Monday

Bad Karma burns slowly...

How many lifetimes does it take for Bad Karma to burn?

Corsair is currently on sale for just 99¢ 
You should steal it now while you have the chance. 
He would.
You have already led many lives that you know of. You have been infant you, child you, adolescent you, married you, parent you... And while you were doing all that living, did you ever lie? Cheat? Steal? Have you ever killed anybody? With just cause? Without it?

Or, have you truly lived many lifetimes throughout the ages? And if you have, did you ever lie, cheat, or steal? Did you ever kill somebody? Did you ever know what it was like to be the villain?

Lots of ways to look at life, death, soul, incarnation and re-incarnation. In the Kings X Saga, all of them are in play.

Here is an excerpt from the newly released “Corsair: The King’s X Protocol” in which Sean Dedalus reflects on a lifetime. This one. The life he was leading before the dreams came again, before they coalesced into memory, before he recalled who and what he truly was.

Here he remembers a bad situation when he was presented with bad choices, when he did what he so often has done in the past... created more Bad Karma to burn.


8

Three Brothers

Sean Dedalus strode into the sea at the same deliberate pace he’d held since leaving Madeline at the hotel bar. She had said many things. She’d been right about each one of them. 
Dedalus needed to think.
There were rules. He had made them for a reason. Madeline had thrown them back in his face. 
Stay one step ahead, every step, or you lose. 
If you lose once, you get out. 
When you get out, you disappear forever.
Or you die.
Everything about Corsair was borderline insane. And probably a step or two on the wrong side of that line. He’d created the rules to hide and stay hidden from the entanglements of life. He’d seen more than enough of life to know it’s never the people who hate you that you need to worry about. Worry is for the ones you love. That is where true pain comes from. And that is what Corsair, with his secrecy and his rules, was designed to protect him from.
Behind him in the sand he’d left a trail of everything he was wearing – his sandals, shirt, sunglasses, and eventually his pants with the phone still humming a pocketful of messages. He had not even turned to notice the many other people on the beach, staring in mild surprise as he shed down to nothing. 
He walked until the water was deep enough to swim. In thirty seconds, he was beyond the shallows. After two minutes, he could no longer see the bottom. After twenty minutes, he had left behind the hotel’s little harbor, and was beyond the sight of anyone on the beach. After swimming for thirty minutes into deeper and deeper water, Dedalus knew this was not working. He was still not thinking clearly enough. 
He paused where he was, treading water, taking long, hard breaths for several moments. Holding the last one, he dove deep.
The sea was nearly silent beneath the surface, and only seemed to get quieter as he passed through layer after layer of increasingly cold water. The light from the sun dimmed as it dispersed more with each fathom. 
Sean, they saw you!  Jack Gilliam knows you for Christ’s sake!
All true. Just as true as the fact that she was leaving him.
Dedalus had trained himself to hold his breath for two minutes if need be. He stopped his dive after one minute, turned and hung there, suspended in the frigid water, looking up at the pale disk of the sun warping and flickering at the surface.
It would take him nearly a minute to return for a new breath of air. He had put his own life in the balance. He would solve his problem here and now, identify this exposed weakness and correct the flaw, or he would die trying. 
Now he could think. In this silence, he could remember. A time, a place, and three brothers.

***

Belfast

10 years ago

Ian Connelly faced a death sentence. He was not a murderer. He was not even a traitor. At least not in the eyes of the law. But he had betrayed a confidence. The confidence, as it turned out, of a true murderer and an enemy of the crown, John Gilliam.
Connelly was a minor functionary in the grand battle between order and chaos. He existed near the border of those two worlds, and his forays into the dark and lawless lands were brief, shallow, and never involved more than delivering packages of unknown content from one side of that imaginary line to the other. He was hardly a criminal at all. That’s what had always made him so useful to those who were.
That notion – that he was hardly a criminal – is what led Connelly to such grave danger after he was arrested. Because no matter what he thought of himself, what he told his wife or the friends and associates who populated the respectable world in which he lived, Ian Connelly certainly was a criminal. The unknown contents of the packages he had carried from one world into the other turned out to be heroin, imported from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, refined in Hong Kong, and distributed to the streets of Belfast by men like himself and those who payed him to walk across that imaginary border between worlds.
Ian Connelly had bargained with the crown of England to escape prison. He had turned information about his associates over to the authorities as Queen’s Evidence. John Gilliam’s empire required retribution, that an example be set for others to see. 
Ian Connelly was strapped to a chair inside a twelve-by-thirty-foot shipping container, hopelessly lost amid ten thousand identical containers somewhere near the docks of the Port of Belfast.
Carrying out his sentence, three young men stood before him. Three brothers, different in many ways.
At twenty, David was in the middle, four years older than Sean, eight years younger than Jack. He watched with the quiet anxiety of a boy waiting to be selected last for a playground game while Jack and Sean did their father’s work without him, leaving him behind. Again.
David had always been special, particularly to their mother. She had kept him close to her skirts for as long as he could remember, shielding him from many things that seemed to worry her a great deal.
He had never really compared himself to Jack. Jack was strong and unkind, moved mainly by his desire to inherit and control their father’s empire. Jack was dangerous.
Sean was different. David loved him. But then again, so did everybody. 
It wasn’t until Sean grew older, and the differences between all three boys became more clear, that was when David began to associate being “special,” and even the love and protection of his mother, with pain. “Special” took form in her words as “God working in mysterious ways,” and something about him having “an angel’s spirit,” or what Sean sometimes told him was “a good heart.” 
Sean was special too. He’d heard it said many times, and he knew it to be true. But the word meant something very different when people talked about Sean. Neither David nor Jack was as smart as Sean. Neither was as handsome, as fast, or agile. It was almost as if everything that was missing from his older brothers had somehow fallen to him. Where David plodded to keep up, Sean had to slow down so others could follow. Where Jack had a burning lack that pushed him like hunger, Sean didn’t seem to want or need anything. It was almost like he was born with the kind of wisdom most never achieve in a lifetime.
The character of David’s two brothers was visible behind their eyes, so that people tended to gravitate to Sean, and remain wary of Jack.
David created none of these feelings in others. Sean was loved and Jack feared, but they were both respected. David was ignored or, worse, pitied.  
David was smart enough to know that he was not very smart. And he was observant enough to know that the differences between the brothers seemed to make their mother love him more and their father love him less.
He knew this night was a test of some kind. His father wanted him here. His mother did not. He knew that tonight was his chance to make an impression. Maybe his last chance.
Still, all he was asked to do was watch from within swaying shadows cast by a flashlight hung from a hook. To stand idle as Jack directed Sean through the “work” they’d come to do.
Jack rarely smiled. And when he did, his smile made others feel worse for having seen it. The rare curling of Jack’s lips showed a wicked kind of glee, a devil’s grin, most often brought on by another man’s pain. Tonight he smiled from the dark at Sean’s initiation into the family business – and at Ian Connelly’s pain.

***

“Again, Sean.” Jack commanded.
Sean Gilliam looked down at the sheen of fresh blood on his black gloves. His knuckles hurt a little bit from the bone beneath Ian Connelly’s flesh. But the pain was nothing. He could continue for hours if he wanted to.
But he did not want to. He looked at the soft man in the chair, listened to the weeping moan, and saw no point to this exercise. 
This was not a lesson for Ian Connelly. He and David were here because their father wanted them here. It was a lesson for the young sons of John Gilliam. A lesson in fear and how to cause it. 
For much of his life, Sean had also been shielded, by their mother, just like David, from the deepest realities of their family. He had been meticulously prepared by the best schooling money could buy to walk in the world of order and light. Yet, as all boys do, he had sought out the truth and wisdom of his father. From the age of eight, he had known where he came from, as well as the vast wealth for the mansion, the servants, and the schools. Sean had studied at the feet of his father to learn the ways of chaos and darkness as well.
His father had decided that at sixteen, Sean was ready to learn what it really meant to be John Gilliam’s son. He was here to learn from Jack.      
“He’s had enough,” the boy protested.
“No, Sean. He hasn’t.”
Sean faced the fear and anguish of his victim with his eyes open. If this was a lesson, he would at least learn it well. He clenched his gloved fist with a grinding of blood-wet leather and delivered the next blow. Powerful, with a loud crack of flesh and a deadening thud against the bone beneath.
“Again.”
Sean stood still. Ian Connelly’s fading whimper was the only sound.
“Sean.”  
Sean kept his back turned to Jack’s voice. The sound, like the man, was grim and cruel. 
“This man has betrayed our father. He has endangered our business, your livelihood and mine. Our family.”
“He is weak,” Sean countered without turning.
“Yes, weak. Weak enough to betray a trust.  And there are many other weak men out there right now, Sean. That is why examples like this are set. So they don’t wind up like Connelly. You are protecting the weak from themselves.”
David stood by. He watched his younger brother receive Jack’s wisdom, do their family’s work, make their father proud. 
For a long moment, Sean stood motionless, listening to Ian Connelly’s shallow breaths. 
Finally, he reached a decision. He had only begun to turn to face Jack when David rushed forward.
David understood the lesson, sensed Sean’s hesitance, and seized the moment to prove his worth. David rained gloved fists down upon the already beaten man with animal fury and human ugliness.
As the cries of Ian Connelly ceased and the blows continued, a new sound filled the dark space, one that Sean would never forget.
Jack began to laugh. Loud and uncontrolled, a perverse joy rose higher and higher in their teacher as David began to pant, losing his breath from the effort.
Sean turned away from David and studied the unchained delight on Jack’s face. The first sight had sickened him. The second enraged.
Finally, when it seemed like the blows might never stop, Sean grabbed David by the shoulder and yanked him away from the unconscious victim. 
David strained to return, a wild man lost in blood. 
Sean overpowered him and pinned him to the steel wall of the container. 
“It’s enough.”
 David’s eyes stayed wild for several moments – until Jack’s rising laughter brought an equally wild smile to his face.  
Sean held David to the wall as a hideous fit of laughter convulsed his body. 
As the scene began to lose its appeal, Jack’s laugh reduced to a snorting chuckle. David calmed along with him until Sean released his grip. 
“Okay, I guess that’ll do.” Jack pulled a .38 caliber handgun from his coat pocket. “Now we finish making an example of Mr. Connelly for all to see.” 
Jack looked down at the barely living body, slumped in its bonds. Without turning, he raised the gun, hand-grip first, toward Sean. Sean did not reach for it.
“Our father was clear to me, Sean. He wants you to do it.”  
Eventually Jack turned toward him, to meet the boy’s defiant eyes across the gun held out between them. No word was spoken for several moments, until his lips slowly curled into the devil’s grin once more.
Jack turned and held the gun out for David.
“How about you, Dave?”
Sean saw the animal fade and doubt flash across David’s face.
Then David’s head bobbed in a single nod. 
“One shot, in the head,” Jack instructed.
David took the weapon in two hands almost as if he’d never seen a gun before.  
 Sean watched and understood as David’s mind reached the place he had come to just moments before. The place where you just aren’t sure of what you’re doing, or why you should do it. 
Their father wanted Sean to cross that line - the line of not being sure. That was the plan, the reason for all this. He wanted Sean to come out on the other side of that doubt in the form of a killer. A murderer. An asset.
But Sean had already reached a place of certainty, and he had gleaned his own meaning from the lesson. He knew, and had known for the last several minutes, that he did not want to be both judge and executioner in a world where men like himself, or his father, could make the rules up as they go. Who is to say a man like Ian Connelly deserves to die? Or to live for that matter? Not him. Not his father. And certainly not Jack.
“Be like steel, brother,” Jack said to David. “The first time is the hardest. Even Sean is afraid. But you’re not. I can see it in you.”
Sean could see David using Jack’s words to fight the doubt, using the teacher’s strength and certainty to find resolve. 
He watched his brother turn the gun in his hand, gripping it the proper way as his wide eyes turned to the motionless body in the chair. 
Sean could see something in David slipping away as he stepped closer. He heard Jack hold a breath as their brother lifted the gun. He knew that Jack was smiling without having to look.
“Do it now, brother. It only gets easier.”
Sean stepped forward and took the weapon, slowly and steadily from David’s shaking hand. 
“It’s all right, Dave,” Sean said without emotion. “I’ve got this.”
David looked at Sean, his chance fading as his doubts grew.
More than anything else in the world, Sean wanted to go home, to hide one last time behind the fierce protection of their mother. But that time of his life was about to end. The world he was about to enter was no place for a soul like David’s. One of them would have to be certain, in exactly the way their father wanted him to be, so the other could hold onto doubt a little longer. 
Sean had finally learned the proper lesson. He was John Gilliam’s son. There was no escaping that. And there would always be work to do.   
To the sound of Jack’s laughter returning behind him, Sean raised the gun toward the beaten man in the chair, pulled back the hammer with his thumb, aimed as steady as stone, and pulled the trigger.

***

He opened his eyes to find the pale disc of the sun undulating on the blue surface of the Mediterranean Sea, some twenty-five meters above him. He had reduced his every possible distraction and doubt, each phantom of the past and fantasy about the future to a single point of focus, the present moment.
Now.
He had seconds to live. 
Refreshed, aligned, and properly motivated, he kicked gently for the surface, conserving what oxygen remained in his blood. Sean Dedalus moved once again as he knew he always must, steadily, moment by moment, toward his next breath.



Thursday

"The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” --Raymond Chandler

Monday

Steinbeck, Star Wars, and Me.


"But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars."

The first time I remember being awed by a story, I was very little, maybe 3 or 4, watching Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments,"at that time already an old movie,  on TV.  I still make a point to watch at least part of that film every year to this day, but back then, the campy pleasure of watching the marathon scenery chewing competition between Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner was years away.  That film, and the powerful mythological themes it presented, washed over me like a wave.

I was raised a Catholic.  A religion of powerful stories and icons.  I recall the fear and awe of the massive crucifix behind the altar of my boyhood church, with all its monochromatic gore and courage in the face of suffering.  I recall once noticing the shimmering waves rising from a heating vent in front of a statue of St. Joseph and mistaking them for the Holy Spirit.

From the beginning, I believed in something.  I just didn't know what it was exactly.

I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars came out.  The real first one, the uncorrected version  wherein Han Solo shot first.   The one we are now asked to call Episode IV despite the leaden weight we feel in our stomachs from knowing better.

Ten years old is right in the wheel-house for imprinting wonder and awe on a child.  Seeing Star Wars at 10 made an impression that was both indelible and indomitable.  From that point on, going to the movies was an exercise of diminishing returns.  That's not to say that future movies couldn't be better films, but there could never again be a first impression like that for me.  I was totally unprepared for Star Wars, as was everyone else who saw it at that time.  If being awestruck can be compared to sex, then you can't lose your virginity twice.

My strongest memories of childhood therefore are all of similar feelings of awe, aroused or inspired by stories - in books, film, or tradition - of things greater than what was within easy reach.  "Roots" was a multi-night, multi-hour cultural event back in the 70's when there were only a few channels to watch.  John Amos held the baby Kunta Kinte up to the stars of the night sky and said "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself."  That's the only detail I remember from the whole mini-series.  The only line I can quote from memory.  All I needed to hear.

The "Lord of the Rings" was a 1,500 page epic which I read for the first time around age 11.  There are many moments of awesome in this story.  But the one I remember the most, the one that can still close off my throat until my eyes water when I talk about it out loud, is the moment in "The Fellowship..." when all the great heroes of the world are arguing over what to do with the ring.  Whether they are greedy for it or fearful of it, the mightiest are all at a loss, powerless, useless... until little Frodo offers up quietly below the din, "I will take it."  Only Gandalf hears, and his heart breaks at the courage of the only one who could be up to the task, the meekest among them, taking the imaginable burden for himself, alone.  This is the man behind the altar again.

As I got older, I began to find that adulthood's assault on wonder created a less illumined world than the world of my childhood, and held few satisfactory answers to the same questions I kept asking it.  While the words of many prophets rang true much of the time, organized religion seemed like a increasingly hollow pursuit all the time, and I eventually lost interest in it.  This might sound odd, but despite my enormous interest in what it purported to offer, religion never seemed as true to me as that feeling, that glorious swelling in the chest that came when Luke Skywalker switched off his targeting computer.   I still feel it to this day, even when I'm merely watching "A New Hope" on cable with its new, non-threatening Jabba the Hut and the castrated Han Solo.

By the time I was a young adult, therefore, I was lost.  From what I understood, religion was "the way, the truth, and the life."  Which was terrible news because I had run the numbers on it and, for me anyway, it just didn't add up.  There was only one way religion could create that feeling in me.  And that was if, as it was for Frodo, the man behind the altar could be me.  Unfortunately, in the religion I was raised on anyway, he could not.  Or I could not.  You and I can mimic his behavior, and it is officially recommended that we do so or face dire consequences, but in the end, it would only be mimicry.  Jesus was the only Son.  You and I are merely creatures.

I wanted religion to work for me.  And it certainly wasn't for lack of trying, but I didn't feel it.  And Star Wars, of course, was just a movie.  It was not a philosophy you could live your life by.

Then, as an adult, I began to find evidence of the thing I was looking for.  First, it came in the form of a lesson I learned when I was teaching a creative writing class to high school juniors.  We had read all the material in the book of short stories we were using, but there was still a lot of time left before summer.  I put it to the class then.  What do you want to read?  The year before, when this group were sophomores, I was their English teacher and we had read "The Grapes of Wrath."  So I was delighted that they liked that experience so much they asked for more Steinbeck.   Together we chose "East of Eden," in part because I had never read the book either.

So we read the book for the first time together.  A fun and challenging experience for me because I didn't get to think it over or plan anything out in advance.  This turned out to be a defining moment for my life.  A blessing, and an epiphany.

 "Timshel."

When God spoke this word in the Old Testament, did he give us a command, a promise, or a choice?  A word of warning before you read on.  Answer this question in one of those ways, and you become Frodo, Luke Skywalker, and the brother or sister of the man on the cross.

"East of Eden" is a story about an American family.  It is also obviously analogous with a story from the Bible. Genesis 4, to be specific.  In this chapter, Adam, Eve, and therefore the human race have been banished from the Garden and gone to live in the land of Nod, somewhere to the East of Eden.

Somewhere in the middle of his book, Steinbeck answered every question I ever asked.  Or at least the important ones. This is the part of Genesis where Cain complains that Jehovah seems to favor his brother Abel over him, a story that ends badly, as you may recall, for Abel. In the following passages from "East of Eden," two wise patriachical figures have returned to an old conversation about this section of Genesis 4 they had begun years earlier...
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
 Skipping ahead Lee reveals his discovery - that the original Hebrew word Timshel” did not mean "Thou Shalt" (a promise) as one version says, or "Do Thou” (a command) as another version says... but rather it means “Thou Mayest.”  The conversation continues...
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

Wednesday

“Don’t you believe in God?"


“I don’t believe,” Book seethed, “because I’m not blind and I’m not stupid."  He paused, thinking he was finished, but a quick breath brought even more of a lifetime of rage and disappointment to the surface.   “I was a vice cop!  No God worth believing in could account for what happens here every single day.  If there is a God, then I promise you he doesn’t give a damn about you, and he doesn’t give a damn about me, and he doesn’t give a damn about that girl!" John heard Book’s voice break at the mention of the girl.  The young man’s fear was plain and fully exposed. People he loves die, and there is nothing he can do about it.  After a long moment, the Assassin responded in an even tone. “I think he’s just waiting.” 



Chapter 52

Free now of its heavy brass casing, the King’s X flashed black and gold in Book’s hand as he turned the ring over and over between his fingers.  Even as the young policeman outside continued to announce himself in rising tones and bang on the locked door with the pad of his fist, Book studied the unfamiliar, darkly dancing inscriptions.
This was no wedding ring.  Even as his eyes became more deeply fixated on the shimmering metal, Book could see what his father had done.  At the munitions plant, at the height of the war, Carl Book operated the press into which the molten brass alloy was poured, cooled, and then stamped into the form of a firing cap for an artillery shell.  He knew long before the hunters caught up to him that he needed to hide the ring.  So, when no one was watching, he simply dropped it into the molten mix and stamped it.  But even though no one had seen, Book reasoned, his father still knew what he had done.  They would still come in his sleep to see what he had seen, to know what he knew.  And the old man had also known that if what Rachel had told him was true, it would be far too long before she could return.
His father had commissioned a lawyer, Grissom, to deliver a package to his son twenty-four years to the day after Rachel’s death, trusting beyond faith that 1968 would be the year she would seek him out to retrieve the thing hidden inside.
And the hunters did catch up.  For those nine days after they had found him, Carl Book did not sleep.  While the hounds circled, he held on.  Through the exposing of his wicked past in the newspaper, the murder of his wife, and the inevitable disintegration of his mind, he held on until the last of his strength failed.  Rather than give in to sleep and open his thoughts to his enemies, he went out to the garage with a gun and put a stop to all of his thoughts at once.
“It’s time, Book,” John announced, cutting through Book’s fixed attention.  “You’ve got to go.”
Book closed his fist around the ring so that he might finally look away from it.  The policeman at the door had walked off toward his patrol car.
“I can’t.  Not while there’s still a chance to find her.”
“There is no chance of that, Book.  But there is still a chance for everything else.  Everything.”  John’s stare implored him.  “She fought for us all, Book.  All that she has won, over lifetimes, is in your hand right now.”
Book could not quite discern the fine line between mania and conviction in his voice as John’s personal story merged still tighter with his own.  
“This is why you are here.  It’s you Book.  You’ve got to take it now.”
Book’s head spun from blood-loss.  He stepped out of the crimson slick gathering around his left boot and retreated painfully to sit in a chair.  He steadied himself, the shotgun still tucked under his good elbow, the ring clutched in his good hand.  He sought options and saw none.
“Take it where?”
“I don’t know.  Away.  And fast.  You can’t let them find you.  Not now.”
Book heard the echo of Molly’s last words to him in what John said.  Don’t look back.
John turned to watch the young officer standing by his squad car, only a few feet from the locked door.  He moved closer to the dirty glass.  “Book,” he said without turning.  “I have suffered at their hands and brought a great deal of suffering to others because of them.  But I have lived long enough to know what has happened to me, and I am grateful to them for one thing.”  John reached for the lock on the door.  “I know a secret.”
Book opened his palm and returned to studying the ring. 
“What secret?” he asked, his weakening voice just above a whisper.
The young policeman was speaking into the car radio, too far away to hear.  John carefully slid the bolt out of its brace, unlocking the door.  He turned once more toward Book and Chuck Townsend, who sat and waited.  A plan had formed in John’s mind, and he didn’t have much time.  Still, his answer sounded reasoned and calm, as if they were not the thoughts of a mad man.
“There is nothing to fear.”
Book had heard those words earlier, and he was no less skeptical of them the second time.
“The Second Secret.”  He offered the grand title as confirmation, but the look on John’s face showed that Book’s response meant nothing to him.  “Because of God, right?”  
John paused to wonder at the sarcasm in Book’s voice long enough for the distracted detective to notice the two-by-four in his hand.
“No, wait!”  Book climbed painfully and too late to his feet as John swung the door open to the street.
As quickly as John stepped outside, Chuck Townsend seized on the distraction to run.  Book saw the mechanic disappear around a corner toward the rear exit, but did nothing to stop him.  Instead, he hobbled after John into the alley.
The Assassin moved with such speed and violence, the officer had no time to defend himself.  He dropped the radio microphone to reach for his revolver, but the thick board caught him first in the solar plexus, then came down across his back with the force of a falling tree.
The rain had stopped.  The setting sun gashed the horizon beneath the grey sky to the west.
Both men heard the concerned voice of the dispatcher on the other end of the radio.  “34?  What happened?  Unit 34, respond…”  
“Don’t you believe in God, Book?”  John asked.
Overwhelming anger surged in Book as he saw his own fate once more being decided by the whims of mad men.  The madness of convictions that drove his father, the madness of the old man in his bookshop, the madness that Molly had brought with her, the madness that fueled his mother’s killer long ago, and the madness of this moment powered his words now.
“I don’t believe,” Book seethed, “because I’m not blind and I’m not stupid!”  He paused, thinking he was finished, but a quick breath brought even more of a lifetime of rage and disappointment to the surface.  “I was a vice cop!  No God worth believing in could account for what happens here every single day.  If there is a God, then I promise you he doesn’t give a damn about you, and he doesn’t give a damn about me, and he doesn’t give a damn about that girl!”
John heard Book’s voice break at the mention of the girl.  The young man’s fear was plain and fully exposed.  People he loves die, and there is nothing he can do about it.  After a long moment, the Assassin responded in an even tone.
“I think he’s just waiting.” 
Book had heard his own voice crack, too.  He turned deeper into his anger, into his own madness to quell the rising agony of loss.  He glanced back at the open door to the auto shop, no longer a place to hide.  He listened to the voices of the police on the radio.  They were nearby and coming fast.  The agony remained.  Molly was gone and there was, as always before, nothing he could do about it.
An unexpected impulse overtook him in that moment.  Book’s anger turned to laughter.  He laughed to keep the pain from taking over.  He laughed at the hole in his shoulder and his own blood on the ground.  He laughed at the hopelessness of his predicament.  He laughed at the things Molly had said.  And he laughed at God.  It was the laughter of a fool.  And he knew that, too.
Stung by the laughter, John’s anger rose to meet Book’s.
“Did you ever think that maybe you are not just a walking, talking piece of meat, pushed around by the wind?”
Book stopped laughing and stared at him, a madman, a murderer, the broken shell of a man whose name was John, who’d had a wife and family a lifetime ago.
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe God needs you as much as you need him?” John asked with quiet, tempered certainty.  “Because I have.  I’ve thought about that a lot.”  His eyes drifted around the alley, as if gathering evidence for what he was about to say.  “I see him sometimes walking the street, shaking his fist at the rain like a dumb animal.  Impotent.  Foolish.”
He came back to Book once more, the same unnerving stare.  
“I hear him sometimes,” He continued.  "He talks in a voice that sounds like mothers wailing for lost children, or men crying out for justice or even a goddamned cup of coffee.  Sometimes he shouts with a voice that shakes the ground, that explodes like bombs falling out of the sky.  I’ve heard him calling out like a helpless father kneeling by the crib where his baby sleeps too deep, sick with fever and at the edge of death.  Wake up!  Like thunder.  Wake up!  Like war.  Please, child! Wake up!”  Tears streaked the dusty surface of John’s paper skin as he told Book of the God he had come to know.  “Understand me.”  It was John’s plea to be heard just one time.  “I have seen him crying.
Book saw madness and no madness in him now, like his father just before the end.  He felt Molly’s ring, the King’s X, heavy within his clenched hand as the heat returned to the back of his neck.
“What is he waiting for?” 
“He’s waiting for you, fool” John snapped, like an angry parent to a selfish, complaining child.  “He’s waiting for you.”
The two men remained locked in a stare, unflinching even as the sirens sounded in the distance from every direction.  Book had understood every word and none of them. 
“Run, Book!”  John commanded sternly as he slid behind the wheel of the police cruiser.  He slammed the door and jammed the car into gear, turning once more to find Book standing frozen in the alley beside him.  “You’re free!  Run!” 
The tires squealed on the wet pavement and the cruiser shuddered away as the sirens came still closer. Book stood alone in the alley, the King’s X in his hand, his body weakening by the moment. Without the blood that flowed from the throbbing bullet hole in his shoulder, a fog encroached on all his senses and thoughts.  As John’s stolen cruiser accelerated toward the far end of the alley, toward the approaching sirens, Book came all the way back to the present danger.  Whatever he was going to do, he would have to do it now.
He lurched toward the open door of the auto shop.
Alone inside, he moved for the possibility he had seen before.  A motorcycle, repaired, reassembled, and awaiting the return of its owner.  Struggling to drag his stiff right leg in front of the other, he stumbled.  His useless arm hanging, he was unable to catch himself.  Book struck the concrete floor with the left side of his face and his ruined shoulder hard enough to blast away what awareness he had left.  The shotgun skittered away.  The golden ring escaped his clutching hand, bounced, rolled and spun like a jingling top until it came to rest a few feet away.
An electric surge of pain through his rapidly failing body brought Book a moment of consciousness.  His mind was no longer capable of holding many thoughts, but there was a new sensation beginning to drift through him just below the surface.  Peace.  Like a gentle stream that took him suddenly out of the vast river of pain, he seemed to move with a flow of bliss, as if it aimed to take him somewhere.  After a moment or two within this soft current even the notion of longing for more of the feeling it carried began to give way to having no notions at all.  He sensed that he was drowning in it.  He had no strength left and no wish to fight it.  Wendell Book was dying.