Story by Joseph Cusumano
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
“His real name is Leander Schrock, but he’s known to his followers as Magnus,” David said.
“Pretentious bastard,” Cliff Adams replied.
“I’d say so.”
“But you haven’t laid eyes on him or my daughter?” Adams asked.
“No, sir,” David replied. “The cult mainly keeps to itself on a plot of land twenty miles outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I talked to some of the locals at several small surrounding communities and then left. I didn’t come across Sara or any member of the Hands of God.”
“Alright. Tell me what you found,” Adams said.
“About three years ago, Schrock left an Amish community near New Philadelphia in the eastern part of Ohio. I went there after I left Kentucky and got an earful. The Amish kicked him out for spouting heresy, but one man I talked to said there was more to it. Apparently, Schrock is some kind of egomaniac who expected to take control. He claimed that God speaks to him one-on-one.”
“Nothing like a personal chat with the Almighty to make you feel important,” Adams said.
“It gets worse. He began making unwanted advances toward the younger women.” Adams flinched on hearing this. “You can imagine how well that went over among the Amish.” David paused to take a drag, then said, “Why do you think your daughter is with Magnus’ cult?”
“About six months ago, Sara started listening to this crazy preacher on the radio. I asked her what she found so compelling. She shrugged and said nothing. But it wasn’t long before Sara was glued to the radio every Sunday afternoon to hear this guy’s broadcast. Then she must have sent a donation because a letter arrived one day in the mail from the Hands of God. I was an idiot not to throw it in the trash. Two weeks later, she took off in the middle of the night. I found a note on the breakfast table. She said she was going to find God. That was almost four months ago.”
“Well, you may be right that she’s gone and joined Schrock’s cult,” David replied.
“I talked to the police, but they said that since she’s over 18, she can choose to live wherever and with whomever she chooses.”
“But why’d you wait so long to ask for help in getting her back?”
“I thought that after a month or two of living with a bunch of religious fanatics she’d get tired of it and come home of her own accord. I want you to go to the settlement and get her out. Will your agency let you do this type of job?”
“Yes, but you understand I can’t just waltz into the cult’s settlement and drag Sara away. I’m going to have to integrate myself into the group.”
“Convince them that you want to become a member?”
“Right. And if she’s been indoctrinated into their beliefs, it’s going to take time to persuade her to leave without coercion. If she’s extracted too soon, she’ll likely run away again and rejoin the cult. And trying to get her out a second time will be impossible.”
The agency for which David worked regarded the extraction of an individual from a group as the most challenging of all the requests that came their way, especially if the captive had no desire to leave. But David received the approval of his supervisor, and shortly afterward he and Adams set out together in Adams’ 1938 Ford coupe. While heading south toward Louisville, David did everything possible to reassure his client that Sara would eventually be coming home. He also instructed Adams not to wait in Kentucky. Instead, Adams was to drive back to Cincinnati and remain there until David contacted him.
— ♦♦♦ —
When he estimated they were close to the Hands of God settlement, David asked Adams to stop and let him out. He intended to proceed on foot from that point on. Adams wished him Godspeed, turned his car around, and headed back.
David had brought only an old cardboard suitcase. Having the virtue of being lightweight, it could be carried effortlessly in one hand, leaving the other to swat away flies and mosquitos as he headed toward the settlement. While walking alone at dusk and mentally replaying his conversations with Adams, he wondered what the older man hadn’t told him. A lot of clients held back information for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment or outright shame over some aspect of the case, a desire to protect as much of the family’s privacy as possible or to conceal illicit activity. Invariably, this made the assignment more difficult for the investigating agent.
He had been walking about 20 minutes when he heard another vehicle approaching from behind. David turned and raised his thumb to hitch a ride. The vehicle was an old, rusted Chevy truck which slowed as it approached.
The girl behind the wheel looked about ten years younger than he, and when she stopped and asked him how far he was going, David recognized her instantly from photographs which Adams had shown him. Amazingly, it was Sara, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the teenage actress Judy Garland in her recent role as Dorothy. Her hair was parted down the middle and braided on each side, and she wore a blue pinafore.
“Wherever I can find work,” David said in answer to her question.
“Well, I’m only going another mile or so, but you can get something to eat and drink where I’m headed.”
“Thanks. That would be great.” David hopped in. He had pretty much dismissed her as little more than a gullible follower, vulnerable to the lure of a charismatic preacher, but she said, “For someone who’s been on the road all day, you look pretty good. No dirt, no dust, no sweat. And judging from your hands, you aren’t used to manual labor.”
David scrambled to come up with some kind of response, realizing it mustn’t be too far from the truth. And he had better stop underestimating her. “Until recently, I had a job at a bank in Cincinnati. It’s been a few years since I did any honest work.” That got a smile out of her, as many Americans still blamed the banks for the depression and admired the men who robbed them.
“Did the bank go under?” she asked.
“Almost. They were taken over by another bank, and a lot of people were let go,” David said, hoping she wouldn’t ask for more details.
Fortunately, she said, “I’m Magdalene. What’s your name?”
“Pleased to meet you, David Wright.” She didn’t volunteer her last name, and David wondered if she still considered herself to have one. They drove on for only a few minutes before Magdalene pulled the truck into the Hands of God settlement.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Well, why did you give him a lift?” Magnus asked.
“He was going to get here shortly whether I stopped or not,” Magdalene answered a little defensively. “And I’m not sure that he’s lying. He could be just another lost soul who needs to be saved. Claims he worked in a bank in Cincinnati and that he was raised in the Episcopal Church.”
“Most of them look down their noses at the likes of us,” Magnus said.
“Yeah, I know.” She was silent for a moment, then asked, “What will you do with him?” They were standing outside of the settlement’s Great Hall as supper was being served to the faithful.
“Assuming he wants to stay a day or two, we’ll give him work, food, and a bed. If he wants to stay longer, we’ll put him to the test.” Magdalene nodded. “Let’s go back inside,” Magnus continued. “Sit next to him and set him at ease. Learn what you can.”
Magdalene did as she was told, seating herself next to David at one of the large tables. She looked down at the same unappetizing mush that had been served at lunch. She knew they couldn’t afford to waste food, but would it really upset the master plan of the universe to have a little more variety in their meals? And some flavor? Worse, the lunch and evening fare weren’t all that different in taste or appearance from the morning oatmeal. What they needed was food that required more than just a spoon. After several months of unappetizing meals and hard work in the settlement, she’d lost weight. Magdalene couldn’t admit it to anyone, but she longed for a steak from a grill. Fortunately, the settlement did provide its members with plenty of milk and fresh dark bread. Served with a little honey or butter, the bread had become her fallback when the rest of the meal was unpalatable.
She glanced over at David to gauge his reaction to the evening fare and got a surprise. He had already finished more than half his serving and didn’t appear to be slowing. Was he really that hungry or was he simply trying to appear appreciative, as if he’d been invited over to a neighbor’s home for dinner and didn’t want to offend anyone? Time would tell because the food wasn’t going to get better. Magnus viewed any attempt to improve the variety and palatability of the food as materialistic and distracting. All of them had to concentrate on the spirit to the exclusion of all else. They must prepare earnestly, for the end of all creation was approaching.
— ♦♦♦ —
Never before had David been so famished. For the first time in his life, he was dreaming about food. Awake or asleep, he wanted to gorge himself.
“Of course, you’re hungry,” Magdalene told him one morning before breakfast. “And it’s not just the partial fast you’ve committed to. Withdrawing from cigarettes intensifies hunger. But you can do this, and I’ll be with you every step,” she said as she took his hand to reassure him. “This is day five, which is probably the worst. But it’s going to get easier soon. I promise. And well before the 40 days have passed, you’ll enter a period of clear-headed serenity as you’ve never experienced. Everyone here has endured the fast and will tell you that it was a process of purification, both physically and spiritually. Nobody regrets having done it.” Nevertheless, his heart sank when she brought him two thin slices of dark bread and a glass of water, all that he would receive until midday. Magnus preached that an emaciated body would more easily be lifted into heaven.
During his partial fast and cigarette withdrawal, he was to pray, read the Bible, meditate on his shortcomings, and work in the shop where Amish-style furniture was made. The furniture provided over half of the settlement’s income. Ezekiel Hollander, a powerfully built middle-aged man, was his instructor in the shop. David knew little of carpentry, but he learned quickly under Zeke’s instruction, beginning with the careful inspection of each piece of wood for the item to be made. They started with a small bedside table.
On Sunday mornings, David joined the other members in attending the weekly sermon. Weather permitting, Magnus preached from the top of a hill with his followers spread below him. And in the late afternoon, at a radio station in Louisville, he delivered his sermon a second time to devoted listeners spread over a wide radius. The listeners were a vital and growing source of donations.
The 15th day of his fast fell on a Sunday, and for the first time, David awoke without his usual gnawing hunger. Even his craving for a smoke had partially subsided, the withdrawal made somewhat easier by not having to smell tobacco when others lit up. And Sara/Magdalene had been right; he felt clear-headed and optimistic. She had told him not to be surprised if he experienced an elevation of mood at some point, explaining that freedom from cigarettes and his excessive dependence on food would lighten his burden.
His breakfast that morning, a meager serving of oatmeal, had seemed adequate. When the servers cleared the bowls and cups from the communal tables, the congregants assembled outside the Great Hall. Together, they began the fifteen-minute walk to where their spiritual leader would deliver his weekly sermon on the hill. Magdalene walked side by side with David at the rear of the procession, and at one point she stopped him and said in a low voice, “You are truly blessed to be here today. Magnus is going to share an amazing revelation.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Blessed are the followers, for they shall be led into the kingdom of heaven.” Magnus always began his weekly sermon with what he called the Ninth Beatitude. He had composed it himself, Jesus’ original eight not being entirely enough. It also served to remind his flock that to be saved, they would do well to follow his lead.
“Amen,” the congregants responded.
“Glorify in the invisible; it is your source of inspiration!”
“Never waste an opportunity to remain silent; use it to hear God’s plan for you.” David perked up upon hearing this. The relative quiet and solitude he had observed during his fast had engendered a long-overdue introspection. And although the tent revival style of the cult at times seemed undignified to a cradle Episcopalian, Magnus’ assertion that all failings could be forgiven by sincere repentance rang true.
Then he heard Magnus say, “I have a special message for the women of our family. Each and every one of you is lovely in the eyes of God!” David saw the smile that crossed Magdalene’s face, and he had to agree. She was lovely. He had to remind himself why he was there, and that it had nothing to do with satisfying his own inclinations.
“In our community, we shun cosmetics because they obscure the natural beauty God has bestowed upon you,” Magnus continued. Then he added some cautionary advice. “Because you are lovely, men will wish to lay you down. But Jesus died to raise you up!”
“Amen!” they responded.
“All of you were born into a family, and I know that some were not well treated. But now you are part of a new family, one which will never turn its back. Look around you. The people you see are your brothers and sisters for eternity. Bestow upon every one of them all the kindness and love that is in your heart.”
Magnus paused to let that sink in and then began again. “Brothers and sisters, I have spoken to lyou about the End Times. Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelations tell us that false prophets will abound and that nations will rise against one another. It will be a time of terrible conflict, chaos, and suffering. Now we see that America is about to be drawn into another European war. We can ill-afford an armed conflict of this magnitude during the worst economic depression that has ever befallen our nation. The southwestern plains of America have been turned into a dustbowl by a drought as severe as the ancient one described by Jeremiah.” Magnus opened his Bible and began reading. “The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land; the farmers are dismayed and cover their heads. Even the doe in the field neglects her newborn fawn because there is no grass.” Magnus looked up from his Bible and said, “Of all the generations that have lived on Earth … it has fallen to ours to face the end of human history!”
The members seated before Magnus were stunned and they glanced at each other, their eyes filled with dread. This soon? The millennium wouldn’t arrive for almost 60 years. “This was revealed by none other than Michael the Archangel, who came to me in a vision,” Magnus continued. “It is why I have been so insistent that you prepare yourselves. Armageddon is nearly upon us!” Magnus paused again. Never had he delivered a message of such consequence to his flock. Many had risen to their feet, and some began to plead with him for any reassurance that he could offer. David felt their restless wide-eyed fear. They were like a herd of sheep at the approach of a wolf.
“Brothers and sisters! Do not despair,” Magnus cried out. “We few are to be saved by a glorious act of divine intervention. The Archangel has revealed this!” The faithful, desperate for any source of hope, began to quiet. Be not afraid. For when the sun reaches its zenith on the day in which the light and the dark battle equally for dominion, then will you be raised into paradise. These are the words of Michael which I am bound to convey to you. Now be at peace in the knowledge that you are deeply loved and cherished by your Creator.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The faithful could not agree among themselves as to the exact time of day the sun would reach its zenith, but there was no disputing the date. For the year 1941, the autumnal equinox — the day containing equal periods of sunlight and darkness — fell on Tuesday, September 23, and all were engaged in prayer and fasting. The ordinary activities of the community, including the construction of furniture, had come to a halt. Where they were going, there would be no need for furniture or the money it fetched.
On the morning of the Promised Day, the community gathered in front of the Great Hall to form the procession for their final walk to the hill. David had completed 32 days of his fast and smoking abstinence. He had not yet become a full member of the community but was invited to join in the procession; they weren’t going to leave him facing Armageddon alone. David and Magdalene walked side-by-side at the end of the gathering.
Not a cloud in the deep blue sky, the trees still lush and green, it was a perfect day to ascend into paradise. Such a beautiful planet. A shame that it was all going to end.
The precise manner by which they would be escorted into His presence had not been revealed by the Archangel, leaving the faithful to speculate among themselves. Some said it would be by chariot. Others pictured a simple ascent of each individual, the laws of gravity miraculously abrogated. In any case, it would be a wondrous event, far and away the greatest experience of their lives.
On reaching the hill, the faithful gathered around Magnus to hear what were to be his last words of encouragement. “Dearly beloved, rejoice and fear not. Remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and know that this day you will enter paradise. I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked, and you clothed me. This is what we have done at the Hands of God. No one is turned away. We have fed, clothed, housed and befriended all comers. This is the Promised Day and we are the Chosen!”
“Amen!” they responded in unison.
“As our savior has taught us, let us say the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven ….” David and the entire congregation joined in.
Then all fell silent. Gradually, the faithful followed Magnus’ lead and relaxed on the grassy hilltop. A few remained standing, most sat, others reclined. David could hear a gentle wind moving through the nearby trees. He and Magdalene sat together and began searching the heavens.
As the sun ascended toward its highest point in the sky, David found a short, straight stick and pushed it into the dirt perpendicular to the ground. Its shadow would not entirely disappear since they weren’t at the equator, but David wanted to watch the shadow become progressively smaller as the blessed event approached. He pulled out grass where the shadow lie to better asses its length along the ground. When he glanced at Magdalene, he saw that she had been watching him. She met his eyes and nodded her understanding. Then they reclined onto their backs to wait.
Presently, David reexamined the stick. The shadow was barely discernable, extending less than half an inch along the ground. It couldn’t get much shorter. Either something miraculous was going to occur very soon or Magnus had gotten it all wrong. Some of the faithful took to their feet and searched the sky. More minutes passed.
David looked at the stick’s shadow. Was it infinitesimally longer now? Hard to tell. He watched and waited. The faithful continued to crane their necks. Suddenly, a man pointed to the East and shouted. “Look! Look over there!” Now, nearly everyone stood to search in the indicated direction. David also jumped to his feet, and shading his eyes with both hands, searched for whatever the man had seen. Yes, there was something, and a few moments of continued observation suggested to David that it was heading toward them. His heart began to pound.
There were excited cries of “Alleluia!” and “Praise be to God!” But as it came closer, David realized that it was not a fleet of golden chariots. It was a biplane, nothing more. Soon everyone fell silent. Most redirected their gaze in other directions. Had they been distracted while the chariots approached from another part of the sky? David could see nothing except some birds to the south. Then he crouched to the ground and checked the stick. Its shadow was undeniably longer. Magnus was dead wrong.
The return to the settlement was not a procession. Individuals and small groups were strung out along the path, choosing to leave when the realization had sunk in. Magdalene
and Magnus were the last to leave.
As David walked alone, he saw that Zeke Hollander had stopped on the path and was waiting for him. “Are you alright?” David asked.
Zeke’s answer shocked him. “I fully expected this. Magnus is a fraud and a parasite. We have to get rid of him.” Although Zeke had spoken softly, David glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot before replying.
“What do you mean?”
“In addition to being a false prophet, Magnus is an unmarried polygamist. He’s preying on the young women, including Magdalene. You’d best keep your distance from her.” David had many questions, but after issuing his warning, Zeke would say no more
— ♦♦♦ —
“Magdalene, talk to me,” David pleaded. The two of them had entered the orchard to pick pears. Flour, eggs and other staples used for daily meal preparation were in short supply, and the faithful, stunned by their apparent abandonment, had not yet resumed work. If it weren’t for recent donations received by mail, they would have had to disband immediately.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said.
“Magnus was wrong. There wasn’t any rescue. Armageddon may not happen for hundreds or thousands of years.” In a softer tone of voice, he said, “We never tire of making predictions about the end of the world. And when proven wrong, we just come up with new ones. But this is no way to live our lives. We have to summon the courage to face our challenges and make the best of whatever comes.”
Then David decided it was time for him to come clean. The failure of Magnus’ prophecy was a fresh wound; Magdalene would never be more receptive to the notion of leaving the group.
“I have a confession to make,” he said when they were nearly finished. She looked at him curiously and waited. “I’m not really an acolyte. I came here to get you out,” he said. She stared back, puzzlement and concern changing her expression. “Your father hired me to bring you home.” He felt relieved for finally having told her.
“My father died when I was 12 years old,” Magdalene said. David was stunned. “Did Cliff hire you?” she demanded.
“Yes, Cliff Adams.”
“Well, I’m not his daughter! I was what is politely called a kept woman. And I got tired of it and left. You’ve wasted your time,” she said contemptuously. “No way am I going back to being his whore. That was a life of sin and I’ve put it all behind —”
“What’s wrong?” David asked, wondering why she had abruptly stopped. She was breathing hard, as if from exertion.
“It was you! You’re the reason we weren’t carried into heaven on the Promised Day! You’re not a believer at all. You’re … an apostate! That’s why we were abandoned. The Apocalypse is still coming but we’re not the Chosen.” She was gasping with rage. David dropped his sack of pears and began backing away. Then he turned and ran.
He had almost reached the road leading to the settlement when they caught him.
— ♦♦♦ —
David was a mess of hurt. He had awakened a little after dawn, aroused by the shouts of his guard who was scaring off two red-headed turkey buzzards. When David asked the guard what was going to happen to him, he received no answer.
The sun was still low in the eastern sky when the members of the Hands of God settlement began surrounding the altar where David lay with his hands and feet bound. Magnus, the last to arrive, came to the altar where David lay face down, and everyone fell silent. “We are here to ask for God’s forgiveness and to atone for allowing an apostate in our midst,” Magnus began. “Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he came among us solely to lead our beloved Magdalene astray. We thank God she discerned his malicious intent and that we have been offered a second chance for salvation.” It was exactly what his followers were desperate to hear, and they responded with rapturous shouts.
“Now hear me! Again, has the Archangel come,” Magnus said. He paused to let the anticipation build. “Just as God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, I have been commanded to sacrifice our interloper.” When the gathered faithful made no protest, David’s blood ran cold. “Now bow your heads as I beseech the Lord to accept this offering so that we may be saved from the calamity to come.”
But during the ensuing silence, David suddenly smelled smoke and turned his head toward the settlement buildings. The Great Hall was aflame. So were the barn, the shed, and some of the cabins. The structures were too far separated for the simultaneous fires to be anything but arson. Magnus and the others began shouting, and in moments the entire congregation was rushing to save what they could.
Believing that he had been left unattended on the altar, David flinched when a hand held his calves steady. Suddenly, the rope binding his ankles gave way to the back and forth pull of a knife. Magdalene has come back to free me. God bless her! But before he could utter a word of thanks, a male voice said, “I hope you can still move quickly. We’re only going to have a few minutes’ head start.” It was his client, Cliff Adams.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Then what?” Doug Chambers, his supervisor at the agency, leaned forward in his chair.
“Adams and I ran to his car,” David answered. “In less than an hour, we were out of Kentucky. Adams had ignored my advice to wait in Cincinnati. He stayed in Louisville and periodically drove to the edge of the settlement to watch with binoculars. He happened to be observing when I was caught and beaten while trying to escape. The next morning, he set the buildings on fire to create a diversion.”
“So, the client saved your life,” Chambers observed. “That’s a first.”
“He wouldn’t have had to if he’d been honest and told me Sara was his paid mistress.”
“You didn’t check to make sure Adams had a daughter?”
“No,” David answered. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”
“I’ve warned you about trusting clients.”
“Yeah, I know. It was careless and stupid.”
“Well, there’s some good news. Adams paid his bill in full,” Chambers said as he passed a thick envelope over his desk to David. David took the envelope and thanked his boss.
“Is it okay with you if I take a break before starting the next case,” David asked.
“I’m afraid you won’t be starting a new case for some time.” Chambers handed him an issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was opened to page A3.
Man Sought in Murder near Louisville.
Police are investigating the murder of Ezekiel Hollander, a member of the Hands of God religious community. The community believes Mr. Hollander was killed by another member of the congregation who subsequently fled the 10-acre property. The victim died of multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdomen, but the police have not found the murder weapon. The suspect is in his early thirties, slender and slightly over six feet tall. He has dark hair and blue eyes and goes by the name of David Wright. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts should contact the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
— ♦♦♦ —
Aphrodite By Joe White , Art by L.A. Spooner
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Ms. Thornton.”
“Jeanette. Call me, Jeanette.” I think her eyes actually twinkled. “If we’re going to be married, Ms. Thornton simply won’t do.”
My money smile morphed into a gaping, opened mouth.