05


9:10 PM

AMY



            I’m sitting in bed thumbing through the pages of an ebook. I must’ve read this passage a dozen times over the last half hour, but nothing seems to be sinking in tonight. My mind is somewhere else, scampering here and there with the rest of me lagging behind. What am I going to do?

            Luke will be home soon. He texted earlier this evening that he and his buddy would be grabbing a few drinks before coming home. I’m not worried. Luke’s never been a heavy drinker, and he’s been even more vigilant since donning the uniform. He hates corruption and hypocrisy and couldn’t stand himself if he were ever hit with a DUI. It’s one of the many things I love about him.

            Gabe, on the other hand… I wouldn’t trust him with a grocery list, and much less in a scenario where alcohol were present. He and Luke have been friends for a while now, and though I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why he makes me so uneasy, I can’t shrug off the feeling. Call it a woman’s intuition.  And there I go again, letting my mind dance around what I’m supposed to be focusing on.

            Baptism. Am I really ready? Just thinking about it makes my pulse quicken.

            Today wasn’t the first time Chelsea asked about it. She wants to know what’s holding me back. I could think of a few reasons at the time, but the longer we talked, the more I began seeing them for what they were: excuses. The fact is, I know this is the truth, and this is what I want.

            I first met Chelsea and her husband, Walter, in a park. It was the anniversary of my mother’s death, and even though we were never really close, she left a big, gaping hole in my life. I had tried to distract myself with some TV, but that only led to a depressing new marathon that convinced me more than ever that the world was on the brink. I might’ve actually lost my mind had I not forced myself to get some fresh air.       You know what it was that got my attention? Their smiles. Such a simple thing, really, but it was like two twinkling stars in an endless, black sky. Just seeing their smiles gave me hope. We started talking, and we connected. In a world where most of my ‘friends’ were avatars that simply commented on my social media, what I had craved most was some actual human contact. Chelsea and Walter were so genuine and happy and carefree. As cliché as it may sound, they were a breath of fresh air. I asked them what their secret was, how they were so happy. ‘Studying the Bible,’ they said.

            I didn’t know how to react. No one really talked about the Bible anymore. I hadn’t even seen a copy in years. Though wary at first, my curiosity was piqued, and we set a time to meet again. We saw each other a few days later in a coffee shop and talked for almost four hours. I call it The Day That Changed My Life, and it’s no exaggeration. I don’t mean to say that I believed everything I was hearing right then and there, but it was like suddenly new doors were opening in my mind and heart. Questions that I’d wondered for years were getting answered. Why was the world spinning out of control? What was behind it all? Had we really killed God with science? What was going to happen next?

            The next time we met, we looked at Bible prophecy. Wow! I could’ve never imagined the richness of detail and impeccability of fulfillment. Here was a book that I thought was all wizards and magic, and now, actually opening it and having it explained, I was finding out it was anything but! Why weren’t more people reading this thing? We could fix the world’s problems in a snap!

            But no, they explained, fixing this was beyond mankind’s reach. The solution to our problems had to come from a higher source. Just as a computer with a virus could not fix itself, but had to rely on a greater mind–that of a software engineer–to restore its original functionality. That was Walter’s illustration, of course. A little technical for a simple girl like me, but I got the picture, and it made a lot of sense.

            And it just got better and better. Each week, more and more questions answered. Where are the dead? What’s God’s plan for it all? Why hasn’t he done anything sooner? Et cetera.

            That was nearly a year ago, and I feel like a different person now. I have a hope and a purpose. Still, I’ve got plenty to be anxious about. There is still Luke.

            We’ve been together for eight years, and he’s still in the dark about my study and my newfound faith. I know I’ll have to come clean eventually, but it’s complicated. When Luke responded to the fire at the Kingdom Hall, I thought it might be an opportunity to talk to him. Back before we started meeting in homes, I was at that exact building at least twice a week. I know the couple he saved from the apartment: they used to be our circuit overseer and his wife, back before everything went underground.

            I frown and close down my iPad, unsure of what to do next. Chelsea and Walter have been after me for months to sit Luke down and explain everything, but I haven’t found the nerve. Luke is a good, honest man, but there’s no telling how he’d react if he found out I was studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially with the current social climate. Is this the beginning of the foretold Great Tribulation? Chelsea seemed to have hinted at it the other day. The thought is both exciting and terrifying, like climbing a roller coaster.

            A knot of anxiety winds in my chest and I close my eyes to pray, asking once more for the courage needed to speak to Luke. Maybe he’ll be fine with it after all? Maybe he’d even join me, one day? The sudden expectant hope jostles me away from my prayer, a smile forming on my lips. If only!

            I nearly leap from the bed as a loud sound shoots from the kitchen: the deadbolts opening. Luke is home. I swallow hard, forgetting all about the prayer, the thoughts in my mind a furious and incomprehensible jumble.

            “Hey, babe,” Luke yawns as he lumbers into the bedroom, hanging his jacket in the closet and disassembling his complicated wardrobe. Hours seem to pass as he strips off his utility belt, armored vest, and various velcroed patches and pockets. I frown slightly as he removes the clip from his sidearm and flings it onto his desk.

            “How was your evening with Gabe?” I ask. Luke turns to give me a brief glance and shrugged.

            “Same old. A couple of beers at McCann’s.”

            “No bar fights?” I joke, trying to keep the atmosphere light.            “Nah, it was pretty quiet. Thin crowd.”

            “Oh,” I say, desperately looking for an in. What am I supposed to say? Oh by the way honey, I’m studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve decided to become one?

            “You watch the news tonight?” Luke asks as he moseys into the bathroom and peels off the last of his clothes.

            “No, anything big?” I say above the roar of water spilling into the tub.

            “Not sure yet, but the news seemed to think so. Congress passed a bill. Something about the restriction of religion.”

            I freeze, my heart about to erupt from my chest.

            “Wh-what?” I gasp, throwing the sheets off my legs and leaning into the bathroom as Luke steps in the shower.

            “Yeah. It’s supposed to go to the White House tomorrow, and if the president signs it, well, that’s that I guess.”

            I cover my mouth, feeling suddenly both cold and hot all over.

            “I guess it’s about time,” Luke says from behind the curtain. “If it passes, it’ll help keep people safe.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “You know, with all these church burnings and religious terrorism. Maybe it’ll help clamp down on some of that, make it safer. It’ll make my job a whole lot easier, that’s for sure.”

            I feel myself wither inside and move slowly back to the bedroom. The ball of tension I’ve been holding inside melts in a puddle of sorrow and disappointment. Back to square one.

04

Friday, October 16




10:12 AM
AMY

            I flip the collar on my wool coat and cautiously eye the street as I walk. My bus is a few minutes late, but I don’t dare mentioning it on my cell. They tell me not to be too paranoid, but I can’t help it; I’m married to a cop and I know better than most how easy it is to be watched these days. Emails, phone calls, texts. Nothing’s safe anymore. I take a final glance up the narrow street, checking for anything that looks out of place. Satisfied, I dart down a gravel driveway and slip through a fence gate. I pull a key from my coat pocket and let myself in through the back door of an old house.
            The tension lifts from my shoulders as I enter. The cold of a wintery Friday outside is replaced by the warm embrace of a cozy kitchen, topped with the delightful aroma of freshly baked goods. It’s like coming home.
            “Chelsea? Are you here?” I call out into the silence of the house. I wait for a moment, then hear the familiar pattern of creaking floorboards as my friend descends a staircase.
            “Oh there you are, I was beginning to worry,” the woman says. She brushes a few strands of grey hair from her eyes and tucks it behind her ear.
            “Sorry. I would’ve called, but–“
            “No, I understand. You did the right thing,” Chelsea says, giving me a hug. “I’m just glad you’re here and safe. Hungry?” Chelsea slips on a pair of red oven mitts and fetches a metal tray of steaming chocolate chip cookies. Like everything else in the house, it appears to have been designed sometime in the 50’s, but has somehow maintained its original gleam. The sloping green edges and the clunky chrome dials all look brand new.
            “Not really, but I can’t turn down your cookies,” I say with a smile. Chelsea nods and scrapes a few of the treats onto a turquoise plate on the counter. She pours two mugs of cold milk and sets them down on the kitchen table where I sit.
            “So, how are you?” Chelsea asks between gooey bites of fresh chocolate cookies.
            “Fine. But I feel like I should be asking you that question,” I reply.
            “Things have been better, but we’ll make it.”
            “That fire…” I begin, setting down my hands and looking at my friend apprehensively. “Was anyone hurt?”
            “Fortunately, no. And I suppose we have your husband to thank for that.”
            I nod, feeling the stir of conflicting emotions.
            “How is he?” Chelsea asks.
            “Oh, he’s fine. Had me worried sick when he didn’t come home at first, but he made it safe. Actually, he thinks he might be on his way to a promotion.”
            “I see. He’s a brave man.”
            “Yeah,” I say, averting Chelsea’s eyes.
            “So, what do you think about all this?” she asks.
            “About what?”
            “Oh, everything. Your husband’s job, the fire. Having to sneak around like this.”
            I shrug. “I worry a lot.”
            Chelsea nods, waiting.
            “I know Luke wants what’s best for us. He’s a good provider. We’ve been trying to get out of our neighborhood for years now. He doesn’t want to start a family in an area where all the homes have barred windows, he says. But I wish he’d find something else to do for work. Something less risky. I mean, maybe that’s not realistic, with the economy like it is, but…I don’t know, I just feel like the stress is eating me up.”
            “Have you talked to him about your concerns?”
            “I’ve been trying, but he won’t listen. Luke’s a good man, but he’s stubborn.”
            A shrewd smile makes a thin line on Chelsea’s mouth and she tilts her head.
            “What about Walter? What does he do for work again?” I ask.
            “Plumbing, some electrical, this and that.” Chelsea says. Luke would never go for that. I can be sure of it.
            “It’s not glamorous, but it pays the bills. The key is keeping life simple. Work is work. You said it yourself, the economy is a mess. We can’t afford to be choosy about what we do for a living anymore. And we save a lot by buying from garage sales, trying to fix things around the house ourselves, growing our own vegetables, that kind of thing. You’d be surprised how much the savings add up.”
            I nod without making eye contact. I imagine what Luke would say if he were sitting here. In his mind, the dream life means a big house with enough garage space to hold a couple cars and a motorcycle, and always being up to date with the latest gadgetry. Scrimping and saving and living off the land would be a big step in the wrong direction. Still, I have lots of respect for the way Chelsea and Walter Novak live. Their lives are simple, happy, and relatively stress-free. 
            “You want any more?” Chelsea asks as she scoops up the empty plate from the table and turns towards the sink. I shake my head, and Chelsea tidies up quietly. She then disappears into one of the rooms for a few moments, returning with her laptop computer and a few small books. Her reading glasses, attached to a string of colorful beads around her neck, are perched at the edge of her nose.
            I dig through my purse and retrieve a small tablet computer and swipe it on. I flip through the applications and enter a passcode. A series of colorful thumbnails fan out from the center of the screen and I click on one of them. It’s a black and white image of a book laid open on a table. I tap the corner of the application and slide through the contents, finding one of my previous bookmarks.
            “Ok,” I finally say, letting the text settle onto the screen. “I’m ready.”
            “Alright. I’ll start with a prayer.” We bow our heads and Chelsea speaks in quiet, imploring tones.


7:59 PM
LUKE

           I gaze over at the flatscreen tilting downwards from behind the counter of the bar. Some news report on the Middle East is pouring out of the screen. Oranges and reds from explosion footage captured by a surveillance drone are reflected a thousand times in the mugs and glasses hanging from a rack. The smell of beer and fried food fill the stuffy space. Woozy country music spills into the air from a digital jukebox in the hall to the bathroom. A skinny bartender in a red beard and a stained college sweater polishes glasses. He glances at me a few times before nodding.
            I don’t care much for McCann’s, but it’s a popular spot for law enforcement officers and office workers from downtown. I tag along from time to time when someone offers to buy me a beer. If nothing else, it’s a good place to catch up on the latest buzz.
            “I know your face from somewhere, don’t I?” the bartender finally says, pointing in my direction with his chin. His voice is nasally and lathered in a thick New England accent.
            “Yeah, I’ve been in a few times. We’ve seen each other before. Name’s Luke,” I say.
            “Nah, not that. I think I saw your face on the news or somethin’.”
            I groan. For all the good press that article has brought the department, for me it has only meant unwanted attention. After the story in The Herald, a few of the local TV stations took their turns shoving me in the spotlight.
            “Maybe,” I shrug.
            “Yeah, you the guy that was at that fire.” He pronounces it fah-yah.
            “Oh, yeah. Sure. That was me,” I relent.
            “Uh huh,” the bartender says. He wears an inexplicable look of suspicion on his face. “Papers said you pulled some old folks from the buildin’, huh?” He sets down the glass and leans against the bar with crossed arms.
            “Sure,” I say.
            “Well, I guess that’s good. I don’t condone murder.” Moidah. “Still, I can’t say I’m sad to see these churches go.”
            “Oh?”
            “Yeah. Religion ain’t my thing, ya know? Every time I turn on the TV there’s some zealot blowin’ himself up or beheadin’ hostages. Makes me sick.”
            “So what, you think arson is the solution?” I say this with a grin, but my brow is furled.
            “Whoa, I didn’t say that. I ainit the one burnin’ these places down. I’m just sayin’ I’m not sad to see this country goin’ the way it is.”
            “What do you mean?”
            He shrugs. “Less religious. Last election, not one candidate mentioned their religious affiliation. You notice that? The pope, the vatican, all that stuff rarely makes the news unless it’s some scandal. People are fed up. I’m tellin’ you, times are a-changin’.”
            I let the words hang in the air as he turns his attention back to the television set, where pictures of aircraft wreckage are strewn across the screen. The guy has a point, I guess. Something that reporter mentioned the other day flickers across my memory, but it’s gone a moment later as a fist thuds into my shoulder. It’s Gabe. He’s grinning, a finger tucked under his belt loop.
            “So?” he asks.
            “So what?”
            “The interview the other day. How’d it go?”
            “It was an interview. She asked questions, I answered them.”
            “Yeah, I’ll bet. You gonna see her again?”
            I frown and swivel back to the television. “It was an interview, Gabe, not a date,” I grunt.
            “It could’ve been, if you’d played it right,” Gabe says, chuckling as he slides into the barstool next to me. He snaps his finger at the bartender and orders something on tap.
            “For your information, Gabe, Amy and I are very happy together.”
            Gabe snorts into his beer, shoulders bouncing, “Luke, no one’s happy.”
            I ignore the comment and study the contents of my glass.
            “She still on you about changing jobs?” Gabe asks.
            “She worries, is all. Can’t really blame her. I mean look at this,” I say, gesturing to the screen. A female reporter with a worried expression fills the screen, in the background a middle school cordoned off with ambulances, police vehicles, and strands of yellow caution tape. The closed caption mentions something about a homemade bomb and a disgruntled teacher. Fifteen dead, forty-five injured.
            “So what, you’re actually thinking of leaving the force? After this long?” Gabe asks incredulously, ignoring the news segment.
            “No, I guess not.”
            “Two words, and don’t you forget them: job security. That’s more than you can say about everyone else these days. Well, unless you wanna bartend. I’m sure these guys are busier than ever, helping the masses drown their sorrows.”
            I chuckle at the grimness of his assessment, which is probably an accurate one. Silence sets in as we slurp beer from our mugs and let the din of dour news wash over us. A bright 3D graphic sweeps across the screen with the words BREAKING NEWS. The bartender saunters over and clicks up the volume a few notches.
            The anchor, a young man in his thirties, sits behind the newsroom desk adjusting a lapel mic. His forehead is lined with sweat and he appears to have rushed onto the set. He holds his finger to his ear and then nods once to the camera.
            “This just in: we’ve received confirmed reports that an emergency meeting of congress convened just this evening by the United States Senate has resulted in the passing of a bill that could severely limit the practice of religion in America. Live on the steps of Capitol Hill is our very own Gail Ling. Gail, what can you tell us about this shocking turn of events?”
            The screen is split in two as another face appears in a panel to the right. A woman in a raincoat holding an umbrella and an unwieldy microphone is nodding with a serious look.
            “Shocking is right, Danny. For reasons not yet released to the public, an emergency meeting was scheduled late this afternoon. I have confirmed that it was proposed by a member of the Senate, but in fact, both the Senate and the House of Representatives met collectively to discuss it. The proposal was voted on nearly unanimously and passed. Now, this is highly unusual, as the passing of a bill typically takes weeks or even months to go through the proper channels.”
            “Truly unusual,” the male anchor repeats. “Now Gail, what else can you tell us about this bill?”
            “Well, Danny, we don’t have all the facts yet, but we’re being told that this bill seeks to limit the function of public places of worship, like churches, mosques, and synagogues.”
            “And do we know why?”
            “Im afraid we don’t yet have all the facts. However, it would seem to be connected to the earlier actions taken to limit the emigration of Muslim refugees to the United States. But we do know that the bill will be sent to the President first thing in the morning, where he will either sign it, immediately making it a law, or veto it, which would send it back into the hands of Congress.”
            “Well, this is certainly something we’ll be watching closely. Thanks, Gail.”
            Gail’s screen disappears from the monitor and the spotlight is back on the anchor.
            “With us now on the line is legal expert and CNN correspondent James Coley from Seattle, Washington. James, what can you tell us about the constitutionality of a bill like this?”
            A high-pitched voice is piped through a telephone line. The expert fumbles for the words to describe the situation, seemingly as rushed and out of breath as Danny had been. I can only imagine how much this news station must be scrambling to pull sources together and stretch this morsel of news as far as possible.
            “Highly unconstitutional!” The expert says, his voice approaching a scream. “Congress really has overstepped the line on this one. There’s simply no way a president of the United States of America would sign that bill. It’s unthinkable. In all the history of this country…”
            The voice shrinks to a low whisper as the bartender turns the volume back down. A few men in the back of the bar are jeering at the TV. The bartender glances over our way and jams a thumb over his shoulder.
            “What I tell ya? Time’s a-changin’.”
            I take it all in numbly, unsure what to think. Gabe is saying something about Islam but I dismiss it as I slip from my stool, fling my jacket over a shoulder, and saunter out the front doors of McCann’s.

03

Wednesday, October 14




9:19 AM
LUKE

            Dale Pryce sits behind his dusty green steel table with an ambiguous look on his face. His head, attached to his shoulders by a thick column of muscle that appears to grow from the base of his ears, is tilted slightly to one side. A silver halo of closely cropped hair catches the morning light flitting through the office blinds.
            “I assume you’ve seen this,” Captain Pryce huffs as he spins an old laptop around on his desk for me to stare at. I feel the hot air whirring from the ancient machine’s fans as he tilts the screen back to give me a clearer view.
            It’s the website of The Herald, our city’s most-circulated newspaper. Our precinct of East Haliford and the people at this paper have had a rocky relationship over the years, and the look on Pryce’s face suggests that things haven’t improved with today’s edition. I scroll down the page and find a picture of my own face staring back at me. I read the headline in a soft voice.
            Local cop braves blaze ahead of fire dept.”
I frown and glance over the article as the Captain waits. Though the hard facts are scant, I decide that the article is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened two nights before.
            “Eva Richards. Don’t know her,” I mutter as I scan the name in bold type beneath the piece’s headline.
            “She’s been in here before, though she usually knows better.”
            “How’d she get all the info? I didn’t talk to her or anyone else at The Herald,” I say defensively. The rusted springs under Captain Pryce’s sagging office chair squeal in protest as he shifts his weight back and sets his elbows on the armrests with tented fingers.
            “I know you didn’t,” he says.
            “Oh,” I say, confused. “Then what’s all this about, sir?”
            “PR.”
            “As in, public relations?” Pryce wears a blank stare, then leans forward and taps the back of the laptop with his fingernail.
            “You ever do a search on the keyword ‘police’ on here?”
            “What, the internet?”
            “No, just The Herald’s site.”
            “No, sir, I’m afraid not.”
            “Save yourself a headache. It’s grim.”
            No surprises there, I think. In general, the media obsesses over the foibles of the police, and our local paper is no exception. Slight misjudgments and fumbled protocol are aggrandized with drama, questionable ‘eyewitness’ accounts, and plenty of insinuation.
            “So this is good, then?” I posit.
            “You bet. Best press this precinct has had in… a while.”
            “I’m surprised this reporter didn’t find a way to twist the story, make us look like the bad guys.”
            Pryce concurs with a grunt and a nod, sending a ripple of prickly grey flesh from his neck. I glance back down at the article, giving it a second read. I conceal a smile at seeing my smug face accompanied by a such a heroic story.
            “So how’d they get all the info, then? We get a new PIO?” I ask.
            In medium-sized precincts like ours, public information officers are the only ones authorized to talk with the press. Unfortunately, our last PIO, a lieutenant named Jerry who’d been on the force for fifteen years, was discharged after a nasty DUI incident. He’d had a few too many drinks after a double shift and had lost control of his patrol car. It was an event that hadn’t taken much effort on behalf of The Herald to turn into a full-blown scandal that even garnered brief national coverage. Captain Pryce had been angrier at that media circus than I have ever seen, before or since.
            Pryce’s expression sours at my question. He’s obviously still sore over the fiasco. “Nah. This wasn’t a PIO,” he says as if the word gives him acid reflux. “I talked to Miss Richards personally.”
            “No kidding?” I say, surprised. Everyone knows how much Pryce hates the press. And lawyers. And most civilians. And, well, practically anyone who isn’t wearing a uniform in this building.
            “I know what you’re thinking. But this department needs a break. We need the public on our side for once.”
            I let the words soak in and analyze them carefully. For starters, it’s odd for the captain to seek out the press, and odder still for him to rationalize it as a way to build rapport with the community. As long as I’ve known him, the Captain has done things his way, without much regard for anyone else. I want to pry but decide it isn’t the time.
            “Anyway,” Pryce continues, “Miss Richards will stop by a little later on. She wants to talk with you.”
            “And what do you want, sir?” I ask wryly. It’s a little audacious to be this cocky after a single incident, but then again, I’ve just improved the public’s opinion of our precinct, and I suspect I can milk it for at least a few days.            “Just stick to the facts and leave the department out of it. You were acting on your own, got it?” Pryce says, pointing a stubby finger at me.
            “Yes, sir.” I nod, still grinning.
            “Now get out of my office. And I want an update after your chat with her, would you?”
            Another nod. I’m almost out the door when the captain’s voice comes once again from over my shoulder.
            “Oh, and Harding.”
            “Sir?”
            “I read over your report on the fire. I never condone an officer putting himself in unnecessary risk.”
            “Yes, sir,” I say, my grin fading.
            Captain Pryce’s hand comes up as if to swat away some invisible pest. “What you did was foolish, but that’s not my point. You saved lives. In my book, that’s a job well done.”
            I glance back into the Captain’s face. If there’s a smile there I can’t tell, but I sense it’s the nearest thing to a compliment I can hope to receive. I’m grateful.
            “Thank you, sir,” I say with a bow of my head. I slide out of the office back into the noise of the pen.
            I return to my workstation to find Gabe leaning against my desk, grinning stupidly into the screen of his iPad. I don’t even need to ask. “Local cop braves blaze ahead of fire department,” he reads, his teeth smacking against a wad of gum. Probably Nicorette. He’s been trying to quit smoking as long as I’ve known him. We joined the force around the same time and went through academy together. Six years later, Gabe is a rank up the ladder from me, and scarcely misses an opportunity to rub it in my face.
            At just over 5’5”, Sergeant Gabriel Rodriguez is the shortest man in our precinct. Even some of our female officers have a clear line of sight over the top of his head. I’ve always figured he’s been an easy target all his life, and that maybe this is what fuels his constant drive for one-uppage.
            “Nice mugshot,” Gabe snickers as he shows me the screen of his tablet. I shrug and smile. In a precinct this size, I can guarantee the story’s already made its rounds. Hiding from the limelight would be futile. Besides, there are worse things to have said behind your back.
            “You already talked to Pryce about this? I’ll bet he’s throwing a tantrum,” Gabe says with a shake of his head.
            “Actually, he set it up. He was the one who talked with the reporter,” I say, grinning. For a moment his jaws stop moving and his eyes narrow.
            “Pryce? Pryce talked with the press?”
            “Yeah, and they’re sending over a reporter for a follow up.”
            “What?”
            “That’s what I said. We need the good press. His words.”
            “The Captain said that?”
            “Sure,” I say nonchalantly. It’s easy to get under Gabe’s skin, and fun.       “He’s gettin’ soft in his old age,” he says.
            “Maybe. I get the feeling something else is going on, though. Did something recently happen with the department that you’ve heard about? Any new dirty laundry?”
            Gabe leans sideways and rubs the back of his neck. “Could be a number of things,” he says enigmatically. “Sergeants are privy to a lot of information that doesn’t get around.” Classic Gabe.
            “Well, never mind. But it’s an interesting tack for Pryce, in any case.” I glance over at Rodriguez, who doesn’t seem to be listening anymore. Something on the other side of the office has him transfixed.
            “Who is that?” he whispers.
            I swivel around in my chair to find a tall brunette speaking with the receptionist. The woman seems to have stepped straight out of a Nordstrom’s catalog. Everything in her wardrobe–the snug creme blazer, knitted scarf, straight black jeans, and leather purse slung casually over her shoulder–belong to a class of woman not typically found in Haliford, and Gabe’s shameless gawking is no surprise. She lifts her gaze from the sign-in sheet and looks in my direction, following a gesture from the receptionist. She strides over, seeming not to notice the heads that turn to follow her.
            “Officer Harding?” she asks.
            “That’s me,” I say. She lifts a plastic attached to a blue lanyard around her neck. It’s an ID card from The Herald with a thumb-sized photo of her face.
            “I’m Eva Richards,” she says, thrusting a hand at me. I shake it delicately, as one might handle an antique, and smile faintly.      “Hello, Miss Richards. I’m Luke.”
            “And I’m Sergeant Rodriguez. We work together,” says a voice from over my shoulder as a hand bumps past me. He reaches in for a handshake before Eva can pull away. But if she feels affronted, she doesn’t show it.    “Nice to meet you, Sergeant. Were you at the fire too?” Eva asks, drawing a small pad from her purse.
            A brief but awkward silence sets in until Gabe finally clears his throat. “Uh, no, actually not. I wasn’t within the response radius, at the time.” Or even on duty, I don’t add.
            “Oh. I see.” Eva says politely with a few blinks of her long eyelashes. “So you really were on your own,” she says to me.
            I nod, catching eyes from several others in the den.
            “If you have a moment, maybe we can chat somewhere a bit more private?” Eva suggests.
            “Sure,” I say, rising. I lead Eva down a hallway and past a set of swinging doors into a small cafeteria. I sit her at one of the round tables and wander over to a vending machine in the corner. I feed it a few bills and punch the buttons, returning moments later with two cold cans of Sprite.
            “So, what did you think of my piece in this morning’s Herald?” Eva asks proudly. She’s propped up her phone on a little stand and is arranging a pen and writing pad neatly on the table.
            “Not bad. Our Captain liked it, especially.”
            “Well, he was the source of the info.”
            “Yeah, I know. We’re still scratching our heads over that one.”
            Eva raises an eyebrow. “What, you don’t think he should’ve talked to me?”
            “It’s not about should and shouldn’t, it’s just not his way of doing things.”
            “Maybe he was feeling cooperative.”
            “Yeah. Maybe.”
            I can feel Eva studying me for a moment, but whatever she’s thinking isn’t verbalized.
            “You mind if I record this conversation?” she asks, her finger hovering over a big red button on her smartphone’s screen. I shrug.
            “Guess not, but I’m not sure why you’re asking me anything, to be honest. You got most of it down pat in your first story.”
            Eva ignores the comment and flips open her notepad. “We’ll see. Let’s begin, then.” She taps the red button and we’re off. Everything I’m about to say will be on the record and the pressure is on. It’s my first official interview with the press and my anxiety surprises me.
            “Tell me about yourself,” she says. It’s a vague question, not what I was expecting.          “Excuse me?”
            “Anything. What would you want people to know about you?”
            “Is this, like, a personal piece? Like a profile or whatever?”
            “To be honest, I’m not sure yet. It could be. We’ll see what comes of the conversation.”
            I puzzle over this for a moment, thinking it strange that a reporter would come around with such an ambiguous way of fishing for stories. On the other hand, I don’t really see the harm in sharing anything, and it beats filling out paperwork back at my desk.
            “Well, there’s not much to say, I guess. I’ve been with the force for six years.”
            “You’re a patrol officer, right? Not a sergeant yet?”
            “Right,” I reply, doing my best to say it proudly.
            “Married?” Eva asks, scribbling something on her pad.
            “Yep.”
            “No ring?”
            “Huh?”
            “A wedding ring. You don’t wear one?”
            I look down dumbly and realize that I’m missing my gold band. An instant later I recall taking it off in the shower this morning and forgetting to slip it back on. I make a mental note to find it before Amy notices.
            “Forgot it at home today,” I say lamely. Eva raises an eyebrow slightly and makes a note.
            “So what made you run into the fire?” she asks. Her eyes narrow, and for the first time I see an intensity in her eyes.
            “Well, there were people in the apartment and they seemed like they needed help.”
            “But why not just wait for the fire trucks to arrive, let them take care of it? That was a pretty risky thing to do, if you ask me.”
            “Yeah, I guess so, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. The firefighters were nowhere to be seen. I had to do something.”
            “Sounds pretty brave.”
            Was that sarcasm? I shrug, but Eva’s odd style of interviewing is beginning to unnerve me. What is she really here for? She’s digging and I can sense it.
            “Do you go to church, Officer Harding?” Eva suddenly asks.
            “Um. Church?” Where did that come from?
            “Sorry, I know it’s a personal question, and you don’t have to answer if you’re unwilling. I’m just curious.”
            “No. Not for many years, anyway. My parents were methodist, I remember going a few times as a kid. Then, I dunno, I sorta just grew out of it. I’d rather believe in things I can see.”
            Eva is still looking at me dead in the eyes, nodding, fully engaged.
            “Are you aware that religious meetings were held in the building that burned?”
            “Yeah, I saw the sign. Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
            “Right. And I’m sure you’re aware of other church burnings…”
            “Sure, they’re all over the news.”
            “Well, what do you think about it?”
            There’s something about the way she asks this question that gives me pause. I lean away slightly on the bench and glance around, trying to piece things together. Where is this conversation going?
            The thing about good reporters–like good investigators–is their talent for asking questions. They’ll calm their subject with a bunch of harmless questions, things that anyone could answer without batting an eye, and then WHAM, out of nowhere, comes a question that’ll turn the subject’s blood cold. If the person is hiding something, they’ll usually flinch. It’s a deer in the headlights technique I’ve seen a thousand times, and now I feel like the deer.
            “What do you mean, what do I think?” I ask calmly.
            “Well, as a self-proclaimed non-religious law enforcement officer, what do you think about churches being burned?”
            “I think it’s illegal and dangerous and people could get hurt.” Safe enough.
            “And why do you think it’s happening?”
            “You’d have to ask the arsonists.”
            “Have you?”
            “That’s not my department. As an officer, I’m usually just out on patrol, keeping the peace, writing reports. I don’t investigate and I don’t interrogate unless I apprehend suspects at the scene of an incident.”
            Eva bites her lip and frowns. This is clearly not the answer she’d been hoping for, which brings me some relief. I’m beginning to wish I’d never agreed to this interview. Then again, what choice did I have?
            “Miss Richards, if you don’t mind my asking, why are you really here? I’m getting the sense you’re not after my life story.”
            That acute look in her eye vanishes instantly and she smiles. “Like I said, I’m not sure myself. I’ve just got bits and pieces now. I’m trying to see if those pieces fit. It might be nothing, but if there is something to this, it could be…Newsworthy.”
            “I’m not following,” I say.
            Eva leans in and presses the pause button on the recorder before continuing. “Did you know that there have been over three hundred church burnings in the last fifteen months in this country alone?”
            The number is much higher than I had realized, but I manage to hide my surprise. “So? The economy is in turmoil. Crime is on the rise. People are angry and looking for a way to lash out.”
            Eva shakes her head. “No, these church burnings are different. Trust me, I’ve checked.”
            “How so?”
            Eva pauses and raises her shoulders as if a cold draft has suddenly blown by. “I, uh… Don’t have all the details with me right now.”
            “Yeah, but what are you trying to say? What are you on to?”
            Another shake of her head and she smiles weakly. “It’s probably nothing. Maybe just a wild goose chase. I thought you might have something helpful, but it looks like I’ve wasted both of our time.”
            I watch, baffled, as the woman stuffs the items back into her purse as quickly as she’d unpacked them just minutes ago.
            “Look, if you think of anything, or if you come up with any ideas, call me. I’ve been working on this for a while and I’m waiting for a break.” Eva hands me her card and strides back across the courtyard to the double doors and is gone.
            Huh?