On the morning of Pace Ripley's 70th birthday, he heard a bulletin on the local radio station alerting listeners to be on the lookout for a missing child, a seven-year-old African American girl from Bug Town, the community just west of Bay St. Clement, named Gagool Angola. Her mother, Oswaldina Capoverde, said that the child had either been kidnapped or run away, she didn't know which. Gagool's father, Rangoon "Ray-Ray" Angola, from whom Oswaldina was divorced, was doing a dime in Pee Dee for aggravated assault, so he was not a suspect if indeed the girl had been stolen. Gagool had been missing for 48 hours. She was described as being almond-skinned with a dime-size, diamond-shaped birthmark below her left eye. When last seen she was wearing a white cotton dress decorated with red and yellow ladybugs, and her reddish-brown hair was tied in pigtails.
It was late that afternoon, just past five o'clock, when Pace discovered Gagool Angola hiding in his woodshed. He had bent over to take an armload of small pieces for the stove and there she was, shivering in the white cotton dress spotted with ladybugs.
"Hey, girl," Pace said, "you lost?"
The child shook her head slowly from side to side, her eyes half-closed.
"Well, I can see you're cold. Come on inside and get warm."
Pace gathered the wood he'd come for and motioned with his head for her to follow him, which she did, keeping back a few steps. Once they were in the cottage, Pace fed the fire in the wood stove and then draped a quilt around the girl's shoulders.
"Set yourself on the couch there, honey. Are you hungry?"
She nodded and said, "Thirsty, too."
"OK, I'll make you a grilled cheese sandwich and hot chocolate. How does that sound? In the meantime, here's an apple."
Pace handed the apple to her. She grabbed it and took a big bite. One of her two front teeth was only half-descended. The diamond-shaped birthmark under her left eye was blue.
As Pace prepared the hot chocolate and grilled cheese sandwich, he asked the girl, "Is your name Gagool Angola?"
She finished the apple before answering, eating the core but not the stem, which she twisted and knotted around the pinky finger of her right hand.
"Um-hum. I be name after a witch in a story my daddy know. How you know me?"
"I don't know you, but I heard on the radio that your mama is looking for you. She's afraid you might have been stolen."
Gagool laughed. It was not so much a laugh but a shriek, as if what Pace said were the funniest thing she'd ever heard.
"Nobody gon' steal me. I make too much trouble for 'em. That's why I run off. Mama say I'm too damn much trouble. I be too damn much trouble for you, too, you keep me."
"I won't keep you, Gagool. As soon as I finish up fixin' you this meal, I'm going to have to let the people who are searching for you know that you're here."
"I be gone before they come. I got no desire be finded."
"Come sit at the table," said Pace.
He set down a plate with the sandwich on it and a cup of hot chocolate. The girl shrugged the quilt off her shoulders, went over and sat down and took a bite out of the grilled cheese, then sipped the hot chocolate.
"Why don't you want to be found?"
"I'm big enough now to go see my daddy, so I'm goin'. He's in prison."
"Doesn't your mama sometimes take you to visit him?"
"Uh-uh. She say he bad, but he ain't, not even a little bit. Her new man, Bee Sting, be bad, and he don't like me. He hit me when he feel like it. My daddy never did. I tol' Bee Sting when my daddy Ray-Ray get out he gon' bust him up good and take me away."
"Your mama lets Bee Sting hit you?"
"She don't mind. She say I be doomded just like my daddy."
Pace knew he had to call the police, but he stood and watched her eat. When she had finished the sandwich and drunk the hot chocolate, Pace asked Gagool if she was still hungry.
"Um-hum. You got more?" she said, and smiled at him. He loved that her half front tooth stuck out the way it did.
"Comin' right up."
After he'd poured another cup of hot chocolate and made another sandwich, Pace went to his desk phone and dialed the Bay St. Clement headquarters of the North Carolina Highway Patrol.
"I've got the little girl here you've been looking for. Gagool Angola, yes. The one from Bug Town. I found her hiding in my woodshed. She's fine-I've just given her something to eat. This is Pace Ripley. I live out at the old Delahoussaye place off Rachel Road. But listen, she says she's been beaten by her mother's boyfriend, a guy called Bee Sting, so she ran away to visit her father, who's serving time at Pee Dee. OK, sure. Right."
Pace hung up. Gagool Angola was standing by the door.
"Thank you, mister," she said. "Now I'm goin'."
"No, honey, you've got to wait here for the people to fetch you. They'll make sure your mama's friend doesn't hit you again."
Gagool dashed out before Pace could stop her. He went after her, but she had already disappeared in the darkness. Pace went back into the cottage to get a battery lantern, and as soon as he stepped outside again two police cruisers, their warning lights flashing, zoomed up the driveway. The cars stopped and four patrolmen got out.
"Where's the kid?" said one.
"She ran out of the house. I was just going to look for her."
"Spread out," the lead cop told the others, who split in three directions.
"Why didn't you lock her in?" he asked Pace.
"She was starving, so I fed her. Then I called you. I didn't think she'd bolt like that."
The cop curled his upper lip and said, "I hate it when people think. You should have called us right away, before you fed her. Don't go anywhere."
He went to join his fellow officers in the search. Pace stood in front of his cottage. It was a moonless night. He figured the girl had headed for the woods behind Dalceda's house. Gagool, the evil witch, was a character in a novel by H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines. Pace had read it when he was 14. He wondered why anyone would name his daughter after her.
After the highway patrolmen had left without finding the girl, Pace built up the fire in his wood stove and poured himself a triple shot of Glenmorangie. He took a hard swallow and thought some more about brave and hopefully not "doomded" Gagool Angola. She needed a chance to live her own life without being continually subjected to stupidity, cruelty, and indifference. What could he do about it? Pace knocked back the rest of his Scotch and promised himself he'd find out.
Pace cut on the car radio and was delighted to hear Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs sing: "Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood / You sure are lookin' good / You're everything a big, bad wolf could want." Pace remembered the first time he'd heard this song, while he was shooting pool one Friday afternoon in Johnny Reb's Roadhouse in Gonzales, Louisiana, when he was 18. He and his high school buddies had gotten drunk, or close to it, that day on flat Dixie beer, and later ended up bruised and bloodied in a ditch after almost having had a bad accident on the highway in Flyboy Derondo's yellow 1954 Buick Roadmaster. When Sam the Sham and his bunch began howling like wolves, Pace joined in. As his mother's old friend Beany Thorn used to say, sometimes all it takes is a little shoutin' to chase the devil off the porch.
Pace was in a good mood when he got out of his Pathfinder. The music had done its job. However, when he looked over at Dalceda Delahoussaye's house and saw Gagool Angola sitting on the porch swing, Pace did not feel like shouting. He walked over and sat down next to the seven-year-old girl.
"My legs is too short to make it go," she said.
Pace pushed off his heels and they swung. Gagool giggled, and just like her shriek, the sound was full of joy.
This time Pace decided to take the girl to Bay St. Clement himself, but only after cleaning her up a little and again feeding her a grilled cheese sandwich and hot chocolate, as she requested he do. Gagool did not resist being taken in, but she made it plain that this was not her preference. She had been sleeping in a cemetery and did not know the direction to Pee Dee. A woman who lived across the street from the cemetery had seen Gagool wandering around and given her a bright red cloth coat with a rip in the back and a bag of stale doughnuts. The child told Pace that she had eluded capture by the cops after she'd run from his place by hiding at first in the woods. She asked Pace to please make the police promise to take her to visit Ray-Ray and he said he'd try.
Pace insisted on remaining at police headquarters until Gagool's mother arrived. Oswaldina Capoverde showed up accompanied by a large, bearded man wearing a lavender jumpsuit and a brown short-brim hat, who Pace assumed was Bee Sting.
"You can't take her, Ms. Capoverde," the police captain told her. "There's been a complaint filed regarding the child's treatment and living conditions, so she'll be kept for the time being at the Child Services Center in Charlotte until a judge decides what's best for her. You'll be notified of the court date."
Oswaldina Capoverde demanded to see her daughter and yelled about how she knew what was best for Gagool, but she was not even allowed to see her. The large man grabbed Oswaldina by one arm and took her out before she made the situation worse. He did not say a word during the 15 minutes or so that he and the woman were there, but he took note of Pace's interested presence and shot him an evil eye before leaving the station.
The matter was in the hands of Child Services now, and there was nothing more Pace could do. He told the captain that Gagool wanted to see her father, and the captain said that would be up to the authorities in Charlotte. They would be in contact with Pace in order to obtain a statement from him concerning the possibility of the child's having been abused, but because he was not related to Gagool, he probably would not be allowed to be present at the hearing unless he filed a petition to be heard.
Outside a light snow was falling, an unusual event even in January in Bay St. Clement. Pace was glad that Gagool would not be sleeping in the cemetery that night. Oswaldina and her man were gone. Pace stood for a few moments on the front steps of the station, allowing the snow to wet his hair. Then he walked to the police parking lot and found that all four tires on his Pathfinder had been slashed.
To be a threat to somebody, all a person has to do is wake up in the morning. Did it really matter, Pace asked himself, if it was Bee Sting who slashed his tires? If so, Pace had to give him credit for so quickly detecting the correct vehicle to target, and for figuring out that Pace was the person who had filed a complaint concerning Bee Sting's behavior regarding Gagool. Of course, flattening-no, destroying-the tires was a warning, a dramatic message to cease interfering in a family matter. Replacing the tires had been an expensive nuisance. Pace had called Dalceda's old friend Oscarito at his service station, and his son-Oscarito Jr.-had driven over with four new tires and changed them out. Pace appreciated Oscarito Jr.'s quick work, especially in the falling snow, and tipped him handsomely.
As soon as he got home, Pace took out the Glenmorangie and finished off the bottle. He had to decide how deeply he wanted to become involved in the life of Gagool Angola. A solution that seemed feasible to him was to find a relative-a grandmother or aunt, perhaps-who could, if willing, take responsibility for raising the girl. Pace certainly did not want to confront Bee Sting, or even Oswaldina Capoverde, but it could prove worthwhile to explore this possibility.
Pace had driven through Bug Town any number of times, but he did not know his way around the satellite community. Snow had not accumulated on the ground, but the pothole-riddled streets were icy-slick, so Pace drove cautiously the next morning, looking for a church. In a block of mostly ramshackle houses, he cruised slowly by a white wooden building with the words beyond god and the devil disciples of lazarus on an unlit neon sign above the entrance. He stopped his Pathfinder, backed up, parked in front, and got out. Flurries were flying now, and a piercing wind caused Pace to narrow his shoulders and shiver in his thin leather coat as he walked on a broken sidewalk toward the front door. It was unlocked, so he opened it and entered.
The room was empty. Pace navigated his way through a disordered jumble of folding chairs and spotted a door off to one side. He went over and knocked on it. The door was opened by a tall, beautiful, beige-colored woman who looked to be in her early 30s. She had long, straight black hair and small gray eyes like scuffed pearls, and she was wearing a red sweatshirt with the word give printed on the front; a large silver cross dangled on a chain hung around her neck. Her eyes met Pace's and she smiled, revealing several gold-plated teeth.
"We are those for whom Lazarus rose," she said. "Next service is at six."
"Pardon me for disturbing you," Pace said, "but my name is Pace Ripley, and I've come to ask if you are acquainted with the family of Gagool Angola."
"Perfume James. I'm the pastor here. All of us in this community are at least aware of one another. What may I do for you?"
"I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find relatives of this girl-grandparents, perhaps, or aunts and uncles, cousins."
"Her mother lives on this street."
"It's not Gagool's mother I want to talk to. Are you familiar with recent events concerning the child?"
Perfume James studied Pace's face. They were the same height: six feet even.
"Would you mind explaining to me the purpose of your inquiry?"
"I'm the person who found Gagool after she went missing. Actually, she found me-twice, in fact. I was hoping that there might be a family member who could provide a safer and more stable environment for her than she's had until now. Gagool ran away for what I believe to be a good reason. She's a bright child in a dangerous situation, and I'm trying to be of help to her."
"We are all of us in danger, Mister-Ripley, is it?"
"But I understand and sympathize with your concern. However, given the circumstances, I think that, despite your good intentions, any attempt on your part to make an appeal on the child's behalf other than through professional channels would not be appreciated. This is Bug Town, Mr. Ripley, and we are quite used to dealing with our own. With all due respect, my advice to you is to leave things be, lest you bring upon yourself unforeseen difficulties."
"I've already experienced one."
"All right, then. You're always welcome here. The Disciples of Lazarus are beyond God and the Devil. We are risen for good reason, and, as you know, there are too many unenlightened souls wandering among us who are incapable of being reasonable. Be careful on your way out, the hall is a mess. Our congregation gets enthusiastic, if not downright unruly, sometimes. Coming back from the dead takes a great deal of effort."
She closed the door, and Pace left the church. The man he assumed to be Bee Sting was seated behind the steering wheel of a dark-green, cherried-out 1978 Mercury Monarch parked across the street, its engine idling. The bearded driver made sure Pace noticed him, viciously gunning the Monarch's motor, expelling acrid plumes of gray-brown smoke from his car's two sets of double exhaust pipes. After he was certain he'd gotten Pace's attention, the man drove ever so slowly forward and disappeared around the first corner.
Pace inspected all four of the Pathfinder's tires, satisfying himself that each of them was intact before he got in. Coming back from the dead, Perfume James said, takes great effort. Pace did not think he could do it-even if, at this point, he wanted to.
Pace never did hear from Child Services. Six weeks after he'd brought Gagool Angola to the Bay St. Clement police headquarters, he called the station and asked to speak to the captain who had debriefed him. The captain was off duty, and nobody else there knew anything about the case. Pace then called Child Services in Charlotte and asked a woman if she could tell him what determination had been made regarding the child. She asked Pace if he was related to Gagool. He said no, and began to explain his participation in the case, but the woman cut him off and said court decisions concerning juveniles were privileged information restricted to the family and hung up.
It bothered Pace not knowing what had happened to the girl. He thought about paying a visit to Perfume James, in the hope that the pastor could-or would-satisfy his curiosity, but then there would be the risk of running into Bee Sting, who seemed to be tuned in to his every move. Besides, Perfume James had advised him to let the situation play out without his becoming more involved. She was probably right, Pace thought. What happened to Gagool really was none of his business. It had been a fluke that she'd turned up at his place the first time, and the second time was due only to her not knowing where else to go. Moreover, he had not done Gagool any good, on both occasions having involved the authorities. But Pace felt useless and dissatisfied, and could not shake the feeling.
He could, however, attend a service at Beyond God and the Devil, and not confront Perfume James directly. After all, she had told Pace that he was welcome, so he drove over to Bug Town, arriving at the church a few minutes before six that evening. The chairs were properly aligned, all facing a small stage. Most were already occupied when Pace came in, and he took a seat at an end of the back row. He was the only white person among the 20 or so people in attendance, and all but two of the congregants, including Pace, were African American women. Oswaldina Capoverde was not one of them.
At precisely six o'clock, Perfume James entered from the side room and climbed onto the stage. There was no pulpit and she carried no books or papers. She wore a plain white robe that covered her from neck to toe. Perfume surveyed the audience, seemingly inspecting each of their faces. She gave Pace no special sign of recognition.
"'If the dead rise not,'" were her first words, "'then is Christ not raised.' After having been forced from the synagogue in Corinth, Paul took shelter in the house of Titus Justus, in close proximity to the temple, and continued to preach, though his assembly was small by comparison. We are alike, then, driven from the accepted venues, and, as Lazarus, we are risen, sprung from darkness, freed from the cave where our eyes were bandaged, our hands and feet bound by those whose needs engendered our subjugation. We who worship together now shall never again be manipulated into committing vile acts upon ourselves or others. We have seen the light and others see the light in us. Hallelujah!"
"Hallelujah!" the congregation responded.
The only man other than Pace among them stood up. He was old, in his 80s, perhaps even older, and he spoke in a trembling but audible voice.
"Pastor Perfume, the blessing of my blindness has enabled me to see. Can I get a witness?"
Shouts of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" issued forth from the gathering.
"My many years of drug addiction and the criminal life, even prison, were but instruction. Very soon I will be in that place Lazarus dwelt for four days before Jesus demanded the stone be rolled away. Shall I be risen thereupon to live a better life?"
"Pray, brother, as shall we, for the resurrection of your soul."
Again from the gathering came a chorus of approbation.
"When I dare to picture that child of fourteen on her knees in alleys and strange rooms, paid and beaten to pleasure men, in wonder I ask, 'Was that Perfume James?' And the answer I hear is 'No!' Perfume James has risen, she exists beyond God and the Devil, as do all of you!"
There followed for the next two hours or more a spontaneous dialogue between the pastor and her devotees, after which each individual came forward and dropped a few bills or coins into a brass pot that had been placed at the foot of the stage. Perfume James remained standing next to the pot until everyone else, including Pace, had left the building. Outside on the sidewalk, Pace approached several of the women and asked if they had a moment to speak with him, but none of them would. He stood in front of the church and watched the congregants go, the blind octo- or nonagenarian being led away by a woman who appeared to be almost as old as he. It was very cold and Pace was about to leave when Perfume James stepped out and addressed him.
"Come back inside, Mr. Ripley, won't you?"
Pace turned and followed her. She closed the door behind him and sat down on a chair in the last row, as did he.
"When I was a child prostitute, one of the men who regularly availed himself of my services was Louis Delahoussaye. He was just another john, of course, but he was never violent or even verbally abusive to me. After his death, his widow found me and told me that Louis had left instructions for her to give me a certain amount of money if I were willing and proved able to change my life. Dalceda Delahoussaye helped me in this difficult endeavor, and it was her late husband's generous gift that enabled me to eventually purchase this building. This must seem a fantastic story to you, Mr. Ripley, especially that Mrs. Delahoussaye would accommodate Louis's wishes, but I assure you it's the truth, and I thought this would interest you."
"It most certainly does," said Pace. "It's an astonishing story."
"I thought to share this information with you in light of your interest in the child. I don't really know what will happen to her now that she has been returned to the custody of her mother, but she will have to find her own way, which is beyond God's way, and you must allow her to do so. The authorities have ordered that the man suspected of mistreating the girl not be allowed to live with them, and Child Services will be checking on the situation on a regular basis. I personally have visited the home and offered to assist Oswaldina, even though she is not one of my parishioners, for the benefit of Gagool, in any manner that may be required. She seems amenable to my offer. So you may rest assured, Mr. Ripley, that some of us here in Bug Town are fulfilling our neighborly responsibilities."
Pace just stared at this lovely woman until she stood up and offered him her right hand. He stood and took it with his own.
"Have you ever been married?" Pace asked.
"No, have you?"
"Once, but briefly, a long time ago."
"Why do you ask?"
"Because you're the first woman I've ever met that I believe I could love completely and without reservation."
Perfume James flinched for a moment before she smiled and said, "Thank you for the thought, Mr. Ripley. You'd better go now."
Walking to his Pathfinder, Pace shuddered. He'd probably made a fool of himself, but he didn't care. He had spoken from his heart and he felt better for it. In Proverbs, he remembered, it says, "The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead." It was good for him to know that he was still alive.
Pace wondered if Dalceda had ever told his grandmama Marietta about Louis Delahoussaye's pedophiliac dalliances with-and posthumous legacy to-Perfume James, or if Dalceda had kept it a secret. If anything, she most likely would have shared this information with his grandmother. Marietta and Dalceda remained the closest of friends throughout their lives, and Dalceda undoubtedly had needed to confide in someone, to unburden herself so as not to be eaten up by the worm in her brain that a terrible secret becomes.
The fantasy of his being able to have an intimate relationship with Perfume James persisted in Pace's mind. It was impossible, of course, and not only because he was close to being a half century older than the pastor. There was her nightmarish past to consider, and now her religious calling. The idea was absurd, but much to his bewilderment Pace continued to agonize over it. He had become spellbound by this extraordinary woman, and he was in dire need of having the spell broken.
Pace stayed away from Bug Town. His links to both Gagool Angola and Perfume James were at best tenuous and pragmatically unrealistic. It was several days after his last visit to Perfume's church before Pace was able to resume working on his book. It was while he was writing one afternoon in the cottage that he heard the thunder of Bee Sting's Mercury Monarch disturb the silence. Leaving the motor running, the big man got out and stood in the driveway, holding an antique double-triggered 20-gauge Hinton shotgun with its 27-inch Damascus barrels pointed directly at Pace's front door.
Pace looked out the window and froze, unsure of what to do. He waited and Bee Sting waited. After what seemed an eternity to Pace but was probably no more than two minutes, the big man put up the gun, spat on the ground, got back into his car, and rumbled away. Pace sat at his desk, stunned. He was truly amazed that without any bad intentions on his part, his life could suddenly spin so dangerously and bizarrely out of control. Whenever he thought he was inching closer to the center of things, there appeared an intruder to deter or prevent him from moving any further. Perhaps the point was not to move but to remove himself.
Not that he probably needed added incentive, but just exactly what was the bug up Bee Sting's ass? The fact that Child Services ordered that he not share a household with Gagool and Oswaldina? Did he blame Pace for that? What else would inspire this thug to signify and threaten him? Having already been shotgunned once, Pace vowed to himself that he would not let it happen again. He cleaned and loaded his daddy's Colt Python and began carrying it with him whenever he left the property, kept it in the top drawer of his desk while he wrote and on the floor next to his bed while he slept. Pace would have no compunction about taking the oafish Mr. Sting out for the count if need be. He would not initiate a confrontation, but neither would he back away from it.
Pace was amused by this potential High Noon scenario. The image of himself at 70 years old, strapped and determined not to be intimidated by a Bug Town bully, while carrying a ludicrous crush on a woman very much younger than himself, a former prostitute turned preacher, was a stretch of imagination Pace doubted even his former employer in the movie business, the director Phil Reãl, who was renowned for his largely incomprehensible but darkly riveting films, such as Mumblemouth and the infamous Cry of the Mute, could feature.
Pace's dreams became increasingly confusing. In one, a gigantic spider seized the planet Earth in its eight sticky arms and began eating it, city after city, rotating the globe as he devoured entire countries, causing oceans and lakes and rivers to spill into outer space. In another, just as Pace was about to make love to a woman, she began to melt, her limbs and head dripping like candle wax until there was nothing for him to hold.
One morning soon thereafter, Pace received a phone call from Perfume James.
"Mr. Ripley, this is Pastor James. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"No, of course not."
"I wanted to inform you that Gagool Angola shot and killed Bee Sting Goldberg last night. She's being held in detention at the Child Services facility in Charlotte. I'm going there today to see her, and I thought perhaps you'd like to accompany me."
Pace hesitated before answering, trying to process this shocking development.
"Mr. Ripley? Are you still there?"
"Yes, yes. Certainly, I'll go with you. When do you want to leave?"
"Can you come now? I'd appreciate it if you could drive. Otherwise, I'll have to borrow a car or find someone else to take me."
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Pick me up at the church."
Pace hung up. Goldberg? Bee Sting's last name was Goldberg? Before leaving the cottage, Pace put his revolver into the top drawer of his desk and locked it. The moment Pace's Pathfinder slid to a stop in front of Beyond God and the Devil Disciples of Lazarus, Perfume James came out in a long beaver coat with a hood, which she wore up over her head. A wet snow was blowing in.
"I saw you out the window," Perfume said as she closed the passenger-side door. "It's very kind of you to carry me over to Charlotte."
"I'm glad you called me. Can you tell me what happened?"
"All I know is that Bee Sting forced his way into the house and Oswaldina tried to get him to leave, which he wouldn't do. Apparently, he started beating on her, and Gagool got hold of her mama's pistol and shot him in the back. Twice. Oswaldina called the police and told them that she had shot Bee Sting, but Gagool kept shouting, 'I done it! I done it!' Her prints were on the gun and they took the child away."
"He showed up at my place a week ago."
"Bee Sting did?"
"Got out of his Mercury with a shotgun and pointed it at my front door."
"Did he shoot?"
"No, just stood there, holding it. To warn me, I guess. I didn't go out, but he could see me staring at him through my window. After a bit, he drove away. I've been carrying a revolver ever since."
"You can't take it inside Child Services."
"I left it at home. I don't figure on needing a gun now that Bee Sting is gone. You said on the phone that his last name was Goldberg. How is that?"
"Mamie June Rivers, one of my parishioners, woman who gave me this fur coat, told me his father was a merchant seaman from Israel, met his mama in Baltimore, where Bee Sting grew up. According to Mamie June, his mama was on the game, and his daddy disappeared. She took the man's last name, though, for Bee Sting, whose real first name was Abraham."
"Uh-huh. He made his livin' dealin' drugs over in Chapel Hill and Durham, sellin' to college kids. He got sweet on Oswaldina when she was workin' as an aide in a hospital somewhere there. They got together after he was in the emergency room bein' treated for a knife wound. Ever since, Bee Sting been Oswaldina's main man."
It was a two-hour drive to Charlotte, but it went quickly for Pace, listening to Perfume James talk about her duties as pastor, how her former life of degradation and despair now seemed like somebody else's bad dream. She didn't ask Pace any questions about his own history, which he did not realize until after Perfume had been admitted to the visitors' room at Child Services. Having not received visiting permission in advance, Pace was made to wait in the lobby of the facility. Fortunately, he had anticipated this, and had put in his coat pocket a paperback copy of D. H. Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico that had been on his desk at the cottage. He was up to page 39, a passage that ends, "One wonders where he was, and what he was, in his sleep, he starts up so strange and wild and lost," when Perfume, whom he had not noticed re-enter the lobby, interrupted him.
"Thank you for your patience, Mr. Ripley."
Pace stood up and returned Mornings in Mexico to his pocket.
"No problem, I had a book to read. How's the girl?"
"Come, I'll tell you in the car."
They walked out together. Once they were in the Pathfinder, Perfume James looked closely at Pace's face.
'You seem to have had a real effect on Gagool," she said.
"Yes. She told me that she wants to stay with you until her father gets out of prison. She says you made her good grilled cheese sandwiches."
Pace smiled. "I did. Twice."
"I told her that probably would not be possible, at least not for a while."
"What are they going to do with her?"
"Send her to a juvenile detention center for six months, maybe a year. After that, she'll go into foster care. I doubt that Oswaldina will ever be allowed to have custody of her daughter again. You could apply to be a foster parent."
Pace shook his head. "I'm too old. She'll need a good family, a father and a mother, other kids, to take care of her."
"I remember what you said to me at the church, about how you believed I was the first woman you could love completely and without reservation. Did you really mean it?"
"Yes, pastor, but I realized afterward how inappropriate it was, that I had doubtless offended you."
"You didn't offend me, quite the opposite. I was surprised, of course. That's a dangerous thing to tell a woman, any woman, but especially a whore who has found redemption."
Pace suddenly felt the cold. He started the engine and turned on the heater.
"Do you regret having said it?"
"No, I was sincere. I surprised myself."
"I can see I've embarrassed you, Mr. Ripley. I'm sorry."
"Can you call me Pace?"
She reached over and took both of his hands in hers.
"Yes, and when we're alone together, you call me Perfume."
Little pieces of ice were bouncing off of the windshield. Perfume tightened her grip on his hands.
"Pace," she said, "have you ever in your threescore and ten had a woman with seven gold teeth?"
On Easter Sunday, a tornado tore through Bug Town and destroyed the Beyond God and the Devil building. Inside the church at the time were Pastor Perfume James and a dozen of her parishioners, early arrivals for the sacred day's service. As darkness descended and the unearthly howling increased, the 13 women prayed for the twister to miss Bug Town and Bay St. Clement, believing as they did so that even if they were taken in the whirlwind, as Disciples of Lazarus they would rise again. The pastor and nine of the others gathered in a close circle in the center of the room died when the walls collapsed and the roof fell in on them.
Pace and Perfume had had three good months together. He was in his cottage when the storm arrived. After he heard on the radio that the tornado had made a direct hit on Bug Town, he called the church but there was no response. When Perfume did not answer her cell phone, either, Pace could only hope that the Disciples of Lazarus would be justified in their faith.
During his time with Perfume James, Pace did not have much to do with her church. Perfume told Pace it was not necessary that he believe as she did, that it was enough if he had confidence in her ability to improve people's lives and inspire them to do the same. At Perfume's funeral, Pace spied Oswaldina on the fringe of the mourners but did not speak to her. Mamie June Rivers, one of the three survivors of the church's destruction, was at the graveside. She told Pace that the pastor had spoken to her often of him and considered Pace to be further confirmation and living proof of her own salvation.
"I loved her," Pace said.
"We all did," said Mamie June Rivers. "Jesus, too. He'll return her to us one day, you'll see. They'll be walking side by side."
The day of the tornado had been Mamie June's 87th birthday. It was she who made sure that Perfume was buried wearing the beaver coat Mamie June had given her and that had become the pastor's favorite item of apparel.
A few months later, Pace prevailed upon the police captain in Bay St. Clement to find out for him what had become of Gagool Angola. The captain told Pace that Child Services informed him that the girl was living with a foster family in another part of the state. That was all he knew.
It was unseasonably warm the morning of Pace's 80th birthday. This was July weather, not October's. He was on his second cup of coffee, reading a revised translation of Proust's La Prisonnière, a passage in which Morel is being excoriated for his detestable behavior, when the sound of tires crunching gravel in his driveway forced him to stop. An old Ford pickup truck parked between the house and the cottage, and a tall, slender teenage girl got out of the passenger side.
"This is it, Daddy!" she shouted.
A well-built black man of average height came around from the driver's side and stood beside the girl. Their mutual resemblance was unmistakable. Pace went out to greet them.
As soon as the girl saw Pace, she smiled and said, "Mister, do you remember me? I'm Gagool Angola, and this is my daddy."
Pace walked over to her, nodded his head, and said, "I most certainly do, Gagool. You're all grown up now."
The man came forward and extended a hand.
"I'm Rangoon Angola."
"Ray-Ray," said Pace, and shook hands. "My name is Pace Ripley."
"Gagool has told me many times how kind you were to her when she run off."
"He made me grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate."
"I been in a correctional institution, sir, been out now six months, and she be after me to find this place and thank you for your help in her difficult time."
"I didn't really help your daughter so much, Mr. Angola. I did feed her, though."
"A couple times," said Gagool.
"Would you like to come inside?"
"No, thank you. We're on our way to Atlanta."
Pace looked over at the old pickup.
"You sure that truck will make it to Atlanta?"
"Drives better than it looks. I got a job waitin' on me there."
"Daddy's a minister in the First Ethiopian Church of the Queen of Sheba. He's gonna preach, and I'm gonna sing in the Daughters of Zion choir. I'm a good singer, good as Beyoncé. After I finish high school in Atlanta, I'm goin' to New York or Hollywood, get on a talent show, make records, and perform all over the world."
"I hope you do, Gagool. As I recall, Ray-Ray, you were up at Pee Dee."
"Yes, sir, for ten years."
"My daddy did time there, too."
Rangoon Angola shook his head and said, "It's a painful place to be. If it ain't been for me findin' the path taken by the Queen of Sheba followin' her hookup with King Solomon, I might still be lost in the desert."
"Daddy's a Son of Sheba."
"Sheba had a son by Solomon," said Ray-Ray. "Therefore, we who spread the words she heard from Solomon are also sons."
"Probably better these days to be in Atlanta than in Ethiopia."
"The founder of First Ethiopian, the Reverend Doctor Mandrake Amminadab, handed down my instructions when I was a captive. My destiny is written, as is yours."
"Mr. Ripley," Gagool said, stepping toward him, "do you mind if I give you a hug?"
"Of course not."
She embraced Pace and kissed him on the top of his head. Gagool was now taller than he was.
"Thank you, Gagool. Today is my birthday, and I couldn't imagine receiving a better gift than seeing you happy and reunited with your father."
She pointed over at the porch on Dalceda's house and said, "Remember when we sat on the swing and my legs were too short to make it go, so you did it?"
Pace laughed and nodded.
"That was the last time I was happy for a long time," she said.
Rangoon Angola and Pace shook hands again.
"I'm glad you've found your way," Pace said to him.
"We all of us hold swords," said the soon-to-be minister of the First Ethiopian Church of the Queen of Sheba in Atlanta, Georgia.
As Gagool and her father drove away, it occurred to Pace that Ray-Ray had referred to himself when he'd been in Pee Dee as a captive, which, of course, was the title in English of the story of Proust's that he had been reading when they arrived. Pace was reminded of a confusing movie he had seen many years before, Orpheus Looks Back, in which a detective investigating a murder says to his partner, "There's no such thing as a bad coincidence."
A bluebird landed a few feet away and looked at him.
"I guess this is as good a day as any to be eighty years old," Pace said to the bluebird.
Six days after Pace died, at the age of 82, a letter arrived for him that was never opened and not returned to sender by the post office in Bay St. Clement, for lack of a return address.
Dear Mister Pace Ripley,
I dearly hope this letter gets to you even though I don't have your proper address. I figure the p.o. in Bay St. Clement will know and deliver it. I never have forgot your tenderness to me when I was a runaway little girl you never saw before. That girl is now in Los Angeles. No she is not a famous singer or movie star. Not yet! She is working as a hostess in a restaurant in Santa Monica and taking singing and dancing and acting lessons. Her daddy is in Atlanta but he had a stroke last year and can't preach any more. He still goes to the First Ethiopian Church of the Queen of Sheba and sits and listens and prays. Mostly for his daughter he says. The people there take good care of him and she calls him every Saturday morning. Ray-Ray puts you in his prayers too. His daughter is sure he would like you to know that. Mr. Ripley I am all right but I do get sad a lot. I don't know if my mama is alive or the drugs got her. I get nightmares sometimes about what I done to Bee Sting. It's very hard for me to get really close to anybody a boy or a girl. You probably understand this problem because you are so smart. I hope this will change some day. I want you to know you are always in my own prayers right at the top along with Daddy. If you ever pray pray for me too okay. One more thing I don't use the name Gagool out here it was too strange. Now my name is Cassie short for Cassiopeia who was a black queen of Ethiopia like Sheba. There is a star named after her.
Cassie (Gagool) Angola