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Sunday morning in Stan’s pickup, with Stan at the wheel and Wanda in the middle, Brill headed for church. He was sick of the fog, but this morning he had wished for more. More on the ranch and maybe they would have aborted the trip. More on the road and maybe they would have turned back.
Brill glanced sidelong at Wanda. Not likely. Not enough fog in the world to keep a good Christian woman from church.
Stan drove implacably onward. Too soon Brill drew a bead on the steeple, which stuck up through the gray cover like the tip of a mast, and then on the whitewashed hull of the ship itself. Wanda squirmed. Stan downshifted and turned into the churchyard.
The steeple rose from the front of the church, more bowsprit than mast. Double doors set into the front were hinged at the outside edges and met at the center. The left door was shut tight, the right propped open with a cinderblock. Two-dozen vehicles were parked in the yard.
“A big crowd this morning,” Stan said. Ghostly figures drawn toward the double doorway smoothed ill-fitting clothing and patted stray hairs into place.
“A good crowd,” Wanda said. She had scooted forward, the heels of her hands braced against the dashboard. Her eyes shone with anticipation, like those of a gun dog watching ducks wheel into a set of decoys. “A good big crowd.”
Stan parked. He and Wanda joined the church-ward procession. Brill lagged behind, staying out of Wanda’s reach. He hoped to slip in and check out the scene unnoticed. What price would he have to pay for his rough talk at Carlson’s Market? Until he knew, he wanted to avoid introductions and keep to himself.
The few windows in the church narthex were covered with brittle-looking paper shades, colored to resemble stained glass. Stairs on the left Brill vaguely remembered leading to basement toilets and Sunday school classrooms. In the sanctuary, at the head of the central aisle, a solemn ten-year-old girl handed a photocopied order of service to each of those filing in. “Poplar Grove Church of the Redeemer, Vernon Considine, Pastor,” read two lines at the top of the single sheet. What was the pastor’s name on the board out front? Not Considine. A German name, or Scandinavian.
Brill trailed his aunt and uncle into a vacant pew on the left. A compact middle-aged man stood beside a podium at the far end of the central aisle. He wore an off-white cable-knit cardigan over a wrinkled white shirt. A sloping wrestler’s forehead, fleshy and deeply creased, sheltered restless gray eyes. The man smiled at Stan and Wanda and tipped Brill a nod. Pastor Considine? Had to be. Brill returned the nod and fell into the seat beside Stan.
Like everyone else in church, the pastor must know the Boyd Little story. Not the true story, of course, but some exaggerated version in which Brill played villain. Why the nod? An innocent greeting? The set-up for a recruitment pitch? Or did he mean to say, I know who you are, pal, I’ve got your number? Brill glanced up, trying to read meaning in the pastor’s face. But the man’s restless eyes had engaged those of a more recent arrival.
Wanda reached across Stan’s paunch and twisted a thumb in Brill’s ribs.
“Second pew,” she whispered, nodding toward the right front corner of the church. “Look what pranced in on hind legs. Sheriff Carmody. Had to make his grand entrance.”
Wearing a green-trimmed, khaki police uniform, a slim six-footer mingled with his second pew neighbors. He had a pale moon face, pink cheeks, and colorless baby-fine hair. He looked comfortable enough until he caught sight of Wanda’s fierce glare. Then the pink spread from his cheeks up into his hairline and down his neck. He turned away.
“Frank Henning’s puppy dog,” Wanda whispered. “Bought and paid for. Frank and his slutty new wife. That’s them, the high and mighty Hennings, sitting in front of our so-called sheriff.”
“Now Sweetheart,” Stan said.
Yesterday, the congregation had held a memorial service for Vannoy Tellman, the murdered man. Brill had begged off, first checking with Stan to make sure his decision would pass muster with Wanda. Turned out she didn’t want him there anyway, worried that the family might cross paths with some of the Carlson’s Market crowd. A potential embarrassment. If any of the Carlson’s crowd were here today, at a regular Sunday service, they’d be more forgiving. At least that was Wanda’s theory.
Brill couldn’t see any flowers, though he smelled them, a sweet aroma possibly left over from yesterday. Near the fire door in the church’s left front corner an easel displayed an enlarged photograph, a head-and-shoulders shot, two feet square, of a bull-necked man with short gray hair and dark eyes. Strung between the easel’s front legs, a banner read, “Called Home.”
Brill bent toward his relatives. He pointed at the photograph through the back of the pew. “Tellman?”
Wanda whipped around and glared across Stan’s paunch, looking to see if Brill’s question was meant as a joke.
“The name’s familiar,” Brill said. “I never set eyes on the man so far as I know.”
Apparently reading Brill as sincere, Wanda dialed down the glare. She opened her purse and took out a lace-trimmed handkerchief. She touched the handkerchief to her lips.
“That’s Van.” Wanda held her watch up to her ear and then used the dampened handkerchief to polish the watch-face crystal. “Vannoy Tellman. May the Lord bless him and keep him.”
Brill nodded and straightened and leaned back in his seat. He looked again at the photograph, a washed out image in black-and-white. Not that the subject looked washed out. More like a country hard-ass, whose smile didn’t so much engage as challenge the viewer.
Even without the hangover which afflicted him now and again of a Sunday, Brill had a headache. He breathed slowly through his nose. He wiped his hands on the sides of his slacks and allowed his eyelids to fall. Somebody coughed. A mother hushed her children.
A tug at Brill’s coat sleeve drew his gaze to a bony hand, the sight of which startled him greatly. He jerked his arm away and banged against a neighbor newly installed to his right. He muttered an apology, shook his head to clear it, looked again at the claw. It belonged to Wanda. Once again, she was trying to get his attention. He must have dozed.
“And if you don’t know Van,” Wanda said, “I’m thinking maybe you don’t know Linda either.”
“The widow.” Wanda nodded toward the church’s left front. “Linda Tellman. Tall gal in the first row, there in the dark coat with the fur collar.”
Tall, yes. Erect, angular. Straight dark hair turned up where it grazed the sleek brown fur. Two balding men flanked the widow. Both were shorter, or at least more stooped and round-shouldered than she. Hard to judge on the evidence of a fancy coat and a rigid fine-boned back, but the widow looked a little high-tone for this crowd.
The service began, and Wanda, though she had done almost all of the talking, raised a finger to her lips and told her nephew to shush. Considine paced the front of the church, speaking without notes in a mild southern accent. Brill sometimes lectured business and community groups on theft prevention. He depended on notes, and he had to admire the pastor’s confident freewheeling style. Good pacing too, plenty of interruptions for hymns and prayers. All rise. You may be seated.
Thank God for those ups and downs. Brill had worn his sport coat and slacks, which, given the pounds he’d put on since the purchase, were causing some serious pain. Slacks, man. Seated, they literally had him by the nuts.
The hour rolled on and at last neared its end. Pastor Considine stood straddle-legged before the pulpit. His shirttails had escaped his trouser band and belt. With his face glistening and the palms of both hands upturned, he urged people to join him down front. To give testimony.
Brill folded his order of service and folded it again. Hard sharp creases. Church was bad enough, but church with testimony was Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart bad. Smarmy, grubby, greedy bad. Brill looked this way and that, searching for exits.
Wanda was one of the first to respond to the altar call. She wriggled past her husband and nephew and joined what was probably half the house down front. The old woman playing the organ cranked up the volume. She stroked and pounded the keyboard with closed fists, threw back her head, half rose from the bench and waggled her ample rump.
Down front, those who were able held hands high in the air and swayed from side to side. Considine nosed among them, back and forth, in and out, like a fish through reeds in a pond.
Of the remaining congregation, some clapped and rocked and shouted praise. Others, including Frank Henning and the sheriff, turned scornful shoulders to the scene. The widow and her party kept to their seats and stared straight ahead.
The testimony boiled up, simmered down, and, after ten minutes, went flat. Wrung out, parishioners dragged back to the pews.
Considine allowed folks a thirty-second cool down. Then his hands again swept upward. The congregation rose in a swish of cloth-on-cloth. Considine intoned a benediction, glided up the central aisle, and disappeared into the narthex. Only then did the congregation relax and begin to greet one another along and across the pews.
This was the part of the service Brill had dreaded most. Would the congregation receive him with Christian charity or treat him like a pariah? Rather than wait for an answer, Brill forced the issue. He bid a hearty good morning to the man on his right. He exchanged pleasantries with the woman in front of him. He turned and shook hands with four members of the family behind him. They seemed to know who he was, what he was. Hostile? Not a bit. Young and old, they seemed pleased to meet him, even a little awed.
This unexpectedly friendly reception, though reducing Brill’s social anxiety, thwarted his plan to meet the widow. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to meet her. Reflexive curiosity, he supposed, the sort that inevitably draws cops to crime victims’ families. Family members are so often perpetrators. They sometimes have inside information to share. For the innocent among them, a cop’s attention can help vitiate grief.
Occupied with his neighbors, however, Brill managed only a glimpse of the widow’s exit. She paused to touch her late husband’s photograph and then slipped out the side door, buoyed by her round-shouldered escorts.
When Brill and family finally reached the narthex, Wanda said she needed to use the restroom and rushed for the basement stairs. Brill and his uncle stood off to one side, and Brill found himself trading nods and smiles with parishioners waiting in line to shake the pastor’s hand. Weird. He’d arrived at church expecting harsh treatment, and here people were treating him better than decent.
Pastor Considine had exchanged civilities with no more than half a dozen of the congregation when Frank Henning burst into the narthex, heading a small posse that included his wife and the pink-cheeked sheriff. Henning’s wispy gray-white hair, thin on top, long on the sides, was pushed back of both ears. He wore a sheared fleece coat over a gray pearl-buttoned shirt.
Frank Henning. High and mighty, a personality worthy of notice. But not half so much as Mrs. Frank Henning, a big-haired ice blonde with vacant eyes and a rack it appeared she had taken pains to conceal, as if big jugs were a no-no in church. She looked fifteen or twenty years her husband’s junior. The slutty new wife. Yes, indeed.
Henning struck straight for the door. The heels of his Western boots canted him forward. He walked on his toes, his gait a mincing quickstep. He looked like a man running down hill, struggling to keep his feet.
“Brother Henning?” Pastor Considine stood on tiptoe, trying to make eye contact. “I thank you and your wife for attending this morning. Sheriff, God bless.”
Henning skidded to a stop. An agate slider cinched a bolo tie under the tight little knot of gristle that formed his Adam’s apple. Henning extended an arm and his entourage piled up behind him, clustered like henchmen, though failing to communicate henchmen’s menace.
Henning rocked back on his heels. Hard to know by his scowling face that he had just been to worship. “I am not your brother. I am a deacon and an elder of this church and thus your employer.” The sinews drew taught in the old man’s scrawny neck. “That is my one and only connection to you, sir. And one which, I guarantee you, soon shall end.”
Henning now rocked forward and motioned “wagons, ho.” His troop followed him out. Pastor Considine shook his head. He resumed greeting those in line, but now with a gloomy air and a downcast expression.
“What’s the deal?” Brill turned to Stan and spoke in a low voice. “Why the hissy-fit?”
“This fella Considine is our new pastor. Come out from Jackson, Tennessee, a couple months back. The old pastor, Frank’s man, had preached here, what, going on ten years. Didn’t keep up with the times. The congregation voted in a new board of elders—well, new except for Frank. Frank raised Cain, but the new board showed his pastor the door.”
“Night and day. Frank’s man, you wouldn’t call him a happy man. Old Testament. Every week, a postcard from hell. And he kept a tight lid on the emotion.”
Wanda returned from the restroom. She grabbed Brill’s left bicep and tugged him toward Pastor Considine.
“Pastor?” Wanda said. “I want you to meet my nephew.”
Hey, hey. Wanda had witnessed the exchange between Brill and his pew neighbors. Must’ve felt the love. Now he wasn’t just Stan’s nephew, but Wanda’s too. Brill looked back to see if those waiting resented his aunt’s cutting in. To the contrary, they broke ranks and gathered up front, seemingly eager to take in the conversation.
“I’m so glad you were able to join us.” Considine clung to Brill’s hand.
“Well, Aunt Wanda was keen on my coming. As I expect you know, she can be quite persuasive.”
“Yes,” the pastor said, “she is a force.” He turned his gaze on Wanda, who, beaming, sank claws into her nephew’s bicep. Brill resisted the urge to flex. “And you,” the pastor continued, “are also a Brill.”
“Yes, sir. Uncle Stan here is my dad’s older brother.”
“I understand you’re a police officer,” Considine said.
Brill withdrew his hand from the pastor’s. Not at the moment. Playing cop is what had gotten him into trouble at Carlson’s Market. Or had it?
“More than a police officer,” the pastor continued, “a detective, city trained and tested in fire.” The preacher didn’t wait for affirmation but ploughed ahead. “I’m sure you’re aware of our tragic murder Thanksgiving morning. We buried the victim yesterday. Van Tellman was a member and a good, good friend to this church.”
Brill sensed a fluttering as of moths around a lantern globe. The parishioners near him all were nodding.
“Yes, sir,” Brill said, “I understand Mr. Tellman was shot and killed.”
“And his killer is out there.” The preacher turned his gaze to the frozen yard beyond the church’s front door. “Somewhere.” The fluttering intensified as Considine turned back.
“We are a rural community,” he continued. “Most of us live with our families on farms and ranches. It’s fair to say, I think, that under the circumstances, with a good man cut down in broad daylight, for no apparent reason, and with the killer at large, people are frightened.” A couple of “Amens” underscored Considine’s observation. “What we are wondering, hoping, asking, even praying is that you would be willing to help find Van’s killer, Detective Brill.”
“I’m flattered you’d ask,” Brill said. Thinking, don’t be a chump. Keep clear of this mess. “But, as I expect you’re aware, I don’t have any authority outside Portland.” No need to mention that, at the moment, he didn’t have police authority anywhere on God’s green earth. “You have a sheriff,” Brill continued, “a member of your congregation, I gather. I’m sure he’s an able man.”
Brill thought—no, knew—he heard grumbling.
“They already figured out who done it,” cried a voice in the crowd, “and sheriff still can’t bring him in.”
“Or the other one either,” cried a second voice, “the one that killed them three people a year ago, right after Carmody bought the election.”
“With Tellman, they have a suspect?” Brill turned to the man who’d spoken first. A thickness of red membrane rimmed each of the man’s tiny eyes. Coarse white bristles sprouted randomly on his ears, nose, and chin. He looked like a billy goat.
“Yessir,” the man replied. “They found a gun, found the murder weapon with fingerprints on it. My sister works in the courthouse and that’s the true story.”
“I don’t mean to judge,” Considine said. He cleared his throat and considered his words. “You’re right, Sheriff Carmody is a member of this congregation. I know he means well and he does the best he can. But he’s an elected official and it’s my sense—my sense, and that’s all it is or can be—that professional skills were not necessarily what elevated him to public office.”
“Bare-naked in Alaska, that man couldn’t catch cold, let alone a crook,” Wanda exclaimed. The crowd tittered.
“Now, sister, please” the pastor said. “Charity.” To Brill he said, “Whatever assistance you could provide, whatever way you could find to bring your expertise to bear, I know that Van’s people and the people, not just of this congregation, but of this community and the whole county, would be more than grateful.”
Brill thought of the next few moments as the laying on of hands. Wanda tightened her grip on his bicep. Stan patted his shoulder. Considine again took Brill’s right hand in both his own. Many in the gathering reached out to touch the hem of his sport coat. Mother. Never, in his professional life, had he felt so urgently called to duty.
“I tell you what,” Brill said. “I don’t know if there’s much I can do, but I’ll at least do this. Tomorrow morning, first thing…”
“Not tomorrow,” said the goat-eyed man. “Even with our trouble, that no-account sheriff is headed to Portland. An important meeting, he says. Says he won’t be back till Tuesday noon. My sister called to ask, could I believe it? I told her, no, ma’am.”
“Well, Tuesday afternoon, then, I’ll stop by the courthouse. I’ll talk to the sheriff. We’ll see what he has to say.”