Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
“For your birthday,” he nodded. “I remember the story—it was your father’s alibi.”
I shook my head. I felt tears starting, much to my horror, and brushed them away roughly before Diggs could comment. “The phone rang in the night, or early morning—it was still dark outside. It woke me up.”
I could see it all, suddenly—the hotel room my father had booked on the mainland so we could spend my birthday together, with the twin beds and the carpeting and the color TV bigger than any I’d seen before. We made homemade pizza in the little kitchenette. And then, deep in the night, came a phone call that woke me from a sound sleep. My father’s voice had been low, uncharacteristically strained, when he spoke with whoever was on the other end of the line.
“So, who was it? Who called?” Diggs prompted when I didn’t continue the story.
“I don’t know—he wouldn’t tell me. But he made me promise never to tell anyone that he’d left me alone that night. And that was it. I was at the hotel alone that whole morning.”
I knelt and turned my attention back to the carnage at my feet, if only for something to keep me from bursting into tears—which would have been far more disturbing than a decapitated lamb, as far as I was concerned. Diggs crouched beside me. He didn’t touch me, and his voice held no pity when he spoke again.
“You thought he started the fire,” he said. “You’ve thought it ever since that day.”
“No,” I said quickly, remembering the man that had chased me through the woods that day. “Not at first,” I admitted. “Later, once I started looking into it more, I knew it wasn’t what they said… Once I started studying cults and cult behavior, I knew the Paysons didn’t fit the profile. I knew mass suicide didn’t make sense for who they were and what they believed.”
“And now that you have proof someone else started the fire?”
The tears started again. I kept my eyes focused on the ground, my jaw clenched tight. Diggs touched my arm, but I shrugged him away. Cleared my throat.
“Whether it was my father or it wasn’t, I need to know the truth. I can’t spend the rest of my life wondering.” If I was going to tell him about my pursuer on the island that day, now would be the time.
They’ll put you away if you tell them what you saw—only crazy little girls think men in black cloaks are chasing them.
I heard my mother’s voice, remembered her hard green eyes intent on mine. I kept quiet.
Diggs straightened and offered his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, I took it and let him pull me up. When we were eye to eye again, his lips curled up in a determined smile.
“Okay then,” he said.
“Okay then, what?”
“Okay then, let’s solve this thing. But first, stop playing with the gory fucking disembodied head, and come back to the mainland with me. You look like you haven’t slept in weeks, and I’ve got deadlines to meet.”
“And then, we start doing the research. Go back in time, and figure out what the hell happened out here in the month or so before the fire that got thirty-four people killed and destroyed your father’s life. And, just as interestingly, how the evidence that it was murder mysteriously vanished from a very public crime scene and no one ever noticed.”
I managed a smile. “That easy, huh? Just go back in time.”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer as we walked back up the path to the house.
“Easy as falling off a log. Just stick with me, Sol, and we’ll have this thing solved by the time summer traffic picks up.”
If only it had been that simple.
July 20, 1990
They come to the church in the night. Hidden in a canoe beneath old blankets and a catch of fish whose oils soak through and seep into Rebecca’s long, dark hair, so that for days afterward she reeks of it. Her son shifts beneath her. His hip is a sharp
in Rebecca’s side, and she knows her weight on top of him must be stifling on this warm night. Still, the boy never complains.
Their guide sits in the bow of the canoe, paddling in long, experienced strokes through the still ocean water. He is a tall, quiet redhead whom Rebecca has never met before, though Reverend Payson has told her about him. Adam, like the first man. Adam, who tends the church garden and never speaks of his past; whose daughter was recently taken from him, to live on the mainland with her mother. Rebecca touches her son’s soft dark hair, unable to comprehend being parted from him that way.
When they reach shore, Adam flashes a beam of light into the woods. Though she has been warned against doing so, Rebecca moves the blanket just enough to see what’s happening when she feels the craft coming aground. At Adam’s signal, another man comes out into the open and helps him drag the canoe onto the shore.
“Stay where you are,” Adam tells her. “Someone could be watching from the water. We’ll carry the canoe into the woods, then you can get out.”
Two more men appear, the four of them lifting the canoe like pallbearers. Rebecca kisses her son’s head and he squirms. He mutters something that she can’t make out, and then they wait in silence for the cover of trees to guarantee their safety.
Once they are in the woods, the men put the boat down and Adam helps mother and son to their feet. Zion, her boy, remains serious and silent, his eyes occasionally meeting his mother’s, seeking reassurance. Though other boys might be self-conscious about being too close to their mothers at this age, Zion is not. At twelve years old, he has no reservations about standing with his arm around her, absorbing his new surroundings. He doesn’t seem afraid. There have been many nights worse than this, and the relative calm of the strangers around them is a welcome change from the unpredictable ire of the men they have known.
And so they follow, Adam and one of the others leading while the remaining two trail behind. There is no moon, the night heavy with the wet heat of July, black as the bottom of a well. One of the men at their right flank shines a flashlight, though Rebecca and Zion are the only ones who need it. She hears the stumbling stealth of island deer in the distance, and draws comfort from the familiar sound.
They reach the barn. Rebecca has never seen it, but the Reverend has told her stories of this sacred space in the woods, blessed by God himself. She follows the men, taking a step up as the flashlight gives a fragmented shadow-story of the building. Inside, there is the sweet smell of hay, tinged with an underlying dampness inevitable in these old structures. Their footsteps echo against the wooden floorboards, and Zion’s hand tightens in hers as they approach the stairs.
There is a faint golden glow coming from above, and the audible murmur of a near-silent mass. The trapdoor to the second floor stands open; they climb through to find themselves in the Payson chapel. The entire congregation is there, standing, facing them—families Rebecca has known from Littlehope who gave up their lives on the mainland to come here. Women, eyes down-turned, hold children who gaze at the newcomers without fear. Men stand beside their wives, their heads bowed as Rebecca passes. Each member of the congregation holds a candle; the entire scene is bathed in an ethereal light. Rebecca squeezes Zion’s hand and he looks up at her. All she can see are those big eyes and she smiles, nods, and feels him relax.
The trapdoor they’ve come through is at the back of the chapel. As she and Zion follow the two men down the center aisle, the congregation turns and is seated. Rebecca thinks of her wedding: of her expectations before the day came, the vague hope of flowers and ceremony. If she had had her way, it would have been like this. It would have had weight, and ritual. If it had meant something then, perhaps it might mean more now.
A large wooden tub stands at the front of the chapel. Rebecca stops moving, and Zion comes to a halt beside her. Adam turns and nods to her.
“It’s all right. You’re safe here. Isaac will come soon.”
Shadows play along the wooden walls. When Rebecca and Zion reach the end of the aisle, the four men leave them standing at the tub. No one speaks, no one moves. Least of all Rebecca and her only child. One of the women in the front row comes to stand before her. The woman’s hair is long and braided, and she wears an ankle-length floral dress that hangs like a sack on her thin frame. Rebecca wears old jeans and a flannel shirt that used to be her husband’s. The thin woman offers a shy smile, and her fingers go to the buttons of Rebecca’s shirt with clear trepidation.
Rebecca flinches. Her hand flies up with a will of its own, pushing the stranger away.
And then she hears him.
“ ‘The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they will see the glory of the Lord and the excellency of our God.’ ”
In the enclosed space, his voice carries, floats down, wraps around her. He comes closer, down the aisle, his silver hair aglow in the candlelight. He wears a flowing white robe, and he makes a single gesture, a sweep of his graceful hand. The woman beside Rebecca steps away, her head bowed.
“ ‘Strengthen ye the weak hands. Confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart—” his voice rises rather than softens as he approaches, and it feels as though an electrical current is traveling beneath her skin. “Be strong, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with recompense. He will come, and he will save you.’”
He takes another step toward her. Rebecca recognizes that others are present, but they have become unimportant. The flame from the Reverend’s candle dances so close that it burns a kiss into her arm. He holds it aside and instantly someone appears to take it away, as Isaac’s fingers find the buttons of Rebecca’s shirt. His eyes, a dazzling blue above high-cut cheekbones, never leave hers as he undresses her.
“ ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. For in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool.’ ”
He slips the shirt from her shoulders. Her breasts feel heavy to her, cumbersome. Reverend Payson is tall like she is, never looking at her but never looking away. He kneels to unbutton her jeans, and she knows that Zion is watching this. There is an instant of resistance when Rebecca tries to remember why this is wrong, why this should be causing shame, but all she feels is warmth and love and a safety she hasn’t known in years.
“ ‘…and the thirsty land springs of water. In the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.’ ”
She is completely naked now. They take Zion from her, and the boy follows two of the women to the pews. Rebecca sees him in her periphery, but for the first time since his birth, she can’t focus on her son. Using a stepstool to climb over the edge of the tub, she steps into lukewarm water that swirls around her feet, up her legs, in tideless swells. The Reverend joins her, still wearing his robe. It billows around him, touching Rebecca’s thigh and setting fire to it. Scorching it clean. He motions for her to kneel.
“ ‘And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness. And the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.’ ”
When she goes under, his voice is still above her, swimming around her, welcoming her to this new life.
“ ‘No lion shall be there, no ravenous beast will be found there, and the redeemed shall walk there.’ ” His voice rises again as she comes up for air, his fingers clenched so hard in her hair that it pulls at the sensitive skin at the back of her neck. The pain paints everything in vivid color.
“ ‘The ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’ ”
Isaac kneels in the water beside her, his robe against her wet, naked body. She falls into the feel of his lips on her forehead.
“Welcome home, Rebecca.”
When we returned to the mainland that night, Diggs gave me a brief tour of his house-in-progress—a three-bedroom cape overlooking the ocean, with cedar shingles neatly stacked on the lawn, a 52-inch plasma TV, and no furniture to speak of. He had work to do at the paper, but he’d generously strayed from his usual diet of roots and berries and stocked the fridge with an approximation of actual, human food: free range chicken dogs and home grown tater tots, with an overwhelming supply of organic veggies to round things out. I even found Ben & Jerry’s “Everything But The…” in the freezer.
God bless Diggs.
My bedroom was apparently the only room Diggs had seen fit to furnish; it came complete with a four-poster bed, mismatched bureaus, and even a dog bed in the corner for Einstein. I put away my things, then spent half an hour with Diggs’ top-of-the-line shower massage drilling holes in my back before I felt ready to rejoin the land of the living. I toweled off, changed into sweats, and went in search of something to eat.
Sometime between getting home and emerging from the shower, dusk had given way to a very dark night outside. Inside wasn’t much better, with only a dim lamp in the living room to light my way.
I called for Einstein. No response. Those little hairs at the back of my neck stood on end. A door opened and closed on the other side of the house.
I went for my cell phone with the events of the past twelve hours racing through my head: Joe Ashmont’s threats, Noel Hammond’s reticence, the bloodied lamb’s head on the island. I was dialing Diggs when Einstein came racing toward me from down the hall, tail wagging, goofy terrier grin firmly in place.
He didn’t seem traumatized, at least.
A moment later, I realized
he didn’t seem traumatized.
Not far behind him, a tall, dark-haired stranger followed. He had the lean build of an athlete who trained hard and lived well, his jeans cut just right and his charcoal turtleneck setting off his dark eyes beautifully.