by David McLeod
The Unitarian Church of Jacksonville had the largest social hall, and its fellowship group had the best cooks. When the Unitarians hosted the monthly meeting of the Ecumenical Council, attendance was high.
Dr. Malcolm, the senior Presbyterian minister, and current chairman, welcomed the group. "About twenty years, ago, when I was preaching at a little church in Georgia, I hosted an ecumenical meeting. There were only four of us there: a Catholic, a Baptist, a Methodist, and myself. I like a cocktail at lunch, but wasn't quite sure how it would be received. So, I asked Mary to serve watermelon balls soaked in vodka. Well, I couldn't help but notice that Father Bingham, the Catholic, seemed to be enjoying his watermelon a great deal. Reverend Moss, the Baptist, would take a bite, and make a face. But Reverend Smith, the Methodist, was picking out the seeds–and putting them in his pocket."
He paused for the polite laughter, and then continued. "You all know what we need to talk about. When that magazine printed the article about the LGBT Alliance, with that boy Larry's picture, we were in the national spotlight for nearly six weeks. At that time, we got together and agreed to treat the whole thing as a 'so what–no big deal' thing.
"It worked. The news media couldn't get any news out of us, and finally dropped the whole thing.
"On the other hand, the latest invasion isn't the media, but it's going to be before long. That hate group from Oklahoma that calls itself a Christian church has moved in. They've rented the old Sprawl-Mart in the shopping center at Crosstown, and opened a storefront church."
He nodded to Father Stewart, the Anglican priest, who spoke next. "They found out, somehow, that one of my altar boys is a member of the alliance, and picketed my church last Sunday. The things they shouted…well, they bordered on the obscene. The Vestry met that night. They were unanimous in their support. We will not abandon Patrick to these…these…" he sputtered to silence.
"Apparently, they think a member of my current communicants' class is a member, or associates with members. At least, that's what their signs indicated. They had words like…" Dr. Malcolm dug a paper from his pocket. "Like Tarred by Satan's brush, and Hiding a sin is a sin."
"Do you know who?" the Baptist minister asked.
"No, and right now I don't want to know," Dr. Malcolm said. "No, that's not right. I mean that I'm so angry with these people that I wouldn't care if the whole class were. Gay, that is."
"They were at the city park where we had our youth picnic on Saturday," Jonas said. He was the Youth Pastor at the Methodist Church. "They had their usual signs like God hates queers, but they were also yelling at our group…and I was not at all happy having to tell those teens that decent people didn't use words like fudge–"
"I don't think we need to hear the details, Jonas," Dr. Malcolm interrupted.
"How are they finding out…I mean, if they are finding out and not just randomly targeting?" the Lutheran minister asked.
"I think I know," Jonas replied. Youth Pastor was a part-time job, and one that didn't pay very well. He also drove a cab. "I've seen them hanging around the coffee house where the Alliance meets. I mean, it's no secret when and where they meet…they put notices in the paper. But after about 9:00 PM, there's nothing open in that block except the coffee house, and no reason for anyone to be hanging around. But I've seen them. The men, only. Never the women. I think they're following people home from the meetings."
"Have you told anyone?"
"Yeah, I told the police, and they said they'd keep an eye out."
"Gentlemen, something about what you've said strikes me as…frightening," the Unitarian pastor said. "From what we've heard, they're interested in an altar boy; a communicants' class; and a youth picnic. They seem to be targeting children."
The room was silent for several very long moments as the council digested this information. It was Jonas who spoke first. "We have to do something…and I need to get back to the police."
"If a man lie with a man as with a woman, let him be put to death," the Prophet thundered. His voice carried easily over the quiet of the pedestrian mall in the old downtown. He had started out with a battery-powered megaphone, but had immediately run afoul of the city's noise ordinance. His voice, alone, was nearly loud enough to pass the legal level, and when his followers began chanting, "God hates queers," the noise hit 120 decibels, well over the limit.
The manager of the bank stood outside with a security guard, a city policeman, and a young customer: Patrick O'Donnell. "Can't do anything," the policeman said. "The ordinance applies only to 'electrically or electronically produced or amplified sound.' "
"Leave it to me," Patrick said. His voice was confident. Since he'd come out at the organizational meeting of the LGBT Alliance, Patrick had grown and matured. At sixteen, he was the first junior to be elected Drum Major of the high school band. He served as altar boy at the Anglican Church, where neither the priest nor the congregants were worried about his sexual orientation.
The bus had been painted white, and bore a portrait of a man: pink skin, blonde hair and beard, blue eyes, a purple robe. His arms were raised with his palms held upward. The legend read, "Behold, I am come to judge the world." When the light struck the side of the bus at just the proper angle, the name of a national bus company was visible under the paint.
The bus parked a block behind the pedestrian mall. Its occupants–women in gingham dresses, white aprons, and hair nets; men in khaki pants and Polo-style shirts–walked to the mall. All wore Latin crosses suspended from chains around their necks, and all carried Bibles. Only one man, the one who walked in the fore, wore a green shirt.
The group formed two ranks against the blank wall of a corner store; the man in the green shirt stood in front facing the street, and opened his mouth. Before he could speak, the crisp sound of a snare drum rolled through the mall. A trumpet fanfare echoed off the storefronts, and the high school Pep Band followed Patrick around the corner.
Jacksonville High School was just big enough to field a double-A team, and just good enough to win the state championship about once every three years for as long as anyone could remember. Nearly everyone who owned, shopped, or worked in the stores on the mall was a student or graduate. The trumpet fanfare was followed by John Phillip Sousa's, "The Thunderer," the official song of the football team.
The man in the green shirt gestured to his people, and they began to walk toward the far end of the mall. Patrick gave them a few steps head start, and then led the band on their heels. Green Shirt looked for a policeman, but the only one he saw was clapping his hands to the beat of the music, and waving to the band as it passed.
"You can't get the Pep Band out every time," Paul said. He, Larry, Patrick, and most of the Pep Band were in the back room of the coffee house. Some of the members of the Pep Band were a little uncomfortable, but the lesson of Toby's funeral had spread through the school. Uncomfortable, maybe; intolerant? Not so much, any more. Paul thought.
"No, but they're not the only people who will help. Brenda's going to bring the Cheer Squad out next Saturday. Besides, we don't want them to be able to file a complaint, which they could if we were out all the time," Larry said.
"That's your daddy talking, right?" Patrick asked. Larry's father was a lawyer.
"You look funny, Daddy!" Carla Santos pointed at her father and giggled. "Papa, tell him he looks funny!"
Sam Davis picked up his daughter and swung her in a circle, eliciting more giggles. "He is not funny, kiddo. Being a mime is a very serious business."
Despite his mocking words, Sam could not quite stifle a laugh when he looked at Owen in loose black pants that ended above his ankles; black and white striped shirt; black, pork-pie hat with a rose in the band; and white gloves. White makeup covered his face except for a spot of red on each cheek. Carla heard her papa's laugh, and giggled again. "Daddy! Papa's laughing at you!"
Owen took his daughter from Sam and hugged her. "It's okay, sweetheart. Daddy's supposed to look funny."
Beth and Carla sat in the ice cream shop, two blocks away from the spot the prophet and his flock were expected. Carla knew, even at five years old, that her family was different, and that most little girls didn't have both a daddy and a papa. Owen and Sam were not, however, prepared to explain to her the hate and vitriol that the prophet spouted.
The prophet and the sheep arrived at 10:00 AM, as expected. The men and women stood in two ranks with their backs to the bank building, as expected. The prophet faced them and opened his Bible to Leviticus 20:13, as expected. He began his sermon with the words of that verse, as expected. The group was, if anything, predictable.
"If a man lie with a man," the prophet began. "…as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall be put to death." The instant the prophet's first word rang out, Owen stepped around the corner with a walk that Charlie Chaplin had made famous. The prophet didn't have a chance. Owen stood beside him and copied his every move, but with a flourish and exaggeration that parodied the prophet's patterned style. At first, the prophet only cast sidelong glances at Owen, and frowned. Owen did not copy this, but reacted with exaggerated expressions of shock and chagrin.
It took a surprisingly short time for a crowd to gather. The prophet quickly realized that the people were watching Owen, and paying no attention to him. He changed his message, and began preaching the ways of Satan. "Beware Satan, for he is the mocker!"
Owen knew the words were addressed to him. His movements conveyed at first fright, and then scorn. The prophet turned and raised his Bible as if to strike Owen. Again, Owen reacted in fear. He fell to the ground and raised his arms as if to protect himself. The crowd booed. The prophet turned back to his flock and gestured. In two files, like good little marionettes, they walked away. Owen stood and bowed; the crowd, led by Lucy and Tiff, applauded.
What about First James 4, Verse 7, "…Resist the devil and he will flee from you."? Is this man's faith so shallow? Patrick shook his head. Over 600 sins are defined in the Bible. This man has chosen one to condemn. Why this one? What is it about homosexuality that causes so much hate? The boy joined the crowd of people congratulating Owen, who mimed his thanks, never breaking character.
"He says that homosexuality is an abomination," Patrick said. "But that puts it on the same level as water polluted by dead fish." Patrick and Stephen, Tony and Joe, and Paul and Larry had squeezed into one of the booths at the coffee house.
"Ewww. That's nasty." Joe said.
"Huh? Water…?" Tony asked.
"Yeah," Patrick said. "It's in Exodus. The plagues upon Egypt? When the rivers were turned to blood and the fish died so that the water became polluted, and they couldn't drink from the rivers? It's the same word…polluted water and abomination. Yeah, rivers full of dead fish…that's pretty nasty, but you don't go around demonizing people for that."
"Never thought of it, that way," Paul said. "But it has a certain logic."
"Just a certain logic?" Larry asked.
"Anything that cannot be eaten or accepted as a burnt offering? Like bacon, or a pork roast? That's an abomination." Patrick giggled. "And the Egyptian custom of sharing a meal with a foreigner? That was an abomination, too."
"So, being gay is like having a stranger over to dinner? Or eating sausage?" Stephen asked.
"Yep. That's about it."
"Hmm. I'll have to think about that. Sausage, huh?" Stephen looked at Patrick.
Patrick cuffed him. And grinned.
The Evangelicals and Pentecostals had long ago dropped out of the Ecumenical Council. The reasons given were vague: schedule conflicts; much too busy, thank you; nothing of interest on the agenda this month. The men and women who remained in the Council were leaders of main-stream denominations known for conservative beliefs; however, those beliefs were too liberal for the fundamentalists. It was an open secret that the fundamentalists were aligned with the Oklahoma "God hates queers" group. They publicly endorsed the group's views, and privately, secretly, supported them.
Jonas, Methodist Youth Pastor and part-time taxi driver, was certainly the most liberal of the attendees at the Ecumenical Council meeting. His training and ordination had been at a small Bible college in Berkley, California, one where Christian gospel and the Hindu Veda shared space on the library shelves with Jain texts and the sayings of Confucius. He addressed the group.
"They've taken one sin from all those in the Bible, and made it their focus, their mantra. They preach death to homosexuals. Not just that it's an abomination, but that homosexuals should be put to death. If anyone stood on the street corner and said that blind people should be put to death, or people of color should be put to death, or people with red hair should be put to death, they'd be charged with a crime. Put on the mantle of the church, and apparently you can incite murder with impunity.
"But ask them when's the last time they put an adulterer to death (Leviticus 20:10) or why it was better for Lot to offer to let the crowd around his house rape his daughters than sodomize the two men who had come to his house (Genesis 19, 1–8)?
"Ask that self-styled prophet when's the last time he's sacrificed an unblemished young bullock to atone for his sin (Leviticus 4:3), or does he not sin?
"Ask if after each child was born, did the mother bring a lamb and a pigeon to the temple to be sacrificed, and to atone for her blood sin (Leviticus 12:8).
"Ask if their women are isolated from all contact for seven days each menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15:19), and if each woman makes a sin offering of a pigeon or turtledove at the end of each cycle (Leviticus 15:29)?"
Jonas shook his head. "I know. That's Old Testament–Old Covenant stuff. But," he looked from person to person, "ask them if love thy neighbor doesn't trump all of the Old Covenant commandments."
"Thank you, Jonas," Dr. Malcolm said. "Father Stewart, Reverend Pressley, and I have talked about this, and we are in agreement. I'd like to put it to the assembly, however.
"Our theology holds that homosexual behavior is sinful; we generally agree, however, that sexual orientation is not sinful, nor that it is a choice or a lifestyle. In that, we differ greatly from our more fundamental brethren. I am not prepared to say if God makes people gay or if it's a genetic or chemical thing–that is, something that follows from the natural laws He has ordained. I am prepared, however, to give them the benefit of the doubt; another way I differ from some others.
"I know I'm sticking my neck out, but I've discussed this with the Session, and they have agreed to support me. Martin?" He turned to the Anglican Priest.
"Thank you, Jim." Father Stewart stood. "You know that the vestry agreed to support Patrick, one of our altar boys who is a self-professed homosexual. The congregation has been very supportive, as well. Of course," he paused and chuckled. "We are the most liberal church in Wyoming.
"In any case, I want you to know that I support what Reverend Pressley is about to propose. John?"
The Methodist minister stood. "Ladies and gentlemen, I propose that we appoint Brother Jonas as an official liaison to the gay community of Jacksonville, Wyoming, to let them know of our support for them as Children of God, and our understanding of their situation. I propose that we eschew the notion, so often expressed that it has become a platitude, Love the sinner; hate the sin. I do not propose that we discard the notion that homosexual behavior is sinful. However, I do propose that we push it back to the Old Testament, where it belongs–with apologies to the Apostle Paul who was in all likelihood gay, himself–and focus on that part of the Great Commandment that says love thy neighbor."
The motion carried unanimously.
That Larry was startled when Brother Jonas introduced himself before the next meeting of the LGBT Alliance would have been an understatement. That Larry was astounded when he learned of Jonas's mission would have been an even greater understatement. I thought it was perfectly logical. I knew Dr. Malcolm; he had been a neighbor before our house burned, and he and I had some frank and interesting conversations over backyard barbeques. I'd met Father Stewart, the Anglican Priest; he and Dad were members of one of the men's clubs. When Dad was on the board, they'd met at our house. I didn't know the Methodist, Reverend Pressley, but I read his column in the paper every week. I didn't agree with his theology, but his philosophy was, in the words of Andy, the Australian exchange student, "spot on." (Did I mention that Andy was gay, and that he and Larry and I had spent a couple of exceptionally fun nights together before he hooked up with Kevin? It's not something that Larry and I would normally do, but he was so lonely…and cute…that we made an exception. Larry and I learned a lot from the experience, and I don't mean technique. We learned that sex could be just for fun, and that we loved each other so much that…well, it was okay to have a third in the bed.)
Back to the meeting. Larry opened it, as usual, and asked if anyone wanted to introduce himself or herself. Jonas stood up, and gave a speech. He was a little nervous, but I was probably the only one who noticed. Everyone else was too surprised, I guess. He said who he was, and that as a Youth Pastor, he was always the subject of scrutiny. I took what he said in shorthand…something Dad insisted I learn…so here it is:
"I'm married, and have two kids of my own. And you probably know that doesn't mean a dog-gone thing.
"I'm an ordained minister of Christ. And you probably know that doesn't mean a dog-gone thing.
"I knew when I accepted the commission of the Ecumenical Council that it would raise eyebrows, and questions. Well, I don't care what others think. My pastor trusts me to be the Youth Pastor; the parents in the congregation trust me to be the Youth Pastor. And my wife trusts me not to have an affair with a child. Frankly, that's all I care about.
"I hope my blunt talk hasn't turned anyone off.
"Here's why I'm here. The J'ville Ecumenical Council, which includes the traditional Protestant denominations, the Catholic and Anglican Churches, and the Shinto Fellowship, have appointed me a liaison to the J'Ville gay community.
"I told them that I wasn't entirely happy with that label: gay community. But, like it or not, that's the label that the LGBT Alliance has. So, I'm the official liaison to you. If you'll have me.
"I bring a message from the Council. It's this: the Great Commandment, Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy mind, and all thy soul, and love thy neighbor as thyself, is the governing commandment. Anything that interferes with that is to be pushed aside in its favor.
"I know that I cannot demand your trust, but I ask your acceptance and that you give me a chance to earn your trust. Will you do that?"
Larry looked at me. I could see help me! written on his face. Only Nixon could go to China, I thought. I stood.
"Mr. President, a point of personal privilege?"
Larry nodded. He knew I'd practically memorized Robert's Rules of Order. What he didn't know was that I was abusing my knowledge to flim-flam him. I told him later, and he pouted, and then kissed me, so I guess it was worth it.
"Mr. President, at our first meeting, it was announced that we were the most inclusive organization in J'Ville. Personally, I welcome Reverend Jonas, and I ask you all to do so."
Larry didn't ask for a vote, which was smart. He thanked me, and he thanked Jonas, and went on to the reading of the minutes of the last meeting. He is a very clever boy, even though he doesn't always think so.
"You know I'm going to have to spend Thanksgiving with my folks," Larry whispered. He lay beside Paul, propped up on his elbow while his fingers gently traced lines and curves on Paul's tummy. Paul had detumesced after his orgasm, but Larry knew that with patience he could bring him to another erection.
"Why are you whispering?" Paul asked. His breath caught for an instant when Larry touched an especially sensitive spot.
" 'Cause we'll not be together for almost a week. Mom's sister is coming to visit, and she'll get my room. I'll be bunking with Reggie. At least I won't have to sleep on the floor. We'll build him a pillow fort in the corner, and he'll think it's an adventure." Larry's fingers moved across Paul's pubis to his inner thighs. Paul began to stiffen.
"That just means Saturday will be even better," Paul said.
"Sunday," Larry said. "Aunt Lib isn't leaving until Sunday morning … ummmm." Paul gasped as Larry's lips replaced his fingers.
Images flashed through Larry's mind. They sprang up, but were gone before he could grasp them. Villagers with torches marched on Frankenstein's castle. Bearded Bolsheviks in stovepipe hats threw cartoon bombs. Someone yelled, "The peasants are revolting!" and a man in horn-rimmed glasses, waggling a cigar and black, bushy eyebrows, answered, "They certainly are."
An airplane crashed into the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and another fell short of the Sydney Opera House. An impossibly bright light, and then a mushroom cloud, rose from what had been the Dome of the Rock and before that, Solomon's Temple. An child eagerly reached for candy offered by a soldier before crying "God is great," and detonating twenty pounds of C4, blowing himself and the soldier to oblivion.
A soldier pissed on a holy book, while the book's owner, naked and shackled, watched helplessly. A black man twitched at the end of a rope before his sphincters relaxed, spilling the contents of his bowels and bladder onto the ground. Scenes of terrorism, savagery, barbarism flashed and jerked through the boy's mind–images from a kinescope operated by a madman.
Larry gasped, woke, tried to sit up, and immediately regretted it. He hurt. He moaned and felt his dry tongue stick to a parched mouth. He tried to open his eyes, but could not. He tried to scream. He could not do that, either.
A voice, muffled and hard to understand; a pressure on his left hand; something wet, but not water, at his lips. The voice, the hand, the wet were soothing. Larry relaxed and concentrated on the voice.
"…beaten, systematically … inflict … pain without … permanent damage … ruptured … hyper-extended…" Larry felt movement at his right ear, and the voice became clear. "You've been unconscious for two weeks: a medically induced coma. You're on a morphine drip, now. Your eyes are okay; they were just swollen around the orbits. I'm going to remove the bandage…" The voice changed in tenor. "Would you turn off the lights, please?" The hand holding Larry's went away.
"Open your eye, slo–"
Before the voice could finish that sentence, Larry's left eye snapped open. He saw, dimly, a man in a white coat. The doctor. he felt pressure on his left hand. "How do you feel, Little Buddy?" Larry almost fainted in his relief. The voice was Paul's.
"Wha–" he croaked.
"Wait–you haven't–" Paul held up a cup with a flexible straw. The doctor nodded. "Just a sip!"
"What happened?" Larry managed, after drinking.
"They broke into your house," Paul said. "Held your parents and Reggie at gunpoint and took you. Don't you remember?"
Larry started to shake his head, and then thought better. "No…school…the science fair…lifting body design…"
"That was three months ago!" Paul's voice was anguished.
"Take it easy, young man." That was the doctor's voice. "You promised you'd not upset him.
"Larry, both the beating you received, and the coma we kept you in, could cause some temporary short-term memory loss. Please don't worry about it–either of you."
The doctor had removed the last of Larry's bandages. His parents and little brother had come and gone. A nurse brought a tray with Jell-O, a few saltine crackers, and weak green tea. Larry had tried to eat, but after two bites, was too exhausted to lift his arm. Paul held a spoon and coaxed him.
"Come on, you've got to eat–and you've got to drink lots of fluids. They took out your catheter before you woke up. They won't release you until you can piss by yourself."
"I had a catheter? Oh, shit."
"Um, you haven't done that in two weeks, either. Now come on…"
"Paul! Wake up!" Larry said to the figure snoring in the chair. "I've got to piss."
"Humph," Paul snorted. "I'll call the nurse–a bedpan…"
Larry slapped Paul's hand away from the call button. "I will not piss in a bedpan. Help me…please?"
"Okay, but be quiet."
The hospital johnny only got in the way; Larry shrugged his arms, and it fell to the floor. He gasped when the harsh florescent lights of the bathroom showed his body. His skin, everywhere, even on the tops of his feet, was mottled black, purple, and green. "They gave you shots…heparin…a blood thinner…to keep your lungs from filling with clots," Paul said.
"Who did this? Why?" Larry whispered.
"Who is that hate group from Oklahoma who came into town six months ago and set up in the old shopping center. Problem is, everybody knows it was them, but no one can prove it. Why? You know why."
Larry had pissed, and crawled back into bed before he answered. "Yeah, I know why. Because they and their god hate queers, and ever since that magazine article, I've been the poster boy for…"
Paul gently squeezed his friend's hand.
"Sounds like you're blaming yourself, Larry," he said. "Or the magazine guy."
"No, not me or him, even though he didn't say who he was, and took that picture with his cell phone…
"We knew it was going to be tough," Larry continued.
"But not this tough," Paul said. "You could have died!"
"You don't want to quit, do you?" Larry asked.
"I asked first," Larry said. He smiled for the first time since he'd awakened.
"Hell, no," Paul said. "I just think we need a new strategy. The dogs of war. 'Let slip the dogs of war,' " Paul quoted Mark Anthony. "Demos and Phobos; Fear and Panic. We must make them fear us…"
"You can't sink to their level," Larry said.
"Don't worry, Little Buddy, I'm going to keep us on the moral high ground…with a little help."
"County Health Department, sir." The man in the blue jumpsuit held up a credentials case.
"This is a House of Worship. We follow the Law of God. The laws of man do not apply, here." A man in khaki pants; a green Polo-style shirt; a heavy, silver, Latin cross; and expensive looking loafers tried to close the door of the storefront church.
The man in the jumpsuit put his foot in front of the door. He now stood at an impolite closeness to Khaki-Pants. "Yes, sir, they do. I am empowered and required to enter these premises to conduct an inspection. You see that car?" He pointed to a bronze and black sedan parked across the street. The letters, "Sheriff" and numbers, "911" were clearly visible. "They'll wait for me, or they'll come in with me. It's your choice."
Khaki-Pants compressed his lips until they were a white line against a pale face. "Very well. Come in. We have cameras and microphones in every public room, so don't think about throwing down rat feces, or whatever else you've got in your pocket."
Jumpsuit reached for the walkie-talkie microphone clipped to his shoulder. "I need you guys," he said. "Bring the camera."
Even if Jumpsuit had rat turds in his pocket, he wouldn't have needed them: cockroach scat was easy to find. Of course, if he'd looked closely enough, he could have found insect droppings in any building in town. The deputy who operated the video camera couldn't get pictures of the children–not after Khaki-Pants objected–but he did make a careful count.
Jumpsuit handed a citation to Khaki-Pants. "You have five business days to correct these violations. You are subject to re-inspection without notice any time after that, and other no-notice inspections at the discretion of the Health Department. If you have questions, there's a phone number on the citation. Thank you for your cooperation." He could have ordered the building vacated, but that wasn't the objective. At least, not yet.
Once back in the bronze and black car, the deputy with the camera popped out the memory card and handed it to the Auxiliary Deputy who sat in the back seat. "Thank you," Paul said. "Thanks a lot, guys."
"City Department of Revenue, sir. I have a complaint that you're selling books and other items but not paying sales tax, and that you don't have a business license."
The man in the khaki pants sputtered. "This is a House of God…a church…we're not required to pay taxes, and we are not a business!"
"Sir, I see your sign, but you're not registered with the state department of revenue…do you have a letter exempting you from sales and use tax?"
"City School Board, Truant Officer." The woman wore a tailored pantsuit–and cross-trainers. She had chased down more than one youngster and dragged him by the collar into her car. She held out a credentials case that included a badge.
The woman who had answered the door smiled, and then wiped her hands on the apron she wore over a gingham dress. "Oh, my. All our children are home-schooled." She pushed the door to close it.
Pants-suit held up her hand. "They and the parents who are teaching them still have to be registered, and the curriculum has to be approved. I have all the forms, here."
"Oh, my," Gingham said, again. "I'll have to get someone. If you'll wait…"
Pants-suit stepped past Gingham. "Thanks. I will."
Gingham was too flustered to say anything; besides, it was too late to ask the officer to wait outside.
"You let an outsider into Sanctuary, and left him alone?"
"It's a her, Prophet, and she got past me before–"
The prophet–a man in khaki pants and a green, Polo-style shirt, and wearing a heavy, silver, Latin cross–brushed off the woman's protest. "I'll deal with you, later."
The woman gasped, and watched the man walk away.
"Why this sudden interest on the part of the School Board?" the prophet asked the truant officer. "We've been here for six months.
"It was only recently we had credible reports that children were living here," she replied. "I'll need to speak with each child of school age–in the presence of a parent or guardian, of course. I'll need to see birth certificates. I'll need a copy of the curriculum, including a list of books. I'll need to speak with each parent who is serving as a teacher and see his or her credentials and school transcripts. And, I'll need a place to work–a room with a table and chairs. I've already notified my office I'll be here for a while."
It was more than a while: it was nearly dark before she finished. "You're missing three birth certificates. You have ten business days to bring certified copies to the School Board office. The address is on my card. Your curriculum is not one that has been approved in this state. By law, we owe you an answer whether we'll approve it in ten business days. If we disapprove it, you have five days to adopt a standard, home-school curriculum. Two of your teaching parents claim schooling they can't document. You have ten business days to bring certified copies of transcripts to the office. If you fail to complete any of these actions, the children must be enrolled in public school or a licensed private school.
"You are subject to no-notice inspections which may include class monitoring no more than two times per month."
She could have required the children immediately be put in public school, but that wasn't the objective of her visit.
By 7:00 PM, she had traded the cross-trainers for sandals, and sat sipping tea while her daughter, Lucy, read poetry into a microphone at the coffee house. Paul sat beside her. "I didn't see smoke detector one," she said. "And they are definitely cooking in there."
"Thanks, Beth. I think we're ready for the next step."
"Fire Marshall, sir. Annual inspection."
"But this is a House of Worship…"
"Sir, it's a commercially-zoned building, and the law mandates an annual fire inspection."
"You have twenty-four hours to install working smoke detectors at the locations I indicated. You have twenty-four hours to have fire extinguishers in place. You may not operate the stove until a fire-suppressant hood with non-reversible fans is installed.
"I will return tomorrow to inspect the smoke detectors and extinguishers. You are subject to no-notice inspections at any time. If you have questions, you may send them to the Fire Chief. His address is here."
Paul's cell phone rang. Private number. He answered.
"They failed the inspection," the voice said. "You were right: no smoke detectors and no extinguishers. They didn't have a suppression system in the kitchen, either. I didn't see any children, but I heard them."
"Thank you, sir. I'll take it, from here."
The short school bus was escorted by four city police cars and six sheriff's vehicles. The officers had been carefully briefed. "This isn't the Branch Davidians, but they're a cult. You know what they did to Auxiliary Deputy Larry Bowen, so you know what they're capable of. You know of their hostility toward outsiders, and the reception they have given legal representatives of our government. Our mission is to protect the children. We know there are seven of school age–from six to twelve years old. We know there are others, and that at least some are babies." The Chief of Police didn't mention that the information about babies had come from two baggers and a checker at the discount grocery store, people who'd carefully monitored what the women in gingham dresses and white aprons bought. He didn't mention that neither the baggers nor the checker were members of the LGBT Alliance. It was enough that they had friends who were.
"We have no indication they're suicidal or that they would harm their own children. We have a warrant, and we're going to serve it. However, we will otherwise treat this as we would a drug raid: the building will be surrounded." He continued to describe the plan.
"Child Protective Services," the man in the brown business suit said. He held up a credentials case. It was probably unnecessary because he was flanked by uniformed law enforcement officers. In the parking lot, the lights of police and sheriff's cars flashed red, blue, and actinic white. "I have a warrant to search these premises and remove any child under the age of majority, placing said children in protective custody to remove them from a situation of known and imminent danger."
"Oh, my," the woman in the gingham dress said. "Prophet will not be pleased."
"Tomorrow," the prophet said, "we will send the children home. They are a distraction, and they provide an opening through which the agents of Satan reach into our community and attack us.
"I had thought that our mission here was only to destroy these queers who are bold to flaunt themselves before the world. It seems that Satan has taken a deeper hold, and we must dig in for this battle."
The fire marshal and the police chief met with the judge. "You're sure of all this?" the judge asked.
"Your Honor, we've been watching them. They haven't bought smoke detectors or fire extinguishers. They've not filed for tax exempt status, and they don't have a business license. They're living in a property not zoned for residential use. The sheriff has an eviction notice: they're behind on their rent."
The raid on their worship service, their eviction from the old discount store that had been their headquarters, and the refusal of anyone else in the town to rent space to them, was enough. The prophet and his flock, some twenty five adults, boarded their bus to return to Oklahoma.
The prophet stood in the aisle of the bus, exhorting his flock. "We will return with the Army of God. We will destroy this infestation that threatens the sanctity of this world. We will…"
The driver was distracted by the prophet's words and didn't realize the bus was veering toward the shoulder on which a gasoline tanker had parked. The fire that followed the collision melted flesh to metal. The first motorist to reach the scene watched helplessly as flames consumed the bus. "That must be hotter than the fires of Hell," he said to his wife. He had no idea how wrong he was.