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Excerpt #1 from Playing Saint


 

Thirteen Years Ago

Danny sat quietly in the pew and waited for his exorcism.

It wasn’t scheduled, but it would happen. He would make it happen. He’d been down this road countless times before—enough to know that all the elements of the equation were present here this morning. He would be delivered; at least that’s what they would call it. He’d probably fall to the ground and writhe for a few seconds. He’d own the moment, milk it a little.

The prospect failed to thrill him. He felt no electric sense of anticipation like he used to. It had become banal, like waiting to be called into the dentist’s office, flipping through ancient, dog-eared magazines or sitting at the DMV, fiddling with that little numbered tab of paper, willing your turn to come. And yet, a certain dampened twinge of excitement persisted. Not butterflies in the stomach, more like a tingle of expectation somewhere deeper.

Which was fine. Stuffed full as it was with meat and grease, his stomach would not accommodate butterflies. Danny was a trim young man and usually ate little, but on these special Sunday mornings, he always felt inexplicably compelled to stop at some rural greasy spoon diner and eat until he felt a bit queasy. It was like that old maxim about a pregnant woman eating for two. How many was Danny eating for now? He’d lost count.

And he had no choice but to continue feeding Them, to carry on with increasing momentum down this road, all the while pretending that he didn’t know the truth: at the end of the day, he would be the main course.


 


 

Present Day

Detective Paul Ketcham did not need to flash his gold badge at the patrol officer covering the door—they knew each other on sight—but he did anyway. He liked the way it felt. He also enjoyed ducking under yellow crime scene tape, but there was none here to duck.

“Let’s get some tape up,” he barked at the officer. “Press’ll be here any minute. We don’t need them contaminating the scene.”

The house on Lane Avenue had lay vacant for nearly a year. Squatters had found the body three hours earlier and made the call to the Grand Rapids Police, hoping to collect a reward. There was none to collect, so now they waited for the local news affiliates, thinking they might get some TV time in lieu of monetary remuneration.

Ketcham entered the spacious living room, noticing the hardwood floors and early 20th Century leaded windows. It was clear that the house had once been beautiful, despite the years of neglect and the shirtless corpse lying in a pool of blood.

“Hey Paul,” called Corrine Kirkpatrick, descending the curved staircase. “I’ve been here twenty minutes already. I can’t remember the last time I beat you to a scene. Did you have to do your paper route?”

Like Ketcham, she was a senior detective with the Major Case Team. They weren’t partners—there was no such official pairing in their unit—but they had been building a mutual respect and interdependence for the better part of a decade. Corrine was the only person on the force who dared call him Paul. To everyone else, he was Detective Ketcham, save to his superiors, who simply called him Ketcham.

In her mid-forties, she was almost ten years his senior, which somehow wound up a source of ribbing in both directions. He also dished out frequent digs about her boyish haircut and severe pantsuits—both of which she took as compliments.

“This is already looking too familiar,” he said, approaching the corpse.

The young man looked to be in his late teens, his dark hair shoulder-length, his skin pallid, and his throat cut from ear to ear. On his forehead, the number 666 had been applied in a dark red-brown. His chest bore a large five-pointed star in the same substance.

“Pretty uninventive,” Corrine observed with some disappointment. “I still give creativity points for painting on the guy with his own blood. But the star and the 666 are a little nineties, am I right? It’s just like that corny movie; what was it called?”

“Hm? I don't know. I don't watch movies.” Ketcham ran a hand through his thick hair and squatted down for a better look. “It’s definitely our guy, though. Same technique, same detail—looks like a pretty fine paintbrush. That didn’t make the press, so we can rule out some copycat inspired by the headline.”

“Nothing related to playing cards either. I guess they’ll have to come up with a new name for the perp. The Blackjack Killer doesn’t fit anymore.”

“Yeah. Maybe The Pentagon Killer.

Corrine shook her head. “A pentagon isn’t a star. It’s a five-sided shape, like the building in Washington.”

“Pentagram?”

“Yeah, maybe. Anyway, this changes the profile altogether. I don’t think I’m jumping to wild conclusions when I see some definite religious overtones here. That’s new.”

“Hm.” Ketcham scribbled some notes in a pocket-sized spiral notebook. “And if we’re not dealing with playing card imagery, the whole thing about expecting four victims is out the window too.”

“That was pretty thin anyway. I think Channel 6 came up with it. My real takeaway here is that our whole ‘new gang’theory is probably off base. Gangs rarely employ satanic rituals and symbolism, am I right?”

“I wouldn’t think so.” He rubbed his chin. “This whole thing is off. Two victims in two days. Ritualized killings. Looks like the work of a serial killer, but I’d expect another girl in that case.”

“Why is that?” Corrine folded her arms.

“Oh, save the feminism. We’re talking about a murderer here. Guy’s slicing people up; I doubt he cares whether his choice of victim is politically correct.”

“And why exactly does the killer have to be a man?”

“If you’re trying to advance the cause, I think you’re doing it wrong.” He turned his attention back to the body. “What have we got on the victim?”

She perused her own notepad. “His name is Benjamin Ludema. He was a senior at Central High. No arrest record. We’re waiting to hear back from a school representative. I’d like to interview all of his teachers tomorrow morning.”

“Yeah, that’s good. Let me know if you need help with that.”

“Now that you mention it, I was hoping you two might have some classes together. Are you friends with any upper classmen, Paul?”

“Funny stuff.” He pointed to the design on the boy’s chest. “Did the lab ever confirm that the blood from yesterday’s image was the victim’s?”

“Type matched, but we’re still waiting on DNA confirmation. I wouldn’t stand on one leg until it comes in, if you know what I mean. I’ll make sure they do the same tests on young Ben here, with a few unique samples.”

“What’s your guess at time of death?”

“Definitely within the last four hours. I’d be real surprised if it were any earlier.”

“Sheesh. Killing for the devil on Sunday morning.” Ketcham shook his head. “What’s the world come to?”

“I know what you mean. In my day, all the satanic murders happened during the work week. Between this and all the churches getting tagged, this town’s really throwing in with Beelzebub.”

He gave her a chuckle. “Those two vagrants out there waiting to give a statement?”

“No, they’ve been handled. Pretty much worthless.”

Ketcham was beginning to sweat. It was early October and still too warm for the lined trench coat he wore. “Techs should be here soon,” he said, checking his watch. “You mind babysitting while I start the paperwork?”

“Of course the woman has to do the babysitting.”

“You’re a regular Gloria Steinem, you know that?”


 

*      *      *

 

Parker Saint had just seen a tear trickle down a cheek in the crowd, cutting slowly through a thick layer of foundation. This was important. A wet cheek was one of the last checkpoints on The List. He still carried an index card bearing The List in his jacket pocket, despite having long since committed it to memory. It was something of a good luck charm.

For six years, Parker had been preaching against an ultra-tight television schedule and he prided himself on impeccable timing. A large digital clock, glowing red at the back of the auditorium, displayed the number of minutes remaining in the broadcast, and Parker knew where in The List he needed to be in relation to the number on the clock.

His sermons were twenty-eight minutes in length every week, not varying by thirty seconds. He always began with a joke, usually something a little on the folksy, heartwarming side. After that, he would establish the vocabulary of the message: not theological jargon, but something catchy and appealing like “Unleashing Your Full Potential” or “Tapping Into Your God-Breathed Dreams.” Today it was “Moments of Majesty.” Next, he would bring up some scriptural texts, weaving together several “Moments of Majesty” in the lives of biblical characters, all the while solidifying a principle around them.

When the clock read 0:14, he began identifying at least two practical Action Points. In his early years, he had announced, “Now for the Action Points,” but these days he brought them in more seamlessly. Finally, with six minutes left in the broadcast, the music would come in, all-but-inaudible at first, slowly swelling as Parker told a touching story—sometimes a personal experience, but more often something he’d read in a book or online.

This was the most delicate part of the process and it made him grateful for the live audience before him. Parker would slowly turn up the emotional intensity until he saw a single tear on the face of a parishioner, then back off. In this case, the tear rolled down as he elaborated an account of an elderly married couple with dementia, living in a nursing home, reenacting their first date. It appeared just as the clock changed to 0:03. The credits would roll at 0:02.

Perfect.

The final checkpoint on The List was what he called “tying the bow,” which meant summarizing twenty-eight minutes in a single statement. Parker was a master of tying the bow.

“My friends, God wants you to embrace your Moments of Majesty,” he intoned, his words oozing with manufactured sincerity. “You may not recognize God’s breath on your life today. The majesty of your destiny may be eluding your sight, but mark my words: your greatest Moments of Majesty are in front of you. Thank you for joining us today. And remember, God is awesome . . . ”

“And so am I!” came the enthusiastic reply from the congregation, some 4,500 strong. Parker beamed. The brilliant simplicity of his catchphrase never failed to delight him. He strode confidently from the stage, leaving the band to execute a bright praise song under the television credits.

Backstage, he was met by his assistant Paige, who gushed, “Seriously, Parker, that was one of your best messages yet!”

“You say that every week.”

“It’s true every week.” She quickly took the wireless mic from him and smoothed his hair with several saliva-dampened fingers. “House lights in less than a minute. You better go.” She hugged him briefly. “Great job this morning. Seriously.”

In the atrium after the service, Parker stood behind a long table and greeted his admirers, as always. On either side of him, volunteers sold DVDs of previous messages, but the real line was to talk with Parker for just a moment. Many asked for an autograph on the morning’s bulletin. With everything on large projection screens, there was really no need for bulletins except that Parker loved signing them. In a couple of months, though, he planned to phase them out altogether, as he would have something much more substantial to autograph.

“I can’t wait for your book, Pastor Saint,” a flustered, matronly woman said. “I’m planning to buy lots of copies and giving them away—give them away, I mean. For Christmas and such.”

“I appreciate it. Thank you so much.” He smiled, consciously flashing some tooth. He’d successfully quit smoking six months earlier at his mentor’s insistence, and was seeing improvement in the whiteness every day.

The line had begun to dwindle when Paige approached silently. “Parker, you’ve got an appointment in your office in five. The man from Christianity In View. He’s in the green room now.”

“I forgot about that. Thanks. Get me some water, would you Paige? I’m parched.” He lifted a hand to what remained of the line. “Sorry, folks. I’ve got to go! Remember, God is awesome and so are you!”