Looking around the small reception room, with its vinyl-topped wooden benches, laden with a great assortment of forms and pamphlets; looking around at the row upon row of religious manuals stacked against the walls, Father Joseph felt troubled. He had failed in his duty. He should have stopped the man somehow, should have guessed what would happen. Now, thanks to his failing, there was a lunatic on the loose in Melbourne: A man dangerous to himself, dangerous to everyone he came in contact with.
Father Joseph looked down at the aptitude test that he held in his left hand and shuddered. It was an innocent looking booklet, green covered, with white, plastic binding. Inside were two hundred questions designed to test a person's outlook on life. From the answers given, it was possible to glean the extent of help he might need to sort himself out and make a success of his life.
Father Joseph read over a few of the answers the man, who called himself William Hannah, had given to the questions. The first few questions were relatively straightforward, asking about the applicant's current status in life: name, address, age, marital status, un/employment, social standing, and so on. They were intended mainly to help to relax the more hesitant people, help to set them at their ease. Gradually the questions become more difficult, asking about the person's hopes and desires in life: "Are you content in your current occupation?", "Do you hope to go on to a better, more satisfying career?", "Do you feel that your present occupation presents you with reasonable opportunities for future advancement? Or do you feel that you are stagnating?", "What other type(s) of employment would you prefer instead of your current position?" The man -- William Hannah? -- had rambled his way through these intermediate questions, writing about being plotted against by all and sundry: "I know I was meant for much higher things in life, but what chance do I have with them all plotting against me?" he had written at one stage. It was the last forty questions where the man's persecution complex had really shone through -- the questions designed to probe right down into the deepest, least fathomable reaches of the mind. To the question, "Do you ever feel that the whole world is plotting against you?" he had answered, "Yes, all the time. I know they are, they have been ever since I was a small child. I've even killed one or two of them in the hope of scaring off the rest, but it hasn't worked. There are just too many people in the world, for them to be concerned by a few deaths. Sometimes I think my only chance might be to kill them all!"
Father Joseph shuddered at the statement that he had killed one or two people, then thought, "Kill them all? He thinks that the whole world is plotting against him, how does he think he can kill everybody in the entire world?"
To the question, "Do you ever feel that life is unreal, just a dream? Do you wonder when you are going to stop dreaming and wake up?" he had written, "Yes, whenever I go outside and see them all around me, on street corners, at bus stops, in shops and supermarkets, watching me, following me with their eyes, waiting for a chance to kill me. Then I wonder just what do I have to do to escape from the nightmare world in which I live." To the question, "Do you ever find that it is becoming increasingly easier to think of suicide?" he had written, "No! Never! Because then they would have won. I must stay alive at all costs, must beat them at all costs. No, it is them that I have to kill, not myself!"
For twenty or so questions he had rambled on in much the same vein, stating over and over again that he was being persecuted, that the whole world was out to get him, that he'd had about enough and would soon have to break free from the shackles of his fear and fight back.
The final question in the test was what the Reverend Fathers referred to as the teaser. It was designed to test the person's propensity for violence and self-destruction: "If you were at war with another nation, would you consider using the atomic bomb, under any circumstances, to win the war?" He had answered, "Yes, of course. More and more each day I have come to think that the bomb might be my only hope, my last chance to get them before they get me. I may well have to blow up the whole world so that, even if I die too, at least I will have taken all of them with me. If I die, it must not be all in vain!"
The man obviously suffered from a very acute persecution complex, more pronounced than any Father Joseph had ever encountered before, in all his many years of working for the Cloth. But what could he do about it now that the man was gone? Of course the man had left an address at the top of the first page of the test, but the chances of that being genuine were very slim. If he was that far gone in his paranoia, surely he would mistrust even the Church.
"Should I go around to the address myself?" he wondered. "Or perhaps call the police?"
After pondering his dilemma for a while, the Father decided to talk the problem over with his immediate superior at the temple, Father David. He walked slowly down the dim-lit corridor, lined with offices on each side, that connected the reception room at the front of the temple to Father David's office at the back. Against the walls of the corridor were stacked thousands upon thousands of hardback copies of Knowing Yourself: A Better Understanding of the Id!, bound together in cellophane.
* * *
Father David's office was a small room bare of furniture other than the great wooden desk in the centre of the room, where Father David sat poring over paperwork; the small table beside the door, stacked high with pamphlets, and the three chairs in front of the desk. Against the walls all around the office were stacked thousands of copies of the religious books that the temple sold to raise funds.
Father David, an enormously fat man who looked like a blond Orson Welles, was the founder of the temple and looked after its management with clerical proficiency.
Sitting as bidden, Father Joseph told of the man who had called himself William Hannah, of the way the man had filled out the aptitude test. He told of the wild, furtive look in the man's eyes, and of the way he had kept looking back over his shoulder to make certain he wasn't being watched.
"I would have tried to detain him," explained Father Joseph, "however, he fled from the temple in a panic when he saw Father Daniel staring in our direction. It turned out that the Father wanted my advice on a totally different matter altogether."
Father David was anything but helpful though: "I think you've been working too hard lately, Freddie," he said. "You're starting to believe the crap we hand out to the gullible public...This isn't a genuine temple, Freddie, just an office building from which we run our racket. And none of us are genuine priests. Your name isn't really Father Joseph, it's Freddie Curran; just as my name is really Ritchie Johnson, and Fathers Daniel and Michael, are really George Brookman and Antonio Arizzoli."
"But the aptitude test!" protested Father Joseph.
"Aptitude test, huh!" said Father David. "We don't really test a person's outlook on life, Freddie, we just give them something to hold in their hands and occupy their minds, while we think up the best angle to get their money into our pockets...The two hundred questions in the booklet were carefully designed to confuse the suckers as much as possible, and hopefully convince them than we're the real McCoy -- which, of course, we aren't. And it works really well too. So well in fact that nearly half of the people who come in here - or who we trick in off the streets -- fork out twenty-nine bucks for whatever drivel we're flogging that month. Most of the others fork out twelve bucks ninety-five for the paperback edition, or seven ninety-five for the condensed paperback...Or at the very least a couple of bucks for a few worthless pamphlets that we get printed up at ten cents a hundred.
"But every once in a while we get a real smart-arse who's wise to our racket and can't be talked round. So what does he do? Does he turn and storm out in anger? Does he call us crooks and threaten to go to the cops -- who'd probably love to hear from him because they've been trying to get the goods on us for years? No! What he does is fill up the aptitude questionnaire booklet with silly-bugger answers. He writes, 'They're out to get me! They watch me everywhere I go! I can't take much more of this persecution! If they don't leave me alone soon, I'll have to blow them up! I'll blow up the whole world if I have to, to stop them...!' You know the sort of thing, Freddie. The same sort of bullshit this comedian filled in today. The same sort of dickhead answers you must have come across dozens of times in the nine years we've been running this racket!"
"I know, Father, I know," agreed Father Joseph. "I've come across at least twenty or thirty of them down the years. But this one was different, you only had to look at him to know that he has major spiritual problems. I know it must sound a little crazy, Father, but this one was deadly serious, I could tell. This man really does intend to blow up the entire world!"
"He does, does he? Well would you mind telling me how?" asked Father David. Then seeing the puzzled look on Father Joseph's face, "Where in the world is he going to get his atomic bomb? The discount A-bomb shop? And anyway, there just isn't a single bomb powerful enough, it would take hundreds of them. He'd have to be the President of the United States to be able to get his hands on the size arsenal held need!"
"I...I don't know," concede Father Joseph. "I don't know who he really is, or how he could get all the bombs he'd need. All I know is that he was deadly serious when he filled in the questionnaire; he really does intend to kill everyone in the world!"
"Well I can only repeat that you've been working too hard lately, Freddie, it's time you had a nice long holiday, to put the racket behind you for a while. Why don't you take a relaxing vacation in the Caribbean for a couple of months? You can follow the touring Aussie cricket team, maybe? It'll soon make a new man out of you; just lazing round doing nothing all day. You can take the airfare out of petty cash...Oh, and while you're at it take a few grand for spending money. We don't want you running short while you're over there, now do we?"
So Father Joseph was ushered out of the book-lined office, but he didn't go to the Caribbean. Instead he walked the four city blocks to Williams Street Police Station to report the matter while the lunatic's face was still clear in his mind.
* * *
But the Reverend hesitated in the foyer, a few paces from the reception desk. "What if I run into McLynne?" he wondered. Sergeant Iain McLynne and the Father were old sparring partners. For more than eight years Sergeant McLynne had been on a one-man crusade against the temple, trying to collect enough evidence to shut them down. A giant of a man nearly two metres tall, with a brutally short crew-cut, McLynne was nicknamed "The Pig", even by his fellow officers. "How could I face McLynne?" he thought for the second time. Then he realised, "But I must! My own personal fears and dislikes are trivial compared to the safety of the whole world!"
So, despite his misgivings Father Joseph went up to the reception desk and actually asked to speak to Sergeant McLynne. He was directed to an interview room and advised to wait.
After what seemed an eternity the door opened and he heard McLynne's strident voice boom out, "Well, well, well, if it isn't old Foxy Freddie. How's tricks Freddie? They told me at the front desk there was a Reverend wanting to see me...I guess they must have been mistaken, eh?"
"There's no need to be sarcastic," said Father Joseph. He already wondered whether he had made a mistake, whether he should have taken his chances of getting another officer?
"No need to be touchy, Foxy, only trying to be sociable. All right, so what's this big problem that I hear you want us to look into for you?" McLynne filled a large black-wood pipe with a pungent shag tobacco, lit up, then said, "All right Foxy, any time you like. I'd love to sit here all day chatting, but I have more important things on my plate at the moment, you know."
"I doubt that very much!"
Looking up startled, taken aback by the suspected affront, McLynne said, "What did you say?"
"I said that I doubt very much that you have anything more important than what I have to tell you."
"All right, Foxy, let's hear it."
So Father Joseph told the sergeant about the aptitude test and how it was supposed to work, told him about the furtive, troubled man who had called himself William Hannah, and about the fact that the man intended to blow up the whole world unless someone was able to stop him.
"Blow up the whole world?" asked Sergeant McLynne after Father Joseph had finished. "By the sounds of things we'd better get you to blow into one of our little balloons on your way out Foxy.
"I'm not drunk, Sergeant," protested the Father. "I know how crazy my story must sound to you, but for all that it is the complete, unadulterated truth."
"Sure it is Foxy, but let's get down to brass tacks shall we. What reason could I possibly have for believing you about this, or anything else for that matter? You're a known racketeer, who we've been trying to get the goods on for years. You make your living -- and quite a healthy one at that, I'll wager -- by ripping off gullible saps with a phoney religious act. So try to look at it from my point of view. If our positions were reversed, would you believe anything I told you? Would you risk making a laughing stock out of yourself by organising a manhunt for this bloke?"
"But what reason would I have to make up a story like that?" protested Father Joseph.
"Who knows?" replied the sergeant. "Maybe you aren't making it up, maybe you really did have the crap scared out of you by some paranoid bastard who hates the whole world and is scheming to try to blow it up. But as your own boss pointed out, no one man on Earth has that kind of firepower. His plotting is only in his mind!"
"Then you don't intend to do anything about it?" asked the priest dejectedly.
"I think that sums it up pretty nicely Foxy."
So Father Joseph had staggered out of the police station and into the street, all hope lost, on the point of giving up, when a solution occurred to him. He had the address that Hannah had filled in on the test, he would have to try to stop the lunatic himself. The Father had never been a man of violence, but then perhaps violence would not be necessary, perhaps he could talk Hannah out of his plan, whatever it was. He was still a man of the Cloth -- at least in his own mind, although he had been defrocked over a decade ago. So it was Father Joseph's duty to try to help William Hannah back onto the road to sanity. He had to help him to see that the world was not really plotting against him, that he did not have to commit mass-murder on a scale never before dreamt of to be safe, that he would not be safe if he did.
He had copied down the address -- 220 Providence Street, Glen Hartwell -- to give to the police before leaving the temple. So he headed for Flinders Street Station and three hours later he was walking down providence Street as twilight began to break.
* * *
As soon as Father Joseph saw the house he knew it was indeed where William Hannah lived. It was a dilapidated, single-storey, weatherboard structure, badly in need of painting; the white paint hanging off the boards in long, dried flakes; with broken windows boarded over, planks failing from one side, and a rectangular hole in the roof, where a single sheet of grey, corrugated iron had fallen off and now lay in the knee-length grass in the small front yard. Clearly the owner was a man who didn't care what others thought, a man who did not like to stay outside long enough to make running repairs to the house for his own sake.
Stepping over the collapsed picket fence, Father Joseph walked up to the front door and rapped loudly. "At least the front door is in good condition!" he thought. "Solid oak and almost brand new by the looks of things."
After knocking on the door for a few moments without reply, the Reverend Father decided to investigate around the back of the house.
The backyard was almost entirely taken up by a large, dark green Nissen hut. Which the Father was unable to explore because the door was firmly locked and the small square windows were all painted over on the inside, with black paint.
Instead, finding the back door of the house unlocked, Father Joseph stepped inside the house and slowly began walking up along the dark, narrow corridor, looking into each crudely furnished room in turn.
The inside of the house looked as though it had been swept through by a typhoon. Dirty clothes and dishes, empty foil food containers, and empty beer and wine bottles lay scattered around the floor and across the dilapidated furniture. In the bathroom stagnant water half filled the bath tub and wash basin, and a short-handled shovel, a pick, and sundry other tools were stacked against the walls. In the master bedroom scientific journals and periodicals were strewn about the floor amidst piles of bedclothes and dirty clothing, or else were stacked against the bedroom walls.
Despite himself the priest couldn't resist the temptation to sort through the periodicals and began to pore through them at random. He spend almost an hour reading odds and ends before picking up a large, brown-covered ring binder. Opening the binder he began to read the closely typed, single-spaced pages: "Of course, the whole thing was just a plot to put me out of action. The government knew that I was getting too important; that I knew too much...!"
"His diary!" said Father Joseph, realising what he had found. He read on for half an hour, uncovering the sad and sorry tale of William Hannah. A research physicist by profession, he had been selected straight out of university to work at the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia in 1950 and by 1970 had become Australia's top nuclear physicist. He had worked on all of the ten test vehicles of the European Launcher Development Organisation fired between 1964 and 1970, and in 1967 had helped to develop WRESAT-1, Australia's first orbital satellite. Then in 1973 at the height of its success, Woomera had been mysteriously shut down and all its facilities were blown up to ensure the installation could never be reactivated. Professor Hannah's dreams of winning the Nobel Prize had been blown up at the same time and he had rapidly degenerated into manic paranoia, fantasising that the rocket range had been shut down solely to deprive him of his deserved recognition.
So engrossed was the Reverend Father that at first he did not even hear the roaring whoosh that was building up outside in the backyard. However, as the whole house began to shake, Father Joseph dropped the diary and ran out into the hallway.
It was then, as he looked back down the dark corridor, out through the small rectangle of light made by the open back door, that he realised he could never have made it to the Caribbean if he had taken Father David's advice, realised that it was just as well no one had believed him, for what could they have done anyway? For out through the doorway, where the Nissen hut had been earlier, he now saw a raging inferno: leaping yellow flames which flickered orange, red, blue, green, and black.
That was the last thing Father Joseph saw, before his eyeballs were roasted by the intense thermal heat.
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia