Nickie had bumped against the shed by accident when her foot slipped on a stone. She’d seen the boy’s face turned toward the window, and she’d dashed away, going up the hill toward town, running until she was sure no one was following her.
What she’d seen in the shed had given her a chill: the boy holding the snakes up in both hands and gazing at them so ardently, the snakes twisting in the dim air, their black tongues flicking in and out. She’d never seen a live snake before. Weren’t most snakes poisonous? Wouldn’t it be dangerous to have snakes in a place where there were little children? She felt a surge of excitement. This might truly be a trouble spot. She reminded herself of Mrs. Beeson’s words: A sense of wrongness. Sometimes you can justfeel it. The boy with the snakes definitely gave her a strange, creepy feeling. She walked faster. Mrs. Beeson would be home from church by now. She would go straight to her house. She had a lot to ask her about.
Mrs. Beeson’s doorbell had three bell-like notes—ting, ting, tong.After Nickie rang it, she waited nervously. Maybe you were supposed to have an appointment to talk to Mrs. Beeson.
But the door opened, and there she was. She had no hat on, but she was still in her church outfit, and she had her DATT phone clapped up against her ear. Sausage came trotting up behind her and sniffed at Nickie’s shoes.
“Just a sec, Ralph,” Mrs. Beeson said into the phone. She smiled at Nickie. “Come on in, honey,” she said. “I’ll be off the phone in a jiff.”
Nickie walked in. As she waited, she noticed again the round blue button pinned to Mrs. Beeson’s sweater. Whatwas that little picture on it? It seemed to be a tall, narrow building, like—Of course. It was a tower. And the Prophet’s name was Althea Tower.
“So Ralph,” Mrs. Beeson said into the phone, “you just have to trust me on this. We have to get everyone behind us, and if we need to use unusual measures, well, then we do. These are unusual times.” She paused. “I know, I know, but that’s what she said. I’m sure. Uh-huh. All right. See you later.” She set down her phone and turned to Nickie. “Come right in here,” she said, leading the way into the living room.
Nickie was curious to see if Mrs. Beeson’s house was as perfect on the inside as it was on the outside. It was. Mrs. Beeson had the coziest and neatest living room Nickie had ever seen. A fat white couch sat opposite fat blue armchairs. A coffee table held a plate of cookies and three books, neatly stacked, the top one black with gold letters on the front—probably a holy book of some sort. Three pictures hung on the walls: one was a beautiful scene of a mountain lake, one was a color photograph of Sausage, and one was a photograph of a freckle-faced young man in a soldier’s uniform. “My husband,” Mrs. Beeson said. “Killed twenty-two years ago in the Five Nation War, fighting against our enemies.” A vase of artificial roses stood on the mantel and next to it a box in the shape of a heart. There was no mess at all. No sweaters draped over chair backs, no flopped-open magazines, no shoes left on the floor. Nostuff scattered anywhere. It was just the opposite of Greenhaven.
A jingly tune was playing softly, but Nickie couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
“Mrs. Beeson,” she said. “I need to ask you about some things.”
“Very good!” said Mrs. Beeson. “Have a seat. Help yourself to a cookie.”
Nickie sat on the white couch. Mrs. Beeson was about to sit down across from her when suddenly a soft roar started up, and a little dome-shaped machine rolled into the room. Sausage skittered frantically and jumped onto Mrs. Beeson’s lap.
“Don’t mind the robot vacuum,” said Mrs. Beeson. “Just lift up your feet when it comes close. It makes Sausage a bit nervous, but I think it’s marvelous. I’ve programmed it to do the whole house every other day.”
Nickie watched, fascinated, as the vacuum trundled back and forth across the floor. “It’s cute,” she said. She took a cookie from the plate.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Mrs. Beeson. “I’ve found many of the new gadgets so helpful. Like my little DATT phone. It can take pictures, send e-mail, record TV, get instant news, identify poisonous substances, tell one fingerprint from another…all kinds of useful things. Now if it could just detect wrongdoing!” said Mrs. Beeson, laughing. “What a help that would be.” She scratched Sausage’s ears. “So. You have something to ask me?”
“Yes, I do.” Nickie set down her half-eaten cookie and told Mrs. Beeson about the old shed and the boy with the snakes twining around his arms. “I wasn’t sure if he would count as a sinner or not.”
“Snakes?” said Mrs. Beeson. She lifted a foot as the robot vacuum rolled beside her chair. “Where was this?”
Nickie told her.
“Interesting,” said Mrs. Beeson. “I’ve been reading a great deal of spiritual literature these last months, and I haven’t come across one good word about snakes.”
“Some other things, too, I wondered about,” Nickie said. “Spitting on the sidewalk, and pulling a cat’s tail, and smoking. I wasn’t sure about the cat or the smoking. It was a little boy hurting the cat, and some teenagers in the park smoking.” Mrs. Beeson nodded, frowning. “And some people were yelling in a house on Trillium Street,” Nickie went on. “It sounded like a bad fight, but I didn’t hear what it was about.”
“What address?” Mrs. Beeson asked.
Nickie described the house.“And,” she said, suddenly inspired, “you know that man Hoyt McCoy?”
Mrs. Beeson leaned forward. The vacuum had moved on to another room now, so she set Sausage back down on the floor. “Yes? What about him?”
“When I passed his house,” Nickie said, “I kind of peeked up the drive, and I saw strange shadows. Like black ghosts or something, hovering around outside. It made me feel creepy.”
“Um-hmmm,” said Mrs. Beeson. “Very interesting indeed.”
“I know it was bad to spy,” Nickie said. “And bad to eavesdrop, and to look in the window at the boy with the snakes. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but—”
Mrs. Beeson held up a hand. She looked Nickie straight in the eye. For a moment she didn’t speak, and Nickie heard again the jingly tune that the noise of the vacuum had covered up. “You did well,” Mrs. Beeson said. Her voice was solemn. “Listen, honey. I want you to remember this. When you know that you’re doing God’s work—then you’re willing to do anything. I meananything. ”
A shiver like a miniature lightning bolt shot through Nickie’s middle, right beneath her ribs.Anything if it’s God’s work, she thought. Yes, that’s what it is to be a holy person: you’re willing to do anything. She thought of stories she’d heard about saints who let themselves be killed in awful ways. She thought about the brave characters in the books she loved, how they faced monsters and crossed flaming mountains and did not live by the rules of ordinary people. And it wasn’t out of the question for someone as young as herself to be like them. Often, at least in books, it was a child who vanquished the darkness. She could be like that. She felt a great fierce desire to bring goodness to the world—or at least to Yonwood.
Mrs. Beeson stood up. Sausage got up, too. “What a help you are, honey,” Mrs. Beeson said. “I think you and I have the same thing in mind—a bright, clean world where everyone knows how to behave! Wouldn’t it be splendid?”
Nickie nodded, imagining it: everyone kind, everyone good, no creepiness, no wars.
“So the more of these trouble spots we can find, the better off we’ll be,” Mrs. Beeson went on, her voice becoming very stern. “Remember what I said about how one moldy strawberry can ruin the whole basket? We’re not going to let that happen. We’re going to make this a good and godly town through and through.” She bent over and swept the crumbs of Nickie’s cookie into her hand. “And I’ll tell you frankly, honey, I’m the one to get it done. I may look like a dumpling, but I have a spine of steel.”
“Are you a preacher, Mrs. Beeson?” Nickie asked.
“No, no. I’m retired. But I can’t just sit around, can I? That’s not my way.” She laughed. “I coach girls’ baseball in the spring. I lead a study group at the church. Organize Yonwood’s spring cleanup. Might even run for mayor someday. I like to wear a lot of different hats.”
They headed for the hall, where several of Mrs. Beeson’s different hats hung from a tree-shaped hat rack. “I keep hearing music,” Nickie said. “Where’s it coming from?”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Beeson, smiling. “It’s my music box!” She darted back into the living room and picked up the heart-shaped box from the mantel. “It’s very high-tech—powered by some new kind of tiny everlasting battery. Plutonium, I think. It just goes and goes. Isn’t it charming?”
“Yes,” said Nickie.
Mrs. Beeson opened the front door and ushered her out. “Thank you so much,” she said. “Anything else you notice, you just come and let me know.” She beamed at Nickie, and Nickie glowed.
Afterward, though, she felt a tiny bit guilty. She hadn’t really seen ghosts hovering around Hoyt McCoy’s house, or anything bad at all. She’d just had afeeling about the place. But everything else she’d said was true; maybe that made up for one small fib.
As she came through Greenhaven’s front door, the telephone rang. She picked it up and said hello, and Amanda’s voice answered. “Oh, good, it’s you. I just remembered something. I still have the house key. I oughta bring it back.”
“Okay,” Nickie said. “Come whenever you want. And Amanda—anything new about the Prophet? Is she better?”
“No, she’s just the same. Really sad and quiet. Keeps on saying stuff you can’t figure out. Sometimes she wanders off.”
“Yeah, it’s almost like she’s walking in her sleep. She goes out in the yard, or even out the front door, and I have to quick go get her and bring her back.”
“Is she trying to go somewhere?”
“I don’t know.”
“And Istill can’t come and meet her? Because I’mso interested, Amanda. MaybeI could tell what she’s saying.”
“I doubt it,” said Amanda. “If Mrs. Beeson can’t tell, I don’t see howyou could.”
“Well, okay, maybe not,” Nickie said. “But I’d like to justsee her sometime. What does she look like?”
“She looks sick. All shadowy around the eyes.” Amanda sounded impatient. “I have to go.”
Nickie spent the next hour or so roaming around Greenhaven. She loved being alone here. She burrowed through the silent rooms like a miner hunting for gold. What she wanted was anything old, and especially anything written. From desk drawers and closet shelves and the backs of cabinets, and from the trunks and boxes in the third floor rooms, she pulled out packets of letters, programs from long-ago theater performances, journals and ledger books and guest lists and postcards. She sat on the floor reading until the air around her felt thick with the past. All these words, written so long ago, seemed to say to her, Remember us. We were here. We were real.
She kept Otis nearby. If she was sitting on the floor, he pushed his nose against her arm, wanting to be petted. He tugged at the leg of her pants, wanting to play. Sometimes he slept, stretched out, belly to the rug, his rear legs flopped behind him like a frog’s. Now and then he would wander off, and when Nickie remembered to look for him, she’d find him chewing happily on the corner of a curtain, or trying to dig through the hardwood floor. He was all the company she needed.
Around two-thirty, when Crystal still wasn’t back, she decided to take Otis for his afternoon outing. She heard banging as she went down the hall, probably coming from one of the bathrooms. The plumber must be here. She went out through the kitchen to the back garden.
To her surprise, the basement door was slightly ajar. The plumber must have gone down there to get at the pipes under the house. Good. She’d been curious about the basement—she could have a look. She picked Otis up, pulled open the door, and peeked in. The plumber had turned on the light. It was dim, just a bulb in the ceiling, but it showed her a flight of stone steps. Holding Otis tightly, she went down.