I left the Church as I left that church, the butt between my lips charring sense into my fresh-washed brain. I sucked a long drag back, the thorium and strontium and other lanthanides competing with the carbon monoxide and the tar for a piece of me.

Bastard.

A hot, nasty sun gazed down. I could feel the Big Man's eyes in its stare. It reached into my pores and yanked forth sweat, laughing at my discomfort and disillusionment. Looking back only once, I shaded my eyes and caught the last fierce glare of stained glass from the nave before I was around the corner and gone, still walking. Fucking bastard.

You try. You keep trying, what with all the shit that we have to put up with these days. That damn TV show. The whackos on that Internet thing. Priests, padres, who can't keep their mind on business and have to dip wick in little boys. Not like there wouldn't be plenty of time for that later if they'd just keep their fuckin' eyes on the ball. Not that one.

The butt was gone. I threw it down into the parched gutter and stared at it until I needed to breathe, blowing the last of its toxics into the windless Arizona air. Looking left and right didn't help. There wasn't anyone there, just the abandoned storefronts and homes sighing in the stillness. Occasionally the heat from the sun changing angle would draw a creak from some stressed joist somewhere. Not even a damn vulture. The only noise that came was a door hinge behind me, followed by the scraping of leather shoes. I didn't want to turn, but it was safer, so I did.

Father Oberon was walking towards me, wiping his brow with a kerchief. As he approached I made a show of lighting another cig, and as it flared in the dryness I lifted my chin to undo my collar of office. As he finally reached me, I threw the white cloth and celluloid down onto the sand in front of him. He looked at it, a moment, pensive, then looked up at me as I pulled hard on the cigarette.

"We don't want to lose you."

I exhaled in disgust. "Oh, to hell with that, padre. You don't want to lose my contact list, is all. No way I can even try to believe you fucks are serious anymore."

"Why do you say that?"

"Don't patronize me. You were there. My whole life, my life I' ve put into this thing. We all have. Shit, do you know how hard it is to not mention Elvis to anyone out there, especially when they're so plug-crazy about his old ass? 'Oh, Elvis? Yeah, I traded lunchboxes with him on the job last week. He's fine; he's on a diet, hopes to fit back into his sequins.' I mean, shit."

"You've always known the rules. You've always followed them. I don't see the conflict."

"That's precisely the fuckin' point, padre! I always did. I never asked. I always assumed that the Church would be constant on this, since it had sacrificed so much to the process over the past couple of hundred years. I just wanted to do my part. Elvis, Hoffa, Sagan, they just wanna do the same. They've gotten used to not being, these past few years. Me too, for that mattter, but I don't count, I'm field qual and they're not."

"So what happened?"

"You were there! After all that shit, He comes in, says great job, thanks, here's a small bonus, but I'm selling out to Starbucks, Microsoft and Nike, so why don't you run over to their head offices and brief 'em on our status and capabilities."

Shit. So here we are. Groundpounders again. We belong in flight. No, the Big J won't let us. Not only are our movements out in the open, but probably our peace and quiet as well. And Fuckin' Jesus told me to betray the conspiracy.


In case it isn't obvious, this is a Nodeshell rescue. Freelance.

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