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Excerpt #2 from Playing Saint


 

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?”

“It was.”

“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?”

Silence.

“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.”


 

*      *      *

 

Dinner was in the oven, some smooth jazz on the stereo, and Isabella Escalanté looked more put-together than she had in weeks. She glanced at her watch. 8:43 PM. Leon had promised he’d be there by quarter of nine, but there was still construction on I-96, so she had her doubts.

Isabella hadn’t seen her boyfriend in nearly a month and the anticipation was about all she could handle. Leon’s decision to tackle eighteen credit hours this semester was already taking its toll. Rather than commute every day, he’d gotten an apartment in Ann Arbor, near campus. They’d been talking every night on the phone, telling each other it would be worthwhile when he finished his degree program almost a year early, but that did nothing to ease her pain now.

She turned up the stereo. Jazz was best appreciated at low levels, but the woman in the apartment downstairs was half deaf, and her television continually blared judge shows. Always judge shows, as if she had access to some all-judge-show satellite channel. At first, this had annoyed Isabella to no end, but considering the paper-thin walls, she had come to appreciate the “cover” it provided and the accompanying sense of privacy for the other three units in the building.

The intercom buzzed and Isabella ran to the bathroom door to give herself one last check. She was more than satisfied with what she saw. Another buzz. She laughed. Leon had somehow lost the third key she’d given him, and still it came off as a loveable quirk.

“Come on up, baby,” she said into the intercom, and buzzed him in. She opened the door just a crack and then assumed the pose she’d practiced in the mirror that morning—head tilted and knees together like a magazine cover. She wished the only door to her apartment didn’t enter into the kitchen—she was certain she could look more glamorous in the living room—but she’d make the best of it. Besides, the curry chicken smelled perfect, Ramsey Lewis was coming off the speakers, and she could barely even hear the two former best friends suing and counter-suing each other over a car they’d bought together downstairs.

She heard footsteps coming up. And then a man she’d never seen before walked into her apartment. He was the opposite of Leon in almost every way. Slim, white, ugly, dressed all in black with long dark hair falling in his eyes. His standing there in her kitchen was so unexpected and bizarre that it took a moment for the panic to set in.

“Who are you?” was all she could get out.

“Hello to you too, Bella.” He spoke softly, a strange combination of comforting and cruel.

“I don’t know you.”

“But I know you. I’ve been getting to know you for a while now.” He took a step toward her. Her heart was thudding so hard she could feel it in the tips of her toes. The man was older than her, but she couldn’t tell by how much.

He sniffed the air. “Is that some kind of pork dish I smell?”

“Chicken,” she whispered. She was thinking of her cell phone, plugged in to the charger next to her bed. The man took another step toward her.

Isabella ran to her right and pivoted, turning toward the door. She’d been a basketball player in high school and could move when she needed to. But not in heels.

The man caught her easily and shoved her back into the kitchen. “I just got here,” he said with a malicious grin. “Where are your manners?”

“My—my boyfriend will be here any minute.” Her voice sounded foreign to her. “I think I hear him now. Leon!” she shouted. The word melted into the music behind her and the empty hallway below.

She tried to think clearly, to channel her fear into anger. “He’s huge. He can bench press four hundred pounds. And he’s got a temper. If he finds some goblin-lookin’ white boy in here bothering me, I don’t know what he’ll do.”

“That’s an interesting prospect. What would he do?” The man reached into his black trench coat and pulled out a shiny black knife with a diamond-shaped blade.

“Oh, God,” she sobbed. “He carries a gun. My boyfriend does. I’m not kidding.”

“I know he does. Leon Price, third year senior at the University of Michigan, studying criminal justice. Smart kid, thinks he’s already a cop and carries a Glock 17 in his waistband, right about here.” He pointed to his side.

“Why do you know that?”

The man slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt. His face darkened and his body tensed. “We know that because we’ve done our homework. We’re very precise about what we do. We need you to know that. The papers will call this random, but we’ve planned every last detail. You were dead when you woke up this morning, Bella.”

Isabella threw the sugar bowl in his face and lunged for the knife block on the counter, coming away with a long, serrated steak knife. “Stay away from me.”

The man smiled. “This is priceless.” Isabella’s hands were shaking. “Well, don’t just stand there; use it,” he urged, striding toward her. She held the knife up with both hands and closed her eyes tight, crying. A moment later she felt her arm twisted roughly behind her back. The knife fell to the floor, and she went sailing into two chairs.

The intercom buzzed.

“Leon!” She shouted, reaching out and barely making contact with the button. He slammed her back to the floor. “Leon!”

The man pointed the knife at her and covered her mouth. “Will young Leon be joining us this evening? This just keeps getting more interesting.”

It buzzed again. Then Leon’s voice, “Bella, are you there? I lost my key, baby. Buzz me in.”

“You’re in trouble now,” she said. “You should just leave. Go down the back stairs. I promise you, he’ll kill you if he finds you in here.”

There was a loud thud from below. They both paused and listened to the stifled sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, then a pounding on the door. “Isabella? Are you in there? Is everything all right?”

She tried to shout his name, but the man had his hand on her throat. All she could hear was the TV downstairs. Those stupid judge shows.

And then nothing.