Charles West's fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine and Hardboiled. He has been an English teacher in Fresno, California for more than 20 years. He was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in Shakespeare, a Council for Basic Education Award recipient in Chicano literature, and a fellow at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at Georgetown University and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. He currently lives in the Sierra foothills with his wife and two daughters. The Sacred Disc is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
They looked at the diplomas and certificates behind me when they came in. My brother, the doctor, fills up his office and every available wall in his examining rooms with diplomas and certificates. He says it reassures the patients as to your competence and abilities. That's all very well and good for a doctor, but how much assurance are a bachelor's degree in Physical Education, a master's and a Ph.D. in History and an honorary Doctorate of Divinity for a private investigator?
I was a little nervous. These were only my second clients as a private investigator, and the first to actually come to my office. Although the Anderson Agency: Collections and Investigations was established in 1960, I had only been with the company for the last three years, and then only in the Collections Division. I was the head of the Collections Division, a division which was comprised of one employee beside myself. Mr. Anderson was the entire Investigation Division, although I was never really sure what he had ever actually investigated.
"Holly, hold all my calls, please," I called out. Holly was the collections staff. It was the first time I'd ever given such a command and I think it caught her by surprise, as she came into my office and unplugged the phone on my desk.
"I'm leaving," she said. "I have to pick up Chris." Her son. "I'll lock the front door." There were no goodbyes as she walked out of my office. Moments later, we could hear the metallic chink of the front door being locked.
Now I could get down to business, whatever it was. Before mesat three men who looked as though they did not belong in the same room together, here or anywhere else. On the right was the Yogi Ben Barr, co-founder of the Eternal Truth Temple. The Yogi was dressed in a floor length white robe and wore a white muslin turban over jet black hair. The Yogi needed a shave.
On the left was the Baba Der Ursus, the other co-founder of the Eternal Truth Temple. The Baba was a distinct contrast to the Yogi. The Baba was attired in black. Cotton pants topped by a long black coat with sort of a Nehru collar. His close cropped blond hair was uncombed. I didn't know they made black Birkenstocks.
I hadn't been a detective for very long, but I had a hunch these guys weren't really from India.
The character in the middle was Cooper Page, attorney-at-law. Apparently the good fashion sense of his clients had not rubbed off on Page. He had on yellow pants, white shoes, a green plaid jacket and a tie with red stripes.
Like many lawyers, Page had a specialty. His could be described as "religious law." He specialized in either suing or representing members of the clergy, churches and now, apparently, more marginal elements of the religious community such as the Eternal Truth Temple. Page wanted to represent me once in a church related legal matter but I chose a lawyer who looked more like a lawyer than a used car salesman.
"Bob, I'm glad you could meet with us on such short notice," Page said.
Like I had so much else to do.
"No problem," I said truthfully.
"As you probably know," Page said, "this is the Yogi Ben Barr."
The Yogi bowed his head. "You may call me Yogi," he said.
"And this is the Baba Der Ursus, of course."
The Baba clasped his hands together and bowed. "Call me Baba."
Yogi and Baba.
"If you don't mind," Page said, "I'm going to give the Yogi and Baba a brief summary of your life and experiences so that they may better gauge your karma as the proper person for this situation."
"Well, I haven't exactly said I'd take the case yet," I said, worried about the acceptability of my karma.
"Of course we're willing to compensate you for your time here this afternoon. Shall we say ..." He paused looking for a figure without wanting to commit himself to a number.
"Oh, whatever your hourly rate is would be fine," I suggested, knowing it was considerable.
Page swallowed and blinked. "Of course, that would be acceptable."
Yogi and Baba did not react. Either they didn't know Page was charging them, or didn't care.
"Your father was a career soldier and you grew up on army bases around the country and the world. In high school you were an outstanding athlete. You then attended Kaweah Community College where you were on the basketball team."
Page was speaking as though he was speaking to me, but this information was meant not for me but for the two holy men on each side of him.
"After leaving Kaweah, you entered the Army and served in Vietnam where you were decorated and wounded. After your combat duty you served as a chaplain's assistant.
"Following your discharge from the service you enrolled at Sierra Pacific College, a church-affiliated institution in the foothills near here, where you were on the basketball team and received a degree in Physical Education.
"You then entered graduate school at San Joaquin State University and earned a master's degree in History. You then went to work for Kings Canyon University in the history department. During your time there, you earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of California at Berkeley, published a book about Vietnam, you were married, and went to work for the Ben Carrick Ministries. Later, Kings Canyon University became Ben Carrick University. Then you had a falling out with Carrick. In fact, you were accused of trying to kill him, but such charges were dismissed. You then wrote another book, an exposè on the Ben Carrick Ministries, and appeared on several television programs in regard to those revelations. Last year, or so, you became a partner in the firm of Anderson Investigations and Collections. Upon the recent death of Mr. Anderson, you became the owner of the company. And that brings us up to the present. Is that pretty much it, Bob?"
"More or less," I said. Then remembering I was on the time clock at Page's hourly rate, I decided more might be better. "Well, actually," I said, "I went to Sierra Pacific College because it was the only school to offer me a scholarship. When you say I 'entered' the army, we used to call it getting 'drafted.' After Vietnam I was a clerk and chaplain's assistant. Then your chronology gets a little fouled up. After I got my master's from San Joaquin State, I went to work at Kings Canyon University as a lecturer in History, teaching History I for freshmen and a course on Vietnam and working as an assistant athletic director, trying to recruit tall Christian boys to play basketball for good old KCU, may it rest in peace.
"The chaplain I worked for in the service had become a dean there and helped me get the job. While I was there I entered the doctoral program at Berkeley. My dissertation was about Vietnam. It was later published in a slightly different form, by the Kings Canyon University Press. Then Ben Carrick came along, endowed the university with a lot of money for a Telecommunications Department, with himself as a professor.
"Soon after, Kings Canyon University, which had been struggling financially for years, became Ben Carrick University, after another larger infusion of cash. Carrick, incidentally, personally awarded me with the honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree that no doubt caught your eye on the wall over there." I pointed. They looked.
"My ex-wife, Patty, was a member of the entourage Carrick brought with him. We married. Carrick began a foundation for Vietnam Veterans and appealed for money on his television ministry, on which I was an occasional guest. It helped my book sales. I thought it was helping veterans. However, I discovered that most of the money collected for the veteran's thing was being directed to Carrick's ministry, and therefore, to Carrick himself. I chose to confront Carrick with this on his television show. As I did so, his bodyguards tried to remove me from the set. In the scuffle I grabbed Carrick, hit him a couple of times and put his eye out."
"Put his eye out?" The Baba spoke.
"Yes, accidentally. As I was holding him, the bodyguards tried to pull me away and we all fell down and my thumb got jabbed into his eye and he lost the sight from it."
"That's why he wears an eye patch," Page told them.
"Kind of odd to me," I said, "that no one ever questions a faith healer with an eye patch."
"Anyway," I continued, "it was all captured on videotape. I was charged with attempted murder, but I was not convicted."
"Why not?" The Baba again.
"My defense presented the facts I had uncovered on Carrick's finances, and the fact that if I had wanted to kill Carrick, I certainly could have done a better job of it. It was something I had been trained for, after all, and a thumb in the eye wasn't one of the most effective methods taught. Carrick never had to do any jail time, either," I went on. "He had to pay some fines and was suspended by his church for a year, but he's back in business now. My wife divorced me, stayed on with Carrick ministries. She claimed she helped me with the book, and got all past and future royalties from it. It is still in print by Carrick Publishing, although my name no longer appears on the title page.
"I wrote a book about Carrick's veteran scam, which went through two quick printings before the publisher went on to the next scandal. I appeared on Nightline and the Today Show. Made some speeches around the country. By the time Carrick's church suspension was up, I was out of work. No college or university wanted me. I thought about teaching high school but I figured I had enough danger in Vietnam. So then Frank Anderson, whose son I had recruited for KCU, offered me a job at his collection agency.
"All I had to do was to call individuals or businesses and convince them to pay their delinquent debts. It worked well when they learned I was the guy who tried to kill a preacher on TV because of money. When Anderson died last year, he left the business to me. His son left KCU when it became Ben Carrick University, and went to Santa Cruz where he owns a futon store and is the tallest surfer on the beach. Anderson left him some other properties, so he did all right. He didn't want any part of the collection agency. So, I've got it now. And frankly, if I do take this case, I should tell you, this would be only my second case as an investigator."
"How did the first one come out?" the Baba asked.
"It was a church embezzlement," I said. "The assistant pastor made off with some church funds. I found him and brought him back."
"And the money?" The Baba again. The Yogi seemed to have no curiosity at all.
"He spent some of it. I traced him to Laughlin, Nevada, where a quick check of the dozen or so hotels made him easy to find, especially since he was using his own name. He wasn't violent or anything. He was a Seventh Day Adventist. When I found him he was eating meat, watching movies, drinking beers, and gambling, all against the tenets of his faith. And all on Saturday, his Sabbath. I took him home without incident and the newspapers or courts were never involved."
"That's what we are looking for in this situation," Page informed me. "Discretion. We certainly don't want to further tax the already overburdened legal system or be splashed across tasteless tabloid headlines. Yes, discretion is what we are looking for. And since you have accepted a fee for our conversation, the rules governing client privilege apply, and you are, therefore, bound not to divulge anything said here this afternoon."
No wonder Page had been so quick to offer a fee. And I snapped it up like a starving carp.
"No problem," I said.
It seems," Page said, "that the original text of the Temple's beliefs is missing."
"It is the sacred text of our faith," the Baba said, perhaps believing that Page wasn't fully communicating the importance of the missing sacred text. "It is the foundation of our belief, faith and way of living. It is irreplaceable and priceless. Perhaps you have read it?" the Baba asked me.
"No," I admitted. "I'm afraid not." I failed to mention that I often had the opportunity to purchase a copy from the Temple's smiling pilgrims at airports.
"So we are prepared to do whatever it might take to get it back, including paying a ransom, within reasonable limits, of course," Page said.
"Of course," I agreed.
So much for priceless.
"We are prepared to retain your services for a minimum of two weeks at this figure." Page wrote a generous figure on one of those yellow writing pads associated with the legal profession. "At the end of those two weeks we will evaluate your progress and make a decision then as to whether to continue or terminate the relationship. If you find this arrangement agreeable, I have a contract which you may review and sign later. We must remind you that time is of the essence in this situation, of course."
"That sounds fine to me," I said, "but I'm going to need a little more information about the text and any thoughts you might have about who might have done this."
"Of course," Page said. "The text is on a computer disc."
"A computer disc," I said in slight astonishment.
"A five and a quarter inch double-density, double-sided computer disc," Page continued, "commonly referred to as a 'floppy disc.'"
"A computer disc?"
The Baba interjected. "We used the available technology of the times, just as stone tablets or the Dead Sea scrolls were the available media of their time."
"Of course," Page commented.
"Since a single floppy disc will be difficult to locate," I said, "perhaps you have some idea as to who might be responsible."
"We pretty much know who is responsible," the Baba spoke up, a new edge to his voice. "It is a small group of former 'pilgrims' who are pursuing their own evil agenda with a vicious slanderous campaign of libel and criminal activities."
Page took over. "There is a small group of former Temple members who have disrupted legitimate church activities, such as attacks on pilgrims involved in church business, vandalism and destruction of church property. They are called the Temple Justice Committee."
"We believe," the Baba said, "that the Committee is being funded by the government as part of their continuing campaign of surveillance and harassment to destroy our church and stifle religious freedom in our country."
I thought the Baba was going to deliver a speech, but he was interrupted by Page who handed me a computer printout and four file folders. "This is a list of known committee members and some basic information about each of them." The basic information included addresses, present and past, relatives, social security numbers, telephone numbers and a brief narrative on each of them, labeled "Psychological Profile." Talk about surveillance and harassment.