more than I should.

I swear Lilly snorted. "Back in the day, there was a phrase that described people like you: Male chauvinist pig. Your kind think God's a guy. It's incredible how many of you still believe in your big, bearded, white, fatherly guy-in-the-sky. To any sort of rational mind, your all-knowing, all-powerful God presents lots of problems. If He is so smart and powerful, why did He create people He must have known would displease Him?"

"Carolyn tells me He gives us free will, which opens up all sorts of unpredictable consequences."

"Not for an omniscient deity. By definition, He knows it all. For Him nothing can be unpredictable. Our pagan deities have more shortcomings. They may pick their noses or fart in public, but they present far fewer paradoxes."

Marlina speaks up. "Tell him about Isis, Lilly. Tell him what you told me."

Lilly looks at me warily. "Hard to know where to begin," she says. "Do you have any idea at all who Isis was?"

"Not really," I confess. I know its absurd being sucked into a theological discussion with a self-proclaimed witch.

"Well, Isis was quite a gal," Lilly continues. "Ancient Egyptians believed she was the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, although she also listened to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers."

"Sounds nice."

"She did have a few quirks that might give a prude such as you pause. You've heard the quip, 'vice is nice, but incest is best'? Well, she might have originated it since she was married to her brother Osiris. The story begins to get really interesting when the god Set kills Osiris and scatters his body parts all over Egypt. Isis immediately goes  to work, traveling throughout the land collecting those body parts. Once she finds them all, she put Osiris back together and brings him back to life."

"I've gotta admit, your gods sound like fun folks. Still, I am curious about one thing: Your sacraments."

"Our sacraments?"

"One in particular.
ayahuasca-A"

Lily's smile reeks of pure evil. "Ah, yes, the substance you find so tasty." I look at Marlina to see how she responds to this revelation. She shows no reaction whatsoever.  "It does have an interesting effect on indulgers," Lilly continues. "Ayahuasca-A  strips away conditioning. It takes us back to our roots. Spiritually, it returns us to when women were the original gods, the nurturers men craved. It's a proven fact, men fall in love with women who nurture them. I guess you could say it turns fellows into Cro-Magnons. Would you care for some?"

"No, not now. Thanks anyway." I think about things for a moment, then ask, "So what do you want with Marlina?"

"I want her to join our sorority."

"She isn't a college student."

Lilly just smiles at this.

"Speaking of your sorority, where are your sisters? Other than Margaret and you, this place seems deserted."

"Laura and Beth are here. The others have dispersed to spread the word."

"Which word would this be?"

"That we have found the Hundredth Maiden."

"Our Muslim friends are saying the same thing. They also want Marlina to join them. They're even offering me a position. I can be the Mahdi.  Seems to be a  pretty prestigious position."

Lilly smiles wickedly. "I am sure we can find something for you," she says. "Have you even been an altar boy? I am afraid you will have to accept something subservient. We are so far ahead of you theologically, you'll never catch up. We knew Marlina was the hundredth maiden long before you had a single clue."

"Still news to me. Truth is I know bull crap when I hear it. My big wish is you people would stop bringing it up."

Lilly laughs. "You grossly underestimate Marlina's capacity for the miraculous. Would you want to deny your loved one her destiny?"

"You are right about one thing: I love Marlina madly. That's how I know she's mortal. She can be a highly persuasive speaker, but she has distinct human limitations. Someone once told me Jesus could turn water into wine and stone into bread; Marlina, on the other hand, can't turn flour and water into paste. She is a woman who can't read a cookbook, never mind produce divinely inspired culinary creations. For the life of her, she can't remember a pint is a pound the world around. I can think of few things sillier than her being some sort of reincarnated Jesus."

I look at Marlina. I have never before criticized her cooking. I don't know why I am doing so now. Maybe I am hungry, but I am relieved when she smiles back at me, even if that smile is a bit rueful.

Lilly is unimpressed. "Men such as yourself are much too smug" she says. "Your kind haven't always been in charge. Long ago, throughout lands now known as the Middle East and Europe, God was honored and cherished as feminine. Well, this is about to end, and who knows what might emerge from misogynistic church wreckage? I wouldn't mind taking over the Vatican. Nice digs. High time."

"You aren't fit to be a maid there."

"We'll see. You might be surprised. I think the women of the world will welcome their new Messiah with open arms."

"You're giving new meaning to the phrase 'delusions of grandeur'."

"Grandeur, yes, but hardly delusional? Most of us shrink back from grandeur. That's a problem with us today. We're afraid to think big. We used to build Panama Canals and Hoover Dams, crisscross the country with railways and super highways, rocket men to the moon, but not now. We're afraid of big. Goggle is big, but nothing else is. Same thing with religion. We have one great, big, superduper God, but no time for minor deities. Well, we intend to change that."

"By bringing back paganism?"

"More or less. We Wiccans call it neo-paganism."

"I hope Zeus blows a bolt up your butt. At the risk of becoming overly repetitive, I'll say it again: the notion of Marlina being some sort of reincarnated Jesus is pure poppycock."

Since the day Jack told me Clint called something 'poppycock,' I have found myself falling back on it more and more. I am a bit astonished by the force of my rhetoric. My strong talk might annoy Marlina, but it doesn't phase Lilly. "Not that long ago, you would have called the notion of Marlina addressing the Super Bowl of Soccer crazy," she points out. "Your little Marline uttering words that cast a spell over enthralled multitudes around the world? you would have scoffed your ass off."

I hold my tongue. The lady does have a point. I look at Marlina and nod towards the door. "Let's blow this loony bin."

"You're welcome to stay," Lilly -says. "I hope you do."

Marlina hesitates. She looks at the floor, avoiding eye contact with both Lilly and me. Then she says, "I want to stay here for now."

Damn. I was afraid of something like this.

"Lilly and I aren't through talking. Besides, no offense intended,  the accommodations here are quite a bit better than your van."

I remember Lilly's positive referral to bisexuality. Nothing wrong with this,of course. Different strokes for different folks and all that.  But who am I kidding? The idea of Lilly touching Marlina turns my stomach. "Please, Marlina," I say. "Let's go have a nice dinner and try to sort things out."


Lilly says, "You heard the lady. She wants to stay here. Don't embarrass yourself by begging."

I feel helpless. Time to man up. "I'll be back tomorrow," I promise. "Tomorrow I'll insist that you come with me. It'll be come with me or good-bye forever."

Marlina just looks at me. This has gotta be my first ever ultimatum. I am pretty sure I am bluffing. I hope I am. I think I might detect a slightly worried look on her face.






CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

HARD TO FIND WORDS to adequately describe how much I hate leaving Marlina with Lilly. But what can I do? I should feel shitty that she chose to stay with Lilly, but I don't. I suspect she has taken ayahuasca-A and could well be under its influence. Given Lilly's proclivity for devious behavior, by tomorrow Marlina might be even more caught up in her grip. Or maybe the problem isn't ayahuasca-A. Maybe Marlina is being threatened by her own religiosity. Repaying evil with kindness might be okay in theory, but this is the real world we're talking about. Sometimes you have to repay evil by kicking the crap out of it.

I begin to drive down Stillwater, get as far as Goggle/McDonald's, pull in, get two Goggle/BigMacs and Goggle/fries, and head back towards Lilly's house. I pull over half a block short of the house and cut the engine. I recline the seat five or six inches and begin eating my junk food. I am prepared for a long wait.

I guess I dozed off. Suddenly it's dark and I am jarred wide awake by the high beams of the vehicle pulling up in front of Lilly's house. When the lights are extinguished, a streetlight is providing sufficient illumination that I can tell it's a big SUV. Three figures climb out of it. They're wearing dark overcoats, but I can tell by their size they're probably men. men. They're all at least six feet fall, and one of them is considerably taller than the others. I can't place it, but there is something familiar about the way he moves. They go to the front door, and it opens almost immediately. They go in and the door closes behind them. I sit and wait. Ten minutes later they come back out, and with them is Marlina. A guy is on either side of her, each holding an arm, but she doesn't seem to be struggling. Hard to say for sure, but I believe she's going right along with them.

I try to catch a glimpse of the plate as the SUV rumbles by, but the back light is out. By the time I get started and turned around, they're all the way down to the stop light. They turn left towards the university. Once I get down there, the light is red, and traffic from the left is streaming around the corner. Nothing I can do but stop and wait.

The damn light seems to take forever. I would run it, but there's no gap in the traffic flow. When I do finally get going, there is a set of taillights five or six blocks ahead. Desperate to reduce the space between us, I stomp the accelerator to the floor, hoping to hell I don't attract a cop. The car ahead makes a right turn into the university. I speed down to the entrance, but by the time I turn the corner, no other vehicle is in sight. I drive around slowly. It seems like every other car is an SUV, and half of them are dark colored. How in Hell am I supposed to know which is the one I want? I spend half an hour driving up and down campus sreets, but come up empty. Reluctantly I decide to go back to Lilly's place.

When Margaret opens the door, she doesn't seem at all surprised to see me. Not waiting for me to brush her aside, she steps back, and I make my way to the sitting room. Lilly is there already. She is dressed in jeans and an over-sized university sweat shirt and looks ready for a day of casual fun.


No time for niceties. "Who were those guys?" I ask. "Where has Marlina gone?"

Lilly shakes her head. "I don't know. Really, I don't. They didn't say much. They had guns and seemed ready to use them. I could have handled one or two of them, but three armed maniacs could pose problems. Besides, Marlina was all too happy to go with them."

"You have no idea what they want with her?"

"None whatsoever. Margaret and I were wondering if you sent them. Oh, I did overhear one of them saying something about protecting the identify of the Hundredth Maiden."

"You don't believe she is some sort of Hundredth Maiden do you?"

Lilly looked thoughtful. "Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. Hard to say. I do know Jesus would blow a few minds if he came back as a big-breasted female. I'm not sure I really care. No matter what, she would make a wonderful spokesperson for the Wiccan cause. "

I am beginning to get more than just a bit pissed off. "Why does Wicca need a spokesperson, for God's sake? Doesn't a lineage that traces back to Paleolithic times speak for itself?"

Lilly gives me a long hard look. "I don't think you appreciate the significance of our lineage."

"I know it goes way back."

"Further than you know. Let me bring you up to speed on the history of us humanoids. We began making stone tools more than three-million years ago. We used stones both for pounding and cutting. But for a couple of million years there was next to no progress.  Our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors weren't at all creative. In all that time, the biggest advance was the attachment of a pointed stone to a wooden staff, the spear. Whoop-dee-doo!" Then about forty or fifty-thousand years ago something remarkable happened to the human brain. It became obsessed with symbols. People became artistic and remarkably verbal. We suspect they got into psychedelic drugs. They began painting pictures on cave walls and creating permanent messages chipped into flat stones."

Lilly opens the bottom drawer to her desk and extracts a small clay sculpture. It's a rotund female figure no more than four inches high. It's like three orbs, with two big round breasts and an equally big round belly. It's gray, the color of unadorned clay. "Jack gave this to me. It's called the Venus of Willendorf. The original dates back to at least twenty-five thousand years. To us it's very obviously a fertility symbol. People became artists before they took up farming."

"Tom once told me we were brewing beer before we were baking bread."

"Damn right we were, and we were making fertility symbols before that. For several million years, we were an endangered species. We were incredibly vulnerable. Back then women were getting the respect they deserved. Wiccans do go way back. Forty, fifty, maybe a hundred thousand years. Back before our apelike ancestors drew a connection between screwing and babies. This, incidentally, was no simple problem. As I am sure you've noticed, screwing doesn't always cause babies. Thank God for that. But these people weren't stupid. Certainly somebody noticed that babies never appear without screwing. I think we can assume there was no taboo against indiscriminate screwing, so the sample of unscrewed females was quite limited. Complicating matters further was the considerable time-lapse between screwing and babies."

"But some guy figured it out."

"Not some guy. Some woman. It had to have been a gal. Women know a baby is on the way long before it makes a noticeable appearance, and she would come to associate it with fucking. But when she did, I'll bet she kept it to herself. No sense getting guys mixed up in this important business. I am sure women liked being seen as the source of all fertility. Surely they were pleased when for thousands of years dumb-shit men made carvings of morbidly obese females, carvings celebrating the fertile female, carvings that to them represented the promise of a future."

"I suppose when those gals got together they laughed merrily at the stupidity of men."

"We do share our secrets. Marlina told me a big one about herself."

"Why do I just know you're a liar. You wouldn't know the truth if it reared it ugly head and bit you in that pretty little ass of yours."

The lovely witch woman glares at me. I can tell she's truly pissed. "She's pregnant," Lilly spits at last. "And that's not all. She hasn't had sex in recent memory. She's heading towards an immaculate conception."

"Good God," I say. "Let me guess. She's either Jesus Christ come again or the mother of Jesus who, while hardly a virgin, Needn't bother with sex to conceive offspring. Or maybe she's both."

Lilly's face contorts into a cross somewhere between a sneer and a snarl. "You're such an idiot."

Determined to change the subject, I return her look with a smile. "I guess you miss those good ol' days of highly respected fertility goddesses."

"Except for the morbidly obese part, I do. But don't get the idea it was just our moment in the sun. Those days went on for a good long time before Christianity came along and men pushed us aside. Besides men can still be counted upon to be dumb-shits."

I am thinking that when it comes to understanding Wiccans, I am a dumb-shit. No doubt if I play my cards right Lilly will enlighten me further. So I say, "I am guessing Isis wasn't the only pioneering female goddess."

"Far from it. Some were serious bad asses. Take Anath, an ancient Canaanite goddess. When a man slighted her, she sliced him up with a sickle before she scorched him with fire, then crushed him with a mill before scattering his ashes to be eaten by birds."

"Your kind of girl, I guess."

"You better believe it, asshole."

"You must have other role models."

"Quite a few, actually. In Norse mythology, there is Hel, a hellcat who led an army of the dead in a ship made of fingernails from corpses, and, among Finns, Lovatar is said to have given birth nine diseases, including plague, sterility, and cancer. There are many others, but I believe you get the idea."

"And quite an idea it is. Wiccam history extends back hundreds, even thousands of years. Witchcraft goes back to prehistory and then traces a path through ancient matriarchal societies, and then into Druid, Celtic, and other sun or moon based religions. Man were afraid of us, and during the burning times, we suffered grievous losses. We were hounded by Christians, and thousands of us were murdered. We had to go underground to practice are craft in secrecy. But through it all, many of us remained true to our heritage."

"So why don't you go off and worship your fairies, your Leprechauns and banshees, your cluricauns and leave us alone?"

"Because we're determined to make our presence known. We have been a fringe religion for much too long. We are growing rapidly, but many of our converts are particularly serious. Too many of them are young women looking to shock their Christian and Jewish parents. Right now Christianity has over three billion followers, and nipping at its feels is Islam with more than two billion. Wicca may be the fastest growing religion, but we have fewer than two-hundred thousand members."

"What makes you think Marlina will come aboard?"

"I believe she's already aboard. Been there for quite some time. Ever notice she doesn't go to doctors? She has no prescription medicine. She relies on herbal remedies. Ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and rose hips, to name a few. Among Wiccans, the mugwort she keeps on hand is a tool of our trade. We use it as an aide to prophecy and divinatory success. Your Marlina is as closely attuned to nature as we are."

"It took you to introduce her to ayahuasca-A."

"And incredibly appreciative she is."

"It'll wear off," I say. "Its affects aren't permanent. And when it does, Marlina will see through you. She'll realize you're in this for self-aggrandizement. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe this is contrary to the wiccan way."

"The movement needs strong leadership," Lilly insists. "I am able to provide it."

"What makes you special?"

"What if I told you my heritage traces back to the Merovingian dynasty line of royalty? Would you believe I am a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?"

"Not for a moment. I would say you are completely delusional."

"What most people don't know is that my cousin the Magdalene had pagan leanings. When she invented Christianity, she borrowed heavily from several pagan beliefs. The virgin birth, the birth at or near the winter solstice, the lost years, the persecution, the resurrection, the ascension, none of these were original. If she were alive today, she would be known as a witch. The same can be said of many of my ancestors. The Merovinglans were renown for their paranormal powers. They could heal the sick by exorcising demons. They fed large groups with small amounts of food. I hail from a long line of miraculous beings."

It suddenly occurs to be that Lilly has been less than forthright about her plans for Marlina. "You think you're the hundredth maiden," I say. "Not Marlina, you. You say she's heading towards an immaculate conception. You don't anticipate her getting there. You're not here to celebrate Marlina. You intend to eliminate her."

"How astute of you. There' can be only one Hundredth Maiden, and that would be me."

Another idea occurs to me. "Marlina's dog Tippy. You killed it."

"Not exactly. Marlina killed it. Then she promptly forgot having done this. She was, of course, under the influence of one of my potions."

"Why? What was the point?"

"I was planning on bringing Marlina into the fold. My influence over her would be greater if I could weaken her pre-existing loyalties. This meant getting her to doubt you. What better way than by making her suspect you did in her dog?"

I restrain an impulse to beat this bitch to a pulp. First I'll try a smarter tactic. "I know a few of your secrets," I say. "Seems I was here earlier."

"Yeah, I know. You were looking for Marlina."

"No, I mean earlier than that. I went up to your room."

"So that cinder block was yours. Quite clever of you. It was all Margaret could do to drag it inside. I could have you arrested, you know."

"I don't think you will. You would have to answer too many awkward questions."

"Such as....?"

"Such as where you got the giant bag of Ayahuasca-A."

"Nothing illegal there."

"No, but coming by that much couldn't have been easy. And what in the world do you plan on doing with so much?"

"None of your God damn business."

"Then there is that piece of meat in the mason jar. Surely its expiration date has come and gone."

"It's missing," she says. "You must have taken it."

"A little souvenir of my visit."

I don't have to physically beat her. A few choice words have clobbered her mind. For once she's speechless. She just glares at me.





CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

ALL THE WAY back to Bar Harbor I try to place that tall, lanky, dark-haired, pony-tailed man I saw at Lilly's. It's so frustrating to have a figment of memory that stands isolated, way off by itself, refusing to allow itself to be associated with anything else.  Is it really a memory or is it a ghost? It is a recollection so very vague it might not even be real. It could be an image from a story read to me when I was a child. Maybe it is from a movie I was only half paying attention to. Maybe I dreamed it. There seems to be little hope it can lead me to Marlina.

I am glad to by back at the Mira Monte with my friends, although I don't like having to explain how I lost Marlina. I hate admitting she wanted to stay with Lilly. What sort of man can I be to let her slip though my fingers so easily?

My friends treat me better than I deserve. Lana and Carolyn both tell me again and again it isn't my fault. Peter says I behaved admirably and should be commended. Tom says if he had been there, he would have smacked Lilly. It's good to have friends; I treasure them. But, try as they might, they don't make me feel that much better.

There's a knock at the door. Tom opens it, and when I see who's there I involuntarily reach for the gun in my waistband. Old man Sutherford is the last person I expect to see here. My response surprises me. Maybe I have the makings of a gunslinger after all. I relax a bit when I see that his son is with him.

As Peter opens the door and invites them in, I step back a bit and remain wary. I have to regard the senior Sutherford as a dangerous man.

He smiles when he sees me. "I assume you're still hitting 'em long and straight," he says.

I nod. "How've you been?"

"Not that great, which I guess brings us to why I'm here. Trust me, it's not for advice on how to cure the shanks."

"Thank God for that," I say. "But I'm wondering why you're here. The last time I saw you, you weren't altogether pleased with me."

'Water under the bridge," Sutherford says. "You did what you thought was right. Besides, I've got much bigger problems now."

"Such as?"

"It's something of a long story, but I'll give you the condensed version. When I heard that Champ sent a drone after you, I went to him to complain. Hell, complain is too nice a word. I went to tell Champ to  go fuck himself."

"You had nothing to do with that drone?"

Sutherford shakes his head. "Nothing at all. I was glad when I learned you had developed a way to defeat it."

"So what happened with Champ?"

"He began reaming me a new asshole for having told you way more than I should have."

"I would guess that Goggle's plans for selected immortality and mass exterminations were highly classified,"

"Of course. When I told you about these things I was assuming you were one of us. Or would be momentarily. Kind of hard imagining anybody hesitate to give up poverty for possible immortality. My bad. I have a penchant for talking too much when I get tipsy. And I guess I got more than tipsy. The phrase 'drunk as a skunk' comes to mind."

It surprises me that I am beginning to feel a bit sympathetic. Bleeding heart liberal that I am, I try to offer reassurance. "I haven't repeated the things you told me," I insisted. "I promised you confidentiality and am a man of my word. Besides nobody would believe me."

"Crocked as I was, there's a lot I didn't tell you. But I have no reason to hold back now. Champ subscribes to the New World Order dictum of reducing world population to five hundred million. Bringing it from ten billion plus to half a billion requires drastic action."

"I guess it would. What does he plan besides what you've told me?"

"A major thing is putting an end to the so-called War on Terror by eliminating as many terrorists at possible no matter what the cost. He is calling it a Christian Crusade. The bottom line is, he intends to nuke every country that is more than ninety percent Muslim.The man is a maniac. I had thought that myself and a few of the other guys could control him. But one-by-one, the other guys were discharged. Finally it was just me. And now I am gone."

 "Holy crap," Peter says. "But how dangerous can he be? The government still controls the nuclear arsenal, doesn't it?"

"The government thinks it does. Unfortunately, it is destined for disappointment should it ever decide to launch. Seems that Goggle wrote the launch software. Champ was able to create an electronic diversion straight to his office. Any decision to launch rests with him. A launch can only be made from Champ's headquarters by Champ himself."

"How many people know about this?" I ask.

"Champ and maybe a dozen technicians. If word of it ever leaks, they'll have their tongues torn from their mouths."

"Champ thinks that he and he alone has the wisdom to manage nuclear weapons. Pity he's a psychopath."

Tom has been listening carefully. "You're not kidding, are you. This Champ guy... sounds like he really is seriously nuts."

"You don't know the half of it. Tell me, how much do you know about Harold Champ?"

"Not a lot," Tom admits. "I try to ignore people like him."

"Well, don't expect to find out much by going online. Goggle has scrubbed the net of anything remotely critical of him."

"I know he started out as a real estate developer," Peter says. "I believe he inherited the business from his father."

"Real estate development is a rought business," Sutherford says, "and nobody was rougher than Harold Champ. He stomped on a lot faces on his way to the top."

"I guess people were afraid of him," Peter says.

J.D. shales his head. "Not so much as you might think. When he first hooked up with Goggle, everybody thought he was a joke. He was all bluster and self-aggrandizement. He kept talking about how great he would make Goggle. Everybody laughed at him. He was a buffoon. He got his start with a  television show called Ten. This show would pit two young women against one another to establish which was a true ten. At times it got more obscene than any previous show had ever been. The winner each week was invited back  to compete against another young lady. One lucky girl, Lovina, won for 14 weeks. She eventually became the fifth Mrs. Champ."

I look Sutherford in the eye. "This is all very horrifying, but why are you telling us? There is isn't a damn thing we can do about it."

It involves you," Sutherford said. "What I haven't told you is that Champ is angry with me for failing in my primary mission."

"And what would that be?"

"That would be to bring back to him your wife Marlina."

"Gee whiz, I thought it was me you loved."

"The golf was good; you helped me a lot, but it's Marlina we really wanted. Champ is convinced that for his Master Plans to succeed, he has to silence Marlina."

"That's something I was never able to do. But, seriously, why Marlina?"

"In case you don't realize it, Goggle monitors world communications before it releases its edited version for the internet. It's impossible for anything of any importance to happen without Goggle knowing about it.  Marlina's  opportunity to address the Super Bowl caught his attention early on. The chatter was overwhelming. Her name was being associated with a lost codex, biblical prophesy, a second coming of Jesus, the hundredth maiden, end of days, and universal love."

"So what?" I ask.

"Champ doesn't like the idea of millions of people thinking she is Jesus come again. He fears the one thing that might defeat him is a great Moral Champion. Right now Malina seems to be the only candidate. Champ sees himself in the role of mankind's saviour and doesn't welcome competition. He has one scheme that's grand beyond all others: transhumanism. Goggle has technology that might be able to upload a human brain into a quantum computer. Champ is convinced that ultimately mankind will dispense with what he calls "the meat we all haul around with us." He sees transhumanism as a glorious and inevitable adventure. He can hardly wait."

"He hopes to save mankind by turning us into machines?"

"Something like that."

"But he knows Marlina will hate this idea?"

"He has brought up several of her talks and knows the power of her oratory. He knows she speaks of universal brotherhood, the power of love, the unity of mankind—stuff like that. Certainly she would object to several of Champ's projects. He is certain she would oppose his plan to reduce world population to five hundred million not to mention his war against Muslims. He is afraid of her. He knows she could mean trouble, could turn the public against Goggle. So Champ wants her dead, and we need to protect her."

"She is chipped. Won't she die with the others when Champ shuts down the filters."

"She was given an Alpha chip. When she got it she wasn't on Champ's hit list. He had never heard of the Hundredth Maiden. Without his intervention, her celebrity status automatically guaranteed her a primal chip. Her filters quite safe. Obviously things changed. A week or so ago, I overheard Champ talking to one of his thugs, describing his struggle against Marlina as a battle of biblical proportions. I knew the man was prone to wild exaggerations, but this seemed over the top. We need to protect Marlina from him. "

"How do I know I can trust you?" I ask.

 "You haven't a choice. Where is she?"

"I wish I knew. Some men took her from a house near the university. Could the guys who took her be Champ's thugs?"

"No. An hour ago, Champ was wondering where she might be."

"So what's he going to think about you telling us all that you have?"

"Doesn't matter. Champ and I are no longer an item. My parting words were, 'go fuck yourself, you scumbag'."

"So you're looking for a job."

"I am looking to survive. By tomorrow he'll have a drone programmed to chase me down."

"You need to remove your chip?"

"Impossible. It's buried deep in my brain."

Tom speaks up. "In a couple of hours I can rig one of our devices that disorientates drones. It'll give you a fighting chance."

"Thanks, but no thanks," Sutherford says. "If a first-generation drone doesn't bring me down, a second, third, or fourth will. But right now saving my ass isn't priority number one."

"What is?" Peter asks.

"Stopping Harold Champ."

"Just how do we do that?" Peter wonders.

"By killing him. That's the only possible way. I need to infiltrate Goggle headquarters and dispatch the man. There's no other way. When I left Champ's place, I went straight to my son's. I am getting old and figured I might need some additional muscle. He suggested that we come here."

"Why?" I asked.

"Goggle's computer banks are at Champ's place. He has always insisted on keeping them close as possible. We need to shut them down, but we need to do it without harming people who are chipped. To be on the safe side, we need your computer expertise."

I nod at Tom. "He's the expert here," I say. "Compared to him, I am a novice."

Now we have Tom's full attention. "I am pretty sure I know how it's set up," he says. "If I could get into the program, I could make it almost impossible to shut down the filters."

J.D. asks, "Can't you hack your way in?"

"Probably, given enough time, but it would be a lot quicker if we could persuade Champ to let me in."

"And how would we do that?" I ask.

El Cobra speaks up. "I know a few ways that would almost certainly do the trick. I would like to try them out. Count me in on whatever we need to do to stop that son of a bitch."

Having an experienced jungle fighter leap aboard makes me feel somewhat better about this enterprise. Still it seems like we're up against formidable odds.

My turn to say something. "Won't Champ's successor just pick up where he left off?"

"I know Bob Schultz. I know he has misgivings over Champ's grand plans. I think it's likely he would steer Goggle in a quite different direction."

"You know," Tom says, "Given an hour or so, I could introduce bugs to Goggle's coding that might take years to chase down."

Seal Harbor is just twenty minutes away. You take Route 3 through Otter Creek and on to Seal Harbor. For several years now, a force field just past Otter Creek has prevented the unchipped from travelling any further. Unchipped equals unwanted. On this occasion, however, we slip right through since old Man Sutherord has an active Alpha chip.

On the way over, J.D. takes charge of formulating a plan. "The front drive is well-lit and there are cameras everywhere. This shouldn't be a problem. You guys will stay out of range while my son and I go to the front door. My key card will open the door, and once inside we can switch off the lights and cameras. When I left Champ was there alone so I don't anticipate resistance."

I keep quiet, contemplating my situation. I had looked forward to entering my twilight years with a single-digit handicap. But then what would I have to look forward to other than a gradual diminishment of my skills?

The road in front of Champ's mansion is dark. The nearest street light is a block-and-a-half away. Champ has used electrical tape to alter the plates on his SUV. The six has been turned into an eight and a one has become a seven. It would never pass a close examination, of course, but from a distance would fool anybody.

There is nothing for us to do but wait.

El Cobra doesn't say anything, but he keeps moving his hands, tracing the contours of his AK-47. I can sense he's itching for action.


Our eyes have grown accustomed to the dark and we're almost blinded when we pull into the drive and are engulfed in bright light. From the house we can hear the insane wail of a siren. Seconds later young Sutherford appears sprinting over the hill, followed seconds later by an out-of-breath old man Sutherford. Seconds later they clamor into our vehicle. "Son of a bitch has changed the lock," Sutherford says. "I didn't think he would have been able to do it this quick."

"Go, go, go," says young Sutherford. "Get us the hell out of here."

"Let me out," El Cobra says. "I am staying."

I click his door lock, and he climbs out. "See you guys back at the Mira Monte," he says.

Moments later I have no sooner turned on to Mount Desert Street than I have to pull over to let the fire engine go by. It turns right onto Upper Main Street, and somehow I know it's heading for Seal Harbor.

El Cobra got back to the Mira Monte just in time for dinner. "I don't know if Champ made it out or not," he says. "But the computer banks are down for good."









CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

I awaken with a start. My eyes are wide open. I know who took Marlina. I know it with a clarity that astonishes me.  Seems as though some obscure part of my brain has been working on the problem and has delivered the solution crystal clear. Somebody once said we'll never understand the human brain, because by the time we did, it would have changed. I don't know about that, but what I do know is that the tall, gangly guy who took Marlina is the same one I saw leaving with the professor from Harvard. He works for the Masonic Grand Master Roger Sinclair. I wonder if he has a title—something like Grand Fetcher or the Highly Exalted Go and Grabber.

As soon as humanly possible, maybe sooner, I am going to the Lodge and force the son of a bitch in charge to give up Marlina. My impulse is to damn the fucking torpedoes, waste no time, charge straight ahead, but after a bit of reflection, I realize I might need backup. But who should I enlist? God knows El Cobra is tough enough, but I know how such a devoted Catholic feels about Masons. He might lose control. I need a steady hand, and that would be Peter's. A quick mouth might also be useful, and that would be Tom's.

I go down to the kitchen. Everybody is there, and I relate to them my revelation. Nobody questions its likelihood. When I say I want to go to the lodge with Peter and Tom, El Cobra seems to sense my reluctance to leave him alone with the women and the codex. "Don't worry about a thing," he says as he looks me straight in the eye. "My only interest is in protecting the ladies." I believe him. And why not? He and his AK-47 could have taken the codex long ago had that been his plan.

It's 8:35 a.m. when we pull up to the Lodge. I had wondered if anybody will be there this early. So it's a relief to see there's a car parked in a reserved spot,  a Lexus NS, still after all these years one of the finest cars imaginable. A car this grand has to be the property of somebody special, hopefully Roger Sinclair himself. We get out of my car and begin walking towards the front door. Before we get halfway there, it opens and Roger Sinclair steps out. He approaches me, right hand extended. "Good morning, Douglas," he says. "I've been expecting you. I see you've brought your friends."

He is wearing what even I can recognize as an expensive, impeccably tailored, pin stripe suit complete with silk tie. His freshly trimmed goatee suggests European aristocracy with an artistic, intellectual bent as do his round-lens, wire-rimmed spectacles. I try to remain unimpressed as I wave off his invitation to shake hands. I see no sense in wasting time. "Where is Marlina? I know your minions took her."

Sinclair looks genuinely amused. "Minions? Aren't they the associates of warlocks? Why does that word have such an evil connotation?"

Tom decides to make his presence known. "Because minions are evil," he says, "and so are you. Where is she?"

"I don't know."

Tom steps forward as he unzips his jacket and lets it lie open, exposing the semi-automatic weapon in his waistband. "We know better than that," he says. I am wondering if he is putting a little too much faith in my intuitive leap.

Sinclair smiles as he nods at the gun. "You won't need that. Let's go inside and discuss this matter." Without waiting for a response, he turns back toward the door. Not much we can do but follow him into the temple. We proceed into what I suppose must be a conference, a spacious, windowless enclosure with a round table and four chairs. The walls are white, and there is a single piece of artwork, a framed print depicting three men and a woman examining what I take to be a tomb.

Once we're seated, Sinclair turns his focus on me. "You've come to the right place, but I am afraid you're too late. Marlina had been my guest, comfortably ensconced in a location not far from here. I assure you, she had gone there completely willingly. I am afraid Marlina is a bewildered young lady. She doesn't know who to trust, and as I understand it we had made considerable progress convincing her it might be us. She was enjoying a cup of tea in a room whose locked door provided the only means of egress. My man, who I trust explicitly, had gone off  to prepare chicken salad sandwiches. He was gone for maybe ten minutes. When he came back, Marlina was nowhere to be found. I am as mystified as he was."

Peter says, "You locked her in that room?"

Sinclair nods. "One can't be too careful, can one?"

"Why should we believe you?" I ask.

"Why should I lie? What you don't realize is we're natural allies. We both want to honor her."

"She's my wife. It's my job to take care of her."

"And it's my duty to help her realize the danger she's in. I want to protect her from malevolent forces and see that she gets her entitlements."

"It's my job to protect her. I can't imagine what entitlements might be coming her way, but I know she is harmless. I really can't imagine anybody wanting to hurt her."

"You have no idea what you're up against. She's the Hundredth Maiden, Jesus born again. She threatens important people and powerful institutions. Believe me, she is in mortal danger."

"Marlina is a wonderful person. I love her. But she wouldn't hurt a fly, and she 's not the Second Coming of anybody."

Sinclair sighs. "You know, it really doesn't matter if she is or not. A lot of very important people believe she is, and, in certain circles, this makes her as unpopular as the original Jesus. These are strange times, and I realize it's hard to know what's what. Many of us are other than we seem. Who do you think I am?"

Tom speaks up, "A nasty little frog in a ridiculously small piss pot of a Masonic pond?"

Sinclair glares at him. "Try future Supreme Commander of New Jerusalem."

Tom, Peter, and I gape at him.

"God has chosen me to assume a leadership role in the establishment the New Jerusalem. It's no accident that this region is called Acadia. It's a take on the Greek Arcadia, which to them was a Utopian, paradise on earth. I am the logical choice. After all, my ancestor, William Sinclair, following in the footsteps of Jesus, brought the appurtenances for a New Jerusalem here to New England."


I am wondering if this lunatic should be approached with great caution or perhaps put out of his, and our, misery.

Sinclair gives each of us a long hard look, "My reference to the footsteps of Jesus seems to have taken you all aback. That's okay. Most everybody is surprised by this. Let me tell you what I know to be true, starting at the beginning, the fact that Jesus survived crucifixion."

Tom speaks up, "That's crazy talk"

"Hardly. Let's look at some facts. According to scripture, He wasn't on the cross for long, perhaps as few as three hours. Ordinarily crucifixion victims were left on their crosses for days, a clear warning to potential trouble-makers. But Joseph of Arimathea, an influential man, was allowed to remove Jesus's supposed corpse after only a few hours. He owned the cave that entombed Jesus's body and controlled who had access to it. Jesus was a strong, vigorous man in the prime of life and could be expected to survive this."

Tom isn't satisfied. "There were witnesses. If Jesus were still alive, people would have noticed. "

"Not likely. I know Mary Magdalene is often pictured at the foot of the cross, but according to many accounts, spectators, including her, were kept well away. Most of His close confidants were nowhere to be seen. Fearing for their safety, His disciples had turned tail and beaten it out of town. Mary Magdalene, loyal to a fault,  stayed, but, again, it's debatable how close she got to the cross. She was the first person to see the so-called risen Jesus. She claimed that the stone blocking the entrance to the cave had been rolled away. But why? The Jesus of legend could have passed through that stone with no problem."

Sinclair has caught Peter's attention. "What about the people who saw Jesus over the next 40 days?"

"Funny thing about those people; They were all true believers. Jesus appeared to no one outside his network of loyal followers. Couldn't he have built a stronger case by presenting himself to others, to Roman officials possibly?"

Peter says, "Possibly he was afraid of being arrested and re-crucified?"

Sinclair nods his head. "Quite likely this would have been the case. Which, I believe, explains why he didn't stick around. Many Christians would have us believe he died and came back to life before shooting off into heaven like a Saturn rocket. But which seems more likely, that account or that he survived the crucifixion before departing to a place where he could happily live out his days?

Peter says, "You actually believe He came to America? That would have been a thousand years before the Vikings made their voyages."

"That's true," Sinclair agrees, "but it's not at all far-fetched. Ships of Jesus's time could have made the trip easily. There are claims of trans-Atlantic crossings way before Jesus's time, trips by Chinese and Polynesians among others. Don't forget, a few years ago they dredged up a Roman anchor off Nova Scotia. Jesus's followers included a disproportional number of fishermen. He could easily have utilized their knowledge of boat-building and their navigational skills."

Tom speaks up. "Why boat builders? Couldn't he just walk across the pond?"

Sinclair doesn't respond, although I am quite sure he finds Tom not at all amusing.

As for me, I am becoming intrigued by his suppositions. "Are there others besides you subscribing to these ideas?"

"yes, of course. Ralph Merton, my maintenance man, for one. Now this is a man with a good head on his shoulders. Not that long ago he was an up-and-coming  archaeological star. Somewhat sadly his glitter faded as his ideas become more and more unacceptable in the eyes of the establishment. I'll agree his grip on reality was touch and go. He had moments in which he thought he was a warrior monk, a born-again Knights Templar. Eventually he found himself with few friends, although your buddy Jack was one of them. Jack visited him often and was coming to accept the assertion that Jesus and a female companion lived and died hereabouts."

Peter says, "His assertion must have been a hard case to make."

"Easier than you might imagine. Ralph began with scripture, in which Jesus often said he had sheep in other flocks. Then he moved on to the Book of Mormon, which positively places Jesus in the Americas. Ralph insisted he had found legends in several Indian tribes, the Micmac in particular, featuring a mysterious, long-ago, white man preaching a philosophy of universal brotherhood."

I wonder why Sinclair is referring to Ralph in the past tense. "Is Ralph here now?" I ask.

"He has taken a leave of absence. He had family business that needed attention."

"When will be return?"

"I have no way of knowing."

I believe he told me he had no family. "Where is his family located?" I ask.

"I don't know. Ralph kept things pretty much to himself. He was a bit of an odd duck. On his worse days he thought he was the reincarnated Jacques de Molay."

"Jacques who?" I ask.

"Jacques de Molay. He was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Accused of heresy and much more, he was burned at the stake in 1314, but not before famously placing a curse on both King Philip VI and the Pope Clement V, proclaiming would be both dead within a year. Interestingly enough, they obliged."

Peter says, "The French King had become deeply in debt to the Templars. By eliminating the Templars, he hoped to cancel the debt as well as acquire Solomon's treasure."

"The joke was on him," Sinclair replies. "There was no Solomon treasure. There wasn't even a Solomon. The man was a myth as was his benefactor, the Queen of Sheba. Legend had it that Solomon's temple was at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but archaeologists have been digging around there for decades and haven't recovered a scrap of evidence supporting the existence of an ancient temple. Even as a mythological being, Solomon wasn't wise or even nice. Good riddance, I say. By anybody's moral code, he was a nasty son of a bitch, which hasn't stopped Jews, Muslims, and Christians from praising his glories. The bit about threatening to cut a baby in two to determine its mother was clever; I'll give him, or his creator, that, but what sort of wise man would take 700 wives? What sort of good man would treat slaves cruelly in the erection of edifices honoring himself? Why would a semi-competent man let his kingdom deteriorate into shambles?"

Peter says, "As I understand it, Freemasons trace their lineage back to Hiram Abiss, master mason and chief architect of Solomon's temple."

"I am afraid that too is nothing more than a myth," Sinclair says. "It's a good story, but that's all it is, a highly imaginative flight of fancy. It's worth noting that Hiram Abiss isn't mentioned in the biblical account of Solomon's temple. On top of that, the Bible describes the temple as being quite small and made mostly of wood. There would have been no need for a master mason. I'll grant you, one of our rituals involves reenacting Hiram's murder, but it's only make believe."

I wonder if Sinclair had ever heard the old Conway Twitty song.

Peter says, "The story I heard is that Hiram was murdered after he refused to disclose a secret word."

"It's just our way of impressing on initiates the importance of keeping Masonic secrets. I am told it has been incredibly effective."

I blurt out, "Didn't you just divulge a Masonic secret?"

Sinclair gives me a very dirty look.

Peter says, "It has long been supposed that the Templars took a vast fortune with them when they were driven from the Holy Land. You're sure they came away empty handed?"

Sinclair takes on a tone of omniscience. "The Templars brought from Jerusalem something perhaps more valuable than gold and silver: They brought worldliness. They had occupied Jerusalem for 200 years. During that time, there wasn't constant warfare. There were extended periods when Christians and Muslims got along rather well. In many ways, Arabs were more advanced than Christians. They had far better mathematics, having invented the zero and the floating decimal. Roman numerals don't lend themselves to higher mathematics. The Templars introduced chess to Europe, as well as modern banking. They learned architecture from the Arabs and  later joined forces with Freemasons to build Europe's great cathedrals.

Tom has been looking on in disbelief. "They didn't bring any important material items?"

Sinclair shrugs. "It's difficult to separate myth from fact. There have been many stories, some quite outlandish. Besides Solomon's treasure, legends have had it that they brought the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the Shroud of Turin. Supposedly they had documents authored by Jesus Himself, and even Jesus's embalmed head. Keeping this company might have been John the Baptist's head. Hell, it's entirely possible that that codex of yours might once have been in Templar hands."

I know that Peter doesn't want to discuss his codex. Changing the subject, he says, "I know  that the original  Knights Templar took vows of poverty, a pledge emphasized by their symbol of two knights on a single horse, but didn't they later become wealthy?"

Sinclair seems all too happy to expound upon the Templars. "Indeed they did," he says. "There were two main sources for their wealth. A lot was given to them in gratitude for their role in freeing the Holy Land from the Muslims. And a lot they earned by being early entrepreneurs. They more or less invented modern banking. Many became merchants. They weren't required to recognize national borders, and they established outposts all over Europe. In essence they founded the world's first multinational corporation. They learned a lot from the Arabs. They developed what essentially were travelers' checks. Christians for the most part were forbidden to charge interest on money loaned, so Templars found a way around that. They sort of rented it. They learned architectural techniques that enabled them to join forces with Freemasons to build Europe's great cathedrals. Many of these had pagan symbols, suggesting an indifference to particular religions. Many Templars became associated with Cathars, whose Gnosticism  suggested a love of knowledge and distaste for dogma. In many ways they might be regarded as incredibly enlightened."

Peter could be coming around to Sinclair's point of view. "Too bad they were squashed," he says.

"Squashed is the wrong word," Sinclair quickly replies. "Transfigured is more like it. Driven underground. On that famous Friday the thirteenth in 1307 when the King of France carried out pre-dawn designed raids to arrest Templars everywhere, many of the Templars taken into custody were older men, veterans of the Crusades. They put up little resistance. Many of the younger Templars, especially those in countries other than France, avoided arrest. Some fled to Scotland where they helped Robert the Bruce defeat the English, and from there many proceeded on to the New World. Many of their offspring turned into modern-day Freemasons. Modern Masonic symbolics contain unmistakable traces of Templar. Columbus's ships had Templar crosses on their sails, and Columbus was distantly related to well-known Templars. Templar philosophy lives on. These days to become a Mason one must profess a belief in God, but it makes no difference which God. This toleration for diverse forms of worship is apparent in my family's Rosslyn Chapel. Included are carvings relevant to Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and pagans."

None of this, of course, could ever be acceptable to The Church
.

Peter says, "I don't understand why so few churchmen raised objections when the the Templars were being put on the rack and burned at the stake. Surely they realized these men had risked their lives fighting for Christianity. It was one of history's great atrocities."

Sinclair smiles at that. "They were accused of heresy, all right, but not so unjustly. In the eyes of the Church, they were guilty of great crimes. Many Templars worshiped Mary Magdalene, having come to believe she was a goddess. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of them did piss on the cross."

Peter is paying rapt attention. "Some Templars may have engaged in devil worship?"

"More than possible. Highly likely. All but certain. There's no question but what many paid homage to Baphomet."

"Who is Baphomet?" I ask.

Sinclair smiles. "A really interesting idol. You really ought to get to know him. Most commonly, Baphomet is depicted as a half-man, half-goat deity. A Baphomet-like carving can be found on the Notre-Dame-de-Paris Cathedral, which was built by the Knights Templar. Baphomet was later adaped to certain Masonic rituals."

"When did he originate?" Peter asks.

Sinclair pauses for a moment to organize his thoughts. "Baphomet goes back to earliest antiquity," he says. "For as long as man has portrayed Satan, he has utilized goats. I am not sure why. While the Templars were occupying the Middle-Eastern countries, they became acquainted with Arabian mysticism. They brought back to Europe the basics of what would become western occultism,
including Gnosticism, alchemy, Kabbalah, and Hermetism. Baphomet mustn't be dismissed as rank superstition. There is a netherworld, and Baphomet can draw spirits from it."

Peter's intellectualism has been aroused.  "It almost seems like you're suggesting the Church was justified in persecuting them," he says.

"You have to appreciate the times they were in," Sinclair replies. "The Church treated them harshly, for sure, but by the standards of the day, they were asking for it. They had, after all, been driven from the Holy Land. They were losers, a defeated army. Without a Holy Land to protect, they had no real purpose. But did they hang their heads in shame? Hell, no. They became absurdly wealthy and arrogant as hell. It's been suggested they brought something from Jerusalem that enabled them to blackmail the Vatican. They were free from taxation and exempt from the laws of any land. National borders meant nothing to them. Europeans had little stomach for further expensive crusades, and to many the Templars seemed outdated. One can hardly blame the Church for wanting to put them in their place. Especially unforgivable was their appreciation for other religions. Many became Gnostics. This involved denying the divinity of Christ and sometimes included worshiping Mary Magdalene. Before Jacques de Molay was put to the torch, he was afforded an opportunity to confirm his earlier confession of heresy. He refused, which took guts, but cost him is life ."

In my mind, all this is ancient history and I have much more immediate concerns. I need to know more about Marlina, and think that this might best be realized by swinging the conversation back to Ralph. "How often did Ralph and Jack get together?" I ask.

Sinclair thinks about this for a minute. "For a long time, it was three or four times a year. Then, beginning about a year ago, they were meeting once or twice a week. Ralph was selling Jack on the idea that Jesus and a female companion came here and grew old together. I think Jack was getting ready to have you put some of this on his website."

I have to wonder how this would have gone over with Jack's cohorts at the university.

I glance at Peter and see he's fixated on a painting on the wall. Sinclair notices this also. "Nicolas Poussin's Shepards of Arcadia, a work he completed in the late 1630s," he says. "Poussin often combined pagan and Christian themes. For me it has a very special meaning."

My knowledge of art doesn't go much beyond a fondness for Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers or maybe Wyeth's dog on a farmhouse bed. "What makes it so special?" I ask.

"Its inscription reads, ET IN ARCADIA EGO. This translates as 'And in Acardia I am.' In the painting, the man's thumb partially obscures the R. Without the R, the inscription reads  'And in Acadia I am.' To the ancient Greeks, Arcadia was a rural utopia. To us, Acadia is our region of the world. For centuries, scholars have debated the meaning of this painting. Some have suggested that Poussin is suggesting that death is present even in paradise. I don't see it this way. To me the painting means Jesus is with us here and how, in His New Jerusalem."

Peter asks, "Wasn't Poussin associated with the Priory of Sion?"

"Get real," Sinclair snorts. "The Priory of Sion was an elaborate hoax."

I have heard of the Priory of Sion. Supposedly it is a secret society founded in 1099 and boasting a distinguished membership, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonard da Vinci. I think I have heard it referred to as a pagan goddess worship cult, whatever that would be. Hoax or not, it arouses my curiosity. "What was its alleged purpose?" I ask.

Peter doesn't hesitate in filling me in . "Supposedly, Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, Sarah. This bloodline became the Merovingian dynasty. When it fell from power, its descendants went underground and formed an organization, the Priory of Sion, to keep the secret of its holy bloodline alive. Cathars and Knights Templar, as well as early Freemasons and various literary and artistic figures including Nicholas Poussin are all said to have been associated with it."

Sinclair speaks up. "Poussin would have known that my ancestor, William St. Clair, who later built the Rosslyn Chapel after making an early voyage to America. He finished the chapel in 1492, and proof of his pre-Columbian expedition is found in the chapel's carvings of cactus and corn. These plants are native to the Americas and needed to be brought to Europe."


"This relative of your, Sir William Sinclair, what makes you so sure he came to America?"

"He built the famous Rosslyn Chapel, which is known for a number of things, including hundreds of remarkable carvings. Some, for example, are Templar, two knights on a single horse, Baphomet's head, and several Templar crosses being prime examples.Work was completed in 1492, the same year Columbus set sail for the New World. Inside are carvings of corn and a cactus native to the New World. What could be better proof that Columbus was not the first?"

For me the mention of Rosslyn Chapel rings a bell. "Peter told me the chapel has an amazingly eclectic collections of carvings," I say. "They represent many faiths, including paganism."

 "That they do. How much do you know about the place?" Sinclair asks.

"Not much. I do remember Peter mentioning that it is associated with legends about the Holy Grail."

Sinclair nods. "Buried beneath the chapel if a stone crypt that has been sealed off with a stone wall. Many legends have sprung up regarding the crypt, including the possibility it contains the Holy Grail. It's been said that it contains, among other things,  the Ark of the Covenant, Templar treasure, John the Baptist's head, even Jesus's embalmed head."

"Why don't they just open it up to see what's there?"

"My family wants to keep the mystery alive. The chapel has become Scotland's leading tourist attraction, and visitors pay a fee to get in. The chapel has its own website. My family is aristocratic, but penny poor. It  depends on the revenue the chapel produces."

"Does it have special significance to you as a Masonic leader?"

"Absolutely it does. I like to think of it as the place where the Knights Templar and Europe's stonemasons merged. As a Mason, I think of myself as a Knight Templar."

"You and Ralph?" I suggest.

"In a sense, yes," Sinclair says, "but there are aspects of this where Ralph and I have disagreed."

"Such as?" Peter asks.

Sinclair hesitates before replying, "Baphomet's  head for one thing. Ralph wasn't able to believe that it conferred mystical  powers. It displeased him that some of our rituals involve the depiction of Baphomet's head."


I don't want to admit to have had a previous relationship with Ralph. I have to wonder if Sinclair is teasing me by referring to Ralph in the past tense. "So Ralph believe in reincarnation, but not magical heads," I say.

I sense this pisses Sinclair off a bit, but he doesn't respond. Not at first. Then he sighs heavily and says, "You shouldn't under-appreciate the power of a detached head. Without the body, the head becomes pure mind. Shedding the body rids us of human waste removal and sexual longings. It opens the way for pure, unattached intellect and faultless faith. It can engender all that is fine in the human endeavor."

For the first time, I notice that Sinclair's office is terribly warm. I loosen my collar, but this doesn't really help. Sinclair notes my discomfort. "Air conditioning's down," he says. "You might want to take off your sweater." I do this, and  Sinclair immediately notices my pendant. "Interesting piece of jewelry," he says. I reach up and finger it. "This is Marlina's, It was passed down from her grandmother."

Sinclair rises. "Excuse me for a moment," he says. He leaves the room, returning two or three minutes later with a similar pendant in his hand.  "A few years ago, Helen and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by visiting Scotland," he says. "We especially wanted to see Rosslyn Chapel, which is still in the Sinclair family. Wilhelm Sinclair, into whose loving care the chapel has passed, received us most graciously. We were his guests for four days, and when we left he presented us with this silver pendant."

I look closely at Sinclair's pendant. His and mine are almost identical. The medallion, the chain, and the clasp are all the same. The only difference is that the etched line on mine dips down then up, while Sinclair's rises up then down. They seem to be mirror images of one another.

"Interesting pieces," I say. "Mine was handed down through Marlina's family. They never had money, so I'm assuming it can't be worth much, although it seems to be quite old, so it might be worth something."

I swear Sinclair has a gleam in his eye. "I haven't been able to get mine appraised," he ventures. "However, I would have to say they look like they belong together. Would you consider selling yours?"

I shake my head. "It's Marlina's. She has jokingly referred to it as her family heirloom. I am afraid she would never forgive me if I sold it."

Sinclair looks at it longingly before handing it back to me. "My uncle said he found my pendant inside a carving of Jesus on the cross which mysterious cracked open one day. Of the hundreds of carvings in the chapel this is the only one known to spontaneously crack open."

"Spooky," I say.

"Incredibly spooky to say the least," Sinclair  agrees. "He also told me many things that many Christians would find equally unbelievable.  He also described to me what he called the Legend of the Codex. It was supposed to have been written by the woman who accompanied Jesus to America. The codex was in the hands of Temploars and may have been passed on to Freemasons. He said it was the reason so many Freemasons worked so hard to become influential in the founding of America. It's no accident that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton were all Freemasons. Freedom of inquiry and of freedom of religion were going to be salient points of the American creed. It was to pave the way for the New Jerusalem. "


Although I have long been cynical regarding the notion of U.S. exceptionalism, I do believe that our nation took form under the guidance of several amazing men. Our constitution has lasted a long time' it seems to be both strong and flexible. It hasn't required much amending, and people of many diverse political positions can pay homage to it.

"When I see Marlina again, I am going to offer her an important position. I intend to make her head of veneration services."

I have no idea what this means and assume it's just more Masonic gobbledygook. "I am sure she will be honored," I say. "But first we need to find her."

Sinclair looks me squarely. "You all need to find yourselves. Do you have any idea at all why you're here?"

I am getting more and more impatient. "If you mean here here, it's to pick up my wife. If you mean here in the cosmos, trust me, this is no time for metaphysics."

"No, I mean here in Northern New England."

He is trying to distract me, and my impulse is to grab the lapels of his Armani and give him a healthy shake. And if that doesn't work, move on to something less healthy, but perhaps for me more satisfying. But I have second thoughts. Maybe remaining somewhat civil is the best course. What was it somebody once said, honey as an attractive agent has it all over vinegar. I sense Tom is about to pounce on him, but before that can happen I decide to play along. "I am here by happenstance," I say. "I met Marlina while vacationing on Mount Desert Island. She has family nearby, and once we got intimate we agreed Maine would be a good place to raise children." I hesitated for a moment to think about things. Then I confessed, "Mostly, I guess, we like the way it makes us feel. I guess you could say we're here for the climate."

Sinclair shakes his head . "Your being here has little to do with in laws, child safety, or weather. You were drawn by irresistible forces we have scarcely begun to understand. You and Marlina and the rest of us. It's in our genes. Those of a less scientific bent would call it fate."

Tom steps forward. "Those of a more rational bent would call it bullshit. Enough New Age philosopher, asshole. We think you know more about Marlina's whereabouts than you're telling us."

Sinclair ignores him. Addressing me, he says, "Several of us are here for reasons that ultimately are intertwined. Lilly really is a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and is sincere in her contention that from the beginning Christianity has short-changed women.  Marlina belongs to the bloodline of Jesus and another woman and is almost certainly the Hundredth Maiden.  Aaira has delusions of hopefulness centering around reconciling Christianity and Islam. Carolyn is here because playing in her brain are heavenly chimes and they're louder there than anywhere else.  And Lana. Did you know that her graduate thesis conjectures that Jesus was opposed to celibacy, that He regarded sex as a holy sacrament? And you? You are here because you are fated to be a great enlightener."


I sense that Tom is about to explode. Normally he is unaggressive, but I can tell this asshole rubs him harshly the wrong way. Hell, Sinclair would rub anybody the wrong way. Tom's eyes meet mine, and I shake my head. I am not quite ready to see the shit pounded out of him.

Sinclair continues, "I already told you why I'm here."

Tom says, "I am wondering why you're here still in one piece."

Sinclair looks at him. "I suspect that even you has a purpose here, although  what it might be escapes me."

This lunatic has left even Tom speechless.

"I didn't come here to discuss the paranormal," I say. "I won't leave you alone until I find Marlina. I will give her all the protection she needs."

Sinclair shakes his head. "Doubtful at best. She has powerful adversaries."

"Like who?" I ask, although I have a damn good idea who he's referring to.

"Like Wiccans, gogglegoons, the Catholic Church, and Muslims for starters."

"Let me try to get one thing straight," I say. "Marlina is not a Messiah and I am not the Grand Enlightener. Marlina is a wonderful person, but she also is the woman who bitches if I try to play golf on both Saturday and Sunday. She can be very unJesuslike. As for enlightenment, I am wandering around in as much a fog as everybody else. I generally don't know what I am going to do when I get up in the morning. I do well if I can toast a bagel and make myself a cup of coffee."

Again Sinclair shakes his head. "You know, it really doesn't matter if Marlina is the Hundredth Maiden or not. The important thing is millions of people will believe she is. When she addresses the Super Bowl throng, she will speak of reconciliation, the forgiving of grievances countless centuries old, the oneness of us all."

"Sounds like good things to me."

"But not to everybody. To many, Marlina is bad news, indeed. Take the Vatican's hottest shits. They sense their exulted positions slipping away. They aren't pleased by the idea of a Jesus/Mary Magdalene bloodline, but they've come to believe they can live with it. What they can't live with is the whole story: Jesus and May in a troubled relationship, Jesus being unfaithful, divorce or abandonment likely, Jesus indiscriminately screwing his groupies. The Vatican would see all this as the fulfillment of the Malachy's prophecies."

This is a new one on me. "Malachy's prophecies?" I ask.

"He was the 12th  century bishop of Amagh. Attributed to him is a long like of prophesies regarding popes. Many of them seem amazingly accurate. The string ends at pope number 112, the present pope. Some say Francis will be the last pope, and that the world is about to end."

Peter speaks up. "Many scholars believe the whole deal is fraudulent. They say Malachy never made the prophecies and whoever did make them wasn't all that good at it and that many of them weren't all all accurate."

"Even so, doesn't it strike you as curious that some many things are coming together here and now? You all must be big believers in coincidences."

I speak up. "Coincidences happen, but so do conspiracies. I don't see where this is leading."

"Let's suppose, for the moment, that it is a series of great coincidences that you, me, Lilly, Aaria, Lana, and Carolyn just happen to be here when Peter found Marianna's codex, when Marlina is scheduled to address the crowd at the Super Bowl, when you control a unique server allowing the entire world free and unfettered Internet access, and when circumstances point to the possibility of a final pope. Let's suppose all these things just happened to come together right now."

Tom speaks up. "I guess your take is we're all just bit players mouthing lines of a script God composed eons ago." Tom has intended to be sarcastic, but I am quite sure that Peter and I are both considering that possibility. Finding myself edging over towards Sinclair's side, without thinking I say, "Clint told me he helped guide Peter and me to the codex. Maybe he has had a hand in other things as well."

"Clint who?" Sinclair asks.

"Never mind," I say.

Sinclair smiles benignly. "Whoever he is we're all here with roles to play, and mine is to assist in the veneration of Marlina."

Pulling back, I say, "She doesn't need your veneration."

"She us as much as we need her.  She needs whatever help we might be able to provide. Lilly wants to cast a spell on her, the Church wants to subject her to hell's fires, Goggle wants to destroy her, and Aaria wants to convert her. Lurking in the background are Aaria's brothers who plainly want to use her assistance in making Islam world-dominant for the next thousand years."

Sinclair's logic seems over-whelming. The best I can come up with is, "Marlina doesn't deserve all this harassment."

This time Sinclair nods his head. "Of course, she doesn't. But the question is how did we get to this point? And where do we go from here? Once you agree we're all in this together, we need to find a way to utilize each other's strengths."

I am not about to buy into Sinclair's plea for togetherness. He must think we have awfully short memories. "I wouldn't say you were acting in the spirit of cooperation when you brought professor Phillips here from his office at Harvard," I say.

Sinclair thinks about this for a moment or two. Then he says, "I guesss we did act impulsively when we brought the professor here. You have to understand that for us news of the codex was tremendously exiting. As Third Degree Masons, we've inherited a tradition that for centuries has evolved around that codex. We couldn't be sure it still existed, or if it ever existed, really. We were taught that the prophet Jesus foresaw the persecution of Christians, the religious wars, the Inquisition, the pediphile priests, the whole sorbid history. He knew all this was coming, but still dreamed of a triumphant finality, a New World utopia. We had come to believe that the codex would be instrumental in bringing this about."

No way am I letting Sinclair off this easy. "'The professor didn't kill himself, did he?"

"More or less, he did."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"My men were there when the professor died. They pointed out that the professor had taken an oath to protect Masonic secrets and that he had violated that oath. There is no secret that such a violation is punished with death. My men helped the professor commit suicide. You could say they tied the noose and held the chair."

"I believe a judge would find them and you guilty of a crime."

"Perhaps so."

"I have your statement on my recorder."

Sinclair smiles and shrugs. "I don't mean to burst your bubble, but magnetic fields cursing through here have rendered your recorder inoperable."

I take the recorder from my pocket and see that the red record light is blinking stupidly. As far as I can see, we have reached a standoff.



  

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
.

PAINFUL AS IT iS, I have to accept the possibility that Marlina might well be safer with somebody other than me. Maybe all those powerful forces are intent on doing her harm. I can at least hope she is in friendly hands. If not, she is probably already dead. I doubt if threatening to stomp on Sinclair's balls will do the least bit of good. I believe he is certifiable, but still sincerely mystified by Marlina's disappearance. Crazy or not, it's entirely possible he's right, that rough times are coming, and I might be unable to protect her. This engenders a feeling of helplessness I find extremely uncomfortable. Certainly it does nothing for my self-esteem.

Marline's situation is incredibly frightening, certainly my biggest problem, but not my only problem. The thing is I am expecting company. And I am not talking about a friendly visit. The company I am expecting comprises the stuff of all my worst dreams put together. The company I am expecting wants nothing less than my untimely demise. The company I am expecting is Lilly, and I know she is on her way. I have something of hers, and she needs to have it back. I figure it has to be tonight. Lilly doesn't act randomly. Tonight is Halloween, and also the night of the full moon, a night certain to bring out Lilly's inforn witchiness.

I even think I know what time she will arrive. Twelve midnight, the witching hour. Lilly is a true believer. Her hormones will reach a fever pitch at the time of night when witches, demons, and ghosts are known to appear and be at their most powerful, the time at which black magic is most effective. Lilly has tried to keep a lot from me, but she hasn't disguised the fact that she is a stickler for form. I set about preparing my living room. I have a small night-light that plugs into a baseboard receptacle. It casts a dim light over about a third of the room, leaving the far end in darkness. Once nighttime becomes firmly established, it is impossible to see the wingrtip chair up against the far wall.

I wait until eleven-forty five to sit myself down in it. I am firmly convinced Lilly will make her appearance at the stroke of midnight. Across the room, there is a digital clock with large blue numbers. I can't seem to take my eyes off those squarish numbers. Forty-six...forty-seven...forth-eight...forty-nine... I feel myself growing tense throughout that last minutes.  Twelve-zero-zero. I hold my breath. The house is deadly still. A minute goes by, a second minute, still nothing. Could my clock be fast? Could Lilly's be slow? I was so sure she would appear on time.

I sit still for another ten minutes. I hear an occasional vehicle go by the house. No way could this be due to my fast clock or Lilly's slow one. She isn't coming. All my smug theorizing has gone for naught.
I feel thoroughly drained. I guess stress has taken its toll. I don't want to even begin thinking about what to do next. There is no doubt in my mind that sooner or later Lilly will come, but I can think of not way to predict when. Is she playing mind games? If she is, she's winning. Time begins slipping away.

Unexpectedly I jerk awake. All my senses are on full alert. There is movement at the far end of the room. It is slow and cautious. It could not be more stealthful. I blink my eyes into focus and can see the bare outline of a figure.

"Drop the weapon, Lilly," I say.

The figure freezes in place. She is caught in the middle of a step, and I can sense that her left foot is an inch or so off the floor. She isn't going to be able to hold that position for long.

"Drop the gun," I repeat. "I can see you. You can't see me. I won't miss if you do something stupid."

I hear her gun go clunk on the floor. I reach up and turn on the floor lamp. Lilly is dressed entirely in black. Black pants, black sweater, black skull cap. She glances at her weapon on the floor. For a moment I am afraid she will make a try for it. I am relieved when she seems to think better of it.

I glance at the clock. Three-ten. Then I remember. The devil's hour, three to three-fifteen a.m. It's an inversion fo the time at which Christ supposedly died at Calvary. It mocks the holy trinity. With the muzzle of my grock, I motion her over to my couch.

"I know why you're here," I say.

Lilly raises an eyebrow.

"You need to retrieve the meat jar I took from your closet. The meat is Jack's heart."

I expect her to deny it. She should be good for a show of hearty indignation. How dare I suggest she would have the heart of the murdered man she so dearly loved?

Lilly does no such thing.

"I wanted something to remember him by," she says. "I had, of course, already stolen his heart."

"Why did you do it?" I asked. "What made you murder Jack?"

"I was losing control over him," she admits. "Ayahuasca-A is a marvelous thing. It gives me almost total control over people I introduce it to. But only for awhile. Eventually subjects develop resistance. And when that happens, they grow resentful. Jack wasn't going to let me bring more Ayahuasca-A back to the states. He was even wondering if his wife would take him back."

"Your charms were wearing thin?"

"I guess you could put it that way. Once my influence wanes, once subjects become independent entities, they represent a danger to me. It seems they have done deplorable thingss that only I know about and they begin wondering how they might set the record straight. "

"You are evil."

"I suppose you're right. The question is, what do you propose to do about it?"

"I am going to shoot you."

"Really... I don't think you have it in you."

"You killed my good friend and who knows how many others. No point at all in having you arrested. The only evidence against you is Jack's heart, and I acquired it illegally. No way would it ever be admissible in court. I am sure you realize that, which goes a long way towards explaining that smug look on your face. You would walk, and with all the attending publicity probably gain many converts."

Lilly smiles. "True, true, so very true. But can you really shoot a sweet young thing like me?"

"I can," I say. "Trust me, I can." I feel my finger tightening on the trigger.

"Drop the gun, asshole."

I glance over my shoulder and standing there is Margaret, the long-legged blond who kicked the crap out of me in Belfast, and a guy in aviator glasses I haven't met. Margaret and the guy both have guns. With the odds two-to-one against me, I chicken out and let my gun drop to the floor with a thud.

"Brian Grant I presume."

He looks startled. "How do you know my name?"

"Your photo is on Jack's website," I say. "You were a member of the last select group Jack took to Guatemala. Fielding told me all about you. You're the grad student who deserved credit for finding the scared beetle. Jack screwed you, sort of, and I was pretty sure you had a hand in his death. I figured that sooner or later you'd make an appearance."

Lilly speaks up. "Now that we've all been properly introduced, it's time to move on. Shoot him, Brian."

Brian points his gun directly at me. I feel my stomach muscles tighten, like they can somehow stop a bullet. I focus on his trigger finger, figuring it'll be the last thing I see. It isn't moving. Too much time passes by. I look at Brian's face and see that every two or three seconds he's blinking.

By this time, Lilly has picked up her gun. She doesn't fuck around as her well-placed bullet plows into the middle of his face. He is dead before he has a chance to look surprised."Get his glasses," she says to the long-legged blond. "I want to keep them."

For a moment, they're all looking at Brian's broken glasses. Maybe Blondie is wondering if the frames are enough or if she needs to fish around for all the pieces of broken glass. A thought flashes through my mind. I could dive for my gun, hopefully make a clean grab, roll over a couple of times, and maybe shoot Lilly while taking a few bullets for myself. If all this came to fruition, the world might be a marginally better place. The moment passes with me still frozen in place.

As Blondie stoops over Brian's broken face, Lilly has turned her attention back to me. She is smiling more broadly now. "You didn't really think I would come here without backup did you?"

"Actually, yes," I say as I slowly raise my hands.

Lilly asks, "Where's Marlina?"

I figure I might as well come clean. They won't believe me anyway. "I don't know," I admit. "The Masons had her, but now she's gone. I don't know where."

Lilly says, "It's a cliche to say we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but we can do this the easy way or the hard way. We're going to kill you, of course. Goes without saying. The question if how. You must have a power drill here somewhere. Every man does. I am quite handy with one. I can prove this by drilling a hole in your eyeball."

"That would be ghastly, of course, but it won't do you any good. I do not know where Marlina is."

Lilly game me a long hard look. It's possible she's beginning to believe me. Marlina isn't here so it's plausible I don't know where she is.

Margaret sounds impatient when she say, "Becky, put Lilly's jar in the truck of our car."

"You're going to be disappointed with that as well," I say.  "That isn't jack's heart. Jack's heart has been sent off to Augusta, the state police crime lab. You're looking at a pig's heart."

This grabs everybody's attention. All three women stare at the jar. I know they're trying to remember exactly what Jack's heart looks like. They're wondering why I would bother substituting a pig's heart for Jack's. They're momentarily stunned, and it's now or never for me to make a move.

Margaret is standing on a small throw rug, which I stoop down and jerk out from under her. The rug is appropriately named. She squawks as her legs go out from under her and she lands on her over-sized rump. More importantly, she loses her grip on the gun. I think about trying to swoop it up, but Legs is rapidly diminishing the distance between us. Sure as hell if I were in a stooped position I would receive a kick in the side of the head. She aims a kick at my crotch which by twisting my body I am able to turn into a blow on my hip. Painful, but not disabling. Margaret is trying to get back on her feet. I've never before kicked an elderly woman, and  hope to never do so again, but I plant my foot on the side of her head. She rolls over and lies still. Legs is circling around, wondering where to plant a solid kick. I snatch a lamp off an end table and heave it at her as hard as I can. it catches her amidships, and she stumbles back a few steps before tripping on the rug and tumbling onto her ass.

Lilly is on my back. She has her legs wrapped around my middle, and an arm on my neck. She's squeezing with all her might. I am fighting to keep my balance while she is intent on squeezing the breath out of me. I back up as fast as I can and she grunts as we strike the wall. She looses her hold on my neck. I grab a leg and jerk it away from my middle. Lilly, stunned, slides to the floor.

Back to Becky. She is back on her feet.  Her lips are drawn back, her fists are clinched, and I see a row of straight white teeth. She looks really pissed. I don't feel up to dealing with any of her kung fu shit. I lower my head and charge at her. This seems to catch her by surprise. She stays rooted to her spot until I smash into her middle. We go down and she immediately begins to squirm violently, desperately, realizing she's in trouble, her long finger nails searching for my eyes. I have no gentlemanly thoughts of taking it easy on her. I slug her in the face—not once, not twice, but four or five times. She's out cold, and I am not sure she'll ever wake up.

For about a second I am thinking I've won, only to hear Lilly's dulcet tone, "You're dead, motherfuck." She has retrieved Margaret's piece and is aiming its muzzle at the back of my head.

"Can't you just cast a spell or something?" I ask.

Lilly doesn't respond. Obviously she's in no mood for light-hearted chatter. She doesn't care about the whereabouts of Marlina or the contents of her jar. She cares about me not annoying her ever again.

Suddenly the monitor next to my computer goes berserk. Bold, white type on a black background is blinking on and off. The familiar sixty-point Arial spells out MEET ME AT THUNDER HOLE, stays on for a second or so, then switches to BOTH OF YOU. The sequence is repeated again and again. MEET ME AT THUNDER HOLE...BOTH OF YOU...MEET ME AT THUNDER HOLE...BOTH OF YOU...MEET ME AT THUNDER HOLE... BOTH OF YOU... Evidently Clint is somebody Lilly listens to. "Lucky you," she says. "You've won a reprieve. We're going to Thunder Hole."

Lilly has me get behind the wheel and seats herself in the back. She promises to shoot me in the back of my head if I exceed thirty miles an hour.

Thunder Hole is only three or four miles away, but getting there is no simple matter. It lies on Ocean Drive, but years ago park officials put me on a no access list. I incurred their wrath when I disclosed to readers of my guide how they could avoid paying the entrance fee. It's possible to access most of the drive by cutting through a parking lot at Otter Cliffs. I regarded the disclosure of this semi-secret a matter of principle. National parks, I had been told, belonged to the people of the United States. All the people, not just those wealthy enough to pay to get in. The fee represented telling poor people they couldn't go on their own land.

The problem to day was that Thunder Hole came before Otter Cliffs. Getting to Thunder Hole through the Offer Cliffs parking lot required going the wrong way on the one-way Ocean Drive. I explained this to Lilly. After a few choice obscenities, she ordered me to go for it. This day we are lucky and encounter no traffic on our wrong-wayjaunt.

Thunder Hole is a cleft in the rock wall along Ocean Drive. It gets it name from the roar of ocean waves entering its opening and echoing about. Back in the day, it was a popular attraction, and it would have been packed with tourists on such a fine June day as this, but since the park was privatized and the entry fee increased to a hundred dollars, few visitors came. Mine is the only car in sight when I pull up beside it.

Lilly hasn't lost the gun. She keeps it pointed at the small of my back as we cross the road. No sooner are on the other side than we're met by a vision of sheer loveliness, a girl with a golden glow, She is far and away the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

You're Clint," I say. "Nobody that looks like you has ever occurred naturally,."

Lilly says, "Clint is a man."

The golden girl smiles at me. "You're right. Assuming disparant forms is no problem. Call me Clintina. For this occasion, a woman seemed appropriate. If I am going to be a woman, a woman why not be a beautiful one?"

"I guess I am the winner," I say.

"Not quite, the vision says. You haven't found the portal. The prize goes to the finder of the portal."

The lovely one turns to Lilly. "Bad news, dear. The authorities are coming for you. By vehicle, there is just one way off the island. It is blocked. There are various ways to leave by boat, but they too are all blocked. You're trapped." Off in the distance, a siren sounds, and it seems to be coming closer.

"No way!" Lilly snarls. "This can't be happening. It just can't. I am not going to prison. Your portal. I can get out through your portal. Where the hell is your portal? I swear I'll shoot both of you if you don't tell me now!"

"It won't work for you, dear," the vision says. "Trust me, it just won't work."

Lilly is beyond reason. She is both panicked and outraged, not a healthy combination. "Fuck you!," she screams in frustration. "Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!" She opens up with the gun. Shot after shot directed at the beautiful girl. But something astounding happens. Out of focus spots appear on the body. Each shot is followed by an out-of-focus spot. It seems like the bullets are passing right through. "Die," She shrieks. "Die, you bitch! Die,die, die.  Why the fuck won't you die?"

"There are days when I wish I could," the girl says quietly.

In desperation, Lilly turns the gun towards me. Click, click, click. Again and again she pulls the empty gun's trigger. "Son of a bitch," she roars as she hurls the weapon at me. I jerk aside as it narrowly misses my face.

Lilly is like a ferocious, panicky, trapped animal. She is snarling, crying, sputtering incoherently. Wild-eyed, she looks first at the lovely one, then at me, then back at the lovely one. The siren is growing louder. The girl has backed up to the guard rail protecting Thunder Hole. "Bitch!," Lilly screams as she extends her arms and rushes toward the her. I start to mouth a warning, but too late. Lilly should have taken a lesson from the futility of her bullets. In her rage she has lost all reason. She rushes to the lovely one, but then seems to pass right through her. Desperately she tries to grab onto something, but there is nothing there, and it is far too late to stop.  Arms waving, legs askew, she tumbles over the rail, screaming in outrage as she tumbles into the churning waters of Thunder Hole.

I hurry to the rail and look down. Lilly is splashing the water with her arms, trying to stay afloat as she is tossed about in the turbulent water. The rushing water is too powerful, and she is bashed against the rock wall repeatedly. I've never seen the water so opowerful. I realize it's the full moon, intense gravity bringing in a higher-than-usual tide. Her situation seems hopeless, but then she gains a grip on a projection from the rock surface and tries to pull herself up. For a moment I think she might be able to hoist herself upon the rock shelf, but with a resounding boom a giant wave comes crashing in, tearing her away. She swirls around twice before smacking into the far rock wall. Then she goes limp and sinks from sight. Lilly is no more.



CHAPTER FORTY-NINE


FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, we're back at the Mira Monte, and I have introduced Clintina all around.  Peter looks fascinated. Tom looks annoyed. Lana looks thoughtful. Carolyn looks doubtful.

Peter speaks up. "Tell us about yourself," he says.

"I am not sure where to begin," Clintina says.

Peter says. "How about at the beginning?"

"The beginning? That would be the big bang. We remember it well. Man, what a rush it was."

"We?" Peter asks.

"Clint and I. We are separate individuals, but we spring from the same source."

"The big bang? That was a very long time ago," Tom says. "Thirteen point seven billion years or so."

"You people don't really understand time. It's not a fixed thing. Events it chronicles can be as far away as forever or as near as now. There is nothing in the cosmos more flexible. In ten minutes, Clint or I could relive the  big bang, although I am not sure we are
up to it."

I sense Carolyn is more annoyed than intrigued.  Risking rudeness, she asks, "You've been around forever? Are you claiming to be God?"

"Not at all," Clintina says. "Along with everything else except for that pesky singularity and perhaps God, I came into being with the Big Bang. In a way, we all did. The stuff that came to be you and me and time and space was all part of that big bang. But we didn't create any of it. Hard to say who did. Trust me, I don't know any more about God than any of you do."

Tom sees an opening."Carolyn would have you believe she knows more about God than the rest of us, but, like most things, that's debatable. In any event, if you aren't God, who or what are you?"

"Right at the moment I think I might most accurately be described as a material manifestation of raw consciousness. But that's for right now. I won't stay in corporeal form for long. It's too dangerous. In the flesh, I am vulnerable. By taking human form, I am violating cosmic law. When I leave it, I'll return to pure consciousness. When this happens I'll permeate this universe and all the others. It's probably occurring to you that you can equate the universes with consciousness."

My thinking hasn't gotten that far, not by a long shot, but I do have a point to make. "You didn't seem all that vulnerable when Lilly was trying to shoot you," I point out.

"Wait a minute," Peter says. "Lilly was trying to shoot you?"   

"She was," I say, and I go on to explain what happened at Thunder Hole.

"How ironic," Peter says. "She thought the full moon would enhance her powers, and it ended up contributing to her demise."

"Well-deserved irony," I say. "I've learned that Lilly killed Jack and several others. She would put them under her control with her special potions, and when that began to wane, kill them. She came to kill me, but Clintina intervened. Case closed."

Peter, still pondering consciousness, says, "Our smartest people have grappled with the meaning of consciousness since way back when."

Tom says, "I have heard it described it as the unpleasant interlude between naps."

Clintina smiles and nods her head. "Consciousness is a word that defies easy definition. It's a very slippery concept. For a long time, you guys have wondered if your consciousness is created by your brain. It's not. Your brain is a receiver, like a television or a radar dish. It doesn't create consciousness, but manifests it."

Peter seems fascinated, but also a bit doubtful. "Our conscious comes from elsewhere? To what do we owe this great gift of consciousness? More to the point, what do you have to do with it?"

"You owe it to the nature of things, and I am part of that nature. You are only beginning to under quantum reality. It runs so contrary to what you have long regarded as reality, you don't quite believe in it. Even Einstein never really accepted it. The concept you refer to as reality results from an interplay between consciousness, your powers of observation, and your brain. Your brain really isn't wired to understand this. By the time it does, your brain will be quite different from what it is now."

Peter says, "Anyway, you and consciousness began with the b
ig Bang? Or should I say Big Brain? How long have we been conscious of ourselves?"

"About sixty thousands years. You were rather slow coming onto the consciousness stage. I had been monitoring you for about a million-and-half years. You had developed stone tools and the ability to control fire, but hadn't done much with them.  The big-brained Neanderthal seemed like a far better bet."

"So what happened?" Tom asks.

"You stumbled upon psychedelics. Turning you into artists, psychedelics enabled you to symbolize. You began drawing horse heads on cave walls and urgently chipping insights and other data onto flat rocks. This marked▀ the beginning of history."

Lana suggests, "We became self-conscious."

"Once you started tripping, you became interesting company. After several billions years of being bored with this realm, I had you to both contend and communicate with. It wasn't long before your holy men became aware of what they called cosmic consciousness. Philosophers everywhere began teaching the oneness of it all. Following Jesus, a central tenant of Gnosticism was that God is everywhere. The recognition of c▀onsciousness brought with it all kinds of weird and wonderful things."

Tom isn't done. "I always figured consciousness wasn't created by the brain," he says. "The damn thing seems unsuited for the job. It is, after all, three-quarters water. Buckets of water don't sit around telling each other about their feelings. Okay, it's true it consists of some hundred billion neurons with anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand synapses for each neuron along with 100,000 miles of blood vessels, all useful for symbolization,  but I still never figured it could create consciousness."

We all stare open-mouthed at Tom. "Factoid: The brain is capable of more connections than there are grains of sand on Earth," he goes on. "I have often heard it described as the most remarkable object in the universe, but of course this is hubristic bullshit since we know so very little about what else lies in the universe." After a moment of breath-catching, he concludes, "Nevertheless, we're all potential geniuses. Which brings up the question, why can't most of us balance our checkbooks or set the correct time on a digital watch?"

Ignoring Tom, Lana breaks the stunned silence by asking Lana, "You speak of duties. Who gave you duties? What are those duties?"

"I have no idea why they originated. I just know they did. Nobody ever told me my duties; I know them intuitively. My first, and foremost,  duty is to monitor your progress and the progress of all the other somewhat intelligent species in the cosmos. Eventually, if you survive, you'll perfect space/time/conscious condensation and lean to invade other dimensions. The odds haven't favored this, but somehow you've persisted. You've smart enough to build hydrogen bombs. You need to be twice as smart to know enough never to use them. The vast majority of intellectually accomplished beings destroy themselves before they master space/time/con, as I call it, or even realize there are countless other dimensions. But should you avoid self-destruction, you would eventually become capable of cosmos penetration, and I would need to put an end to you."

"Well aren't you the cat's meow," Tom says.

Clintina looks at him. "Even I know that's an archaic expression."

"Ageless," Tom replies. "It's an ageless expression, but this begs the question. It's five against one. Why don't we just put an end to you?"

At this, Clintina smiles. "That's what Lilly set about doing, and you know what happened to her."

I can tell Carolyn doesn't like Tom's threats or Clintina's self-assurance.  "Do you have other duties?" she asks politely. "I imagine anybody with your skill set could do much more."

"I do and I could. But my most important job to make certain that unworthy species don't acquire time/space condensation or dimension penetration."

"Why?" Lana wonders.

"Because you would surely screw up the cosmos."
 
"Needless to say we're among the unworthy species," Tom says.

"I am afraid so. No two ways about it."

Ever the academic, Lana persists, " So that's it. Those are the extent of your duties?"

"There are things I am not allowed to do. Chief among these is getting involved in human affairs, especially anything that might lead to jurisprudence."

"You're like the crew on the starship Enterprise," Tom says. "You're an observer. It's your duty to remain standoffish."

"Call me Kirk."

"But Kirk and crew kept butting in where they didn't belong," Tom points out.

"Sad but true," Clintina agrees.

Tom isn't satisfied. "What do you do with civilizations that are on the verge of discovering time/space condensation?"

"Assuming they're unworthy, as nearly all are, we either destroy them or set them back a millennium or so. It's just too dangerous to let them fool around with time travel, space condensation, and dimension pen penetration."

Carolyn, looking shocked, asks, "Don't you feel at all guilty, taking so many lives?"
"It's all for the greater good."

"Blah, blah, blah," says Tom.

"It's certainly nothing personal," Clintina continues. "It's my job. Besides it goes two ways. I take, but I also replenish.  You've read many times the pro-God argument that it is all but impossible for the right combination of elements making life possible just happening to come together. It's often compared to a tornado going through a junk yard and assembling a space vehicle from parts just sitting around. Well, they're right. It is impossible. There simply isn't enough time for life to happen accidentally.Life requires a helping hand, my helping hand. On this planet I have jump-started lifelines leading to many more lives than I have taken. Life is good, up to a point."

"You've abandoned God," Carolyn says. "Science has done a wonderful job of explaining many things.  Time and time again, it has put my God-fearing, Bible-toting, scripture-quoting people in our place. But there is one big thing it hasn't done. It hasn't explained how something came from nothing. The Big Bang theory comes close, but it still requires a teeny weeny, microscopic, smaller-than-an-atom, red-hot singularity. Almost nothing, as close as you can get, but not quite nothing. Science has no idea where this came from."

I wonder how long Carolyn has been holding this back.

"You have a point," Clintina concedes.

Lana says, "If what you say is true, you have quite a job on your hands, keeping track of countless civilizations."

"Not as hard as it sounds. I can be in any number of places simultaneously. Lifeforms follow predictable paths. Natural selection is always at work. As life evolves, everything imaginable is put to the test: Size, strength, flying, armor, inviability, offensive odors, venom, minuteness, and finally intelligence, which wins every time.  The intelligent species is able to  surpass all those other attributes, and time and time again it does. The intelligent ones are, by definition, smart, but few are smart enough to avoid destroying themselves. They discover atomic fission before then stumble across time/space condensation. Frankly, I am surprised you have made it as far as you have. Many years ago, I thought for sure you were going to annihilate yourselves over that business of Russian missiles in Cuba. Actually, you've had several other near misses. Truth is, I've intervened from time to time, but not all the time. You seem to live charmed lives. So now there's a decent chance you'll master tsc before you render your environment uninhabitable or blow yourselves to smithereens."

Tom wants to know more about Clintina. "You say you've been around forever," he says. "Are you immortal?"

"No. Right now there are those who would like to terminate my existence."

"Who?" Tom asks.

"Forces I call Assgrassians. It's a name I made up. Let's just say they're my competition, and fierce competition they are. They feel they're the legitimate protectors fo the cosmos. They accuse me of being a liberal weeny. They say I've involved myself too much in human affairs and that I spend too much time playing golf. They say I am over the hill and want to force my retirement. As we speak, they're searching the cosmos for me. If they nab me in corporeal form, I am finished."

"Finished?" Tom wonders. "If they come busting through the door, can't you just render yourself immaterial?"

"Not that easy. I can't do this instantaneously. It takes a few minutes, longer all the time. I am much slower than I used to be."

"What would they do to you?" Tom wonders.


"They would imprison me, separate me from consciousness, render me unable to counterform. And most likely they wouldn't stop there. I suspect they would scatter my components throughout the cosmos, making re-assembly difficult if not impossible. They would have no problem justifying this.The important thing is they would take over my functions, and their first order of business would be to make you gone. You would never know what hit you. Foremost in their minds is their conviction I've wavered much too long over your species. They're convinced you're coming much too close to time/space condensation and mastering quantum entangliment. They have a point. In the wrong hands, these can gum up the works beyond ungumming. For sure your termination would be immediate. They feel you over-stayed your welcome long ago. Once they're in charge, you are history. Clint will never see Marlina again nor will he discover Hogan's secret. Not that this would matter much since there wouldn't be guys left to form scramble teams. Golf is played nowhere else."

Ever ready to play devil's advocate, Tom says, "Possibly you and your counterpart have been around long enough."

"Perhaps we have," Clintina says. "But sometimes I think Clint is capable of further growth. He is having new experiences. Case in point: He finds he has unfamiliar, but somehow urgent, feelings of affection for Doberman's wife Marlina. He doesn't know how to deal with them, but can't shake them off. He knows they're useless, but still he savors them. By the way, those buckets might surprise you."

I look at Clintina closely and realize she's holding back. "There's more," I say. "What aren't you telling me?"

Clintina hesitates.  "We need to talk," she finally says. "I would be more comfortable if it were just you and me. Can we take a walk?"

I nod. Why not? I think.





CHAPTER FIFTY

WE WALK UP THE LONG GRAVEL DRIVE and turn left onto Mount Desert Street. We've begun walking towards downtown when I ask, "You and Clint. You're separate individuals, but connected somehow."

"We share a consciousness. We're able to manifest ourselves as representatives of either sex. Only one of us at a time can materialize, and sometimes we disagree over whose turn it is."

"Jack told me that Clint can assume whatever form he wishes."

"It's true, he can.  But we've appeared so often as Clint and Clintina that we've practically become human. We've developed actual personalities and human traits. The other day I found myself wishing I could have a baby. A baby! What would I do with a freakin' baby?"                                                                                                   

"I am still confused. You're two different people, some of the time, at least, yet you are one."

"We spring from the same essence. Clint or Clintina. It's probably most accurate to regard us as one individual in different guises. Our particles are  entangled. Termination of one of us terminates both of us. I know pretty much everything that's going on in his mind, and vice versa. You have your transexuals. Gender, you realize, is optional. Well, Clint and I can skip back and forth effortlessly."

"But Clint is pretty much a jerk. You...well, you're not a jerk."

"Thanks, but I suspect your hormones are twitching. However, Clint and I also have hormones. He reacts to things as a guy; I as a gal. While involving himself with earthliness, Clint loves to play golf and yearns to fuck whatever females are available. I dream of remaining corporeal long enough to coddle an infant or make a quilt. He's obsessed with learning Hogan's secret; I would like to know how to bake the perfect brownie."

"It's all in the seasoning," I suggest. "The important thing is to get just the right amount of THC."

"There are a few things I admire about your species. One of these things is that you allow many tasks to be gender neutral."

'"I also toast a mean bagel."

"You would have to show me how to turn on the oven," Clintina says. "Or would it be the toaster?"


I ponder this for a bit before asking, "Why did you show up today as a female?"

"I just felt like being pretty for a bit."

"I've gotta say, you pulled it off beautifully."

"Thanks again, but still your aesthetic is no doubt hormone induced. Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"That expression," I say. "Tom pointed it out to me. It was popularized by an ancient TV show. It featured three young adults in New York City, and they were talking about homosexuality, suggesting some ambivalence in their acceptance of it."

Clintina fills me in. "It was called 'Seinfeld.' It drew my attention because it was billed as a show about nothing. Nothing is a very slippery concept. Physicists still aren't sure such a thing can exist. If it's a thing, it's not nothing. It's a thing.  I wanted to see how close a TV show might come to nothingness."

"How close could it? "

"Not very. This goes deeper than one might suppose. Is a nothing a something? That's an ancient philosophical query. Religions have formed and wars fought around it."

I wonder if I should try to keep her ruminating. Her interest in Earth's by-gone popular culture and ancient philosophical conjectures are giving me a glimmer of hope. Still encouraging her to dwell on the stupidity of our wars is a bad and dangerous idea.

"How about stories made up from whole cloth?" I ask. "I am thinking about David Ingram's account of Norumbega."

"Ingram was reporting what he saw," Clintina says. "He was a good and accurate reporter."

"But there was no such city," I protest.

 "Are you sure?"

"Sure as I am of anything. Norumbega was a myth."

"Ever hear of Cahokia?"

"Can't say that I have."

"Cahokia was a six-square-mile pre-Columbian city situated on the Mississippi across from St. Louis, Missouri. As many as 40,000 peole lived there from around 600 to 1400 A.D. It was discovered in the 1950s when they started digging for the interstate highway."

"Are you suggesting that Norumbega lies buried somewhere along the Penobscot River?"

"No. But I am insisting that people must be wary of what they think they know."

"So Norumbega remains a myth? It doesn't exist?"

"Not in this dimension. Ingram was so intent on finding treasure that I played to his lust by taking him on a bit of a side trip. Sometimes I enjoy playing the trickster, and he never did catch on that we had switched dimensions. All was fair since Ingram enjoyed the sex as did I. The man was in terrific shape. Walking does that, I guess."

'If I catch your drift, you just admitted it. You're the portal."

"Me and my big mouth."

"I was starting to get the idea when I realized Clint never prefaced a reference to the portal with a possessive pronoun. It wasn't his portal. It didn't belong to him. It was always "the portal'. It didn't belong to him bcause it was him. That's because it was him. Any you too, I guess."

"I am impressed. How in the world would that have occurred to you?"

"Never try to confuse a one-time English major and would-be writer."

"There must have been other clues."

"I became convinced when you told Lilly the portal just wouldn't work with her. Obviously only men can get to other dimensions through you."

"While loving every minute of it, I might add. But caution is in order. The passage is fraught with danger."

"What about Marlina?"

"Guys have it made. I generally let him do the inter-dimensional traveling. For him it's far less dangerous. He can take total control, and if he's traveling with a female, it makes no difference what's going through her mind. For me to bring a man to another portal, we must climax simultaneously. Most men don't enjoy that much control."

"So, anyway, I win. I've found the portal. You two owe me big time."

Clintina looks deeply concerned. 'I'll have to get Clint's ruling on this. You were getting warm, but you didn't find the portal so much as you listened to me blab about it. I would imagine you're entitled to something for being so attentive, but I am not sure that Clint will allow that you've outright won. He invented the game, and he's its final arbitrator."

"If, in fact, I've won, and I contend I certainly have, what have I won?"

"Maybe a little, maybe a lot."

"Who cares what? I know I'm glad the game is done."

By this time, we're walking by the Jesup Memorial Library, a handsome structure erected in 1890 during the heyday of Bar Harbor's social prominence. It has survived both the Great Fire of 1947 and Bar Harbor's many changes, remaining an outstanding institution. I consider telling Clintina about it. Perhaps it would lead her to look more kindly upon our species.  But I hesitate too long, Before I can make up my mind, we've reached Bar Harbor's Main Street. We turn left and begin walking towards the bay. "This whole business of consciousness has me mystified," I say. "Would this Main Street be here if nobody were seeing it?"

"You'll never understand the quantum by employing intuitive sensitivity. Such thoughts are inappropriate, but pretty much all your wired brain can wholly entertain. If you want to hear raw gobbledygook, listen to two physicists discuss the origin of consciousness."

"That's an interesting non-answer."

"The quantum leaves you incapable of rational response. Would you buy a used cat from Schrodinger?"

"I am a dog person."

"So you would deal with paradox by avoiding it. This is understandable, even commendable. It's the best your brain can do."

"So my consciousness, however remarkable, isn't up to being correctly conscious of itself."

"It's a few layers beyond your present capability. Maybe I should say that cosmic consciousness is real, much more real than what you regard as reality. It is the underlying basis of everything. This consciousness is vast, but finite. And it's being tested as we speak. The universes are expanding more and more rapidly. As its representative, I am being stretched thinner and thinner. There are those who say I am becoming too feeble to do my job. Things do get a bit easier cultures develop chipping program. Chipped people don't derive their consciousness from me. It's like chipped people are digital and unchipped people are analog. Unchipped people derive consciousness from me and work with it with both hemispheres of their brains. The results are unpredictable.  It can lead to great works of literature, symphonies, epic poetry, but also to the  destructiveness of serial killers."

"It Goggles the mind.,"

"Ha ha. My advice is that you keep your day job."


"Like so many others, that phrase is archaic."

"Cool phrases linger on forever."

"Back in the day there was a movie, Manchurian Candidate, about a fellow brainwashed by North Koreans into being an assassin. Are you suggesting that chipped people are like that guy, essentially mindless robots?"

"Not at all. Chipped people, I call them Goggles, have free will, and can be good company. Often they are  intellectually lively.  Goggles seldom experience doubt and are known for adhering to the straight and narrow. They almost never experience remorse. The thing is they're somewhat predictable, certainly far more-so than non-chipped people. Goggle loves them because they're manageable. It seldom occurs to them to leave the reservation. They don't contemplate criminal behavior. ˇThey're part of the team."

"But they're basically robots?"

"Goggle has engineered its chips very skillfully, and when most people get chipped, they don't notice any detrimental differences. Instead they enjoy computerless access to the web, even if Goggle's version is a somewhat abridged.The changes come on slowly. Bit by bit Goggles lose much of their creative consciousness.  Original insights become few and far between, but they don't have insights into their insightlessness. Most don't notice that their sleep has become dreamless. They also don't miss the capacity to plan very far into the future. They're content and harbor few regrets.  Paradoxically, they live in the now or, at best, the near-now, which paradoxically is what many world religions encourage all of us to do."

"Just what the doctor ordered."

"As I said, the chips are engineered very cleverly. Once installed, they immediately zero in on the bit of the brain that controls unwanted memories. Most people have loved and been rejected. It comes with growing up. A problem is they never quite get over it. The pain subsides, but doesn't disappear. Chips are designed to wipe out such pain and make recipients highly grateful."


"Sounds rather pleasant."



"It can be. Gogglites don't experience abrupt mood swings. They're never bipolar, never paranoid, never schizophrenic. Besides psychic protection, Gogglites are often benefited in unexpected ways. The chip in your friend Peter's head makes him a fine businessman. He stays focused. If chips didn't enhance productivity, Goggle wouldn't issue them. He can read books, appreciate them, and apply them to his lifestyle, but he's unlikely to write an original one. His codex offers incredible possibilities, but he'll probably avoid testing them.  He's your good friend, but how often has he surprised you? I mean really surprised you?"

"He surprised me when he bought that church, but I guess he knew what he was doing."

"Exactly. He realized the church might well be valuable, but the appearance of the codex is confusing him, and he's likely to try to rid himself of it."

"He has already mentioned that possibility."

"Or consider Lana. Her chip is enabling her to be an excellent translator. She won't let any of her own feelings seep into the text. Her translation will report precisely what the codex says, with no compensation for what she would like for it to say or for what she feels it ought to say."

"Sounds like rule number one for a successful translator."

"It does, doesn't it. Then there's Marlina. Her chip has made her a faithful companion and a steadfast motivational speaker. No doubt her chip helped her career. It made her see things with great moral clarity.

"I have to agree that Peter, Lana, and Marlina match your descriptions. All three have clear perspectives on what's right and what's wrong.  Marlina especially is a  stickler for doing what she deems as the right thing. She made me keep paying on a mortgage that had sunk to the depths of the sea."

"With Marlina, you might have to adjust to a person who now  sees distinct shades of gray. The chip that was in her head tended to obscure the more subtle shades."

"Was?"

"Clint removed it. He hoped it would bring him and Marlina closer together." 

"You don't think I might hate that?"

"Probably you do. I don't know much about human jealousy, but I suppose this could give rise to it. But look at the bright side. There are things I am sure you will like."

"Such as?"

"Your consciousness will live on after your body rots away. All those religions that teach the importance of spiritual growth as opposed to physical gratifications are right on. Consciousness is energy. Remember energy? Good ol' energy. You can't destroy the damn stuff. You think it's gone, but it sticks around. You can transform it, but that's it.  Be assured, your consciousness lives on after your body has called it quits."

"What about individuality?"

"Not that great a blessing.  Nowhere near what it's cracked up to be. But there are choices. After death, you can, if you wish, choose a new mother and go through  the reincarnation process. This is quite painless and has the potential of leading to interesting things. Besides that it gives you some pleasurable downtime in a snuggy womb. If you choose to be reborn, your past life will, eventually, be all but forgotten. Right now to you this sounds like a great deal, but you would be surprised how many forego this apparent golden opportunity."

"According to J.D. Sutherford, Goggle plans to bring the lives of those with common chips to  premature conclusions. These people won't enjoy afterlives?"

"Depends on how long they've been chipped. It takes three or four years to block full consciousness. Goggle designed the chip to go slowly, to go unnoticed. People would rebel if their chips made them feel radically different. Goggle has felt it has all the time in the world."

"Sutherford says Goggle is stepping things up. He says that in the near future *it plans to reduce world population to five-hundred million. Goggle wants to make room for the hordes it thinks it can render immortal."

Clintina shrugs. "They should be careful what they wish for," she says. "There is something Suterford hasn't told you because he doesn't kow about it.  Goggle is on the verge of enabling chips to shutdown your wired in refusal to switch dimensions."

"What's the point?"

"Goggle wants to drastically reduce world population. It can blow people's minds, but this will leave a hell of a mess. Dead bodies everywhere.It would be much neaer to ship people off to other dimensions."

Suddenly I realize something. "Marina has been chipped for almost four years."

"Not anymore."

"Why not anymore?"

"Clint removed it."

A bolt from the blue: "Clint has her. I know he has her."

"Not exactly."

"Then he knows where she is. You do too."

"That's true."

"Wherever she is, he took her there."

"Right again," Clintina says. "And at no small risk to himself. He knows he should have left her alone. He cannot defend his decision to intervene, but feels like he did what he had to do. At the same time, his continued existence has never been in greater jeopardy. His existence and mine as well."

"Bring her back," I demand.


"Not a good idea. You have to realize he took her to protect her. She was in imminent danger. She faces several threats, but most immediately that posed by Roger Sinclair. Sooner rather than later he plans to separate her most attractive head from her lovely little body."

"Why in the world would he do that?"

"Severed heads have long been a thing with certain Masons. The Knights Templar and the Freemas both have  long histories of venerating them. Long ago, the Masons had John the Baptist's head, one of their favorite possessions. At other times they all paid homage to Baphomet's head. Most of today's Masons have gotten beyond this, but not all. Sinclair and his like refer to themselves as traditionalists. For most of us, it's all quite gruesome, but not to them.
Clint  just couldn't stand by and let them do their thing."

"Who's Baphomet?"

"Good question. You've seen illustrations of the winged guy with a goat's head? That's Baphomet. His name, always associated with occultism, pops up in documents as far back as the eleventh century.  Today he relates to occultism, ritual magic, witchcraft, Satanism and esoterica. The name may be a corruption of the name Mohamed. At the time of the Crusades, the Knights Templar spent extended periods in the Mid-East. There wasn't constant warfare. Between battles, they often became friendly with Muslims and were introduced to Arabian mysticism."

"I thought Christians and Muslims were always at each other's throats."


"Not so. Even today, in many places Christian and Muslims live together side-by-side peacefully. The sharing of cultural attributes is inevitable, and world religions have always borrowed from one another. There are no pure strains. Christianity, for example, retained many pagan elements, including the virgin birth, a bright star as locater, and an ascension into heaven. Over the ages, many religions, including Christianity, have portrayed half-goat half-man deities."


"This is all very interesting, but I am far more interested in Marlina. My hunch is he also has Suzi.  Where are they?"


"Clint has taken both of them to a different dimension. Marlina is there for protection; Suzi asked to go.
"

"Why? Why would Suzi asked to be taken away?"

"She thought she was losing her mind. She kept having flashes of Marlina, all jumbled up and mashed together, the only unifying theme being Marlina's pain. In all of the flashes, something awful was happening to Marlina. She wanted to tell you, but didn't want to cause you pain. None of the flashes were well enough defined to identify. There wasn't anything anybody could do about them."

"In A.A. they talk about geographical cures, the point being they never work. Where did Clint take her?"

"To a dimension he had singled out to shelter Marlina. he thought if he could show her that Marlina was safe, her visions would abate.""

"Where would this dimension be?"

"Right here, but at a slightly different frequency."

"Wait a minute...Let me get this straight...He planned far ahead of time to abscond with Marlina?"

"He did. He realized things here would become increasingly threatening to her. I don't know how it happened, but he has come to care for Marlina."

"So he took her to a different dimension. Truth is, I really don't understand what's up with the various dimensions."

"We live in a universe where anything that can happen does happen. Whenever there are two possibilities, both occur, occupying disparate dimensions."

"This would make for a hell of a lot of dimensions, an infinite number of them."

"Infinite isn't a number, but, yes, there are countless dimensions. At any given number, there is a finite number of them."

"And many more a moment or so later."

"Correct."                 

Clint confirmed Suzi's conviction that rough times lay ahead. Her ESP powers would be pushed to the max. She would suffer terrible pain. At the same time, there ws nothing she could do to change the future. She wanted to help you, but couldn't. She also knew that eventually you and Marlina might be reunited. Suzi just decided to take herself out of the picture."


Clint was all too happy to bring Marlina to Suzi's dimension. As often happens, Suzi was feeling ill-at-ease in her new dimension. This often happens when one experiences a domain that is familiar, but slightly different from what one is used to. People feel slightly out of place, which, in fact, they are. Sometimes they get sick to their stomachs.

"Clint moved her to a dimension very much like this one. She is feeling very much at home. She's with a fellow who atom-for-atom is your precise counterpart. For all intents and purposes, he is you."

I feel a pang of jealousy, then wonder if I should. Am I being jealous of myself? Can I blame her for cozying up to somebody exactly like me?

"Why is she safe in this other realm?"

"It took us some time to find the right one. Give us some credit. Out of the zillions, we found the perfect one. It's a direct offshoot from this one, a close cousin. It split off at the time of Jesus's trial. In Marlina's realm, Jesus was acquitted. There was no crucifixion. In this realm, Jesus and Mary Madeline got along just fine. She forgave him for carrying on with other women, and they grew old together in Southern France. In this realm, there has been no Marlina counterpart.  Evidently Jesus never said anything about a Hundredth Maiden. If he did, it's been long forgotten."

"What sort of religion is there?" I ask.

"There's something a lot like Judaism. Most everybody subscribes to it. Counterparts to Christianity and Islam never got going, not did Masons or witches. The figure we know as Jesus has a replicant, who is remembered as a good and wise man, a bit like Socrates or Lincoln. He was tried for heresy, but found innocent. That's when our timelines split. People there have been spared our endless warfare over points of Christian interpretation. John the Baptist, who did lose his head in this realm, is held in somewhat higher regard than Jesus, although no separate denomination insists upon his divinity. Religiously inclined folks here are still waiting for the Messiah to show up. Nobody seems to worry much about what other people believe."

"Sounds like paradise," I say.

"There are good points and bad."

"What are some of the bad?"

"People here often complain of feeling empty. There is behavior considered bad, sinful if you will, and folks there never enjoy a sense of their sins being forgiven. Joy is in short supply.  Most of the art is banal, and what music there is tends to be trite. The architecture is strictly utilitarian. Many people become more and more remorseful until the day they die. There's no Christmas, of course, no Easter, and no holy communion. Of course, there are none of the church suppers you have enjoyed. It hasn't occurred to them that their consciousness might live on after their bodies quit. They would be puzzled by references to being born again or giving up the ghost. None of their literature involves themes of redemption or the return of deceased spirits. No miracles on 34th Street or Charles Dickens's Christmas carols."

"I guess there's unhappiness wherever you go."

"People find reasons to be discontented. The good news is we believe Marlina can find work as a motivational speaker. It will be interesting to see if she introduces fire and brimstone."

"Anything to liven things up I suppose."

"Wouldn't it be ironic if they end up worshiping her."

I don't want to think about this. "Where is this realm?" I ask.

"Right here. Our two realms occupy the same time/space continuum, along with countless others. The only difference is they resonate at different frequencies."

"How can that be?"

"Your consciousness is precisely tuned to a specific frequency. Quite some time ago, Nikola Tesla was coming close to this. He once said, 'If you want to find the secrets of the universe think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.' For a time I thought I would have to intervene. Fortunately your big oil companies put the kibosh on him."

"Energy frequency, and vibration. This is all that separates us from other dimensions? It doesn't seem like much at all."

"Sometimes it's nothing at all. Have you ever wondered about your friend Suzi's psychic abilities?

"Many times. I know that at times she sees the future, but I still can't quite believe it's possible."

"The human brain is a scanner. A part of it can access many different frequencies. Suzi's is more fine-tuned than most.  The dimensions that are most like ours  have frequencies close to ours.  Without being aware of it, Suzi's brain scans hundreds, maybe thousands,  of frequencies.  Sometimes she'll come across situations of particular interest to her. These are her psychic moments."

"She can't control them."

"With proper coaching she could establish much better control."

"I am quite sure she isn't interested."

"She would rather make pots than read fortunes?"

"Yeah."
 
"She will  never be able to rid herself of the ability to tune into the consciousness of counterparts in dimensions. Not completely."

"She'll surely try. She has good reasons for not wanting to be physic."

"We know all about them."

"But what is this consciousness anyway? Do I even have a consciousness I can call my own?"

"You do, but it doesn't originate in your brain. Besides being a scanner, your brain is a receiver, not a transmitter. Quantum physics 101. There is nothing here you don't already know, or should know. Everything of course, is made up of atoms. Atoms, of course, are almost entirely empty space. The hard core of an atom, the nucleus, has often been compared to a pea in a cathedral. There is plenty of room for countless other realms. What we perceive as reality is a product of our consciousness. Does reality dictate consciousness, or does consciousness dictate reality? Plenty here to thi  nk about, if only your brain enabled you to do so. Change that consciousness and you change reality. Your consciousness makes those atoms osoclate, creating an illusion you call reality."


  Suzi tried to reach Marlina. More than once. What went wrong?"

"Something is blocking her. I have an idea what it might be, but without knowing for sure, I hesitate to speculate."

"Doesn't really matter, I guess. What I do know for sure is I want to go to Marlina. Is that even possible? Am I blocked from seeing her?  Can I go there now?  If not now, when?"

Clintina hesitates before replying while I wait expectantly, Finally she says, "In theory, yes, you can go to her. But doing so could prove at best tricky, definitely dangerous, quite likely disastrous."

"How so?"

"Reaching Marlina's realm through me is tricky. I can control much of the shift, but some is up to you. As you copulate with me, you must focus exclusively on Marlina. This requires exquisite mind control, helped along with an absolutely pure strain of love. Such strains are expremely rare. By copulating with me and fantasizing on Marlina, your climax will deliver you to her realm. But your focus on her has to be total. Should you waver, even the tiniest bit, the results could be catastrophic."

"What would happen."

"It's entirely unpredictable. But one thing for sure. It wouldn't be good."

"But it is possible."

'If going to her is possible but difficult, getting back here would be still trickier. First off, you would have to find a way to get rid of the alternative you, and you, the other you, might object. Then, if you managed that, you would have to be up for a second copulation focusing entirely on here. What would you do if she isn't in the mood? What if she has a headache? You would have to rape her, bringing on a whole new set of complications."

"Where would you be?"

"Someplace else. I am on the lam. The Assgrassings are tracking me. They want my job. They know how much I have entered into your affairs. They have every right to void my existence. While copulating with you, I would be entirely at their mercy. Probably wouldn't go good for you either."

"How would they know you're here?"

"Every transition to another dimensions causes a cosmic ripple. The Assgrassians have highly sensitive instruments for detecting them. When I create one, I have very little time to move on. Sex leaves me particularly vulnerable. Wham, bam, where the fuck are ya, Ma'am?"

I stifle a chuckle. I feel overwhelmed by Clintina's revelations. Just too much to assimilate. I open my mouth to speak, think better of what I was going to say, and close my mouth again. Sometimes silence says it all.

"There is another possibility you should be aware of," Clintina says. "Marlina might not want to leave. She is with somebody indistinguishable from you and is still scheduled to address the Super Bowl. A big difference is, nobody is trying to kill her. There is no Masonic Grand Master looking to decapitate."

I shiver as a deep chill floods through me, and am rendered speechless. A stock and completely unexpected phrase pervades my brain: 'What would Jesus do?' How the Hell would I know? I say to myself.

Clintina breaks the silence, asking, "So what's it going to be?"

I shake my head, than nullify that response by nodding. Then I open my eyes wide as possible before closing them. "I don't know," I say. "I need time to think. Maybe quite a lot of time. Is there a time limit here? Is there a big clock ticking down somewhere? How can I get in touch with you?"

Clintina leans forward and kisses my cheek. "I'll be around from time to time. That's a promise, assuming I can keep dodging the Assgrassians."

"I am sure you can. So I'll look forward to seeing you again."

I feel elated, but at the same time guilty for sneaking peeks at her perfect breasts and wanting to fondle their warmth.


THE END FOR NOW