The solid oak door to the haunted mansion creaks as Oliver greets Susan Whitfield and escorts her into the parlor. “I’m Your Boogie Man” by White Zombie plays from hidden wall speakers. With a roguish wink, Oliver hands Susan a Bloody Mary. Before long, Susan’s voice rises over the music.
Once the song ended, people settled back on the pews and Preacher Hawfield stood up with gusto he’d found somewhere during the tambourine episode and quoted scripture. I was impressed, at first, that he held no Bible, no notes. Had he memorized his message? Surprisingly his eyes rolled back in his head and he started saying things I couldn’t understand, getting louder with each breath and more animated as he continued. I’d heard about some churches in Tennesse, Georgia, andWest Virginia, where people spoke in tongues, but I’d never witnessed it, and didn’t know the practice existed in this part of North Carolina.
Preacher Hawfield got downright boisterous and so did the congregation. People in the balcony were again leaning over too far. I was expecting someone to fall over and land on the first floor. It was unnerving. I looked around for a friendly face. My eyes locked on Magnolia in the back row, and she smiled and nodded at me. Had she picked up on my uneasiness?
“My people, let the Spirit move in you. Let it anoint you. Give over to it!” The preacher was creating what I’d call a disturbance anywhere else, but everyone was buying it. The building appeared to tremble from the ever-increasing racket. My Southern Baptist roots were coming undone, but my SBI curiosity was revved.
“Sister Rose Paul Hill has come. Let’s pray that she is anointed, my brothers and sisters.”
I jerked nervously as everyone started to look up and pray, each prayer loud and different. The prayers reached fever pitch while the preacher handed Rose a vial, which she held up and poured down her throat. The service crescendoed as Rose Paul Hill let out a yell louder than anyone in the church. I was on my feet, not able to take my eyes off her. All of a sudden her loose false teeth bounced out of her mouth and across the floor, breaking into several pieces. The room became instantly and frighteningly quiet.
Rose fell to the floor; nobody tried to catch her. I worked my way to the end of the pew and ran to the front. The preacher at first seemed delighted that the Spirit moved me — until I stopped and knelt beside Rose.
“What did you drink, Rose?”
“I’m anointed, child. It won’t kill me.” Rose Paul’s unconvincing voice grew weak. I glanced over at her broken dentures, wondering if the dental bill would finish her off. I saw movement under the front pew and blinked several times. My eyes were clear and focused, and, more than likely, outside their sockets.
“Holy Shit!” I yelled out, snatching a raggedy old toupee off a man’s head as he let out a yelp. I threw it at the snake, hoping he’d think it was a weak animal he could overpower. It didn’t work. The humongous snake, thicker than my upper arm, came straight toward me. I could see his beady eyes under the hairpiece as he moved swiftly across the wood floor. Grabbing the Glock from under my jacket, I aimed and shot the rattlesnake twice.
“She’s got a gun!”
People screamed and stampeded for the doors. The preacher and some of the men jumped me, wrestled the gun away, and pinned me to the wood floor. Somebody lifted Rose away from the ruckus.
“What are you doing?"
"A snake…under that pew. I killed it for you.”
Preacher Hawfield shrieked into my face, “You imbecile! That snake and all the others are for this worship service!
All the others?