Mysterious Ways: Chapter Two
Here’s the second chapter of Mysterious Ways, my Merlin Bloodstone novel. Though it was written a dozen years ago, and rewritten and modernized last year, it amazed me at how much remained unchanged. Technology references required the the most updating. Human behavior, not really that much at all. Our toys get faster and smarter, but the same doesn’t necessarily hold for people.
If you missed it, you can read Chapter One here. (Sales info has been appended after the sample.) Enjoy!
Sara Piper watched, mouth agape, as Bloodstone gave the both of them a curt nod, then walked out of the office. She half turned, almost as if planning to pounce on him. “Wait, I want to go. I want to be there.”
Bloodstone ignored her, so she turned back to me and stamped a foot. Her scowl had returned with a vengeance. “So that’s it? He’s dealing with this and I’m out of it?”
“‘Pears that way, doesn’t it?” I emptied my saucer into the cup, then sipped my rooibos. “Frankly, it’s a better result than I expected.”
Sara blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you got real lucky, Sara. Most folks avoid guys like Thickett because there is no winning with them. Now, Bloodstone says there are only two types of fights to fight: those you can win, and those you must win. You thought your fight fell into one or both of those classes. It didn’t fall into the first class. You knew from the outset you would catch it in the GPA for writing that paper. Why whine when things worked out the way you knew they would?”
Sara tried to meet my gaze openly, but shifted her eyes to her teacup.
I rubbed a hand along my jaw. “Bloodstone knows it’s a fight that needed to be won. Since he’s always searching for enlightenment, he really has a hate on for ignorance-based intolerance. A confrontation with Thickett over something was inevitable. You’re that something. Bloodstone’s probably up in his Sanctum, looking for signs that will tell him exactly when to throw down, OST.”
Julia raised an eyebrow. “OST?”
“Occultist Standard Time: two hours before or after any arbitrary point in time, give or take a century.” I glanced at my watch. “Not quite noon in this world. I’d invite the both of you to stay to lunch, but he didn’t and visiting Thickett might serve as an excuse to avoid it altogether.”
The teacher looked surprised. “Dr. Bloodstone has the reputation of being a foodie, and the chefs who once worked here now staff some of the finer restaurants in Phoenix. Why would you want to avoid lunch?”
“Bloodstone prefers the term ‘epicure,’ and goes through a lot of kitchen staff. There have been guys who put a pot of water on the stove to boil and get replaced before there’s steam. The chef de jour, well…” I couldn’t help myself. I shivered. “I ask you, how likely is it that the right mix of soy protein and kelp is God’s perfect food?”
Julia shook her head. “Dethrone chocolate? Not possible.”
“Chocolate, exactly.” I laughed lightly and set my tea cup on the table. “Which can substitute for anything on that pesky pyramid.”
Julia agreed and laughed, then Sara abruptly stood. “This isn’t funny. My future is torched and you’re flirting! I’m out of here.”
She cut to her right, coming around the far end of the couch, which allowed me to leave my chair directly and intercept her before she reached the front door. Had her eyes been full of madness, I might have recoiled from the snarl she gave me; but because she was just angry and not insane, she stopped well shy of being the scariest thing I’d seen in Bloodstone’s employ.
“It was stupid to come here.”
“It’s smarter than a lot of what you’ve done so far.” I paced her out into the foyer. “Look, you were impulsive and headstrong in doing your assignment and then dragging Bloodstone into this. Impatience is the only thing that’s going to hurt you here. It’s Saturday. He’ll talk to Thickett today and let you know what he said.”
Sara turned and jabbed a finger into my chest. “I’m not a kid, don’t talk to me like I am. There are things I can do, you know.”
“Miss the point about impatience, did you?” I narrowed my eyes. “You came here needing help. You’ve got it. Hang on and let us see what we can do. Until then, low profile. No Facebook, no Twitter, nothing.”
“Whatever.” She jerked the door open and snarled her way though it.
I started to close it after her, but the jingle of car keys stopped me. I turned and smiled as Julia Ellswood emerged from the office, her keys dangling from a leather strap in her right hand. “You’re going to get an earful on the drive.”
“It won’t be the first time.”
I smiled. “You know, I could get the chef to fix her a quick lunch. That would keep her quiet.”
She smiled, and a virulently infectious smile it was. “From what you said, getting him to make a plate of brownies for Reverend Thickett might be a quicker solution.”
“True, but as messy as this all is, murder would be more so.” I sighed. “Sara wouldn’t be prone to doing anything that silly, would she?”
“I don’t think so. We’ll talk. I’ll calm her down.” She handed me a slip of paper. “Connor, this is my cell. Let me know what Reverend Thickett says.”
“I can call you, or, if you want, we can meet up. I’ll buy you dinner.” I jerked a thumb toward Casa Chaos’ upper reaches. “Not everyone here is anti-social.”
Breath hissed in. “I have a date tonight—dinner plans. I’ll be home by eleven. Call then, or just leave a message and I’ll call you back.”
“Done.” A bit disappointed, I waved her to the door. “We’ll find a way to make this work.”
“I know. I trust you will do everything that can be done.”
I closed the door behind her, albeit slowly and reluctantly, after making sure she got to the car. Sara boosted herself off the hood and waited for the doors to be unlocked. I hit the switch that opened the gate, then watched from the foyer window until they were out to shut it. The protesters parted and Sara saluted them again. If the look on one jowly woman’s face was any indication, Sara was giving free vent to her anger.
Never good to keep that bottled up.
I turned from the window and initially attributed the sour taste in my mouth to the prospect of visiting Reverend Thicket. The scent—no, make that miasma, fetid miasma—drifting from the kitchen told me the truth. It even suggested Julia’s plan to poison Thickett had merit. We had the means, but no one in his right mind would ever eat anything that smelled so bad.
Then again, no one had ever accused Thickett of being in his right mind. The image of Thickett turning purple and swelling up planted a smile on my face, but then I realized that just smelling that stuff might make me do the same. Fearing for my safety, I bolted for the back of the main house, flashing past the kitchen, and made it out into the backyard.
There was no telling what the chef du jour was preparing, but a ragout of Namibian corpse flower was a leading candidate. Phillippe Dragovic is from some Balkan nation, has the ego of a surgeon and the mouth of a sailor—though he curses in tongues on the far side of incomprehensible. He has this insane vision that cuisine for the new century must be an amalgam of the previous century. This has him envisioning and reinventing everything as it might be presented at McDonalds. He actually served his first meal in those little cardboard trays reserved for greasy fries at local drive-ins. Luckily Bloodstone drew the line at sipping Zin from a dixie cup—unluckily Phil the Pill was willing to compromise on that one matter and was lasting far longer than most of the good chefs we’d had.
I live in the guest house behind Casa Chaos. A vast circle of crushed white stone touches the back of the main house at six o’clock, and then the guest house at two and the carriage house at ten. Around it, out to the walls, is desert landscaping, with a number of saguaro cacti standing very tall. Ocotillo, mesquite, prickly-pear and cholla spread out over tan earth, with stones of various sizes, from gravel up to boulders, completing the decoration. The landscapers had worked very hard to make it look natural—as if it had never been disturbed at all—and scorpions, black widows and a family of Gamble’s quail out in the back corner approved.
The circle of white stone wasn’t natural in the least, and made less so by Bloodstone’s raking all sorts of patterns through it. More importantly, in its heart lay a circle of sand about thirty feet diameter, ringed by a narrow wooden boardwalk. The planking had been laid down and angle-cut so it sprayed out from the center, as if rays from the sun. Bloodstone used the sandpit for t’ai chi and other more esoteric martial arts practice, on a schedule that only made sense to him.
Bloodstone pretty much does everything on a schedule that only makes sense to him.
Of course, this means that I end up doing things on a schedule that only makes sense to him, too, and they are done by his rules in accord with his sense of decorum. Since today was a formal day, the first step in getting ready was finding a sport jacket. Under normal circumstances, going down to KTRN in just a golf shirt and khaki pants would have worked, but the seriousness of the discussion really did warrant dressing up a bit.
Out of the closet came a nice tweed jacket, very lightweight because spring surrendered to summer fast this year. For all intents and purposes, there are only two reasons to wear a jacket at any time in Phoenix. Insanity is first up—generally defined as the desire to conform to fashion trends set by folks who live in places where triple digit temps are only seen in ovens.
The other reason is to conceal a gun. Arizona has very liberal concealed carry laws. I’d applied for and gotten a permit. It required a background check and a training course, both of which worked out fine. Despite having the permit, the gun stayed in the safe. Carrying a pistol into a place that was nominally a house of worship would be vulgar. Moreover, having seen Thickett on TV for years, the temptation to use it would have been irresistible.
The idea of bringing a spare clip or two likewise had appeal, but I remained strong.
I crunched my way across the white circle to the carriage house. It’s got two stories, with the upper having been converted into several guest apartments. Phil occupied one of them and the other two were empty. Phil and I were the only live-in staff, though cleaning and gardening crews came through on a weekly basis. Twice a month the cleaners would do the guest house, and the last time they were in, Sonia said no one would clean Phil’s apartment. She also gave me her cousin the bug-guy’s card, as a hedge against when we wanted the place deloused and made habitable.
Despite his eccentricities, Bloodstone could connect solidly with the real world in certain areas. A love of cars was one of them. The carriage house had five bays. I skipped one, two and three—Extravagant, Sporty and Rugged respectively—and selected the sedan—what Bloodstone calls his green Jaguar XJ Supersport with black leather interior. I pulled the car around to the front, then got out and opened the door for my employer.
Bloodstone emerged from the house with his costume little modified from before. He’d added gloves, which he does from time to time as armor against the possibility of having to shake hands with an adversary. Uncharacteristically he had donned sunglasses instead of using a hat to shade his eyes.
His glare, though muted by dark lenses, sufficed to send a chill down my spine. “It would only be polite, out of common respect, to remove a hat in a house of worship.”
Nodding, I shut the car door behind him. By not wearing a hat, he wouldn’t be forced to show disrespect by keeping it on, nor would he give the impression of showing respect by removing it. That he could think through the various ramifications of his projected actions didn’t come as a surprise: he is a certifiable genius. That he did think it through, well, the cost/benefit analysis of that process would have been very interesting.
Bloodstone nestled himself in the back seat and reluctantly put on the seatbelt. “Connor, you know Thickett from before.”
I glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Yes, sir. Facts or analysis or both?”
“Anything you think will be useful.”
That was the wild card response that really meant he wanted to know everything, but would grant me the illusion of having the sense to sort wheat from chaff. As noted above, formal days were not good days.
Unless you’re Bloodstone.
I’d first become acquainted with Thurston Tom Thickett because of an early career choice—part of the before to which he referred. Well, it would have been a career—and part of now—if it had paid better. As it was, working in the game industry was a hobby that paid for itself and then a little bit more, but not enough to stop my mom from asking when I was going to get a “real job.”
Like many people my age, I’d grown up playing roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. In the late nineties, when I’d entered the industry right out of college, the Religious Right was just coming down from the Satanic Panic. Grand tragedies like the whole McMartin Preschool case put the lives of plenty of folks in real turmoil, but the Right also tagged roleplaying games as a conduit into the occult. The industry initially did nothing to respond to the hits, then a couple of guys put forth an effort to fight back. Several radio shows, some articles and books later, and the Right backed off games since we had the temerity to fight them and the good fortune to do it well. I helped out in the effort and we snatched our hobby from their clutches.
“T3 popped up during some research. I watched his show a lot, bought some of his books, and dissected what he had to say about games. Mostly I just catalogued his internally inconsistent views, half-truths and the like. It was pretty easy to see that he was good at churning a lot of money from just a little bit of controversy. It also seemed that his criticism of gaming was just a passing fad that he’d abandon when something more profitable came along.”
My boss nodded. “This Word Faith theology.”
T. Tom Thickett fit in with the school of televangelists practicing Word Faith ministries. They claimed that their study of scriptures and their faith gave them a direct conduit to God. They were able to ask for special blessings and receive knowledge, and were able to perform miracle healings. The focus of these ministries was not so much bringing people to God, but bringing happiness—or the promise of same—to the people as a sign of God’s favor. The people, therefore, showered gifts on these preachers, as if they were agents who just secured a huge contract for the faithful.
Word Faith ministers are pretty easy to spot because they always give the seedcorn lesson. The variations are endless, but all boil down to this: the preacher, or someone he knew, gave away something they dearly loved or needed to someone who needed it more. God, in His loving wisdom, made that sacrifice good a hundred times over. So, dear viewer, send us your last $100, because God will be dropping you a check for $10,000 right around the corner, as long as you truly believe.
That last little caveat was always the killer. If God stiffed you on the check, it was because you doubted Him. Pretty much, as long as there was a balance left in your checking account, you were hedging against God not coming through, so you could really, really show how faithful you were by writing another check. Praise the Lord, pass the loot.
“Yes, he’s managed to synthesize the Word Faith stuff with the whole idea of a Satanic conspiracy to destroy the faithful. He’s been very good at picking his targets, minimizing personal exposure while maximizing the amount of cash he brings in.”
In fact, T. Tom was a champion of turning adversity into big bucks. He was smart enough to avoid the stupidity of other preachers on the national scene. While Pat Robertson and the Westboro Baptist Church were out explaining that God had let terrorists take down the World Trade Center because He was angry about gays, atheists and liberals, T. Tom kept things lower key. He filled his network with programming that demanded prayer for the victims. He rewarded his listeners with brave tales of those who had miraculously escaped death because they had accepted Jesus in the middle of the disaster. If you remember hearing the story of the angel leading folks from the rubble of one of the towers, you were touched by T. Tom’s ministry.
Normally, though, he kept his causes a bit closer to home. Two years ago, when his wife was killed and his son badly injured in car crash, he cried buckets on the air. He was a big enough of a man to allow God to take his beloved Doris, because he knew he’d be rewarded a hundred times over when he was reunited with her in heaven. I don’t want to even guess what he meant by that. He also reminded his dear listeners that his wife’s estate flowed to the ministry, as could their estates, and Doris would be there to greet them at the pearly gates.
The short trip to the station down at McDowell and 36th was long enough for me to give Bloodstone the relevant particulars. Really he was just having his memory refreshed. Though he considers televangelism one of the greatest evils of the 20th century, he has acknowledged its roots being sunk much earlier and deeper into America, so he does not let it or its players pass unnoticed.
He just prefers to pretend none of that exists.
I parked the Jaguar close to the building, shielding it from the street behind a big SUV, and locked it. They taped their Saturday evening broadcast of Salvation LIVE! early—unlike their weekday schedule when it ran live and then again, on tape later that night—so they could be out preaching at one or another of the larger congregations in the Valley that evening, including their Garden Cathedral. The chances, therefore, of catching T3 in were pretty good.
I told the slovenly security guy at the front desk that we were there to see Reverend Thickett. The guard neither went for a gun nor a phone, which was a good sign. He signed us in and we got visitor’s badges as rewards for our good penmanship. Despite Thickett having sent protesters at Bloodstone, his security staff didn’t see us as security risks. He gave us directions to get to the office and wished us a nice day.
I clipped my badge to my lapel, and handed Bloodstone’s to him. He turned it over in his longfingered hands, then vanished it. At things like sleight-of-hand he was very good. The guard could have run a video back and forth dozens of times without having seen the pass disappear.
I shook my head. “Nice, but it’ll take turning water into wine to impress anyone here.”
“Anyone can do that trick. It’s the walking on water that is the tough one.”
Sighing, I led the way back through a maze of corridors, taking us past the theatre-like main studio, to a small antechamber appointed with a couple of chairs, a couch, and coffee table. At the far end sat a desk with computer terminal, and behind it a woman who would have been much prettier if she had smiled in the last decade.
“How can I help you?”
I nodded at the door in the wall behind her desk and covertly scanned her nameplate. “Well, Ms. Bracken, this is Dr. Merlin Bloodstone. He’d like a moment with Reverend Thickett.”
She hit a button on the computer. “No appointment, I see. That minute will only come at the end of a long wait. The Reverend is not seeing anyone right now.”
I gave her a friendly smile. “Dr. Bloodstone would like to speak with the Reverend about a couple of things, including the Sara Piper situation. If you’d just buzz him…” Before I’d even finished the sentence, I knew that was a non-starter with her.
“I won’t buzz him because he’s preparing himself for his message. He sees no one during that time. No one. You will have to wait.”
I frowned. On Saturdays, and weekdays when his son hosted Salvation LIVE!, T3 would deliver a little message from his office and have it digitally married to the set for airing, reminding me more of the Wizard of Oz head in the movie than any sort of Reaganesque chat. Those segments were usually placed at the end of the show, so he could compliment his son on the job he’d done, thank the guests, then deliver his message for the day.
I glanced at my watch. “How long?”
“If he will see you, you have half an hour.” She flashed a smile of merciless triumph. “You’re welcome to join the studio audience until then or sit here and wait.”
Bloodstone glanced at the couch, then her. “You would be here while we waited?”
“We shall not make you waste them by watching us, then.” He looked up at me. “Come, Connor, to the studio. We shall leave Ms. Bracken to the furtherance of God’s work.”
Mysterious Ways comes in three different editions, with the novel itself running around 90,000 words. If you choose to purchase from Stormwolf.com, you get both the .mobi and .epub files, and don’t have to worry about DRM.
Super Delux Edition: This edition includes not only the novel and the essay about how it came to be written, but I’ve also included a novella and two short stories.
Delux Edition: As with the Delux Edition of In Hero Years… I’m Dead, I’ve included an essay that talks about the writing of the novel, it’s long journey to publication, inspirations for characters and hints at where the series will go from here. You get to read the novel, then peek behind the scenes.
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