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The Deprogrammer

 Robert M. Price


“… and we’ll appreciate anything you can do for Ginny, Mr. Brigham.” You would think she was talking to her minister, thought Ted Brigham as he hung up the phone. Let her talk any way she wanted as long as she came through with his check. Swiveling in his chair, Brigham took one last glance at the thought before letting it slip away. Her minister! Here he was doing the job her minister couldn’t do. Doing the job that probably nobody would be doing if it weren’t for naïve ministers opening doors they couldn’t lock again. Filling kids’ heads with beliefs they’d take more seriously than their mealy-mouthed parsons ever thought of doing. Ted Brigham was no minister, not much of a believer either. Yet religion was his business. He was a deprogrammer. Upper middle-class parents paid him (and boy did they pay him) to catch their precious kids after they’d flown the gilded coop.

In the old days, Brigham’s days, they’d just up and run away. In the 60s they grew their hair long, stopped bathing, and became hippies. Now the fad was religious cults. Little junior’s been fed heaven and hell in Sunday School till he’s got catechism coming out of his ears. He goes away to college, majors in business or poly sci, and sets to work on a sheepskin passport. Destination: the great American middle class, just like Mom and Dad. Almost like a homing instinct. But sometimes something goes wrong. All that religious tranquilizer they fed the kid Sunday mornings suddenly ferments. The opium of the people turns in LSD, and junior takes a running jump into the Moonies, the Krishnas, or God knows what crazy-house. That’s when the folks back home call in Ted Brigham or one of his many competitors.

You should hear them explain, almost apologize, as if instead of a deprogrammer, Mom and Dad were talking to God. “Really, he was always so happy at home. We got along fine, didn’t we, hon? And he was just the model student – head of the yearbook staff, A’s in all his classes. But now he’s quite school mid-semester and never even contacts us anymore We don’t know what we did wrong – did we do anything wrong? We’re pretty religious. You’re on the board of deacons, aren’t you hon? We just can’t figure it out.”

Brigham could never understand why they even tried. Look, who can figure anything out when it comes right down to it? The thing that matters now, he would always assure them, was to get their pride and joy out of the clutches of the cult (and back into their clutches) – by the hair if necessary. And it usually was necessary. These cults knew what they were doing. You don’t invite desertion by letting recruits visit home sweet home in the heat of combat. If you ever saw your kid again, you were lucky. And then you’d wish you hadn’t. The glassy eyes and stereotyped script (“Hi! Life is so exciting when you’re giving your all for God! And that’s just what Reverend Moon/Moses David/Guru Maharaj Ji is showing me how to do!”).

No, junior wasn’t about to stop in for a casual chat. You had to fight fire with fire. So you call up Cult HQ and ask to speak to junior: “It’s an emergency.” You tell the little robot that a relative’s died or something. By now he’s been hammered into a mental state where he’s liable to believe anything with a little prodding, so he’s not hard to convince. Won’t he just come home for the funeral? It would mean so much to everyone, and it would be an opportunity for them to try and understand his new faith … Amazingly, more often than not junior actually walks wide-eyed into the trap! (They’d have to start wising up soon, though, so Ted and his sharper competitors were already trying new strategies.) Once the family meets the kid-saint and they exchange uneasy hugs, it’s into the car. It isn’t too long before the poor sap notices the car isn’t headed over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. No, the car’s taking him to the last place he wanted to see – the real world.

The parents usually have a hard time with the idea of their baby being tied to a chair and verbally barraged for days on end. Because of this Ted would wait till they actually got to the hotel room to break the news. By this time, they’d feel more foolish for backing down they they’d feel guilty for putting junior though it. And, Ted would assure them, no harm would come to him. Brigham was just going to talk some sense into him. And God knows these brain-washed zombies aren’t going to listen to it unless you literally tie them to the chair.

Ted Brigham had gone through the whole routine scores of times since he’d gotten into deprogramming. And he seemed to have a knack for it. His success rate was one of the best. Scarcely any of the one he deprogrammed ever “reverted” and rejoined their cult. Maybe Ted’s secret was his earnestness. The kids could see it in his eyes. They could tell he was really on their side; he had their best interests at heart after all. Too many deprogrammers made it into a contest. The kid would be admitting personal defeat if he finally gave in to the treatment. Not with Brigham. He realized that you had to make the kid think that chucking this religious hysteria was his idea. That all the deprogrammer had done was to prompt a little thought.

But no matter how winning your bedside manner, nothing would happen if you didn’t know the questions to ask. So Brigham set to work immediately. He stepped over to his bookcase to begin his research into the cult Ginny Salamone had joined. He couldn’t afford to waste time since they were shooting for the first session tomorrow night. And when Mrs. Salamone mentioned the name of the cult, Brigham had drawn a blank. He’d said, “Sure, I know all about ’em. Dealt with ’em many a time.” But he hadn’t. In fact he wasn’t completely sure he’d even heard of them, but he couldn’t tell the old lady that. No sense risking losing the job to a big outfit like the Freedom of Thought Foundation.

What had she called it? The … um, Starry Wisdom Sect. Brigham reached for Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults. He opened it to the table of contents and scanned it. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Black Muslims … zilch. Hell, Martin didn’t even cover the Moonies or the Children of God. He needed something more up to date. How about Melton’s Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America? That had helped him before. But no. Twenty minutes of paging through similar volumes turned up nothing. Next he tried the case books. A couple of years back, deprogrammers had started compiling reports of representative cases so everybody wouldn’t have to learn it all from scratch. But recently the field had gotten more crowded, and tricks of the trade became trade secrets. Nobody would share. So the case books only went up to last year, and the index showed nothing about any “Starry Wisdom” group.

Okay, the name sounded like it might have something to do with astrology. It was a long-shot, but there might be some connection. Hadn’t there been some kook in New York a few years back who did horoscopes for actors and celebrities? One day the cops broke in and found the guy leading a prayer-vigil around a week-old corpse. They were trying to resurrect the poor stiff, and after a while the neighbors couldn’t stand the smell. The guru jumped out the window and died. Wonder if his own horoscope had said “Watch out for cops and corpses today?”

No, that was the only real astrological cult. If he didn’t find some lead soon, he’d have to call the Salamones back and tell them to forget it. But that thought didn’t sit too well with his wallet. Only one thing left to try – the clipping file. There was the usual sheaf about the Moonies, their being sued and suing back, then the Children of God getting arrested for religious prostitution, and of course Jonestown. Brigham flipped past the file on the feuding polygamists in Utah, past the bank-robbing Black Muslim splinter groups. Fortunately nobody had ever asked him to snatch somebody from those bastards! So far his biggest risks were little more than a kick or a bite from an enraged Krishna.

Toward the back of the file, right before the folder on Manson, he hit pay dirt. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Starry Wisdom was the subject of a brief newspaper item from six months before: “City Plans Probe into Cult Fundraising Practices.” The story was so typical it hadn’t stuck in his memory. He was surprised in retrospect that he’d even bothered to clip the article. One cult was like the next when it came to money – always trying to con you into giving to this nonexistent charity or that phony front organization. Come to think of it, that’s why he’d clipped the item; he himself had been approached by someone from the Starry Wisdom Sect with a typical pitch, and he’d seen this story in the paper the next week. Standard accusations – kids kidnapped and brainwashed, working all hours handing the money over to the leader of the cult, one Enoch Bowen.

It seemed that the sect claimed to be in communication with extraterrestrial beings. Of course – UFO nuts. Now it was falling into place. These flying saucer fruitcakes had traditionally kept to themselves, but back in 1976, a couple of fanatics in the Southwest said they were reincarnated spacemen and got a hell of a lot of people to just walk off their jobs and follow them into the desert. The story was that they were going to meet the “mother ship” that would take them all to planet X or wherever. From then on UFO groups began to enter the marketplace with the rest of the cults. Starry Wisdom must be one of them. And that explained the obviously phony name of the leader – “Enoch.” That was the name of the wise man in the Bible whom God took straight up into heaven. No doubt that’s what the Reverend Bowen predicted for himself and his followers. They’d pass through the pearly gates aboard a spaceship. Captain Kirk, move over.

Who knew what the hell they we’re doing with the money they collected? More likely than not, Bowen was putting it toward some paradise here on earth, far enough away that when he skipped the country his followers would believe he’d gone to the great beyond. All these guys were the same. The regular Sunday ministers, too, though few of them had the guts to pull the sort of scam Bowen was pulling. They were all in religion for the bucks. Ted Brigham sure was, so he really couldn’t blame them.

He still didn’t know quite enough to give Ginny Salamone a good run for her fanaticism. Maybe on more lead, after all. Brigham opened a drawer and pulled out his address-and-number book. The binding was cracked. He’d either have to start memorizing numbers or invest in a more expensive book. Soon he thumbed his way to the listing for “Horizon House.” The name was a cute pun. The horizon is halfway between heaven and earth, right? Well, the operation was a sort of halfway-house run by the local council of churches for kids who had quit or been deprogrammed from cults. Maybe they would know something more about Starry Wisdom.

It took a few seconds to hunt through the scratched-out numbers and find the latest one. Horizon House was periodically forced to change its number because of crank calls and threats. Unbelievable; what a line of work.

On the fourth ring, somebody picked up. “Horizon House. May I help you?” Ted recognized the voice of Mitch Ames. His “Father Flanigan of Boystown” impression was up to par.

“I hope you can help me, Mitch. I’ve got a job tomorrow night, and not much ammo.”

“Well, saints preserve us – it’s ‘Brigham Back Alive!’”

“Come on, knock it off with that crap, Mitch.” He added with a note of false gravity, “I’ve got a matter of spiritual life or death here! You ought to be able to appreciate that!”

“Sure, Ted. What’s up?”

“Mitch, have you ever put up anybody from something called the ‘Starry Wisdom Sect’? Have you heard of it?”

“Actually, I have heard of it, but you probably already know more about it than I do. I got to thinking once that it’s kind of odd we haven’t had anybody here from that cult. I even got curious enough to ask a few of your esteemed colleagues about it. How come they seemed to dig up every other garden variety but never brought us anyone from this Starry Wisdom cult?”

“Yeah, so?” Ted’s interest was beginning to grow, along with a hint of unease. “What’d they say?”

“Mostly shrugs. But one seemed to know something he didn’t say. I just got the impression there was some good reason. But as to what – beats me.”

“Maybe the jerk’s on their payroll, huh? It’s probably just chance. Don’t worry, pal. If this job comes off as planned, you’ll have a ‘Starry Wisdom’ specimen for your collection. After I deprogram their precious daughter, Mom and Dad’ll jump at any advice I give them. And what could be better than a relaxing convalescence at Horizon House, right?”

“You’re good to me, Ted. I’m sorry I can’t be more help to you this time.”

“No problem, Mitch. I’ll collect another time.”

“Oh, say Ted – one more thing. You’ll be glad to know that we’re thinking of starting a retirement home for over-the-hill deprogrammers, and I’m reserving an oxygen tent just for you.”

“Yeah. Thanks a lot, pal. I may need it after a few more of these jokes.”

Brigham decided he’d take off for a seminary library. Maybe that would yield some new information. In the meantime, he’d phone up O’Rourke and Graves. They were a couple of husky ex-college football players he’d deprogrammed a year before. They were so grateful to Brigham for helping them “see the light” (or maybe stop seeing it), that they were happy to help him snatch other cultists. In fact, their zeal was almost religious. The poor dopes couldn’t see they were just doing the same thing as before, only playing for the other team. Who cares? They were willing to donate their time and energy for only a fraction of what they were worth. And now Brigham needed them to ride along behind the Salamones’ car make sure they meeting with Ginny went off all right.


*   * * *   *


The next day was overcast, and it had begun to rain lightly as Brigham turned off the interstate. He clicked on the wipers, then stepped on the brakes softly to slow his pace earlier than usual. Even with a sprinkle like this, the ramp might be slippery. No use taking chances, he thought.

A couple of minutes later, he pulled into the Holiday Inn parking lot. Sure enough, there was O’Rourke’s van. The Lincoln beside it must belong to the Salamones. They’d be expecting him. He never minded being a little late; it gave the “patient” a chance to work up a little … anticipation. By the time they’d had a chance to sweat a bit, they’d have lent Brigham’s entrance twice as much dramatic effect as it deserved. They’d be so sure he was a vampire come to suck out their little souls, that they’d be downright grateful when they saw how regular a guy he was. They’d usually be so relieved that their defenses would fall noticeably. It would be much easier to get them to listen to reason.

The only thing that had Brigham the slightest bit worried was that he hadn’t been able to come up with much more background information. But that was probably okay. He’d just throw a mishmash of the same charges he always made against Moon or other gurus. Then he’d shift gears and remind Ginny how good it had been to be free and on her own – to make up her own mind what she wanted to do, where she wanted to go, what to do with her money. And ultimately it didn’t matter what you said. The important thing was to wear them down. They’d give in. And if it took hours, even days, so much the better. His fee would be that much higher.

His shoes crunched on the gravel of the parking lot as he headed for room 18. They used to excuse this stuff by claiming they were saving the money on their low room-rates. At 60 to 70 bucks a night, he wondered what their excuse was now. Well, he wasn’t paying for the suite today. It was unlocked. Brigham had told them to make sure it was a suite since they’d want one room to wait in, and another for the deprogramming.

That must be the Salamones. Dad had on, of all things, an orange leisure suit. That alone might send you off to join a cult, or make you think the old guy was in one himself. Not letting his contempt show, he shook hands with Salamone. As he introduced himself, Mom walked over, having finished reassuring O’Rourke that there was to be no unnecessary force. It was probably the third time in twenty minutes.

Brigham found himself almost embarrassed at the respect, even the awe, they showed him. “She’s in your hands now, Mr. Brigham.” As if he were a doctor about to give their daughter brain surgery. Come to think of it, that wasn’t a bad way to put it …

“You don’t need to worry, Mr. and Mrs. Salamone. Ginny is an intelligent girl. All she needs is for somebody to put things in perspective for her. That’s all. We might as well get right at it.”

As he stepped into the adjoining room, he recognized Graves’ large frame silhouetted against the window. The girl must not be too talkative. Her back was toward him as he came through the door. Her hands were tied behind her.

“Hey, why no lights?” Ted said with mock surprise as he clicked them on. Of course, he had ordered them shut off, just for the atmosphere. The idea was to give the “patient” that sense of relief when he turned the lights back on. (“Hey this guy’s not so bad after all; maybe I’ll trust him.”)

He stepped around to face her. Not much of an expression, but what a face! She didn’t get it from Mom, that’s for sure. And from the looks of it she was trying not to keep it. She was very pretty, not quite beautiful, though almost. She had begun to look pale and drawn. No doubt all those hours of work, little sleep, and starchy meals. Bowen’s mission must be more important than their health. Stupid kids just couldn’t see when they were being exploited, any more than O’Rourke and Graves could.

What galled Brigham the most sometimes was the way these cults screwed up kids who had a lot going for them, like Ginny. Kind of like you convinced Miss August to enter a convent. As if they were punishing themselves for being talented, sexy, or whatever. He almost felt like saying “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

He sat down opposite her and waved for Graves to leave them alone. At this she seemed to stiffen with apprehension. “Nothing to worry about, Ginny. I’m Ted, and I just want to talk. You can guess what about.” He waited, giving her a chance to spit a couple of remarks at him. Might as well let her put her cards on the table, he thought. But she said nothing. Well, then …

“I guess you know your parents are pretty worried about this group you’ve joined, Ginny. Maybe you think they’re just misguided. Like, they love you but they just don’t understand. But maybe they understand better than you think, Ginny. Isn’t there something strange about a group that won’t let you answer letters from your own family? Doesn’t it sound like they don’t want you to think for yourself? I just want you to think about that, Ginny. And to tell me what you think.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she began to speak, but in low tones, and in a language Brigham didn’t recognize. It was some kind of chant, like the one the Krishnas use. Through clenched teeth, Ginny began to repeat pure gibberish: “ngaiyggb’gg-sh’ggaishigama hondaioliorashimik’thun f’taghn …”

Brigham tried to interrupt. By now she was repeating the same thing over and over again, and there was no point in listening to any more of it. “C’mon, Ginny. You’re not going to pull that on me, are you? Don’t you see that the sooner we can talk this thing out, the sooner we’ll all be able to leave?” He had almost said “the sooner we’ll be able to go back home,” which would have been a mistake, because that’s the last place she wanted to go.

In the next hour, he tried everything to goad her into responding, but Ginny just kept chanting, never so much as stumbling over a syllable, any one of which sounded like a tongue-twister. Ted was getting a bit nervous now. He had run through all he knew or even surmised about the Starry Wisdom Sect or Reverend Enoch Bowen. If she’d even tried to rebut his accusations, her replies would have given him more material to work with. But nothing. And it was unsettling pretending you were talking to someone who just ignored you and chanted. “Okay, Ginny, I’m gonna go out for a cup of coffee …”

“… ngai …”

“I’ll send my friend back in here with some …”

“… ygg b’ggsh’’ggai …”

“… lunch for you. And if you change your mind and decide to talk …”

Shigamahondai …”

“… I’m sure you’ll find Stan Graves is a good listener.”

“… oliorashimi k’thun f’taghn …”

What a psycho! After conveying to the Salamones a little of the assurance that he wished he felt, Brigham left them and O’Rourke to the idiotic game show they were watching. As he strolled down to the motel coffee shop, he wondered just what tactic he should try next. Would she get tired of chanting, and talk? Should he pretend to be open to her side of the story? Should he maybe slap her around just a bit? No, that only tended to reinforce their martyr-complex and convince them you were the devil himself.

He had just ordered when a slightly threadbare fellow, a “clean old man,” sat down on the stool beside him. Brigham noticed he had a worn-looking Bible with him which he laid on the counter, carefully placing it on top of his newspaper. Having all the crazies he needed already, Brigham tried to ignore the man. But he would not be ignored. Inevitably, he tried to strike up a conversation. “I must say you appear to be deep in thought, my friend!” Why hedge? thought Brigham. It’ll take more imagination than I’ve got left to be evasive. “Yeah … deep in thought’s what I am, all right. I got a friend I’m trying to talk some sense into. She’s joined some wacko bunch that believes in flying saucers and little green men.”

“Don’t be too quick to scoff, my friend.” Picking up his Bible, the old man went on: “Scripture says not to sit in the seat of the scorner.” What kind of a can of worms have I opened up here? Brigham moaned mentally. Probably the old geezer had been just waiting for something like this to set him off.

“But wait a minute, pal, I didn’t think you Bible-thumpers believed in UFO’s. I thought that was somebody else’s trip.”

“Well, I only know what the Word of God says, and in Revelations chapter one and verse twenty, it says ‘The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.’ And in the original language, that word ‘angel,’ why, it just means ‘messenger.’ So who’s to say there aren’t people coming down to see us from the stars?”

Where’d he get this? Garner Ted Armstrong? He felt like saying “Listen buddy, I’d like to start a file on you, maybe even deprogram you if I had the time, but I gotta get back to another nut!” Instead he said simply, “I guess so; that’s one way to look at it. Gee, mister, I don’t want to be rude but I’m pressed for time, and I’d like to plan what to do next.”

“Sure, son. Just don’t be too quick to mock what you may not understand.” He patted Brigham on the back and walked out. He didn’t even order anything, Brigham thought. It might have struck him even stranger if he’d had time to let it. But back to the business at hand.

By the time he’d finished his Danish, he had about decided to fall back on a general refutation of flying saucer myths. If she still wanted to chant, he’d just have to speak over it. He’d run down several cases of groups who thought they’d been contacted by extraterrestrials, groups like the Aetherius Society, the Solar Light Center, the Friends of Venus, and more. And how every last one of them made awful fools of themselves when D-Day came, but no flying saucers. And what made her think her cult was any different? Maybe that would budge her a little, if only to get her to defend her cult. That would at least be something. If she’d just start to talk, real words that is.

He paid, got up, and started back down the sidewalk to the room. Something made him give a quick thought to the old man. Sometimes he wondered if the sane people were actually in the minority. If it were true, he just hoped he stayed in the minority. He remembered reading once how some agnostic used to look at religious nuts and say, “There, but for the lack of the grace of God, go I.” Amen to that.

Brigham was only a few yards from the door when he heard the commotion. First there was something like a wrenching crash, followed by screaming, suddenly choked off. Then another sound less easy to identify. As he sprinted the rest of the way, he thought to himself, what the hell can Graves be doing to the girl? Has he gone crazy? As he stumbled into the room he saw the Salamones and O’Rourke all trying to force the door to the other room. Apparently, it had jammed, or else with all the confusion they couldn’t figure out the lock.

Mrs. Salamone was yelling “I told them not to hurt her! I told them to be careful!” O’Rourke pushed the Salamones away and got the door unlocked. One glimpse inside, and he turned to push them away, across the room in fact. Brigham took the opportunity to step into the next room. As he did so, he felt he had walked face-first into a wall. The shock and the smell combined to send him reeling. At first it seemed the room, though a mess, was empty. The windows were still secured, there were no other doors, yet no one was there. Glancing at the chair that had held the defiant Ginny, all Brigham saw were severed ropes. Then he noticed that the room wasn’t completely deserted after all. For though Ginny was indeed nowhere to be found, poor Graves was still there. In fact, here, there, and everywhere. He had been splattered all over the room.


*   * * *   *


He sat, pensive for the moment, on Mitch’s couch.

“What’s wrong, Ted – coffee no good?” Mitch had dispatched the innocuous probe, hoping to elicit some clue about his friend’s deliberations. At least he hoped they were deliberations. The same intermittent lapses into silence often marked shock trauma in some of the young people that came to Horizon House.

The comment worked, dissipating momentarily Ted Brigham’s bemused fog. “No, no, the coffee’s fine, Mitch; it’s your advice that doesn’t taste right for some reason. And I’m not sure why – it’s usually as good as your coffee. Look, you know and I know it’s not safe for me around here. Sometimes if you blow a deprogramming and the kid escapes, he’ll get his cult to sue you, maybe even arrest you for kidnapping. It’s happened. But that’s not what I’m worried about. I’ve got a feeling that somebody’s got something a lot worse planned for me. You’re right; the cops don’t consider me under suspicion for … the, uh, mess with Graves. So I could take off; nothing’s stopping me. But the way it all happened … I just can’t imagine there’s much I could do to be safe from who or whatever could do that. If they wanted me, no precautions I could take would stop them from getting me.”

“So …?”

“This is just a hunch, and probably a suicidal one at that, but I’m going to try and get into this thing a little deeper.” Mitch’s eyes widened, despite his discipline of keeping a poker face during counseling sessions.

“Okay, I know you think I’ve been pushed over the edge by what I saw, but I haven’t. I’m not that squeamish. You’re forgetting some of the other things I did before I got into deprogramming. Listen to my reasoning for a second. I figure it this way: If I can find out anything about these Starry Wisdom cultists, maybe that’ll give me some sort of clue as to what to expect – say, whether they’d even be interested in catching up with me, and what they’d do to me if they did.”

Mitch conceded. “Ted, you obviously don’t need my permission, but maybe you could use my cooperation. I don’t know, maybe a crazy course of action is the only right one in a crazy situation. Will you keep in touch while you’re … looking around?”

Brigham thought for a second. “No, Mitch, because that could very easily pull you down into any hole I wind up in. It’s best that I sink just myself on this one. But here’s a deal for you … I will give you any information I come up with after it’s over. How’s that?”

After he’d decided that his nerves had settled as much as they were likely to, Brigham took off. The first thing he did back at the office was to clear his schedule. Several moms and dads would have to check out some other professional savior, and Ted knew several to recommend, hoping they’d return the favor sometime.

Nearly a month passed before anything occurred to him. And when it did, it practically wasn’t his own idea. And that made him just a tiny bit uneasy. It was, quite literally, handed to him. The leaflet read like the advance promo for a new science-fiction film: “The Space-Flight Ministry.” Sure enough, it was publicity for some kind of evangelistic crusade run by none other than the Starry Wisdom Sect.

Brigham hoped he looked no more the likely target than most people, but he invariably wound up receiving more tracts and pamphlets than your average passerby. After all, it was his business to keep up with this kind of thing. So whenever he saw somebody handing out slips of paper on the street corner, he’d take a second look.

Most people would spot the lone figure standing at the center of his circle of obnoxiousness. Some nameless zealot mechanically handing out – what would it be? A coupon for a free stomach pump at a fast food dive. A ticket to “the works” at the local massage parlor? Or a cheaply mimeographed message of salvation? Most people altered their trajectory slightly, so as to avoid the sidewalk pest without seeming too abrupt. Few wanted to get involved even to the extent of saying “outta my way.” Any who did allow the leaflet to be stuffed into their hand threw them in the gutter not two yards further down the walk.

But with Ted Brigham, it was just the reverse. He’d veer ever so slightly toward the pedestrian prophet. He’d reach out and grab the tract as noncommittally as possible. Then he’d look at it after rounding the corner. If it promised some new material for his file, he’d not only keep it; he might even go back and feign the interest of a wide-eyed seeker, hungry for spiritual truth. If it turned out to be a flyer for “a good time,” well, that, too, had its uses.

Ted’s eyes fairly bulged this time, when he saw it was the Starry Wisdom Sect he had encountered. But for the same reason, he didn’t want to risk going back to talk with the cultist. That would be too close for comfort – for all he knew, the cult had everyone watching out for him. Maybe this cultist had even recognized him. No, he’d wait and march into the lion’s den next week at the rally. Perhaps, suicidally, that’s what he’d decided to do.

The meeting wasn’t hard to find; somehow this obscure sect had managed to rent out the largest auditorium in the city. From the crowd pouring in, you’d think they were here for God’s first press conference in two thousand years. Of course, maybe they thought they were; now that he thought of it, Ted surmised most of them were cultists, sent in to pack the audience to impress the outsiders, like himself. And he was impressed. Even though he saw through the ruse, it said something that Starry Wisdom had this many people in the area. You wouldn’t have thought so. From the look of it, they were probably giving the Methodists a run for their money.

As he filed slowly down along the packed aisle and down between the rows of seats, he had time to study the set-up of the place. It was hard to miss the huge kindergarten-style banners, the colored felt jobs with cut-out letters that had become the rage in most churches in recent years. Ted always suspected that churches were places where you could return to the toyland of yesteryear, so at least this was appropriate décor. At least the big banners were easy to read, with their yellow letter on a bright green background. But understanding them was a different story. Here was one announcing, WE SHALL ALL BE CHANGED IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE (I COR. 15;51-52). Over there one said, OUT OF EGYPT I HAVE CALLED MY SON (MATT. 2:15). Ted was reminded of just how much he didn’t know about the Starry Wisdom Church.

His eyes wandered to the platform, where sprawled a massive pile of electronic equipment; speakers, screens and things harder to identify. Well, he had come expecting a show, and it looked like he wasn’t going to be disappointed. But you couldn’t really expect to escape being preached at, and sure enough, there was the lectern. Who would it be? If he was lucky, maybe he would finally get a look at the evasive Reverend Enoch Bowen.

His gaze swept out over the rest of the audience, partly to kill time till the crusade got under way, partly out of wariness. After all, somebody must know he was here by now. Here and there you could pick out pockets of cultists who didn’t bother to hide it, P/R or no P/R. A few rows down, there was a little group singing and clapping some jaunty chorus, but Brigham couldn’t make out the words through the general buzz of the crowd. Across in the next section there were a few kids, hands raised, eyes half-closed, speaking in tongues. Even if you could make out the words, it wouldn’t help. Then a couple of smiling ushers passing out leaflets. He’d have to get one of those, he mentally noted. Pretty empty stuff, most likely – just beaming faces and testimonies of a few satisfied converts – but anything to fatten his new “Starry Wisdom” file would help. He didn’t want to get caught short again. But listen to him … he couldn’t be sure he and his ass were ever going to be healthy enough to do any deprogramming again. No, he might wind up learning a lot more about this cult than he ever wanted to know.

But why worry about that at the moment? There’s less to worry about if you stay alert, so back to the crowd. Brigham noticed the typical long-haired “seekers,” the kids that seemed to try on any new creed like a new shirt and then discard it. These clowns were so fickle that even most of the cults weren’t interested in them. Neither were most deprogrammers. Since, given time, they’d probably drop out of any group with no outside prompting, grabbing and trying to deprogram them was usually counterproductive. You were just challenging them and giving them more reason than ever to stay in it. Then they were likely to become true believers like …

Ginny Salamone! Good God, there she was! And her parents with her! They had seen him before he had seen them, and they were moving across the auditorium toward him. Brigham’s heart began to pound, probably just from acute confusion. What did this mean, seeing her with them? He had never been completely sure she hadn’t been obliterated in that motel room along with poor Graves, almost hoped she had been, though all the recoverable remains seemed to be Graves’. But here she was in the flesh, and that meant trouble. Or did it? After all, she was with her folks, and didn’t seem upset about it. Had the experience, whatever the hell it was, been too much for her, shocked her back into reality, and into Mom and Dad’s arms? One little flaw in that theory – they weren’t just together, they were together here, at a Starry Wisdom Crusade. And that meant … Here they were.

“Mr. Brigham! How wonderful to see you!” said Mrs. Salamone as she grabbed and pumped his hand a trifle overenthusiastically.

“Yes, we’d wondered what had happened to you!” echoed Dad.

“It’s … uh … quite a surprise to see all of you, especially you, Ginny,” Ted stammered mechanically. It was like they had all come back from the dead, and Ted Brigham was utterly dumbfounded. They wondered what had happened to him? Little Ginny had vanished out of a locked room at the same moment a man was blown to bits there, and by what? And you’d think everybody just got separated in a train station! The sheer enormity of the questions made it impossible to ask them. So how about a smaller but just as puzzling one – “Pardon my asking, but what are you folks doing here?” He expected, then realized he desperately hoped, Ginny would answer, but she didn’t. She just stood beside Mom and Dad watching Brigham’s face, radiating self-assurance, speaking through her parents. It was a strange reversal of roles, as if she were the deprogrammer, and he was squirming in the chair. He didn’t like it.

“Well, Mr. Brigham, as you can see, there’s no more trouble between us.” Mom moved to cut Dad off: “When we saw how her faith helped her though her … ordeal, we thought there might be something to it.” Ordeal? Did she mean the slaughter of Graves, and if so, did she know how Ginny escaped? Or did she mean the deprogramming itself, which would make Brigham the villain?

“She’s been a great comfort to us, and she was willing to meet us halfway. Which was more than we were willing to do at first, when we called you, I mean.” (She did consider him the villain.)

“And we thought her new faith deserved a second look. After all, we’ve been sort of cool on our own Presbyterian Church ever since they got so involved in social questions. Mr. Brigham, do you remember when they gave all that money to Angela Davis?”

“Yeah, uh yeah, Mrs. Salamone. I sure do. I’ve never been too hot on the Presbyterians myself.” Damn it, he couldn’t keep his eyes away from Ginny’s even when he was answering the old bag. He hated to show a breach in his defenses this way – she must know he was shaken. Well, he couldn’t get her to say a word to him before, but maybe on her own ground she’d feel more like talking. It was worth a try.

“Hey Ginny, are we going to get to see Bow … Reverend Bowen?”

She laughed, as if at an absurdity spoken by a child. “Oh, no one sees Reverend Bowen anymore.” She must have meant he had gone into seclusion, maybe to that real estate Ted suspected he had in some tropical clime. Still she had emphasized her words in an odd way, and Ted felt disturbed.

“Looks like things are about ready to start. I’m … uh, glad you’ve all settled your troubles. And, Ginny, I hope there’s no hard feelings …” Ted desperately hoped this. “… If you parents have no more problems with your beliefs, then I sure don’t either. It’s just my job, you understand …”

Ginny and her folks were already turning to leave. She gave him one more look that said she did understand. At least there was something she understood very well. They left to find their seats, closer to the front than his. Ginny, after all, was a member, probably even a candidate for sainthood after the deprogramming fiasco.

The evening’s speaker had assumed his position behind the pulpit. As with most cultists and fanatics, his body language suggested that he viewed the lectern as a kind of command center or control panel from which he was about to launch a psychological assault on his audience. When Ted got a good look at his face, he was somehow not surprised to find that the preacher was the very same Bible-toting pest he had brushed off in the Holiday Inn coffee shop! This meant one ominous thing to Brigham. This guy was obviously a big gun with the cult, and for him to get personally involved distracting Ted while Ginny made her escape meant that Ginny was somehow pretty important to them. This, in turn, meant that they probably weren’t going to let Ted off that easy. Judging by the condition they found Graves in, the Starry Wisdom Sect was not big on turning the other cheek.

The preachy sing-song tone sounded familiar as the man introduced himself as Reverend Baruch Rowley and began his presentation. “If you’re like me, your heart is grieved today when you look to the right and see young people enslaved in the bonds of drug addiction, and you look to the left and see their parents caught up in the rat-race of materialism. Both generations are equally at fault, Amen?”

A few scattered “amens” obediently echoed, punctuating Rowley’s run-on sentences with affirmation. If what he was saying lacked any inherent power to convince, maybe this sort of cheer-leading would make up the lack. Ted had heard the same tricks, and the same claptrap, before.

“I tell you, my friends, that everywhere you turn in this old world, you see folks that are part of the problem, not part of the solution! And, mind you, that’s why the prophet Isaiah said ‘We all like sheep have gone astray. We are turned everyone unto his own way.’ And that’s why today we need a salvation that’s not from this world. That’s why today whatever deliverance is going to come, is going to come from out there!” At this, Rowley swept his arm skyward, following with his eyes, apparently hoping to lead everyone else’s glance along behind.

“You know, that’s not just Baruch Rowley’s belief, and that’s not just the belief of this fine-looking group of young people that invited you here tonight. No sir, and no ma’am, that’s what the Word of God says, I’m here to tell you. But maybe you’ve read the Scriptures, and you don’t seem to recall ever reading anything like that. Well, let me ask you, didn’t David pray, ‘open mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things from Thy Word’? Yes, he did. And I bear witness that the Lord sent someone to open my eyes to some of those wondrous things. And that man was the Reverend Enoch Bowen, God’s man for this day and age.”

Many “amens” this time, full of spontaneous enthusiasm. Was Bowen going to appear to this accolade of his fans? From what Ginny said, Brigham didn’t think so, yet he felt sure Rowley was leading up to something. That weird bunch of equipment wasn’t piled up on stage just to amplify the old windbag’s voice. He practically didn’t even need the microphone anyway.

“Reverend Bowen opened the Scriptures to reveal the meaning of Saint Paul’s words in I Corinthians, chapter 15, ‘I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. These mortal bodies must put on immortality. For I tell you brethren, flesh and blood shall not inherit the Kingdom of God, neither shall the perishable inherit the imperishable’! But even Saint Paul said it was a mystery. Even he didn’t know just how this grand resurrection would come to pass. But as the time draws near at hand, God has sent that answer to his servant Enoch Bowen, so that the rest of us might prepare ourselves for that glorious day. ‘For as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so we must bear the image of the heavenly man.’ Why, that word ‘heaven’ doesn’t mean anything but sky! Space! And that’s where our salvation’s due to come from.

“But you’ve listened to me enough! You good folks didn’t come here tonight to listen to and old man like me. No, you were told this would be an experience, and it will be. We’ve got a program rigged up that will show you what I’m talking about. And I’d better just get out of the way and let you see for yourselves. Lights!”

Suddenly finding himself in darkness made Brigham feel more than a trifle uneasy. But then, at least a good many of these people must be outsiders like himself, and probably the cultists wouldn’t risk the commotion of trying to take him right then. Still on his guard, he began to watch.

But soon his apprehensions began to slip away, crowded out by the wonderment he felt at what he was seeing. Just from the standpoint of technology, he wondered how they could do it. With some gimmick George Lucas would probably give a couple of Star Wars’ of profits for, they had been able to create a sensory illusion of being completely surrounded by images. You lost sight of the rest of the audience and seemed to be just hanging like a disembodied observer in the middle of the scene. He had once read of a French filmmaker who experimented with rear-projection above, below, and around the audience, and maybe this was the same thing, though Brigham couldn’t imagine how this auditorium could have been fitted for this kind of set-up.

Just as spectacular was the series of images that you … saw? … that you almost felt a part of. If these people could conjure special effects like this, some cultist was missing his calling. Vistas of planets and suns opened up before the viewer. Hard-to-describe beings shot through the sky, gesturing as if to communicate. And, strangest of all, the viewing perspective seemed to suggest that you might be one of them.

Vast leagues of space were traversed somehow, and the earth came into view, rapidly expanding from a dully glowing blue dot in space to a horizon-filling disk of clouds, oceans, and continents. Then doomsday seemed to have arrived, with mountains splitting down the middle and lava pouring out, cities falling into opened crevasses like collapsing sand-castles. The seas churned as if they were boiling, and the ruins of ancient castles stood exposed where ocean beds had emptied. Everything was chaos. And over everything stood a lurid glow of a spectrum in which the wrong colors seemed to fade into each other. The odd umbras narrowly slipped away from the mind’s attempt to grasp them.

Through all this Brigham could hardly keep any sense of where he really was. All he could think was how fantastic it was. And how very dreadful, for it seemed as if it were really happening, like a good movie that could draw you in and make you forget it was only a movie. And actually, Ted had begun to wonder if it really were just a movie. Was it possible they were pumping some kind of drug into the place? He had always heard that some cults used drugs to snare kids – sort of an instant-conversion technique. But there had never been any documented cases of it, and this probably wasn’t one either, but it seemed so real …

The film, or whatever it was, went on and on until … Brigham didn’t know when. Eventually Rowley came back and said something, maybe a prayer, to dismiss the meeting. Ted didn’t catch what it was. It didn’t even occur to him to check his watch as he left the building and headed for the subway. He was too blown away. But at least now he knew. He had his answers, and he knew what to do next.


*   * * *   *


Weeks went by, business pretty much as usual, except that he didn’t get in touch with Mitch Ames as he’d promised. At first he was too busy; later he was kind of embarrassed. He had found a better place to refer his newly-deprogrammed charges, and he didn’t quite know how to break it to old Mitch. He’d figure a way soon enough though. You couldn’t just drop a friend.

And there was plenty of business. Mostly the usual cults – Moonies, Rajneesh, Forever Family. Not much of a challenge after that brush with Starry Wisdom, but Ted wasn’t of a mind to complain. Today’s reluctant client was one Bill Jenkins, or as he now preferred to be known “Ananda Isopanishad.” Brother; how could they take it seriously themselves? It was too bad these brats couldn’t see that for all their gullible idealism, their fanaticism was just adding to all the chaos in the world.

Ted shrugged at the thought as he closed the door of the Ramada Inn room behind him. “Hey, why no lights?” he began according to his accustomed script. “Bill, my friend, the name’s Ted Brigham.” It would probably have been more diplomatic to play the kid’s game at first and call him “Ananda,” but Ted just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He would have sounded just too foolish. He saw the familiar mixed look of defiance and ill-concealed fear on the kid’s face. The smear of brown paint up and down his forehead didn’t change that. They all tended to react pretty much the same way.

“I can imagine what you’ve heard about me, but I think you’ll find it’s not true. Unless they’ve told you I’m just a guy who wants to talk with you and set a few things straight.” Still the look of hostile suspicion. It would be a while before any cracks of vulnerability became visible. It always was.

“Bill, let me ask you … you and I both know there’s an awful lot wrong with this world. No disagreement there, right? But do you really think it’ll do much to help for you to wear that get up and shave your head? I mean it’s your business, and really I’m not laughing at you. It just seems to me it’s a futile gesture. I think if you’d stop and think about it you’d agree that all this is no answer,” Ted said, indicating the saffron robes. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to stay here until you realize that. Look, you probably think I want to make you run back to your mother’s apron-strings or become an accountant like your old man. No, listen, I agree with you that that’s just a dead end.” You could see some genuine curiosity in the kid’s eyes at that, just as you could see he was trying to hide it. Maybe he was beginning to feel Ted was in his corner after all.

“Bill, the world does need salvation, any fool can see that. I see it, you see it. But I’ll be blunt with you, Bill, chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ isn’t going to do anything about it. You see, the real salvation is going to come from out there.” As his hand swept out and upward, he just missed the lampshade.

Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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