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ISSUE:  Winter 1997

Lucas Warner had an urge to lock himself into the cramped lavatory and settle on the toilet for the duration of the flight. It was on account of his stepmother, Angie, sitting near the front of the plane. She should be back in Tampa: the doctor had said so, his sister Franny had said so, and ten minutes before boarding, even Lucas himself had made a final, futile effort to convince Angie. And since Angie Warner ought to be accompanied by a full-time nurse, and since she refused to allow Mrs. Hatcher to accompany them, Franny had insisted they share a suite so he could keep an eye on her. He didn’t protest half as much as he should have. For the rest of the week he was going to have to nurse her, even as he was supposed to be running things for the first time at the religious book convention. He breathed deeply and tried to stay calm. Fortunately Angie had fallen asleep right after the plane left the runway, so there had been no need for conversation. The first part of the trip had been a little bumpy and now that the overhead indicator lights showed it was safe to move around the cabin, Lucas made repeated, lingering trips to the bathroom, toured the front and the back of the half-filled airplane, read two different issues of Sports Illustrated, even drank a second Bloody Mary after the flight snack was served.

Back in his seat, with Angie still snoring softly next to him, he refocused on one of the Sports Illustrated magazines. Lucas hated goodbyes, but Angie treasured all the farewells, usually managed to turn them into splashy spectacles. Franny had brought her three children, Samantha and Andy and little Ray, and Angie had put off boarding until the door to the entry ramp was ready to be closed, all of them hugging and crying, while Lucas waited like an awkward manservant. At this year’s convention he was to deliver the keynote address to the Friendship House sales force. The event would mark his assumption of responsibilities as publisher-in-chief. The speech, specially typed in triple-space by his secretary, was in his briefcase, tucked carefully under the seat in front of him, but now he was afraid Angie would steal away whatever thunder that his carefully chosen words might have won by her mere presence at the convention.

The lights of Dallas and Fort Worth shone up magnificently on both sides as the plane finally banked and began its approach. Just the kind of magnificent vista that never failed to demonstrate the existence of God to Lucas. Angie scoffed at such sentiments, just as she had seemed slightly embarrassed to hear even a few words about the night at Calvary Church when he was reborn in the Lord. As though she were somehow disappointed that her step-son could indulge in the very subject matter of so many Friendship House books. And tonight Angie missed the whole glorious thing, stirring out of her sleep with a groan only when the jet rattled to a halt a few minutes later.

In the airport he found her a seat while he hurried his oversized frame to the luggage stiles, neatly circumventing two flower peddlers who, he later assured her, were Moonies. On the planes they had heard the Dallas heat that afternoon had reached a record-breaking 111 degrees, and even in the darkness it was still hot enough to make Lucas gasp as they stepped outside of the terminal. What little relaxation two Bloody Marys had supplied earlier had worn off by the time he’d hailed a cab and packed up all their luggage and scrunched up alongside her in the back seat. Perspiration still dripped off his chin in the air conditioned cab, but however uncomfortable it might seem to him, it would have to be all the more uncomfortable for Angie. He couldn’t even enjoy a moment or two of his own despair without weighing the insignificance of his own sufferings against his stepmother’s afflictions.

“You ought to take a nap,” he said in the taxi, and she smiled and shut her eyes. She was too stubborn for him even in her last days to give anything as easy as a straight answer at this point. She would sleep when she damn well wanted to sleep, and if he could force her somehow to lie down, then in a few minutes she would be back on her feet on her own terms.

The dark streets around the hotel were mostly empty of traffic. At the hotel desk inside, they were intercepted by one of Angle’s countless publishing acquaintances, a religious jobber from San Diego with an enormous bald head, and the two of them traded the latest industry gossip. She knew everyone in the business, had worked at Friendship House for 20 years before she finally married his father. As usual, Lucas stood in line while Angie worked the room, and after check-in, he gently pulled her away from a growing circle of well wishers and guided her upstairs. Lucas thought he saw some uncertainty in the bellboy’s quick glances, as though the young man was trying to figure out what had brought this odd couple together. They followed their bags into a spacious suite on the 32nd floor, well above the reach of a fire engine’s hook and ladder. Little Ray had warned him about staying in hotel rooms too high up. Of late the boy had seemed obsessed about safety. Since Angie’s illness, he kept pestering Lucas to quit smoking, as though he was suddenly afraid that his uncle would get sick just like his grandmother.

Once Angie had settled in, Lucas excused himself to go downstairs and pick up some toiletries in the hotel shop. More than shaving cream or razor blades, he wanted to be as far as possible from their hotel suite, and in the tiny shop off the lobby, he lingered for a long time over the strange assortment of postcards. By the time he’d returned upstairs, Angie’s door was closed. Lucas was relieved to be alone, and he sat down in front of a television and wrote postcards. He didn’t expect to have much time for postcards when the proceedings were underway. The television was on in the living room with the sound turned low, and the images lit up the table on which he wrote. He sent his favorite card, a picture of the plaza where Kennedy had been assassinated to his nephew. “This is only a few blocks from the hotel,” he wrote. Uncharacteristically, he was stuck for words. He thought about the conversation when his dying father asked him to work at Friendship House after he was gone. Lucas had nearly broken down and cried right in front of him. Of course before the end of the year the old man had left the business to his widow. He still woke up some mornings thinking that his father was still in charge of Friendship House. How could anyone take his place?

Yet it was almost eight years since he had slogged through the dark and rainy days after his father’s stroke. He had been finishing up his last year at the Military Institute when he’d gotten the news. With great ceremony, he’d worn full Institute attire to the wake and funeral. As always, he stood out in all the photographs, hovering like a spangled blimp behind the rest of the family.

He picked up his book of daily Bible meditations. Earlier on the plane, he hadn’t been able to concentrate on the day’s passage (a long quotation from Luke 18 on the need for humility) and alone in the quiet suite, he still wasn’t up to it. He felt a very specific urge to eat a hamburger and French fries and a chocolate milkshake. He studied his book. Not even six months since he had stepped forward to testify his sudden rebirth in the Lord in front of 500 strangers at Calvary Baptist Church on Hialeah Boulevard. It had been the strangest, most emotional day of his life. He remembered feeling slightly dizzy, even nauseous. Tiny sparks lit up his field of vision. The atmosphere in the aisles had been electric, and by the time he’d made his way to the front of the church a few steps ahead of two other members of the congregation, the clamor was incredible. From that point onward, the events had a distinctly dreamlike character. He’d been through it in his mind countless times. The preacher had handed him a microphone and there was no doubting that he’d been inspired, although he had no idea where any of the words had come from. People had responded to his sentences praising the Lord, and after just a few sentences, they began to fill in all the pauses with applause and hollers. And afterward everyone went out of their way to congratulate him, as though this unassuming fellow had surprised the entire congregation by the power of his testimony.

The great irony for Lucas was that nobody in his family gave any notice about the momentous event that had taken place. Weren’t they evangelical book publishers after all? Even his sister Franny, a gentle woman who regularly attended the more traditional Statler Road congregation and knew her Bible better than all of them put together, even Franny appeared unimpressed, at times almost embarrassed at the whole idea that her younger brother had been possessed by the spirit. Sometimes it seemed all of them were waiting for proof, and at this preposterous notion he had an urge to stand up and yell that this wasn’t how the spirit worked. You had to have faith!

He rose up from the chair and circled the carpeted room. The night skyline burned bright and sultry beyond the tall wall behind the hotel. Below, a solitary woman in a bright orange bathing suit was swimming laps like a tireless goldfish in the long pool that glowed up a piercing blue from the bright underwater spotlights. For a second he considered what he’d do if in the middle of one of those unvarying laps the lone swimmer began to struggle, then to sink into the depths of the pool. Who could know if the hotel operator would answer the phone or if rushing downstairs himself in final desperation, he could find his way out to the pool deck in time. He was still worrying about the swimmer in bed an hour later, but then the dream changed. By the time he had reached the pool and dived out into the icy blue water, the swimmer was not drowning and she was definitely swimming without clothes, and when he woke up later, dry-mouthed and sweating in the unfamiliar darkness of the rented room, he was ashamed at what he’d been feeling.

On his first morning in Dallas, Lucas found his stepmother waiting for him in the living room. She didn’t look very fragile or terminally ill as she sat there in the morning light. He would have liked to visit the exhibition hall once by himself, but stepping out of his bedroom he saw that was hardly a possibility. Something in his stepmother’s expression told him that today was going to be a long and difficult day. But Angie chatted easily through the breakfast that they ordered from room service. It was only later, when at Angie’s insistence they struggled across the plaza towards the Convention Hall, that the real morning business began.

“We’re going to have to take a taxi from now on,” he’d told her at the midpoint of what seemed hardly longer than a pair of football fields, and it seemed that he was saying it more for himself than the seemingly indestructible woman next to him. But they made it to the hall and a few steps past the door met their first surprise. Above one of the first booths was a replica A-bomb, half-size model of the “Big Boy” atomic weapon, and if it was tacky, Lucas didn’t doubt its effectiveness. He’d known that Allenton Books intended to go after the same end-of-the-world market that Friendship House had built up in recent years. Nancy Potter, vice-president of advertising, had warned him earlier in the week that their booth was going to dominate the floor, but the display was far more eye-catching than he’d expected.

“I don’t believe they let them put it that close to the doors,” Lucas whispered. “It looks like a dinosaur egg.”

“We’ve got to have a meeting. The entire group.”

“I’m sure the rest of them know about this and—”

“We’ll have the meeting before lunch,” she went on, with a look which said more clearly than words could: I am going to have to rise up from my death bed to rescue you.

They swiftly toured the rest of the floor, enroute to the Friendship booth, where they shook hands with a sales manager named Sammy Dove and settled behind the picture display.

Right from the start Angie took control. Lucas had been in charge of the physical arrangements, and it was obvious to him that their floor setup and the schedule of parties and meetings was no worse than previous years when Angie had been healthy. But he could see that she would never admit any of this. She immediately rearranged the booth and demanded a staff meeting.

There was nothing for Lucas to do but withdraw from the proceedings as best he could. Mid-morning, after the first round of meetings, he left the display area and proceeded to Laredo Bible Institute Press. He wanted to see Lucy Pollard. He’d seen a lot of Lucy at last year’s convention in Los Angeles, and if they hadn’t been the item that Eddie Bellows, another salesman, had claimed them to be, Lucas had surely been interested. He’d tried to start up a correspondence with her, and he still had her sole response, a postcard of the Joshua Tree desert, taped to his rolodex at work. Finding her behind the Laredo counter, he greeted her warmly, and when she seemed a little embarrassed, his face responded with its own, even fiercer blush.

“There’s someone I want you to meet, Lucas. Do you know Stewart Lassiter? He’s in charge of our subsidiary rights department. We’re engaged to be married in November.”

He could feel his face filling with even more blood as he smiled and shook hands with Lassiter. And what was even stranger was that he knew that he was acting as if there had actually been something more than just the mildest flirtation with Lucy.

“You must be very excited about the new Hal Conway book,” Stewart Lassiter said.

“It’s his best one yet, and we’re going all out with it. You’re both coming to the party tonight, I hope,” he said, knowing full well that Lucy had been invited and undoubtedly would be dragging her man along with her.

“How’s your mother?”

He almost corrected her. He disliked people calling Angie anything more intimate than a stepmother, even after many years, but everyone seemed to make the same mistake. “She hasn’t been well, but actually I think coming here has done her a world of good.”

A few more pleasantries, a promise to talk more at the party, and then Lucas fled back to the Friendship booth. A little later he lunched alone with Angie in the cafeteria. It was well past noon when they sat down, their first real chance to talk alone since the initial tour of the floor, and by this time the crowds had thinned out around the cafe tables. The hectic pace seemed to have finally reached his stepmother. She suffered several moments of intense discomfort as they were sitting at their table. He offered to escort her home, but she insisted she was going to return to the convention floor. And as sick as she was, he could tell she had something on her mind even before she spoke.

“I’ve been talking with Boyd, and from what he said, I think it’s best if you concentrate on editorial for the moment.”

“And who would be publisher?” he asked without missing a beat, as though he wasn’t a bit shocked by this sudden turn-around, as though he had expected to be humiliated just like this all along.

“I think Boyd can handle things for the time being.”

“Do you still want me to talk tomorrow?”

“Of course. Don’t sell yourself short. . . .” She was talking but his mind left the rest of what she was saying. For several seconds his whole body was hollow and he could hear that terrible hollowness resonating through his ears. The view outside the large wall-to-ceiling windows changed as well. His thoughts had floated free of his body right into the landscape: the patches of blinding light, the azalea bushes, the burnt grass. Then he was back at the table, and Angie was still talking. “Editing has always been what you’re best suited for. That was just how your father started out. . . .” He didn’t want to hear more. He dropped two bills to cover the food and tip and rose to his feet muttering how it was about just about time after all that they returned to the convention floor.

In his mind he furiously reviewed options that were no options. No point in calling Jed Carlin, his attorney. The will had been precise. Angie was in charge until her death, and thereafter Friendship House would be turned over to Lucas and the rest of the family. Later on, when he saw Angie briefly at the Friendship House booth, she didn’t even seem to hear him telling her that he had to go and meet with an author in the lobby. He was fighting against his anger, reminding himself of Angie’s terminal condition. Wasn’t he merely blaming Angie for his own failings? It wasn’t worth denying that very little in life had ever come easily for Lucas. They had called him “wide-load Warner” in grade school, and later on, “big daddy” at the military academy, and sure enough, he was no warrior, had never gone to battle, he had grown up instead into a born-again editor in his daddy’s publishing house and each day it seemed more certain that he would never be fully trusted to look after his own family’s publishing business.

For the rest of the afternoon he steered clear of Angie, telling himself she needed some quiet time by herself. He hid out among some of the tinier publishers parked along the edges of the convention floor, what he’d heard another publisher refer to as “white trash row.” One of the first familiar faces that he saw belonged to Emmitt Fairweather, publisher and owner of Fairweather Books. He was a fundamentalist from near Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Friendship House had bought the rights to two Bible study guides for young people that had never come close to earning back what Friendship House had paid for them. The white-haired old man seemed genuinely delighted to see him.

“Sit down, sit down,” he insisted. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

They talked about business for only a few minutes before Lucas lurched into an account of how his own life had been changed by the Holy Spirit since their last visit together, and this time he had a listener who seemed genuinely excited about what had happened to him.

“Praise the Lord,” the old man murmured at several appropriate junctures. Suddenly Emmitt Fairweather was weeping and holding his hand, and as wonderful as it was to be listened to so intently like this, Lucas began worrying that his new intimate friend was going to expect him to buy another reprint, and he was ashamed at this ungenerous thought, even as he saw Emmitt dry his eyes on his jacket sleeve and reach back and pull out galleys for the newest book Driving with Jesus, about an evangelical trucker and put the pages into his hands.

He kept off the main aisle and successfully avoided his stepmother right up until the reception and dinner in honor of Armageddon 2000by Hal Conway. Conway was one of the hottest writers in evangelical books—or at least the end-of-the-world genre epitomized by his latest book. Most of the work for the party had been assigned to Nancy Potter from Advertising, but Lucas had worked out every aspect of the event weeks ago in Tampa. He arrived early and for the first 20 minutes or so had been socializing merrily, most of it with Lori Conway, the author’s wife. She was stunning, and Lucas would have allowed that she was flirting with him. For a few moments the disasters of the day seemed far away.

Then a waiter fetched him. It was almost nine o’clock. Out in the foyer Angie sat waiting in a wheelchair.

“Are you sure you’re feeling up to this tonight? You looked mighty weak this afternoon,” he whispered. The sight of the wheelchair floored him. Up to now there had been nothing wrong with her legs or feet. And if she was dizzy or weak, then she should be in bed at the suite or in a hospital room. Or better: enroute home on the next non-stop flight east. But except for the wheelchair, she hardly looked ill. And her careful make-up, her platinum hair, the attractively snug dress told him she didn’t feel so ill.

“I’m going to need your help. They’re all expecting me.”

He didn’t argue. And sure enough, what had been the Conway book party was immediately transformed into Angie’s event, something like a bizarre valedictory and wake to the grand old dame of religious book publishing.

Almost immediately, Angie was drinking heavily, so that her voice took on the stark, larger-than-life edge of owner and publisher-in-chief. There seemed nothing fragile, even slightly mortal about Angie tonight. Not the slightest spell of discomfort, She looked positively radiant, dressed in a bright maroon silk dress, dominanting everyone’s talk, even Conway’s, who seemed to take the upstaging in stride.

“We have great faith that your book is going to be your biggest book yet,” she said in a way that seemed to indicate all too clearly that she had next to no faith in any author or book.

Or a few minutes later to Lucas but loud enough so that everyone could hear: “I’ve talked to Sam,” referring to the sales manager, “and I think that if I can get the sales force behind us, we can minimize the damage from the Allenton book.”

Lucas didn’t even try to answer her. He had the sales figures from Conway’s previous books; he had edited every word himself. Sam had been slapping him on the back for months, telling him how prepublication orders were at a record level, how his field people could hardly wait to get the book in the stores. He took the first opportunity to leave his seat next to the wheelchair and retreat to the sales table at the far end of the room. Only a quick stop to say hello to Lucy and Stewart. She had talked with his stepmother already, and the two lovebirds told him how lucky he was to have such a mother. Your mother’s an amazing woman, was of course what just about everyone greeted him with tonight, though actually the words next came from Wirt Raymonds, and Lucas had learned long ago how to roll with the punches as far as Angle’s social life was concerned. Over the years he had watched her flirt with one sales director after the next, and he didn’t doubt that she had slept with more than a few of them. Maybe even Wirt Raymonds.

He sat with the salesman, and dropped in and out of their conversation. He thought about his father. He always seemed to remember the old man when Angie was getting especially unbearable. It was harder to remember his mother on a night such as this, when he needed her memory. She had passed away when he was nine years old, long before Angie had risen from the lowly ranks of the typist pool and ascended right into the heart of their family and the publishing business.

Angie was of the vocal opinion that his father, her second husband had been a saint. A slight, prematurely bald man who was something of an elegant dresser, he’d certainly been a fine businessman. He’d built up the publishing house into one of the largest enterprises of its kind in the state of Florida. He found himself surprised, even slightly embarrassed by how Angie talked about him. She often had declared him a terrific dancer. He was sure she must have cheated on him a few times. Tonight Lucas couldn’t keep such accusatory thoughts from his mind. He pictured Angie cuckolding the old man and then Angie winning his forgiveness with superhuman displays of sorrow, all wailing and breast beating. “I’ll make it up to him, you’ll see,” she must have promised the bathroom mirror before returning to her husband’s bed. And no doubt his father had swallowed all offenses, again and again, for the sake of the family, for the sake of his Christian beliefs, for the sake of a few more, groaning climaxes in his marriage bed.

Most of the Friendship House entourage ended up at a high-priced nightclub in the hotel. There was more dancing and plenty of drinking, and Angie who had left the wheelchair behind was socializing everywhere. Didn’t she understand that the lights could go out at any moment? For her first dance, she insisted that Lucas dance with her. Lucas knew no steps of his own, but Angie was unarguably an excellent dancer and guided him gracefully around the floor.

“You know, hon, I am very proud of you and your sister.”

Without a word, Lucas kept swaying to the music.

“If I’d been blessed with children of my own, I couldn’t imagine having better kids than you or your sister.”

Neither of them said another word until the end of the dance. What could you say about a woman like this? She was dying, she had demoted and humiliated him, claimed to love him like a son, and without any doubt would upstage whatever was left of his trip to Dallas.

Lucas was drunk by the time he left. He was careful to leave the party without any farewells. He arranged to meet Wirt and Jed Stevens in the lobby. An expedition of salesmen had gathered to go to Chasers, one of the most famous honkey-tonks in Dallas.

“I’m going to get very drunk tonight,” Lucas told himself, and though he was already drunk, he knew ahead of time that he wasn’t about to get as drunk as he liked to think: but maybe drunk enough to forgive himself for all the contemptible thoughts that he’d conjured up about his dying stepmother and his dead father.

Despite the size and lavishness of its interior, Chasers was the kind of place that felt oddly familiar even on an initial visit. Lucas was following the salesmen, and once they’d settled at a table near the bar, he watched them work the floor or try out their two-step. It took no extra drinks tonight for Lucas to start socializing, and he found what he was looking for at the bar. Her name was Flora, dressed in a halter top and wearing a platinum wig. They bantered cheerfully through two drinks, and Lucas thought that maybe the alcohol had made him unaccountably charming right up until Flora cut to the chase and laid out the financial terms of her availability.

He only hesitated for a moment. Two hundred for the night sounded fine to Lucas on this particular evening. He even asked jokingly if he could put it on his charge card, but no, without levity in her voice, she answered this was cash business that had to be settled before the fun started.

He proudly waved his farewells to the boys and Flora drove him to her home through the dark Texas sprawl, so far away from both Chasers and downtown that it hardly seemed possible they were still in the same city.

“We still in Dallas or is this China?” he had to ask finally. “Dallas is a mighty big place,” was the answer, but Lucas had decided he’d hired a suburban hooker, with a voice like a Dixie Valley girl, and already he could hear himself embroidering this night’s adventure to the salesmen.

She pulled into a driveway fronting a ranch house with peeling white paint. Flora shared it with a flight attendant, claimed she was a flight attendant herself and only did this work on weekends and occasional week nights to pay off her mortgage. If it was not her only residence, there was no questioning its lived-in feel.

In fact, Flora barely seemed to acknowledge she was a prostitute. After they’d settled on a sofa and Lucas had paid for her services, she asked him: “Nothing wrong with a little sex between friends, is there?” speaking as though she were fulfilling some legal requirement or speaking for the benefit of hidden microphones, and Lucas nodded his agreement. Tonight he had no difficulty putting all his normal scruples far from his mind. He was no virgin but he certainly had never been with a prostitute before. With his eyes closed he was floating on top of a warm sea, feeling things unlike anything he had felt before. And afterward, despite all the unfamiliar surroundings, he submerged immediately into the deep slumber. It was only when he woke up in the dark light of the early morning, from the moment he nearly tripped over a tiny child’s tricycle behind the bedroom couch, that he started to repent properly for where he was and what he’d spent the night doing. In the half light before dawn Flora’s house looked authentically seedy. In the daylight she seemed as tired and disgusted with life as Lucas was. He felt an urge to ask Flora to kneel and pray with him, but before his remorse could result in anything embarrassing for both of them, she secured a taxi that was idling in the driveway even as he sipped a first cup of coffee.

Back at the hotel he walked slowly across the plaza. It was not yet seven o’clock, the sun was still low in the sky but still the heat had hardly let up. His stomach was queasy and he felt tired even as he remembered that today was the day he would address the sales force. He sat on the wide ledge of the plaza’s central fountain whose water had been turned off in an earlier stage of the dry season. He dreaded returning to his room. His stepmother would no doubt comment about his disappearance from the party even if she was hardly in a position to say anything about her stepson staying out all night long.

How she would ruin his speech! He could just picture her grand, ghoulish wheelchair entrance this afternoon. That in itself would win an ovation. As much as he tried to convince himself otherwise, Lucas was not at all certain that he could even deliver a speech under Angle’s withering eye. And still he couldn’t even hate her without hating himself: how can you hate a dying stepmother? His head felt like it would burst. Slowly he resumed his bleary-eyed march across the hotel lobby and into the elevator. A shower, a shave, a cup of coffee—he prayed these things would make him feel like himself, knowing full well that nothing could help him now.

Back in the suite, the blinds were drawn and all the lights were on, and he wondered what could have happened, wondered the almost inconceivable thought that his stepmother might have seduced some salesman even as she was dying and stayed out all night herself— wondered such thoughts all the way through the doorway where he caught sight of her on the bed.

There was not the slightest warmth in her fully dressed body. Her face was set in a peaceful smile. She might have felt a moment of fatigue, small wonder the way she’d been drinking, maybe she’d lay down, slipped from waking to sleep to death in one continuous, gentle progression.

He shut the door and sat on the chair across from her. After the initial feeling of panic subsided, he felt a deep, abiding calm, unlike anything he’d felt since they left Florida. Without her sharp voice contradicting his every thought, for a few moments he felt closer to Angie than he had felt in weeks. He no longer felt any ugly thoughts pushing their way to the front of his mind. He wouldn’t let himself think about the vile night he’d just finished with Flora. Blinking through his tears he dropped right down to his knees and began to pray.

The hardest part was keeping his composure, and every few minutes he told himself that all he had to do was stay calm. He worked his way through the crowded hall, stopped only to hug Lucy Pollard, talking and shaking hands the whole way. I’m doing this for you, he repeated under his breath as he weaved through the auditorium, the same words that he’d addressed to her body right before he’d left the room. And if in reality he wasn’t quite so sure whom he was doing it for anymore, for once he knew exactly what had to be done. The details of the whole business had been surprisingly simple. He’d placed Do Not Disturb signs on both the suite door and the door to Angie’s bedroom. He’d called down to the desk to hold all calls and then, just as he was leaving, had found the cleaning lady at the end of the hall and told her that one of the guests in room 3234 was ill and needed undisturbed rest.

“Where’s Angie?” asked Wirt, as Nancy Potter and Hal Conway had asked before him. Each answer delivered nearly verbatim. “She was feeling a bit faint, so she’s resting. If she feels up to it, she might come by later.” He wanted to tell them right away that she had died in her sleep, that she was finally at peace with her maker and Lucas was in charge of Friendship House Books, but the time for tears and for prayers would come soon enough.

The clock said it was only eleven-ten, but Lucas felt exhausted. These proceedings were supposed to start a little late, and this morning he didn’t mind waiting, not after what he’d been through. Just getting away from the hotel was an incredible relief. Except for a few minutes when he’d arranged things for his departure and answered two phone calls, he’d been in the hotel suite through the whole morning.

Nancy Potter stepped to the podium and the last of the salesmen found their seats. It suddenly occurred to Lucas that he had not brought along his text, but looking out at the faces of his audience, he understood that today he didn’t need a text. Applause echoed everywhere around them. He’d hardly heard a word that Nancy had uttered, but he saw her open-armed gesture, and he quickly strode past her to the podium microphone. Any second he expected the arrival of some messenger or official who would prevent his speech with news about Angie’s death. The humming of the public address system filled his bowed head. By sheer force of will he fought through all the dizziness that made the room appear to whirl wildly around him. It seemed perfectly fitting, even comforting to observe the air flashing like a pillar of flame at the upper edge of his vision. Far brighter than anything that had flared up in the church nave off Hialeah Boulevard. Then the moment of private prayer was over. Nothing was going to stop him now. He raised his arms and began to speak of the wonderful things to come for Friendship House books.


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