18


6:30 AM
AMY

            At 6:30 AM every morning, the small plastic clock on our bedside table comes to life with an odd sound that’s part rattle and part bell and fully annoying. It’s usually silenced by Luke’s fist as he smashes the button on its top and groans at the light streaming in the blinds at the foot of our bed. And so another day begins in the Harding household. But not today.
            The bell rattle lasts for a full minute before I finally unwrap the pillow from my head and reach over my husband’s lifeless body to pound the clock into submission. I stare quizzically at Luke, who seems not to have heard the alarm at all. This is a good sign, I figure. Maybe he’s finally catching up on his slept debt. I roll out of bed and head for the kitchen to make breakfast.
            It’s another half hour before I finally hear the first stirrings of life from our bedroom. I’ve put on one of Luke’s favorite oldies records to coax him out of bed–Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits–and I’m swaying my hips and singing into a spatula covered in scrambled egg bits when he finally stumbles into the kitchen.
            You’re always, you’re always, you’re always, o-o-on my mind,” I coo at him, managing to cajole a smile from his face.
            “Haven’t heard you sing in a while. I think you missed your calling,” he teases.
            I toss my hair over my shoulder with an exaggerated flourish and bat my eyes at him. “Breakfast is ready, my dear. Hungry?”
            He nods, but seems distracted. Did I say something wrong? It’s been hard these last few days, knowing what I should and shouldn’t say. I don’t want to push him, but at the same time, I feel like we can’t just ignore things and live life like he didn’t almost die.
            “Oh,” I say suddenly as I pour Luke a glass of orange juice, “just remembered–the front door was unlocked when I got up this morning. Did you forget to lock it last night?”
            Luke frowns for a moment before answering. “Oh, sorry, yeah. Must’ve forgotten to lock it when I got in last night. I couldn’t sleep, went out for some food.”
            “When did you get in?”
            “It was… pretty late. Ran into Pryce.”
            “As in Dale Pryce? Your Captain? What was he doing out there?”
            “He couldn’t sleep either, I guess.”
            “Did you two talk?”
            “Yeah. He’s pretty angry.”
            “What about you?” I ask, trying to be as nonchalant as possible.
            “I’m ok, I guess. It’s all still on repeat in my brain. But I’ll make it.”
            “Good,” I say with a smile, resisting the urge to say a lot more. I lean forward and peck him on the cheek, but he tenses. He’s got that strange look in his eyes again. I wonder if I’m pushing him too hard. I wish someone would just tell me what I’m supposed to be doing for him.
            “Good eggs,” Luke says, staring into his plate. “Thanks.”
            I nod and smile, and a few minutes pass before either of us speak again. Luke’s got his phone on the table and he keeps checking it, probably to avoid having to talk to me. I amble around the kitchen, wiping away the grease on the counters and stovetop.
            “So, how do you feel about your first day back at work?” I ask.
            “Not sure yet. I guess I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.”
            I nod, my mind going through all the colleagues that I’ve met there over the years. Sanders. Johnson. Odewald. Liezek. Then another face suddenly pops into my head. “Hey, by the way, Luke, I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”
            “Yeah? What’s up?”
            “Who was that woman who visited you at the hospital? Miss Richards, right? Is she a cop?”
            I turn to see Luke reach for his glass of juice, and gulp down the entire thing before answering. “She’s a reporter with The Herald.
            “A reporter? Was she there to interview you?”
            “No. But, she interviewed me before. She wrote a piece about the fire and wanted some more details.”
            “So why was she at the hospital?”
            “She had some interesting information about the explosion. She’s been working on a story and… Well, she just wanted to fill me in.”
            “Oh. She’s pretty. I’d kill for legs like that.”
            “Oh? Didn’t really notice,” he says.
            “I’ll bet Gabe is all over her.”
            “Yeah, I think he’s mentioned something once or twice,” Luke says, bringing his plate to the sink and heading for the closet.
            “Oh, and that reminds me,” I say.
            “Yes?”
            “You remember Chelsea and Walter, right?”
            “Sure.”
            “I was kind of wondering if, maybe sometime, we could have them over again. I feel kind of bad about what happened last time.”
            “Uh. Yeah, sure babe, that’s fine,” Luke says quickly as he goes to get dressed.


8:30 AM
LUKE

            A few of my colleagues nod respectfully in my direction as I enter the station’s front doors. My face is still a mess. I’m not ashamed of it. It feels right to have some scars to show for the incident. I see that Lieutenant Lorrace has bandages on his neck as well. It’s good to be back. If nothing else, it’s a place to commiserate. I’m also thankful for the distraction that Eva has given me. Keeping her safe is still at the front of my mind. By now she’s probably had Doug fetch her breakfast and ditched her old phone and is working out a way to get in touch. I hope she won’t keep me waiting.
            I spend the rest of the morning wading through a mountain of police reports and making phone calls. Since the explosion at the church, the application paperwork for new equipment through the Defense Logistics Program had sped through the tubes, and I’ve been tasked with the job of getting the right signatures and filing through the proper channels. If all goes according to plan, our department will receive a few palettes of military-grade firearms and an armored personnel carrier, the kind that S.W.A.T. teams frequently use. If you’d asked me a month ago, I would’ve said it was overkill for our little precinct, but now I’m wondering if even this will be enough.
            And we’re not alone. Since the bomb, there’s been a slew of similar incidents across the country. Many don’t escalate beyond the anonymous-threat stage, but a couple in Oklahoma and Indiana were almost exact copycats of Matthias. The cops didn’t take their chances, and both men were killed on the spot before the media vans even showed up. A few lawmakers on Capitol Hill are suggesting even stronger actions against ex-churchgoers, including state-sponsored surveillance. News stations have dubbed it ‘America’s Anti-Holy War’. The voices in opposition are few and far between.
            I think back to the conversation Amy and I had this morning and shake my head. I wasn’t thinking clearly when I agreed to meet with her friends again, that’s for sure. I was nervous and feeling cornered and spoke before thinking. The truth is, I want nothing to do with the Witnesses or anyone else tied up with churches and religion, and I’d be surprised if anyone in this office feels differently. The more I think about Christianity and its flagrant opulence and rampant sex abuse, the more confidence I have in the direction our government is going. Constitutional or not, these reforms are going to save more lives than anything else the administration has done in years.
            It’s nearly half past noon when I finally stop for lunch. I scroll through the alerts on my phone, but there’s nothing but a few news headlines and texts from my wife. The stirrings of dread begin gnawing at my stomach. I try to silence it with a couple of hot dogs soaked in mustard and sauerkraut from my favorite sidewalk stand, but when another forty-five minutes roll by without so much as a text, the dread has nearly turned to panic. I hop in my Charger and speed off in the direction of the motel.
            I find Doug in the same position he’d been in the night before, slumped in his chair, sleeping with his feet crossed on the counter. I pound a fist once on the countertop to rouse him, and he awakes with the same sour look.
            “You again. Whaddya want this time?” he snarls.
            “The woman in room 212, you hear anything from her today?” I ask. Doug pauses for a long while, looking me over in my uniform.
            “So you’re a cop, huh?”
            “No, I just wear this for fun. You gonna answer my question or not?”
            “Depends. What’s it worth to you?”
            “What?”
            “You think you’re the first man in a uniform I’ve seen come through here? Keeping secrets is hard work, you know? And now you come looking for information, and you expect it’ll come for free?”
            “You know what kind of charges you could face for trying to extort a law enforcement officer?” I growl. Doug shrugs, unintimidated.
            “Probably nothing worse than you’d face at home when your wife finds out you have a pretty little thing locked away in some ol’ motel.”
            Doug points down at the counter and I follow his gesture, finding my hand in a fist, my wedding band in clear view.
            “It’s not like that, you–“
            “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s not. It never is.”
            “What do you want from me?”
            “Well, for starters, you could pay for her room last night. The number your lady friend gave me for her credit card bounced back this morning.”
            “Fine,” I growl, tugging my wallet out and handing the man my Visa. Doug flashes me a smile and turns to process the payment.
            “Thanks for your business. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Oh, and by the way, 212’s been quiet all morning,” Doug says with a wink.
            I brush through the back door and climb the stairs, leaping up the steps three at a time, feeling more anxious by the second. I jog down the walkway, glancing at the numbers. 209… 210… 211… Then I come to a stop, turning to look at the next room. The door is wide open. Bedsheets and pillowcases lay in a pile in a corner. The smell of bleach is almost overwhelming and someone inside is humming.
            “Hello?” I call out, rapping against the open door. The humming stops abruptly and a middle aged Hispanic woman emerges in a stained apron and rubber gloves.
            “Ah?” The woman says in surprise, then rattles off something rapidly in Spanish. I raise my hands, trying to slow her down.
            “The woman, in this room. Where is she?” I ask. The housekeeper frowns and shakes her head. I clench my teeth and do my best to summon my mostly forgotten Spanish.
            “La mujer? Donde esta?” I attempt shakily. But the woman’s face lights up.
            “La mujer? No está aquí. No está,” she says with an exaggerated shrug and a shake of her finger.
            Eva isn’t here? But why would she leave? And why would she do anything without letting me know first? I sit on the edge of the bed and mull it all over as the housekeeper returns to her chores. She shoots me a few suspicious glances at first, but quickly seems to forget about me.
            I try to reassure myself that there’s probably a reasonable explanation for this. Maybe Eva got tired of being cooped up in a grungy little motel room and went out for breakfast and fresh air. But if so, why had she taken everything with her? I survey the room once more. Everything of Eva’s that I saw the night before-suitcases, a garment bag, a few pairs of shoes, are nowhere to be found. I poke around the room, looking through drawers and under the furniture, but there’s nothing left. Not a single trace of the woman who’d been here only hours before. Clearly, wherever’s she’s gone, she’s gone for good.
            I’m shaken from my thoughts by the touch of the housekeeper’s hand on my shoulder. I turn to find her dangling a small black piece of plastic from a string between her fingers. She asks me something that I can’t understand and motions for me to take the object. I grab it from her and turn it slowly in my hands. I twist one edge slightly to reveal four gold-color prongs, and I realize that I’m holding a USB flash drive.
            Apparently Eva has left something behind after all. I want to ask how and where the housekeeper had found it, but I’ve used up all of the Spanish I know and I doubt Doug will be any help as a translator, so I simply make a grateful gesture, pocket the drive, and leave.

17


3:44 AM
LUKE

            I push through the glass doors of the motel lobby and find myself in a room that reeks of old cigarettes and mildewed carpet. A dusty grandfather clock, likely the only thing of value in the whole room, clunks out a steady rhythm in the far corner. The only other sound is a rasping, choking noise coming from somewhere behind the front desk. I approach it to find a man with a balding head of wiry grey hair asleep in an office chair with his feet crossed on top of the counter.
            I tap the rusty service bell. When this fails to wake the man up, I reach out to shake his leg.
            “Hey buddy, I need some help,” I say. The man’s eyelids flutter open, widen for a moment, and then narrow again.
            “Who’re you? And what in the world happened to your face?” he whines. His voice is high and strangely accented.
            “It’s not important. I’m looking for Agnes. Know her?” The man studies me cautiously, moving nothing but his eyes.
            “I might. Who’s looking for her?”
            “Mr. Sprite,” I say awkwardly.
            “Yeah, right. Ok, Mr. Sprite. Room 212, on the right.”
            “Thanks.” The man mumbles something under his breath as I exit the back door and climb the outdoor staircase. I glance over my shoulder a few times as I’ve been instructed and knock three times when I find the right door. I see a shadow pass over the peephole and the door swings open just enough for me to slip inside.
            Eva’s hair is damp and messy and she wears a tattered white hotel robe and slippers. The smell here is the same as the lobby, though tinged with the faint scent of soap and shampoo. Eva offers me coffee and I accept, feeling the full weight of the hour on my eyelids. She pours me a cup from a french press and collapses into a dirty recliner on the far side of the room. I sit on the edge of the bed, waiting.
            “So, what’s the emergency?” I ask. Eva gazes blankly at a wall, seeming to miss the question.
            “Thanks for coming,” she finally says. “I’m sorry for getting you involved, but I literally had no one else to call. Even the people at The Herald have tried to distance themselves from me.”
            “Why? What’s going on?”
            “Did you watch the video on that CD?” she asks.
            “Yeah,” I say. “It was interesting.”
            It’s an understatement, but I’m still not totally sure how I feel about the footage. Somehow, Eva was able to piece together video from the live news feeds that show exactly what happened on that fateful afternoon at the church. From the angle one of the cameras had down the road, it’s clear that Matthias prodded the older boy away from him, and that he let the other children out of his grasp minutes later. He never wanted to hurt them. It was all for show. I’m surprised a similar video hasn’t made its way to YouTube.
            “You’re still not sure if you believe me,” Eva says.
            “I’m not sure what the video proves, Eva. Maybe he had a change of heart. I don’t see how you can tie it in to everything else.” She looks at me with sad eyes for a moment and then bows her head.
            “I guess it doesn’t matter now anyway,” she says quietly.
            “What do you mean?”
            “I’m done with this. It’s gotten too dangerous.”
            “You mean the story you were working on?” Eva glares at me.
            “What else?”  
            “Look, why don’t you start from the beginning? Tell me how you got involved. I’m sure it can’t be beyond fixing.”
            “Fine,” Eva says. She rubs her temples as she speaks.
            “It all started when I got this anonymous tip via email about a year and a half ago regarding the church fires on the West Coast. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time because, let’s face it, no one in Haliford County really cares about what happens out there. I set it aside and forgot about it until a few months later, when we started seeing similar incidents here in the South. I responded to the email, trying to get some more info, but they all bounced back. Apparently the account had been deleted by whoever set it up. In my line of work, that’s not particularly strange. We’re always getting false tips, kids pulling pranks, people that just want some of the limelight. No big deal. But this email was a little different. I just got a weird feeling from it.”
            “What did it say?”
            “The entire message was just one sentence: ‘Church burnings are organized, contracted.’ That was strange enough. But then, under that sentence, was a seventeen-digit number.”
            “A number?”
            “Right. Too long to be a phone number, even an international one. Obviously not a social security number, or a postal code, or any kind of address. Which left only one option.” I consider it for a moment and then frown with a shake of my head.
            “A bank account,” she says.
            “Oh.”
            “Of course, I knew it could all be a wild goose chase, some kid who’d typed random numbers to waste my time, but I started poking around anyway. The number, it turns out, was real. It was a Bank of California account. And guess who the account holder was?”
            “One of the arsonists?”
            “Exactly. Harry Levine, whom I told you about before. So I followed that trail for a while, and found out about the money transfers, and everything that had happened shortly before he’d burned the church. Weird, but by itself, not conclusive in any way. But then, a few weeks after I’d found all that out, I get another anonymous email. This time from a different account, and the message body is just a number. I go through the same routine, and again, it’s a bank account linked to someone in Washington. Same story. Guy gets a bunch of money wired to his account, then he goes off to burn a church.”
            I hold my hand up to interrupt her. “Sorry, just a quick question. How did you get the information about the bank transfers and account holders? Isn’t all that confidential?”
            Eva gives me a coy grin from the corner of her mouth. “Sorry, can’t say.”
            I sigh. There are a number of ways she could’ve done it, but none are really legal, and it’s probably best she keeps her criminal escapades a secret from her law enforcement friend, even if what she’s doing is in the name of the common good.
            “So how many cases have you come across, then?” I ask. She looks at me grimly and shakes her head.
            “Half a filing cabinet full.”
            My eyes widen and my head is spinning. “And where are you keeping all this stuff? At work?”
            “No. The filing cabinet is at my place. But tonight, when I got in, I found my apartment had been burglarized.”
            “Burglarized?”
            “They took the files, Luke. All of them. They must’ve been watching my apartment and knew when I’d be out. I’m guessing it was a team of people. It would’ve been way too much for one person to handle. It was organized.”
            I can hardly believe what I’m hearing, but at least the secrecy of our clandestine meeting now makes sense. She’s not being paranoid; she has solid grounds for her fear. Even her bizarre instructions for me to give my name as the soda I’d bought her the first day we met makes sense. She trusts no one. Well, no one except me.
            “I guess you haven’t filed a police report yet.”
            “I doubt it’ll do any good. They only stole a bunch of papers, after all, worth nothing to anybody but me. Well, me and whoever took them. And in any case, the papers don’t really matter that much to me.”
            “Oh?”
            “I’ve got backups. And I’ve got a contingency plan in place, if anything happens to me. I’m more fearful for my own safety, Luke.”
            I start pacing the motel room, the gravity of the situation landing heavily on my shoulders. In some way, Eva feels like my responsibility now. I wish there was a way for me to offer the protection of the police, but there’s nothing in place for something like that. And there’s no way she can hole up in my apartment.
            “You have a place to stay?” I ask.
            “I’ve withdrawn enough cash from my bank account, so I can stay here for a while. It’s cheap enough.”
            “Ok, good. You need to be careful, though. If you are being watched, and they’re as good as you say, they may know that you’re here.”
            “Yeah, I thought of that. I’ll call Doug in the morning and have him buy me some hair coloring and clothes.”
            “Doug?”
            “The guy at the front desk.”
            “Oh, right,” I say, realizing that a guy like him will probably jump at the chance to help such an attractive guest. I glance at my watch, mortified to find that it’s nearly five AM. I don’t feel the least bit drowsy, thanks in part to the strong coffee and the mental strain of thinking how to keeping Eva safe.
            “You’d better go,” she says, seeing my expression. “You work tomorrow?”
            “Yeah. I’ll call you in the morning to make sure you’re ok.”
            Eva shakes her head. “No, you’d better not. I’m going to dump this SIM card and switch to a new number. I’ll call you. Address me by the name I gave you earlier, ok?”
            “Agnes.”
            “Right. It was my grandmother’s name.”
            “Got it.” I walk to the front door and open it as Eva calls from over my shoulder.
            “And Luke? Thank you for coming and listening. You’ve been so sweet to me. I really appreciate it.” Rising on her long legs, Eva strides across the room in a few paces and gently kisses my cheek.
            “Yeah. Right. No problem,” I say awkwardly. Then, after wishing her a safe night, I slip out the door and back to my car.

16


Monday, November 16




1:57 AM
LUKE

            I haven’t been sleeping well. When I close my eyes I hear the explosions, feel the glass from the surveillance van’s windows slicing into my skin. I spend most of my nights waiting for the drowsiness to settle in, but it never comes. I’m up and walking around the apartment, as if maybe I can tire myself out and force myself to rest. On the worst nights I leave the apartment building and go for a walk in the dark. I carry my sidearm, of course, but my mind isn’t on my safety. Dealing with a suicide bomber sort of makes everything else in life less scary.
            The air tonight is cold and crisp, tainted with a hint of burning coal from a factory on the other side of town. It’s all strangely comforting, and before I know it I’ve walked almost three miles. I find myself crossing the street, heading as if by instinct to McCann’s. Its neon sign is still lit even at this late hour, and I decide I have a taste for something greasy.
            I enter the front door and glance around. There’s a man at a booth biting into a hamburger. He’s sitting by himself at a table across from the far end of the bar and doesn’t seem to care that the ketchup is spilling out onto his fingers. Taking a few steps closer, I realize that it’s our captain, Dale Pryce. He’s in a cable knit sweater and khakis, and I can’t help thinking back to the getup he’d been wearing when he first tried to talk down Matthias. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since the incident.
            I’m unsure if Pryce will be in the mood for conversation, but with us two being the only patrons at this hour, it seems worse to ignore him. We’ve known each other for six years, after all.
            “Hey there,” I say casually as sidle up to his table, hands deep in my pockets. The captain looks over me for a long moment before speaking.
            “Harding,” he says tiredly.
            “I think this is the first time I’ve seen you in here,” I say.
            Pryce just shrugs. “It’s the only place that makes decent onion rings after midnight.”
            “You can’t sleep either.”
            He shakes his head slowly. “Well don’t just stand there, have a seat.”
            The grill cook on duty doesn’t seem pleased when I put an order in for chili cheese fries and a strawberry milkshake, but he complies all the same, and before long the Captain and I are working our way through thousands of calories in quiet misery.
            “You been back to the office yet?” Pryce asks when our plates are nearly cleared off.
            “My first shift starts in a few hours. My injuries aren’t so bad. But the doctors wanted me to rest.”
            “Looks nasty enough,” Pryce says, tilting his head to glimpse at the scars on my face.
            “You coming back any time soon?” I ask, hoping I won’t offend him.
            “Yeah, I suppose so. Not doing anyone any good sitting around all day eating junk food, that’s for sure.”
            “I think you’ve done enough good for a lifetime, sir.”
            Captain Pryce makes a face and shakes his head in disgust. “Two of my officers died in that blast. Whatever good I did, it wasn’t enough.”
            “It wasn’t your fault, Captain. And think about those kids. They’re alive because of you.”
            “Yeah, but they’ll never be the same. How can any of them grow up and have a normal life after seeing something like that? And what about Cole’s kids? You know his wife’s pregnant with their third? What about them?” I hadn’t known, and now there are no words of comfort left.
            “How does a man do something like that? How does he bring three kids into this world and one day decide to wipe their lives out? Wasn’t he supposed to be religious? What was he learning in that church?” Captain Pryce’s voice rises and trembles with rage. He clutches a dirty napkin in his remaining hand with blanched knuckles.        
            “I don’t know. Maybe we just went crazy,” I offer.
            “You know, I’ve been watching the news the last few days. I never have any time at the office, but now it’s all I do. And you know, it started occurring to me, religion is all the same.”
            “Sir?”
            “It doesn’t matter if it’s Al Qaeda or ISIL in the Middle East or the Army of God in Russia or disgruntled Christians in our own backyard. They’re all the same. When they’re angry, they want blood, and they do it in the name of god to make it seem ok. These people have no conscience, no moral inhibition, when they think they’re on their way to martyrdom.”
            “They do seem dangerous,” I relent, realizing that I’ve gradually been coming to the same conclusion.
            “And then I’m thinking, if a single father of three can build a bomb and kill himself, two policemen, and two EMTs, what happens when we face a whole army of them? What happens when they decide not to announce their intentions first, and instead just opt to walk into a football game or a bus station and just BOOM!” Pryce slams his fist on the table, rattling the silverware and nearly tipping my milkshake.
            “I don’t know,” I say weakly.
            “All I can say is, I hope we can figure out a way to get a handle on this before it gets out of control. We need to start taking offensive action here, rather than just sitting around waiting for the next threat. I’m sick of waiting.”
            The Captain’s eyes bore into mine, looking for confirmation, but I feel cold inside and have nothing to offer, no words to extinguish the man’s anger or soothe his pain.
            “I guess… We just have to take one day at a time,” I say. Frowning, the Captain sighs. He stands, fishes a twenty dollar bill out of his pocket, and tosses it on the table.
            “See you at the office,” he grumbles as he lumbers out the door and into the night.
            I watch the door swing shut, keeping out the blackness of the dark world beyond and wonder where all of this is heading. I brush my fingers along my face, feeling the scabs of the scars that the glass shards made as they tore through my skin. The nurse had been right after all: I’d gotten off easy. But I feel no gratitude for my good fortune. There is only numbness. It spreads over my body like a callous until there is nothing else.
            I dab absently at the puddles of condensation seeping from the sides of my glass onto the cigarette-burned linoleum table. I feel my phone vibrate twice in my pocket and know it must be Amy, probably waking in the middle of the night and worrying when she’s found the other side of the bed cold and empty. I slide the phone from my pocket and glance at the screen.
            It’s a message from Eva.