THE OFFICE door was closed, and a man Jory had never seen was standing in front of it. He was at least three inches taller than Jory, with light blond hair and eyes that looked hazel behind lightly tinted sunglasses. Who the hell wore sunglasses in a warehouse with no windows?
“Can I help you?” Jory asked, folding his hands in what he’d taken to calling Adam’s pious stance.
Jory raised both eyebrows. “Did you need to go into the office?”
“Okay,” he said, managing a careful smile. “Would you mind standing aside so I can?”
The stranger narrowed his eyes. “You?”
Jory made a show of looking around and glancing down the empty hall. “Yeah.”
Keeping his gaze fixed on Jory, the man knocked on the door without turning around. Adam yanked the door open. “Reverend Smith,” Adam growled, shoving the big man out of the way and tugging Jory inside. Jory shot Adam a questioning look. Adam just glared at him. “Thank you for finally joining us.”
“Isn’t he a bit young to be a minister?” The voice was old, laced with pain and the gravelly sound of a deep lung infection.
The office was intimidating. Half of it was a small sanctuary; two small prayer desks and an altar and cross dominated the room. Adam’s desk and the desk the church secretary used during the rare hours she volunteered were set off to the side. In front of Adam’s desk was a withered man who might have been anywhere from fifty to eighty. A clear plastic oxygen tube ran from his nose, around his ears, and down to a large green-and-silver cylinder mounted to the back of the electric power scooter he was using.
This was going to suck.
“Forgive me for being tardy, Reverend Luhmann, but I wanted to check on Mr. Neal and make sure he was doing okay. How can I be of assistance?”
The old man barked out a sound that might have been a laugh. It sounded like stones rattling in a tin can. “That drunk junkie you brought in for the peons? Don’t play games with me, young man. I refuse—” He was overcome by a series of hacking coughs that left him bent over the handlebars of the scooter. “I’m no fool,” he managed, panting to catch his breath. “You’re why I’m here. You’ve convinced a few doctors in Rochester that you’re something special. So you’re either a better liar than Mr. Luhmann here, or the real deal.”
Jory glanced at Adam, who grimaced. Had they finally run into someone Adam couldn’t talk his way around? Jory crushed that thought. Adam might not have found his angle yet, but he would.
He sighed. “May I shake your hand?”
Looking suspicious but a little amused, the old man held out his hand calmly. A single touch was enough to make Jory cringe. The old man wasn’t just sick, he was toxic. “You’re dying,” Jory said simply. “You have late-stage lung cancer.”
“The kid who bags my groceries can guess that much,” he rasped.
“You’ve had….” Jory closed his eyes and thought about the cloud of sticky pain he’d felt in his chest. “Two unsuccessful transplants. How the hell does someone your age even get on a transplant list once, much less twice?”
“Jory,” Adam snapped. “Don’t act like I never taught you to be polite.”
He wanted to roll his eyes. Adam had taught him a lot, but please and thank you hadn’t figured into his education.
The old man waved Adam off. “That it?”
“No. The right side of your heart is big, I think because it’s working harder to pump blood through your lungs. If I had to guess, I’d say that’ll be what kills you.”
“And you drink too much. Your liver isn’t as bad as your lungs, but it’s getting there.”
“You get to the point I’m at and see if you care about the state of your liver.”
“I don’t see myself ever getting to that point,” Jory said bluntly. “I grew up with all those smoking will kill you public service announcements they ran on PBS during Saturday morning cartoons.” And his gift made tar-clogged lungs feel putrid. Fire and pain were normal, but the sticky choking sensation was pure torture.
“And you say he can do it?” the old man asked, glancing at Adam, who was perched on the edge of his desk.
Adam ran his hands through his graying hair and shook his head. “I don’t know how much we can actually help, Mr. Barnett.”
“I’ll agree to two more if he can,” Barnett wheezed without hesitating.
Adam managed to keep his eyes from bulging, but Jory could tell it was a near miss.
“I can’t,” Jory insisted. “It’s not possible.”
Adam smiled. “Mr. Barnett and I have discussed reasonable limitations. I’m not asking you to do anything that would put you in danger, just help however much you can.”
Adam wasn’t asking.
“This isn’t an infection. It’s something I might not recover from. I can’t help him. I won’t.” He shook his head, trying not to sound nervous. He’d never defied Adam, never challenged him.
“You’re going to try,” Adam insisted, his tone quieter. “I’ll grab you some water and cough medicine before we get started. I expect you’ll need it.” With that, Adam slipped out of the office. He shut the door behind him and Jory heard him talking to the man standing outside.
The silence got awkward quickly. “So… you normally bring a bodyguard to church, Mr. Barnett?”
“He’s hardly a bodyguard,” Barnett said, taking a few pained deep breaths. “My son, Corbin. He’s convinced this is just another con, but he’ll indulge me. If you turn out to be another fraud, he’ll make you and your partner regret it.”
“I already told you, I can’t help you.”
That rattling laugh came again, and this time it seemed more genuine. “So you’ve said. I expected you to jump right in—” He hacked again. “—mumble something mystic over me and then, when I come back tomorrow with the report from my doctor, try to tell me these things take time. Or only the truly faithful can be saved, and I obviously don’t believe.”
Jory nodded. “That’s the standard script. You’ve tried more than one faith healer, then?”
“I’ve seen my share. They all spot the lung cancer,” he rasped and held up the oxygen tubing. “It’s a bit obvious. You’re the first one other than my cardiopulmonary doc to spot the pulmonary hypertension. That’s what it’s called, the thing with the right side of my heart. How’d you know? Tell me the trick and I might even convince Corbin to walk out of here without hurting you or the good reverend.”
“Believe it or not, there’s no trick. I’m good at figuring out what’s wrong with people, that’s all.”
Barnett considered him for a moment, his gaze quiet and assessing. “Med school dropout?”
“High school dropout, but I did get my GED.”
Barnett smiled. “So how’d you know?”
“I don’t know how. I can just feel it,” he admitted. “I’ve always been able to do it.”
“The kid with diabetes?”
This guy had done his homework.
“I couldn’t help him either,” Jory said, glancing toward the door. This wasn’t right at all.
“They said the boy would have died, his blood sugar was so high.”
“And I’m glad he didn’t, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. I’m going to go find Reverend Luhmann.”
But the door opened before he reached it. Adam came back in with a large bottle of water and a blister pack of cold medicine he’d needed the last time he’d helped a kid with the flu. Mr. Barnett’s not-a-bodyguard followed him in.
“Are we ready to begin?” Adam asked, flashing Jory the fake smile he usually saved for their marks.
Jory didn’t smile back.
Adam wrapped his arm around Jory’s shoulders. “All you’ve got to do is try. If all you can manage is to ease his pain a bit, that’s something, isn’t it?”
Jory shoved his arm off. Adam was still smiling, but Corbin Barnett was glaring at him and blocking the door. “I’ll try. But when it hurts, I stop,” he whispered.
“No one could ask for more,” Adam agreed.
“Do you need a Bible? Or time to pray or something?”
He huffed and gave in to the urge to roll his eyes.
The moment he touched Barnett’s skin, the burning spread up his fingertips, danced in a spiral around his chest, and settled right in the center of his back, radiating out through his torso. It hurt like a bitch, and he was more than a little resentful that Barnett probably had all kinds of nice drugs to take the edge off. Jory would get to make do with cough medicine. He focused on the burning, pulling the fire and inflammation into his body with a deep breath. At first he didn’t feel anything beyond Barnett’s pain. After a minute, he felt a tickle in the back of his throat; then he had to work harder to draw in a breath. The next breath was harder still, and soon the pain and pressure built until he felt like was drowning in a lake of burning tar.
He ripped his hand out of Barnett’s grip and bent down, setting his hands on his knees, as he fought to catch his breath. “That’s…,” he rasped, then coughed as he ran out of air. He shook his head.
The office was silent around him for almost a minute while he stood there, panting.
“My God,” Barnett whispered, the rattle in his voice gone. He tugged at the oxygen hose and pulled it out of his nose, staring at it as if he were seeing it for the first time. “What are you?”
Jory tried to answer, but he only managed a painful cough that left his chest aching.
“There, now, that wasn’t so—”
“Quiet,” Barnett snapped. “We’re not finished yet. Corbin?”
“Hey!” Adam cried.
It left him dizzy, but Jory lifted his head. Adam had his hands in the air. Corbin Barnett stood behind him, one hand gripped in his hair and the other holding a gun to the back of his head.
“I don’t need to see my doctor to know that’s better.” Barnett’s face was filled with wonder. “You have no idea how long I’ve looked, how much money I’ve spent, trying to find someone like you. You’re going to finish fixing my lungs, boy, or you’re going to watch the good reverend die.”
Adam tried to pull away, but Barnett’s son yanked his head back hard. “Jory!”
“Adam….” He gasped.
“Ah-ah, don’t move,” Barnett said coldly. “Finish it.”
“Jory, please! I’ll help you after! We’ll get you all the help you need, I swear it!”
“It’ll….” It was already agony. But maybe his body would bounce back. He was younger and healthier, just like with Barbara’s pneumonia. If he didn’t try, Adam’s odds looked worse than his.
“Please don’t let them shoot me!”
Barnett dropped the oxygen tube into his lap and offered Jory his hand.
“Jory!” Adam cried as Corbin yanked on his hair again.
Jory grabbed Barnett’s hand and the pain surged through his arm. He pulled, breathed, and pulled again. He let the burning sensation flood through his body until it felt like his skin had become nothing more than a container filled with liquid fire. He tried to draw another breath, but his lungs wouldn’t fill, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get enough air to move past his throat. His chest throbbed and his head spun, the world shifting as his vision grew dark around the edges. His shoulder stung as he hit the floor, the side of his head hitting the tile.
“Well, it seems you were right, Reverend,” Barnett said above him. “He is quite remarkable.”
“I told you he just needed a little incentive,” Adam said calmly. His voice sounded close. A gentle hand shook him. “Jesus, his skin is like ice.”
Someone rolled him onto his back and set a hand on his chest. “Shit.”
“He’s barely breathing.” That was Adam again, but he still sounded calm. Like he hadn’t just had a gun to his head. Like Jory wasn’t dying at his feet.
“Have faith, Reverend,” Barnett said cheerfully. “With my money, you’ll be able to afford the finest funeral money can buy.”
The room was silent. Jory felt adrift until Adam spoke again. “Help me get him out to the woods. When they find him, I’ll tell the police he was sick and wandered off to bed. He must have become disoriented and lost his way.”
Barnett laughed. Even though the rattle was gone, it still sounded the same somehow.