n recumbent dignity, Kemuel's Funeral Home sprawled across a wide hedge-bordered lawn near the hospital where Hillier's body had been rushed when it was believed he might still be saved. The hedges slightly disguised the fact that the main feature of the grounds was not the improbable evenness of the lawn's trim, but the wide white arc of a driveway in front and an asphalt parking area in back. The clapboard sides of the building were painted a brilliant and reassuring white and tastefully set off by neatly planted and tended borders of shrubs and flowers. The peaked roof was the same sedate dark color one associates with homburg hats, and if the chimney that decorated one end of that roof gave a person thoughts of a rather jaunty brick-red hatband feather, it seemed not so much an affront to the structure's gravity as a rather welcome, human touch. The impression, overall, was of a mansion of gentry. Just forget about the notorious transience of its residents.
At noon of a mild spring day, Gifford parked his car and walked around to the front of Kemuel's, not quite certain why but with a gnawing and growing suspicion it was guilt. His fondness for Hillier was as small as his trust of him, but the circumstances of Hillier's death -- well, circumstances like that had a way of gnawing at the back of a man's conscience until all at once they loomed with a false and bullying importance to loom over more significant things. Gifford didn't want that. He was here not to salve his conscience but to spare it delusions.
A woman seated at the desk in the lobby looked up at him. She was stout, middle-aged, terribly well-groomed in a conservative beige suit, very tasteful yet unobtrusive. Her smile was that of someone accustomed to reassuring the grieved. Gifford told her who he had come to see.
"He's in parlor three," she said getting up to show him the way.
Her walk down the hall combined briskness and quiet consideration: she was ready to soothe the slightest outburst of emotion. Gifford couldn't muster any.
She stopped at a set of double doors plainly marked with a brass plaque and favored Gifford with her reassuring smile. Gifford thanked her, reaching for the door handle.
Suddenly something happened to the smile: it flickered, not vanishing exactly, but fading out momentarily, then quickly in again. With hesitation she said, "Oh, excuse me but --"
"Yes?" Gifford said.
"Do you happen to be a relative?"
"A business acquaintance. Why?"
She seemed embarrassed. "Really, it's --"
"If there's anything I can do," Gifford said, prompting.
"It's just that, well," she said, stumbling over her words. She cleared her throat and tried again, like someone letting curiosity overcome good judgment. "It's just that I was going over the paperwork on Mr. Hillier and there seem to be some peculiarities."
"Is there some problem with payment?"
"I don't think there is. I mean, I can't really be sure. We don't seem to have been able to contact the next of kin and there doesn't seem to have been any insurance, but there does seem to have been payment of some sort."
"I'm afraid I don't know anything about his insurance arrangements, but as far as I know there aren't any relatives. I wasn't really that close."
She gave an embarrassed laugh. "I shouldn't have bothered you with it, except it all seems so peculiar. Most people who come in here either have everything worked out or nothing, but it's always so cut and dried. This one -- well, there was money but there wasn't any record of where it came from." She smiled a deeper smile and tried to cover her embarrassment with a joke. "People so seldom pay with cash, I suppose we get paranoid about it. I'm sure it's nothing but a clerical error of some sort."
She turned and marched back to her desk, leaving Gifford alone with the double doors and his puzzlement. He could open one, but the other one stood dauntingly where it was.
Entering the parlor he found himself wondering once more why he had come, but a single glance around provided the answer. Biff Potter, his melancholy eyes gazing into the hoariest unfocused depths of space, sat dejectedly on a sofa at the side of the room.
Gifford paused by the door to sign his name in the guest book. His was only the second signature on the page. All of Tommy Hillier's friends come to see him off and only one of them sincere. He turned and walked over to the sofa and as he did so, Potter raised his head to look at him.
He smiled a smile that seemed both pleased and a little surprised, and tried to move to make room on the couch for Gifford -- despite the fact that there was plenty of room; he was already pushed as far into the corner as he could go. Gifford sat down and said, "How're you holding up, Biff?"
"It's good to see you, Mr. Gifford." He reached out awkwardly to shake hands. "I'm glad you came. Poor old Tommy. Not a lot of people been by here to say goodbye to him."
"It's early yet."
"Yeah, I suppose it is." Again he sprawled against the corner of the couch and gazed across light years of filled emptiness. "He was my friend. I guess he was about the only real friend I got left in this business, Mr. Gifford. Poor old Tommy."
"Yes," said Gifford, lacking any other wisdom.
"I can't believe he's dead, even. I guess I will in time, but I sure can't believe it yet, not a man like old Tommy." He sat up and tore his gaze from the distance to look directly in Gifford's eyes. "Have you heard what they're saying about him?"
"They say he killed himself."
Unable to return the intensity of Potter's gaze, Gifford stared at his own clasped hands.
Potter said, "They're wrong, Mr. Gifford. Not old Tommy. Not him."
"We don't always know what goes on in other people's minds, Biff." It had the empty ring of the sort of piously self-serving pronouncements he had heard so often from the uncaringly religious.
Potter's eyes had refocused on the distance. "Hell, Mr. Gifford. Sometimes we do. Tommy and I been together a long time. We knew each other pretty good. He was a lot of things and I know what kinds of things they were, but he was my friend, too. I know all about him. I know him well enough to know he wouldn't have no reason to go and jump out a high window."
Gifford said, "I guess I should pay my respects," and stood up.
The coffin was closed, of course. Hillier had been four stories up. But for all Gifford could tell, the coffin might be empty: just a polished lid with a wreath-like arrangement of white flowers draped over it.
"I can imagine him in there," Biff said, beside him. "Can't you?"
Gifford nodded and made the effort. Thin features, sparse colorless hair combed in that boyish way across the forehead, mouth askew in an expression that just failed at being a sneer. Hillier would be dressed in his dark pinstripe suit with one of those awful garish ties he favored.
What the hell was Tommy Hillier doing in this expensive place? He was a man whose style of living was maintained by his skill at being just that single step ahead of his creditors. By this time, at least a dozen of those creditors should be lined up at his lawyer's office for the reading of the will.
"There just wasn't any reason for him to," Biff Potter said. "Take his own life, I mean. Hell, he had reasons not to take his own life."
"He wasn't perfect, Mr. Gifford, I'm not saying he was perfect. Just that he was my friend, no matter what else, and I know how his mind worked. Well, sure, he skimmed some, and he surely did love that fast buck, and always had some kind of angle working."
"That's no argument, Biff. It just suggests he probably got himself in so deep he couldn't see any other way out."
"Timmy? He was always in too deep. He lived too deep. But that man never got so tangled up in one scheme that he didn't believe a second scheme would get him out of the first mess. Men like Tommy don't just give up."
Biff returned to the sofa, leaving Gifford standing.
There was a feeling of mystery piling upon mystery, and Gifford hate it. It was silly, ridiculous. You could understand any of it if you just took the time to figure it out.
Take for example the reason Hillier was brought to the hospital across the street and not where emergency cases were normally taken, downtown. When the paramedics reached Hillier, who miraculously was still alive, it made more sense to get him to the nearest hospital. He was dead when he got there (a mercy, surely, considering his injuries didn't permit the opening of the coffin), but that only added strength to their argument.
As for this place, despite its expense, it was still the closest funeral home to the hospital Hillier was taken too. Was it unreasonable that his body be brought here? And if the arrangements seemed somehow unusual, that was merely an illusion because the attendant had explained it herself. It was a clerical error.
Even swindlers as unrealistic about their lives as Hillier was sooner or later could see things catching up with them. If Biff Potter had heard Hillier's phone conversation yesterday, he'd realize how desperate the man was.
I only wish, Gifford told himself, that I'd realized it.
But it was too late now and there was nothing to be gained in dwelling on it. It was more important that these things could be reasoned out, explained and understood.
Or most of it.
The clause in Biff's contract?
He had seen that clause but no one else had. He saw it again after Lauren's failure.
But there was even an explanation for that. It was called hallucination.
But that wasn't the explanation he wanted.
Not knowing what he wanted, he turned away from the covered casket and walked over to the sofa. "I have to get back to the office," he told Biff. "I'll give you a call."
"I'll probably be right here," he said. Then, as Gifford started off, "Thank you, Mr. Gifford. For coming here, I mean. It means a lot to me."
Gifford nodded and moved to the door, not looking back. The room was too empty.
The woman he had talked to was seated at her desk, catching up on paperwork. The hall was otherwise empty. There did not seem to be a brisk trade in death today. She looked up as Gifford approached her desk.
"About Mr. Hillier," he said. "If there's been some sort of mix-up, maybe I can --"
"Oh, sir, I'm so terribly sorry I disturbed you with that. Do you know what it all really was? A filing error. A silly filing error. I just looked in another folder and there it was, the papers I couldn't find before. Can you image that? The arrangements are all taken care of."
"Oh, well, that's great."
"And you'd never believe just who took care of them. That's the amazing part. The truly wonderful part. I really shouldn't tell --" She paused and Gifford thought for a moment she would giggle, but she did not. "Oh," she continued. "I'm sure he won't mind. After all, Dr. Royce and --"
"Royce? Harry Putnam Royce?"
"That's right. But that's not the most exciting part. He's sharing the expenses with the man who'll be conducting the services. And it's just the most famous evangelist in the world, Linwood Calderon himself."
t was a modest cemetery. It occupied a small unwanted patch of land in a less important corner of town, but it was still well-cared-for and up-to-date, all the headstones tasteful bronze plaques flush with the ground where they wouldn't inconvenience the groundskeeper on his riding mower.
Under a canvas awning, a neat oblong was dug in the ground, a dark-red mound of dirt piled beside it. Above the hole, a coffin waiting to be lowered in, rested on a metal scaffold. The turf at the edge of the grave was so neatly cut it might have been done by surgeons. The people stood around that impressively precise dig, under the awning and spilling out at the edges onto the sun washed grass. There were not a lot of mourners at Tommy Hillier's funeral, but the presence of the always newsworthy Reverend Linwood Calderon insured a number of reporters.
And maybe that wasn't all that bad, thought Martin Gifford. Reporters might not be the most respectful of people, but at least they had enough humanity to be careful how they spelled your name.
The Rev. Calderon, the founder and guiding spirit behind MUAC, sat in a folding chair and held an expensive but worn white Bible on his lap. His athletic frame was covered by a pearl-gray three piece suit of expensive make; his firm, strong jaw jutted above a Countess Mara tie. Designer sun glasses concealed his eyes. To his left sat Harry Putnam Royce and Biff Potter. Neither wore a suit as well tailored as Calderon's, nor a Countess Mara tie. On occasions such as this, Royce favored Brooks Brothers. It didn't matter with Biff. Dress him in anything and ten minutes later it would have that Goodwill look.
But Royce did sport an expensive pair of sunglasses. Biff squinted, even in the shade.
Gifford sat patiently in the third row behind a cluster of expectant reporters. After a time the tape recorded music stopped and Calderon got to his feet.
" 'Be not forgetful,'" he began, " 'to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.' My friends, the circumstances of my being here have brought home to me the meaning of that verse. And I tell you now there may be more unexpected angels among us than we guess."
In the moment if silence that followed, Martin Gifford heard the voice of Harry Putnam Royce proclaim, "Amen."
When the services were finished, while the reporters were testing the waters of quotable remarks from Calderon or Royce, and while the workmen discretely disposed of their mound of conspicuous red clay, Gifford walked slowly away from the gravesite, marveling at the day. On a day such as this, if they were burying him, he'd decline. It was too nice to be indoors, much less to be expected to lie still and quiet while indifferent workers dropped clots of earth down on top of him.
He saw Lauren Justus standing by his car.
He hadn't known she'd intended to come. It was a further puzzlement that she should be here by his car instead of at the grave. He nodded and said, "Hello," making no effort to keep his bafflement out of his voice.
"How are you holding up, Martin?"
"I'm fine, of course."
"Is that why you're here, Lauren? You're worried about me?"
"You're feeling guilty."
"I couldn't agree more." She flashed a smile, small and warm, and looked up the hill toward the workmen, busy with their shovels. "And Biff? Is he all right?"
"I wish I knew how to tell."
He saw Potter and Royce standing together, close to Calderon, listening. He wondered what they might be hearing.
"What about him?" Lauren asked, her tone abruptly harder. "The reverend, I mean."
"I take it you don't think highly of him."
"I think as highly of him as you do, Martin."
"I haven't any opinion about the man one way or another."
"Have an opinion? You? Never in a million years."
"All I know is what I read in the papers. He's never done anything to me."
"How democratic of you. Let's not form a hasty judgment, let's not take any risks. Besides, maybe the trouble will go away if we don't look at it. When did you join that club, Martin?"
"What the hell has he ever done to you?" he asked, sharply.
"A lot," she said with feeling. She paused, then said, "How do you really feel about what the man does?"
"Maybe I don't like all his methods --"
"You mean the surgical use of the boycott."
"He does some good in other areas."
"I love it. Nobody in television likes boycotts, Martin. But there aren't six people in the industry who'll stand up against one that even looks like it might be effective -- unless it threatens them directly."
"Me included, I suppose."
"Well, what do you think?"
He was rescued from having to answer that by the sound of Dr. Harry Putnam Royce calling his name. "You have any plans this evening?" the Great Man asked.
"Not really. Why?"
"Reverend Calderon's asked for the five dollar tour of the station. Wants me to personally give it to him. But he wants to talk to both of us, afterward. It's business. He wants me to ask if you'd like to attend his crusade this evening."
"Well, Harry . . ."
"Now, it isn't that, Martin. You know I'd never interfere in your personal life. It's all business. He wants to talk with us after the services."
"What sort of business could he have with a station as small as Channel 73?"
"Seventy-three won't always be small," said Royce. "You're seeing to that. It would be a feather in our cap if we aired his television program in this market on our station, though."
"He's got a syndicator to take care of that sort of thing," Gifford said.
"Besides," Lauren said, "I thought Channel 73 was trying to get out of the televised Bible school business."
"It might be more than that," Royce said. "He wants to see how we're set up for production."
"He's got a pretty good production unit of his own," Gifford said. "In California, somewhere."
"Martin, I've been talking us up," the Chiropractor King said. "And I have to tell you, Linwood Calderon's impressed. He thinks Atlanta might be a pretty good place to move his headquarters. And he likes you."
"He's never even met me."
"Well, he will tonight. But he's heard about you and he likes what he's heard. You got a good solid reputation, Martin. Why do you think I hired you? That's the sort of thing I look for in people to work for me. It's why I trust you to run the station for me, to make the decisions in my place. You sure don't see me letting anyone take over my clinics the way I let you take over my television station."
Gifford knew his employer's moods well enough to know the futility of pointing out how unlikely all this was. Royce smelled money -- and more, he smelled power. Royce's wife had once told Gifford of her fear during the period when so many Elvis Presley impersonators were using plastic surgery to make themselves over into carbon copies of the rock singer, that Royce would have himself reconstructed into a double of Colonel Tom Parker. She had said it at a party, jokingly, but Gifford was aware of the kernel of truth behind it. Royce saw himself gaining power behind the throne of Calderon's empire.
And no matter how preposterous that was, Royce's grandiloquent self-image would never allow him to dismiss the possibility entirely.
So Gifford said, "I guess tonight we'll see how eager Calderon is to close down his own plant and move to good old Channel 73 then."
"It's in the bag," Royce said, and walked off.
Calderon stood near Royce's car, chatting with the religious editor of one of the local papers. Gifford turned to Lauren and smiled.
"The trouble with good old Harry," he said, "is he doesn't understand why George Lucas doesn't beg Channel 73 to do special effects for his movies."
"That attitude's made him rich," Lauren pointed out.
"Come on. Surely you don't really believe there's anything to all that."
"If I know Calderon, I'll lay odds that's just what he intends to do."
"But you don't know him."
Her sea-green eyes gave Gifford a smile, and her lips almost joined in. She said, "Why don't you see if Biff needs a ride."
"All the cars are gone but yours and mine and Royce's. I'll see you back at the station."
He found Biff Potter still standing in the shadow of the awning over Hillier's grave. His hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his brown, wrinkled pants. The wind tousled his thinning hair and his seamed, ruddy face wore a melancholy look as he watched the workmen finishing their job. Gifford said, "How'd you get here, Biff?"
"Cab," he said. He added, apologetically, "Hell, that clunker of mine's tore up again. Transmission. They promised it'd be done by tomorrow but it'll cost a fortune."
"I'll give you a lift home."
"That's not on your way, Mr. Gifford. Hell, I came by cab and I can leave by cab."
"Nonsense, I want to," Gifford said. "You need money for your car repairs?"
"Oh, I'll be just . . ." He hesitated. "Well, if you're sure it won't be any trouble. . ."
"Believe me, I'm sure."
A mound of red Georgia clay rested above Tommy Hillier's coffin. One of the workmen tapped it with the back of his shovel. Biff Potter watched dejectedly a moment longer, then turned away. Side by side the two men walked down the hill. Halfway to the road, Biff stopped and glanced back. "When we're gone," he said as if it were a fresh realization, "he'll be alone and forgotten."
The words that sprang by reflex to the tip of Gifford's tongue were nothing more than platitudes and he killed them with silence. Biff said, "It's a hell of a thing, Mr. Gifford. The world goes on all these millions of years but we've only got a handful of them to share. Then we get shoved back into the shadows we came out of. Hell." He shook his head sadly and started toward the road again so abruptly Gifford was almost left standing.
As he caught up with him, he heard Biff say, "Guess I'll be like old Tommy soon enough." They walked the rest of the way in silence.
ot unpredictably, when Gifford asked if she would go with him to Calderon's crusade, Lauren's excuse not to was so thin he couldn't recall it afterward. The crusade had taken over a football stadium. One end of the field contained a stage so large it accommodated not only a large orchestra but a choir of seventy members. Both musicians and singers wore robes of the same glistening white in which the podium and other decorations of the stage were painted. The speakers, however, wore suits of gray or blue, conservative but not too dark, expensive but not intimidating in their trendiness. The man who actually handled the services was Bobby Trundell, his young trustworthy face abeam as he addressed the audience in a joyously soft spoken voice. On their television broadcasts, Calderon always referred to Trundell as his associate. He introduced guests who offered their stories or songs of faith. He himself sung solo and led the audience in hymns with a mellow, exultant voice. He gave sincere pleas for donations to the crusade, "So that the work of the Lord might be carried on." He was the promise of what one could become with a profession of faith, and emphasized the fact with frequent references to the sinner he had been, once upon a time. He seemed hardly old enough to have been alive 'once upon a time.' When the moment came for him to introduce Calderon, his words were spoken with such warmth and conviction Gifford couldn't help but feel that some of the audience might be given the impression they were witnessing the Second Coming.
As the choir sang, "Nearer My God to Thee," Calderon walked out for the first time on that shining, temporary stage. The audience went wild, rose to its collective feet and clapped its collective hands. It roared a roar with its collective lungs. The cameras spaced around the stage jockeyed for position. Calderon stood at the edge, beside the speaker's podium and smiled. He waved. The dark glasses were gone, replaced by lens only slightly tinted to reduce the glare of the television lights. How earnest he looked, his coal black hair gleaming like patent leather. His suit was a lighter gray than the one he wore to Hillier's funeral; it was almost white. Its cut accentuated the warmth and strength and manliness of Linwood Calderon.
The hymn ended but not the applause. Calderon, with a practiced, humble smile, shook his head and moved behind the podium, grasping its sides firmly on his hands and leaning forward as a signal to the audience he was ready to begin.
Still they applauded.
Gifford could see Royce, in the front row to one side. Biff Potter sat next to him. Or, to be precise, stood at this moment because both men were on their feet, applauding; Royce with the same abandon as the rest of the audience, Biff with mere politeness.
Calderon lifted his arms, hands held with the palms out as a signal for silence. The audience hushed, punctuating their sudden silence with coughs and rustlings as they reclaimed their seats,
His sermon was brief, delivered in his familiar, emphatic style, with those hypnotic gestures he did so well. Hitler had gestured like that; and, in justice, so had Winston Churchill and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as well as every other great orator since the world began. But had any man before Linwood Calderon possessed a voice so grand, so ringing? Listening to the alchemy of that voice working on the leaden banalities of that speech, Gifford could not believe so.
When it was over, and Calderon sat in his chair and asked the sinners to come forward and dedicate their lives to Christ; after the saved sinners came and knelt and gave their names and addresses to the caring and solicitous young clerks; after the choir raised its voice to one last anthem; after an exultant audience carried its transcendent inspiration like a banner into the ripening night: when it was over, Gifford moved down toward Royce and Biff.
Halfway there, maneuvering his way downstream against the surging current of the congregation, Gifford felt a tug on his sleeve.
Looking down he saw a small, overweight man possessed of a round face with large, worried eyes. Only a few strands of hair, very dark, were left on top of his head. These were plastered back against his scalp and combed toward his right ear. He said, "You're Martin Gifford, aren't you?"
"Yes. Have we met?"
"Oh no. No. But we got a mutual friend. That is, had. Here."
He shoved a yellowing card into Gifford's hand.
The small man looked nervously around and said, "I'll be at that address all night. It's an office, but I'll be there. You come see me. It's important. Real important."
"You mean tonight?"
"I'm sorry, but that's just not possible. If you'd care to call my office and set up an appointment --"
But the man ignored him and turned. He disappeared into the crowd.
Gifford stared after him in amazement. Then, for the first time he looked at the card. The name on it was Angel Cussler, the man Tommy Hillier had identified as his adviser.