THE OFFICE HAD NO WINDOWS, only electric lanterns to light the hundreds of
spines standing in their cherry wood bookcases. A single lawyer's lamp spread
its yellow hue over the leather-topped desk. The room smelled of linseed oil and
musty pages, but to Dr. John Francis it was the scent of knowledge.
"Evil is beyond the reach of no man."
"But can a man remove himself beyond the reach of evil?" Kevin asked.
The dean of academic affairs, Dr. John Francis, gazed over bifocals at the
man who sat opposite him and allowed a small smile to nudge his lips. Those blue
eyes hid a deep mystery, one that had eluded him since their first meeting three
months earlier when Kevin Parson approached him after a philosophy lecture.
They'd struck up a unique friendship that included numerous discussions such as
Kevin sat with his feet flat, hands on knees, eyes piercing and unmoving,
hair ruffled despite a compulsive habit of running his fingers through his loose
brown curls. Or because of it. The hair was an anomaly; in every other way the
man groomed himself perfectly. Clean shaven, fashionably current, pleasantly
scented-Old Spice, if the professor guessed right. Kevin's ragged hair begged to
differ in a bohemian sort of way. Others fiddled with pencils or twirled their
fingers or shifted in their seats; Kevin ran his fingers through his hair and
tapped his right foot. Not now and then or at appropriate breaks in the
conversation, but regularly, to the beat of a hidden drum behind his blue eyes.
Some might consider the idiosyncrasies annoying, but Dr. Francis saw them as
nothing more than enigmatic clues to Kevin's nature. The truth--rarely obvious
and almost always found in subtleties. In the tapping of feet and the fiddling
of fingers and the movement of eyes.
Dr. Francis pushed his black leather chair back from the desk, stood slowly
to his feet, and walked to a bookcase filled with the works of the ancient
scholars. In many ways he identified with these men as much as he did with the
modern man. Put a robe on him and he would look rather like a bearded Socrates,
Kevin had once told him. He ran a finger over a bound copy of the Dead Sea
"Indeed," Dr. Francis said. "Can man step beyond evil's reach? I think not.
Not in this lifetime."
"Then all men are condemned to a life of evil," Kevin said. Dr. Francis faced
him. Kevin watched, unmoving except for his right foot, tapping away. His round
blue eyes held steady, stared with the innocence of a child's, probing,
magnetic, unabashed. These eyes attracted long stares from the secure and forced
the less secure to avert their gaze. Kevin was twenty-eight, but he possessed a
strange blend of brilliance and naiveté that Dr. Francis could not understand.
The full-grown man thirsted for knowledge like a five-year-old. Something to do
with a unique rearing in a bizarre home, but Kevin had never been forthcoming.
"A lifetime struggle with evil, not a life of evil," Dr. Francis
"And does man simply choose evil, or does he create it?" Kevin asked, already
many thoughts beyond his initial question. "Is evil a force that swims in human
blood, struggling to find its way into the heart, or is it an external
possibility wanting to be formed?"
"I would say man chooses evil rather than creates it. Human nature's
saturated with evil as a result of the Fall. We are all evil."
"And we are all good," Kevin said, tapping his foot. "The good, the bad, and
Dr. Francis nodded at the use of the phrase he'd coined, which referred to
the man created in God's nature, the beautiful man, struggling between the good
and the bad. "The good, the bad, and the beautiful. Indeed." He stepped for the
door. "Walk with me, Kevin."
Kevin ran both hands past his temples and stood. Dr. Francis led him from the
office and up a flight of steps to the world above, as Kevin liked to call it.
"How is your paper on the natures progressing?" Dr. Francis asked.
"Guaranteed to raise your eyebrows." They stepped into the empty main hall.
"I'm using a story to illustrate my conclusion. Not conventional, I know, but
since Christ preferred to use fiction to communicate truth, I figured you
wouldn't mind if I borrowed from him."
"As long as it makes the point. I look forward to reading it."
Kevin walked with Dr. John Francis down the hall, thinking that he liked this
man beside him. The sound of their shoes striking the hardwood floor echoed
through the chamber steeped in tradition. The older man strolled casually, his
ready smile hinting at wisdom far beyond his words. Kevin glanced up at the
paintings of the divinity school's founders along the wall to his right. Bold,
gentle giants, Dr. Francis called them.
"Speaking of evil, all men are capable of gossip, don't you think?" Kevin
"Even the bishop is capable of gossip."
"Do you think the bishop does gossip? Sometimes?"
The dean's answer waited three steps. "We are all human."
They came to the large door that opened to the central campus and Dr. Francis
pushed it open. Despite the ocean breezes, Long Beach could not escape periodic
stretches of oppressive heat. Kevin stepped out into the bright midday sunlight,
and for a moment their philosophical bantering felt trivial in light of the
world before him. A dozen seminary students walked across the manicured park,
heads bent in thought or tilted back with smiles. Two dozen poplars formed an
avenue through the expansive lawn. The chapel's steeple towered over the trees
beyond the park. To his right, the Augustine Memorial Library glistened in the
sun. The Divinity School of the Pacific, South, was at a glance statelier and
more modern than its parent, the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley.
Here was the real world, made up of normal people with sensible histories and
ordinary families pursuing an admirable profession. He, on the other hand, was a
twenty-eight-year-old convert who really had no business attending seminary at
all, much less leading a flock one day. Not because he didn't have honorable
intent, but because of who he was. Because he was Kevin Parson, who had
really only discovered his spiritual side for the first time three years ago. In
spite of his wholehearted embrace of the church, he still felt no holier--and
maybe less--than any drunk on the street might. Not even the dean knew his whole
story, and Kevin wasn't sure the man would be so supportive if he did.
"You have a brilliant mind, Kevin," the dean said, gazing out at the grounds.
"I've seen a lot of people come and go, and few of them have your same tenacity
for the truth. But believe me, the deepest questions can drive a man mad. The
problem of evil is one of those questions. You'd be wise to court it slowly."
Kevin looked into the graying man's eyes, and for a moment neither spoke. The
dean winked and Kevin offered a slight smile. Kevin liked this man as much as he
might like a father.
"You're a wise man, Dr. Francis. Thanks. I'll see you in class next week."
"Don't forget your paper."
The dean dipped his head.
Kevin took one step down to the concrete landing and turned back. "Just one
last thought. In absolute terms, gossip isn't so different from murder, right?"
"Ultimately, no." "Then the bishop is ultimately capable of murder, isn't
he?" The dean lifted his right eyebrow. "That's a bit of a stretch."
Kevin smiled. "Not really. Neither is more evil."
"You've made your point, Kevin. I'll be sure to warn the bishop against any
sudden urges to kill his fellowman."
Kevin chuckled. He turned and walked down the steps. Behind him the door
closed with a soft thump. He turned back. The steps were empty.
He was alone. A stranger in a strange world. How many grown men would stare
at a flight of steps just vacated by a professor of philosophy and feel utterly
alone? He scratched his head and ruffled his hair.
Kevin headed for the parking lot. The sense of solitude left him before he
reached his car, which was good. He was changing, wasn't he? The hope of change
was why he'd chosen to become a priest in the first place. He'd escaped the
demons of his past and begun a new life as a new creature. He had put his old
self in the grave and, despite the lingering memories, he was coming to life,
like an aspen in the spring.
So much change in so little time. God willing, the past would remain buried.
He swung his beige Sable out of the lot and merged with the steady flow of
traffic on Long Beach Boulevard. Evil. The problem of evil. Like traffic--never
On the other hand, grace and love weren't exactly running scared, were they?
He had more to be thankful for than he ever imagined possible. Grace, for
starters. A fine school with fine teachers. His own home. He might not have a
rack of friends to call on at his every whim, but he did have a few. One at
least. Dr. John Francis liked him.
He humphed. Okay, so he had a ways to go on the social front. Samantha had
called him, though. They'd talked twice in the last two weeks. And Sam was no
slouch. Now there was a friend. Maybe more than a—
His cell phone chirped loudly from the cup holder. He'd gotten the thing a
week ago and had used it once, placed a call to his home phone to see if it
worked. It had, but only after he'd activated the voice mail, which had required
a call to the salesman.
The cell rang again and he picked it up. The thing was small enough to
swallow if you got hungry enough. He pushed the red button and immediately knew
it was the wrong one. Ignore "Send" above the green button. Green is go and red
is stop, the salesman had said.
Kevin lifted the phone to his ear, heard silence, and tossed it on the
passenger seat, feeling foolish. It was probably the salesman, calling to see if
he was enjoying his new phone. Then again, why would a salesman bother to check
on a nineteen-dollar purchase?
The phone chirped again. Behind him, a horn honked. A blue Mercedes crowded
his bumper. Kevin punched the accelerator and picked up the phone. Red brake
lights cut across all three lanes ahead. He slowed down-the Mercedes would have
to chill. He pressed the green button.
Male voice. Low and breathy. Drawn out to accentuate each syllable.
"How are you doing, my old friend? Quite well from what I can gather. How
The world around Kevin faded. He brought the car to a halt behind the sea of
red taillights, felt the pressure of the brakes as a distant abstraction. His
mind focused on this voice on the phone.
"I ... I'm sorry. I don't think-"
"It doesn't matter if you know me." Pause. "I know you. In fact, if you
really think you're cut out for this seminary foolishness, I must say I know you
better than you know yourself."
"I don't know who you think you are, but I don't have a clue what you're
"Don't be stupid!" the voice yelled into his ear. The man took a deep,
scratchy breath. He spoke calmly again. "Forgive me, I really don't mean to
yell, but you're not listening to me. It's time to quit pretending, Kevin. You
think you have the whole world fooled, but you don't have me fooled. It's time
to let the cat out of the bag. And I'm going to help you do it."
Kevin could hardly comprehend what he was hearing. Was this for real? It had
to be a practical joke. Peter? Did Peter from Intro to Psych know him well
enough to pull a stunt like this?
"Who ... who is this?"
"You like games, don't you, Kevin?"
There was no way Peter could sound so condescending.
"Okay," Kevin said. "Enough. I don't know what—"
"Enough? Enough? No, I don't think so. The game is just starting. Only this
one is not like the games you play with everyone else, Kevin. This one's for
real. Will the real Kevin Parson please stand up? I thought about killing you,
but I've decided this will be much better." The man paused, made a soft sound
that sounded like a moan. "This ... this will destroy you."
Kevin stared ahead, dumbfounded.
"You may call me Richard Slater. Ring any bells? Actually, I prefer Slater.
And here's the game Slater would like to play. I will give you exactly three
minutes to call the newspaper and confess your sin, or I will blow that silly
Sable you call a car sky-high."
"Sin? What are you talking about?"
"That's the question, isn't it? I knew you'd forget, you stupid brick."
Another pause. "Do you like riddles? Here's a riddle to jog your mind:
What falls but never breaks? What breaks but never falls?"
"Three minutes, Kevin. Starting... now. Let the games begin." The phone went
For a moment, Kevin stared ahead, phone still plastered to his ear. A horn
The cars ahead were moving. The Mercedes was impatient again.
Kevin pressed the accelerator, and the Sable surged forward. He set the phone
down on the passenger seat and swallowed, throat dry. He glanced at the clock.
Okay, process. Stay calm and process. Did this really just happen? Of
course it just happened! Some madman who called himself Slater just called my
cell phone and threatened to blow up my car. Kevin grabbed the cell phone
and stared at its face: "Unavailable, 00:39."
But was the threat real? Who would really blow up a car in the middle of a
busy street over a riddle? Someone was trying to scare the snot out of him for
some maniacal reason. Or some sicko had randomly chosen him as his next victim,
someone who hated seminary students instead of prostitutes and really intended
to kill him.
His thoughts spun crazily. What sin? He had committed his sins, of course,
but none that stood out immediately. What falls but never breaks? What breaks
but never falls?
His pulse pounded in his ears. Maybe he should get off the road. Of course he
should get off the road! If there was even a remote chance that Slater meant to
carry out his threat ...
For the first time, Kevin imagined the car actually filling with a blast of
fire. A shaft of panic ripped down his spine. He had to get out! He had to call
Not now. Now he had to get out. Out!
Kevin jerked his foot off the accelerator and slammed it down on the brake.
The Sable's tires squealed. A horn shrieked. The Mercedes. Kevin twisted his
head and glanced through the rear window. Too many cars. He had to find a vacant
spot, where flying shrapnel would do the least damage. He gunned the motor and
shot forward. 12:05. But how many seconds? He had to assume three minutes would
end at 12:06.
A dozen thoughts crowded his mind: thoughts of a sudden explosion, thoughts
of the voice on the phone, thoughts of how the cars around him were reacting to
the Sable jerking along the road. What falls but never breaks? What breaks
but never falls?
Kevin looked around, frantic. He had to dump the car without blowing up the
neighborhood. It's not even going to blow, Kevin. Slow down and think. He
ran his fingers through his hair several times in quick succession.
He swung into the right lane, ignoring another horn. A Texaco station loomed
on his right--not a good choice. Beyond the gas station, Dr. Won's Chinese
Cuisine--hardly better. There were no parks along this section of road;
residences packed the side streets. Ahead, lunch crowds bustled at McDonald's
and Taco Bell. The clock still read 12:05. It had been 12:05 for too long.
Now true panic muddled his thinking. What if it really does go off? It's
going to, isn't it? God, help me! I've got to get out of this thing! He
grabbed at his seat belt buckle with a trembling hand. Released the shoulder
strap. Both hands back on the wheel.
A Wal-Mart sat back from the street a hundred yards to his left. The huge
parking lot was only half-filled. A wide greenway that dipped at its center,
like a natural ditch, surrounded the entire lot. He made a critical decision:
Wal-Mart or nothing.
Kevin leaned on his horn and cut back into the center lane with a cursory
glance in his mirror. A metallic screech made him duck- he'd clipped a car. Now
he was committed.
"Get out of my way! Get out!"
He motioned frantically with his left hand, succeeding only in smashing his
knuckles into the window. He grunted and swerved into the far left lane. With a
tremendous thump he crashed over a six-inch-high median and then into
oncoming traffic. It occurred to him that being rammed head-on might be no
better than blowing up, but he was already in the path of a dozen oncoming cars.
Tires squealed and horns blared. The Sable took only one hit in its right
rear fender before shooting out the other side of the gauntlet. Something from
his car was dragging on the asphalt. He cut off a pickup that was trying to exit
"Watch out! Get out of my way!"
Kevin roared into the Wal-Mart lot and glanced down at the clock. Somewhere
back there it had turned. 12:06.
To his right, traffic on Long Beach Boulevard had come to a screeching halt.
It wasn't every day that a car blasted through oncoming traffic like a bowling
Kevin sped past several gaping customers and zeroed in on the greenway. Not
until he was on top of it did he see the curb. The Sable blew a tire when it
connected; this time Kevin's head struck the ceiling. A dull pain spread down
Out, out, out!
The car flew into the ditch and Kevin crammed the brake pedal to the floor.
For a fleeting moment he thought he might roll. But the car slid to a jolting
halt, its nose planted firmly in the opposite slope.
He grabbed at the door latch, shoved the door open, and dove to the turf,
rolling on impact. He scrambled to his feet and raced up the slope toward the
lot. At least a dozen onlookers headed his way from the sea of parked cars.
"Back! Get back!" Kevin waved his arms at them. "There's a bomb in the car.
They stared at him for one moment of fixed horror. Then all but three turned
and fled, screaming his warning.
Kevin swung his arms furiously at the others. "Get back, you idiots! There's
They ran. A siren wailed through the air. Someone had already called the
Kevin had run a good fifty paces from the greenway before it occurred to him
that the bomb hadn't gone off. What if there wasn't a bomb after all? He pulled
up and whipped around, panting and trembling. Surely three minutes had come and
Was it a practical joke after all? Whoever this caller was, he'd done almost
as much damage through the threat alone as he would have by detonating an actual
Kevin glanced around. A gawking crowd had gathered on the street at a safe
distance. The traffic had stalled and was backing up as far as he could see.
Steam hissed from a blue Honda--presumably the one that had hit his right rear
fender. There had to be a few hundred people staring at the nut who'd driven his
car into the ditch. Except for the growing wail of sirens, the scene had grown
eerily silent. He took a step back toward the car.
At least there was no bomb. A few angry motorists and some bent fenders, so
what? He'd done the only thing he could do. And really, there still could be a
bomb. He'd leave that for the police once he explained his story. Surely they
would believe him. Kevin stopped. The car tipped into the dirt with its left
rear tire off the ground. From here it all looked kind of stupid.
"You said bomb?" someone yelled.
Kevin looked back at a middle-aged man with white hair and a Cardinals
baseball cap. The man stared at him. "Did you say there was a bomb?"
Kevin looked back at the car, feeling suddenly foolish. "I thought there—"
A deafening explosion shook the ground. Kevin instinctively crouched and
threw his hands up to protect his face.
The bright fireball hung over the car; boiling black smoke rose into the sky.
The red flame collapsed on itself with a soft whomp. Smoke billowed from
the charred skeleton of what was only a moment ago his Sable.
Kevin dropped to one knee and stared, dumbstruck, wide-eyed.
Thr3e by Ted Dekker, copyright 2003.
permission. All rights reserved.