Moral Panic 1986

by Marshall J. Moore

“It's the end of the world,” the perp told me as I walked him to his cell.

He didn’t say it like a raving lunatic. He appended no more significance to the remark than a discussion of the weather. Tuesday, cloudy with a high of fifty-three and a seventy percent chance of Armageddon.

“That right?” I kept a firm grip on him while Sorenson fumbled with his ring of keys, trying to find the one to the iron-barred cell.

The perp laughed, high and hysterical. He looked like a culty wackjob. Hair too short, no beard to speak of. The only concession to normalcy was the Coke-bottle glasses over his eyes, and even those made him look like a computer nerd.

But he was dangerous. The Bureau didn’t arrest people who weren’t.

“The comet,” he said, eyes widening behind those thick lenses. “It’s coming ‘round this year. At the end of April it’ll enter Earth’s orbit. A year of tribulation and hardship will follow, killing all but the worthy.”

A bead of spittle hung from the corner of his mouth. I motioned for Sorenson to hurry it up with the keys.

"So,” I said, as my partner finally selected the correct key. The cell door screeched open. “What happens after that year is up?”

“God comes back,” the perp said, a crazed grin spreading across his face.

Sorenson snorted. I pushed the perp into his cell, unlocking his cuffs and slamming the door shut behind him in a single motion. Sorenson locked the cell behind him with an equally practiced ease.

“Only a year, huh?” I took a pack of cigs from my pocket, pulled one out. Sorenson handed me his lighter. “Too bad for you, then.”

That crazed smile didn’t waver. “Why’s that, Agent Hartmann?”

I lit the cigarette. “You won’t be alive to see it.”


“You a religious man, Hartmann?” Sorenson asked on the walk back to our office.

“You know I am.”

Our office door was frosted glass, like something out of an old detective flick, complete with goldplate lettering:




“So it gets under your skin, right? These subversive cults.”

I regarded Sorenson. While we were partners, he had a decade’s seniority on me. And though we worked well together, we’d never quite seen eye to eye when it came to personal beliefs.

“I think they’re dangerous,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Most radical groups are.”

“But do you think it’s true what they say about them?” he pressed, heaving his considerable bulk into his battered rolling chair. “That they’re blood-drinking cannibals?”

I snorted. “You’ve been listening to your kid’s heavy metal.”

“Well, they’re either that or Commie infiltrators.”

“Please.” I lowered myself into my chair and started booting up my Admiral. The report on the doomsday preacher occupying Cellblock 2 wasn’t going to write itself. “You get a National Inquirer subscription or something?”

“I’m serious.” Sorenson adjusted the clasps on his suspenders. “Ten years back you’d hardly ever hear about freakshows like this. Now they’re cropping up all over the States, like a roach infestation you didn’t know you had until it’s too late.”

The Admiral’s startup screen bathed my face in red electric light. “These things come and go. Remember back in the seventies? There was that surge in reports of people putting razorblades in Samhain candy. How many of those were actually proved to be credible?”

“Pretty much none,” Sorenson admitted, frowning.

“Exactly.” I opened the Admiral’s word processor and started typing. “These cults are a moral panic, just like the candy was. It’ll die down in a few years.”

“Except that this is real,” Sorenson pointed out, scratching at his beard. He kept it as short and neat as regulations allowed, hardly reaching past his chin. “We just put one of them in Cellblock 2, for bafssakes!”

“I’m not saying that they’re not out there, Bob. Just that they’re overreported. A lotta suburban hysteria.”

A Cheshire Cat grin spread across Sorenson’s face. “Funny you should say that.”

I leaned away from the computer monitor, looking warily at my partner. “Why’s that?”

“Because that’s where we’re headed. The burbs.”

I stared at him. “You’re serious?”

Still grinning, Sorenson raised his hand, his thumb, pinkie, and index fingers extended. “Swear to Lord Satan.”


“So what’ve we got?” I asked, staring out the passenger window of Sorenson’s Buick as the miles rolled by. The Atlantic glittered away to the right as we headed north, out of the urban sprawl of Miami proper and through the smaller cities of the metro area.

“The Hills,” Sorenson said. He tossed a manila folder onto my lap. “Family of four up in Jupiter. Lawyer dad, homemaker mom. Kids are sixteen and thirteen.”

“Let me guess,” I said, opening the folder. “A neighbor found the older kid doing one of those roleplaying games?”

“Bigger than that.” Sorenson grinned. “The youngest was caught handing out a pamphlet to her friends at school. We’ve got it in the folder.”

I flipped through until I found a slim piece of folded paper. On the front in block capitals it asked: LOST?

“Go on,” Sorenson said. “See what’s inside.”

I unfolded the pamphlet to reveal a crude drawing of a man nailed to a cross. Beneath that, in those same block capitals: CHRIST HAS THE ANSWERS.

“Holy Baphomet,” I swore. “Christians?”

“That’s right,” Sorenson said, turning his attention back to the road. “At least the girl seems to be. Jury’s still out on the rest of the family.”

I flipped through the folder. Heather Hill, pamphleteer and suspected heretic, stared up at me from her school portrait. She’d done her best to tame the tangle of unruly red curls that floated around her head, and her shy smile didn’t quite cover the glint of braces.

“Cute kid,” I said. “Doesn’t look the type to get involved with that stuff.”

“You know how they are at that age.” Sorenson snorted. “They’re making all kinds of friends, trying new things. You ask me, she probably got that pamphlet from a friend. But the teachers say she hasn’t named anyone.”

“Making her parents the next most likely suspects.” I flipped the pamphlet open again, scanning the drawing of the crucified man.

It wasn’t good, exactly, but it had a sort of impressionistic emotionality to it that managed to convey the depths of his pain. The agonized expression on his face in particular sent fingers of unease crawling down my neck.

“She likes art class,” Sorenson offered. “Says so in her file.”

“You think she drew this?” I’d seen a lot of horrific things in my time on the Bureau, but this drawing was doing a number on my stomach. It was hard to believe that a child could have been responsible for it.

“Like I said, I think some other kid at school gave it to her. But if she made it herself…”

“Someone would have had to tell her what to draw,” I finished. “And the likeliest place to start looking is home.”


The Hill home was a pleasant little Spanish Colonial nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac. Tall pines waved over the adobe tiled roof, and behind the house lay a small creek. The lawn looked freshly mowed.

“Cute place,” I said as we pulled up to the curb.

A uniformed officer leaned against a squad car parked in the driveway. There to make sure the family didn’t try and make a break for the hills before us feds showed up, no doubt.

“Yeah,” Sorenson said, slamming the driver’s door shut behind him. “Weird, right? Not the kinda place you’d think a bunch of culty freaks would live.”

Again, chill fingers of dread crawled down my neck. Despite the Florida heat, I shivered. “Guess you never can tell.”

The curtains were drawn on all the windows, but I thought I saw a rustle of movement behind the ones nearest the front door.

We introduced ourselves to the uniformed officer, a portly Cubano whose nametag read REYES. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he confirmed that the family were all inside the house, that they hadn’t left since the girl had been caught with the Christian pamphlet at school two days prior.

“Any contact at all with the outside world?” I asked.

Reyes thought it over. “They might’ve called someone on the phone, I guess. And the dad gets the newspaper every morning. Otherwise they’ve stayed put.”

I looked at Sorenson. “Time to introduce ourselves, then.”


The door opened on the third knock, before my knuckles had left the wood. The man on the other side was of average height and build, with rust-colored hair that fell to his shoulders, though his wispy beard was beginning to show the first hints of silver. Very professionally dressed, between the pinstripe suit and matching cowl.

“Walter Hill?”

“That’s me.” His broad smile didn’t quite compensate for the tremor in his voice. Something told me it had taken all of his self-control not to open the door even sooner.

“I’m Agent Hartmann with the FBI’s Occult Crimes Division,” I said, flashing my badge. Walter’s eyes widened at the sight of the silver pentagram. “This is my partner, Agent Sorenson. May we come—”

“Of course,” Walter cut me off. “Please. Come on in!”

He turned and hurried down the hall, his footsteps beating a nervous pitter-pat on the tile floor.

Sorenson and I exchanged a look.

“Guilty conscience?” I asked, stepping inside.

“What?” Sorenson smirked, closing the door behind him. “Maybe he really is that happy to see us.”


The Hill family awaited us in the living room, seated stiffly on chairs and couches and dressed in their Blackmass best.

“My wife and kids,” Walter said unnecessarily over his shoulder with another nervous smile. “Come say hello, honey.”

His wife was a small woman, though the volume of her hair went a long way towards making up the difference. Her mane of blonde curls bounced as she walked across the living room carpet in her nylons.

“Agents,” she said, walking right up to me and extending her hand. “I’m Sandra Hill. Welcome to our home.”

Her dark eyes didn’t leave mine once.

“Agent Hartmann,” I said, squeezing her hand. Her grip didn’t waver. “My partner, Agent Sorenson.”

Sorenson inclined his head, which for him was practically a courtly bow. I suppressed a smile. Sandra Hill’s sheer presence clearly compensated for her height.

“Charmed,” she said. “I’m sure that with your help we can put this whole business behind us.”

“Let’s hope so,” I said, careful to keep my tone neutral. Interviewing suspects was always dicey. You didn’t want to let anything slip, but you also wanted to set them at ease enough to be willing to talk. “You know why we’re here, Mrs. Hill?”

“This is about the pamphlet Heather’s teacher found her with.”

“Correct.” I peered over Sandra’s shoulder—over her head, really—at the pair of kids seated on the couch, their dad hovering nervously at their side. Brian Hill was a boy deep in the most unfortunate phase of adolescence: all knees and elbows, his limbs too long for his torso. His cheeks were a profusion of angry red boils, and his hair was trimmed to a shortness that spoke of youthful rebellion.

The girl beside him looked much the same as she had in her file. Puberty hadn’t victimized Heather Hill quite as brutally as it had her brother, though it certainly wasn’t being kind to her, either. Small for her age, she had the sort of compressed stockiness that heralded an oncoming growth spurt. Her face was round and freckled, and she wore thick glasses that reminded me of the doomsday preacher I’d arrested earlier in the day.

Must’ve taken them off for school picture day, I thought, recalling the photo in the folder. Then as now, she’d made a valiant if doomed attempt at taming her mess of unruly ginger curls.

Heather caught me looking at her and quickly looked away, her cheeks turning as red as her hair. Her brother put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in, whispering something.

“We’d like to talk with Heather,” I said, turning my attention to her father. Walter seemed an easier nut to crack than his wife. “Ask her some questions.”

Sandra Hill squared her shoulders. “It’s my understanding you need to have a parent present for that.”

“Of course.” I smiled, inwardly cursing. It would have been easier to interview the girl without her mother present. “Would you like to observe, Mrs. Hill, or would you rather your husband be present?”

Walter looked about to speak up, but a look from Sandra silenced him.

“I’ll do it,” she said. She went to the couch and whispered something to Heather, who stood and smoothed down the front of her plaid skirt.

“Hello, Heather,” I said, my smile fixed in place. “I’m Agent Hartmann.”

“Hello, Mr. Hartmann,” Heather mumbled, looking down at her shoes.

“Is there someplace in the house we can go to talk?” I asked Sandra. “Someplace private?”

Heather shot a nervous look up at her mother, who squeezed her hand.

“The back porch,” Sandra said. “I think we could all use a little fresh air. Don’t you, Agent Hartmann?”

“Fresh air and sunshine.” I grinned. “The two reasons anyone lives in Florida.”


The Hills’ back porch was a concrete patio sandwiched between the house’s white stucco walls and the green grass of their backyard. It was flanked by a grill and a jet ski, both covered in gray tarpaulins that looked like they’d seldom been removed. Their outdoor furniture was old but comfortable.

“Have a seat,” I told Heather, lowering myself into one of the patio chairs.

Heather sat, still avoiding my eyes. Her mother hovered behind her, lips pursed and arms folded. I fought down the urge to ask Sandra to give us some space, knowing that it wouldn’t help Heather to open up if I did.

“I’m going to show you something,” I said to Heather. “I want you to tell me if you’ve seen it before. Okay?”

Heather nodded, still looking at her feet.

I pulled the LOST? pamphlet from my folder and handed it to her. “Do you recognize this?”

Heather barely glanced down at the cover before nodding tersely.

“Could you open it for me, please?”

She did, her fingers trembling so badly that the pamphlet shook like a palm in an August hurricane. Sandra frowned, looked like she was about to say something, but then thought better of it.

Heather opened the pamphlet to reveal CHRIST HAS THE ANSWERS, and the crucifixion beneath. A muted whimper escaped her lips. Behind her Sandra put her fist to her mouth, her face turning visibly pale.

“I hear your teacher found this in your desk,” I said. “Is that true?”

Heather nodded mutely, ginger curls bouncing.

“Do you want to tell me where you got it from?”

Heather muttered something too quiet and fast for me to hear.

“Speak up, honey,” Sandra said, resting a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“I found it,” Heather said. Her voice came out in a mousy squeak.

“Where’d you find it?”

“I dunno.”

It was a weak attempt at a lie, but I was glad for it. Outright denial was easier to negotiate around than a plausible alibi.

“Okay,” I said, easing off the pressure. Getting Heather to give me answers I could work with would require a bit more finesse. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, Heather. It’s okay if you don’t know the answers. Just say so. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said, still not looking at me.

“Alright,” I said, leaning forward to tap the crucifixion. “Do you know what this is a picture of?”

“The death penalty,” Heather muttered. “What happens to you if you commit a really bad crime.”

Ah. A clue to the source of her reticence.

“That’s true,” I said, careful to keep my tone gentle, conciliatory. “Florida is a crucifixion state, Heather. Did you learn about that in school?”

Heather’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly before she managed to croak out, “Yeah.”

“Well then,” I continued, giving her what I hoped was an encouraging smile, “you must also have learned that the death penalty only applies to legal adults. So even if you did something wrong—”

Sandra cleared her throat.

“—which I’m sure you didn’t,” I amended, “you wouldn’t be crucified. You’re too young.”

For the first time, Heather met my eyes. They were a startlingly clear blue behind her thick glasses. “What would happen to me?”

“Depends on the crime.”

“If I…” She waved the pamphlet. “You know. Made this.”

Her mother hissed, opened her mouth to say something.

“Counseling,” I said, jumping in before Sandra could interrupt. “Court mandated therapy to undo the harmful effects exposure to materials like this can have on developing young minds. Probably some community service. At worst a few weeks in a juvenile detention facility, but that’s only if you’re found to have intent to distribute.”

Heather’s brow furrowed. “Intent to what?”

“Distribute,” I repeated. “If you were found with more than one of those pamphlets, the court would assume that you were trying to spread them to your friends. But that shouldn’t be an issue since all we have is the one in your hands.”

“Not that we think you did this, sweetie,” Sandra murmured, putting both hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Nobody’s blaming you for anything. This is all just a big misunderstanding, right?”

Heather didn’t answer. Instead she shrugged her mother off and leaned forward, pamphlet dangling between her knees.

“But what if I was older?” she asked. “Like, old enough to drive and stuff. What would happen to me then?”

“Well.” I shifted in my seat, mentally cursing myself for allowing the conversation to go down this road. “According to state law, at sixteen you can be tried as an adult. But since you’re not…”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Sandra cut in, glaring daggers at me over her daughter’s head. “You found that at school, didn’t you, honey?”

“No,” Heather said. Her blue eyes were suddenly alight behind her glasses. “No, I didn’t.”

She leaned forward, holding the pamphlet with the crucified man out to me like a wanted poster.

“Jesus,” she said. The name cut me like a knife. “He’s mine. I drew him.”


“I’ll be blessed,” Sorenson said, fanning himself with the file folder. “You were right, Hartmann. It was the girl after all. And here I was thinking she picked it up from a friend.”

“She said it was hers,” I said, drumming my fingers on the patio table. The Hills were inside, leaving us to deliberate in private. “Now I’m not so sure.”

“What’s there to be unsure about?” Sorenson scratched at his beard. “She confessed. That’s about as open-and-shut as a case can get.”

“She didn’t at first,” I reminded him. “Not at school. Not when we arrived, either. She wanted to ask me about capital punishment first.”

“That ain’t so surprising,” Sorenson said. “Kids are afraid of getting in trouble. Probably just wanted some assurance you weren’t going to throw her in jail ‘til she was old enough to drink.”

“Maybe.” I chewed my lip. “She said something funny about the man on the pamphlet, too. Called him Jesus.”

“That’s his name, isn’t it?” Sorenson asked. “The crucified god, right?”

“Right,” I said, looking uneasily down at the pamphlet in my hands. “But I never said the name. She did, unprompted. What I want to know is where she learned it from.”

“You think maybe she’s covering for one of the parents?”

“Either them or the brother,” I said, folding the pamphlet closed. I hoped Sorenson wouldn’t notice how my hands trembled around it. “That’s how these cults operate. Corrupting whole families, not just the individuals.”

“Let me guess.” Sorenson slumped in the patio chair. “You want to interview the rest of them.”

I smiled thinly. “I think we’d be neglecting our due diligence if we didn’t.”

“Blessit,” Sorenson cursed. “And here I was hoping we’d have this wrapped in time for dinner.”


“You have to understand,” Walter Hill said, pacing nervously back and forth along the edge of the concrete patio. “This is all just a big misunderstanding.”

“Have a seat, Mr. Hill,” I said, not looking up from his file. “I’m going to ask a few questions. I want you to answer them to the best of your ability. Understand?”

Walter nodded, then apparently decided that gesture alone was insufficient. “Yes. Of course.”

“These are simple questions,” I said. “I ask, and you say yes or no. Understand?”

“I understand,” Walter said, still nodding vigorously.

“You mean ‘yes.’ That was the first question.”

He paled behind his beard. “Wha—I mean. Yes. Yes, I understand.”

I placed the folder in my lap and steepled my hands together. “Your name is Walter Donald Hill.”


“You are forty-three years old.”


“You are an associate partner at a local law firm.”

A faint smile came over Walter’s face. “Jackson, Jackson, and Hill.”

“Yes or no only, Mr. Hill.”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Your parents are both alive.”

“No.” His smile twisted into a tight line. Walter’s file had already told me that his father was eight years in the ground; the question had been a test to make sure he was paying full attention.

“You are having an affair with your secretary, Tricia Hart.”

Walter’s mouth worked soundlessly.

“Answer the question, Mr. Hill.”

“I… yes.”

Good, I thought, allowing myself a small amount of satisfaction. Once they admitted to one secret, others tended to come more easily.

“You’re a Boy Scout troop leader.”


“You volunteer for your neighborhood watch.”


“Three times a week?”


“You’re a Christian.”

“No.” The answer came before the question reached his brain. His eyes widened in horror once it did. “I—”

“That will be all for now, Mr. Hill,” I said. “I’ll be sure to ask you back out here if I have any further questions. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to your son.”


“He’s a good kid,” Walter Hill said, once again pacing nervously on the edge of his patio. “Really. Good student. Boy Scout—”

“Dad,” Brian Hill said, his tone full of the exasperated annoyance all teenagers addressed their parents with. “I can speak for myself.”

“Not without an adult,” Walter said, throwing a look at me. “That’s right, isn’t it? That’s what you said with Heather…”

I cleared my throat. “Actually, Mr. Hill, your son is sixteen. Legally, he’s not required by the state of Florida to have a parent present for this interview.”

“Hear that, Dad?” Brian said, half turning in his chair. “You don’t have to babysit me. You can go.”

“I…” Walter’s gaze flickered between us. Brian made a shooing motion.

Walter swallowed. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder, but Brian shook it off almost immediately.

“You and your father don’t get along, do you?” I asked once the glass door had slid shut behind him.

“Does anyone?” Brian shot back, turning in his seat to better face me.

“Fair point.” I flipped open the file folder. “What about your sister, Mr. Hill?”

Brian shifted in his chair, regarding me with a wary look that was sharply reminiscent of his mother’s. “What about her?”

“Are you two close?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged, the motion exaggerated by the awkward joints of his adolescent limbs. “I mean. We don’t like, hang out or anything.”

“But you care about her.”

“Well, yeah.” He glanced at the creek running behind their house. “She’s my baby sister.”

“Alright.” I made a show of consulting the file, letting my gaze scan blankly across the page even as I watched Brian out of the corner of my eye. His fingers drummed against the armrest of the patio chair. “How about your mother? Do you get along with her?”

Brian glanced back at the house. “I guess. I mean, better than with Dad.”

I let a smile crease the corner of my mouth. “I got along better with my mom, too.”

“It’s not that I don’t like Dad,” Brian said, a guilty flush creeping over his face. “It’s just that he’s…”

“A pussy?” I suggested.

Brian’s mouth dropped open in shock, then twisted into a grin.

“Yeah,” he said, laughing a little. “Yeah, I guess he is.”

“Not your mom, though.”

“Nah.” He shook his head. “She’s… well. Kind of a hardass, honestly.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

Another adolescent shrug. “It’s only the serious stuff. ‘Don’t do drugs, stay in school.’ All of that. Otherwise she’s actually pretty…”

He trailed off, cheeks coloring.

“Cool?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Brian said. “I mean, I know I’m not supposed to think my mom’s cool, but she is. She knows how to do a lot of stuff other moms don’t. Stuff even Dad doesn’t know.”

“Oh?” I was careful to keep my tone interested rather than interrogatory. “What kind of stuff?”

“All kinds of things,” he said, adolescent self-consciousness falling away as he warmed to his subject. “She knows her way around a car. One time we got a flat, and she changed the tire herself. Pulled over on the side of the road, got the jack and the spare out of the trunk, and replaced it in under five minutes. Wearing a dress and heels, too.”

“Must have been quite the sight,” I said. This wasn’t pertinent, but it was getting me closer to what I wanted to know. Interrogation was a roundabout way of uncovering information; trying too rigidly to keep to a single line of questioning got you nowhere. Better to let them talk.

“Yeah.” Brian grinned at the memory. “By the time she was done she was covered in grease and her makeup had run, but she didn’t care. She just got back in the car and we went on our way.”

“Okay,” I said. “So your mom’s an amateur mechanic. What else can she do?”

“Play the guitar.” Brian’s face lit up. “She got me one two birthdays ago. Tuned it for me, then showed me the basic chords.”

“Yeah?” I leaned in. This was much closer to what I wanted to know. “She show you how to play any songs?”

“One or two.” Brian hesitated, remembering who and what I was. “Smoke on the Water. Sloop John B. Just the basic stuff.”

“Cool.” I decided to shift my direction of inquiry. “That the kind of music you listen to?

“Some of it,” he said, not meeting my eyes.

“Your dad said you were in a metal band,” I lied.

“Yeah?” The single syllable brimmed with teenage resentment. “What’d he tell you?”

“Said it was some pretty heavy stuff.” Walter had made no mention of his son’s musical proclivities; that information had come from the Hills’ file. But strong emotion was always key to making a suspect say more than they meant. And father-son resentment was always a worthwhile angle to pursue.

I would know.

“It’s just me and some friends,” Brian said. “We play together after school.”


“In the garage. I’m sure Dad complained to you about the noise. Baph knows he does whenever he gets home from work.”

I restrained myself from smiling too widely. He’d told me what I needed to know. “That’ll be all for the moment, Brian. Thanks for talking to me. Would you send your mom out?”

“Sure.” Brian pushed himself up from the patio chair and turned towards the sliding glass door. I waited until his hand was on the handle before calling after him.

“One last thing, Brian.”

He didn’t turn around, but I watched his shoulders tense. “Yeah?”

“Do you have any idea where Heather got that pamphlet?”

“How should I know?” Brian Hill said, too quickly. The glass door slid open, then slammed shut behind him.

I leaned back in the patio chair and smiled. The pieces were coming together. One more interview, and I would have everything I needed.


“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Sandra Hill said, her dark eyes flashing. “Frightening a little girl like that.”

So she was still mad I had told Heather about capital punishment.

“That wasn’t my intention,” I said. “May I ask you a question, Mrs. Hill?”

She leaned back in the patio chair, folding her arms across her chest. “Isn’t that why you brought me back out here?”

“Correct.” I handed her the pamphlet. She held it with only the tips of her fingers, like it was something rancid. “Can you tell me what it says on the inside?”

“Christ has the answers,” she read, wrinkling her nose. She thrust the pamphlet back at me.

“Very good,” I said, taking it. “Except Heather didn’t call him Christ, did she?” I tapped the drawing of the crucified man. “She called him Jesus. You heard her.”

Sandra made no answer.

“Any idea where she learned that name, Sandra?”

She glared at me.

“There’s something else I want you to look at,” I said, reaching into the folder.

The photograph I handed her was faded and wrinkled around the edges. It showed a young woman, her blonde curls teased into something long and flowing, her eyes scrunched up as she giggled at the photographer. She wore a cutoff shirt that exposed a strip of smooth midriff beneath a denim jacket covered with buttons and patches, and her hands were thrown up in an obscene gesture. One of the patches on her jacket read JESUS SAVES.

“Recognize her?” I asked.

Sandra didn’t answer at first. Instead she placed the photograph gingerly on the table beside her, looking at it with a mix of—what? Guilt? Regret? Maybe even a certain embarrassed fondness?

I had an inkling of how she might be feeling. I knew the discomfort of being suddenly confronted by an unexpected reminder of your misspent youth. The way such an encounter could dredge up the memories and feelings of the person you were long ago, someone at once an intimate friend and a complete stranger to the person you had become in the intervening years.

“I need a smoke,” Sandra Hill said.


“I was young.” Smoke rose in a delicate curl from Sandra’s cigarette, held carelessly between two fingers. “Left home when I was seventeen. Traveled around the country in a bus with a bunch of hippies.”

I knew all of this from her file, of course. But it was better to hear it from her.

Besides, I’d found in the course of my career that people wanted to tell us things. They figured that if they’re being investigated by the Bureau, all their dirty secrets were going to come to light anyway. Better to try and seize control over some part of their personal narrative, however small.

That was the thing about secrets, really. They itched to get out. Telling someone else a secret was confessional.

“How long?” I asked.

“Two years.” Sandra took a deep drag on the cigarette, exhaled it slowly; a purple plume drifting up into the Florida heat. “Maybe three. Shit, I don’t know. I was on a lot of drugs at the time. Trying anything and everything, you know?”

“According to your file, drugs weren’t the only things you were experimenting with.”

She laughed, a hollow, brittle sound. “Yeah, okay. We were trying out different modes of thought along with them, too. Some Socratic method here, a little Confucianism there. Flirted with Marxism, read a lot of Kant. If I hadn’t been high as a kite I might’ve remembered it, too.”

I took a drag on my own cigarette, savoring the minty menthol taste. “You didn’t stop at philosophy, though.”

“No.” Sandra stared at the glowing ember between her fingers. “There was religious exploration, too.”

“What religion?”

“All of ‘em.” She spread her arms in an expansive gesture, as if she could encompass all the forbidden faiths ever practiced within the modest span of her arms. “I was baptized in the waters of the Rio Grande in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Had a much-belated bat mitzvah at a midnight synagogue outside of Atlanta. I smoked hashish under the stars in Utah, looking for my spirit animal, and spent a week trying to meditate my way to nirvana.”

Sandra turned to me, cigarette smoke wreathing her head. “This was all back in the sixties, you understand. Statute of limitations on illegal religious practice is fifteen years, if memory serves.”

I studied her dark eyes, her intent expression. “And I expect you’ll tell me you’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since? No relapses?”

“I gave up on all that back when I moved to Florida.” She tapped her cigarette, spilling ash onto the lawn. “This is a good Satanic home, Agent Hartmann.”

“And your…” I searched for a delicate turn of phrase. “Youthful experimentation? Does your family know?”

“Absolutely not.” She shook her head, curls bouncing in a way that reminded me of her daughter. “I’d already gone straight by the time Walt and I met. Never told him about what I’d done or who I’d been before.” She smiled without humor. “Everyone’s got their secrets, right?”

“Fair enough,” I said, not meeting her eyes. “What about your kids?”

Sandra snorted. “What, you think I’d tell them but not my husband?”

I looked down at her, breathing smoke. “Heather had to hear the name ‘Jesus’ from somewhere.”

“Can’t help you there, Agent.” Sandra looked out at the little waterway running behind the Hill house. “Maybe it was one of her friends from school. Maybe it was the television. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of videos I’ve caught Brian watching on MTV.”

“Brian’s into music, then?”

Smoke poured from both Sandra’s nostrils. “If you know about my sordid past, then I’m going to assume you also know about Brian’s rock band.”

“Astute of you,” I acknowledged. “Our file says he plays more heavy metal than rock, though.”

A flick of her wrist rained ashes on the patio cement. “This is a permissive household, Agent Hartmann. So long as our kids do their homework and stay in school, we give them free rein to pursue their interests.”

“New Wave parenting. I see.”

Sandra Hill’s eyes flashed. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business—”

“No?” I stepped closer, forcing her to look up at me. “I’m an agent of the federal government, Mrs. Hill. One of your children was found with subversive materials, the penalty for which can be very severe.”

Sandra flinched, but did not look away.

“So,” I said, my voice dangerously low, “it is most certainly my business how your children are being raised, Mrs. Hill. Particularly considering that their mother has a history of engaging in subversive faiths herself.”

“I have never told my children anything about that part of my life!” Sandra snapped, loud enough that Sorenson and the rest of her family inside must have heard her. “Not a thing. You understand?”

“I understand that your son is involved in a heavy metal band,” I said. “You know, Mrs. Hill, I’ve taken part in raids on clubs that host those kinds of shows. Some of the more radical acts even perform the Eucharist on stage.”

“You know—” Her eyes widened. “By Baphomet. You were one too, weren’t you?”

I inclined my head, ever so slightly. “We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you and your family.”

I leaned down, my breath hot on Sandra Hill’s face. She took a step back, bumping into one of the wooden beams that supported the patio roof. Her cigarette dropped to the cement, forgotten.

“I will only ask this one more time, Sandra,” I said softly. “Are you a Christian?”

She shook her head mutely, blonde curls bobbing.

“Have you taught your children about Christianity?”

“No.” Her voice was hoarse, ragged.

“About any other forbidden faith?”

“No.” Now her tone was desperate, pleading. “I haven’t… I never…”

I held her gaze, my own pale eyes boring into her dark ones. I saw fear written there, of course, and a small hot flame of anger, smothered beneath the weight of guilt and desperation. But no deception.

“Mrs. Hill,” I said quietly. “I’d like to take a look at your garage.”


It was a two-and-a-half car garage, the sort with excess square footage set aside for home improvement projects—although judging by the layer of dust covering the wall of mounted tools, Walter Hill wasn’t much of a handyman.

Instead, the extra space had been made into a teenager’s hangout den. A battered leather couch sat facing a drum set and several guitar stands, though only one was occupied at present. Milk crates sat stacked against the far wall, each stuffed with sleeved vinyl records.

“I thought cassette tapes were all the rage these days,” I observed, picking my way around the drum set to the bank of records. “Boomboxes, Walkmans—or is it Walkmen? That kind of thing.”

“I dunno.” Brian Hill shrugged, lingering between the couch and the drums. “I just think vinyl sounds better, y’know?”

“I do indeed,” I said, glancing over my shoulder at him. Different flavors of anxiety warred across the boy’s acne-ridden face. I could tell he wanted to follow me more closely, to make sure I brought no harm to his precious records, but that desire was stymied by fear of my authority. Instead he shifted guiltily from one foot to the other, drowning in his own uncertainty.

“Quite a collection,” I commented, leafing through the first box of records. Fleetwood Mac, Carole King, David Bowie.

“That’s mostly my mom’s old stuff,” Brian said, fidgeting. “I like it, though.”

“She has good taste,” I said, selecting one of the records. Bowie’s Low. “Let’s listen, shall we?”

I pulled the vinyl from the sleeve, placed it on the record player that graced the corner of the garage. There was a whirr and click as the needle slid into the groove, and the opening of “Speed of Life” began to fill the garage.

“You know the story behind this album?” I asked, turning my attention back to the Hills’ record collection.

“Not really.” Brian ventured forward, eyes darting from me to my hands as I paged through the album sleeves. Still Sandra’s: Blondie, Springsteen, The Doors.

“Bowie was at a low point,” I explained. “Probably why he named the album that. Spent a lot of years doing things he shouldn’t. Finally decided to get clean. Kicked the habit before it could kill him.”

“Okay,” Brian said, clearly not knowing how else to respond. I looked back over my shoulder at him.

“What I’m saying,” I said softly, so that he had to take another hesitant step closer to hear me over Bowie’s instrumentals, “is that he knew when he’d gotten in too deep. That he knew when to get help.”

“I—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No?” I had passed the seventies and reached the more contemporary records. I lifted the first of them from the milk crate. The Last in Line by Dio, showing an angelic being rising over a desolate landscape, with desperate human figures fleeing towards it.

I pulled the vinyl from its sleeve, inspecting its interior. Nothing.

“Hey!” Brian protested, his voice a shrill adolescent whine. “Don’t mess with those!”

I turned and gave him an arch look. “Something you don’t want me to find, Brian?”

“I…” he swallowed hard, looked away. “No, they’re just… just really expensive…”

“I’ll be careful,” I said, and tossed the vinyl to the garage floor. It shattered into a dozen pieces. Brian made a sound like a kicked dog.

I repeated the process, again and again. The sound of record smashing punctuated Bowie’s rhythms like an accompanying beat, as Slayer and Anthrax, Scorpions and Kreator all joined Dio on the garage floor. Brian stood rooted to the spot.

I lifted the last album from the crate. Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. Thunderbolts split the blue album cover, arcing towards the electric chair at its center.

“We don’t do that in Florida,” I said, showing it to Brian. His hands shook, but he made no answer. “Crucifixion’s still legal here, by the grace of Lord Satan.”

I reached in and pulled out the vinyl. Several pieces of paper fluttered out with it.

Brian made a strangled cry and darted forward. I shoved him away, sending him sprawling across the concrete floor.

I bent and picked up one of the papers. LOST? it asked me.

“Not particularly,” I murmured, and opened it to see the crucified Christ staring back up at me.

“Don’t,” Brian whimpered, calling my attention back to him. He lay on the floor, shoulders shaking, voice querulous. “Please, don’t tell my mom—”

“That,” I said, squatting over him, “depends on you, Mr. Hill.”

He gaped up at me. A slow smile spread across my face.

This was the part of the job I enjoyed most.

“You see,” I said, turning the pamphlet over and over in my hands, “your family are all inside with my partner. It’s only you and me out here.”

Brian’s brow furrowed. “So?”

“So you and I are the only ones who know which album this pamphlet came out of.”

He stared blankly up at me. I fought down the urge to rub my temples. When I had been in Brian’s shoes, I had been quicker on the uptake.

“What I’m saying is that this can go one of two ways, Brian. Either you end up like this…” I shoved the pamphlet at him, forcing the vision of the agonized Christ into his view. He flinched from it like a brand. “…or your mother does.”

Bafflement replaced the repulsion on his face. “Mom?”

“There are some things your mother hasn’t told you about herself. Some… embarrassments, let’s say. No one at my office would blink if Agent Sorenson and I arrested her instead of you.”

“I don’t…” Brian shook his head. “I don’t understand. The pamphlets are mine. I made them. Why would I say my mom—”

By Baphomet, this boy was slow.

“Because,” I cut him off. “I am offering you a chance to save yourself, Mr. Hill. To reject these lies and embrace the truth of Our Father Below and his glorious darkness.”

Brian Hill’s cheeks had turned green. “By selling out my mom? Who the Heaven would do something like that?”

“I did.”

He stared up at me, mouth working soundlessly.

“It’s a second chance,” I said softly. “A realer one than your false god can offer you. Under Florida law you’ll be charged and tried as an adult.” I dragged my foot through the pile of pamphlets scattered across the garage floor. “Given that you possess enough subversive materials to prove intent to distribute, you’ll get the maximum penalty. Death by crucifixion. Just like your false Christ.”

Brian went very still, though his nostrils flared in and out with a rapidity that suggested he was close to hyperventilating. I leaned down, very close to him.

“The question is, Mr. Hill, how much do you really believe? Are you so certain of your fledgling faith that you’re willing to die a martyr? Think of all the things you’ll never do if you throw your life away for a God too weak to save his own. All the girls you’ll never kiss, the places you’ll never see. All that can still be yours, if you just say the word.”

Brian opened his mouth, licked his lips. “You’re asking me to turn in my own mom.

“That,” I smiled, “is the one commonality between your false god and my dark one. Sacrifice, Mr. Hill. You, or her.”

Brian stared up at me.

I held out my hand to him. “Choose wisely.”

Marshall J. Moore is a writer, filmmaker, and martial artist who was born and raised on Kwajalein, a tiny Pacific island. He has sold a thousand dollars’ worth of teapots to Jackie Chan, trained a professional mercenary in unarmed combat, and was once tracked down by a bounty hunter for owing $300 in overdue fees to the Los Angeles Public Library. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Megan and their two cats.

A member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, his stories have appeared in Flame Tree Publishing’s Gothic Fantasy anthologies, Wizards in Space Literary Magazine, and many other publications.

You can find Marshall on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Or if you'd rather just find his short stories without scrolling through cat pictures, go to his Amazon page.

“Moral Panic 1986” by Marshall J. Moore. Copyright © 2022 by Marshall J. Moore.

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  1. Fantastic read! The world bend delightfully knotted my brain, and Agent Hartmann’s icy demeanor chilled me through.


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