The Coming of Beth

an excerpt

Chapter One

Monday, August 15, 2016

7:48 a.m.



As ever, I arrive early at 1200 Hermosa Avenue, #201, my beautiful second-floor Hermosa Beach office suite. I don't expect Friday for another half hour or so, and my morning patient isn't due until nine. But Father's lectures on punctuality during my wonder years have made me an adult who arrives for every appointment before its time.

With time to kill, I cross the anteroom and walk into my private office, sitting behind the desk, and putting my feet up on it. Comfortable and relaxed, with time on my side, I let my mind wander. As it does so, I am reminded that nothing keeps one's ego in check better than being wrong.

And wrong I had been. After eight years as a past life regression therapist, I should have known better than to believe I could predict what life would bring my way.

By caving in to egoism, I had allowed myself to think I'd heard it all. Wrong, wrong, and wrong! What a fool I'd been! What an egocentric fool!

On that day, one month ago, a frenzied and bawling June Ryder had interrupted the Hermosa Beach Citizens Advisory Committee meeting and proved that I had not heard it all--not by a long shot.

"Dr. Saint James, I'm a daughter and a wife," she had told me in front of the mayor, his city council, and my fellow committee members. That was in response to my request that she tell me all about her issue. "Professionally speaking, I'm a chef. But, first and foremost, I think of myself as a devout Roman Catholic."

She had lost me by identifying herself as such, and once again, she'd broken down into sobs, crying me a salty river of tears.

In my opinion, anyone who accepts that church's erroneous, horrific, belief system is in for a life of woe. But that's not what I had told June Ryder.

I had done my best to comfort her. "There, there," I had responded, verbally withholding the judgment I had already passed mentally, simultaneously trying to soothe her, and at the same time attempting to loosen her vise-like grip on my lapel. "Pull yourself together! How can I be of help if you can't tell me what's wrong?"

Taking the handkerchief from my blazer as if I had offered it to her, she'd then dabbed at her brown eyes and blown her nose. "Thanks," she'd said, finally regaining control and holding out the hanky to me.

"You keep it, dear," I had told her while eyeing the repulsive object. "You said that your husband is possessed by the devil. How so?"

That's when the always-gracious Mayor Peter Tucker had stood up. Addressing the room, he'd said, "Perhaps we should give Mrs. Ryder and Dr. James some privacy."

Everyone had risen to their feet, including the obese Gertrude Sherman, who did so reluctantly, and with visible difficulty.

"Dr. Saint James," Tucker had said, "we'll recess for fifteen minutes."

"Thank you, Mr. Mayor."

With tears and snot running down her anxious face, June had blurted clumsily. "Forgive me, everybody. I'm at my wit's end."

While smiling benignly, the mayor had reassured, "No worries, Mrs. Ryder. We've all been there."

After everyone had left, I said in my calmest voice, "Now please, Mrs. Ryder, tell me everything."

"I've been a devout Catholic all my life," she'd begun. As if to prove the point, she had held out a crucifix on the chunky rosary that hung around her neck. "Mass every morning, confession every Saturday, and I chair the local court of Catholic Daughters of America."

Not being a fan of her religion, I had instinctively sighed deeply and rolled my eyes heavenward.

"Rod," she'd continued, "my husband, is a New Ager." She had said the words frigidly. "He doesn't accept that all Truth comes to us from Holy Mother Church through the Holy Father." She had swiped at fresh tears and blown her nose again.

I'd blinked. "Considering your devotion, I'm surprised you married outside your religion."

"What can I say, Dr. Saint James?" She had sniffled. "I'm only flesh and blood! I was young. Love came so strong. The heart wants what it wants."

How well I know. I had nodded affirmatively. "I certainly understand. But what has any of this got to do with your husband being possessed by the devil? Or with me for that matter?" Frankly, I had wanted her to have her say and be gone. It was bad enough that I'd gone into overtime with a hypnotized patient, which had made me uncharacteristically late for this meeting. Further disrupting and delaying the city's business this way was intolerable.

She had taken a deep breath. "I'm getting to that." After wiping a snot bubble from her nose, she had explained. "Every Tuesday evening, in our duplex, Rod teaches a class in psychic development. I am totally against that kind of thing. It's demonic. But Rod thinks otherwise and won't listen to reason. The other night he was demonstrating the Ouija Board for his five students. I had begged him not to," she'd burst out. "Everyone knows that using that board is like opening a door for Satan to enter our world! But he wouldn't listen to me."

She had paused briefly to deal with a new wave of tears. "Rod started by asking the Ouija Board, ‘Is anyone there?' Suddenly, his mouth flew open and out of it came--oh, it was horrible, Dr. Saint James! It was the most awful, coarse, booming voice--not Rod's at all!"

"What did it say?" I had asked sharply.

"It said, ‘Someone is most definitely here'--and--and," she'd gulped distractedly, "the voice was a woman's! I was shocked and so were Rod's students. For a long time, no one moved a muscle or said a word. And then finally, Rod asked in his normal voice, ‘Who are you?' And that awful voice replied, ‘All in good time, Aaron. All in good time.' And it gave this terrible laugh."

"Who is Aaron?" I had asked, thinking the moniker belonged to one of the students. "You said that your husband's name is Rod."

Mrs. Ryder had shaken her head in confused agitation. "I don't know! But of this I am sure. That awful, booming woman's voice coming out of my Roddy's mouth belonged to the Devil!"

"And how do you know this, Mrs. Ryder?" I had asked, doing my level best to suppress disbelief.

Remember, mine is the life metaphysical. I am repelled by the dogmatic falsehoods of our major religions that hide more than they reveal about spiritual things while simultaneously painting selfhood as inherently sinful and identifying mankind as little more than a highly flawed afterthought of a perfect Creator.

What's more, I've had many hypnotically regressed patients explain to me that religion is wrong and there is no Devil, or any power, in opposition to God. The Creator is all-in-all, they tell me.

Nine years ago, at the UCLA Parapsychology Lab, I had been told by a volunteer under past life regression hypnosis that Satan had been created out of whole cloth by religion in order to control humankind. According to her, the Devil only possesses whatever power is given to him by mortal mind.

Throughout the years, other patients, hypnotized and regressed, have confirmed my volunteer's hypothesis of the Devil as a mythological beast. But what had convinced June Ryder that the female voice emanating from her husband was demonic?

By way of explanation, Mrs. Ryder had then blurted, "Holy Mother Church warns us of such things. We know the Devil has many faces: greed, lust, idolatry, and so forth. And he has many voices, too." Hers was a simple statement of fact.

And I had concluded, If June really believes this nonsense, she's beyond my, or any enlightened being's help.

You see, I have some understanding of disembodied personalities speaking through people. Several of my patients are high profile psychic mediums, and through voice communication and automatic writing, they channel spiritual beings. The entities to whom they give voice are, by and large, benevolent personalities with important messages for humankind. They are in no way evil.

So, I had thought, Perhaps the voice speaking through Rod Ryder had belonged to one such disembodied entity. Even so, none of this had anything to do with religion's Devil, or with me for that matter.

In my educated, scientific opinion, Rod Ryder had not been possessed by the Devil. In all likelihood, a discarnate had discovered the psychic development teacher's use as a medium, or Channel, between her world and our own.

But there had been no use in arguing the point with Mrs. Ryder.

Anyone who believes that Truth's dispensation is the exclusive domain of Holy Mother Church would reject logic. When one accepts Catholicism's false and self-limiting beliefs, then not much can be done. I could never convince June that mediumship, and not the Devil, was behind the personality for whom her husband had spoken. I'm not prone to wasting time. Not hers, and certainly not my own.

Quite simply, at that point, I had just wanted to be rid of this sob Sister Mary Ignatius. In her parochial eyes, this was a job for an exorcist. So why in the name of all that's holy had she come to me?

I had asked, "And why have you come to me?"

Rather than with words, this desperate housewife had responded with a fresh tsunami of tears. When the tidal wave of weeping had finally subsided, she explained, "Rod is your biggest fan. Your book is required reading for his students. I've done my best to get him to see a priest, but he stubbornly refuses. Of this I'm sure, if his favorite author tells him to see one, then he will. You must help me, Dr. Saint James!" Once more, she had grabbed and twisted my lapel. "Please, in the name of all that is holy, and for the sake of Rod's immortal soul!" Her plea had been almost a whisper.

"I'm sorry Mrs. Ryder," I had answered sincerely. "I don't share your faith. And I most commonly advise patients against seeing priests, at least not unless there are a lot of other people around."

She had immediately backed off and looked at me in disbelief and horror. "Then you won't help?"

"Not won't, dear," I'd said softly. "I can't help you. We hold very different belief systems. I wouldn't even know how."

"Then what?" She had cocked her head in anticipation of help.

"I can't ask your husband to see a priest. But if Rod ever wants to explore past life regression therapy, then have him call me." At that point, I had taken a business card from the gold cardholder that I had liberated from its original owner and handed it to her.

One month later, having heard nothing more from June Ryder, and without being contacted by her husband, I have filed away her emotional, impassioned plea as nothing more than a disruptive, fading memory.

The sound of the anteroom door opening and closing pulls me out of my reverie, and I quickly return to the present. Looking up from my desk, I see Friday framed in the doorway. Why is he so early for work? Or had I been lost in my daydream much longer than I'd imagined?

I love the guy. My youthful Boswell runs the office with cheerful efficiency and an obsessive devotion to enhancing the reputation of the cutting-edge science that is past life regression therapy.

And I love the look of him. The man's wicked awesome body is built for pleasure, and for reasons I have never fully understood, I'm the lucky so-and-so he would have chosen to enjoy its every sexual delight. But my mantra is: "Don't fuck where you work!" So, I somehow manage to resist him.

Admittedly, doing so is not easy. Not by any means. Staving off young, prime beef on the hoof contradicts my strongest impulses. In my forty-one-year-old, hazel eyes, Friday, and not People magazine's latest selection, is, the sexiest man alive. He is all that, and then some, with a dimpled face that holds startling sapphire eyes, and everything is compellingly packaged in a thinly muscled, naturally smooth physique that he flaunts frequently and immodestly.

I am by no means a troll. My face is strong and unlined. My aforementioned hazel eyes are big and clear. As for the goatee, it makes me appear more intelligent than I sometimes feel, and my mane of chestnut hair is as thick and lustrous as it was twenty years ago. Thanks to thrice-weekly spin cycle classes with Lizy, Rebecca's Yoga Bear workout, and those five-mile runs along The Strand, from the Hermosa Beach Pier to Redondo's King Harbor, and back, I'm fiddle fit.

In the sexy department, I am no match for Friday. How could I be? Even the best-looking, fittest forty-one-year-old can't really compete with an extraordinary beauty of twenty-six. To believe otherwise is to swim in the self-delusion pool, and I try to keep such deception to a minimum.

But after giving Friday a second glance, I decide that the lad looks somehow different today. What's changed? I can't put my finger on it. While pondering the difference, I rub my goatee, as is my wont when in contemplation.

"How do you like it?" Friday asks, suddenly preening before me.

"How do I like what?"

"My hair." He points at his thick raven-black mane. "On Saturday, Sal gave me this new cut."

So that's it! Friday, who has worn his hair in the trendy Modern Pompadour since I met him, is sporting the even more stylish low razor fade. An American Beauty Rose by any other name.

"I like it!" The words fly out of my mouth unbidden. "And I must say, Friday, even by your standards, you're quite the early bird this morning."

He smiles, unleashing those dimples. But the seriousness in his velvety baritone contradicts the grin. "Couldn't sleep. Mummsy's not well."

"Pity," I say, trying, but failing, to keep sarcasm out of my voice.

Remember, Friday's Mummsy, Gertrude Sherman, is my sworn enemy.

In condemning me, and making mock of my profession, this insufferable Teutonic cow has not been supported by her son. Friday strongly defends my metaphysical perspective as the true one, and he sees past life regression therapy as both a branch of quantum physics and as humanity's last, best hope for mental health.

How proud I'd been of my right-hand man when he'd stood up during a Citizens Advisory Committee meeting to side with me against his mother. But I digress.

I intuit that something more than Mummsy's ill health is on Friday's mind, so I inquire, "Is there something more?"

His pregnant pause is palpable, saying more than words could. I'm flummoxed because Friday shuns modesty, shyness, and timidity. Several years ago, he'd posed full-frontal nude for a calendar benefitting the Hermosa Beach Historical Society; of which his mother is president. So, I cannot help but wonder, What the Devil could possibly render him tongue-tied?

For a moment, he looks nonplussed and then he sighs. "Yes. As a matter of fact, there is something more, and it involves you."

I knew it. "Don't be shy," I say encouragingly. "You can tell me anything."

He walks over to my desk. "It's like this, Minn," he says haltingly. "I want to invite you to a party, but I'm afraid you'll get the wrong idea. You see, it's a LANG Party."

Right or wrong idea, I am clueless. "What is a LANG Party?"

As he explains, Friday's eyes avoid my own. "LANG is an acronym. It stands for Los Angeles Nude Guys. It's a gay nudist group--one that hosts parties and other naked events. There's a LANG chapter nearby in Torrance. I'm a new member. There's a party next week, and I want you to come as my guest."

I stiffen with surprise. Heaven knows, I've never been accused of being a prude. But cavorting in the nude with a group of gay men? That's not a party; it's an orgy waiting to happen! So, I understand why Friday may fear me getting the wrong idea. I have spent a lot of time fending off his sexual overtures--and repeatedly reminding him that I am not among those who mix business with sexual pleasure. An invitation for nude socializing, even under the auspices of a party hosted by an august body such as Los Angeles Nude Guys, could easily be misconstrued.

But I decide to take it on face value. I want to believe that Friday has abandoned the ridiculous notion of anything sexual existing between us, and a roguish part of me is curious about partying naked.

He interrupts my thoughts by reiterating, "Please don't read anything more into this than what it is--a party invitation. I still regret that unfortunate event in your backyard."

He is referring to an afternoon earlier this summer, when, having returned home from a leisurely latte at Bonaparte's, I had discovered him sunbathing nude and semi-erect on my back-patio chaise, poised for seduction--mine!

My shock at seeing him had been genuine. But my outrage had been mostly mock and undercut by my inability to remove my eyes from the impressive tumescence between his smooth muscled thighs.

But again, I digress. "And what is the right idea?" I ask.

Friday fiddles with his new hairstyle. He still cannot let his eyes meet mine. "I'm new to LANG. I'd be much more at ease partying nude with a friend in tow."

Arching my brows, I ask, "You want me to be your wingman?"

"Nothing like that," he answers, shaking his head. "My companion. You know, two buddies stripping down for good, unwholesome, naked fun; nothing sexual implied or desired."

I'm anxious, but also intrigued. I can't really picture myself partying naked with members of such a group. Gay men in Los Angeles are, by and large, obscenely fit. Many of them spend the livelong day working their bodies out to a hairless, muscled perfection; their gym lives interrupted only by the occasional acting or modeling interview. Among such paragons of fleshly perfection, I have always felt inferior.

Hoping to be funny in a campy kind of way, I blurt out, "Not my cup of chiffon!"

Friday is not amused. Perhaps he is too young to understand my paraphrase. "Maybe it should be your cup of whatever," he shoots back, his sapphire orbs finally meeting my hazel ones.

I know full well what he means. But I will concede nothing. So, I lie. "What the Devil do you mean?"

I'm scorched by his intense gaze. "You know exactly what I mean." He rests a hand on my shoulder, and an electrifying bolt of desire races through me. Friday must know the effect his touch has on me. Resisting the boy is among my life's greatest challenges. But alas, he is pivotal to my professional well-being; I would never sacrifice my business needs on the altar of lust for this post pubescent man-god.

Looking both sad and sincere, he asks, "Minn, when was the last time you had a date? More to the point, when was the last time you even met someone you wanted to date?"

The second question is the easier of the two. The last time I'd met someone I wanted to date was when I had been introduced to him. Back then though, he wasn't Friday. He was simply Randal Pierpont Sherman, the First Son of Hermosa Beach, presumably straight, and fifteen years my junior. But of course, I cannot tell him this.

So, I mumble clumsily, "Admittedly, it's been a long time between drinks. A very long time."

"I rest my case," Friday intones triumphantly, letting his hand drop from my shoulder.

For lack of something better, I fall back on the tried and true. "Romping around in the nude is all well and good for you. You're twenty-six and gorgeous. I'm forty-one, soon-to-be forty-two, remember?"

"Forty-one, fit, and fabulous!" he smiles at me.

"How would you know?" I ask defensively. You see, I have never been undressed, even partially so, in Friday's presence.

I don't trust myself to be.

He flashes the irritating, Cheshire grin that I have come to know and loathe. "Fit and fabulous, yes, but obviously your forty-one-year-old memory is going."

When I bristle at the remark, he is happy to refresh my flagging memory. "It was Bring a Buddy Week at your gym," he recalls gleefully. "You invited me to your spin and yoga classes. Afterward, I watched you strip down and shower."

Dang. Caught in a trap of my own creation! So, Friday had been eyeing me across the crowded room. Suddenly, I remember everything as if it were yesterday. Entering the locker room after the classes, we had run into one of his high school friends. I had used their chance encounter to rush away to my locker, giving the school chums time to themselves, and granting myself an opportunity to quickly shower and dress without being ogled by the boy.

Obviously, he had been checking me out with one sapphire eye even as he'd chatted up his chum.

Long after the fact now, a blush races through me and then fades. "So, you've seen my family jewels," I say with a lightness I don't feel.

"Seen and admired them--from a distance, of course." Friday's smile adds to my annoyance and chagrin.

"So, Minn, what do you say?" he adds. "Next Friday, you and me with forty or so nude others, romping gayly in a condo on Sepulveda Boulevard."

"What do I say?" I sputter nervously. "I'd have to be daft to even consider such an indecent proposal. But call me crazy because I am willing to give it a think."

"Good enough," Friday says with a wink.