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"Louise Collins?" said the man in black, who knew perfectly well that she was.

A chill ran up Louise Collins's spine. She forced herself to keep her hands on her desk. They wanted to leap to her buttons, to make absolutely sure they were buttoned tight to her throat. What had she done to draw the attention of the Committee for Private Morality?

She had been so careful: clean in word and appearance, if not in deed. They'd learned somehow of her affair with Tom Nathan. She swallowed and took a deep breath. It could not be that---Tom was himself a member of the Committee. He certainly would have told them nothing. What then?

All this flashed through her mind as she answered, quite formally, quite correctly, "Yes, sir. I'm Louise Collins---Mrs. Jefferson Collins."

"Will you come with me, please?" He paused for a moment then added the compulsory, "You are under no legal obligation to obey this summons."

No, of course not, Louise thought. But if I don't, I'll lose my job and some night there will be an 'accidental' fire to destroy my house. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the avid expression on her boss's face. Waiting, like a vulture.

She rose. She was proud of the fact that her legs still seemed to be working. The committeeman couldn't see her knees shake under the floor-length skirt. It was the first advantage she'd ever found to the fashion. "I'm happy to comply," she said.

Did her boss look disappointed? Perhaps, but only a little. Like the rest of the office personnel, he followed them. It would be a holiday from the drudgery of tallying moral offenses. Once, Louise thought---surprised that the thought should come now---she'd been an editor. Now she was just a censor. All of them were censors. When had that happened?

The committeeman led the way. Louise followed docilely. It might have been a parade, for all the whispered excitement of the office workers behind them, but Louise knew it was a funeral procession. The chances were very good it was her own: adultery was a stoneable offense.

A crowd---tense with the same whispery excitement as those behind her---had already gathered on the lawn before the courthouse. This sort of trial, being strictly 'voluntary,' was not permitted to use the courthouse itself.

It made a pretty picture, Louise thought irrelevantly, all those women brushing the grass with their hems. As anachronistic somehow as that movie she'd been asked to edit last week---what was it?---"The Music Man," that was it. She'd wanted to save it. The dress was decent, which would ordinarily have made rerelease possible. But even with heavy cutting the story wouldn't pass---it made a laughing matter of censors and censorship.

The crowd gave way for the man in black. Louise called her wits about her and followed him.

"Louise Collins," he announced, "witness."

'Witness'? Against whom? Louise didn't dare to crane for a look at the accused. She waited until she had been ushered into the presence of the 'judge.'

That was the first horrible shock: the 'judge' was Tom Nathan. How could he have called her in on something like this?

Then Tom stepped aside and she could see the accused. Her mind went blank with terror. Jefferson! It was Jefferson! This was not possible---how could it be? Why should Jefferson be standing there, that shaft of sunlight playing on his bewildered face, bruised and bleeding. A red rubber ball gagged him. On his forehead, a 'Q' had been etched in reddish-brown---in Jefferson's own blood.

"No!" she said.

AIDS had only been the excuse. There was even a cure for it now or the committee would never have been brave enough to draw Jefferson's blood. The gag---she almost choked herself at the thought---the gag was to prevent him from spitting on or biting his tormentors.

She would have rushed to Jefferson's side but Tom caught her arm in a vice-like grip. The pain brought her back to the real world, which was even less believable. "Louise Collins?" Tom intoned.

"Mrs. Jefferson Collins," she responded, making every syllable count.

"Jefferson Collins stands accused of being queer. Do you agree that your witness against him is voluntary?"

"Jefferson Collins is my husband, sir. My witness for him is voluntary. In the privacy of our bedroom, I witness that he is not queer." God, how she hated that word, queer. Only fifteen years ago, she would never have used it, except to describe a peculiarity. Now, she had to use it--it was the only word the Committee for Private Morality would accept.

Tom said, "A queer is a devious creature. A woman, in her innocence, may not recognize the unnatural practices of a queer." He said it gently, as if he were breaking the news of a death in the family. Jefferson's death.

Why was he doing this? Louise met Tom's eyes for the first time. In them, she saw the pleasure he took from her terror. This excited him more than their bedroom romps.

Louise hated herself in the moment. What had she ever seen in him? Was it his power that had attracted her? Or was it simply that she had never been the faithful sort of woman---not in the Committee's sense. Making love to someone new had been a frequent delight of her youth. She'd seen Tom as the safest person with whom to indulge her whimsy.

That did not make her any less the wife of Jefferson Collins, did not leave her any less in love with Jefferson Collins. Sex was one thing, love was another entirely. Nothing was so sweet in the world as coming home to Jefferson.

She said, "Sir, I beg you to forgive me for contradicting you but...I'm known in the neighborhood for my good sense. I would know if the man I loved were queer. I would not be able to love or be loved by a queer. Jefferson has been falsely accused."

There was a murmur of approval from the crowd. It gave Louise momentary hope.

"Nevertheless, the accusation has been made. Jefferson Collins must be put to the test."

Then she saw it. With Jefferson alive, Tom was as guilty of adultery as she, his life equally at risk. If she were a widow, Tom need fear nothing from his relationship with her. Widows were known sluts and temptresses.

"If the committee please," she said, as deferentially as she could, "a life-long love cannot die in a moment. May I have your permission to speak to my husband?" She wanted to add 'privately' but she knew they would never let Jefferson out of their sight.

The most she could hope for was granted.

She was given gloves. When she had put them on, she was allowed to draw him from earshot of the committeemen and remove his gag. She kissed him first, to a shocked gasp from the watching crowd. Then she touched his bruised face. "Tom is doing this deliberately," she said. "I'll stop him."

For the first time, Jefferson stared at her with real horror on his face. "Tell them about the two of you, you mean? No, Louise. No. Look at the crowd. Give them two and they'll take three. I'm lost whatever you do."


"I won't hear it. I'll confess first. I'll tell them how I tricked you---what a little fool you are to believe a queer could love---" His voice broke. He touched his cheek to hers. "Could love someone so dear, so precious."

"Oh, Jefferson." Tears choked her. "I've loved you all my life. I'll love you till I die."

"Then promise me you'll save yourself. Promise me you won't say a word about you and Tom."

Now his eyes held hers, held them until she faltered. She made him the promise. Then she kissed him again, deeply and with all the passion of a lifetime.

"Pass the test," she said, "pass the test for me."

He grinned at her. Bruised as his face was, it must have been painful. "You know I'm a one-woman man, my love. I'll do my best, but I can hardly promise something so against my nature."

She would have protested further but two of the committeemen had come to pull her away.

"Remove the women and children," Tom intoned. "I call for the pricker."

Women turned away in ritual disgust, hustling the younger children with them. Anticipation lit the eyes of those remaining. The men began their chant: "Ma-mie! Ma-mie! Ma-mie!"

Mamie, the pricker. Mamie, the town's licensed slut. Every town had one for this---and other---purposes. Pricker. No-one in the crowd recognized the irony of Mamie's title. Of course they didn't. Books on the witchcraft trials never passed editing either. None had been reissued. Most, like the 'witches' themselves, had been burned.

One of the neighborhood children had once told Louise, in all seriousness, that the title pricker referred to "the early days, when she took a blood sample with a big needle." It was an obscene joke. After each pricking it was Mamie who would be bloodtested for AIDS.

Someone took Louise's arm, gently attempting to lead her away. She shook the hand off.

"I beg the committee's leave once more," she said, shouting to make herself heard above the chant. "My husband---my husband is a faithful man. To ask that he be tested by someone else is to ask him to commit adultery, an act I believe him incapable of. I ask---"

The chanting faded to a murmur. Suddenly, Louise's voice was too loud, her words were too clear. Her courage almost failed her. Into the silence, she said, "I ask---let me be his pricker."

Jefferson, who had once again been gagged, made a ghastly grunting sound and shook his head vehemently.

She ignored him. "He has made love to me for more than twenty years now. Only to me. To test him with someone else would be an injustice."

Once again, she had murmurs of approval. It might work---even the Committee for Private Morality must be tired of seeing the same pricker at every pricking. She could do it---to save Jefferson, she would do it.

"People!" Tom said loudly, "Listen to this good woman!"

Hope sprang up in her heart. Perhaps Tom had had a change of heart. Perhaps he would let her save Jeff---

"How can we allow such a good woman to risk her life, even in the defense of our community's morals? I say no! I call for the pricker. It is her duty to test the accused."

There were grumblings of displeasure. Louise took advantage of the opportunity. "If what my husband is accused of is true, I have risked my life two or three times a week for the last twenty years! Why should I be afraid to do so one more time?" This time she turned her glare fully on Tom.

"We protect our women and our children," Tom said. "We protect them. We will protect you as well. We know that you have a good heart, but the la---custom must take its course. A man accused of being queer must be tested---and he must be tested by the town pricker." He gave the man in black a covert nudge. The man in black grudgingly said, "Yes. We protect our women. Call for the pricker." He began the chant anew.

It was too late. They were drawing her away to where the rest of the women and children waited, where she would not be able to see Jefferson. She fought them briefly as they handed her over to the younger women. Then she screamed, "Jefferson! My love! Pretend she's me! Close your eyes and see me! I love you!" Someone put a hand over her mouth and she sagged in exhaustion.

The chant was louder now, faster and more frenzied. A flash of white along the courthouse walk. Mamie the pricker. Her nurse's dress too short, too tight.

Catching a glimpse of her through the crowd, Louise suddenly realized where she'd seen such a costume before---in a burlesque skit. She remembered the nurses in the old days. Nurses had never worn three-inch heels. Louise felt as if she were trapped by all the things she'd edited out.

Mamie the pricker swung her hips. For an hour or two now Mamie the pricker would be the center of attention. Mamie the pricker glowed with that knowledge. Did Mamie know, Louise wondered, that if she ever tested positive she would be put to death? It had happened in other towns. It never made the news---more editing. "Who cares about the town slut? She got what she deserved," they'd say, as they always did.

The woman holding Louise spat. "Men," she said, disgust distorting her features, "only interested in one thing. We stopped the pornos but even that doesn't stop them."

Yes, thought Louise, that was where she'd seen that avidity before---whenever the men in her office edited one of the old X-rated films. All she could see of the Committee for Private Morality was a row of backs, but it was enough to see into their nasty little souls.

When she was a teenager, they'd have gone to the theater or rented a videotape. Now all they had left was Mamie and her pricking. Mamie the pricker passed through the knot of men, smiling as they laid their hands on whatever part of her body they could reach. The chanting hushed. Hidden from sight by the backs of the committeemen, the pricking was about to begin.

Louise knew what would be happening now. Jefferson had described it to her once. She could scarcely picture Jefferson a member of the crowd. How could she picture him as the accused?

Now Mamie would be taking her clothes off---slowly and sensually if she was any good at her job---teasing Jefferson, unbuttoning his shirt.

He'd once told her, laughingly, that he doubted he could get it up for anyone but her. Now she begged god that he was wrong.

Please, thought Louise, oh, please, god, let Mamie be good at her job. If he can screw her, he can live. Let her be sexy and attractive and let him be unfaithful. Let him be wrong about being a one-woman man! Please, god. Let him be an adulterer and live. Think of me, Jefferson, or think of her---whatever it takes---but screw Mamie and live.

The men had begun their ritual catcalling now. The rhythm had picked up. They shouted their encouragement to Mamie, to Jefferson. The woman holding Louise let go to put her hands over her ears.

How many of these men, Louise wondered, could get it up and keep it up under these circumstances? The onlookers, by all accounts, could. But---the accused? Get it up or die. We'll all watch. Take your time. We're waiting and we're watching. Give us a good show. Show us you're a man and not a queer---or die.

Suddenly Louise knew that it was not possible. Suddenly she knew how they'd turned it all around. Claiming it was to protect the women. Claiming this, claiming that. She knew it was no use praying to god to help Jefferson. God was one of them---they'd made him over in their own image. Nasty, vicious, leering.

AIDS had only been the excuse. Power had been the goal, fear the leverage to achieve the power.

She saw all that even as the men voted to give Jefferson a second chance---give Mamie a second chance, that meant. They weren't tired of watching her perform like a trick dog for them yet.

It went on forever and then it was over too fast. Mamie, once again fully clothed, was escorted by Tom Nathan to the group's edge. Once again, Tom's voice took on that pompous tone. "What is the verdict, pricker?"

Mamie, still radiant from her moment in the sun, pronounced the ritual words: "No known cure." Behind her, one of the men responded, "No known cure." The rest took it up as a chant as they reached for rocks from the courthouse fence.

"No known cure! No known cure!"

Now the women and children had taken up the chant and reached for rocks as well. Louise heard Jefferson scream as the first rock struck him.

Louise screamed too and pushed through the crowd, kicking, biting, screaming to get through to Jefferson. But when she reached his side, she froze. Perhaps she had intended to throw herself on him to shield him. If so, it was too late. She saw that from his naked, bleeding body. She saw that in the faces and fists of the crowd.

Jefferson screamed his pain. He could no longer even see her for the blood that splattered his eyes and blinded him.

Louise turned to the nearest member of the Committee for Private Morality and wrenched the rock from his hand. There was only one thing that she could do for Jefferson. "I love you," she told him silently---and brought the rock down with full force on his skull. It shattered. She brought it down again and again, until she was sure he could suffer no further pain at their hands.

Then she sank to her knees beside Jefferson's body and wept soundlessly until the fury of the crowd had exhausted itself.

Someone helped her to her feet. "You're a good woman, all right, Louise." It was the woman who had held her silent while Mamie had tested Jefferson. It was her next door neighbor, Mrs. Tompkins. "Once you knew what he was, you did the right thing."

The right thing? Dazed, Louise stumbled to her feet. Was that how they saw it---that she'd beaten her husband to death because he was proven a queer?

She looked around at the reassembled Committee for Private Morality, as they straightened their clothing and wiped the blood from their hands, as they joked among themselves. "Yes," said Tom, "Louise is a good woman."

Louise's hand went to her mouth. She would not be sick. She would not. "You!" she said. She pointed Tom. "Now I understand. It was you!" Jefferson was gone; she had nothing left to lose now.

"Yes," said Tom. He looked very proud, as if he'd just saved the world, in fact. "I was his accuser---"

Louise did not let him finish. "How did you know he was queer when his wife of twenty years didn't?" She rounded on the rest of the committee. "How did he know when I didn't?"

The rest of the committee turned to stare at Tom.

Louise went on. "Ask him where he was and what he was doing last Wednesday night. Ask him." The two of them had been in bed together last Wednesday night. "Ask if anyone can vouch for his whereabouts."

The mutter went through the crowd again. Tom stared down at Louise in horror. Only she heard him protest, "What are you saying, woman? I did this for you!"

Louise thought, in wonder, that she'd heard that excuse all her life. I'm doing this for you. We're doing this to protect the women and the children. I did this for you!

"No," she said, "you did it for yourself---to protect yourself, to make all these people think you were a good man, so that you'd have power over them. Over us."

The committeemen gaped. The man in black cleared his throat. "Louise Collins, do you accuse Thomas Nathan of being a queer, of putting the community at risk in both morals and health?"

Louise turned on him in shock. Could her words have been taken so? Yes, she realized---and the realization almost blinded her with light, almost choked her with laughter. Slowly, she turned back to Tom. "Sirs of the committee, if my husband was queer, then so is this man."

And under the cover of the crowd's commotion, she spat at Tom. "My curse on your balls and your prick. You won't be able to get it up for Mamie, no matter how hard she tries. You'll shrivel and fail---and you'll hear me laughing."

He screamed at her once. But his hands had barely touched her throat when he was pulled away. As they beat him, he tried to tell them he'd been with Louise that night, but they only laughed and beat him harder.

By the time they called for Mamie, Tom could barely stand.

Louise had thought she could not bear to see another trial. It made her think of Jefferson. It made her smile to think that Tom suffered each and every torment Jefferson had. It made her smile when Mamie gave the ritual response: "No known cure."

There was a cure for AIDS. Some received it, some didn't. The Committee for Private Morality would make that decision.

There was no known cure for hatred. Louise smiled again. Hatred was the most contagious disease of all. Sooner or later, every member of the Committee for Private Morality would die of her infection.

With loving care, Louise Collins chose a rock.

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