Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 18

      The Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III pulled off his socks and put his bare feet on the glass and chrome coffee table. He brought the socks to his nose, deeply inhaling the acrid smell that repulsed him. Then he threw the socks across the room. One landed in his open briefcase, the other fell behind a stuffed chair and wouldn't be found until the carpet was cleaned, an event which, considering the rates the hotel charged, should by all rights have occurred more often than it did.

     The room was a standard issue Marriott Presidential Suite; the appointments were Jimmy Carter, the size Grover Cleveland. The curtains were drawn and the television was droning, his two assistants were sitting on the bed in the master bedroom counting and wrapping great big piles of money. Life was good for the Quite Reverend.

     Martinsville had been profitable, but so was nearly everywhere he preached. It was a rare town that could resist his fiery orations, and when one was uncovered it was marked for eternity on a map in his office at the television studio complex by a fire engine red map pin in the shape of the devil's pitchfork. Many a person sat in the chair facing the Quite Reverend's desk and asked about the unique map pins.

     "They mark Satan's cities," he would tell them, "where the people resist the workings of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. They've closed their eyes to their sins and shut their ears to the very words that will save them. They are Sodom and Gomorrah reincarnate and they will pay dearly—and for all eternity—for their sinful ways."

     "So you have targeted them for special treatment?" each would ask.

     "Yes," the Quite Reverend would say with an inflection and facial expression that left no room for further discussion, which was the way it had to remain since the map pins didn't, in fact, indicate he was concentrating his efforts there, but rather that his revival meetings would forever steer clear of those towns, unprofitability never having been one of the ministry's goals.

     He sat in the hotel room, his eyes closed, the sound of the television numbing his mind. Tonight had been good. Tomorrow would be good. Then it was on to a new town to spread the word and pass the collection plate. The world was divided into sinners and savers, with the sinners far outnumbering the savers. Thanks to the Quite Reverend's chosen line of work, this suited him just fine. Yes, salvation was a full-time job.

     "And when we return, the Case of the Cosmic Capers continues," the newscaster said, his smirk freezing as they cut to a commercial for a dog food with "the taste of two pounds of liver in a ten ounce can." 

     The Quite Reverend picked up the remote, flipping through the channels with brief stops on Gilligan's Island, Stranger In A Strange Gland: A Voyage Through Your Lymphatic System, the Three Stooges, and a wrestling match featuring Dirty Dennis the Doctor of Doom, who until recently had been on the road as Dr. Dennis Dugan the traveling evangelist.

     He turned off the TV and walked into the bedroom. Canvas bags full of wrapped coins and neatly strapped stacks of paper money covered the bed. "I'm bushed," he said to his two assistants, "are you guys just about done?"

     "Everything's wrapped and counted," one of them said.

     "Give us a minute to clean off the bed and it's all yours," the other said.

     "That won't be necessary," the Quite Reverend said as he flopped down on the bed amidst stacks of money. "I've made my bed, now I guess I'll just have to lie in it."

     * * * * * *

     "The two new crimes bring the total of unsolved robberies to five," the newscaster continued, unaware and unconcerned that the Quite Reverend had turned the TV off. "Police have yet to discover any pattern to the burglaries, yet as investigating officer Milo Jenkins told us this afternoon..."

     The police officer’s face filled the screen, flushed by the unfamiliarity of the TV camera pointed at his face. "W-w-w-we have n-n-n-no reason to be...to b...to believe that anyone is in d-d-d-danger from this perpetrator. So far n-n-n......n-n-n...no one has been hurt in any way. Everyone should stay calm."

     Jenkins' stammering debut on network television was an experience the police officer would find memorable, not for his short-lived notoriety, but rather because from that day on his fellow cops—never ones to cut anyone any slack—would refer to him as M-M-Milo.

     * * * * * *

     As Hanner unfolded the newspaper, it was impossible to miss the stories about the weekend's break-ins, even for someone whose bangs hung down over her eyes.

     The front page headline screamed:

Serial robber strikes twice
     Beneath it were two side-by-side articles, the left one sub-titled Menuless customers whine, not dine, while the right was labeled Sacramental sacrilege causes Mass confusion.    

     Both articles were continued on page four, where they were accompanied by a sidebar about an assistant professor of psychology at the local junior college who put together a psychological profile of the robber.  According to her description, the person the police should be looking for would be a "rebellious white male in his mid- to late thirties who had lost both of his parents at an early age, perhaps in a car accident or fire, and had been married—most likely while very young—and divorced, very possibly several times." He would, it continued, "be unable to hold down a job for any length of time, although he is of above average intelligence, is well educated, and may be employed in an executive capacity." She said nothing about a sense of humor.

     * * * * * *

     On his way upstairs Rubber Boots picked up the newspaper which sat on the first landing. No matter who brought it in the house each evening, it was mandatory that the newspaper be folded in half and placed on the landing. Once having read the newspaper, it was to be folded in half and put back on the landing, making sure to keep the sections in order. Jackson Robert would have been proud of them.

     Rubber Boots threw his school books on the small, cluttered desk in his bedroom and plopped on the bed. He fluffed up the pillows, leaned back, and opened the paper. He'd read the front-page articles about the robberies before dinner and, since he had an early study hall the next day during which to do his homework, had plenty of time to search the rest of the newspaper while his parents presumed he was studying.

     He thumbed through the first section and, not finding any more stories, went back and reread the front-page articles, scouring them for details he might have missed on the first go around. He leafed through the second section, then opened the paper to the editorial page hoping for a juicy Letter to the Editor about the break-ins. Instead he found this:

Take these crimes, please

     In this age of constant hyperbole and pitifully little rhetorical restraint, any act or person considered to be even slightly above average becomes super, that which is microscopically smaller than the norm earns the ubiquitous prefix mini, and God forbid we should have to denote more than merely super, we can always attach an ultra.

     In this age of constant hyperbole and pitifully little rhetorical restraint, any act or person considered to be even slightly above average becomes super, that which is microscopically smaller than the norm earns the ubiquitous prefix mini, and God forbid we should have to denote more than merely super, we can always attach an ultra.

Take these crimes, please

     In this age of constant hyperbole and pitifully little rhetorical restraint, any act or person considered to be even slightly above average becomes super, that which is microscopically smaller than the norm earns the ubiquitous prefix mini, and God forbid we should have to denote more than merely super, we can always attach an ultra.

     While such practices inevitably result in the dilution of a word's meaning, leaving a mere skeleton of its former connotation as a petrified fossil for future generations, once in a while a turn of a phrase occurs that creates a linguistic Phoenix rising from the ashes of syntactical bombardment.

     Senseless crimes. We hear the phrase constantly. The way television newscasters throw it around, you’d think every crime is senseless, and in a way that’s true.

     We plead guilty of overusing the phrase on these very pages from time to time, though we try to reserve it for brutal crimes which defy the imagination, crimes which are completely devoid of meaning and purpose, like random killings, multiple rapes, or gang violence.

     Yet the recent spate of robberies brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase, for not only are these crimes meaningless and purposeless, they are, in the true meaning of the word, senseless.

     A robber steals to make money. A car thief gets transportation. Yet what gain is there in stealing paper bags, clothes hangers, display materials, menus, or sacramental wafers and wine? It is truly without sense.

     Because of the brutality of the usual senseless crime, the police are quick to assign the manpower and money necessary to apprehend the culprit. Yet it appears that since the police find the current string of robberies so completely senseless—and victimless—they’re in no hurry to solve them.

     But are these crimes truly victimless? The owners of the violated businesses have lost property, sales, and goodwill. The public has been inconvenienced. And in the case of the church robbery, the congregation had to contend with blatant sacrilege and blasphemy.

     It doesn't end there either, for while the businesses will undoubtedly collect from their insurance companies, they’ll end up paying increased insurance rates and will pass the higher cost on to you in the form of increased prices.

     Yet the police appear to be no closer to solving these crimes than they were after the first one. In fact, reports have circulated that police investigators are having difficulty taking these crimes seriously.

     But serious they are. A crime is a crime, no matter how senseless or humorous some wrong-thinking law enforcement officials think it is. For if it is indeed a joke, the joke is on them.

     They would be good to remember the words of George Orwell, who said, "The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded." 

     Rubber Boots' eyes lit up as he read the last line of the editorial. He wasn't sure he understood it, but it sure sounded like it hit the crimes right on the head. He picked up the newspaper, made sure the sections were in order, and folded it in half. As he walked heavily down the stairs—it was, after all, the only way he knew how—his father called out from the living room.

     "Does anyone happen to know where the newspaper is?"

     Rubber Boots quietly placed the paper on the landing as he continued down the stairs and into the front hall. "It's on the stairs like always," he said.

     "I just bet it is," his father said. "I thought you were doing your homework."

     "I was," Rubber Boots said, "but I have to call Jet to, uh, find out about our English assignment."

     What he really wanted was to make sure Jet had seen the editorial. Actually, he could skip the editorial—which as usual was a rambling, pseudo-erudite diatribe—as long as he read the last line. Rubber Boots was convinced this added fuel to his theory that Johnny was the culprit, since he could think of no one who personified being a joke or being degraded more than Johnny.

     Rubber Boots picked up the phone and dialed Jet's number. The line was busy.

     * * * * * *

     "Who is it?" Erta asked Jet.

     "Jem Marconi."

     "What does she want?'

     "To talk to you."

     "Don't be smart," she admonished.

     "I can't help it, I was born that way."

     Erta walked into the front hallway and sat at the small telephone table.

     "Hello?"

     "Erta?"

     "Jem."

     "How are you, dear?"

     "Just fine, and you?"

     "If I was any better it'd be a mortal sin," Jem said. "And probably illegal to boot. How're Jackson Robert and the children?"

     "Same old same old," Erta said. "What's new with you?"

     "Not much to speak of, 'cept there's something I need to talk to you about." Jem began ominously. "Have you been as worried about these robberies as I have? I mean, we've lived here for...how long have you been here, anyway?"

     "Thirteen."

     "Thirteen years for you and—let's see—ten for me. It's been a nice quiet place to live and bring up our children, you know? Heck, do you realize I never even locked the back door of the house until last week?"

     "I know what you mean," Erta said. "The boys want to go out and play after dinner and I just don't think it’s a good idea. But I can't keep them locked up in the house. After all, they're growing boys."

     "They shouldn't be the ones who are locked up," Jem said, "that robber is.  And what do the police have to show for it? Nothing."

     "The news says they're following every lead."

     "They've been doing that for weeks," Jem said. "Hell, they could have interviewed everyone in the damned city by now."

     "You don’t think the police are taking it very seriously, do you?"

     "No. And if they're not going to take it seriously, maybe we should."

     "What can we do?" Erta asked. "If the police can't catch him, I don't see how we can."

     "Of course we can't catch them, but we can let the city know we're not happy."

     "Should we call the police and complain?"

     "That won’t do any good. They'd probably just tell us they're working as fast as they can and  they're not allowed to discuss it with the public."

     "Well, we could write letters to the editor," Erta said. "I bet that would get their attention."

     "It would," Jem replied thoughtfully, "but how do we let the TV and radio people in on it? You can't write a letter to the editor at a TV station." She took Erta’s silence as a cue to continue. "There has to be a way we can get everyone's attention all at once. Let them know that it's more than just two housewives who are upset over this. That it's the whole town."

     "Is it?"

     "What do you think?"

     "Well," Erta said, "I've got to admit, the robberies are the only thing anyone talks about anymore."

     "With all these people interested......" her voice trailed off. "You know, if there was some way we could get everyone together on this. Some way to unify everyone."

     "Like maybe a meeting," Erta said. "If we got everyone we know to come to a meeting, we could organize some sort of protest. They'd have to pay attention then."

     "You mean like a protest committee?"

     "Yeah," Erta said, liking the sound of it. "A protest committee."

     "When should we do it?"

     "I don't know," Erta said. "I don't know anything about these things."

     "What do you mean?" Jem said. "It was your brilliant idea, I'm sure you can do it."

     "I what?"

     "Let's have it tomorrow night."

     "I'm not so..."

     "How about your house?" Jem asked, almost rhetorically.

     "My house?" Erta said apprehensively. "I don't know if..."

     "It's centrally located and face it, everyone knows where you live."

     "What about..."

     "That is so nice of you to volunteer. You are the sweetest thing."

     "Well, I guess it'd be okay."

     "Great! Now why don’t you call everyone you can think of and I'll call everyone I can think of, and we'll talk tomorrow morning to see if we've missed anyone who should be there."

     "What time?"

     "Oh, I don't know," Jem said, "tenish, elevenish."

     "No, I mean what time should we have the meeting?"

     "Oh. How's seven o'clock sound?"

     "I guess that’s fine," Erta said.

     "Then seven o'clock at your house it is," Jem said, smiling to herself.  "Erta, you're a genius."

 

Chapter 19 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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