8:12 PM


            I study my wife’s movements carefully as she retrieves two new wine glasses from the rack in the kitchen and serves us. I decline her offer of more garlic bread and wonder if she’s stalling or buttering me up before dropping a bombshell. Whatever the case, I sense the tension in the air. Amy finally joins me on the couch, takes a sip of wine, and gazes at some point on the carpet for a few moments before opening up.

            “I first met Chelsea and her husband, Walter, in a park. I’d been really depressed that day, and we got to talking. They were really easy going and I felt we connected. We met for coffee a few times. I didn’t really have any friends like them; they were older and wizened and really knew how to listen to me. I guess Chelsea was kind of like the mom I never had.”

            I watch Amy bite her lip and expect tears at any moment, but she holds it together. Amy’s mother, Diane, ran off with a man she’d met at a class reunion when Amy was only nine. The man turned out to be an abusive drug addict with an estranged family of his own, and when Diane wandered back almost a decade later with her tail between her legs, her family barely recognized her. She swore she’d given up her old lifestyle, but certain habits proved impossible to kick and Amy’s father wouldn’t put up with it. He filed a restraining order against Diane and she disappeared. In the end, she never reconciled with her family, and eventually died alone in some other state. Amy doesn’t talk much about it. I doubt those scars will ever heal.

            “Well, the woman, Chelsea, seemed nice enough,” I say, feeling the need to comment.

            “Oh Luke, you have no idea. She’s bent over backwards for me. Her and Walter both.” Amy shakes her head slowly as she smiles and takes another sip.

            But why? I wonder. What is their angle? What are they after? “They don’t have any kids?” I ask.

            Amy shakes her head. “They have a son, I think. But he’s grown and out of the picture.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “He’s just not around. They don’t talk much about him. I guess they’re not close.”

            That doesn’t sit well with me. If these people are so charitable, what had happened with their own family? Why latch on to strangers? Is it a scam? I rack my brains for a scenario where my wife might be a potential victim but come up with nothing. What do we have that anyone could possibly want? There’s a slim savings in a bank account, nothing extravagant. The apartment is a rental and the furnishings are nothing to covet.

            “Anyway,” Amy continues. “I found out that Chelsea and Walter liked to read and study the Bible. Turns out they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

            I analyze my wife’s expectant expression as the pieces click together. Mr. Harris. The comment about my wife. Chelsea and Walter. They’re all part of the same religious circle.

            “How deeply are you involved?”

            “I–I mean, we–Chelsea and I, and sometimes Walter–well, we study the Bible together.”

            “And? That’s it?”

            “Well, no I guess, I also go to their meetings…”

            I sigh. I set down my glass and rub my temples with the heels of my hands. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? How long have you been sneaking around?”

            “It’s been a while…”

            “How long, Amy? When did you start?”

            “Well…About a year, I guess.”

            “A year! What were you thinking! Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

            “I was scared, Luke. I didn’t know how you’d react. You’ve always been such a good husband, but I was just worried that…I don’t know. I was just worried.”

            I finish off the wine in my glass and pour another.

            “I got a promotion today,” I finally say after a long silence.

            “A promotion? Sergeant?”

            I nod. “Pryce told me today.”

            “Well… That’s great news, babe. I know you’ve worked so hard for it.” Amy reaches over to pat my arm, but I have to doubt her sincerity. She’s been after me to change jobs, after all. Then again, what can she really say about it with things the way they are? She’s in no position to nag at the moment.

            “Yeah. He said the whole department is behind me. The new uniform comes in soon.”

            “That’s wonderful, Luke. I’m really happy for you. And it means less patrol duty, right?”

            “Yeah. But there’s a catch.”


            “I can’t be religiously affiliated.”

            Amy’s eyes widen. “It’s just incredible…” she says softly.

            “What is?”

            “Luke, all of this, the Liberation Act, the religious violence, and now this, restricting even police officers… It’s all part of what we’ve been studying… in the Bible, I mean…”

            I stare at my wife blankly. Her enthusiasm scares me. It’s not like Amy to get excited about anything, especially religion.

            “No, really, babe, look at this,” she continues, reaching into her purse on the bedside table and flipping up an application on her iPad. It’s some digital copy of the Bible. She fans through the chapters with the tip of her finger. “Here, this part here. In Revelation chapter seventeen, there’s this woman wearing scarlet, and she symbolizes–“

            “Amy,” I cut in, “did you not just hear what I said? I cannot be involved in anything religious. That includes the Bible. I could lose my job. Do you understand?”

            I watch as my wife stares into my eyes sadly, the iPad slowly falling into her lap. I wonder if the restrictions against religious affiliation extended to officers’ families. The captain didn’t really specify when we talked earlier, so maybe that means that Amy’s study isn’t explicitly forbidden. I can’t imagine it would be encouraged, though.

            Still, I wish I could’ve nipped this all in the bud. Had I known back when my wife first met these people, I could’ve steered her away. Why take chances? After all I’ve done to get this promotion, why jeopardize our future with some silly Bible lessons? Then again, how bad can it be? Amy’s clearly thrilled with the friends she’s found, and I can’t deny that she’s seemed happier lately, calmer, more content with our relationship. I finish off my second glass of cabernet and sigh.

            “What are you thinking, babe?” Amy asks, her fingers lightly brushing against my arm.

            “I’m thinking you’d better be careful. Especially with things as crazy as they are now.”

            “Oh, we are Luke. That’s why we don’t use the Kingdom Hall anymore for meetings, we have them in–“

            I raise my hand in protest and give Amy a stern look.

            “Stop. Please. No more,” I say, shaking my head. “The less I know, the better.”

            Amy bites her lips shut and nods somberly. “Ok. I’ll be careful,” she says softly.


6:40 PM

            I unlatch the door to our small apartment to the familiar smell of Amy’s spaghetti and garlic bread. My mouth instantly a watery mess, I take a deep breath and enter. A man and a woman whom I don’t recognize are sitting at the kitchen table sipping from wine glasses. I think for a minute I might have somehow let myself into the wrong apartment. But no, that’s our table, and this is our apartment. But who are these people?
            The man, dressed in a brown sweater, rises and sticks his hand out for me to shake. “Hi there, I’m Walter,” he says.
            I mutter something indiscernible in response. The woman takes her turn with pleasantries; her name is Chelsea. I nod with a weak smile and excuse myself to look for Amy. She’s in the narrow sitting room on the other side of the doorway, arranging a small plate of fruit wedges and crackers on the coffee table and humming. Some old jazz album is streaming from her tablet through the living room speakers. I flip it off as I step in the room.
            “What’s going on?” I demand.
            Amy turns, the smile melting from her face. “Just setting some snacks out. Did you forget about dinner?”
            “What?…” I say, only now recalling the text I’d gotten while at the hospital. I curse my memory for forgetting it. “No, I didn’t forget, but who are those people?” I jab a finger towards the kitchen, not really caring if the guests hear me.
            “Luke, my goodness, calm down. I said I was going to invite some friends over. And you said it was fine, remember?”
            “Yeah, our friends. I didn’t expect to come home to find two strangers sitting at our table drinking our wine.”
            They brought the wine, Luke. And keep your voice down, would you?”
            “I’ll talk however I want in my own house. Why didn’t you tell me I didn’t know these ‘friends’ of yours?”
            “I–I wasn’t trying to hide anything, Luke. I just wanted you to meet my friends, is all.” Amy’s eyes are beginning to swell and redden and her voice wavers.
            “Friends, huh? Like your friend Mr. Harris?”
            “Mr. who? I don’t know any–“
            “Donovan Harris. Old guy in a wheelchair. The one I pulled from the blaze. Turns out he knows you, too. Funny how you didn’t mention anything about him before, though I do remember you giving me a weird look on the morning after the fire. How many more secret friends do you have?”
            Amy’s lips quiver as tears start trickling down her face. She tries to catch them with the back of her finger but it’s already too late. Her mascara is beginning to bleed. She covers her face and runs into the bathroom, slamming the door.
            I stand in the middle of the living room, fuming. She always does this. I should been the one storming out now, not her! She had no right keeping secrets from me in the first place, and then to get upset when they were uncovered? Ridiculous! But what makes it all even worse is that now I have two strangers in my house to deal with. I wonder over how quickly the day has soured and worry about whatever Amy’s gotten herself mixed up in.
            I hear soft footsteps in the kitchen behind me. Amy’s friends are no doubt fidgeting uncomfortably and probably hungry. Well, not my problem. They can feed themselves with the wine they brought for all I care. But moments later I hear the sound of coats being lifted from the wall hooks and the latch slowly sliding open on the kitchen door. I wander in to find the couple leaving.
            “Where are you two going?” I ask.
            “Oh, we can do this another night. It was really nice meeting you, Luke,” Walter says as he guides his wife gently out the front door, nods with a smile, and leaves.
            I watch as the door clicks shut behind them. Shrugging, I help myself to a glass of wine and a plate of spaghetti and collapse into the living room sofa to eat. But for the third time today, I can’t help feeling like the biggest dope on planet Earth.

7:45 PM

            I stand staring into the bathroom mirror, watching the makeup drain from my face. How could he be so awful? What could’ve possessed him to say and do such mean things? I splash another handful of water into my face, trying to chase away the red circles around my eyes.
            My mind is a tangled mess of questions and emotions, but my body is numb and distant. How does Luke know about Brother Harris, and why does he think that we’re friends? The truth is that we’ve only met a few times in passing, but we’d hardly had much of a chance to really get to know each other. The terrifying thought crosses my mind that Luke might actually be investigating the Witnesses.
            Or is Luke simply spying on me? But no, that doesn’t make sense either. I haven’t seen or spoken to Brother Harris in weeks. We aren’t in the same congregation and rarely make contact. I haven’t even been to a Kingdom Hall since shortly after I began studying. As churches around the world began to be targeted by arsonists and other extremist groups, the organization instructed us to meet as smaller groups in private homes. The public use of Kingdom Halls was put on hold to keep the friends safe.
            Still, Luke’s suspicions about Brother Harris aside, the most pressing issue is the disaster that’s just unfolded with Chelsea and Walter. If only Luke knew how good those people have been to me over the months. Their patience, concern, and support has gotten me through so much, and to be treated like that by my own husband! The pain and embarrassment are overwhelming.
            Perhaps Luke knows after all. Perhaps he’s known all along about my clandestine studies with Chelsea. Maybe he even knows I’m now an unbaptized publisher. Maybe that’s where the anger is coming from. I feel foolish for ever trying to hide it. My husband is a cop, after all. He spends his days with detectives and investigators, professionals who know how to coax confessions from suspects and conduct stakeouts and carry out all sorts of intelligence-gathering schemes. How could I ever prevail against all that?
            I bury my face again in my hands and brace for another surge of tears. But a soft knock on the bathroom door stops me.
            “Amy. You’ve been in there for an hour. I really need to pee.” Luke’s voice is still gruff but he’s obviously cooled down some. An hour. That’s how long it took him to apologize! Or is this even an apology? It doesn’t sound like it. It’s more like I’m in his way or something. I wrinkle my face in disgust and scowl at the door.
            “Amy, seriously. Open up,” he says, his voice gentler now. “Or do you want me to have to use the bushes outside?” I can hear the forced chuckle in Luke’s voice but my mood isn’t about to budge. If being cute is his idea of reconciliation, he’ll have to try a lot harder.
            “Look, Amy. I’m sorry I blew up earlier, ok? It’s been a long day.”
            “How could you be so awful to my friends?” I snap back.
            “I was just… surprised to find them in my house, you know? You should’ve told me what friends were coming. It would’ve been different.”
            “Friends? Who knows now, with the way things just ended? They may never speak to me again.” But even as I spit the words out, I know I’m being overly dramatic. Chelsea will probably call later tonight to schedule our next study and be as understanding and patient as ever. Why can’t everyone be like the Witnesses?
            “Can I ask how you know them? They don’t seem like the gym member type.”
           I take a deep breath and shake my head. Before I’d met Chelsea, I spent most of my time at the gym swimming laps and enrolling in spinning classes. But I hadn’t been in months. So much for the idea of Luke spying on me. It’s clear there’s a lot he doesn’t know. I bow my head and say a prayer. My heart is a hammer in my chest as I petition Jehovah for courage to speak the truth, and wisdom to find the right way to say things. Then, after getting up and rinsing my face off one last time in the sink, I take a deep breath and unlock the door.
            “Luke, we need to talk,” I say to my husband, who has pulled up a chair and is sitting just outside the door. He wears a quizzical expression and shrugs.
            “Ok. But first, can I pee?”

We interrupt this broadcast...

For those of you hoping this post is another installment of Critical Times, sorry! Just wanted to mention a few things...

First off, I wanted to offer thanks to all of you who've sent messages (either by email or via comments on this blog and the others). It's really affirming to hear from my readers, and your input is always welcome! Please don't hesitate to drop a line. Whether it's just to say hi, to pose a question about something mentioned in the book, or to point out glaring typos that I've missed (I'm sure there are still many, despite my proofreading!), I'm always willing to hear from you all.

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Thanks again for the support!


1:42 PM

            I return to my desk with a bag of cold hot dogs. Locating and chatting with Mr. Harris took longer than I expected, and now I’m forced to eat during my afternoon shift. I collapse with a frown into my chair and sift through my emails. I scan the subject lines but my mind is still back at the hospital.
            How had the old man known my wife? Stranger still, something had changed in his demeanor when I’d pressed him for more information, as if he were hiding something. I try to imagine a scenario where the two of them could’ve crossed paths and become acquaintances, but nothing sticks.
            Mr. Harris is a bit of a mystery himself. What do I actually know about him? One: He’d been found in a small apartment on the same property as a church. Two: He isn’t a pastor. I’d asked him flat out on the night we checked him in to the hospital. Three: The church property is far from our house, and the man is confined to a wheelchair. I doubt his vision is well enough to allow him to drive, so that rules out the possibility that he’d met my wife near our house. What’s Amy been doing in that part of town? She certainly isn’t religious. We don’t even have a Bible in the house. I suddenly wonder how much I don’t know about my own wife.
            “It doesn’t make any sense,” I mumble as I finish the first hot dog and toss a wad of stained foil into the trash bin.
            “What doesn’t?”
            I spin in my chair to see a tall woman with crossed arms and a dark leather purse slung over her shoulders. It’s Eva Richards.
            “Miss Richards. What brings you here?”
            “I was in the area. You got a minute?”
            I study her gaze and wonder what could’ve brought her here. She hasn’t written a second piece in The Herald after our last interview.  
            “I already cleared it with your captain, he said he can spare you for a bit,” the woman says with a slight tap of her foot. Sure he did, I think. I decide that there are probably few men who turn Eva down, and her expression tells me she’s not one to be easily dismissed. I shrug on my jacket and get up to head for the cafeteria.
            “Sure, I guess. But not too long, I’ve got paperwork to catch up on,” I say over my shoulder.
            “Yeah, you and me both. But let’s take a walk instead this time. You like Bermuda’s coffee?” If only she knew. Bermuda’s makes some of the best coffee in town and it’s probably no coincidence that they opened a shop just a block away from our precinct a year ago.
            Eva doesn’t say anything until we’ve walked a distance from the station. She speaks in a low voice and keeps her eyes on the pavement.
            “You been watching the news?” she asks.
            “Sure,” I say. I’ve decided not to give up anything this time until I know what her motives are.     “What do you think of the Liberation Act?”
            “Surprising, but I guess they know what they’re doing. They say it’s only a temporary move, until they can get some of the extremism under control.”
            “You believe them?”
            “Is there a reason not to?” Eva shoots me a side glance as we cross the street and enter the coffee shop. She orders a couple of tall macchiatos and keeps silent until the two of us are seated in a nook at the far end of the cafe. She slips a card from her purse and slides it towards me.
            “I forgot to give this to you last time,” she says. I take her name card and stuff it in my pocket.
            “Thanks,” I say.
            “You strike me as a good cop, Luke. You mind if I call you by your first name?”
            “It’s fine,” I reply with a shrug.
            “Then call me Eva.” I nod, but carefully withhold a smile or handshake. I’m still not sure if this woman has an angle, and until then I’m putting my trust and friendliness on hold.
            “Ok, Eva. Why do you say I’m a good cop?”
            “You’ve got a look. It’s in your eyes. I interview people for a living, remember? I’m pretty good at spotting the slippery ones. And trust me, in my line of work. I’ve come across my share. You can’t even imagine.”
            I surprise myself with a chuckle. “And you’re forgetting I’m in law enforcement. I deal with sleaze every day. I can imagine a lot.”
            “Yeah, maybe. I guess our jobs are similar in that way. Only, in my profession, the bad ones tend to be a bit harder to spot.”
            I grunt an acknowledgement and, once again, wonder where this conversation is going. Surely she hasn’t brought be all the way out here to shoot the breeze over a cup of coffee? I see her frown as she stirs the whipped cream in her macchiato and glances out the picture window next to us.
            “So, Luke. Did you come across anything?” she finally asks.
            “What do you mean?”
            “You know, what we talked about last time.” Eva shifts her gaze around the small coffee shop as she talks.
            “Well, as I remember, we talked about the church that burned. And that it wasn’t the first, and that you were working on some story about it. That’s all I remember.”
            “Kingdom Hall. That fire that you responded to was at a Kingdom Hall. The Witnesses don’t like them being called churches.” I hadn’t known that. Though, now that I think about it, I know almost nothing about the religion.
            “Why not?” I ask.
            “I think they don’t want to be seen as part of mainstream Christianity. They do a lot of things differently.”
            “You ever been to one of their meetings?”
            I shake my head. “Not really one for religion, remember?”
            “Right. Well, I went a few times when I was in college. In one of my journalism classes I was supposed to write a paper about them, and it turned out one of my classmates was a Witness. She invited me and we went together.”
            “What was it like?”
            “Different…It was okay, actually. The inside didn’t really look like a church, more like a classroom, or a lecture hall. People were welcoming. It was a mixed crowd, all ages and races, everyone dressed really well. I didn’t understand most of the sermons, but it wasn’t ritualistic like the Catholics. They did sing some songs and have prayers, but it wasn’t at all like the mass I’d been to as a kid. Lots of audience participation. Everyone had their own Bible and seemed pretty familiar with them. Even the kids could find the passages.”
            “My uncle used to say they were a cult,” I add as I sip the foam from my mug. Uncle Jeb had been a less than savory character and I wasn’t sure I could believe anything the man said, but I feel obliged to keep the conversation going. I also realize I’m more comfortable talking now that I’m not the topic of conversation.
            “Maybe. I didn’t go enough to really learn that much. But they seemed like good, honest, clean people. It doesn’t surprise me that we haven’t heard of many of their buildings burning. I think people generally respect them.”
            I purse my lips without saying anything. Amy crosses my mind again. I wonder if she’s somehow tied up with these people. Eva keeps talking and I nod in all the right places, only hearing half of it. The conversation hits a lull and I let the silence slip in. It’s a tactic I’ve seen occasionally from experienced interrogators. Say nothing and let the other guy squirm. Eventually, something interesting comes out. A minute or so passes and I realize Eva’s perfectly content with the silence. I see her glance over my shoulder. For some reason, she seems worried.
            “So is that all you wanted to talk about today? Because if so…” I trail off, glancing at my watch and frowning.
            “No, that’s not all. I’ve been doing some digging.”
            “Is this about the church fires?”
            Eva nods, takes one last look around, and leans closer. Her voice is barely audible above the din of voices and the espresso machines. “I was able to track down some info on two of the arsonists. One’s a guy named Harry Levine. Here’s what I found.”
            Eva cautiously slips a file folder from her purse onto the table and extracts a white sheet of paper. I glance at the mugshot to find a white, stocky male with short cropped hair and a goatee scowling at the camera.
            “Looks military,” I say offhandedly.
            “You’ve got a good eye. He is. Or was, I should say. He lost a leg in Yemen. Apparently he’d wracked up some big gambling debts overseas, too. He didn’t come back to the life of a war hero. His wife shortly thereafter got pregnant with their third kid. And even with his monthly CRSC–that’s army lingo for Combat-Related Special Compensation–it simply wasn’t enough.”
            “So, he burns down a church?”
            “It’s strange, isn’t it?” Eva says. It’s impossible to miss the glint in her eye, and I realize she’s invested more into this story than just her time.
            “Maybe he just wanted a way to lash out,” I suggest.
            “Then why a church? Why not a government building?”
            “Maybe something to do with religion? Maybe he saw something when he was in the Middle East that made him angry.”
            “I seriously doubt this guy ran into any Baptist churches while in Yemen.”
            “Okay, so then what are you suggesting?”
            “Hold on. It gets even stranger. A week before the fire at the church, Levine takes out a loan for a car. Here’s a guy who’s barely getting by on government paychecks, and now he can suddenly afford a brand new Jeep. Weird, right?”
            “Well, apparently he couldn’t afford it, or he wouldn’t have needed the loan.”
            “You know what I mean, Luke. A man with five mouths to feed and gambling debts and a disability doesn’t go around buying new cars.”
            “Maybe. I don’t know, maybe it was post-traumatic stress disorder.” Eva glares at me with a raised eyebrow.
            “Just thinking out loud,” I say.
            “Fine. On to subject number two.” Eva swaps the paper on the table for another one from the folder.
            “This is Frank Cardley. He was a suspect in connection with a slew of church burnings in Virginia, but was never charged.”
            “Not enough evidence?”
            “Not enough time. He hung himself in his basement before investigators could question him. And by the way, there were people in some of the churches he burned. Five died.”
            “What’s his story?”
            “We’ll probably never know, but it’s eerily similar to Harry’s. Honorable discharge from Iraq in 2009. Collects CRSC for a few years, but can’t keep up with the bills.”
            “Amphetamines. No wife or kids, but he had a mom with advanced Alzheimer’s. A month before the first fire claims a Pentecostal church and the minister inside, Frank moves his mom to one of the most expensive assisted living homes in the county. She’s still there now, and the management said Frank paid five years up front, so she’ll be taken care of now that he’s gone.”
            I slurp at the puddle of cold coffee in my cup and lean back in my chair. Maybe Eva is onto something, but it’s hard to see why she’s getting me involved. He tone is beginning to sound conspiratorial, and as law enforcement, I know to be wary of that kind of thing. It’s easy to draw connections and form theories on scant evidence.
            “How’d you get all this information?”
            Eva shakes her head and avoids my stare. “Sorry, can’t give that up.”
            I sigh. “So why are you telling me, then? I’m not a detective, and even if I was, this would be way out of my jurisdiction. Why not turn over this info to the police in those areas and let them handle it?”
          “And what do you think they’ll do? The suspects are gone, the cases closed. And no one really investigates arson with all the other things going on.”
            I nod. It’s more or less what I was thinking. Is this really worth pursuing with real terror threats at our front door, like kids that have been converted to extremist Islam on Facebook patrolling the streets with concealed handguns and homemade pipe bombs? Should a dead arsonist really be a priority?
            I say nothing, but apparently my expression has spoken volumes.
            “You don’t care, do you?” Eva accuses hotly.
            “It’s not a matter of not caring, it’s a matter of not being in a position to do anything.”
            “Yeah, that’s what the Nazis said.”
            “Excuse me?”
            “Just following orders. Meanwhile, an entire population is exterminated.”
            “So what, I’m Hitler now?”
            “It always starts with the small things, Luke. Look around you. This government is revoking constitutional freedoms left and right. You think it’ll stop with the Liberation Act?”
            I’ve heard enough. I put my hands up, suddenly tired of this conversation and tired of Eva. “I’m not a politician, Miss Richards. I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them.”
            Apparently, this is the final straw. Eva stands with a flushed face as she throws the papers back into the folder and shoves everything into her handbag. She leaves without another word.
            Back at the office, my mind wanders for the rest of my shift and the afternoon drags on. I don’t like making women cry, even ones that call me a Nazi. She was only doing her job, after all. She’s on a trail and had been looking for confirmation. The more I think about it the more guilty I feel.
            I dig Eva’s card from my pocket and type the cell number into my phone. A simple message will suffice. It never hurts to maintain a friendship with the press. Bad blood, on the other hand… I enter a quick text and send it off.

                        Sorry about this afternoon. It’s been a long day. Didn’t mean to upset you.

            The ‘long day’ part is a bit of a stretch, of course. In the past four hours, I’ve visited an old man in the hospital and sifted through minimal paperwork, but it’s the only reason I can think of to justify my actions, and she’ll never know the difference.
            I hold my phone in my hand for a while, half expecting an immediate reply. When it’s still silent after a couple minutes, I set it back on my desk and return to my last few bits of work. When my shift finally ends at 6:00, I’ve forgotten all about the text and Eva Richards.