Three men in suits arrived at Brandon Crawford’s door just after seven Sunday night. They seemed to be standing in line youngest to oldest. On the left was a muscular kid in his twenties, his neck popping out of his shirt collar; next to him, a wiry man in his fifties with a neatly trimmed goatee and hair graying around the temples; and on the right, a rugged older man with a mop of white hair and unruly eyebrows that seemed to be reaching out in every direction.
The one in the middle spoke. “Is this the residence of Melanie Jane Candor?”
“Yes, of course. Forgive me. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. I assume that you are Brandon Crawford, her boyfriend?”
“Fiancé,” he corrected.
“Again, my apologies.” The man’s speech was soft and even. “We’d like to ask you a few questions if that’s alright.”
Brandon’s face fell. “I’ve already talked to the police a few times. For like six hours, total. I’ve told them everything there is to tell. More than once.”
The wiry man retrieved a badge from his inside coat pocket and held it toward the door.
“We’re not with the police, son. This investigation has a much further-reaching scope than local law enforcement. My name is Frank Xavier. We would really appreciate just a few minutes with you.”
Brandon opened the door. “Federal agents,” he mumbled to himself. “For crying out loud.”
He led them to a formal dining room, where a lone plate sat topped with most of a chicken pot pie. “You can ask me questions while I eat,” he said flatly. “Or you can come back when it’s not dinner time.”
“Not a problem at all,” Mr. Xavier replied. “May we sit?”
“Go for it.”
“I know you’re tired of giving the same answers over and over, and I know you’ve been through this before, but please, if you could . . . just start by telling us about Melanie.”
Brandon thought for a moment. “Actually, no one’s asked me to do that.”
“We’re asking you to do that.”
He set his fork down and tipped his head back toward the ceiling. “She was amazing. Plain and simple. She was everything I’m not: smart, capable, creative, talented, caring. She could listen to your problems, you, know, and not say a word, just listen. And somehow everything felt better when you got done jawing at her. You weren’t mad anymore or stressed out or . . . ” He tailed off.
“She sounds incredible,” the youngest agent said.
“She was. And for whatever reason, she loved me. I mean, really, really loved me. Beats me why. I told her once that she deserved someone better; she got so mad at me for that—for talking myself down like that. She gave me the silent treatment for three hours. That was the only time she’d ever been that mad at me. Can you believe that? For saying I didn’t deserve her.”
“How was Melanie’s relationship with her parents?” asked Mr. Xavier.
“Good. Pretty good, anyway. They’d had some rocky times when she was in high school. She ran away for a few months one time, spent some time in a foster home. But, lately it was good. If it weren’t for me, it would have been better.” He stuffed some pot pie in his cheek and kept talking. “They agreed with me that Mel deserved someone more at her level.
“Honestly, they hated me. I’m not exaggerating either. Her mom especially. But Mel took it all in a stride. She told them she couldn’t stay away from me because I was the inspiration for her art.” He laughed a hollow laugh. “I doubt that. I can’t even draw a stick figure.”
“I understand she was studying art at university?”
“Yeah, illustration, at the Kensey School of Art and Design. This would have been her last semester. She could do amazing things with a pencil and a piece of paper. Look at this. . . ” He disappeared for a moment into the adjoining kitchen and reappeared with a folio, from which he pulled a large piece of sketch paper. The drawing of a woman half-submerged in a river was titled “The Rise of Aquarius” in even block letters along the top.
“Impressive,” the white-haired man said, his voice as crisp as his appearance was frowzy. “May I have a closer look?” Brandon handed him the drawing, which he studied against the light for half a minute, making sounds of approval.
“Aquarius,” he said, musing to himself. “The subject matter reminds me—we have some reason to believe that Melanie’s murder and the boy who was found this morning may have been religiously motivated.”
“You think the same person killed them both?”
“Similar markings were found on both victims,” Mr. Xavier explained.
“Playing cards are religious now?”
“There may be more to it than that. Was Melanie a religious woman?”
“Not really. She was born a Catholic, I guess. Baptized as a baby. She went to Christian school as a kid, but she wasn’t really into that. She wasn’t a fanatic or anything.” His voice cracked. “Love was her religion. She believed in kindness.” He squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could until the tears passed, unwilling to let them out.
“We’re very sorry to be dredging all this up for you again, Brandon,” said Mr. Xavier. “Just a couple more questions. Do you have any idea why Melanie might have been in the neighborhood where her body was found?”
“No. None. She was really careful about going out at night. She certainly didn’t hang out in abandoned houses. Someone forced her to go in there. I know they did. Or they just dumped her body there when they were done with her. And if I ever find out who it was . . .” His face darkened. “Well, the way they killed Mel will seem like nothing compared to what I do to them. Love isn’t my religion. Not anymore.”
The three agents glanced at each other and stood in unison.
“Again, we are so sorry for your loss, Mr. Crawford,” Xavier said. “And we thank you for your time. You’ve been very helpful. We’ll show ourselves out. Try to enjoy your dinner.”
The three men filed wordlessly out the door, down the steps, and into a late model Cadillac sedan, the oldest man behind the wheel, the youngest riding shotgun, and Xavier in the back seat.
As the car pulled out of the driveway, the young man spoke up. “I just want to say that I’m skeptical about the connections here. I have to put that out there, okay? Tying the murders to the church burning and the vandalism seems like a stretch to begin with. But does anyone really think this has something to do with the Crown?”
The driver answered, his voice now thick with a Spanish accent. “Someone believes the two are linked or we wouldn’t be here, Michael. Therefore, we approach this with an open mind.”
“Yeah, I guess.” The young man pulled off his tie and clawed at the button on his collar. “Man, I hate these things. It’s funny; I started wearing a clerical collar my first day of seminary, what, seven years ago? All my friends from back home kept asking, ‘Aren’t they uncomfortable?’ ‘It looks so tight!’ But they’ll wear these awful things to work every stinking day. It’s a noose. How is this not a noose?” There was no response. “What are your thoughts, Father Ignatius?”
“I think you talk an awful lot,” the older priest said.
“Just making up for letting Father Xavier do all the talking back at the house.” He glanced back. “Let me add to the record that I don’t like pretending I’m your intern or something. I’ve worked hard to earn this appointment and now it’s like I’m back in diapers with you two.”
Xavier’s voice hardened some. “Father Michael, take some advice from a more experienced priest: you need to repent of your pride and think of the order and the Church and the mission at hand. Being one of the Jesuits Militant means blending in with the expectations of others. Anything that would stand out, seem odd or memorable, we want to avoid.”
They pulled to a stop at an intersection.
Michael sighed. “Father Ignatius, you do realize that you can just roll on through yellow lights here in the States, right? That’s allowed.”
“Again, I am avoiding suspicion by obeying the laws of the land.”
“No, stopping at a yellow arouses suspicion here. And your left blinker is on.”
He turned it off.
Father Michael fought down a smile. “Look, I’ve been meaning to ask you something for a while now. When you were a young man, fighting the Moors in Spain, did you prefer the musket or the saber as your weapon of choice?”
“Father Ignatius . . . ?”
“I get it. I’m old.”
Michael slapped him on the knee. “Yes! You are. You’re an antique. I, on the other hand, am young and fresh. But that’s cool! We can complement each other.” He gestured back and forth between them. “Old school; new school. Inquisition; intervention. Council of Trent; Vatican Two. If you can set aside your grumpiness I think we could have something snappy here. What do you say?”
The light changed and Ignatius slowly accelerated. “I say that I never question my orders from the Superior General. And he has decided that I answer to you for the duration of our time here.”
“That’s good to hear. Father Xavier, you’re awfully quiet back there.”
“Leave me out of this.”
“Fair enough. But really, you guys, let me just say that after all we’ve been through together, it’s an honor to be telling you what to do. I mean that.” He placed a hand firmly on Father Ignatius’ shoulder. “And look, I’m sorry about all that ‘Moors and muskets’ stuff. That was out of line.”
“Yes, it was. It was disrespectful and unprofessional.”
“I totally agree, and I apologize. Just tell me one thing, though: did you wear a cape back then? Because I think capes are awesome.”