The Day of the Beast

Beast 200Is the TV evangelist a healer or is he something else?

In an effort to enlarge the congregation of the Holy Gospel Fundamentalist Church and to make a name for himself, Rev. Berkley invites TV evangelist Torrance Pierson to bring his tent revival to their small Ohio town. Some of the people are excited to have him; others are skeptical.
Berkley’s sister Molly is one of the skeptical ones. Molly, a widow and out of work, has brought her fifteen year old daughter to live with her brother in Hayettville, Ohio. But she and Berkley have never seen eye to eye.
Lou Haines, owner and editor of the local newspaper, has it out for Berkley because of some secret horror in his past. But he can’t help being drawn to Molly in spite of her narrow-minded brother.
When Pierson sets up his tent revival, interest in the TV preacher grows. And when he actually heals a blind man, the media get hold of the news. What no one seems to notice is the number of people collapsing at the revival meetings when the preacher performs his miracles.

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A low rumbling filled the air of the revival tent. The sound increased as a heated wave of energy swept the masses shoved together on benches. Bodies swayed with the cadence of the words bellowed forth by the figure in white dominating the stage.
“Amen” and “Jesus, save us” swept through the crowd, a chant, a litany, a crying out of souls seized in a whirl of hysteria.
Marvin Payton sat in the middle of this mindless dance, back stiff, fear weakening his bladder. He watched the others sway, was caught up in the movement without his volition, shoved back and forth by the huge bulk of humanity surrounding him.
Louder came the words from the evangelist, louder the chants from the throng. Flashes of energy licked at the canvas and raised the hairs on his head. His own energy seemed to be ebbing, seeping out through his pores. His arms could barely move.
“Bring the crippled unto me!” the voice boomed in that West Virginia drawl that pulled at him. “I will heal them. I will make them whole. In the name-a Jesus, they will walk in the sunlight and dance in the gentle rain from heaven.”
A man in a wheelchair was pushed down the aisle toward the front. A woman with a cane clung to the arm of her son as she made her way. Others followed. Marvin watched, expectation tingling through him, his muscles paralyzed, his heart, finally recovering from last season’s triple bypass, hammered so hard his head throbbed with its beating.
Still louder grew the chanting. A hot wind blew through his hair, ruffled the curls of the young girl in front of him, teased the loose scarf of the woman at his right. Sparks like static electricity flicked in the air. The droning increased in volume.
Suddenly a woman, three benches over, shot to a stand. “Lord Jesus, he’s taking me to him!” She stiffened as though some demon had claim of her body, then crumpled. Next, the girl in front of Marvin gave a whimper and slumped in her place. The swaying never ceased. The bodies took her with them like some rag doll caught in a shoreline wave. Marvin tried to cry out for her but no sound came from his throat.
The figure in white seemed to grow, get taller, larger as he stood before the gathering. His power drew them. The crippled, the maimed, the infirm streamed down the aisle toward him, getting ever closer as though dragged by some chain.
Then Marvin felt the pain. It started in his left arm, tingling and uncertain, gained definition, creeping slowly up until it reached his shoulder.
“Sweet Jesus will save us all,” someone cried.
The pain moved into his chest, vague and uncentered like a snake crawling nearer, its poison sack filled, searching out its prey. He observed it clinically, hovering outside himself. The snake/pain seemed to center on something, finding its goal then moving in, coiling. It was after his heart.
One huge snap of the fangs and he let out a silent wail that echoed throughout his body. The pain pulled him in, engulfed him, became his entire world – day, night, sleep, wakefulness – until the sweet cessation brought him peace at last and he slumped on the bench in death.

Chapter One

The caravan rumbled into town that Wednesday afternoon in May, three Peterbilt eighteen wheelers, the smell of their diesel fuel permeating the air, traveling at an unhurried pace right through the center of Hyattville in southeast Ohio so that everyone could take notice. The trucks were decorated in flashy colors like a holiday. “THE REVEREND TORRANCE PIERSON” in capitals filled most of the space. “THE NEW LIFE REVIVAL” took up the rest except for one large corner with a picture of the man’s face.
Molly Sullivan, sandy haired, in her mid thirties, and skeptical, stood on the sidewalk in front of Horner Drugs watching. She recognized the face from television, though it had that cardboard, pasty, two-dimensional quality of painted signs. She wasn’t surprised to see it in town, only surprised at the size of the operation.
“Jesus, Skeeter, get a load-a this baby!” one boy yelled to his friend as they dogged the caravan on their bikes. Three more, just out from the middle school, joined them.
Behind the trucks trailed half a dozen cars and vans, proclaiming along the sides that they, too, were part of the entourage. Horns beeped somewhere and a siren sounded up the street. The police were stopping traffic along the side streets. The young photographer for the Hyatt Weekly Sentinel, zigzagged through the crowds along the sidewalk snapping pictures of the event for the paper. People emerged from the shops that lined the streets or poked their heads out of second-story windows.
Jed Horner, tall and gaunt, hurried out of his drug store and joined Molly to watch. “Helluva sight for this here town,” he observed.
Molly nodded. “For any town, I’d say.”
“When’s the Reverend Pierson coming?”
“Friday,” she told him. Her brother Darren had explained the itinerary painstakingly – so that Molly wouldn’t screw up the details and embarrass him.
“You people going to put him up at your place or what?”
She shook her head. “We’re much too small for him. He’s staying at the Lincoln Hotel with his staff. Taking over the entire third floor. I gather he’s paying top price, too.”
Will Wheeler from the Hyattville Savings Bank down the block from Horner’s Drugs trotted along the sidewalk to join them. Wheeler, short and rotund, had taken off his suit coat, loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. “Big enterprise,” he remarked. “These religious fellows sure know how to rake it in.” He recalled himself. “No offense, Ms. Sullivan. I wasn’t talking about your brother.”
“With Darren’s income?” She gave a laugh and her eyes lit with ironic amusement. “Darren is small-time compared to this.”
“Don’t scoff, Will,” Horner said. “Time we got some religion in this town. Bring people back to the path. Too much rock ‘n roll and miniskirts. What we need’s family values.”
Wheeler winked at Molly. “Seems to me it’s time you started living in this century, Jed. Lawrence Welk and knickers went out awhile back.”
More people joined them and the line of spectators seemed to spring from the sidewalks like new growth. Traffic was backed up. School kids ran along the side of the street hooting. For a town like Hyattville, population under eight thousand, this was as good as a circus. Molly, unused to this kind of small-town excitement, watched it with wonder.
Elsie Pratt, social chairwoman of the lady’s circle at Darren’s church, appeared in the doorway of the Dollar Store. She waved and crossed the street to join them. Elsie would always be in the middle of anything important going on.
“I don’t know,” she said, panting from the exertion of her two hundred plus pounds, “I hope the good reverend doesn’t think we’re a bunch of yokels. Just look at everybody gawking. And those kids roughhousing on their bikes.”
Several others from the ladies’ circle joined Elsie Pratt. The women always showed deference to Molly as sister to their minister, but the effort was strained.
Molly Sullivan had been here in Hyattville a mere two months. Many of the people held her at arm’s length, particularly the women. She didn’t resent them for it. It was only natural. They were bound to have their reservations about a widow with a fifteen year old daughter who came from an unfathomable city like Chicago. Even though the Reverend Darren Berkley had been a part of the town for the past three years and pastor to many, they weren’t quite ready to accept his sister. She took this in her stride, respected them for their caution.
Molly’s real problem was living with Darren again. What was her alternative, though? Starving in an attic with her daughter Sarah? Gathering unemployment checks while she tried to get a job at Wendy’s flipping burgers to pay off the debts she’d been left with? But she was determined to make it work this time.
Unfortunately, Sarah was as big a difficulty as Darren. Molly saw herself at Sarah’s age, the young rebel, angry at a world that had left her fatherless without reason. History repeating itself. Except that Sarah’s anger at Molly had something deeper at its core. Best not to think of that now.
“How long’s the Reverend Pierson planning to stay?” Horner asked. They were shouldered from behind by the gathering crowd.
Molly shook her head. “I’m not sure he has a set time.” She wondered if the evangelist would stay until he’d milked these people of everything he could get. Then immediately felt the familiar weight of guilt descend on her shoulders. She was being unfair to Darren again. Burdening herself with guilt was a skill she was good at. Her brother had taught her well.
Still, there was something about this man Pierson she found unnerving, hadn’t trusted when she saw him on television. But since Darren had never listened to her in his life, he’d gone ahead and invited the up and coming evangelist to Hyattville. And she was going to make the best of it.
Wheeler squinted in the afternoon sun, watching the electrified crowd. “Gonna be some excitement around here for a while. Haven’t seen an honest to God revival meeting since I was a young man.” He shrugged. “Thought we were through with that kind of show.”
Horner stood a little straighter. “Those were the days we knew what God was about. Time we got back to ‘em.”
The parade continued to the town square and turned down Cedar, around City Hall and on. Many of the people followed but Molly stayed where she was. Until something made her look up.
She knew he’d be there, scowling from the second story window of the Hyatt Sentinel building, and she chastised herself for acknowledging him. Yet, when she met that cool gaze she couldn’t look away. Damn the man, like the nagging voice of conscience, he seemed always perched at her elbow.
Lou Haines’ eyes held her a moment longer. The elusive warmth in their depths made her breath come a little short. Then someone up the street yelled above the din, “God’s a-coming to Hyattville for sure!” Lou gave a humorless half-smile, an ironic salute in her direction, drew himself in the window and was gone. Molly gulped air and returned her gaze to the crowd.
Elsie Pratt and the other women, their indignation at the unruly viewers overpowered by curiosity, moved with the people. Horner and Wheeler turned reluctantly back to their businesses, kids honked their bike horns and whistled at the drivers of the trucks. A siren sounded in the distance.
Molly watched the caravan disappear down Main Street and around City Hall toward Hyatt Field on the southeast side of town. She glanced at the dispersing crowd, smiled and waved at several of the people she knew. And yet an uneasiness gnawed at the back of her mind. On this bright, fresh day in early May it seemed ludicrous, but in spite of her decision to support her brother, she could see the clouds begin to gather.

Lou Haines pulled his head back in the window with a grunt of disgust. Damn that Berkley. Why did he have to invite this sideshow into town? Hell, why had Berkley come here himself in the first place? This was a nice town, quiet, unpretentious. A place where Lou had been able to hide away for the last few years.
He gave another disgusted grunt. His own fault for trying to hide. It was as if some malevolent force had sent Berkley to seek him out and drive the knife deeper into his chest.
Lou glanced around at the desk filled with articles and ads ready to go into next week’s paper. The bills were shoved into one slot, payments for ads in another. His office wasn’t neat but it was ordered and efficient. Clippings were stapled to the giant bulletin board on one wall. A couple of fishing prints hung on another. Two large windows looked out on Main Street and the door opposite led to the outer offices of the Hyatt Sentinel.
He dropped his tall frame into the swivel chair at the desk as though weary, ran a large hand over the gaunt features of his face, raked back his dark hair, and stared out at his thoughts.
Damn, it was too bad Molly Sullivan had to be embroiled in the center of this thing. She didn’t belong here, shouldn’t have a brother like that. Every time he got close to her he could sense the strain she was under like shock waves. She was too good for Berkley. He didn’t deserve her. Didn’t appreciate her.
But his kind never would. Narrow and pinched, the man’s vision was tunneled, limited, cut short by a dogmatic nature. Lou was only too familiar with his kind. One of the reasons he’d become a journalist in the first place – to expose and bring down people like him.
A knock on the door and Tom Lyle, his young photographer, entered, camera in hand, a look of excitement on his face. “Got ‘em, Mr. Haines. Some real good shots.”
Lou softened the scowl he’d been wearing. He liked Tom, a boy who reminded him of himself in his youth – however long ago that was. “Get them developed and let’s see what you have. I want hometown stuff but with an edge.”
Tom nodded, understanding in his eyes. “I don’t know if Rev. Berkley’s gonna like these. But I think you will.”
Lou gave a cynical laugh and Tom, his camera held like a discharged gun, hurried out to finish the assignment.

Molly had barely gotten in the back door, flung her packages onto the kitchen table, rid herself of shoes and plugged in the coffee pot when the doorbell sounded. Five minutes home and already someone was here. This place was worse than Marshall Field’s Department Store during a one-day sale.
She wondered, not for the first time, if she should have had a brain check when she agreed to come live with Darren. She’d known before she came here that it would be difficult. But he seemed to want it so badly, and she was finding it virtually impossible to get another job since the Fremont Public Library had been closed because of the cutbacks on government funding. Add to that the fact that Mrs. Jefferson, the Hyattville High School librarian, might be taking disability at the end of the year, leaving an opening, and Molly’s mind had been made up for her. She’d wanted to be a school librarian from the start, had added all her education courses to her masters in library science – and here was a chance to finally do it. But the price was damned high.
Then the guilt descended as she remembered all Darren had done for her.
The doorbell chimed again, impatient to be answered. Wilma Hatch. It had to be. No one had a touch quite like hers. Short and insistent with just a trace of disapproval in it. Molly could hear all that in the chime as she slid her shoes back on and moved through the big house to the front entrance.
The parsonage, situated on the outskirts of town, was large and gracious and Victorian. When the house was built some eighty or ninety years before, the owners had put money into it – oak panels in several of the rooms, a mahogany railing up the front stairs, scrolled ceilings in the living and dining rooms.
She opened the door on Wilma Hatch, a tall, spare woman, gray hair cut short and Spartan, lines of severity etched into her face.
“Afternoon, Molly. The Reverend at home?” She never waited to be invited in but led the way back to the study herself.
“Do come in, Wilma,” Molly muttered under her breath. She wondered why the woman ever bothered with the doorbell. Out loud, she said, “He’s gone to the Lincoln Hotel to make sure everything’s ready for Pierson’s staff.” They reached the study at the back of the house, Wilma still in the lead.
The woman pulled an envelope from her duffel-sized purse. “These here are the financial reports he wanted me to go over.” She checked Molly out with a trace of suspicion before entrusting her with the envelope. “You’ll see he gets ‘em.” A statement.
Wilma Hatch was secretary of the Hyattville Fundamentalist Church of the Holy Gospel and Darren’s right-hand man, so to speak. Darren told her what he wanted done and Wilma made it so. The two were almost inseparable, which made Molly wonder why he had insisted he needed his sister at his side.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee?” Molly asked.
Wilma declined. “No time. I’m running late with the church bulletin. I usually have everything ready by Wednesday afternoon, but with the Reverend Pierson coming in like this, spur of the moment, everything’s gone cock-eyed.” Her body stiffened. “Reckon some folks are so important they figure the rest of us ain’t got nothing else to do but wait on ‘em.” She looked away, apparently sorry for her moment of disloyalty. “Got the list of hymns for Sunday meeting?”
Molly went to find the list in Darren’s file cabinet while Wilma stood watching with a critical eye. Molly flipped through the files until she came to the one marked “Sunday Bulletin” and handed it to the woman.
Wilma scanned the list, seemed to approve, then scanned Molly. Molly was thirty-five, though she didn’t look it, a widow, though she felt more relief than sorrow, was medium height, had short sandy hair with a little curl in it, and blue eyes that always gave away everything she felt. Right now she was feeling irritated at the woman’s scrutiny.
“Did you see the parade of trucks come into town?” Molly asked, moving away from center spot.
“Nope. Such goings on don’t interest me. I got a church to see to. No time for them TV preachers and all their carnival tricks. The Reverend’s enough religion for me.” She seemed a little uneasy. “I know he meant well, asking Rev. Pierson to come to Hyattville. Cora Palmer says we should give the whole thing a chance. But she’s more Christian than me, I guess. We don’t know nothing about the man. Two years ago nobody’d heard of him.”
And three years ago no one had heard of the Reverend Darren Berkley, Molly thought wryly. In fact, four years ago he’d been a third rate Realtor. Before that he’d tried selling insurance, then shoes. Now, of course, he was in the business of selling old time religion. But Molly didn’t say that. She was determined this time not to cause a rift between them, not to blurt out her thoughts the way she usually had. This time she and Darren would get along if it meant cutting out her tongue.
“Reckon folks are real excited about Pierson coming to town,” Wilma went on. “They say he can do astonishing things, even heal the sick. But it all sounds like mumbo jumbo to me.” She edged closer. “Heard there was some trouble in the last town he took his tent to.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Not sure, but the place changed.” She shook her head. “People were divided over having him there – started fighting amongst themselves, is what I heard. Real uproar in the town.”
“Really? Did you tell Darren?”
Wilma backed off. “Didn’t want to devil him. Could just be talk.” She straightened. “Besides, whatever happens, it’s done and there’s no undoing it. Like Cora says, ya gotta move on to the next square. And mine is getting the Sunday Bulletin ready.” She snapped her purse shut and headed out the door.
In her wake, she left a cloying odor of alarm that Molly couldn’t seem to brush away.

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