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A wet winter night. Nearly two in the morning and the spirit of Christmas haunts the ocean wind, sighing through the foil candycanes that sway from lampposts along Chapman Avenue, through the ribs of the illuminated Santa Claus in the distant Plaza, along empty alleys dark with shifting, anxious shadows. Raindrops slant across the misty glass globes of streetlamps, and heavy, broken clouds drift across the face of the moon. For a few moments the terra-cotta roof tiles of St. Anthony's Church glisten in the moonlight. The downtown houses appear out of the darklless clapboard bungalows with shadowy porches and leafy flower-beds, curb trees pushing up the sidewalks, the houses dark except for the yellow glow of front porch lamps and here and there strings of Christmas lights left on all night.
The moon slips behind clouds again, and in the deepening gloom a human figure steps out of the shadows onto the peak of the church roof and walks carefully across the rainwashed tiles, bent low and carrying a stiff cloth bag. The bell tower rises before him, above the west wall of the church, its white stucco a pale ghost against the deeper darkness of the roof. Within the open arches of the tower stand the crossmembers and struts of the iron framework that supports a carillon of eleven heavy bells.
He climbs over the cast concrete railing in the east-facing arch and dissappears among the maze of shadows cast by the bells, and suddenly the silent night is broken by a tumult of flapping wings, and the sky above the tower is clouded with circling white doves.
Father Mahoney sat in the small sacristy of Holy Spirit the eaves outside the windows, which were tilted open to let in the melody of the rain. The room was pleasantly scented with the smell of the night air, mingling with the odor of floor wax and incense blocks. It was early in the morning - he wasn't sure just what time it was - but he rarely slept later than four these days, and over the years he had gotten used to seeing the sunrise as well as the sunset. And anyway, today he was seventy - he didn't have the leisure to be wasting a morning of this quality.
He heard a noise from somewhere off in the church, what sounded like the creaking of wooden joints.
Probably it was just the old church settling in the weather. He sat for a moment listening to hear it again, but there was nothing, just the sound of the rainy morning. Something about the rain improved the silence, something vast and deep that reminded him of the last notes of a hymn or the silence that followed the ringing of bells.
On the library table in front of him lay an open cigar box next to his cup of instant coffee. The box was filled with seashells. He picked out several kelp scallops and paired them according to size and color, but none of the pairs looked quite right. There had already been half a dozen Pacific storms this winter, and the shelling was better than any year he could remember. He had found two perfect chestnut cowries beneath the Huntington Beach pier last week - the first he had ever found. They sat on the table now, neatly arrayed beside the scallops and a handful of jewel-box shells.
He picked up an issue of I he Nautilus and began to flip through the pages, but right then he heard the sound of wood scraping against wood, as if someone had pushed a pew out of its place in the church. He stood up and walked to the door, edging it open and looking out past the altar, seeing no one. He stepped across the choir and looked down into the nave, which was empty, the pews sitting square and neat and solid. After a moment he went back into the sacristy and sat down again, idly stirring the shells in the box with his index finger and gazing at the three stained-glass windows in the east wall.
It was in the early morning that he most liked to sit in the wood-paneled room and simply look at these windows. which depicted Christ and two angels ascending into heaven. Holly leaves with red berries bordered the windows and the same color of red tinted the stigmata on Christ's out-turned palms. The windows looked out on a garden of tree ferns and maidenhair, and tonight the ivory light from the garden lamps muted the colors of the rain-washed glass tinting the holly berries and the bleeding wounds an unearthly shade of deep red that reminded him of the sacrament. He couldn't help making these connections, seeing the spirit of one thing alive in something else: it was evidence of the great design.
There was the sound of car wheels swishing on the wet asphalt of the street, and he was momentarily thankful to be inside, where it was warm and dry and close. Picking up one of the cowries, he ran his finger over the smooth hump of its shell. And then, as he set it back down on the table among the others, the sacristy door creaked open.
A man stepped into the room. He wore an oversized coat and trousers, rubber gloves, and a pair of dirty white loafers with tassels. Covering his head was a rubber mask that resembled the face of a goat, complete with a protruding rubber tongue, curled-back horns, and a tuft of coarse hair.
The man in the church tower reeled against the railing. hocked at the rush of wings around him, at the wheeling birds that had been nesting in the belfry. Dropping the canvas sack full of tools, he held onto the smooth stucco of the ower wall with both hands. Although there was a floor beneath the bells, he felt himself to be standing at the edge of a yawning pit, as if the tower were a deep open well into the darkness.
Birds landed on the peak of the roof and stood in the rain before wheeling away again, disappearing into the deep shadows of a big cypress tree in the lot next door. In a moment the night was quiet, and he felt steady again. He let go of the wall, shoved his tools aside with his foot, and forced himself to attend to the bells. There was just enough light to make out the immense bolts that secured them - three bolts in each of the two biggest bells, which must have been three feet in diameter, their bronze walls some three or four inches thick. He groped in the bag of tools, his heart racing, and found a can of lubricant, then sprayed the heavily rusted nuts that secured the biggest bell.
It would be easier simply to cut the wires attached to the clappers and silence the bells that way, but then it would be equally easy for the bellringer to reattach the wires. He wanted something else to happen, something more permanent.
He took a big wrench from the bag and fit it to the nut, leaning into it hard, throwing his weight behind it. Nothing happened. It was frozen tight. The wind blew a flurry of raindrops through the arch, and he let up on the wrench, picking up the can of spray lube again and spraying the nuts heavily. A car drove past on the street below, its headlights glaring against the wet asphalt, and he cursed the driver under his breath.
Christmas lights winked off and on along the eaves of a house across the street, throwing a faint glow of blue and red and green across the dull metal of the bells. Somehow the colors horrified him, as if they were live things, tiny spirits dancing on the cold bells, mocking him, appearing and disappearing like goblin gold. The bells began to thrum in the wind, as if they had a voice, and for a moment he fancied he could hear a melody in the raindrops plinking against the bronze. The iron framework before him was dizzyingly complicated, and the bells swam in and out of his vision.
He dropped the wrench and reached for a crossbar in order to steady himself, but touched the surface of the bell instead. It was horribly solid, the bronze so cold that for a moment he thought he'd been burned. He jerked his hand away and grabbed for the railing, looking away from the bells and the reflected Christmas lights, out into the night where the palms along the avenue moved slowly in the wind. Like a tide beneath a pier, the shifting palm fronds made the tower seem to sway, and he held on desperately. A dove alighted on the concrete railing, stark white in the moonlight, and in a moment of wild rage and fear he swung his hand at it, lurching forward to grab it by the neck. The dove lifted off again, and the back of his hand struck the stucco corner of the arch.
The pain sobered him. He stood breathing hard, the rain in his face. He had nearly lost his mind there for a moment. It occurred to him abruptly that something was actively working against him, some power, filling his head with confusion - the rain, the colored lights, the doves....
The idea of it appealed to him, giving him a strange sensation of potency. He was filled with the certainty that he was laboring at the heart of an ages-old struggle, that with his bag of tools he might shift something so monumentally heavy that it made the ponderous bell in front of him nothing more than a dust mote.
Full of wild purpose, he picked up the spray lube, and held down the nozzle until all three nuts ran with oil. Then he fumbled in the sack again, pulling out a small propane torch. He lit the torch, adjusted the flame, and held it to the center nut. The oil burst into flame, and the flame ran out across the steel plate, flickering like witch fire, casting a glare on the walls around him. He held the torch to the nut, which had sat there immobile for sixty years, and watched the flaming oil burn itself out. Then, shutting off the torch, he fixed the wrench on the nut again and leaned hard against it. There was a spray of rust flakes and a loud squeak as the nut disengaged, but he didn't let up. He cranked the wrench around in a big circle, forcing it up the rusty threads until the nut fell loose, dropping to the floor. The second nut was easier than the first; there was no need to heat it with the torch. He eased the third nut up the bolt until, with a heart-stopping shriek, the bell twisted away from its steel plate, the bolt itself bending backward from the bell's weight. He stood for a moment, afraid to go on. If the bell came down now. . .
But the bell didn't fall. He counted four threads exposed above the remaining nut. Carefully he turned the wrench, easing the nut upward, the rusty iron groaning. Even when the nut was flush with the top of the bolt, he continued to turn the wrench, picturing the bell dropping, the terrible noise of it crashing through the floors below, slamming into the concrete floor at the bottom of the tower.
The top of the bolt slowly edged its way down into the nut. He counted the revolutions, stopping at the fourth, trusting utterly to instinct: another quarter turn and it would fall. The bell swayed there, defying gravity, thousands of pounds of cast bronze held by a thin curl of iron. One of the doves could dislodge it. The wind could blow it down.
He stepped backward and laughed out loud, picturing it, full of wild confidence now, of boundless exhilaration as he slid the wrench free, slipping it into the bag along with the torch and the spray can. Then he swung his leg over the railing, stepped out onto the roof again, and set out toward the back of the church. The moon shone now as if someone had turned on a lamp in the night sky. He hurried. It wouldn't do to be caught. Not now. Never mind what it would do to his life, to his career, if he were seen up here. It had quite simply been vital that the bells be silenced, but the awful compulsion that had led him out into the rainy night was already draining away....
A car approached from the west. He stepped down the back slope of the roof, trying to move out of sight, hunching forward to shrink himself. Suddenly he was off-balance, and he threw out his free hand, trying to grab the peak of the roof as his foot slipped on the wet terra-cotta and his leg splayed outward. He dropped the bag, throwing out his arms to catch himself as he fell forward. His fingernails scraped across the slick tiles and he skittered downward, scrabbling uselessly, moaning out loud.
In that instant there flew into his mind an image of himself lying dead on the ground, his soul sucked out of him, down through the dirt and rock of the cold earth, fleeing away toward some infinitely empty place. Terror and remorse surged through him, and for one appalling moment he thought he heard the bells themselves begin to toll.
Then his right foot struck the rain gutter that ran along the eave, and he hugged the terra-cotta tiles to him as he jolted to a stop right at the roof's edge. For a moment he lay there simply breathing, his eyes closed, feeling the cold rain against his back. Then, carefully, he looked behind him, down at the lawn and at the scattering of tools that had flown out of the canvas bag.
He hunched forward, crawling up the rusted metal valley like a bug, hanging onto the edges of the roof tiles and breathing hard now, desperately careful. The wild elation he had felt in the tower was utterly gone, all of it replaced by the terrible need to save himself, to get down off the roof, retrieve his tools, and make his way to safety without being seen.
When he was well clear of the edge, he stood up and quickened his pace, and within seconds was at the peak again, then past it, letting himself down the back side of the roof, which was hidden from the street by a row of trees.
The wet sidewalks reflected the glow from the old cast-concrete streetlamps on the parkway, and water dripped with a slow, hollow plink in the metal downspout at the edge of the porch. The wind was full of the promise of more rain. Walt Stebbins stood on the porch and listened to the night. He wore his pajama shirt tucked into a pair of pants that he'd pulled on hastily. He hadn't bothered with his bedroom slippers. The wisteria vine that climbed the downspout was bare of leaves, and the yellow buglight on the porch threw a tangle of moving shadows out onto the front lawn. There was a gust of wind, and the heavy vines scraped against the eaves of the house.
He noticed then that he'd left the Christmas lights on again - the third time that season. It was amazing how a few colored lights could run up the bill. He stepped down off the porch now and peered around the outside corner of the front bedroom, up the driveway toward the garage. The driveway gate was shut. It was a little section of picket fence hinged to the latticework wall of the carport, supported by a single steel wheel that made a gravelly, metallic sound when it rolled open.
That's what had awakened him, or so he thought - the sound of the gate rasping open across the concrete. A moment later a car had started up somewhere down the block, and, lying there in bed, it had seemed nearly certain to him that someone had been in the backyard, and had made a noise going out. Now he wasn't quite so certain. Ivy, his wife, would no doubt remind him of the time he'd woken up convinced he was in a submarine under the Indian Ocean....
And now that he thought about it, the noise could as easily have been the bare wisteria vines scraping the house. The garage door was locked. He could see the padlock from where he stood. The back doors of the house were dead-bolted. He walked softly down the driveway, listening hard, and slipped the latch on the gate, picking the wheel up off the concrete and swinging it open noiselessly. The backyard was quiet, the lawn pooled with rainwater. The stepping-stone path that led to the sheds behind the garage was wet, so there was no real chance of footprints. All in all, there was no indication of any prowler - nothing stolen, nothing out of order. If anyone had been back there, they were apparently only sightseeing.
Blame it on the wind. He went out through the gate again, lifting it to shut it and then easing the latch into place. It was too early in the morning to make noise. He stood for a moment on the sidewalk, looking down toward Chapman Avenue and simply taking in the rainy darkness. A car rolled past the end of the block, its tires humming on the wet pavement, speeding up to beat the light at the corner. The neighborhood was dark and silent, and the sky was like something out of a painting, full of clouds illuminated by moonglow. What a morning! He was thankful all of a sudden that the wind had woken him up and lured him outside, as if it had something to show him.
A flock of birds rose into the air from the roof of St. Anthony's Church a block away, and for a moment they glowed impossibly white in the moonlight, flying in a circle around the bell tower before alighting again. Then he saw a movement on the roof - a shadow silhouetted against the darker hedge of trees beyond. In an instant it was gone.
A man on the roof? At this hour? Walt stood watching, waiting to see it again. Except for the birds, the church roof remained empty of movement now.
He seemed to have prowlers on the mind. The neighborhood was apparently alive with them. There was probably some kind of cat-burglar convention over at the Twin Palms Motel. The wind blew straight through the flimsy cotton of his pajama shirt, and he thought about his bed upstairs, about how Ivy would yell at him when he climbed in with frozen feet.
Rain began to fall, and he turned and hurried toward the porch. Then, on a whim, he stopped at the steps, bending over to pinch through a half dozen pansy stems before going in through the door, locking the dead bolt behind him and carrying the little bouquet upstairs. Back in the bedroom, he watched Ivy sleep for a moment. She lay tucked up in the heap of blankets she'd stolen from him in the night. She was a restless sleeper, and had a sort of tidal effect on blankets, which invariably shifted to her side of the world by morning. His side of the bed was pitifully bare except for the corner of the top sheet. He glanced at the clock: quarter to five, nearly time to get up anyway. He looked around for somewhere to put the pansies so that Ivy would find them when she woke up. An idea came to him, and he turned around and headed into the bathroom, where he dropped a pansy into each of the toothbrush slots in the brass holder on the wall, entwining the handle of Ivy's toothbrush with the flimsy stem of the last flower.
Satisfied, he went quietly back out into the bedroom, took his shirt and sweater off the chair, and found his shoes and a pair of socks. He thought again about what he'd seen on the church roof. Something had startled the birds; he hadn't simply imagined the shadowy figure. Still, what could he do about it? Call the cops? It was raining like in the tropics outside now. There wasn't a chance in hell that they'd be interested in his observations. And it occurred to him that if someone had been on the roof, it was good odds that they were simply patching a leak during a lull in the storm - probably the minister himself. Surely it wasn't someone breaking in; you didn't break into a church by burrowing through the tile roof. He pushed the matter out of his mind and slipped downstairs again, anxious to put on a pot of coffee out in the garage.
When he saw the intruder in the doorway, Father Mahoney stood up, his throat constricting, a rush of fear slamming through him. For a single terrible moment he was certain that the man wasn't wearing a mask at all, that he actually had the face of a goat. He fought to control himself, but he simply couldn't speak, even when the moment passed and he knew he was wrong. There was something odious about the mask, something filthy that he simply couldn't abide, and without thinking he lunged forward, snatching at it, suddenly wanting to jerk it off the man's head. He felt himself struck hard in the chest and he fell heavily back down into the chair. There was a low laugh from within the confines of the mask, and he threw up his hands and ducked his head as the intruder drew a homemade blackjack from inside his coat - a length of pink rubber hose with a bulbous tip wrapped in cloth tape.
The intruder cracked it down on the corner of the table, leaving a dent. Father Mahoney winced backward, pressing himself into the chair as the man walked slowly around the desk, his head bobbing. The man leaned over until the mask nearly brushed the priest's ear. "Fatty," he whispered, his voice pitched weirdly high. He pushed the taped piece of hose into Father Mahoney's cheek and made little clucking sounds. Then he began to giggle, picking up a marking pen off the table and striding to the wall, where he jerked a painting of Job off its nail and let it drop to the floor. With the marker he wrote a filthy word on the white plaster.
He stopped giggling, turning around as if in alarm. He stood there swaying, his breath rasping within the mask. Abruptly he picked up the cup of coffee from the desktop and drank it through the mouth hole of the mask, half the coffee dribbling out from beneath the rubber chin and down his coat.
He pitched the coffee cup into the wall and slammed the blackjack across the cigar box full of shells, breaking apart the wooden panels of the box and knocking the whole thing to the floor, the shells scattering across the linoleum. He picked up one of the cowries and looked closely at it, making little smacking noises with his lips, as if he wanted to taste it. Carefully, he set it at the corner of the table, and then smashed it flat with a single, quick blow, dusting the fragments onto the floor before smashing the second one the same way. Then, one by one, he hammered the scallops and jewel-box shells into fragments, working methodically, as if smashing the shells was the one great purpose of his visit. He trod through the scattered pieces of seashell on the floor, stomping around on them, crushing them to powder beneath his feet. There was something clearly insane about it, a drooling madness, and yet he moved with a singleness of purpose, as if the seashells were an enemy that had to be utterly destroyed.
"What do you want?" Father Mahoney asked finally. His voice shook. The man stood among the trampled shells, hunched over, his breath wheezing in his throat. "We haven't got much money," the priest said, "not in the church. The offering ..."
The man pulled a short piece of nylon cord from his coat, made a loop in the end of it, grabbed Mahoney's wrist, and settled the loop over it, drawing it tight, yanking his other hand around and tying them both to the chair. Then he took a cloth bag from his pants pocket and pulled it over Mahoney's head. The bag stank, as if something dead had been stored in it, and Mahoney closed his eyes, the idea of praying only now coming to him through the haze of fear and bewilderment.
For uncounted seconds he listened to the man walking back and forth in the room, as if he were pacing, uttering an odd chanting noise that was almost idiotic, the meaningless demonic gibbering of a man who had given up all claim to humanity. There was the sound of the blackjack thudding against something wooden, then a loud grunt followed by the crash of heavy furniture toppling - the carved cabinet the held the Host and sacramental wine. Bottles broke against the floor, and Mahoney could smell the spilled wine.
Abruptly he found himself thinking that, thank God, the Host wasn't blessed, but then it struck him that the idea was almost foolish; he was thinking almost like the man in the goat mask - that God, somehow, could be damaged by this kind of pathetic vandalism.
Almost immediately there was another thump and the clank of something metallic falling to the floor. The chalice? It was gold; no doubt he'd steal it. There was a racket of sound: the hand-bells falling, the clanking roll of the censer, then the scrape of hangers on wooden rods - the vestments being yanked out of the wardrobe. A fold of cloth settled over his head - probably an altar boy's gown. He opened his mouth, sucking in air. The layers of cloth made it difficult to breathe, and he wondered suddenly if the man meant to kill him. The idea of suffocation terrified him, and he tore his mind away from the thought. forcing himself to visualize the picture in the stained glass of the windows.
Dimly he heard repeated blows of the blackjack and of glass breaking, and it came to him that the man was destroying the windows too, hammering the leaded joints apart, breaking out the glass. Surely he was making enough noise so that someone on the street would hear. But it was late, and the church and its buildings took up the entire square block....
Father Mahoney stood up, the chair legs coming up off the floor. He hunched away from the desk, bending his head to his chest to dislodge the cloth bag. "Stop!" he yelled. "In the name of God ... !" He yanked at the ropes that bound his wrists, jerking up and down, full of fury now.
There was a silence, and then the sound of ragged breathing again, coming from somewhere behind him. Father Mahoney tensed, waiting for the blow, for the man to hit him with the blackjack. The hair on his neck crept, and he imagined the intruder standing behind him, the goat mask regarding him now, the blackjack upraised....
And then the sacristy door banged shut. He heard footsteps pounding across the tiles of the nave. The noise faded away, leaving the night silent again but for the sound of the rain.
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