19

Big Jim was exultant. He had them exactly where he wanted them: in the palm of his hand. Hundreds of people, those who had voted for him and those who hadn’t. He had never seen so many in this hall, not even when school prayer or the school budget was under discussion. They sat thigh to thigh and shoulder to shoulder, outside as well as in, and they were doing more than listening to him. With Sanders AWOL and Grinnell sitting in the audience (that red dress in the third row was hard to miss), he owned this crowd. Their eyes begged him to take care of them. To save them. What completed his exultancy was having his bodyguard beside him and seeing the lines of cops—his cops—ranged along both sides of the hall. Not all of them were kitted out in uniforms yet, but all were armed. At least a hundred more in the audience were wearing blue armbands. It was like having his own private army.

“My fellow townspeople, most of you know that we have arrested a man named Dale Barbara—”

A storm of boos and hisses arose. Big Jim waited for it to subside, outwardly grave, inwardly grinning.

“—for the murders of Brenda Perkins, Lester Coggins, and two lovely girls we all knew and loved: Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders.”

More boos, interspersed with cries of “Hang him!” and “Terrorist!” The terrorist-shouter sounded like Velma Winter, the day manager at Brownie’s Store.

“What you do not know,” Big Jim continued, “is that the Dome is the result of a conspiracy perpetrated by an elite group of rogue scientists and covertly funded by a government splinter group. We are guinea pigs in an experiment, my fellow townspeople, and Dale Barbara was the man designated to chart and guide that experiment’s course from the inside!

Stunned silence greeted this. Then there was a roar of outrage.

When it had quieted, Big Jim continued, hands planted on either side of the podium, his large face shining with sincerity (and, perhaps, hypertension). His speech lay in front of him, but it was still folded. There was no need to look at it. God was using his vocal cords and moving his tongue.

“When I speak of covert funding, you may wonder what I mean. The answer is horrifying but simple. Dale Barbara, aided by an as yet unknown number of townspeople, set up a drug-manufacturing facility which has been supplying huge quantities of crystal methamphetamine to drug lords, some with CIA connections, all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And although he hasn’t given us the names of all his co-conspirators yet, one of them—it breaks my heart to tell you this—appears to be Andy Sanders.”

Hubbub and cries of wonder from the audience. Big Jim saw Andi Grinnell start to rise from her seat, then settle back. That’s right, he thought, just sit there. If you’re reckless enough to question me, I’ll eat you alive. Or point my finger at you and accuse you. Then they’ll eat you alive.

And in truth, he felt as if he could do that.

“Barbara’s boss—his control—is a man you have all seen on the news. He claims to be a colonel in the U.S. Army, but in fact he is high in the councils of the scientists and government officials responsible for this Satanic experiment. I have Barbara’s confession to this much right here.” He tapped his sportcoat, whose inner pocket contained his wallet and a digest-sized New Testament with the words of Christ printed in red.

Meanwhile, more cries of “Hang him!” had arisen. Big Jim lifted one hand, head lowered, face grave, and the cries eventually stilled.

“We will vote on Barbara’s punishment as a town—one unified body dedicated to the cause of freedom. It’s in your hands, ladies and gentlemen. If you vote to execute, he will be executed. But there will be no hanging while I am your leader. He will be executed by police firing squad—”

Wild applause interrupted him, and most of the assembly rose to its feet. Big Jim leaned into the microphone.

“—but only after we get every bit of information which is still hidden in his MISERABLE TRAITOR’S HEART!”

Now almost all of them were up. Not Andi, though; she sat in the third row next to the center aisle, looking up at him with eyes that should have been soft and hazy and confused but were not. Look at me all you want, he thought. Just as long as you sit there like a good little girl.

Meanwhile, he basked in the applause.

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