I would be hard put to tell you how much I didn’t want that assignment. I didn’t want it so much, I considered quitting the newspaper. But Bill Thomas sat there with a fat cigar stuck in a face that had seen thirty years of reporting before I was born and said, “You’re a reporter. So go report.”
My feet moved out the door, the words I had wanted to spit at him forming a lump at the bottom of my throat. I still wasn’t sure I could handle the Bo Hendrickson job. I’m afraid of heights. Not the kind of heights you find at the top of a ladder or even a ten-story building—the extreme sort of heights you find at the tip of the Praying Hands, the highest point in the Foggies. Eight thousand feet of sheer drop.
Bo Hendrickson was planning to take his followers up there and “lead them in prayer.” He spun a bunch of rhetoric about confronting their fears and learning to trust in God, but Hendrickson was on several watch lists by then, as a leader whose faith ventured dangerously into cult territory. Thomas suspected he and his flock might be planning to jump off that precipice. If they did, he wanted me to see them off.
That’s not how he put it, but that’s what it amounted to. I wish I had manned up and told him where he could stick his cult-suicide story. However, I still had rent to pay (along with a nice collection of other bills), so by mid afternoon I was pointing my car at the Foggies and reviewing what I knew about Bo Hendrickson, spiritual leader and maniac.
He was a small-time preacher with his own cable show. He could have been big-time if he hadn’t gone in so much for the spacey side of the New Christian movement. I had caught his program a few times. It was on Sundays at 4:00 a.m.
Bo was a lot younger than most TV evangelists, and a lot better looking, but I think it was his powder-blue cowboy suit that first caught my attention. It made him look more like a pimp than a preacher.
It was getting dark as I made my ascent through the Foggies. I preferred it that way. I like photographs of panoramic mountain views better than the real thing—especially when you’re looking down at them over the side of the road. I pulled in at the Evergreen Lodge, where Hendrickson and most of his group were staying. Damned if the marquee out front didn’t say WELCOME NEW CHRISTIANS. Did they know what Bo and his flock were planning to do? Maybe their bills were paid in advance. I checked in at the desk and took just long enough to put my bag in my room before I went looking for Hendrickson.
I returned to the combination lobby/lounge and, sure enough, there he was, surrounded by his followers and a fringe of curious onlookers. He was wearing an expensive black suit instead of his usual outfit. I wouldn’t have recognized him if all those eyes hadn’t been staring at him. When I moved closer, the hair on my arms prickled as if I had stepped into a field of static.
“God’s word is clear,” he was saying to a man leaning heavily on a walker. “It doesn’t matter where it’s written, whether it’s in King James or the New Christian Testament. What point is there in picking over details? True Believers hear what God is saying. Only doubters have trouble understanding the Testament.”
I didn’t know what the question had been, but though the answer was the same old non-specific nonsense Hendrickson usually spouted, the man lowered his eyes in shame. Hendrickson continued to stare at him without offering any comfort, and the others supported his silence, but I didn’t waste any more time watching. I had just noticed the young woman sitting just outside their circle.
She was petite, with brown hair and a boyish face. Once I had recognized her, any feeling I’d had that Hendrickson really intended to jump to his death vanished.
She was Sally Batrille, and she had been leaping to her death for years, first as a stunt flyer, then as an acrobat, and finally as a professional suicidist. Each of her stunts seemed to draw more money through self-funding sites, so much money that an ambitious senator decided it would be a good source of revenue, one both parties could get behind. After all, it’s not a death tax it’s a suicide tax. Remember how much fun the press had with that? What a bunch of maroons those politicians are!
Then they passed the damn thing. Because the mainstream media is all just a bunch of fake news, right?