Authors: James F. David
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead man to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
CHRIST'S HOME, CALIFORNIA
he squeal of air brakes and the rumble of a diesel engine woke Christy at three A.M. A truck stenciled with "ABC Television" was parked in front of the office. Christy cracked the window and listened as someone bargained for the empty motel rooms. The bargaining soon elevated to shouting and Christy heard: "Four hundred bucks a night for this dump?" Followed by a mix of cursing and blasphemy. Next she could hear the scolding voice of Evelyn, followed by the man shouting: "Five hundred!" Evelyn was making him pay for taking the Lord's name in vain. The arguing ended and soon the truck rumbled off down the street, returning a few minutes later. The Fellowship owned both motels.
Three more trucks woke her that night and in the morning the street was filled with rental cars and vans sporting satellite dishes. The feeding frenzy had begun. Christy turned on the television. Cable, satellite, and broadcast networks were covering the story nonstop. One channel was broadcasting from the church she attended last night and another from in front of her motel. Other stations were interviewing NASA personnel or showing the orbit of the satellite. The same amateur video of the launch was being shown by everyone. She listened to two scientists speculating on how the
was powered—one claimed it was nuclear fusion and the other high-intensity lasers. The most interesting story was the detainment of reporters at the launch site.
Two circling helicopters had been broadcasting pictures of the launch facility. There was little to be seen, so one of the pilots decided to land despite being waved away as he descended. The other helicopter hovered over the compound, covering what happened next. After the first helicopter landed a tractor drove out of the garage, a group of men in overalls following. A female reporter and a cameraman stepped out of the helicopter, the reporter holding out a microphone asking for an interview. Without a word the men pulled a cable from the tractor, attached it to the helicopter, and winched it tight. When the pilot climbed out to protest he was grabbed and handcuffed. Next the reporter was handcuffed. The cameraman resisted and three men had to wrestle him to the ground to cuff him, the camera dropping in the process. Then they were put into a van and driven away. The hovering helicopter followed the van down a dirt road through patches of woods to an exit where a county sheriff waited. The report ended with an exterior shot of the county jail where the news crew was being held on trespassing charges.
When the reports began to repeat Christy turned off the TV and left the room. Half the motel doors were open and men and women were walking freely from room to room. At the bottom of the stairs she noticed a hand-lettered sign taped to the pop machine saying $5 a can. Evelyn shouted, "No vacancy!" from the back room when Christy entered the lobby.
"It's me, Evelyn," Christy said.
Evelyn was apologizing as she came out of the back room.
"I'm sorry, dear. Those newspeople are rude and crude and they won't take no for an answer."
"And you're making them pay for it. Five hundred dollars a night? That wasn't the rate yesterday."
"Well, it's not like they can't afford it. Don't worry, dear, you pay the regular rate as long as you want to stay."
"Thank you. It's Sunday, aren't you and Floyd going to worship?"
"We couldn't get near the church. Those newspeople have it surrounded. Besides, everyone's supposed to stay away. They're going to be awfully disappointed when no one shows up for Sunday school."
Christy suspected they wouldn't let a Sunday pass without worshiping, but no invitation was forthcoming so she changed the subject.
"Where can I get some breakfast?"
"The Pig and Pancake is the best. It's just around the corner so you don't have to give up your parking spot."
Writing on a piece of motel stationery, Evelyn handed Christy a note.
"Give this to Keri or Josephine. They'll give you the regular rate because you're a friend."
The Pig and Pancake was a pink concrete block building with two large windows that turned the restaurant into a fishbowl. It was crowded inside and more people were standing out front, many smoking. Christy pushed her way inside to get her name on the waiting list. A grim, middle-aged waitress was keeping the list. She wore a pink checked uniform and had a pile of orange-red hair on her head. Her name tag read "JOSEPHINE." She broke into a smile when she saw Christy.
"I saw you at church last night," she boomed in a gravelly voice. "Evelyn called and said you were coming over. I got a table saved for you."
Josephine led her toward the back, those waiting grumbling behind her. Josephine took her to a back room with windows that gave a view of the gravel parking lot behind the building. An empty booth in the corner was set with a single place setting and a menu. Josephine leaned down while she filled Christy's coffee cup and whispered.
"Don't pay any attention to those prices, they're for the news nerds. Just between you and me there won't be any charge for your meal. Don't even bother to leave a tip. These poor dopes have been tipping fifteen percent on the prices we're charging. You just know they're on expense accounts."
Josephine left her to study the menu. The prices were quadruple normal. The meal came quickly and Christy knew her order was given the fast track. She was finishing the last of her toast when Mark Shepherd slid in across from her.
He looked to be in his early forties with brown hair and eyes. The creases around his eyes and mouth told her he was a man who frowned deeply and laughed heartily. Most distinctive of all was his Roman nose, which blended nicely with his features, especially when he smiled—he was smiling now.
"Good morning, Reverend Maitland. How is the food?" he asked.
"It's a matter of supply and demand. It's a long way to another restaurant."
"They could buy flour and cook their own pancakes."
"You haven't seen the price of flour."
"I see you've got it covered. I guess the idea is to fleece the media while you can. In a few days they'll move on to the next story."
"This story will last more than a few days," Shepherd said.
"A few weeks then," she countered.
He smiled, turning to watch a minivan pull into the parking lot. When he was facing her, his nose was barely distinguishable, but in profile his nose stood out. Then his face went from deep smile creases to his serious wrinkles.
"It might last a millennium," he said, then his smile creases returned. "Would you like to see the
"Of course, it's the talk of the world. But why me? I'm not a reporter."
"I don't want you to report, I want you to understand. You know what they will do to us."
She knew "they" referred to the news media.
"They're treating this like a freak show."
"The media isn't out to get you."
"Aren't they? They've never been a friend of religious people."
"Reverend Shepherd . . ."
"Mark . . . " she began, then stopped. If she tried to convince him there was no media conspiracy, he would believe she was a part of it. It was best to go slow. Christy fixed her neutral expression on her face.
"What about the tour you offered?"
"That van is waiting to take us to the compound."
She felt funny about not paying but he assured her they would never bring her a check, so she let him take her by the arm and direct her toward a back exit. As they passed a table she heard someone say, "Isn't that the guy from the launch." Quickly Mark hurried her out the door and into the back of the van. Reporters and cameramen were pouring out of the back of the Pig and Pancake as they drove away, the tires spraying the reporters with gravel.
"Hoodwinked them again, didn't we, Mark?" the driver said.
Christy recognized him—it was Floyd from the motel. Daniel was on the seat next to him and he turned and waved.
"Hello, Floyd," Christy said. "Hello, Daniel. Where's Evelyn?"
"She's minding the store. She told me to tell you that we're not spying on you but that when we told Mark that you were staying with us he asked to meet you."
"Tell her I understand." Christy said it sweetly but was suspicious. They drove down the main street past the Sandman Motel and then the Eternal Rest that also displayed a NO VACANCY sign.
"What's the rate at the Eternal Rest?" she asked.
"Same as ours. Four hundred dollars a night."
"With a hundred-dollar surcharge for blasphemy?"
Floyd chuckled as he drove.
"Evelyn won't stand for taking the Lord's name in vain. Isn't that right, Daniel?"
"Mama would wash my mouth out with soap if I talked like some of those reporters."
Soon they came to the main entrance to the compound. Floyd drove past.
"The media is waiting for us down there," Shepherd explained.
"Aren't you going to talk to them?" Christy said. "Isn't that why you invited them to the launch?"
"These people weren't at the launch. They had their chance to report the story, now they'll have to pay."
"You're going to charge them for the story?"
"We sure are, aren't we, Mark?" Floyd said. Then looking over his shoulder at Christy he said, "Tell them how much you're charging."
Mark looked embarrassed so Floyd answered for him.
"If you want to talk to our leader it's one hundred thousand dollars for ten minutes."
"That's a lot, isn't it, Daddy?" Daniel asked.
"It's a whole lot," Floyd assured the little boy.
"They won't pay you for a story," Christy said. "It violates journalistic principles."
Mark and Floyd broke out laughing, embarrassing Christy.
"You're stereotyping journalists," she said defensively.
"If they can pay serial killers for their stories, they can pay us," Mark said.
"If you don't talk to them, they'll talk to people about you," Christy said. "Disgruntled former members, employees, your barber, anyone who has a story to tell—it doesn't matter if the story is true or not."
"They'll do that anyway," Mark said. "Besides, they're already bargaining with us. The
offered forty thousand dollars this morning," Mark said.
"What's this going to cost me?" Christy asked.
Mark smiled, but before he could answer Floyd turned down a dirt road and called for Mark's attention.
"Looky here, Mark. It's one of Proctor's people."
A bearded man stood by a pickup, a rifle in his arms. Mark's worry creases returned and the muscles along his jaw tightened. After a short drive they pulled up to a gate, Mark getting out to unlock it. No fancy electronic security system, just a gate with a big Yale padlock.
Soon they passed three large dish antennae, each turned at the same angle and pointed at the sky, then they were at the compound, parking on the concrete launch pad. As soon as they were out of the car Floyd swung Daniel up to his shoulders.
"Follow me," Floyd said, excited like a kid. "I'll show you something."
Floyd led her through a door into the largest structure. The news helicopter was there, being disassembled. Workers swarmed over it, dismantling it into the smallest pieces possible. Bits of the helicopter were strewn around the large enclosure. Boxes were being packed with other pieces.
"It was Mark's idea," Floyd explained. "Those newspeople have been demanding we return the helicopter, so we are. We're sending it to them C.O.D."
"Can I sit in it?" Daniel asked, kicking to get down.
"Yes," his father said. "Just stay out of the way."
Daniel ran to the cockpit while Floyd went to talk with the workers.
"You won't make friends this way," Christy said.
"We just want them to respect our rights," Mark explained. "We've got a restraining order against the other helicopters. We can't keep them from flying over, but we can keep them from landing."
"Is that why your followers seldom go outside?"
"They're not my followers," he said firmly. "We stay inside so there is nothing to see. Eventually we'll provide more information, but on our terms, not theirs."
Taking her arm again he led her around the helicopter. The
was on the other side, sitting on its trailer. Wires ran out of both spheres to a console thick with electronic gear. The pilot with the eye patch was there with another man. A woman's voice could be heard coming from inside one sphere.
"Three eighty-two, three eighty-three . . . that's it, hold it."
Mark let them work, the men concentrating on an oscilloscope, adjusting a wave pattern. When they seemed satisfied Mark interrupted.
"Ira, this is Christy Maitland. Christy, Ira Breitling."
Ira's grip was firm, his hand warm. His good eye watched her warily. Scars extended beyond the eye patch, reminders of a horrific injury.
"I appreciated what you did in Idaho," Ira said flatly. "Some of our people had relatives there."
"I'm just glad I could—"
Before she could finish Ira turned back to his oscilloscope. The man working with Ira looked embarrassed and stepped forward, extending his hand. He was young, halfway to bald, cherubic-looking with red round cheeks and the smile of a child.
"I'm John," he said. "Yovi have to excuse Ira, he's personality challenged. You may not believe this but that's the nicest he's been to someone since I've known him."
"How long has that been?"
"Ten years, but it seems like a decade."
Christy smiled. John was goofy, but likable.
"John, are you working or not?" Ira asked gruffly.
Making a face, John silently mimicked Ira's words, then said, "Yes, boss. Nice meeting you, Christy, but if I don't get back to work Ira will send me to bed without my supper."
"Come on, Christy," Mark said. "You can see the inside."
Following Mark up a stepladder they climbed onto the trailer. Rungs were welded into the side of the sphere and Mark stepped aside so she could climb. Inside was a young woman sitting cross-legged in the bottom, a circuit board on her stomach—she was very pregnant. She looked up and smiled.