Archive for the ‘short stories’ Category

“Damn it, Farlow! Just bones in them arms? Got any grit?”

Douglas Farlow’s supervisor growled these words from a head atop a pair of ubermacho shoulders. Doug, on the other hand, was “average”, which is a merciful way of saying he was weak and frail. He had been loading the 50 pound buckets of spices into the truck for over 15 minutes. His arms ached like hell, but not as badly as his soul.

Doug knew he wasn’t cut out for this. It wasn’t just a matter of his physical strength, it was also the fact that he knew in his heart that he was meant for something different. Not something BETTER (except for HIM, that is), just different. He had been sending his poetry series, “Beauty in a Nihilistic World: God Save the Overman”, to both small and large presses for weeks. Meanwhile, his rent was due….which is what landed him at the Toyler Grove Spice Company hauling buckets into trucks for hours on end. He thought if only….

“DAMMIT FARLOW!!! GETCHA BLOODY HEAD OUTTA THE CLOUDS! PUSSY!”

Doug dropped the bucket right then and there, finally facing his fears of the supervisor. He would walk right up to the talking sack of meat and tell him what for.

He marched stoically towards his tormentor and put his face inches from the man’s head (chest, to be more accurate. Douglas was quite a short man).

“Well?” Barked the supervisor. “Boy got sommat to say?”

Doug wanted to tell the red, pulsing nincompoop that he was a belligerent, grimy, uneducated fool. When confronted with a stronger man, Doug would imagine the muscled brain attempt to digest a passage from Nietzsche (this gave him a good laugh and permitted him sleep). Doug wanted to tell his superior, as well as the rest of the world, that he had nothing but contempt for a CERTAIN kind of working man – one who bemoans the meek, scientific man…who believes that the only real work is achieved through sweat and repetition (“That’s all right,” thought Farlow. “Automata will soon replace all the toiling human beings.”).

Doug felt the same way about the celebrities…they may have lived in luxury, but they still thought themselves better than the average joe (especially if the Joe were scientific). Politicians were even worse, for at least celebrities had no pretense about TRYING to appear as upstanding, moral individuals. All the greedy trolls in Congress did the same thing as the sex stars, but they masqueraded it with the appearance of selflessness and the giving of alms (much less than they could truly give). It was only an appearance, for they were in actuality the rich, powerful elite.

Will….the domineering will to succeed….POWER is the key to all success upon this planet…..that is–

“You’re fired, you pussy!”

Doug left without saying a word, went to his apartment, and climbed into bed, having intense nightmares about machines and big, brutish men. If only the poor man would realize that though he himself felt judged by all his flawed conscience saw as superior, he himself judged the people of Earth with an even dirtier harshness. We can only pray that the words “hope”, “compromise”, and “release” will someday have meaning for him.

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This series of mine is based on another popular work of fiction. Whoever is the first to guess what it’s based on can have two of their blog posts reposted by me. Why not have a potential couple of hundred people check out your posts? Put your answers in the comments, and enjoy!

The saucer whirred past his head like a bullet. It was a symbol for his life, a transitory blur that cut through all the oxygen and carbon dioxide and crashed into a wall of exposed sheet rock. The plate was one, singular…but now, plural, multiple, pieces in the hundreds.

“You stupid bitch!” screamed a terrifying voice, the shrill and commanding voice of the man’s wife. The guy wished that some of the more radical advocates against misogyny could see this woman and learn that men can be victims too. He pondered on this for a moment, as he did with all the subjects in his head every day, using the energy of thought to block out the abuse and the insults. He could even transfix himself onto the mundane, the pointless – descriptions of the broken plate, for instance.

“You aren’t a real man! You can’t even keep the lights on! Or, more importantly, the fucking wi-fi!”

Frisbee from hell, demon dinnerplate…

“Why don’t you fight back? Call me a name, Keith. Shove me a little. Stand up for yourself! You just take it day in and day out, and it makes you weaker and weaker!”

Keith sighed, looked down at the broken plate.

“What?”

That one word was about all he could ever manage.

His wife scowled. “You don’t even hear the world around you. You can’t even see it. That’s why you’re always gonna be in a rut for the rest of your life. You don’t try!”

Keith knew she was correct. He never took any risks in life. His job, a janitorial position at the local supermarket, had been the same for seven years. When he first applied, he and Vanessa had just gotten married. They were fresh out of high school and eager as hell. The world was supposed to be their oyster. But a few months after the honeymoon, Keith reverted back to the person he had been his whole life.

A small, frail, average man with an average face and an average intellect. As an adolescent, he did have some visions of grandeur – but they were impossible things. Things like touring the world as a country musician, things like working as a pediatrician, things related to art and science – but he was too “average”. Too “basic”.

Too “Keith”.

But right now, as he watched Vanessa storm out of the house to go buy some cigarettes, he reflected on the fact that there was now one circumstance in his life that transcended all the dull monotony. It was a secret he had kept from his wife, his boss, and even his parents.

It was a secret called cancer.

Keith went to bed, dreaming of ways he could go out in a blaze of glory. Maybe he could disguise himself and rob the supermarket. Maybe he could go climb a mountain. Maybe he could go write and record an album with his iphone.

“Tomorrow,” he said to himself as he closed his dull eyes. “I’ll do things…tomorrow.”

But tomorrow came and went, as did the next three days. Not that Keith was conscious for any of it. He woke up intermittently to sights of sterile gloves hovering above his face with beautiful, sad looking nurses standing off to the sides. Then, on day three, he awakened to total loneliness. He lay there for a few hours, too weak to press the button to alert those pretty nurses.

As he began to close his eyes once again, perhaps for the final time ever, he saw a dreary man with bifocals and a labcoat come through the door of his hospital room.

“Are you still with us?” Asked the man.

“Not for long,” mouthed Keith inaudibly. “F-f-fading…”

“Nurse!” Exclaimed the doctor, though with a bored, indifferent tone of voice. “Get the crash cart in here! Stat!”

Keith didn’t think that he would fight his demise…he had pretty much given up on living years ago. However, as he heard the rolling wheels of the doctor’s portable machinery, he began to experience two emotions that eclipsed anything he had ever felt before – fear and regret. He was terrified of what would happen when his heart stopped beating. He wondered if he would get what he deserved – absolutely nothing, an endless void the same as the void that was his “life” before birth. Or perhaps hellfire…or even rotting in a grave, alone and conscious. The fear took him over as the regret pulled him into a dizzying naseau. He was a failure…he was nothing…and now, it was too late.

The doctor, the nurses, and the machinery became blurry, faded. But there was something he could see quite clearly indeed, something new, something that hadn’t been there before. It was a pair of jet black crows, reeking of the smell of dead flesh and flying in circles above his head at the ceiling. Or at the…sky? The surface above his head seemed to have dissipated, being replaced by a grey color that seemed to expand without end.

Keith had a heart attack at that moment. The next thing he knew, he was standing up on his own two feet, sans the hospital bed. His hospital gown and his IV bag were still with him, and though both of these were light objects, they now seemed to weigh him down like military gear and an anchor. Only one other thing remained from that hospital bed – the steady, incessant beeping of the8 heartbeat monitor.

Before him was the iron skeleton of a large building – the very hospital where only seconds ago he had been dying in agony. Behind the metal rods and cracked walls were many other buildings, most of them equally decayed, although some large pyre-like towers seemed to be perfectly intact.

Beyond this, in all directions, was a grey sky, a grey earth, and a grey feeling of somber emotion. Ash rained down from the sky, and as Keith peered upwards, he could see that there were faint flickerings of flame high above him in certain places. He got the feeling that they were fires in space…perhaps multiple suns.

His fear and regret had been replaced by sheer awe…but only momentarily. The fear, at least, returned ten fold. This was due to the fact that the earth beneath his feet was littered with polished white bones, some even forming full skeletons. The skulls, somehow, all bore wicked smiles.

Where the Hell was he?

Then…another sound. Thunder? Earthquake? Keith strained his eyes forward as they began to register movement. It was hard to see at first, for the shapes moving fifty yards ahead of him were the same colors as the rest of the environment – black, white, and grey. But as the shapes drew closer, Keith realized with astonishment that they were the source of the sound.

There were at least a hundred “people” walking in an orderly, militant formation. Some were short in stature, while others were enormous. And not all of them were human. Some looked like sapient pigs with hoods over their heads, some looked like wolves, and a few even looked reptilian. What was truly frightening were the skeletons…haunting, looming figures that lifted their shiny black boots meters into the air as they matched forward.

All of these creatures shared one thing…an exotic look of dark beauty that was equal parts joy and tragedy. Above this strange crowd was a gigantic grey blimp with white letters etched upon it, but Keith was unable to read the words due to all the movement.

The sounds accompanying this procession were defeaning. Marching boots synced up to the sound of vicious snare drumming executed with perfect precision. There were also accordions, bells, whistles, and keyboards.

Boom. Boom.

A ridiculously huge bass drum was kicked twice by one of the skeleton men, and all the other instruments ceased simultaneously. The crowd was now less than ten yards away from Keith, and his fear had escalated to the point where he felt he may have another heart attack.

Then, it dawned on him. There would be no more heart attacks…no more heart. No more suffering, no more failure, no more chances of treatment through chemotherapy or other options.

Keith was now very dead, and he felt both terrified and full of peace.

As it turned out, death wasn’t just an event. It was an entity. And Keith would have quite a long time – perhaps even an eternity – to get to know it personally.

garden

“Gardening shears? You’re sure about that?”

“Without a doubt. It’s the murder weapon. Hector Williams’ fingerprints are all over it. The blood is his wife’s.”

Ruben stood up in his bedroom, excited by the news. One of the church members had apparently developed a guilty conscience. In exchange for immunity, he gave the department a pair of bloody gardening shears he was hiding for his pastor. There was now ample evidence to try and convict Hector Williams for the murder of his wife.

Vasquez hung up the phone and dressed. His wife was away for the weekend, staying at her mother’s in another county. Ruben was glad for this. It was two in the morning, and he hated waking her up inadvertently when working on a case.

He approached the front door when, like a peal of thunder, a crash rang out from the back of his house. It sounded like a window breaking. Ruben pulled his weapon from his belt and stalked towards the back door, slowly and silently. On the floor lay a brick surrounded by sparkling shards of broken glass. Peering out the window and exposing himself to the humid night air, he saw nothing.

He was about to unlock the door when he heard another crash, this time from the front room. Running as fast as his tired legs would permit, Ruben reached the front door in a matter of seconds. Upon reaching his destination however, he immediately realized that this had been a hasty, careless mistake, and it was going to cost him dearly.

The sound of gunfire reverberated through the home as Ruben staggered forward. There was now a bullet in the outer left side of his back, but he felt no pain. The adrenaline coursing through his veins permitted no feeling but that of self preservation. But he had to act fast—otherwise, that feeling would be worthless. He spun around and fired his pistol before even glimpsing a target. Nonetheless, the weapon’s discharge had been quite effective, as the man who had presumably thrown the brick through the back window fell to the floor with an agonized cry. The intruder, shot in the chest and far worse off than Vasquez, managed to lift his gun for a moment, but the detective bit through his pain and rushed forward, kicking the weapon from the man’s hand.

The intruder himself died within seconds, but Ruben didn’t see it happen. All he could see were stars and then blackness. Something had forced its way down to the back of his head, and it very nearly cracked open his cranium. He fell to his face, fighting hard against the blackness, using every ounce of willpower he had to stay conscious. Rolling onto his back, he fired the weapon again, this time with his eyes closed. He strained to open them quickly, and was met with the sight of a large man in a suit holding a baseball bat and covered in blood. As this second intruder fell backwards, a third man was revealed to be standing behind him, already turning on his heel in an attempt to flee the scene. Ruben shot once and missed, but his second round reached its quarry in the calf muscles of the right leg. The man’s high pitched shriek was the only thing that kept Ruben from finally drifting into benightedness.

It took about five minutes, but Detective Ruben Vasquez used prayer and willpower to stand up on his feet and walk towards the third intruder, the only one still living. When he reached him and turned his crawling body onto its back with his foot, he wasn’t surprised at all to be staring down into the face of Hector Williams.

“You,” snarled the bleeding preacher, “you will answer for this. I am a warrior for the faith.”

Ruben’s face remained stoic, mostly because of the pain, but he almost came close to chuckling before he replied.

“You’re not a man of faith,” he said. “You’re a man of fear and hatred.”

Williams closed his eyes and bit his lip, the wrath and malice pulling taut all the muscles in his face.

“Sinner—”

“Shut up,” wheezed Vasquez. “Why did you come here? Why were you and your cronies after me? I wasn’t the only cop trying to put you away.”

“You judged me,” Williams replied, the pain in his voice becoming more and more evident. He was losing a lot of blood. “You insulted me.”

“Doesn’t God condemn personal vengeance? Doesn’t he condemn murder?”

“You…you don’t…have the right to judge me.” His breath was growing ragged. Ruben knew he had to call an ambulance for Williams as well as himself, but he was tempted to let the man bleed out and suffer. His wrestling match with his hatred was short-lived, however, and his integrity came out on top as he reached into his coat for the cell phone. As his ten second conversation with the dispatcher played out, Williams ceased all movement and closed his eyes. Ruben dropped the phone and stumbled towards him.

“Hang on,” he said. “They’re on their way.”

As Ruben grabbed Williams by the shoulder and shook him, the murderer opened his eyes. Somehow, they looked different. Hate was still there, pain was still there, and fear…but there was something else. Vasquez could only approximate the look to one of surprise.

“You ain’t gonna let me die?” whispered Hector.

“No,” said Vasquez, his voice tinged with disgust. “I’m not like you. You and your congregation give church a bad name, you know that? But no. You live. If only so Beth can rest in peace.”

“We follow God,” mumbled the pastor. “We follow God.”

Ruben wanted to say a lot of things. He wanted to tear Hector a new one with insults. He wanted to call him a small, pathetic little man who only pretended to follow the Lord. He wanted to say that his cult followed not God, but an evil man who himself followed nothing but anger. He wanted to tell him how heartbreaking it was that there were people like him in the world, leading people towards evil under the guise of truth. Thankfully, these people were in the minority of those who professed to believe. Ruben only wished that the world saw it that way. He wanted to say all these things, but he didn’t. He simply held on to Hector and waited for the ambulance.

“I’m a godly man,” sobbed the dying hypocrite. “I’m a godly man. I’m a—”

The sirens could now be heard. Detective Vasquez spoke once more before the responders bolted through the door. He said them not only to Williams, but to himself as well.

“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein though judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”

THE END

Thirty two minutes later (Vasquez kept track of time religiously), Ruben and Rick pulled into a gravel parking lot in front of a burgundy building. The structure was tall and looming, with an air of classical beauty about it. It was the church, and about twenty of its members were standing outside, their faces expressionless.

A few squad cars were already on the scene, and the officers present were separating the church members into groups and interviewing them. Vasquez knew that this operation had to be handled delicately. There wasn’t yet any actual evidence linking the pastor or the church to the death of Zarabeth. The cops were simply talking to her friends, but Ruben was gazing up at the high windows of the church with longing. He needed to see what was in there.

“Hey, James,” he said, tapping a plain clothes officer on the shoulder. “You been up there yet?”

The man nodded.

“Yeah, Vasquez. We combed every inch of the place. Nothing in the building.”

Ruben frowned before replying.

“Well, are they talking? Anything interesting?”

“No. A few nods, a yes or a no—that’s it. I get a bad vibe from the lot of them. Too damn quiet. Not like any church I’ve ever seen.”

Ruben looked back at Andrews and gave him an “I told you so” kind of smirk.

“I don’t know,” continued James. “Maybe they’re just nervous. Or heartbroken.” His tone was practically soaked in sarcasm.

“Uh huh,” said Ruben. He snaked his way through the groups of people, shifting his eyes all the while. Eventually, he found who he was looking for.

Hector Williams stood alone. The officers interviewing him had walked away as soon as they saw Vasquez approaching. Ruben didn’t think he would hesitate to talk to the man, but he was wrong. There was something strange about the preacher’s demeanor, facial expression, and sheer presence. Though not especially tall, he somehow towered over everyone else. And that smile…Ruben had been in gunfights, seen murder first-hand, and even been involved in hostage situations, but no moment in his entire life had ever frightened him to the core like Hector’s smile now did.

But Ruben’s bravery was well-renowned. After a brief moment of eye-locking, the detective extended a hand to the suspect.

“Hector Williams? Detective Vasquez. I’m sorry about your wife.”

Hector’s smile went away, briefly and unconvincingly. The perturbation remained.

“Thank you, officer,” he answered. “Truly means a lot. Her soul rests with the Almighty now. I just can’t imagine who could have done this to her.”

Vasquez shifted his feet. It was difficult to talk to this man, especially due to the likelihood of him being a wife killer. But a preacher…a man of God, the God Ruben himself believed in…it would have been the height of hypocrisy. And yet, here the man stood, smiling, pretending to care for his departed wife, and lying straight to Ruben’s face.

“So,” continues Vasquez, “you’ve been asked the usual questions, I presume?”

“Yes sir. I’ve been asked questions all day. About the quality of my marriage, about Beth’s personal life, all kinds of things. But no one’s asking themselves the important questions.”

“What do you mean by that, Mr. Williams?”

Hector’s face changed. It became a visage of grief, and Vasquez actually believed it to be genuine.

“No one’s asking,” Williams said quietly, “if this happened to Beth for a reason. If God carried this out as an act of vengeance. Not one of your officers has considered that. You’re all blind. You’re all blind to the fact that this is an example of His power. A lesson, that vows made before Him are to be obeyed.”

“Such as fidelity, for instance?”

Hector’s expression remained unchanged, though he did seem to glare at Ruben a little harder.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s a big one.”

“Well,” sighed Ruben, “I’m gonna tell you two things right now, Hector. Number one is that God didn’t do this. God doesn’t cut people’s eyes out, with blades or otherwise.”

“I know that,” replied Williams. “Do you think I’m ignorant? All I was saying was that He uses certain people as his instruments. I don’t know who did it, and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

“Well, that’s thing Number Two, Hector. You do know who did it. You did it. You or one of your mimes. We’re not sure yet, but don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. We’ll get the evidence, and then, we’re going to cuff you.”

Within the span of a microsecond, the preacher changed from Hector Williams into something else entirely. The change was so sudden and shocking that Vasquez and a few of the officers standing by put their hands on their pistols. The man was now an animal, his face beet red and his voice explosive.

“How dare you!” he snarled. “You, an unbeliever, accusing me and threatening me with arrest? I loved my wife. I miss her with my entire soul. You don’t have a clue who you are dealing with.”

“Oh,” smiled the ever brave Detective Vasquez, “I think I do. I’m dealing with a liar. A wife-killer. A hypocrite. I can’t do nothin’ about it yet, but I will. So go back inside your church and…grieve for your wife. Or for yourself.”

Hector stared into the detective’s eyes. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, he rushed back into the church, with most of his flock following him. For the next few hours, the police searched the church, the preacher’s home, and the woods. All three areas were within seven miles of where Beth’s body had been discovered.

They didn’t find a thing.

Detective Ruben Vasquez sat at his desk, eating a bowl of banana oatmeal. The sweet flavor was the highlight of his day. The hours had been rather boring, and the most exciting part so far was that he had finally begun the diet he had promised to start months ago for his wife. That’s all he really had to think about for the last few weeks. The city crime rate was very low, with only a couple of minor drug busts occurring throughout the county. It was good that the Force was doing its job and that the population was safe, but it was just so boring. A mixed blessing, for Vasquez loved the action. He wasn’t particularly strong or heroic, but he relished his career—the sheer motion of it all. Now, his life was more or less stagnant, and all he had to worry about was the occasional argument with his wife.

That all changed when his partner, Rick Andrews, walked through the door.

“Got somethin’ for ya, Rubie,” said Andrews, his face showing a clear expression of gravity. “Murder.”

The word immediately made Ruben wish for boredom again. He always enjoyed being a deliverer of justice, but the victims—his capacity for empathy was powerful, even for a cop.

“Let’s have it, Rick.”

Andrews threw a green folder onto the desk. Upon opening it, Vasquez was met with the sight of a grisly crime scene. Lying on top of the dew covered grass was a woman in her mid-thirties. Most of her face was hidden by heavy bruising, but it retained beauty nonetheless. This only added to Ruben’s empathy, coupled with the fact that the woman’s beauty was of a certain kind—an innocent kind of beauty. Though he didn’t yet know the circumstances of the situation, Vasquez believed with his entire spirit that no one deserved to be killed like this, especially not an attractive, innocent looking female.

But something was missing from the crime scene photos, something about the woman’s closed eyelids that Vasquez couldn’t quite put into words.

“Her eyes…”

“Gone,” said Andrews. The oxygen seemed to drain out of the room.

“Someone removed her eyes?” asked Ruben, more to existence itself than to his partner.

“Yeah. The lab thinks it was done with a sharp blade. Probably scissors of some kind.”

Vasquez felt a swell of anger that gave him the sensation of being on fire. He didn’t even know this woman, but he was already wanting to serve much more than mere justice to the perpetrator. He wanted vengeance. Cold, hard, and violent. Some faint voice within said that it was wrong, that dwelling on violence and eventually carrying it out would make him just as bad as the murderer, but he couldn’t help it. He felt such pity for this victim, and, to Ruben, angry thoughts were much easier to deal with than sad ones.

“We had something similar,” continued Andrews, “a couple years ago. Remember? That kid who killed all those animals and took out their eyes?”

Clinical detachment briefly returned to Ruben, a welcome respite from the feelings of pity and anger.

“Yeah,” he nodded, finally taking his eyes off the photographs. “I remember. Mental patient. Had something the doctors couldn’t even classify. He’s still locked away, right?”

“Yup,” replied Andrews. “So he’s not a suspect. This is different, anyway. Look at the pictures again.”

Ruben obeyed reluctantly and noticed something else. He couldn’t believe he had missed it before.

“There’s no blood on her face, Rick.”

Andrews smiled, which Vasquez thought to be in poor taste.

“Totally clean. Which means—”

“Which means,” shot Ruben, “that we have a killer who’s either completely off his rocker, ritualistic you know, or else he knew the victim. Cared about her.”

“Or both,” said Rick. “Our chief suspect—our only suspect—is the victim’s husband. A preacher. His name is—”

“Wait. What’s the woman’s name? It isn’t on the pictures.”

Andrews took a few steps to where he was peering over Ruben’s shoulder. He reached down and flipped through the pages in the folder.

“Pictures must have been taken before they identified her. Let’s see…ah, here. Zarabeth Williams, Beth for short. Husband’s name is Hector.”

Vasquez heard him, but he was letting emotional attachment fog his mind again. Zarabeth…Zarabeth Williams. In that moment, nothing in the world existed but her name. Her name, and the photographs.

“So,” sighed Andrews, “we got ritual, and we got someone close to her. Husband fits the bill.”

Ruben looked up.

“Any other reason you suspect him, Rick?”

“Yeah…quite a lot actually. Seems our pastor has a history. He kicked a married couple out of their church, right in front of everyone, ‘cause they couldn’t afford to tithe. Then, a year later, he beat the tar out of some homeless drunk hanging around the building. He was sleeping in the alley across the street, but he didn’t even get a warning. And there’s rumors—by God, there’s rumors.”

“Like what?”

“Well, everyone in town but his flock says he has a temper. A nasty one. Even uses it on his son, some of them say. Boy’s gone into school a couple of times with bruises on his face.”

Vasquez remained silent, his unblinking eyes focused on his partner and betraying absolutely no emotion.

“There’s more. Tax fraud…but who the hell hasn’t done that? People with money, anyway. And the wife herself—you’re gonna love this one, Rubie.”

“What is it?”

“A couple people say he thought she was cheating on him. No one actually believed it, though. Everyone says she was the sweetest little woman in the county. ‘Righteous’, they say, you know? Then again, everyone’s got their dirty little secrets. Even preachers’ wives.”

Vasquez looked at the pictures again. He didn’t know why, but he felt very strongly that this woman actually had been the paragon of virtue. He could just feel it. But, as Andrews had said, you never could tell.

“Well, that’s basically it, Rubie. We got a suspect. Reminds me why I don’t go to church. Zealots are all whack-jobs.”

Ruben stared silently for a few moments, and Andrews immediately regretted his choice of words.

“Hey, Rubie, I didn’t mean—”

“You think every church is full of secret murderers? Crazies? I swear, Rick, a few people go nuts or hurt someone, and if they just happen to belong to a church…”

“Easy, Rubie. I’m sorry. Let’s just get back to the case.”

Ruben himself belonged to a church, but not to the one they were talking about. His church was in the next county over. He came across people like Rick all the time—people who didn’t realize that bad men came in all forms. Yes, there were murderous zealots belonging to every faith imaginable, but there were also bad cops, bad lawyers, and even bad mailmen. Any person claiming to be of God who made a habit of causing pain or grief to others was no true believer as far as Ruben was concerned. And this Williams guy sounded more like a cult leader than a pastor. Real congregations, like the one Ruben belonged to, didn’t have leaders who passed judgment on their members or caused them pain and humiliation. Yes, there was rebuking and repentance—but any man who beat up homeless people, maliciously kicked out church members, or physically hurt his own son probably didn’t belong in the pulpit. Besides, this church must have been very far under the radar—in his five years as a cop, Vasquez had never even heard of it.

After pondering on this for a few moments, Ruben composed himself and let out a weary sigh. He knew that this wasn’t a time for defending his faith. He needed to think about Beth, her and nothing else. Not his beliefs, not his career, not even his wife—not until they caught the man who did this. Even if—especially if—it was the husband.

“You’re right, Rick. The case. What do you want to do about it?”

“I was gonna ask you.”

Vasquez thought for a moment, preparing himself for where he knew he would be within the next hour. He looked at Andrews and spoke.

“Let’s go to church.”

The cold air bit down hard onto the congregation, and the thick fog filled their lungs to the point of smothering. It was a clichéd coincidence—the violent nihilism of these people was mirrored back to them by the environment.

But to the clan, it was holy.

There were fourteen of them, walking hurriedly in a close-knit formation. From afar, the group would have appeared to be silent, but if you had been there and were able to move in closer, your bone marrow would have melted due to sheer terror. The noise—every single one of them was whispering. Harsh, hissing tones that sounded like wicked spells or enchantments. They were praying—or, at least, they believed they were praying.

But in the center of the group, the noise changed. It was louder, but it sounded muffled. Dog-like whimpering is the closest approximation, and in fact, the maker of the noise was being treated worse than a dog.

After moving through the woods for about a mile, the people stopped at the base of a hill. The whimpering ceased as the group gathered in a circle around a single figure. It was a man. Clean-shaven, handsome, crew-cut, casual suit with a pink tie—he looked, for all the world, like a preacher.

“Brothers and sisters!” he cried, tears flowing copiously from his sunken eyes. “We have a demon in our midst! It sat next to you in the pews, it sang in the choir, and it lived under my roof.”

The crowd remained silent.

“It shared my bed!” screamed the man. “My house! My children!” He raised his hands and closed his eyes. “And now, it’s time to cast it out.”

A crumpled mass was pushed out of the circle and onto the man’s polished black dress shoes. It was a human being, a woman in a pink dress with a burlap sack over her head. Her whimpering increased in decibel and filled up with panic as the man lifted the sack from her bruised and bleeding face. She tried to pray through the rope between her jaws, tried to plead with the people, and tried not to look the man in the eye. But she couldn’t help it. She knew him intimately.

“Look at me.” He lifted her chin forcefully and put his face inches from her own. “You don’t deserve to look at a child of God. You don’t even deserve the gift of sight.”

Still clutching her jaw, he looked up towards the crowd and hollered.

“By grace, we gonna fix that problem! Glory! Amen!”

Like vultures crossbred with parrots, the macabre congregation resounded with mimicry, accompanied by a torrent of hoots and hollers.

The man pulled a pair of gardening shears from his suit. The woman was no longer whimpering.