“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.”
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.