The Tempter Comes

20) Antagonizing



20   Antagonizing


Be careful whom you antagonize

for they may run faster than you



                The four gathered at the gazebo the next morning and shared their findings. The only thing that Russell had to say was that he felt like an idiot going to the pastors and asking if there were anything “unusual” hidden in their churches. “I think that some of them thought that I was looking to rob the place.”

                Thomas, likewise, did not have much to contribute. He was too embarrassed to tell anyone about falling in the guano so his story came down to he crawled around in the attic and did not find anything.

It was Sarah’s turn and she was almost jumping with impatience. With everyone’s wide-eyed attention she breathlessly recounted the incident in the library.

When she finally paused at the end Toni concluded, “So Seth and Abil rescued one of us again. Thank God they’re here. Does anyone have any idea who they are?”

“Wait a minute,” Sarah cut in. “I’m not quite finished.”

“There’s more?” wondered Russell.

“Just before they escorted me out of the library and back home they gave me a book.” She zipped open the pouch that she was carrying and pulled out a thin, worn book. “It’s a history of Jabesh. It’s not very long and I read the whole thing last night.”

“Wow, it must be a real pot-boiler,” proclaimed Russell.

“Actually, most of it is a pot of cold water. But the first chapter is the most interesting of all.

“Jabesh was founded some 200 years ago by a cultic religious group. Apparently, their leader was some nut job who preached that he was the only one who had discovered the hidden truth about God and the universe.”

Toni interrupted, “It seems like there’s always some loony like that somewhere.”

Sarah continued, “He managed to convince a few hundred people. They converted an abandoned warehouse into their temple. Then he got in trouble with the law—I forget why… Oh, wait a minute, now I remember; he swindled some money from the town’s hot shots. Yea, that’s right. I remember now. Anyway, they jailed him and were talking about hanging him. But a group of his people stormed the jail and shot some of the guards and got him out. I guess that he had been giving them orders from jail because once they sprang him they all gathered on the edge of town and left. Nobody went after them because they didn’t have the firepower to confront such a large group of armed men and, besides, they were just as happy to be rid of them.”

“Let ‘em be someone else’s headache,” Toni mused.

“However, the leader and his people didn’t know that nobody was after them and so they kept going like their tails were on fire. They zigzagged across the country thinking that they weren’t caught yet because they were being so clever in their escape. Little did they know that no one cared. Eventually after several months they wound up here.”

Thomas interjected, “But why settle here? There’s nothing here. It’s not even a stopping point to somewhere else.”

Sarah answered, “That’s exactly why they stopped here. They felt that it was safely out of the way and that no one would bother them here. They used to practice weird rituals and apparently work themselves up into frenzies. They would sacrifice animals and carry on deep into the night.

“It turned out that they were a nasty bunch of folks. Despite having lots of children—although apparently with a lot of wife and husband swapping—their numbers never really grew because instead of practicing forgiveness they worshipped revenge. Someone was always trying to blindside someone else with a shovel to the back of a head or a bullet from a dark corner. They were also a pretty boozy group and grew their own hallucinogens. Also, they were really into Satan worship. If you could name a sin they perfected it.”

Toni remarked, “And I bet gambling and stealing and wife beating and child abuse were all in the mix.”

Sarah picked up the story, “Eventually Jabesh developed quite a liking among the scoundrels in the rest of the part of the country and attracted quite a number of them. The Leader tried to maintain some kind of control but everyone pretty much did what they wanted to do. There wasn’t any law; even the army steered clear. The book even mentions that there were some giants among them.”

“Giants?” Toni questioned.

Sarah replied, “Not like fifty feet tall or anything like that. More like eight feet tall. But still, you don’t find people that tall today.”

Sarah finished the history lesson. “This went on for well over a good hundred years until the entire country became more civilized and lawless towns like Jabesh were eventually tamed.” At this point Sarah took a deep breath and let everyone mull that over.

                Finally Toni spoke. “What about the rest of the book? Was there anything else that was significant?”

                Sarah replied, “The book was written just over sixty years ago so it doesn’t contain anything recent. The rest of the chapters were as interesting as watching hair grow. I actually fell asleep a few times.”

                Toni directed her question at Thomas who was sitting there quietly staring off into the distance. “Any thoughts?”

                Thomas looked pensive. “No, just trying to figure out what, if anything, that adds to the puzzle.”

                Toni was the last to go and, like Sarah, was getting fidgety. “OK, you’re turn,” coaxed Sarah looking at Toni.

Toni first relayed the interview with Pop. Everyone thought for a while but did not know what to make of it other than Russell noting that he did have an encounter with Satan so they know that he is in the area and that, therefore, Pop is probably correct in that the Devil is orchestrating what is going on.

Toni continued, “After talking to several other people at the nursing home, none of which had anything interesting to say, I went to a couple of other old-timers around town.

“I learned that seven new people suddenly appeared in town in the last few months. Each one of them came alone, each one is rather unfriendly and detached, and each one attached himself or herself to someone whom they eventually corrupted. But here is the interesting part, in all seven cases the person that they attached themselves to goes to our church. There was Floyd Fullman, Jackie (I can’t remember her last name), Peter Eggers, Joey Riddledale, Melinda Nemes, and… and someone else whom I can’t seem to remember right now.”

Russell spoke rather hesitantly and meekly, “Terese.”

Thomas grinned, “Of course. No surprise that you remembered that one.” Russell turned red.

Toni added as an upbeat, “But I heard that Jackie came back.”

“That’s great,” remarked Thomas. “What about the others?”

“I haven’t heard anything one way or the other,” answered Toni.

Sarah asked, “Was that it? Were there only seven? Is it possible that some others came into town, but we didn’t hear about it because we don’t know them?”

“I suppose that’s it’s possible,” remarked Toni, “but unlikely because the people that I talked to seemed to have their finger on the pulse of Jabesh. If there was a seventh or eighth corrupter I think that they would have heard about it. Jabesh isn’t all that big of a town so not much would slip on by.”

“Did any of them have any thoughts as to what is going on?” questioned Thomas.

“I didn’t really ask them. I didn’t want to tip my hand as to what my real intentions were. That might have scared them.”

“So true,” remarked Russell. “Good move. It seems to me that whatever is going on is being directed at our church, after all, all seven of the creeps targeted our people. But why us?” He glanced sideways at Thomas. “So puzzle-man, is any of this information pieces to the puzzle? Is anything getting clearer?”

Thomas pursed his lips and stared at the floor. With each passing second everyone’s hope diminished. Finally Thomas looked up. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to make about any of this. I have this deep feeling that there is some unifying theme, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure it out. It is certainly much more complex than our usual puzzles like ‘you remove my outer layer, eat my middle layer, and throw away my inner layer.’”

“Corn-on-the-cob,” blurted out Sarah looking quite pleased. “That’s an old one.”

“Thank you, answer-girl,” declared Russell with a bit of a bite.

Sarah looked defensive, “Well, that was the answer.”

The rest of the morning was spent picking apart what they knew and trying to fit it back together in some way that resembled something, but nothing ever really fit. At noon they went over to the deli and got some food before heading over to a picnic bench. They were all worn out from the morning’s topic and needed to talk about something light and insignificant. The Jabesh football team was just the right subject.

After lunch Russell had to go get Danielle, Sarah was going home to help her parents get tonight’s picnic dinner ready, and Toni had to run some errands. “Why don’t you come along and help, Thomas? I’ve got to pick up some things for dinner tonight.” asked Toni.

“My foot’s a little sore today. I think it is from walking on those narrow rafters yesterday. You go on ahead and I’ll see you at dinner.”

Yes, Thomas’ foot did ache a bit but his real reason not to go was because he wanted some time alone to ponder the situation. He slowly walked to the edge of the park and sat down on a bench. He was thinking through each part of Toni and Sarah’s information seeing if there was anything that needed to be researched further. “All of the original crazies,” he thought, “what happened to them? Are they buried in a cemetery? Maybe there is something in the leader’s coffin.” Then he got a chill. Grave robbing was not on his resume. “Is there another question that needs addressing?” Then with a realization he sat up with a start. “Yes, that could be important.”

He sprung to his feet and with determination headed to the library.

“I’m looking for Mr. Davis,” he asked the person at the library desk.

“He is in his office right now. I can see his silhouette in the window. Just go knock on his door.”

“Thank you.” Thomas lightly rapped on Mr. Davis’ door. He could see a hunched figure through the etched glass lift his head.

                “Come in and be quick about it.”

                Thomas meekly opened the door and carefully jutted his head in as though he expected a baseball to be flung at it.

                “Come in and sit down. What can I do for you?”

                Thomas promptly took a seat and folded his hands in his lap. His eyes glanced around the room.

                “I haven’t got all day; what do you want?” Mr. Davis was not so much rude as efficient. He clearly did not fancy small talk and hesitancy drove him nearly to explode. Thomas figured he better cut to the quick before he got thrown out. Mr. Davis peered at Thomas in a still semi-hunched position.

                “You’re sort-of the town historian, Mr. Davis, and I have an important question for you. I hope that you can answer it. I understand that this town was started by a bunch of crazies…”

                “You had better be careful how you label people.” Mr. Davis narrowed his eyes. This rattled Thomas and he stammered.

                “I, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

                “Go on then.”

                “This religious group, they had a temple. Do you know what happened to it?”

                Mr. Davis sat up as though on a spring. He stared at Thomas as he tried to determine the implication of the question. The answer was not as important as was why Thomas even knew to ask it.

                He leaned forward and rested his chin on his hand as his fingers curled around his mouth. Thomas squirmed and looked around the room. After a long ten seconds he moved his hand away from his face. “Why do you ask this question?” His hand returned to his chin.

                Thomas had been rehearsing this answer on the way over. He knew that it was an odd question and did not want Mr. Davis to get suspicious. So with a suspicious perkiness he said, “I’ve been studying the early years of Jabesh for a class project and am trying to get as much information as possible.” He then forced a smile.

                Mr. Davis’ eyes became like slits. “You’re not even from here. Why wouldn’t you study your own town?”

                Thomas did not expect anyone to challenge his answer; it had seemed reasonable enough. “Well, uh.” Thomas’ fingers rolled around each other. “Well, I, um.” His lips went dry. “I, I like Jabesh.” He could feel his every breath.

                Mr. Davis leaned back in his chair. He brought both hands up to his face like he was praying, but he was doing anything but that. Finally his hands fell into his lap. Thomas half expected him to raise up a gun and shoot him pointblank in the chest screaming, “Take that you meddling little twit.” Instead he said very quietly, “The temple became what is now the abandoned liquor factory.”

                Thomas’ hair on the back of his neck stood up. He started to sweat and wanted only to bolt from the office. “Uh, thank you, that’s all, um, that I wanted to know.” He got up out of the chair. He started to reach over to shake Mr. Davis’ hand but then stopped and turned.

                “That’s it? That’s all that you wanted to ask.” Mr. Davis stood up. He was much taller than Thomas expected.

                Without looked back and while hurrying out Thomas replied, “Yes, yes, that’s all that I need to know. Thank you.” And with that he left the office.

                Thomas rushed across the library and burst out the door. He felt as though he had just run ten miles. He saw a bench underneath a tree about 100 feet away and headed towards it. To Thomas it seemed like a hike across the country. He plopped down in it and just wanted to cry although he did not know why. He was catching his breath when he saw Mr. Davis exit the library with a scowl on his face. He was very seriously talking to someone on his cell phone. He did not see Thomas sitting under the tree. Thomas watched him disappear around the corner of the library. Then he got up and followed him. However, Thomas stopped at that corner and slowly peered around it. He was not in the mood for any surprises. Mr. Davis, though, was on a mission and was already striding rapidly across the street. Thomas, ignoring his sore foot, shifted into a higher gear and followed him. He had to do all that he could to keep up the pace. This went on for several blocks and then Thomas lost him when he turned a corner. Thomas had turned the same corner but when he looked up the sidewalk Mr. Davis was nowhere to be seen. Then he looked sideways and stopped dead in his tracks. Directly across the street in front of the insurance building Mr. Davis was talking with much agitation to two very grim men. Thomas recognized one as the fellow who was with Terese that day at the back of the Laundromat and the other as the fellow who he followed with Toni to the old liquor warehouse.

Thomas was afraid that any movement would catch their eye, like a frog and a trio of snakes, so he just stood there staring at them. The more Mr. Davis talked the grimmer these two men got. Then Mr. Davis looked up and saw Thomas. He immediately stopped talking. The other two men looked over at Thomas also. Mr. Davis pointed right at Thomas and said something. Then all three turned and came right at him.

No point acting like a frozen frog now; all three snakes were coming to devour. Thomas turned on his heals and scooted around the corner. The three men broke into a gallop. For some reason at this time Thomas’ foot decided to hurt. He ran past an alleyway with a fire escape but knew that there was no way that he would be able to climb a ladder with his foot being what it was.

“Hey, you, kid, stop!” The gruff voice was closer than Thomas expected. For some reason he did not think that grown men would actually run. He was quite wrong. Thomas broke into a full-throttle dash. Up ahead there was an old wooden fence between two buildings. There was a hole in it right at Thomas’ size. He fell to his knees and crawled through. He slowed down his running and nearly stopped as he turned and looked at the hole. Now maybe he could catch some breath.

Just then boards flew everywhere as several legs kicked out the section of the fence where the hole was. Thomas knew now for certain that they did not want him just to ask a few simple questions. This was much more serious. Two of the men poked their heads through the hole and when they saw Thomas they angrily ripped out some hanging boards. Thomas ran across the lot and up the ten-foot hill at the back. At the top was a chain-link fence too tall for him to climb before they would reach him. He looked both ways. As far as he could tell the fence ran all along the top of the hill in a straight line for several hundred feet. There was no time to fully evaluate the situation. He sprinted to the right just as the men reached the bottom of the hill; Terese’s “friend” climbed the hill while the other two chased Thomas along the bottom of the hill. Thomas was not in shape for this; already he was sucking air hard. He ran along the narrow ledge between the fence and the slant of the hill. Mr. Davis, who was already falling behind, had to stop.

Far up ahead Thomas could see a large tree had pushed the fence to the edge of the slant. If he tried to go around it he would surely slip on the grass on the slope and slide down the hill into the insurance man’s hands. He could not go back. It looked like checkmate. He kept running. Giving up was not an option. These gentlemen did not seem like the type quick to give mercy.

As he approached the tree he could see a low branch about chest high. He thought that he might be able to duck under it and keep at a decent run whereas the man would almost have to stop and crawl under. That would buy him more time. Just as he was within a few feet of the branch Thomas panicked and his mind went blind. He crotched low to the ground but instead of ducking under the branch he leaped on it. He frantically grasped for any small branches growing out of this larger branch and scurried up with whichever ones he managed to grab. His feet pushed furiously. His hands and face were multiplying with scratches and cuts, but he continued making his way up the branch like a rabid squirrel.

Terese’s man grabbed the branch and pulled it low, but this took two hands and so he had to wait for the other man to scramble up the hill. By the time he got there Thomas was out of reach. The man let the branch snap up, which nearly toppled Thomas. But he was now on the other side of the fence so he dropped to the ground. He was facing the fence. All three stared at each other. They were only two feet apart. Thomas could almost feel the fury in their eyes.

Floyd’s co-worker thrust his arm through the fence and grabbed Thomas’ sleeve with a vise grip. In that instant the man’s arm turned smooth and pure white with things beneath the skin pushing out in various places before collapsing back in. This palpitating happened so frequently that it appeared as though his flesh was boiling. Thomas’ eyes bulged with terror. He struggled twisting his arm back and forth but could not break his grip. The other man pushed his arm through the fence also trying to snatch at Thomas with his fingertips just catching Thomas’ sleeve. Finally the shirtsleeve ripped and Thomas fell to the ground.

The two men grabbed the fence and shook it savagely. Thomas backed away and then got up and ran. He could hear loud hissing behind him growing more distant.

He headed for the grocery store hoping that Toni might still be there. He rapidly canvassed the aisles several times, but could not find her. One of the employees seeing him so wide-eyed and frantic asked him if he needed help. Thomas looked at him like he was about to get mugged, quickly replied “no thanks” and took off again. He dashed out of the store.

He simply could not run anymore. He had to slow down to a quick pace. A few times he had to stop and bend over holding onto his pants to keep from toppling over. But he knew that he had to catch Toni before she got home since he could not say anything in front of her mother.

He reached the edge of Jabesh’s central park. He squinted hard and thought that he could see someone on the other side with a bag of groceries. He never realized just how big the park really was. Fortunately she was taking her time. The best that he could manage was several seconds of what might be called running alternately with a rapid walk. After several cycles of this he got within shouting distance.

“Toni! Toni!” The exertion almost knocked him to the ground. However she did stop and look around. She even looked at a chipmunk as though it might have been calling out to her. Thomas yelled again. This time she turned around and saw him. He squatted on the ground unable to go any further. She hurried over.

“What’s going on?! Did something happen? And why is your sleeve torn off?”

Thomas held up his hand while he caught his breath. When he seemed able, she helped him over to a bench. Between breaths Thomas gasped, “The two men… who got to Floyd and Terese… were after me. I barely… got away.” He stopped and gulped more air. He kept looking all around.

“Why were they after you? What did you do? You didn’t go back to the warehouse, did you?”

He shook his head “no,” took some deep breaths and then let out a long exhale. “I found out something that might be key.” He stopped dead. On the far side, the two men were rapidly checking out each building along the park. It appeared that there were several others with them. It would not be too long before they reached Thomas.

“Over there,” he pointed while hunkering down, “those are the men who are after me. I’ve got to go. I can’t let them know that you’re in on this, too.” He got up but stayed hunched over.

“Wait, you just can’t go like this.”

“I can’t stay here any longer. Then they’ll get the both of us.”

One of the men stopped and stared intently at where Toni and Thomas were. Thomas quickly ducked behind the bench which, if you are trying not to look suspicious, is probably not the way to act. The man took a few steps towards the bench to further evaluate the situation. Though the man was really quite a ways from their position, Thomas still felt the need to whisper while he was nearly lying prone. “What is he doing now?” But then hastily added, “But don’t be too obvious that you’re looking at him.”

Toni looked sideways. “He’s still staring over here. Wait. It looks like he’s shouting something to his other buddies. Now they’re all looking this way.”

Thomas felt as though all of his blood drained out of his body and through the slots in the bench. He could not stay there and yet, if he bolted, he could probably get away but that would expose Toni and they would swarm all over her. He could tell her to sprint, but was afraid to put her into the hunt also and besides, for all of her qualities, speed was not one of them.

“It looks like they’re coming this way,” Toni fretted.

Then Thomas noticed Toni’s neighbor, Mr. Keskes, walking his two Great Danes. “Toni, I’ve got an idea. Get Mr. Keskes over here—quickly.”

She looked puzzled but waved her arm and shouted, “Mr. Keskes, so good to see you.”

He smiled and pulled his dogs around. They tugged at the leashes when they saw Toni. The two dogs pretty much yanked Mr. Keskes over to the bench. Mr. Keskes looked down at Thomas who was still sprawled across the bench as though he were looking at someone dressed up as a lizard.

Thomas stammered, “Uh, hi, Mr. Keskes.” One of the dogs had its front paws on Toni’s lap while trying to lick her rapidly moving face. The other dog pressed its face into Thomas’. “I’m, um, playing a game of hide-and-seek and need your help. The, um, seekers are just on the other side of the park and they’re coming this way. Can you, um, do me a favor and, um, walk your dogs over to that row of rhododendrons over there and, um, I’ll follow you?”

Mr. Keskes was quite amused by this and laughed heartily, “Why certainly, Thomas. I love a good game.”

Thomas arced his head back towards Toni and said, “If I not home for dinner, which I doubt, just tell your mother that I got a last minute invitation at, um, somewhere else. And give her my apologies.”

Toni looked anxious, “Where are you going? When will you be home?”

“I don’t know. If I’m not home, I’ll, um, leave you note where to meet me.”

Mr. Keskes pulled Moses down from Toni’s lap much to her appreciation. “Come on, boys. We’ve got a game to play.” He then started to veer away from the bench. Thomas rolled off of the bench and, squatting very low so that his head was below the top of the dogs, walked between them. Mr. Keskes’ eyes twinkled splendidly and even the dogs seemed quite amused. All four of them headed down the sidewalk towards the bushes while Thomas labored in that same squat position to keep up. Fortunately the rhododendrons were only 100 feet away.

“It’s good he doesn’t have poodles,” thought Toni.

Once they reached the edge of the bushes, which were a good mature height of six foot, Thomas stood up, hurriedly thanked Mr. Keskes for his contribution to the game, and headed down to the end of the row where he was able to slink behind a maintenance building and peer around the corner.

As Toni watched Thomas and the dogs depart she could see the group of men hastening across the park towards her. She did not know what her reception would be: would they drag her off somewhere, pummel her right there, or rush past her straight to the rhododendrons? Whatever was going to happen it would not be sweet. She stared blankly at the ground for a few seconds and then picked up the bag of groceries and headed down the sidewalk in the opposite direction of the rhododendrons. It did not take long before they caught up to her.

“You there, stop!” she heard gruffly behind her.

She turned as calmly as if it were her mother adding one more item to a shopping list. Facing her were three men and two women. None of them appeared to be happy. Toni tried to affect a smile. One of the men spoke with forceful intimidation, “That boy that was on the bench with you, where did he go?” If Toni was not so focused on putting on a phony front she would have fainted.

“Boy,” she replied. “What boy? There was no boy with me.” Her vocal chords were as tight as a piano string. She had to make a deliberate effort not to look past them to where Thomas was hiding.

Another one of the men sneered and appeared as though he was making every effort to keep from grabbing her and punching her to a pulp. “That boy! We saw a boy with you on the bench! He ducked down. We saw him!”

Toni was glad for holding the bag of groceries since the paper was soaking up the sweat from her hands. She gave a small laugh that came out more fake then she would have hoped. “That was no boy that you saw. That was my knee. I was sitting across the bench with my feet on the bench and my knees up. When I turned and put my feet back on the ground it probably looked as though someone was ducking down.” Her throat was tightening up so much that she was surprised that she spoke so much and was able to finish the sentence. She hoped that they would just turn away so that she could breathe again. But it was clear that they were not convinced. She knew that there was a boy there, they knew that there was a boy there, but he was not there now, and none of them saw him leave.

One of the women turned and examined Mr. Keskes as he strode happily down the sidewalk but it was clear that there was no one with him except for the dogs. She turned back and glared at Toni.

One planned advantage to Toni walking in the direction that she did was that the group facing her all had their backs to the rhododendrons. Thomas could see this and hurried across the street being careful to keep the shed between him and the group. He dashed to the other side where he was able to get to the backside of the row of shops.

Seeing that they were not going to get any information from Toni who just stood there smiling like a dunce, everyone in the group turned every which way to see if they could catch a glance of the disappearing boy. They quickly split up with one scouring the bushes and another yanking on the locked shed’s door.

Toni stood on the spot like a wax figure holding a bag of groceries. She did not know that Thomas made it across the street already and was sure that one of them was going to drag him out by his shirt. When they left the rhododendrons empty handed she was satisfied that he had gotten away. She took a deep breath and went home the long way. She was positive that the bag had more of her sweat then she did.

Meanwhile, Thomas watched the group from behind the buildings. They had spread out to continue searching all over town. Since they had already been in his area none of them came his way. When they had all disappeared down various streets he sat down in the dirt and rested his head against a garbage can. He was too exhausted to even cry.

He could hear the town clock chime. It was four o’clock. He then realized that he had not eaten since breakfast. Trudging wearily behind the stores he went halfway around the circle when he came to the back of the chocolate shop. He knew that they had a small table in the rear that hardly anyone used. It was not near any windows and sometimes even had boxes stacked on it. You could not even see this table unless you were right in front of it since a wall and some plants blocked it. It would be a perfect place for Thomas to rest and get something to eat. What he would do after that was only a guess.

Copyright Bob La Forge 2011        email: