This is the first Chapter of Bob, The Right Hand of God, available from Stairway Press. Click here buy from Amazon: Bob: The Right Hand of God: Bertram, Pat: 9781949267587: Amazon.com: Books
Chet Thomlin scowled at the television. He clicked the remote and clicked again, trying to lose himself in the glow of violence and canned laughter and sexual innuendo, but he couldn’t get thoughts of Isabel out of his head. He’d asked, told, pleaded, demanded that she leave everything alone. She agreed. Yet he could hear her in his kitchen, rearranging the cabinets again.
He had no other choice but to tell her to go. Maybe this time she’d pay attention.
Yeah, right. And maybe the world is coming to an end.
Hearing footsteps draw near, he winced. He should have bought a television for his bedroom months ago when he first realized she wasn’t going to leave, but it had seemed too much like giving her permission to stay. And now he was trapped.
Isabel came and perched on the arm of his easy chair. “What are you watching?”
He focused his gaze on the screen. A young woman, whose studied perfection made her look as though she were dipped in plastic, was denouncing the latest White House scandal.
“Makes me sick.” Chet clicked off the television. “When one of us little people breaks the law, it’s a crime. When the big, important people break the law, it’s a scandal.”
“I wanted to watch that.” Isabel made a grab for the remote, but he held it out of reach.
“We have to talk, Mom.”
“I asked you not to call me that. Do I look like a mom to you?”
He had to admit she didn’t. She’d been waxed, creamed, botoxed, and still managed to look fresh and natural. And beautiful. Her artfully streaked blonde hair framed a perfect oval face and periwinkle-blue eyes.
He stiffened his spine. “I need my space, Isabel. I keep telling you that, but you don’t listen.”
Her eyes widened in a show of innocence. “I never encroach on your space. I know what it’s like to have an overbearing mother.” She ruffled his hair. “I’ve tried to be your friend, which is more than my mother did. She smothered me, needing everything done her way. You’re lucky to have me for a mother.”
“It’s time for you to go home. You came for a week’s visit six months ago—” A ghastly thought struck him. “You didn’t sell the house, did you?”
“No, though with prices in Castle Rock the way they are, I could get a fortune for it. Since you won’t come back home to live, maybe I should sell it, buy a house here in Denver big enough for you to have your own suite of rooms. Or we could get side-by-side condos.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t want to be cruel, but at times that was the only way to get through to her.
“I like my apartment. I just want to be alone in it.”
She gave him a vague look, and he wondered if she was on something. He sniffed. Not pot. Could be diet pills.
“You only live forty-five minutes away, you can visit whenever you want. And I’ll come for dinner once a week like always. I’ll even cook.”
“Don’t do me any favors. I just hope someday you have a child of your own so you will know what I have suffered. Are we done talking? Give me the remote. I want to watch the news.”
He handed her the remote and sagged back in the chair.
Isabel turned on the television.
The plastic woman said brightly, “This afternoon a jury convicted Ricky Warneke of murdering and mutilating three women.”
The screen went black.
“Something must be wrong with the cable,” Isabel said. “I’ll call them tomorrow.”
After thirty seconds of whistles, hums, and buzzes, the picture came back on. Instead of the anchorperson, the head of a gnomish man with a round, bespectacled face, a bald pate, and a receding chin filled the screen.
“I am Bob, the Right Hand of God. As part of the galactic renewal program, God has accepted an offer from a development company on the planet Xerxes to turn Earth into a theme park. Not even God can stop progress, but to tell the truth, He’s glad of the change. He’s never been satisfied with Earth. For one thing, there are too many humans on it. He’s decided to eliminate anyone who isn’t nice, and because He’s God, He knows who you are; you can’t talk your way out of it as you humans normally do. For another thing—”
Isabel clicked off the television and stood up. “We must have missed the news.”
Clutching the remote, she stalked to the guestroom and shut the door.
Chet continued to stare at the darkened screen. He would have liked to see more of Bob—looked like it could have been an interesting science fiction movie—but dealing with Isabel exhausted him. He didn’t have the energy to get up and manually turn the television back on.
Chet took the water and food bowls out of the dishwasher he’d installed in the back room of his pet store and dealt them out on the long wooden table. The cinderblock room did triple duty as an office, stockroom, and work area, which made moving around difficult, but he didn’t mind. It meant the animals up front could have bigger quarters, and they needed the space more than he did.
The orange marmalade cat jumped onto the table.
“I don’t know how to get her to leave,” Chet said.
The cat perked up its ears, but never took its eyes off the bowls.
“She’s my mother. I can’t just throw her out.” He hefted the bag of dry cat food, then paused, arrested by the image of himself pushing Isabel out the door of his apartment. He erased the tempting idea from his mind. When he was a child, she’d worked two jobs to support him, and he owed her. But maybe he could talk her into taking a vacation; retirement seemed to bore her, and a trip would give her something to do.
The cat butted his hand with its head.
Chet laughed. “All right, little partner. I’ll get back to work.” He filled two bowls with cat food, four with dog food, one with chicken feed, and one with a special formula for potbellied pigs. After filling the rest of the bowls with water, he loaded them on a stainless steel service cart and trundled the cart out to the sales floor, the orange cat following close on his heels.
The sight of the cages, terrariums, and aquariums stabbed his conscience. He tried to create a pleasant environment for the animals in his charge by using full-spectrum lights, lush tropical plants, and heat turned up a notch too high for his comfort. Still, the poor creatures lived in pens, and they had done nothing to deserve imprisonment except fall victim to the capriciousness of their former owners. The snakes, lizards, and tortoises had grown too big. The seeing-eye dog had gone blind. Last year’s Easter chicks had become unfluffy chickens. The cute little puppies had grown large and ugly. The supposedly spayed cat had gotten pregnant. The tropical birds grew too raucous. The potbellied pig didn’t like to be held. The Colorado River toad lost its appeal when its owner got sick after licking it to get high.
A few, like the European barn owl with the broken beak and the Australian frilled lizard with the bad leg had belonged to zoos until they became infirm.
Only the orange cat chose to be there. The feline had been waiting at the shop when Chet came to work two months ago and had slipped inside when Chet opened the door. After inspecting every inch of the place, the tom lifted a leg in each corner, gave one final stare at the animals in the cages, then plopped down on the stack of cat beds and took a nap. The orange cat had lived at the store ever since.
As Chet distributed the bowls, then fed the fish, birds, and small reptiles, he thought about the refuge he hoped to own one day. Though he loved his store, Used Pets, he wanted more for his lodgers than incarceration. He let them out of their cages when he could, but it didn’t often prove feasible with customers bumbling around, and of course, there was the problem with some of the creatures wanting to chew on the rest of the creatures. If he could get the down payment for a place with plenty of acreage, like a farm or a ranch, he could apply for grants and solicit donations. That money would allow him to create special habitats where discarded pets of all kinds and old or unwanted animals from zoos and circuses could roam free. Everyone, even the fur and feather people, deserved liberty.
A chime intruded into Chet’s thoughts. A second passed before he recognized the sound as the bell over the door heralding a visitor. He seldom heard the peal so clearly; usually the clamor of the birds and animals drowned out the fainter noise.
John Pellizari, the wiry forty-three-year-old butcher who owned the shop two doors down, dumped a large parcel on the service cart. The heavy white paper wrapping did nothing to contain the reek of meat scraps, fat, entrails, and dead mice.
Chet wrinkled his nose. “My daily reminder of why I’m a vegetarian.”
John laughed. “You and me both. Sally wants you to come this Sunday and spend Easter with us. It’s supposed to be warm, so we’re going to have our first cookout of the season. Garbanzo burgers with Bermuda onions and a big salad—your favorite.”
“Sounds great, but I don’t know if I can.”
“Why not? Oh. Your mother. She still at your place?”
“I’d invite her, too, but the last time we had her over she made Sally cry.”
Sally, John’s wife, had the bubbly personality of a perennial cheerleader, but Isabel had found the younger woman’s weak spot: the twenty extra pounds she retained after the birth of her sixth child. Chet had been appalled at the pointed remarks Isabel had shot at her. He still didn’t know why his mother had been so unpleasant to Sally—until then, she had saved her barbs for his girlfriends.
John gave him a sympathetic look. “You’re never going to find a woman to marry with her hanging around. You turned thirty-five last month; you should be starting a family of your own.”
“I know, but I don’t want a wife. Don’t they say that guys end up marrying somebody like their mothers? I couldn’t stand that.”
“There’s always divorce.”
“Now that’s romantic. ‘Honey, will you marry me? I promise to love you until you turn into my mother, then I’ll divorce you and live happily ever after.’ ”
John chuckled. “Works for me.”
“Don’t let Sally hear you say that. And anyway, what if we had kids? I would be tied to my mother-clone forever and ever and ever.”
“I feel your pain. Let me know about Sunday, okay?”
“Definitely. And thank you for . . .” He nodded at the parcel.
John started to leave, hesitated, and turned back. “Does it feel a little strange to you today?”
“I don’t know. Just a creepy feeling I have, like a storm’s coming.” He twitched his shoulders. “Probably nothing. Maybe I let that Bob thing get to me.”
“What Bob thing?” Chet asked.
“Some guy pulled an April Fool’s prank last night. Hacked into the television signal. Claimed he was The Right Hand of God. Silly, but I’ve been feeling creepy all day.”
“I thought it was a movie.”
“Nope. A friend of mine at Channel Ten told me they lost the signal for about five minutes.”
Chet shivered. “Now I’ve got the creeps. Thanks a lot.”
After John left, a man in jogging shorts entered. “I saw a flyer down at my health club about jogging with a pal. I need the exercise, but I hate running alone. Thought I’d sign up for your program.”
Chet gave the man a short form to fill out—name, address, phone and credit card numbers—then introduced him to the dogs.
The man flinched when they came to an especially unattractive and ungainly animal with grizzled fur and red eyes.
“What kind of dog is that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“He’s his own dog. He looks vicious, but he’s gentle, a bit of a clown, and loves to run.”
The man pointed to the German shepherd. “What about him?”
“He’s gentle, too, and a good runner, but he’s blind.”
“Oh.” The man bounced on the balls of his feet for a minute, looking from one to the other. “Okay if I borrow both of them?”
The two dogs quivered with excitement as Chet let them out of their cages and fastened their leashes. He opened the door, and they were out in a flash, towing the jogger along behind.
Chet smiled. Finding good homes for used dogs and other pets was a challenge, but he’d come up with a few marketing strategies that worked. Jog-With-a-Pal, for example. Several people had become so fond of their jogging companions that they offered them a home. Same with the Pet-a-Pal and Hug-a-Pet programs he’d initiated at the senior centers in the area.
The rank odor of meat reminded him he hadn’t finished feeding his charges. He took the butcher’s parcel into the back and portioned it out as quickly as he could. Snakes, lizards, and other carnivores had to eat, but still . . . yuck.
At least John brought dead stuff; Chet didn’t know if he could bear feeding the creatures live food.
The chiming of the bell over the door reverberated through the quiet store. All day the animals, especially the birds, had been uncharacteristically silent. Chet thought John was right about something strange going on. But what? Not a storm. Usually the extra electricity in the air preceding a storm made the creatures animated, not lethargic. Unless, perhaps, the storm was gathering strength, like a tidal wave sucking water away from the shore before crashing down upon it.
Deciding he had too active an imagination, Chet went to wait on his customers—a woman and a little boy in search of a puppy.
“I’m sorry. I don’t sell puppies.” While managing a pet store in the mall, he learned the horrors of puppy mills, and now that he had his own store, he refused to support those businesses.
“Kitty!” The boy toddled over to the orange cat and squatted down to study it.
The cat stared back, its emerald eyes narrowed to slits.
“Does it have a name?” the woman asked.
“I’m sure it does.”
“Well? What is it?”
“I don’t know. He never told me.”
Her brows drew together. “How much do you want for it?”
“He’s not for sale; he’s my business partner. But I have a litter of kittens that will be weaned in another week.”
“I really wanted a puppy.”
“Would you please take one step to your right, Ma’am?”
Chet gestured to the knee-high frilled lizard that had released itself from the cage and, on its hind legs, was running laps from wall to wall.
Stifling a shriek, the woman scooped up the boy and scurried outside.
Chet reached into a pocket for the small bag of lemon drops he always carried and popped one in his mouth while he watched the little dragon. The zoo had kept it in a cage too small to allow it freedom of movement, and a muscle in a hind leg had atrophied, but now that it got plenty of exercise, the leg seemed to have healed.
When the lizard finished its laps and scampered back to its cage, Chet looked down at the orange cat. “Would you watch the store for me? I’d like to run next door to see if Rosemary has any stale flowers for the tortoises.”
The cat licked a paw then washed behind an ear.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Rosemary Gibbs greeted Chet with a broad smile. He knew she liked him, and he felt comfortable with her, but they had never dated. And as long as his mother was staying with him, they never would. It wouldn’t be fair to Rosemary.
“I’ve been saving these for you.” Rosemary handed him a bouquet of tulips, irises, and daffodils that had begun to turn brown around the edges.
“Wow. Perfect. Thank you.”
She giggled, sounding younger than her thirty years. “I’ve never known anyone to be so pleased at getting a bunch of old flowers.”
“It doesn’t matter how they look. It’s how they taste.”
“That’s what everyone says.” She drew in a breath and exhaled with a flurry of words. “Will you go out with me tonight?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“When your mother leaves, will you?”
“How did you know . . . John. He told you about my mother, didn’t he?”
“I asked him why you didn’t have a girlfriend. I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re sort of cute.” She blushed. “You must think I’m a total idiot.”
“I think you’re smart and very pretty.” And her eyes seemed to look on the world with amusement. Why shouldn’t he go out with her? He didn’t have to be a monk just because his mother wouldn’t leave.
No, he had to wait; he couldn’t bear his mother trampling over another budding romance.
He raised a hand in farewell. “I’d better go check on the store. Talk to you later.”
A kid in his late teens or early twenties with drooping trousers that exposed his dingy blue boxer short waited by the front counter, a wire cage at his feet. Approximately eighteen inches high, the enclosure appeared to be filled with scarlet, blue and yellow feathers.
A low-pitched squeak came from the mass of feathers, and Chet realized a live scarlet macaw had been scrunched into the cage. He clenched his hands and glared at the kid. I’d like to stuff you into a space half your size and see how you like it.
The kid grinned, displaying large teeth and a tongue ring. “Some dude told me you buy used pets. How much will you give me for this . . . um . . . this parrot?”
“A hundred dollars? You trying to cheat me? It’s worth at least a thousand.”
The bird looked half-dead from mistreatment and starvation. When raised in a loving atmosphere, a macaw was an affectionate creature, but when mistreated, it could be vicious. Even if the bird survived, it would probably be unsalable.
“A hundred and twenty. Take it or leave it.” You little shit.
“You can’t do that.”
“I’m not the one trying to peddle an almost dead bird.” Chet started to walk away.
“Okay, okay, but I want cash.”
Chet strode to the cash register and pulled out six twenties. The kid grabbed the money and bolted from the store, almost tripping on his pant legs.
The orange cat circled the cage. The macaw let out another feeble squeak.
Chet lifted the cage and gently set it on the counter. “You’ll be free in just a minute, little one.”
He went into the back room for a dish of nuts and seeds, a peeled banana, and a bowl of water. He set them in front of the cage, then opened the door and stepped back.
The bird did not move.
Maybe he should try to pull it out? No. One thing the creature didn’t need was more rough handling. It would come out when ready.
While he waited for the macaw to extricate itself, he popped another lemon drop into his mouth.
The candy dissolved into tart nothingness, and still the macaw didn’t move.
Without warning, the exotic birds in their oversized cages flapped their wings, squawking and screaming. The dogs yipped. The snakes coiled and uncoiled. The fish churned their waters.
And from a distance came the sound of gunfire.